Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at The University of Western Australia, contributed to the Biorama 2 discussion with a presentation of Adaptation, the project he and his team are currently working on. Adaptation is radically different from what you would expect. No victimless leather jacket, no banquet of frog steak. This one invites us to take a peak into the broader issue of ecology and life itself.

Image by Rob Lycett

Adaptation is centered around a natural area in Western Australia's Yalgorup National Park called Lake Clifton. The lake hosts one of the last colonies of Thrombolites, aka 'living rocks'.

Thrombolites are rock-like structures built by micro-organisms. Often regarded as the earliest geographical features of primitive life on Earth, they are in fact bacteria which deposit layers of silt and calcium that slowly grow into rounded rocks. Scientists believe these micro-organisms are the earliest form of life on earth. Millions of years ago, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere and no protective ozone layer. According to researchers, this began changing when the tiny organisms started to appear. They lived in water and produced oxygen which gradually and very slowly built up the atmosphere we know today.

Thrombolites, Lake Clifton, Western Australia. Image by SeanMack

One of the few places in the world where the thrombolites grow is at Lake Clifton, 32 kilometres south of the city of Mandurah. The thrombolite structures, which can reach heights of up to 1.3m, are formed when the micro-organisms photosynthesise. During the processs they precipitate calcium carbonate from the waters of the lime-enriched lake to form the rock-like structures.

A vital feeding and nesting site for endangered migratory birds, including the almost extinct Hooded Plover, the lake is also home to black bream fish. Thrown into the lake by locals with the dream of fishing by the banks, the bream physically adapted to their new environment and bred so rapidly that they have now themselves become a pest, an invasive species endangering the survival of thrombolites. This example clearly demonstrates how little and consequently mismanage our environment.

Lake Clifton (image)

The lake is protected but not everything that feeds the lake can be controlled. The region surrounding the lake is one of the fastest developing one in Australia. There are plans to build a new city not far away from the lake. Four thousand homes with shops, roads, etc. Development could put in danger the very organisms responsible for life itself: the micro-organisms living on the thrombolites. Especially if the development is coupled with the effects of climate change. One of the major threats to the survival of the thrombolites is indeed the increase in salinity of the lake, due to the decline in rainfall.

0aabrititiiaaal.jpgImage: Daniel Bozhkov, Darth Vader Tries to Clean the Black Sea With Brita Filter, 2000

Adaptation offers artists an opportunity to engage with the issue under many points of view including the historical importance of the thrombolites, the cultural history of the area, the contradictory nature of human activity and ecology, the effects of global warming, impacts of urban development, evolution of animal species and bioprospecting.

SymbioticA's own contribution to the Adaptation project is a De-Salination Plant. This kinetic sculpture, called Autotrophic Degeneration, will use technological advances to circumvent the lake (or at least a smaller scale pool of the lake water) from the effects of climate change and urban development. SymbioticA's public sculpture may contribute to the lake's salvation by acting as a basic evaporative de-salination plant. Just like thrombolites, the sculpture will grow extremely slowly (1 mm per year.) It will be grown from cyanobacteria, an organism that forms a major part of the thrombolites' bacterial colony. The project will play on the notion of autotrophy -the capacity of synthesizing necessary nutrients using freely available energy (such as sunlight and wind), and basic inorganic substances (such as water and air). The project suggests a post sustainable future and questions the impact of collapsing ecosystems on the idea of generating resources.

In the framework of the Adaptation project, SymbioticA has invited artists to undertake a residency shared between Lake Clifton and their facilities in Perth. For example, Perdita Phillips is developing a soundscape walk around the lake that will take visitors along a half to 1 km route listening to 10-20 stereo sound episodes telling the factual and imaginative story of Lake Clifton.

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I'm not going to write down Agnes Meyer-Brandis's presentation at Biorama 2 as her talks are performances that i would only dumb down by trying to blog them. Instead, i'll just post this witty short video that documents the Moon Goose Experiment.

After the first touch, contact of moon and sun at 16.45, the geese stayed calm and Luba, the parachutist got in position. Photo: Agnes Meyer-Brandis

The artist set up a space expedition on a sand island in the Siberian river Ob and observed the effect of the total eclipse of the Sun (1st August, 2008) on the behaviour of the moon geese. Watch the space carriage take off!

The Moon Goose Experiment (MGE) is based on an excerpt from a book which is often regarded as the first science fiction short story in English. In The Man in the Moone, Francis Godwin described weightlessness for the first time ever (1603) - long before Newton's theory of gravity. The protagonist in the book flies to the moon in a chariot towed by geese. These special moon geese migrate every year from the earth to the Moon.

Title Page of Godwin's 'The Man in the Moon' (image)

The Moon Goose Experiment is a part of Curated Expedition by curatorial research group Capsula.

Previously: Interview with Ulla Taipale from Capsula.

0aaandyygracci.jpgImage by Iman Moradi

More notes from the second edition of Biorama, a symposium and workshop that invited artists and experts to share their views, works and discoveries about the biology of the underground. Andy Gracie kicked off the artists presentations with a compelling introduction to the mythological theories about the structure of the Earth and the civilization, often called the Agharta, that live inside it.

Let's get this straight first: the Earth is hollow and other societies live in there. Andy brought us to the cave in order to be closer to them. Modern science doesn't pay much attention to the theory of the Hollow Earth, or Agharta, but this has not always been the case:

Astronomer Edmund Halley (he of the comet) was fascinated by the earth's magnetic field. He noticed the direction of the field varied slightly over time and his theory was that there existed not one, but several, magnetic fields. In 1692, he put forth the idea of a hollow Earth with inner concentric spheres nested into each other and rotating at different speeds. According to Halley, the spheres were separated by different atmospheres separated these spheres, and each had its own magnetic poles. These inner regions were luminous and probably hosted other civilizations. He speculated that escaping gas caused the Aurora Borealis.

Mathematician and physicist Leonhard Paul Euler believed that there were two entrances to the Hollow Earth. One was in the North Pole, the other in the South Pole.

Polar entrance to Inner Earth

In 1947 Admiral Byrd would have given the first scientific evidence of a Hollow Earth. A "lost" diary reports that the explorer went on a mission to fly over the North Pole. It was not his first trip there. Actually, Byrd was the first person to fly over the North Pole in 1926. This second time, however, he discovered the entrance at the north poles and flew through the hollow earth where he observed other civilizations and enormous herds of giant mammoths.

Another expedition in 1956 would have located the second entrance in the South Pole. The U.S. government kept the discovery secret and didn't allow anyone to cross the pole anymore which, obviously increased rumors of a conspiracy.

Back in 1942, the Nazi sent their own expedition to find these openings that, according to them, would have lead to the land of the original Aryans and make alliance with them.

A photo from the NASA would be proof:


Satellite images do not display any existence of a hole in the Earth. What you get sometimes however is a black dot over the pole that only reveal an absence of information.

On November 25, 1912, the United States granted the patent number 1096102 to Marshall B. Gardner for "The Hollow Earth Theory".

Others "proofs" that this hollow Earth life exist have been put forward: certain birds migrate to the North, aurora borealis, anomalous compass readings in high latitudes, north and south, etc.


Andy invited us to participate to the symposium inside a cave so that we would be closer to the only creatures we know of that live below the earth's surface and are so completely independently from the sun that they die when exposed to light. These organisms are called troglobites. There are fish, shrimp, crayfish, bacteria, molluscs and insects.


The most intriguing of the troglobitesis is perhaps the proteus anguinus, or the olm. In Slovenia, a tourism industry exists for those who want to cathc a glimpse of the cave-dwelling creature. The olms are blind, yet have barely visible, regressed eyes covered by skin. Their body is covered by a translucent skin with two pink gills at the back of the head. Unlike other amphibians that metamorphose into an adult form, the olm retains its larval features, a phenomenon known as neotony (via).

Andy then explained us briefly Jakob von Uexküll's theory of 'umwelt', an organism's self-centered perception of the environment. Uexküll theorised that organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment. In order to be able to make sense of the world around, a creature would look in other organisms for a series of elements that carry some significance.

For example the tick's umwelt is reduced to only three (biosemiotic) carriers of significance: The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals + The temperature of 37 degrees celsius (corresponding to the blood of all mammals) + The hairy typology of mammals. That's how they recognize if they are in front of a mammal they can parasite.

Some parasites even hack the nervous systems of their host in order to control their behaviour and establish better conditions for their own survival.

While looking for online information about the phenomenon, i stumbled upon this hair-raising video that explains how spores from a parasitic fungus come to infect the brain and changes in behaviour of a jungle ant.

Carpenter ant infected by Cordyceps unilateralis

This is going to put me off mushrooms for some time. But back to the Umwelt. Jakob von Uexküll's theory of the Umwelt made him a pioneer of semiotic biology, or biosemiotics, a field that addresses the complexities of biological processes by studying the production, action and interpretation of signs in the biological realm. Some researchers have put forward the question "Do Does a robot have an Umwelt?" There doesn't seem to be any agreement on the answer.

Giambattista della Porta was an Italian polymath who lived in Naples at the time of the Scientific Revolution. In 1560, Della Porta founded a scientific society called the Academia Secretorum Naturae, one of the first scientific societies in Europe and their aim was to study natural sciences. The Academia Secretorum Naturae was compelled to disband when its members were suspected of dealing with the Occult as, at the time, it was regarded as blasphemous to reveal the secrets of nature. Della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V.

Andy Gracie drew a parallel between the Academia Secretorum Naturae and bioartists today who start their research in a DIY fashion. People like Garnet Hertz and Anthony Hall are amateur scientists who like to learn for themselves and uncover nature. Is it art? Is it science? Does it really matter?

Image on the homepage PBS.

Biorama 2 was a sequel of the one that saw us hike through rain and wind in Marsden Moor, West Yorkshire. This edition still explored new directions in art, science and technology but with a focus on the biology of the underground through the notion of umwelt developed by biologist Jakob von Uexküll and its influence on the development of biosemiotics by Thomas Sebeok.


The event, organised last month by Derek Hales from the University of Huddersfield and Andy Gracie, was described as follows: Using the underground of caves and mines and the organic life they contain as a form of parallel terrestrial biology, we develop a 'parallel science' through the study of extreme and/or 'removed lifeforms' and through the science of astrobiology. Biorama II will explore a rich contextual and conceptual background against which to investigate some of the outer (or inner) limits of terrestrial biology and strategies for life. Framing itself as a platform for exploring these and related imaginaries - via literary luminaries, various heretics and other visionaries of the underworld and the potential of life (immanent, alien, emergent and other) Biorama2 will stage a series of discussions, workshops and expeditions which will serve to examine how organisms living independently of sunlight develop a sensory and informatic relationship with their strange environments.

Photo by Rob Lycett

I couldn't attend the workshop but i greatly enjoyed the symposium. This time, Biorama's quest for exoticism brought us for a series of talk inside a cave. The programme was exceptional: Microbiologist Dr Paul Humphreys gave a fascinating talk about bacteria (all i knew about bacteria came from acne and toothpaste commercials so i was amazed to learn that bacteria can be grown to repair concrete cracking and marble monuments, it can also block pollution or indicate the industrial past of a landscape that today might look pristine, etc.), Andy Gracie gave a wonderful talk about the Hollow Earth and biotech artists as science amateurs (all the juicy details are coming soon), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was her usual quirki/awesomness, Oron Catts showed a new project likely to surprise those who would enclose Symbiotica in a biotech art box, Ulla Taipale told us about Capsula's adventure towards a total solar eclipse in Siberia and Anthony Hall gave us the lowdown on fish-human communication. The day finished with a truly moving sound performance by Joe Gilmore in a deep cavern.

Image by Rob Lycett

I'll blog in detail some of the presentations over the next few days. But first, allow me to set the tone.

Castleton is postcard pretty village in gorgeous Peak District:


People there bake lovely cakes:

And cook other delicacies:

Now the cave was The Peak Cavern, which also bears the exquisite name of "Devil's Arse". Until 1915 it was home to Britain's last troglodytes, who lived in houses built inside the cave mouth, and made a living from rope making, while the depths of the cave had the reputation of being a haven for bandits.


Rob Lycett

More photos: my flickr set, Iman Moradi's and Rob Lycett's.

Read also The Arts Catalyst's account of Biorama cave trip.

Previous entries about Biorama 1: Biorama Huddersfield, Biorama (Part 1), Biorama (Part 2), Biorama (Part 3).

Last episode of the Biorama day in Huddersfield where Capsula and the Digital Research Unit had invited artists to present the way their work explores and blends notions of life, science and digital realities.

Biorama (Part 1) + Biorama (Part 2)


France Cadet, just back from an interesting-looking conference about theatre and robotics held in the framework of the 61st Festival d'Avignon, explained how she hacked robot dogs (she used I-Cybie which doesn't come with a software like the Aibo, therefore re-programming the robot is a long and complex process) and turned them into transgenic and chimerical animals inspired by the advances of (bio)technology, in particular cloning experiments. Each robot raises questions about possible accidents, animal and human behaviour, artificialisation of life, side effects of cloning, dangers of xenotransplantation, etc.

COPYCAT is half dog, half cat. It is independent and clean like a cat while being affectionate and playful like a dog. The robot was inspired by "Cc" the first kitten cloned in December 2001 at Texas A&M university. The breakthrough has made it possible to clone your favourite dying or dead pet and to produce a pet "à la carte".

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DOLLY has a more complex origin, half of it is a dog, then it is 30% ewe, 15% cow and a tiny portion of sheep. The dog is named after Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned in 1996. Both sheep and bovines specimens have encountered difficulties for their cloning: BSE: Mad Cow Disease, Progeria, premature ageing (because her donor sibling was six years old when the genetic material was taken from her, Dolly may have been genetically six years old at birth), abnormal size and various pathologies. This species aims to cure all the side effects of cloning and deterioration of DNA. However, not everything went according to plans and the dog-cow is suffering from BSE and eventually dies on its little pad of artificial grass.

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GFP PUPPY had just 1% of Green Fluorescent Protein gene transferred into its genome. GPF is present at the natural state in jellyfish, and commonly used to mark the cells. In this case, the gene gave the dog a phosphorescent coat. After the fluorescent mouse and Eduardo Kac's Alba rabbit. "GFP Puppy" marks the beginning of a new age of animal cloning, that of more evolved and complex species.

XENODOG is half dog, 45% pig and has also 5% Nude gene.
While the pig is smart and sociable enough to make the perfect pet, it is also the best species to supply organs for xenotransplantations. XENODOG has also the same genetic defect as the nude mouse that prevents him from growing hair and from immunologically rejecting human cells and tissues.

JELLYDOGGY. This genetic mutant is 90% dog with 5% jellyfish and 5% chameleon. 0aaschizof.jpgIts genome has been enhanced with the gene of a hydrozoan (jellyfish family) as well as the gene of the chameleon, well known for blending in with his environment. This peculiarly enables him to adapt to an aquatic life.

SCHIZODOG has worryingly been "enhanced" with 25% Dr. Jekyll genes and 25% of Mr. Hyde.
The cloning experiment helps increase our understanding of psychological disorders such as multiple or split personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenic disorder... it also makes us aware of genetic influence on the psychology of twins, Siamese twins and clones. The study of the two headed dog may suggest promising forms of treatment and perhaps, in the near future, may help predict the outcome of several mental illnesses.

Along with the dog genes, the FLYING PIG is 40% pig, and has 5% nude and 5% human genes.

Inspired by Stelarc's extra ear, Symbiotica's Pig Wings and the nude mouse with a human ear attached onto its back. Initialy designed to serve as a model for tissue and cartilage engineering and to replace a missing or malfunctioning part of the body, those ear-wings prosthesis, made out of muscles, soft tissue and flexible cartilage, can actually enhance the body's fonctions. From now on reconstructive surgery belongs to the past, time has come for augmented surgery.

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The last presentation of the day was from etoy agent Marcos who briefly recalled TOYWAR the most successful performance of the group. Toy retailer eToys.com sued etoy for having a similar domain name to their own (etoy.com.) They first offered incresingly big sums of money to get the domain and when they realized it wasn't to sell, they decided to launch a rather dirty legal battle. After several weeks, a market capitalization loss of $4.5 billion dollars, eToys dropped the lawsuit and the etoy website returned to operation.

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But Marcos was mostly there to talk about MISSION ETERNITY, an ultra long term project started by etoy.CORPORATION in 2005. Its theme is the cult of the dead in the digital age, its chore idea is to create a digital portrait and make it eternal it through a p2p system and its main pilar is the arcanum capsule.
Video summary.

The ARCANUM CAPSULE is reserved for charismatic pioneers of the information age: the M∞ PILOTS (the process can not be offered to the broad public yet as it is too artistically intense, expensive, and requires the participation of a whole range of trained etoy.AGENTS). So far only 2 TEST PILOTS are in the pipeline (microfilm pioneer Sepp Keiser and writer Timothy Leary).

The M∞ ARCANUM CAPSULES contain digital fragments of the life and "soul�? of the USERS and enable them to maintain a presence post mortem as data particles hosted in the shared memory of hundreds of networked computers and mobile devices such as cell phones of the so-called M∞ ANGELS, people who contribute a part of their digital storage space to the project. As long as humanity exists and people are connected, the memory will be preserved.


Now how can you make the remains eternal in a more tangible way? By having them enter some art institution through physical artefacts. They would get from the family ash once the pilot has died and incorporate it into sculptures called M∞ BRIDGES that link physical and memory spaces as well as life and death. Innovative technology and artistic quality might appeal to art collections, libraries and museums. Conservation would thus be outsourced to protected environments and experts financed by governments, foundations and private collectors. The ash of the deceased would be mixed with cement and then used as dead pixel on the big screen inside the sarcophagus.


The first series of M∞ BRIDGES are dominated by visual output (SARCOPHAGUS and MISSION CTRL) and close to traditional art forms. The second series will be based on antenna principles: broadcasting radio signals (voices of M∞ PILOTS), WLAN, Bluetooth and cell phone content. They will introduce a new generation of public interactive art.

Back to my notes from Biorama, a one day event organized by Capsula and the Digital Research Unit on July 13 in Huddersfield. The event brought together an exciting bunch of artists whose work explores notions of life, science and digital realities.

Biorama (Part 1)

Laura Cinti (who is currently doing some research on the way plants can be modified in order to be visually responsible to touch) and Howard Boland from c-lab (interviewed then a few months ago) focused mainly on their fascinating Martian Rose project.


How would the aesthetics of the flower start to break down if exposed to the Mars environment? Would it still have petals? The project started as a very romantic idea: offering a rose to Mars. They worked with scientists from the Mars Simulation Laboratory, at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.


The artists and the scientists put roses inside a vacuum chamber built to simulate parameters such as temperature, gas and distribution, pressure and radiation.
Bacteria can go into suspension and survive after exposure to extreme environment, they will event produce new patterns. The roses, however, were not too happy with the experiment. After several hours of exposure the flowers were significantly darker in colour. As they warmed up, they would easily collapse having been exposed to low pressure.

One of the roses is currently exhibited at BIOS 4, a show on biotechnological and environmental art at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo in Seville, Spain.

0ameyerbarnadis.jpgAfter Laura and Howard, it was the turn of Agnes Meyer-Brandis to present her work. I had her talk about her projects a few months ago, so i decided to drop the pen and paper and just enjoy her witty talk full of iceberg drifting along the Brazilian coast, elves and other mysterious phenomena. Agnes is currently working on her latest project the Cloud Core Scanner, an artistic experiment in weighlessness within the scope of the German Aerospace Center's parabolic flight campaign.

Brandon Ballengée discussed his transdisciplinary approach towards increasing environmental awareness, how he sees his work as an interface between biological research and a much more experimental programme.0amphibbbi.jpg

Brandon has spent the past decade studying amphibians which he defined as the "environmental canaries in the coalmine." They act as bio-sensors. Studies have demonstrated that amphibians are declining even in protected environments. Reports of discovery of frogs which are born with more or sometimes less than 4 legs. With such deformities, the animals have very little chance of survival and the phenomenon might partially explain the decline in amphibian population. Such reports emerged mainly from the US. But declines and deformities of amphibians probably exists on 6 continents. The New York-based artist is currently spending several months in the UK to have a closer look into declining amphibian species, through participatory lab and field-based research investigations. The project is organised by The Arts Catalyst and enabled by residencies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Gunpowder Park, and SPACE. He not only works together with scientists but also organizes "eco-actions�? fieldtrips that involve members of the public in his research projects.


otadpolll.jpgOne hypothesis that might explain amphibian deformities is that some parasite inside the body of the frog might hamper its normal development. When amphibians are mutating, they are very sensible to the environment. Brandon made experiments where he would cut one limb of the frog at different stage of its transformation and see it regrow until a rather late stage. If a parasite gobbles its way into the transforming tissues of the mutating frog, it would form a cyst and impede the normal growth of the limbs. The organism of the frog would try to compensate and grow an extra tow or an extra leg coming from the same tissue. This phenomenon of extra limbs is increasing and it compromises the immune system of the amphibian.

Brandon has discovered in North Yorkshire many amphibians with just one leg or no leg at all, this phenomenon is not described yet in England. The artist documents the deformities by creating hi-res images using a flat-based scanner (he built an aquarium on top of it).

0alovemotelin.jpgAnother of Ballengée's project, the outdoor installation 'Love Motels for Insects', enables the public to study arthropod diversity in urban and natural areas. A blank canvas and ultra-violet (black) light enable the study and photography of arthropods (spiders, moths, beetles, etc.) and other nocturnal creatures. Attracted to the light, the creatures mate and feed on the sculpture. It is a "place for bugs to make more bugs." Moths release chemical pheromones to attract mates and consequently "paint" the piece, while spiders spin webs adding their own contribution to the work.

Brandon uses eco-projects to raise awareness of ecological issues and have people feel part of it. C-lab has a couple of very good images of Brandon Ballangee's work.

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