I'm sure you've heard about Jalila Essaidi's work before. She is an artist who uses biology as an artistic medium, the founder of the BioArt Laboratories Foundation and the author of one of my favourite books about bioart: Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers. And yes, she is also the artist behind the famous Bulletproof Skin project.
Essaidi is currently participating to the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU in Eindhoven with a less headline-grabbing but equally fascinating work called A Simple Line. The installation looks at how the thin line between reality and abstraction is taking shape inside our brain and more precisely at the level of the 'simple cells' that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line.
With 'A simple line', Essaïdi attempts to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality by having a zebra finch look at its own brain cells in the form of a line. The result of her experimentation joins the organic (a bird inside a cage), the abstract (colour block lines) and even the conceptual.
A few words with the artist:
Hi Jalila! Do you have a link to the research about specific cells (simple cells) that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line?
Information processing and specifically the functioning of simple cells find its origin in the research of Hubel and Wiesel. These cells were discovered in the late 1950s. It would be hard to pin point a specific article that would be interesting for your readers but I think the videos of Hubel and Wiesel's cat experiments say more than a thousand words. There are several available online.
Serendipity & discovering simple cells:
Simple cells & complex cells, tests that show* how the cells are reacting to orientation specific lines:
*What you are hearing are the cells -connected by electrodes placed in the brain- firing when stimulated
How does the installation work? What is it made of? What do we see in the two tubes?
I have the feeling this question is technical/practical in nature so I am skipping the intent of the work, which of course is a vital part to the question "how".
What you see is the setup needed to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality.
The installation is a work in progress; inside the tubes a line made of simple cells is visible. The cells are attached to a thin floating horizontal structure, which acts as a scaffold. The entire installation is designed to offer an optimal environment by controlling the temperature and composition of the atmosphere inside the inner tube, containing the line.
The next stage of the work would be an exploration into golden support structures, how to preserve the line outside of its current environment, and how to combine these preserved lines into their final form.
Is there a particular reason why you chose a zebra finch? rather than any other bird, or even a mouse or a bug?
Zebra Finches are, just like Zebra Fish, a model organism in scientific research. At the Bio-Imaging Lab of Antwerp University they research plasticity of the Zebra Finch brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging. These studies give us new insights in for example Alzheimer's disease. My intention was to visualize the capacity of simple cells to detect lines using fMRI and make that the foundation of the project. This turned out to be not possible with current fMRI technology (of which they have at Antwerp the state of the art).
But even with fMRI out of the picture, the Zebra Finches stayed. Their brain being mapped out in histological- (for example http://www.zebrafinchatlas.org/)and digital three dimensional atlases simplified the entire process and of course their traditional birdcages -made mostly out of lines- charmed me and they felt like a natural choice for the project.
How did you get the brain cells of the bird?
The cells aren't from the actual birds in the birdcage, but from zebra finches that passed away due to old age.
Any upcoming project, research, event you'd like to share with us?
There will be an event on February 7th 2015 at MU Artspace where there will be a reflection on the work from the arts, philosophy and neurosciences. The evening will be in the format of a talk show.
I'm working on /researching a new project again with spidersilk which I hope to present at the end of 2015.
A Simple Line is part of the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
Don't forget to send your proposals to the BIO ART & DESIGN AWARD. The three winning ideas will be awarded €25.000 to fully realize a new work of art or design that pushes the boundaries of research application and creative expression. They will be developed in collaboration with a Dutch research institution then exhibited to the public in MU Art Space in Eindhoven at the end of the year. The deadline for applications is 2 February 2015.
(available on amazon USA or by ordering directly from RIXC via e-mail: rixc @ rixc.lv.)
Publishers RIXC Center for New Media Culture and MPLab, Art Research Lab of Liepaja University write: Techno-ecological perspectives have become now one of the key directions in contemporary discourses and are part of a larger paradigm shift from new media to post-media art. A range of practices which were once subsumed under terms such as media art, digital art, art and technology or art and science, have experienced such growth and diversification that no single term can work as as a label any more. Traditionally separated domains are brought together to become contextual seedbeds for ideas and practices that aim to overcome the crisis of the present and to invent new avenues for future developments.
This is the 2nd volume in the Acoustic Space series that continues to build a 'techno-ecological' perspective whereby new artistic practices are discussed that combine ecological, social, scientific and artistic inquiries. Edited and published in the context of the exhibition Fields, it makes a perspective its own that sees art as a catalyst for change and transformations.
This 300+ page publication is a collection of papers by artists, curators and academics. The texts are mapping contemporary practices in art & technology but they also had the specific function of providing a framework to the Fields exhibition that took place in Riga last Summer. The show investigated the place of contemporary art practices in society and the role artists can take not just as generators of new aesthetics but also as catalysts of active involvement in social, scientific, and technological transformations. The publication is as deep and as wide-ranging as the Riga show was. Its content also echoes many of the current conversations that makes media art such an exciting field to follow: DIY culture vs 'black box' technology, digital archiving, continued influence of early locative art, funding models for the digital culture, reconciliation between sciences and humanities, etc.
Here's a far from exhaustive list of essays i've enjoyed reading:
In Slow Media Art - Seeing through Speed in Critiques of Modernity, Kevin Hamilton and Katja Kwastek applied the ideas of the slow food to Media Art. The slow media art works they presented share a 'deep engagement with sensation, duration, and speed.' I like the concept because it proves media art detractors that there is more to media art than the quest for innovation and sparkly spectacle. The examples of the genre selected by the authors of the paper include YoHa's magnificent coal-fired computers and Esther Polak's Milk Project.
In Stridulation Amplified: An Artistic Research of the Bioacoustic Phenomena of Leaf-cutter Ants Using the Turntable, artist Kuai Shen Auson shares what he learnt from 5 years working on and exhibiting 0h!m1gas , an installation that harnesses the relentless activity of an ant colony into a DJ scratching performance.
In Ars Bioarctica. Five Years of Art & Science Work by the Finnish Society of Bioart at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, Erich Berger and Laura Beloff draw lessons from their five years of experience organizing art&science collaborations in sub-Arctic environment
Michel Bauwens's essay Evolving Towards a Partner State in an Ethical Economy looks at the free software industry and defends the idea that society can learn something from the politics of this value creation model and that of a 'P2P' state might emerge from these social practices.
In Contestation and the Sustainability of the Digital Commons, Eric Kluitenberg reflects on the outcomes of the Economies of the Commons, a series of conferences that focused on how sustainable models could be identified for creating and maintaining public online media culture and knowledge resources. The final part of his paper charts various revenue models that can sustain commons based initiatives in the digital domain.
I learned about the existence of anticartographism in Gavin MacDonald's text Moving Bodies and the Map: Relational and Absolute Conceptions of Space in GPS-based Art in which he walks us through the short history of the use of GPS as an artistic medium.
In Bird, Whale, Bug: The Reasons for an Interspecies Music, composer David Rothenberg tells about his experience of working with bird song neuroscientists, playing music with animals and even bugs and his findings about how a musical approach might lead to better understanding and respect for 'natural' sounds.
About the FIELDS exhibition: FIELDS, positive visions for the future, Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, Sketches for an Earth Computer, POLSPRUNG (POLE SHIFT) - Devastating Experimental Set-ups, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm.
Image on the homepage: a performance by Cécile Babiole at the FIELDS exhibition.
This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.
Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.
So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses DNA from Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who most likely died in 1973 due to the aggressive nature of the cancer. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.
The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:
Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?
The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.
This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.
My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.
You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?
One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations?
In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.
You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?
The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.
The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.
How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?
I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.
I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?
Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".
Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?
I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.
What's next? What are you working on right now?
At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!
Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.
Publisher Leonardo/Olats writes: Artists have opened new avenues in the art world by employing these developments in biotechnology, synthetic biology and Artificial Life; going from inanimate to autonomous objects to living creatures; exploring the thin border between animate and inanimate; confronting the grown, the evolved, the born and the built; and raising aesthetic but also social, political and ethical issues.
New forms of 'exo-life' may not arrive on Earth from outerspace by hitching a ride on a meteorite, but instead come out of the lab, designed by scientists - or perhaps artists - weaving together biology and computing in a petri dish or bioreactor.
Over the last fifty years our ideas about the nature of life have changed dramatically. Revolutionary advances in genetics and molecular biology have given us new insights into how carbon based life on our planet originates and functions. In more recent years the development of synthetic biology has dramatically expanded our ability to design and modify life forms. At the same time, disruptive developments in computing technologies have led to the possibility of generating digitally-based artificial life. And outside traditional institutions, emerging DIY, bio-hacking and citizen science movements have begun to appropriate laboratory technologies, challenging ideas about the governance of the life sciences.
Meta-Life is an anthology of articles published in Leonardo about the living, the non-living and the 'kind of living' in all their forms. There are 45 articles in total, some date back to the 1990s, others are newly commissioned texts. In fact, the whole DIY Biology - BioHacking section is composed of new commissions.
A quick look at the titles of the sections demonstrates the wide-range of themes explored: Between Bio, Silico and Syhtetic: Life and the Arts reflects on how our notions of life and of art are challenged both by computer technology and biotechnologies; Artificial Life and the Arts as well as the section called BioArt contain theoretical and philosophical texts about both fields, Bio - Fiction, Design, Archictecture explores the thin border between reality and fiction; DIY Bio - BioHacking proposes various points of view on the bio DIY movement.
I haven't been through the whole ebook but i've read most of the articles and so far, so very good. To be blunt, I don't trust Leonardo to publish texts that are approachable and engaging. Intelligent, informative and thought-provoking, they do very well but appealing to broad(ish) audiences? I wasn't not so sure. Well, that's where i was very wrong. There is no abstruse language nor complex theories in this ebook. Trust me, I deliberately looked for it.
Here's just a couple of examples of the essays i've enjoyed, in no particular order:
Dr Craig Hilton writes about his collaboration with artists Billy Apple® to create what is simultaneously a subject of art and of scientific endeavor. This project consisted in growing the first biological tissue made available for artists and the first biological tissue for science research made available by an artist as art. The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® is a work of art that lives, multiplies and has the potential to create other works of art ad infinitum, especially because there is no restriction placed on the use of the Billy Apple® 's tissue.
The flamboyant Adam Zaretsky authors a sex-infused manifesto about the utopias surrounding the art (manipulation) of the living.
Following the exhibition GROW YOUR OWN ... Life After Nature, Michael John Gorman offers a coherent and crystal-clear introduction to synthetic biology, in which he also manages to include a few reflections on intellectual property, ethical and regulatory framework, media frenzy, and market interests.
Anna Dumitriu explores the relationship between bacterial and digital communications networks through the lessons she learnt while working on her project Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0.
Steve Tomasula places bio art into the context of the tradition of manipulating nature for aesthetic reason.
Oron Cats investigates the concept of being alive or 'just kind of living.' He makes some important points about the absence of a cultural language that would help audiences deal with tissue culture and other fragments of life. How should we culturally articulate and position lab-grown life when we have no cultural reference that would allow us to relate to it?
David Benqué has an enlightening conversation with independent synthetic biologist Cathal Garvey. The discussion explores the difference between DIY biology and BioHacking, the fear of biotechnology escaping the labs, the cost of creativity in biology, etc.
The first text i ran to was actually Alessandro Delfanti's research about DIY biology and its position in the world of science, the world of the market and the state.
I think i could go on and on. I carried Meta-Life in my e-reader throughout the Summer and enjoyed dipping in and out of it. I think that this collection of texts by illustrious artists, designers, and researchers constitutes a great reference to anyone who has a mild-to-strong interest in how the art world is exploring the synthetic and the aesthetic, the artificial and the new natural, the fictional and the ethical dimensions of life.
Get that one for your Kindle, it's a gem.
Image on the homepage: Brandon Ballengée. Malamp Reliquaries, 1996-ongoing. Unique IRIS prints on water-colour paper. 2003-07.
In the early 19th century, textile artisans started to break into factories at night to destroy the new labour-saving machines that their employers had bought. They saw the stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms as a threat that would make their skills obsolete and lead to lower wages.
The movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread throughout England over the following two years. The artisans who opposed the newly introduced machinery were called the Luddites. The origin of the name is uncertain but over time, the term "Luddite" came to describe people opposed to any form of technological progress. In the late 21st century, the neo-luddites emerged. They protest(ed) against the negative impact that technology has on individuals, their communities and the environment and aspire to a return to a 'simple lifestyle'.
Newspapers suggest that society is now facing the rise of a new type of neo-luddites. They don't fear for their jobs or for any damage to the ecology, they fear the loss of privacy brought about by drones and google glasses. In any case, the smartest form of luddism or neo-luddism is not one that commends violence, it's one that calls for a better understanding of new technologies and demands that people (all of them not just the ones who can afford to buy these technologies) have a voice in how they are to be distributed and used.
Speculative designer Lisa Ma, however, is pushing the discussion further. Over the past few month, she has been looking for the relevance of Luddism in the modern era by shifting focus from digital and communications technologies to the innovations of biotechnology industries. These biotechnologies which have started to pervade the food, health and ecological systems will undoubtedly attract their own forms of luddism. So who are the BioLuddites? Where are the group and individuals who ask for a demystification of biotechnologies and who are calling for a public debate about GMOs, systems ecology, hormone replacement, etc?
"Biotechnology, its beaucrocies, peripheries and implementation affect our everyday lives. There is a lot of work on the public engagement of emerging technologies, but there are gaps between where we believe science should cover and what is not yet covered. The recent ebola outbreak is an example of where the epidemic is actually one of fear, as society comes face to face with and area not yet solved by biotechnology or policy.
In digital technologies, we've seen an emergence of e-etiquettes and social manuals etc. of digital behaviour. These are what we refer to when society reaches the inner and outer limits of digital technology. Similarly, we also need guidances to reform our social relationships with biotechnology. Bioluddites is filling a necessary role in guiding the social and not just the ethical critiques of biotechnologies."
As part of her residency at Near Now, a programme which works closely with artists and designers to produce projects that explore the place and impact of technology in everyday life, Lisa Ma organised a panel titled Where are the Luddites - An Open Call for BioLuddites. The event took place on 4th June 2014, in Nottingham, birth place of the Luddite movement.
John O'Shea gave a compelling talk about his very funny adventures in proposing the implementation of a Meat Licence, and in bio-engineering a Pigs Bladder Football. Both are projects that catches the imagination of the public but the artist also discussed the legal, ethical and cultural questions that arose during the development of the works.
David King, who has a PhD in molecular biology, is the founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert, the founder of Luddite 200, and of the Breaking the Frame conference. He is also a frequent contributor to media debates on genetics and it is clear from his contribution to the panel that he has some strong and thought-provoking opinions about synthetic biology, three-parent babies, the need to engage in a dialogue with the powerful systems that control biotechnological innovations, etc.
Ben Vickers is a curator, writer, technologist and self-proclaimed Luddite. He talked about the functioning of unMonastery, a space that aims to develop a new kind of social space, akin to co-living and co-working spaces, drawing influence from both Monasteries and HackerSpaces, with a focus on the process of co-creation and co-learning between the community and unMonasterians. He is also a NearNow fellow.
An Open Call for BioLuddites was a great event and i can't recommend enough to watch the video of the panel:
Image on the homepage via BBC news.
The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.
Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.
An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.
Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.
The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.
I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?
The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?
Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.
Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.
We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?
For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.
But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?
How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?
The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.
BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.
BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.
Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.
Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.
Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.
Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.
Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.
I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?
There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?
This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.
We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.