Meta-Life. Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts, a Leonardo-MIT Press e-book edited by Annick Bureaud, Roger Malina and Louise Whiteley.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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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.

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Ai Hasegawa,I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin..., 2011

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Vincent Fournier, Post Natural History, 2012

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.

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Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist and early geneticists, who suggested the concept of genes, rediscovering the laws of heredity in the 1890s while unaware of Gregor Mendel's work, for introducing the term "mutation", ca. 1930. Photo © C.G.G.J. van Steenis

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.

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Anna Dumitriu, 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.

Sponsored by:






BIO LUDDITE grade h264

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'.

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17 year old Austin Haughwout was assaulted on a Connecticut beach by a woman upset about his use of a drone

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?

She writes:

"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.

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John O'Shea (photo)

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Lisa Ma

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unMonastry

Taking part in the discussion were Lisa Ma, Ben Vickers, David King and John O'Shea.

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.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

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.

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Macedonio Alcalá street in Oaxaca. Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

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.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro

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.

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El Banco de Germoplasma de Especies Nativas de Oaxaca (gene bank of Oaxaca's native species). Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

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El Banco de Germoplasma de Especies Nativas de Oaxaca (gene bank of Oaxaca's native species). Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

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.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

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.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada

BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro

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
corn seeds. The ultimate degree of industrialization of corn, is use it to produce plastics.

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

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.

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Lena Ortega, La dulce vida

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.

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Alfadir Luna, Container

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.

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Colectivo MAMAZ, Códice del maíz

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Colectivo MAMAZ, Códice del maíz

Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.

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Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab

Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.

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Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz, Zea mays

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Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz, Zea mays

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 other possibility is bringing corn seeds to the museum. Here we will plant them and grow them to test the resistance to Roundup. In case that we have resistance to the herbicide, we will take the surviving plants to the lab, to test if they are transgenic or not.

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.
In the group Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science) based at UNAM we have been building a path to intertwine arts, science and humanities.

Thanks María!

All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.

I don't normally blog about calls or upcoming events. Mostly because as breathtaking as they are, press releases 'copy/pastes' are not my idea of an appealing content. I do like to make exceptions to the rule though. One of them is the Bio Art & Design Award. It used to be called the Designers and Artists for Genomics award but its objective remains unchanged: the award invites designers and artists interested in life sciences to propose projects that push the boundaries of research application and creative expression. Each year the three most remarkable ideas are awarded a 25,000 euro grant to bring the project to life and exhibit it.

To be eligible for the award you must have graduated no longer than five years ago from a design or art program (at either the Masters or Bachelors level). Applicants are encouraged to relate their proposals to recent advances in the Life Sciences, including those within specialties such as ecology, biomedicine and genomics.

The deadline is 2 February 2014.

The selection process is rigorous, the research institutes associated seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about the collaboration and the results of the partnership are usually so exciting that i've blogged about them relentlessly in the past (check out in particular: The Living Mirror, Ergo Sum, the now iconic 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin', etc.)

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Maurizio Montalti, System Synthetics

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Jalila Essaidi, 2.6 g 329 m/s (image Jalila Essaidi)

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The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, Eat Less, Live More and Pray for Beans

I took the call for proposals as an excuse to chat about the award with Angelique Spaninks and Wilma van Donselaar. Angelique is the head of MU, the art center which is going to exhibit the winning projects next Winter and Wilma, who works at the the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, has been working on the Award from the beginning.

Designers and Artists for Genomics is now Bio Art & Design Award. Why did the name change? Does it involve any modification in the award? The way it is organized, its purpose, the spirit, the organizations involved?

Angelique Spaninks : The change of the name is partly due to a shift in organizational parties. The Netherlands Genomics Initiative that has set up the award has ceased to exist per January 1 of this year but it has managed to guarantee a budget for a similar award. This has been brought under care of ZonMW, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, that is now in the lead. The other new partners are NWO (the Dutch Research Council) and MU, one of the leading art foundations in the Netherlands with a hybrid program reaching from contemporary art to design, media art and popculture.

MU will take care of coordination towards the exhibition of the three winning projects, combined with other new bio art and design projects. De Waag is still on board and so are several leading universities and research centers for the Life Sciences that provide teams of scientists that will closely collaborate with the artists and designers that will be selected to work on their proposals. In that sense the purpose and spirit have not changed, and neither has the prize money.

I'm, as always, impressed by the quality and quantity of scientific organizations the award got on board. Why do you think they accept the challenge to work with an artist or designer? What does the collaboration with a creative individual with an entirely different background and -i suspect- perspective bring to their research activities?

Wilma van Donselaar of ZonMW: At first the only scientific organizations that participated were funded by the Netherlands Genomics Inititiative and they had to be persuaded a bit in the beginning, but quite soon they thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration. The artists bring in completely new ideas and often challenge them into exploring new technological possibilities. There has to be a connection of course, but that is something that already becomes quite clear during the matchmaking event at the start of the competition. The only reason why it is difficult to keep scientists on board year after year is that it takes a lot of time. That is why we also bring in fresh research groups. But since we can show the results of previous award rounds now, that is not so difficult anymore.

Who should apply to the award? Is it mostly interactive designers and media artists or could a more 'traditional' artist/designer get a chance provided he's passionate enough about the possibility to engage with Life Science materials and ideas?

AS: We don't exclude anyone with an exciting but also viable proposal, who has graduated no more than five years ago in the field of art and design. Of course it will be more easy for artists/designers with some experience in working with Life Science materials and ideas, but the award is also there to stimulate young creatives to explore new territories and enhance the options for collaboration between creatives and scientists. All this to broaden and deepen the interest in and debate about the Life Sciences through the arts and examine it's social, cultural and ethical contexts.

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Matthijs Munnik, The Microscopic Opera

How is an artistic/design proposal paired with a scientific institute? What is the process?

AS: Each participant can submit only one application before February 2. This application consists of a preliminary idea, portfolio and filled out registration form. Only 16 applicants will be selected for a matchmaking meeting in The Hague in March, where the creatives have to find a match with a team of scientists from one of the participating Dutch Life Science institutes. A list of the participating research groups of the 12 Dutch Life Science institutes can be found on the website www.badaward.nl. Once the matches are made artists/designers and scientists write a joint full proposal for the Award before end of April. Then mid-May all teams have to present their final proposals to the international jury which will then select the 3 winners. All proposals will not only be presented to the jury that day but also to the public. From June till November the Award winning proposals are realized by the artist/designers and scientists together and will be exhibited in MU art space on Strijp S in Eindhoven for 2 months starting from November 28, 2014.

Also I was wondering how the winning projects get accepted (or not) by the design and/or art world? Are they seen as hard to grasp and comment on pieces or does the art press and the art public embrace them as valuable and challenging expressions of creativity?

AS: The Award functions as a springboard, either for new nominations or Awards, new or extended collaborations, grants, positions or new publications. Experience with the first 3 years and 10 Award winners has learned that there is a growing interest in bio art and design in press and society but the art and design world themselves are lagging behind a bit. By presenting the winners in a respected yet hybrid contemporary art space like MU and in a leading art, design & technology driven city like Eindhoven we are convinced this will gradually change.

Thanks Angelique and Wilma!

Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory - Maisemasta Laboratorioon, edited by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and Terike Haapoja.

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From the back-cover: Every second year the Finnish Society of Bioart invites a significant group of artists and scientists to the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland/Finland to work for one week on topics related to art, biology and the environment. "Field_Notes - From Landscape to Laboratory" is the first in a series of publications originating from this field laboratory. It emphasizes the process of interaction between fieldwork, locality and the laboratory. Oron Catts, Antero Kare, Laura Beloff, Tarja Knuuttila amongst others explore the field and laboratory as sites for art&science practices.

I was about to add this book to the list of books i liked in 2013 but i decided at the last minute that i might as well give it its own space.

In 2011, the Finnish Society of Bioart organised the Field_Notes - Cultivating Grounds laboratory. Five working groups led by Oron Catts, Marta de Menezes, Anu Osva, Tapio Makela and Terike Haapoja developed various art and science projects while in contact with nature and ecology in Kilpisjärvi, a rural area in Lapland, Finland.

The book contains seventeen articles (in both English and Finnish) that report and meditate on the research, reflections and activities that took place during the scientists and artists' stay in Lapland. Field_Notes offers one of the very few residences that allows people who engage with art&science to work and experiment directly in a natural environment and not exclusively in laboratories or galleries.

I wouldn't say that this is a book for anyone who's interested in bioart. It's not the kind of crazy sexy pop bioart you read about in Wired magazine (or in my own blog.) It is sober and at time theoretical, but not less surprising and thought-provoking than any razzle-dazzle bioart works you've read about in the past.

Field_Notes offers is a great mix of essays by scientists and lively stories of experiments by artists. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura Beloff's essay on how experience is a key aspect (and sometime even the main objective) of art practices that use organic materials or has some affinity with science. Professor Antero Järvinen wrote about the icon of global warming that is the Arctic charr and more generally about the difficulty of drawing simple conclusion of complex material systems and phenomena. Oron Catts came with the most unexpected essay about a piece of plexiglass from a German aircraft that had crashed in Kilpisjärvi in 1942 and how the discovery led him to explore 'new materialism in action'. Andrew Gryf Paterson has a great piece about berries foraging and a proposal to set up Berry Commons which sounds trivial until he makes you realize the politics of berries. Maria Huhmarniemi looked at the dilemma of preserving the endangered Capricornia Boisduvaliana butterfly or building an hydroelectric power plant.

I'll close with two of the many projects i discovered in this book:

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Laura Beloff, A Unit, 2012

A Unit is a miniature green area an individual would wear on their shoulder. A Unit speculates on the concept of green environment and its beneficial impact. It experiments with an idea of wearable miniature green space that becomes part of one’s everyday existence and asks if this can be considered as natural environment with potential health benefits?

A Unit contains a GM-plant or other primarily human-constructed plant and as such acts as a training device for our changing relation with organic nature for the future when both humans and nature are artificially modified or constructed.

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Niki Passath, The Tourist (infected with moss)

Niki Passath took his touristic robots for walks around Kilpisjärvi and soon found out that fungi and bacteria had adopted them as a habitat. Traces of moss and lichen started to grow on the structures.

So there you are: a serious, solid book for anyone who'd like to go beyond the easy reductions, the fast conclusions and simplification that sometimes characterizes articles and books about bioart.

Last week, i mentioned my quick trip to Leiden to see the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, an international competition that gives artists and designers the opportunity to collaborate with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.

One of the winning works is The Living Mirror, a 'bio-installation' that combines magnetic bacteria with electronics and photo manipulation to create liquid, 3D portraits. The piece was developed by Laura Cinti & Howard Boland from the art-science collective C-Lab in partnership with AMOLF, a research institute focusing on nanophotonics and physics of biomolecular systems

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab

Living Mirror involves cultivating magnetotactic bacteria, a group of bacteria able to orient along the magnetic field lines of Earth's magnetic field. The artists collected the bacteria and used an array of tiny electromagnetic coils to shift the magnetic field, causing the bacteria rapidly reorient their body that changes how light is scattered. The resultant effect can be seen as a light pulse or a shimmer. Taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, [C-Lab] programmatically harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab

I had a quick Q&A with the artists:

Hi Laura and Howard! The Living Mirror, to me at least, almost belongs to the world of magic.It uses software, hardware and wetware. It is a particularly complex project. How did you know it would work out in the end? And what were the biggest challenges you encountered during its development?

Indeed, as a work it has been a very ambitious undertaking that integrates quite complex processes of wetware, software and hardware. We had to work very closely with various types of engineering disciplines and work as engineers ourselves. Over the past few months we built several prototypes to help us understand how a magnetic culture of bacteria might work. In the beginning when we worked on pulling biomass our biggest challenge was to generate enough bacteria and have a system that could produce a significant magnetic pulling force.

The interactive art installation was aimed at producing real-time images using living bacteria - but pulling biomass was slow. When we discovered that these bacteria produced a shimmering effect in real-time we were intrigued and felt that this was a better phenomenon to pursue and also allowed us to work with much lower magnetic forces. By changing the magnetic field we were seeing bacteria rapidly switching direction in a synchronic rotation causing light to scatter and producing a visible shimmer. So the major challenges we have encountered so far has been cultivating these bacteria and producing the electronic boards needed for approximately 250 individual magnetic coils.

There are many unknowns in the project which is what makes it quite exciting for us - having living bacteria respond in real-time is not something we experience on a visual scale we are accustomed to and finding out whether this system will be able to produce shimmering pixels that can form a portrait image is to be seen in the weeks to come.

To see the shimmering effect we observe, please see these videos below:


Bacteria scattering light at different magnetic speed


M. gryphiswaldense on magnetic stirrer

In LIVING MIRROR, multiple pulsating waves of bacteria are made to form a pixelated image using electromagnetic coils that shift magnetic fields across surface areas. By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, LIVING MIRROR programmatically attempts to harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab

In the proposal you wrote for the competition, you say that "Recent years have seen the human body reconfigured as an ecosystem of mostly non-human bacterial cells. Together with fungi and human cells, these form our complex 'superorganism', an image the work seeks to renegotiate by literally reflecting and fleshing out these ideas." Could you elaborate what you mean by that?

Until recently, our understanding of human 'self' was, at least biologically speaking, thought to be 'human' cells. This perspective is now understood to include microbial communities and interestingly, these microbial cells not only outnumber our own 'human' cells but our bodies contain significantly more of microbial DNA than our own genome. (Our bodies contain a mere 10 per cent of human cells and 90 per cent microbial cells). In this sense our bodies can be seen as a 'superorganisms' - working collectively as a unified organism or an ecosystem.

As a liquid biological mirror, LIVING MIRROR draws on the idea of water as our first interface predating today's screen-based digital technologies. It points to the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image by believing it was someone else in the water reflection. Drawn into the image, he tragically drowned - a reminder of how we continue to immerse ourselves in similar mirrors as we extend our identity into the virtual. Simultaneously, the work highlights how contemporary science has shattered the idea of our own body by recognising that we are mostly made up of non-human bacterial cells. These ideas have shaped digital and biological understandings of our human self and are technically and conceptually reflected in LIVING MIRROR.

A living mirror is a very seducing idea. Do you see possible applications for it? Or was it just an artistic experiment?

Throughout the project we have been in communication with many leading researchers and there are certainly some specific technological overlaps (i.e. possible use of shimmer as a magnetic measurement or methods for orienting or guiding cells). As a display what can be seen is certainly different to existing technologies and LIVING MIRROR remains a research-based artwork.

Thanks Laura and Howard!

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab

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Image C-Lab


Video of Prototype #2 with Magnetotactic Bacteria in Continuous Vessel (9 coils)

Flickr set + videos

The Living Mirror and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands.
Previously: Ergo Sum - The creation of a second self using stem cell technology and The Fish Bone Chapel.

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