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.
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.)
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.
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!
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:
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 ones 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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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!
The Living Mirror and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands.
Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.
There was a time, not so long ago, when you could visit a new exhibition showing 'bio tech artworks' every second month. These days are over. At least in Europe. But it's a different story in Australia where semipermeable (+) opened last month in the context of ISEA2013. semipermeable (+) looks at the membrane as a site, metaphor and platform for a series of artistic interventions and projects, some commissioned specifically for the exhibition and others selected from the many projects developed at SymbioticA (an artistic laboratory located within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) since 2000.
I haven't seen the show so i'll let Oron Catts, curator of the exhibition, present it in the interview he did with RealTime:
realtime tv @ ISEA2013: semipermeable (+), SymbioticA
Some of the works in the show have been developed by artists while they were in residence at SymbioticA in the past. Others were especially commissioned for semipermeable (+). This is the case for Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste, or SPPS, by sculptor and sound artist Dr Nigel Helyer.
Helyer's work is rich and manifold. Behind its alarming aspect, SPPS considers selectively permeable structures under lenses that range from the molecular level to the macro scale.It explores the (xenophobic) history of immigration in Australia and more generally current infrastructures that define socio-political boundaries. It also looks at the history of biowarfare, from Antique Chinese gunpowder rockets carrying poisonous material to virus injected into chicken eggs.
There was much to talk about and ask Nigel Helyer. hence the email exchange i'm copy/pasting below:
What makes your work particularly attractive is the menacing steel weapons. They look like missiles. What inspired their shape exactly?
Two things, firstly the long tradition of Chinese gunpowder rocketry which is documented from the C10th. These were used for both festive and military purposes and there are accounts of "bio-hazardous" material being included in the payload (for example excrement or putrefying remains). The second strand is primarily morphological - the profile of the rockets is based upon an elongated "Bacteriophage" a virus that locks onto bacteria, injects its DNA and in effect turns the bacterium into a virus replicating factory. This resonates with the concept of genetic and/or ethnic mixing within national borders.
One of the phase in the development of the project involved infecting eggs. Can you take us through this process? What did you use to infect them? Is it the 'omnisexual bacterium' your text mentions?
As the work is designed for public museum display the work had to be relatively innocuous. Thus I used chicken eggs which I first 'blew' I.e. emptied them if their contents, and then lacquered and sealed at one end. Next the eggs were injected with a small amount of a lab strain of E.Coli bacteria (common in the human intestines) suspended in a polymer. These were left to dry out in a lab facility and samples tested for viability. Once the samples showed no further growth possibility the eggs were sealed and then double contained in scientific glass (making them safe for the Museum context). The omni sexual bacterium in the text actually refers to the structure of Metaphor. In essence the idea that in the work several apparently desperate strands if thought, history and biology are bought together to 'mingle' - I parallel this to the omni sexuality of bacteria which can exchange genetic material quite freely, mixing and matching, as with ideas as with metaphor.
The work, you write, pays an "ironic homage that reprises the origins of modern bio-warfare research, where chicken eggs were the bio-reactor of choice at the Chemical Defense Establishment of Porton Down near Salisbury UK." I've never heard about the role of eggs in biodefense. Could you tell us more about it?
Well rather simple really. eggs are obviously natural incubators and were chosen as the original bio- reactors in most Chemical and Biological Warfare labs prior to the development of artificial (and therefore more standardized bio- reactors.) Eggs components are still used in the production of many serums and inoculations for regular medical use.
What makes your work 'semipermeable'? What gets in and what is left outside?
This relates more to the socio-political reading of the word, the border, the frontier, the policing of who may pass and who is turned away.
There is also a sound component to the work, if i understood correctly. Can you explain it to us? What it is and which role it plays in the whole work.
This relates to the above, the national border, and the "Dictation Test" as applied to Asian immigrants to Australia between 1901 and 1958 under the "White Australia" policy. Asian migrants were made to take a 50 word dictation as a test of English skills. In reality many English speakers would fail and the system was a thin disguise for a racist policy for refusing entry to anyone other than Caucasians.
The scrolling text on the LED board contains just three of the hundreds of examples (to be found in the National archives) and the audio component is a Chinese translation of these three texts.
Ultimately, your work looks pretty dangerous. How do you get to exhibit a work that looks like a weapon and contains infected eggs? Are there special rules to comply to show the work in an art exhibition?
Again simple common sense from the museum team, I ensured that the bio hazard was reduced to less than a Big Mac Burger (actually a sample from a MacDonalds Cafe table could well be more harmful) and then the museum was okay with just a simple discreet wire barrier - so far no fatalities!
Also part of the exhibition: In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to 'biological brain'.