The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired tonight.
My guests at Resonance today are creative technologists Asa Calow and Rachael Turner, the founders of the MadLab. Madlab is the short name for Manchester Digital Laboratory, a remarkably active community space for science, technology and art located in Manchester Northern Quarters. Luckily for me, Rachael and Asa are currently in London, where they are heading a series of workshops and events as part of their residency at The Arts Catalyst.
The events explore in a hands-on way the world of DIY Biology. Participants learn how to build their own labs using LEGO and affordable materials, create microbe-powered LED lights using local mud, go on a hunt for water bears and participate to a feast of cellular gastronomy. Yesterday night, i participated to the workshop on genetic modification for beginners. It was eye-opening and fun (although scientific protocols tend to be a bit repetitive.) Many of the events are already sold out but some have bigger capacity and there's still a few spots to grab. So have a look at the website of artscatalyst.org for more details.
Another project from the Design Interactions work in progress show!
This one is smart and thought-provoking and i'm looking forward to seeing how it will shape up for the graduation show.
Michail Vanis's project suggests that our romantic ideas and ideals regarding nature - a nature that has to be preserved exactly as it is- are holding us back from finding new ways to interact with the world surrounding us. Vanis' Neo-nature project invites us to reconsider our relationship to nature and adopt a more rational but also more daring and more techno-mediated approach to ecological thinking and to conservation.
The first chapter of the work, Animalia, deals with the animal kingdom and proposes three alternative ways to conserve coral reefs. In all three alternatives, the humans speed up the coral's evolution by genetically modifying it to adapt to the new environmental conditions that put the species in danger. The motivation behind why each coral is created illustrates how humans can donate, protect, or exploit.
The first scenario envisions a coral colony, a Stonehenge-like monument, that conservationists have generously financed and donated in order to save the species from extinction. The corals pass plankton efficiently between each other, creating a temple of nature, a celebration of marine life, and a spectacle for visitors to witness.
The second scenario sees a coral species seeded in areas where tsunamis might hit. In case of tsunami, the coral takes 70% of the impact. Most of the colony would die in the process but the humans would be saved.
The third scenario sees coral being exploited for the benefit of corporations. A hydrodynamic coral would be bio engineered to efficiently slipstream and merge water currents into powerful single streams. At the end of the coral colony, a convenient jet of water is exploited by the creators of the coral to harvest electricity.
I asked Michail (who, i should add, means the pandas no harm whatsoever) if he could tell us more about Neo-Nature:
Hi Michail! You wrote an essay that bears the cruel title of "Let the Pandas Die" to accompany or rather introduce the Neo-Nature project. In this text, you suggest that we might have to adopt alternative thinking in ecology and conservation. Could you briefly explain why traditionalist view of ecology and conservation might not be enough to save ourselves and the environment?
There is a lot of paradoxical thinking in ecology and conservation at the moment. Large sums of funding go towards programmes which aim to sustain organisms that are arguably at the end of their lifetime. We accept evolution and the cyclical nature of ecology, yet we try to halt nature from changing, from progressing. In a way, the nature that we are experiencing now is the perfect nature. Any other alternative seems to spoil the romantic, pure nature that we have created in our heads. Slavoj Zizek puts it very nicely: "[Ecology] is a balanced world which is disturbed through human hubris".
The ideology that we have created to define nature as human beings actually stops us ethically from experimenting with new technologies. For example, if we collectively agreed to save a species from extinction, maybe we could genetically modify it to survive the new conditions that we have introduced. This seems far from possible at the moment because you have two parallel schools of thought: the scientists and the romanticists. The scientists are prepared to take risks and talk openly about modifying organisms, the climate, the natural world. On the other hand, the romanticists protect the ideological, paradoxical nature that they believe in truly on ethical, emotional and guilt-driven grounds. This disagreement is a huge problem in conservation.
Has your research been inspired by existing scientific or commercial projects?
One big influence of mine is the Weather Modification Office in China. What I find fascinating is that China provides a cocoon of moral freedom in which scientists can experiment with controlling the weather. Officials regularly seed clouds to combat the draught in Beijing without worrying about the influence that their actions might have on the natural world. A lot of the time they get it right. But sometimes, they get it really really wrong. Recently they accidentally caused a snowstorm that covered Beijing in snow. And in a way, that's okay. They get it right 90% of the time, but when they get it wrong, it doesn't stop them from trying again. This is the kind of experimental practice that has inspired my project.
Another interesting scientific project is the modification of male mosquitoes to combat insect-borne diseases. When these newly modified mosquitoes try to reproduce, their offspring dies immediately. Doing this to insects is acceptable, but try to imagine if you had the same scenario with a more loved animal. It would be completely unethical! Deciding what is okay to modify and what isn't is completely subjective.
And more generally, have you talked to bioengineers and other scientists about the Neo-Nature scenarios?
I've been working with a fluids mechanic to actually shape the corals. He's been very interesting to work with because he doesn't treat the corals as an animal, but he treats it as a material. For the next chapter of Neo-Nature, I'm working with a climate scientist and a mechanical engineer to explore the domestication of weather control. I am also going to an interesting discussion in April, which is titled "The Future of Nature" and is organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Half of the audience are synthetic biologists and the other half are conservation scientists and policy makers. I think this project generates its full potential of discussion when it is debated with scientists as well as romanticists. I'm trying to make that collision happen with a series of debates and talks in the coming months.
Why did you chose to illustrate the project with corals? Is it because these marine animals are easier to manage and modify? Or because they are not 'cute' so we might be less concerned by their fate than by the one of the pandas?
The coral is a very fragile animal that is dying quickly, but there is a lot of opportunity to manipulate it. Corals are more important than other endangered animals because they provide a living environment for a plethora of marine life, yet they receive less funding. I also chose the coral because it's not as sacred as the panda. It's an animal that is usually compared to plants, not to other animals. This emotional distance makes it easier for people to consider the possibilities of modifying coral to fulfill human desire, but to also conserve it in a more artificial way.
You showed 3 models of modified corals at the WIP show. Are you planning to push the project further?
This chapter of Neo-Nature is almost complete. I wanted to suggest three new alternative strategies for saving the coral. I'm putting it in the background for now until the other chapters of the project are complete. I will be testing the coral models at the Imperial College wave tanks to test their shapes and record some videos of the water flowing through them. I'm now working on the next two chapters, which are arguably more megalomaniac! I don't want to reveal too much though...
Thank you Michail!
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.
My guest in the studio is artist and film maker Charlotte Jarvis.
Over the past few years, Charlotte has worked with scientists to bio-engineer a bacteria with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence, she developed performances that showed the public what could happen if one day, synthetic biology was used to eradicate greed, lust and anger from a group of children.
But today, Charlotte is going to dispel a few myths about stem cells and discuss her award-winning project: Ergo Sum.
A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Her tissue and blood samples are now in a lab where they will be transformed - medically metamorphosed - into induced pluripotent stem cells and from there into a range of completely different substances. A second self will be created, a self-portrait, a dopplegänger, made from a collage of in vitro body parts. Brain, heart and blood vessel all biologically 'Charlotte', yet distinctly alien to her.
The show will be aired today Thursday 7st February at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman.
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 13th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 15th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
Pigs Bladder Football looks back at the time when football balls were made from inflated pigs bladder. But instead of using an existing organ, John O'Shea collaborated with a group of scientists at Liverpool University to bio-engineer footballs using animal cells harvested from abattoir waste, replicating the same techniques used to create artificial human organs.
The interview was recorded over the Summer, during AND (Abandon Normal Devices), a festival of new cinema, digital culture and art that takes place annually in Liverpool or Manchester.
It is the first time in the radio show that i manage to talk to both the artist and the scientist. I hope you will enjoy the conversation as much as i did.
P.S. If you happen to be in Eindhoven this month, BioArt Laboratories and MU have invited John O'Shea to give a lecture about his work on November 30.
My sincere apologies for this belated (but enthusiastic) report from the AND Festival, a festival of new cinema, digital culture and art that takes place annually in Liverpool or Manchester with an extended regional programme.
Finally! An art & tech festival that makes sense. A festival that resonates with the media art expert and the casual passerby alike. An event that values art above in-your-face tech prowess. It was my first visit to an AND festival. I found it witty, surprising, often thought-provoking and enlightening.
Exhibitions, performances, open air cinema and workshops were free and distributed all over the city. My first stop was for the CUBE which was showing two works dealing with biotechnology. Pigs Bladder Football by John O'Shea and Reproductive Futures by Zoe Papadopoulou.
Pigs Bladder Football looks back at the time when football balls were made from pig bladders but instead of using an existing organ, the project tissue engineered small balls from animal cells harvested from abattoir waste. The artist was showing a video, a DIY incubator case as well as prototype of bladder muscle cell growing on 3D-printed polymer scaffold.
Zoe's exhibition was charting the history of assisted reproductive technology, putting the spotlight on landmarks such as the first premature baby wards in the US which used to be part of freak shows, the first test-tube baby, the first orphan who had more than 2 genetic parents, artificial wombs and the possibility to be the 'ultimate solo parent' one day. Reproductive Futures particularly explores one of the many cultural implications of these breakthrough: how are we going to explain children how babies are made? And will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction?
I'll talk about these two works in more details in the future. Zoe is going to have a show of the final project this Fall in London and an interview with John O'Shea and Professor John Hunt is coming up next month on my art&science radio series for Resonance FM.
The AND festival had also given caravans to artists (London Fieldworks, Hellicar & Lewis, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, Bureau A, Julian Oliver and Designers Republic) for them to customize, turn into micro art spaces and form a Mobile Republic.
Julian Oliver is perhaps the artist that made the most congruous use of the caravan with a work of "dislocative media." Boarder Bumping highlights the fact that as we traverse borders our cellular devices hop from network to network across neighbouring territories, often before or after we ourselves have arrived. These moments, of our device operating in one territory whilst our body continues in another, can be seen to produce a new and contradictory terrain for action. A free custom-made app on your phone checks for discrepancies between location data and mobile phone towers, thus between where you actually are and where your network says you are. The Border Bumping server then redraws accordingly the map of the national borders you are crossing.
One of the most stunning works i saw at the festival was a duo of videos by Jan Peter Hammer: The Anarchist Banker and Monarchs and Men. They were part of What have I done to (de)serve this? at Blankspace. The show presented works that reflect on the current global financial crisis and explore alternative economic systems.
The protagonist of Pessoa's story was inspired by Artur Alves dos Reis, a fraudster who mounted a scam so big, it shook the credibility of the Portuguese currency, the Escudo. The repercussions on the economy and politics of the country were considerable: the escudo lost much of its credibility and so did the Portuguese government. The crisis enabled the military coup d'état of the 28th of May 1926 and eventually brought the dictatorship of Salazar who stayed in power until 1968.
In Hammer's film, the dialogue between Pessoa's protagonists has been adapted to reflect upon the financial practices of neo-liberalism and the current credit crunch. It is set as a tv talk show in which a banker with a ruthless logic is interviewed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The other film, Monarchs and Men, is a sequel of The Anarchist Banker. The same banker is back on screen with a similar panegyric of 'rational egoism' and individualism. This time the scenario is based on an imaginary conversation between Leon Tolstoy and John Davidson Rockefeller, published in 1913 by Maximilian Harden. Hammer sets the scene at the opening of an art exhibition at a gallery supported by the banker.
The films are brilliantly frustrating. The banker is the star of both. Anyone watching it will detest his brutal point of view and be irritated by the way he invariably defeats any argument opposed to his dogma. But it is also impossible not to admire his eloquence, firm beliefs and unflappable logic. Besides, the media usually show us capitalists attempting to defend their practice. There's no apology nor hypocrisy here, just merciless, unadulterated mindset.
The theme of the Blue Crystal Ball exhibition at the Holden Gallery should have repelled me. Well actually it did repel me but i tried not to let my prejudices stop me. The show presented film and video works that explore the ideals and values of the Olympic movement.
The videos were very different from each other and very good. Without any exception. But i've already exhausted my quota of video reviews that aren't accompanied by any extract online for the day so you'll just have to take my word for it alas!
And i'll close with men briefs. Because i couldn't find any reason not to end on this happy note.
The most unusual objects are lost on the London tube: breast implants, human skulls, false teeth and braces, a jar of bull sperm, stuffed puffer fish, etc. And every year, a surprisingly high number of artworks are left on the underground trains. Charlotte Jarvis recently lost an apple 'contaminated' with synthetic DNA encoding for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The artist contacted Transport for London but they never found it. If ever you've picked up and eaten it, there's no need to be worried, the fruit is neither harmful to your health nor illegal.
The apple was part of Blighted by Kenning, a bioart piece Jarvis developed in close collaboration with The Netherlands Proteomics Centre (NPC), a research center located in Utrecht that studies proteome, the 'set of proteins expressed by a genome, cell, tissue or organism'.
"We bio-engineered a bacteria so that its DNA encodes for the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Charlotte explains. "We then extracted the DNA and sprayed it onto the surface of the apples."
Some of the fruits were then sent to genomics laboratories around the world for participating scientists to sequence the DNA, find the message hidden within and send back a translation.
The apples are currently exhibited in a former dairy converted into an art space called The Big Shed in Suffolk. The gallery is now filled with a small orchard but only one of the apples hanging on the one of the trees has been 'contaminated'. The show also includes a billboard visualising The Declaration of Human Rights expressed as a protein, films of the NPC scientists talking about their work and eating the fruit, the documents that institutes have sent to the artist and the NPC after sequencing the apples but one of the most fascinating part is the wall covered with a wall of correspondence detailing the process of making the project.
Charlotte uploaded some of the letters online. The exchange might be of interest to artists, curators, reporters wanting to work with life sciences: the legal restrictions in developing or simply exhibiting 'bioart' works, the misunderstanding and challenges encountered from the very moment the project was first articulated, etc.
Video interview with some of the NPC researchers:
12m by 3m billboard showing visualisations of The Declaration of Human Rights expressed as a protein:
One the opening night, Charlotte Jarvis ate one of the 'forbidden fruits':
The exhibition Blighted by Kenning, curated by Clemency Cooke, runs until the 26th of August at The Big Shed in Stanny House Farm, High Street, Iken, Suffolk. The project will be exhibited at various locations in the Netherlands later this year.