A few months ago, the Waag Society in Amsterdam teamed up with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics to launch the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award which invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of Life Sciences. The works selected were to be developed together with the country's most prestigious genomics centres.
You might have heard of similar initiatives in the USA or in the UK but mainland Europe doesn't have such a strong tradition of setting up collaboration between research centers and artists/designers. Hopefully, the DA4GA award will pave the way for more partnerships of the kind both in The Netherlands and in the rest of Europe.
The winning projects were revealed last month: a bullet proof skin, an ecological bioreactor and an opera performed by mutated worms. The winning proposals will be exhibited from mid-June until the end of December 2011 but the curious blogger in me wanted to have a sneak peak of the 3 projects before they go on show. In the coming days i'm going to dedicate several posts on the winning works as well as on the award itself. And i'm opening the series with the Microscopic Opera!
Hi Matthijs! I had a look at your portfolio and unless i missed something it seems that you haven't worked much with genetics so far. Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?
No, I didn't have any experience in this field. When I started working on this project I read Denis Noble's book The Music of Life, which I can recommend to anyone, to become a little bit more familiar with systems biology and genetics. For me as well as for the scientist from NCSB brainstorming on this project together was very interesting. I thought it would be a lot more difficult, but it turned out to work great.
Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with this project?
In my project I'm using common research tools, but instead of using them for scientific research I use them to create an art piece.
The organisms I use in the installation are C. elegans, used extensively in scientific research, for a wide array of purposes. Often this research involves C. elegans that have been given a mutation that is not visible under the microscope. As a handy tool, researchers give these worms an extra mutation that makes them move in a different way; they are twitching, or moving like a corkscrew, or they become really obese. In my installation I use these handicapped mutants, and translate their movement into sound. The worms are projected in real time on screens behind them. I want to control the movement of the worms to a certain degree with temperature and vibration, to create a composition based on an opera. I'm working on making the worms control a synthesized opera voice, and I try to use the same image analysis algorithms researchers at NCSB use.
With this project I try to research the artistic value of some research tools, and shine a new light on them. On the other hand I'm also fascinated by the worms, who have no idea of the world above them. We are like gods to these little lab worms, following them from their first cell division to their death, manipulating their bodies and mutating their DNA. Are we really like gods, or are we like the worms, unaware of the things above us in a different dimension, the biggest thing becoming the tiniest.
How did you get interested in this humble worm?
C. elegans has been used extensively as a model organism and a researcher introduced me to them. Not only does it move in an elegant way, like its name suggests, it's also the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced. Besides these nice aspects they are also easy to keep and you can even train them to some extent.
The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on Microscopic Opera? How is the collaboration with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?
Yes I've started expermenting with the worms and doing some programming. I've also done a lot of discussing with the NCSB team, mostly consulting me on technical issues, but I'll also be working some more in their lab, which I'm very looking forward to.
All images courtesy Matthijs Munnik.
Publisher Springer writes: Is science the new art? Starting from this provocative question, art historian Ingeborg Reichle examines in her book fascinating responses of contemporary artists when faced with recent scientific and technological advances. In the last two decades a growing number of artists has left the traditional artistic playground to work instead in scientific contexts such as the laboratories of molecular biology, robotics, and artificial life. New art forms like "Transgenic Art" and "Bio-Art" have emerged from the laboratory. These art forms differ dramatically from traditional artistic approaches that explore the natural: they have crossed the boundaries between the artificial and the natural, and thus provoke passionate debates about the growing influence of science and technology. This first comprehensive survey presents a well-selected number of significant artworks and with over 280 colour illustrations provides a broad overview of this new and relevant development in art.
Right from the introduction to the book, written by Robert Zwijnenberg, a professor of Art History in relation to the development of science and technology at Universiteit Maastricht and Universiteit Leiden, i knew i was going to be the happy customer. His text does far more than act as the token, compulsory entry to a volume. Instead of focusing strictly on the relationship between life sciences and art, Zwijnenberg's essay comments on the place that, over time, humanities have lost in the conversation with and about life science. He suggests that it is now time for humanities to find a position of their own in the debate about designer babies, the commercialization of life, cloning, heredity, bio warfare, advancements in brain research, etc. According to him, the new breed of artists who have traded their workshops for the laboratories and are exploring issues typical of the study of the human condition could act as mediators and provide humanities with direct access to life science.
The book itself is the outcome of a solid research on art and technoscience. Instead of presenting these new art forms as coming out of the magic hat of some lab renegade, the author brings them into a broader context and explains their kinship with art history (reminding us for example that Kazimir Malevich used bacteria in his work), history, science, etc. Every single fact is documented with many notes, references and photos. Quick parenthesis: the many images that illustrate the text are presented one after the other at the end of the book, an editorial decision i haven't encountered since my years at the university.
The work of dozens of artists is analyzed in the book. Jane Prophet, Suzanne Anker, Tissue Culture & Art Project, Pam Skelton, Steve Miller, Herwig Turk, Paul Vanouse, Peta Clancy, etc. Some with more depth than others. The chapter titled Art in the Age of Genetic Engineering is all about Eduardo Kac's career, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau get the chapter Art and Digital Evolution almost all for themselves, while the work of Joe Davis is used to examine Genesthetics: Molecular Biology and the Arts.
If there's one book that can finally shake off the pure shock and horror stigma from 'technoscience art' it's this one. Reichle does justice to the artists who have chosen to address life sciences but also in many cases the social, economical and political forces that might drive their research. Art in the Age of Technoscience has academic gravitas. It is dense, remarkably well documented and it demonstrates that you don't have to dumb down a discourse to make it accessible to a broad public. The language of the book is clear, its argumentation limpid. It should interest you whether you know a lot or almost nothing about the theme, whether you have a background in science or are an artist.
Art + Science Now - How scientific research and technological innovation are becoming key to 21st-century aesthetics by Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual Information Arts Program, Art Dept. at San Francisco State University (available on amazon Uk and USA.)
Publisher Thames & Hudson says: In the 21st century, some of the most dynamic works of art are being produced not in the studio but in the laboratory, where artists probe cultural, philosophical and social questions connected with cutting-edge scientific and technological research.
Their work ranges across disciplines - microbiology, the physical sciences, information technologies, human biology and living systems, kinetics and robotics - taking in everything from eugenics and climate change to virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Art + Science Now, the first illustrated survey of its kind, provides a dazzling overview of this new strand of contemporary art, showcasing the best international work produced since 2000.
Featuring around 250 artists from around the world, it presents projects from body art to bioengineering, from music and computer-controlled video performances to large-scale visual and sound installations, all of which challenge our assumptions about our relations with science, technology and the world around us.
Stephen Wilson summarizes the latest scientific research for the lay reader, and supplements his text with a reading list and extensive online resources, highlighting the museums, festivals, research centres and educational programmes that support this new work.
Art + Science Now is very different from Wilson's 2002 book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Its design is less austere. Its content, while solid and reliable, is less thorough but it is probably because Art + Science Now has a different publisher geared toward a broader audience. It is one of those rare book that manages to reach the elusive balance between information of the broad public and inspiration for the expert, whether the later belongs to the art world or the scientific arena.
The chapters correspond to 8 fields of investigation. The book bravely opens with Molecular Biology. Then come Living Systems, Human Biology, Physical Sciences, Kinetics & Robotics, Alternative Interfaces, Algorithms and the survey closes with Information.
Each and every introduction for the chapters is a real tour de force. The texts sum up in a clear language the latest advances in sciences and the complex issues that accompany them. The introductory text is followed by a presentation of dozens of artworks which engage with that particular area of science.
While the focus of the book is art, Wilson doesn't discriminate against works by designers and by artists who comment on science while using traditional media such as painting.
Art + Science Now is a great starting point for anyone wishing to expand their horizon, reflection, knowledge and critical view on the impact that current scientific developments are having on art and, more generally, on our culture. Highly recommended!
Just a few examples of works i've (re)discovered in Art + Science Now:
Since the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has been painting morphologically disturbed insects, which she first found in the fallout areas of Chernobyl. When she first published her watercolors in a Swiss magazine in 1988, scientists expressed their skepticism, insisting that the fallout in Western Europe from the Chernobyl accident was too small to cause morphological disturbances in insects.
She therefore did the same job around working nuclear power plants in Europe and found out that nuclear installations do cause deformities in insects, particularly Heteroptera leaf bugs, and are a terrible threat to nature. Hesse-Honegger discovered that risks of low-level exposure are insufficiently studied by scientists connected to government institutions and universities. She calls for truly independent studies -- from university scientists not dependent on government funding.
Mogens Jacobsen, Power of Mind 3
Mogens Jacobsen submerged a computer in vegetable oil while a galvanic battery powered by hundreds of potatoes drives a software system that suppresses most of the words in a text from a report about human rights in Denmark. As the potatoes begin to dry out or sprout the suppressed words and censored sentences will gradually reappear in the text.
This process is not visible in the gallery space, but can only be seen by accessing the system on the internet.
For her performance Wet Cup, Kira O'Reilly, placed warm glass sphere over cuts on her body. The cooling of the cup creates a partial vacuum and slowly extracts blood from the body.
Oliver Kunkel smashed a scientific looking glass box, containing HIV-infected mosquitoes at an art festival in Slovenia. The exhibition and surrounding area is evacuated, and the fear of infection among the local population is alarming. It is a work about fear, and human's lack of knowledge concerning one of the world largest and most widely recognized epidemic.
Inside the book:
Previously: Interview with Stephen Wilson.
Toward Eternal Life and Love, the last section of the exhibition Medicine and Art, attempts to bring light on the latest developments in biotechnology, cybernetics and neuroscience, but also on the vital issues they entail. Can our definition of life remain forever unchallenged? Is the human commitment to reproduce going to stay the same? Are there limits to the way we will be able to modify and 'enhance' our body in the future? Will we ever reach our dreams of immortality? How much can medical and scientific developments impact the way we love and live?
The latest advancements of science are presented into a historical perspective, with the proponent of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, as the key protagonist of this section of the exhibition. His theories about evolution through natural selection were evidenced in his 1859 essay On the Origin of Species. The book stirred much controversy but Darwin's ideas on evolution became accepted by the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime. As the current debate around creationism demonstrates, Darwin's theory of evolution still haven't met unanimity. A Creation museum in Kentucky, US even brandishes the moto "Life doesn't evolve around Darwin."
The Mori Art Center had brought to Tokyo many original illustrations related to Darwin's research on animals and men but also ivory phrenological heads, some of the original metal plates used by Francis Crick and James D. Watson to build a double helix model of DNA and determine its molecular structure, etc.
One of the most puzzling artifacts for me was this goniometer. Invented in the early 1860s by surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca, the goniometer was designed to measure the 'Jacquart' angle of the face. "Scientifical" measurements of the face were used by anthropologists in the 1800s to classify human types and races, in the mistaken belief that some human groups were more evolved than others. Human types were then placed on an evolutionary ladder, inevitably with Europeans at the top.
The artworks that illustrate the Toward Eternal Life and Love chapter range from the very pop to the acutely grave.
And Patricia Piccinini's Game Boys Advanced are quietly disturbing. A couple of boys absorbed into a handheld video game shouldn't raise an eyebrow. Except that on closer inspection, the kids appear to be twins with prematurely wrinkled, slack skin.
The brothers are not really twins, they are clones. The boys' accelerated decrepitude is a nods to reports that Dolly the sheep was ageing at a more rapid rate than would be expected. The scientists responsible for her seeing the light argued that the reason or Dolly's arthritis might have been the sedentary existence she led in laboratory rather than any genetic problems resulting from the cloning process.
When American superheroes get too shabby, they are sent to vegetate in Gilles Barbier's Nursing Home. The work refers quite straightforwardly to our societies' obsession with eternal youth. Should medical research be geared towards the fight against the loss of youthfulness? Or isn't medicine's most noble mission to provide us with better lives? Will our society ever revert to respecting old age?
Annie Cattrell used FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanning techniques to create Sense, a fascinating series of sculptures that map the activity patterns of the brain as it responds to touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. Scans of a subject's brain using each of the senses were produced with FMRI. These scans were then converted into 3D structures of amber resin using a rapid-prototyping process.
Special mention to the fantastic coin-operated dispenser of plastic body parts which you can find inside the exhibition shop:
You know how some charmless and dull cities on the continent pride themselves with the title of "Europe's best kept secret"? I bet Luxembourg wouldn't dare to pretend to the label. The place is as charmless as a man wearing Ugg boots. Don't even get me started on their food. Yet, i keep going again and again to Luxembourg because of its edgy and exciting art offer. My last visit was spurred by the second chapter of the exhibition sk-interfaces at Casino Luxembourg.
Yes, i had already seen sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society at FACT in Liverpool but the Luxembourg version, i was told by friends, is bigger, bolder and even better than the first one. They were right. Several pieces have been added to the show. The performances are extremely well documented and there is a corner to watch videos. The space itself is kinder to the artworks. There's even extra drama as the poor Victimless Leather (A prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific 'Body') garments had caught some disease on their way to the Casino and were slowly eaten by decay.
It's as if the first exhibition in Liverpool had been a superb rehearsal of this one.
Curated by Jens Hauser, the exhibition sk-interfaces presents some 20 artists who question the ways in which today's techno-sciences alter our relation to the world: digital technologies, architecture, tissue cultures, transgenesis, self-experiments or telepresence - the artists appropriate these methods and explore the permeability between disciplines and between art and science. Their interfaces connect us with different species, destabilise our definition of being human today and reflect on the question of satellite bodies. Oscillating between the physical and the metaphorical, the political and the meditative, the utopias and the dystopias, the exhibition invite us to reflect on how we are perceiving the shifts brought about by technologies, some of which we might not be as familiar with as we ought to.
One of the best surprises for me was to discover that the Critical Art Ensemble was not only showing Immolation but also a video i was very curious about: Marching Plague (little did i know, until the press person at Casino told me so, that the video is also available for online viewing.)
Critical Art Ensemble's film puts into a highly skeptical perspective UK-US bioweapons research and the paranoia surrounding bioterrorism. In the video, the CAE and some volunteers follows the steps of Operation Cauldron, a series of biological warfare trials conducted by the UK governmentoff the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1952. These secret trials investigated whether germs could be used as a weapon for ship-to-ship combat. Their tests found that germs were as unreliable and unmanageable on the sea as they were on the land.
The film humorously demonstrates that the public's fear of "bioterrorism" is not only based on incomplete awareness of the facts but has also been exploited by governments to justify the creeping costs of biological warfare programmes. Money which could otherwise be dedicated to the fight against existing or emerging infectioius diseases.
inthewrongplaceness is an intimate performance that Kira O'Reilly developed on her return from a residency at SymbioticA in 2004. The impact of working with pig's tissue in a lab setting instigated her thoughts on the similarities between the pig's skin and her own. By inviting members of the audience to approach one by one and touch both her own and the skin of a dead, nonhuman animal, O'Reilly encourages visitors to engage with the complexities of the relationships between skin, touch and species. The artist also explained in an interview: It was also very much influenced by a book called Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq, about a woman who turns into a pig. She spends quite some time in the middle of the text oscillating through in between stages, neither entirely one nor the other.
I didn't see the performance but it seems that it took place in a room that is part of the exhibition. On the walls and on the floor are props such as flowers, taxidermied birds and corpses of small animals in formalin.
Plage d'hiver ("winter beach") grabs all our senses with a physiological reconstruction of a beach. A skyline of ultraviolet light along with the dark glasses visitors are recommended to wear upon entering the 'beach room' and a cloud of iodine project our body to another latitude, another a season. We breathe the effluvium of the marine aerosol and our skin reacts to the UV-a rays. Rahm has reproduced the angle of sight corresponding to the reflection of sunlight on water which reaches the retina from below as if in duplicate.
Plage d'hiver translates the ubiquity typical of modernity, where seasons are adrift all year long, to the point of overlap in a sort of perpetual spring; a modernity where night and day merge in a white luminous light, diurnal and nocturnal alike, and where distances are reduced until they, too, overlap with the immediacy of globalization.
Antal Lakner's Passive Dress - Double Gravity Suit is a suit ergonomically fitted with weights that make its wearer perceive 1.5-2 times the normal earthly gravitation weight. The mere attempt to keep a normal posture, to stabilize the body or make small gestures becomes a slow-motion meaningless fatigue. The suit challenges men to maintain one of its unique characteristics: we are indeed the only ones among the vertebrates in having a completely erect posture.
I'll end with a couple of images with my favourite artwork in the show: the Roadkill Coat that the members of Art Orienté Objet stitched using the fur of small animals they found dead by highways.
sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society is on view at Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain until 10 January 2010. Photo on the homepage: Axel Heise.
One of the rules of this blog is never to make announcements of events. Every rule comes with its exceptions... The November programme of the VASTAL workshops and lectures is out!
The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. is Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute on Art and Life Sciences. It's free, open to the public and i hope you'll allow me to remind you how much we enjoy them:
Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop
Wednesday 11 November
Body Art Lecture with performance artists: Kira O'Reilly, WARBEAR, Jeanette Groenendaal and Boryana Rossa.
Thursday 12 November and Saturday 14 November
Body Art Lab which, i'm told, will involve blood and sex performances in the Glove Box. "Various performance artists will be ritually cleansed and enter the glove box one or two at a time. Various performance artists take turns in the box interacting with the public or other actors reaching into them with the gloves. This is experimental Body Art with a biological theme that references experiments, lab animals, the pure and the impure as well as the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies. "
Tuesday 17 November
Animal Personality Art and Science Lecture and Lab with Dr. Kees van Oers or one of his colleagues and Koen Van Mechelen.
Dr. Kees van Oers studies the genetic background, physiology and fitness consequences of variation in avian personality. In 2005 he obtained a personal VENI-grant to study the evolutionary genetics of personality using a linkage study in a natural population. This work is currently extended in collaboration with the Animal Breeding and Genomics Center in an NGI-grant on songbird genomics.
Koen Vanmechelen is a Belgian conceptual artist whose work engages with issues of genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness. The artist is currently working on The Cosmopolitan Chicken project, an experiment to develop a super-hybrid chicken.
Koen Vanmechelen's The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project chickens will be installed from Nov 5 to Dec 6 at the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. Vanmechelen is also having his first solo exhibition in a U.S. gallery at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington.
Featuring live chickens, the exhibition also includes taxidermy and blown-glass sculptures, video, and photography, as well as drawings and paintings in tempera made from eggs laid by chickens bred by the artist.