If you want to see a penguin, you go to the zoo. If you're curious about dinosaurs and dodos, any natural history museum will enlighten you. But where do you go if you want to learn about spider silk-producing goats, anti-malarial mosquitoes, fluorescent zebrafish or the terminator gene?

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Image courtesy of Richard Pell, Center for PostNatural History

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Model of a Biosteel™ Goat farm. Image courtesy of Richard Pell, Center for PostNatural History

Right now, you can only rely on good old internet. But in June, the Center for PostNatural History will finally open its doors to anyone interested in genetically engineered life forms. This public outreach organization is dedicated to collecting, documenting and exhibiting life forms that have been intentionally altered by people through processes such as selective breeding and genetic engineering.

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Transgenic chestnut tree leaf. Specimen collection, Center for Postnatural History. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Transgenic zebra fish. Specimen collection, Center for Postnatural History. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The center maintains a collection of living species when it's possible. Otherwise they welcome the dead bodies of organisms of postnatural origin and in the absence of postnatural corpses, they present video and photography.

Along with its permanent exhibition and research facility for PostNatural studies, the center organizes traveling exhibitions that address the PostNatural through thematic and regional perspectives.

While we were in Pittsburgh, my book sprint* palls and i paid a visit to Rich Pell, the director of the The Center for PostNatural History.

The center wasn't open yet when we visited Pell. All the images below were taken in the temporary studio where the collection is stored until the grand opening.

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From left to right: Rich Pell, Andrea Grover, Luke Bulman and Jessica Young from Thumb, Claire L.Evans

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WT.Derm.ate1-10 "Ringo" Dermestid Beetle (stereoscopic) ate a whole collection of genetically modified mosquitoes (see image below)

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Hi, Rich! The Center for Postnatural History (CPNH) looks pretty unique to me but do you know if there are any center, organization or groups doing something similar anywhere else in the world?

We wouldn't want to stake our merit on claims of being first. There are in fact several natural history museums that have mounted exhibits that address issues of postnatural interest, such as the origins of domesticated Horses exhibit produced by the American Natural History Museum in NYC, or domesticated crops, such as the Seeds of Change exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, or the transgenic bull Herman, who is on display at the Naturalis in the Netherlands. However, these are the exceptions to the rule. None of these museums are actively collecting, or interested in collecting, domesticated or otherwise genetically modified organisms. The evolutionary history that begins with the dawn of agriculture and the domestication of animals and continues on towards genetic engineering and synthetic biology is documented in bits and pieces, but not in any central location. To our knowledge there are no other museums that take as their mission to collect and exhibit the lifeforms that have been intentionally altered by humans.

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It's easy to understand why one can be fascinated by these modified organism but what made you decide to open a Center for Postnatural History? It's a huge commitment.

Around seven years ago I was introduced to the emerging field of synthetic biology by Chris Voigt. At the same time, I was researching evolutionary biology and was struck by the fact that there is such resources devoted to documenting the natural world, but that the participation of humans in altering that living world is so rarely presented to the public. When I began looking at the collections of natural history museums I noticed that newly engineered organisms were not only absent from the collections, but that there was little interest in collecting them. The rare exceptions of Herman the Bull in the Netherlands, or Dolly the Sheep in Scotland, both point to the symbolic roll that these organisms can often play as icons, while the vast multitude of genetically engineered organisms remain undocumented. This seems like a significant blind spot in the public consciousness worth addressing.

When you start reading about the Roundup ready corn, the Triploidy Atlantic Salmon or other modified plants or insects, it is hard not to be judgmental. Some of the modifications are quite positive of course such as the mosquito that doesn't transmit malaria. Still, i didn't detect criticism in your discourse so far. So what is your position/strategy? Do you plan to be as neutral as possible in your presentation of the information and let the public join the dots?

We take it as our mission to allow for people to have the experience of arriving at an idea on their own. Personal discovery can be an incredibly transformative experience. Language that comes with a predefined worldview can get in the way of a person finding their own language and framework of understanding. As a strategy we make an attempt to describe the postnatural world without using the language of industry, academia or activism. In practice, this is not always possible, but it remains the ideal goal. Forming one's own opinion can be a frustrating experience. We are sometimes contacted by people, months after coming across one of our exhibits, who are still wrestling with an issue. For us, this is encouraging. The issues are too important and too complicated not to be questioning our own assumptions and re-framing our own ideas in new ways.

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Representation of Blood Wars by Kathy High

When i visited what is going to be the Center in Pittsburgh, i noticed a short presentation of the CPNH hanging on the wall the text ended with the names of some of the people who helped you set up the exhibit at some point. I recognized a few names of artists. What is the role of artists in Postnatural History? Which place will you give to their work in the center?

Artists on the whole play a similar role in the creation of a postnatural history museum as they do in natural history. There are experiences to be created, things that must be documented, stories to be told. The difference is that some artists are also altering the living world as a part of the artwork that they make. In some of these cases, if the changes they are making are heritable and thus "in-play" evolutionarily speaking, then specimens of these lifeforms may be collected by the CPNH and cataloged alongside the organisms produced by universities, corporations and other individuals.

How would you define your own role at the CPNH? Is still the one of an artist? Or rather a curator?

The word "curator" is commonly used in natural history museums to refer to the people who manage the various collections of the museum, such as "Curator of Mammals", "Curator of Mollusks" and so forth. Until such time as the collection becomes large enough to require more than one curator, I will hold the title of Curator of PostNatural Organisms.

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Screenshot of the interactive visualization of Permitted Habitats- Genetically modified organisms released for field tests from 1987 to 2008

I discovered your center at the Alter Nature exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt. I took with me some of the cards and they are colour-coded. 'green' is for 'transgenic', lila is for 'mutant', orange is for 'hybrid', etc. can you explain us the distinctions briefly? some are clear, others are more confusing to me...

These distinctions are significant, but not always separate or exclusive. Some may occupy more than one category. Some new categories may be added. Transgenic refers to a genetically engineered organism that has had DNA from one or more different species intentionally inserted into its genome. This kind of alteration is not possible with traditional breeding and was developed in the mid-1970's. A mutant has had its DNA altered through the use of chemicals or radiation to induce largely random changes to its genome. Mutations occur all the time in nature, but are sometimes artificially selected for or induced by people. Most of the traditional vegetables we eat are very different in appearance and taste from anything we find in nature. These are the result of spontaneous mutations that were selected for by people over many generations, in the case of corn, thousands of years.

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Image courtesy of Richard Pell, Center for PostNatural History

Did you talk about the Center for Postnatural History to more 'traditional' natural history museums? How is the reaction of the curators and conservators over there about your own center? Would they invite you to set up a temporary exhibition in their space for example?

The response from natural history museums has been quite welcoming. We have been invited to meet with several of the largest natural history museums in the world. A common response from them is, "Why isn't anyone else doing this?" However, none are willing to devote their own limited resources towards this area. Generally speaking, the biologists who curate natural history museums have a strong interest in natural ecology and the environment. The idea of studying the human-created habitat of an organism that has been raised in captivity is generally seen as profoundly boring by them. However, we have received invitations to exhibit specimens from our collection within their museum and are currently in negotiations regarding this.

The Centre will have a permanent exhibition as well as temporary shows. What will the opening temporary show be about?

Our first temporary exhibit will be a regional survey entitled, "Cultivated, Invasive and Engineered: PostNatural Plants of the Appalachian Region". This will feature three themes. Indigenous medicinal and food plants that were cultivated by Native Americans and European settlers which have been collectively shared over time, such as Ginseng, Black Cohosh and Wild Yam, the direct ancestor of modern hormonal birth control. Secondly, invasive or "opportunistic" plants such as Kudzu, which was brought to North America as an ornamental plant from Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and is now, lacking necessary predators, spreading rapidly across the continent. And lastly, newly engineered crops that are nearly ubiquitous in the US, but are highly controlled by the private corporations that own their intellectual property rights.

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Image courtesy of Richard Pell, Center for PostNatural History

Are there specific safety regulations you need to comply with to open the center?

We follow the law. There is nothing within our collection that requires any kind of special permit. We have no special access as compared to anyone else. There are many things we might like to exhibit in their living form but are unable to do so. We see this however as an opportunity, and find ways of exhibiting the absence of the subject as a way of building a discourse around the issues of regulation, containment, secrecy and intellectual property.

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Are you free to show any kind of modified species?

Newly engineered transgenic organisms must pass a regulatory process maintained by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service before they can leave the lab. As a result we are limited in what living organisms we are able to exhibit. For instance, the only transgenic vertebrate which we are able to exhibit are the commercially produced GloFish™ that expressed green, red and yellow fluorescent protein and thus glow under black light. These however can be purchased in many pet stores. We are however able to exhibit genetically engineered organisms that are dead. These were killed while at the lab with the support of the researcher in charge. Preserved specimens are not considered a contamination risk and are therefore not regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.

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Lab Mice in the Natural History Museum (photo)

I was reading through the blog that documents your Smithsonian Research Fellowship and read this: 'There appears to be an interesting relationship between military incursion and specimen acquisition. Particularly amongst the rodent collection, one can see the location and approximate start and end dates of most of the major American military projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Reasons for this appear to be numerous and will be explored further during our stay here at the Smithsonian.' Can you give us more details about this?

What makes the Smithsonian unique among museums, is that it is The National Museum of the United States of America. In some respects, the National Museum of Natural History is the biological memory of the State itself. One of the first things I noticed while there, was that there was a strong bias within the rodent collection towards places that our military has had a presence. The sites of wars, occupations and military exercises are all thoroughly represented. The reasons for this are many. In some cases they are collected by the military when they enter a new environment and are concerned about potential disease vectors, and the specimens eventually find their way into the National collection. But in other cases they are collected by Smithsonian researchers who are working in coordination with the military. Some of the larger collections of animals are from these situations and include: Fish and small mammals collected during the Operation Crossroads atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946; A large assessment of biological diversity at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site following the suspension of atmospheric bombing in 1964; And a large collection of birds and mice collected during the Project SHAD germ warfare tests at Johnston Atoll in the mid-60's. There are also a number of white lab mice and rats that were donated to the Smithsonian by the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Cancer Institute who were developing them as model organisms to study the effects of radiation in the 1940's. These specimens all quietly tell stories of the movements, fears and aspirations of the United States. They serve as examples of how deeply intertwined our cultural history is with our natural history and are reminders of how the project of science is never divorced from the cultural context in which it is conducted.

Thanks Rich!

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The Center for PostNatural History will open its permanent space in June 2011 at 4913 Penn Ave. in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Center for PostNatural History is part of the exhibition HUMAN+: The Future of our Species, on view at the Science Gallery in Dublin until June 24, 2011.

* In case anyone was wondering, the book's not ready yet, apparently it takes more time to proof read it than to write it.

Sponsored by:





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Paul Vanouse and Kerry Sheehan working at the Suspect Inversion Center. Photo: Axel Heise

While the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis can sometimes be questioned in courtrooms, genetic evidence is still widely regarded as the forensic gold standard.

Unfortunately, accidents happen. Remember the fiasco of the DNA evidence brought forward at the trial of O. J. Simpson?

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Mug shot of O. J. Simpson

Or the deep embarrassment of European police when they found out that a mysterious serial killer known as the The Woman Without a Face had in fact never existed? The only clues that the criminal had left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs and supplied to the police in a number of European countries. The police later discovered that the DNA had very probably been left by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.

There's more in the case against the fail-proof quality of DNA evidence. Three years ago, a crime lab analyst found out that DNA "matches" are not always as trustworthy as one might believe. While a person's genetic makeup is unique, his or her genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.

And in Israel, scientists have demonstrated that DNA evidence can be fabricated. "You can just engineer a crime scene," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of a paper published in 2009. "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."

Paul Vanouse is doing just that with his latest work, the Suspect Inversion Center. Together with his assistant Kerry Sheehan, the biomedia artist set up an operational laboratory at the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Using equipment anyone can buy on the internet as well as Vanouse's own DNA, they (re)create in front of the public identical "genetic fingerprints" of criminals and celebrities.

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Latent Figure Protocol

The solo exhibition features two other biological artworks by the American artist: a series of Latent Figure Protocol lightboxes and Relative Velocity Inscription Device, a cynical molecular race reflecting on biologically legitimized racism, in which bits of DNA, instead of bodies, compete by testing their "genetic fitness". The work uses DNA samples from Vanouse family and directly references Charles Davenport's book Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black populations.

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Relative Velocity Inscription Device (detail of the installation)

The press release for the exhibition says:

Vanouse's biotechnological installations do not only challenge the codes and images of contemporary knowledge production but also question the methods behind (natural) scientific findings in general: What do uncritically accepted commonplace catchwords such as "genetic fingerprint" conceal? To what extend does the technical construction of alleged naturalness notarize clichés and prejudices? Vanouse diverts biotechnologies and scientific imaging techniques from their intended uses, and amalgamates auratic iconography with technical images. Employing gel electrophoresis as artistic medium, he intentionally applies a method that bears analogies to photography: while photography allowed viewers to draw seemingly objective conclusions about human qualities based on physiognomic characteristics of the body, today, increasingly questionable social conclusions are derived from ontologized body fragments such as genes.

Curated by Jens Hauser, Paul Vanouse: Fingerprints... remains open at the Ernst Schering Foundation (google map) until March 26, 2011. The foundation, which aims to promote science and art, was showing the wonderful work of Agnes Meyer-Brandis last year: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.

More posts featuring the work of Paul Vanouse: Wetware Hackers Day 2 and Hybrid Art awards.

Previously: The flying tree.

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Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

The exhibition Alter Nature: We Can, currently on view at Z33 in Hasselt, focuses on artists and designer's visions on the ways humankind has displaced, manipulated or designed nature and how this affects and modifies our concept of 'nature'. Some of the exhibited artworks embrace with enthusiasm this deracination and manipulation of what we call 'nature', others have a more critical take on it. Some rely on basic and quirky ploys, others call on the most scientifically advanced means.

Alter Nature extends beyond the Z33 walls with shows at CIAP and at the Fashion Museum. I wish i'd been informed about it, either in the gallery or on Z33's website.

A striking and simple introduction to the exhibition could be Driessens & Verstappen's Morphotheque. The dozens of artificial carrots of the most unusual shape are based on natural carrots that were rejected in distribution centres for not presenting the 'proper' size and shape of a carrot. The works reminds us that it was only a year and a half ago that European Commission abolished its ridiculous ban on 'imperfect' fruit and vegetables.

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Driessens & Verstappen, Morphotheque, 1996, collection Anne Marie and Sören Mygind, Galerie für Landschaftskunst, Hamburg, Germany

Morphotheque also refers to the fact that the now almost ubiquitous orange colour of carrots was a political choice. The Netherlands made it particularly popular in the 17th century as an emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence. White, yellow, red, and purple carrots have long existed but they are now raised primarily as novelty crops.

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Adam Zaretsky, The Transgenic Orange Pheasant project, 2008. Courtesy: Adam Zaretsky

The House of Orange was also at the heart of the Transgenic Orange Pheasant project. Adam Zaretsky wrote to His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander to propose him the creation of a "Royal Dutch Transgenic Breeding Facility" were orange pheasants would be bred and offered for the royal hunt. The exhibition features images of transgenic pheasants, an impressive genegun, the letter to Prince Willem-Alexander and two videos detailing the project. The manipulation of the colour of carrots doesn't raise an eyebrow but the creation of a pheasant of the same hue triggers more doubts and questions: how far can one go in the creation of a 'royal aesthetic'?

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Adam Zaretsky, Transgenic Orange Pheasant, 2008. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

In Common Flowers, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. Suntory Flowers genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. It was the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that was intended purely for aesthetic consumption.

BCL bought the blue flower and using do-it-yourself biotech, cloned it in their kitchen. They later released their cloned flowers into nature along with an how-to-clone manual on their website in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright in the realm of nature.

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.

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Makoto Azuma, Frozen Pine & Shik1 03, 2010. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Makoto Azuma' s Shiki 1 features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.

In 'Frozen Bonsai', a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies - but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.

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Makoto Azuma, Frozen Pine (detail), 2010. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Have a look at this video interview with Makoto Azuma about 'Shiki 1' and 'Frozen Bonsai':

Le Paradoxe de Robinson is a palm tree installed on a trailer. Once you're on the first floor of the exhibition space, you can see its branches swinging in the wind. A tropical tree lost in the Belgian grey Winter.

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Julien Berthier, Le Paradoxe de Robinson. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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Julien Berthier, Le Paradoxe de Robinson. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Tue Greenfort 's big "Wardian Case" protects 50 orchids. Wardian Cases were small greenhouses developed in the 19th century by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect his plants from London air which consisted heavily of coal smoke and sulphuric acid. Wardian Cases not only made it possible for city dwellers of the time to keep expensive orchids and ferns in their home, they also prompted the commercialization of exotic plants: vulnerable plants could now survive the boat journey because they were protected by Wardian Cases. The invention has even been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of agricultural goods, they allowed tea plants to be smuggled out of Shanghai and seedlings of the rubber tree to be shipped from Brazil to new British territories. Wardian Case were a means to - literally - displace nature.

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Tue Greenfort, WardianCase (Alustar-Sonatural), 2007-2011. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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Lounge of Z33. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Natalie Jeremijenko, Tree Balance, 2005-2010. Courtesy: Natalie Jeremijenko

Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
More images: on my flickr and on Z33's: Alter Nature Opening and exhibition views.
Curated by Karen Verschooren, Alter Nature: We Can remains open until March 13 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

As promised a couple of days ago, here's the second story about the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a competition launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. DA4GA invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.

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Early sketch of the concept. Courtesy Jalila Essaidi

One of the winning projects is a bulletproof skin named 2.6g 329m/s. Jalila Essaidi is teaming up with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands to provide transgenic human skin with a layer of spider-silk embedded in between the epidermis and dermis. The work purposely asks whether this technological innovation is socially desirable.

'This spider dragline-silk is a product of transgenic research done by Dr. Randy Lewis at the university of Wyoming and Notre Dame and is produced by transgenic goats and more recently also by transgenic silkworms,' the artist explained me. 'This spider-silk is up to five times as strong as steel but still keeps the smooth properties of silk.'

The silk will be woven with special bulletproof vest techniques into a matrix that can be used for culturing human skin cells. Once the flexible bulletproof spider-silk matrix is done the dermatology department of Leiden university medical center (LUMC) will help Essaidi with the embedding process. Finally the skin will be tested at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) with real bullets and be recorded with a high-speed camera.

Hi Jalila! Is this the first time you are working with genetics? 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?

This is the first time that I get in contact with a new medium that is the result of high tech genetic research. I think that would be the most honest answer, because yes I am in close cooperation with the people who gave me the opportunity to work with this material, which is a direct result from ongoing research regarding transgenic modifications, but I can not claim that I work with genetics myself for this project.

I love the techy field, but I have to admit that all the jargon that came with it did scare me off at first. Luckily I've met the right people who can explain even the hardest concepts in common language, which is a rare gift.

I am really glad with DA4GA for making this "world" more accessible for me, I am pretty sure that without this award this project would not have been possible at all. But it also wasn't some magic wand that opened all doors, I had to work really hard to find the right partners that would be willing to help me with the embedding of the silk in human skin. I've been in contact with pretty much every major skin-related research center in the Benelux for this and they all told me it wasn't possible.

Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with the project 2.6g 329m/s? Is the skin going to repair itself after the shock or will it manage to completely repel the bullet?

The organic skin, made for protection, will be displayed in a steel, sterile life-support frame. Protection needs to be protected.

It will be showing the yet unknown result of the test on the firing range. I am aiming for it to actually repel the bullet, if not the spider silk has the properties to enhance the skin regeneration process.

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image from the movie The Magnificent Seven

Where does the name of the project come from?

It is the performance standard for bulletproof vests. 2.6g 329m/s are the maximum weight and velocity of a traveling bullet, from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect you.

The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on 2.6g 329m/s? How is the collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands 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?

I am still in the planning phase of the project. I will get the spider-silk in cocoons made by the genetically enhanced silkworms. Currently I am testing how to extract silk from normal raw silk cocoons because I am terrified to fail this part with the actual cocoons because mass silk production hasn't started yet and there is a really limited supply for me to work with. (No one in the Benelux has any knowhow how to do this, processing raw silk is all done in countries outside Europe, I have to get my information from books and the internet.)

My collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands really helped me to get in contact with LUMC and NFI since they are both partners of the consortium. The most important part of our collaboration is the vision about safety that we share.

I could imagine DARPA working on bullet-proof skin for future soldiers. But i suspect that your project attempts to convey another meaning and message. Can you tell us how did you get the idea for this project? Which kind of social or ethical reflection do you try to raise with 2.6g 329m/s?

What I want to realize by displaying this installation, made to enhance protection & safety, is to let people realize that safety is relative.

Safety is a balance and when you go to the extremes with it like I'm doing with this project, this will become more visible. Think about complications during surgery for someone with this skin or the development of better weapons to counter this new safety technology. The possible reduced sense of touch? You always give up something else in order to increase safety; this counts pretty much for all forms of safety.

I am not saying that we should not embrace improvements resulting from technology; I am an advocate for increasing funds for all sciences that improve our lives. I am just trying to fuel the ongoing debate about how far we can go to improve safety, how much we can sacrifice in order to feel safe.

And last but not least I want too show the beautiful symbiosis between nature and technique. The organic soft human skin in contrast with the sterile steel life support frame.

Thanks Jalila!

Previously: The Microscopic Opera.

Image on the homepage: Yul Brynner in Adiós Sabata.

DA4GA.jpgA 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!

Matthijs Munnik is going to collaborate with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology on an audiovisual installation in which tiny, transparent mutated lab worms are producing sounds and images.

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3D impression of the final installation

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.

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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.

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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.

Thanks Matthijs!

All images courtesy Matthijs Munnik.

0ageintheagarttechnosc.jpgArt in the Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art, by Ingeborg Reichle (available on Amazon USA and UK.)

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.

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Edgar Lissel, Domus Aurea, 2005

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.

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Ebener and Winters, BYTE, 1998

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.

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Catherine Chalmers, Genetically Engineered Mice

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.

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Herwig Turk and Paulo Pereira, Labscapes, 2007

Image on the homepage Victimless Leather The Tissue Culture & Art Project.

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