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.
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.
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.
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.
Previously: The flying tree.
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.
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.
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.
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'?
More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.
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.
As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.
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.
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.
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.
Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Previously: The Microscopic Opera.
Image on the homepage: Yul Brynner in Adiós Sabata.
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.