Art-+-Science-Now-jkt-859x1024.jpgArt + 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.

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Miya Masaoka, Ritual With Giant Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches, 2002

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.

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Austin Richards, Dr. Megavolt, 2006

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:

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Heavily deformed scorpion fly (Panorpa communis) from Reuenthal, Switzerland, near the nuclear-power plant Leibstadt (1988)

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.

0a0a0apom1.jpgMogens 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.

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Kira O'Reilly, Wet Cup, 2000

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.
The human body is also a cup -- a sculpture having an aesthetic dimension whose function is to contain the fluid of life. New confines that go beyond the skin are outlined by the transparent containers as they are being filled with blood. Traces are left on the body -- scars from cutting and from the cups.

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Oliver Kunkel, Mosquito Box, 2003

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:

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More information about the book on the author's website.

Previously: Interview with Stephen Wilson.

Sponsored by:





Previously: Art and Medicine at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (Part 1).

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Patricia Piccinini, Science Story, Part I: Laboratory Procedures, 2002

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?

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Exhibition view. Image Mori Art Museum

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.

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Broca-type goniometer for measuring the angles of the face, France, 1865-1875. Credits: Science Museum London

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.

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Patricia Piccinini, Game Boys Advanced, 2002 (detail.) Image Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Copyright Patricia Piccinini

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.

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Gilles Barbier, L'Hospice (The Nursing Home), 2002. Exhibition view (image Mori Art Museum)

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Gilles Barbier, L'Hospice (The Nursing Home), 2002. Detail

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?

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Sense, Annie Cattrell, 2000. Detail. Photo Peter Cattrell

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.

Tokyo art beat has an interview with Oron Catts. The Victimless Leather -which he developed together with Ionat Zurr- was one of the highlights of Toward Eternal Life and Love.

Special mention to the fantastic coin-operated dispenser of plastic body parts which you can find inside the exhibition shop:

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The exhibition Medicine and Art runs until February 28, 2010 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

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.

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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.

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It's as if the first exhibition in Liverpool had been a superb rehearsal of this one.

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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.

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Eduardo Kac, Natural History of the Enigma, 2009. Installation view at Casino Luxembourg. Photo credit: Axel Heise

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.)

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Critical Art Ensemble, Marching Plague, 2004, video still

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.

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Kira O'Reilly, inthewrongplaceness, 2009. Performance for the opening of sk-interfaces at Casino Luxembourg. Photo credit: Axel Heise

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.

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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.

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Philippe Rahm, Plage d'Hiver, 2008. Installation view at Casino Luxembourg. Photo credit: Axel Heise

Philippe Rahm does the usual Philippe Rahm and, on a cold, grey day like the ones we are going through this month, we can only thank him for that.

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Philippe Rahm, Plage d'Hiver, 2008. Installation view at Casino Luxembourg. Photo credit: Axel Heise

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.

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Antal Lakner, Passive Dress -Double Gravity Suit, 2004. Installation view at Casino Luxembourg. Copyright: Axel Heise

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.

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Art Orienté Objet, Roadkill Coat, 2000. Installation view at Casino Luxembourg. Photo credit: Axel Heise

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Art Orienté Objet, Roadkill Coat, 2000 (detail)

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.

Previously: sk-interfaces conference talks on FACT archive and Sk-interfaces (Part 1).

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!

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(image Deweer Gallery)

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
Image of the day
Tissue Culture Lab at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics (part 1)
Tissue Culture Lab at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics (part 2)

Wednesday 11 November

Body Art Lecture with performance artists: Kira O'Reilly, WARBEAR, Jeanette Groenendaal and Boryana Rossa.

The artists will speak/perform together about: the body in performance and stressed physiology as personal or public shock chemistry; pure culture technique in science and its effect on the making of clean and dirty bodies; artist's input on future body aesthetics during the present genetic reproductive redesign of the human form; erotic containment and the thrill of contagious patients exploding; experiments, lab animals and the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies, etc.

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. "

The Vivoarts Performance in the Glove Box, is a Mason Juday and Adam Zaretsky Production and will feature Boryana Rossa, Oleg Mavromatti, Zoot Derks, Jeanette Groenendaal and WarBear.

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.

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Koen Vanmechelen, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project

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.

Medialab Prado's latest Interactivos? workshop in Madrid was dedicated to Garage Science, the home laboratory-type experiments that nowadays rely on web-based communications to give rise to real and virtual communities of amateur scientists.

Interactivos?'09 aims to explore these practices, where art, science and technology meet. We invite the participants to turn Medialab into a garage laboratory where low-cost, accessible materials are used to develop objects and installations that combine software, hardware and biology. There's license to fail!

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It took me longer than i wanted to get a few of the projects developed during the Interactivos? workshop online. Here's the first one. It's the Fruit Computer Laboratory by Alejandro Tamayo (whom i interviewed 2 years ago.)

Newspapers and magazines regularly relay the forecast that within 10 to 15 years we'll be using "hybrid" computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue. Alejandro Tamayo didn't need to rely on the highest technology to investigate what an organic computer might be like. He started with the classical garage scientist knowledge that chemical reactions in fruits can produce an electrical flow if one uses appropriate electrodes. Fruit electricity has been harnessed for turning on LEDs and powering small electronic devices.

But, could chemical reactions in fruits be also used to create on-off switches, the basic building blocks of computer logic and memory? Would it be possible to create a computer with fruits? This project proposes to create a temporary laboratory, open to the general public, that will raise questions and reflections about the construction of a future computer based on fruits.

You wrote in the presentation of the project, that the Fruit Computer Laboratory would be open to practical accidents, unexpected directions and serendipity. Did that happen as much as you expected? Did it help the development of the project?

Definitely, starting with the proposal to use the pH levels of fruits. That was something I have never considered myself and it took over the whole direction of the project. In terms of accidents I wish we had had time to make more. One day we proposed to work all with our less used hand in order to see what kinds of new mistakes we could have made, but it was almost the last day and we were too busy preparing the final presentation that it never happened, but this is something I really want to try.

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What was the biggest challenge you met with when developing the project and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge while working on the organic memory was to find a way to get information out from the pH meter without affecting the measurement at the same time. This is something that we haven't fully resolved yet.

Making an organic logic gate that would work with pH changes (the second part of the project) is a huge challenge itself and we are only starting to explore this path. We had the chance to talked with great people (Adrian Bowyer, Marc Dusseiller to mention only a few) who gave us ideas for this like using pH sensitive gels. We got some chemicals to start playing with them but we haven't get very far in this respect yet.

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I left Madrid when you still had to give the finishing touch to the project. What does the final computer look like? How does it look?

At this moment the use of pH levels of fruits for storing binary information has proved to be effective, allowing to program a bit of memory many times. This is how it works:

We have selected two fruits with close pH levels (lemon and mandarin). This selection has been made to facilitate the programming and reprogramming of the organic memory by adding a few number of juice drops. Measurements located in the lemon pH range (2.5 - 2.0) are considered as logic zero, whereas measurements located in the pH range of mandarins (3.0 - 3.8) are considered as logic one. These measurements are currently obtained with the use of a commercial pH meter.
By adding drops of one juice or another it is possible to program the bit of memory as many times as desired (or at least, until the recipient is full).

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At the moment one bit of memory looks like this:

The pH meter gets the pH value from the solution and shows "0" or "1" in the display according to the measurement. We are working the way to extract the information from the pH meter without considerably affecting the value so the measurement gets more accurate.

Do you intend to push the project any further?

We would love to build an organic memory composed of at least 88 bits. With this size we could store an 11 character word or sentence (if we were to use ASCII code). Just enough to store the traditional "hello world message" and observe how it could change in time (or not) according to the natural processes of degradation.

But pH sensors are fairly expensive, so we have been experimenting with alternative ways to make them. Recently, Renato Ianhez from Brazil wrote us suggesting a method for making them using Christmas-tree ornamental balls. We are looking forward to start experimenting in this direction, although finding Christmas-tree ornamental balls in mid march has been a funny challenge.

Thanks Alejandro!

All images courtesy Alejandro Tamayo.

I can't think of any artist who manages to outdo Adam Zaretsky in the art of combining a somewhat comical approach with a keen reflection on the legal, ethical and social implications of new biotechnological materials and methods.

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Adam Zaretsky buys a pig heart at the Boqueria food market in Barcelona. Image credit, Capsula

Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and the lovely yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact the music had on the bacteria. In case you've never heard of this romantic singer, let me spoil your day with a video of one of his smashing melodies:

Zaretsky is a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts at The Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He's a bioartist, performer, researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world, including the MIT's Department of Biology, the Conceptual/Information Arts department at San Francisco State University, SymbioticA at The University of Western Australia and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Integrated Electronic Arts Department.

As you might remember, Zaretsky teaches Vivoarts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology, at the University of Leiden (NL.) The Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores the intersection between art and biology and discusses the many cultural issues involved in bioart -and more generally in the field of life sciences- through a blend of hands-on laboratory protocols, critical readings, and the production of contemporary artwork. The ethics of producing living art are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.

I posted it last year already but in case you haven't seen it yet, here's 'Dangerous Liaisons', a short documentary on his class at Leiden University:

And here's part 2 and part 3.

Zaretsky believes that we should "embrace our visceral and experimental mutant kindred. Life is not perfectionism. Life includes the open, onanistic and seemingly unacceptable faces of radical variation." As he states:

If I am a representative of any ideology, it leans towards appreciation of Full Breadth Genetic Alterity. If we are in the process of engaging in auto-evolution, then diversity, the inherent biological love of difference, implies that the human genome should be engineered with as wide a range of genre humans as there are art movements and swanky tastes in the world. Posthuman integrity is only guaranteed by an expanded aesthetics of anatomy, the more obscure the better... ! Let's alter our identity as a species by birthing versions of ourselves into every permutative potential of fleshbound imagination. Let's have a punk banquet of anatomy, a buffet of new senses, fancy new and multiple genital-orifice smorgasbords and the mad collage of multi-species brains. If we are to go this route, let's not start by being monocultural, paternalistic snotbags with assumed distinction ruling over the aesthetics of betterment. We must be done with the rhetoric of human enhancement.

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powerFARM :: Woodstock, NY. Adding DMSO for Crypreservation. Still from video

I had the pleasure to share panels with Adam Zaretsky several times. The most recent was Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics, an event that the lovely rhizome people had invited me to curate. Now that i've finally recovered from the surprise he made us by starting his presentation with an extract from a biotech porn video he was working on, i feel that it is high time to 1. invent an opportunity to share another glorious event with him somewhere on this planet before it implodes 2. blog an online Q & A i had with him so that you can get to know him better. I focused this short interview on the work he has been doing in The Netherlands.

The experiments you describe in the video took place in the context of an avian embryology lab for non-scientists at Leiden University. How much knowledge did the participants have of biotech before they entered the lab room? What was their background? Does it take a long time before they can 'get their hands' into the genome?

The VivoArts : Art and Biology Studio Honors Class at Leiden was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Since my class another Art and Biology Course has been taught at Leiden U. by Jennifer Willet and in April the third version will be taught by Boo Chapple starting spring 2009 (so sign up now.)

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DNA extraction in class. Image

Thanks go out to Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg of The Arts and Genomics Centre for investing time and brave direction to make these courses a reality and for organizing the breadth of disciplines being exposed to this sort of Bioethics Art Practice. The participants were from Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, Biology and even Theology... But, there is no Art Studio practice degree at Leiden U. so we put out the word and a few artists applied or just showed up.

The simple answer to your first question is, no experience is necessary. All Vivoarts labs are hands on labs for the untrained. I guess it's a sort of biology brut or outsider biology. Informed opinions on present-day and near-future bioethical conundrums are more readily coaxed out of non-biologists through a hands on approach. It takes time to get approval to teach non-professionals and students whose focus is not biology or bioethics. After clearance, the students can come in with zero experience and leave having made time-based, hybrid, new media, wet-lab, living arts pieces: transgenic embryo sculptures, GMO bacterial paintings and/or tissue cultured embryonic stem cell totemic fetish objects.

The difference between a technical scientific learning session and a Vivo-artistic laboratory approach is mostly qualitative. While engaging in the technics, we also deal with the relational issues surrounding this type of process: pain, death, responsibility, curiosity, the meddlesome sadism of a personal genetic footprint/signature/graffiti/, risk assessment between foreign species and the ecosphere as well as critiquing admonitions against the urge to fondle the folds of mutant love.

There were some reticent parties on campus. They claimed that they were worried their patients might be afraid that artists a la Moreau were treating them. (...) I think that the reaction to an art class in the lab doing 'important' transgenic embryology work in the name of non-utilitarian, 'frivolous' artistry reflects a fear of demystification of transgenic process. Is the fear of attention given to playful transgenic embryological research procedures limited to wariness to contend with animal rights advocates often knee-jerk responses? Or, is it because often enough, well-funded Transgenesis research is as equally 'useless' or has just as little chance of producing important data as a hands-on Transgenic Developmental Biology Embryological Sculpting Lab for Social Commentary. But, these balkers are University researchers. Why hide from eager students in a castle of learning? Transgenic human production is a contentious cultural issue that is in need of interdisciplinary research before it goes to market. If we want an informed public to help us gauge the eventual results of aesthetic human engineering, we need people with experience who have their own ideas about the process, the results and the price of genetic tinkering.

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Photo from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

You mention in some of the written documents that plasmid injections were made with homemade tools. Hackers and amateurs around the world are experimenting with technology in a creative way as part of a broad DIY culture. Do you think that this DIY approach could apply to biotech art experimentations like the ones you perform? Where are the limits?

About half of my labs are 100% DIY. A lot of the Art and Biology crew are interested in the demystification of technology. The dorkbot skillshare mentality is more than a hot geek dating service. It's about showing that the technology, in this case biotechnology, is comprehensible and actuate-able with home brew strategies and some kitchen sterile technique.

For instance, the microinjectors for our embryology lab were made of glass pipettes pulled over a flame into small-bore needles. The plasmid was literally sucked up and hand pressed into the living embryos. We squirted into the embryos. The hope was that the microinjection needles were smaller than the embryonic nuclei and that, without microscopes, the plasmid would be injected or find its way into some nuclei for incorporation into the genome of the unborn pheasants.

This is not how an embryologist would work. The odds of success are already low without such haphazard application technique. Expensive machines are used to pull glass needles of the exact bore which will penetrate the nuclei of the organism of choice (mouse, rat, human, frog or fly embryos for instance.) Injections 'usually' occur through the microscope and XYZ microcontrollers guide the payload into the organism with finesse and acuity. Microinjectors cost over 100,000 euro and are not usually available to the general public (although I did use one at MIT to inject wasabi and cream cheese into Tobiko.

0aggeneggun.jpgBut less accurate methods like gene guns or direct injection of DNA are also used in today's gene therapy trials. These human trials, which may be producing germline alterations, emphasize the porousness of our collective genome. The history of embryology is built on cheap contraptions and closet incubators. Look at chicken breeders, both their social status and their successes. How many of them used strange feed or other 'pushing of life' techniques to make their prizewinning mutants?

So, I would say that persistence will outweigh the technological edge especially because no one has any idea of what life is, what the future holds and what the long term effects of even supposedly 'controlled' experiments will have on ecology, living being and the concept of species integrity. As far as I can tell, a tattoo gun with a single point needle dipped in the right plasmid concoction might be a great nano-transfectant for the lotek-biotech artist who still likes to draw. If it takes a lot of microinjections to get success when working blind... then gene tattooing is the way to go. (You could also buy a cheap microscope and improve your odds at least 30X.)

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Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

(Warning: Gene insertion may eventually cure cancer but right now it can also cause cancer. (i.e. Leukemia, see the case of Jesse Gelsinger).

Now, when it comes to DNA sequencing and plasmid design, this is just starting to be a tabletop possibility with cheaper sequencers and biobrick sets from the megaMaterialists over in Synthetic Biology. But, the learning curve is steep and can be expensive if you don't want to work with ready-mades. Designing your future pet's body plan or your own prehensile tail or an extra brain in your lovely daughter's derriere... that will take some trial and error. The effect is not just material. The genes are multifactorial. We haven't a clue as to what metabolism is. We can't even distinguish between enhancement and a living curse. But still, I'm hopeful.

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DNA extraction in class. Image

The lab obviously triggered many questions and debates. One of them drew a thought-provoking parallel between animal research and animal sacrifice, a pratique which nowadays seems outdated and almost barbarian. I know that you are careful to comply with legal limits and are deeply concerned with the ethics of what you are doing and preaching. But did you mention this parallel between sacrifice and research in order to highlight the more sinister aspects of research? What are the most sobresalient points of the research/sacrifice debate that took place among the participants of your class?

First I wrote this:

Funerals Rites for Transgenic Pheasants: Rituals of Bio-Art Practice

Some artists are utilizing lab technique as a new medium to produce living and often mutant living art forms. As these 'sculptures' live and die, often at the whims of the artistic investigator, the personal, non-repeatable moments take on a ritual air. What kinds of rituals do interdisciplinary Art and Biology practices entail? How do they reveal the implicit rituals of science? What new performative rites come out of mixing ethics and esthetics in the laboratory? Scientists also have their methodologies of creative flourish and humane sacrifice. But, scientific and artistic play is often based on different paradigms of what the act of experimentation is. As artists learn laboratory technique, the rituals of science and new rituals of sci-art unfold, decouple and reconfirm magical thinking in both arenas. How does animal research relate to the history of animal sacrifice? What is the role of subjectivity in developmental embryology? Is transgenic protocol also a ritual for the cultural production of liminal monsters? And how does mutagenesis impede or coerce the imaginary in the lifeworld? Through an analysis of artists confronted with the responsibility of ending the life of transgenic pheasant embryos, (which they had altered with plasmids in the name of art,) I hope to show living rituals for new biotechnological processes as they are invented.

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Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

But to be more down to earth, this is complicated and needs regular talk too. First of all the students were guaranteed a good grade even if they choose to be ethical observers. So there was no pressure to be hands on. Secondly, methods of humane sacrifice were discussed even if the concept is an oxymoron. Legally, embryonic birds are not organisms in Europe. What they really are is unclassifiable, but they are not free living nor do they have fully developed nervous systems. So they are conceived to be dim or not fully on. They may be thought of as a group of cells on the way to becoming a full-fledged, free-living organism. For this reason, they do not have rights in any way nor do they have a single preferred humane sacrifice method. Actually, humane sacrifice is not a prerequisite in embryonic end of life issues.

Of the scientists I quizzed, the methods of sacrifice commonly applied were death by: autoclave, refrigeration, put down on ice or poured down the drain. I added to other options for my students: valium overdose or ritual sacrifice. The valium overdose was my idea of the most humane sacrifice for an embryo. It may have been the first time that an embryo was given such a respectful euthanasia. But, the ritual sacrifice option was wide open and I can tell you that we are still living in barbaric times.

Also, I offered to play executioner for my students. Often I had to not just respect their choices but enact them. It was a horrific part of the lab for me. But, I did learn a lot. I wouldn't dismiss the value of sacrifice in science, religion or even secular posthumanism. Some rituals were moving funerals about the traumatic pasts of the slayers. Some underscored visions of techno-obliteration, the War Machine (Critical Art Ensemble, see the first chapter of The Flesh Machine), which accounts for way too much of the world's economic and productive focus. Some of them were heartless and natural and sincere. One student's acts even inspired remorse for outsourcing an incineration. It is as if serial killing and bureaucracy were still strange bedfellows. All and all, the sacrifices were conducted in a responsible way even if they were non-utilitarian. The lab showed the range of human behavior when dealing with GMO snuff issues and unborn politics and it gave experience of the viscerality of transgenic process to the students.

0aapicnicniokk.jpgPhoto from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

To be quite frank and honest, I am still in a strange state of being torn around these issues. I think abortion should be legal and believe in a woman's right to choose. Yet, I believe in embryonic isness: that there is something dignified about a developing organism. I am anti-war and think capital punishment should be abolished. I support some animal research as I have seen results that do help with disease. I do think the focus should be on AIDS and Malaria instead of prostate cancer and new cholesterol blockers. But it is not that simple. Often enough, I approve of experimental curiosity in general. I understand that we have a strange human gymnastic need to scope and poke everything to see how it 'ticks' or even just as pornography. I do think most biological research is just in-group magical empiricism but I also think that it is effective in a social cohesive sense. So, I guess I am old fashioned when it comes to ritual sacrifice even with a lab coat shaman behind the lab doors. Nonetheless, we humans could be less nationalist and provide global food, shelter, clean water, free rent and a 'work-optional' baseline to all humans. And, if you believe the news, many Bioart practitioners, myself included, lay claim to a sort of relational bent, attempting to go beyond anthropocentrism in the name of respect for the non-human actants of the earth. That is, many of us do consider all life to have an existential specialty which is their own and which is often superior to Homo sapiens narcissism in diverse ways of niche working and play. Yes, if we have it in us, we need to give back a lot of the land mass we have 'cultivated' on the crust of this planet to non-humans for their rights to freedom, space and daytime walks. But when it comes to embryos, I admit, I eat bunches of them on a weekly basis: caviar, eggs, raw seeds, grain, and bean sprouts. Being alive is a sort of hypocritical stance.

We cannot apologize to the organisms we use, even our flowers after death, because I doubt they would accept an apology. We cannot thank them, as some of the native peoples of the Americas still do, for providing us dinner or art materials, because I doubt they would say 'you were welcome.' In a sort of Taoist or Fatalist sense, we can try to welcome the hunger of the living consumers of our living and hence dying bodies (whether they be human, other animal, vegetable, bacterial, insectoid, fruity or fungal) as they come to feast on our inevitable temporary-ness, our becoming food for others. For this reason, I am anti-embalming and believe in green burials as we are just mulch in the long-term sense. In the short term we are entropic, greedy, sensual, hungry holes in need of sustainable release through passionate spectacle. (see my video Retool Earth.)

I often refer to this type of trial by fire lab as a Milgram Experiment without authority. I proclaim myself an amateur, I give the option to not participate and yet, when given the legal thumbs up, most people will do what they know is ethically tarnished. At the same time, fear of implication in the lifeworld, shame of causing death in general, while causing death, is more dangerous than modern primitivism. The Nobility of Neurosis (J.G. Ballard re/Search) is part and parcel to the Latourian concept of modern distinction as a farce. So, although I wish the Hague War Crimes Tribunal had authority over the nation I live in which has no respect for the Geneva Convention, the Nurenberg Code or the Declaration of Helsinki, fertile eggs are still a popular food particularly in green non-vegan circles. A well-made fertile egg omelette is no casual funereal ritual. Baroque and gourmet productions take time and the nuance and the taste is not lost on the pallete.

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Just to underscore that I am thinking while acting the clown...

The fertile eggs were named during incubation. This is a list of their names:
Health, Beauty, Longevity, Public Good, Knowledge, Profit, Erotism, Utility, Novelty, Animal, Poor, Queer, Captive, Slave, Fat, Ugly, Short, Stupid, Primitive, Unborn, Deformed, Poor in the World, Raw Material, Extinguish Humanely, Expendable Being, Educational Embryo, Pity Party, Defect, Murder Me, Loss and Lack, Death Row, Dead End, Destiny, Non-Being, Non-Human, Sub-Human, Pre-Human, Ancestor Rape, Use Me, Material, Fratricide, Torture Mirror, Somatic Machine, Responsive Behavior, Model Organism, Reflex Entity, Workhorse and Factory.

One of your documents mention a project in Spain? Why Spain? And where exactly would you like to perform new researches? Can you tell us briefly what this project would be about?

Actually, I talked to Marta de Menezes of Ectopia in Portugal (another Bioart Residency to look into) and she said that Bull Fights, the Politics of Primitive Tradition versus the Elimination of any Appearance of Injustice and Bull Sperm Sorting for Breeder Profit (transgenic as all hell) were all popular pastimes in Spain. So if I was in Spain or Portugal, I might like to look for some off target mutations in the garbage bin of a major Bull Sperm Sorting outpost. Really, the FACS Bucket text was just an idea for a residency that ended up getting published in Portugal. Due to parenting responsibilities, I can't spend more than two or three months a year outside of the US. The WAAG Society and The Mondriaan Foundation have decided to host/sponsor a public course and performance over the next year in Amsterdam. I would also like to work on making more transgenic pheasant embryos so I can fine tune my imaging and maybe even discover something that might make a reductionist out of my otherwise sticky fingers. I am looking for more funding so send money people to Lucas Evers

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pSHEEP, screenshot from pFARM

Right now, I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Woodstock, USA. I am gearing up to initiate VASTAL: The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. I would prefer it function independently of any university so it would be obscure, DIY and edgy. But this would need a real budget even for a two-year planned obsolescence trip. I also consider pFARM to be conceptually ready to make the move to something more than a small collective. The Organic Biotech Fetish Farm has started to attract devotees and as a cult grows, so must its infrastructure. We are still accepting applicants on subservient grassroots level at this time. Although I have traveled widely, I ask myself which other nation is there that deserves the kind of lessons I mete out. I can smell the Ku Klux Klan hay in every corner of the world markets but the USA has taken Superpower-Slumlord to a new low. So, I figure New York is my tropical island in which to experiment with human volunteers and their gonads... VASTAL 2010 ... Know any strange hosts?

I wish i did. Thanks Adam!

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Transgenic embryo prints as exhibited at Imagining Science Exhibition, Art Gallery of Alberta, 2008-2009

In the news: Adam Zarestky is participating to the show Imagining Science that runs through February 1, 2009 at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Zaretsky and The pFARM Collective are part of the exhibition Corpus Extremus which opens in February 2009 at Exit Art in NYc. The book Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change has won an award in the 2009 New York Book Show in the Scholarly & Professional category.

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