I've just spent four fascinating days at the Ecole d'Art d'Aix en Provence where a whole week of lectures, screenings and workshops are being dedicated to De l'objet de laboratoire au sujet social (From Laboratory Object to Social Subject). We explored the social, cultural and ethical issues regarding the living, human behaviour, human/animal/machines relationships and bioart.
Kac is often reduced to Alba, but while his presentation was leading us through some of the highlights of his 27 year long career, i realized that there's so much more than a GPF rabbit behind his name.
In the '80s, most of his works were of the performance kind and his main interests were (and still are) literature and poetry. In 83, he created some holographic poetry, and later on explored digital poetry then biological poetry. All the possible dimensions of communication are explored in his work.
The holograms translated his interest for the visual dimension of the words. With them he was trying to create an experiment of language destabilization.
In 85 he started to get interested in networked communication, the one that came before the web. The first networked medium he used was that good old minitel which made him realize how he could create anything anywhere and show it to anyone anywhere. His creation became immaterial.
The minitel work was called Reabracadabra, kabalistical dimension. He also worked with videophones, faxes, tvs, etc. Introducing a bidirectional process in a process which is usually purely mono-directional (tv, fax). Ex. Retrato Suposto - Rostro Roto (Presumed Portrait -- Foul Face).
He found that distant communication is limited because it reduces the communication between humans to an exchange of sounds and images on a small and flat surface: the screen. The presence of the body is missing.
1986, searching for new forms of presence, he proposed the art of the telepresence which is, according to him, the contrary of a phone call (i'm in Chicago, you are in Aix en Provence). With telepresence you are still in Aix but you feel like you are in Chicago. There are tangible, physical consequences in that distant space of the acts i do here.
Then came a second robot, very different from the previous one. It was not anthropomorphic and whether the first one was nearly 2 meters high this second one was very close to the ground. He called it Ornitorrinco. Being so low, its point of view was more similar to the pne of an animal or of a kid. Art can suggest this kind of change of perspective. People could remotely access the fully mobile and wireless robot and alter the remote location (teleoperation) via the telephone network.
In 1996, another work of telepresence, Rara Avis. Gallery visitors and remote participants could interact with an aviary containing 30 birds from the point of view of a robotic macaw. Phenomenological video.
By wearing the headset, the viewer was transported into the aviary and perceived the aviary from the point of view of the robotic bird. When the viewer moved his or her head to left and right, the head of the telerobotic macaw moved accordingly. The real space was immediately transformed into a virtual space. The installation was connected to the Internet. Remote participants could observe the gallery space from the point of view of the telerobotic bird too. They could also use their microphones to trigger the vocal apparatus of the telerobotic bird in the gallery.
By enabling the local participant to be both inside and outside the cage, this installation created a metaphor that revealed how new communications technology enables the effacement of boundaries at the same time that it reaffirms them.
At the time, museum and galleries didn't have internet so Eduardo had to bring internet physically, he came with cables, creating transformations instead of only suggesting them. It's with this work, with Rara Avis, that he starts to explore relationships with the living, that he starts to mix the dimension of the living and the dimension of the non-living.
1994, Essay Concerning Human Understanding was the first work that have him engage with the living. He was asking the question (which at the time sounded a bit ridiculous): "Is there a sense of aesthetics in the non-human world?" We always refer to art in relationship with human beings. Art is made by men for men. Could it be possible to create art for non-human species? And if it is possible what would the impact of art for non-human have on Art?
In Kentucky, a yellow canary was given a large cage, on top of which circuit-boards, a speaker, and a microphone were located. A Plexiglas disc separated the canary from this equipment, which was wired to the phone system. In New York, an electrode was placed on a plant's leaf to sense its response to the singing of the bird. The microvoltage fluctuation of the plant was monitored through a computer running a software called Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer, a program designed to inspect the vital activity of an organism generally understood as devoid of consciousness. The information coming from the plant was fed into another computer, which controlled a MIDI sequencer. The electronic sounds themselves were pre-recorded, but the order and the duration were determined in real time by the plant's response to the singing of the bird.
Teleporting in an Unknown State (currently part of the retrospective exhibition of his work in Valencia, Spain). Plants are kept in a dark room. Through a video projector suspended above and facing the pedestal, remote participants send light via the Internet to enable this plant to photosynthesize and grow in total darkness.
The biological connection goes beyond the living or the non-living, the local and the distant, the human and the non-human.
The 1997 work Time Capsule constitutes a turning point in Eduardo Kac's career. He inserted a microchip under the skin of his ankle (he still has the microchip implanted). Presence of the digital dimension inside the human body. It's the kind of microchip that pet owner use for identification and recovery of lost animals. Eduardo registered himself both as dog and dog owner. The chip is still under his skin.
It's also the year when he starts to work on his project to create a transgenic dog, K-9.
He then went on developing transgenic art, using techniques from molecular biology and genetic engineering to create living being in an artistic context. Instead of a dog he ended up creating the GFP rabbit.
The first transgenic work he created is called Genesis and starts with an extract from the Bible:
Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
It was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion of humanity's supremacy over nature.
He translated the sentence in morse code and then elaborated a simple conversion principle to translate the morse into DNA base pairs, using a system he invented and which is based on the four letters TCAG which represent the 4 chemical bases. From the sequence of letters, he had a laboratory produce a gene which was sent to the artist via FedEx. It looks like a white powder. Seeing genes out of a body makes you realize that genes on their own cannot do anything. One cannot talk of life by limiting it to the genetic context.
The Genesis gene was incorporated into bacteria. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria. After the show, the DNA of the bacteria was translated back into Morse code, and then back into English.
He compared the work to a computer (input/output) and to the Rosetta Stone.
In 1997, he gets the idea of creating a fluorescent mammal, a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature. He is allergic to cats so he decides to use a rabbit. The rabbit looks like an albinos in day time but in the dark and using a blue light, the animal becomes green fluorescent.
It was created in 2000 with the help of a French research laboratory which censored the rabbit and refused to let Eduardo keep it. The artist then starts a campaign to liberate the rabbit and have it live with him in Chicago. My favourite action is the Alba Flag (2001) which he installed in front of his house to mark her absence.
2000 was a rather trubled year, people in France were still talking about the infected blood scandal , the mad cow disease, people were afraid of a future made of cloning and health uncertainties, digital doomsday, etc.
The press jumped on the story but was actually more interested in the conflict between the lab and Eduardo than in the project itself.
Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries is one of Kac's latest works. For the series, the artist made some "biotopes", living pieces that can be hanged on the walls of a gallery like a painting. Except that the works are living, they change during the exhibition in response to internal metabolism and environmental conditions, their exoskeleton is the frame. They are both subjects and objects. Each of them constitutes a self-sustaining ecology comprised of thousands of very small living beings in a medium of earth, water, and other materials. If you provide them with light and water, their color explode. The rabbit never left the laboratory but the bacteria of Kac's Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries could leave the lab, they are pet bacteria.
The Eighth Day investigates the fluorescent creatures that are being developed individually in laboratories The Eighth Day presents them as a new ecology that brings together living transgenic life forms and a biological robot (biobot) in an environment housed under a Plexiglas dome, thus making visible what it would be like if these GFP plants, GFP amoeba, GFP fish, and GFP mice would in fact coexist in the world at large.
A biobot is a robot with an active biological element within its body which is responsible for aspects of its behavior. It has a colony of GFP amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum as its "brain cells".
One of the objectives of the work is to demonstrate the the future of humanity is not limited to the traditional reproduction system. ANd that won't make them less human than we are.
Kac nevertheless insisted on the fact that The Eighth Day is his last GFP work because he doesn't want to become the Yves Klein of the green colour.
Slowly coming back to the ars electronica postings with some notes from a talk by Zbigniew Oksiuta, one of the prize winners of the new Hybrid Art category and someone i was really looking forward to hearing. The Polish architect, artist, and researcher is now based in Germany where he works in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute and the University of Cologne. Oksiuta is probably one of the most interesting figures in the world of architecture, biology and biochemistry and he was as passionate and smart as i had imagined.
Oksiuta has been working for ten years on the possibility to create a new breed of biological habitat which would organically and dynamically adapt to conditions such as the absence of gravity that one might have to face both in the biosphere and in space. While architecture evokes ideas of stability and immobility, he envisions the possibility of making it living and unstable. Vegetable matter could become a live habitat, an isolated spatial entity that takes up, transforms, and synthesizes matter and energy from its surroundings by biological means.
The construction materials he works with are algae and gelatin. With traditional architecture, one has to assemble forms engineered by machines and this creates a big structure. In Oksiuta's system everything would grow at once, like biological systems. The dynamic systems would react to the external environment, communicate information and transfer energy through liquid medium.
One of the challenges he encountered while working with liquid materials to grow his bio structures was the evaporation of water that's one of the reasons why he resorted to building them under the water, using neutral buoyancy (isopycnic systems). Besides the water process gives an idea of what it is like to built spacial forms for weightless conditions.
The next step is breeding the structures in petri dishes. Not plastic petri dish but membranes which work both as barriers that protects and separates from the outside and as part of the structure itself.
His Biological Habitat: Breeding Spaces Technology, Made in Space project was exhibited at the OK Centrum, Linz. The system would use DNA as cosmic universal code: strands of DNA embedded in bioreactors are to develop autonomously into new forms of life in the biosphere and in outer space.
Both the environment and physical laws determine forms of life to the extent that their â€œexperienceâ€? over the course of evolution is implemented in the strands of DNA. In the embryonic state, however, life emancipates itself from these guidelines and prescriptions. This is what the biological habitat uses; it provides a biotope that is not determined by gravitation and physical laws on Earth but rather by conditions in outer space. Therefore, biological forms of life also develop differently here and â€”similar to life on Earthâ€” reproduce themselves over the course of an evolutionary process.
Two first images: Wojtek Kozak.
Inspired by the case modding scene, a custom computer is built as a form of expanded sculpture. Inside the case, excess heat of over-clocked processors is recycled by an elaborate living ecosystem. The computer hardware is used as server for a new computer game. The objective of this game is to bring some of the main themes of Biomodd into an imaginative multiplayer game experience.
Both the computer structure and the game are developed with a group of biology, game and art enthusiasts. Exhibition visitors can also modify the piece: through playing they generate heat and hence influence the interior ecosystem.
Biomodd will have its own temporary character depending on each local version of it. Only parts of previous versions are integrated in each new structure.
The first Biomodd version is developed at the Aesthetic Technologies Lab in Athens, Ohio. Collaborations are currently set up with departments of game design, electronic and computer engineering, telecommunications and biology. The objective is to compile an interdisciplinary team of 15-20 students.
All of the above intrigued me so i emailed Angelo and he was kind enough to answer my questions:
- a multiplayer environment that is graphically and/or conceptually inspired by the ecological theme of the project,
How far are you in the development of Biomodd?
The Biomodd version I am building at the Aesthetic Technologies Lab is the very first one. Several other curators across Europe and the US have already shown interest to support subsequent versions. At the moment weâ€™re finishing a first prototype. Itâ€™s a human sized transparent structure that contains several suspended computer components and different types of plant life such as green algae and vines. The computer runs Linux (Fedora) and its monitor will be suspended downwards to illuminate a bed of fast-sprouting seeds. Basically, weâ€™re testing how close we can bring together the biological and electronic world. At the same time weâ€™re also exploring potential game concepts.
You use recycled parts for eco-related concerns?
Yes, partly for that. At the end of each version the art work is completely disassembled. Participants can take what is useful for them and I will keep some elements that can be integrated in a subsequent version. All the remaining components are donated to recycling centers and thrift stores.
Thereâ€™s also a conceptual motivation for using parts of previous versions in a new one. Essentially, this creates a very physical link between all the versions. It connects all the works. Apart from the re-use of electronics, every version will inevitably contain the â€œpresenceâ€? of all previous collaborators. I function as a sort of gateway for the whole undertaking and through me ideas and concepts from participants will be passed on to each new group. The re-use of material components further strengthens that aspect.
However, not only electronic components are recycled, I am also using microscopic algae that have functioned in several former art projects of mine. In 2004 I created my last algae installation piece for the exhibition â€˜This Place is Dreamingâ€™ in Brussels. I kept the algae in a dormant stage in my studio since then. I took a dried sample to the Aesthetic Technologies Lab and currently I am reviving the cells so I can use the same algae in Biomodd. Another thread that links a sequence of art works and experiencesâ€¦
The @Lab put the recorded webcast lecture online.
Photo credits: Jeff Lovett & Angelo Vermeulen.
UPDATE: on Saturday the exhibition Multispeak in de Witte Zaal in Ghent (Belgium) will open, featuring Biomodd. A live video steam will be displayed together with the first part of the Biomodd documentary made by filmmaker Morgan Riles.
The birth of the category was motivated by the fact that people attending the festival were sometimes wondering where was the interaction of some pieces shown under the Interactive Art label, a clearer set of criteria was needed which would of course disqualify some interesting art pieces. The creation of the new category was thus the most obvious solution.
The results of a search of the word "hybrid" on google demonstrates that the biological origins of the term are increasingly used metaphorically and replaced by cultural examples of hybridity (cars, clothing, etc.) He pointed and discussed Brian StrossÂ´ essay The Hybrid Metaphor From Biology to Culture.
Hybrid Art received 470 entries for its first year of existence. The category is dedicated specifically to todayâ€™s hybrid and transdisciplinary projects and approaches to media art, focusing on the process of fusing different media and genres into new forms of artistic expression as well as the act of transcending the boundaries between art and research, art and social/political activism, art and pop culture.
Since its foundation in 2000, SymbioticA has enabled dozens of artists to engage in and comment on "wet technologies" while complying strictly with scientific requirements. The collaborative structure produces new cultural experiments in the field of neurosciences, molecular biology, anatomy physics, anthropology and ethics.
Symbiotica offers undergraduate courses, postgrad programme, hosts individual short and long term research projects, workshops, "Friday Meetings. Symbiotica is also a founding partner of BEAP and pursues the research of Tissue Culture & Art Project.
Some of the projects developed with the help of SymbioticA include: a dress made of fungi by by Donna Franklin (image on the left); BioKino, the Living Screen; collaborations with Adam Zaretsky, the Critical Art Ensemble, etc.
Dr. Stuart Bunt, scientific director of SymbioticA, and Oron Catts explained how SymbioticA started as an artist in residence project and grew into a more stable structure as they were gaining recognition all over the world. They applied for more grants and had other artists come over to work with them.
Interestingly, Ionat Zurr explained that they applied both to the art school and to the science school. The art community didn't accept them, it was the science school which gave them support.
What makes their work appealing for the science world is that artists get more freedom to explore.
In science you have to work towards an end point, to "cure", itÂ´s not about doing research anymore, scientists are "problem solvers". Therefore, explained Dr. Stuart Bunt, artists are stimulating fits in this ethos. The critical edge they bring help scientists justify and constantly evaluate the scientific process. Artists often come up with provoking pieces which reminds scientists of the unease to work with living beings.
SymbioticA is very far off the radar, it is located in Perth, "the most isolated big city in the world", which apparently provides the artists with more freedom.
For the ars electronica exhibition, SymbioticA brought some artists with them (more info about these works will follow). The form of display used doesnÂ´t go very well with the rest of the usually very "please touch and have fun" ars electronica exhibition. For example, one project was hidden behind the heavy door of an incubator. Occasionally the door would be open and visitors who happen to wander around could have a peek, this aims to be a reference to the occasional opening up of the scientific world.
One of SymbioticAÂ´s aims is to bring scientific discussions out of the laboratories and bring the debate out in public rahter than wait for tabloids to give their own take on it.
Catts also insisted on the fact that although many the works developed within their structure might seem to be subversive, all of them comply fully with the rules and requirement of science. That makes their approach more powerful and gives them more freedom to work and exhibit without the fear of being censored for some procedural reason.
Back to my notes from Biorama, a one day event organized by Capsula and the Digital Research Unit on July 13 in Huddersfield. The event brought together an exciting bunch of artists whose work explores notions of life, science and digital realities.
Laura Cinti (who is currently doing some research on the way plants can be modified in order to be visually responsible to touch) and Howard Boland from c-lab (interviewed then a few months ago) focused mainly on their fascinating Martian Rose project.
How would the aesthetics of the flower start to break down if exposed to the Mars environment? Would it still have petals? The project started as a very romantic idea: offering a rose to Mars. They worked with scientists from the Mars Simulation Laboratory, at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
The artists and the scientists put roses inside a vacuum chamber built to simulate parameters such as temperature, gas and distribution, pressure and radiation.
After Laura and Howard, it was the turn of Agnes Meyer-Brandis to present her work. I had her talk about her projects a few months ago, so i decided to drop the pen and paper and just enjoy her witty talk full of iceberg drifting along the Brazilian coast, elves and other mysterious phenomena. Agnes is currently working on her latest project the Cloud Core Scanner, an artistic experiment in weighlessness within the scope of the German Aerospace Center's parabolic flight campaign.
Brandon BallengÃ©e discussed his transdisciplinary approach towards increasing environmental awareness, how he sees his work as an interface between biological research and a much more experimental programme.
Brandon has spent the past decade studying amphibians which he defined as the "environmental canaries in the coalmine." They act as bio-sensors. Studies have demonstrated that amphibians are declining even in protected environments. Reports of discovery of frogs which are born with more or sometimes less than 4 legs. With such deformities, the animals have very little chance of survival and the phenomenon might partially explain the decline in amphibian population. Such reports emerged mainly from the US. But declines and deformities of amphibians probably exists on 6 continents. The New York-based artist is currently spending several months in the UK to have a closer look into declining amphibian species, through participatory lab and field-based research investigations. The project is organised by The Arts Catalyst and enabled by residencies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Gunpowder Park, and SPACE. He not only works together with scientists but also organizes "eco-actionsï¿½? fieldtrips that involve members of the public in his research projects.
One hypothesis that might explain amphibian deformities is that some parasite inside the body of the frog might hamper its normal development. When amphibians are mutating, they are very sensible to the environment. Brandon made experiments where he would cut one limb of the frog at different stage of its transformation and see it regrow until a rather late stage. If a parasite gobbles its way into the transforming tissues of the mutating frog, it would form a cyst and impede the normal growth of the limbs. The organism of the frog would try to compensate and grow an extra tow or an extra leg coming from the same tissue. This phenomenon of extra limbs is increasing and it compromises the immune system of the amphibian.
Brandon has discovered in North Yorkshire many amphibians with just one leg or no leg at all, this phenomenon is not described yet in England. The artist documents the deformities by creating hi-res images using a flat-based scanner (he built an aquarium on top of it).
Another of BallengÃ©e's project, the outdoor installation 'Love Motels for Insects', enables the public to study arthropod diversity in urban and natural areas. A blank canvas and ultra-violet (black) light enable the study and photography of arthropods (spiders, moths, beetles, etc.) and other nocturnal creatures. Attracted to the light, the creatures mate and feed on the sculpture. It is a "place for bugs to make more bugs." Moths release chemical pheromones to attract mates and consequently "paint" the piece, while spiders spin webs adding their own contribution to the work.
Brandon uses eco-projects to raise awareness of ecological issues and have people feel part of it. C-lab has a couple of very good images of Brandon Ballangee's work.
On Friday 13 i spent an extra day in Huddersfield to attend the Biorama organized by Capsula and the Digital Research Unit. The objective was to illustrate new directions in art, science and technology by bringing together artists who explore notions of life, science and digital realities.
Biorama also puts the research carried out by Andy Gracie (whom i interviewed a while ago) during his 3-month residency at DRU into a broader context. His project weaves together the microbiology of the Pennines around Marsden Moor, traditional and digital networking systems, satellite communications, perceptions of landscape and the history and possible future of interstellar communication.
During the morning we went for a long but extremely fun hike under the rain. We followed Andy and Brandon Ballangee, looking for frogs, getting the lowdown on the nematodes, collecting samples, and watching organisms under the lens of our pocket microscopes. Searching for things we can't see and that crawl under our feet and trying somehow to connect them with what we cannot see either because it is way too high above our head.
In the afternoon, we headed to the DRU and the artists' talks kicked off with Andy's presention of his work, this time it was dry, we sat on chairs and there were plenty of snacks on hand. Part of his research investigates communication with living forms we might yet not have encountered. Previous attempts to communicate with them include:
- the Pioneer Plaque, on board of the unmanned spacecraft Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, displays a pictorial message from mankind. The figures and symbols are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft. It serves as a kind of interstellar "message in a bottle".
There is also the hypothesis to discover microbial life somewhere in our solar system and thus the desire to communicate with them. Some serious issues are at stake, such as nuclear waste dumps. How do you warn people not to dig it up for another 10,000 years? There is a high probability that our current form of civilization won't be around in 12000AD so a simple 'Danger, Keep Out!' may not work. Think about Stonehenge, it is relatively not that far away back in time, yet we still haven't got much clue on what the construction means.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been recently looking at this issue and wondering what to do about the warning markers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) at Yucca Mountain. Various plans have been proposed such as making it a big spikey forboding landscape.
After Andy, artists were invited to take the floor. Starting with London Fieldworks. Bruce Gilchrist & Jo Joelson are interested in human relationship with the natural environment, their work tends to bring elements of the landscape (mostly from rather extreme environments) into an urban context.
For Polaria they collected data about light and physiology during the transition from 24 hour daylight to the twilight onset of winter in North East Greenland and brought the data back into a studio and translated it into a virtual daylight installation. They left the data open for the public to interpret it.
The Little Earth installation consisted of synchronised video shot on Haldde Mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, Ben Nevis in Scotland, and on the island of Svalbard, with computer animations of the Earth's magnetosphere modeled by the Leicester Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, the science partner in this arts/science collaboration. The video, shot from 4 perspectives is projected onto a suspended cube-like structure, with a surround sound score and narration.
London Fieldworks is currently working on Prince of the Petrified Forest. Working with the personal myth of Walt Disney, cryogenically frozen at the point of death, the artists proposed to reincarnate him into an animatronic Hexer alter-ego (image) which would star in their film Prince Of The Petrified Forest - part inspired by the seminal eco novel, Bambi by Felix Salten and Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger, "the father of cryonics" but also by stories read in the press such as the one of the mouse put in 'suspended animation'. The themes of the movie are hibernation and suspension.
The animatronic is a monstrous hybrid of Disney and his iconic characters, Bambi and Thumper.
SpaceBaby, supported by art science agency The Arts Catalyst, explored inverted sleep pattern and its possible effect on human genes, referencing research interest of space agencies into human hibernation. The artists slept through the day in specially constructed "hibernaculum" and scientists from the University of Leicester Dept. of Genetics were taking blood samples to monitor the effect the reverse sleep pattern had on their genes. The project will be turned into a film.
SpaceBaby, just like the Disney chimera project, made reference to recent scientific experiment into the induction of suspended states of animation in non-hibernatory animals. The project imagines space agencies transferring these applications to humans to facilitate long distance space flight. C-lab has some more images of the installation.