Robots are transforming surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System, for example, allows long and complicated procedures to be performed with super human precision and dexterity. All while decreasing patient trauma and providing a more comfortable experience for the surgeon.
Costing up to $2.000.000 however, a surgical robot represents large capital investments and only becomes cost effective after intensive use and thus fits into a more "market driven" concept of healthcare that indirectly contributes to the overall rising medical expenditures.
One of the corollaries of expensive professional healthcare is the rise of communities of uninsured Americans who share videos on Youtube to demonstrate how they performed medical hacks on themselves.
Designer Frank Kolkman, a new graduate of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London, wondered if a compromise could be found. His OpenSurgery project investigates whether building DIY surgical robots, outside the scope of healthcare regulations, could provide an accessible alternative to the costly professional healthcare services worldwide.
There have been several attempts within the robotics community to come up with cheaper and more portable surgical robots. The RAVEN II Surgical robot, for example, was initially developed with funding from the US military to create a portable telesurgery device for battlefield operations. The machine is valued at $200.000 and all of the software used to control the RAVEN II has been made open source. However, The Raven doesn't have the (often costly) safety and quality control systems in place, required by regulation to allow it to be used on humans meaning that it might take a while before the RAVEN II will be fully embraced by regulatory and commercial worlds. In any case, most medical hacker communities would still be unable to afford its $200.000 price tag.
For the past five months, Kolkman has thus been trying to build a DIY surgical robot for around $5000, by using accessible prototyping techniques like laser cutting and 3d printing and by sourcing as many ready-made parts as he could find.
Designing a surgical robot that could perform laparoscopic surgery (a surgery so minimally invasive that it is also called keyhole surgery) presents a number of challenges. The designer found an answer to each of them:
- the many laporoscopic tools that the robot would have to handle can be ordered directly from their Chinese manufacturers using Alibaba.
The electronics to control the robots were copied from designs used in 3d printer communities, while the software was build with Processing.
The main challenge the designer encountered however was intellectual property. In a bid to make the project open source, Kolkman tried to develop his own mechanisms. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the fundamental concepts that allow robotic surgery have already been patented. Fortunately, he also found out that as long as you make parts protected by intellectual property in private and for non commercial purposes they are theoretically exempted from patent infringement.
After five months of iteration, the robot does move. The designer concludes:
And based on my experiences the concept of a DIY surgical robot is surprisingly plausible. If you would be able to build a community of makers who bring the same amount of attention and dedication to building surgical tools as they do to designing 3d printers and cnc machines these days, I believe accessible DIY surgery equipment would be within reach.
And of course you still need a trained surgeon to operate the machine.
A bio art exhibition is a rare occurrence. A good bioart exhibition -one that makes you marvel at the art, question the science, ponders upon where all this means for society- is even more extraordinary. So if you're in, near or not ridiculously far away from Eindhoven, do go and visit Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design at MU. There's only a couple of weeks left to see the show but if i were you, i'd try and pop by on the 1st of March for the Matter of Life closing party. The subtitle of the event is Food Phreaking which sounds exciting enough.
MU and guest curator William Myers have selected nine projects 'at the intersection of life sciences, art and design.' Three of them are the winning projects of the Bio Art & Design Award 2014 (previously Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award), a competition for young artists and designers hoping to collaborate with research institutes in order to develop works that use biotechnology in critical and compelling ways. A couple more projects in the show are authored by artists who have worked with the competition in the past. But what matters more to me is that there is a good balance of speculative scenarios and very down-to-earth experiments in this exhibition. One moment you're dipping carrot sticks into a barbecue sauce made from 'supermarket mutants'. Next, you're wondering about the impact that commercial interests might have on natural selection.
Here's a quick overview of the works i haven't written about over the past few weeks. Starting with a work that took me by surprise:
Jarvis first has to undertake a rectoscopy. The colon tissue collected will be grown in vitro and then submitted to a series of mutations that will make it cancerous.
The project is about being able to look at cancer as we would look at other parts of ourselves. I am interested in actually seeing cancer 'in the flesh' - in making tangible something that is usually discussed in metaphors and in doing this exploring (evaluating?) the function of these metaphors when faced with the actual material.
ET IN ARCADIA EGO also echoes one of Jarvis' previous works ERGO SUM in which she used stem cell technology to create a kind of 'back-up' self. While ERGO SUM explored how personalised medicine might enable us to extend our lives, the new work is using similar technology to explore the mechanisms of mortality.
The sample will also be used in professor Hans Clevers' scientific research to study how cancer occurs in the body. The cells are of particular interest to him as they are the first he will have access to coming from a healthy patient sample.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Invisible
Heather Dewey-Hagborg's most famous work, Stranger Visions, made her realize that genetic surveillance is a real threat. "It just struck me that we were having a national dialogue about electronic surveillance, but this form of biological surveillance isn't being discussed," she told The Verge.
Invisble, which she is showing as part of Matter of Life, claims to be the answer to any fear of DNA profiling we might have. Citizens eager to avoid DNA surveillance can either buy the Invisible sprays or follow the recipe and make their own. To become genetically untraceable, you need to first spray Erase to any surface where you might have left some DNA evidence. You then follow with Replace, a spray containing a blend of genes that will 'confuse' any remaining trace of DNA.
Špela Petrič worked with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research to build a windmill-like structure that serves as a habitat for sea life. Once released into the North Sea, the tetrahedron form would gently drift in unpredictable path, collecting sea plants, bivalves and other small creatures along the way. At some point though, the weight of the organisms accumulated will sink the whole colony.
The research, design and building of this work in the context of a research institute investigating aquaculture also challenges us with a question the artist poses "can the human fathom an investment into structures and processes that are non-utilitarian for the human?"
Naval Gazing was one of the winning projects of the BioArt & Design award. I think it was by far the strongest of the three. Unexpected, strangely alluring and challenging the audience to think differently about our relationship to nature.
The use of homing pigeons as messengers can be traced to thousands of years ago. Ancient Romans used them to spread news within their Empire. And the Greeks sent pigeons to communicate the results of the Olympic Games to other cities. Studio PSK, another winner of the Bio Art & Design Award, teamed up with the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies at the University of Groningen to explore how economic pressures might one day shape the species' genetics, replacing thus natural selection. In PSK scenario, the bird becomes a tamper-proof biological courier used by biotech companies to protect their intellectual property.
Increasing competition between the Biotech and Pharma giants has sparked the 'Cold War' of the drug industry, with Genetic theft and piracy costing the industry billions, pressurising companies to take ever more inventive steps to protect their intellectual property.
In order to protect the most sensitive data from falling into the hands of competitors, Genicom Lifesciences, one of the smaller enterprises based in Hyderabad's Genome Valley, is using pigeons as a kind of 'offline data transfer' in an attempt to securely deliver genetic data to its research partner Nayat Pharma.
As the title of their work suggests, Julia Kaisinger and Katharina Unger have explored how to grow food from toxic plastic waste. The process involves fungi. The result in the plate is even more discouraging than anything i might have imagined.
Also part of the exhibition: Cobalt 60 Sauce, a barbecue sauce made from 'supermarket mutants' and FATBERG: Building An Island of Fat and A Simple Line. A zebra finch ponders upon abstraction.
Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design is at MU in Eindhoven until 1 March 2015.
It flows throughout our bodies and yet some of us faint when they see a drop of it. It is a key features in stories of vampires and children fairytales. It is the fluid that is most closely associated to life but also to the Ebola virus, diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other life-threatening conditions.
The 25 artworks that make the exhibition BLOOD (Not for the faint-hearted) aptly reflect the complex space that blood occupies in our cultures. From the vampire killing kit to the video of stem-cell extractions, from the luminol dripped down onto a sculpture made of blood and resin to Hermann Nitsch's cathartic Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries, all grounds seem to be covered: history, pure science, crime, medicine, literary fiction, ethics and taboo.
A couple of works in the show might be upsetting for some and indeed the gallery recommends it to the 15+. Strangely enough, i had no problem visiting the show but writing about it makes me far more uncomfortable. I could not even watch the video of Maria Phelan's work MYTYPE.
One of the works that opens the show is a documentation of Que le cheval vive en moi! (May the horse live in me!), a performance in which Marion Laval-Jeantet was injected with horse blood plasma. This bold self-experiment continues the artistic duo's exploration of trans-species relationships.
In the months preceding the performance, Marion Laval-Jeantet built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies by being injected with horse anibodies. The artists called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same. Once her body was ready, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign antibodies, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.
In this Science Gallery interview below, Benoit Mangin explains how Marion was able to hide the eyes of the horse. A horse would normally react very violently to having his eyes covered but somehow, the animal didn't perceive her as being an entirely different organism.
Nearby, lies the apparatus used by surgeon Robert McDonnell on a fourteen year old girl whose arm was torn and lacerated while she was working in a paper mill. Robert drew 350 millilitres of blood from his own arm and syringed it back into Mary Anne. The girl's condition improved for a short time, but she died the day after. It was the first human-to-human blood transfusion performed in Ireland.
John O'Shea is showing a video recipe of his renowned delicacy, the Black Market Pudding. Just like we get milk from cows and eggs from chicken without the need to kill them, we could also get fresh blood from pigs and make black pudding, a type of blood sausage commonly eaten in Britain and Ireland.
The blood is extracted from living pigs via a routine veterinary procedure and the whole business model ensures that the pig grows old peacefully. Kind of. And because vegetarian suet is used to emulsify the ingredients, the black market pudding is branded as being an ethical animal product.
Quinn is participating to the show with a wax model of his baby son. The sculpture is made of wax mixed with animal blood and protein his son is intolerant to. The work is thus both tender and savage. It evokes the love for a child and the cruelty of appropriating the blood of a non-human animal.
Professor Peter Arnds is showing a fascinating collection of German children's books in which children come to harm and blood is shed, posters that detail the Nazis' obsession with blood and its purity, and a short video on the Nazis' ideology of blood.
It turns out that children's literature and folktales are quite at ease with the depiction of murder, cannibalism and other violent scenes. In Germany and elsewhere. One example of this is Charles Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood from 1697or the Grimm Brothers' original fairytales.
There is a lot of humour in the gallery as well. STAINS™ is a fake company that challenges the hypocrisy of marketers trying to sell female menstrual products while showing blue liquids and pretty girls laughing in the sunshine.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to take a selfie with one of the blood stain broaches made by STAINS™ and share the photo via the Twitter with the hashtag #periodpositive. You can also buy the blood stains as earrings or pendant.
More images from the show:
The exhibition was curated by curator and media studies scholar Jens Hauser, haematologist Prof Shaun McCann, Immunologist Prof Luke O'Neill, literary and cultural scholar Prof Clemens Ruthner and Science Gallery Dublin director Lynn Scarff. It remains open at the Science Gallery Dublin until tomorrow, Friday 23rd of January.
A few weeks ago, i discovered the existence of the Barts Pathology Museum. And then i visited it so you don't have to.
The museum was opened in 1879 and its collections of organs and tissues were used to train medical students. The museum is located in a charming wood, steel and white shelves space with three mezzanine levels and a spiral staircase. The 5,000 specimen collection, however, is even more gruesome than i had suspected.
The jars are filled with all kinds of deformed and diseased body parts: a gout-swollen hand, an inguinal hernia from around 1750, the bound foot of a Chinese woman, the skeletons of conjoined twins, a liver dented by years of wearing tight corsets, a brain perforated with an ice pick during a frontal lobotomy, a rat that died of tuberculosis, a cabinet of surprisingly voluminous objects that people inserted into their bodies (more about that one in the video below), etc.
I loved the place and i hope it will be open to the public more often in the future. Even though that museum will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Photos were not allowed on my visit. I've therefore stolen as many images as i could online (with due credit wherever i could find it, of course.)
Here's a quick presentation of some of the specimens. Some with comments, others with only the shortest description:
On the afternoon of 11 May, 1812, John Bellingham, a bankrupt businessman, walked into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster and shot prime minister Spencer Perceval, making him the only UK prime minister to be assassinated. Bellingham was sentenced sentenced to death by hanging. As was customary for the time, his body was donated to hospitals to be dissected and anatomized. His skull is preserved at Barts Pathology Museum.
These vertebrae were damaged following a method of judicial hanging called The Long Drop or "Measured Drop" which takes the person's height and weight into consideration. It meant that the rope was the right length to ensure an instantaneous death caused by 'a broken neck' but didn't result in the decapitation of the victim which did occur frequently.
This pot contains a large portion of the liver of a 52 year old female. It is supposedly exhibiting the deformities caused by prolonged 'tight-lacing' of corsets and is dated 1907. The liver is on its side in the glass pot, and the deformity can clearly be seen in the form of a cleft splitting the right lobe of the liver in two.
"A fracture of the mandible. The jaw is broken between the canine and the first bicuspid teeth on either side. This is the common seat of fracture. It was wired during life. (1886)
I'll close this post with a little gem. Carla Valentine, Assistant Technical Curator at the museum takes us through some of the dangers of inserting foreign objects into orifices:
The Barts Pathology Museum is located at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield in the City of London. The museum is usually closed to the public. Except for a few afternoons in August and for special events and taxidermy classes. Unfortunately, The Gordon Museum of Pathology which seems to be bigger and fascinating is not open to the public either.
The Sick Rose" Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, by academic medical historian Dr Richard Barnett.
Publisher Thames and Hudson writes: The Sick Rose is a visual tour through the golden age of medical illustration. The nineteenth century experienced an explosion of epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria, driven by industrialization, urbanization and poor hygiene. In this pre-color-photography era, accurate images were relied upon to teach students and aid diagnosis. The best examples, featured here, are remarkable pieces of art that attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the body, and the successive onset of each affliction. Bizarre and captivating images, including close-up details and revealing cross-sections, make all too clear the fascinations of both doctors and artists of the time. Barnett illuminates the fears and obsessions of a society gripped by disease, yet slowly coming to understand and combat it. The age also saw the acceptance of vaccination and the germ theory, and notable diagrams that transformed public health, such as John Snow's cholera map and Florence Nightingale's pioneering histograms, are included and explained. Organized by disease, The Sick Rose ranges from little-known ailments now all but forgotten to the epidemics that shaped the modern age.
The images in the book might not be to everyone's taste. They date back from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, a time when medicine was moving away from the principles of Hippocratic humoralism that saw the body as unified whole and starting to see disease as a form of specific physical disorder. It's no coincidence that in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley would imagine Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who subverted the integrity of the body and created his living creature by assembling parts originating from various human corpses.
The period also saw the beginning of the mass-production of books for the education of medicine students. The medical images these books contained were the result of a collaboration between several professions. Physicians, surgeons and anatomists would first secure, dissect and prepare bodies. Draughtsmen would then be called to reproduce the subject in great details and under the guidance of the medicine man. Finally, engravers would cut woodblocks or copper plates as mirror images of the illustration. The anatomical reality would thus have to be filtered by the minds, eyes and hands of subjective humans. That's without taking into account any further involvement of the printers and publishers.
The Sick Rose is a wonderful book. Not just because of the eye-catching illustrations but because Richard Barnett is a talented narrator. And the stories he tells are fascinating.
First of all, there is the origin of the corpses to dissect and portray. At first, they came from the gallows. Starting in 1752, the sentence for murder in English courts included indeed public dissection. Body snatchers would supply corpses of pregnant women and foetus and any extra cadaver if needed. The 1832 Anatomy Act, however, abolished the dissection of executed criminals but allowed anatomy schools to use the body of anyone who had died unclaimed in hospitals. Which means that it was no longer crime that lead you to the dissection table, it was poverty.
Then there are the stories that accompany each disease studied in the book. Leprosy, aka the "Imperial Danger", that reappeared in the 19th century when doctors and missionaries traveled to tropical colonies. Smallpox and how the first vaccine was successfully developed with the help of pretty milkmaids. Venereal diseases and syphilis in particular which was treated by injection or ingestion of mercury. Et cetera.
My favourite page in the book may well be page 246, aka "Places of Interest", a list of the pathology museums, anatomy museums, medical history centers and other public collections of all things bodily and gruesome. I'm definitely going to drop by some of those in the coming weeks.
Views inside the book:
The Guardian has a photo gallery.
Related story: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.
The musée du Quai Branly, my favourite Paris museum, has recently opened a fascinating show called Tattooists, tattooed. I haven't stopped telling people they should go and see it if they happen to be in town in the coming months. In town and french speaking preferably because a large part of the information in the gallery spaces hasn't been translated in english.
I was expecting the usual about tattoos: the criminals, the freak shows, the Māori warriors, the virtuosity of contemporary tattoo artists. I certainly found all of that in the show. I wasn't however expecting to be shocked by the way tattoos were used to mark women.
In the 1920s, thousands of Armenian girls and women managed to escape the Genocide of their people by feeling to Syria. They were kept in slavery and forced into prostitution. In order to identify them and prevent their escape, their pimps tattooed their face and arms.
The girl in the photo above had just been rescued from a Turkish house and was cared for by the Y.W.C.A. workers at Aleppo.
The significance of the tattoos worn by Ainu women couldn't be more different. In the Ainu culture of Northern Japan, only women tattooed and were tattooed. The traditional practice was a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. Mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip. The design would gradually increase in size over the years.
The exhibition looks at tattoo through ages and cultures. It also demonstrates that tattooing is an art in constant evolution that traverses all continents, even if its essence, acceptance and purpose differ from one culture to another. While in societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds, tattooing had a social, religious and mystical role, the West saw it as a mark of shame. In the past, only criminals, prostitutes, sailors, circus freaks and other marginals would wear one. Or many.
The exhibition displays 300 historical and contemporary artefacts, including photographs, prints, paintings, posters, short films, tribal masks, books, clothing, tattoo-making instruments (such as Thomas Edison's perforating pen) and even mummified samples of body parts and preserved tattooed human skin.
I was obviously drawn to the displays showing how tattoo was used by 'the underworld' to frighten, claim their belonging to a certain gang, parade their crimes or share secret codes.
Tattoos were of great interest to European criminologists during the late 19th century. Many scholars believed that the presence of tattooing in European culture represented worrying signs of atavism, criminal proclivity, or dangerous 'degeneration' within their populations (via.) French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, however, believed that the choice of tattoo offered an insight into the criminal mind. He catalogued thousands of images according to type and body location. In 1881 he published Tatouages: Étude Anthropologique Et Médico-légale, or Anthropological and Forensic Tattoos.
Lacassagne's archives offer an interesting parallel to the drawings and photos detailing Russian criminal tattoos.
Sergei Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev, the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people". Baldaev spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. He recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates.
Nowadays, you don't have to be a criminal to wear tattoos. But the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs of Los Angeles and Central America wear their symbols and languages on their faces.
With the help of a priest working on the rehabilitation of gang members, Isabel Muñoz gained access to a prison in El Salvador where she made stunning portraits of the men.
More images from the show:
Marc Garanger's 1960 portrait of a woman whose village was destroyed during Algeria's war of independence from France. She clearly wasn't impressed by the French photographer.
You probably don't want to see this video but here is the Lizardman, i discovered its existence in one of the videos screened at the museum:
Tattooists, tattooed is at the musée du Quai Branly until 18 october 2015. It was curated by Anne & Julien, founders of the magazine "Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture," in collaboration with tattoo artist Tin-Tin, anthropologist Sébastien Galliot and journalist Pascal Bagot.
Related: Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits.