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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

It's been too long since i've blogged about a project supported by Symbiotica (although they did get their fair amount of mentions and praises in #A.I.L., the show i present on ResonanceFM.)

The new project -developed by researcher and artist Guy Ben-Ary and by artist and academic Dr. Kirsten Hudson- looks into stem cell technology and more precisely Induced pluripotent stem cell, a cell re-programming technique able to reverse-engineer any cells from the body, coerce them back into their embryonic state and then trick the resulting stem cells into becoming any cell in a fully developed body. Regardless of the original tissue from which they were created.

For the In-Potentia work, the artists grew cells that were taken from human foreskin cells purchased from an online catalogue. The cells were then re-programmed by genetic manipulation and bio-engineered to become a neural network.

This functioning "brain" is presented in a sculptural incubator containing custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system as well as an electrophysiological recording setup.

The work is more clearly explained in the video below:

In-Potentia exposes, in the most limpid and absurd way, how science is blurring what we are used to regard as clear-cut categories, such as where life begins and ends or what constitutes a person. Or in Guy Ben-Ary's words:

What is the potential for artists employing bio-technologies to address, and modify, boundaries surrounding understandings of life, death and person-hood? And what exactly does it mean culturally, artistically, ontologically, philosophically, politically and ethically to make a living biological brain from human foreskin cells?

The artists have kindly accepted to answer my questions:

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

In Potentia is without doubt a very powerful and thought-provoking work. What is the state of the scientific but also cultural debate around liminal forms of life? where could i read more about it (in a not too daunting, hi-tech language if possible)? do you have simple examples of these 'uncertain lives' at the border between human/non-human, coherent/hybrid, etc.?

Liminal lives are creating a great degree of conjecture and debate in many areas of discourse in science, life sciences and the humanities. Liminal lives come in many forms, basically, anywhere where there is a physical entity on the threshold of change ie an entity that sits somewhere between one form or thing and another, that could be on the threshold of life and death but could also be on other thresholds such as human/machine, human/non-human, or occupy a more moral ambivalence where an understanding of consciousness or sentience is attributed to a live physical entity which we had previously only regarded as being "merely an object" ie the space between object/being. Basically liminal life is any form of life that challenges and alters the very nature of the concept of the human being, but also the contours of human life.

Liminal lives can be "brain dead" or coma patients who are only being kept alive due to machinic intervention, or severely pre-term newborns kept alive with external life support systems, or embryos (both within or outside of a female host body) whose status as "pre-beings" disrupts our understanding of "life" as being conscious, independent and "useful". Liminal lives could also be humans with animal (or other human) organ transplants, genetically modified/manipulated (human and non-human) lives that challenge the ontological status of where and how "life" starts, or even non-humans that exhibit "human-like" characteristics of consciousness etc etc. A liminal life can therefore be found anywhere that our traditional western understandings of what it means to be human is challenged, altered or transgressed. If you were only going to read one thing on liminal lives, I would suggest Susan M Squire's 2004 seminal text: Liminal Lives - Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine.

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

I like the humour behind 'project dickhead' as you nicknamed it but i've been wondering if you're not worried that certain journalists (and bloggers) will jump on the opportunity to depict the project in a simplistic light? Your choice was quite bold because you could have avoided potential simplistic headlines by choosing to use other cells than the ones of foreskin?

The use of foreskin is deliberate and although may evoke simplistic readings, does not take away, I hope) from the ability of these cells to offer an accessible point of entry into an art/science work for non- art or non- science savvy viewers in way that starts to evoke ideas to do with gender, waste, body modification/manipulation, western capitalist opportunism and the role biomedicine and scientific rationalism plays in determining the moral status and hierarchy of all beings.

The idea or research strategy was to try and problematise the technology by putting forward an absurd scenario (make a brain from foreskin) and ask the views to consider it...

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Could you briefly explain me the audio-soundscape that exposes the electrical activity of neural signals or synaptic output? It is just the electrical activity from the neural network being amplified? Did you modify the sound in any way to make it more 'evocative' of what the activity of a brain might sound like?

When we thought about exhibiting the project, its aesthetics or shall I say the visual/sonic language we needed to develop to show something like a neural network we decided not to visualise the network using a camera. Rather, we chose to grow the neurons on a multi electrode array or an electrophysiological set up that allows us to amplify the electric activity of the neurons so that the viewers could hear the neurons rather than seeing them. We felt that this sonic element will complement or support the aesthetics of the incubator. We believe that together they support the reading of the artwork. We also chose not a modify the sound of the neurons (even though not such a popular decision) due to our desire for authenticity and integrity. In my mind this way the focus is on the neurons and not programming or musicianship... I think that the blurry, noisy signal (that really needs analysis algorithms to decode it) also adds to the absurdity of the whole work in a way that it is a functional network but really what does this statement mean ?

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Thanks Guy and Kirsten!

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1tu8549.jpgThe new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today we will be talking with the flamboyant Adam Zaretsky, a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts, a 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. If you've been following this blog for a while you probably know that i LOVE Adam Zaretsky.

Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and 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 that the rather camp music had on the bacteria. More recently, the artist has worked with materials that include surgically manipulated pheasant embryos and a preserved turd of the deceased writer William S. Burroughs.

So that's what we are going to discuss in this episode of #A.I.L., turds from a famous writer but also eyeballs in armpits. And ethics, biotechnological materials and ''Full Breadth Genetic Alterity.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 24st March at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.

My guest in the studio is artist and film maker Charlotte Jarvis.

Over the past few years, Charlotte has worked with scientists to bio-engineer a bacteria with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence, she developed performances that showed the public what could happen if one day, synthetic biology was used to eradicate greed, lust and anger from a group of children.

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Ergo Sum performance at the Waag Society in Amsterdam

But today, Charlotte is going to dispel a few myths about stem cells and discuss her award-winning project: Ergo Sum.

A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Her tissue and blood samples are now in a lab where they will be transformed - medically metamorphosed - into induced pluripotent stem cells and from there into a range of completely different substances. A second self will be created, a self-portrait, a dopplegänger, made from a collage of in vitro body parts. Brain, heart and blood vessel all biologically 'Charlotte', yet distinctly alien to her.

The project has received a Designers and Artist's for Genomics Award. It will be exhibited this Summer at Naturalis in Leiden, The Netherlands.

The show will be aired today Thursday 7st February at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.

Zoe Papadopoulou is an artist whose work looks at emergent technologies and speculates on their future uses to help the public imagine and discuss what these innovations might hold for us in the coming years. In the past, Zoe has baked nuclear cakes, sold ice cream flavoured clouds and drafted the merger between the island of Cyprus and Intel corporation.

But the work we are going to focus on today is called Reproductive Futures. Zoe has spent the past year on a project sponsored by the Wellcome Trust exploring the scientific and technological developments in Artificial Reproductive Technologies. She particularly looked at questions such as "Will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction? How will the stories we tell children evolve?" Her research will take the form of 3 books that address different scenarios of future reproduction through children's stories.

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The story of the "Goldfish Boy'. Illustrated by Matt Saunders

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1677: Invention of the microscope - 1694: Homunculus (tiny person already formed inside a sperm) illustrates the theory of Preformationism

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Timeline charting the history of assisted reproduction technologies exhibited at the festival Abandon Normal Devices in Manchester

In the show, we will be talking artificial uterus, the orphan child who had 5 parents, artificial gametes, and premature babies exhibited in freak shows.

The show will be aired today Thursday 31st January at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Previously: Reproductive Futures.
Image on the homepage: Wellcome Collection.

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Marcos Raya, Untitled (family portrait: group), 2005

Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection are always eventful. I've seen sliced brain, freeze-dried brain, dessicated brain, two wax babies heads dissected, tin face masks for WWI soldiers disfigured by explosions and gunshot, i've learnt about the history of narcotics, read about a gentleman turned on by dirty maids, etc. Wellcome's exhibitions are dramatic and engaging but they are also impeccably researched and edifying. I can't remember having exited one of their shows without being fascinated by the amount of information their curators manage to pack in each room. Except this time.

The recently opened exhibition Death: A Self-portrait is entertaining, it contains some fantastic pieces and it definitely deserves a trip to the Euston Road museum but it is a bit light in reflection and cross-disciplinary references compared to what Wellcome has used me to. The show displays some 300 works -most of them being skulls- from Richard Harris's collection of cultural artefacts, artworks and scientific specimens devoted to the iconography of death and our complex and contradictory attitudes towards it.

The artefacts are grouped into five themes: "Contemplating Death" (a room full of memento mori), "The Dance of Death" (the 'many' faces of death, most of them are actually skelettons), "Violent Death" (artists representing the ravages of wars), "Eros and Thanatos" (the human fascination for death) and "Commemoration" (death, burials, mourning and their rituals). One moment you're looking at rare prints by Goya, next you find yourself in front of anatomical drawings, puzzling photos in black and white, ancient Incan skulls, or a gigantic chandelier made of 3000 plaster-cast bones.

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Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, from the series Der Krieg (The War), 1924. Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Otto Dix, Wounded soldier - Autumn 1916, Bapaume, , from the series Der Krieg (The War), 1924

One of the most striking work for me was the truly horrific cycle of 51 prints that Otto Dix made to document his time fighting as a machine-gunner on the Western Front during World War One.

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Otto Dix, Night-time encounter with a madman, plate 22 from Der Krieg (The War), 1924

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When Shall we Meet Again?, c. 1900. Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Halloween. Anonymous photo. The Richard Harris Collection

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Edward S Curtis, Kwakiutl Man, Crouched, Cradling Mummy, c.1911

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Linda Connor, Death Dancers, Hemis Monastery, Ladakh, Himalayas, Linda Connor, 2003. Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Linda Connor, Skeleton, Shrine, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1980. Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Linda Connor, Young Monk with Death Mask, Ladakh, India, 2003, from Gates of Reconciliation

Dr Luis Crucius's drawings of skeletons animated a promotional calendar distributed to doctors by the US Antikamnia Chemical Company in 1900--01. Ironically, the company's antikamnia painkillers contained an active ingredient which was later found to be toxic and addictive.

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Dr Luis Crucius, Antikamnia Calendars, 1900

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Metamorphic postcard (c1900-10). 'La vie et la mort, Leben und Tod' (Life and death, life and death). Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Dana Salvo, from the series The Day, the Night and the Dead. Photograph: Wellcome Images/The Richard Harris Collection

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Jodie Carey, In the Eyes of Others, 2009. Picture: © Jodie Carey

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Iturbide, Graciela, Procession. Chalma, Mexico, 1984

Our (western) culture tends to keep death in the background. We have lost touch with death and its rituals (unlike, for example, Mexico which celebrates the Día de los Muertos in the most flamboyant fashion.) And since none of us has a direct experience of death, we leave its interpretation and representation to artists.

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Marcos Raya, Untitled (family portraits). Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Marcos Raya, Untitled (family portrait: woman in yellow dress), 2005

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Marcos Raya, Untitled (family portrait: Grandma), 2005

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Found Human Skull. Anonymous photo taken in 1927 at the San Diego home of Phebe Clijde. Part of the Richard Harris collection

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Tibetan carved wooden mask, 19th century

Photos by Happy Famous Artists. The Guardian has a slideshow.

Death: A Self-portrait remain open until 24 February 2013 at the Wellcome Collection in London. Admission is free.

Related: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men right now at the London Museum, Exquisite Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, Mind Over Matter and Brains: The Mind as Matter.

A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 11th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 13th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.

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London Fieldworks, Polaria. Photography: Andy Paradise, 2002

This week i'm talking to Bruce Gilchrist, who together with Jo Joelson is the founder of London Fieldworks, an art practice that dialogues with science and technology.

Their work, which is usually developed in collaboration with other artists and with scientists, has investigated subjects as different from each other as the caravan and nomadic culture, the animal habitat, the impact of natural phenomenon such as the weather and the light on human consciousness and the possibility to send human beings into hibernation.

The projects of London Fieldworks have led them to the Atlantic Rainforest, the Scottish Highlands, North East Greenland but right now London Fieldworks have a show at the WORK gallery near King's Cross.

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The exhibition, Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing, has received much coverage in the press. The first reason for it is that London Fieldworks collaborated with Gustav Metzger, an avant-garde artist who launched the auto-destructive art movement back in 1959. The idea of auto-destructive art is roughly speaking to demolish art, and reconfigure the act itself as an artwork. His work however is never empty nor gratuitous, most of his pieces deal with social and political issues: threats to the environment, nuclear weapons, nazi Germany, capitalism, etc.

06gustavm416.jpgSo it seemed almost logical that London Fieldworks would ask the artist to sit on a chair for 20 minutes thinking of nothing. But the second reason for the vast media coverage is that while the artist was seated, readings were taken of the electrical activity taking place inside his brain. The resulting electroencephalograms were then analyzed and turned into instructions for a factory robot to drill a hole inside a bloc of stone. The result is a 50cm high cube of stone with a void that represents what happens inside the brain of Metzger when he is thinking about nothing.

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In the show we'll talk about neuroscience, brainwaves, biofeedback technology and other technologies that are influencing the way we live today.

The exhibition Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing is up at the Work Gallery until 9 February. The book accompanying the show is Null Object. Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing (available on amazon USA and UK.)
Bruce recommended another book if you'd like to know more about Gustav Metzger's career: Damaged Nature, Auto Destructive Art (available on amazon UK and USA.)

Finally, if you're in London on Friday, Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist from London Fieldworks will talk about their work at the symposium Digital Reflexes: Craft and Code in Art and Design.

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