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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

A week ago i was in Eindhoven for an of the STRP festival that surpassed all my expectations. The curators and directors of the event had the brilliant (and timely) idea of dedicating the whole exhibition to the history of new media art in The Netherlands. I'll come back with a report or two about the show as soon as i've collected all the pictures and texts i need. But i found that one of the pieces exhibited, Delusions of Self-Immolation, is so powerful and disturbing it deserved its own post.

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STRP 2011 Expo hall. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

Delusions of Self-Immolation, aka 'the suicide machine', was a built by Erik Hobijn in the 1990s to set members of the public on fire. Literally.

The person would stand on a platform covered in a flame-resistant gel. A flame-thrower would then burn their body for less then half a second. The platform then turns on itself so that the extinguisher situated on the opposite side of the machine can extinguish the person immediately.

In an interview with Derek Holzer, Hobijn explained: There are three states on the machine which I call "rare", "medium", and "well done". "Rare" means you survive without any wounds. "Medium" is more for, say, the SM session or for people who like pain to understand parts of life, or to have this experience of pain. The third possibility is death. It is possible to die in this machine; I just have to change the liquid, and I have to change the timing.

Some 30 people have tested it at the time, many of whom were women.

The machine was shown at STRP along with a video. The artist also made demonstrations. I doubt it would be possible to have it function nowadays. We've all caught the Health and Safety bug in Europe.

Obviously, there is something physical in the Self-Immolation experience but what goes on inside the mind of the people before, during and after the burning alive experience must be even more intense and fascinating.

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation, demonstration. Photo © Jan Sprij 1993

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

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Erik Hobijn, Delusions of self-immolation. Photo Morten Hartz Kaplers

If you speak dutch, i would recommend the book SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981 by Martijn Haas that reconstruct the 'night of terrorism' orchestrated by Hobijn in the Summer of 1980 in Amsterdam.

Sponsored by:





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Hunterian Museum - Pipa Monstrosa. Image by Mister J. Photography

Last Wednesday, as i walked by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, i saw a small sign that said "Hunterian Museum" with an arrow pointing to the top of stairs. I dutifully followed the arrow.

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(image Unlike)

I wasn't fully prepared for what i encountered there: animal foetuses in jars, the skull of a little boy born with a second skull attached to the top of his head, a transverse section of a leg and foot of a man suffering from elephantiasis, skeletons of animals born with extra legs or heads, pickled deformed animals, a prosthetic nose attached to eyeglasses, organs attacked by almost any kind of disease you could think of, and various bits and pieces of human and non-human animals preserved in glass jars.

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Hunterian Museum - Thecadactylus. Image credit: Mister J. Photography

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Hunterian Museum - Elephantiasis. Image by Mister J. Photography

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Hunterian Museum - Syphilitic Penises. Photo credit: Mister J. Photography

Reading through the online reviews of the museum makes me realize how much i've missed (namely the skeleton of 'Irish giant' Charles Byrne, the tooth of an extinct giant sloth donated by Charles Darwin, the brain of computer pioneer Charles Babbage and Winston Churchill's dentures) during my short and shocked visit. Be sure that i'll be walking around the place before the end of the week.

The museum is mostly based on the collection amassed by John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish surgeon and anatomist whom wikipedia defines as an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine. And indeed once you've recovered from the surprise, there is much to learn about the history of medicine and anatomy in the permanent collection as well as from the temporary exhibition that the museum presents in a couple of rooms on the top floor. The current one is dedicated to the outcome of artist Ju Gosling aka ju90's inquest into the cultural construction of disability via society's (mis)interpretation of science and medicine.

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A transverse section of a leg and foot of a patient with elephantiasis

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Eyewear for a woman who had lost her nose

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Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the museum so obviously, none of the uncredited picture above is mine.

The Hunterian Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.

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IBI trying Town Crier, a device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone

Last week, i was telling you about Le Cadavre Exquis, an interactive installation commissioned Making Future Work. This Nottingham-based initiative that called for artists, designers and organisations based in East Midlands to submit proposals that would respond to four distinct areas of practice: Co creation / Online Space, Pervasive Gaming / Urban Screens, Re-imaging Redundant Systems and Live Cinema / 3D.

The Urban Immune System Research, one of the 4 winning projects, investigates parallel futures in the emergence of the 'smart-city'. During their research, the Institute has produced a series of speculative prototypes that combine digital technology and biometrics: one of the devices 'functions as a social sixth sense', a second one is a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around, a third one attempts to make its wearer get a sense of what might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'.

The devices are the starting point of a series of user tests, performative research and public engagement events that seek to provoke debate and facilitate wider public discussion around potential urban futures, and our role in shaping them.

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Just a few words of introduction about The Institute for Boundary Interactions before i proceed with our interview. IBI is a group of artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative producers conduct practice-based research into the complex relationships between people, places and recent developments in the field of science, technology and culture.

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The Institute for Boundary Interactions display L.O.S.T. Stone and Sticky Data. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

The name of your project is quite intriguing. Why did you call it Urban Immune System Research? How does the immune system of a city compare to the human body immune system, for example? What are the differences and similarities?



The Urban Immune System Research [UISR] project was the culmination of a two day event we ran in December 2010 as part of our LAB commission for Sideshow2010. We set out to discuss the relationship between notions of 'intelligent' systems, and principles of ecology. A whole raft of interesting and thought provoking ideas emerged but after some discussion they coalesced into the UISR project.



We found the immune system a fascinating and intriguing departure point because it demonstrates complex self-organising properties, but what's interesting about this to us is how this kind of system is understood outside of scientific circles, in the everyday and within the context of the city. There is a general understanding of these kinds of systems, but we discovered an absence in the general lexicon of everyday terms with which to describe the kind of phenomena we explored in that workshop. So in part the name of the project is to ask questions about perceptions of intelligence and explore that gap between the science and the experience.



The interest in looking at urban space as an organism developed from thinking about this relationship between ecologies and intelligent systems. We looked at how these systems scale up, inspired by Geoffery West's research into the similarities and differences between mammalian and urban scaling. So despite their very clear differences urban ecologies correlate strongly to biological systems and although made of different components behave in similar ways.



This research quickly grew into a fascination by what happens at that juncture where human technology meets ecology, how personal electronic devices, micro-biology and nano-technology effect us at the macro level. We were interested in how this will manifest  macroscopically, or ecolologically if you will, and how this in turn will affect us individually as constituent parts of that urban ecology. Asking what form an Urban Immune System might take, and the devices we have developed under this title thus far are the first steps in our efforts to understand these ideas and their implications.



The devices all look to find alternative ways of connecting the individual directly to their ecology (the urban organism) and feel their place within it. These technologies operate to mediate our relationship to, and navigation through physical, social and virtual space. This process of upgrading could be seen as the momentum leading us towards transhumanism, an imagined yet possible future where the augmented body replaces natural selection as an evolutionary process in turn effecting the development of our 'ecological' surroundings. 



This notion of transhumanism is another aspect that we we're very interested to explore within this project as it has a lot of synergy with the notion of the urban organism. From one perspective we are looking at the inorganic environment as an organic organism, and from another we look at the organic organism as a component within an inorganic machine. 





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Trying IBI's Sticky Data device. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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Sticky Data display. Image courtesy of IBI

With The Sticky Data device you were asking "What might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'?" Did you find an answer to the question while you were testing the device? Is the experience of knowing how much data our body goes through every single second a stimulating one? or is it rather stressing? worrying? overwhelming? Does it influence the way you navigate a city afterwards? Would you for example avoid a quiet street because you've discovered that it might looks like a pleasant street empty of cars and passersby but with a data traffic that you find too intense?



The most stimulating thing about being able to sense geo-located data is the thought that you are physically feeling traces of people's experiences in the same place where they happened. We think this gives an extra sense of connection to a place, even if only for a moment.



It's difficult to say exactly what that should feel like, we're still playing with different haptic sensations, but the device certainly challenged our assumptions about certain areas. For example, in one test we found a really high density of data outside a bus depot, whereas across the street near a stadium, a seemingly much more social and 'eventful' place, there was comparatively little. So you definitely get a sense that the topography of a city's data layer can be quite different to that of its architectural space, but also an alternative sense of a places social makeup. So, finding themselves in a less sociable environment, did the inhabitants of the bus depot turn to more digital forms of social interaction, while the stadium offered enough 'face to face' social encounters that digital interaction was unnecessary?



The hope is definitely to ask people to question their relationship with space by providing a very different experience of navigating a city - the technologies that we use everyday are creating this digital topography, so how does this affect the urban organism and our interactions within it? 



Sticky Data App Field Test

At the end of your description of the Sticky Data project, you explain that "As the user moves on, data seeds will be copied and dropped in new locations spreading them throughout the city or collected and cataloged by the device." Why did you feel the need to add this 'manipulation' of the data? Is it not going to make the 'datascape' too confusing?



This was an idea that came from discussions around the notion of the Urban Immune System. We talked about the idea that perhaps urban space already has an immune system of sorts that operates to keep the city within normative parameters. We discussed this redistribution as something that might function like an immunisation to bolster this existing immune system by disrupting it with non-normative behaviour to see how it responded.  



We were interested in devices that have parasitic (viral) properties or where the owner could engage in the production of data and urban data configuration using the traces that others leave behind just through wearing the device and walking.  We leave behind traces of our electronic identities almost daily and it's something that we are not really aware of.  



Also, if data is part of our physical world then it in some way degrades or gets pasted over like the posters in a metro station over time, the datascape is constantly shifting.  We were going to be selective over how what qualities of data we were looking for, so older data might not be as 'memetically healthy' and so may not spread as far or at all. We were interested in being deliberately disruptive to see what might happen if we push messages into and across territories.  So the Sticky Data project could sift through what is there in electronic space to find data that might benefit the wearer or be most disruptive.




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Testing sticky data. Image courtesy of IBI

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Conductive glove. Image courtesy of IBI

One of the objectives of UISR is to explore new ways to 'sense the social characteristics of a city as you would temperature, or air quality.' Do you have a better idea of Nottingham (or any other city where you have experimented with the devices) after having tested your prototypes through its streets? Do you see the city with another eye?



The devices have opened up new ways of experiencing the city, so we're pleased about that. When testing the Sticky Data device we discovered huge amounts of twitter data in surprising places - like the bus depot on an unremarkable street that we mentioned before. So the device certainly challenges your perceptions of the social makeup of your environment and certain expectations or pre-judgments you may have made. Of course it also has the ability to re-enforce some prejudices too. However, not knowing what the messages are it leaves you to read into their presence from what is physically around you, building the virtual narrative into the physical narrative of your surroundings.



In the tests we have carried out we have felt some interesting things that have challenged and re-enforced our assumptions of particular locations. However no one of us has tested the device thoroughly across the city yet as we are still fine tuning it and have remained largely within familiar areas. Personally I am looking forward to taking the device somewhere totally unfamiliar and finding out what a city you've never visited before feels like. If you have no pre-suppositions about a particular street does the device make it easier to walk down or give you spidey-sense tingle that there will be something unpleasant around the corner? We just don't know yet.  



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LOST display. Image courtesy IBI

Could you describe The LOST (Local Only Shared Telemetry) device? How does it work?



The idea with the LOST device is for it to function as a social sixth sense. It's a wireless device, kept in close contact with the body that stores its owners profile. It simply transmits and receives this profile data over relatively small distances. When it finds a similar signal to its own the device communicates this to the owner by changing its temperature.



We wondered how a system that is similar to that of ants leaving pheromone trails might work in the social context of a city. In antithesis to the omniscient Internet this device doesn't use any kind of infrastructure as it communicates only locally, so the user has to physically travel to find new data rather than just clicking hyperlinks. The sensory feedback the wearer receives is specific only to the time and place in which they find themselves.



It's a thought experiment thinking that if everyone in an urban space wore such a device you would develop a very granular sense of the social make up of your very local vicinity with the cumulative heating, cooling effect of everyone else's device surrounding you. In such a way you could get a very clear feeling about whether a particular area is sympathetic to you as an individual or not. Kind of like blind man's buff, but instead of other players saying warmer or colder you simply feel it directly.



As with the sticky data device, having no lingual or visual output, it interfaces at a somatic level - we're interested in what happens when social data is perceived physiologically rather than visually. By integrating these digital sensory devices into our normal bodily senses we can start to understand the possible positive and negative implications not just of existing systems but also our rapid progress towards transhumanism. 



The notion of being a trans-human is very exciting but until technologies are developed we can never really know what the implications of them will be. Devices like the LOST device allow ways of imagining how technological and biological integration might operate and in turn perhaps begin to understand their consequences individually and socially.  



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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

I'm afraid i forgot the name of the device you used for the public performance on the day of Making Future Collaboration Work. Beyond the fun and spectacular side of the performance, what are you trying to achieve with this piece?



That was the Town Crier. It's a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around. The other two devices we made offer very subtle, private interactions, so we wanted to try something a little more confrontational. 



The idea was to use the disparity between what can often be intended as very private or relatively anonymous reflections, and the openness of physical spaces that they are associated with. Shouting out these bits of text wrenches them, quite forcibly, back into public view. On the other hand though, the electronic voice puts all these statements on an even plane, and democratizes them giving a sense of the voice belonging to the place rather than any individual. These statements are at different times nonsensical, funny, or timely and touching, but they all add to the texture of a place, offering a glimpse of the collective memory embedded within it.





Town Crier Public Field Test Documentation

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Town Crier. Image courtesy IBI

Are you still working on the project? Do you plan to push the prototypes any further? Add new ones?



We see this as a long term research project so we are definitely still working on not only testing and improving current devices, but also using this process to develop our understanding of the data city, the technologically augmented human, and the ecology that they create.



We're currently developing the town crier into some kind of performance work and playing with the Google Navigation voice more as a means of exploring the way in which the network operates as a continuous landmark in our landscape. 



The Sticky Data and LOST device projects are still very much a works in progress. With Sticky Data we are going to continue experimenting with the way that the data is sensed or output. The immediate question we want to address is the character of the sensation in relation to the density of data being sensed. Similarly, what types of data are being sensed, and what are the most appropriate modes of sensation for these different bits of data? With the LOST stone, we are going to play with what information is used to form the user profile to find which provide most effective functionality. 



Once we've worked out the technical challenges with both of these devices we want to produce enough of them for each of us to wear and live with them for a significant period of time. Perhaps with the LOST device also using willing volunteers to test them to increase the area density. 



We'd like to know what it would feel like if I put on a sticky data sleeve at the same time you put on your watch in the morning and wore it wherever you go for a month. Is it an irritation, will you get muscle spasms, or forget you've got it on most of the time and only notice more drastic or uncharacteristic changes?



After this we hope to have a better idea of how we can develop the project further, fine tuning these devices and perhaps developing new ones. To put it in techno-garb, perhaps create the Urban Immune System 1.0 rather than its current beta version. 



It is perhaps worth making clear that the focus will remain on provoking speculation on what the possible social implications of developing this sort of technology might be, rather than trying to create a cure for urban illness. Technology is exciting and interesting, however the implications of innovations are rarely visible until you have the grace of hindsight. One can only speculate how developments might or might not change the world, but that process of speculation is really interesting and tells us something about our current understanding of our society and technological culture.

Thanks Institute for Boundary Interactions!

Previously: Le Cadavre Exquis.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

So far the work of Kris Verdonck was mostly a privilege reserved to the aficionados of theater stages but Z33 in Hasselt has invited the theatre-maker and artist to invade its rooms with wonderful machinery, installations, videos and even a metaphorical garden made of some of the most invasive non-native plant and animal species in Belgium. It's the artist's first 'gallery' exhibition. Hence the title of the show.

His works are incredibly invigorating because of their originality and poetry but a few moments spent in their company reveals their dark undertone.

The work of Kris Verdonck (...) focuses on the confusion of man in an estranged world due to technological development. The tension between man and machine, between living species and dead materials creates an atmosphere of Unheimlichkeit or eeriness. This 'current state of the world' - with its environmental problems, ecological disasters and wars - is the central theme through his oeuvre.

In the solo exhibition in Z33, Kris Verdonck focuses on the one hand on the confusion and eeriness of man in his environment. On the other hand, his work is about the confusion of the world itself in which the Apocalypse already took place.

EXHIBITION at #1 is a bold move, the challenge was to prove that Verdonck's pieces, many of which the artist describes as "big installations that are displayed in a theatrical context", were strong enough to stand on their own two feet in a contemporary art gallery. I had never experienced any of his works in theatres before so i had no preconceptions nor expectations. All i saw were absorbing videos, stunning installations and an earnest robot.

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

DANCER #3 is one node of ACTOR #1 which explores the metamorphosis from chaos to order. One of the starting points for this work was the history of the creation of the 'homunculus', the artificial miniature human that philosophers, alchemists and scientists have sought over the centuries since Greek Antiquity.

DANCER #3 is a robot trying to stand up straight; he always falls down again, but never gives up. His energy and clumsiness display the optimism of a clown who's always tripping over.

In Box, a glass cube contains the strongest possible light source that can be concentrated on such a small surface. As spectators --equipped with protective glasses-- watch the light, they hear the voice of the actor Johan Leysen who speaks, in German, the apocalyptic texts by dramatist Heiner Müller: Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts) (1982-1983.)

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Kris Verdonck, BOX. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Light that normally allows us to see was made so strong by the team of engineers Verdonck collaborated with that it turns us blind. BOX is the second installation in a series of installations that examine "the end of the world" from different points of view. Its light could be the luminous flash of a nuclear explosion, a never ceasing, eye-burning lightning that announces the end of the world.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The most jaw-dropping moment for me was when entered a big room on the first floor of Z33 filled with the appliances and objects developed by the artist for live shows. Most of them would normally be kept behind the scenes. The machines often look like medieval instruments (of torture). At the same time, they are often high-technological objects, that fulfil complex functions. They form a large contrast with the extreme esthetical images that they produce.

The overview of machines by Kris Verdonck addresses the field of tension between man and machine in today's society. What relationship can/must/do people want to enter into with technology? How difficult is the balancing act between human control and submission to machines?

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For the IN performance, an actress remains motionless for an hour in a transparent cube filled with water. The distortion to her senses caused by the environment she is in makes her go into a trance. The sounds of her breathing and movement are amplified by microphones.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, IN (image from a performance found on the artist's website)

I wish i'd have time to talk about every single work i saw in the show but i'd better wrap up the asap and hit 'publish' before it's too late for you to drive to Hasselt and see the show which closes on Sunday already so i'll end with two of the most stunning video works:

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Kris Verdonck, MOUSE. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

MOUSE shows - enormously magnified and in extreme slow-motion - a mouse walking into a trap. The trap closes, the iron breaks the small body. A camera with super slow motion (10,000 images/sec) was used to unravel the mechanics of a movement, just like Muybridge did. The technique makes us experience an extremely upsetting emergency situation in the slowest possible way.

We eat meat every day but we don't want to be remembered that animals have to be killed before they land on our plates, and we definitely don't want to be confronted with it visually. MOUSE is an image of our daily hypocrisy turned into a slow motion opera that fills a whole room.

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Kris Verdonck, FRIEZE, 2010. Produced for the 'circuit performance' K, a Society. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The figures in the large-scale projection FRIEZE look like your typical posh office workers. Neatly dressed, impassible and modern. After a few minutes however, their sharpness starts to crack. No matter how hard they try, the businessmen loose their decorum as their bodies slip, tumble and move awkwardly around the claustrophobic space they are confined to.

The characters in FRIEZE could be considered to be a modern version of the majestuous Greek caryatids. These sculpted female figure were functional as well as ornamental and emanated gravitas. The caryatids in FRIEZE on the other hand, display their vulnerability in the extreme.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available online.

Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1 closes this week at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium.

Previously: EXOTE, an indoor garden for invasive alien species.

The competition for Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) invites artists and designers to team up with the Netherlands most prestigious Genomics Centres and produce new artworks in the field of sustainability, food, health, bio-informatics, agriculture, and safety. So far the competition was only open to people living, studying or working in The Netherlands.

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Jalila Essaidi, 2.6 g 329 m/s (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Maurizio Montalti, System Synthetics (image Maurizio Montalti)

But the good news is that the first edition was so successful that The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society and Genomics and Waag Society have decided to open up their second call for application to artists and designers from any country. Three projects will be selected and awarded € 25.000 for the realization of the final piece. The only condition is for you to have graduated in the past five years. Application form and other info, this way please!

A few weeks ago, i was in The Netherlands to see the result of the first competition. You might remember that i had interviewed the 3 winning artists/designers just as they were about to start developing their projects (The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics) so i was curious to see whether the final pieces lived up to their (and my!) expectations. The show is up until January 8th at Naturalis, the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity which is located in Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (detail)

The best surprise for me was definitely the Microscopic Opera, developed by Matthijs Munnik in collaboration with Richard de Boer from the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this installation, the fluid movements of the humble lab worms C.elegans are turned into sounds and images. This tiny worm is used routinely as a model organism in research laboratories around the world. Its 'participation' to the artwork is particularly relevant to genomics since C.elegans is the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (de_buurman has much better images)

A software tracks and converts the movements of the worms into various sounds that range from abstract opera singing to dynamic soundtrack of background sounds. The public can follow the activity of the creatures on a series of screens, they display the images magnified by the microscopes installed above the petri dishes containing each from 100 to 1000 worms.

Microscopic Opera could have been yet another 'new media art' installation controlled by a living being but, somehow, the modesty of the performers, the pleasant sounds they generate and the control and dignity they gain in the process made for a surprisingly moving experience.

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Bulletproof skin stopping the bullet (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Bulletproof skin being pierced (image Jalila Essaidi)

The project that got most headlines in newspapers and blogs is 2.6g 329m/s, developed by Jalila Essaidi with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. The objective of her project was to create a a bulletproof human skin, the kind DARPA would pay fortunes to get their hands on. Except that the project is first and foremost the trigger for a reflection about the many social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

The rather unappealing result is a hybrid between spider's silk produced by transgenic silkworm and human skin cells:

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In an interview with Neva Lukic, the artist explained why her project explores the concept, relativity and borderlines of safety: Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father's hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe... The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn't pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.

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Ballistic gel, used to simulate the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue (image Jalila Essaidi)

Jalila has recently posted on her blog, the extract of Sam Gaty & George Costakis' upcoming A Documentary Film about Synthetic Biology. The short video below gives a quick overview of the work being done in a farm in Laramie, WY whereby spider silk is being spun from goat milk.

The third project is System Synthetics, by designer Maurizio Montalti in cooperation with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The ambitious work attempts to study the possibilities of production of the bio fuel out of the degradation process of the plastic waste using two fungal organisms. A first type of fungi would break down plastic waste, a yeast would then take over and produce bio-ethanol out of it.

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Scanning Electron Micrographs (SEM), showing the interaction between fungus, yeast and plastic material

The final installation doesn't showcase the successful outcome of the project (the whole process would take years to complete) but it documents the intention, the experiments and points to the ecological burden that plastic imposes on our planet. There is a series of objects in a window that deconstruct the process from the moment plastic is broken down by men into smaller particles to phase when plastic waste would finally be transformed in an alternative energy source.

You might get a better idea of the whole project by watching this film:

The three works are on show at Naturalis, Leiden until January 8th 2012. The center has also uploaded videos that present the winning projects.

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Inside the Naturalis

Previously: The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

The Casino de Luxembourg has, once again, put up an show worth a trip to the capital of the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je raises questions about the blurring of identity in contemporary society. I'll review the whole exhibition later on this week but in the meantime i'd like to single out a work i found particularly striking.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Vue d'installation. Photo: Studio Rémi Villaggi, Metz pour Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain

In February of this year, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) were at galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana to perform Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me), a bold self-experiment that aimed to blur the boundaries between species.

The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011 (image)

In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.

Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

After the transfusion, Laval-Jeantet, perched on stilts, performed a communication ritual with a horse before her hybrid blood was extracted and freeze-dried.

Video documenting the performance:

As a radical experiment whose long-term effects cannot be calculated, Que le cheval vive en moi questions the anthropocentric attitude inherent to our technological understanding. Instead of trying to attain "homeostasis," a state of physiological balance, with this performance, the artists sought to initiate a process of "synthetic transi-stasis," in which the only constant is continual transformation and adaptation. The performance represents a continuation of the centaur myth, that human-horse hybrid which, as "animal in human," symbolizes the antithesis of the rider, who as human dominates the animal.

The work was awarded the Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Electronica 2011.
Previously: Interview with Art Orienté objet.

Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je remains open at the Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain through September 11, 2011.

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