Paul Vanouse and Kerry Sheehan working at the Suspect Inversion Center. Photo: Axel Heise

While the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis can sometimes be questioned in courtrooms, genetic evidence is still widely regarded as the forensic gold standard.

Unfortunately, accidents happen. Remember the fiasco of the DNA evidence brought forward at the trial of O. J. Simpson?

Mug shot of O. J. Simpson

Or the deep embarrassment of European police when they found out that a mysterious serial killer known as the The Woman Without a Face had in fact never existed? The only clues that the criminal had left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs and supplied to the police in a number of European countries. The police later discovered that the DNA had very probably been left by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.

There's more in the case against the fail-proof quality of DNA evidence. Three years ago, a crime lab analyst found out that DNA "matches" are not always as trustworthy as one might believe. While a person's genetic makeup is unique, his or her genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.

And in Israel, scientists have demonstrated that DNA evidence can be fabricated. "You can just engineer a crime scene," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of a paper published in 2009. "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."

Paul Vanouse is doing just that with his latest work, the Suspect Inversion Center. Together with his assistant Kerry Sheehan, the biomedia artist set up an operational laboratory at the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Using equipment anyone can buy on the internet as well as Vanouse's own DNA, they (re)create in front of the public identical "genetic fingerprints" of criminals and celebrities.

Latent Figure Protocol

The solo exhibition features two other biological artworks by the American artist: a series of Latent Figure Protocol lightboxes and Relative Velocity Inscription Device, a cynical molecular race reflecting on biologically legitimized racism, in which bits of DNA, instead of bodies, compete by testing their "genetic fitness". The work uses DNA samples from Vanouse family and directly references Charles Davenport's book Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black populations.

Relative Velocity Inscription Device (detail of the installation)

The press release for the exhibition says:

Vanouse's biotechnological installations do not only challenge the codes and images of contemporary knowledge production but also question the methods behind (natural) scientific findings in general: What do uncritically accepted commonplace catchwords such as "genetic fingerprint" conceal? To what extend does the technical construction of alleged naturalness notarize clichés and prejudices? Vanouse diverts biotechnologies and scientific imaging techniques from their intended uses, and amalgamates auratic iconography with technical images. Employing gel electrophoresis as artistic medium, he intentionally applies a method that bears analogies to photography: while photography allowed viewers to draw seemingly objective conclusions about human qualities based on physiognomic characteristics of the body, today, increasingly questionable social conclusions are derived from ontologized body fragments such as genes.

Curated by Jens Hauser, Paul Vanouse: Fingerprints... remains open at the Ernst Schering Foundation (google map) until March 26, 2011. The foundation, which aims to promote science and art, was showing the wonderful work of Agnes Meyer-Brandis last year: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.

More posts featuring the work of Paul Vanouse: Wetware Hackers Day 2 and Hybrid Art awards.

Sponsored by:

Still from the movie Mars Attacks

The latest installation and videos by Demitrios Kargotis and Dash Macdonald are inspired by the exercises performed by members of Casualties Union (CU), a charity organisation funded during the Second World War as a course where acting, made-up casualties were recreated to provide added 'realism' to civil defense and rescue training exercises. For over 60 years, their methodologies and exercises have been showing actors how to simulate 'authentically' both the emotional shock of disaster and physical trauma.

Archive image: The Casualties Union

The title for this exhibition currently on view at Lanchester Gallery Projects comes from a CU training script for displaying the different emotions associated with disaster; in this case 'shock'.

Through working with the Casualties Union West Midlands region to produce exercises which test and expand their methodology, the exhibition addresses the reach of theatre into everyday life and the dependence of acting in preparations that constitute applied policy on civil defence.

The first work in the new series, Exercise 1: 'Trapped Under Piano in Real Time' is an experiment in endurance acting that challenges a qualified member of the CU to realistically portray the physical and psychological symptoms of their prescribed injuries for as long as possible; exploring the need of acting casualties to sustain an 'authentic' performance throughout the entirety of training exercises. The 03:03:35 hour film Contrasts the often 'hyper-real', fast paced, edited portrayal of disaster that we are accustomed to through television and film.


The disaster scene in this first exercise is re-created from a training exercise detailed in the book The Struggle for Peace by Eric Claxton, founder of the Casualties Union.


Exercise 2: 'A Study in Laser Wounds' reflects the fact that The Atlas of Injury, the CU publication that guides its members how to act, fake and stage the signs and symptoms of injuries with medical accuracy has expanded over the course of the past 60 years in response to technological developments both in warfare and everyday life.

Laser weapons have hit battlefield strength for the first time and although currently used to counter missiles and projectiles, laser technology is on course to develop anti-personnel weapon systems in the years to come. Based on non-classified papers on laser bio-effects such as Explosive Onset of Continuous Wave Laser Tissue Ablation, Kargotis and MacDonald challenged the CU to expand the Atlas of Injury to include the effects of laser weapons on human tissue.

Still from Buck Rogers



The photographs document three speculative laser wounds starting with the current Advance Tactical Laser, at hundred kilowatts strength with a ten centimeter diameter at the target; moving up to higher power and smaller beam diameters which might be available in the future.

Finally, Exercise 3: 'Heart Attack in Repetition' challenged a CU member to repeatedly deliver one of their 'signature' injury simulations for the duration of forty minutes. This
performance is based on the role the CU play in training competitions for first aid and rescue organizations such as the Red Cross where CU members have to deliver the



Thime for a quick question and answer exercise with Macdonald and Kargotis!

I had never heard of anything like Casualties Union. How did you discover the existence of this organization? 
We initially discussed the CU after reading a short paragraph detailing their activities in JG Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, then rediscovered them when researching into the theatrical nature of civil defense and the different methods used for rehearsing possible disaster.  

Have you at any point been tempted to train with them and perform the casualties yourself?
Actually, in order to get to know the West Midlands Branch of the CU, we attended and offered our services as acting casualties for an exercise at Birmingham's police training centre. We played a family member of a missing person that could have been involved in a mass casualty disaster abroad.  Drawing from a sheet of paper describing the features of our fictitious family member, we sat in one of the academy dorm rooms, that we had to imagine was our house, answering their questions and improvising what we thought was the appropriate level of distress.

It was interesting over discussions at lunch to hear how each CU member had approached this in a different manner from being uncooperative and impatient to quietly sobbing and shaking.  

The performances you ask from the members of CU seem to be intense. On the other hand, CU works in a context which is quite different from yours. I had first thought they worked for the cinema industry but their website states that they work for "public benefit education and training in first aid, the treatment of illness, nursing, rescue, accident prevention, care in the community and similar activities". So how did they welcome this collaboration with you? Were there directions where they were not ready to go?
It's interesting that you thought they worked for the cinema industry as it was the contrasting demands placed on acting, illusion and pretense in the context of the CU, and their role in rescue training and accident prevention that fascinated us. For example, in such simulations if the rescue and first aid workers experience depends on the casualties' acting it places a significant need for the delivery of a 'realistic' performance as 'unauthentic acting' could contribute to 'unauthentic' procedure. All the exercises we set for the CU were based on the unique techniques they have pioneered to 'authentically' portray casualty victims and they were open and excited by the challenges,  and as committed to achieving authenticity and realism as they would be in any of their usual training exercises which can often be intense and physically demanding.


It is not the first time you explores 'amateur acting/staging skills'. I'm thinking of Imagine Being a World Leader. Is SHOCK: 'It...all...happened...so...quickly' a continuation of the former project? Or is it an entirely different investigation?
Both projects stem from our interest in acting, artifice and scripted pretense and their role in systems that affect our behaviour and perceptions of reality.  'Imagine Being a World Leader' uses the primary school children as a medium to deconstruct and show the potency of political rhetoric. SHOCK: 'It...all...happened...so...quickly' challenges the idea of authentically simulating reality and the role acting plays in shaping real world policy. However, the two projects focus on the pedagogy of these methods and how understanding them can create debate on the social implications they have.

"The exhibition addresses the reach of theatre into everyday life.' is this presence of theater into reality something we should embrace or do you feel that this is an invasion that should be kept under control? 
In the context of preparing for possible risks and disasters, the CU offers a valuable service for the training of emergency, rescue workers and organizations. In contrast, if we look at their involvement in past Cold War civil defense drills or current large scale simulations of terrorist attacks, they then become a part of what Professor Peter Marcuse refers to as 'manipulated climate responses', contrived scenarios that are calculated to increase insecurity for specific political agendas.

Any upcoming project of DASHNDEM you could share with us?
The next stage of our collaboration with the CU is 'A Fete Worse than Death' a public event that will utilize the format of a village fete to further explore the art of casualty simulation.  The overall narrative of the event will be based on a site specific 'worse-case' scenario. Visitors will learn how to simulate the resulting injuries then take part in competitions with categories which could include: holding the most authentic expression of pain for a prolonged period of time, delivering the most authentic emotional outburst or panic reaction or sculpting the most authentic severed limb. The 'finale' will consist of an improvised simulation of the overall scenario, staged around the central disaster set supported by accompanying music; a score composed for the scenario performed by a brass band.  
Thanks Dash and Demitrios!

DASHNDEM - SHOCK: 'It... all... happened... so... quickly' is running at the Lanchester Gallery Projects until 28 January 2011.

All images courtesy DASHNDEM.

See also Tatjana Hallbaum's IN-BETWEEN photos as described in the post Manipulating Reality - How Images Redefine the World.
Other work by Demitrios Kargotis: The unhappier you are, the more ice cream you get. By Dash MacDonald: Remote control skates.

Zilvinas Kempinas, Double O, 2008. Photo by Mick Visser

Let's pretend it's November 2010 and i'm writing a perfectly timely report from the STRP festival in Eindhoven. Well, i did try at the time (cf. The Physiognomic Scrutinizer and Pattern Recognition - Art for animals) but that was very far from making justice to the programme. STRP is one ambitious art & tech affair which most of the taxi drivers who dropped me to the old klokgebouw venue unceremoniously called 'The Party'. STRP does indeed offers one hell of 10 day long party:

Photo by Mick Visser

2 of a Kind. Photo by Mick Visser

The last edition of STRP attracted almost 30,000 visitors. They came for the concerts and parties of course, but also for the performances, exhibitions, screenings, live discussions, conferences, games and workshops.

The exhibition was particularly exciting with its mix of low tech and high tech. Zilvinas Kempinas' Double O which i had seen only in contemporary art fairs so far is made of just two fans and a strip of recording tape. You switch on the fans and hey presto! you get a sculpture that hovers between sheer poetry and vintage tech. At the other end of the spectrum were works such as Acclair's Art Valuation Service (AVS) that monitors your brain activity as you visit STRP's art exhibition.

For the first time since its creation, STRP dedicated part of his enormous exhibition space to a survey of the work by a young artist. They had the magnificent idea to chose Lawrence Malstaf, an ex-theatre set designer who's been quietly building his artistic career in the mid-1990s. The international new media art circuit discovered Malstaf's work a couple of years ago and his installations have been gracing the likes of ZKM, Vooruit and the Japan Media Arts festival ever since.

Lawrence Malstaf, Shrink, 1995. Photo by Mick Visser

Malstaf's most puzzling and iconic works were there. From the now world famous vacuum-packing experience provided by Shrink....

Lawrence Malstaf, Shrink, 1995. Image by Boudewijn Bollmann

... to the ars electronica anointed Nemo Observatorium:

Lawrence Malstaf, Nemo Observatorium, 2002. Photo by Mick Visser

And then there were pieces which are equally noteworthy but might not have attained the same media-attention just yet. Such as a belt to navigate invisible architecture, the moving labyrinth of Nevel...

Lawrence Malstaf, Nevel. Photo by Mick Visser

... a duo of conveyor belts running very slowly in opposite directions. Rolls and wheels hidden underneath add a tactile dimension to the experience.

Lawrence Malstaf, Transporter, 2008. Photo by Mick Visser

Lawrence Malstaf, Transporter. Image by Boudewijn Bollmann

I was both attracted and horrified by Shaft which has you laying with your face under a transparent shaft where plates hover and dance until they collide and break on the bulletproof glass. Just. Above. Your nose.

Lawrence Malstaf, Shaft, 2004. Video by ONIRISTV

More goodies awaited in the other exhibition rooms:

Lyndsey Housden & Yoko Seyama's Transient Landscapes is a performance installation that constructs and re-constructs the architecture of a room. On entering this field of vertical white lines performers as well as visitors can shape the space into patterns and images reminiscent of cityscapes and landscapes.

Housden & Seyama, Transient Landscapes Photo by Mick Visser

I felt immensely sorry for the poor electric fish brought from the Amazon River to be squeezed in a tank, endlessly photographed by curious visitors and form a choir based on their sonified electric fields.

Malcolm MacIver, Marlena Novak & Jay Alan Yim, Scale, 2010. Photo by Mick Visser

Colin Ponthot's Monster Happy Tape is a blob of used audio tape hanging from the ceiling. By grabbing one of the yellow cables with magnetic heads at their extremity, visitors could play back sounds that might have been registered on the tape. A particular success with the kids who probably needed to be explained what a tape and a walkman are/used to be but also how physical sound can be.

Colin Ponthot, Monster Happy Tape. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann

The installation was part of the REwind: Compact Cassette programme which reminded visitors that the tape cassette was originally developed by Philips in Eindhoven back in the early 1960s.

In another building Christoph De Boeck had built a Staalhemel, a 'steel sky'. Tiny hammers tap rhythmic patterns on steel plates, activated by the brainwaves of a visitor wearing an EEG scanner.

Christoph De Boeck, Staalhemel, 2010. Photo by Mick Visser

There was also a big plush cat in the adjacent room:


More images on flickr: Photos by Mick Visser, photos by Boudewijn Bollmann and mine.

Previous posts about the last edition of STRP: The Physiognomic Scrutinizer and Pattern Recognition - Art for animals.

As promised a couple of days ago, here's the second story about the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a competition launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. DA4GA invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.

Early sketch of the concept. Courtesy Jalila Essaidi

One of the winning projects is a bulletproof skin named 2.6g 329m/s. Jalila Essaidi is teaming up with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands to provide transgenic human skin with a layer of spider-silk embedded in between the epidermis and dermis. The work purposely asks whether this technological innovation is socially desirable.

'This spider dragline-silk is a product of transgenic research done by Dr. Randy Lewis at the university of Wyoming and Notre Dame and is produced by transgenic goats and more recently also by transgenic silkworms,' the artist explained me. 'This spider-silk is up to five times as strong as steel but still keeps the smooth properties of silk.'

The silk will be woven with special bulletproof vest techniques into a matrix that can be used for culturing human skin cells. Once the flexible bulletproof spider-silk matrix is done the dermatology department of Leiden university medical center (LUMC) will help Essaidi with the embedding process. Finally the skin will be tested at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) with real bullets and be recorded with a high-speed camera.

Hi Jalila! Is this the first time you are working with genetics? Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?

This is the first time that I get in contact with a new medium that is the result of high tech genetic research. I think that would be the most honest answer, because yes I am in close cooperation with the people who gave me the opportunity to work with this material, which is a direct result from ongoing research regarding transgenic modifications, but I can not claim that I work with genetics myself for this project.

I love the techy field, but I have to admit that all the jargon that came with it did scare me off at first. Luckily I've met the right people who can explain even the hardest concepts in common language, which is a rare gift.

I am really glad with DA4GA for making this "world" more accessible for me, I am pretty sure that without this award this project would not have been possible at all. But it also wasn't some magic wand that opened all doors, I had to work really hard to find the right partners that would be willing to help me with the embedding of the silk in human skin. I've been in contact with pretty much every major skin-related research center in the Benelux for this and they all told me it wasn't possible.

Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with the project 2.6g 329m/s? Is the skin going to repair itself after the shock or will it manage to completely repel the bullet?

The organic skin, made for protection, will be displayed in a steel, sterile life-support frame. Protection needs to be protected.

It will be showing the yet unknown result of the test on the firing range. I am aiming for it to actually repel the bullet, if not the spider silk has the properties to enhance the skin regeneration process.

image from the movie The Magnificent Seven

Where does the name of the project come from?

It is the performance standard for bulletproof vests. 2.6g 329m/s are the maximum weight and velocity of a traveling bullet, from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect you.

The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on 2.6g 329m/s? How is the collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?

I am still in the planning phase of the project. I will get the spider-silk in cocoons made by the genetically enhanced silkworms. Currently I am testing how to extract silk from normal raw silk cocoons because I am terrified to fail this part with the actual cocoons because mass silk production hasn't started yet and there is a really limited supply for me to work with. (No one in the Benelux has any knowhow how to do this, processing raw silk is all done in countries outside Europe, I have to get my information from books and the internet.)

My collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands really helped me to get in contact with LUMC and NFI since they are both partners of the consortium. The most important part of our collaboration is the vision about safety that we share.

I could imagine DARPA working on bullet-proof skin for future soldiers. But i suspect that your project attempts to convey another meaning and message. Can you tell us how did you get the idea for this project? Which kind of social or ethical reflection do you try to raise with 2.6g 329m/s?

What I want to realize by displaying this installation, made to enhance protection & safety, is to let people realize that safety is relative.

Safety is a balance and when you go to the extremes with it like I'm doing with this project, this will become more visible. Think about complications during surgery for someone with this skin or the development of better weapons to counter this new safety technology. The possible reduced sense of touch? You always give up something else in order to increase safety; this counts pretty much for all forms of safety.

I am not saying that we should not embrace improvements resulting from technology; I am an advocate for increasing funds for all sciences that improve our lives. I am just trying to fuel the ongoing debate about how far we can go to improve safety, how much we can sacrifice in order to feel safe.

And last but not least I want too show the beautiful symbiosis between nature and technique. The organic soft human skin in contrast with the sterile steel life support frame.

Thanks Jalila!

Previously: The Microscopic Opera.

Image on the homepage: Yul Brynner in Adiós Sabata.

Every society is a high society. From morning coffee in European cities to kava in Pacific villages, betel nut in Asia to coca leaf in the Andes, the rituals of drug use are everyday and universal, and stretch back through centuries.

The Wellcome Collection, which explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future, has quickly become one of my favourite cultural venues in London. Their recently opened exhibition, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, explores the history of narcotics and -maybe more interestingly- the perception we developed of it through time.

Although it doesn't seem to put forward any moral judgment, the exhibition asks us to leave our prejudices at the door and examine the facts, theories and arguments before we decide on which side the balance between right and wrong should tip.

Illustration by Mervyn Peake for Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

While the exhibition highlights the damaging effects of drugs and of the violent drugs trade, it also reminds us that several cultural icons have waxed lyrical about the joys of mind-altering substances. Charles Baudelaire wrote about his experiences of hashish and opium in Les Paradis Artificiels. Robert Louis Stevenson, would have written The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while he was under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug similar to LSD. In The Sign of the Four, Dr Watson asked literature's most renowned intravenous drug user Sherlock Holes:

"Which is it to-day," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"
He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.
"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"

Substances that many of us consume freely today - alcohol, caffeine and tobacco - have all been criminalized in the past or remain illegal in some parts of the world. A tract published in Leipzig in 1707 berated early adopters of tea for "drinking themselves to death".

Bayer Company Heroin, Glass bottle and contents, Bayer, Germany, around 1900. Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

Tabloid brand Forced March, Glass bottle and contents, Burroughs Wellcome, England, 1897-1924. Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

Correspondingly, substances which, today, we regard as harmful used to be prescribed by doctors for their health benefits. Early 20th century Western mothers treated their coughing child with heroin syrup. Coca-Cola got its name for the tiny doses of cocaine it contained during the first few years of its commercial life.

However, fears over the health problems caused by drugs quickly emerged and by 1961, a United Nations convention on narcotic drugs led to their criminalisation. The general ban has not met with much success since today, the illicit drug trade is estimated at $320 billion a year - making it the third biggest international market on the planet, after arms and oil.

A few highlights from the exhibition:

A section of the exhibition is dedicated to self-experimentation, the affects of recreational drugs are indeed best described by their users:

T Rowlandson after W Combe, Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas, coloured aquatint, 1823

When morphine for injection was first introduced it was often injected just under the skin. This could lead to abscesses and scarring as shown here. This 'morphinomaniac' subject was a male nurse pictured shortly before his death:


A mescaline experiment on human by Dr Humphrey Osmond and broadcast on the BBC in 1955:

Of course, experimentation was also performed on animals. High Society showed a video documentation of Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander's Rat Park, a late 1970s experiment which showed that rats living in a happy environment consumed less morphine than the ones confined in small cages.

Nasa spider experiment, conducted in 1993, studied the webs of a spider after it had imbibed three different substances, cannabis, benzedrine and caffeine. The researchers found that caffeine, more than any other drug, caused the creatures to spin the most deranged webs.

NASA experiments on spiders. Image Wellcome Library, London

View of one of the exhibition's rooms, featuring a massive bong statue spanning the length of the space.

View of one of the exhibition's rooms. High Society, Wellcome Collection. 11 November 2010 - 27 February 2011

Tracey Moffatt, Laudanum, #5, 1998

A. & E.O. Tschirch & Von Lippmann, An opium den in San Francisco. Image Wellcome Library, London

Various fungi - 20 species, including the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), death cap (Amanita phalloides) and Boletus and Agaricus species. Coloured lithograph by A. Cornillon, c. 1827, after Prieur. Image Wellcome Library, London

Prohibition era cigar case and edition of Al Capone "On the Spot". Credit: Chicago History Museum

The harmful effects of wine, Scientific Temperance Federation, Boston, Mass. 1, circa 1920

A whole room in the exhibition is left to Mustafa Hulusi's Afyon, a video installation that immerses visitors in field of colourful poppies.

Mustafa Hulusi, Afyon. Installation view in the High Society exhibition, Wellcome Collection

Rodney Graham's Phonokinetoscope installation, 2001. High Society, Wellcome Collection

Keith Coventry, Crack Pipes, 1999

Keith Coventry, Crack Girls II, 2008

High Society is co-curated by author and historian Mike Jay and Wellcome Collection's Caroline Fisher and Emily Sargent. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name by Mike Jay. See more about it in this video by the publishers:

Image galleries.

High Society is open at the Wellcome Collection until 27 February 2011.

Previously: Exquisite Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, Radiographer of the day and Image of the day.


Millions of people around the world are type 1 diabetics. Most of them are otherwise healthy, and enjoy a perfectly normal life if they are disciplined enough to keep their blood sugar level constantly under check.

James Gilpin, who recently graduated from Design Interactions in London, suffers from type 1 diabetes. He has used his own experience of the condition to explore but also discuss the consequences of using science to alter our bodies' abilities.

The designer's project, Family Whisky, is inspired by the fact that large amounts of sugar are excreted on a daily basis by diabetic patients -especially older people- who don't have adequate control of their sugar levels. Processing old people's urine to produce whisky of high economic value is not a scheme sponsored by the government to solve Britain's looming pension crisis, it is the starting point for a discussion with health care professionals about the everyday problems caused by diabetes.

Is it plausible to suggest that we start utilizing our water purification systems in order to harvest the biological resources that our elderly already process in abundance? In James Gilpin's scenario, sugar heavy urine excreted by patients with diabetes would be used for the fermentation of high-end single malt whisky for export.


James had lined up bottles of various whisky blends for visitors to taste during the Design Interactions show (which closed in late June i'm afraid). Although the liquid smelled nothing like urine, I wasn't as brave as other people and refuse to drink any of it.
I caught up with James last week to ask him a few questions about his project:

How did you approach the diabetic patients and ask them for their urine? How did they react to your request?

I began by working with people that I know personally so my grandmother was the first candidate to sign up for the trials. I went through lots of my process with her and worked out where people were likely to feel uncomfortable. This helped to avoid lots of awkward moments. (I should say that not all my collaborators were diabetic some just had dilapidated endochrine systems due to old age.) I then heard a story about a pharmaceutical factory based in a community of elderly people and they would send representatives door to door exchanging cushions and soft toys for tubs of urine. The factory would then take the urine and process it to remove all of the chemicals that they had originally been selling their customers on the shelves of pharmacies. I took this model and adapted it for my own purpose. The only problem was that people then mistook me for an innovation designer and the project would be misunderstood. I am of course not suggesting that this process should be in anyway commercial although the idea of old peoples homes with distilleries in the garden in a funny one.


Can you describe the process of turning urine into whisky? Did you do it yourself or did you just bring the 'ingredients' to a brewery?

So the urine is cleaned using the same techniques that we use for purifying our mains water stock. This process itself shares much of the distillery process. The thing that made life easier is that the sugar molecules are large and will form crystals which can then be removed and purified separately.

This sugar is added to the mash stock and used to accelerate the fermentation process. This is sort of a bit of a cheat as traditionally the sugars would be made form the starches in the mash. During the brewing process I make a clear alcohol sprit. This is again not the traditional method for making whisky but I adopted a commercial technique for cheap whisky and used whisky blends which I added to the sprite to give color, taste and viscosity.


Could people do it themselves with the kind of household equipment they already have home?

You can make the alcohol at home but purifying the sugars requires far more understanding of clean lab processes and chemistry so I definitely wouldn't recommend doing this at home. Distillery equipment can be bought legally but you will need a licence to actually produce alcohol.

Home distillation equipment

Can the diabetic safely drink the whisky?

This is one of the reasons I choose whisky as an output. No, diabetics definitely shouldn't drink whisky and it's not a product intended to be consumed by diabetics only produced by them. That being said if you read the online diabetic forums you will find it is often the drink of choice as whisky will give you an artificial low in sugar levels shortly after drinking it. This is not because its is forming some biochemical miracle, it is simply that the high alcohol quantities mean that the sugar cannot be processed at the same time.

The fact that I am associating alcohol with a severe medical condition has upset some medical professionals that I have met during the process of my project. This was a very deliberate provocation on my part as I wanted to have a dialogue with health care professionals about the real complications of living with diabetes. People still want to drink, eat unhealthy food and experience the messiness of everyday life. In my personal experience this is often overlooked by professionals who can give the impression that theses things simply should not be a part of life as a diabetic patient but they are. I am interested in finding ways in which designed systems can help overcome these very social problems.

Are you planning to show Family Whisky in other contexts than the RCA show?

The piece was designed as a public engagement piece that would exist outside the gallery context and act as an educational tool. That said the next two venues of the Whisky shop are in a gallery context. I am showing at 100% materials in September and at the AND festival (Abandon Normal Devices) in Manchester in October. This is a festival organised by FACT and curated by Professor Andy Miah.


What do you hope that your project can teach to someone who has no experience of diabete?

I show a film trilogy at the same time as serving whisky and these each of these outline one aspect of living with diabetes. I had originally hoped to show people that although Diabetes is a medical condition it could be possible to consider this break from our genetic norms as a state of enhancement and not just an illness in need of constant attention.

Thanks James!

All images courtesy of James Gilpin.

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