Second episode from the work in progress show of the Design Interactions department (Royal College of Art, London).
With BACK, HERE BELOW, FORMIDABLE [ the rebirth of prehistoric creatures ], Marguerite Humeau, attempts to ressuscitate the sound of extinct animals by reconstructing their voicebox (lungs, trachea, larynx + vocal folds, mouth and nose). Made of soft tissue, the vocal tract does not fossilize. The only elements which have been preserved through time are their bones. By comparing them with the larynx CT scans of their closest modern relatives, Humeau hopes to be able to deduce what the vocal organs of the extinct animals looked and sounded like. With the help of a specialist of each animal, the designer plans to remodel the soft tissues of the modern animals on the basis of the bone structure of the extinct one. The structure of the soft tissues will then be printed in 3D.
Hi Marguerite! "Back, Here, Below, Formidable" That's quite a title for a project. What's behind this long and cryptic (at least to me) title?
Marguerite Humeau: The idea of resuscitating the sound of extinct animals by reconstructing their vocal tract is quite straightforward- but could be seen as problematic on the scientific point of view: because made of soft tissue, the vocal tract does not fossilise. The only things which have been preserved through time are their bones. The idea is to compare them with the vocal tract CT scans of their closest modern relatives. Then we can predict how their vocal organs used to be like.
What was originally a simple idea has now become a quest, a contemporary epic tale. I see this quest as being very romantic and also fetishistic in a sense.
I want to bring back creatures which have existed millions and millions years ago, far before humanity was born. There is something almost mystical in this idea.
In general I am very interested in the fictional potential of scientific experiments and in the role of science in the creation of contemporary mysteries. We seem to live in a ongoing fiction: speculations and stories about what happens in the labs are as powerful as the Real itself. What we know about this Real in only through medias: they are the storytellers. It is really opaque. That's why we start to invent stories about these experiments: "science- fictions".
The object i saw in the exhibition space is quite impressive and curious. Could you describe it for us?
Marguerite Humeau: This prototype is the first of a larger series of reborn extinct creatures. Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago. It was one of our human ancestors- actually one of the first hominids- the mother of humanity. The remains of Lucy were found in 1974 in Ethiopia. Lucy In the Sky was playing on the radio when they found it, that's how she is called Lucy.
For this prototype I used the data from a vocal tract ( trachea, larynx- including the vocal chords, mouth, nose, pharynx, and sinuses) CT-scan from a human, and compared it with the data of a chimpanzee and the skull of Lucy.
Lucy's vocal tract is, scientists believe, actually really close from the one of a chimpanzee. The part of guesswork is then quite easy.
The same process for other animals is not always as simple as it sounds, as some extinct animals do not have any modern relatives, or, happened to evolve and become two or more different genus. For example, the sabre-toothed cat belongs to an extinct genus. From the same family, I could then use a wild cat like a tiger, or, a domestic cat. They come from the same family "felidae". But these two genus have two very different vocalisation systems- therefore it is hard to predict how the sabre-toothed use to sound like. Maybe it was not even roaring. This is when the prediction part becomes interesting!
Once the vocal tract is reconstructed, I just had to connect it to its artificial lungs ( the air compressor). This part of artificiality gives a curious and, maybe scary impression.
How did you get interested in the sound of extinct animals? Did you get some scientific help during your research and design process?
Marguerite Humeau: It all started with a synthetic biology workshop that we did last year, with James King and Daisy Ginsberg. At that time I discovered the work of Hideyuki Sawada who is constructing a "talking robot"- his research is the first time in the history of human voice simulation that the sound is actually made by reconstructing the vocal production system itself- so the voice sounds more natural. I connected this research with a talk from Anthony Atala on TED, about growing organs by 3d printing cells straight from the printer.
It meant to me that not only we are able to reconstruct organisms but we can enhance them. We could print living vocal tracts, and scale them, modifying the vocal cords, to create extra-ordinary voices- which would still sound "human" because coming from an actual larynx.
There was also this episode from Inside Nature's Giants on Channel 4 in which a team of veterinaries throw air from an air compressor inside a dead lion's throat- the lion starts to roar again!
I was fascinated by that and I wanted to add an imaginary dimension to it. Because we have never known these extinct animals we project a lot on them- how they use to be like, to sound like etc. They have become icons.
I then started to contact many different people. At first, I met Professor Hideyuki Sawada (who is working on the talking robot) in Japan, and then, palaeontologists, veterinaries, radiologists, engineers, etc. My goal is to get in touch with the world experts of each animal so the research is well grounded. Prof. Joy Reidenberg (also part of Inside Nature's Giants) was really helpful, she is specialised in animal's larynges. Alexandra Freeman, researcher on Walking with Beasts program on BBC helped me a lot as well in the beginning. I also got in touch with Dr. David Weishampel, specialised in the vocalisation of dinosaurs- he was Steven Spielberg's adviser for Jurassic Park. I also had great discussions with Prof. Adrian Lister from the Natural History Museum in London, who is a mammoth specialist.
Another great meeting was with Bernard Buigues, French Explorer, who discovered three frozen mammoths in Siberia. It was fascinating to hear him talking about this beasts. Some of them have been completely preserved in the permafrost, with their organs, and even their fur. They even still have the "smell" of wild animals. Can you imagine what it must be to be able to see and touch these animals, which died thousand of years ago?
And then this week I went to visit the Institute of Wildlife Research in Berlin- they have the scans of many animals vocal tracts and have very good knowledge especially of elephant vocalisation- it was great to meet them as well.
How far are you in the process of resuscitating the sound of these extinct animals? What have you achieved so far and how much is there still left to do?
Marguerite Humeau: To recreate the sound, I need three things: the lungs ( which are the air compressor), the resonance cavities (mouth, nose, etc.), and the vocal folds which sit inside the larynx. Now I found almost all the data for the resonance cavities reconstruction that I need.
What I am working on now is the vocal cords. In reality they are composed of five different layers of tissue of different softness. I am working on creating variations and getting a replica the closest as possible from reality (in terms of frequency, elasticity, tension etc).
Do you plan to work with non-extinct animals? Such as imaginary animals (unicorns or creatures from World of Warcraft for example)?
Marguerite Humeau: I find it really interesting to work on animals which have actually existed. Bringing the dead back to life is fascinating and scary. It also creates a mix of time periods. I like how this project lives on an edge. I think this ambiguity comes from the fact that the project is grounded is very precise scientific data.
As a starting point I have decided to work exclusively on prehistoric mammals because they use their larynx for the production of sound. Birds for example ( as the dodo) use a syrinx which is a completely different system. Dinosaurs used to have a very complex web of air sacs for their vocal production.
There is a "scale of exactitude" of course. For the long-extinct animals we usually have very few fossils, the guesswork is therefore more important. We have a lot of information on the mammoth because it has only been extinct for 5 000 years, especially because of we have found some frozen carcasses as well.
I want to play on this edge of exactitude and prediction, but I think it is really important that there is always a part of real data, if I want people to connect and speculate on the specimens.
And then there the furry red thing you showed me the other day at the show. Can you explain us what it is about?
Marguerite Humeau: It is going to be part of the collection- I would like to involve more abstract pieces in my bestiary, next to the Vocal tract series.
This piece is a synthetic woolly mammoth. I see it made of synthetic bright red hair, almost alive, slightly moving.
There are so many stories about the cloning of the mammoth, like two weeks ago, the team of Japanese researchers who said they could make it happen soon. There are very big hopes that this could happen one day- this speculation is what I am interested in. Do we really want this to happen? What would it mean for us? Will we have to actually make it happen to realise the impact of our cloning technologies?
The reality of what is actually possible to do or not is unclear, we- as the public- don't really know. Every three month there is a new headline about cloning the woolly mammoth. All this is really abstract to us and we can speculate about it. This is what I want to play with in my next series.
Also at the show: Known Unknowns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Thime for a quick question and answer exercise with Macdonald and Kargotis!
Have you at any point been tempted to train with them and perform the casualties yourself?
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 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?
"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?
Any upcoming project of DASHNDEM you could share with us?
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.
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:
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.
Malstaf's most puzzling and iconic works were there. From the now world famous vacuum-packing experience provided by Shrink....
... to the ars electronica anointed Nemo Observatorium:
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...
... a duo of conveyor belts running very slowly in opposite directions. Rolls and wheels hidden underneath add a tactile dimension to the experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There was also a big plush cat in the adjacent room:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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".
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:
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.
View of one of the exhibition's rooms, featuring a massive bong statue spanning the length of the space.
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: