Meta-Life. Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts, a Leonardo-MIT Press e-book edited by Annick Bureaud, Roger Malina and Louise Whiteley.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Leonardo/Olats writes: Artists have opened new avenues in the art world by employing these developments in biotechnology, synthetic biology and Artificial Life; going from inanimate to autonomous objects to living creatures; exploring the thin border between animate and inanimate; confronting the grown, the evolved, the born and the built; and raising aesthetic but also social, political and ethical issues.

New forms of 'exo-life' may not arrive on Earth from outerspace by hitching a ride on a meteorite, but instead come out of the lab, designed by scientists - or perhaps artists - weaving together biology and computing in a petri dish or bioreactor.

Over the last fifty years our ideas about the nature of life have changed dramatically. Revolutionary advances in genetics and molecular biology have given us new insights into how carbon based life on our planet originates and functions. In more recent years the development of synthetic biology has dramatically expanded our ability to design and modify life forms. At the same time, disruptive developments in computing technologies have led to the possibility of generating digitally-based artificial life. And outside traditional institutions, emerging DIY, bio-hacking and citizen science movements have begun to appropriate laboratory technologies, challenging ideas about the governance of the life sciences.

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Ai Hasegawa,I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin..., 2011

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Vincent Fournier, Post Natural History, 2012

Meta-Life is an anthology of articles published in Leonardo about the living, the non-living and the 'kind of living' in all their forms. There are 45 articles in total, some date back to the 1990s, others are newly commissioned texts. In fact, the whole DIY Biology - BioHacking section is composed of new commissions.

A quick look at the titles of the sections demonstrates the wide-range of themes explored: Between Bio, Silico and Syhtetic: Life and the Arts reflects on how our notions of life and of art are challenged both by computer technology and biotechnologies; Artificial Life and the Arts as well as the section called BioArt contain theoretical and philosophical texts about both fields, Bio - Fiction, Design, Archictecture explores the thin border between reality and fiction; DIY Bio - BioHacking proposes various points of view on the bio DIY movement.

I haven't been through the whole ebook but i've read most of the articles and so far, so very good. To be blunt, I don't trust Leonardo to publish texts that are approachable and engaging. Intelligent, informative and thought-provoking, they do very well but appealing to broad(ish) audiences? I wasn't not so sure. Well, that's where i was very wrong. There is no abstruse language nor complex theories in this ebook. Trust me, I deliberately looked for it.

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Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist and early geneticists, who suggested the concept of genes, rediscovering the laws of heredity in the 1890s while unaware of Gregor Mendel's work, for introducing the term "mutation", ca. 1930. Photo © C.G.G.J. van Steenis

Here's just a couple of examples of the essays i've enjoyed, in no particular order:

Dr Craig Hilton writes about his collaboration with artists Billy Apple® to create what is simultaneously a subject of art and of scientific endeavor. This project consisted in growing the first biological tissue made available for artists and the first biological tissue for science research made available by an artist as art. The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® is a work of art that lives, multiplies and has the potential to create other works of art ad infinitum, especially because there is no restriction placed on the use of the Billy Apple® 's tissue.

The flamboyant Adam Zaretsky authors a sex-infused manifesto about the utopias surrounding the art (manipulation) of the living.

Following the exhibition GROW YOUR OWN ... Life After Nature, Michael John Gorman offers a coherent and crystal-clear introduction to synthetic biology, in which he also manages to include a few reflections on intellectual property, ethical and regulatory framework, media frenzy, and market interests.

Anna Dumitriu explores the relationship between bacterial and digital communications networks through the lessons she learnt while working on her project Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0.

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Anna Dumitriu, Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0

Steve Tomasula places bio art into the context of the tradition of manipulating nature for aesthetic reason.

Oron Cats investigates the concept of being alive or 'just kind of living.' He makes some important points about the absence of a cultural language that would help audiences deal with tissue culture and other fragments of life. How should we culturally articulate and position lab-grown life when we have no cultural reference that would allow us to relate to it?

David Benqué has an enlightening conversation with independent synthetic biologist Cathal Garvey. The discussion explores the difference between DIY biology and BioHacking, the fear of biotechnology escaping the labs, the cost of creativity in biology, etc.

The first text i ran to was actually Alessandro Delfanti's research about DIY biology and its position in the world of science, the world of the market and the state.

I think i could go on and on. I carried Meta-Life in my e-reader throughout the Summer and enjoyed dipping in and out of it. I think that this collection of texts by illustrious artists, designers, and researchers constitutes a great reference to anyone who has a mild-to-strong interest in how the art world is exploring the synthetic and the aesthetic, the artificial and the new natural, the fictional and the ethical dimensions of life.

Get that one for your Kindle, it's a gem.

Image on the homepage: Brandon Ballengée. Malamp Reliquaries, 1996-ongoing. Unique IRIS prints on water-colour paper. 2003-07.

Sponsored by:





Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, by Justin McGuirk.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Verso Books writes: What makes the city of the future? How do you heal a divided city?

In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of the activist architects, maverick politicians and alternative communities already answering these questions. From Brazil to Venezuela, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers the people and ideas shaping the way cities are evolving.

Ever since the mid twentieth century, when the dream of modernist utopia went to Latin America to die, the continent has been a testing ground for exciting new conceptions of the city. An architect in Chile has designed a form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, formerly the world's murder capital, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over the forty-five-storey Torre David skyscraper; and Rio is on a mission to incorporate its favelas into the rest of the city.

Here, in the most urbanised continent on the planet, extreme cities have bred extreme conditions, from vast housing estates to sprawling slums. But after decades of social and political failure, a new generation has revitalised architecture and urban design in order to address persistent poverty and inequality. Together, these activists, pragmatists and social idealists are performing bold experiments that the rest of the world may learn from.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Iwan Baan/WENN.com

It's mid July and this might already be my favourite book of the year 2014 (unless Jo Nesbo publishes a new one before December.) It is lively, daring, insightful and it might actually be one of the very few books about future cities that make sense to me.

While we (in Europe) are still proudly exhibiting in biennials 3D printed visions of what the city of tomorrow might look like, cities in South and Central America are already experiencing elements of our future urban conditions. Countries in Latin America have not only gone through mass urbanization long before China and Africa, they've also given rise to a new generation of architects who believe that architecture can be used as a tool for social change. These men (who are not only architects but also in some cases squatters and politicians) have had to respond to housing crisis, traffic congestion, segregation, lack of political participation and other effects of rapid unplanned urbanization.

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Teddy Cruz, Cross-Border Suburbia. Photo via ciutatsocasionals

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Photo: Metrocable Medellín. Source: Cities Programme webpage

The urban experiments described in Radical Cities should teach European and North American urban planners and architects valuable lessons about conceiving and managing the mega cities of the future. Such as what happens when you value adaptability over perfect order, acknowledge the informal city as a vital part of the urban ecosystem, include the citizen into collective efforts of imagination and construction or embrace and work with the dynamic force that is precariousness.

Among the cases explored:

Alejandro Aravena created social housing for a poor community living in the north of Chile. He simply provided families with half a house and they built the rest, within a defined structural framework. The project was self-initiated and the final dwellers of the houses were involved in the design process.

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Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Alfonso Montero, Tomás Cortese, Emilio de la Cerda), social housing in Iquique, Chile. Image Mindmap

In Colombia, it's a new radicalized political class that took the initiative of improving the quality of life of all urban dwellers. The movement started in the 1990s when Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá used tactics of performance artists to tackle violence and instil a new civic culture. He reduced road accidents by hiring mime artists to mock bad behaviour on the road and to direct traffic, he set up a scheme allowing people to exchange their guns for toys and he dressed as Superciudadano (SuperCitizen) to urge his fellow citizen to take care of their urban environment. The results of his unorthodox social experiments included homicide rate dropping by 70% and traffic fatalities by more than 50%.

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Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota, dressed as Superciudadano (Supercitizen)

Torre David which the author calls 'a pirate utopia' is the third tallest skyscraper in Caracas. Built in the business district to host luxury offices, the building had stood empty for 13 years until 2007 when squatters moved in. Some 3000 people now live in "the tallest squat in the world.' Inhabitants managed to organize a legitimate electricity distribution, they enjoy spectacular views over the city and live in apartments that range from the barely inhabitable to well furnished flats with all commodities. The building has developed its own community rules and even houses convenience stores and bodegas every two floors. On the other hand, there is no elevator so going to the top floor with the grocery can quickly turn into a fitness challenge. There are open facades and holes in the floor and accidents happen if you don't stay away from the edge.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Art & Ecology Now by Andrew Brown.

Available on Amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: 'Eco' awareness has had an enormous impact, not least in the art world. This accessible and thought-provoking book is the first in-depth exploration of the ways in which contemporary artists are confronting nature, the environment, climate change and ecology.

The book moves through the various levels of artists' engagement, from those who act as independent commentators, documenting and reflecting on nature, to those who use the physical environment as the raw material for their art, and those committed activists who set out to make art that transforms both our attitudes and our habits.

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The Canary Project, Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting XXXVI: Bellingshause Base, King George Island, Antarctica, 2008. Source: Sayler / Morris.

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Tea Makipaa, Atlantis (Finland)

Don't judge a book by its hideous cover and its rather bland title, Art & Ecology Now is a timely, inspiring and exciting book.

Concerned that we are today about the increased surveillance of our online existence, the financial crisis, legal and illegal immigration or the lack of bright prospects for many young graduates, we might forget to look at what lays directly below our feet and what hangs above our head. 5 or 6 years ago, ecology was a hot topic in major museums and art galleries, sustainability was the magical word and many still believed that we could go back to some Arcadian state. Or at least that the dire consequences of global warming and the over exploitation of natural resources were distant in time and place. Nowadays, we know that the world as we know and despair of right now is probably very different from the one that awaits us.

The artists in this book remind us that everything is interconnected. That immigration, business and politics are affected by change in environmental equilibrium and that any disruption taking place in Mongolia might sooner or later have ecological and thus economical repercussions at the other end of the world.

Art & Ecology Now organizes artworks in 6 chapters that deals with the level and type of personal engagement with nature:

re/view highlights the work of artists (mostly photographers) who document the ecological challenges the world is going through. The author of the book compared their work to the one of war artists and investigative journalists. And indeed what these artists offer us are worrying reports and frightening images that show nature hovering between power and vulnerability.

The re/form section introduces us to artists who use the physical environment as a raw matter from which to make art. Their works take the form of permanent interventions or very light actions that leave only ephemeral traces.

re/search looks at artists who attempt to explore and understand the inner working of the natural world. Either out of personal curiosity or because they want to offer alternative ways to consider important ecological challenges.

The re/use section present artists who are concerned with the Earth's resources and who cast a critical look at how our throwaway culture disrupts the equilibrium of the environment.

Packed with novel ideas, prototype, experiments, beta tests and hypotheses, re/create offers a selection of artworks that emerged out of a quest to propose solutions to environmental problems.

Finally, re/act presents what might be the most ambitious projects in the book. The artists featured in the pages are actively seeking to transform the world in modest but tangible ways.

I've already expressed my dislike of the very underwhelming cover, I'm not sure i see the point in mentioning the year of birth of each artist under their name and i would have liked to see more pioneering works from past decades (even if i realize that this is probably not the point of a book that focuses on contemporary practice) but otherwise Art & Ecology Now is an inspiring and exciting book. I was very impressed with the selection of artworks, many of which i didn't know and almost of which i found truly relevant and stimulating.

Here's a quick tour of some of the works i discovered in the book:

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Benoit Aquin, Desertification in China

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Benoit Aquin, A dust storm in Hongsibao, Ningxia, China, 2007

Benoît Aquin 's The Chinese Dust Bowl series explores the impact of disastrous agrarian policies that have turned the grasslands of central China into desert. Frequent and violent dust storms affect three hundred million people in China. And beyond since winds carry the barren topsoil to North Korea, South Korea, and Japan and as far as North America.

In China's Qinhai Province there were once 4,077 lakes. In the last 20 years, more than 2,000 have disappeared. In Hebei Province, surrounding Beijing, 969 of the regions 1,052 lakes are now gone. And in Africa, Lake Chad, once a landmark for astronauts in space, is just about gone.

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Ravi Agarwal, Tar Machine Series, 2011

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Ravi Agarwal, Tar Machine II, 2013

The Tar Machines photo series reflects Ravi Agarwal's fascination with issues of labour and industrial machines. He found these iron tar-boiling machines (i had no idea such devices even existed) in the street and presents them as if they were sculptures, giving them nobility and life.

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Haubitz + Zoche, waterknowsnowall, 2009

Haubitz+Zoche painted a blue line running through Copenhagen's city center. The line delineates the city's new waterfront if the inland ice of Greenland were to melt, prompting water levels to rise by seven meters.

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Tea Makipaa, Atlantis (Malmö)

Atlantis, a collaboration between Halldor Ulfarsson and Tea Makipa, appears as a wooden cabin sinking in the middle of a lake or river. The work reminds us that our current lifestyle isn't as secure as some of us might like to think.

To passersby, the house will looks as if it is inhabited: there's light inside and the sound of family life can be heard from the street.

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Klaus Weber, Allee der Schlaflosigkeit, 2005

Allee der Schlaflosigkeit [Avenue of Wakefulness] was a 1:2.45 scale model for a botanical pavilion accessible to visitors. The structure was a long corridor lined with Angel Trumpet trees, a hallucinogenic plant with ties to shamanistic rites and valued for its ability to induce powerfully vivid dreams. Three beehives were added at the end of the 'avenue'. During the exhibition, bees collected nectar from the trees and produced pure Angel Trumpet honey.

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178 Matt Costello Hidden

We usually associate water consumption with the water that we drink, use for washing, use in the toilet or watering plants. On average this amounts to about 150L of water per person per day in the UK. Yet, if we consider the 'virtual' or embodied water used to produce the goods and food we consume, our daily average is much closer to 3,400 litres of water per person per day. This 'hidden' water accounts for nearly 96% of our daily consumption! Hidden explores the virtual water present in manufactured goods and industrial materials. It includes a set of glass vessels designed to communicate the differing amounts of water required to produce a range of industrial materials. The stopper in each bottle is manufactured from a different material: steel, aluminium, epoxy, glass and ceramic. The vessels are sized to contain the amount of water used to produce that bottle's cap.

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186 N55 Clean Air Machine, 1997

The Clean Air Machine improves the air quality of indoor environment by cleaning the air of dust, viruses, fungus, bacteria, toxic gases, malodorous gases, organic solvents, smog, carbon monoxide etc.

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Simon Starling, Tabernas Desert Run

The Tabernas Desert in Andalucia is the only 'true desert' in Europe. Growing in size each year due to climate change and poor land management, the land is home to both the film studios of the Spaghetti Westerns era and the Plataforma Solar de Almería, a research facility developing the use of solar energy for the desalination of sea water.

On the 9th September 2004, Starling travelled 41 miles across the Tabernas Desert on an electric bicycle. The bicycle was driven by a 900 watt electric motor that was in turn powered by electricity produced in a portable fuel cell fitted into its frame, generating power using only compressed bottled hydrogen and oxygen from the desert air. The only waste product from the moped's desert crossing was pure water of which 600ml was captured in a water bottle mounted below the fuel cell. Starling has used the captured water to produce a 'botanical' painting of an Opuntia cactus. The painting of this most 'ergonomic' of plants refers back to the site of the journey and to film-maker Leone (who introduced cacti into the area as part of the film sets), while also parodying the somewhat clumsy prototype moped. Sealed in a perspex vitrine, the project has become a kind of closed, symbiotic system, referring in part to Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube. The work makes a direct reference to Chris Burden's 1977 Death Valley Run, a desert crossing made in the real wild west on a bike powered with a tiny petrol engine. (via)

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Superflex, Experience Climate Change as a Mosquito

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Superflex, Experience Climate Change as a Jellyfish

During the UN Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen 2009, SUPERFLEX offered a hypnotic group session in which the participants were hypnotized in order to perceive the climate change as cockroach. Further sessions were then scheduled to take place in other locations, this time with other animals that are either extinct, about to become extinct, are spreading rapidly or carry dangerous diseases.

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The Canary Project, Increase Your Albedo!

The Canary Project, founded by Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris in 2006, uses photography and other media to highlight evidence of global climate change and the devastation that has already occurred.

One of their ongoing projects, Increase Your Albedo!, invites people to wear white to help cool the planet. Albedo, or reflection coefficient, is the measurement of the Earth's ability to reflect the radiation of the sun. The more reflective the Earth, the less sun is absorbed and the cooler it stays. Ice and snow are white. When they melt, the earth gets less reflective, warmer. More ice melts, and it gets even warmer. We want you to increase the overall reflectivity of the earth by wearing white. Albedo is the measurement of the earth's reflectivity.

The introduction to the book contained a number of pioneering works from the 1960s and 70s.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-1978-Present

From 1965 to 1978, Alan Sonfist planted a garden in Manhattan. The artwork consisted of plants that were native to the New York City area in pre-colonial times. Conceived in 1965 the Time Landscape was among the first prominent art works in the Land Art movement and is still an inspiration to create Natural urban landscapes.

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Nicolás García Uriburu, Coloration du Grand Canal, Venice, 1968 (3 Km of the Gran Canal waters dyed green)

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Nicolás García Uriburu, Utopía del Bicentenario (1810-2010) 200 años de Contaminación, Riachuelo, 2010

In 1968, Nicolás Garcia Uriburu dyed the Grand Canal in Venice bright green to protest its pollution. He was arrested by the police, but was released when he demonstrated that the substance he had used was not toxic. Uriburu then proceeded to tour the world in search of polluted waterways to colour: the East River in New York, the Seine in Paris, the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. Joseph Beuys joined him in coloring the Rhine. In London, he was fined £25 for "offending the British Empire" when he colored the fountains of Trafalgar Square. The work has as much relevance and strength as ever.

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Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation (Fresh Kills Landfill), 1977

Touch Sanitation is probably my favourite work in the book.

In 1976, Mierle Laderman Ukeles accepted an unsalaried position as artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation to raise public awareness of urban waste management issues.

For the 11 month-long performance Touch Sanitation, Ukeles traveled sections of New York City to meet over 8500 sanitation employees and shake their hands. Ukeles documented the conversations she had with the workers, their private stories, concerns, and public humiliations.

Views inside the book:

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Related stories: Radical Nature - Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009.

The Sick Rose" Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, by academic medical historian Dr Richard Barnett.

Available on Amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher Thames and Hudson writes: The Sick Rose is a visual tour through the golden age of medical illustration. The nineteenth century experienced an explosion of epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria, driven by industrialization, urbanization and poor hygiene. In this pre-color-photography era, accurate images were relied upon to teach students and aid diagnosis. The best examples, featured here, are remarkable pieces of art that attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the body, and the successive onset of each affliction. Bizarre and captivating images, including close-up details and revealing cross-sections, make all too clear the fascinations of both doctors and artists of the time. Barnett illuminates the fears and obsessions of a society gripped by disease, yet slowly coming to understand and combat it. The age also saw the acceptance of vaccination and the germ theory, and notable diagrams that transformed public health, such as John Snow's cholera map and Florence Nightingale's pioneering histograms, are included and explained. Organized by disease, The Sick Rose ranges from little-known ailments now all but forgotten to the epidemics that shaped the modern age.

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The feet of an infant with hereditary syphilis, showing the skin covered in pustules. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The images in the book might not be to everyone's taste. They date back from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, a time when medicine was moving away from the principles of Hippocratic humoralism that saw the body as unified whole and starting to see disease as a form of specific physical disorder. It's no coincidence that in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley would imagine Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who subverted the integrity of the body and created his living creature by assembling parts originating from various human corpses.

The period also saw the beginning of the mass-production of books for the education of medicine students. The medical images these books contained were the result of a collaboration between several professions. Physicians, surgeons and anatomists would first secure, dissect and prepare bodies. Draughtsmen would then be called to reproduce the subject in great details and under the guidance of the medicine man. Finally, engravers would cut woodblocks or copper plates as mirror images of the illustration. The anatomical reality would thus have to be filtered by the minds, eyes and hands of subjective humans. That's without taking into account any further involvement of the printers and publishers.

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A 13-year-old boy with severe untreated leprosy. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Severe tubercular leprosy (or ichthyosis) of the hand. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The Sick Rose is a wonderful book. Not just because of the eye-catching illustrations but because Richard Barnett is a talented narrator. And the stories he tells are fascinating.

First of all, there is the origin of the corpses to dissect and portray. At first, they came from the gallows. Starting in 1752, the sentence for murder in English courts included indeed public dissection. Body snatchers would supply corpses of pregnant women and foetus and any extra cadaver if needed. The 1832 Anatomy Act, however, abolished the dissection of executed criminals but allowed anatomy schools to use the body of anyone who had died unclaimed in hospitals. Which means that it was no longer crime that lead you to the dissection table, it was poverty.

Then there are the stories that accompany each disease studied in the book. Leprosy, aka the "Imperial Danger", that reappeared in the 19th century when doctors and missionaries traveled to tropical colonies. Smallpox and how the first vaccine was successfully developed with the help of pretty milkmaids. Venereal diseases and syphilis in particular which was treated by injection or ingestion of mercury. Et cetera.

My favourite page in the book may well be page 246, aka "Places of Interest", a list of the pathology museums, anatomy museums, medical history centers and other public collections of all things bodily and gruesome. I'm definitely going to drop by some of those in the coming weeks.

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Left: The face of a male patient showing rupia, a severe encrusted rash associated with secondary syphillis. Right: A woman's face, affected with lesions of impetigo. Prince A. Morrow, Atlas of Skin and Venereal Diseases including a brief treatise on the pathology and treatment, London, 1898

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Left: A man with a large pendant hip tumour. Right: A man with a large pendant face tumour. Lam Qua

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A child with blisters and other lesions affecting the skin. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Diffused and spotted pulmonary apoplexy in a tubercular lung, drawn by Berhari Lal Das at the Medical College of Calcutta in 1906. Photograph: St Bartholomew's Hospital Archive

Views inside the book:

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The Guardian has a photo gallery.

Dr Richard Barnett will have a conversation with journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders about 'The Sick Rose' on June 19 at the Wellcome Collection.

Related story: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

Synthetic Aesthetics. Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature, by designer Alexandra Ginsberg Daisy, social scientists Jane Calvert and Pablo Schyfter, bioengineers Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher MIT Press writes: Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.' These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.

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Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, Selfmade, 2014. Photo: Science Gallery

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Human Cheese Making 2: Bottles, 2010. Photograph by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

I don't think i've ever reviewed a book and recommended it to scientists. Synthetic Aesthetics, however, should appeal to the art/design crowd and to the science community alike. It should also interest anyone who is eager to look beyond overenthusiastic headlines that promise a world-saving 'green' technology and who would like to understand better the benefits, risks and uncertainties of a field that might sometimes appear foreign and abstract.

Synthetic Aesthetics brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to talk about what it means for science, culture and society to not only redesign existing organisms but also to design new ones, constructing in the process completely novel biological entities. As you can expect from the avant-garde minds invited to take part in Synthetic Aesthetics, the essays discuss the possibilities, real and imagined, of a future in which 'synbio' is part of 'nature', design and everyday life but some of the authors also look at the historical and cultural precedents of human interference with nature, from The Island of Doctor Moreau to producing GMOs.

Synthetic Aesthetics doesn't offer any easy answer regarding the challenges and potentials of 'synbio'. What it does very well, however, is opening up a space to have a broad discussion about questions as critical as: Could reprogramming organisms answer the problem of the finite resources of the planet? How do you design what doesn't exist, not even in our imagination? When should we turn to synthetic biology rather than to political or technical solutions? What are the implication of applying an engineering mindset to life materials? etc.

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Designers: Will Carey, Adam Reineck. Scientists: Reid Williams, Wendell Lim, Packaging that Creates its Content

Roughly one half of the book explores projects that resulted from a close collaboration between scientists and artists/designers. I'll just highlight one of them because it has a good balance of 'sci-fi' and everyday practicality.

Packaging that Creates its Content envisioned a probiotic drink that relies on bacteria to morph into a physical cup when exposed to a specific light wavelength. During shipping and storage, the cups remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating a healthy drink. After several uses, the cup's walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.

'Packaging That Creates Its Contents' helps people think about what the world would be like if packaging never created waste.

Get that book! I've searched high and low for a book that would explain synbio in a clear, engaging and intelligent way. I'm glad i've finally found it.

Views inside the book:

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Image on the homepage: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Synthetic Kingdom: Carbon Monoxide Detecting Lung Tumour, 2009. Photograph by Carole Suety.

The Secret World of Oil, by Ken Silverstein.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Verso writes: Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization, and the industry that supplies it has been the subject of intense interest and scrutiny, as well as countless books. And yet, almost no attention has been paid to little-known characters vital to the industry--secretive fixers and oil traders, lobbyists and PR agents, gangsters and dictators--allied with competing governments and multinational corporations. Virtually every stage in oil's production process, from discovery to consumption, is greased by secret connections, corruption, and violence, even if little of that is visible to the public. The energy industry, to cite just one measure, violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more often than any other economic sector, even weapons. This book sets out to tell the story of this largely hidden world.

Based on trips to New York, Houston, New Orleans, Paris, Geneva, and Phnom Penh, among other far-flung locales, The Secret World of Oil includes up-close portraits of Louisiana oilmen and their political handlers; an urbane, captivating London fixer; and an oil dictator's playboy son who had to choose among more than three dozen luxury vehicles before heading out to party in Los Angeles. Supported by funding from the prestigious Open Society Foundations, this is both an entertaining global travelogue and a major work of investigative reporting.

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Didier Ruef, Lokbatan, Baku Region, Azerbaijan, 2007. A man, working and wearing a BP pullover, poses with a dead buffalo's head

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Didier Ruef, Baku, Azerbaijan. A shepherd and his flock of sheep

The Secret World of Oil. Now that's a catchy title.

Silverstein investigates the murky oil scene through a series of characters that have so far received very little attention. These middle men stand between corrupt governments and the industry. The scope of their dirty operations is global, their influence is often colossal but they manage to remain in the shadow, quietly amassing fortunes and political ties along the way.

Each chapter in the book investigates a particular figure that personifies one of the many reasons why the energy business is even more squalid than it is profitable.

The first chapter looks at oil fixers. Ely Calil is one of them. He opens the list of secret is an oil fixer. He uses his powerful network to open doors for corporate clients in countries ruled by dictators, he makes sure the right palms are greased, and knows how to set up front companies to move money around. (the whole chapter about Calil is online.) Silverstein obtained exclusive information from Calil because over the years they've established a personal relationship (i wonder if it survived the publication of this book. Probably not.)

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Transparency International reports on corruption policies of oil companies. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: AP (via)

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Abandoned oil rig (image)

However, it doesn't seem like Silverstein has ever managed to chat with kleptocrat
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. He had to rely on discussions with former employees and other people who had a professional relationship with 'Teodorin.' Teodoro Obiang is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country with massive oil resources and one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The book demonstrates that the higher the U.S.'s economic interests in a country energy resource, the more tolerant it grows towards any gross human rights violation. In fact, it seems that dictators who keep a thigh grip on their country are regarded as bearer of 'stability.' And obviously, as far as multinational energy are concerned, it is easier to strike a deal with a dictator than negotiate with local communities: "As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can't exist," said Ed Chow, a longtime Chevron executive.

Anyway, while the wealth that oil brings to the country directly ends up in the Obiang family's deep pockets, the daily existence of people living in the country has seen little improvement. In fact, many social welfare indicators have gotten worse, not better, since oil money started flowing in (infant mortality rate climbed up, net drop in enrollment for primary education, etc.)

Theodorin, who dedicates his days to extravagant shopping sprees in Miami and dreams of being a hip-hop mogul, is favourite to his father's throne. It is very unlikely that the country's ecological and financial situation will thrive once he gains even more power.
Again, you can find the content of the chapter online.

The chapter about traders zooms in on Glencore, the biggest company you've never heard of. The chapter relies on WikiLeaked cables and interviews with traders who speak 'off the record'. And you can see why they are not keen on revealing their names. Traders go where multinationals fear to thread in order to negotiate and purchase output from energy-producing nations, and they often operate at the margins of what is legal. They are responsible for anything that goes from manipulating the price of oil to dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast.

They operate through a maze of offshore accounts, subsidiaries and shell corporations and it's virtually impossible to keep track of their activities.

The next player is Bretton Sciaroni. He is a 'gatekeeper', he provides advice and counsel to foreign investors seeking to do business in Cambodia. Sciaroni seems to be content of his friendly relationship with a government described by Human Rights Watch's Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy." On the one hand, he has brokered deals that are highly detrimental to the public but that benefit government officials and well-connected domestic and foreign insiders. On the other hand, his role also involves orchestrating PR campaign that depict Cambodia as the ideal country to do business in.

You can find the chapter on Sciaroni online as well.

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The Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea produces 26,000 barrels a day, but could yield up to 1.5 million barrels a day. Photo: Anatoly Ustinenko/Reuters

The chapter about Tony Blair (the 'flack' in SIlverstein's book) was particularly staggering. As we know, Blair spends much of his time traveling around the world as a highly paid speaker and senior adviser for governments and corporations. He not only imparts his 'wisdom' onto the privileged audience but he also helps glam up the image of countries with poor human right track records, brushing corruption, political repression, and glaring social inequalities under the carpet.

Blair has been very active, it seems, endorsing internationally the regime and promoting the images of the rulers of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other Caspian states. Not even the accusation that the head of a country is 'boiling alive political opponents' will stop him.

Silverstein wrote about Blair in New Republic.

The sixth part of the book explores the activities of lobbyists in Louisiana. This chapter is particularly grim. The author goes as far as to compare the U.S.'s third energy-producing state with "classic Third World states" because of rampant corruption, glaring social inequalities and little spending on social programs. The situation is so bad that the energy industry has often managed to get its own appointed to top positions at the state's two main environmental agencies (the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment Quality.)

Amusingly, Silverstein obtained much of his information because one of the most active lobbyist he interviewed confused him with a journalist of the same who writes also about energy issue, only that the other Ken Silverstein writes for industry-friendly trade publications.

Neil Bush is the icon of the final chapter that looks at con artists and hangers-on attracted by money. They have little talent but it never prevents them from trying. Bush is the son and brother of US presidents. He relentlessly travels in search of deals to strike in the oil industry but most of his efforts often end in failure. Which doesn't really matter as his name shields him from any unpleasant responsibility or complete financial collapse.

I opened the book already aware that the oil business is one without honour nor conscience but, because the book puts a name on some of the most squalid players involved in the energy racket, i closed it with more despair than ever. Suddenly i encountered the stories of individuals who have families and histories. Not just faceless corporations and far away country.

The content of The Secret World of Oil relies on the author's investigative journalism which means that you can't cross check every single fact in the book but have to rely on Silverstein's professionalism. I'm more used to heavily referenced essays but i've no doubt he is a scrupulous and honest journalist.

This is not a book about the oil industry per se, it merely brings the spotlight on a few players who operate in the dark. For a broader (and really engrossing) picture of the field, i'd recommend another Verso book: The Oil Road: Journeys From The Caspian Sea To The City Of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (on amazon USA and UK.)

Gawker has an interview with the reporter.

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