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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

I already mentioned the festival Age of Wonder last week in my notes from Nick Bostrom's talk about (human and artificial) Super Intelligence. The festival attempted to reflect on the challenging but ultimately exciting techno-mediated times we are living with a series of performances, keynotes and art installations. BioArt Laboratories illustrated the essence of the festival with Tree Antenna, an installation and workshop that engaged with alternative wireless communication, ecology, DIY culture and historical knowledge.

The Eindhoven-based multidisciplinary art&design group recreated an early 20th Century experiment in which live trees are used as antennas for radio communication.

General George Owen Squier, the Chief Signal Officer at the U.S. army not only coined the word "muzak", in 1904 he also invented in 1904 a system that used living vegetable organisms such as trees to make radio contact across the Atlantic. The invention never really took off as the advent of more sophisticated means of communication made tree communication quickly look anachronistic.

Tree communication was briefly back in favour during the Vietnam War when U.S. troupes found themselves in the jungle and in need of a reliable and easy to transport system of communication but after that, only a few groups of hobbyists used tree antennas for wireless communication.

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George O. Squier ~ Trees as Antennas (Scientific American, June 14, 1919 & British Patent Specification # 149,917)

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Illustration from Squier's patent

During the last afternoon of Age of Wonder, BioArt Laboratories invited members of the public of all ages and background to join them and bring back tree antennas to our attention. Participants of the workshop could craft simple and affordable devices that would allow anyone to use the tree in their backyard as a radio receiver (it is also possible to broadcast from your tree but the technology is slightly more expensive and it requires permits.)

Squier drove a nail into the tree, hung a wire, and connected it to the receiver. The BioArt Laboratory team used flexible metal spring that wrapped around the trunk as planting a nail into the tree would have damaged it. Their system definitely works as the team managed to communicate with amateurs radios from countries as distant as Italy and Ukraine.

Right now there are only a few amateurs using tree and other high plants for wireless communication but the BioArt Laboratory's objective is to spread the word about this simple and affordable technology and gradually build up a world-wide forest of antennas.

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

Obviously, in this experiment the tree is part and parcel of the functionality of the antenna. We're thus not speaking of questionable antennas disguised as tree.

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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This month, i've been reading...

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Evan Roth, T.S.A. Communication, 2009

I recently discovered that Aksioma (the Ljubljana-based Institute for Contemporary Art exploring projects that utilize new technologies in order to investigate and discuss the structures of modern society) was publishing brochures about the work of some of my favourite artists and activists: Jill Magid, SOCIÉTÉ RÉALISTE, monochrom, Trevor Paglen, UBERMORGEN.COM, Frederik De Wilde, etc. The last issue is dedicated to the work of Evan Roth, with a special focus on the selection of works displayed in his show Flight Mode. I wrote that one. This will probably sound ridiculous but i usually avoid mentioning any extra-wmmna activity at all costs. However, i had so much fun writing this text, i don't even feel embarrassed sharing it with you. Here it it in all its PDF glory.

In connection with the publication, Evan has released a new web piece: flight-mode.net. And i really really liked the related video For Your Safety:

One of the best surprises of recent months was receiving a parcel containing the latest issue of FACTA, the magazine of Gambiologia, the Brazilian art and science of kludging. It's punk, it's upbeat and incredibly smart. The first issue addressed the 'science of Apocalypse' and this one is all about accumulating, collecting and re-purposing.

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The publication explores the theme under various angles. I loved the text on 'scrap artists', from the Dadaists to Chinese farmer Wu Yulu and Brazilian eccentric Farnese de Andrade. Tutorials will teach you how to make lamps and 'alarms' to protect your collection. An essay on fast fashion explains why 'to collect is quite different from collecting'. And i need to mention the story of the ultimate compulsive 'hoarders': the Collyer brothers. They died among their garbage. The police had to dig for 5 hours until they uncovered the body of Homer Collyer behind an accumulation of books and debris. The decomposing corpse of his younger brother was found 2 weeks later, ten feet from where his elder had died.

To buy a copy of FACTA, send an email to euquero at facta.art.br. And because they are that nice and generous, the Gambiologia team also uploaded the magazine on ISSUU.

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I still need to wrap my head around the fact that the award-winning magazine Neural has just turned 20. That's 20 years championing new media art, electronic music and hacktivism! To celebrate the achievement, Alessandro Ludovico and his team have recently published a bigger than ever issue (#46), "Unearthed: The 20th Anniversary Issue." It contains 'visionary' interviews (from William Gibson to Jodi!) and articles published in its first decade and available for the first time in English. And if you're a subscriber, you will also get the "First 20 years" poster.

You can also subscribe to the magazine Digital Edition accessing all issues since #29. It's only £16.50 for one year. That's such a reasonable price, it would be rude not to jump on the offer.


Neural #46, "Unearthed: The 20th Anniversary Issue"

A Practical Guide to Squatting is a very adequate title for a book that will teach you the skills of lock picking, show you how to craft a solar oven using a pizza box, grow a community garden, build a swimming pool in an open foundation or avoid arrest after breaking into a building. An adequate and provocative title thus. The handbook, however, will also give readers an opportunity to reflect on a practice that is too often attributed to gangs of drug addicts and anarchists 'stealing people's homes.'

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Larraine Henning, the author of the handbook, reminds us that, in many cases, a squat is an emergency shelter, an habitat in a derelict building that has to be fixed, lacks electricity, insulation and proper drainage system. Just for the sake of my own enlightenment i had a look at the housing crisis in the country where i'm currently living and it appears that homelessness rates are rising. Meanwhile the Empty Homes Agency estimates that the number of empty properties in Wales and England amounts to over 930,000.

Yet, it is now an offence to squat in a residential building in England and Wales and no other sustainable alternative(s) has been offered in exchange. The situation isn't much rosier in the rest of Europe as the fate of an icon such as Tacheles, Berlin's art squat demonstrated.

My intention is not to become an apostle of squatting but just to put the practice into a broader perspective. In addition, squatting can go beyond the simple need to put a roof over one's head when it extends to experiments in socialism, architecture, and community. Think of the Open City in Chile, Paolo Scoleri's Arcosanti in the Arizona desert, Christiania in Copenhagen or the Grow Heathow community outside of London.

With A Practical Guide to Squatting, the author -who trained as an architect- also reminds readers that architecture is not only practiced by an arguably elitist sect of educated professionals, but also by the disenfranchised, the layman, the individual and the collective.

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How-to make a swimming pool in an open foundation

The book, alas!, is not out yet. It started as Henning's MArch thesis and she recently launched a campaign on indiegogo to raise funds for publication.

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I've asked Larraine Henning, a 'former architect turned fruit picker / illustrator / squatter / cattle musterer', if she could talk to us about the book and her own squatting experiences:

Hi Larraine! How long did it take you to gather this very detailed information?

I worked on my Master thesis for nearly a year. The first half of my thesis was a research component where I investigated informal architecture, alternative communities, temporary building and squatting.

The the final product of my thesis was the handbook "A Practical Guide to Squatting"

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How-to pick a lock

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Sleep Shack Assembly

And how much of it stems from personal experience?

Prior to attending UBC in Vancouver I lived and worked as an architect in Rotterdam. For a short time I lived with my boyfriend in an anti-squat, which is a legal and registered version of squatting in the Netherlands.

We shared half a floor of a large office building in the center of the city built in the 70's. The toilets were the former public washrooms for the building, we had the men's washroom and the other lady we shared the floor with had the ladies'. We had no hot water on our floor and had to do all our dishes in cold water. There was one shower for the whole building (6 floors), which was rigged up to the only hot water source, that we all shared. No one paid typical rent, but paid the building owner only for basic utilities. Eventually everyone was evicted as the building was slated for demolition.

Since living in Australia this last year, I have occasionally lived in tent communities with fellow agricultural workers. This was not full on squatting, but it was on land that started out as a tenting squat until the woman who owned it organised a more set up campground.

As a young person I would often break-into abandoned buildings simply for the thrill of exploration. I loved to stumble around the wreckage of forgotten urban relics. I would do this in the city and in the countryside, and once slept the night in an abandoned cabin below a caved in roof in the middle of winter in the Prairies of Canada.
It was exhilarating and I hope I never get too old and crumbly to do stuff like that.

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The break in kit

I was also wondering how you deal with the legislation? I don't know about the (anti-)squatting laws in Australia where you now live or in Canada, the country you're from but i know that anti-squatting legislation is getting increasingly strict in some parts of Europe. For example, the UK law now criminalizes squatting in residential premises, even if hundreds of thousands of properties are now sitting empty across the country.

Squatting is not really legal anywhere, however some countries choose to accept it more than others.The constitution of Sweden upholds something called allemansrätten, translated as "freedom to roam" or "everyman's right". Its decree claims that every person shall have access to private or public land for the purpose of recreation. The UK and Holland have a loaded history of squatting and typically condoned such living. Over the year their progressive attitude has dampened and it is becoming less and less acceptable. The laws in most countries however have loop-holes. Squatting really isn't a matter for the police, but rather it is usually the job of the actual property owner to press charges against trespassers. Not until that happens do the police actually have the authority to take legal measures on squatters. Not only that but every country seems to have a different rule regarding abandoned property. In Canada a property needs to stand vacant for 50 years before it can be acquired by someone else and legally taken over. In Australia it is only 7 years, and provided you have not trashed the place but begun steps to set up camp after those 7 years you can apply to the crown to have the title put in your name, for free.

Can you conduct a family and professional life while being a squatter? Is it compatible with, say, getting electricity and running water installed?

Absolutely. Many squatters are working professionals and participate in everyday life just like anyone else. The place I lived at in Rotterdam was full of students, professional architects and the like.
The only difference is that you live in a home that ou don't pay for and that does not belong to you, life can go on. Not all squatts have limited access to utilities.
Many do simply because they have been abandoned and these things have not been maintained. Sometimes there is a bit of work involved setting it up, doing repairs or building alternative sources for water, power etc.

You trained as an architect. Do you believe that architects should dedicate a greater amount of their knowledge and skills to squatting and other so-called 'alternative homes"?

I think that people who worked in restaurants tend to be better tippers, just like people who lived without luxury tent to appreciate those small luxuries more.
I am not suggesting that everyone should give up the comforts of their home to go live in a squat, I do think that everyone, not just those practising architecture, should be tolerant and empathetic to how many other people live.

Thanks Larraine!

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All images courtesy Larraine Henning.

Related story: Goodbye to London - Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies.

The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites (available on amazon USA and UK.)

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Publisher Princeton Architectural Press says: "Hello, my name is Thomas Thwaites, and I have made a toaster." So begins The Toaster Project, the author's nine-month-long journey from his local appliance store to remote mines in the UK to his mother's backyard, where he creates a crude foundry. Along the way, he learns that an ordinary toaster is made up of 404 separate parts, that the best way to smelt metal at home is by using a method found in a fifteenth-century treatise, and that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch. In the end, Thwaites's homemade toaster-- a haunting and strangely beautiful object--cost 250 times more than the toaster he bought at the store and involved close to two thousand miles of travel to some of Britain's remotest locations. The Toaster Project may seem foolish, even insane. Yet, Thwaites's quixotic tale, told with self-deprecating wit, helps us reflect on the costs and perils of our cheap consumer culture, and in so doing reveals much about the organization of the modern world.

A few months ago, i was in Pittsburgh with 3 other authors writing an art&science book in seven days. Luke and Jessica, the designers of the book, were sitting across the table reviewing almost almost in real time the notes and images we were sending them. At some point we all raised our head because the designers had started laughing uncontrollably while saying "brilliant! this is brilliant!" This was the Toaster effect! Thomas Thwaites's project is mocked almost as much as it is admired. The designer has toured the world to show and discuss what is probably the most uncomely toaster that ever was created. It generated so much press, so many questions and such interest that i even suspect that Thwaites wrote the book as a catharsis, a way to get the toaster out of his life. He won't have to tell the story again, it's all there for us to read.

As befits the project, the book is hilarious. I never though reading about iron smelting and descents into mines would be so engrossing. You follow Thomas Thwaites' email correspondence and phone conversations with (mostly baffled) experts, miners and other "jolly nice chaps". Next, he is smelting iron in his mum's microwave, trekking in the highlands of Scotland in search of a mica mine, trying to convince BP to take him on a helicopter ride so that he can collect on an oil rig the crude oil he needs to make the plastic case for his toaster, attempting to cook some plastic using potato starch, 'stealing' water from the Marquis of Anglesey, etc.

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Suitcase of iron ore

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Iron smelting with leaf blower

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Iron smelting in microwave

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Mica harvesting in Scotland

With his über-english self-deprecating tone, Thomas takes you from one failure to another. Yet, this accumulation of fiascoes and disappointments, which at times reads like a hybrid between the story of the dodekathlon and the script of a Woody Allen comedy, turned into an extraordinary achievement. Thwaites went through experiences none of us would ever dare to undergo just to fabricate an object that would perform the mundane function of toasting a piece of bread.

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And if you prefer taking a shortcut:

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KresseKunst

Ever wondered how to turn a simple webcam into a microscope, safely cultivate GFP bacteria, hack DVD burners to make your own nano and bio experiments, or how to use other cheap, easy to come by material in order to build an hydrometer (instrument to measure the relative density of a liquid), an incubator or even a bat detector? Then you should check out the DIY pages on Hackteria's wiki or enroll into one of their workshops.

Hackteria is a collection of Open Source Biological Art Projects started in 2009 by Andy Gracie, Marc Dusseiller and Yashas Shetty. They have since been joined by Anthony Hall, Urs Gaudenz, and a growing community of people keen on making experiments and developing their own projects in the field of biological art and science.

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The wiki is an online resource for scientists, garage scientists, hackers and artists alike. It is also offers them the opportunity to combine their expertise, write critical and theoretical reflections and share simple instructions on how to work with life science technologies following an open source collaborative model.

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HackteriaLab2011

I discovered the project in June at the Making Future Work conference in Nottingham where Andy Gracie was presenting his work. Because i made it my duty to interview Andy almost every single year since i started the blog, he's the one i contacted in order to get more information about Hackteria. It's not only getting embarrassing, but it also means that i'll have to wait till 2012 to interview him about his robots that send him on dangerous missions to collect samples for them to analyze.
Here's our conversation, with contributions from Yashas Shetty and Špela Petrič:

Hi Andy! If i understood well, the activities of Hackteria.org revolve mostly around workshops. Which kind of people register to these workshops and what are they looking for?



We get a very broad selection of people coming to the workshops, although it also obviously depends on the context of the workshop. In general we'll get a few artists, maybe a scientist or two, or people who are just into the whole hacking / DIY / FLOSS scene and are looking for new adventures and working methodologies. Its probably quite safe to say that the majority of participants share a general interest in finding ways to perform scientific activities without spending silly money and without having to get access to a conventional lab. Probably many of the people who take part in our workshops are looking for that kind of hands on access and experimentation. I think also that owing to the fact that our standard workshop involves the making of a USB video microscope participants are genuinely excited about accessing a world and a scale that they have never had access to before. Its always interesting to see how transfixed people become when they see micro-organisms for the first time with a device they have built themselves.


Some of the artist participants that attend seem to be looking for a way into working with biological subjects, or a kind of door into bio-art. We've never set ourselves out as offering bio-art for beginners but its clear that our workshops provide a first hands-on experience of working with microorganisms for many people.




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Hackteria in Medellin, Colombia

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DIY Laser microscope

Could you tell us about some of the most quirky, interesting or meaningful projects that have been developed during the Hackteria workshops?


As I mentioned, up until now our workshops have mostly focused on the development of webcam based microscopes, and we have probably seen the making of over 200 completely unique and quirky interpretations of what this could be and how it could work.

Given time we try to then encourage the participants to begin to build some kind of micro-scale interactive environment which they will be able to observe through the microscope. This can involve micro-fluidics, electrical or magnetic stimulation or whatever else comes up.


In some of the workshops that Marc has run recently we have seen the development of an Arduino shield for growing cress, cyber ears and a nematode tracker hacked from an optical mouse. The latest workshop we developed called BioCyberKidzz was held at the Create Your World festival in Linz. It is an introduction to different natural phenomena for kids. We made jewellery with inoculated Petri dishes to observe the growth of bacteria and fungi from our hands, inflated balloons with gasses produced by yeast fermentation, and augmented the kids' sensoric perception with magnets and UV LEDs.


I think probably the most meaningful example of what we have been doing is when we did a microscope workshop in Indonesia with medical students and saw that this could be a very practical and affordable tool for under-resourced scientists.



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PDMS preparation

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DIY Micro Dispensing and Bio Printing - First approaches during HackteriaLab 2011

How was hackteria born? And why did you and the other founders of hackteria feel that there is a need for this hands-on approach to bioelectronix?

Hackteria was born when Marc Dusseiller, Yashas Shetty and myself met up at the Garage Science Interactivos? being run at Medialab-Prado in Madrid in 2009. The three of us all began to talk about an availability gap in information about real DIY alternatives to lab protocols and equipment. Marc and Yashas already had quite a bit of experience from their work Zurich and Bangalore so there was quite a bit of expertise already. Originally though, it was Yashas's idea to create Hackteria as an online resource - none of us really thought or planned that we would do so many workshops and meetings. In the end though, the workshops as a kind of 'roadshow' back up to the practical information available on the website seemed to be a good model for getting the ideas and information across.


It wasn't so much that we'd identified a need for a hands-on approach to bioelectronix (the 'x', by the way' differentiates our approach from the multi-million dollar industry of 'real' bioelectronics - the lab on a chip, etc etc), but a hands-on approach to simple, affordable and do-able biological techniques and protocols in general.



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I'm also curious about ethics in relationship to the animal kingdom the "Discourse" page of the website refers to. Which kind of discussions about ethical issues arise during the workshops?


In the course of our workshops we generally and thoughtlessly kill many thousands of organisms. It's all too easy to just rinse of a slide, or wipe it on your trousers, without realising that you are also destroying a host of microorganisms at the same time. We generally let people do this for a little while until they have become familiar with the organisms under the microscope. Once they understand the animals they are working with we can have a much more meaningful discussion about the ethics of how we treat them, and we often see a more careful approach after that.


Obviously, ethical considerations on the micro scale are different to those of the macro scale, but we aim to engage people in a thought process about it while they are working. We will often have a discussion at the end of the workshop where the usual wide range of viewpoints and stabdpoints get aired. The only change in peoples' minds is probably a slightly deeper awareness that microorganisms might just have rights too.


One of our goals is to reevaluate the relationships between the observer and the observed that have been handed down to us from traditional research institutes. Artists in our workshops who come from alternate, diverse contexts and cultures suggest an alternative paradigm - perhaps a more performative one.



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GFP bacteria

What are the next projects, dates, ambitions of hackteria?


We just had our second annual hackterialab in Romanmotier and Zurich in Switzerland with up to 30 friends and invited guests from the worlds of art and science. During this time we spoke a lot about what Hackteria should be where it should go and what it should be. I think we pretty much reimagined what workshops can be, and what formats they can take, so I think there will be a lot of experimentation on that front - the actual format, content and duration of the workshops themselves.


We should also note that the answers to these questions are probably very different now - post Hackterialab2011 - than they would have been beforehand. A lot of very interesting developments took place during that period that will take some time to settle and establish themselves.


We also spoke a little about making something for ourselves (seeing as Hackteria is always for other people). Maybe this would be an exhibition of our own DIY experiments, or the development of some new protocols. In Zurich we also staged a 2 day combined conference, workshop and exhibition. There seems to be potential in that format for getting across the Hackteria idea, although we would like to avoid typical art world formats - Hackteria should always offer something a little bit more unusual, provocative and surprising.





Thanks Andy, Špela and Yashas!

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The Killifish lives in puddles, sometimes in the middle of a road, where trucks drive through. These habitats provide little competition for food, and are disregarded by predators, especially since water is brown and unclear. The obvious disadvantage is that puddles are highly unstable habitats. One of the strategies killifishes have developed to cope with this is to jump out of the puddle, maybe landing in a new one. Many don't make it.

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Jump technique composite

Because puddles are different, the populations evolve into new species rather quickly. The kamikaze behaviour and the multitude of subspecies have triggered the interest of a community of killifish collectors, who travel to puddles in the tropics, collect live specimens and bring them home where they will breed the fish with a self imposed ethic: the killifish must stay exactly as they were found in the puddle, and not change between generations.

For artist Mateusz Herczka, the killifish behaviour and culture reveal a new relationship between nature and people, as if the killifish have infiltrated culture, and are now part of the cultural evolution rather than the biological. He followed the example of the killifish and infiltrated the killifish keepers community, learning, exchanging information and tactics.

Because the way killifish jumps from one puddle to another remained to be properly documented, Herczka flooded his studio and captured this spontaneous jumping in HD video. The video material shows jumps under various conditions and still frames have been composited to show the jumping technique and the trajectory. The fish always jump in the middle of the night when nobody is around.

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Reconstructing the puddle at the Verbeke Foundation

To understand how fish can survive in a puddle with trucks driving through it, the artist set up a digital simulation using software which simulates liquid, and rolled a virtual tire through a virtual puddle. Finally, an ambitious reconstruction of the puddle is being built at the Verbeke Foundation, to be completed in the next coming months. Unsurprisingly, recreating a South American puddle in an unheated Belgian space was quite a technical challenge. The huge cube of glass and metal contains a reconstruction of a puddle found in the middle of a road in Guyana, with a truck wheel rolling through it.

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The Verbeke Foundation isn't easy to reach if you don't own a car but the result of Mateusz Herczka's research is documented and presented with plenty of visual material and also aquariums containing fish, worms, artemia and springtails in the exhibition Puddle Drive-Through Simulation currently open at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE).

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Diving under the puddle platform at the Verbeke Foundation

I hope to be able to visit the show when i'm in Belgium next month. In the meantime, i asked Mateusz to answer my many questions:

How did you first encounter the Killifish? But even more importantly, what made you want to spend more than 3 years working with them?

There is a two-floor basement near my studio in Stockholm. The upper floor was a club for mini-z model car racing. A steel door leading to the lower floor says "Södermalms Akvarieaffär, kom in och titta", (South-side's aquarium shop, come in and have a look). One day I needed glass and thought maybe they could sell me some. Upon entering, I realized this is not a regular aquarium shop. The atmosphere was somewhere in between a laboratory, and a computer club I belonged to as a teenager. Passing a few normal looking aquariums and some merchandise, I turned a corner and saw rows of murky aquariums with carefully written labels showing Latin names and some kind of codes. The fish didn't look like any I had seen in other shops. Homemade devices, bubbling liquids in plastic bottles, cultures of little worms and jumping things.

I was approached by a guy who said "Amazing, isn't it? Janne only works with nature forms." He indicated the owner, Jan Wester, who turned out to be an architect devoting his life to killifish, a warm and friendly guy who loves to talk about killifish and keeping techniques. His strict ethic of fish origin and his refusal to stock more popular "plastic fish" turns a lot of customers away. The shop is his "fishroom". I visited him several times and listened to his stories. Later, I met other killi keepers around Europe, and found a rich scene on the internet.

What intrigued me was the complexity and level of involvement with what appears to be an insignificant fish species. Then I found the Jim's Basement Floor anecdote, and started to remember fragments of literature I read. A story by Polish SciFi writer Stanislaw Lem, describing a planet where the government decided that the fish was the most noble state of being, so the water level is raised a little every year. Or various books where someone travels to the jungle, it starts to rain, and "suddenly there are fish on the ground".

I started to wonder if these fish are quietly infiltrating culture - on a grassroots level in people's basements, in stories suggesting a merging of people/fish habitats. This links to the discussion of a possible end of biological evolution - the new evolution being cultural, the new fitness parameter being adaptability in culture. I was wondering if I, an artist, could bring something new to the killifish scene, but also infiltrate the killifish scene into the art community, to push the killifish even further into the realms of culture, using strategies from both science and art.

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Composite from video stills to show the jump trajectory

I was also intrigued by the existence of a killikeeper community. Who are they? Is there anything that sets them apart from other fish hobbyists? Did they give you any feedback about your Killifish art projects?

The people I met are all professionals in different fields. They are spread around the globe, communicate via internet, send eggs to each other via airmail, and sometimes meet at conventions. Some of them make field trips to the tropics, looking for fish in puddles, ditches, etc. Specimens are brought home for breeding and preservation in the fishroom. This requires dedication and ingenuity - the fish are quirky, jump out of the aquarium, some subspecies are very short-lived and lay eggs that need to be dried and re-hydrated several times. The community is bristling with clever technical DIY solutions that enables maintenance of a large aquarium count, live food culture in the everyday home environment, ecological "balanced" aquaria, automation, etc. A major contrast to domesticated species from the aquarium shop.

After speaking to several killifish keepers, and observing their interaction with the fish, I get an impression of a special kind of relationship with nature. Not keeping animals as pets, decoration, utility or food, but bringing content and meaning to your free time by actively interacting with an animal population, shunning commercial products in lieu of Do It Yourself methodology. It is especially interesting to note their killifish breeding ethic, to preserve the population as close as possible to the nature form, the exact look and behaviour of the original fish in the puddle. The community arranges regular contests where keepers show fish which are judged specifically on the nature form criteria. In the case of some subspecies, the original habitats are gone. The preservation ethic allows such populations to continue their existence in somebody's fishroom.

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Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, 2009

I have received a lot of help and feedback from the killi community. When showing Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, local killi keepers helped to arrange fish and care for them, and the installation became something of a meeting place. Many are intrigued by my video films showing the killifish jumping behavior, which was common knowledge but never properly documented. These films attract attention from the art community, but also bring something new to the killi keepers.

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

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The Verbeke Foundation

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

The introductory text of the catalogue, written by Simon Delobel, explains that you gave your aquariums and fish to a shop because "keeping killifishes at home or in his studio would have meant losing the artistic aspect of his creative activity." Can you tell us the reason for that?

When working with a project, my artistic strategies are based on theoretical research, but most importantly to "walk the walk and talk the talk". In this case, I had to learn the methods of killikeeping by maintaining some populations in my studio, their way. I discovered that it was extremely interesting, and found myself wanting to try some new killifish species, different methods, contacting some guy i Canada to get eggs from a rare Rivulus type...

After about a year, my studio was filling up with aquariums - I was "bitten by the bug". This is very relevant to the whole story - the killifish seem to combine just the right elements of complexity and accessibility to create and maintain interest with almost anybody. After an exhibition in Spain, I heard that one of the personnel had started to keep killifish. So one side effect of this project has been to promote a specific and positive model of interaction between people and nature. But as an artist I need to retain objectivity, and so I gave all my killifish away.

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Like some of your other works, this installation navigates between art and science. You asked for the advice of experts in various disciplines, read numerous articles and watched scientific videos in order to make your own as scientific as possible. Nowadays many people see art and science as two radically different fields. But what do they have in common for you? Why do you find that they can be intertwined? What does this intimate flirting with science (or amateur science) brings to your art practice?

There are many answers, not always coherent. In art school, I learned how to make things look like art, and art theory as an analysis tool for the work - there were no new media or art/science programs at the time. But artistic practice for me has always kept one leg in the process of discovery, both digital and wetware. In the 90's I participated in the generative graphics scene, which consisted of people publishing strange quicktime videos on the budding internet, projecting live graphics from laptops in artsy clubs, hacking video games to crash in an interesting way etc. This was very exciting and relevant stuff but the art world had no idea what to do with it, there were no proper contexts, and most of the material is gone today, the computers outdated, the operating systems deprecated.

I decided to abandon art theory as an anaysis tool for my work, and started to look for alternative artistic strategies. Having studied with conceptual artist Dick Raaijmakers in Den Haag, I started formulating projects that provided some kind of answer to questions. This in contrast to the common saying that "science provides answers, art provides questions". To provide answers, you have to look for them, which means genuinely trying to understand certain literature, formulating and recreating experiments, careful documentation and so on. And when embarking on a research journey, the mind has to be open for what comes out - the semiotics of the work don't always look like art.

Another strong component is Do It Yourself - I know scientists as discussion partners, but I prefer to work in such a way that I can do most of the initial work myself. This is one reason for plugging into communities, which often accumulate large bodies of informal knowledge of very high quality. Lately, I'm looking for ways to bring the DIY aspect to the audience as well. I'm increasingly considering the DIY aspect to be crucial to survival not only of art, but of the post-technological society, because it breaks down peoples dissociation with nature, science and technology, and connects them to the artistic experience.

For example, my Open Out Of Body Experience project uses recent science to let people experience an artificially induced OOBE, video game style, in a DIY format. The discussions that come from these sessions show an urgent need for problematization of the avatar concept, which recently cemented itself in our culture but whose morality has never really been discussed at street level. Or to take the point even further - if there was a DIY nuclear plant, Fukushima would have looked different today.

The art & science moniker is a buzzword that goes around right now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I am an artist who tries to understand things going on right now in the real world, using methods which can also be found in the scientific tradition. The process of understanding leaves a trail of images, objects, videos and ideas, which I call art. I get the question all the time: is your work art or science? Good question, but I don't have a good answer without engaging into a long discussion about semiotics....

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A group of visitors checking out the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation

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Does this project mark the end of your artistic relationship with killifishes or do you think you haven't quite finished exploring their world?

Returning to the nature form preservation concept of the killifish community, there is a tendency of aquarium bred species to become more beautiful. Not because of selective breeding by keeper (actually the keepers are very selective to prevent this). It's a principle in any species that relies on display for sexual selection - the more beautiful, the more visible for predators - which increases overall fitness. I'm planning a project inspired by the citizen science model which documents such change over several generations. Interestingly, a specific population from one subspecies of killifish seems to have abandoned display selection for another principle - forced copulation. Basically a rapist killifish. Further research is necessary to fully ascertain what's going on. But it's not certain if the research will lead me elsewhere. We'll see.

Thanks Mateusz!

PDF of the catalogue. More images of the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation.

You can see Puddle Drive-Through Simulation at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE) until 20th October 2011.

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