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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Robots are transforming surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System, for example, allows long and complicated procedures to be performed with super human precision and dexterity. All while decreasing patient trauma and providing a more comfortable experience for the surgeon.

Costing up to $2.000.000 however, a surgical robot represents large capital investments and only becomes cost effective after intensive use and thus fits into a more "market driven" concept of healthcare that indirectly contributes to the overall rising medical expenditures.

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A surgeon sitting in an ergonomic control console, a few meters removed from the operating table, uses specialized joysticks to control a variety of tiny surgical instruments attached to robotic arms

One of the corollaries of expensive professional healthcare is the rise of communities of uninsured Americans who share videos on Youtube to demonstrate how they performed medical hacks on themselves.


Henry Knoll, How to make your own dental fillings to performing minor amateur surgery, $5 DIY Cosmetic Dentistry, 2009

Designer Frank Kolkman, a new graduate of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London, wondered if a compromise could be found. His OpenSurgery project investigates whether building DIY surgical robots, outside the scope of healthcare regulations, could provide an accessible alternative to the costly professional healthcare services worldwide.

There have been several attempts within the robotics community to come up with cheaper and more portable surgical robots. The RAVEN II Surgical robot, for example, was initially developed with funding from the US military to create a portable telesurgery device for battlefield operations. The machine is valued at $200.000 and all of the software used to control the RAVEN II has been made open source. However, The Raven doesn't have the (often costly) safety and quality control systems in place, required by regulation to allow it to be used on humans meaning that it might take a while before the RAVEN II will be fully embraced by regulatory and commercial worlds. In any case, most medical hacker communities would still be unable to afford its $200.000 price tag.

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

For the past five months, Kolkman has thus been trying to build a DIY surgical robot for around $5000, by using accessible prototyping techniques like laser cutting and 3d printing and by sourcing as many ready-made parts as he could find.

Designing a surgical robot that could perform laparoscopic surgery (a surgery so minimally invasive that it is also called keyhole surgery) presents a number of challenges. The designer found an answer to each of them:

- the many laporoscopic tools that the robot would have to handle can be ordered directly from their Chinese manufacturers using Alibaba.
- these tools are usually sterilized in an autoclave, a machine that uses high pressure and hot steam that is not very likely to be accessible to many people. The bulky machine could be replaced by a domestic oven (for stainless steel instruments) or a microwave (for plastic parts.)
- Kolkman also replaced the trocar, a medical device that functions as a portal for the subsequent placement of other instruments, with a design that uses 3d printed parts controlled by DC servo motors that rotate around a central pivotal point.

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery (domestic sterilization), 2015

The electronics to control the robots were copied from designs used in 3d printer communities, while the software was build with Processing.

The main challenge the designer encountered however was intellectual property. In a bid to make the project open source, Kolkman tried to develop his own mechanisms. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the fundamental concepts that allow robotic surgery have already been patented. Fortunately, he also found out that as long as you make parts protected by intellectual property in private and for non commercial purposes they are theoretically exempted from patent infringement.


Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

After five months of iteration, the robot does move. The designer concludes:

And based on my experiences the concept of a DIY surgical robot is surprisingly plausible. If you would be able to build a community of makers who bring the same amount of attention and dedication to building surgical tools as they do to designing 3d printers and cnc machines these days, I believe accessible DIY surgery equipment would be within reach.

And of course you still need a trained surgeon to operate the machine.

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

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DIYsect is s documentary series 'about the DIY Biology & Biology-Art intersection' and it is rather good.

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Baltimore's Underground Science Space (BUGSS), Nurit Bar-Shai's bacteria sculpture (top middle), and Nikki Romanello in her studio in Red Hook (bottom right)

In Summer 2013, filmmaker Benjamin Welmond and artist-biologist Mary Maggic Tsang traveled across the U.S. and Canada to meet the biohackers, artists, synthetic biologists, writers and curators and talk with them about the possibilities, challenges and dilemmas brought forward by biotechnology. The result is a portrait of DIY biotech hack and biotech art by the very people who are directly involved in it.

The authors of the series write:
Our goal is to discuss the way biotechnology is changing our society: What are its political, social, and even philosophical implications? What happens when manipulating life becomes as simple as writing a line of code? And more importantly, what does this mean for average citizens and their future?

I only discovered the existence of the episodes a few days ago (thanks Adam Zaretsky!) The films are short and sharp. They are released as soon as they have been edited. For free. On vimeo. Let's go!

The first episode of the web-series, Learning in Public is of course the introductory one. The directors interview members of the DIY biology movement as well as artists such as Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, Claire Pentecost, and subRosa.
The image/sound synchro is a bit wonky (at least when i watched it) but don't let that discourage you from watching the episode.


DIYSECT Episode 1: Learning in Public

Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror gets political. It starts with the FBI bioterrorism case against Steve Kurtz and then goes on to reflect the FBI's change of tactics. Realizing its errors, the FBI is now reaching out to the DIY BIO community 'for mutual education.'

DIYSECT Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror

Things are gettng tricky with episode 3. Fear of the Unknown which should be out on vimeo today!

The episode delves into the discussions surrounding synthetic biology. On the one hand, a project like the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plant is creating controversy by bringing synthetic biology to the consumer market in the form of a plant that glows in the dark. Its developers' rhetoric is fairly unconvincing (at least as far as i am concerned.) On the other hand, the technology watchdog group ETC. Its members fear the lack of regulation (the plant doesn't require any form of approval in the U.S. since it is not food) and the potentially damaging impact that the release of the plant might have on the environment. Somewhere in the middle is artist Adam Zaretsky who has long used his provocative performances to try and raise a broader debate about what is ethical or not in the field of synthetic biology. There's this great moment in the film when he explains that we don't really know what we are doing and that we need to stop and think before we 'fuck up our world' beyond human control.

On a side note, i believe we need to see more of Zaretsky's provocations and reflections here in Europe, so let's help him fund his next trip to the old continent.

Image on the homepage: Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.

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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

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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