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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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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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The Biological Bakery, 2014

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Algae Curtain, 2012

My guests in the studio will be Mathias Gmachl and Rachel Wingfield from Loop.pH. The work of the London-based studio speculates on near and far future scenarios as a way to probe at the social and environmental impact of emerging biological and technological futures. Some of their most renown projects include collaborating with a Nobel prize winner to communicate the functioning of molecular machines, designing a curtain made of algae that produce bio-fuel, setting up an edible DIY bio fab-lab for the video of Aussie band Architecture In Helsinki, creating an immersive sound and light performance that explores the field of neuroscience and investigating the possibilities of living architecture.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 5 February at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory - Maisemasta Laboratorioon, edited by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and Terike Haapoja.

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From the back-cover: Every second year the Finnish Society of Bioart invites a significant group of artists and scientists to the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland/Finland to work for one week on topics related to art, biology and the environment. "Field_Notes - From Landscape to Laboratory" is the first in a series of publications originating from this field laboratory. It emphasizes the process of interaction between fieldwork, locality and the laboratory. Oron Catts, Antero Kare, Laura Beloff, Tarja Knuuttila amongst others explore the field and laboratory as sites for art&science practices.

I was about to add this book to the list of books i liked in 2013 but i decided at the last minute that i might as well give it its own space.

In 2011, the Finnish Society of Bioart organised the Field_Notes - Cultivating Grounds laboratory. Five working groups led by Oron Catts, Marta de Menezes, Anu Osva, Tapio Makela and Terike Haapoja developed various art and science projects while in contact with nature and ecology in Kilpisjärvi, a rural area in Lapland, Finland.

The book contains seventeen articles (in both English and Finnish) that report and meditate on the research, reflections and activities that took place during the scientists and artists' stay in Lapland. Field_Notes offers one of the very few residences that allows people who engage with art&science to work and experiment directly in a natural environment and not exclusively in laboratories or galleries.

I wouldn't say that this is a book for anyone who's interested in bioart. It's not the kind of crazy sexy pop bioart you read about in Wired magazine (or in my own blog.) It is sober and at time theoretical, but not less surprising and thought-provoking than any razzle-dazzle bioart works you've read about in the past.

Field_Notes offers is a great mix of essays by scientists and lively stories of experiments by artists. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura Beloff's essay on how experience is a key aspect (and sometime even the main objective) of art practices that use organic materials or has some affinity with science. Professor Antero Järvinen wrote about the icon of global warming that is the Arctic charr and more generally about the difficulty of drawing simple conclusion of complex material systems and phenomena. Oron Catts came with the most unexpected essay about a piece of plexiglass from a German aircraft that had crashed in Kilpisjärvi in 1942 and how the discovery led him to explore 'new materialism in action'. Andrew Gryf Paterson has a great piece about berries foraging and a proposal to set up Berry Commons which sounds trivial until he makes you realize the politics of berries. Maria Huhmarniemi looked at the dilemma of preserving the endangered Capricornia Boisduvaliana butterfly or building an hydroelectric power plant.

I'll close with two of the many projects i discovered in this book:

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Laura Beloff, A Unit, 2012

A Unit is a miniature green area an individual would wear on their shoulder. A Unit speculates on the concept of green environment and its beneficial impact. It experiments with an idea of wearable miniature green space that becomes part of one’s everyday existence and asks if this can be considered as natural environment with potential health benefits?

A Unit contains a GM-plant or other primarily human-constructed plant and as such acts as a training device for our changing relation with organic nature for the future when both humans and nature are artificially modified or constructed.

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Niki Passath, The Tourist (infected with moss)

Niki Passath took his touristic robots for walks around Kilpisjärvi and soon found out that fungi and bacteria had adopted them as a habitat. Traces of moss and lichen started to grow on the structures.

So there you are: a serious, solid book for anyone who'd like to go beyond the easy reductions, the fast conclusions and simplification that sometimes characterizes articles and books about bioart.

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Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

Last week i went to Manchester. I could never go too often to that city, especially when a number of exhibitions made another day in London less attractive. My first stop was for Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica at MOSI - Museum of Science & Industry.

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Google Street view of the geographic South Pole (image slashgear)

Ice Lab presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, drawing together projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for research stations.

The show focuses on some spectacular research structures but it also presents some of the most extraordinary scientific and geological characteristics of Antarctica. That's the bit that got most of my attention. Here's some of random facts i learnt while visiting the show:

Because of its extremely cold and dry climate, Antarctica is the closest analogue to an extraterrestrial site on Earth. The region is thus used to test technologies that might be used for Mars exploration. The NDX-1 is a planetary suit prototype designed by a team of graduate students lead by Pablo de León and mobility expert Gary L. Harris.

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The NDX-1 space suit

Nacreous clouds form only when temperatures in the high atmosphere drop below -85 degree Celcius. They might be beautiful but they also trigger the depletion of the ozone layer.

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Nacreous Clouds glowing in the winter sky above Rothera. Image British Antarctic Survey

The Antarctic Plateau, at 2800m high, is great place to observe planets and stars. The air is unpolluted and the atmosphere is stable and very dry. The geographic South Pole hosts a complex of telescopes that use wavelengths other than visible light to look for evidence of dark energy and for cosmic microwave signature left over from when the universe was formed.

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The South Pole Telescope built to investigate cosmic rays and explore dark matter. Photo Keith Vanderlinde / National Science Foundation (via Smithsonianmag)

Ice cores, obtained by drilling into an ice sheet or glacier, are formed of layers derived from snow that fell at a certain time, and each layer is like a time capsule. The bubbles of ancient air they contain reveal information about the past climate and environment, such as Palaeolithic weather patterns for example.

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A slice of an ice core showing trapped air bubbles. © British Antarctic Survey, Pete Bucktrout (via Discovering Antarctica)

The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are located in a polar desert blasted by ferocious winds. The harsh environment provides ideal circumstances for the creation of ventrifacts, geologic formations shaped by the forces of wind.

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Ventifacts in the Dry Valley. Photo by George Steinmetz via from Amazing photography

But let's get to the architectural part. The exhibition presents 5 case studies: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Brougton Architects) Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects), a speculative design for a subterranean station carved out of compacted snow.

Architects of the research stations face three main challenges: ensure inhabitants a pleasant working life sheltered from the harsh weather conditions, build a station that will be strong enough to withstand the Antarctic's onslaught and construct a structure that will have minimum environmental impact.

The featured projects are:

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Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Aerial view of Halley VI Research Station. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Aurora above the Halley signpost. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Halley VI Research Station in winter. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Close-up view of Halley VI's legs. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Fully operational since February 2013, the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI was designed by Hugh Broughton Architects and engineered by AECOM (UK). Located on a floating ice shelf, the structure is the first fully relocatable polar research station, it is also self-sufficient, able to withstand freezing winter temperatures of minus 55ºC and has minimal impact on Antarctica's pristine environment.

Halley VI is built using modules supported by hydraulically driven legs with giant steel skis which allow the station to mechanically 'climb' up out of the snow every year. As the ice shelf the station is built on moves out towards the ocean, the modules can be towered by bulldozers further inland, to eventually be taken apart when the time comes.

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station. Photo © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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The newly-discovered 9,000-strong emperor penguin colony on Antarctica's Princess Ragnhild Coast. Photo © International Polar Foundation/Alain Hubert

Belgium's Princess Elisabeth is the first zero-emission station in Antarctica. Perched on a nunatak, the aerodynamic stainless steel structure integrates renewable wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximising energy efficiency. It has no interior heating system.

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Polarlicht. Bharati.bof Architekten IMS.copyright NCAOR (National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research

Bharati Research Station India's third Antarctic research station by bof Architekten / IMS is made from 134 prefabricated shipping containers.

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Architect Impression: Jang Bogo / Space Group and KOPRI

Jang Bogo Korea, by Space Group (South Korea), will be one of the largest year-round bases on the continent when it opens in 2014, able to accommodate up to 60 personnel in the Summer.

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South Pole Section, Iceberg Living Station / MAP Architects © British Council Architecture Design Fashion

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MAP Architects, Iceberg Living Station. Animation made for Icelab Exhibition

Unsurprisingly, the speculative design for a research station was the one that seduced me the most.

Iceberg Living Station, the concept for a future research station by David Garcia / MAP Architects, would be made entirely from ice. The station would be holed out of a large iceberg, using caterpillar excavators that are traditionally used to clear snow. Icebergs have an average life span of about 12 to 15 years. The inhabitants would then leave the iceberg, taking with them all the energy and work infrastructure, "leaving only the architecture behind to melt away and be part of the oceans again," Garcia explained.

Finally, Torsten Lauschmann was showing two a new audio and light works, 'Whistler' and 'Ice Diamond', both commissioned for the exhibition.

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Torsten Lauschmann, Ice Diamond (still), 2013

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Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (still), 2013

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View of the exhibition space. Photo Jo Fells

You can (and you should) download the free eBook version of Ice Lab catalogue.

Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica was curated by Sandra Ross of the Arts Catalyst and initiated by the British Council. The exhibition remain open at MOSI - Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester until 6 January.

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A sleeping mask designed to capture CO2 whilst inhabitants sleep to moderate the life support system of the Isoculture

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guests will be designers and artists Michiko Nitta & Michael Burton.

Michael works on the edge of speculative design, arts, and as a researcher. His works investigate the choices we face in our evolution as a species and in redesigning life itself. Meanwhile, Michiko's interests are in the relationship between nature and humans, often taking extreme vantage on how humans can change their perception to live symbiotically with nature.

You might have heard of Michiko and Michael's work already. Last year, they were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with a performance that showed how opera singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source. And in Spring they were at the Watermans cultural center to explore the possibility of a city that would be isolated from the wider environment and where food, energy, and even medicine, are derived from human origin and man-made biological systems. Obviously, you're in for a weird ride with two charming people...

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Mezzo-soprano opera singer Louise Ashcroft preparing for The Algae Opera. Photo by Matt Mcquillan

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 6 November at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Previously: Future evolutions of our food systems - Interview with After Agri.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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Suzanne Lee / Biocouture

My guest will be designer and researcher Suzanne Lee. Suzanne is the Founder of BIOCOUTURE, the first 'living materials' design consultancy. Suzanne is also a TED Senior fellow and a Launch innovator 2013 (Launch being an initiative that supports innovative works likely to contribute to a sustainable future.) For a number of years now, Suzanne has been investigating sustainable bio-materials. The last time i met her, she was cultivating bacteria into sugary green tea and harvesting thick layers of cellulose which, once dried looked like delicate, translucid leather that she then used to make her own garments.

Suzanne's work has now taken an even more ambitious dimension as she is building an open innovation resource to enable collaboration within the global biological materials community.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 30 October at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
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