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:
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 ones 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Bharati Research Station India's third Antarctic research station by bof Architekten / IMS is made from 134 prefabricated shipping containers.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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 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 Weather Underground -also called the Weathermen- were a 1970s American radical left organization characterized by positions that included the opposition to the Vietnam War, the achievement of a classless world, a marked sympathy for the radical Black Panthers, etc. Their strategies included active recruitment in schools and violent militancy.
The Weather Underground inspired The New Weathermen, a fictional group of activists at the center of David Benque's investigation into the interrelationship between ideology and science. The New Weathermen are equally dissatisfied with the state of the world but the focus of their demands is climate crises rather than capitalism and racial privileges. Their weapon is not the bomb but Synthetic Biology.
Their ideas to achieve radical environmental change are neither the ones of the Bio-Conservatives who argue for a curbing of consumption, a return to an unadulterated Nature and are suspicious of new technologies. Nor are they the ideas of the Techno-Progressives who enthusiastically embrace progress, and see technological and scientific developments as the solution to modern problems.
Instead, The New Weathermen are looking into possible alternatives for the relationship between environmentalism and science. Among these are the DIYBIO or Biopunk movements and the campaign for open access to science, as well as efficient, headless and cell-based networks of activists such as Anonymous.
Challenging the borders between activism and crime, The New Weathermen's actions aim to disrupt the status quo and propagate an ambitious vision for the greater good. Deliberately radical and ambiguous, they provide a starting point for discussion about our existing beliefs and ideologies.
The whole ethos of the New Weathermen is based on the idea of the symbiosis (see the PDF of their manifesto):
The New Weathermen's ambitions are represented in their testing rigs and small scale experiments that reflect much more radical ambitions and are designed to make people aware of the group's larger mission. Their plans are slightly delusional (some are very seducing though.) Here are 3 of them:
The first one is The Pirate Pollen Club which targets the perfectly manicured lawn of the suburbs and golf courses. The New Weathermen would use Open Source GMO weed able to remove the gene responsible for the grass resistance to herbicide and ultimately outcompete it.
The action makes use of TALENs Transcription activator-like effector nuclease which uses enzymes for genome editing in situ, cutting DNA strands at a specific sequence when they are introduced into cells.
The scheme reminded me of Heath Bunting's SuperWeed Kit, a DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed, designed to be resistant to current herbicides and thus threaten corporate GMO monoculture.
And now for my favourite plan: PalmOPS, an oil press that zeroes in on the increasing use of palm oil in the food and biofuel industries. Although the rush to palm oil is motivated by the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the irony -as Greenpeace writes- is that the effort could make things worse because the growth of the palm industry is often accompanied by deforestation, displacement (without compensation nor consultation) of indigenous people occupying the land, loss of natural habitats for endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
The New Weathermen's oil press inserts a lypase inhibitor in the kernel of the palm fruit that will make it impossible for you body to digest the oil.
PalmOPS is inspired by the inky caps, common mushrooms that are edible but become poisonous when consumed with alcohol. Inky caps contain coprine, a chemical which blocks the action of the enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde in the body, leading to violent hangover symptoms. Coprine was studied by scientists who wanted to use it to make alcoholics averse to drinking.
Finally, Bioccupy Diesel, attempts to sabotage fossil fuel. The project was inspired by an existing bacteria responsible for the diesel bug that creates a biofilm that separates oil from water and and creates waste. Over time, the (existing) bug is responsible for a sediment which forms in the tank. These build-ups will not pass through the filters of the car and can eventually damage the vehicle.
New Weathermen would optimize the bacteria using synthetic biology. The modified bacteria would then contaminate car after car through petrol stations. To be effective, the infection would have to start with just one petrol station. All the cars refueling there would become infected.
The project that Owen Wells developed and exhibited at the Design Interactions graduation show this year looks at the Arctic, a region that global changes has transformed into the new El Dorado.
It is feared that Arctic summer sea ice is melting at a rate faster than predicted, and could be ice free as early as 2015. The loss of sea ice and innovations in exploitation technologies are making the Arctic region more easily accessible. And more easily exploitable. The Arctic is indeed home to the world's largest untapped gas reserves and an estimated 13% of the world's remaining oil as well as vast mineral deposits are thought to lie beneath the ocean floor. The resources expose the Arctic to corporate greed and to potential geopolitical tension caused by unresolved sovereignty claims.
Well's research project, Who Owns The Arctic, identifies the weakest territorial points and the legal loops in the status of the Arctic sea region to devise four subversive ways to overcome the legislation and shake the system that protects the Arctic.
Through an examination of the weaknesses of systems subversion can be seen as a form of critique - a deceitful narration of legitimate practices. With the help of several members of my own family who offered specific expertise, I have planned 4 subversive financial enterprises for the arctic. Each seeks to exploit the unique infrastructure, ecology, and legal ambiguity of the region to provide devious financial rewards. The project takes the form of scenes, maps and equipment. Through their planning, these schemes identify and expose the legitimate systems set to exploit the Arctic.
The first scheme is called The Mineral Rush. Under the guise of a normal fishing routine on the west coast of Svalbard, Russian men feed Beluga whales with by-catch stuffed with lithium. Whales soon start to show the early signs of lithium toxicity and after 5 days, suffer seizures, organ failure, and eventually die. When the mammals are washed onto the west coast of Svalbard, experts conclude that the metal in their bodies indicates the presence of vast deposits of lithium off the Svalbard coast. These rumors ultimately trickling through to the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty, countries who retain the right to undertake commercial activities on the island without discrimination.
In the second scheme, The Fishing Dispute, Russian crab boats travel to the northern tip of the Bering sea. Once the ships have entered the Alaskan king crab fisheries, 20 icosahedron crab pots are deployed and the vessels return to waters within the Russian exclusive economic zone. 2 days later, they come back to tow the catch north, 1,600 km underwater. The pots are released in the Beaufort sea where fishing rights are still claimed by both America and Canada. After 5 days the cotton netting surrounding the pots dissolves, freeing the crabs. An anonymous press leak reporting catches of King crab far beyond their normal range is later sent to newspapers in both Barrow, Alaska, and Toktoyaktuk Harbor, Canada. The resulting scramble for the prized crab meat will greatly increase the opportunity for confrontation between Canadian and American fishermen, driven by confusion over fishing rights.
A third scheme involves an oil spill caused by devices placed on top of icebergs that travel from the northern tip of Greenland into to North Atlantic. On this journey they float past Hans Island and onto the oil fields of Baffin bay and the Labrador sea where, if spotted, they are usually towed a safe distance from the pipelines and oil rigs. But in this scenario the remotely activated devices would shake the iceberg apart. Still large enough to sink a ship or damage a rig, the smaller chunks of ice would not be detected by radar nor by the naked eye. The icebergs would thus float quietly onwards to the oil fields.
The last scenario involves a man working for the Keystone Pipeline, a pipeline system that transports oil sands bitumen from Canada and the northern United States "primarily to refineries in the Gulf Coast" of Texas. The man's job is to operate a pig launching station. He makes extra money by smuggling goods across borders on board of a "pig", a devices used to clean and survey the pipeline.
More details about each scheme can be found in this PDF.
Hi Owen! You asked members of your family to help you create 4 subversive financial enterprises for the Arctic. What are their areas of expertise? And why did you decide to work with members of your family? To show that anyone can do it?
Finding the true direction of the project was quite a painful process. After lots of research and deliberation looking for what I was interested in it dawned on me that specific friends and members of my immediate family had a really unique but highly specialised set of skills that I could hypothetically corrupt. I don't want to give too much away about them because I respect their anonymity, but the main area of expertise I was able to draw upon centered around aspects of the shipping industry. It was through this advice that I was made aware of the Arctic as an environment where climate change is in the process of rendering the region potentially prone to corporate profiteering and political tension. In the latter stages of the project I also had advice on finance, and icebergs.
The dialogue around the amount of sensitive information readily available on the internet is pretty visible, particularly at the moment. While there is undoubtedly a huge amount of inspiration for potential deviants on the internet (The UN website offers information on how to set up shipping front companies if you're willing to sit through some very dry videos) the opportunity to "physically" construct this kind of network, around the dinner table so to speak, was far too enticing. The implication that anyone can do it is defiantly a big part of the spirit of the project.
The texts describing the four enterprises in the show looked as if they were merely the start of a thriller. Why did you give just set the scene and didn't go further in the description of the scenario?
I planned each of the four parts of the project pretty meticulously. I scouted locations, used google maps to plan how far and for long different actions would take. I produced inventories for different sections of the trips, found out how and where I get important pieces of equipment, and how many people were involved at any one time. Rather than display these as maps I decided to condense them into introductory texts. The scale of the schemes was far larger than anything I had dealt with before and so the texts gave me a way of contextualising them within the voice of individual characters. While specific locations might not be instantly recognisable I trust that the region is visible enough to begin to imagine what each of the schemes is suggesting.
In a way the schemes themselves serve as introductions - a way of describing the complexity of problems that climate change provokes beyond the environmental effects that everyone is aware of by now. There is room for them to be presented in more detail and I hope to develop the project beyond its current incarnation. Perhaps I might hold one of the arctic states to ransom in order to fund it.
Several objects were exhibited in the show. Can you explain the one linked to the oil spill? How would it work exactly? Which technology does it use? And could you confirm how it would eventually trigger an oil spill? Would it be through an encounter similar to the one that sank the Titanic?
Of the four objects in the show that one is by far the most speculative in terms of how well it would work in the field. Icebergs are such an ominous symbols of danger that I had to include them, but they are notoriously difficult to destroy. The mechanisms through which they are created make them incredibly tough - there are reports of dropping bombs on them and only making a dent.
The device that I exhibited was an amalgamation of a helmholtz resonator and an autodialing device. The autodialing device would cycle through frequencies until it found the resonance frequency of the ice, similar to the way autodialling machines could theoretically crack a safe. The frequency would then resonate though the Helmhotlz resonator into fracture lines that are formed when icebergs calve from the face of a glacier and fall into the sea. The resonance effect would eventually cause the iceberg to break itself apart through vibration, forming smaller but potentially far more dangerous chunks of ice. In practice it is difficult to predict the effect this would have on an iceberg because it is dependent on structure not dampening the effects of resonance. I couldn't confidently tell you if it would work in the field, but the object serves a narrative purpose so plausibility won out.
The weakness lies not in the icebergs themselves but in the system through which they are found and tracked. There are daily iceberg reports available through the International Ice Patrol (an entity whose existence was brought about by the sinking of the Titanic). Their main tool for finding Icebergs is Side looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), so if an object can evade radar (which smaller chunks of ice smoothed by the erosion of ocean are good at) then effectively it remains invisible to the system. Part of the current research on icebergs is about developing a way of towing them from collision courses with oil rigs. The actions of the individuals in the oil spill scenario are intended to make the icebergs invisible to radar by turning larger ones into fragments, flooding an oil rich area with ice that cannot be detected and hopefully (in this instance) won't be spotted in time to be towed from a collision course.
I'm afraid i didn't understand very well the Mineral Rush scenario, the one with the Beluga whales poisoned by lithium. The start is crystal clear but it's the consequences of the perceived presence of lithium off the Svalbard coast that isn't so easy to understand. How are the 39 signatory states of the Svalbard treaty supposed to react to the lithium deposit?
The Archipelago officially became part of Norway under the terms of the Svalbard treaty. This treaty also states that the signatory countries (whose exact numbers fluctuate depending on what you're reading) have equal rights to exploit mineral deposits in Svalbard. This scheme relies on the stock market to spread a rumor that there is a potentially valuable mineral wealth that has been made visible through its effects on the local food chain. Money could be made through buying land and the selling it once its value has risen due to the potential for prospecting. Alternatively the rumor could be used to engineer demand for legitimate infrastructure.
This one is by far the most complex of all the schemes and admittedly would benefit from a far more in depth demonstration of how it could function.
Finally, i was interested in knowing about antecedents for this exploitation of the weaknesses behind the laws and rules that protect the Arctic region. Did you come across similarly devious tricks from fishermen, speculators, businessmen or others?
Around Australia there are lots of reports of people smuggling operations exploiting a part of maritime law that states that you must always help a boat in distress. If the authorities intercept them on route then they will feign distress and by maritime law have to be towed to the nearest port rather than turned around. This only seems to delay the inevitable rather than allowing them to achieve their goal.
As I previously mentioned you can find out from the UN website a process that allows you to set up what amounts to a collection of front companies through a relatively cheap corporate web. This is a practice that is legitimate, pretty common in shipping, and is openly advertised. You have nominee directors and have physical shares that can be handed to people rather than existing digitally, so the real owner can remain anonymous. To see how this system worked at a very basic level, I got a quote to incorporate a company in the Marshall Islands on behalf of 5 Norwegian businessmen I pretended to represent; it was a very convenient service.
In the open ocean laws and rules become a little abstract because the high seas are still the high seas - Jurisdiction becomes incredibly complex and in some places redundant. There are international waters where ships come under the jurisdiction of the state under whose flag they sail, but if that state has no interest in bringing them to justice then law becomes unenforceable. Piracy proliferates in these areas. It's completely anarchic in places, and forms a big part of international shipping discourse. Once the Arctic sea ice melts more thoroughly then ships will be able to pass through sea routes in the Arctic and avoid piracy areas, as well as save huge sums of money on fuel. This is why the Arctic is about to become so important to shipping.
If you want a good example of corruption at sea then have a look at the Salem case from 1980. It is too long to explain here but it involves government officials, a criminal sea captain and scuttling a supertanker during the South African oil embargo.
As for the Arctic I haven't heard anything specifically about exploiting the law in the region. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything, but it still won't be really accessible on a large scale for a number of years, so for now any underhand behavior is still hidden. At a governmental level the consensus appears to be to promote good relations between the Arctic states and protect the environment. This is fantastic, but the Arctic is a long way from prying eyes, so as a theatre of deviance (both "legitimate" and "illegitimate") it will surely become a very attractive prospect, if not already.
If I may I would like to say thank you to Alexa Pollmann, Hyung-ok Park, Lana Z Porter, Mohammed Ali, Shing Tat Chung and the family and friends without whom this project would not have been possible.
All images courtesy Owen Wells.