Adam Brown is a conceptual artist working with scientists to create art pieces that use robotics, molecular chemistry, living systems and emerging technologies. Years ago, i saw one of his works at Emoção Art.ficial [Art.ficial Emotion], a Biennial of Art and Technology in Sao Paulo. The robotic sculpture, called Bion, explored the relationship between humans and artificial life. Fast forward to May 2013 when i am aimlessly clicking around and stumble upon one of his most recent pieces. This time, the project doesn't use swarms of responsive synthetic "life-form" but bacteria that, over a period of one week, process the toxins of gold chloride and produce nuggets of 24-karat gold.

0aGWML_medium.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

The Great Work of the Metal Lover earned Brown and his collaborator microbiologist Dr. Kazem Kashefi world-wide media coverage, an Honorary Mention at Ars Electronica as well as a Special mention at VIDA.

Brown brings together science and art into each of his works, from the initial concept up to the final realization. His artistic practice not only challenges scientific inquiry but it also comes with undeniable aesthetic qualities (something that is sometimes little more than a second thought in artworks that make use of the latest advances in science and technology.) Simply put, his artworks are beautiful to look at. While the Bion sculpture (below) is as stunning as it is smart, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (a working scientific experiment that builds on Miller-Urey's 1953 experiment to draw attention to the artifice and aesthetics of experimentation) neatly hangs scientific instruments and processes on a wall as if they were museum paintings.

0a0si3gases.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (detail), 2010

0aaabion01-sig06.jpg
Adam Brown, in collaboration with Andrew Fagg, Bion, 2006-present

Brown is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University where he created the Electronic Art & Intermedia department. He is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University, and serves as an Artist in Residence for the Michigan State University BEACON (Bio/Computational Evolution in Action Consortium) project.

I interviewed him via email just before he flew to Sydney to attend the ISEA Symposium on Electronic Art.

0a4close2_GK.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

Hi Adam! What you've achieved sounds almost like a fantasy... Using bacteria to turn valueless material into gold. I'm sorry for the very mundane question but why don't you make it a full time activity? You could be drinking cocktails on your yacht, on your way to a golf game with Donald Trump instead of answering my questions right now...

This is probably one of the most asked questions that I have received about this piece. The other question that is often asked is if I can share with people how to "make gold." The potential to make gold and accumulate wealth is a very powerful motivator of the human condition. Even Forbes wrote about it. Fortunately, the process is not cost effective at this point. I have to buy the soluble form of gold I put into the reactor and, since the bacteria only grow in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen), I also have large expenses in creating the conditions for their growth.

Of course the natural follow up question is if it is possible to harvest the dissolved concentrations of gold in the oceans (which contain about 10 parts per million). It might be possible, but it would take a great deal of expense to scale up a system that would be efficient and cost effective. However, this is not something that I am interested in doing. What would be the environmental costs of engaging in such an activity? With our limited knowledge of the oceans ecosystem it is unclear what would happen to the ocean life if it were depleted of dissolved gold. As an artist, I'm more concerned with probing and questioning the potential impact of our ability to engineer and control nature.

0a0a0a0GWML_medium2.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

0aaaaflakesc29fee8a8851.jpg
Gold flakes made by Adam Brown and Kazem Kashefi

What brought you to alchemy? A nostalgia for an ancient quest or the mere curiosity to explore what an artist can do with modern microbiology?

Alchemy is a topic that I have been interested in for quite a long time. Alchemy incorporates both a spiritual, creative and scientific pursuit all in one. As an artist of the 21st century working with biological systems, alchemy feels like an appropriate model of reference.

At the height of Alchemy during the time of the European Renaissance the world appeared to be much less defined. Artists were at the same time engineers, architects, alchemists, chemists. It was possible for a single person to strive to be the universal person and have relatively deep knowledge of many fields. Of course times have changed, complexity has grown and specialization has become more necessary. Newer technologies including augmented memory and instantaneous access to information have changed the way artists work. Now instead of being the total person one can employ collaborative practice to venture into territories that were previously inaccessible. This changes the role of the artist to one more akin to manager or director.

I also like the poetics of possibly solving the ancient alchemical problem of the philosopher's stone using modern microbiological science. Interestingly, the process does have some overlap to the description provided by alchemists describing the philosopher's stone. One would know when they were getting close to transmuting base metals into gold because the solution would turn a redish/purple color called "rubedo." The bioreactor of the GWML turns a purplish color when the microbial community is precipitating gold.

You developed the work in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. What form did the collaboration take exactly? Was it you dictating what needs to be done and the scientist was executing your instructions. Or is the experience more hands-on from your part? With a more critical feedback from Dr Kashefi?

The relationship was hands on and mutualistic. One of my major interests is in origins of life research. This led me to extremophiles as they are probably some of the first forms of organized life on the planet and to Dr. Kashefi (Kaz). I read a paper he wrote in 2000 about how anaerobic extremophile microorganisms have the ability to precipitate heavy metals and even gold. I asked him if he thought it possible to devise a system capable of producing enough gold that one could hold in one's hand. This was the beginning of the collaboration. Over the course of a year, Kaz and I conceptualized how to construct a sustained culture capable of this task. He taught me the lab bench practices to, culture, grow anaerobic microorganisms. I designed, conceptualized and built the installation; Kaz led the scientific inquiry but we practiced the science together.

0aexmedium2_GK.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

Unlike many works that merge art and science which outcome only appear in art publications, articles about The Great Work of the Metal Lover also appeared in science magazines. So what makes the piece appealing to the scientific community?

One of my goals as an artist, especially when it comes to collaboration is make work that has a high degree of mutuality between the respective disciplines. While it is not always the case, when working collaboratively I like to try to make contributions to the various fields of research that are represented. So, in this case, it is important to not only make contributions to the arts, but also to the sciences. The GWML does tap into interesting science in that we have shown that the microorganism is able to survive and even flourish on much higher concentrations of gold chloride than has ever been reported (ten fold in fact). Secondly, the research is relevant to scientists that are interested in the possibility of metabolic process being responsible for mineral production. Finally, novel uses of microbes, including genetically modified versions, are a hot topic for research at the moment; scientists are looking at biotechnologies to do everything from bioremediation, to microbial pharmaceuticals, to even energy production. Of course, gold does have a universal appeal, having been coveted by most people; scientists are not excluded from this bias.

0aa0illuminating.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, The Great Work of the Metal Lover, 2012

The artwork doesn't stop at creating gold nuggets, it also features images made using a scanning electron microscope and an ancient gold illumination techniques. Could you explain us what the process involved and what the images represent?

The Scanning Electron Microscopic (SEM) images depict the microorganism Cupriavidus metallidurans creating the nanoparticles of gold within a biofilm. The prints function conceptually to provide objective proof that the claims of gold production are indeed authentic and act as a literal manifestation of combining ancient practice with modern scientific imaging. They also comment on scientific objectivity as well. Most images that we see made by an electron microscope are altered or enhanced in some way, usually using an application like Photoshop to add color and adjust contrast. The prints that I am producing are also enhanced. The only difference is that I am highlighting the location of the gold using the gold produced in the bioreactor in the image by adding gold to the surface of the print.

0a0ajfull-view.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

The description of the work Origins of Life: Experiment 1 opens on a quote by biologist E. O. Wilson "The aim of art is not to show how or why an effect is produced (that would be science) but literally to produce it."
What is your understanding of the quote or how does the artwork illustrate it?

The quote illustrates a close alignment between art and science and that the practices are more connected then disconnected. The artist wishes to create a phenomenological output while the scientist's main goal is to understand the phenomenon: a complementary/mutualistic relationship; an epistemological difference signifying that there are many more commonalities than differences. This once again ties into the discussion of the previous question about collaboration and mutualism. Origins of Life is an installation and a performative re-enactment of the Miller experiment that attempts to quite literally depict this relationship. It is in essence a contextual problem filled with an epistemological shifting perspective.

0a0a0night-shot-close.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

0poster_origins.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

The Great Work can be summed up in a catchy headline, but Origins of Life cannot be reduced so easily to one sentence. Not everyone knows about the Miller-Urey experiment for example. So how do you manage to engage a scientific audience with an artwork and vice versa: how do you get the attention of art lovers with a work that deals with scientific theories?

True. Not everyone knows about the details of the Miller experiment, but big questions such as "where do we come from?" and "how did life begin?" have a much greater universal appeal overlapping with philosophy, religion, art and science. You don't have to know anything about Miller-Urey or theories of how life originated to be fascinated by an apparatus that makes lightning and thunder, bubbles and boils, gleams and glistens and mysteriously converts a tank full of gas into brown-colored goo. Once interested, you can get the scientists to think about the artistic aspects of their practice and the artists to think about creating life as a metaphor for the creative process itself. The origins of life question is also what makes us human.

0aextraction2.jpg
Adam Brown in collaboration with Robert Root-Bernstein, Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x, 2010

_a02_imillermg0106.jpg
Stanley Miller working in the lab where he simulated atmospheric conditions similar to those on Earth 3.5 billion years ago and created organic compounds. © Bettmann/Corbis

You also defined the project as being "open source", as it 'invites contributions and participation from other scientists.' If find you very brave. not many artists would be comfortable with the idea. Why was it important to you to leave them this open door instead of keeping the project stable and immutable? Could you tell us how and if scientists have contributed or pushed it further and, more generally, how they have reacted to the work?

Once again, it goes back to the idea of collaborative practice and mutuality and started out as a collaboration with the scientist Robert Root-Bernstein. While it is important for me to have some conceptual ownership over the work, it is also important to attempt to solve the mystery of how life started on the earth. And technically, the original scientific experiment does not belong to me either as it is an appropriation from Miller. Are not the under-pinnings of the scientific method that of "open source"?

I have been interested in the Miller experiment since I was in high school. The original experiment enacted by Miller in 1953 never seemed to make much headway after the initial experiment; that is the production of amino acids from inorganic material. Perhaps this was a result of available technology of the time. When Miller died in 2008 I felt like it was an opportunity to continue with the project. There are many adaptations and further experiments that were never realized or maybe thought of: such as adding a phosphorus source like salt or even running the experiment for longer then a week. Since trying out some of these modifications we have synthesized Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) the power source of cellular life as well as a building block of DNA and also have shown evidence of the production of lipids which are the materials that make up cellular membranes.

Most scientists have been very positive about the project. They realize that scientific funding agencies are very conservative and can only fund what will obviously work. But what we already know will work doesn't help us progress in our understanding. Engaging in the project as a performance lets us break out of the constraints that the scientific peer review system imposes so we can try the kinds of experiments most origins of life scientists would really like to try.

In fact, one scientist who had invented an ultra-sensitive ATP-measuring device, donated one to us so we could test whether we could make ATP along with amino acids. Overall, the scientific community has received the work very positively. Origins of life research in general has massive appeal. It is inspirational to scientists and artists both.

Any upcoming project, exhibition, areas of investigation you'd like to share with us?

I have a few projects in the works. I will definitely share them with you and We-Make-Money-Not-Art when they are ready to be released in the near future.

Yes, please! And thank you for your answers Adam.

Sponsored by:





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

My guest tomorrow will be Sascha Pohflepp, an artist and designer interested in the myths and realities shaped by science and technology. Over the past few years, Sascha has been illustrating these investigations by collaborating with a number of artists and scientists on projects that range from the microcosm of synthetic biology to the macrocosm of space exploration. We will indeed be talking space exploration during the show, and more specifically space gardening but we will also talk science fiction, complex science and impossible projects.

0yesterdaystoday4_0.jpg
Yesterday's Today, Installation view at LEAP Berlin (Photo: Daniel Franke)

0a0ayesterdaystoday3_0.jpg
Yesterday's Today, Installation view at LJMU Gallery Liverpool. The model atmosphere and the real atmosphere mix where the door is open

The focus of the interview, however, is going to be The Supertask, a collaboration between Sascha and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg that was commissioned by the Southampton University. The work focuses on modeling and its role as a technological lens on the world. The first chapter is the installation Yesterday's Today (The Supertask). As visitors entered a small room inside a Liverpool gallery, they could experience the temperature which had been predicted one day earlier in Liverpool. "It thus allows a visitor to be in a sense inside the manifest computational model and to experience it in contrast to the reality that is surrounding it."

We will also take a few minutes to discuss another of Sascha's project Seasons of the Void (a collaboration with Daisy and Andrew Stellitano) which looks at the new organisms that scientists and engineers are creating so that future astronauts could farm them on the long voyage to Mars. Now it gets even more exciting when you read the full description of the project: Seasons of the Void imagines fruits that are grown from re-designed yeast, feeding on electricity instead of sunlight. Farming seasons over the voyage lead to distortions in the fruit that is growing in a dark tank. As the ship flies away from the Sun, electrosynthesis replaces photosynthesis.

Sascha's essay Invisible Animals on the notion of living machines will be published in a forthcoming book by MIT Press. And if you're in Dublin in the coming weeks, you can also see one of Sascha's work as part of GLITCH at RUA RED, an annual festival that this year is exploring the economic, political and cultural factors that are shaping the Internet. Finally, Seasons of the Void is part of Alive. New Design Frontiers, an exhibition on view through August at Espace Fondation EDF, in Paris.

The show will be aired this Wednesday 4th of June at 16:00. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or listen to the podcast on soundcloud.

While looking through the programme of the ongoing Sight and Sound Festival, i found out about The Pirate Cinema, an installation that makes use of a data interception software of the same name to reveal in real time the hidden activity and the geography of peer-to-peer file sharing but also the aesthetic dimension of P2P architectures.

0P2P-2VLC_01_.jpg

0aP2P-2VLC_05.jpg

The video installation relies on an automated system that downloads continually the most popular torrents. The intercepted data is immediately projected onto a screen before being discarded.

The flows appearing on the screens constitute a sort of 'surveillance' of the peers as fragments of the files that they are exchanging can be visualized during the transmission or the reception. The remote users are, unknowingly, composing an endless collage determined by what they chose to download.

Nicolas Maigret, THE PIRATE CINEMA, 2013

The work was devised by Nicolas Maigret and developed with the help of Brendan Howell. I caught up with Nicolas while he was putting the finishing touches to the installation.

Hi Nicolas! The description of the work says "In the context of omnipresent telecommunications surveillance, "The Pirate Cinema" makes visible the invisible activity and geography of the peer to peer sharing network." 
Could you explain with more details?

The geographical aspect of the project is key in activating the imagination, but also in developing a critical view of consumption areas by file. A text indicating both the geographical origin of the peer who issued this fragment, and the geographical destination of the peer who received it is overlaid on each video excerpt.

When the system focuses on a single file, we obtain a kind of portrait of the file through its geographic distribution. We could almost speak of following the geographical spreading of "cultural" products. Or in the case of a TV series like "Homeland", we could speak of following the diffusion of ideological propaganda.

For an exhibition like this one, which is based on the most traded torrents, the vision is voluntarily an ultra-reducing one, it is a form of "greatest common denominator" of media on a world scale. We can, in some ways, navigate through what is consumed at a particular moment.

0P2P-2VLC_02.jpg

Are images appearing randomly? How does the system work?

This version monitors exchanges of The Pirate Bay's top 100. Each computer selects a few torrents from this list and monitors them for a minute, before switching to new file.

To present the project clearly, I often talk about the context, the imaginary and the functioning of the P2P architecture.

In the '80s, VHS brought cinema into the living room. Today, P2P and Internet bring it into personal computers and mobile phones. Through these modes of distribution, a wide-ranging reflection opens up about the media, the medium and what it specifically vehicles.

The P2P sharing protocol is based on the fragmentation of the files in small samples, it is an exchange unit. This fragmentation loosens the exchanges to different recipients. A file can then be recomposed sample by sample until it is complete, from snippets emanating from separate users and in a disorderly manner.

From a cinematic perspective this preliminary fragmentation of the media is also a fragmentation of the film material and of the narration. These "broadcasting mechanics" come with specific formal opportunities: mashup cinema, random editing, weaving together different films frame by frame, glitches and merging of different fragments.

This installation suggests a way to perceive the digital filmic medium as a stream, or rather as streams distributed on a global scale. In other words, The Pirate Cinema intends to re-explore films through the logic of cables, which is unique to each connection and location.

0P2P-2VLC_04.jpg

Since you're French, i can't help asking you about the French legislation, they have the reputation of being pretty intolerant towards P2P culture...

In France since 2004, the year of the first conviction for illegal download, P2P has been systematically associated with piracy. Many legal devices were then invented (such as Hadopi and Loppsi), that led to a massive criminalization of internet users, a legitimation of the monitoring processes carried out by some states (DPI), and the setting up by providers of systems to filter and block access to Internet.

I've just opened a twitter account to aggregate the news related to this issue.

Is this something that you and Brendan Howell (who is from the U.S. if i'm correct) kept in mind while working on the project?

We saw it as a kind of game. Ever since the beginning of the project, we anticipated the operating modes of the system so that we could be presentable regardless of the different ongoing pieces of legislation. For example, an encrypted connection to Sweden (Ipredator / the Pirate Bay) is used to anonymize each machine used in the project. Fragments of the files are encoded and remain on our machine only temporarily.

0all_schems_02.jpg

Didn't you fear that you might get into trouble?

We thought about it, we were particularly concerned about the exhibition spaces, but the legal aspects are very schizophrenic. It is obvious that the peer-to-peer structures have positive cultural impacts and also often positive social ones. The same questions were asked with the arrival of photocopiers, audio cassettes, VHS, etc.. The main stumbling blocks remain the obsolete structures of film and music production.

Several studies have demonstrated that the biggest downloaders are also among those who spend the most on culture (cinema, concerts, dvd, etc.), the company that produces the torrent download software Vuze is also boasting similar survey conclusions.

Teachers will find on torrents content for their classes that their local libraries can't provide. Recently, a list of the files downloaded by employees FBI leaked online.

With the hyper connected generation, a change is taking place and this change is obviously not just a technological one. In this regard, Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation study and communicate the alternatives in this field. They also explore transformative potential of P2P on the social, political, economic, cultural, educational levels. This is a pretty serious ideological trend that could take a growing part in the current debates.

The relationship to property and copyright has long been null and void. The past 15 years however (from Napster to EMule, Limewire or Mega) have blown up this contradiction in the digital domain. The right to exchange, share, re-appropriate or pool have become a space for a real prospective research. Russian artist Dimitry Kleiner has recently worked on a license, the Copyfarleft, that attempts to circumvent some limitations of the creative commons licenses and other copyleft approaches.

0 freemasonry.bcy.ca.jpg

Is the work also a comment on the way p2p exchanges are vilified by the cinema industry?

Yes, the legal aspect is obviously closely linked to the film industry and to blockbusters. The Pirate Bays' top 100 reflects the issue quite accurately.

These past few years, download has even influenced the film industry and the production choices of big studios. In addition to blockbusters in 3D, they now design films made specifically to be seen inside cinema theaters and during films events. And these lose some of their appeal when they are viewed on Laptop / Home theater.

The Pirate Cinema goes beyond copyright, though. It is at the crossroads of many territories (social, legal, political, aesthetic), it leaves room for many versions and sequels to come.

0dziga_vertov_man-with-a-camera.jpg
Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

0johnny-mnemonic_film_1995.jpg
Robert Longo, Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

Did anything surprise you about the images displayed on the screen? For example, do the same faces of famous actors in blockbuster movies keep appearing on the screen?

When you look at the installation over a long period of time, you start to notice many things about many things about the mass media distributed on P2P:

- For example, one can clearly identify the formal leveling between all the TV series (framing, casting, expressions, etc.)

- The aesthetic similarity between porn and video clips (explicit content) is also quite striking.

- At times, you can also see multiple versions of the same films, screeners captured in cinema theatres using different material and framing.

Is Sight and Sound the first place where you're showing The Pirate Cinema?

I started toying with the idea in early 2012 without knowing whether or not it would be fully realizable. We developed a first proof of concept during the Summer of 2012 with Labomedia in Orléans by modifying an existing Torrent client software. Around the same period Julian Oliver introduced me to Brendan Howell and we started experimenting with the concept. Brendan has gradually developed a specific "python" program. It took us almost a year to finalize a functional and stable version. I presented the work in workshops and conferences in the meantime, but Sight and Sound is the first to exhibit the project as an installation. We are currently working on a second version of The Pirate Cinema which will take the form of a live performance.

Merci Nicolas!

You can see The Pirate CInema during the fifth edition of Sight & Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc. Sight & Sound has kicked off a few days ago, it remains open until 29 May in Montreal, Canada.

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

Today i'm talking with Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson, aka Thomson & Craighead, a duo of artists who have been creating video, sound, installation, desktop documentaries and other online pieces since 1993. Many of their art works appropriate and recontextualise found footage, spam messages, live statistics or even local tweets to make artworks that talk about the way we perceive and position ourselves in the information age.

We'll be talking about how to handle and archive materials found on the web, the absence of any image documenting war in certain parts of the world, spam and other jolly subjects.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 8th May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Never Odd Or Even, a survey of Thomson & Craighead's work is opening on May 24 at the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery in London. There will be karaoke, Space Invaders and i'm looking forward to that one.

6end07_1000.jpg
Thomson & Craighead, The End, 2010

0_MG_2129.jpg
Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

It's been too long since i've blogged about a project supported by Symbiotica (although they did get their fair amount of mentions and praises in #A.I.L., the show i present on ResonanceFM.)

The new project -developed by researcher and artist Guy Ben-Ary and by artist and academic Dr. Kirsten Hudson- looks into stem cell technology and more precisely Induced pluripotent stem cell, a cell re-programming technique able to reverse-engineer any cells from the body, coerce them back into their embryonic state and then trick the resulting stem cells into becoming any cell in a fully developed body. Regardless of the original tissue from which they were created.

For the In-Potentia work, the artists grew cells that were taken from human foreskin cells purchased from an online catalogue. The cells were then re-programmed by genetic manipulation and bio-engineered to become a neural network.

This functioning "brain" is presented in a sculptural incubator containing custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system as well as an electrophysiological recording setup.

The work is more clearly explained in the video below:

In-Potentia exposes, in the most limpid and absurd way, how science is blurring what we are used to regard as clear-cut categories, such as where life begins and ends or what constitutes a person. Or in Guy Ben-Ary's words:

What is the potential for artists employing bio-technologies to address, and modify, boundaries surrounding understandings of life, death and person-hood? And what exactly does it mean culturally, artistically, ontologically, philosophically, politically and ethically to make a living biological brain from human foreskin cells?

The artists have kindly accepted to answer my questions:

0aIMG_0759.jpg
Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

In Potentia is without doubt a very powerful and thought-provoking work. What is the state of the scientific but also cultural debate around liminal forms of life? where could i read more about it (in a not too daunting, hi-tech language if possible)? do you have simple examples of these 'uncertain lives' at the border between human/non-human, coherent/hybrid, etc.?

Liminal lives are creating a great degree of conjecture and debate in many areas of discourse in science, life sciences and the humanities. Liminal lives come in many forms, basically, anywhere where there is a physical entity on the threshold of change ie an entity that sits somewhere between one form or thing and another, that could be on the threshold of life and death but could also be on other thresholds such as human/machine, human/non-human, or occupy a more moral ambivalence where an understanding of consciousness or sentience is attributed to a live physical entity which we had previously only regarded as being "merely an object" ie the space between object/being. Basically liminal life is any form of life that challenges and alters the very nature of the concept of the human being, but also the contours of human life.

Liminal lives can be "brain dead" or coma patients who are only being kept alive due to machinic intervention, or severely pre-term newborns kept alive with external life support systems, or embryos (both within or outside of a female host body) whose status as "pre-beings" disrupts our understanding of "life" as being conscious, independent and "useful". Liminal lives could also be humans with animal (or other human) organ transplants, genetically modified/manipulated (human and non-human) lives that challenge the ontological status of where and how "life" starts, or even non-humans that exhibit "human-like" characteristics of consciousness etc etc. A liminal life can therefore be found anywhere that our traditional western understandings of what it means to be human is challenged, altered or transgressed. If you were only going to read one thing on liminal lives, I would suggest Susan M Squire's 2004 seminal text: Liminal Lives - Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine.

0a_MG_2141.jpg
Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

I like the humour behind 'project dickhead' as you nicknamed it but i've been wondering if you're not worried that certain journalists (and bloggers) will jump on the opportunity to depict the project in a simplistic light? Your choice was quite bold because you could have avoided potential simplistic headlines by choosing to use other cells than the ones of foreskin?

The use of foreskin is deliberate and although may evoke simplistic readings, does not take away, I hope) from the ability of these cells to offer an accessible point of entry into an art/science work for non- art or non- science savvy viewers in way that starts to evoke ideas to do with gender, waste, body modification/manipulation, western capitalist opportunism and the role biomedicine and scientific rationalism plays in determining the moral status and hierarchy of all beings.

The idea or research strategy was to try and problematise the technology by putting forward an absurd scenario (make a brain from foreskin) and ask the views to consider it...

0soft control_portal (18).jpg
Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Could you briefly explain me the audio-soundscape that exposes the electrical activity of neural signals or synaptic output? It is just the electrical activity from the neural network being amplified? Did you modify the sound in any way to make it more 'evocative' of what the activity of a brain might sound like?

When we thought about exhibiting the project, its aesthetics or shall I say the visual/sonic language we needed to develop to show something like a neural network we decided not to visualise the network using a camera. Rather, we chose to grow the neurons on a multi electrode array or an electrophysiological set up that allows us to amplify the electric activity of the neurons so that the viewers could hear the neurons rather than seeing them. We felt that this sonic element will complement or support the aesthetics of the incubator. We believe that together they support the reading of the artwork. We also chose not a modify the sound of the neurons (even though not such a popular decision) due to our desire for authenticity and integrity. In my mind this way the focus is on the neurons and not programming or musicianship... I think that the blurry, noisy signal (that really needs analysis algorithms to decode it) also adds to the absurdity of the whole work in a way that it is a functional network but really what does this statement mean ?

0a_MG_2133.jpg
Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Thanks Guy and Kirsten!

A few weeks ago i was in Brussels for The Digital Now, the first thematic exhibition of a series produced by Cimatics, that explores relevant artifacts within the current artistic context and media art related discourse.

0j7dronesprin9cb45a52.jpg

0aaaaaaaaaa300606.jpg
HC Gilje, Wind-up birds, 2008

The first chapter in this series, 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', looks into autonomous technology through the lens of birds as objects reflecting our contemporary relation with technology.

The bird has long been seen as a symbol of freedom, communication, transborder mobility but also as an indicator of environmental change. However, much of the bird physical and spiritual significance has been lost on the way to and from the industrial revolution. But according to Bram Crevits, curator of 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity', digital culture has brought birds back to the fore. Or maybe it's the birds which have forced their way into our techno-mediated world. Think Twitter of course. And birds incorporating ringtones into their repertoire so effortlessly that Richard Schneider of the NABU bird conservation centre in Germany suggested that, in the interests of ecology, mobile phone users convert their tones to pop songs which are too complex to be mimicked by the birds. Woodpeckers attacking CCTV cameras. Or confused birds trapped into the twin columns of light shot into the sky each year on September 11 in New York. The bright memorial short circuits some of the cues that birds use when they are migrating at night. And then there's drone watching as the new bird watching. And drones counting birds.

The relevance of drones -or Unmanned Arial Vehicles- in relation to birds is more than purely formal or anecdotal. Another source of inspiration for the exhibition is indeed the New Aesthetic and the focus on the ways we experience our digital condition: always on, always there. Drones have been related to this New Aesthetic debate ever since it started.

0u8botaniqu17cf722.jpg
Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

0a8mike8d9fb.jpg
Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela, Hortus, 2012

0i8birds98da75.jpg

0i8exhibsapac884c.jpg

Part of the exhibition was located at the Botanique. Christoph De Boeck & Patricia Portela installed invisible birds inside the greenhouse. Sensors measure the dynamics of wind and light harvested by the plants during their photosynthetic process, and translates it into bird sounds. When there is human movement in the garden a financial algorithm (similar to the ones used in a speculation economic market) interprets the variation of the received data and transforms and remaps the natural garden soundscape to which plants seem most profitable in that split second.

However, most of the works were in a gallery hidden inside a tunnel. It took me ages and a couple of panicked phone calls to find it. The show was pretty exciting though because instead of showing only artworks and building up the usual art&tech discourse around it, the curator chose to insert the works into a broader context that included the political and the downright popular.

For example, two videos demonstrated the impact that unmanned aerial vehicles have on every day life in Pakistan.

On the one hand, a video shot by Noor Behram outside his house in North Waziristan, the footage shows a reaper drone flying over Waziristan. For more than five years, Behram has been documenting drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, the hub of the CIA's remote assassination program.

Trevor Paglen interviewed Behram a while ago: "[The few places where I have been able to reach right after the attack were a terrible sight" he explains, "One such place was filled with human body parts lying around and a strong smell of burnt human flesh. Poverty and the meagre living standards of inhabitants is another common thing at the attack sites." Behram's photographs are miles away from official American reports that deny civilian casualties from drone attacks: "I have come across some horrendous visions where human body parts would be scattered around without distinction, those of children, women, and elderly."

Pop song Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack) shows the other hand of the spectrum, where the increasing appearance of unmanned vehicles over the skies of Pakistan (see data viz Drone war: every attack in Pakistan visualised for more details) inspires little more than the lyrics of a song:


Sitara Younis, Za Kaom Pa Stargo Stargo Drone Hamla" (My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack)

'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity' was thus full of contrasts. One moment, you were reflecting on surveillance technologies, next you were laughing (the suitors of the frantic singer are peerless.)

I'm now going to revert to my usual "throw as many images and projects in their face" mode and leave you with a few works i've (re) discovered in the show:

0isbtwitter86f05d.jpg

0Subtwitter_DronesEnBirds_Image.jpg
Dries Depoorter, Subtwitter

Subtwitter is a free application that scans subtitle-files (.srt) of a film and replaces them with similar tweets. The application uses the original subtitle-file of a movie or series of your choice, then looks into each separate sentence of the subtitle and crawls the twittyverse for a similar tweets. The result are --sometimes absurd and sometimes witty- subtitles that consist of computationally associated tweets.

0i8zimou7473f.jpg

0izimounb25.jpg
Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012

A microphone picks up and amplifies the sound of woodworms eating their way through a piece of wood. Temperature, humidity and other environmental qualities determine how the wood worms dig their tunnels and 'play' the piece of wood.

0a0a0BURBS4.jpg

0chatSPACE2.jpg
Addie Wagenknecht , Pussy Drones, 2013

The Pussy Drones gifs trigger a new form of discourse between the web­based experience (lolzcat, memes, gifs) and historically closed systems of the patriarchal structures which control the physical world. That is to suggest drones are merely 'unmaned' cocks controlled by (finding) pussy.

In theory the democratic nature of the internet should allow everyone to create equally, controlling its code at an open root p2p level. Yet the internet­ net art, the very essence of the web (programming, the code structure itself) is still ruled by men and corporations who control and own it in its entirety. We are not Facebook's customers, we are their product. The web has never been a democratic medium, Mark Zuckerberg said 'There are probably 200 million people who think that Facebook is the internet.' It is easy to include the digital life is not any different than our life away from the keyboard.

0fly_tweet_detail1-980x667.jpg

0i8fliesf01f67ab.jpg

0i8mecflies4f75.jpg
David Bowen, Fly Tweet, 2012

David Bowen's now famous Fly Tweet sends Twitter messages based on the activities of houseflies living inside an acrylic sphere along with a computer keyboard. As a particular key is triggered by the flies, the corresponding character is entered into a Twitter text box. A message is tweeted as soon as 140 characters are reached or when a fly triggers the "enter" key.

More fly thrills at https://twitter.com/@flycolony

0MarcusCoatesPloversWing_ritual3.jpg
Marcus Coates, The Plover's Wing, 2009

Marcus Coates uses shamanic rituals and his knowledge of the animal world to try and solve problems faced by local (human) communities. In 2009, he visited the mayor of Holon in Israel who asked him how he should handle the problem of the violent youth in the city. Coates first consulted with the animals that he had encountered, and in particular the plover, a bird known for luring predators away from its young by pretending to be injured so as to appear as an easy target for predators. His reading of the meeting with the plover was then explained to the Mayor. According to Coates, The important thing for [Israel] as a nation is, through education, to emphasize shifting identities and an empathy with a different position. It's a fundamental position of resolution within a conflict, to be able to emphasise with your enemy or oppressor.

His solution to Holon's social ills is to teach empathy and recognise that victim status is often used as justification for violent behaviour.

Hi answer left the Mayor very impressed as you can see at the end of the video i've pasted below:


TateShots: Marcus Coates

Erica Scourti's video were among my favourite. Taking her cue from stock video sites corresponding to the key words 'woman', 'nature' and 'alone', the young artist filmed herself performing each action described in the title. The video and title was then uploaded to YouTube, forming a collection of 'rushes' which were used to create the final single channel version. After that, videos started to get a life of their own, with artists and film makers using Scourti's films as another stock library and including then in their own videos.

0aWoman-Nature-Alone_2.jpg
Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

0aWoman-Nature-Alone.jpg
Erica Scourti, Woman Nature Alone, 2010

0ientrance3ea414baf.jpg

0i8orang0239d9.jpg
Esther Polak & Ivar van Bekkum, Urban Fruit - Street Wrapper, 2012

0i8cirio9f09e7c.jpg
Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 2012

0howcanbirds.jpg

The Digital Now is produced by Cimatics, a Brussels-based arts organisation which activities includes the production support of audiovisual and digital creations as well as live events, exhibitions, workshops and guest-curations.

All images courtesy Cimatics. Except the ones illustrating the work of Erica Scourti and Marcus Coates,
Image on the homepage: Zimoun, Woodworms, 2009-2012. Photography by Zimoun ©

 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10 
sponsored by: