0aaroncat2.jpgThe Golden Nica in the brand new Hybrid Art category went to a whole structure not just a work: SymbioticA.

The birth of the category was motivated by the fact that people attending the festival were sometimes wondering where was the interaction of some pieces shown under the Interactive Art label, a clearer set of criteria was needed which would of course disqualify some interesting art pieces. The creation of the new category was thus the most obvious solution.

Jens Hauser, art curator, writer, and member of the jury gave an insightful introduction to the category. It was one of those "Focus or take notes" talk. So i dropped my pen but here´s a few points:

The results of a search of the word "hybrid" on google demonstrates that the biological origins of the term are increasingly used metaphorically and replaced by cultural examples of hybridity (cars, clothing, etc.) He pointed and discussed Brian Stross´ essay The Hybrid Metaphor From Biology to Culture.

Hybrid Art received 470 entries for its first year of existence. The category is dedicated specifically to today’s hybrid and transdisciplinary projects and approaches to media art, focusing on the process of fusing different media and genres into new forms of artistic expression as well as the act of transcending the boundaries between art and research, art and social/political activism, art and pop culture.

0aadresfun8.jpgSince its foundation in 2000, SymbioticA has enabled dozens of artists to engage in and comment on "wet technologies" while complying strictly with scientific requirements. The collaborative structure produces new cultural experiments in the field of neurosciences, molecular biology, anatomy physics, anthropology and ethics.

Symbiotica offers undergraduate courses, postgrad programme, hosts individual short and long term research projects, workshops, "Friday Meetings. Symbiotica is also a founding partner of BEAP and pursues the research of Tissue Culture & Art Project.

Some of the projects developed with the help of SymbioticA include: a dress made of fungi by by Donna Franklin (image on the left); BioKino, the Living Screen; collaborations with Adam Zaretsky, the Critical Art Ensemble, etc.

Dr. Stuart Bunt, scientific director of SymbioticA, and Oron Catts explained how SymbioticA started as an artist in residence project and grew into a more stable structure as they were gaining recognition all over the world. They applied for more grants and had other artists come over to work with them.

Interestingly, Ionat Zurr explained that they applied both to the art school and to the science school. The art community didn't accept them, it was the science school which gave them support.

What makes their work appealing for the science world is that artists get more freedom to explore.

In science you have to work towards an end point, to "cure", it´s not about doing research anymore, scientists are "problem solvers". Therefore, explained Dr. Stuart Bunt, artists are stimulating fits in this ethos. The critical edge they bring help scientists justify and constantly evaluate the scientific process. Artists often come up with provoking pieces which reminds scientists of the unease to work with living beings.

SymbioticA is very far off the radar, it is located in Perth, "the most isolated big city in the world", which apparently provides the artists with more freedom.

andacrikkk.jpg
Part of the exhibition: Nigel Helyer´s Host, in which an audience of several crickets attend a lecture concerning the sex life of insects
alecture2.jpg

For the ars electronica exhibition, SymbioticA brought some artists with them (more info about these works will follow). The form of display used doesn´t go very well with the rest of the usually very "please touch and have fun" ars electronica exhibition. For example, one project was hidden behind the heavy door of an incubator. Occasionally the door would be open and visitors who happen to wander around could have a peek, this aims to be a reference to the occasional opening up of the scientific world.

One of SymbioticA´s aims is to bring scientific discussions out of the laboratories and bring the debate out in public rahter than wait for tabloids to give their own take on it.

Catts also insisted on the fact that although many the works developed within their structure might seem to be subversive, all of them comply fully with the rules and requirement of science. That makes their approach more powerful and gives them more freedom to work and exhibit without the fear of being censored for some procedural reason.

rebel.tv has a video of Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts during the gala ceremony. Images from SymbioticA´s exhibition at ars.

Sponsored by:





In case you have some time to kill in front of the screen, here are some vids for your personal enlightenment and hopefully pleasure.

Adam Zaretsky´s just announced a 3 part documentary about his VivoArts lab, in particular the last one which focused on transgenic quail and pheasant embryology.

Part 1, 2 and 3.

Related: Adam Zaretsky on Future Body (part 1 and 2)

"Videogame Violence & Effects on Youth" is a documentary directed by Edmund Wong, a graduate student at San Jose' State University (via videoludica.)


Part 1 (Introduction & Background on Games)

Part 2 (Mortal Kombat & the ESRB), 3 (Doom & the Columbine Massacre), 4 (Addiction and GTA Controversy), 5 (California Videogame Law), and 6 (Causation & Correlation. Final Thoughts.)

000ahir.jpgAnother project from the Royal College of Art design interactions show. There were several digital pieces, but also some works inspired by the advances of other technologies. Although they might surprise many visitors, the biotech-inspired projects received very interesting response form industry people, some of them explaining that it was getting tired before, that the same ideas kept reappearing, but now they can see a space opening for new and unpredictable ideas and possibilities. They realize too that the times are a changing, and that you need to develop technology within a more complex setting. I cannot agree more with that.

Inspired by the Hygiene Hypothesis which states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents increases susceptibility to allergic diseases, Michael Burton's series of work considers an alternative symbiotic and ecological embedded healthcare and way of life. The Race takes a looks at our obsession with bacteria. Although we are healthier when we are surrounded by the bacteria we have co-evolved with through our species evolutionary development, we keep spraying our homes with antibacterial products that promise to eliminate 99.9% of all bacteria. How do we find our way out this paradox, and what might a counter reaction to the hyper-hygienic era look like?

0amagggot3.jpg
Michael and maggots corner at the RCA show

“The microbes that live in the human body are quite ancient,? says microbiologist Dr. Martin Blaser. “They’ve been selected (through evolution) because they help us.?

It now appears that our daily antibacterial regimens are disrupting a balance that once protected humans from health problems, especially allergies and malfunctioning immune responses.

“The world is very aware of the concept of global warming, which is a macro-ecological change,? Blaser explains. “I postulate that there are similar micro-ecological changes going on inside us.?

Antibiotics underpin all of modern medicine. Alarmingly, we are nearing the end of the antibiotic era. Bacteria and viruses are evolving faster than scientific innovation. Trivial infections we hardly think about now will once again become fatal.

The Race proposes that we must now join the race to evolve with them. It also presents a mirror to ourselves to question personal and societal lifestyle practices and our self-perceived superiority over other organisms. Who do we think we are?

0aamagggg.jpg

A first project is concerned with maggots which have been used throughout medical history as a painless way of treating wounds because they remove dead and infected tissue, while leaving healthy tissue intact. But they fell into disuse when antibiotics were first introduced in the 1940s.

Medics now recognise that maggots have advantages over more recent forms of treatment, as they kill the bacteria that cause infection, including the so-called antibiotic-resistant superbugs. There is also some evidence that maggots also stimulate the wound to heal. Their re-introduction in hospitals could therefore enable NHS to save millions.

Maggot Cohabitation encourages us to invest in the symbiotic relationship pre and post treatments. You are encouraged to keep at home special portable receptacles that would allow you to follow the life cycle. The maggots would be delivered as larvae to your home and you carry them to the hospital. At the end of the treatment, you'd release them as flies, and they would take your genetic material with them as they fly away which is much more poetic than the current practice which consists of incinerating the maggots once they have finished their healing job.

Another chapter of The Race is called Pet Dander.

0apetdander.jpg
Pet Dander

Domestic animals kept in the home may help boost human immune systems by exposing them to a wealth of pet dander, which is the dead skin cells, hair and parasites the animal harbours.

However selective breeding practice and genetic engineering have enabled the creation of a new league of pets like the Labradoodle and the Allerca hypoallergenic cats. Marketed as hypoallergenic lifestyle pets, they are designed not to expose humans to allergenics like pet hair. The practice unwitingly strips our cohabitation with these animals from the health benefits they once had.

With our revised understanding of health, the hybrid animals envisioned by Michael are designed specifically to harbour pet dander, dead skin, hair and pet parasites in order to desensitize and strengthen their human co-habitants immune systems. The animal would have a dense coat, perfect for harbouring parasites, sheading its hair and has a natural behaviour to forage and graze, collecting dirt and bacteria as it does and it would generously pass the parasites to you as you'd embrace and pet it.

0abactenail.jpgAnother idea, named Commensal Bacteria, proposes new manipulations to the human body and changes in behaviour and manners which would have us develop commensal relationships with bacteria and other microbes to enrich the gut microbiota.

Fingernail growth would be engineered to increase the surface area where bacteria can thrive. Biting nails would be encouraged as a means of consumption. Teamed with very specific micro-environments this is a desirable way of consuming dirt and particularly the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, to boost health and well-being.

Michael developed several other scenarios which are inspired by science facts, including the use of tapeworms as contraceptive, excessive hairgrowth harnessed to breed organisms, etc. Follow his research on his blog.

Images.

0adamccvg.jpgI'm now spending a week in a super boring city. That's the best way i found to catch up with blogging, writing articles for paper mags and working on my own projects.

First long overdue post is about a fantastic guy whose work i've been admiring for some time. He's called Adam Zaretsky and we met in Edinburgh where New Media Scotland had invited us to discuss the Future Body at the Poker Club.

Zaretsky is a teacher and practitioner of VivoArts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world and he is currently teaching at the University of Leiden (NL).

His Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores five areas where art meets biology (Ecology and EcoArt, Gastronomy and Edible Art, Biology and Bio-Art, Ethology and Art for Non-humans, Physiology and Body Art) and discusses cultural issues such as gene patenting, population diversity (he imagines that we could one day create jellyfish people who'd be floating around the city), new reproductive technologies, nature/culture boundaries, etc. The ethics of living art production are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.

0induuu7.jpg

A hands-on approach is crucial to him. Adam believes that without getting your hands "dirty" you can't fully assess the relationship between safety, aesthetics and responsibility implicit in this field. What happens inside a lab is not as squeaky clean as we'd imagine. For example:

The way animals have sex in laboratories is as follows: eggs are squeezed out of the female and put into a petri dish, then the scientist rubs male testicles against the eggs.

0aapaintbe.jpgIn one of his workshops, Zaretsky has students or participants "paint" with genetically modified bacteria (image on the right); in another, they can incorporate themselves into a work of living art. The idea is to let them see how they can insert their own fantasy and desires right into the genome.

Participants are asked to extract and isolate Hybrid DNA which is found in all living cells. Varieties of samples can be collected from food, pets, pests, human bodies, laboratories and free or not so free living portions of the outdoors. The DNA samples of living, growing, raw or recently alive materials are isolated --using products such as soap, contact lens solution, Woolite-- and put in a blender: vegetable, human, animal, fungus, mold, bacteria, dirty underwear or whatever is alive or uncooked.

In his Leyden class he recently had students create transgenic phaesant and quail embryos. Yes, he's allowed to do that because as he says:

In Europe, yeast has more rights than animal embryos!

The embryos cannot be allowed to live too long nor can they be inserted into a womb. But still, there's much to learn in the process, like following the development of the embryos and reflecting on the fact that they have no rights (Adam even labelled some eggs with names such as "sub-human", "non-being", "loss and lack", etc.) doesn't imply that they are not living and growing beings to which one can give an imprint. At the end of the process he has students choose the way they want their embryo to be killed.

00aeggggg.jpg

I wish i'd have been fast enough to write down every single witty quote from Adam. Explaining how wild future developments might go he mentioned that

"Why should we make golden eggs when you can make prozac come out of a cow? Or have human sperm with opium? Men would then be able to charge a lot for blowjobs!"

Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica.

steve.portrait.open.72.jpgStephen Wilson is a San Francisco author, artist and professor who explores the cultural implications of new technologies. His computer mediated art works probe issues such as interaction with invisible living forms, information visualization, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc. But most of all he's interested in exploring the role of artists in research. He is Head of the Conceptual/Information Arts program at San Francisco State University.

I actually first got to know his through his writing. When i started getting interested in new media art, i was so clueless about the field that i asked people who knew (and still know) much more than me about it which books they'd recommend me. Most of them advised me to get my hands on Information Arts – intersections of art, science and technology. I did. It's a hefty volume, a wonderful reference i usually turn to when i need some information on a particular aspect of the domain where science/technology and art meet.

You wrote "I am simultaneously awed and troubled about the course of scientific and technological research. Historically the arts kept watch on the cultural frontier. I fear that in the contemporary technology-dominated world they are failing that responsibility. Historically, the arts alerted people to emerging developments, examined the unspoken implications, and explored alternative futures. As the centers of cultural imagination and foment of our times have moved to the technology labs, the arts have not understood the challenge." but surely there must be some artists around who are doing a good job at engaging with the advances of research, don't you think so?

Yes, I didn't mean to imply artists were not involved in these kind of explorations. In fact, many of the artists highlighted on WMMNA are good examples of artists willing to engage frontier areas of research. But there are some problems. One is the mainline definitions of art. Technology/science art research is still marginalized as a fringe activity. In a technoscientific culture, artistic probing the world of research is a critical, desperate need.

We need people looking at these fields of inquiry from many frames of reference, not just those sanctioned by academia or commerce.

Another is scope of artistic interest. Scientific and technological research is proceeding at breakneck speed - moving into fascinating areas of great cultural impact. Examples of areas are: genetic engineering, designer drugs, brain functioning, bionics, stem cells, materials science, alternative energy, extreme environments. There are tools now available such as microarray biology labs on a chip that enable research that used to take years to be accomplished in minutes. And these tools are becoming affordable for independent artists. There are a few artists beginning work in these areas but there should be many more. Where are the artists? It worries me to read about exciting, provocative new research areas without artists even aware of them. Also artists may need to get involved at a deeper level than they have so far.

0protozoooa.jpg

Maybe the other problem is that even though the work of some artists comments on science and technological advances, they strive to find an audience. Where and how do you think works like yours can find an audience? Are festivals and museums the only channel to exhibit challenging projects?

Audience and support are major problems. Alternative art spaces and festivals have been a lifesaver for my practice over the years. They have been willing to show exploratory work. Mainstream museums and galleries have not been very interested. There are hopeful signs. For example WMMNA and sites like it attract not just people in the arts. In the Conceptual Information Arts here at San Francisco State University where I teach, I get students who come from outside the arts and media. They seem to have a more generalized cultural thirst for experimentation. Now the challenge will be to convert this spectator interest into a producer interest. The DIY and open source movements are other hopeful signs. They encourage people to think of themselves not only as passive consumers but potentially as producers and innovators. The web makes for a whole new venue for finding audiences but the museums need to do some catchup.

What triggered your artistic interest for scientific or technological research?

It started when I was finishing college. It was America in the 60's so social change and justice movements were important foci in our lives. Everyone had to do a senior thesis. I was in humanities/social sciences so professors thought I would do something in those fields. I noticed, however, that electronics were critical forces in our lives. We listened to radio and music. Radio and TV were shaping the political mind of the society. It struck me that we didn't really know how radio worked. How did this device capture sounds from far distances? For most of us it was a 'black box'. I thought that was culturally dangerous - to have something so central be a mystery. I made self study in electronics and radio the subject of my senior thesis. My professors were not happy but I did learn how radio worked. Even more importantly I learned that things that had been mystified could be understood and that one didn't need to be an expert in a field to do interesting work with it.

Later in 1980 when I was an art student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was in a program called Generative Systems run by a fascinating artist named Sonia Sheridan. She encouraged us to tear things apart to understand them. Microcomputers had just come out.Up to that time most people thought of computers as specialized devices only relevant to science and business. My gut told me they were going to have a more profound cultural impact than that. I wanted to work with them artistically.

Most of the other art students and professors thought it was a waste of time. There were few information sources in the arts. Even academic computer scientists thought the microcomputer was a toy, not worthy of their attention. I was somewhat on my own. I had to search out resources. I had to teach myself. I had to find other researchers wherever they were. I came up with ideas that people told me were impossible. I experimented. I did them anyway. It all taught me to be somewhat skeptical about common knowledge in any field. Learn what there was to learn but be willing to follow unpopular lines of inquiry. The arts have a long venerable tradition of iconoclasm that will serve them well as artists pursue frontier areas of scientific and technological research.
0introspection7.jpg
Does the public understand immediately what is at stake in your work? How do they react to your installations?

I try to create installations that can be appreciated at many levels. The audience can be provoked, intrigued and have fun even if they don't understand the bigger issues. For example, children usually get involved in my installations. I'm not sure how many in the audience think about the larger issues. That's a problem not only with general audiences but even the judges in festivals. IntroSpection and Protozoa Games got shown in a few places but mostly got rejections. Some judges felt they were too much like a 'science fair'. (Protozoa Games let people play games with protozoa - single cell animals. IntroSpection let people play games with their own cells and microorganisms.)

Many audience members dealt with Protozoa Games and IntroSpection only as unusual games. But the installations did have more critical agendas. In Protozoa Games I wanted people to think about the complexity of life even at the single cell level and the relationship of humans to other animals. In IntroSpection I realized maybe 99.999% of people had never looked at their own cells and the microorganisms living inside of them and never had experience with basic biology research processes such as taking samples and using microscopes. I felt that this level of unfamiliarity was culturally dangerous in an era where biology research was becoming so critical. I thought it was an fitting role for the arts to appropriate the tools, bring them into public media, and comment and intervene in this situation of unfamiliarity.

0scoperitou.jpg 0indamouth.jpg
IntroSpection

What do scientists make of works such as Protozoa Games (video) and Introspection? Are they "awed and troubled" or do they see the pieces as complementary to their own work for example?

Mostly they ignored them. In doing research for my book Information Arts I was distressed to learn of scientist attitudes. Many are rather arrogant - they doubt that even other scientists outside their discipline can contribute to their work - let alone artists. Even though many are great supporters of classical forms of art, music, theater, ballet etc., their interest and knowledge of the art stops in the 70's. They had little interest and familiarity with contemporary experimental conceptual, critical, and technological arts.

But there are hopeful signs also. There are several efforts around the world to involve artists in research - all based on the idea that artists can bring unique perspectives to the research process. For example there is the Artists in the Lab program in Switzerland, Interactive Institute in Sweden, SymbioticA in Australia, Hexagram in Montreal and many others. It's not clear how they will all turn out but its a great start. Web viewers can find a more complete list at my art/research organizations page.
In creating IntroSpection I got a glimpse of the possibilities. I consulted with a Biologist at my university who is a world expert in bacteria. I wanted to learn more about the bacteria in the mouth since they might be important in my art installation. I was amazed to find out that in spite of all her knowledge, she had never taken a sample of her own mouth to see what was there. We had a good time together seeing what we could find in our mouths. We found some bacteria but they were all immobile. At that time in the development of my installation I was planning on using the movement of the bacteria in my art game so it was troubling. She pointed out that most organisms don't move around if they have what they need in the niche where they are - it costs unnecessary energy. So we hypothesized about what could get the bacteria moving. She said she had never encountered that issue in the literature. We did several mini-experiments with coffee, alcohol, sugar, stimulants, drugs without much luck. We both learned from each other. I doubt it had any profound impact on her research, but I think it opened up some new ideas and approaches for her. I hear similar stories often repeated from artists who have worked with scientists.

Would you say that Protozoa Games and IntroSpection belong to the bioart category? What happened to bioart? It seemed that it was booming around 2003, at the time of the L'Art Biotech exhibition in Nantes (France). Is it back into marginality now?

I guess a lot of the fields in this hybrid art/science/tech world dwell in marginality. Some rise in attention and then recede. Bioarts continues to be an area where many artists are working around the world. In the last few years there are several books that have come out. As is probably clear from my work, I think it is cultural suicide for the arts not to pay attention to new developments in biology research. My hope is that gradually the importance of many of the art/science fields will be recognized and that it will become part of the mainstream expectations for artists to work in these fields. I joke with my students that the art supply store of the future will include sections for electronics and biology research supplies.

IntroSpection uses microorganisms. What is/are the biggest challenge(s) when working with tiny human cells?
0introspwctio8.jpg
There is so much to learn when working with microorganisms. I guess the biggest challenge artistically is how to bring these cells into cultural and art discourse. They are so alien at first for viewers and so easy to dismiss them as science. Also, many of the cells you can get to easily - eg on the skin are not very active. More lively stuff is more intricately involved in bodily processes - eg blood, sexual fluids, feces. You can well imagine art venues don't want to deal with this stuff or the processes to get it.

What did you try to achieve with the work Body Surfing?

At the time of installation there was much discussion about the irrelevancy of the body. Virtual experience (eg Internet, online, games, vr, animation, etc) was seen as more important for the culture. I felt those themes were being oversold and people were ignoring the ongoing importance of the physical world. I have great interest in crossover areas where information and computational technology intersect with the physical - for example, physical computing, tangible interfaces, biology, materials science. I tried with Body Surfing to create an installation that didn't do much unless the viewer exerted their body.

One section had digital movies that required viewers to run around the room; the speed and direction of the running directly controlled the speed and direction of the movie. Another section required people to stretch and contort their arms and legs in order to access information. Another section required people to beat on an African drum to control the digital world. I wanted people to come out of the installation sweating and thinking about the joys and limitations of the physical body.

0informationarttt.jpgYou published Information Arts – intersections of art, science and technology. It was in 2002. Do you still keep a close eye on what's going on in that artistic field? Have the interests and practices of artists evolved since the book was first launched? Do you think that it's time for an Information Art, volume 2?

*** I do keep up. I love the risks artists take to work in these research areas. For example, I get such a kick out the artists that appear in WMMNA. It is a bit harder now to keep up because more work is going on. I am working on a new book for Thames & Hudson (a UK publisher famous for publishing big format art books). It will focus on artists working at the edges of scientific and technological research and will emphasize work created since 2000. It will be highly illustrated and will be aimed at the general public. I am looking forward to finding a way to explain this work that makes it understandable but preserves the integrity and complexity of the artists' intentions. People will walk into the art section of their bookstore and there, right next to the big books on Monet and Picasso, will be this book full of fascinating artists working in this hybrid research. Perhaps that will help reduce the marginality we discussed earlier.

Thanks Stephen!

More information about Wilson's installations, essays, books, and the Conceptual Information Arts Program at SFSU where he is teaching.

List of artists, organzizations, essays, books, and festivals related to the intersections of art, science, and technology.

Leonardo - International Journal of Art, Science and Technology (40 year history of monitoring this kind of art).

howard_laura.jpg Laura Cinti and Howard Boland's experiments and artistic projects explore critical and contemporary amalgamations of bio and electronic art. The aim of c-lab, their art/science studio lab, is to produce what the artists call "cultural holes" that allow artistic exploration of meaning and idiosyncrasies that focuses on life – organic, artificial and otherness.

Laura's art pieces (in particular her "hairy cactus") has been featured all over the media. She also works commercially as researcher and interactive designer on art/science projects. Currently she is furthering her practices in bioart through her PhD at University College London. She has a First Class Honours degree in Fine Art and Distinction in MA Interactive Media.

Howard's work spans across electronic media and he is currently leading producer and programmer for HSBC global campaign yourpointofview.com. He has degrees both in Mathematics and Software Systems for the Arts and Media. He has Distinction in MA Digital Practices.

Both have lectured and exhibited internationally.

You both seem to have different backgrounds and expertise. How do they complete each other?

Laura comes from a fine art and interactive media background where her works focused on cloning then later genetics. Howard comes from a background in mathematics that later branched into electronic media. We join up through critical theory and a desire to explore works on various forms of ‘otherness’ and adventures in science (and humour).

0experculturi4.jpg
Experiments: Tissue culturing

What can an artistic approach bring to issues raised by the advances in genetic technology?

This is an interesting question on a broader scale and is actually a critical point in a current online symposium [Virtual Symposium On Visual Culture and Bioscience]. Here, Suzanne Anker prompts the notion that the biosciences may be considered to be experiencing a “golden age,? the arts on the other hand, struggle not with public consumption, but with a more profound challenge to intrinsic identity and history. However, a few examples of what has been raised might be in place, such as Tissue Culture & Art Project, showing the “failure? of the technology (tissue engineering) by playing with utopian concepts by reflecting on technological zeitgeists. Joe Davis, a research fellow at MIT, takes a different route by attempting to use biotechnologies to open spaces between different scales, one such example is his audio microscope another is his paramecium fishing contraption. Artistic approaches can serve to contemplate how the media informs the public on matters of technology, there are also practices that take place in the labs that are being reflected upon by artists and contextualization on what is being produced by labs in broader cultural terms. It is clear to us that organisms produced routinely in labs, methodologies and ideas are far more radical than many of the ideas from the surrealist movement and these practices radically transforms our culture.

0dnaaaa7.jpg 0dnnnnni9.jpg
Experiment: DNA extraction

I usually associate biotech art with Australia or the US, how's the London scene on that regard? Is there a community of artists and researchers with similar interests in London and the rest of the UK?

Your association is completely granted seeing that most radical and important works in the bioart genre is coming from these two countries. The London scene has a different focus and may be divided into two camps which fall slightly outside what we today may associate with bioart. On the one side there is the “communicating science? in artworks which are collaborative projects mostly focusing on the human body and medical imaging technologies and on the other there is the britart movement which follows in the trails of Damien Hirst and the likes. Its variation may also be a result of UK’s more embedded art and design education. Art agencies like the Art Catalyst have in the past brought in artists/researchers working with bioart such as Oron Catts and Steve Kurtz (though more art-activist than bioartist) offering talks and workshops in London. Still it remains a problem that there are no constant body that offers artists to practice in labs. The UK has however had a few practicing bioartists in the past such as Martha De Menezes who worked out of the Imperial College of London. Another issue that may be raised is that funding is now being picked up by scientists to communicate science projects as art – again this falls in under “communicating science? rather than digging into the complexity of contemporary art and theory (knowledge). London bioart scene is still far from hosting environments such as SymbioticA (Australia), MIT (US) and Ectopia (Portugal).

The Cactus Project is probably your most iconic work. Do you feel that the audience and the media understood its meaningfulness? Do you find that people are usually keen on looking beyond the spectacular aspect of an art piece like the Cactus?

cactus_project.jpg

The Cactus Project began in 2001 as a collaborative bioart project resulting in cacti’s expressing human hair. The plants were displayed publicly during a short period (and transported for private views) however the aim was not to generate overt attention, but rather see what happened when a challenging idea hit the culture softly. Genetic engineering – particularly transgenics, may be seen as something anti-sexual or asexual in that its manipulation directly interferes with the natural reproductive process and transfers genetic material from one specie to another. It reverses the sexuality and propagation associated with living entities into something asexual. Transgenesis significance is enmeshed into our existence both presently and in the future.

Bioart is an alternative exploration that diverge aims conventionally found in disciplines. For me, it is the metamorphosing of an idea into our world, allowing art to become living and part of our communication. The Cactus Project is not just about the scientific output (tools and processes); it’s also to do with the interaction the work has with our culture.

The project has curiously captured a much larger interest from scientists than artists.

Finally it must be mentioned that “the public? or “the publics? are fairly well informed in terms of modern science but unfortunately poorer informed with regards to contemporary art. This can be observed by looking at the amount of analysis and press today’s science receive compared to contemporary art. Also in education, contemporary art forms a smaller section compared to contemporary science.

cactus_exhib.jpg

Similarly, do you know how the scientific community approaches your work? What is your relationship with them?

It varies but overall the scientific communities have been the most active audience, perhaps because they have a (surprisingly to me) better layered reading of The Cactus Project than artists.

How do you manage to have access to the technologies you use to develop your works?

Apart from what we can do by ourselves, we try to build relationships and find alliances with scientists but these are not always successful. Before approaching a project we try to establish a good background idea, informing ourselves scientifically as well as artistically and try to understand the research of the people we approach or that approach us. Many of the technologies are unavailable to a general consumer and collaboration is needed. Even if technologies are available the Steve Kurtz case demonstrated the sensitivity around working with these technologies outside specific frameworks.

Can you give us more details about The Mexico Project :: An Ecological Invasion? What motivated your decision to "set them free"? Do you know how the plants are coping over there in the wild?

The project in which two genetically modified cacti were transplanted into two different domains of ‘natures’ inside Mexico was a bio-invasive work whose extensive journey entailed one transplantation in the north amongst its large family of cacti’s and the other in the south of Mexico, Oaxaca, on a hill overlooking its transgenic cousins (the transgenic corn landraces).

mexico_transplantations.jpg

The Mexico Project explores ideas of belonging, constructions of nature and wilderness through releasing novel species. The two transgenic cacti originated from The Cactus Project.

In the first transplantation, the transplantation into the desert, we were seeking the raw pristine nature, the virgin landscape untouched by man. Discourses emerged of wilderness, hybridism, bio-enrichment and belonging.

In wilderness with its pristine-ness and embodied otherness we find nonhumaness – untouched by man. Yet, this otherness’ construction is built by man’s desires and nostalgias, rejecting his own place. In between, the transgenic cactus in all its otherness – is still cactus but touched by man. Part man, part cactus – a new otherness whose semantic orgy – an orgy in nature – penetrates wilderness.
(extract from The Mexico Project pp. 61)

Though the plants are infertile the sexual layered semantics of the journey is part of our reading of the meeting points between the types of ‘nature’ colliding.

The second transplantation intersects stories of GM contamination in an area where local landraces were found contaminated. In a year of poor yield local farmers purchased US imported GM corn (unbeknownst to them) at local discount stores intended for direct food consumption but found they could regenerate these and that these new lavishing plants thrived better than their own – however, surprisingly for one season only. Here enters The Mexico Project into a 'nature' amongst domesticated plants genetically ‘contaminated’ both by sexual promiscuity of plants and intervention of man (unintentional and intentional). In the hierarchy of contamination/purity, contamination is rock-bottom; however ideals of ‘nature’ with large ripening fruits and vegetables for the benefits of supporting our ever growing population and bettering our environment through decreased use of chemicals – these ideas are abroad. The transgenic cactus left on a hill in Oaxaca does none of this. It did not need to be created (in terms of the above mentioned regime) but it is there overlooking its transgenic cousins, a non-serving perversion.

mexico_transplantations_cac.jpg

The transgenic cactus was planted. The hole was filled covering the roots of the ‘organic dildo’. Its phallic stem firmly erected and flickering hairs blowing in the wind. Three large butterflies (herbivores) flutters by. They spiral around the cactus and then head for the large white cross, not far away, it’s wonderfully beautiful and resonating, for here is the pristine again, three beautiful butterflies of nature (an aesthetic construction that preserves) but pests in the eyes of agriculture. The fields below hybridizing its Bt toxin immunizing and producing the image of re-resistant butterflies in feedback loops of evolution. The transgenic cactus reminds us of another regime that is less aimed at spiralling into these constructions. In this environment, it is but a dildo.
(extract from The Mexico Project pp. 81)

After arriving back from Mexico, where all thoughts, ideas and manifestations of the project re(in)versed. Setting free from what? Where do they (really) belong? Hence, opening discourses of belonging. This transgression propelled discourses of 'nature/wild' as a social narrative rather than the ingrained metanarrative. Hence leading to series of questioning what 'nature/wild' is? And with that, it's being further de(re)miraged by (bio)technological accelerations.

We have not had a chance to visit the cacti. Our thought, ironically perhaps, is that the transplantation in the north (Desierto Sonorense) is perhaps less successful (in the long term due to the harsh weather conditions of the desert) than the transplantation in the south (Oaxaca).

Did you need some special authorisation to transplant them in Mexico? How did it go?

The focus of this work, its legal implications although discussed, lies implicit in the project. The book in particular will help elaborate the many issues we set out to explore. A text only version can be read here.

Are you still working on a "Martian Rose"? Which challenges did you meet while developing the project?

martianrose_chamber.jpg
The Martian Rose chamber

We are currently working on The Martian Rose. This project will be exhibited in Spain – BIOS4 and UK – Milton Keynes Science Festival - this year.

The initial proposal for The Martian Rose involved genetically engineering a rose for stress tolerance in extreme environment. Part of the research revolves around alienisms, symbolism, ornamentation and culture. Dreaming of a Martian rose is a rather naïve delve into symbolic and perhaps visual imagery, but it doesn’t offer any consolation in terms of beauty – it’s poetic imagery merges with the harsh conditions of its destination (Mars) and the alien is created. The Martian Rose exhibit shows the first part of this research/journey by opening avenues for interaction with a terrestrial rose pre-subjected to proxy Martian parameters.

The Martian Rose attempts to stay within the framework of botany and intends to look at reconstruction of life for extreme conditions which would include the potential aesthetic breakdown through genetic conditioning (i.e. no flowering) as well as carrying a romantic idea of giving a rose for Mars. Discussions around the project led us to reformulate to its future stand – which considers more suitable biological specimens - extremophiles. This is perhaps less romantic but allows us potential habitational environments (ecologies). A proposed avenue is to alter the actual planetary parameters in order to find abstract zones or spaces where life can exist and to investigate what extent this life becomes otherness. As an artistic research the aim is not to produce new scientific knowledge but to open artistic areas in primarily scientific spaces and to address cultural aspects and experiences that also take place. Our overall aim will attempt to explore strategies of engagements, experiences and interactions with live biological specimens within a biochamber initially conditioned to a Martian environment.

0amartianros1.jpg

As the project is still in process, we will publish the experiment details (which will take place at the Mars Simulation Laboratory in Denmark) on our site, prior to the exhibitions.

What are you working on these days?

Current projects looks at how our relationship with nature changes through the use of living material as interactive sensors in which the objective involves producing plants with biosensors. It places itself within the artistic discourses surrounding plants perceptual response to mechanical stimuli and explores areas of human-plant interaction and our changed perception though such interaction. It springs out of protocols in producing plants with biosensors and takes into account the narratives that emerge. This research is also part of Laura’s PhD at UCL.

Could you name us 3 "biotech" artists whom you think should get more attention from the public?

There are many bioartists that should get more public attention. For many artists it is difficult to get involved with what remains “unavailable technologies?. Perhaps more than this it is not just the access to the technology but more often the challenge of understanding the processes underlying. You have to align yourself to use it; so it’s an ethical problem and may venture into righteous materialism.

Thanks Laura and Howard!

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