0mommmmy.jpgThe advance of biological engineering allows scientists to manipulate genes and modify the very nature of certain organisms. Some of these applications have the potential to change the way we relate to the microscopic elements such as viruses. Viruses appear to be nasties whose sole purpose is to infect and make our lives miserable. However, certain viruses can make us stronger.

Chickenpox, for example, holds a choice or a strong division of opinions. Some people believe that natural immunity can be a better defence than a medical vaccine. So catching the virus could become a deliberate act of invoking your own immune system’s protection.

In a project titled "Viruses, close enemies or distant cousins?" and shown at the Design Interactions Work in Progress Show, Mikael Metthey has tried to explore the social consequences of a shift in the perceptions and the applications of viruses.

In the same way as some parents would feed their kids with organic food, they might want them to be infected by chickenpox in a carefully controlled way. Mikael's scenario envisions how it could go.

A laboratory he calls Varilab would manipulate the chickenpox virus so that it would be less aggressive to the human body. It would then be made available to parents who belive that natural immunity is best for their child. The viruses would be stored and labelled according to their age and concentration. They would also be designed not to survive beyond ten minutes to avoid any uncontrolled pandemics. The virus would then be kept inside pressurised capsules, and the parents would release it to infect a toy (the lovely Pox Teddy), the child would thus play and get a mild infection that ensure that he or she doesn't catch chickenpox in adulthood (which can be pretty annoying as some my testify ;-)


Mikael's presentation featured a few more interesting questions such as How might we interact with viruses in the future?; How shall we consume them? Could you imagine that one day you'd keep every virus you've ever had in your life as memories? Or display them as a demonstration of your social status?

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0biokkkino.jpgThe Living Screen project overlays digital pixels over biological pixels to explore the tension between the inanimate and the animate and the digital versus the biological.

The Nano-Movies are projected (projection is 200 microns square in size) on Living Screens made from different tissue sources (skin, blood, sperm or cornea cells) that transform, react and change over time and eventually die. The properties of these screens inform the content of the projected Nano-Movies. They contort the Nano-Movie, and confront the spectators with issues such as life, death, virtuality and reality.

The Living Screen has many connections to early (pre-1905) motion pictures that fall under the category of the ‘cinema of attractions’. Tom Gunning defines the ‘cinema of attractions’ as a form of confrontation that addresses the audience directly. “Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging with the viewers’ curiosity.?

Fairgrounds and vaudeville houses were where early cinema found its audiences. It was also a form of safe house for the Other. With Bio-Art proliferating throughout the world, the art galleries of today are no less a freak show, as is The Living Screen. I particularly like that last statement. Though i have the feeling that freak shows are in the labs as well and that the projects of researchers in bio-tech might sometimes go well beyond what artists could imagine.

Details of a movie projected on a mouse cornea

A project by Bio Kino: Tanja Visosevic, Guy Ben Ary and Bruce Murphy.

0avatardrea.jpgA thought-provoking experiment has demonstrated not only that cyberspace can be used to overcome ethical constraints in experiments but also how some of us are reluctant at the idea of torturing a virtual character.

Stanley Milgram's 1960s experimental findings that people would administer apparently lethal electric shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure remain critical for understanding obedience. Due to ethical reasons, it is nowadays impossible to carry out direct experimental studies in this area.

Mel Slater and his colleagues at University College London have used VR to reenact the Milgram's experiment. Their objective was to uncover the extent to which participants would respond to the situation as if it were real in spite of their knowledge that no real events were taking place.

Participants were invited to administer memory tests to an avatar. When she gave an incorrect answer, the participants were instructed to administer an ‘electric shock’ to her, augmenting the voltage each time. She responded with increasing discomfort and protests. Of the 34 participants, 23 saw and heard the virtual human, and 11 communicated with her only through a text interface.

The participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. Six of them chose to stop the experiment before it was due to end. A further 6 said it had occurred to them to stop early because they had negative feelings about what was happening. By contrast, of the eleven participants who only interacted with the (unseen) woman by text, just one stopped the experiment early, and no others said it had occurred to them to stop.

Participants who could see and hear the avatar were affected by the experiment as if it were real. Their stress responses were raised (as judged by sweating and heart rate). And when the woman protested, the participants tended to give her longer to answer before administering the shock. Some participants emphasised the correct answer among the available choices, as if trying to help the woman avoid a shock.0milgrrrm.jpg

As Yishay Mor notes, the results put in a new light the idea that we should give human rights to sentient machines.

Image on the right from the movie I comme Icare

Videos related to Milgram experiment. Videos of the Virtual re-enactment of the obedience experiment.
Paper in PLoS ONE.
BoingBoing also points to another Milgram Reenactment, this time by Eric Paulos.

0suprww.jpgSure i like my strawberries to be clean of lice and i'm sorry for golfers who are bothered by birds but the new designer plants that are coming out of labs (and sometimes running away from their test site) these days are quite disturbing.

Over the past two decades, New Zealand scientists have been working on designer strains of grass that could one day be used to keep birds away from golf courses and airports. Apparently the right combinations of grass and endophytes fungi would produce turf with unique properties.

Insects can't eat these grasses, which deprives some birds of their food source. They are also toxic and can give grass-eating birds an illness the researchers call "post-ingestion malaise".

Planting grass in airports could help reduce dangerous birdstrikes where they collide with aircraft. The scientists are also applying the technology to golf courses, where fouling from birds like Canada geese can spoil a day on the greens.

Meanwhile, Scottish scientists have been spending 16 years to produce "super raspberries" which fight back against the insects that normally devour them before they are ripe.

Called Glen Doll, the berry will be on sale in shops next year. It has a built-in defence against aphids and carries the A10 gene that enables it to thrive in Scottish conditions.

Other varieties are expected to follow, including a breed that will be resistant to the fungal disease raspberry root rot virus, which is now rampant in Scotland.

Via Scotsman and ABC.net.

Image from Heath Bunting's SuperWeed Kit, a lowtech DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed, designed to attack corporate monoculture.

If i were to go to ISEA this year (but i won't have to as Sascha is going to cover the event for the blog!), the one installation i'd rush to see would be Shawn Bailey and Jennifer Willet's Bioteknica Laboratory Remix with Teratological Prototypes, in collaboration with Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of with Tissue Culture & Art Project.

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Bioteknica is a fictitious biotech corporation that projects its viewers into the future, where within a virtual laboratory designer organisms are generated on demand. The mock organisms produced are irrational and quite frightening. They are modelled on the Teratoma (comes from a Greek term meaning roughly "monster tumor"), a cancerous growth containing multiple tissues like hair, skin, teeth, and vascular systems. Monstrous as this may seem, teratomas are genetically identical to humans, making them key in cloning research. Several biotech companies have been working with teratomas for years, although public awareness of this is slight – for now.

Until 2003, Bioteknica was a purely multimedia production. During the summer of 2004, the artists further enhanced the slippage between fiction and reality by working with tissue culture protocols in the production of artwork as was pioneered by Tissue Culture & Art Project. With their assistance, Bailey and Willet practiced utilizing existing tissue culture technologies towards developing a series of "soft" sculptures. The organic sculptures were both fabricated from store-bought meats, and cultivated in the laboratory utilizing tissue-engineering technologies.

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The Bioteknica Laboratory Remix is a complex functional laboratory installation – built to sustain cellular life within the gallery environment. Utilizing tissue culture and tissue engineering technologies, the artists have developed a series of small sculptures (Teratological Prototypes) that will be grown live in the gallery environment with an accompanying installation, laboratory protocol performances, and video. To prepare the installation living cells have been extracted from the body of Shawn Bailey. The biopsy of dermis contains fibroblasts, viable keratinocytes, etc. They are used as primary cell source to be grown and proliferate in-vitro. Cells are placed in bioreactors and given fresh nutrient serum to allow them to develop. The complete prototype will be exhibited from August 7 in San Diego.

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Bioteknica Laboratory Remix both embraces and critiques evolving biotechnologies, considering the contradictions and deep underlying complexities that these technologies offer the present and future of humanity.

The 4 last pictures are video stills of Willet and Bailey preparing the Teratological Prototypes at SymbioticA. All images courtesy of Jennifer Willet.

I've always admired Bioteknica's attempts to break down the barriers between scientific research and the public and their effort to raise awareness about the research done by biotechnology companies and about how fragile life is. Their work is deeply grounded in scientific research and although Bioteknica is a parody of a corporation of the future, the work is not such a far cry from what is going on in research labs today.

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At Futuresonic, a couple of weeks ago, Anthony Dunne explained how the new department of Interaction Design he's now heading at the RCA in London could play a similar role by shifting away from their usual task of solving problems and making products ready to market. His "Design For Debate" talk was about imagining fictional spaces that would be relevant to our everyday life. The scenarios created shouldn't be shocking but slightly disturbing. He focuses on the role of designers to get the debate on biotechnology, and explained how designers can make tangible a technology that doesn't really exist (yet) in our daily life. He illustrated the concept with projects such as Victimless Meat, by James King, Jon Ardern's project (can't remember the name of it) that would explore the untapped market potential of in-vitro culture adult toys, the Evidence Dolls he created together with Fiona Raby for an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and a last project which have kind of hauted me ever since i heard about it: Michael Burton's Memento Mori In Vitro is inspired by the Victorian fashion to keep hair of someone you love in a locket. Except that this time the hair of a deceased person would be kept alive. They would be fed at breakfast, washed regularly, you'd stroke them while watching TV, etc. Some might find it is spooky, others would say it's quite romantic. So what if the idea of romance was transformed by technology?

Related: Future Worlds: Better by design?, Bioart - Taxonomy of an Etymological Monster, Extra Ear 1/4 Scale, Victimless leather jacket.

E-volver is a software that invites an "image-breeding-machine" and a human "gardener" to collaborate together. While the machine has no notion of the aesthetic qualities of the evolved images, the human can barely understand what internal processes are taking place.


It all begins with a an incoherent tangle of moving lines and points and colored planes, and on the basis of the user’s personal preferences, this gradually evolves into a more coherent image.

The software generates artificial ‘organisms’ measuring one pixel. Each ‘organism’ is made up of genes that determine how the organism will ‘behave’ on the monitor. The genes read the properties of the surrounding pixels and, based on what they find, tell the organism what to do and where to move next.


Each image is like a garden in which newly-cultivated plants are left to their own devices. The way images look is not only a result of the collective behavior of the organisms, but also the result of the users. By using touching the screen, visitors can influence the visual patterns displayed on the monitors. They can deactivate one of the four pixel gardens. Voting out the least exciting images devalues those particular genes and upgrades the genes of the three surviving pixel gardens. In other words a group of organisms evolves that contains properties that generate the most pleasing collective image. That is, until the computer “resets’’, which happens when a predetermined number of votes has been cast. And then the whole process begins again.

E-volver monitors have been installed at the Leiden University Medical Center (NL). The work echoes the research that takes place in the LUMC. Whereas the scientists are mainly focused on biochemistry, genetics and the evolution of biological life, the installation shows how autonomous processes such as growth and evolution, which can maybe be understood theoretically but which are never directly perceptible in daily life, can be perceptible on a sensory level.

A work by Erwin Driessens & Maria Verstappen, of Tickle Salon the fame.

Via re-qualia.

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