Last Wednesday, as i walked by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, i saw a small sign that said "Hunterian Museum" with an arrow pointing to the top of stairs. I dutifully followed the arrow.
I wasn't fully prepared for what i encountered there: animal foetuses in jars, the skull of a little boy born with a second skull attached to the top of his head, a transverse section of a leg and foot of a man suffering from elephantiasis, skeletons of animals born with extra legs or heads, pickled deformed animals, a prosthetic nose attached to eyeglasses, organs attacked by almost any kind of disease you could think of, and various bits and pieces of human and non-human animals preserved in glass jars.
Reading through the online reviews of the museum makes me realize how much i've missed (namely the skeleton of 'Irish giant' Charles Byrne, the tooth of an extinct giant sloth donated by Charles Darwin, the brain of computer pioneer Charles Babbage and Winston Churchill's dentures) during my short and shocked visit. Be sure that i'll be walking around the place before the end of the week.
The museum is mostly based on the collection amassed by John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish surgeon and anatomist whom wikipedia defines as an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine. And indeed once you've recovered from the surprise, there is much to learn about the history of medicine and anatomy in the permanent collection as well as from the temporary exhibition that the museum presents in a couple of rooms on the top floor. The current one is dedicated to the outcome of artist Ju Gosling aka ju90's inquest into the cultural construction of disability via society's (mis)interpretation of science and medicine.
Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the museum so obviously, none of the uncredited picture above is mine.
The Hunterian Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.
In a diagram that attempts to clarify how we think about futures, futurologist Stuart Candy divides one amorphous space of futureness into Probable, Preferable, Plausible and Possible futures. Fiona Raby an Tony Dunne's exhibition at the International Design Biennial in Saint Étienne, focused on the area of the Preferable. They believe that while designers shouldn't decide for everyone else, they can play a significant role in discovering what is and what isn't desirable.
The design proposals exhibited through models, photographic scenarios, videos and 3D texts don't have the ambition to tell us what exactly our future will be. Instead, they ask "what if...", inviting us to reflect on the kind of technologically mediated world we wish to live in.
4 scenarios were shown at the biennale: Foragers is a reflection on the future of food in an overpopulated planet; both Stop and Scan and EM Listeners responds to the UK's unique tolerance for extreme state intrusion which allows the police to use a lack of privacy laws to create a living laboratory; finally, Afterlife is a domestic product for a time when euthanasia is far more common than it is today.
Foragers responds to the United Nations' warning that the world is running out of food. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation calculated that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people. Yet, governments, industries and citizens alike continue to ignore the distress signals, over-populate the planet and use up its resources.
In this first scenario, a small group of hackers, guerilla gardeners, garage biologists, and synthetic biologists take their fate into their own hands, look beyond what is available in food stores and start building their own electronic and mechanical devices to harvest and even digest new types of food that are already available around us. They would use synthetic biology to 'externalise' their digestive system in order to be able to digest leaves, grass, pond plants and other things that only the body of animals can process at the moment.
These people are the new urban foragers.
A second scenario, Stop and Scan, comments on the way surveillance has become a convenience in our society. CCTV cameras of course but also loyalty cards, travel cards and Big Brother-style reality shows have acclimatised us to social transparency. Our minds are the last private space we have.
Scientists are working on a number of technologies that attempt to decode what we are thinking. Although this is still a long way off, they would like to be able not only to read our thoughts but to affect them too.
In the Stop and Scan scenario the mind becomes a new site of interest for the state, requiring new protocols of ownership, access, protection and transparency. Police carry out random stop and search scans near crime scenes. Using a special scanner, people are shown images that only the criminal could know about. The device is based on brain fingerprinting technology where a scanner detects a characteristic electrical brainwave response whenever a person responds to a known stimulus. If the person being scanned appears to recognise an image, a light glows and they are taken away for further processing. Domestic versions are used by parents on their children. Employers use them on employees.
The EM Listeners scenario would bring Echelon to the street. Em-listeners move through public spaces, they scan telephone calls, emails and anything else sent over the spectrum. Their highly visible antennae are intended to deter any subversive activities. Their presence is accepted because it means less risk from terrorists.
Government workers, civil servants and children have licences to shield their brain activity from scanning - children because they are innocent, and government workers and civil servants because they may know state secrets.
Finally, Afterlife is a domestic device for a time when euthanasia is far more common than it is today. Medical technologies may have extended life spans but they have not increased quality of life. It's not too difficult to imagine a time when people opt to take their own lives at the appropriate moment. All sorts of variations on suicide machines may evolve to cater for a huge range of emotional, psychological and metaphysical circumstances. Who would have thought that doctors would eventually work with technologists to develop new and humane ways of dying?
Between Reality and the Impossible is not just a series of designs, it is also an experiment in how to exhibit conceptual design proposals where the narrative and ideas are as important as the designs. Models, photographic scenarios, videos and 3D texts worked together to sharpen the atmosphere and give additional layers to the scenario.
The ideas for each proposal were translated into objects by the designers. Next, writer Alex Burrett (check out his book of short stories, My Goat Ate it's Own Leg) interpreted them through stories. Jason Evans followed with photographs that make the immediate context of the scenarios clearer. It was then up to the visitors to join the dots and fill in any gaps.
Between Reality and the Impossible was curated by Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne and commissioned by Constance Rubini for the International Design Biennial in Saint Étienne, France.
Art + Science Now - How scientific research and technological innovation are becoming key to 21st-century aesthetics by Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual Information Arts Program, Art Dept. at San Francisco State University (available on amazon Uk and USA.)
Publisher Thames & Hudson says: In the 21st century, some of the most dynamic works of art are being produced not in the studio but in the laboratory, where artists probe cultural, philosophical and social questions connected with cutting-edge scientific and technological research.
Their work ranges across disciplines - microbiology, the physical sciences, information technologies, human biology and living systems, kinetics and robotics - taking in everything from eugenics and climate change to virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Art + Science Now, the first illustrated survey of its kind, provides a dazzling overview of this new strand of contemporary art, showcasing the best international work produced since 2000.
Featuring around 250 artists from around the world, it presents projects from body art to bioengineering, from music and computer-controlled video performances to large-scale visual and sound installations, all of which challenge our assumptions about our relations with science, technology and the world around us.
Stephen Wilson summarizes the latest scientific research for the lay reader, and supplements his text with a reading list and extensive online resources, highlighting the museums, festivals, research centres and educational programmes that support this new work.
Art + Science Now is very different from Wilson's 2002 book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Its design is less austere. Its content, while solid and reliable, is less thorough but it is probably because Art + Science Now has a different publisher geared toward a broader audience. It is one of those rare book that manages to reach the elusive balance between information of the broad public and inspiration for the expert, whether the later belongs to the art world or the scientific arena.
The chapters correspond to 8 fields of investigation. The book bravely opens with Molecular Biology. Then come Living Systems, Human Biology, Physical Sciences, Kinetics & Robotics, Alternative Interfaces, Algorithms and the survey closes with Information.
Each and every introduction for the chapters is a real tour de force. The texts sum up in a clear language the latest advances in sciences and the complex issues that accompany them. The introductory text is followed by a presentation of dozens of artworks which engage with that particular area of science.
While the focus of the book is art, Wilson doesn't discriminate against works by designers and by artists who comment on science while using traditional media such as painting.
Art + Science Now is a great starting point for anyone wishing to expand their horizon, reflection, knowledge and critical view on the impact that current scientific developments are having on art and, more generally, on our culture. Highly recommended!
Just a few examples of works i've (re)discovered in Art + Science Now:
Since the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has been painting morphologically disturbed insects, which she first found in the fallout areas of Chernobyl. When she first published her watercolors in a Swiss magazine in 1988, scientists expressed their skepticism, insisting that the fallout in Western Europe from the Chernobyl accident was too small to cause morphological disturbances in insects.
She therefore did the same job around working nuclear power plants in Europe and found out that nuclear installations do cause deformities in insects, particularly Heteroptera leaf bugs, and are a terrible threat to nature. Hesse-Honegger discovered that risks of low-level exposure are insufficiently studied by scientists connected to government institutions and universities. She calls for truly independent studies -- from university scientists not dependent on government funding.
Mogens Jacobsen, Power of Mind 3
Mogens Jacobsen submerged a computer in vegetable oil while a galvanic battery powered by hundreds of potatoes drives a software system that suppresses most of the words in a text from a report about human rights in Denmark. As the potatoes begin to dry out or sprout the suppressed words and censored sentences will gradually reappear in the text.
This process is not visible in the gallery space, but can only be seen by accessing the system on the internet.
For her performance Wet Cup, Kira O'Reilly, placed warm glass sphere over cuts on her body. The cooling of the cup creates a partial vacuum and slowly extracts blood from the body.
Oliver Kunkel smashed a scientific looking glass box, containing HIV-infected mosquitoes at an art festival in Slovenia. The exhibition and surrounding area is evacuated, and the fear of infection among the local population is alarming. It is a work about fear, and human's lack of knowledge concerning one of the world largest and most widely recognized epidemic.
Inside the book:
Previously: Interview with Stephen Wilson.
Anyone who ever asked me what to do in Paris has heard me rave endlessly about the Palais de Tokyo. That place makes other contemporary art museums and galleries look 'ringard', outdated and out of touch. The Palais is open from noon to midnight. An entrance won't entitled you to a 2 euros discount on a hefty glossy catalog. No, Sir, when you buy your ticket you are handed out a magazine with all the info you need to visit the exhibition and go further in the discovery once you're back home.
The ongoing exhibition, GAKONA, is set under the aegis of Nikola Tesla and its name refers to a village in Alaska. Little more than 200 inhabitants live in Gakona. There's a service station, a small school, a post office, a couple of diners and a scientific research base: the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program.
The researchers at the HAARP are studying the transmission of electricity in the uppermost portion of the atmosphere. But because of its military funding and the fears associated with electromagnetism, HAARP is surrounded by a cloud of controversy. Its forest of antennas has been accused of beaming electromagnetic waves that are extremely hazardous to human health, of disrupting climate, of having all sorts of influence on human behaviour and of being weapons able to disrupt communications over large portions of the planet.
The icon of the show is Parapluies (umbrellas) by Roman Signer. Two Tesla coils charge up, approx. 5 minutes later an alarm sounds and a blast of electricity spectacularly lights up between the extremities of the umbrellas. I'm not going to delve on this one, have a look at this video or this one instead.
Now Haarp, by Laurent Grasso, is a sculpture clearly inspired by the aforementioned program, not only does it look like its model but its potential effects are invisible as well: are there waves passing through the antennas? Are they harmful? Should we be worried? How real is this?
Chizhevsky Lessons, by Micol Assaël, is a gigantic generator of static electricity. The name of the artwork refers to Alexander Chizhevsky, a scientist who explored the correlation between solar activity and historical events such as wars and revolutions.
Right before being allowed to approach the installation, you are warned that people wearing pacemakers or hearing aid and pregnant women should not go any further, advised that you should "avoid touching other visitors' faces, especially the eyes" and promised that the work would "load the body with static electricity." Thank you very much!
What visitors experience is the unpleasantness of static electricity re-created artificially with a cascade generator, a transformer, copper plates, and wires that fill the space with negatively charged ions. The discharge only occurs when touching an object or person oppositely charged. Although the installation is not dangerous it definitely invites visitors to step out of their safety zone and explore uncontrollable physical, emotional and psychological experiences.
GAKONA is on view until May 3 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Material Beliefs is a group of designers based in London. They might create pieces of furniture and accessories but they are not your usual tables and cups. The result of a close collaboration with scientists and engineers, social scientists but also members of the public, their projects take emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology out of labs and into public space. The members of Material Beliefs use design as a tool for public engagement, a mean to stimulate discussion about the value and impact of new technologies which blur the boundaries between our bodies and materials.
Each of the prototypes they develop is the starting point of a fruitful and much needed debate in public space about the relationship between science and society.
Their prototypes are questionable and puzzling. They include a series of extremely cruel and useful Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots (think moth-eating lamps and a robotic coffee table that doubles as a mouse trap) and pastel pink or baby blue Vital Signs monitors (a product of the child surveillance industry, they enable data about the body to be communicated across a mobile phone network.) You can encounter them in venues as different as the Dana Centre in London and LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijon, Spain.
At the heart of Material Beliefs are Andy Robinson, Elio Caccavale, Tobie Kerridge, Jimmy Loizeau (with James Auger) and Susana Soares, supported by collaborations with Aleksandar Zivanovic, Julian Vincent, Kevin Warwick, Slawomir Nasuto, Ben Whalley, Mark Hammond, Julia Downes, Dimitris Xyda, David Muth, Tony Cass, Olive Murphy, Nick Oliver, Dianne Ford, Luisa Wakeling, Julie Daniels and Anna Harris.
My victim for this interview is designer Tobie Kerridge whom i wanted to talk with ever since i read about about a project he conceived than actually prototyped together with scientist Ian Thompson and designer Nikki Stott: Biojewellery. The project catapults traditional engagement and wedding rings into the world of tissue engineering and biotechnology research by using bone tissue cultured from human cells in order to create bespoke jewellery.
I must admit that i almost regretted to have asked you this interview. While preparing it, i had a long look through the website of Material Beliefs and found it so complete and so well documented that i felt that there was nothing left for me to ask you. I then had the idea of doing a 'designboom style' interview where the designer is asked all sorts of apparently frivolous questions. So now the idea has become irresistible and here's a question i stole from designboom: I assume you notice how women dress. Do you have any preferences?
Then I'm going to be cheeky and and steal someone's answer, Inga Sempé's was nice - "no".
I like the name of the project, Material Beliefs, a lot. Where does it come from and which kind of ideas do you want it to convey?
Ah, this is a long story, and it also shows a lack of imagination under pressure. I was writing the funding proposal for Material Beliefs with Savita Custead, and we had to get the thing submitted. Being a bit stuck for names, the project title came about by co-joining the titles of two beloved projects.
One is Materials Library, run by Mark Miodownik, Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen. They operate an archive of materials, and take these artefacts into public spaces by staging performative events. They convened a series at the Tate, and then followed on with events at the Wellcome Collection themed around Flesh and one coming up soon will focus on Hair. Their obsessions create new communities that play across disciplines.
The other was a proposal for funding to the ECRC by Robert Doubleday, Mark Welland, James Wilsdon and Brian Wynne called "Material Imaginations". Their proposal followed on from a project I first read about in See Through Science, a report by DEMOS. Doubleday set up an ethnographic project in Welland's Nanotechnology lab, the aim being to work with scientists to imagine the social outcomes of their nanotechnology research. He said "My role is to help imagine what the social dimensions might be, even though the eventual applications of the science aren't yet clear". This made me think about the role of design as a set of speculative tools for working with science and engineering.
I was a student of Durrell Bishop, Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver, Fiona Raby, and other fine tutors at what's now the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art. In this context, my practice emerged through an interrogation of design methods and aims. Material Beliefs is an attempt to make design's association with science and technology more embedded. It takes influence from Doubleday's - and previously Bruno Latour's and Steve Woolgars - encampment in labs. The difference is that the role of that occupation is more than analytical, it attempts to synthesise outcomes - what happens when speculative attitudes to science and technology get located at the site of laboratory research? Well not much sometimes, but other times it works out and you get a fascinating and messy shared practice. Designers and Scientists/Engineers also have to work harder to understand each others roles and offer respect and support - it's difficult and rewarding.
The other aspect is that these collaborations take place in public as much as possible. Taking inspiration from Miodownik, Laughlin and Conreen, it's about doing the work in front of and with audiences. These are not only the audiences you might find at art or design exhibitions. Sometimes the model of public engagement is not top-down, but about getting people into labs and enabling them to do new stuff - making enquiries, building their own prototypes, asking researchers about the ethics of technology, finding out how funding is awarded.
Here design becomes a tool for translating academic knowledge into resources for independent enquiry, and a way of enabling others to access technology. This can be tricky as you have to sneak people into labs, under the radar of public relations departments who might not see the value of access for groups that wont promote the research in a straightforward way. This is not a criticism, it just that some institutions are not yet set up for challenging forms of public engagement. This situation I think is aggravated by an institutional anxiety about campaigning groups, but that is another story.
Finally, when I first Googled "Material Beliefs" it was all about religious practices, and it seemed appropriate, seeing as we were going to be doing so much preaching.
Material Beliefs looks like a unique structure. I suspect that many artists and designers would dream of engaging with emerging biomedical and cybernetic technology in close cooperation with engineers and social scientists. Which kind of advice would you give to artists or designers who might want to set up a design lab like yours? How did you manage to get the ear (and funding) of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in England?
It's a good time to extend design practices that ask questions about our relationship with technology and science. In the UK at least, there is an ongoing discussion about how public engagement of science should be done. This is a discussion at a policy level, about democratising access to the research that will have its outcomes in the products and services we use. So while public engagement of science used to be about persuading the public that science produced a benefit, or where it was a strategy for encouraging a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians to keep the nation competitive, it is now also about looking for new ways to involve different groups of people in science. These discussions then filter down into decisions about how funding is awarded. I think Material Beliefs probably benefited from new attitudes about what public engagement of science is allowed to be.
We set out to say that design lets non-specialists respond to science in creative ways, to make their own things out of their curiosities with bioengineering, and to have an active role within the production of research, or at least to play a role in the discussion of what unfinished research might come to mean. Rather than be told that this or that technology is not really risky, or at best being invited into a conversation that decides if a technology is risky, publics can actually have some kind of active role in how technology encountered. That's what design can do, it encourages an active orientation towards materials and processes, it provides a reason to try to do something, rather than sit back passively, then point your finger out of anxiety, for example over the potential effects of biotechnological products and services that suddenly appear on the market - "Where did that come from? Frankenfoods messing up my body, I am even angrier now!". The fact is that science is complex, it is enacted through a relationship between peers and rivals, institutions, markets, funders, politicians, ethics committees. Rather than ignore that, or treat science as monolithic entity, why not try to situate a practice productively somewhere amongst this fascinating network? Material Beliefs is only starting to think about this extended role for design, others have been doing it for some time, and I'm thinking of Natalie Jeremijenko's practice, Symbiotica's lab in Perth, and the thinking that has informed the Design Interactions course.
More generally, how do scientists react to your interests and works? Are they immediately ready to cooperate? Do you have to painfully win them over? How easy is the dialogue with people who seem to have a radically different background?
One thing learnt from this project is to take the invitations very wide initially, and to rapidly make sense of who might want to collaborate. Material Beliefs is lead by the designers, James Auger, Elio Caccavale, Jimmy Loizeau, Susana Soares and myself, and I must say that all of us broke our backs pursuing eminent, exciting but ultimately uninterested scientists and engineers. If people want to do stuff, then run with them. The hardest aspect was articulating our approach, and making it clear what was expected and what we would be doing. Academics are busy, whatever their discipline, and there are not many academics you could expect to spend time doing activities that are outside of there specialism. That is asking a lot.
Luckily, there is some pressure on science and engineering to do public engagement. Being able to show you have done this helps with funding. This was something we could appeal to. I don't think this is being tricksy, it's just a matter of finding a recognisable space in which to hold the stuff you want to do, that makes sense for everyone, even if it is for slightly different reasons. You all need to take risks, the designer needs to be elastic with their focus as a practitioner, and the engineer scientists need to take into account alternative descriptions of their research objects. It's not easy to make sense of a question about the ethics of a technology that you have been developing intensively for two years.
We are, or I hope were, quite naive in the way we approached science, which of course has a different culture to design. I have a particularly painful memory of filming an interview with a researcher, and not making it clear that the interview was to be put online. He was very angry when | sent him a link for approval, particularly as the first clip was me setting up and dropping the camera, and kind of laughing awkwardly. I thought the clip was charming. He thought I was taking the piss, and sent some quite angry emails. Have a look at some of the interviews that did get approved. This was a way for us to read around the research, to get it from the researchers mouths. Their descriptions are imbued with their excitement, and taken down a notch so we can understand. Perfect. Imaging having to orientate your practice to biotechnology through academic papers, or newspapers - the extremes of possible discourses - that leave you respectively bewildered or sour.
"Material Beliefs blur the boundaries between material culture and bioengineering research, designing speculative products that embody emerging technologies." How does one design a speculative product? And how can a product be "speculative"? How do you avoid the label "Art"?
You design something that you don't mean to manufacture. We all used design methods and processes, and built prototypes, but the emphasis was with the interaction between the prototypes and statements about social life, rather than the prototypes and business. If you want to make a product, you will spend more time specifying materials because unit cost is important, or you will be looking for intellectual property opportunities, and talking to distributors. That's fine, but you can't also then ask public questions about the role of technology. You can try, but I'm sure you will be very tired, and loose some friends and alienate your family.
The question about art is important. I think it would have initially made our lives easier to say we were doing a sci-art, both in terms of forming collaborations and finding a descriptive label for the outcomes. The problem with using established relationships is that you also have to deal with a set of associated problems, and limitations. I'm not talking about participating in art exhibitions, or discussing the work within an art theory discourse, this is more about assumptions various people might have about doing a sci-art project. While initially frustrating to say "this is neither art, nor design for innovation" it was liberating to develop our own processes and methods for working with scientists, engineers and publics.
One place that seems to do sci-art well is the residency programme at Peals, Elio did something there. What often seems to happen, is that there is an assumption that art will benefit from science, and science will benefit from art. That's crap, it's like a small dinner party for two couples, both delighted at the company of one another. What Peals does is address the way the collaboration can be enacted through a much wider network of people.
So it's not about a problem with the label of art, just whose label that is, and what they are trying to do with it. It's worth mentioning SymbioticA again here, who have managed to set up a lab that invites and educates arts practitioners. This is proper, it has been developed slowly and carefully, to the point where it is respected and supported for what it does, by people from many different disciplines. Of note in the UK also is Arts Catalyst.
Do you have pictures of MB working studio? Does it look and function more like a lab or your usual design studio?
Material Beliefs is scattered about the place. There is the Interaction Research Studio and design workshop at Goldsmiths, RapidForm and Design Interactions at the RCA, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College, Cybernetics and Pharmacy at Reading University, and the Institute of Ophthalmology at University Collage London. Project activities are based at the most appropriate site, and in some cases need to be run across multiple sites at the same time. The Neuroscope project is noteworthy here, with Julia Downes and Mark Hammond working with cell cultures and server side software, Elio Caccavale desiging CAD prototypes and David Muth writing a client application.
Equally important are the venues where members of the collaborations curate public events. These have included The Dana Centre, the V&A, MoMA, the Design Museum in London, The Royal Institution of Great Britain, the National Theatre, The Stephen Lawrence Centre, LABoral and Selfridges. There's a full list here. These forays into public spaces have acted as a cross between work in progress shows, design crits and think-tanks.
There have also been some smaller scale activities that are really messy, and which have transgressed divisions between labs and publics. There was an event at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBE) called Mind the Loop, that had no clear design outcome, it was just too interesting to neglect. The silicon beta cell is designed to behave like an artificial pancreas, sensing blood sugar levels in the body and applying this biometric data to an algorithm which controls an insulin pump to regulate the blood sugar levels. That's the loop, It's a biological system rendered in silicon. Then around this technology you have different people, including the engineer who is making it work, the person who might use the silicon beta cell, and the doctor who negotiates and implements use. Mind the loop was a conversation between these three people, filmed by Steve Jackman.
Material Beliefs kicked off with a statement about biological and silicon hybrids, looking perhaps for the collaborations to establish a contemporary description of cyborg. The conversation about the silicon beta cell was striking because it showed the model of this hybrid was more extensive, it was more than one person, the technology is not stable, both in terms of its function and meaning and it took on the values of different communities. At the same time, as the collaboration at IBE was being discussed at public events I became aware of lots of discussion about the relationship between biomedical engineering and monitoring, trust and risk. I built Vital Signs to locate this discussion in a product that monitors a child's biometrics. In the UK there's a debate about childhood and risk, Cutting Edges Cotton Wool Kids and the RSA's recent report are examples. The Vital Signs prototypes are not critical of biomedical research, but designed to ask some questions about how technologies reproduce and materialise social relations.
Sorry, that's drifted away from the question a bit! I hope it gives an example of how the collaborations operate across different sites.
I'll ask Andy.
Andy Robinson: My approach to managing the specualtive is to combine the essentials of any project management role, aims and objectives, timescales and milestone etc etc. with a very clear understanding of the particularities of the participants and their ways of working. It is a conversation between participant and the aims set up for the project, where review and redirection are always possible within an agreed, often revised, playing field. The funder is crucial in this in setting up the opportunity for such a project in the first place. This is where the important tone is set, and i try to manage the conversion between participants and this tone. My function therefore is to have an overview, be neutral amongst agendas, but support the initial voice of the projects aims to engage with the participants skills and motivations. Ultimately it is to support creativity to flourish, risks to be taken, the unexpected to be embraced, and speculation to thrive.
I had a huge row with my boyfriend a few years ago. And you're the one to blame. He was totally into doing one of your biojewellery rings and thought i didn't love him enough to sacrifice a bit of wisdom tooth to make one. Where are the rings now? Are you still working on the project? What separates them from mass commercialization? The technology is too expensive? People find the idea hard to stomach?
Ha, sorry to hear about your row! At least you didn't end up with a nasty mouth infection like one of the participants. She was very nice about it, despite the discomfort and having to go on a course of antibiotics. I think the project managed to pay for parking fines she incurred while having the operation, which is some small compensation for a rather frustrating series of events for her.
Though it was not the tooth that provided the sample for the rings. Painful wisdom teeth merely provided a medical reason to have a bit of jaw bone removed, "while we're in there, lets just take a little chip of bone". I'm trivialising something that Ian Thompson did a great deal of work on - an application to a medical ethics committee for permission to run and experiment on the in vitro interaction of osteoblasts with ceramic scaffolds. So growing the rings for the couples also contributed to research about how to culture bone tissue into fairly large volumes.
The real rings are with the couples, and there are various models that tour around. Nikki Stott is setting up an exhibition in Spain shortly, and there have been quite a few shows this year. So it's archived and still active.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us? Either personal or from Material Beliefs?
Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots and Vital Signs are part of the Touch Me festival in Zagreb, so Jimmy Loizeau and I will take some prototypes for exhibition, and I think present Material Beliefs as part of the symposium. The festival theme "arises from the need for artistic and cultural analysis of contemporary forms of violence and systems of control". This is something of a departure from the other weekend, when I was sitting with four year olds in the Royal Institution of Great Britain drawing fly eating robots with felt tips.
I'm then really looking forward to 2009 and getting into my phd, and your questions have given me some things to think about, so thanks for that!
All images courtesy Material Beliefs.
From what i can learn from the press we are living in food mayhem: yesterday morning a nutritionist was complaining on French tv that because the country had turned its back on the usual bread and jam breakfast in favour of American-style fat and sugar-loaded cereals, the population was at risk of fattening. In the afternoon, i was reading in La Repubblica that the soaring costs of pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables are making Mediterranean diet harder to afford. Italians are eating more cheap processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt (via WSJ.) The whole continent is complaining about the food crisis. Meanwhile, bananas are dying, eating local might not always be that energy-efficient after all and a livestock meltdown is under way across Africa, Asia and Latin America. An alarming report states that native breeds are increasingly being supplanted by Western farm animals, which may be less well able to adapt to their new environment in times of drought or disease. In Europe, some 98 per cent of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the past century and EU regulations are hastening the decline.
Mind you, researchers have devised new but rather unappealing ways to have us enjoy food like never before: fish are being trained to catch themselves, we'll be able to choose between meat from cloned animals and in vitro meat and encouraged to get better proteins by snacking on insects.
Matias Viegener and David Burns have added the corn issue on the table.
Back in 2004, Matias and David worked on an installation which i discovered only recently. That year, Fritz Haeg (of the Edible Estates fame) and Francois Perrin produced and curated the GardenLAb experiment. Set in a 1942 supersonic wind tunnel, the event explored the relationship Los Angeles residents have with their environment by experimenting and speculating on current and future ecologies.
Corn Study humourously addresses the future of human food production and the ongoing consequences of issues that range from the latest developments in genetic manipulation, mistreatment of plants and animal species, corporate control and profit motivation, diminishing genetic diversity, modification of our ecosystem, privatization of ownership of plant's genome, etc.
One of Corn Study's objectives was to develop a new relationship with the corn species.
While great effort has been put into the human understanding of plants, very little has been expended to educate the corn and teaching it about the humans that control its fate. The project creates a school for corn with an experimental curriculum to educate the corn in human psychology and sociology, the economics of commerce, important languages, current events and the history of colonialism.
Through the use of audio and autosuggestion the artists deployed Aldous Huxley's theories of hypnopedia: the most powerful educational device being unconscious suggestion to the embryo to maximize its developmental potential.
The school is set up on ten tabletops with different learning stations, with the corn seeds learning through audio speakers as well as by the use of electric fans behind a row of books, which carry knowledge through the air like pollen. In this program of accelerated learning, the individual kernel is not expected to learn everything -- the species as a whole will absorb the knowledge collectively. The variety of knowledge bases is hoped to heighten the corn's wisdom, especially since despite their enormous acquisition of knowledge, humans have acquired so little wisdom.
As the artists conclude in their presentation of the project: While it may take many generations before the outcome of our experiment can be demonstrated, we are hoping for positive mutations and raised consciousness in the corn, to be passed along to other species. At this stage of global development, humans can no longer be entrusted with full stewardship of the environment. Perhaps if other species can intervene, they will do a better job.
I asked Matias and David to tell me more about the school for corn species:
We've been hearing and reading about genetic manipulation for years now. I sometimes think that consumers got used to it, accepted the idea and wouldn't mind buying and eating GMO (or even cloned meat when it lands in our supermarket fridges.)
While we were interested in genetic manipulation we wanted to work away from it. The basis of Corn Study was the idea that corn had been studied and manipulated more than any other plant than perhaps soybeans. While we're disinclined to GM foods, it seems clear that all our agricultural foods have been manipulated for millennia. So we wanted to refocus the question of GM foods into the broader question of how humans have studied and changed our foods without any seeming consideration for the nature (or the education) of the foods themselves. What if we could give the corn some agency of its own, educating it about its human hosts. Our ironic goal was to find a way for the corn to gain some power over its own fate, to "speak out" if it could, by learning more about us and both the good and the bad of the human universe.
What does corn education involves exactly? Could you guide us through the whole curriculum?
While there was a lot of specific material, there was no defined curriculum for the corn school. Or maybe a better way to say this is that we could have endlessly kept adding educational material to the school. Here's a quote from the original text that was distributed to visitors:
"The curriculum is composed of texts, lectures and readings in political science, history, psychology, philosophy, foreign languages and cultural studies; we have tried to select materials that help outline the background of our global socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances. For the student's personal growth we include tapes on self-actualization, meditation, hypno-suggestion, and personal dynamics. The songs are mostly pop music from the 60's and 70's, chosen to reflect the optimism of a time now fallen by the wayside. Included in our coursework are Noam Chomsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marxist theory, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Neil Armstrong, Machiavelli, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Abraham Lincoln, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, Lao Tzu, Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Vandiver, greek myths, Howard Zinn, Ken Wilber, Malcolm x, Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Lyndon B. Johnson, Al Sharpton, Terence McKenna, Aldous Huxley, Paul Scheele, Michael Pollan, Henry Thoreau, various international Pimsleur language audiobooks, The New Christie Minstrels, Melanie, Paul Williams, Ray Charles, The Carpenters, Cher, Three Dog Night, The 5th Dimension, Donovan, Bread, Dolly Parton, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, the Doors, and John Denver."
Do you welcome both "natural" and modified corns in your classes? Is there any segregation?
We welcomed all corn to the school, including GM corn. We tried for a good mix of modern hybrids and ancient or "heirloom" corn varieties. We don't think one group is in any way superior to the others. The idea was to empower the species as a whole to make collective decisions and perhaps take actions to both improve their lot in the world and deflect any more human mismanagement of it. Halfway through the design we realized that all seeds of all species should be welcomed to the school, without distinction between crops and weeds, the good or the bad, which are all values that come from humans and not from nature itself.
Why did you choose to work with corn? Wouldn't animals seem like a more natural and rewarding choice?
We worked with corn because of the place it holds in American culture. Americans consume more corn products than any other nationality (and in recent years corn has been blamed for a host of our health problems.) We love animals but this sort of project was hard enough to mount with the immobile corn plants... it's hard to think how we would have done it with a herd of cattle.
I read that plants communicate. Do you expect your corn students to spread their newly acquired knowledge to their companions?
It's certainly possible for plants to communicate, and perhaps we succeeded in communicating with them, and that our ideas got passed along the botanical spectrum. Of course the real audience for Corn Study was human. We felt that in addressing the corn, the humans might consider seeing the universe from a less human-centric position. Just as we have no preconception about how these ideas would flow through to the plants, we were very open to how they might arrive to the human spectator. A key to our work here is the use of play combined with what we think of as vital issues of our times. Much of our work plays on corniness as a way to be serious, on the relation between pure, purposeful aesthetic or cultural ideas and the low, foolhardy kitsch of the ordinary world. We're not interested in art that's pedantic, but we do care about conveying ideas and questioning values. We're not especially interested in art that creates objects either, but we are invested in the way in which artmaking expands the variety of containers for ideas (and can make things in general look nicer).
Thanks Matias and David!
All images are from the installation at GardenLAb.