Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.

The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.

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Charlotte donating skin to Christine Mummery's laboratory in front of an audience at the Theatrum Anatomicum at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman

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Charlotte donating blood to Christine Mummery's laboratory in front of an audience at the Theatrum Anatomicum at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Photos by James Read

One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.

Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.

The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.

The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.

The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.

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Brain cells grown from stem cells derived from Charlotte's skin

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.

The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.

Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?

In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.

However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.

What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.

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Scars from biopsy 11/03/13

Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?

Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.

Thanks Charlotte!

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.

Sponsored by:





Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, by writer, illustrator, and skeptic Daniel Loxton and paleontologist, geologist, and author Donald R. Prothero; Foreword by science writer and historian of science Michael Shermer.

Available on Amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Columbia University Press writes: Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written an entertaining, educational, and definitive text on cryptids, presenting the arguments both for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience that perpetuates their myths. After examining the nature of science and pseudoscience and their relation to cryptozoology, Loxton and Prothero take on Bigfoot; the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, and its cross-cultural incarnations; the Loch Ness monster and its highly publicized sightings; the evolution of the Great Sea Serpent; and Mokele Mbembe, or the Congo dinosaur. They conclude with an analysis of the psychology behind the persistent belief in paranormal phenomena, identifying the major players in cryptozoology, discussing the character of its subculture, and considering the challenge it poses to clear and critical thinking in our increasingly complex world.

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The Patterson-Gimlin film is a short motion picture of a "Bigfoot", that was supposedly filmed on October 20, 1967, by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, in California


Leonard Nimoy narrates the episode dedicated to Bigfoot in the TV series In Search Of...

Abominable Science! was supposed to be a harmless, laid-back and jolly lecture. I knew nothing of the Great Sea Serpent, the Mokele Mbembe, i had barely heard of Bigfoot and the Yeti but i'm quite the fan of Nessie. So surely, this book should have been an inoffensive ride. No one believe in those monsters, right?

Wrong! Daniel Loxton reveals that when asked "Do you think Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is real?" in a 2012 poll, 7 percent of American respondents answered that Bigfoot "Definitely is real," and 22% said Bigfoot "Probably is real." Don't snort! i just found out that 24% readers of The Guardian (at least the ones who bothered to participate to the poll) believe in the existence of the creature.

I grew even more uncomfortable when i read in the book that Young Earth creationists are actively looking for surviving dinosaurs in the hope that the discovery of an Apatosaurous-like animal in Congo will bring the definite proof that the theory of evolution is a big fantasy.

Abominable Science! is as much about absurd creatures as it is about pseudoscientists making radical claims about the world, writing off evidence-based research and undermining the teaching of science in the process.

In an interview about the book, Donald R. Prothero said: "To me, the sad aspect of cryptozoology is that they practice "sham science": they adopt the trappings of science (fancy cameras and sound recording equipment, night-vision goggles, camera traps, sonar, other devices) without following the methods of science, especially the idea of testing and shooting down hypotheses that have failed, and getting rid of ideas when they have been decisively debunked. This indeed reflects badly on the scientific literacy of Americans, since they don't understand that science is not about white lab coats and bubbling beakers. It is about the methods you use to investigate claims, and the willingness to admit you're wrong and throw out bad ideas when they fail."

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Image released by "Bigfoot's" finders at a press conference in August 2008

The press isn't doing a great job for the advance of science and human progress either when they cover stories such as the one that made the headlines a few years ago when a policeman and a former corrections officer claimed that they had discovered the body of Bigfoot. Media outlets, from CNN to BBC, reported the news which, unsurprisingly, was a hoax.

Prothero wrote some of the chapters in the books. Loxton wrote the rest. The scientist is inflexible in his belief that giving too much credit to the existence of those monsters does more harm than good. Loxton, however, is more tolerant. He has learnt that these fantastical creatures do not exist but he is still much seduced by the stories that surround them.

And indeed the book contains plenty of interesting stories:

This 1951 photograph of a purported Yeti footprint was auctioned off at Christie's London for £3,500.

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Eric Earle Shipton, Yeti footprints in the Menlung Basin, 1951

This famous photograph of the monster of the Loch Ness was taken by Colonel Robert Wilson in April, 1934. He later admitted that he had built a small model monster around a toy submarine.

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Robert Wilson, Nessie, 1934

There have been plenty of Nessie "sightings: throughout history. One of my favourite is the one that 'shows' Nessie on Google Earth. But the more sophisticated the technology, the less evidence was found of the existence of those monsters. In 1987, for example, Operation Deepscan took place. Twenty-four boats equipped with echosounder equipment were deployed across the whole width of the loch and they simultaneously sent out acoustic waves.

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Operation Deepscan, 1987

Amusingly, some theories propose that the monster is actually a camel able to stay for long periods of time in and under water.

Other believe that Nessie is a survivant variant of the Plesiosaurus. Just like the Zuiyo-maru creature, a carcass caught by the Japanese fishing trawler Zuiyō Maru off the coast of New Zealand in 1977. Analysis later indicated it was most likely the decomposed carcass of a basking shark.

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Photograph of the front of the Zuiyo-maru carcass. Taken by Michihiko Yano, April 25, 1977

I also liked to follow the hunt for the Mokele-mbembe which Americans and Europeans have been searching for in Congo, often to the dismay of local populations. The creature is believed to be a surviving brontosaurus.

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Daniel Loxton's drawing of the Yeti included in Abominable Science!

Interview with the authors.

On 12 July, the Arts Calalyst organised one last evening of discussions in its Clerkenwell Road HQ.

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Ariel Guzik, Resonador espectral armónico

The Language of Cetaceans brought together two men who share a passion for whales. One is environmental scientist and marine biologist Mark Peter Simmonds who investigates and raises awareness about an issue that is far away from our sights: the threats to the life of marine mammals caused by the increasing emissions of loud noise under water. The other is artist and inventor Ariel Guzik who has spent the last ten years looking for a way of communicating with cetaceans.

The evening started with Nicola Triscott, Director of the Arts Catalyst, showing us the Field Guide To UK Marine Mammals. I had no idea there were whales, dolphins, seals and sharks sharks on the coast of the UK!

Next was Simmonds' talk. It was very entertaining but also almost heartbreaking.

We might think that oceans are silent but they are filled with noises and animal conversations. First of all, marine mammals, fish, and a few invertebrates depend on sound to locate food, identify mates, navigate, coordinate as a group, avoid predators, send and receive alert of danger as well as transmit other types of information. It's very dark deep in the ocean so hearing is the sense they rely the most on.

Nowadays, however, whales and other mammals cannot hear with each other because of all the man-made noise intruding on their habitat.

Some of these sounds are so loud, they are driving the animals away from areas important to their survival, and in some cases injuring or even causing their deaths. The intense sound pulses of mid-frequency military sonars, for example, have been linked to several mass whale strandings. But it's not just the military that is to blame. The fossil fuel industry is firing loud air guns fusillades to detect oil buried under the seafloor, undersea construction operations drive piles into the seafloor and blast holes with explosives. Add to the picture, the dramatic growth in shipping traffic that generates a constant noise.

Whales are particularly vulnerable because they communicate over vast distances in the same frequencies that ship propel­lers and engines generate. The whales are not only unable to communicate with each other but they also panic when the noise gets too loud. When they are hit by a blast, the creatures flee, abandon their habitat and with that the source of their alimentation.

NGO Ocean Care has launched the Silent Ocean campaign. Have a look at their video, it explains the issue with more clarity and details.


Underwater Noise - The Overlooked Catastrophe

And here's the video of Mark Peter Simmonds's talk:


The Language of Cetaceans - Introduction and presentation by Mark Peter Simmonds

Ariel Guzik then presented his attempts at creating instruments that would mediate the communication between cetaceans and humans. One of his latest instruments is currently shown in the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

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The devices that the artist developed over the course of his career go from Laúd Plasmaht which uses the electric variations of Mexican cactuses to make a concert for plants to Nereida, an underwater capsule that doubles as a musical instrument to establish contact with cetaceans.

Here's Ariel Guzik's talk. It is not as fast-paced and entertaining as the one by Mark Peter Simmonds but Guzik is one of those 'crazy' visionary artists whose work involves biology, physics, music and a deep respect for the environment. His work, i'm sure, will fascinate you:


Ariel Guzik - The Language of Cetaceans. Part 1

The rest of Ariel Guzik's talk is over here!

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Rammellzee, Color Letter Racer Set, c.1988. And White Letter Racer Set, c.1991. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © Estate of Carmela Zagari Rammellzee. Photo: Linda Nylind

The Hayward Gallery in London has recently opened a fairly eccentric exhibition filled with the works of outlandish inventors, maverick engineers, self-taught architects, and other people whose imagination won't stop at the laws of physics nor at the rules set by society.

Contributors to the exhibition explore fictional identities and design imaginary cities; they build healing machines and record the unseen energy flows of our bodies. They speculate on mysteries of time and space; create devices for time travel and communication with other dimensions; and fashion new letter forms designed to liberate the alphabet from the strictures of Western civilization.

The Alternative Guide to the Universe is never dull nor predictable. And it is as much about artworks, models and speculation as it is about the stories and personalities of the individuals behind them..

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Jean Perdrizet, Untitled, Un robot ouvrier qui voit les formes par coupes de vecteurs en étoile (Worker robot who sees shapes in star-like vectoral planes), 1970

Take Jean Perdrizet for example. He was a civil engineer who lost his job because of mental health troubles. Around 1955 he became an "inventor", stretching the limits of physics, drawing and prototyping machines to communicate with ghosts or aliens. He also invented a language, the "sidereal esperanto" that enabled all humans to understand each other but also to communication with extra-terrestrials. His machines are lost, only the intricate drawing, plans and mathematical formulas remain.

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Lee Godie. Lee and Cameo on a chair...., early to mid 1970s © the artist. Courtesy Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Collection

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Lee Godie, Untitled

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Lee Goodie, Four Photos (Photo booth Portrait)

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Lee Godie, Untitled Photograph (Photo booth Self-Portrait)

Lee Godie is the one who fascinated me the most. Godie was living on the streets of Chicago in the late 1960s. She called herself a French Impressionist and was selling her drawings and paintings on the steps of the Art Institute. So far, so almost normal. What makes Godie a star of the Hayward show are the theatrical self-portraits she was taking inside a photo-booth at the bus station. She'd bring along accessories, bits of fabric and other props to build different personae. She would then add bright colour to her lips or paint her eye brows in a Scouse fashion. Godie was thus doing theatrical self-portraits long before Cindy Sherman did. And long before celebs started invading twitter with 'selfies.'

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Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled, 1940s

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Eugene von Bruenchenhein, from Untitled, 1940s. Photograph: Hayward Gallery/© 2013 Lewis B Greenblatt

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Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (Bonnet), 1940s © 2013 Lewis B. Greenblatt, all rights reserved. Courtesy Lewis and Jean Greenblatt

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Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (Green Background), 1940s © 2013 Lewis B. Greenblatt, all rights reserved. Courtesy Lewis and Jean Greenblatt

The romantic in me is charmed by a self-taught photographer who sees his wife as his muse and takes thousands of photos of her dressed as a pin-up, wearing little more than cascades of pearls or donning christmas tree decorations on her head. Preferably against a rococo backdrop. From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein documented the Marie's beauty but even when she is naked, the portraits have more tenderness than kinkiness.

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Bodys Isek Kingelez, Mundial Isek Sport, 1989. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Installation view of works by BODYS ISEK KINGELEZ at 'Alternative Guide to the Universe' exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013 ©the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

Bodys Isek Kingelez uses cardboard, candy wrappers and other materials found in the streets of Kinshasa to make what he calls Extrêmes maquettes (Extreme Models) of extravagant buildings and utopian cities. They look neither purely African, nor European, even when they bear the name of a European city. I wouldn't say that they are futuristic either. In truth, these buildings can't be assigned to any architectural movement. They are in a league of their own.

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Richard Greaves, The House with Windows, 2005 © the artist. Courtesy Mario del Curto

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Richard Greaves, The House with Windows, 2005 © the artist. Courtesy Mario del Curto

Richard Greaves sculpts houses as much as he builds them. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Greaves is self-taught. He never learnt to be an architect. Yet, his constructions successfully defy the laws of gravity. The cabins and shelters he erects in the middle of the forest in Canada are made from abandoned barns which he takes apart and rebuilds at his whim.

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Rammellzee, Color Letter Racer Set, c.1988. And White Letter Racer Set, c.1991. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © Estate of Carmela Zagari Rammellzee. Photo: Linda Nylind

Rammellzee's graffiti and art work are based on his theory of Gothic Futurism. He imagined a world in which letters of the alphabet would arm and liberate themselves from the slavery and corruption of language. Made from found objects and customised skateboards, his Letter Racers are flying armoured vehicles poised for linguistic and galactic warfare. His style is stunning. Why had i never heard of him before?

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Yulu Wu, Remote Controlled Cart with Clothing (detail), 2013. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Yulu Wu, Remote Controlled Cart with Clothing (Yao Kong Chuan Yi Xiao La Che), 2013. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

I guess everybody knows about Wu Yulu's amazing, rural robots. Using rubbish that he finds near his farm, Wu Yulu creates robots that do the cleaning, wash dishes, light cigarettes, or take him to market. The Hayward is showing the small robot that climbs a wall and a child robot that chases people (as Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Gallery and Curator of the show, pertinently noted, it's not a coincidence if a man from the country of the one child policy decided to build himself a little boy.)

I'm going to stop here because unfinished, unpolished, unpublished posts are piling up and i need to move on but in an ideal life, i'll find the time to write about Karl Hans Janke, the man who discovered the 'radiation-free German Atom'; Philip Blackmarr and his theory of "quantum geometry"; or Emery Blagdon who built a 'Healing Machine' from wire, copper, aluminium foil, Christmas tree lights, ribbons, beads, leaves, butterfly wings, magnets and 'earth elements'. I cannot vouch for the scientific soundness of their theories but i'm glad an art gallery has given them a chance to expose them to the public.

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Morton Bartlett, Untitled, c.1950s. © Morton Bartlett and Marion Harris. Courtesy The Museum of Everything

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Morton Bartlett, Untitled, c. 1950. Photograph: Hayward Gallery/© The Bartlett Project, LLC

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Installation view of works by MARCEL STORR at 'Alternative Guide to the Universe' exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013. © Liliane and Bertrand Kempf. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Installation view of works by GUO FENGYI at 'Alternative Guide to the Universe' exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013. © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Paul Laffoley, Thanaton III, 1989. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Paul Laffoley, The World Self, 1967. Installation view 'Alternative Guide to the Universe', Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist. Photo: Linda Nylind

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Installation view of works by ALFRED JENSEN at 'Alternative Guide to the Universe' exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013 ©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2013. Photo: Linda Nylind

If you can't make it to London, i guess that the next best thing is to get your hands on the catalogue The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries. It's on amazon .co.uk and .com.

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Alternative Guide to the Universe is at the Hayward Gallery in London until 26 August 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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Adam Brown, in collaboration with Andrew Fagg, Bion, 2006-present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gold flakes made by Adam Brown and Kazem Kashefi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Our Way To The Impossible

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

My guest tomorrow will be Patrick Stevenson-Keating, a designer who creates objects and experiences that communicate and make the most sophisticated theories in physics more tangible.

We will be talking about some of the objects he designed. Starting with the Quantum Parallelograph which explores the possibility of alternate realities and encourages people to discover their own alternative lives. We will also discuss the world's first handmade particle accelerator which Patrick crafted using hand-blown glass bulbs, a pump, a voltage of 45,000V and electrode. The device helps us understand better what the much fussed about Large Hadron Collider is all about.

Patrick Stevenson-Keating has graduated from the Dundee Product Design course, and he is now running his independent studio practice in Shoreditch as well as working as an associate at international design firm Superflux.

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The Quantum Parallelograph

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Handcrafted Particle Accelerator

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Handcrafted Particle Accelerator

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Handcrafted Particle Accelerator

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