DIYsect is s documentary series 'about the DIY Biology & Biology-Art intersection' and it is rather good.
In Summer 2013, filmmaker Benjamin Welmond and artist-biologist Mary Maggic Tsang traveled across the U.S. and Canada to meet the biohackers, artists, synthetic biologists, writers and curators and talk with them about the possibilities, challenges and dilemmas brought forward by biotechnology. The result is a portrait of DIY biotech hack and biotech art by the very people who are directly involved in it.
The authors of the series write:
I only discovered the existence of the episodes a few days ago (thanks Adam Zaretsky!) The films are short and sharp. They are released as soon as they have been edited. For free. On vimeo. Let's go!
The first episode of the web-series, Learning in Public is of course the introductory one. The directors interview members of the DIY biology movement as well as artists such as Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, Claire Pentecost, and subRosa.
Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror gets political. It starts with the FBI bioterrorism case against Steve Kurtz and then goes on to reflect the FBI's change of tactics. Realizing its errors, the FBI is now reaching out to the DIY BIO community 'for mutual education.'
DIYSECT Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror
Things are gettng tricky with episode 3. Fear of the Unknown which should be out on vimeo today!
The episode delves into the discussions surrounding synthetic biology. On the one hand, a project like the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plant is creating controversy by bringing synthetic biology to the consumer market in the form of a plant that glows in the dark. Its developers' rhetoric is fairly unconvincing (at least as far as i am concerned.) On the other hand, the technology watchdog group ETC. Its members fear the lack of regulation (the plant doesn't require any form of approval in the U.S. since it is not food) and the potentially damaging impact that the release of the plant might have on the environment. Somewhere in the middle is artist Adam Zaretsky who has long used his provocative performances to try and raise a broader debate about what is ethical or not in the field of synthetic biology. There's this great moment in the film when he explains that we don't really know what we are doing and that we need to stop and think before we 'fuck up our world' beyond human control.
On a side note, i believe we need to see more of Zaretsky's provocations and reflections here in Europe, so let's help him fund his next trip to the old continent.
Image on the homepage: Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.
What might sound like an ecological abomination is actually the start of a process that will create a new eco-system beneath the sea: an artificial reef. The sunken boat will provide a hard surface to which algae and invertebrates adhere, providing food for fish.
The artist bought the boat off eBay for 75 pounds. It was called Brioney Victoria and had been rotting for decade at a Canvey Island yard. He emptied it, added a concrete wheelhouse to make it look like a working boat and then stripped it of anything that could potentially be harmful.
Once ready, the small fishing vessel was towed out to sea. Faithfull set it alight, opened the seacocks, let water into the boat and dove off as it started sinking.
Five cameras were mounted on board to record the boat's descent and they are still monitoring its transformation, transmitting images via a dedicated website and relaying them to exhibitions. The first one is at Fabrica, a former chapel turned art gallery in Brighton. The show, which is part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, will later move to Calais and Caen.
In the Brighton gallery, a big overhead screen show the boat smoking and very slowly sinking beneath the waves. A series of monitors at ground level broadcast the images from the drowned boat.
Faithfull was interested in investigating how an ordinary object at the end of its existence is given a new, almost eternal life.
Like some of the artist's previous works, REEF documents the plight of a camera exposed to extreme elements or sent on a journey from which they might never come back. In 2003, for example, Faithfull sent a video camera attached to a weather balloon into the stratosphere.
Simon Faithfull Interview for REEF Project
Simon Faithfull will be giving a talk at Lighthouse on Tue 21 Oct 7- 8.15pm. And if you miss the evening, check out REEF at Fabrica in Brigton as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial. The show is open until 23 November 2014.
Also part of the Biennial: Amore e piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy.
The paleontologist's talk was titled Four billion years of life on earth: what should it teach mankind? It was my favourite moment in a festival that impressed me with the way it mixed disciplines, old technologies and innovation, science fiction and pure science, reflections about the ecological-humans and artistic experiments. Like most people who had a chance to be there, i do hope we'll get to live more "ages of wonder." But i digress. Fortey talked about Darwin and how his theories have been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify the practices of some capitalist business models. It started with his unconventional (that was his word) ideas about the history of life on earth and ended with comments on the soft drink industry.
But here is the official blurb:
Fortey believes that the natural progress of evolution is always towards greater richness, and that this is the way our planet is meant to be when Darwinian evolution is allowed to play out naturally. Mistaken ideas about Darwinism have contributed to a view of human life that diminishes rather than enhances richness, particularly in the Weltanschauung of market capitalism.
The video of his talk is below but since i had already typed my notes from Fortey's presentation before the video was uploaded, i thought i'd just leave them on this page in case you're interested in checking out some links. Besides, my pictures of dinosaurs are way nicer than his.
For most of his working life Richard Fortey was employed in the Natural History Museum in London. His research has long focused on trilobites, a fossil group of extinct arthropods (joint legged animals) that were around for at least 250 million years. These marine creatures present the first really well preserved eyes in the fossil record . They evolved into all sorts of ecological niches and are a paradigm in miniature for evolution as a whole. (cf his book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution)
Charles Darwin's seminal work on evolutionary biology served as a backdrop of Fortey's presentation.
The full title of Darwin's book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life but its meaning and essence has often been replaced in popular imagination by the punchier formula "the survival of the fittest". That wasn't Darwin's phrase. It was introduced in a text book about biology by Herbert Spencer 5 years after the publication of the Origin of Species but it was adopted as an instant description of how evolution works. In some ways this simplification has had some unfortunate consequences. For example, it leads to the idea of progression, with each stage being an advance on and eliminating the previous one.
Referring to the previous evening's talk about Super Intelligence, Fortey said that if we followed this Survival of the Fittest eationale then the supercomputers, which will soon equal then surpass and eventually make obsolete human intelligence, are the next step in this logical progression.
The first part of his talk took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of life to illustrate progression.
The Stromatolite photos is a snapshot of life 2.5 billion years ago.
Life existed before that. We know that at least by 3.5 billion years ago, living cells were already reproducing. We can find them as fossils but they are very rare and the ones we find from 2.5 billion years ago look very much like these stromatolites. Some of the fossils look like living blue green algae. It's very hard to tell the differences in some cases between the fossils and the ones still living.
Stromatolites are very simple organisms but they have one important property for the history of the planet: they photosynthesise, they exhale oxygen, making life on earth possible for us. When life first appeared on Earth, the planet was very unwelcoming to life. Its atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide and probably also poisonous gases and nitrogen. It had very little oxygen, if any. It's the activity over billions of years of these algae, these blue green bacteria that transformed the atmosphere into something that animals could subsequently breathe. Some of the very early organisms that existed before that and would this die in the presence of oxygen are still with us, living in crevices around the world. They never went away but the oxygen-loving organisms took over.
We can fast-forward to when organisms with organized nuclei appeared. And then to about 1.3 billion years ago when the first sexually differentiated organisms are found in the fossil record. Once you differentiate the sexes, you get more possibilities of cross-breeding and more possibilities of variations and inherited variations which obviously ups the whole evolutionary stakes. So far, we've been talking about progression, even in quite a simple way.
About 540 million years ago we arrive at the base of the Cambrian period and that's when trilobites appear in the fossil record. Trilobites are far more complicated organisms that anything we've seen before. Trilobites themselves are no more, they died out about 250 000 million years ago. These were animals with hard parts, they had the first toughened exoskeletons. We found trilobites with bite marks on them which brings us to another step in this history of the evolution of complexity as these marks show there were predators around of the time. Most of the earlier organisms were minutes. Trilobites can fit comfortably into the palm of a man's hand. Which means that at the base of the Cambrian animals got large, they are distinctly animals and some of them got hard parts, skeletons.
Alongside the trilobites were other fossils. For example the Burgess shale in Canada which didn't have hard parts but was soft-bodied. Soft bodied organisms are harder to preserve. Aysheaia, for example, was one of these soft bodied Cambrian organisms and it is clearly related to the still living velvet worm.
In fact, most of the living of the largest groups of the animals that we know today had their first representatives in the Cambrian period. Around 542 million years ago, took place the so-called Cambrian explosion which saw evolution work very fast and produce designs which are still with us today.
Life so far was fully marine but it eventually found its way onto land. Of course, each of these evolutions made for a new ecology and that's progression two.
The ancestors of nowadays' Liverworts left water and crawled over the surface of wet mud. Their green pads were photosynthesizing and releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere and as that happened it made it more suitable for animals to follow them onto the land. Now when you go onto land, you open up other possibilities for evolution, which gives way to a new eco-system.
The next stage were organisms moving upwards (to get more light and thus take over your neighbours.)
These animals and plants are not just fossils, they are still with us so the first qualification to the idea of progression is that when organisms evolve to the next stage, they don't die out, they are still with us, they have a niche that enables them to survive. The simple idea of progression of organism giving rise to another which outcompetes and eventually replaces it and so on is not an adequate description of what is happening in the world. Live moves on but the history is retained.
Fortey further explored this idea in his book Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind.
The next stage is to support that photosynthesizing column and carry it upwards to make a tree.
The animals shortly followed the plants. The first ones were tiny insect relatives and then creatures that eat insects and ultimately our first distant ancestors, the first quadrupeds who came from their fishy relatives and set foot onto land. One of these fishy relatives is still living today: it's the Australian lungfish.
This lungfish is recognized by both zoologist and DNA studies as a close relative to our other relative that came out from the sea onto land. Some time during the Devonian period more than 400 million years ago, it came out onto land. Until recently, paleontologists were looking for a 'missing link', for the fossil of a fishy type of creature with a fin that looked like a hand.
They eventually found this missing link. It's the Tiktaalik, a creature with a complex series of bones bones in the feet, half way between a fin and a hand. The early creatures that came to land actually had 6 or 7 digits, not 5.
We now have an ecological structure that you might recognize today: prey, predators, low and tall plants, etc. So far, it all sounds rather linear.
Fast forward to the age of the dinosaurs, the terrestrial animals continue to evolve and get larger. The botanical situation at the time was similar to today's except that there were no flowering plants. Some of those dinosaurs were covered in small feathers, even tyranosaurus rex had fuzzy feathers. One group of these dinosaurs went on to give rise to the birds which evolved together with and from the dinosaurs but didn't die out with them. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, small insect-eating mammals gave life to large herbivorous & carnivorous mammals that preyed on them. e.g. bison, a survivor from the last Ice Age.
The final step is an animal that is a mammal that has consciousness and high intelligence. And so we have a rather linear progression that goes from the first cell to the intelligent human being. Could the next stage be the supercomputer that takes the brain element further into its next stage? Maybe... but that wouldn't be an adequate description of what evolution really does.
However, it not simply an upward story. The history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions when hundreds, sometimes millions of species became extinct within a short period of time.
The so-called K-T event, for example, brought about the demise of the dinosaurs and many other organisms. But there were other mass extinctions. One of them at least took place at the end of the Permian period, and it was even more extreme.
Survival then might have been lottery or maybe the surviving species had some quality that you didn't now you possessed but came useful when crisis arose and got you through. There was an element of serendipity in the organism that passed through.
The K-T event took out dinosaurs and other organisms in the sea. It reset life and gave the mammals a chance to evolve into the forms we have today.
Throughout the history of life, brain power did increase in general. Metabolic rate also increased between the reptiles and the mammals. There is thus a progressive aspect in spite of these interruptions. The biggest interruption was the end of the Permian period (about 250 million years ago) when all the continents were united and the ocean went seriously anoxic. There was a violent eruption of volcanic gas in what is now Siberia. It produced the biggest extinction the world has seen. 90% of species probably disappeared. e.g. the ammonites.
These extinction events reset the clock and give survivors the chance to re-evolve, to regenerate ecologies. Every time a mass extinction has intervened, evolution has filled up the gap afterwards, often with a very rapid period of evolution where the ecology reasserts itself. It is a very neglected fact about the history of life. A couple of examples: the coral reef which is often taken as a paradigm for biologically varied communities. The reef habitat goes back past 4 mass extinctions. At each stage, the reefs died out completely, but shortly afterwards they re-evolved which means that evolution rapidly fills all the niches.
Another example is the woodland found in the south of England (and elsewhere in the world) with trees, plants and ferns. This particular structure has evolved from the coal forests of the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago that ultimately produced coal deposits. The structure of those forest is not so different from the ones we have today and it is extremely species-rich but not as species rich as today's tropical forest, the richest habitat on earth.
You could replicate his argument with most of the major habitats on earth: they are very rich in species and after an extinction event, they 'restock' and become rich in species again. Now how does that not seem to fit in the account of the survival of the fittest? if one species is particularly good, it outcompetes the other so you would expect much more of a one species takes all situation but when natural evolution is allowed to play out, it goes for extremely species rich environment.
Each of these extinction events allows life to replay itself in a sense and it replays itself always towards biodiversity and large numbers of species, not the dominance of one or two. The end product of evolution as it really works is thus a huge, incomparable diversity of organisms on the planet.
Scientists tend to avoid imputing human or moral values to their work. Fortey, however, added moral value to his ideas by saying that biodiversity is the way the world is supposed to be and not the dominance of one or two species.
Some people say that we are now in a period when we are decimating the biodiversity of the planet, we are putting species extinct very fast or at least reducing their numbers to almost zoological garden proportions. Fortey's feeling as a biologist is that this is morally wrong. Extinction does happen naturally but if we can say as a precept that the state of nature as it should be is one that maximizes its richness, then you have a moral ground for saying what we are doing to the planet is wrong. The right state of the world is a rich one and we are going against it.
Geerat J. Vermeij, in his book Evolution and Escalation. An Ecological History of Life pointed out that much of this richness is generated by antagonism between prey species and the predators. The prey evolves by developing new techniques to defend itself.
Summary of richness and its implications. What does richness mean?
We humans are just another species and perhaps our human society should also regard richness as a desirable end.
The misapplication of Darwinism or when the 'survival of the fittest' is misapplied in the wrong situation (the 'winner takes all' justification):
The Market is just another example of Darwinism in action. These days in the UK we keep hearing statements describing the Market as if it were a Darwinistic phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher talking about market forces said 'there is no alternative.' Even the corporate business model for the market uses the language of natural selection. Trawling through the newspapers, Fortey found example of this: we must adapt or die, we mustn't be dinosaurs, competition is threatening our market niche, it's a jungle out there, there will be a Starbucks on ever street corner, etc.
How did it get there? The model in the business man's mind is something like what has happened to our squirrel population. The South of England used to be inhabited by a population of red squirrels. Then came 'the American invader', the grey squirrel. It is clever, more aggressive, and brings with it a nasty disease. It is a much more successful animal. This kind of model is "the model takes all" model which lies behind this interpretation of the Darwinian process as applied to a lot of human activity.
For Fortey, this is a violation of the principle of richness. The good state is one of proliferation of many product and places to make life as rich as possible.
The end of product of the capitalism is nearly always very similar to the case of the grey squirrel: you get a reduction in richness. In capitalism, however, you often end up with a duopoly of two companies with very similar products that have eaten up other companies and then have to sell one another on superficial differences.
Coca-cola bottles from around the world present subtle differences that reflect the local brands that the Coca-cola corporation has replaced over the years. If you look at the whole Pepsi vs Coca Cola line of products, you will find that these mega soft drink companies offer some one to one correspondences. For example, sprite and seven up are virtually identical. The main difference is the amount they spend in advertising.
The wine industry is the opposite. It's the coral reef of the supermarket. There are infinite varieties of wines to choose from. Many were produced by small business. These are species actively evolving, which adds to richness.
Fortey's idea wasn't about anti-capitalism but about how capitalism could also result in creativeness, innovation, variety.
Does this have any use?
7 billion people on Earth, that's too many and if we need to feed them with shrinking resources, then how are we going to build super computers to take us to the stars?
Is it too Utopian? Almost certainly yes.
Previous posts about the festival: "Volta", the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest will be artist and 'videosmith' Sam Meech whose work explores the role of analogue technologies in a digital landscape, and the potential to fuse the two in production, projection and performance.
I discovered Sam's work in Liverpool a few weeks ago, it was part of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT that explores how the working day has evolved from the industrial revolution to the digital age. Sam Meech has hung over the gallery a banner which translates into a knitting design the working hours patterns of people active in the 'creative industry' and they are, as you suspect, radically (depressingly??) different from the traditional 8 hour shift.
Sam is also a co-director of Re-Dock - a not-for-profit arts organisation, developing projects that explore ways in which communities relate to digital media, ideas and public space.
Aspect: V21: A Good Place to Stop! The title of this issue of the dvd-magazine is literal: this is the final stop for a publication that, in 10 years & 26 DVDs, has shown, promoted, curated, archived and put into context the works of over 200 artists working in new or experimental media. While i understand and respect the editors' decision, i'm going to miss Aspect. I liked it a lot, you see. While any artwork benefits from being seen 'in the flesh' rather than on the pages of a magazine, time-based works usually need the addition of sound and video to be better appreciated. ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media Art gave the public the possibility to enjoy an artwork at their own pace: each work is introduced by a brief statement from the artist, it is then shown in its totality both as it would be in any art gallery but also in a version that shows the same video with optional audio commentary by a curator, theorist or educator who discusses the background and meaning of the piece.
Aspect: V21: A Good Place to Stop presents 8 time-based works that explore the concept of endings. Either literally or metaphorically.
This electromechanical sculpture was 'born' in Nashville, Tennessee on 2 June 2012. It has been programmed to have the average human lifespan of babies born in Tennessee on that same day: approximately 78 years. The kick drum beats its heartbeat (at 60 beats per minute), and the mechanical counter displays the number of heartbeats remaining in its lifetime. An internal, battery-operated clock keeps track of the passing time when the sculpture is unplugged. The sculpture will die once the counter reaches zero.
Pilvi Takala, Real Snow White (video excerpt)
Pilvi Takala's Real Snow White is by far the most charming and absurd work in the selection. The young and pretty Finnish artist arrives at Eurodisney in Paris dressed as White Snow. Soon children want a photo and autographs from her. But her adventure will end before she can even pass the gates of the entertainment resort. Takala is asked by a security guard not to enter because the 'real' Snow White is already inside. That could create confusion. Besides, what would happen if the 'fake' Snow White does 'something bad'? The conversations between the artist and members of the security team sounds laughable. Unless you know about Disney's thirst for trademark and its application pending with the US Patent and Trademark Office for the name "Snow White", which would cover all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction.
There are 6 other works to discover inside the new issue. Grab yours here!
I've managed to keep it under control so far but i've got quite an obsession with the work of Marcel Dzama. The world he creates mixes childhood nostalgia, violence, sex and history (without necessarily knocking you down with historical references) in the most sinister and seducing way.
Luckily for Londoners, the David Zwirner gallery has just opened a show about Dzama's latest work: Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets. The main protagonists are helpfully listed in the title.
Part of the exhibition centers on his 2011 film A Game of Chess, with props, preparatory drawings and the final short film. The characters dance across the checkered board, wearing papier-mâché costumes and masks.
The works is influenced by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer whose Triadic Ballet from 1922 included puppet-like costumes, and mask-wearing figures dancing across a checkered surface. More generally, the inspiration for the work is the early twentieth-century avant-garde who drew analogies between chess (with its balance between improvisation and predetermination) and artistic practice.
The video shown at David Zwirner, however, restages some of the footage of A Game of Chess and turns it into Sister Squares, splitting the screen in four. The result is even more confusing and fascinating than the original film.
The filming and the creation of the costumes took place in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the influence of local culture (cue to splendid Mariachi trumpeting and sombrero-ing the video) infiltrate the work.
But the video i couldn't get my eyes off is The Infidels. This time the puppet-like chess figures go to war against stockinged female "terrorists," AK-47 in hand. It's violent, joyful, enigmatic and sexy.
I don't want to sound overly enthusiastic but this is probably the most sublime video i've ever seen.... (The quality of the video is not great but i think it should give you an idea.)
It's not in the gallery but check out the music video that Dzama directed together with Patrick Daughters for the band Department of Eagles:
Screened on monitors facing the street:
Marcel Dzama, Death Disco Dance
And since we're on a video roll, check out this short interview that TateShots did with the artist 4 years ago:
Back to what's on view in the gallery. With no comment:
I really loved that video. Please, go and see the show.
Marcel Dzama. Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets is open until 11 May at David Zwirner gallery in London.
Previously: Even the Ghost of the Past.