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The tail-wagging cat, symbol for Yellowburn. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

It's that time of the year again! The merry days of the Design Interactions graduation show. The final projects are as different from each other as possible and the first work in my short series of RCA posts deals with what The Guardian calls the serious business of creating a happier world. Happiness, it turns out, is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies. In 2011, the UN Resolution 65/309 encouraged member states to measure happiness and countries are now ranked according to the happiness of their citizens. Which 3 years later, sounds as weird as ever.

With Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun, Zoë Hough explores what happens when happiness becomes a political target.

In her scenario, not only is the happiness of a UK town closely monitored and assessed but active measures are also taken to almost enforce happiness upon its inhabitants.

That town is Blackburn which the Office for National Statistics declared in 2013 to be one of the least happy cities in the UK.

As you can see in the video below, men in suit convene in a London office and draw up a series of measures to turn a miserable and distant town into a cheerful one. People get tax discount if they wear yellow and skip gaily down the streets, etc. Even the name of the place is changed from Blackburn to Yellowburn.

Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun (video)

Although as individuals we may each wish to be happy, when our emotions become an indicator of government 'success', where might this attempted control over our emotions end, and at what price? This project aims to question the motivations behind this global legislative trend of focusing on happiness, which in its essence is immeasurable.

Does the government want me to feel happy, or are there other, greater, unspoken reasons for their focus on my emotions? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions by speculating about a future city, Yellowburn, in the north of England.

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A few questions to the designer:

Hi Zoë! The focus of your project is the city of Blackburn which was declared one of the unhappiest places in the UK. Do you know how this level of unhappiness was measured?

Happiness is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies; countries are ranked according to the happiness of their citizens and happiness is starting to be positioned as a better measure of 'success' than GDP.

As to how Blackburn was classed as one of the least happy places: the ONS (Office of National statistics) conduct an annual survey, including four questions which create what is commonly referred to as The Happiness Index. The questions are:

- How happy did you feel yesterday?
- How anxious did you feel yesterday?
- How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
- To what extent do you feel that the things in your life are worthwhile?

When I was working on this project the data showed that Blackburn, Newport, Stoke-on-Trent and Inner London were among the least happy places in the UK, but the lists of the happiest and unhappiest places often change when new data is announced.

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

Why did you select Blackburn rather than any other unhappy places?

In this speculative project, Blackburn felt like the kind of place that the Government would select for the trial run of these new happiness proposals. It's up north, it's not too large nor too small, and it's in need of regeneration. Also, although economically Blackburn is now struggling, it was one of the first industrialised towns in the world, and so it seemed apt that it should be the first place to have these happiness proposals implemented and lead the UK into a new, happier, era.

The Investor Document explores the profit potential of happiness. Could you elaborate on that and also tell us if there is any existing political or scientific research on that topic? Is the level of people's happiness already valued as an economical asset?

The research shows that happier people are more agreeable, more healthy and more productive. Therefore, happier people are more beneficial to the economy, as they cost less in policing and healthcare, and create more profit for companies.

Having interviewed Dawn Snape, head of the department at the ONS which carries out the Happiness Index, she admits that they do not know, when asking people about happiness, what it is that they are really measuring, and that the results vary according to who asks the questions, whether the questions are asked in person or over the phone, and so on. Yet, countries are being ranked on this data, UN resolutions have been passed which encourage the measuring of happiness, and happiness is being positioned as a measure of 'national success'. However, with happiness being in its essence immeasurable, for legislative trends to be based on such an immeasurable factor seems to me to be absurd. I would question therefore the motivations for this global focus on happiness - is it just that our politicians want us all to feel happy and good, or is it that they want us to be more agreeable, more easily controlled and more profitable? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions.

In my research for the project I met with lawyers to try to determine whether a legal definition of happiness could be created, and therefore whether we could be more precise as to what was being measured - it was in this meeting that I was introduced to the term 'mere puff', which is basically that you can say something which is not believable and therefore you can say it without being held to it. Mere puff is what allows advertisers to make claims like 'open happiness' (coke) which is obviously nonsense. In my project politicians are also able to make certain claims about happiness which are absurd (which i see happening in current politics too!)

In your scenario, people are taxed for wearing black, sent to therapy when they look too gloomy, etc. Why are the measures taken to ensure that the population of Yellowburn is happy so authoritarian?

In this speculative project, in order to climb up the Happiness rankings, the UK Government targets one of its least happy cities, Blackburn, and bans NonHappiness in public places by implementing a number of proposals (one of which is changing its name from Blackburn to Yellowburn as black is the colour of insecurity and fear, whereas yellow is the colour of happy, sun and fun).

The proposals for Yellowburn were all based on research but I wanted to balance fact and fiction and so chose proposals which best worked to highlight the absurdity of measuring something as vague and changing as happiness. In order to measure something one needs to know what one is measuring. It is for this reason that in this speculative future, happiness is defined quite neatly and peoples behaviour can therefore be analysed as to whether it fits the new definition of Happiness. In this way the data gathered can show the UK to be happier, and thus push the UK up the global happiness rankings.

Other proposals include FRCCTV (Facial recognition CCTV) which tracks the happiness of residents by their smile and body language and rewards 'happy' residents with tax credits, and punishes nonhappy residents with tax penalties and escorting them off to the Y-Districts for various therapies. Another proposal was the tail-wagging cat, which becomes a symbol of Yellowburn. Most people feel happy when they see a dog wagging its tail; the thinking of politicians was therefore that cats should also be trained to wag their tails, so that we would feel happy when we see them wag their tails too.

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoe Hough

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View of the work as exhibited at the graduation show. Image courtesy of Zoe Hough

Let's talk about that therapy. Any citizen who doesn't adopt a happy behaviour is escorted to the Y-District. What happens there?

These Y-Districts would have a range of therapies including CBT, NLP and Psychotherapy. People would also be coached on how to smile better and have body language training to appear happier. There is a cost to the resident for attending the Y-Districts, but attendance is not optional. This cost serves as another deterrent for a resident to exhibit any NonHappiness in public places.

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

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Still from 35mm Videos. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

When i talked to you during the press view, you seemed to doubt the sagacity of positioning happiness 'as a better measure of a nations success than GDP.' Why so?

The pursuit of happiness is accepted as a good thing almost without question. This project aims to be the question, one which I think is very much needed to be more audible in our minds. The pursuit for happiness has been raging for centuries despite the fact that we each experience the reality of emotions as rising and passing away. Yet today, scientific research into methods to rid us of unwanted emotions is attracting financial resources from around the globe and the possibility of removing unwanted feelings is fast becoming a reality; this project aims to help people pause, think and feel what the costs of such advancements might be.

I feel that positioning happiness as a measure of success of a country, although it sounds great and lovely at first glance, is ultimately rather dangerous. Once our emotions are important to the government in terms of their world standing and respect from other nations, these emotions are then rife for manipulation and control. We already live in a society where happiness is the 'correct' way to be, where happiness is encouraged, where brands sell to us promising us happiness, where anxiety is treated with drugs, where transhumanists dream of a future where we won't have to feel any negative emotions. For me, happiness is just one emotion, and other emotions should be equally as respected. I wish we would place more value on emotions such as melancholy, as for me they have always been present in my life and I think they need to be listened to more, rather than swept under the carpet or otherwise disregarded.

I should point out that this speculative project is aimed to create debate around the consequences of ranking nations according to happiness, rather than be seen as a reality of a future.

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FIlming through Blackburn. Image courtesy of Zoë Hough

Has anyone from Blackburn reacted to your project, either while you were there filming or later on?

I am very grateful to the residents of Blackburn who I met: they were all extremely friendly and very kind and patient while the filming was going on. Each film is a 3.5 minute continuous steadicam shot - doing rehearsals and then take after take through the back alleys and wasteland of Blackburn with the steadicam rig certainly attracted attention from local residents and a reporter from the local paper came down to find out what we were doing.

Although the data shows the residents of Blackburn as being amongst the least happy in the country, this was not my experience, which perhaps further highlights the difficulty of measuring happiness and adds to the debate as to what it is that we are really measuring.

Could you also remind me of the golf tournament in Newport story? and its impact on the happiness of the town?

Perhaps ironically, the ONS is based in Newport, which is one of the least happy places in the UK alongside Blackburn. So when I visited Newport I interviewed residents about their (lack of) Happiness. Time and time again I was told the story of how, when the owner of Celtic Manor (a golf course just outside Newport) wanted to bring the Ryder cup there, he lobbied to turn the town into a city. This new city status brought with it increased council rates and business taxes, which people could not afford. Coupled with a large retail park opening up outside the town, the town centre saw a decline in business and many of the residents attributed the unhappiness of the people of Newport to this event - one man wanting the Ryder Cup to come to his golf course.

Is the UK government taking measures at the moment to make the nation happier?

David Cameron introduced the measuring of Happiness, and government departments now consider happiness when making decisions. Recent data showed the UK to be in 22nd place in terms of happiness, but just this morning (19-june-14) new data shows that the UK is now ranked in 11th place - a jump of 11 places. I find these statistics fascinating and absurd in equal measure.

Are you planning to push the project any further?

This was the final project of my MA at RCA, and I will continue to work on design projects in this subject area.

Thanks Zoë!

You can check out the works at RCA Show 2014 until 29 June.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Mexican government partnered with British companies to built the railway line that would connect Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean. This iconic railway infrastructure now lies in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when it was decided that transporting people was simply not profitable enough. Many passenger train lines were thus cut off, the infrastructure was left to rot and communities became geographically and economically isolated as a consequence.

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in front of the volcano Yuhualixqui in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 interior of cabin in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, aka Los Ferronautas (from ferrocarriles which means railway in spanish), wanted to travel along the ruins of the passenger railway system and investigate the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.

But to drive around the rusty lines, they needed to build their own light vehicle. The result is a half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe). But SEFT-1 is much more than a vehicle. Los Ferronautas call it a research tool because it allows them to investigate notions and promises of progress. The vehicle is also a transmitter of non-eletronic stories, it enabled the duo to visit and interview communities which the privatization of the railway has been left behind.

As they traveled through the country in 2010 and 2011, the artists shared their discoveries online, mapping their trajectory, archiving objects found by the tracks, writing down anecdotes, uploading photos and interviews with the people they met along the way.

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Marte (Mars in english) is a half-abandoned village in Oaxaca, in the south east of México

I've been following the work of Los Ferronautas ever since i read an article about them in the always excellent blog Arte en la Edad del Silicio so i'm really happy that they finally have their first London exhibition, SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220, thanks to The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield Gallery.

The show opens tomorrow 20 June between 6 and 8pm and there's a tour of the exhibition with the artist on Saturday. The vehicle will be on show of course but there will be more:

For this new exhibition, the artists are inviting British expert model railway constructors to collaborate by creating scale reproductions of specific Mexican railway ruins, originally built by British companies, exactly as they are now. One gallery becomes a space for the process of model ruin construction. The room's walls will show the pictures, documents, plans and other materials used as reference for the meticulously elaborated ruin construction. With this action a dystopian time tunnel is created.

I'm really looking forward to discovering what Los Ferronautas will do in collaboration with the model makers. Already, they have reproduced in photo and using their own vehicle a scene painted by José María Velasco in 1881. During a presentation they gave on Saturday at a London LASER04 session, they announced that the whole landscape would be recreated by British model enthusiasts.

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over metal bridge in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

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José María Velasco, Bridge at Metlac, 1881

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe

More photos:

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Esperanza station in Puebla, was created thanks to train traffic. Its population reached up to 19000 inhabitants in its heyday. The town is now looking for ways to survive

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This lunar landscape is in fact set in the salt mine of Las Coloradas, Yucatán, in the south east of México

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Los ferronautas started they journey on 20 November 2010 in front of the Museo Nacional de Arte, in Mexico City

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A Baldwin locomotive from 1925 (image Los Ferronautas)

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in La Loma station, Durango in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in Telixtlahuaca in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

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van Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 with Citlaltépetl in the background No. 2 in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

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Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene SEFT-1 under the stars of Taviche in the exhibition SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe - Modern Ruins 1:220 presented by The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield, London June 2014

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220 is at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park from 20 June until 27 July 2014.


Guest exploring wind turbine in Q121. Image György Kőrössy

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Outside view of Q121. Image György Kőrössy

I know you're not supposed to ever be tired of London but if you feel like a change of atmosphere, there's some rather spectacular disused wind tunnels to gape at in Farnborough, a mere 35 minute train ride from Waterloo station.

The Wind Tunnel project filled with site-specific commissions two wind tunnels buildings, known as R52 and Q121, that were built to test planes, from Spitfires to Concorde. These buildings were decommissioned after the 1960s and have remained closed to the public ever since.

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A Bristol Bulldog TM, K3183 fitted with a Napier Rapier I engine, suspended in the 24ft Q121 wind tunnel, 1935. Photo courtesy of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust

Opened in 1935, Q121 is the largest wind tunnel in Great Britain. Inside, two gigantic holes face each other. One is a powerful fan with 600kg blades which would drag air fast and furious across the space between them to test complete planes and sections of bigger airplanes.

R52 was built in 1917. It is now an empty hangar but it used to house one of the world's earliest aerodynamic testing facilities.

Contemporary artworks by James Bridle and Thor McIntyre-Burnie explore the past of the buildings.

McIntyre-Burnie's sound pieces makes use of archive materials from the BBC to fill the impressive Q121.

The basis of his sound work is an outside recording made by the BBC of the song of a nightingale in 1942 in a garden in Surrey. It was a yearly broadcast since 1924 but this year, the microphone accidentally picked up the sound of RAF bombers flying overhead on their way to Germany. The program had to be interrupted, for fear it would have tipped off Germany about the upcoming bombing attack.

McIntyre-Burnie's new composition fills the wind tunnel. It doesn't try and compete with the impressive structure (that would be foolish.) In fact, it make the whole experience of going through the historical space even more awe-inspiring.

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In Q121

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In Q121


In Q121

One of Bridle's works, Rainbow Plane 001, also paid homage to the history of the site. The installation outlines the silhouette of a Miles M.52, an experimental supersonic aircraft developed in secret to break the sound barrier at Farnborough in the early 1940s.

The contour is shown as if distorted by the pansharpening effect of satellite photography, as if viewed, in flight, from space. There never was any original photography of that Miles M.52 in flight. First of all because, the aircraft never flew. It was a research project that was cancelled in 1946 even though its aerodynamics had been successfully demonstrated by a scale model. Besides, satellites don't take 'photos' of what lays below them. Instead, they use sensors to look down onto the earth and acquire information about its surface and atmosphere.

Rainbow Plane 001 is ducted tapped under the site's portable airship hangar. The structure was one of the 6 airship sheds in the UK at the outset of WWI and it probably isn't as 'portable' as its name suggests. It is estimated that it would take 50 men ten days to dismantle the structure, 7 to load it onto railway and 2 to 3 weeks to reassemble it.

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James Bridle, Rainbow Plane 001. Image György Kőrössy

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James Bridle, Rainbow Plane 001. Image György Kőrössy

The Wind Tunnel Project was organised by Artliner and curated by Salma Tuqan. I must say that the website of the project is one of the most frustratingly dysfunctional i've ever visited. Anyway, you can see the tunnels and artworks in Farnborough until the 20th of July. A shuttle service is helpfully available outside the Farnborough railway station.

More images from the wind tunnel (I also posted a photo set from the opening on flickr, if ever you're interested):

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Launching paper planes in R52

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Control room for wind turbine in R52. Image Shaun Jackson

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Control room for wind turbine in R52. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Support structure underneath R52 wind turnbine. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Inside R52 turbine. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Inside wind tunnel in R52. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Testing of fir tree root loads for the Forestry Commission in 1967. Image courtesy of FAST (Farnborough Air Sciences Trust) Museum

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Wind tunnels project Testing of the Short Belfast aircraft in 1968. Photograph: Courtesy of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust

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In R52

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In R52

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In R52

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In R52

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In Q121

I'm spending a couple of days in Lodz for the Photo Festival. Or rather, the Fotofestiwal. I haven't seen all the exhibitions yet but so far, so good. I've been particularly fascinated by Zhao Renhui's A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which has been selected for the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Fat polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay

The photo series attempts to document the ways in which the human species has altered the planet, and in particular other life forms.

The result of his research is a visually stripped back catalogue of curious creatures and life-forms. Some had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world. Others appeared as the results of direct human intervention, mutations engineered to serve purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation:

Remote-controlled coakroach, peanuts injected with the DNA of a lobster so that they will never go bad, medicinal eggs with extractable antibodies against cancer, caterpillar-killing cabbage carrying the gene responsible for producing the poison in scorpions, tomatoes that do not go bad, sugar cane engineered with human gene, the first tiger mosquito found in Norway, etc.

Zhao's work addresses man's relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes assumptions about the natural world are often shaped by institutions of authority and the media.

Quick selection, with comments copied/pasted from the project website:

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Blood bee

Every year, scientists report findings of bees being attracted to discarded soda cans, leftover drinks and various sweet things. This is due to the combined effect of a declining natural supply of nectar in the wild and the insect's possible craving for caffeine. In Singapore, a community of bees has been raiding a factory producing sodas of various colours. The red dye from a certain brand of soda remains in the bees' bodies even after they have processed their food into honey. Over time, it is found that the stomachs of these bees have turned red, changing from their usual orange amber hue. The honeycombs in the hives are also found to have turned into a shade of blood red.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Unbreakable egg

A company in Japan has developed a technique to create eggs that are so strong that they cannot be broken. The only way to access its contents is to puncture a hole in its shell with a pointed tool. The egg was created by adding the plant protein of a banyan tree to a chicken, thus creating an egg with a bark-like texture.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Non-genetically modified Corn showing an aura

Corn is the number one crop grown in the United States and about 88% of it is genetically modified. Although there is little evidence that these crops pose a threat to humans, scientists are still understanding the effects of genetic engineering on corn. Scientists recently discovered non-genetically modified corn emit chemicals when they are being attacked by pests. These chemicals, which signal wasps to attack pests, are not present in genetically modified corn. Through Kirlian photography, the aura of a non-genetically modified corn can still be seen.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, rhinoceros with no horns, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

A small population of white rhinoceroses in Africa has evolved to have horns so small that they are barely visible. Experts believe this could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns. The remaining rhinoceroses with smaller horns left to breed will eventually created a whole new hornless generation.

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Fake beef, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, 2013

It has recently been found in China that pork has been made to aesthetically look like beef. 'Beef colouring' and 'beef extracts' were added to pork to make it look and taste like beef.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, World Goldfish Queen

China organised the first International Goldfish Championships in Fuzhou in 2012. Over 3,000 goldfish from 14 countries competed for different titles including the World Goldfish Queen crown. Goldfish are judged by five criteria: breed, body shape, swimming gesture, colour and overall impression. The show stealer was a giant goldfish weighing around 4kg. The judges noted that not all goldfish can grow this big as factors such as breeding may affect size. Goldfish are bred out of generations of genetic mutations since the Jin Dynasty and their exact origins are unknown.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Wild flowerhorn

Flowerhorn cichlids are ornamental aquarium fish noted for their vivid colours and bulbous humped heads. A man-made hybrid, the flowerhorn was popular in Singapore in the late 1990s. When their popularity waned, owners released the fish into the local waters. Today, the fish thrive in large numbers in local reservoirs and waterways. Scientists have reported that the flowerhorn has taken on a different adaptation in recent years. The bulbous and round head it once had has given way to a sharp, flat and rounded disc. It is posited that the more streamlined form allows them to swim quickly away from predators.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Moon dust (ash belonging to 103 species of insects collected from a lamp cover)

Less than 4% of Singapore exists in total darkness after 10pm. Insects are attracted to artificial light sources, though no one knows exactly why. The insects are usually killed by exhaustion or through contact with the heat from lamps. After being incinerated, their bodies become a heap of ash, collected in the covers of street lamps. The ash, also referred to as 'moon dust', is used by scientists to study the ecological impact of light pollution on insects.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, square apple, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words 'pass' or 'success'. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Falcon that is an owl

Falcons are diurnal birds but have recently adapted to become nocturnal, like owls. Urban falcons have begun to use artificial illumination from street lamps and lit buildings to hunt for bats throughout the night.

Photo on the homepage: Remote-controlled cockroach., from the series, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world. More at The Institute of Critical Zoologists.

The Grand Prix Fotofestiwal is on view at ART_INKUBATOR in Lodz until 15 June, 2014.

The Sick Rose" Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, by academic medical historian Dr Richard Barnett.

Available on Amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher Thames and Hudson writes: The Sick Rose is a visual tour through the golden age of medical illustration. The nineteenth century experienced an explosion of epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria, driven by industrialization, urbanization and poor hygiene. In this pre-color-photography era, accurate images were relied upon to teach students and aid diagnosis. The best examples, featured here, are remarkable pieces of art that attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the body, and the successive onset of each affliction. Bizarre and captivating images, including close-up details and revealing cross-sections, make all too clear the fascinations of both doctors and artists of the time. Barnett illuminates the fears and obsessions of a society gripped by disease, yet slowly coming to understand and combat it. The age also saw the acceptance of vaccination and the germ theory, and notable diagrams that transformed public health, such as John Snow's cholera map and Florence Nightingale's pioneering histograms, are included and explained. Organized by disease, The Sick Rose ranges from little-known ailments now all but forgotten to the epidemics that shaped the modern age.

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The feet of an infant with hereditary syphilis, showing the skin covered in pustules. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The images in the book might not be to everyone's taste. They date back from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, a time when medicine was moving away from the principles of Hippocratic humoralism that saw the body as unified whole and starting to see disease as a form of specific physical disorder. It's no coincidence that in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley would imagine Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who subverted the integrity of the body and created his living creature by assembling parts originating from various human corpses.

The period also saw the beginning of the mass-production of books for the education of medicine students. The medical images these books contained were the result of a collaboration between several professions. Physicians, surgeons and anatomists would first secure, dissect and prepare bodies. Draughtsmen would then be called to reproduce the subject in great details and under the guidance of the medicine man. Finally, engravers would cut woodblocks or copper plates as mirror images of the illustration. The anatomical reality would thus have to be filtered by the minds, eyes and hands of subjective humans. That's without taking into account any further involvement of the printers and publishers.

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A 13-year-old boy with severe untreated leprosy. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Severe tubercular leprosy (or ichthyosis) of the hand. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The Sick Rose is a wonderful book. Not just because of the eye-catching illustrations but because Richard Barnett is a talented narrator. And the stories he tells are fascinating.

First of all, there is the origin of the corpses to dissect and portray. At first, they came from the gallows. Starting in 1752, the sentence for murder in English courts included indeed public dissection. Body snatchers would supply corpses of pregnant women and foetus and any extra cadaver if needed. The 1832 Anatomy Act, however, abolished the dissection of executed criminals but allowed anatomy schools to use the body of anyone who had died unclaimed in hospitals. Which means that it was no longer crime that lead you to the dissection table, it was poverty.

Then there are the stories that accompany each disease studied in the book. Leprosy, aka the "Imperial Danger", that reappeared in the 19th century when doctors and missionaries traveled to tropical colonies. Smallpox and how the first vaccine was successfully developed with the help of pretty milkmaids. Venereal diseases and syphilis in particular which was treated by injection or ingestion of mercury. Et cetera.

My favourite page in the book may well be page 246, aka "Places of Interest", a list of the pathology museums, anatomy museums, medical history centers and other public collections of all things bodily and gruesome. I'm definitely going to drop by some of those in the coming weeks.

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Left: The face of a male patient showing rupia, a severe encrusted rash associated with secondary syphillis. Right: A woman's face, affected with lesions of impetigo. Prince A. Morrow, Atlas of Skin and Venereal Diseases including a brief treatise on the pathology and treatment, London, 1898

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Left: A man with a large pendant hip tumour. Right: A man with a large pendant face tumour. Lam Qua

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A child with blisters and other lesions affecting the skin. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Diffused and spotted pulmonary apoplexy in a tubercular lung, drawn by Berhari Lal Das at the Medical College of Calcutta in 1906. Photograph: St Bartholomew's Hospital Archive

Views inside the book:

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The Guardian has a photo gallery.

Dr Richard Barnett will have a conversation with journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders about 'The Sick Rose' on June 19 at the Wellcome Collection.

Related story: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

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