Adjusting the contours of nature

Adjusting the contours of nature

Adjusting the contours of nature

An essay by Régine Debbaty

The aim of art is not to show how or why an effect is produced (that would be science) but literally to produce it.

If there is one thing that the exhibition Matter of Life demonstrates, it is that the bio art & design scene has grown in scope, ambition, means and recognition since i started blogging about all things weird and bioart over 10 years ago.

That is not to say that bio artists and designers aren’t still viewed with a certain dose of suspicion by the public. After all, they dabble with the most disquieting characteristic of life sciences: the power to unravel and recompose nature entirely. While most people have long accepted that our notions of life and of art are challenged every day through our interactions with digital technologies, we still need to come to terms with the revolutions that biotechnology is orchestrating at societal and individual levels. New advances in life sciences come hard and fast, they are wrapped into sophisticated terms and we seem to lack the insight, language, framework and opportunities to discuss the innovations that will deeply modify the world as we know and understand it.
With projects that are the results of hands-on experiments or of speculative brain-storming, designers and artists provide us with a space to reflect on scientific innovations which are often reduced to dry mentions in mainstream media. Some of their projects might puzzle us, others can downright offend or irritate. But as the works selected for this exhibition show, artistic works can also demystify the most complex innovations of life science by imbedding them into the familiar contexts of food, health, ecology, law or aesthetic pleasure:

Cobalt-60 is a highly radioactive material used in industrial radiography and medical radiotherapy. Its gamma rays are so powerful they can penetrate lead. After World War II, some plant scientists used Cobalt-60 to bombard seeds and young plants with radiation and scramble their genetic material in the hope that the process would produce profitable mutations . Any mutation that appeared to be beneficial was selected and stronger, healthier or tastier varieties of a given plant were produced. The practice has never been a secret, it has simply been forgotten by the public.

Although it yields the same promises as OGM (most crucially helping feed populations of the future), the radiation breeding process, its proponents claim, doesn't leave any residual radiation. It simply generates offsprings that exhibit new characteristics. Comparing the two methods, nanotechnology researcher Paige Johnson said "If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer."

Thousands of mutant crop varieties have been registered with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency . Even Europe, that fierce bastion of resistance to OGMs and anything that reeks even vaguely of frankenfood, has produced hundreds of mutant species. Many of these organisms still sit unassumingly on our supermarket shelves.

Center for Genomic Gastronomy | Cobalt 60 Sauce Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The Institute for Genomic Gastronomy has brought some of them together in the Cobalt 60 Sauce, a barbecue sauce made from five common mutation bred ingredients: the Rio Red Grapefruit, Milns Golden Promise Barley (a mutant variety used since 1967 by brewers in Ireland and Britain to make premium beer and whiskey), Todd’s Mitcham Peppermint (a disease-resistant strain of the peppermint plant, it is commonly used in products such as chewing gum and toothpaste), Calrose 76 Rice and Soy.

   By inserting an eerie and little known chapter of our technocratic society into the most mundane context, the one of a dinner between friends for example, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy not only makes us wrangle cultural dilemmas, it also reminds us that reality is stranger than fiction, stranger in fact than any bioart project.

The Earth is choking on the material. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle it four times and it will take between 500 and 1,000 years for it to degrade. 

Over the past few years, the media, health specialists and environmentalists have presented us with the perspective of feasting on insects . They are cheap, they are everywhere, packed with proteins and rich in iron and calcium. They are so nutritious that the larvae, caterpillars, grasshoppers and bugs that we've so far despised and attempted to exterminate might hold the key to our future global food supply. But what if they are not enough? Or what if, more prosaically, you are a vegan or vegetarian and the thought of ingesting another living being makes you weep? Is there any alternative to cockroaches pancakes? Julia Kaisinger and Katherina Unger believe they have found a possible answer in edible fungi that not only grow on plastics and other toxic materials, but can also convert them into edible biomass.

Julia Kaisinger & Katharina Unger | Fungi Mutarium (Growing Food on Toxic Waste) Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The system would not only provide the growing population with food but it could also help dispose of plastic waste, one of the most troublesome man-made environmental threats . The Earth is choking on the material. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle it four times and it will take between 500 and 1,000 years for it to degrade. The designers have thus worked with Professor Han Wösten of the chair of microbiology of Utrecht University, to come up with a technology that would use fungi to break down plastic waste and turn it into humus. The idea of turning trash into a fertile soil certainly sounds seducing and ecologically pertinent but equally fascinating is what will come next. Cricket bars are nowadays marketed to the paleo diet addicts and other health conscious urbanites looking for the new 'superfood'. Which discourse and marketing ploys will be invented to seduce the public and make them overcome the ick factor produced by the mere mention of the origins of this fungal biomass?

Shiho Fukuhara & Georg Tremmel, the founders of the artist collective BCL, have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. In 1995, a subdivision of Japanese beer and whiskey brewer Suntory genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and started selling it two years later under the name Moondust. The flower was the first genetically engineered consumer product that was launched on the market for aesthetic consumption only.

Ultimately, this elegant gesture of 'bio-piracy' raises questions such as ‘Can one company or individual claim ownership over nature?

BCL bought a bunch of these cut blue flowers and using everyday utensils as well as materials available in supermarkets and drugstores, they managed to clone them in their kitchen. And because the Moondust carnations were officially considered not harmful to animals and wildlife, the artists then proceeded to seed the clones into undisclosed location, creating a "Flower Commons", a free population of prospering blue flowers. The 'jail breaking' of the GM flowers was accompanied by a set of DIY Plant Tissue Culture instructions on their website inviting other people to do the same.
   By releasing a population of genetically modified and then cloned flowers into the wild, Flower Commons frees the plant from the control of patents and markets and allows it to join the natural selection process through cross-pollination and exposure to the elements.
   Ultimately, this elegant gesture of 'bio-piracy' raises questions such as ‘Can one company or individual claim ownership over nature?’ (A question that Monsanto has answered a long time ago without asking for anyone's opinion.) The work also highlights the mechanisms through which scientific research spills from laboratories to marketplace but, perhaps more importantly, it also stresses the need for the public to understand and react to capitalism's control and manipulation of the planet's biological patrimony. Whether we’re talking about blue roses or green-fluorescent cats , OGMs are a citizen issue, not a consumer after-thought.

Studio PSK | The Economics of Evolution: The Perfect Pigeon Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Using a swarm of birds for communication purposes nowadays can sound utterly anachronistic to say the least but the idea actually echoes the distrusts in computer hardware that is emerging in our age of NSA and WikiLeaks.

Using a swarm of birds for communication purposes nowadays can sound utterly anachronistic to say the least but the idea actually echoes the distrusts in computer hardware that is emerging in our age of NSA and WikiLeaks. The fear of losing control over data is such that last year Russia's agency responsible for the Kremlin security bought electric typewriters and "expanded the practice of creating paper documents" in a bid to prevent leaks from computer hardware .
By teaming up for this project with Professor Jan Komdeur and his team at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies of the University of Groningen, the designers of Studio PSK don't just comment on the ruthlessness of the pharmaceutical industry or ponder upon data piracy and mass surveillance program, they also question the right that man has given itself to shape the physical evolution of non-human animals, and substitute 'natural selection' with one that responds to purely economic requirements.

Last year, Charlotte Jarvis worked with stem cell technology scientists to create a series of ‘back-up’ parts of herself: beating heart cells, firing neurons and flowing blood vessels that were created from her own body but lived outside of it . The piece explored the possibilities of personalised medicine and how it might one day allow us to extend our lives. Her new work, ET IN ARCADIA EGO, on the other hand, is a poignant memento mori that reminds us of the flaws of our human existence and forces us to confront our most intimate fears and taboos.

For this work, the artist collaborates with Prof. Hans Clevers, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, to create a cancerous tumor grown from Jarvis' own cells. The tumor will be grown inside a laboratory and will eventually live in an incubator specially designed for gallery exhibition. Over the course of the accompanying performance, Jarvis will look after, nurture and confront the tumour.

If the idea wasn't disturbing enough, the artist chooses to explore gut cancer, following thus in the long line of artists who work with the scatological. The experience will no doubt involve discussing anuses, colonoscopy, bowels, faeces and other embarrassing topics with the press and the public.

Charlotte Jarvis | Et in Arcadia Ego Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

ET IN ARCADIA EGO aims to create a dialogue that eschews the tactful metaphors used to discuss the tumor. Instead, it will confront cancer, its symptoms and potentially deadly actions 'in the flesh.' The project also deepens the artist's investigation into how we build our identity as humans and how the latest advances in life science might change this perception in the future.

The line is the most essential vector of imagination and communication. Cave artists, contemporary graphic designers and children alike trace lines to give shape to and reproduce the complex world we inhabit. Neuroscience research reveals that each neuron in the primary visual cortex is highly specialized. Some of these neurons respond to contours - a line, a square, or a rectangle - and to lines with a specific orientation – vertical or horizontal. These orientation-selective cells are the physiological building blocks of the neural elaboration of forms and from there, of our representative model of reality.

The line is the most essential vector of imagination and communication. Cave artists, contemporary graphic designers and children alike trace lines to give shape to and reproduce the complex world we inhabit.

Jalila Essaidï's work A Simple Line not only brings us face to face with our neurological functioning, it also evokes the history of art and in particular the work of artists such as Piet Mondrian. In De Stijl, Mondrian was exploring a reduction of figures that decomposed nature and reduced it to its primal forms and colours .

A Simple Line pushes the perceptual purity even further by inviting us to consider a line that only exists inside our brain, as a concept so abstract it is now invisible. In this work, Essaïdi attempts to merge the abstract idea of a line with the most tangible reality by having a zebra finch look at its own brain cells. Contained into a glass incubator, theses cells are the ones responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line. Some scientist believe that the ability to abstract may have evolved as a response to the limitations of memory. A Simple Line, like most works of art before it, externalizes the functions of abstraction located at the center of our nervous system, prompting us to ask ourselves: Is the pattern of brain activity different when viewing abstract art as opposed to representational art? And is the capacity for abstraction an inherent part of life itself?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg | Invisible Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Heather Dewey­Hagborg gained fame a few years ago with Stranger Visions , a project in which she 3D-printed the portrait of unknown individuals based solely on the genetic material she picked up on the streets of Brooklyn: hair, freshly spat chewing-gum, cigarette butts, fingernails, etc. The work explored Forensic DNA phenotyping , a fairly new technology that allows for the identification of suspects based on traits such as skin, hair, and eye color, geographical ancestry, etc. Stranger Visions addressed the under-discussed impact that DNA profiling and biological surveillance will undoubtedly have on our privacy in the near future.
   To save us for any governmental or private genetic snooping, the artist has recently launched her own genetic privacy company: BioGenFutures. The company star products are a set of sprays that can be used to erase or obfuscate any genetic material a person inevitably leaves behind, ensuring thus that their identity is safe from anyone's attempt to scrutinize it.

A project like BioGenFutures reminds us of the central role that DNA 'fingerprinting' has taken over the years in the criminal justice systems. Unlike fingerprints ballistics, bite marks and fiber analysis which reliability are often questioned in courts, DNA fingerprinting is still regarded as the "gold standard" of forensic evidence. Yet, DNA is not the stronghold of objectivity and infallibility some would want us to believe. For a start, DNA evidence is a lot easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints and numerous cases (the trial of O.J. Simpson is perhaps the most illustrious example ) have demonstrated how easy it is to mishandle genetic material recovered at a crime scene. Furthermore, scientists from Tel Aviv have established in 2009 that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence. In fact, any biology undergraduate could engineer a whole crime scene should they want to.

Nothing says ‘biotech art’ more clearly than an outlandish premise that ends up teaching us valuable lessons about society and its values. Fatberg is one of those projects.

Incidentally, whether or not BioGenFutures and its set of DNA sanitizing sprays is a work of fiction, it has the potential to revolutionalize fiction itself. Think about it. What would a CSI episode look like if DNA tests where removed from its arsenal of crime-fighting technology?

Nothing says ‘biotech art’ more clearly than an outlandish premise that ends up teaching us valuable lessons about society and its values. Fatberg is one of those projects. The title of the work is surprisingly self-explanatory: Mike Thompson and Arne Hendriks are building an iceberg made of fat. It will float on water, make us recoil in horror and might eventually make us reconsider our mistrust of everything lipid.

Our culture tends to have a very narrow, one-sided perspective on fat. Fat is seen as repugnant, it clogs our arteries, it is responsible for an obesity epidemic that spiraled so much out of control that there are now more obese than hungry people on this planet . We have the duty to fight the fat!

Yet, fat is a molecule that is essential to life. Fat constitutes a very efficient way of storing the energy that will power us throughout the day. It is so potent that a power station in east London Fat will soon be using the oil and greasy build-ups in drains to generate 130 Gigawatt hours a year of renewable electricity - enough to run 39,000 homes . Surely, it is now time we reassess the place of fat in our (Western) society?

Špela Petri? | Naval Gazing Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

A cross breed between the Dutch windmill and the now equally iconic Strandbeest of Theo Janssen, the black silhouette of Naval Gazing slowly rolls over the water driven by current and wind.

Developed by the artist Špela Petri? in collaboration with The NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in Texel, Naval Gazing is a kinetic Kunst-Machine, an ‘habiton’ that invites living aquatic organisms to hook up to its structure and form an uncontrollable and ever growing biotope that travels along the North Sea. Over time, the colonization of the structure gives rise to a micro-ecology that thrives and eventually disrupts the architectural balance and the movements of the habiton until it stalls and sinks under the weight of the biomass it had so patiently collected along the way.

The project mirrors the battles fought by The Netherlands, a country that prospered throughout history by erecting dames, dykes and dunes to gain control over the looming threat of being submerged under the sea. The necessity of mastering the environment through innovative systems of flood protection is made more pressing than ever around the world due to accelerating rise of sea levels.

But as its fate demonstrates, Naval Gazing is not a utilitarian project. It is a work that reminds us of men's foolish attempts to discipline a violent and unpredictable element they do not fully understand. There is, after all, a reason why the ocean is the last frontier on Earth that man hasn't yet fully colonized and mastered.

The ease and maturity with which these nine projects dissect the challenges posed by the latest discoveries of science and explore the changing contours of life makes me believe that the day is near when we will see emerge the scenario that the late Stephen Wilson , an artist and theorist who has inspired many artists working with science, delineated in 2007: ‘I think it is cultural suicide for the arts not to pay attention to new developments in biology research. My hope is that gradually the importance of many of the art/science fields will be recognized and that it will become part of the mainstream expectations for artists to work in these fields. I joke with my students that the art supply store of the future will include sections for electronics and biology research supplies .’

Until that time comes, competitions such as the Bio Art and Design Award (the successor of the pioneering Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award) will testify to the many affinities that creativity cultivates with science.