Category Archives: bioart

Semina Aeternitatis: can you inscribe human nostalgia onto foreign DNA?

We, humans and connected objects alike, are producing data so rapidly that storage infrastructures can’t keep up and that some engineers are now looking at the potentials of nature’s most ancient way of preserving information: DNA. DNA digital data storage, the process of encoding and decoding binary data to and from synthesized DNA strands, holds the promise of putting huge amounts of information into tiny molecules. One can see the appeal: DNA is fairly easy to replicate, stable over millennia, far less resource-hungry (or so it seems) than traditional data centers and the technique of storage is getting increasingly cheaper.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Artist Margherita Pevere has also been experimenting with DNA storage. Her motivations, however, are less utilitarian and more poetical. But they are no less thought-provoking and exciting. One of her ongoing research projects, Semina Aeternitatis, uses DNA storage technique to archive a woman’s intimate experience from her youth into foreign life. Throughout the whole developing and exhibiting process, the artwork explores a series of questions related to wider issues of life, anthropocentrism and ecological crisis:

Can a living body carry the nostalgia of another living body? If you inscribe a human being’s childhood memory onto foreign DNA, will the resulting hybrid body help us understand the increasingly strained relationships between humans and the world they are only a small part of? Will the experiment give us a different, perhaps more compassionate, perspective on other forms of life, big or small, and on the ecological threats they are exposed to?

Pevere collaborated with bioscientist Mirela Alistar and the IEGT (the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research at University Rostock in Germany) to convert into genetic code a childhood memory of a woman who chose to remain anonymous. The genetic code was further synthesized into a plasmid which was then inserted into bacterial cells. The bacteria thus store the woman’s transient memory in their own bacterial body. Colonies of bacteria were then grown and cultured to create a large biofilm which, even after it had been sterilized, retains that childhood memory.

What drew me to the project is not just its ambition of keeping a personal recollection into DNA for a seemingly infinite amount of time, it’s also the aspect of the biofilm. With its flesh tones, wet and viscous surface, it evokes skin and other body matter. It’s disturbing, strangely enticing and makes it impossible to reduce the project to a purely artistic speculation.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Margherita Pevere is an artist and researcher whose practice combines scientific protocols and DIY inquiry with aesthetics and a rigorous questioning of the methods and materials she engages with. Semina Aeternitatis is part of her practice-based PhD research at Aalto University, Helsinki. The reason why i asked her to talk to us about her project is that it is part of Experiment Zukunft. This very interesting-looking exhibition, curated by Susanne Jaschko, brings artists, scientists, students and citizens together to imagine probable, possible and fictional futures.

Margherita was kind enough to find a moment to answer my many questions about the work:

Hi Margherita! You started the project Semina Aeternitatis in 2015. Is it an entirely new version you are showing at Experiment Zukunft? How does it build upon or simply differ from the earlier version?

The project has had a long process and the art piece exhibited in Experiment Zukunft evolved from the initial idea. The project started in 2015 with a performances series where I interviewed strangers about the memories they would like to preserve for eternity, with the aim to store such memories on bacterial DNA. The initial idea was to make a series of visual works made of microbial biofilm, but during the process the need for a different embodiment emerged. Hybridity is crucial in my practice and it is interwoven with a visceral fascination for anatomy and biological matter. I wanted to create a hybrid creature that could entwine human memories with bacterial inheritance. The piece called for more liveliness and performativity.

For Experiment Zukunft, I interviewed a lady from Rostock who shared with me a crucial childhood episode which had to do with a horse – I will tell you more about this later. The horse unexpectedly links the woman’s experience with my own. I collaborated with Dr. Mirela Alistar and the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research (IEGT). Dr Alistar developed an algorithm to translate the story of the lady’s memory into a DNA sequence. The latter was manufactured as a plasmid, a circular DNA molecule. At IEGT laboratory, we run all protocols to eventually introduce the plasmid by electroporation into the cells of biofilm-producing Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria. The bacteria is now carrying the memory story in their body.

Other artists have worked with DNA as a storage medium, think of the pioneering Microvenus by Joe Davis, or the recent Mezzanine release by Massive Attack. Semina Aeternitatis tackles the friction that arises from our understanding of DNA as a stable molecule, the potential to use this feature for long-term data storage, and the inherent process of becoming we – organic as well inorganic entities – are part of. On the one hand, there is an interplay of timescales I find artistically fertile. On the other hand, such friction may reveal politics and poetics of biological matter in post-human times.


K. rhaeticus microscopy, picture Dr. Alf Spitschak


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

I remember hearing Prof Nick Goldman talking about his pioneering work on DNA data storage a few years ago. At the time, the experiment was very costly and looked a bit outlandish. How affordable would DNA data storage be nowadays? As far you know, is this a form of data storage we could consider since the way we store our data nowadays is so energy-hungry?

DNA data storage is still considered a promising technology, although it is far from being error-free and recent research focuses on making it more reliable. However, I would point at an inherent contradiction I see in the narrative of many technologies that are considered “environmentally promising”.

Let’s agree DNA data storage will be more compact and efficient than hard drives. However, it does still require digital interface and the production of DNA still has to be optimised from an environmental point of view. My point here is that it can be more efficient, but it does not affect the system. We live in a system that is data based, where someone sells a huge lie called “the cloud” to someone who buys it, but the aspect I find most concerning is that such system is based on accumulation – one of the pillars of capitalism since its inception – and relies on fossil fuels.

Let’s assume technological development can help shrink our environmental footprint, but until the mantra of more consumption and production are valid without taking into consideration how process the fall-out … There’s a long way to go. Industry is currently about to launch foldable smart-phones, but there is still no solution to the immense dilemma of electrowaste. To be honest, and I am aware this might sound controversial, I wish there were dumps in every city, so people could see with their very eyes what technological materiality is about. I wish people could see black rivers in the parks, smell burning plastic and rotting metals, and relate this to the shiny surface of new laptops. Would that change anything?

To go back to your question, I can be fascinated by the storage and computing potential of molecules, but I think a more radical action is needed towards the environmental footprint of current technology.

I’m interested in the title of the project Semina Aeternitatis, which “is inspired by the human longing for eternity and the desire to permanently preserve memories and information.” In Latin, the title means “Seeds of eternity”. Which made me think about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and how it also carried this mission of eternal preservation. The project however seems to be threatened by climate change. Do you feel that this gives a new dimension to the work? At least to the way it can be interpreted since our ambitions of achieving eternity seem less and less credible and valid in these unstable times?

You to raise a relevant point here. I should mention first that I have been studying how humans impact the biosphere, including climate change, for 15 years. This has influenced both my own Weltanschauung as well as my work. We also should not forget that climate change has been out there for almost three decades, although its soaring urgency reached the news only in recent times. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 at what used to be considered a very stable spot, but, only a decade later, unforeseen permafrost melting challenges its stability.
Semina Aeternitaits means both “seeds of eternitiy” and “people of eternity”. This ambiguity addresses both the desire for permanence as well as anthropocentrism of Western culture: I was interested in understanding what link there may be between anthropocentrism, the Christian promise of afterlife, and the process of becoming. In the early phase of the research I considered different manifestations of the desire for permanence. I had long conversation with conservators of audio-visual media, contemporary artworks and ancient documents. I also explored the different approach between myself, a frank atheist, and some dear friends who have faith. Another phenomena I looked at is how Europe is still elaborating the inheritance of the 20th Century and the Holocaust, which came with the promise “Nie wieder!” (ENG: Never again!). Today, the founding values of the society built upon such promise are collapsing before our very eyes.

Again, there is an interplay of temporalities here. We can perceive better if we move away from our everyday temporality, whose fast pace is set by being ever-connected. Climate change introduces an event horizon in such interplay of temporalities, it somehow fractures it.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Could you tell us about your collaboration with Dr. Mirela Alistar? And did her own background and perspective influence or illuminate the final work and its development in any way?

I met Dr Alistar through the Berlin biohacking scene a few years ago and we have been in touch since then. Next to her academic research in computer science and microfluidics, she cultivates a vivid interest for biological systems and art and is one of the founder of the first citizen lab in Berlin, Top Lab. We have been discussing the project together since a couple of years and she officially joined it in 2018.

Her contribution has been multifaceted and deep. She did not only develop the algorithm to convert the text into DNA sequence, but we also shared important parts of the research and had real fun during the hands-on part in the laboratory. Dr Alistar has an extraordinary mind and is immensely curious, which triggers my imagination. But I think she also helped me find the right thread when I was feeling lost. I really look forward towards what will come out from her laboratory at CU Boulder, where she is starting her professorship next fall.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

If the online translating service and I understood correctly the description of the work, the childhood memory of a Rostock woman was stored into a DNA sequence. It was then inserted into the cells of a bacterial strain. The bacteria, which carried the memory, were then cultivated to produce a large piece of cellulose film. This cellulose film looks quite lively and disturbingly organic. Aesthetically, it is miles away from the cold, clean and hygienic aesthetics of the data center that store our digital communication. Could you explain us why you decided to work with this cellulose (you could have stored the information inside a test tube for example)? Does it evolve, change over time?

You both understood correctly. Once we obtained the “memory” plasmid, we ran a series of procedures to combine it with the proper plasmid backbone for the target bacteria K. rhaeticus. We used consolidated scientific protocols, for each step one has to insert the desired molecule into E. coli, grow overnight to amplify it, extract it, run chemical reactions to combine the molecules in the desired way, and so on. Researchers at IEGT laboratory helped us a lot in this process. Eventually, we introduced the plasmid by electroporation into K. rhaeticus bacteria and cultivated the latter to obtain microbial cellulose. The scientific laboratory is a highly controlled environment, where bacteria are mostly perceived as tools and not as living entities.

The ambiguous biotech body of the chimeric creature diverges from the aesthetics usually associated with bioinformatics as to spur the reflection on politics of body and nature. Biological matter is inherently leaky and unstable. There is an inherent ambiguity in the materiality of microbial cellulose. Its resemblance to flesh may trigger abjection, or, conversely, uncanny intimacy. The biofilm in the exhibition has been sterilized and will retain its wet materiality through a controlled environment in the diorama, although it may change over time.

Now that you make me think about it, I also have made back-up tubes containing the molecule for IEGT and Biofilia Laboratory at Aalto University (where I am PhD candidate): such vials are in cold, clean, hygienic environment for archival purposes. But the audience will probably never see them.

Could you also tell us a few words about the lady whose memory will be preserved in this piece of cellulose? Why was it important for you to focus on nostalgic memories?

Thanks to the research of curator Susanne Jaschko, I could interviewed a lady who, in a unique way, positively influenced the life of many people in the region. She asked not to release her identity, so I can’t tell you more details about her. What I can tell you is that she is now in her eighties and is a wonderfully passionate, bright, and determined person. She was eager to understand the process in Semina Aeternitatis and was enthusiastic about the exhibition. I was struck by her strength and charme. I wish can be a bit like her when I grow older!

The lady’s childhood memory, which survives in Semina Aeternitatis, goes back to a formative experience. As a five-year-old, the lady was sent home from the field for the first time unaccompanied and on a workhorse. After the first shock, the horse’s reliability, stamina and equanimity became a life lesson that made her the strong person today: “Trot (through life) like a mare”. The lady paid big attention to pick a memory that was not transformed by further reworking, a sort of primal memory, and it was the first time she shared such episode with someone. She narrated it with beautifully chosen words and vivid awareness of how her experience as a girl entangled with the context and her adult life. It’s a great narrative fabric.

As I mentioned earlier, the lady’s memory somehow overlaps with my own individual experience. I grew up in a semi-rural context, so I am familiar with the one she describes. However, the horse is the strongest link. My horses were companions and not work animals, which makes a difference. But I know so well the moment where you learn to trust the animal, the way the animal knows its surrounding and the way it goes its own way no matter what. However, as any relationship, transpecies relationships may also involve trauma. On my left check there is a scar from one of my horses, who involuntarily kicked me in the face. I knew him well and it was an accident, but I had to be determined to overcome fear. I am attracted to scars and this particular one is now part my individual landscape. While preparing the horse skull for the exhibition, I realized that the delicate frontal crests on the skull have the same curve as the scar on my cheek.

Going back to your question, Semina Aeternitatis is about temporalities, materiality, and erosion. Individual memories’ nostalgic lure counters techno-feticism and their evanescence connects different temporalities trough a sense of longing, they manifest desire and vulnerability. They create a space for encounter.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Fritz Beise


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

What can people see in Rostock. How are you showing and communicating the project there?

Semina Aeternitatis is an artistic research project and the exhibited art piece is a final manifestation of an articulated research process. It was important to give access to the complexity behind it.

The art piece features a diorama hosting a chimeric creature whose bodily elements grow onto each other in a very organic way. In the diorama, a controlled environment keeps the biofilm moist and creates a feeling of liveliness, while condensation gives a sense of processuality
Next to it, a 3m long table displays research materials including excerpts from laboratory journal, working notes, pictures, drawings, to provide the audience with insights into the artistic and scientific research process.

On April 30th I will join artists Sascha Pohflepp und Antye Guenther and scientists from the Rostock University for a panel with the title “Hybrider Mensch” (Hybrid human).

Thanks Margherita!

You’ve got until 5 May 2019 to see Semina Aeternitatis at Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany. The works is part of Experiment Zukunft, a show curated by Susanne Jaschko.

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

Extremophiles are organisms that can withstand such unforgiving conditions that they’ve survived every mass extinction on earth and are expected to be the first sort of extraterrestrial life space explorers might discover one day.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Geothermal hotspring, Iceland 2016. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

What designer and artist Xandra van der Eijk found fascinating about these tiny and simple organisms is not just their remarkable sturdiness but the fact that they modify their colour when their environment change.

In her research project Genesis, the designer studied their color properties. First she traveled to Iceland and France where she sampled fluids from volcanic hot springs and high saline ponds and isolated strains that produce pigments. She then collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen, to understand and eventually influence the pigment production of the microbes, inducing color change over time. “With Genesis, Xandra is hacking the origin of life, ultimately questioning who is in control.”

I discovered the work of van der Eijk a few months ago when she exhibited As Above, So Below at the Artefact festival in Leuven, Belgium. The research project explored the possibility to “crowdmine” stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals.

I caught up with the designer and artist to talk about space mining without going to space and about controlling or being controlled by microorganisms. If you’re curious about her experiments with colour-changing extremophiles, check out her installation at the Science Gallery in Dublin where it is part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate our future on a planet exposed to increasingly unstable environmental conditions. In the meantime, here’s what our little Q&A looked like:


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions.

Hi Xandra! For Genesis, you took samples from volcanic hot springs. They contained extremophiles, ancient micro-organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and also produce pigments. I found it fascinating that these tiny creatures produce pigments. Could you tell us about the kind of pigment they produce and how they make it?

I think ‘how’ they make it is a big mystery still, but these specific organisms have developed the production of pigments as a sort of defense mechanism to sunlight. The UV can get really intense, and the pigments are like sunscreen to them!

Why did you want to manipulate the color of these microbes?

First I wanted to show their mere existence and tell their story to the public. The organisms are so small, they can only be seen under the microscope. The fact that they produce color brought me to the idea that their existence would become visible through cultivating large numbers. In my projects I research the interrelation between the subject and myself, myself being a standing for human kind. I found an organism that would change color depending on specific circumstances, and I was curious if I could manipulate this metamorphosis.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

And how did you change their colour? Could you describe the work process and explain the kind of techniques and technology you used to do so?

I have no biology background, so I sought help to understand the ways of the extremophiles and well, microbiology in general. I found it at WAAG Society, where a bunch of great people were willing to show me the ropes. Together with Federico Muffatto I set up a series of experiments trying to isolate and cultivate certain species. And later on with Arnold Driessen of Groningen University I set out another series of experiments figuring out the exact parameters needed for color change. Different organisms produce pigments reacting to different parameters, so it’s hard to give one conclusive answer. But in general, the extremophiles have an ideal environment for growth, and when something in this environment changes, they may react in color change. Think about changes in water temperature, UV intensity or salinity.

Do you think that since they are able to survive or even thrive under extreme conditions, extremophiles could teach humans a thing or two about surviving in increasingly unfavourable environments?

Maybe! For now I am mostly admiring these tiny organisms that can do something we can’t. But who knows what we can learn and adapt from them by studying their behavior. I think it is a very interesting and promising field of research.

For this work, you collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen. Could you tell us about this collaboration and in particular how his feedback guided your own work?

And conversely, what you think he might have maybe gained from your artistic perspective on molecular biology? (i can rephrase that one if you think it’s a bit clumsy or too narrow a question)

My experience with Arnold so far has been very positive. There is a very open attitude in the overall collaboration from both sides. The reason why we collaborate is because he leads a research group focused on extremophiles, so we have a strong mutual interest. It has been truly great to find someone so knowledgeable about the subject, it gives my research a clear outline of what is possible and what isn’t, and what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s too early to say anything about what the project might mean for his own research, but I am lucky that Arnold sees the added value of art in general. He is even somewhat of an artist himself, he takes amazing wildlife photographs!

Why did you call the work “Genesis”? How does the work relate to the Biblical description of the origin of the earth?

It is called that way because we believe extremophiles to be one of the earliest lifeforms on earth, perhaps even the very first — maybe they even traveled here as aliens from outer space. The piece is about who is in control: human or microbe. In that sense I like the biblical reference. In many ways these extremophiles are superior to us. And it’s no secret that microbes control our decision making process…


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

I’m still hoping i can catch the exhibition Life at the Edges at the Science Gallery in Dublin but so far i haven’t found the time to travel and visit it. How do you exhibit the work there? What does the installation look like and how does it communicate its meaning?

The exhibition shows the very first step towards a more developed artwork. Working with living material in an exhibition environment is really hard, especially if you are not looking for a lab-setup. I wanted to recreate the manmade landscape of the salt harvesting area’s where I took samples from, as it is a beautiful and rare example of how man and nature can work together and both profit from it. It is one of the eldest manmade landscapes in history, and the process hasn’t changed much over time. Basically we still harvest salt like the Romans did — creating a large biodiversity in the pools. At the Science Gallery I show a grid of nine square glass containers, all with partly filled with the same extremophiles, but in different circumstances. After setting the parameters, the containers are left alone and the organisms show their response towards the parameters in colors and patterns.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

I’d like also to ask you something about another of your work As Above, So Below. I love that one. It’s both charming and very smart. The work is a research into crowdmining stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals. For the work, you collaborated with Kirstie van Noort to harvest stardust from the urban environment. How did you identify and collect stardust? How difficult is it to then extract the micrometeorite particles?

It is actually an urban myth, collecting stardust on the streets and from the roofs. The first amateur scientist who really proved their existence was Jon Larsen, and he has fought hard and long for the recognition of their existence. We were inspired by his work and took the idea one step further: what if we would collectively take the effort to collect stardust — what kind of materials would we find and could they form a new resource of precious metals? We took to the roof and the streets, collected a lot of dirt basically, and dried it out. From the dust we sorted small spherical particles and examined them under the microscope. We do not claim we found any, although the project shows a selection of specimens that might be, and one we are quite sure of. But we still need to find a university who would be willing to collaborate with us and find out about what we found. In the end, I guess we were most surprised by how much you can find in your own backyard, whether it’s from outer space or not.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

Could this practice become, over time, a viable alternative to traditional raw materials dug up from the earth at great ecological costs or mined in space?

I don’t see it as a replacement for large deposits of earths metals and minerals, rather as a possible resource for small quantities of precious metals, and perhaps even of materials that we don’t know yet. Who knows what role they could play in our technology, where sometimes only very small quantities are needed due to very specific characteristics of a metal or mineral.

What is next for you? Any upcoming event, fields of research or project you would like to share with us?

I presented a whole new research into chemical dumping called Future Remnants in April, which I am still working on and presenting a lot. It’s been nominated for the New Material Award. I am already working on something new that will be presented at Dutch Invertuals in October and of course I will continue my research with Groningen University. Many other nice things ahead, it’s a crazy rollercoaster of a life that I am enjoying a lot!

Thanks Xandra!

Genesis is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin.

Also part of the show: Drosophila Titanus by Andy Gracie.

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

In 2011, artist Andy Gracie set himself the task of using patient breeding and artificial selection to develop a new species of fruit flies that would be able to live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is not the most hospitable resort for us Earth-bound creatures. It’s a very dark and very cold (−179.2 °C) place, its surface lacks stable liquid water, its gravity is a bit weaker than the gravity of Earth’s moon, etc. On the other hand, the celestial body has an atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity, some sort of landscape with lakes and dunes as well as other features that make Titan one of the least hostile places for humans in the outer solar system.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Gracie’s experimental breeding programme aims thus to gradually recreate, in an enclosed habitat, the atmospheric conditions found on Titan and make sure that the common fly would slowly acclimate to it. The insects that would emerge from the experiment would be a new species he calls Drosophila Titanus. The artist recreated the atmospheric conditions found on Titan by combining a DIY and hacking approach with a rigorous scientific methodology.

The project Drosophila Titanus belongs to a long tradition of sending flies into space. In fact, they were the first animals sent into space back in 1947 when the U.S.-launched a German V-2 ballistic missile loaded with fruit flies 109 kilometers away from the surface of the earth. The insects came back alive. Since then, they’ve been regularly propelled into space along with plants, rats and other biological organisms. The reason why fruit flies are popular guinea pigs in space and in labs is that they share a lot with us in terms of genetic makeup.

The project is of course impossible to achieve in a human life time but Gracie had planned to work on it for the rest of his life to see how far the experiment would lead him. Unfortunately, the fly population recently went through an environmental disaster, its population crashed and the experiment ended with a few sad corpses of flies.

Drosophila titanus remains a fascinating work and if you’re curious to know more about it, you could run to the always exciting Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions. Or, if you can’t make it to Dublin, here’s an interview with the artist:


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011. Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Hi Andy! Your experiment involves creating flies that could survive on Titan. I understand that Titan is incredibly cold so the flies have to gradually get used to the very low temperatures but what would be the impact of Titan’s orange sky and the low frequency radiowaves that emanate from Titan on their bodies? And how do you prepare them for that?

The project involved adapting the flies for a range of environmental conditions that are very different to those found on Earth. The cold is the most obvious along with the different atmospheric composition. There is also increased atmospheric pressure, radiation, chromatic characteristics and so on. To reach what could be conceived as the end of the project I would need to condition the flies for all of the characteristics of Titan.

The radio waves experiment has been earmarked for a future stage in the project so I haven’t got too much to say about that right now. However, the chromatic adjustment has been something I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. The natural phototaxis of Drosophila – its instinct to move towards a certain type of light – is geared towards the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum. To overcome this I kept the flies for a year under a Titan analog orange light before testing for adaptation. The selection experiment was modelled on a Y-Trap apparatus, a simple way of offering an organism two choices. The flies crawl up a tube and are faced with a junction offering orange light in one direction and blue light in the other, each tube ending with another non-return trap. Any flies taking the orange option are considered adapted and kept for breeding. Repeated iterations of the project smooth out random events.

You’ve been breeding fruit flies for 6 or 7 years now. Are the changes in the insects already visible? Is anything already perceptible?

Due to the lower temperatures I’ve noticed that their life cycle is longer, which is to say that they mature and reproduce more slowly. The cycle defined by hatching to sexual maturity is 11 to 12 days at an optimum temperature of around 22 celsius. My flies which were living constantly at 15 celsius were taking almost twice as long and also living longer. In the above mentioned chromatic adjustment experiment I was also seeing some flies beginning to choose the orange route. Physiological changes are much harder to see, and I expect it would take several more years and increased adaptations and selections to see anything. The 57 year experiment by the late Dr. Syuichi Mori of Kyoto University and his team was also an inspiration to me in this respect.

And if you were to release the flies in the wild now, would they adjust easily to the outside conditions? Or are they already doomed and unfit to survive on Earth?

I think they would have no problem. Despite 7 years of conditioning and breeding my drosophila were still much much more Earth flies than Titan flies. Their tendency for genetic drift back to what is called wild-type (denoted the natural state of an organism or the prevalent phenotype) is also a factor. If the population remained isolated they would re-adapt to total Earth conditions fairly quickly, otherwise cross-breeding would wipe out any genetic variation in the drosophila titanus.

Bearing in mind one of the subtexts of the project, surviving on Earth might actually be the same as being doomed anyway.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Could you describe your homemade Titan simulation chamber? Has its configuration and equipment changed since the start of the project?

The chamber is an apparatus that has evolved over time as the project has developed. I’m not a great forward planner so the device adapted as I had new ideas or as new necessities presented themselves. The first consideration was being able to make it cold, then to add LEDs that would simulate the Titan lighting conditions. I was lately developing seals that would allow the internal pressure to be increased in order to begin the atmospheric pressure experiment. Future experiments would probably have demanded the fabrication of an entirely new device.

Outside of the main simulator I also made the gravitational realignment torus, it being impractical to rotate the main apparatus. This device did not have a cooling system so gravitaxis experiments had to take place in the winter with the heating off.

A large part of the project for me was drawing from my background in DIY culture – how to improvise experimental apparatus outside of a laboratory or research facility. I was interested in how subtle adjustments of everyday objects and situations can provide conditions that are not typically terrestrial.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

In an interview you gave about the work in 2011, you explain “It originally started out as an artistic project, but I am also interested in how I can run a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process. This means every artistic decision I make has to be accompanied by a rigour check.” How do you verify the scientific rigour of the experiment?

I’ve always been interested in making art that closely follows scientific procedure and Drosophila Titanus is probably the furthest I’ve taken this methodology. The project is purely artistic but without the scientific rigour it would become just a frivolous exercise.

I attempted to be as rigorous as possible by maintaining a control culture alongside my experimental flies, by keeping a lab journal outlining every procedure that took place, by carefully designing experiments according to verified information, by striving to iron out random fluctuations through repeated selection processes. And so on. The corner of my studio that was dedicated to this project was set up to resemble a standard fly lab as much as possible.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Why did you decide to take the scientific process approach? What does it bring to the artistic dimension of the project? How do you manage to still do art and not just a scientific experiment?

As I mentioned, I am interested in what happens when you make an art project by following scientific protocol. Its a way of examining the notion that art and science are both ways of asking questions about nature and devising experiments to see if your hypothesis have any foundation or are cause for further thought.

To push this idea a little further I wanted to make a project that was framed as a scientific experiment and that closely followed a scientific methodology but that had an aim that was patently unscientific. It’s a ridiculous idea to try and breed a new species of drosophila suitable for living on Titan, but if you begin to carry out a serious experiment with the aim of getting there then you get into some interesting and provocative epistemological territory.

By tying together artistic and scientific methodologies I was looking for the ‘breaking point’, a hypothetical locus where what we call art and what we call science become unable to continue sharing practical and ontological space. I think that in this point we discover some very interesting things about how and why we seek new knowledge.

How much do you have to tend to the flies? Do they need a lot of time and attention? Now you’re on holiday are they taking care of themselves?

Regular maintenance is relatively easy. They just need to be ‘passaged’ – a practice of refreshing culture vessel and nutrient medium – every 3 to 4 weeks. This involves cooking up some new medium, sterilising some new culture pots and moving healthy adult flies from the old pots to the new ones. If I was at an experiment or selection point then this process would obviously become more complex. However, the bulk of the 7 years of the project was the flies sitting in their environment slowly getting used to new conditions, eating and mating. And dying.

The question about maintenance and holidays brings me to the point where I have to say that, as of the summer of 2017, the project is officially terminated. While absent from the Barcelona studio for a month the cooling system failed and 99% of the flies perished in the stifling summer temperatures. I was unable to revive stocks from the few survivors. It was fairly apocalyptic.

Faced with the choice of starting again from square one, or declaring the project over having achieved certain aims I decided on the latter. I have the bodies of last 10 flies preserved in alcohol and will probably make a commemorative piece with them. That will be the official end of the line and I can finally spend more time on other works. Actively maintaining a project for several years was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

It seems likely that large parts of the Earth will be barely inhabitable before the end of the century. Would it make more sense to try and change our own metabolism (maybe through more brutal adjustments than the ones you’re submitting the flies to) or to pack our bags and move to Mars?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are informing a body of current work I’m developing so its something I dwell on to a deeper extent even than when I was doing the post-terrestrial works. To be honest, I think we’re screwed either way. Colonising Mars is the romantic dream of SciFi aficionados and tech-god fanboys and fangirls. The reality is that it would be a chosen few eking out a fairly grim existence that would be barely better, if at all, than a ravaged Earth.

Altering our own physiology could be possible. I’m not totally up to speed with CRISPR but I understand that it could offer radical changes to the human genome in a very short time. As artificial selection of human traits could be even more ethically treacherous and a much slower process it might be seen by some as a solution. But do we really want to go there?

Do you think that at the end of the experiment, the flies will it still be Drosophila melanogaster? Or will you have created a new species of fly?

The claim I made at the beginning of the project was that I was going to develop a new species of Drosophila which would be called Drosophila titanus. To be able to make this claim I would need to test whether speciation had actually happened. Speciation is a broad and complex biological issue, with a range of forms and pathways, and of course some hotly contested definitions.

The standard test would be to check whether Mayr‘s textbook definition is valid, that the two groups are unable to reproduce. If my experimental flies were unable to produce fertile offspring with the control flies then I could claim a new species. However, I would also be interested to check whether I have achieved any of the other species descriptions such as typological, ecological or genetic. I’m completely convinced that it would be achievable and that Drosophila titanus would be listed among the official taxonomies.

The argument about what constitutes a species was another of the sub-narratives of the work.

Thanks Andy!


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Drosophila Titanus is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

In 2011, artist Andy Gracie set himself the task of using patient breeding and artificial selection to develop a new species of fruit flies that would be able to live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is not the most hospitable resort for us Earth-bound creatures. It’s a very dark and very cold (−179.2 °C) place, its surface lacks stable liquid water, its gravity is a bit weaker than the gravity of Earth’s moon, etc. On the other hand, the celestial body has an atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity, some sort of landscape with lakes and dunes as well as other features that make Titan one of the least hostile places for humans in the outer solar system.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Gracie’s experimental breeding programme aims thus to gradually recreate, in an enclosed habitat, the atmospheric conditions found on Titan and make sure that the common fly would slowly acclimate to it. The insects that would emerge from the experiment would be a new species he calls Drosophila Titanus. The artist recreated the atmospheric conditions found on Titan by combining a DIY and hacking approach with a rigorous scientific methodology.

The project Drosophila Titanus belongs to a long tradition of sending flies into space. In fact, they were the first animals sent into space back in 1947 when the U.S.-launched a German V-2 ballistic missile loaded with fruit flies 109 kilometers away from the surface of the earth. The insects came back alive. Since then, they’ve been regularly propelled into space along with plants, rats and other biological organisms. The reason why fruit flies are popular guinea pigs in space and in labs is that they share a lot with us in terms of genetic makeup.

The project is of course impossible to achieve in a human life time but Gracie had planned to work on it for the rest of his life to see how far the experiment would lead him. Unfortunately, the fly population recently went through an environmental disaster, its population crashed and the experiment ended with a few sad corpses of flies.

Drosophila titanus remains a fascinating work and if you’re curious to know more about it, you could run to the always exciting Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions. Or, if you can’t make it to Dublin, here’s an interview with the artist:


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011. Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Hi Andy! Your experiment involves creating flies that could survive on Titan. I understand that Titan is incredibly cold so the flies have to gradually get used to the very low temperatures but what would be the impact of Titan’s orange sky and the low frequency radiowaves that emanate from Titan on their bodies? And how do you prepare them for that?

The project involved adapting the flies for a range of environmental conditions that are very different to those found on Earth. The cold is the most obvious along with the different atmospheric composition. There is also increased atmospheric pressure, radiation, chromatic characteristics and so on. To reach what could be conceived as the end of the project I would need to condition the flies for all of the characteristics of Titan.

The radio waves experiment has been earmarked for a future stage in the project so I haven’t got too much to say about that right now. However, the chromatic adjustment has been something I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. The natural phototaxis of Drosophila – its instinct to move towards a certain type of light – is geared towards the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum. To overcome this I kept the flies for a year under a Titan analog orange light before testing for adaptation. The selection experiment was modelled on a Y-Trap apparatus, a simple way of offering an organism two choices. The flies crawl up a tube and are faced with a junction offering orange light in one direction and blue light in the other, each tube ending with another non-return trap. Any flies taking the orange option are considered adapted and kept for breeding. Repeated iterations of the project smooth out random events.

You’ve been breeding fruit flies for 6 or 7 years now. Are the changes in the insects already visible? Is anything already perceptible?

Due to the lower temperatures I’ve noticed that their life cycle is longer, which is to say that they mature and reproduce more slowly. The cycle defined by hatching to sexual maturity is 11 to 12 days at an optimum temperature of around 22 celsius. My flies which were living constantly at 15 celsius were taking almost twice as long and also living longer. In the above mentioned chromatic adjustment experiment I was also seeing some flies beginning to choose the orange route. Physiological changes are much harder to see, and I expect it would take several more years and increased adaptations and selections to see anything. The 57 year experiment by the late Dr. Syuichi Mori of Kyoto University and his team was also an inspiration to me in this respect.

And if you were to release the flies in the wild now, would they adjust easily to the outside conditions? Or are they already doomed and unfit to survive on Earth?

I think they would have no problem. Despite 7 years of conditioning and breeding my drosophila were still much much more Earth flies than Titan flies. Their tendency for genetic drift back to what is called wild-type (denoted the natural state of an organism or the prevalent phenotype) is also a factor. If the population remained isolated they would re-adapt to total Earth conditions fairly quickly, otherwise cross-breeding would wipe out any genetic variation in the drosophila titanus.

Bearing in mind one of the subtexts of the project, surviving on Earth might actually be the same as being doomed anyway.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Could you describe your homemade Titan simulation chamber? Has its configuration and equipment changed since the start of the project?

The chamber is an apparatus that has evolved over time as the project has developed. I’m not a great forward planner so the device adapted as I had new ideas or as new necessities presented themselves. The first consideration was being able to make it cold, then to add LEDs that would simulate the Titan lighting conditions. I was lately developing seals that would allow the internal pressure to be increased in order to begin the atmospheric pressure experiment. Future experiments would probably have demanded the fabrication of an entirely new device.

Outside of the main simulator I also made the gravitational realignment torus, it being impractical to rotate the main apparatus. This device did not have a cooling system so gravitaxis experiments had to take place in the winter with the heating off.

A large part of the project for me was drawing from my background in DIY culture – how to improvise experimental apparatus outside of a laboratory or research facility. I was interested in how subtle adjustments of everyday objects and situations can provide conditions that are not typically terrestrial.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

In an interview you gave about the work in 2011, you explain “It originally started out as an artistic project, but I am also interested in how I can run a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process. This means every artistic decision I make has to be accompanied by a rigour check.” How do you verify the scientific rigour of the experiment?

I’ve always been interested in making art that closely follows scientific procedure and Drosophila Titanus is probably the furthest I’ve taken this methodology. The project is purely artistic but without the scientific rigour it would become just a frivolous exercise.

I attempted to be as rigorous as possible by maintaining a control culture alongside my experimental flies, by keeping a lab journal outlining every procedure that took place, by carefully designing experiments according to verified information, by striving to iron out random fluctuations through repeated selection processes. And so on. The corner of my studio that was dedicated to this project was set up to resemble a standard fly lab as much as possible.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Why did you decide to take the scientific process approach? What does it bring to the artistic dimension of the project? How do you manage to still do art and not just a scientific experiment?

As I mentioned, I am interested in what happens when you make an art project by following scientific protocol. Its a way of examining the notion that art and science are both ways of asking questions about nature and devising experiments to see if your hypothesis have any foundation or are cause for further thought.

To push this idea a little further I wanted to make a project that was framed as a scientific experiment and that closely followed a scientific methodology but that had an aim that was patently unscientific. It’s a ridiculous idea to try and breed a new species of drosophila suitable for living on Titan, but if you begin to carry out a serious experiment with the aim of getting there then you get into some interesting and provocative epistemological territory.

By tying together artistic and scientific methodologies I was looking for the ‘breaking point’, a hypothetical locus where what we call art and what we call science become unable to continue sharing practical and ontological space. I think that in this point we discover some very interesting things about how and why we seek new knowledge.

How much do you have to tend to the flies? Do they need a lot of time and attention? Now you’re on holiday are they taking care of themselves?

Regular maintenance is relatively easy. They just need to be ‘passaged’ – a practice of refreshing culture vessel and nutrient medium – every 3 to 4 weeks. This involves cooking up some new medium, sterilising some new culture pots and moving healthy adult flies from the old pots to the new ones. If I was at an experiment or selection point then this process would obviously become more complex. However, the bulk of the 7 years of the project was the flies sitting in their environment slowly getting used to new conditions, eating and mating. And dying.

The question about maintenance and holidays brings me to the point where I have to say that, as of the summer of 2017, the project is officially terminated. While absent from the Barcelona studio for a month the cooling system failed and 99% of the flies perished in the stifling summer temperatures. I was unable to revive stocks from the few survivors. It was fairly apocalyptic.

Faced with the choice of starting again from square one, or declaring the project over having achieved certain aims I decided on the latter. I have the bodies of last 10 flies preserved in alcohol and will probably make a commemorative piece with them. That will be the official end of the line and I can finally spend more time on other works. Actively maintaining a project for several years was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

It seems likely that large parts of the Earth will be barely inhabitable before the end of the century. Would it make more sense to try and change our own metabolism (maybe through more brutal adjustments than the ones you’re submitting the flies to) or to pack our bags and move to Mars?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are informing a body of current work I’m developing so its something I dwell on to a deeper extent even than when I was doing the post-terrestrial works. To be honest, I think we’re screwed either way. Colonising Mars is the romantic dream of SciFi aficionados and tech-god fanboys and fangirls. The reality is that it would be a chosen few eking out a fairly grim existence that would be barely better, if at all, than a ravaged Earth.

Altering our own physiology could be possible. I’m not totally up to speed with CRISPR but I understand that it could offer radical changes to the human genome in a very short time. As artificial selection of human traits could be even more ethically treacherous and a much slower process it might be seen by some as a solution. But do we really want to go there?

Do you think that at the end of the experiment, the flies will it still be Drosophila melanogaster? Or will you have created a new species of fly?

The claim I made at the beginning of the project was that I was going to develop a new species of Drosophila which would be called Drosophila titanus. To be able to make this claim I would need to test whether speciation had actually happened. Speciation is a broad and complex biological issue, with a range of forms and pathways, and of course some hotly contested definitions.

The standard test would be to check whether Mayr‘s textbook definition is valid, that the two groups are unable to reproduce. If my experimental flies were unable to produce fertile offspring with the control flies then I could claim a new species. However, I would also be interested to check whether I have achieved any of the other species descriptions such as typological, ecological or genetic. I’m completely convinced that it would be achievable and that Drosophila titanus would be listed among the official taxonomies.

The argument about what constitutes a species was another of the sub-narratives of the work.

Thanks Andy!


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Drosophila Titanus is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin

The God Trick. An exhibition explores the possibility of a more bio-centric society

The PAV Parco Arte Vivente, Turin’s experimental centre for Living Arts, is celebrating its ten years anniversary this Summer with The God-Trick, a group exhibition that aims to offer new perspectives and lines of inquiry on the Anthropocene.


Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

The exhibition title is borrowed from a text by Donna Haraway, the most quoted figure in the anthropocene conversation. The philosopher calls “god-trick” the view that knowledge is only achieved by adopting an objective, disembodied, impartial view from nowhere. She believes this claim to the “objectivizing” of the real is an illusion, for knowledge is always situated geographically, historically and culturally.

The artworks in the exhibition “have the role of reminding us that there is nothing natural, nothing objective, nothing inevitable about the processes of capitalist accumulation, thereby encouraging us to go beyond the confines of thoughts that prevent us from seeing any alternative to the system.”

The exhibition has some very strong works. Whether they speculate on alternative energy supply, un-peel the strata of nature and industrial history beneath our feet or invite us to turn neglected public spaces into community garden, the pieces exhibited demonstrate that there are indeed artists, thinkers and citizens who are willing to look critically into matters that threaten life on this planet. They are not the first ones to do so. We’ve been warned time and time again and as far back as in the 19th century when polymath Alexander von Humboldt drew on his studies in geography and exploration of the South American rain forests to predict deforestation and harmful human induced climate change.

The God Trick will hopefully encourage us to turn these warnings into meaningful individual and political actions.
In the meantime, here are some of my favourite works in the show:


Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente


Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente


Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente


Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

The Critical Art Ensemble collaborated to the discussion with a fascinating research on the theme of necropolitics. The term is defined as the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die. When applied in a hospital context, the concept can be compared to the process of triage which determines the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. There, where resources are plentiful, the person with the greatest injury receives the greatest share of resources and is treated before others of lesser injury. In the case of war, where resources are limited, the typical application of triage consists of designating who is most likely to survive an injury for the longest period of time, and they are treated first. Those with the worst injuries and those most likely to die, are treated last, if at all.

What might be the consequences of triage when you apply it to wildlife and the environment? How do we decide to use our limited resources? Which damaged ecosystems should be prioritized for remediation? Which one are we going to wash our hands of? Do we use the hospital model, the war model, or something else?

The work is based on a research started in April 2018. Collaborating with a scientist who has a deep knowledge of the biology of the waters in the area, the artists and PAV took some water samples and had them analyzed to evaluate the type of pollution and the presence of micro-organisms and plant species in the water. They selected 4 ‘candidates’ to remediation:
– a lake in reasonably good conditions, both chemically and ecologically, but it needs to be protected and cleaned up;
– a small pond in fairly good health. It would be cheap to regenerate its waters;
– a river that’s chemically healthy but suffering in terms of ecology. It would be costly to clean and protect it but many more living organisms depend upon its health;
– an aqueduct that needs to be upgraded in order for the quality of the water to improve. People would then drink more tap water and be less inclined to buy plastic bottles.

Visitors of the exhibitions are invited to vote for the water pond or stream that needs to be prioritized. I found it very difficult to chose: you get maps, facts, samples of water in tanks to help you make an informed decision. I ended up cheating and casting my vote for two of them.

The CAE explains in the catalogue of the exhibition:

Our experience is that this conversation will not solely be grounded in reason, but will contain copious amounts of emotion, aesthetic prejudice, desire, and for some, metaphysical considerations.

Conversation is one of the key aspects of this work. It leaves space for exchanges of views about local resources and landscapes and, beyond that, it forces us to reexamine our ecological, societal and even political priorities.


Lara Almarcegui, Rocks of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), 2014. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente


Lara Almarcegui, Rocks of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), 2014. Image

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. Using figures established by the Norway Environment Agency, Lara Almarcegui made a poster listing the rock types and how many tons there are of each in the island’s bedrock.

Rocks of Spitsbergen brings together the region’s long and slow geological formation and its history of prospecting, drilling and mining the mineral resources. With estimated coal deposits of some 22 million tons, the area around Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen has two active mines, and further extraction might start soon. The dry inventory of the volume of the mineral resources raises questions such as: What will remain of the island if its rocks are extracted for minerals? Is our need of minerals worth the destruction of a territory? Who has the right to decide what to do with the ground beneath our feet? Or, more generally, how to manage our natural resources?


Michel Blazy, Forêt de balais, 2013–18. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente


Michel Blazy, Forêt de balais, 2013–18. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Many of Michel Blazy‘s installations feature organic elements that take over and transform the artworks over time. His “Forêt de balais”, literally “forest of brooms”, features brooms made of broomcorn, a type of sorghum used for making brooms. The domestic objects are planted on the ground and, gradually, they start germinating and growing until they return to their original, living state of plants. After the exhibition, the brooms turned plants again will remain in the park at PAV and become an integral part of its landscape, remembering us that nature can, with time and obstinacy, reclaim the areas which humankind had confiscated.


Bonnie Ora Sherk, A Living Library Is Cultivating The Human & Ecological Garden, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Living Library is a framework and methodology for planning the “ecologizing” of specific areas.

Sherk is a landscape architect, educator and artist who has been producing visionary ecological work since the early 1970s. In 1981, she founded A Living Library, a community project that enrolls the help of local communities to turn public open spaces that have fallen into disuse or dilapidation into ecological wonderlands and landscapes. Each green site is unique and kept thriving with hands-on learning activities that explore the deep connections between biological, cultural and technological systems.

Go and visit The God Trick if you’re in Northwest Italy this Summer. It is not only intelligently curated but it will also demonstrate, if needed, that the best response to the current heat wave doesn’t lie in more air conditioning and more barbecued meat.

The God-Trick, curated by Marco Scotini, remains open until 21 October 2018 Parco Arte Vivente (PAV) in Turin.

The Phylogenetic Atelier: Would your wear clothes made of the skin of de-extinct species?


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

We’re going to see a living breathing woolly mammoth soon! Because members of de-extinction circles made us big, confident promises and because media enthusiasm and sleek videos confirmed their words.

Except that the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Scientists are not really going to “resurrect” the long extinct species. The plan is rather to create a GMO. The main strategy adopted by researchers today consists in using cells from the closest living species (in this case the Asian elephant) and edit their genes to obtain DNA as close as possible to that of the extinct animal. The result will be a hybrid organism that carries the genetic material from both species. It won’t be exactly the same hairy mammal as the old one.


Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in captivity in 1914, leading to the extinction of her species. She is now being displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo via

A similar copy-pasting exercise in gene editing is going to be applied to other extinct species. The Passenger Pigeon is one of the promising candidate for ‘resurrection’. The migratory bird was by far the most common bird in the United States. It traveled in flocks so huge and so dense that people at the time described how they would darken the skies for hours when they flew over heads. Unfortunately, unbridled hunting and destruction of its habitat reduced the population to a few individuals by the late 19th century. A few decades later the bird was extinct.

By modifying the DNA of the band-tailed pigeon, its closest living relative, the research group Revive & Restore is hoping to hatch the first “passenger pigeon” (or rather its genetic approximation) by 2025.

Critics are concerned about the ethical issues of de-extinction: Are the animals impregnated with manufactured embryos going to be be safe? How can the newborn enjoy a social life similar to the one experienced by passenger pigeons (or mammoths)? Does their habitat still exist as it was? How do you scale the process up so that the whole species has a reasonable chance of survival? How do you avoid problems associated with inbreeding? Shouldn’t our efforts and funding be focused on keeping alive the many plant and animal species that are endangered?


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

With her work The Phylogenetic Atelier, critical and speculative scenario designer Tina Gorjanc is asking whether producing ‘fake’ copies of an extinct animal is an attempt to understand the past, or just an excuse to constantly create the desire for rarity

Her installation stages the aftermath of a successful Revive & Restore’s Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback project. The work suggests a speculative venue that combines a museum, a laboratory and a luxury artisan workshop that in the future will craft gloves out of the leather of fake passenger pigeons. Gorjanc’s installation is exquisite, intriguing but also remarkable for the way it makes tangible the many ethical dilemmas of our fascination with producing new replacements for extinct or endangered biological matter.

In the future, the “passenger pigeon” leather would become a luxury item for the few who are rich enough to afford a pair, prompting the question: Is the de-extinction movement about restoring biodiversity or about producing a few curiosity specimens for the enjoyment of novelty enthusiasts?

The project description explains:

As our current society is becoming mostly driven by the aspiration to constantly innovate it is starting to lack the ability to analyze the cultural understanding of what we are experiencing in the process of innovating. Old definition and stereotypes of original and fake, natural and synthetic, alive and dead are becoming obsolete as new discoveries in the field of synthetic biology are being made.


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

The Phylogenetic Atelier is one of the many thought-provoking works you can see at FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin that asks if life is better when we embrace the artificial. I contacted the fashion designer and asked her to tell us more about her project:

Hi Tina! The work ‘showcases an intersection of a laboratory, a museum and a luxury artisan glove workshop”. Why did you choose these 3 settings? What is the role of each facility?

I decided to speculate on a possible intersection of those practices base on the research I have done which evidences that the interest of our commercial market is moving towards such collaborations. The discoveries that have been done in the field of biotech in the past couple of decades are making this technology more accessible and interesting to a wider spectre of companies outside the pharmaceutical and medical domain.

The Phylogenetic Atelier project, therefore, aims to showcase how the advances in the field of synthetic biology and tissue engineering could be applied to preservation and revitalization of endangered/extinct species and form a new type of collaboration with natural history museums that might provide a rich amount of “raw” material for those practices.

The reason for the incorporation of the luxury artisan glove workshop into the presented system mainly has to do with my desire to facilitate the debate around the issues the project is trying to expose.

By simplifying the debate to a de-extinct leather material rather than the entire organism which represents a far more complex classification problem, the project aims to promote critical thoughts around the way we will interact with the de-extinct material and how we are going to shape different aspects of our society around them (legislation, ethical rules and concerns,…) when they suddenly become more mainstream.

Additionally, as the craftsmanship of leather gloves also represents an endangered practice doomed to extinction due to the direction of our commercial market, as well as gloves, being closely linked to the breeding and training of avian species I thought it would be an appropriate base to frame the output of the project.


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

The Phylogenetic Atelier is a very seducing exhibit. It’s difficult not to admire the craft and the sheer beauty of the ‘leather’ and the glove. Yet, i think you also wanted to suggest something more complex, more critical and a bit darker about de-extinction. Could you comment on this? What did you want the audience to take from the exhibit?

As our current society is becoming mostly driven by the aspiration to constantly innovate it is, unfortunately, starting to lack the ability to analyze the cultural understanding of what we are experiencing in the process of innovating. Old definition and stereotypes of original and fake, natural and synthetic, alive and dead are becoming obsolete as new discoveries in the field of synthetic biology are being made.
The research behind the proposed work tackles the ethical and philosophical dilemmas concerning our fascination with producing new replacements for extinct or endangered biological matter and their application in our current world.
The aim of the project is to provoke a debate and encourage the audience to start asking themselves questions such as our right as a species to give back the biological specimens that we have taken away from nature? If we can do it also mean that we should? If you could bring back one extinct animal which one would it be and why?

Thanks Tina!

The Phylogenetic Atelier was developed as a commission from the Science Gallery Dublin, part of the Trinity College Dublin. It is part of the exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? which remains open at the Science Gallery Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.

Also part of the exhibition: Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’.

Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’

Animals that fake their appearance to blend in their surrounding and attract their prey, people who fake a delirious state of bliss on social media, girls who prefer fake fur (or ‘fantasy fur’ as Lagerfeld called it) to the real one, etc. Sometimes the fake is just a little bit more desirable than the real. And if you’re worried about animal welfare, broken food systems and the future of our planet, then fake meat, and in particular lab-grown meat, looks like the saviour humanity was waiting for. It will be cruelty free, greenhouse gases free and guilt free. At least that’s the promise.


Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin


Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Technological solutions like lab-grown meat come with ethical, ecological and economic costs that receive far less coverage in the press than the cheerful myths and fictions heralded by the proponents of the technology. As previous works by The Tissue Culture & Art Project have demonstrated time and again (from Disembodied Cuisine which pioneered the lab-grown meat practice to Stir Fly, a bioreactor designed to culture and farm in vitro insect meat at home), one of the most contentious aspects of tissue engineering is its use of fetal bovine serum as a nutrient for the cells. Harvested from unborn calves, usually by drawing the blood directly from the heart of the fetus after the pregnant mother is slaughtered, FBS enables the cells to grow and multiply into meat for our consumption.

There are plant-based alternatives to the FBS of course but their content and formulation is wrapped in IP claims, NDAs and secrecy. And if there’s one thing our food systems need almost as much as the eradication of cruel practices, it’s transparency. This fake meat lack of transparency is reflected in the language adopted by the industry: they talk of “clean meat” and of “cellular agriculture”, for example.

Besides, growing cells in this way is also grossly inefficient. It requires considerable amount of resources and engineering on several levels: replicating the experience of eating meat is not just a question of aspect and taste, it also involves the reproduction of the meat texture, elasticity, smell, etc.


Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Vapour Meat, by Devon Ward and Oron Catts tries to unpack the growing uneasiness with meat and the murkiness that surrounds its artificial duplicates. The work pushes the discourse around lab-grown meat to its most extreme limits by imagining a device that would enable meat lovers to vape the essence of lab-grown meat.

Vapour Meat casts a critical and sarcastic eye at an industry typified by eco-opportunism and a love for the techno fix (why stop eating meat and consume plant-based proteins when you can throw a bit of science on a problem?) Ward and Catts see lab-grown meat as a kind of vapourware, a term used in the computer industry to design a computer hardware or software product that is announced to the general public but is never actually manufactured nor officially cancelled. Which is pretty much what is happening with in-vitro meat, a technology that has been described as ‘just around the corner’ for years. Yet, it remains unclear how the technology will be scaled up beyond prototypes or how it will comply with appropriate safety standards and relevant regulations across nations.

Vapour Meat is an example of what Catts and Ionat Zurr call a work of contestable design. Instead of evoking the desirable objects and scenarios typical of speculative design, contestable design submits to public scrutiny scenarios that underscore future problematic uses of a technological or scientific process.

FAKE: Faux or no? at Science Gallery Dublin

Vapour Meat uses this scenario to posit a future in which we reach for the fake and the technological in lieu of the real. As such, it’s one of the most interesting and curious works you can see at FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at the Dublin Science Gallery that asks if life is better when we embrace the artificial.

I’ll come back with a long and proper review of the show later on. In the meantime, i got in touch with Devon Ward to learn more about Vapour Meat:

Hi Devon! What’s in the vapour that makes it smell like meat? How did you develop this artificial smell?

The vapour is composed of a mixture of different essential oils, infused oils and spices. I used my home cooking as the starting point to develop the smell. Many of the elements are based on spices I use when cooking. Without giving too much away, the vapour liquid contains infused oils that include flavours like smoked paprika and cumin. There are also small amounts of essential oils including sandalwood and basil, which aim at a mixture of smoky and sweet.


Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

On the one hand, the work might also be seen as a demonstration of the absurdity and excesses of the whole synthetic and lab grown meat industry that requires so much efforts, technology and artifices in order to produce proteins that could be found elsewhere, in a ‘natural’ state. So how does a work like Vapour Meat position itself within the fake meat issue?

You’re right, Vapour Meat isn’t too far from what companies may soon be producing. We may see ‘clean’ meat products that adopt sophisticated food presentation techniques to sell in vitro meat to a niche market. I wouldn’t be surprised if these companies create products inspired by Rene Redzepi or David Chang. For instance, labs may start serving ‘clean’ rabbit caviar on a bed of locally sourced arugula topped with owl mousse and a GFP-infused salt. And if a waiter served it, I can almost hear them saying something like, “this dish is a taste of our current cultural moment. It gives you the flavour of our biotech terroir, something lab-crafted and home-grown, at the same time. It’s a lab-to-table experience…” We may even see products that reference Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook. Someone might make a dish based on his Chickenfiat, a dish made of chicken and ball-bearings. The ‘Clean’ Chickenfiat recipe might call for in vitro chicken cells grown over the surface of steel ball-bearings served in a Martini glass while you sit in the cockpit of a VR flight simulator with LCD windows that display an orbit around Jupiter. All of this is to say that we may see elaborate spectacles being employed in order to sell ‘clean’ meat. The ‘clean’ meat industry wants to replace farm-grown meat with lab-grown meat, but it may just end up creating high-end products that only a few people can afford. The individuals pushing these grand visions seem to really gravitate toward highly technical fixes. This idea was dealt with by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr in works like Disembodied Cuisine and Victimless Leather. And, Oron wrote an article for The Conversation last year that tries to unpack the hype-cycle around the lab-grown meat.

Vapour Meat definitely builds off of these ideas. The way I see it, Vapour Meat is a critical piece that satirises the recent cultural developments around lab-grown meat. It attempts to draw parallels between the ails of start-up cultures and the ‘clean’ meat industry.

The name Vapour Meat was inspired by the term vapourware, which describes software that is heavily hyped in order to draw interest and investors, but which never delivers on its promises. In other words, vapourware is something that deals with marketing, speculation, ideal and utopia. The term seemed utterly relevant, so Oron and I developed Vapour Meat to explore the overlaps between vapourware and ‘clean’ meat. We created an absurd product that literally produces nothing but vapour, but attempts to convey the ‘essence of meat’ through smell and small quantities of desiccated mouse muscle fibres (C2C12s). The work seemed to critically engage with the big promises of the ‘clean’ meat industry—namely that it will replace animal farming and dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions. Could ‘clean’ meat theoretically solve major issues around animal farming? Sure, but I have trouble seeing ‘clean’ meat live up to its grand ideals. There may be a place for in vitro meat in the future, but it may just be another signifier of status, power and wealth. ‘Clean’ meat may just be a form of conspicuous consumption.

And why does the title also feature “HP0.3.1 Alpha”? What does this correspond to?

“HP0.3.1 alpha” comes from software development nomenclature, which includes a code name, version number, and development stage. It’s a bit of an Easter egg for anyone working with software. In general, because we wanted to explore the overlaps between software start-up culture and biotech start-up culture, the nomenclature was another way to communicate that connection.

The “HP” stands for homeopathic. We were unable to include in vitro meat cells in the liquid reservoir for health and safety reasons, so this reality became the code name for our project. The “0.3.1” is due to the fact that work at the Science Gallery Dublin is actually the third version. Vapour Meat was in development for a year and previous versions involved other artists, so we thought this was a fitting way to acknowledge their involvement. We labelled this version of the work “alpha” due to the fact that it’s still being developed further. Also “alpha” is used to designate “white-box testing,” which was appropriate for a gallery exhibition.

Thanks Devon!

The exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? remains open at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.

Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1)


Paul Chaney, Breast Plough’o’metric, 2014. Photo via THG (Thelma Hulbert Gallery)

Scientist, curator and philosopher Sue Spaid coined the term ‘Ecovention’ in 1999 and went on to illustrate its meaning and reach three years later with an exhibition titled Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Spaid defines ecoventions as inventive, practical actions with ecological intent. The focus of an ecovention is not to interfere aesthetically with the landscape but to explore how art can contribute, even on a microscale, to the improvement of a given ecosystem.

This year, Sue Spaid teamed up with Roel Arkesteijn to look at the development of these artistic ecological interventions in Europe. Together, they curated Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 at De Domijnen in Sittard.

The artists in the show not only remind us that the way we exploit the earth and its resources is irresponsible and unsustainable but they also look for solutions to environmental destruction. Alone or with the help of local communities, they’ve cleaned up polluted soils, planted wheat fields, provided pollinators with appetizing flowery landscapes, built hanging gardens, initiated edible and medicinal urban farms, developed schemes for sharing excess food and bred more resilient chicken breeds.

Unlike the website of De Domijnen, the show is in both Dutch and English. It is also very good. Informative, impeccably researched and uplifting. Ecovention Europe cheered me up and convinced me that the human animal is not a hopelessly toxic species after all.


Cecylia Malik, Białka’s Braids, 2013/2017. Photo credit: Mieszko Stanisławski

Do me a favour and visit the show if you live in the area (Sittard is 15 minutes away from Maastricht by cheap and cheerful train) because exhibitions like these are few and far between. Sue Spaid explains why in this extract from a fascinating interview she had with Metropolis: Pragmatically speaking, this kind of art is a nightmare for institutions. They prefer the kind that comes in a box, comes out of a box and then gets returned in a box a few months later. If the artists decide to exhibit something living, the museums are responsible for keeping it alive! If it is living, it might generate insects, dust, vapor, etc. Then there is the issue of commissioning ecoventions, which is another thorny issue, since it demands artists working with politicians, scientists, community members, etc., not to mention securing permits to place the work.

The exhibition is huge, with dozens of art works, all of which i’d like to mention. I’ll only cover a fraction of what i’ve discovered at De Domijnen in this article and the one coming up tomorrow (if i have good wifi access during my 9 hour long journey and i’m not too lazy) or on Wednesday. Here’s a first selection:


Paul Chaney, Breast Plough’o’metric, 2014 (video)


Paul Chaney, Slug’o’metric Device II, 2008


Paul Chaney, Slug’o’metric Devices


Paul Chaney. Installation view at Museum De Domijnen. Photo by Bert Janssen

Made of forged iron and chestnut, Breast Plough’o’metric is a replica of an ancient breast plough. Paul Chaney outfitted it with digital strain gauges and a small computer to record the exact amount of effort needed to plough a given tract of land by human power alone.

The instrument is part of a series that explores the metrics of direct human interaction with the land. A previous work, the Slug’o’metric series of kinetic sculptures employs progressively more complex technologies to kill and count slugs in your garden patch. The more technologically sophisticated each device gets, the more it removes the user from the physical action of killing the mollusc. Both the Slug’o’metric series and the Breast Plough’o’metric unsettle the typical illusion that ‘living with the land’ is a pure and uncomplicated affair.


George Steinmann, Blues for the glaciers, 2015. Photo: Tabea Reusser

In 2015, artist and blues musician George Steinmann became the first ever official “artistic observer” at the World Climate Conference COP21 in Paris.

It’s in this context that Steinmann recorded a concert of blues music in the Glacier du Rhône, in the Swiss Alps. He chose this particular glacier as the venue for the performance because the ice up there is melting about 8 cm a day. It’s global warming in action and without any veil of modesty.

The concert was filmed and unfiltered with all the sounds of nature


Brandon Ballengée, DFA136: Procrustes, cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions (from the series Malamp Reliquaries), 2013


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen

Malamp Reliquaries are a series of portraits of severely deformed amphibians that artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée has discovered in wetlands, ponds and rivers around the world. Their extra or missing limbs can be explained either by the presence of chemical pollutants or by a parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae. It is thought that the parasite disrupts the cells involved in the limb bud formation of tadpoles.

To make these portraits, the artist chemically “cleared and stained” the frogs. The photos are printed as unique watercolor ink prints and each individual frog appears to “float” in clouds. This otherworldly quality is reinforced by the titles named after ancient characters from Greco-Roman mythology.

The artist writes: They are scaled so the frogs appear approximately the size of a human toddler, in an attempt to invoke empathy in the viewer instead of detachment or fear: if they are too small they will dismissed but if they are too large they will become monsters. Each finished artwork is unique and never editioned, to recall the individual animal and become a reliquary to a short-lived non-human life.


AnneMarie Maes, Transparent Beehive, 2013-2014. Photo by AnneMarie Maes


AnneMarie Maes, Red Flag. Photo by AnneMarie Maes

The Transparent Beehive is an observation beehive that used to home a living bee colony. The beehive is fitted with microphones which pick up the vibrations and sounds of the hive and monitor the colony. Cameras inside the hive survey the growth of the wax structures and the activity of bees. Additional sensors measure the microclimate inside the structure. Data is then processed and visualized to make the state of the colony tangible.

In 2013, the bees inhabiting Maes’ beehive suffered colony collapse disorder due to the invasion of the waxmoth. Standing empty, emitting only the recorded sounds of the honey bees that once inhabited it, the work bears witness to colony collapse disorder that challenges our food future.

In the exhibition, the beehive is accompanied by a lightbox depicting a scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a honey bee’s extended glossa, the hairy “tongue” in the bee’s mouth that collects nectar from flowers.

Finally, the Red Flag, a biotextile grown by microorganisms, warns us that we should act to preserve (or restore) the well being of our environment.


Vera Thaens, Lost Common Sense, 2014/2017, Black lights, broccoli, Monsanto broccoli seed patent


Vera Thaens, Lost Common Sense, 2014/2017. Installation view at Museum De Domijnen. Photo by Bert Janssen

Vera Thaens hid an illicit plantation of broccoli under the staircase of the museum. The work, called Lost Common Sense, reacts to Monsanto being granted a patent on broccoli in all of its natural forms in Europe (in EUROPE!!!)

I’ll mention Thaens again in my upcoming story. I wish i could find more documentation about her work online. That lady is my new hero!


Lara Almarcegui, Mineral Rights, Tveitvangen, 2015

Lara Almarcegui looked into issues surrounding the ownership of the ground and the depths beneath it. Mineral Rights are regulated differently from country to country. They entitle an individual or organization to explore the rocks, minerals oil and gas found below the surface of the land. It is often impossible for a private individual to acquire them. After a lengthy procedure, Lara Almarcegui gained the mineral rights to the iron ore deposits for an area of one square kilometer in Tveitvangen, near Oslo. The mineral rights reach from the subsoil down to the center of the earth. Her objective though was to prevent the resources from being extracted.

She later acquired another iron deposit in Buchkogel and Thal, near Graz.

The artist writes: The project reminds us of how the territory is shaped at a geological level and how it is broken down and split into pieces for mine exploitation. While presenting what is below the feet in our contemporary cities and who owns it, the project raises the question of mineral extraction for the production of construction materials and it brings to light questions on land ownership and resources ownership.


Federica Di Carlo, Come in terro cosi in cielo (As in earth, so on heaven), 2013-ongoing


Federica Di Carlo, Come in terro cosi in cielo (As in earth, so on heaven), 2013-ongoing

Since Federica Di Carlo noticed that not all rainbows have all 6 colours, she has been working with scientists to discover the relationship between incomplete rainbows and air pollution.


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen


Czekalska + Golec, Homo Anubium (St. Francis 100% Sculpture), 1680-1985

Tatiana Czekalska and Leszek Golec co-created these artworks (originally church sculptures) with woodworms that had eaten so much of the material that their former owners deemed them useless as religious sculptures. The artists however saw the aesthetic and intrinsic value in the contribution of the animals, in particular their having selected Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the natural environment. The artists date it 1680-1985 as they see the creative process as being conducted over centuries

More views from the exhibition:

Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017. Photo by Bert Janssen


Installation view of Ecoventionat Museum De Domijnen, September 2017

The publication that accompanies the exhibition is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in ecological art. You can get it online at BOL if you live in The Netherlands. The rest of us can buy it on Amazon.

Ecovention Europe, art to transform ecologies, 1957 – 2017 remains open at Museum Hedendaagse Kunst De Domijnen in Sittard (NL) 7th January 2018

Dust Bloom. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Every plant, no matter how humble and small, performs a series of services for us. Some are obvious: plants provide us with food, remedies and raw materials. Other services they offer tend to be overlooked. They help filter water and cool the air, they create buffers against natural disasters, prevent soil erosion, provide shelter for animals. They also perform all sort of ‘cultural services’ for us: they can act as an uplifting background for our sport activities, become tourism destinations or inspire art, mental well-being and spiritual experiences. All of us, human and non-human alike, benefit from the presence of plants around us.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) focuses on “making nature’s values visible” to decision-makers. The aim of the initiative is to demonstrate the values of ecosystems and biodiversity in economic terms but also to lay bare the costs of political inaction.

What might sounds like a cold and utilitarian approach is actually an invaluable concept that could spur us into appreciating, valuing and protecting plants and the ecosystems they are part of.

Artist and urban planner Alexandra Toland worked with experts in environmental microbiology, urban soils, and of course urban ecosystem services to explore the ability of flowers to help filter atmospheric particulate matter (PM.) These ‘dusts’ can come from natural sources such as pollen but also from industrial and vehicular emissions and tire abrasion. Their presence in the environment has been linked to cardiovascular, respiratory and other health problems, especially in cities where there is relatively more pollution and less vegetation to filter it.

The filtering capacity of flowers is a neglected area of research, compared to leaves. However, the complex, three-dimensional structures of flowers make them valuable allies when it comes to regulating air quality by removing pollutants from the atmosphere. Toland’s project Dust Blooms juxtaposes the beauty and function of urban flora using a synthesis of artistic and scientific methods to create awareness about the every-day importance of ecosystem services in cities.

Dust Blooms started as field work, with the artist collecting the dust from wild flowers growing at the edges of heavily trafficked streets in Berlin. She then analyzed the samples to determine the type and amount of dust particles that covered the surface of petals.

The next step of her work consisted in visualizing her research. First, through botanical engravings that “graft” together elements of historical botanical illustrations from over 30 authors. These engravings were made from the very street dust collected on site. She also used all sort of everyday consumer goods (plastic dental brush sticks, microfiber wipes, polycarbonate screws, plastic clay, glitter, and granular resins) to create small sculptures based on the micro-morphological features of the Dandelion family. The synthetic plants are displayed “as glorified bricolage of the Anthropocene” on a flower bed while actual atmospheric dust levels are measured with Arduino-powered instruments.

Dust Blooms received an honorary mention at Ars Electronica this year. I got a chance to talk to Alexandra Regan Toland while she was busy preparing her show in Linz, editing a book about the challenges and creative possibilities of soil protection in the age of the Anthropocene, and tending to her many duties as a beekeeper, vermicomposter, forager, forester, and mother.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Hi Alexandra! While reading the webpage for the project, i was struck by this sentence: “Flowering plants provide a host of ecosystem services in cities, such as climate regulation, the source of nectar and pollen for insects, and the purification of air, water, and soil.” I had no idea that plants were also seen as service providers. Somehow i find it a bit sad to see how we need to instrumentalize nature in order to recognise its value. Could you tell us about the importance of these ‘ecosystem services’ in urban contexts? 

I agree with your critique of the Ecosystem Services (ESS) paradigm but I recognize that it can be an effective way of protecting nature compared with other environmental protection strategies, especially in cities where there isn’t much nature to begin with. In our quest to design and build more sustainable cities, there has been a lot of research on urban ESS as a way of establishing indicators and standards. I see it as my job as an artist to visualize the ideas behind ESS but also to point out obvious ironies and contradictions. For instance, the fate of many medicinal herbs growing along roadsides seems to complicate the neat categories of ESS. These medicinal plants could theoretically be used for healing teas and tonics (a health-providing “service”) but are so filthy you would never want to pick them in the first place. So, it is somewhat ironic that age-old healing herbs like Plantain, St. John’s Wort, Yarrow, and Dandelion end up being healthful after all because they minimize atmospheric dust by cleaning the air of tiny noxious particles with their leaves and petals and holding the soil together with their roots. And they’re pretty to look at, poking up between fields of weathered asphalt and concrete, so their presence has a positive psychological effect too.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

How important is it for a plant to be recognised as a ‘service provider’?


We all – humans and non-humans – have roles and identities in the cosmopolitan order of the city. A plant can be my service provider (as in the filtration service I emphasize in DUST BLOOMS), my neighbour (as in the trees that line my street), my friend (as in the potted plant on my desk), my enemy (as in the allergy-causing summer grasses down the street).

I guess I like to think of ESS as more of a form of community work than instrumentalization. If we choose to see and value urban flora for their civic services – for making the world a better place simply by being there doing their filtering/cooling/sheltering/healing thing – then we might do our service to them in return by protecting biodiversity and open green spaces in cities.

Maybe the ESS paradigm is simply a projection of our own social democratic expectations of civil society to provide basic needs – a world in which all members of society are encouraged and expected to participate in some small way for the well-being of the greater community. So, plants and soil and animals and insects provide services to us while we can and should provide services to them. I’m not entirely sure that ESS can provide the right rules on how those services can be fairly valued and implemented, particularly on the human side, but it is an interesting policy strategy to consider.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, view of the exhibition Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland, 2016


Could you tell us about the way plants are filtering atmospheric particulate matter (PM)? How do they perform this task? How much of a contribution can they really make to the purification of the air? Which types of PM do they manage to clean up effectively?


The easiest way to think about dust filtration by plants is to imagine millions of living combs and brushes lining the street. The air passes through layers of undulating biomass that captures everything from larger debris such as weathered bits of trash and dead leaves to tiny diesel particles in the PM fraction. The type and source of dust is pretty easy to recognize under a microscope: pollen and fungal spores are geometric; grains of sand are usually smooth and translucent; soot and tire abrasion detritus is opaque black and edgy looking. All of these particles can get caught in the surface features of trees, bushes, and low-growing herbaceous plants. If you look closely at these surfaces you will notice that some are smooth, but many are hairy, scaly, pocked, wrinkled, folded, furrowed, spiky, or sticky, and these features can be densely or widely packed. So, different plants filter in different ways with different levels of filtration effectivity. Depending on the height, habitus, size and surface morphology of leaves and flowering parts, as well as the distance from the pollution source and pollution intensity, AND the position of neighboring buildings, which can act like canyons or wind tunnels, there can be very different filtering scenarios going on. The time of year is also important to consider, as trees in northern cities lose their leaves in winter. This is incidentally the time of highest levels of atmospheric dust. So, there is unfortunately no straight answer to the “how much” question, but it does make sense to plant as many trees and bushes along busy roads and to allow knee-high wild undergrowth to develop as a buffer between streets and sidewalks, where the pollution from exhaust is actually being churned out.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Beyond its artistic qualities, Dust Bloom seems to have made a valuable contribution to the knowledge related to the function of urban flora. How did you divide or distribute art and science in your project? Was the research process conducted strictly following scientific protocols?


I learned about the role of plants as atmospheric filters from colleagues in my PhD research program at the TU-Berlin‘s Institute of Ecology back in 2010. I was fascinated by the idea of living dust filters and knew I wanted to collaborate with the lead researcher, Ina Säumel, at some point on an art-science project. When Museum Schloß Moyland invited me to make a new series of botanical sculptures for a show on artificial nature they were preparing, I decided to explore concepts of plant morphology through sculpture and approached Ina with the idea of flower filtration, because up to that point no one had studied the filtration potential of flowers.

I didn’t really divide the “science” and “art” parts of the project because I saw it as an opportunity to delve into the phenomenon using several different methods: sculptural prototyping; historical analysis presented as a series of engravings; microscopic analysis of flower morphology and dust types; cartographic analysis and site survey; direct measurement using Arduino-powered dust sensors; and photographic documentation of different scales of observation.

All parts of the project were trial and error. There were scientific protocols for microscopic analysis, artistic protocols for mixing engraving pigments, and programming protocols for the dust filter. But there were a lot of “mistakes” that led to new discoveries and new questions as well. For example, according to the protocol we developed for the measuring campaign, we weren’t supposed to collect flowers within 72 hours of a rainstorm. In the end, as we were pressed for time and still hadn’t found any flowering St. Johns Wort, we picked some specimens after a rain shower anyway, fully expecting that all the dust had washed away. We were surprised to discover that some particles were still there embedded in the tissue, leading to new questions about how plants physiologically and perhaps genetically change based on their exposure to dust… Then, in the studio, I had been working with a much higher concentration of dust to medium, but after going away for a weekend I realized that the mixture would foul after a few days so ended up completely changing my pigment recipe. (The pigment is stable when it dries on the printed page.) In the end, knowledge creation, whether it’s relegated to the sciences or the arts, is a result of trial and error and methodological triangulation, meaning as social scientist W.L Neuman says, “we take multiple measures of the same phenomena and build on the principle that we learn more by observing from multiple perspectives than by looking from only a single perspective”.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

The honorary mention at ars electronica is a sign that the artistic community responds with enthusiasm to your work but did you receive some feedback, opinions and remarks from the scientific community as well?


Other than a few presentations at the University, we haven’t published any papers for scientific journals yet, but would like to do so. To be accepted as sound science, the methods and measuring procedures must be clear but there must also be enough data to conduct statistical analysis. By the time the exhibition was set up in June, we didn’t have enough data from our measuring campaign and decided to continue the campaign and just exhibit the field and lab protocols so people could follow the process. We presented a research log with the one full data set we did have (dandelion), and detailed “character profiles” for each species. The field data from the dust filters was also incomplete, so we just showed how it worked in the museum. So, the project is most definitely still a work in progress.

In general, though, the resonance from the environmental science community has been very positive and encouraging. I think a lot of scientists are willing to work with artists, it’s just tricky to find funding and figure out ways of integrating artists into already running teaching and research programs. Also, the time and space constraints of an exhibition can limit the kind of work that can be done. It’s important that if a project identifies as art-science it has to work as both. Showing the methods and shortcomings and open questions of any research project is good practice. But those things can easily get obscured by the aesthetics of exhibitions.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016

Why did you chose the dandelion as the hero of the project?


The dandelion is a special flower. There is something magical about the achenial seeds with their hairy pappus ‘wings,’ the milky, straw-like hollowness of the stem, and the curly bronze phyllary leaves at the base. The dandelion is a ‘model species,’ widely referenced in ecological research because of its highly adaptive morphological and genetic properties. Dandelions can adjust their size, shape, and metabolic properties to better deal with stress factors such as being grazed in rural locations, or dealing with pollution in urban ones. Its super adaptability makes the dandelion a so-called “super-species” – a complex group of species so closely related that, taxonomically, they are nearly impossible to tell apart. To model the dandelion is to honor 30 million years of subtle shape shifting through sculptural research. For me, the dandelion is also a symbol of graceful diaspora, which I think is comforting for many people around the world, including myself, who find themselves for better or for worse far away from “home.” The idea that the dandelion can spread wide and far and physically adapt to its new settings is inspiring and poignant. I collected the first flower samples with my daughter along the former East-West border in Berlin. Only a generation ago these seeds might have been the only organisms to parachute across the Oberbaum Bridge, where today thousands of cars speed over without a second thought leaving trails of dust behind them.

The research process involved a measuring campaign to examine dust from the flowers of several species at several locations in Berlin. What did you learn during this stage of the research?

Together with urban ecology students at the Technical University of Berlin, under the direction of professors Gerd Wessolek, Ina Säumel, and myself, a measuring campaign was carried out to examine dust from surfaces of flowers at multiple locations in the city from April to June 2016. Based on existing dust filtration data from Ina’s previous work, historical relevance found in old medicinals, a site analysis and knowledge of blooming periods, and of course aesthetic interest, we narrowed down our selection to the following plants: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow), Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), Chelidonium majus (greater calendine), Geranium robertianum (Red Robin), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), Plantago major (broadleaf plantain), Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion). Ten flowers per species were picked from major roadways in Berlin with an average daily traffic rate of more than 50,000 motorized vehicles. Five petals were then examined from each flower. Using light microscopy, it was possible to quantitatively estimate the surface area of a flower and qualitatively describe the morphological characteristics of individual flowers, as well as determine the type and amount of dust particles captured on petal surfaces. Each step of the process was documented in a series of photographs and field and lab reports.

I think the most important thing we learned in this process was the limitations of our own human capacity for work. Ina and I are both moms, juggling work and family life. We didn’t have as many students as we were hoping to attract with the project, so the burden of measurement fell on two people who had their own busy schedules at the university. It was really difficult to locate all target species in the determined 50,000 plus areas at exactly the right distance from the road, and exactly right time of peak flowering. We were also weather dependent. We had to collect our specimens during days with no rainfall, get them to the lab before wilting in the summer heat, and then not damage the delicate petals in the process of arranging them under the microscope. In the end, we had enough materials to exhibit by June, but realized as the exhibition came around that the measuring campaign was far from over.


I was very intrigued by the ‘representation’ chapter of the work. Your botanical engravings depict the evolution of graphic representation of weedy species over 350 years. How has the representation evolved over the years? Is it a question of the techniques used to draw the plants or is it because the plants themselves have changed their aspect?


Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison wrote a wonderful book called Objectivity (2007, Zone Books) that follows the history of visual representation and the changing relationships between scientists and illustrators over the course of several centuries. They discuss how botanists have relied on the help of artists right up until the present. “As long as botanists insisted on figures that represented the characteristic form of a species or even genus, photographs and other mechanical images of individual plants in all their particularity would have little appeal. Truth-to-nature spoke louder in this case than mechanical objectivity” (p109). However, there is a great deal of difference in the representations of these “true types” over time.

The plants have stayed the same, while our interest in them, as well as our technical means of representation continues to change. While pictures in medicinal herbals once included roots and underground plant parts, which were of great value to physicians and apothecaries, later illustrative works practically excluded the representation of roots to focus on flowering and fruiting parts, as they were thought to be more essential to taxonomic systems from Linnaeus (1707-1778) onwards.

As European colonial explorers ‘discovered’ a seemingly infinite amount of new plant species, it was botanical artists such as Claude Aubriet (1665-1742) and Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), who were instrumental in establishing their economic value in finely illustrated identification manuals known as Flora – in the documentation of new cash crops in colonial contexts; for the scientific advancement of botanical theory; and for the growing interest in horticulture in the gardens of affluent patrons. Ironically, the chosen species for DUST BLOOMS have appeared as prized medicinal herbs in herbals such as William Woodville’s Medical Botany (1792-1793), as well as appearing as villainous weeds in Emil Korsmo’s Anatomy of Weeds (1954). What was once a benefit to the physician became over time a costly detriment to the agronomist. These changes in representational focus inspired me to do a mash-up of different historical periods. If you look closely, you can see the pixelated rendering of the bit-map needed to make the engraving plates, as well as the inclusion of little insects flying around with brushes and q-tips. So, the historical illusion is broken. In a way, the engravings are a kind of digital grafting, akin to the grafting of economically valuable fruit and nut trees, but for weeds, which are valuable in their own way in the ESS context.


Alexandra Regan Toland, Dust Bloom, 2016


How important was it for you to use “anthropocene’ materials in the artworks?

There is a lot of critique on the legitimacy of the “Anthropocene” – as a term, a field of research, a moment in time, a social order, and as an epistemology. I don’t want to get into that debate here, but I will say that it was important for me to reflect Anthropocene ideas, such as the ESS paradigm and the problem of air pollution, in the very materials I was using for the artworks. Early on I knew I wanted to use street dust as a pigment in some way. The chemical composition of the street dust is unique to our times and adds a contemporary layer to the historical engravings. The materials used in the botanical models are also sourced from the very world they seek to understand. Characteristic inventions of our present society, like plastic dental brush-sticks, microfiber cleaning wipes, polycarbonate screws, plastic clay, and aquarium tubing, are fused together as material bricolage of the Anthropocene. What in other contexts is used to clean, decorate, or hold things together can be repurposed to represent environmental phenomena. Imagine all the R&D that led to Swiffer wipes to keep our homes dust-free. Well, we can similarly imagine the evolutionary R&D that went into the morphology of flowering plants, and they are out there cleaning for free! There has been a lot of R&D in the fields of biomimicry and geomimicry, looking to natural patterns and processes for solutions to human problems. The classic example is George de Mestral’s invention of Velcro based on the hooked burrs of the Burdock plant. I was trying to echo that process in reverse, by using human inventions to model nature as it appears in a very humanly altered state.

Thanks Alex!

Related story: Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons.

Trust Me I’m an Artist. Ethics surrounding art & science collaborations (part 2)


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst

A ridiculously belated ending to my review of the exhibition Trust Me, I’m an Artist which opened in Amsterdam in Spring (god, this is embarrassing!)

The works in this group exhibition explored themes as diverse as gene editing, the preservation of nuclear culture over thousands of generations or the risks associated with medical self-experimentation. What these artworks have in common, however, is that the artistic processes and results were submitted to a specially convened ethics committee that examined the responsibilities and possible prerogatives of art.

Do artists benefit from special privileges when they engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science? Should they be entitled to more freedom when exploring biotechnological protocols and processes? Or should they be submitted to the same obligations and liability as the scientists? And finally, do art and science collaborations bring about new ethical dilemmas, new debates and challenges?

The Trust Me I’m an Artist exhibition was the result of a European research project of the same name that aimed to help artists, cultural institutions and audiences understand the ethical issues that arise in the creation and display of artworks developed in collaboration with scientific institutions.

I already wrote about some of the artworks when i visited the show in Amsterdam, here are the three last one. They are equally thought-provoking but involve performances i didn’t get to witness.


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst

Martin O’Brien was born with Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the respiratory and digestive system, in particular the cells that produce mucus, sweat and digestive juices. Improvements in treatments mean patients may live well into their 40s (with some into their 50s) but there is no known cure for it. O’Brien’s private life is thus marked by a daily and intimate engagement with biomedicine. And by the presence of death.

His performance Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours used physical endurance, visceral disgust for bodily fluids and fear of contamination to confront the audience with their own uneasiness in presence of a perceived risk of infection.

The performance lasted 3 hours. O’Brien started chained to a pole in the middle of the space but gradually got closer to the audience, to the point of touching and even biting them.


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst

The artist was interested in disrupting the boundaries between the spectator and the performer, and more generally between human bodies. He first broke those barriers by blowing bubbles made of water, washing up liquid and his own mucus onto the space, literally spreading his disease around. Some spectators tried to avoid the bubbles, others stood still and let them burst onto their bodies. The bubbles forced the spectators to reveal their own fears of contamination associated with the sick body.


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst


Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, 2015. Photo: The Arts Catalyst

Another episode in the performance saw the artist pierce his lips. He then walked around the space with blood running down his chin, biting spectators one at a time until they pulled away. The roles were reversed in the second biting section when, naked and covered in green paint, O’Brien was chained onto a pole in a position that evoked the one of Saint Sebastian, a christian martyr commonly depicted in art tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. Spectators were invited one by one to bite him on the body and as hard as they wanted. The ‘animalistic’ ritual gave the audience a taste of O’Brien’s skin. People suffering with CF have salty-tasting skin. The salts carried to the skin by perspiration are not reabsorbed when their body cools down.

Through this performance, the artist infected the audience. Physically, emotionally and metaphorically. Participants not only experienced a direct interaction with a chronically ill body and its bodily fluids but they also found themselves questioning the ethics of witnessing a suffering body in an art performance. They were also faced with their own physicality, mortality, fear of contamination and in most cases also the realization of how lucky they are not to be inhabited by a life threatening disease.

Nicola Triscott, from the Arts Catalyst, wrote a fascinating text that discusses ethical dilemma of commissioning a work that engage so viscerally with the artist’s and the audience’s safety and well-being.


Špela Petrič , Skotopoiesis. Confronting Vegetal Otherness, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič


Špela Petrič , Skotopoiesis. Confronting Vegetal Otherness, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič


Špela Petrič , Skotopoiesis. Confronting Vegetal Otherness, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič


Špela Petrič , Skotopoiesis. Confronting Vegetal Otherness, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič


Špela Petrič , Confronting Vegetal Otherness. Skotopoiesis, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič


Špela Petrič , Confronting Vegetal Otherness. Skotopoiesis, at the Click Festival in Helsingor, Denmark, 2017. Photo by Miha Turšič

With Confronting Vegetal Otherness. Skotopoiesis (meaning shaped by darkness), Špela Petrič attempted to understand plants on their terms by submitting her body to the rhythm of the ‘vegetal aliens.’ Over the course of this 12 hour-long experiment in inter-cognition, the artist and a field of germinating cress face each other. Light is shining onto the cress but the artist’s body throws a shadow onto it. Over time, the plants growing under her shadow become paler. The effect is mediated by phytochromes, a photoreceptor and a pigment in plants, and some animals, that detects light and regulates a number of responses including the synthesis of chlorophyll. The diminished light intensity also stimulates the production of auxin, a plant hormone that promotes stem elongation. The stems of the cress gets longer, the leaves sparser, all in an effort by the plant to grow away from the shadow. As the cress elongates, the body of the artist shrinks under the strain of remaining in a state of “vegetalized” immobility.

As Petrič explains:

My goal during the artistic research is to explore the possible biosemiotic cross-section of humans and plants at various levels of organization, challenging the prospect of intercognition – a process during which the plant and the human exchange physico-chemical signals and hence perturb each other’s state. Attention is brought to the materiality of the relation, which results in a perceptible manifestation, a change that can be observed in both partners of the exchange.

Petrič has previously worked with her own body, with rats and with mussels. Some of these works have been regarded as controversial because of the way she was ‘instrumentalizing’ animals. No one, however, objected to her using plants in an art project.

While exploring the possibility of establishing a connection with plants, the artist brings to light the difficulty for the human sensorial apparatus to fully comprehend the complexity of vegetal communities. If we can’t empathize with plants, how can we claim that we know them? How can we be comfortable with the idea that they are excluded from contemporary ethical discourses?


Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, Be-wildering performance. Photo: Bas de Brouwer


Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, Be-wildering performance. Photo: Bas de Brouwer


Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, Be-wildering performance. Photo: Bas de Brouwer

Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet‘s collaboration explored the possibility of “re-wilding” their art/science practices in various settings. During the performance in Amsterdam, Willet collected samples from O’Reilly’s bodily fluids and then stored them inside one of the little spheres of her frilly lab coat.

Willet intends to wear the coat for a year, without ever washing it. She plans to wear the garment both inside and outside science laboratories. Over time, the coat will accumulate micro-organisms that shouldn’t normally be introduced into science labs (or outside of them) and new eco-system will grow.

By smuggling of biomaterials across continents and settings, the work explores the rules of non-contamination between various areas (lab/outside the lab, between countries that have different rules regarding lab sterilization, etc), the spread of invasive species, the difficulty of creating true wilderness, etc.

Previously: Trust Me I’m an Artist. Ethics surrounding art & science collaborations (part 1) and Inheritance, a precious heirloom made of gold and radioactive stones.

Trust Me, I’m an Artist is curated by Anna Dumitriu and Lucas Evers along with project partners Nicola Triscott, Louise Emma Whiteley, Jurij Krpan. Trust Me, I’m an Artist was exhibited at Zone2Source’s Het Glazen Huis in the Amstelpark in Amsterdam and closed on the 25th of June.

To know more about the performances, don’t miss the podcasts in which art critic Annick Bureaud discusses with the artists: Taste of Flesh / Bite Me I’m Yours, as Seen by the Artist, Meeting with Martin O’Brien and Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Skotopoiesis, as Seen by the Artist, meeting with Špela Petrič.

The Waag Society has a flickr set of the exhibition and of the Be-wildering performance. I also uploaded a few images online.

The project Trust Me I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art/Science Collaboration was set up by artist Anna Dumitriu and Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics Bobbie Farsides in collaboration with Waag Society and Leiden University.