Category Archives: body

The Living Dead. A project to recreate what it feels like to suffer from Cotard’s syndrome

The Cotard delusion was first described by French neurologist Jules Cotard in the late 19th century. One of his patients, whom he called Mademoiselle X, believed that she had “no brain, nerves, chest or entrails, and was just skin and bone.” She was also convinced that she did not need food for “she was eternal and would live for ever.” The lady, Dr. Cotard claimed, was suffering from a neurological condition he called le délire de negation (negation delirium).

The disorder -sometimes also called ‘Walking Corpse syndrome’- is so rare that it largely remains a mystery today. People affected by the syndrome believe that they or part of their body parts are dead, dying or don’t exist at all. It is usually accompanied by severe depression and some psychotic disorders. But what intrigues neuroscientists and neurologists is not just the uncommonness of the syndrome, it is that the brain of the patients may hold the key to understanding the mysteries of human consciousness.

Research at Radboud University. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Marleine van der Werf, a filmmaker and visual artist whose work explores ideas about reality and the perception of reality, is currently researching how she could use immersive cinema to visualise this type (dis)embodiment.

The Living Dead will be an ‘out-of-body experience’, a multi sensory installation that allows you to feel what it is like to have Cotard’s syndrome. Using wearables, sound, smell and virtual reality, the experience is inspired by the true stories of people who suffer from the Cotard syndrome.

I discovered the project at the STRP festival in Eindhoven where Marleine van der Werf was showing the trailer of the installation she is still developing. I’m really looking forward to (hopefully) experience the work one day. In the meantime, i had a little chat with the artist about the project:

Screening of the teaser during the STRP festival. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Hi Marleine! What drove you to explore the Cotard syndrome. Was there any particular event, person or discovery that inspired you to develop the installation?

When I was a child I saw from up close how it is to loose your mind and I always thought that ‘owning a body’ is one of the few certainties we have as humans. But when I read The Disembodied Lady by neurologist Oliver Sacks combined with ideas about exoskeletons and uploading consciousness I started to question this. This sparked my artistic research in the domains of body ownership and the sense of our self the last few years.

Still from the teaser featuring Dr. Jesús Ramirez-Bermudez. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

How do you gather information about what it feels to suffer from this very rare condition? By speaking with doctors? Patients?

Both. I met patients who suffer from cotard and studied different cases. I also visited physicians like Jesús Ramírez-Bermúdez, who is Head of the Neuropsychiatry Unit of the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Mexico City. He is an expert in his field and has seen the most patients who suffer from Cotard syndrome and could provide very important insights.

I obviously have no idea of what it feels to believe i am dead. Or that parts of my body are dead. Do all people who suffer from Cotard have similar experiences and ways of describing them?

It is difficult to say yes or no to this question. But what I gather from the patients experience and Dr. Ramirez-Bermudez is that there are definitely similarities. For example, that certain organs are missing or dead and that they feel detached from their environment. But of course experiences are very subjective and influenced by their background. For example, the patient I met experienced it as if she was between heaven and hell. Since she had a very religious background this seems like a logical explanation. Someone with a non-religious background could explain this feeling in a different way.

Research at We make VR. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Filming in hospital during surgery. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

Will the final installation reflect what one person in particular feels or will it give a general impression of the syndromes?

To create the experience we research and collect as many different stories as we can. Since it is a rare syndrome this is a difficult task, because it has not been documented as well as other syndromes. After that process, we filter and structure it in a narrative that reflects all the stories, but is still an intimate experience.

Collage in the artist’s notebook of Manos Tsakiris and his research on the body. Image courtesy of Marleine van der Werf

The installation looks very ambitious. It will use wearables, sound, smell and virtual reality to immerse the public in the story of the people who experience Cotard. Apart from doctors who work with Cotard patients, are you collaborating with other scientists or research institutes?

Yes, at the moment we are in the process of forming the whole team and are talking with leading neuroscientist that research body ownership, perception and empathy. For example Professor Floris de Lange of the Predictive brain lab of the Radboud University in Nijmegen (NL) and Professor Manos Tsakiris who established the Lab of Action & Body in Royal Holloway University in London (UK). Of course tools like wearables and virtual reality can contribute to create this immersive stories, but analogue tools are very important as well. That is the reason why we not only collaborate with artists, neuroscientist and engineers, but also with dancers. They use their body as instruments to convey stories and are vital in our process of creating the installation.

What are the biggest challenges you are encountering when trying to convey this out-of-body experience?

Having Cotard syndrome is very distressing and questions the most basic assumptions we have about our self.

The fact that the syndrome, as scientist say, could give an answer to where consciousness lies intrigues me on this journey. It is my aim to create an experience that is not a horror show, but an invitation for a wide audience to think about the relation with our body and where we as a society are heading.

I only saw the trailer during STRP and now i’m intrigued about what the final installation will be like. Could you already describe what it will look and feel like?

Creating a new work and going on a quest is always an adventure. Part of that journey is that the answer might not be the one you are looking for, but the one you actually find. But when I think about the encounters I had with the patients until now, I feel that it will be a haunting experience for sure. In which you will be challenged to rediscover the relationship with your body.

Thanks Marleine!

Previously: STRP, the festival that’s not afraid of the future .

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.

X-Ray Architecture

X-Ray Architecture, by architecture historian Beatriz Colomina.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Lars Müller writes: Modern architecture and the X-ray were born around the same time and evolved in parallel. While the X-ray exposed the inside of the body to the public eye, the modern building unveiled its interior, dramatically inverting the relationship between private and public. Architects presented their buildings as a kind of medical instrument for protecting and enhancing the body and psyche.

Beatriz Colomina traces the psychopathologies of twentieth-century architecture—from the trauma of tuberculosis to more recent disorders such as burn-out syndrome and ADHD—and the huge transformations of privacy and publicity instigated by diagnostic tools from X-Rays to MRIs and beyond. She suggests that if we want to talk about the state of architecture today, we should look to the dominant obsessions with illness and the latest techniques of imaging the body—and ask what effects they have on the way we conceive architecture.

Children during a heliotherapy session, 1937. From: Le Visage de L’enfance (Paris: Horizon, 1937), p. 201

Frits Peutz, Schunck Glass Palace, Heerlen, the Netherlands, 1935

The machine we live in is an old coach full of tuberculosis, wrote Le Corbusier in his 1923 essay Towards a New Architecture.

He and many of his fellow modern architects made it one of their missions to expel tuberculosis and other diseases from buildings. It wasn’t just the health of patients that was to be restored but everyone’s. After all, some of these architects believed, we are all sick to some varying degrees.

Beatriz Colomina (whose previous publications The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x-197x and Domesticity at War i greatly enjoyed) unravels the links between Modern Architecture, tuberculosis and X-ray, the technology associated with it. The hypothesis that tuberculosis helped make modern architecture modern sounds like a bold one but Colomina is very convincing when she explains how architecture responded to the anxieties of a society obsessed with fresh air, sun light, the spreading of germs, physical exercise and hygiene.

Hydrotherapy at the sanatorium “Lebendige Kraft,” full body wrap by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Brenner, Zurich, 1910. Universität Zürich, Institut für Medizingeschichte Bircher-Brenner-Archiv

Dr Jean Saidman, Revolving Sanatorium in Aix-Les-Bains, France, 1930. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

The general consensus at the time was that a patient suffering from TB needed to live and breathe in an environment that would dry out the inside of their body. Cue to architects designing domestic gym rooms for exercising as well as roofs and balconies for sunbathing.

The real testing ground of new techniques, materials, experiments and architectural innovations however, was the sanatorium. Alvar Aalto, for example, saw patients as ‘horizontal clients’ and adapted the architecture of the medical establishment to their supine position. The Paimio Sanatorium he designed was an integral part of the medical treatment. Radiologist Jean Saidman conceived a revolving sanatorium that ensured that patients faced the sun as much as possible.

Modern architecture aspired to heal the body but also the psyche, with smooth, white and clean surfaces that would anaesthetize bodily sensations. Buildings were thus conceived as a form of medical equipment, an exercise machine but also a cocoon sheltering the fragile psyche. Richard Neutra even claimed that his works could improve the sex life of their inhabitants.

Alvar Aalto, Paimio Sanatorium, exterior view with sundeck balconies, ca. 1934. Alvar Aalto Museum Jyväskylä, Finland

Winning models Marianne Baba (L), Lois Conway (C) and Ruth Swensen standing next to plates of their x-ray during a Chiropractor Beauty contest. (Photo by Wallace Kirkland//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

X-Ray had an even more profound impact on architecture. Its dicovery refashioned the perception of space and in particular the relation between inside and outside. After x-ray, modern buildings started to look like medical imaging with transparent glass walls that revealed the inner structure. Furniture, light bulbs, pyrex cookware followed their lead. And because x-ray also changed the concept of what is visible and what is invisible, the private became the subject of public scrutiny.

Colomina adds another dimension to this architecture: the blurred vision, the glass surface of the building that catches the gaze in layers of reflections of the surrounding environment. Describing the Glass House (1949) he had built, Philip Johnson compared its glass surface to a beautiful, ever-changing wallpaper.

Passive Millimeter Imaging (PMI). Front and back X- ray views of a male subject during BodySearch surveillance. Revealed on the body are bags of cocaine (shoulder, waist); scalpel blades (chest); plastic gun (back); metal gun and file (legs)

You don’t have to be passionate about architecture to be engrossed in this book. The text is witty, clear and packed with anecdotes. The photos are plentiful and often astonishing (to me at least.) More interestingly, Colomina’s research finds many echoes in contemporary society. The impact architecture can have on our well-being is still a contemporary preoccupation, with calls to design buildings that will encourage people to move and shed weight or with the current discussions around sick building syndrome some office workers suffer from. The quest for transparency also remains very much alive. With the difference that surveillance technology has now replaced glass walls. In short, the book might be entertaining but it also does a great job at highlighting how the architectural discipline is capable of assimilating and reflecting changes in society.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret boxing on the beach in Piquey, 1933

Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, Photographie mittelst der Röntgen-Strahlen, 1896, cover and Chamäleon cristatus

Fluoroscopy of the chest, New York Medical Journal, February 23, 1907

Alvar Aalto, Paimio sanatorium, upper sun terrace with patients taking the fresh-air cure, 1933. Alvar Aalto Museum Jyväskylä, Finland

B. Čermák, the Viewing Glass Tower of the Chamber of Commerce Pavilion, Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1928

View of SANAA’s installation in the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, Barcelona, 2008. Fundacio Mies van der Rohe

Maison de Verre, 31 rue St-Guillaume, Paris

Exterior view of George Keck’s Crystal House, constructed c. 1934 for Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair. This photograph was taken at night and features R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car parked within


Other books by Beatriz Colomina: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x-197x and Domesticity at War.

Dry eyes? Insomnia? Poor posture? The Center for Technological Pain has the solution!

Have you ever felt that your constant use of electronic devices was causing physical pains? Maybe your eyes feel dry from too much screen time. Your elbows are strained. Or maybe you have sleep disorders. Are you worried that your fingers are being eroded by all that swiping and typing? Do you look prematurely aged because of your hunched posture?

Center for Technological Pain, Handsfree headset to liberate the users hands

Center for Technological Pain, Tranquility Cube

In these cases and many others, the Center for Technological Pain has the solution for you. Dasha Ilina, the CEO of the company, designed a series of stunning prototypes that promise to cure your tech-related ailments and even prevent them from appearing.

Instead of selling the miraculous contraptions at the high price they command, Ilina graciously offers small manuals that explain how to build them yourself using affordable materials.

Center for Technological Pain, Friction-Free Gloves leaflet

Center for Technological Pain, How To: Friction-Free Gloves

CTP even customized a series of self-defense techniques and published videos online to teach you how to help your friends and relatives battle tech addiction.

There’s obviously a lot of satire in Ilina’s work. There’s also far more sense that it might seem. After all, we’ve all seen the articles that warn us against sitting for hours in front of a laptop (some extravagantly call it “the new smoking”) or against looking down on your phone (it gives you a double chin, my dear!)

Dasha Ilina is currenty showing the CTP at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris and this Summer she will be teaching her Self-Defense Against Technology moves at NØ School Nevers, a summer school for students, artists, designers, hackers, activists, educators and anyone who wish to engage in critical research around the social and environmental impacts of information and communication technologies.

I asked her to wear her CEO suit and give us lowdown on her promising start-up:

Hi Dasha! What i like about your project is that none of the objects you made would be useful to me (i think). Yet, the Center for Technological Pain drove me to think about the topic of health problems caused by digital technologies a lot. Whereas i would normally prefer to forget about the issue. What brought you to explore the idea of designing solutions to health problems caused by digital technologies? Did you feel there was a demand that wasn’t addressed?

I first started thinking about the relationship between health and technology when I started really looking around me and paying attention to my friends behind their desks, strangers on the streets or cafés and, in addition to that, when I heard endless complaining from my friends that spend all day behind their computers about their constant neck problems, or back pain etc. It wasn’t immediately clear to me to start creating these solutions, but I made one just to try and see what people think of it or how useful they find it. I wouldn’t say that this project was created out of a demand, per say, because I wasn’t making these objects to sell them or even to help people, at first that is.

When I first started working on CTP, it was mainly to come up with efficient, yet totally absurd objects that would serve more as a commentary, rather than design objects. Though there were moments when I considered making highly useful objects, but what’s the fun in that?

Dasha Ilina, Headset to Reduce Eye Dryness

How did you decide which objects to design? Was it the result of complains by people around you? Articles in newspapers?

A lot of the objects are results of either my own tech-pain, or of those around me. For example, the Friction-Free Gloves were a result of a complaint from a friend of mine, who told me that after working on her laptop with the trackpad all day and swiping on her phone, she feels discomfort in her fingertips, as if they’re almost sanding away. This wasn’t anything I ever experienced but she had told me about it after I had committed to create as many solutions as time allowed, so I made the Friction-Free Gloves, which protect your fingertips with sponges. As a nice bonus, since sponges are conductive they can easily be used on a smartphone screen, though not all sponges work super well.

So I’d say about half of the problems came from personal contributions, however a lot of the objects as solutions to the same problem, such as cubital tunnel, came from research. After I’d used up all of my knowledge of tech-pain, I started reading a lot of medical articles. One of my favorite outcomes from one of those articles is the Headset to Reduce Eye Dryness. I was trying to figure out why my eyes were getting so dry and tired after working on my computer, and one of the reasons was that, when looking at a screen, our brains are so occupied with trying to decipher the information on the screen that they forget to send the signal to our eyes to blink as often as we need to. So I thought why not make an object that will put some eye drops in your eyes, in case your brain gets distracted.

Center for Technological Pain, Handsfree headset to liberate the users hands

Center for Technological Pain, Stylus Helmet to Liberate Fingers

The accessories you created for the Center for Technological Pain are ironic and a bit ridiculous-looking. Besides, the risks the project explore sound quite benign so why should we take them seriously?

The objects are quite ridiculous, I agree. They become all the more ridiculous when worn, but the problems the solutions bring up are very real and could potentially lead to serious health problems if not treated early on. With the example of cubital tunnel I read that if the patient has the syndrome and doesn’t do anything to stop putting pressure on the elbow or straining it in general, it could lead to the loss of feeling in the fingertips. Of course, I don’t know how bad someone’s state needs to be in order for it to come to that, however reading about that about a year ago really made me wonder for the first time, whether, if not the objects, then at least CTP shining a light on these health problems lots of people don’t think about could help someone, for example in a preventive way.

The Focus Box. Image courtesy Dasha Ilina

The CTP hosts a series of workshops aimed at empowering and educating people of all ages on the topic of technology-related pain. Do participants come with their own real or imaginary health problems and the solutions to them? Could you take us through some of the most amusing/ingenious ideas and accessories others made during these workshops?

Each session normally starts with a quick presentation of the aim of the workshop, as well as some previously made solutions, so even if the participants don’t have ideas at the beginning of the workshop they normally quite quickly come up with something. Most of the time the problems they work on are really personal, which in my opinion always makes for the most intricate solutions, because as soon as the participant realizes that they’re creating something for their own good (whether they ever use it or not), they become more engaged with the creative process, at least in my experience.

As for the most ingenious ideas there are really so many, but I will pick a few. Just a few weeks ago I hosted a workshop at the Meta Marathon in Düsseldorf, where one of the participants straight away had a very ambitious idea, but one that required him coding a software or a google chrome extension. So we took some time to think about how his idea could be translated into a physical object and eventually he decided to create this Focus Box, because he worked at a software development company where he was constantly distracted by his coworkers. When he started working on it, he told me that he had never used cardboard before and that in order to create this object he needed to first “learn the properties of the material.” He was the last participant to finish his object, but when it was done it was as well constructed as a Google Cardboard!

Belt for mobile phone. Image courtesy Dasha Ilina

Another object I’ll mention briefly was created by a younger participant (around 12 year old) during a workshop at Le Cube. He was clearly quite advanced in the topic of tech-pain, because without hesitation he chose to work on the electromagnetic waves emitted by the cellphone, which could cause damage to the brain. As a solution to this problem, he created a belt in which you would place your phone in order to keep it as far away from your head as possible. I thought it was a great idea, which is why I decided to not bring up the problems that can arise from the placement a phone next to one’s genitals.

A CTP demo. Photo credit: Julien Mouffron-Gardner

All the objects in the collections are as no-tech as can be. Only the “Eye strain reducing glasses” rely on technology. Does that mean that sometimes the only solution to a problem caused by tech is to throw more technology at it?

Maybe! Those glasses were actually the first object I created, so I’m not sure if that could be a reason why it’s the only one that involves tech. I’ve tried thinking about how the same solution, meaning something that forces the user to take a break from the screen, can be performed in a different, no-tech way. I don’t have a good idea just yet, but I think that the best way to achieve the same result would be through a self-defense move, one that would require your partner to karate chop your computer so that it closes therefore forcing you to look up from your screen.

Self Defense Techniques Against Technology

I tried some of your Self-defense moves against technology on my boyfriend. Sleep Defense is a favourite of mine. It never goes down very well though. Why did you make these moves so aggressive and unpleasant for the receiver of these tactics?

That’s great to hear, I’m glad you’re enjoying the moves! They are very aggressive and I do always try to make the point that they could hurt someone. But the reason they are that way is because I did not make them up. All of the self-defense against technology moves are based on real self-defense moves, so of course the tactics come from methods of protection and survival, they are meant to be unpleasant and in their real application they are meant to hurt the other person involved.

You grew up and studied in Russia and then in the USA and now you live in Paris. Have you observed different types of tech-related pains and solutions from country to country? Do people have different ways to misuse and harm themselves with tech in France than in Russia or the US for example?

That’s a great question, of course I wasn’t thinking about tech-pain back when I was living in Russia and the US, so to answer I will have to go off my memories. Something that becomes really problematic in Russia during the winter is the need to use your phone on the street when its -15 degrees outside mixed with the wish to look cool and not wear gloves. Of course on the other side, most of the times (at least with iPhones) when you take your phone out when it’s that cold it just refuses to turn on, so I guess Apple presented us with a solution of their own.

As for the US, the first thing that comes to mind is a very popular, yet very serious problem of texting and driving. I don’t know if percentage wise more people text and drive in the US compared to France and Russia, but the truth is that everyone drives in the US, so it does become a big problem, even if a small percentage of the population does it. When it comes to texting and driving, aside from the obvious safety problems that it causes, which could lead to car crashes, it’s also terrible for the drivers neck, as most often than not it requires constantly looking down. In addition to that, I imagine that it’s also very uncomfortable for the hand that is performing the texting, especially the thumb.

CTP, The Nose Palm move

Any upcoming event or field of research you’d like to share with us?

Yes! There is one event coming up this summer I am particularly excited about, which is NØ School Nevers. It’s an Art and Technology Summer School in Burgundy in France that is organized by one of my former teachers, Benjamin Gaulon. I will be giving a Self-Defense Against Technology class, but besides me there are 29 other artists/hackers/researchers, etc. who will be giving workshops, lectures, performances and more. And if you would believe it there are still some places available to be able to participate in this 2 week long summer program!

Thanks Dasha!

NØ School Nevers, is a unique international summer school, held in Nevers in Burgundy for students, artists, designers, makers, hackers, activists and educators who wish to further their skills and engage in critical research around the social and environmental impacts of information and communication technologies. 1-14 July in Nevers, France.
The Center for Technological Pain is also participating to the show Computer Grrrls. History, Gender, Technology, curated by Inke Arns and Marie Lechner. The exhibition remains open until at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris until 14 July 2019.

Alma Heikkilä opens up our eyes to the invisible worlds we depend upon

We might not be as human as it seems. Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and other microscopic organisms that colonize both the inside and outside of our bodies and form the human microbiota.

Even though we are not conscious of it, this microbial material affects our mental and physical well-being in ways science has only just started exploring. The microorganisms facilitate digestion, regulate the immune system, protect us against disease and manufacture vitamins. We live in such inter-dependency with our microbiome that some talk about holobionts, making us an assemblage of a host plus the resident microbes that inhabit it.

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä, Warm and moist | decaying wood (detail.) Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

Artist Alma Heikkilä wants us to open up our eyes to a world without which our world wouldn’t exist. It’s not just about the microbiome. She finds these imperceptible worlds everywhere. Where we only see a decaying log of wood, she sees a hot spot for insects and fungi. Where we see dirt and soil under our feet, she senses a vast universe of creatures that communicate and keep the underground and the overground alive. We know we breathe oxygen in, she knows we inhale also other gases, airborne bacteria, fungi as well as all kinds of pollutants.

Heikkilä wants us to become more sensitive to all the micro-organisms we overlook, either because microbiological elements are difficult to experience with our sole human senses or because Western culture has made us too individualist to give much consideration to species other than our own. Beyond these microscopic creatures, her work also touches upon other subjects that lie beyond human sensory perception, not as a result of their tininess but because they out-size us. They are massively distributed in time and space and are what environmental philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects“. Global warming is the most famous of these hyperobjects. Just like microorganisms, they exceed our human apprehension but we can’t keep on ignoring the powerful interdependence between them and us.

Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world, 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world (detail), 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Heikkilä uses painting to address the necessity to acknowledge the importance of nonhuman life and our symbiotic relationship to it. The difference of scale between the ultra-small organisms and the hyperobjects she investigates is reflected in the composition of the paintings. The size of her works is overwhelming and forces you to take a step back but their visual details and material qualities draw you closer.

Her concern for these invisible forms of life is reflected in the critical examination of her own artistic practice. Heikkilä carefully assesses the impact the materials she wants to use might have on ecosystems, for example. She shuns planes and travels with ‘slow’ transportation only. She even bought 11 hectares of forest, not to use as a resource for her own work but to ensure that it continues being a habitat for biodiversity and acts as a carbon sink for any strain her activities has on ecosystems. Directly or indirectly. This might seem charming to many but her efforts put to shame all the artists, curators and reporters who explore the topic of the anthropocene with much gravitas but don’t think twice before taking a taxi or a plane instead of perfectly convenient public transport systems. It’s going to be interesting to see how working processes like hers will influence the way the art world operates.

The artist has just opened a show at Kiasma in Helsinki that defies anthropocentrism and gives visibility to the various processes of multispecies companionship. Each of her painting installation is like a microcosm of entities that coexist, combine and interact.

Another fascinating element of the exhibition is the way it challenges museum conventions. Heikkilä urged curator Satu Oksanen to consider opening up the usually carefully-controlled exhibition space to a natural element: light. Natural light now floods the space, coming from a sky light and a large window. Light is thus another participant to the show. Depending on the time of your visit in Kiasma, your eyes will have to adjust more or less to its intensity (artificial lights will be turned on if it ever gets too dark to experience the exhibition though.)

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä is the second recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin, a project that aims to provide international exposure for one selected Finnish artist. The project is funded by the Alfred Kordelin Foundation which supports the sciences, literature, the arts and public education in the country with grants and awards. Helsinki-based Maija Luutonen was the first recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin.

Through this commission, Heikkilä receives the support of the Kiasma staff, has been commissioned new works and has gained visibility but she also got a chance to collaborate with Elina Minn. The dramaturge will invite the public to join workshops that explore cellular consciousness inside Heikkilä’s show at Kiasma. Titled Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy, the one-hour sessions are ‘undoing’ practices that enable participants to focus on experiencing the world inside their body.

Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living (detail). Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living. Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

I didn’t know the work of artist and activist Heikkilä before visiting her show in Helsinki. But i did know about Mustarinda, the collective of artists and researchers she co-founded a few years ago. The goal of Mustarinda is to combine scientific knowledge and experiential artistic activity in order to lay out a path towards a post-fossil culture. Check out their residency calls if you’re interested in their work and fancy spending time in an isolated house with a lovely garden at edge of the Paljakka Nature Reserve in Finland.

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin was curated by Satu Oksanen. The exhibition remains open at Kiasma in Helsinki until 28 July 2019.
Check out this page for information about Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy with Elina Minn. /blockquote>

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded, by writer, filmmaker and architect Madeline Schwartzman.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Black Dog Press writes: See Yourself X focuses on the fundamental domain of our perception—the human head. The publication presents an array of conceptual and constructed ideas of how we might physically extend the head, the mind, the brain or our consciousness into space. What is the future of the human head? What will happen to our sensory apparatus in 50 years, when the mechanisms for how we communicate and sense our surroundings become obsolete, prompted by the advancement of sensors that will enable brain-to-brain communication? Everyone with a head should be interested in this book.

See Yourself X had inauspicious origins. In March 2012, while she was on the way to a talk for See Yourself Sensing, Schwartzman’s aeroplane crashed into a bus. As it landed in Detroit, the wing of the Delta MD-80 knocked over a shuttle bus at over 120 miles per hour. Luckily, no one was hurt. But it did spark an investigation: do pilots feel the width of their wings? If so, this would mean that the human head could effectively become 150 feet wide. This was the catalyst for See Yourself X: to look across art practices and contemporary culture, at all ways of extending the head into space, and to move headlong into the future.

Joanne Petit-Frère, Redressing the Crown series

Shai Langen, Liquid Body, 2014

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded is the second volume of a series that looks at human perception and the sensory apparatus. The first one, See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception, looked at fifty years of futuristic proposals for the body and the senses. It was published in 2011 but is still as seducing and pertinent as ever. The new book, See Yourself X, focuses in on the human head.

Drawing on current works of fashion, design and science and looking back at ideas and artifacts from the past, the publication sets to explore how our heads, faces and brains can allow us to extend ourselves physically into space.

Some of the projects selected seem far-fetched and whimsical. Some are slightly sinister, others are poetical or just playful. Although their creators don’t necessarily have the ambition to predict the future, the works selected in the book often trigger sparks inside our minds, push back the limits of what we think is possible and thus suggest what might happen 10, 20, even 50 years from now.

Studio Peripetie, Pugh-atory, Chimney sweeper, 2009

Matthias Darly, Ridiculous Taste, or the Ladies Absurdity, C.1776

In her essays and descriptions, Madeline Schwartzman makes spectacular images of design, art and fashion enter into an inspiring dialogue with the latest advances in neurology, robotics, psychology or nanotechnology. There is plenty of speculation at work, of course but without speculation, there would only be very little science and very uninspiring art.

Chrystl Rijkeboer, Twins Brown, 2007

Trick photograph of man with two heads, 1901

I just finished reading See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded. It’s been an energizing journey that took me from hair extensions to phrenology; from sophisticated algorithms for face detection to cyborg antenna; from knitted heads to The Thatcher illusion and from human hybridized with plant or machine to sensitive e-skin.

Quick selection of works i discovered in the book:

Lauren Kalman, But if the Crime is Beautiful… Hood, 2014

Silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, allegedly worn by a nineteenth- century woman who had lost her own to syphilis. Hunterian Museum at the Royal college of Surgeons

Rebecca Drolen, Drainage (from the series Hair Pieces), 2011

Sterling Crispin, Data-Mask, 2013-2015

Sterling Crispin reverse-engineered facial recognition algorithms to create 3-D printed masks and photographs, revealing the way in which the machines might visually “understand” our faces.

Portrait parle class, France. From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), 1910 to 1915

Fantich & Young, Apex Predator Female, 2014

Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2010-ongoing

Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2018

Katharine Dowson, Brain Bricks, 2005

Brain Bricks are life-size representations of Katharine Dowson’s own brain.

Jennifer B. Thoreson, Cancer, from the series Testament, 2014

Kahn & Selesnick, The Face Behind the Face, 2014

Previously: See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception.

An artificial planet made entirely of human bodies

Instead of sending humans on a long and probably very painful mission to colonize Mars, how about sending human corpses in outer space to aggregate and form a new planet?

Julijonas Urbonas‘ new project proposes to do just that. A Planet of People would be created by sending human bodies to the L2 point of the Earth-Sun system, one of the Lagrangian points in space where the gravity is absent. There, the frozen bodies would float around until their weak gravities make them assemble into a huge celestial body: “in this way, a new ‘human’ planet is extra-terraformed. A cosmic fossil of humanity. A monument to humans of humans.”

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. 3D human scanner installation view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. steel. Screenshot showing the overview of the recently scanned bodies, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. steel. Screenshot showing the overview of the recently scanned bodies, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

The project speculates upon the aesthetic, ethical and scientific aspects of such a formation into space.

What spatial structures would it be possible to choreograph? How would a landscape of biomass look like on such a planet? What biochemical processes would it undergo, and would it form its own ecosystem eventually? And what would be the ethical, cultural and political implications, both here on Earth and out there?

A Planet of People might be speculative but it is deeply anchored in science. It draws on disciplines such as biomechanics, space law, space medicine, astrophysics or astrogeology to reflect upon the establishment of exo-disciplinary arts (architecture, choreography and other forms of arts influenced by the exposure to the extreme conditions encountered in outer space.) In addition, the work invites us to question our traditional definitions of human species and life in general.

The results of Urbonas’ artistic research into the scientific feasibility study of this artificial planet were exhibited last month at the Galerija Vartai in Vilnius. Visitors of the exhibition could get their body scanned in 3D and transposed into a 3D astrophysics simulation. They would then be able to watch their body fly and join the ones of the previous visitors, slowly adding to the planetary mass.

Julijonas Urbonas, Hypergravitational Piano, 2017 – 2019. Installation view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. Astrophysics simulation room view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

I’m still wondering how we would understand this planet made of human corpses: Would we use it as glorified resting place for the ultra rich? Would we regard it as a monument that celebrates humanity’s sense of adventure? Would it become the ultimate relic of our presence in the universe after we’ve made the Earth so toxic our whole species has disappeared? Or will it just be yet another piece of space trash?

I asked artist, designer, researcher, engineer and former Director of a Soviet amusement park Julijonas Urbonas to tell us more about his intriguing project:

Hi Julijonas! First, i’d like to ask you about Cosmic Lithuanias, a project in which you reflect on the cosmic identity of a Lithuanian. Unfortunately, I’ve never been in Lithuania and i don’t know anything about the cosmic identity of the country (nor do I know anything about the cosmic identity of my own country for that matter). What makes this cosmic identity worth investigating?

The cosmic history of Lithuania spans over four centuries and it involves things such as: Kazimieras Simonavičius’ idea for multi-stage rockets in 1650; the establishment of one of the oldest astronomical observatories in Europe in 1753; the first successful attempt to grow plants “from seed to seed” in space; establishment of the Lithuanian Aerospace Association in 2009; and, most recently, the launch of several Lithuanian nanosatellites. The latter transmitted audio recordings in Lithuanian language back to earth. The messages included “Lithuania loves freedom”, and the voice recording of Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė saying “Greetings to all Lithuanians around the world!”

Actually, it is these Lithuanian satellites that provoked my concern about the national space culture, which is monopolized by technologists and businessmen. What’s the value of such celestial messages addressed to a super tiny, narrow and rather techy community – radio hams? I wonder how many of them spoke Lithuanian and even if they did, what have they learned from hearing such a truism? Ultimately, how does this achievement differ from Sputnik 1, the world’s very first artificial satellite that broadcasted nothing but beeps?

“Fiton-3” – a micro-greenhouse developed by Lithuanian scientists. It was sent to Salyut 7 space station in 1982. During their 40-day lifecycle, Arabidopsis plants became the very first plants to flower and produce seeds in the zero gravity of space

Despite the prevalence of nerdy ideas, our cultural discourses have not produced any critical responses to this. It is as though our culture terminated at the Kármán line, an arbitrary designation that lies at an altitude of 100 km above Earth’s sea level and commonly represents the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space. I set out to do something about it and push Lithuanian culture over that line. There were a dozen of ideas that got materialised in the forms of an opera, an extra-terrestrial vodka (it’s under development in collaboration with an astrobotanist Danguolė Švegždienė), a funding application for a Lithuanian Kosmica festival, also lectures, workshops and texts about cosmic imagination and exo-disciplinary arts. One of the ideas has been extremely persistent, constantly recurring in my sketches, daydreams and discussions with scientists. I call it A Planet of People – an artificial planet made entirely of human bodies. I thought it was a very promising idea to spark the discussion about our own cosmic programme. What could be more straightforward than reducing the nation to a collection of the bodies of its citizens that are put into outer space? The nation in space is a cosmic nation. Its provocative tone, simplicity and, most importantly, its uniqueness compared to other space programmes, made it viral. While still at the very early stage of conceptualisation, the idea was selected as one of the most important Lithuanian visions in the book Imagining Lithuania: 100 years, 100 visions, 1918–2018.

Instagram Photo

The work combines “astroanthropology, speculative engineering, biomechanics, space law, space medicine, astrophysics, astrogeology and space arts.” You worked with astrophysicist Vidas Dobrovolskas for this project and you also were an artist in residency at CERN, so I suspect that the project has got some serious scientific backing. I’m intrigued by the “speculative engineering” side of the work. How much speculation is necessary to engineer this monument to humanity made up of human corpses? 

The engineering in this project is speculative in several ways. Firstly, there is little to no engineering knowledge and methods to deal with such an idea. Terraforming, or planetary engineering in general, is still at the stage of sci-fi. Also, no mammal bodies, let alone human bodies, have ever been used as a material for architectural structures with some vaguely related exceptions such as choreographic formation practices (skydiving, human towers, etc.), military biomechanics research, the deviations of serial killers, such as Ed Gein’s designs of human flesh. Secondly, the idea is quite unrealistic logistically. In order to meet the definition of a planet, an unimaginably large number of bodies would be required. If we started sending ourselves out into space today, with the current worldwide birth rate we’d need around one trillion years to form a planet massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity. Thirdly, the idea has unacceptable cultural implications. Hence, we have here a speculative social engineering assignment. And, ultimately, the project might be seen as a bio sci-fi, for which a specific quasi-fictitious engineering should be used to make things work not in reality but in the public imagination. Thus, it is more akin to what Disney called ‘imagineering’.

In my practice, I usually come up with ideas for projects by imagining a certain number of human bodies under unprecedented gravitational circumstances. A few examples: a falling trajectory that pleases and kills, a spin that enhances orgasm, a rocking motion that directs gravitational dreams, etc. In A Planet of People I imagine a large group of people in weightlessness, and soon realise that it is impossible to remove gravity completely. Not only because we are gravitational beings (gravity has been an extremely crucial factor in our evolution), but just because we are objects with mass, hence, according to physics, also with gravity. After their suspension in space for a substantial amount of time, the weak gravitational forces emitted from the bodies would pull them toward each other until they are assembled into a cluster. This ego-centric gravity becomes the driving force of the project.

This is exactly what would happen if we found ourselves in certain locations in outer space. One of such locations may be the Lagrange points that are located between two celestial bodies orbiting around one another (for example, the Sun and the Moon, or the Sun and Earth), in which the gravitational pull from both objects compensate for one another, such that a third body, for example, a space probe, can stay fixed in that point. Imagine a million, a billion or even a number with nineteen zeros (which is the minimum number of bodies required for the formation of a new planet) of frozen human bodies floating around one of the Lagrange points and forming a new celestial body.

Here we’re entering the domain of speculative science and engineering. What spatial structures could we choreograph? How would a landscape look like on such a planet? How would it be affected by space radiation and biochemical changes? What kind of geology or even ecosystem would it eventually produce?

I am currently working on these questions with various scientists working in astrophysics, astrogeology, astrobiology, biomechanics, forensics, etc. Their responses will be featured in a publication that I am currently curating.

So far, the project has been mostly based on astrophysics. One of the major elements of the project is an interactive installation that features a 3D human body scanner. The visitors are scanned and rendered in a 3D astrophysical simulation. The system assigns an individual gravitational field to each body scan and speeds up the interactions between all of them so that their ‘extra-terrestrial dance’ would be visible instantly. This is where the project involves some real engineering, yet its purpose is rather the imaginary workings of the space programme, in which they are both its protagonists and its very content. The interactive installation forces the public to confuse a human being for a planet, thus producing an empathic link with humans freed up from the earthly context.

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. steel. Screenshot showing the overview of the recently scanned bodies, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

In the scanner, everybody may become a planetary engineer by considering their posture and its influence on the formation of the inter-corporeal structure. This is meant to provoke our choreographic imagination (aka proprioception, or kinaesthetic/motoric imagination). However, after the first exhibition of the project in Life at the Edges in Science Gallery I realised that very few people were aware of such a type of imagination, and the visitors were mostly reluctant in terms of free bodily engagement. The culprit might be our contemporary preoccupation with visualism. The term ‘imagination’ already speaks for itself. In fact, imagination is not only the domain of eyes, but also that of all the other senses. This realisation made me take a deeper look into the creative means that would facilitate choreo-imagination. I was considering various rope and harness suspensions systems used for special effects in cinema, a specially instructed choreographer-cum-installation-operator, etc. The majority of these ideas appeared too cumbersome and didactic, so I settled down on scenography and animation. In the second version of the installation at the gallery “Vartai” in Vilnius I designed an immersive atmosphere by hiding the cables, devices and machinery – everything that would reveal the working principles of the installation and remind the participants of the present times. In order to facilitate the choreographic imagination even more, in the next stage of the project we are going to use automatic skeleton recognition system that would rig and animate the virtual bodies. The latter will constantly change their postures through randomised choreography and changing contact points. The body owners will be able to dance extra-terrestrially without actually moving. Have you ever tried huddling up with other bodies in armpit-heel-chin-chin-forefinger configuration?

Julijonas Urbonas, Hypergravitational Piano,, 2017 – 2019. Installation view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. 3D human scanner detail view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

There’s something quite disturbing and outrageous about A Planet of People. I suspect it is because it’s difficult not to think about whether or not people would like end up being part of this monument. Or whether they would like their loved ones to end up there. How do people react to the project? Do they feel, like I did for example, that a person would not be completely dead if its body were to remain intact and float out there?

People indeed do feel provoked, but I’ve met only a few people who’ve been genuinely disturbed by the idea. It looks like you’re one of these very few. Actually, it is not unexpected. Perhaps, the reason for the acceptance of this idea lies in our current obsession with apocalyptical ideas and eschatological thinking. In times where extinction is a matter not of speculative fiction, but of daily journalism, the tolerance level of the ecological ‘graphic language’ is pushing itself to the extremes, and what used to be ‘disturbing’ is now considered ‘mundane’.

It is only when the exhibition-goers immerse themselves into the narrative that they do feel shaken up. Should I be naked? What posture makes fewest contact points with other bodies? What can my body do out there that it cannot do here? What’s the ultimate posture that would define my cosmic identity? Atomism is flourishing in these questions, and the first thing that most people find difficult to do is to think of themselves as planetary beings. However, after playing around with various postures, they soon realise that such seemingly fundamental spatial definitions as ‘up’ and ‘down’, or ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ no longer make sense. What does an upright posture mean when the legs lose their footing? Heads and butts become equal (Actually, this is why I am using patterns that might be interpreted as a landscape of heads, buttocks, clouds, or guts). Eventually, one is forced to suspend their understanding of their body as a thing that senses, perceives, thinks and socialises. Once the body crosses the Kármán line, it gets stripped of all of its earthly definitions. The body becomes what it actually is: a nameless, senseless, thoughtless, genderless, raceless and cultureless entity. The body opens itself up for a new construct(ion).

Once you add a prefix ‘astro-’ to the terrestrial disciplines such as anthropology, biology or geology, you might find the idea of the ‘human planet’ not as alien as it might seem. For example, looking from the perspective of the astro-material science, everything in the Universe is formed from the same stuff, namely, baryonic matter. A Martian rock, a coconut, a polished car rim, and a human body are not so different from each other. Depending on how much one wants to stretch the concept of life, one may also label any of these entities as living beings. We might suddenly start considering ourselves as planets, and seeing planets as living beings (just think of the twentieth-century desert explorer Ralph Bagnold who thought of sand dunes as biological entities and became a key reference for astrobiology).

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. Installation view (detail), Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

You’re interested in ‘gravitational aesthetics’ and have applied it to topics related to death (the Euthanasia Coaster being the most famous example). Have you ever thought of applying it to purely entertaining contexts, going back to the Soviet amusement park of your childhood? 

To be honest, I do not know what ‘pure entertainment’ is. If it is a total distraction and infinite euphoria, I imagine it would be rather a unique kind of extreme horror without fear, cruelty and gruesomeness. Such an ‘entertainment’ would also be the love of oppression, the adornment of the technologies that undo one’s capacities to think. Neil Postman has depicted it nicely t in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. If this is the kind of amusement you mean, then some of my projects are already epitomising that kind of thinking. Consider Cumspin, an orgasm-enhancing amusement ride.

Actually, I keep getting all kinds of enquiries about the feasibility and financial aspects of such projects of mine. I haven’t done any feasibility studies and am not interested in doing so until somebody would do it by themselves. It would take me an enormous amount of time which I would rather spend on art making and daydreaming, and there is nothing more precious than that. It would also be super-expensive. None of the enquirers have gone that far yet.

A scale model of the “Blue Loop”. Photo: Darius Petrulaitis

However, I have recently started developing a parallel line of work that is more a down-to-earth kind of amusement. All of them are mostly public art projects. Three of them are already funded and are at the late engineering stages. One of them is a playground for children, and another one is more like a hybrid of a sculpture and an amusement ride. At the moment I can reveal only one of them: it is called “Blue Loop”, a project commissioned by the Vilnius Municipality. It is basically a loop-shaped path – part runner track, part urban-scale graphic art. Casually drawn on the bird-view photo of a public square, the line circles and binds the loose elements of the space. The path crosses and penetrates all the landscape elements: the paved pedestrian zones, the green sections, the parking lot, the playground, etc. This scribble is also a sort of choreographic device with its specially shaped curves and turns of varying degree. The workers at the business centre next to the square intend to use it as a substitute for a coffee break spot. However, the place has poor air quality, and we are currently engineering a special air quality station that would control the lighting of the path. If the path is lit green, you will be able to safely take a jog.

Julijonas Urbonas, Hypergravitational Piano,, 2017 – 2019. Installation view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Julijonas Urbonas, Hypergravitational Piano, 2017 – 2019. Installation view, Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

The gallery installation is visually very appealing, even though I’m not sure I fully understand what I’m looking at. Could you describe what we see in the photos above? What is Hypergravitational Piano and what is its purpose?

Hypergravitantional Piano is a hybrid of a grand piano and a human centrifuge. The composer Gailė Griciūte composed a special piece that she also occasionally played during the exhibition. It was sort of a soundtrack for A Planet of People and a staged thought experiment for the extra-terrestrial sound piece.

A Planet of People might be considered as a thought experiment aiming to see what happens to choreography, architecture, music, and arts in general, once they cross the Kármán line. The majority of these kind of experiments have already appeared in my texts and lectures, slowly advancing towards the establishment of what I call exo-disciplinary arts. But it is just recently that they started transition from the mental and literary domains into artistic installations. One of them – Hypergravitantional Piano – is exactly that. In fact, I engineered it along with other six revolving platforms specifically for the opera Honey, Moon!, where I was also both a director and a stage designer. Together with the composer Gailė Griciūte and others we were speculating upon the genre of opera under the conditions of outer space – a sort of ‘true’ space opera.

Julijonas Urbonas, Honey, Moon! – Opera, Art Installation, 2018

When I talk about all of these space conditions, by ‘cosmic’ I usually mean altered states of gravity: weightlessness, artificial gravity, hypergravity, etc. Hypergravitantional Piano uses the centrifugal force of spinning to produce artificial gravity, the force that pushes the piano player to the backrest. With each rehearsal and performance we increase the force and observe the effects upon the player, the instrument, the sound and the music in general. The composition changes in time while we experiment with spinning choreography. Such an artificial gravity produces unique gravitational fields that vary at different points of both the player and the piano. The force increases away from the spin axis. Thus, the fingers feel a weaker pull then the head or the back, and the movement of the playing hands are affected by the complex Coriolis forces. So are the piano strings. A constantly changing orientation of the instrument affects the way the sound propagates. Of course, we’re not working with high forces, we are spinning the thing at moderate speeds, producing maximum ~1.5 G (a force one and a half times higher than Earth’s gravity), but the composer has already observed that this has a unique physical and psychological effect on her creative mind and thus makes way for the hypergravitational sound and listenership.

Instagram Photo

Julijonas Urbonas, A Planet of People, 2017 – 2019. Installation view (detail), Vartai Gallery, Vilnius

Does the royal blue colouring of the curtains have any significance? I think you have used that colour in your previous works (in Milan?)

You’re right, the colour – namely RAL5017 – was used for my project Airtime, a floor that lifts up and drops down beneath the visitor’s feet. I covered the surface of the moving floor with a special rubber material due to its shock absorbing features. There are just a few colours in the industrial rubber pallet. So I picked the blue one as it looked photogenic, it also seemed to hint towards the ‘airy’ context, but also because, historically, it is the last color that humans learned to perceive.

Thanks Julijonas!

Previously: The Euthanasia Coaster.

Can blood ever be a material like any other?

Some 500 million animals are slaughtered every year for consumption in the Netherlands. The figures are even more horrifying if you look at the number of animals slaughtered for food every second. But while parts of these animals end up on your plate, they also generate a lot of ‘waste material’. Only 30 percent of the cow blood for example will be dried and used in fertilizers. The remaining 70 percent will be sterilised and discharged into the sewer system.

Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Designer Basse Stittgen transforms these leftover of the meat industry into a dark, organic and versatile bioplastic. He uses the discarded body fluid as a biomaterial that he dries, heat-presses and then turns into a protein-based biopolymer from which he crafts small objects. Various pieces of dinnerware are direct reminders of the consumption of animals. Small egg holders that can be stacked into a totem that evokes the mystical sides of blood. A jewellery box invites us to question the value of blood, and perhaps also the value of animals after their death. The designer even created a record playing the heartbeat of a pig.

Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Most of us will have some kind of visceral reaction to the project. Smooth consumer goods made of solid blood feel a bit revolting and upsetting. The use of blood to create domestic goods forces us to confront the symbolic as well as the material dimension of a liquid we associate with both life and death. Furthermore, these Blood Related objects highlight the contradictions at the core of our relationship to animals. In theory, we all love animals. But not enough to stop buying the products of their exploitation. We know we need slaughterhouses but we prefer them to function far away from our sight and thoughts. Facilities where animals are butchered used to be located in urban centers but are now located outside city limits for “environmental and hygiene” concerns. The building of the ex-slaughterhouses have since been cleaned up to house swanky cultural centers.

The most interesting question this project asks is thus: Can this biomaterial ever become ‘just an object’, without any further associations?

Basse Stittgen‘s objects made with blood are currently part of ReShape. Mutating Systems, Bodies and Perspectives, an exhibition at MU in Eindhoven that explores theme of mutation and transformation. I took the show as an excuse to get in touch with the designer and ask him a few question about a project i found both curious and disturbing:

Hi Basse! How did you get the idea to create this rather surprising material? Is there in it any political or ethical comment on the meat industry? Or is it a more pragmatic solution to reduce industrial waste?

The project started as a broad research into bio materials and their history, at one moment I came across a french bio material created in 1855 called bois durci – it consisted of 80% sawdust and 20% oxblood. The possibility to make a solid material from blood sparked my fascination and I started doing first experiments.

There is no intention of a direct political comment on the meat industry, the objects are supposed to physicalize an invisible waste and connect the consumer again to the production of meat and asks to be aware of where meat comes from and what that takes. The project is not meant to be developed into an industrial scale waste reduction solution, especially because industrial slaughterhouse have facilities to collect and process the cow blood into for example fertilizer, which also means not all blood is waste, but all of it is invisible.

Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

From what i know, it is now very difficult to have contact with slaughterhouses and be granted an authorisation to visit their premises? How did you manage to source the blood? And how was your own experience of dealing with that industry?

It is indeed very difficult to find access to slaughterhouses since they are quite suspicious towards the motives of outsiders that want to gain access and on the other hand many of the ones I contacted saw no value in my research. It is about finding the right person to work with and now since over a year I’m working with one slaughterman that lets me collect the blood which for him is waste he pays for to have it picked up usually.

I remember the first time going to the slaughterhouse I was afraid of what I might see, especially since all the footage and news from slaughterhouses painted a very dark picture in my head. The moment I could talk to the slaughterman in person a lot of that fear and prejudice disappeared, which doesn’t change that the killing of a cow was one of the most violent images I experienced in my life.

While doing some online research to prepare this interview i found this page that describes the properties of the material. Where there characteristic of the materials that you found surprising, that you were not expecting?

And is it possible just by smelling or touching it to guess the origin of this biomaterial?

On first glance the material resembles bakelite, the surface is very hard and smooth due to the pressure and due to the heat the objects are completely black. During the process of creating them, especially drying the blood you can smell the origin, once the blood is dry it becomes odourless which makes it almost impossible to guess its origin. What surprised me most is the simplicity of the process

Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Could you tell us about the transformation process? How did you get from ‘industrial waste product’ to this set of objects?

All the objects relate to certain aspects of my research around blood. For the show at MU I decided to create a tiled table filled with dining ware made from blood. The setting calls in mind a slaughterhouse and the objects are directly linked to the consumption of animals.
For me to understand the meaning of the material and see the transformation process it is necessary to go one step before the industrial waste product. The first and more drastic transformation goes from blood as the ‘substance of life’ to ‘industrial waste product’ and only then into the blood objects. I try to embody this transformation for example in the record from blood which plays the hearbeat of a cow.

Basse Stittgen in collaboration with Anais Borie, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Basse Stittgen in collaboration with Anais Borie , Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Together with Anais Borie you created a set of alchemistic drawings that echo the mystical dimension of blood. Could you tell us the role that blood played in alchemy?

While blood has its real attributes and composition of different proteins glucose and hormones that are all measurable and can refer to the visible, it has another layer which is its metaphorical meaning, the meaning humans give it based on nothing but belief and fantasy, the invisible. It is the interplay of those two sides is what makes it such a fascinating material to work with. By creating this visual layer based on alchemistic drawings I wanted to play on the irrationality connect to blood.

Has the project altered in any way your relationship to animal products?

I’m still eating meat, but the project made me more aware and choose much more carefully when and how I do so, I think for consumers its very easy and convenient to look the other way when it comes to the process of how things are made. Especially in the slaughter industry, one of the biggest in the world, yet one of the most invisible simultaneously.

Thanks Basse!

Basse Stittgen’s work is part of the exhibition ReShape. Mutating Systems, Bodies and Perspectives at MU in Eindhoven until 10 March 2019.

Related stories: Vampires, crucifixion and transfusion. BLOOD is not for the faint-hearted, Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 1. The blood session), “Dangerous Art”: the latest issue of the (free) Experimental Emerging Art Magazine, The Meat Licence Proposal, interview with John O’Shea, etc.

Tattoo. Art on the skin

A rite of passage, a sign of transgression, a symbol of youth and rebellion or simply an expressive language for contemporary artists.

Manu Brabo, A member of Mara Salvatrucha is seen after this arrest during an anti gang raid in Soyapango, a few km from San Salvador, El Salvador, May 2015

Ceremonial mask, Dayak, Borneo XIXth century. Courtesy MuCiv, Roma

TATTOO. L’arte sulla pelle / TATTOO. Art on the Skin, a show that opened a few weeks ago at the MAO, the Museum of Oriental Art in Turin, explores the cultural, social and artistic dimensions of tattoos.

The exhibition is a joy to visit. Not only does it present artifacts and information related to tattoos in Japan, Pacific Ocean and in the South East of Asia throughout history but it also makes them enter into a dialogue with bikers, Russian and Italian criminals, skinheads, Hollywood movies and Delvoye’s tattooed pigs.

I’ve blogged about tattoo in culture numerous times already so i’ll just take the lazy road and leave you with lots of links and images and very few texts:

Olive Ann Oatman, September 7, 1837

Olive Oatman was probably the first occidental woman who was exhibited in public for her tattoos. Her parents were killed in 1851, when she was fourteen, by a Native American tribe who later sold her and her sister to the Mohave people. The Mohave people tattooed both of the girls to welcome them and help them integrate better in their society. After several years with the Mohave, she returned to white society.

Ross Sinclair, The Real Life Portraits, Duff House #5, 2000

Ross Sinclair initiated his Real Life project in 1994 when he had the words ‘Real Life’ tattooed across his back. Since then it has grown into a 20-plus year performance project, taking form in a wide range of exhibitions, mediums and publication contexts.

Mary Coble, Untitled (Blood Script Portfolio), 2008

Mary Coble had 80 insulting words tattooed without ink in front of a live audience over the course of two days. Blood impressions on paper were made of each word to generate a set of unique paintings.

Dr Lakra, Untitled (Pin Up Girl), 2011

Robert Doisneau, Concours du plus beau tatouage, quartier Mouffetard, octobre 1950 © Atelier Doisneau

Robert Doisneau, Concours du plus beau tatouage, quartier Mouffetard, octobre 1950 © Atelier Doisneau

Sorry for the poor quality of the photo below. I took it with my phone while visiting the show. I couldn’t find a better quality of image online but still wanted to mention the work of Nico Mingozzi. I love what he does.

Nico Mingozzi, Senza titolo, 2015

Santiago Sierra, 250 cm Line Tattooed on Paid People, 1999

Letizia Battaglia, A member of the Mafia with a Christ tattoo, murdered by his colleagues, Palermo, 1982

Sergei Vasiliev, from his series of photographs of Russian Criminal Tattoos, shot between 1989 and 1993 in prisons and reform settlements across Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Perm and St. Petersburg

Anonymous, Carlo Pandini, early XXth century, The Museum of Criminal Anthropology “Cesare Lombroso” in Turin

Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed that criminals could be distinguished from noncriminals by physical anomalies. The “born criminal” could be anatomically identified by such features as a sloping forehead, asymmetry of the face, prognathism, bloodshot eyes, excessive length of arms and other “physical stigmata.” Moreover, for Lombroso, criminal appearance was not just inherited, it could also be judged through superficial features like body tattoos. Several objects and drawings from the archives of the Museum of Criminal Anthropology “Cesare Lombroso” in Turin illustrated the kind of links his theory made between tattoos and criminality.

Anonymous, Ciro Bonacoro, Giovanni Marigo, Angelo Quaglini, Giuseppe Avondo, second half of the 19th century. The Museum of Criminal Anthropology “Cesare Lombroso” in Turin

Anonymous, Giovanni Mullè, second half of the 19th century. The Museum of Criminal Anthropology “Cesare Lombroso” in Turin

Plinio Martelli, Souvenir D’Afrique, 1974-2001. Courtesy Collezione Castello di Rivara Museo d’Arte contemporanea

Plinio Martelli added colours to images he found in judicial archives. The photos show people who had mythical creatures, scenes of violence, or esoteric, erotic or religious symbols tattooed on their skin.

Filip Leu, Back with tattooed carp, 2003. Courtesy Filip Leu

Tattoo by Horiyoshi III Sensei. Horiyoshi III Sensei – Horiyoshi III Souryou – Kazuyoshi Nakano. Son and only apprentice of Horiyoshi III Sensei, Singapore, June 2018 © Zozios

Andrew Shaylor, Blaine te Rito, Maori woodcarver, New Zealand, circa 2008

Chief Paul Paoura Tuhaere of the Orekie (Maori, New Zealand), second half of the XIXth century

Valie Export, Tattoo II, 1972

Rod Steiger in a scene from the movie The Illustrated Man, 1969

Felice Beato, Japanese Porter, late 1800s

View of the exhibition TATTOO. L’arte sulla pelle / TATTOO. Art on the Skin at MAO, the Museo d’Arte Orientale in Turin

View of the exhibition TATTOO. L’arte sulla pelle / TATTOO. Art on the Skin at MAO, the Museo d’Arte Orientale in Turin

TATTOO. L’arte sulla pelle / TATTOO. Art on the Skin was curated by Alessandra Castellani. The exhibition remains open at the MAO, the Museo d’Arte Orientale in Turin until 3 March 2019.

Previously: Book review – Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design, Tattooists, tattooed, Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits, Dr Lakra at Kurimanzutto in Mexico City, etc.

A Virus Walks into a Bar. Or how art and science can infect each other

John Walter, A Virus Walks into a Bar, 2018. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

John Walter, Hung Drawn and Circumcised. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

Over the course of a 3 year Wellcome funding, Walter has embedded himself inside the Towers Lab at University College London. The research center, headed by Prof Greg Towers, studies the molecular details of host virus interactions, focusing particularly on HIV-1, the cause of AIDS, and its relationship with the innate immune system.

The artist attended lab meetings, took note of the scientific jargon, asked awkward questions and learnt more about the research done at the lab. At the heart of his collaboration with the scientists is a study of the HIV capsid. The CAPSID is a protein shell that surrounds the virus (including HIV) and enables its transmission. CAPSID is a rather sneaky bastard. It protects the virus’s DNA from being seen and acts as an invisibility cloak.

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, A Virus Walks Into A Bar (trailer), 2018. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

You can see the deftness of the virus in action in A Virus Walks into a Bar. The short film (a new HOME Artist Film commission) uses the bar motif of British soap operas to depict how the HIV virus infects human cells.

The bar is the immune system. It is guarded by bouncers who refuse to let the virus in when he turns up in his big yellow zorb ball. They know he means trouble. Other customers are not so cautious. The new guy looks so harmless and chummy they let him buy them beers. Once inside, our CAPSID character fends off more resistance from other customers (who play the role of proteins and cytoplasm) and slowly makes his way to the counter where the barmaid is standing (she personifies the nucleus of the human cell.) From there all hell breaks loose….

John Walter‘s talent in expressing complex scientific ideas in an engaging and eccentric way is on show this Winter at HOME in Manchester.

John Walter: CAPSID mixes animation, paintings, textile craft, humour, pop culture and more to investigate the complexities of virology and the spread of deadly infection but also scientific language and protocols.

The result of his research is informative without ever being didactic nor illustrative. It is relentlessly bombastic, witty, seductive. And yet, it remains anchored in rigorous science.

I was lucky enough to attend the guided tour of the show with John Walter and structural virologist Professor Greg Towers. Anyone doubting the benefits of a close art and science relationship should have seen these two explaining the exhibition. Walter spent most of his time detailing the scientific bits while Towers was busy describing his own take on the artistic merits of the works. I don’t think the role reversal had been planned but it demonstrated how much two worlds that are academically and culturally presented as separate can gain from closer connections and exchanges.

Towers described how the artist’s sometimes surprising questions have led his team to question their own lines of investigation and open up new ones. Beyond the lab, the artist also discussed with undergraduate students, got involved in the lab’s science outreach programs and challenged scientific minds to think more reflexively about their own research.

The challenging process went two ways though as Walter used scientific imagery, codes and jargon as a source material to innovate and expand his own artistic practice.

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

Just like the virus contaminates the healthy cell, the world of science contaminated the world of art and vice versa. This contagion is further reflected in the whole exhibition space where prints cover the floor, stickers are glued on the windows to allow passers-by to get a sense and a curiosity for what is inside the gallery, wallpaper seems to interact with paintings and videos, etc. Immersed in this overwhelming assault on the senses, the visitor is led to question his or her own role in the exhibition.

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

Walter’s inventive ability to find new ways of expressing how viruses behave is truly impressive. For example, he experimented with patterned metal screens to signify the “uncoating” moment when the CAPSID releases viral acid into its host. He also produced 5 metres wide paintings in which Jamiroquai, the AGIP logo, the La Vache Qui Rit cow and other iconic characters of pop/corporate culture evoke the co-factors (particles that facilitate the capsid’s access to the nuclear pore.) There’s so much to discover in the exhibition…

John Walter, Innate Sensing Mechanism (detail), CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, Innate Sensing Mechanism, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

I was particularly fascinated by the series of Innate Sensing Mechanism paintings.

Garish objects such as plush toys and silicon foreskin (that’s when i learnt that there’s a market for circumcised men want their foreskin back) are glued on the compositions using pink adhesive foam. They stand for the defense mechanism by which a cell can detect foreign genetic material and kill it. Walter used a silicon gun to make sure that the invasive materials could not be rejected. The strength of these paintings (and of the other works in the exhibition) is that they stand on their own two feet, you don’t need to be aware of the scientific background to enjoy these mesmerizingly outlandish collages.

John Walter: CAPSID is playful, absurd, smart, poetical and often very moving. More importantly, it reminded me of the need to constantly refresh and stimulate public conversation around HIV. AIDS is still very much a crisis in some areas of the world. According to a research by UNAIDS, 37 million people are living with HIV, the highest number ever, yet a quarter do not know that they have the virus. Last year only, almost one million people died because of it.

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

And of course i need to go back to A Virus Walks Into A Bar and mention the onesies! The actors in the film are dressed in costumes hand-customised by the artist. There are 30 of them. Some directly echo Walter’s paintings. Others are covered in embroidery, patches, mini pompoms and buttons that seem to colonize and infect the garment. I loved how the silly onesies (no one will ever convince me they are not a bit silly) contrast with the white lab coats worn by scientists when they are interviewed on tv about their work.

More images from the exhibition:

John Walter, Cytoplasm. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

If you’re curious about the exhibition, i’d highly recommend this audio tour of the show with the artist.

John Walter: CAPSID is at HOME in Manchester until Sunday 6 Jan 2019.