Category Archives: Dublin

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Xandra!

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

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

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Andy!


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


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

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

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Andy!


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


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

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

When is fake ‘even better than the real thing’?


DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Matt Kenyon, Giant Pool of Money, 2016. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin, invites us to leave behind our prejudices when considering the simulated, the artificial and the fictitious.

“Fake” is a word that pops up ad nauseam in social, political and economic contexts. It is often associated with low quality goods, forged artworks, earnings of dubious origins, polite orgasms, Trump bombastic ‘rhetoric’ (or rather lack thereof), etc.

The curators of the exhibition, however, challenge us to spend time examining the multiple facets of the fake and to reconsider any assumption we might have about it:

From fake meat to fake emotions, if faking it gets the job done, who cares? In both the natural world and human society, faking, mimicking and copying can be a reliable strategy for success. When the focus is on how things appear, a fake may be just as valuable as the real thing. But what about replicating taste, emotions, chemical signatures, facts and trademarks? Have patents, politics, and art given copying a bad name? From biomimicry to forged documents, from scandals to substitutes, Fake asks when authenticity is essential, when copying is cool, and what the boundary is between a fakery faux-pas and a really fantastic Fake.

FAKE is your typical Science Gallery Dublin exhibition. It puzzles, informs, puts you out of your comfort zone at least once and it entertains you in the process.

Many of the dimensions of the fake are analysed and discussed in the show but the one that ended up staying with me after i had left Dublin looked at the ruses and strategies deployed by animals and plants to deceive each other. In the video recording of a joint talk they gave at the Science Gallery in March, Fiona Newell and Nicola Marples bring to light some of the sneaky tricks used by plants as well as human and non-human animals:

Fiona Newell, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Nicola Marples, Professor in Zoology, Trinity College Dublin talking about deception in the natural world

The presentation is absolutely fascinating. The superstar among all those creatures of treachery is not the human being but the mimic octopus, a species of octopus capable of impersonating other local species:

Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

Let’s remain in the company of cephalopods and dive into the exhibition itself:


Ryuta Nakajima, Cuttle 61

Like other cephalopods, cuttlefish are masters of shape and shade shifting when they need to camouflage themselves in the background. Ryuta Nakajima attempted to push the cognitive and interpretive system of cuttlefish camouflage patterns to their limits by decorating aquaria with computer-generated images of famous visual artworks. His installations shows how the creatures responded to art reproductions. The conclusion of the artistic experiment is probably that the cuttlefish didn’t see the artworks as worthy of any mimicking effort.


Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018


Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Robotic Frog Attracting Potential Mate. In the video a female tungara frog approaches a robofrog inflating its vocal sac. The female can also hear recorded mating calls playing

Ecologists can also deploy deceptive strategies when studying animal species.

Science collaborators Ryan Taylor and Michael Ryan were studying the túngara frogs in Panama and they wanted to understand the connections between multimodal signaling (using more than one sensory cue) and mate selection. Behaviourist Barrett Klein built ‘faux frogs’ (a.k.a. ‘robofrogs’) to assist them in their cheeky field studies. As the video above demonstrates, the artificial amphibians successfully fooled real female túngara frogs. When choosing a potential mate, these ladies listen to the sounds of the male calls but they are also sensitive to the sight of the male frogs inflating their vocal sacs.


Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017

Heather Beardsley’s collection of decidedly odd creatures proposes that we stop and reflect on the contrasting frameworks of museums and art galleries.

Museums use display conventions developed over time to communicate knowledge to a non-expert audience. These conventions convey the importance of the objects, but do not invite critical thinking. Contemporary art galleries, on the other hand, challenge viewers to think critically about the artifacts and decide whether or not they have any intrinsic value.

Beardsley lined up a series of animal specimens inside antique jars in a museum display. Some are hand-made reproductions of real animals. The others are actual biological creratures.

By installing these specimens together, the artist encourages viewers to question the hierarchical system they are used to and think more critically about museum displays.


Patricia Pisanelli, Stretching Cheese, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Patricia Pisanelli‘s wall of square slices of processed cheese makes us question the border between fake and authentic. How much fake are you allowed to use in a food product for it to remain authentic? In the case of cheese, the answer is 51%.

Slices of processed cheese are made from cheese (and sometimes other dairy by-product ingredients), emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, salt, food colouring, whey or sugar. If the product contains at least 51% cheese, it can be called cheese food. Less than 51% and the slices have to be labelled as “cheese product.”

Because there are so many processes and ingredients that enter into the production of these slices, they end up presenting different flavors, colors and textures. The artist chose slices from different brands. The assemblage is changing gradually over time. The colour of some of the slices is slowly fading under the light. Stains appear on others. Some seem to dry up inside their flimsy plastic wrapping. Others remain defiantly immutable.


James Shaw, Modular Mechanics Hairy Armchair, 2017

James Shaw‘s armchair is a bit maddening. It’s made from both natural and synthetic materials: ash timber, plastic timber, brass, real sheepskin and faux fur. I inspected it with great care and i was unable to distinguish what was organic and what was imitating the organic. Which sums up the reality around us: it’s made of real and fake. They are so intermingled, so good at imitating each other that we struggle to separate one from the other.


Finn Mullan, True & False, 2017—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Although it doesn’t deal at all with the organic, i need to mention Finn Mullan‘s Bastardville font because it addressed in a very literal and smart way the kind of mental association recent events have caused us to make when we hear the word “Fake.”

The font was inspired by a study that U.S. documentary film director Errol Morris made back in 2013. The research attempted to find out what typeface is considered to be the most believable, the most likely to convince us that a sentence is true. It turned out that Baskerville was considered the most reliable.

Broken down until it becomes barely legible, the Baskerville gradually turns into Bastardville. The battered typeface echoes the truth eroded in the post-truth era. In the Post-Truth age, no typeface, not even the most convincing one, can save the truth from corrosion and decay.

And if you’re curious about how typefaces can shape perception, you might enjoy this episode of Word of Mouth.

More works and installation views from FAKE:


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present


Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Janez Janša Bottles, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Isaac Monté & Toby Kiers, The Art of Deception, 2015. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Unknown, Fake Fake Alien Autopsy Head, 1996. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Also part of the exhibition: Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’ and The Phylogenetic Atelier: Would your wear clothes made of the skin of de-extinct species?

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

The project description explains:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thanks Tina!

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

FAKE: Faux or no? at Science Gallery Dublin

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Devon!

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

Design and Violence. Part 2: violence where you wouldn’t expect it

Previously: Design and Violence. Part 1: ambiguous violence.

DESIGN AND VIOLENCE at Science Gallery Dublin (trailer)

Violence, in particular, permeates everything around us, as one of the central organising principles of human affairs. One of the definitions of a modern state is that it reserves the right to violence for itself, while excluding it from others it terms dissidents or criminals, wrote Ralph Borland in an essay about DESIGN AND VIOLENCE, the exhibition he co-curated for the Science Gallery Dublin.

DESIGN AND VIOLENCE, a collaboration between the MOMA in New York and the Dublin space, displays objects and systems that are imbued with violence. Sometimes this violence is deliberate, other times it is the unfortunate and unintended consequence of a particular idea or design. Some of these objects and systems have been part of our society for far too long. Others have emerged only recently. What these pieces have in common is that they demonstrates that violence is everywhere around us and design has a role to play in it. It can fight violence but it can also normalize it, hide it from our consciousness and even heighten its brutality.

There are dozens of artifacts in the show. The ones that i found most powerful shouldn’t actually concern me at all. I’m simply not the target.

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Thembinkosi Goniwe, Dignities, 2000

I was particularly moved by South African artist Thembinkosi Goniwe’s diptych Dignities which shows a portrait of the artist alongside his professor of painting. Both men sport a ‘flesh-coloured’ plaster on their cheeks. While the white man’s epidermal misfortune passes unnoticed, the skin of the black artist seems to be partly erased by the plaster, as if was an error that had to be amended.

The unassuming plaster speaks about ordinary violence, the one that caters for some but discriminates and disregards others, the one that hides prejudice and racial inequality in plain sight.

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Compound Security Systems, Mosquito, 2005. At Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

I was equally taken aback by the infamous Mosquito. This ‘anti-loitering device’ emits an unpleasantly high-pitched sound that only young people can hear, as adults’ capacity to hear high frequencies deteriorates with age. I remember reading about it a while ago and thinking it was amusing. Not so much now. The young (and brilliant) guide who gave me a tour of the show told me how present the sound is in his every day life. Because i’ve long been immune to it, i can, unlike him and countless others whose sole crime is to be young, walk around the city without ever being harassed by high-pitch intolerance.

The manufacturers of the Mosquito promote it as follows: “Every day we receive calls from people wanting to buy a Mosquito Anti-loitering Device. People like you who are fed up with groups of kids damaging their property, hanging around in rowdy groups, smoking and drinking, playing music and generally preventing you from enjoying your home or business… The Mosquito device is the only product on the market that has the teeth to bite back at these kids”.

In 2009, the Children’s Rights Alliance issued a note that stated: The Children’s Rights Alliance, as a coalition of over 90 NGOs working with and for children in Ireland, wants to firmly raise its voice against the continued use of the Mosquito Teen Deterrent, which not only violates the fundamental rights of children and young people but also fosters negative stereotypes towards them.

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The Repeal Project, Repeal Jumper, 2016. At Science Gallery Dublin

I might not be black nor a teenager but hey! i’m a woman and gender-bias is still very much alive in design (if you think design is just design and is devoid of any cultural, gender, racial or other prejudice, check out the excellent book The Politics of Design. A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication by Ruben Pater.) Many objects and practices reveal the need for women to defer to a ‘higher’ (usually male) authority in order to know what to do with their body. How to cover/uncover it, for example. Or what the limits and standards of their reproductive rights are.

A black jumper bearing the word ‘REPEAL’ is presented in the gallery next to a book opened on the page of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland. The text states that abortion is illegal in the country. The juxtaposition of the jumper and the book makes the enigmatic word on the garment clearer: what needs to be repealed is the ban on abortion. The Repeal Project, set up by activist Anna Cosgrave, aims to ‘give a voice to a hidden problem’ and help raise money for the Abortion Rights Campaign. Lucky you if you managed to get one of these jumpers because they tend to sell out VERY quickly in the country.

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International gathering in Dublin outside the Department of the Taoiseach in 2015, with suitcases to signify women obliged to travel to the UK for a safe and legal abortion. Pictured is Maureen Gombakomba. Photo: Nick Bradshaw

Nearby a simple black suitcase emblematizes the Irish women who have to travel abroad to have access to abortion care. Every day, up to 12 of them pack their bags and take the plane or the boat to have access to the procedure.

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Carlotta Werner and Johanna Sunder-Plassmann, Hacked Protest Objects. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Protests in Hamburg. Image Daniel Müller

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Carlotta Werner and Johanna Sunder-Plassmann, Hacked Protest Objects. At Science Gallery Dublin

The suitcase is part of a group of mundane objects that have been re-appropriated by protesters around the world and given an extra layer of meaning in the process.

The cleaning sprays are actually filled with milk or other liquids that soothe the effect of teargas on the eyes. During the Hamburg demonstrations, the humble toilet brush came to symbolize public anger after a video was shot that showed police in riot gear confiscating the bathroom utensil from a man who had been stopped in the street.


Patrick Clair, Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus, 2011

A group of works reminded me that violent design can be impalpable and devious.

Patrick Clair’s motion infographic Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus visualizes in a fast and efficient fashion the inner workings and impact of Stuxnet, a malware that changed global military strategy in the 21st century. This malicious computer worm delivered via a USB drive was designed to disrupt programming instructions that control assembly lines and industrial plants. Regarded as the first weapon made entirely from code, Stuxnet has been linked to a policy of covert warfare against Iran’s nuclear armament that might have been led by the U.S. and Israel.

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Julian Oliver, Solitary Confinement, 2013. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Julian Oliver, Solitary Confinement, 2013. At Science Gallery Dublin

Julian Oliver’s Solitary Confinement exposes the tangible and physical dimension of cyberwarfare but also our supine ignorance that none of us is immune to its attacks. His “non-interactive installation” shows a computer quarantined within a glass vitrine that has been deliberately infected with the Stuxnet Virus. It sits in a vitrine, powered on, with one end of a red ethernet network cable that is connected to the gallery network laying unplugged near the port on the PC.

The vitrine cover is screwed down and the cable cannot be accessed.

Here the visible state of disconnection evokes both a volatile, techno-poltiical tension and an aura of anxiety; Stuxnet, one of the world’s most dangerous works of software, needs only a connection to the Internet to continue its destructive quest.

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Kevin & Jennifer McCoy, Every Anvil, 2002. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Kevin & Jennifer McCoy, Every Anvil, 2002. At Science Gallery Dublin

Finally, the first thing that the words ‘design’ and ‘violence’ evoke might not be some good old Warner Bros. cartoons but it wouldn’t be Science Gallery Dublin if there wasn’t a bit of humour and levity among all the informative and thought-provoking artifacts. Artists Kevin & Jennifer McCoy were showing a collection of video CDs bearing titles such as “every beg and plead”, “every hitting on head”, “every post-traumatic condition”, “every pounding”, “every spitting”, “every scream and yell”, “every flattened character”, “every anvil,” etc. The material for each CD was taken from one hundred episodes of Looney Tunes cartoons. Each scene found in the animated movie displaying a particular form violence or physical extremity was assigned to an individual CD. When you start watching the snippets of cartoons, it all seems quite comical (and also a bit passé.) After a few moments however, when you’ve seen one character after another being squashed by an anvil, you end up feeling that the American comedy reveled in viciousness and all the kids around the world grew thinking this was funny.

More images, videos and things i liked in the DESIGN AND VIOLENCE exhibition. They didn’t quite fit to the theme of this post but i couldn’t resist sharing them:

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Flechettes. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Darts from a flechette shell embedded in a wall in Gaza, 2009. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP, via The Guardian

Small metal darts, known as flechettes, have been used in various forms since World War I. They are effective at penetrating dense vegetation and targeting infantry. Their use is controversial because their lack of precision means that they can maim and kill children, women and soldiers without discrimination. Which doesn’t prevent Israel to use them in Palestine and Lebanon.

They actually also bear a striking similarity to the nail bombs often used by terrorists.

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The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs M16, 2015. At Science Gallery Dublin

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The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs M16, 2015. At Science Gallery Dublin


The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs M16, 2015. At Science Gallery Dublin

AK-47 vs M16: two assault riffles fired at each other inside a block of ballistic gelatin.

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Mikhail Kalashnikov, AK-47, 1947. At Science Gallery Dublin

The icon of violent design! High school students in Russia are required to take classes in military education. To pass the course students have to be able to take apart and reassemble a Kalashnikov rifle in a few seconds.

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Factory Furniture, Camden Bench, 2012. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Ruben Pater, Drone Survival Guide. At Science Gallery Dublin

DESIGN AND VIOLENCE: Conversation with the curators Paola Antonelli, Ralph Borland, Jamer Hunt and Lynn Scarff

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Agence France-Presse, White Torture. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Elaine Hoey, The Weight of Water, 2016. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Forensic Architecture, Bomb Cloud Atlas, 2016. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Forensic Architecture, Bomb Cloud Atlas, 2016. At Science Gallery Dublin

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View of the exhibition space at Science Gallery Dublin

The show is based on an online curatorial experiment originally hosted by the MOMA in New York and led by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt. The Dublin team, namely Ralph Borland, Lynn Scarff and Ian Brunswick, adapted it to the gallery space by picking dozens of artifacts from the original online collection and adding new artifacts to it.

DESIGN AND VIOLENCE remains open at Science Gallery Dublin until 22 January 2017.

Previously: Design and Violence. Part 1: ambiguous violence.

Design and Violence. Part 1: ambiguous violence

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Gregory Green, Untitled (2 Remote-Controlled Gas Bombs), 2005. At Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

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Zip Gun, at Science Gallery Dublin

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Sako, Green Bullets at Science Gallery Dublin

One of the things i’ve learnt from the Design and Violence exhibition at Science Gallery in Dublin is that violence can be found almost everywhere. It can be as sophisticated as the result of genetic manipulation, or as simple as a sweatshirt with a few letters printed on it. It can be ordered online for a couple of euros or it can be a lavishly designed work of architecture. It can be recognizable by everyone or it can be so subtle and elusive that it remains undetected by most people.

DESIGN AND VIOLENCE, a show that explores the pervasiveness of violence in society, started as an online experiment at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is now taking a life of its own at Science Gallery Dublin. The exhibition explores the collision of design and violence through dozens of artworks, props, artifacts and videos. I spent a whole afternoon there and came back the day after to spend more time with the few works i had not properly examined on my first visit. Every single piece exhibited has a fascinating story to tell and can also act as the catalyst for an intense discussion (both the fantastic guide at the Science Gallery and i were intellectually exhausted after my tour of the show!)

I’ll start my review of DESIGN AND VIOLENCE with a post dedicated to works that kept my brain busy long after i had left Dublin. What they all have in common is that their design and violence are ambiguous. They start with what looks like a laudable impulse, only in the most ruthless context possible: rice that feeds hungry populations but pollutes the environment with pesticides, a brutal weapon that causes pain but not so much pain that it will kill, animal welfare in slaughterhouses, and other oxymoron.

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Sako, Green Bullets at Science Gallery Dublin

Perhaps the artifacts that illustrates the point with the most simplicity and clarity are the environmentally-friendly bullets. A Finnish firearm manufacturer uses copper instead of lead to ensure that the bullets will kill you but without contaminating the food chain or water supply. Is this cynical or praiseworthy?

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Temple Grandin, Serpentine Ramp, 1974. At Science Gallery Dublin

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Temple Grandin, Serpentine Ramp, 1974. At Science Gallery Dublin

Temple Grandin, Design of Curved Cattle Corrals, Yards, Races, and Chutes

Then the example of design i can’t make up my mind about is the one that guarantees that animals are killed as humanely as possible before they are turned into fast food products. Whatever humanely means in this context…

Temple Grandin is an animal rights activist and a scientist. She is opposed to violence against animals but believes that since people are not going to stop eating meat any time soon, they might as well ensure that animals suffer as little as possible. Having observed and studied animal behaviour, Grandin corrected the design of slaughterhouses to ensure that cattle don’t panic and make the slaughter business even more awful.

Her designs include a serpentine ramp that leads cows into the stunning chute. Its serpentine shape is based on cattle’s natural circling behaviour and tendency to want to go back where they came from. It also prevents the animals from being stressed by the sight of workers up ahead.

Is Grandin’s design ‘humane’ or is it complicit in the mass murder of animals? Is she championing animal welfare reform in the cattle industry from the inside out or is she giving the industry and the meat eaters an excuse to continue killing pigs, cows, chicken and sheep without much concerns for the rights of non human animals?

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International Rice Reasearch Insitute, IR8. IR8 pictured next to its parents, “Peta,” a tall, vigorous variety from Indonesia, and the Taiwanese dwarf variety “DGWG.” 2009. Image IRRI

First produced in 1966 by the International Rice Research Institute, the IR8, or ‘miracle rice’, was genetically modified to increase its yield and respond to the food crisis. However, its cultivation necessitates the use of high amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and intensive irrigation. The social and ecological effects of the Green Revolution of the first half of the 20th century are high and their extent has yet to be fully grasped.

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Defense Distributed, Liberator, 2013. At Science Gallery Dublin

The Liberator is not the most efficient weapon but that might not even be the point. What this 3D-printed gun really excels at is forcing people to question the dazzling promises of technology. 3D printing used to be this democratizing technology that would enable us to innovate and manufacture easily, cheaply, from the comfort of our own home. And 3D printing is still a wonderfully liberating technology. But it is also one that comes with more plastic, more harmful air emissions, more patents that stifle independent innovation, etc. As well as print as you want weapons.

Invoking civil liberties -in particular the right to free speech- and challenging our acceptance of information censorship, Defense Distributed created a polymer .380 caliber gun 3D printed in 16 pieces, now known as ‘The Liberator.’ The weapon’s files were made available online so that anyone with access to a 3D printer could fabricate a firearm. Or twelve. Although government authorities in the United States (a country that certainly doesn’t need more guns) shut down its distribution almost immediately, the code for the Liberator has already been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

One of the reasons put forward for banning The Liberator (or rather the computer code behind its fabrication) is that it doesn’t set off a metal detector. “Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser.”

Defense Distributed is currently involved in a court case arguing for the code’s distribution as an example of free speech.

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Michael Madsen, Halden Prison (designed by Erik Møllet and HLM Architects), Halden, Norway

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Michael Madsen, Halden Prison (designed by Erik Møllet and HLM Architects), Halden, Norway

Michael Madsen, Halden Prison (extract of the film), Halden, Norway

There’s no life sentence in Norway, the longest period of time a convict can spend in prison is 21 years. It is thus in the interest of the country that the prison system focuses on rehabilitation and ensures that an inmate goes back in the community as a better person. The strategy seems to pay as, nationwide, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe, just 20% after two years, compared with around 50% in England.

Regarded as the most humane prison in the world, Halden Prison is a maximum-security prison located in the middle of a forest in the South of Norway. There are no bars on the windows and prisoners are not locked up during the day. They have individual cells with tv and a private bathroom.

During the day, inmates work or study and are encouraged to have a hobby, whether it’s knitting, playing football, being in a band or cooking pasta. Guards don’t carry weapons and are incited to eat meals, play sport and otherwise interact with the prisoners as often as possible to create a sense of community. The prison even has an art budget.

There is also a wooden house with garden for prisoners to host their families overnight.

Nevertheless, it is still a prison where men are deprived of their liberty.

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Jack Kevorkian, Thanatron, at Science Gallery Dublin

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Jack Kevorkian, Thanatron, at Science Gallery Dublin

The Thanatron (‘death machine’ in Greek) was devised by medical pathologist Jack Kevorkian, to help terminally ill people end their lives peacefully.

The system is constructed out of household tools, toy parts and other bits and pieces easy to find in supermarkets and online.

The first step of Thanatron is an intravenous drip of saline solution. Then the patient presses press a button that releases a dose of an anesthetic called thiopental with a 60-second timer. The patient then slips into a deep coma, at which point the Thanatron injects a lethal dose of potassium chloride, a solution used in Belgium and the Netherlands for the purpose of euthanasia as well as in 34 states of the U.S. for lethal injection procedures. The drug stops the heart so that the patient dies of a heart attack while asleep.

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The final piece of design which purpose i find questionable is the Taser. Employed by employed by the police and private security firms, the weapon fires two small dart-like electrodes connected by wires to the main unit, which deliver high-voltage shocks to incapacitate a person. They cause brutal, extreme pain and their use have caused serious injuries and death. They are even fired at children and elderly people. While causing less harm may seem like wholly a good thing, these types of weapons have the potential to institute a more insidious form of social control, by reducing the public outrage and resistance provoked by the use of weapons that more easily maim and kill.

(To be continued…)

Design and Violence is a co-production by the MoMA in New York and Science Gallery Dublin. The show remains open until 22 January 2017.

AI, global warming, black holes and other impending global catastrophes! Videos for your weekend

I’m just back from a short trip to Dublin where i visited Design and Violence at the Science Gallery. I’ve LOTS to tell you about the exhibition. It’s dense, brilliant and sometimes also a bit disturbing. It challenges everything you think you know about what is good and what is bad, about design’s role in discriminating, torturing and drafting new forms of insidious brutality.

While i was in town, i had the chance to attend one of the Science Gallery’s evenings that explore impending global catastrophes. Called The End is Nigh, the series is not as dark and gloomy as the title suggests. Well, yes it is but there was also a lot of humour, irony and messages of hope in the discussions. The panel i attended, Automatic Disqualification: Will AI mean the end of work, or the end of humans?, explored the possible threats posed by artificial intelligence in the fields of employment, social inequalities and even the survival of the human race.

Video of THE END IS NIGH #2 – Automatic Disqualification: Will AI mean the end of work, or the end of humans?

The panelists were:
Barry O’Sullivan, the deputy president of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence, who summed up the key concepts of AI, the extent of its presence in our daily life and the main threats that humanity might have to face in the near future,
Niall Shanahan, a communications officer for IMPACT, Ireland’s largest public service trade union, focused on how/where/why AI is going to replace us in the work place,
Mary Aiken, a forensic cyberpsychologist (probably the coolest title/job in the whole universe) whose work specializes in the impact of technology on human behaviour, pretty much dominated the evening. She talked about Google losing control of its search engine, lessons learnt and quickly forgotten in the area of AI, technology distracting us from the desire to be 21st century Luddites, moving from natural selection to algorithm selection, sexbots making human physical encounters IRL dispensable, etc.
– CJ Cullen, the Deputy Director of Communications and Information Services at the Irish Defence Forces, talked about (autonomous) killing machines.
The discussion was moderated by Anton Savage of Today FM.

Another panel looked at how we should deal with climate change: should we mitigate climate change now? Or should we wait for future technologies to solve our problems?

Video of THE END IS NIGH #3 – In Hot Water: Is Climate Change humanity’s Greatest Threat?

The panelists were: Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist and lecturer at University College Dublin, Hugh Fitzpatrick, student in MSc Environmental Science TCD, and Barry McMullin, Associate Professor at DCU faculty of engineering and computing. The event was chaired by Constantine Boussalis, Assistant Professor in Political Science at Trinity College Dublin.

I missed that one unfortunately but i’m going to watch it tonight.

And i’m going to keep the first episode of the series, The End is Nigh: Asteroids, Comets, and Rogue Black Holes: Can Earth dodge a cosmic bullet?, for the weekend! This one looked at humanity’s best options to ensure survival in the event of planetary catastrophe.

Video of The End is Nigh 1: Asteroids, Comets, and Rogue Black Holes: Can Earth dodge a cosmic bullet?

The panelists were Mary Bourke, Assistant Professor of Geography at Trinity College Dublin, David McKeown, Assistant Professor of Design Innovation in the TCD School of Engineering and Niamh Shaw, engineer, scientist and artist.
The event was hosted by hosted by Joseph Roche, Assistant Professor of Science Education at TCD.

Photo on the homepage via Caribbean 360.