Category Archives: insects

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

What would a public park look like if it was built from the perspective of bees?

Erik Sjödin‘s art and research practice has led him to investigate human relationships to fire, aquatic plants that might one day feed the first inhabitants of planet Mars, bees and humans connections and community-based ways of producing food.


Erik Sjödin, Bee shed in Lötsjön natural reserve and park, Stockholm, Sweden 2018. Photo Erik Sjödin

I’ve been following his work since 2011 and always thought there was something remarkably peaceful, generous and efficient about his work. At a time when artists, journalists and scientists alike are calling for a more considerate, a less anthropocentric way to live on this planet, Sjödin is quietly doing just that. Working on potential solutions to problems of contemporary urgency and sharing the lessons with others through exhibitions, publications, workshops as well as collaborations with scientists, farmers, gardeners, other artists and chefs.

Anytime is a good time to catch up with Sjödin and interview him about his latest projects. My excuse to get in touch with him again is Community Services, an exhibition in Marabouparken in Sundbyberg, just north of Stockholm. The show brings human beings closer to bees by revealing how the small pollinators have been “understood, written about, cared for, neglected and persecuted by humans.”

The Political Beekeeper’s Library and Bee Shed are two of the works the artist is showing in Marabouparken. The former is a collection of books where authors from Aristoteles to Thomas D. Seeley draw parallels between bees and humans, in particular how they are socially and politically organized. “What starts as a story of a patriarchal monarchy ends with a tale of radical democracy.” Bee Shed is a sculpture that also functions as a large house for pollinators. The shelter explores what a public park would look like if it was built from the perspective of the wildlife that use the park alongside the humans.


Reading performance by artist Mia Isabel Edelgart at the bee shed in Marabouparken, Stockholm Sweden, 2018. Photo Erik Sjödin

Here’s what our email exchanges looked like:

Hi Erik! For the Marabouparken, you have created a sculpture that also functions as a house for pollinators. The work questions our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good’, pleasant park and suggests that we might want to interrogate this human-centered perception and think about what a park would be/look like if it were built from the perspective of the wildlife that use the park. Can you then tell us about some of the characteristics and qualities of a park that caters also for non-human living species?

For the Marabou park I have created a bee shed. It is essentially what’s usually called a “bee hotel”, although I’m trying to contrast the transient dwelling and luxury connotations that a hotel has by calling it a shed. In its appearance the structure is humble and resembles a wood shed for storing firewood. A wood shed is a typical structure that is part of the old cultural landscape in Sweden and may provide habitat for many insects and other animal.

The Marabou park was initially landscaped in the beginning of the 20th century with the intent to provide relief for workers at the Marabou factory which is now an art space. Two separate parts of the park were explicitly constructed with inspiration from The Arts and Craft Movement and Functionalism respectively. The arts and craft movement came about in 19th century Britain as a reaction to increased industrialisation and harsh conditions for factory workers. Functionalism emerged in the first half of the 20th century and promoted increased industrialisation and efficiency. Although contradictory both of these design and construction philosophies have in common that they try to provide for the needs of humans. They also have in common that they don’t actively take into account the needs of nonhumans such as animals and plants.

With the bee shed we try to add an element of consideration also for nonhumans in the park. It provides a habitat for solitary bees and other insects. We will also work with the park management to increase the amount of flowering plants in the park, for example in the form of more meadows instead of lawns, and to create more habitats for animals, for example by leaving logs and falling tree branches on the ground for insects to nest in. Since public awareness and interest in biodiversity in cities is increasing this is also something that the park management and the municipality is interested in and already working with.

Increased biodiversity in parks in the form of flowering plants, buzzing bees and chirping birds etc can provide aesthetic pleasure to park residents and be relevant besides from the intrinsic value nonhuman life has. Biodiversity doesn’t have to conflict with human interests. Studies have also shown that the best protection for biodiverse urban areas such as parks and forests is human engagement in them.

You’ve been working a lot with bees over these past few years. Recently, journalists have been writing about insect numbers falling because of pesticides, pollution and loss of habitat. Have you found that the public is sufficiently informed and concerned about the disappearance of the little pollinators?

In Sweden media attention and campaigns from various organisations and public figures have done a lot to increase awareness about pollinators. Recently other species than honey bees, mainly pollinators, have gained media attention and people are becoming more aware that there are many insects that are integral to agriculture and our ecosystems in general. People want to save the bees. In general though I would guess that the interest for insects is marginal and insects are probably still mostly considered an annoyance.


Our Friends the Pollinators, workshop at Marabouparken, 2018

How much can artists and grassroots movements bring to the emergency to save bees? Can citizens have a real impact on the problem or is the survival of bee populations mostly in the hands of governments and the agro-food industry?

Artists and other citizens and organisations that create awareness help shape public opinion which create incentive for governments to develop policies that allow for farmers and industry to change their practices in ways that increase biodiversity. When many people change their consumption patterns, for example by choosing more ecological and locally produced food and other products, that may also make real difference.


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden 2017


Karl von Frisch, The Dancing Bees, 1927

The Political Beekeeper’s Library (a research which you generously share at thepoliticalbeekeeperslibrary.org) looks at books where parallels are drawn between how bees and humans are socially and politically organised. “What starts as a story of a patriarchal monarchy ends with a tale of radical democracy.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

Those are not my own words but it is a fitting and hopeful description of the library as a whole. The library contains books spanning from 4th century BCE when the hive was generally considered as a kingdom, a notion that dominated into the 17th century when the idea of the hive as a monarchy but now with a queen began to emerge. In the 21st century there has been scientific books published which dethrone the queen and describe the beehive as having democratic elements. Radical is a word that is relative but in some contexts the collective decision making methods the bees apply could be described as radical.

As your research shows, bee organisations have been understood in different ways through time. Are the way they function and govern themselves subject to as many interpretations as there are political systems in favour at a certain moment? Or have we, in the 21h century, finally reached an agreement, an objective understanding on how bees are socially organised?

I suspect there isn’t agreement or understanding about all aspects of how bees are socially organised even among scientist such as entomologist and animal behaviourists. However, there are a lot of behaviours that have been independently observed and there is consensus around. In contemporary non-academic but “science based” literature interpretations of the bee society still vary wildly, from the hive being described as a smooth running company with a skilled CEO to the hive being a dystopian totalitarian state.


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Losæter, in Oslo, Norway 2017


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Losæter, in Oslo, Norway 2017

What lessons could humans draw from the way bees are organised?

I would be careful to apply ideas about how bees are organised onto how humans ought to be organised, but many people have done so. The roman philosopher Seneca for example is said to have been inspired by the poet Virgil’s depiction of the beehive as a kingdom in claiming that monarchy is an invention of nature. Seneca was the teacher of emperor Nero who eventually forced Seneca to take his own life for alleged treason. Perhaps Seneca regretted drawing conclusions from the bees.

Thomas D. Seeley who is the author of Honey Bee Democracy, published in 2010, advocates that humans should learn from the decision method that bees use when they swarm and have to decide for a new place to nest in. However, that decision method, a form of representative quorum sensing, is just one of many more or less democratic decision making methods that are available to us humans.


Nest for solitary bees made of reed bundled in birch bark, at Marabouparken 2018.

Let’s say i’m someone who has access to a balcony or a garden but i don’t want to install a beehive. Is there still something i can do to help bee pop thrive?

Yes. Lawns are great for play and leisure but if you have more lawn than you need then it’s a good idea to convert some of it into meadow or to plant other flowering plants. Bees enjoy flowering herbs for example, which also works great to grow on a balcony. If the balcony is too high up for the bees then at least you have something to spice up your food with. You can also create habitats for wild bees, for example by making dry sand and soil beds for ground nesting mining bees, or by drilling holes of various sizes in old logs for mason bees and leaf cutter bees.


The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project at Agoramania in Paris, France 2018. Screening of video material courtesy of Ségolène Guinard / NASA


Azolla Cultivations at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Photo: Hauser & Wirth Somerset


Azolla Cultivations at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Photo: Hauser & Wirth Somerset

I think the last time i interviewed you was about The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project. That was in 2011 and the work continues to attract interest from art institutions. Has the project evolved and grown since we last talked about it?

It keeps getting more complex and has reached a point where it’s difficult to push some aspects of the project further without proper scientific studies, but I’m still working with it when opportunity arises. Recently I’ve been collaborating with Ségolène Guinard, a philosopher and PhD candidate who has studied space exploration and plants in space. Since Azolla has been proposed as a potential crop for Mars settlement I think it’s valuable to bring her contextualising perspectives into the project. I’ve also participated with an indoor Azolla cultivation in the comprehensive exhibition The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. This gave me some resources and incentive to try new technology for growing Azolla under artificial light. I’ve had some trouble growing Azolla indoors previously but now I have gotten this to work pretty well. If cultivation under artificial light makes sense in general can be questioned, but it enables me to keep the plant growing year around and learn more about it.


Apiary made of drift wood. In the west fjords, Iceland 2017

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

Currently I’m mainly focusing on research and production of work related to pollinators. Last year I visited beekeepers in Iceland to document their apiaries and try to understand their motivations for keeping bees in Iceland. Beekeeping is not yet established in Iceland and the conditions are not always ideal for beekeeping. Honey bees might also compete with native pollinators for limited floral resources. I’m hoping to maybe go back to Iceland to visit more beekeepers and to connect to researchers who monitors the flora and fauna on Iceland. Eventually I would like to put some effort into presenting the material and research I’ve gathered, which I think paints a complex and both problematic and hopeful picture.


Apiary in south-west Iceland, 2017

Why would beekeepers want to establish bee colonies in Iceland if the conditions there are, as you noted, not optimal? Do you already have an idea of the motivation of the beekeepers or do you still need to do more research into it?

Why people attempt to keep bees on Iceland is part of what I have been trying to find out. People have been trying since the 1940’s and so far it hasn’t worked out in the long run. There are around a hundred beekeepers on Iceland now, more than ever before. Maybe together they can figure out how to make the bees thrive. Some people are quite successful, although in general they are still dependent on import of bees.

The beekeepers on Iceland are all part of the same community of beekeepers and they import bees from a beekeeper on the island Åland in the Baltic Sea. The reason they import from Åland is because the honey bees there aren’t infested with the dreaded varroa mite. One reason for beekeeping on Iceland that many beekeepers bring up is that if beekeeping is successfully established then Iceland could be another “safe zone” where bees can thrive without the mite.

There’s not much reason to keep bees for the honey. The yields are generally quite small and importing honey is much easier and cheaper. However, although I don’t think people do it just for the money, local honey can be marketed and sold to very high prices on Iceland and this actually makes it a more lucrative business for some than beekeeping is in, for example, Sweden. Some beekeepers hope that honey bees could help with pollination of plants and boost their local flora, but there’s not a real need for pollination of crops. I think generally people keep honey bees simply because they think it’s fun and they would like to have bees around just like they have other domesticated animals. Some people have lived abroad and been beekeepers in for example Norway or Sweden, and they want to continue to keep bees on Iceland too. One beekeeper, an artist, simply said it was for aesthetic reasons, he would like to have bees buzzing around on his farm.

Thanks Erik!

The work of Erik Sjödin and of Mia Isabel Edelgart is on view at the exhibition Community Services in Marabouparken’s BOX and park until 26 August 2018.

Sjödin’s work is also part of the exhibition Eco-Visionaries at Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden until 21 October 2018.

Previously: Super Meal; Interview with Kultivator, an experimental cooperation of organic farming and visual art practice; Survival Kit Festival in Umeå and The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini.

Talking broiler chicken, germ maps and maggots with Andreas Greiner

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Andreas Greiner, Monument for the 308 (detail), 2016. Exhibition view of Andreas Greiner. Agentur des Exponenten. GASAG Kunstpreis 2016, Berlinische Galerie, 2016. Photo: Harry Schnitger

Andreas Greiner has built a monument to the humble broiler. A 7 meter high 3D printed version of a real chicken that had lived and died in a battery farm in Brandenburg, Germany. The artist then installed the giant sculpture inside the main hall of the Berlinische Galerie. I haven’t seen it yet but it looks poignant. It has the imposing presence of a dinosaur skeleton, the photogenic appeal of an instagram star but the mistrustful contours of a chicken that has never seen trees, grass or the light of a sunny day.

Not that i’ve ever seen any broiler chicken alive. I’m just assuming, extrapolating and letting my mind wander. Because Greiner’s work excels at triggering your imagination: he quietly lays in front of your eyes some visually stunning concepts and ideas, he never suffocates them with explanations but lets you ponder upon them and draw your own conclusions about what they say about our society, economy and culture.

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Andreas Greiner, Monument for the 308, 2016. Exhibition view of Andreas Greiner GASAG Kunstpreis 2016, Berlinische Galerie, 2016, Photo. Theo Bitzer

Monument for 308 shows that Greiner is comfortable working on the macro scale but he is also quietly building an impressive career engaging with the small (maggots, flies, algae, tiny crustaceans), and the very very small (microbes of all sorts.) Greiner works with living organisms (including himself when he decided to spend a week inside a gallery in the sole company of a few insects and plants), enrolling them as both subjects of careful reflection and as collaborators. His previous projects involved buying 40 litres of maggots and bringing them to the exhibition space until they turn into flies, composing music based on
 the luminous skin of a squid, convincing the Director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin to consider a fly as a living artwork and provide for its well-being, photographing portraits of algae, carefully orchestrating explosions around Berlin, etc.

The young artist recently received the GASAG Art Prize, a recognition awarded to Berlin-based artists whose work dialogues with technology and science. I caught up with him to discuss chicken, bacterial maps and the perils of working with maggots:

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Heinrich, Totus Corpus – full Body Portrait of a broiler, 2015, Photo: Theo Bitzer & Andreas Greiner

Hi Andreas! I find your chicken projects very moving. But then i’ve always had a soft spot for animals. Which kind of response and reflection do you hope to elicit with works like Monument for the 308 and Heinrich (poor poor little battery chickens)?

I’m not necessarily looking to provoke pity for Heinrich, the broiler chicken. How a person reacts to my works is of course not in my control, however I would like the viewer to reflect upon the issue. We create these animals for the sole purpose of our eating habits, this is a species, which would not exist like this were it not for humans intervention into their breeding behaviour and anatomy. Heinrich is a metaphor, he represents our contemporary age in which humans are the driving creative and destructive force on planet earth. If dinosaurs are a relic from the Mesozoic Era, broiler chicken would be a “monument” of now.

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Andreas Greiner, fattened chicken Éléonore before CT scan in Berlin, 2015

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Heinrich at the petting zoo in Berlin Tempelhof, 2015

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Andreas Greiner, Ulrike (Euastrum oblongum) Electron scanning micrograph 2016 measurement: Andreas Greiner and Martina Heider, Bayerisches Polymerinstitut, University Bayreuth

After Heinrich died, his body underwent an autopsy. What did you learn from it?

Heinrich died a few months after I handed him over to a petting zoo. The autopsy found that he most likely died from a heart attack, probably because his body was just too heavy.

I found the description of the works on your website to be fairly neutral and factual but i couldn’t help wonder whether these works were trying to make a point about animal welfare, man-made forms of nature, the food industry or maybe even veganism?

They are pointing to all of those and more. Certainly they also reflect my personal view. There is a general disregard for certain animals, which we view as an objective mass – matter to be exploited to fit our needs. My works show this, but I chose to only have short, factual descriptions like for example the documentations on my website. The reception should stay open for individual interpretation. By dealing with issues such as factory farming, genetic manipulation or the identity of animals, of course, the viewer makes their own conclusions in the end.

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

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Andreas Greiner, Every Fly is a Piece of Art, University of the Arts, Berlin, 2012

I was feeling less sorry for the maggots then flies in the work Every Fly is a Piece of Art. I’m wondering how the whole adventure unfolded though. Did you really manage to buy all available fly maggots in Berlin and did you manage to control the flies and channel them through the exit as you had hoped? It sounds to me like a wild project where so many elements can take a direction that wasn’t expected…

Yes, it was slightly chaotic. I conceived this work for the final exhibition of my masters at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Back in 2012 with a students budget it was impossible to buy all the flies in Berlin. I visited every fisherman shop that sells maggots though and bought a huge amount of their maggots in stock. Most of the salesmen were afraid to loose their clients if they sold all of their maggots to me in order to really buy all oft them I would have had to bribe the salesmen.

In the exhibition they started hatching and flying about. All the painting students of the other studios were mad at me because the flies landed on their freshly painted surfaces. They reacted by constructing fly traps, which turned my intentions around completely. I actually had to end the project earlier than the official end of the master class exhibition – at least half of the flies (about 100 000) hatched outside in nature. After this experience, I decided to only work with a few flies or one fly at a time because this is more foreseeable.

Your practice seems to be an interesting mix of collaboration with scientists and other experts along with processes that make control over the final artworks a bit difficult.  How important is it for you to be in control (or rather maybe not be in control) of the art piece you are developing?

I am interested in the processual aspects of sculpture and have integrated living organisms into many of my works. I call this co-authorship, as they co-create and transform the art work by the process of living. Uncontrollable biological processes are an integral part of the outcome of an art work.

By working with experts and scientists I am able to broaden and deepen my work by researching very specific topics and techniques. I am interested in an exchange between artistic and scientific knowledge.

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

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Andreas Greiner, Spring Forward Fall Back, Lichthaus, Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2014. Photo: Vlado Velkov

I’m very curious about Spring Forward Fall Back and what you experienced during this cohabitation with an ecosystem you had created for you and for nature. What did you learn and observe during that week? How did the insects, plants and other living entities inhabit and modify the space over time?

I was invited by the Kunstverein Arnsberg for a show at the Lichthaus and decided to live in there for a week. It was an interesting experience. First of all I learnt, that spring in Arnsberg (in the Sauerland, Western Germany) starts later then in the rest of Germany. . In the beginning there were few insects, for example a single bumblebee got lost, it moved very slowly because of the cold. I brought a female moth with me from Berlin and later she actually attracted a local male moth. Insect match-making. By the end of the exhibit an ant colony had settled and the population of my animal co-inhabitants and plants had multiplied 5 times.

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, collecting microbes at Schwarze Pumpe, Brandenburg

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, example of an expressed growth pattern by microbes

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, collecting microbes at Elsdorf, Brandenburg, Nordrhein-Westfalen

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Andreas Greiner &, Julian Charrière, Dominions, 2011, exhibition view

In Dominions you created bacterial maps of Germany and Switzerland. From the photos and videos on the project page, it seems that you collected the microbes from very specific and interesting looking locations. Could you tell us about these places and what guided your selection of them as well as of the selection of the microbes?
And what links the humble microbes with the title of the work, Dominions?

The project was a collaboration with Julian Charrière when we were still students at Olafur Eliasson‘s Institute for Spatial Experiments. We selected places in Germany and Switzerland. Some were biographically relevant (our birthplaces in Germany and Switzerland) and others were geographically important places, such as the highest mountain in Germany, the three border triangle between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the eastern most point of Germany, etc. We brought sterile boxes filled with a plane layer of white culture medium for microgerms (comparable to an unexposed film or white canvas) and exposed them to the surroundings for 30min each. The collected bacteria and spores expressed different patterns and colours back in Berlin under vitrine glass.

By selecting germs from all these chosen places we reconstructed a map of Germany and Switzerland, which is not based on socio-political conventions, but defined by the microorganisms populating these areas. It’s a reference to landscape painting or photography – a snapshot of the non-perceiveable micro-landscape in the air. We humans assume to have over our landscapes with roads, cities and railways criss-crossing though the country. But it’s microorganisms, like algae and bacteria, which cover the earth and have dominion over it.

Speaking of humble lives, what is it that attracts you to the underdogs like microbes, algae, maggots, broiler chickens, etc?

One of the challenges of art is to visualize things: show things from a different perspective, or things that are generally not seen. There is a staggering mass of life that we humans never visually appreciate: industrial broiler chicken, deep-sea squids, algae which are too small to be visible, or insects, because we find them repulsive. I consider the way we interact with our surroundings very telling of our species and our times.

From Strings to Dinosaurs shown at the exhibition cycle “MULTITUDES”, curated by Anna Henckel and Nadim Samman, at Import Projects and Cycle Music and Art Festival, 2015

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EExhibition view of “Andreas Greiner. Agentur des Exponenten. GASAG Kunstpreis 2016”, Berlinische Galerie, 2016. Photo: Harry Schnitger

Any upcoming project, field of research or event you could share with us?

This month, I have two exhibitions in Berlin: Golden Gate together with Armin Keplinger at Kwadrat and DAS NUMEN MEATUS at Dittrich and Schlechtriem. The finissage of my exhibition in the Berlinische Gallerie is on the 6th of February, where Tyler Friedman and I will show the work From Strings to Dinosaurs. The algae in the reactor will be placed on top of the self-playing piano and illuminate during the musical composition.

Künstler Andreas Greiner in seinem Atelier in der Malzfabrik, Berlin Tempelhof Foto: Mike Wolff
Artist Andreas Greiner in his Berlin workshop. Photo: Mike Wolff in Der Tagesspiegel

Thanks Andreas!

To Flavour Our Tears – A restaurant where insects can feast on us

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Image Center for Genomic Gastronomy

A few years ago, entomologist discovered that some moths and bees suck the tears from underneath the eyelids of birds and mammals (including humans) while they sleep. The insect attaches itself to the eyelid, then its mouth, shaped like a harpoon, starts sucking salt-rich liquid from the eyes. Some moths have also been recorded drinking sweat and fluids from the nose. Apparently, there’s even a species in eastern Russia that feeds on man’s blood.

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Chaeopsestis ludovicae drinking tears from the eye of the author who photographed himself . Courtesy of Hans Bänziger, via

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, a group of artists who collaborate with scientists to explore the biotechnologies and biodiversity of human food systems, is currently working on an experimental restaurant that investigates the culinary properties of our tears, and the culinary needs of insects and other eaters-of-humans. How do you taste to the small organisms that consume parts of you everyday, and every last bit of you when you die? How can humans manipulate our bodies, diet & emotions to change our own flavour?

I loved this idea that insects could exploit us for culinary purposes and in the gentlest possible way. It would be payback time for them! Insects, after all, are touted as the next superfood. They are supposed to a great source of proteins, are widely available and when the ones you fancy are not around, breeding worms, bugs and other insects have less impact on the environment than breeding pigs. I’ve seen insect snacks in Dutch supermarkets, Belgian ones and in my favourite English organic food stores. You may find the idea horrifying but it appears that we’re already eating them every day.

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The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s insect project, To Flavour Our Tears, was exhibited last month at the Pixelache exhibition in Helsinki and i think the work was a perfect fit for this year’s Pixelache theme: Interfaces for Empathy. Visitors were invited to think of their body as a restaurant, and start to cook and flavour themselves in a way that insects would find nutritious and flavoursome:

Humans believe we have spent the last 10,000 years domesticating species of all sizes, shaping the planet in our image. Perhaps the tear-drinking insects have been domesticating us the entire time, and they are now ready to farm our tears more intensively. Should we be attempting to repel, attract or give thanks to those that dine on us?

During the festival, the Center was handing out recipes (see images at the bottom of this story), offering the possibility to call an expert every day at 6pm to know more about the scientific background of theproject, collecting tears that were then dehydrated into salt, etc. They even had us lay down on a bed with a little ‘eyephone’ to listen to the testimony of Dr. Hans Bänziger, a Swiss psychologist and writer who let moths drink his tears.

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An instrument to help you harvest your own tears

“We are calling this kind of research into flavouring oneself “AUTOGASTRONOMY,” said Zach Denfeld, co-founder of the Center together with Cathrine Kramer. “It is both metaphoric and quite possibly implementable. Where possible, at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy we try to stay true to our materials, assembling real organisms and ingredients in new configurations and find ways that we can give people the taste of the world we are imagining / speculating, and have them put the art directly into their body (or their body into to the art sometimes). We will be looking for ways to get closer to the real moths, but we will continue to search for other organisms that find parts of humans particularly tasty.”

Michael Pollan, A plant’s-eye view, 2007

“Even though our work often consists of Material Speculations I think the TFOT project is taking us down a more theoretical or non-material speculative approach,” he continued. “We are starting to ask questions about whether or not humans are or have been cultivated by non-humans, and how do we even go about exploring that possibility. Are we being farmed and harvested? Michael Pollan gave a talk back in 2007 asking “What if human consciousness isn’t the end-all and be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn’s clever strategy game to rule the Earth? Author Michael Pollan asks us to see the world from a plant’s-eye view.” As this project moves forward, I could foresee us finding new ways to ask if humans are being cultivated / co-evolving with various agricultural species.”

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To Flavour Our Tears Restaurant, a restaurant concept where the human body is regarded as a series of ingredients that are flavoured

In my exchange with Denfeld, he raised another interesting point: the most health-conscious of us are actually already tending to the needs and preferences of our microbiota, the aggregate of bacteria, fungi, archaea and other microorganisms, that resides on or within a number of tissues and biofluids. We know that ingesting more prebiotic food and probiotics is beneficial to the happiness of our gut microbiota, for example. The restaurant would thus be the next, less anthropocentric, step. We would make ourselves more tasty to non-human species that consume us.

Recipe cards:

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Tear Catchers / Lacrimatory

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Saprophytic Supper (from the word saprophyte, an organism, especially a fungus or bacterium, that derives its nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter)

For the second installation of the restaurant at the Jyväskylä Art Museum in Jyväskylä, Finland, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy took samples from people’s skin, hair and from around the room, looking for dust-mites and other eaters-of-human in our DIY microscope.

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If you want to know more about The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s research, i can’t recommend their publications enough. They are as entertaining as they are informative and eye-opening. There’s already 3 issues of Food Phreaking, a booklet about meat-free proteins titled Pray for Beans, and a rather brilliant Experimental Eating,

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Previous stories about the Pixelache festival: Pixelache 2016 – Interfaces for Empathy, Pixelache 2016: Architectures for the Other Side and Pixelache 2016: The Science of Empathy.

Pixelache 2016: Architectures for the Other Side

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Honey combs and instructions. Melliferopolis Workshop Architectures for the Other Side at Pixelache Festival 20-22nd September. Photo Ulla Taipale

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One of the six locations for The Other Side audio work. Photo Ulla Taipale

Honeybees have been mysteriously vanishing from their hives. One day, beekeepers find that worker bees have just disappeared, leaving behind a queen, food and a few nurse bees to care for the baby bees and the queen. Although things have been looking up lately, the phenomenon is so widespread, it has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder.

Scientists are still looking for an explanation to CCD but the suggested causes for the crisis include: climate change, pollution, pathogens carried by honey bees pest, loss of habitat, a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, stress due to transportation to multiple locations for providing pollination services, malnutrition, immunodeficiencies, etc. Or a toxic combination of several factors.

A future without bees would make for a very sad humanity. Bees are not just producing honey, they are also pollinating flowers and all kinds of food staples, from apples to broccoli to almonds to coffee beans. Experts estimate that 50 to 80% of the world’s food production rely directly or indirectly on pollination by insects and other animals.

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Beekeepers Christina and Hanna checking the situation in the Hexa-Hive. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Beekeepers Christina and Hanna checking the situation in the Hexa-Hive. Photo Ulla Taipale

We need to take better care of bees. Either we leave that task to governments and hope they’ll be fast, efficient and impervious to the influence of lobbies and corporations. Or we try and make an impact at grassroot level. Which is exactly the kind of attitude that the Pixelache Festival in Helsinki has been fostering for years.

This year’s edition of the festival featured a series of Melliferopolis events open to everyone curious about the relationships between the tiny pollinators and humankind. Melliferopolis is a long term project launched a few years ago by artist Christina Stadlbauer and curator Ulla Taipale (in collaboration with honeybees) with the objective to learn, discuss, and engage with bees and urban beekeeping from both scientific and artistic view points.

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Ulla Taipale planting pollinator friendly flowers for the Airstrip for Bees

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Airstrip for Bees with an experimental bee hive “Hexa-Hive” on the back. Photo: Hanna Vainio

In practice this means hands-on workshops, lectures, beehive building, bee-friendly flora planting, concerts, guided tours, mapping and other activities that turn the city of Helsinki into a more pollinator-friendly environment.

The idea of installing beehives in the middle of a city is not as unreasonable as it might seem. Research suggests that urban areas are actually good places for plant pollinators to thrive. While rural areas are often intensively farmed and pesticide-drenched, gardens, allotments, parks but also wasteland and industrial estates provide a mixed source of flowers all year long.

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Day before the Hive Concert at Hexa-Hive Village, testing sound from the bee hive. Photo Till Bovermann

Melliferopolis installed its first experimental bee houses in 2012 in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden. Called Hexa-Hives, theses new shapes for bee hives are hexagonal instead of cubic. The design is inspired by the natural patterning in the bees’ own constructions of wax. The boxes can be stacked or aligned, and adapted to the necessities of the bee colony. They can be even be used as little seats for humans.

The design of the Hexa-Hives embodies the whole ethos behind Melliferopolis: it is a bee-centric, rather than a honey-centric, anthropocentric, endeavour.

None of that Flow Hive no pain all gain malarkey, thus!

The installation of more Hexa-Hives as well as other types of hives followed around the city.

This year the whole Melliferopolis programme at Pixelache was inspired by science fiction author Johanna Sinisalo’s book The Blood of Angels. The story is set in the near future, when the collapse of bee populations has gone out of hands and the global agricultural network goes into total disarray. In the story (as in many cultures around the world where bees are symbols of resurrection), the pollinating insects are messengers of the Gods and they can pass from one world to the other.

The Melliferopolis workshop at the festival was thus aptly called Architectures for the Other Side and it invited participants from all kinds of backgrounds to learn about beekeeping and hive ecology in order to build ‘experimental, empathic hives.’

The three beehives created during the workshops were exhibited as part of the Pixelache festival and come Spring, they will be inhabited with bee colonies.

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Melliferopolis Workshop Architectures for the Other Side with biologist and beekeeper Lauri Ruottinen at Pixelache Festival 20-22nd September 2016. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. Panorama Architecures for Other Side workshop at Lapinlahden Sairaala / Pixelache Festival. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. The Jar beehive in the middle of Foodycles market. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. An A for a B beehive in the middle of Foodycles market

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Melliferopolis. Hanna Vainio workshopping. Photo Ulla Taipale

Under its charming and bucolic guises, Melliferopolis is an artistic experiment that has the potential to have a real impact on the flourishing of honeybees and on the blooming of a more diverse flora in the city of Helsinki. It is also a project that helps the public understand better how much our food supply and the one of future generation depend on the survival of the tiny insects. As Johanna Sinisalo explained in her talk during the opening evening of Pixelache, no one seems to care about the bees, they are the new inconvenient truth, the discussion we don’t want to face because it would force us to change our ways of living.

More images from the Melliferopolis programme:

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Hive Concert at Hexa-Hive Village 18.8.2016, Katharina Hauke and Till Bovermann playing with bees. Photo Till Bovermann

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Melliferopolis. Arilyn, The Other Side (a site-specific audio work that features parts of Johanna Sinisalo’s novel Enkelten Verta/ The Blood of Angels, the free Arilyn app can be activated in an area of Helsinki with its own flora and fauna.) Photo Antti Ahonen

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One of the locations for The Other Side audio work. Photo Ulla Taipale

Melliferopolis is a project that involves regular events but also a fair amount of daily care that requires regularly checking on the health of the colony, ensuring the bees will have enough sugar energy to stay alive till the end of winter, making sure the hives remain free of any parasites or pathogens, carefully observing the honey flow so you know what to leave behind and crossing fingers in the hope that the colonies will still be alive next Spring!

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MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th June, 2014. Photo: Ulla Taipale

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Pollinators have arrived. Photo: Hanna Vainio

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MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th, 2014. Photo: Nigel Helyer

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Bee Ark at Kaisaniemi botanic garden (detail.) Photo Antti Ahonen

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Bee Ark at Kaisaniemi botanic garden. The beehive was built during MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th June, 2014

More photos from Melliferopolis.

Previously: Pixelache 2016: The Science of Empathy.
Urban bee activism and Book review: Art & Ecology Now.

The butterfly mobile lab of Stefan Cools

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Image courtesy of the artist

While visiting an ex soldier training area in Maastricht turned into workshops for designers, swanky bar, park, playground with swings and vintage gas pumps, i met an artist observing butterflies, noting his findings into notebooks and pulling out all sorts of instruments from a bike that doubled as a cart, laboratory and small educational space.

Stefan Cools explores human relationships to other living species: other humans, animals and even plants. Over the past few years, his research has focused entirely on butterflies with a body of artistic, scientific and education works called the “Butterfly House of Stefan Cools.’ He observes the life of the colourful insect, uses as pigment the red fluid that butterflies eject after they leave the chrysalis and travels around the world to work with cultural institutions and schools. Cools has also recently teamed up with the Science program at Maastricht University, to investigate with both scientific rigour and a creative perspective the transformation process of butterflies.

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Image courtesy of the artist

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Image courtesy of the artist

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Image courtesy of the artist

I didn’t have the time to interview him properly while in was Maastricht so i caught up with him over emails:

Hi Stefan! Could you tell us something about your research into butterflies?

My artistic research examines the transformation process of the butterfly: specifically meconium, a substance butterflies secrete after leaving the chrysalis. Not much is known about meconium, except that it contains a lot of hormones and faeces.

The meconium of thistle butterflies (Vanessa cardui), a butterfly species I often study, is red in colour. The research aims to distinguish different meconium colours of various butterfly species. This results in a pallet of colours for use as pigment. Recently I discovered a second colour: ochre from the Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma).

I came for the first time in contact with the art world during a long stay in Australia. I was doing research to some tropical plants in Queensland that live in symbiosis with animals. While we were doing field research in the tropical rainforest we came across some bowers of different types of the bowerbirds. The complex bowers of these birds, decorated with flowers, shells and other small decorations and their strange courtship behaviour were fascinating myself so much that I started to do research to the bowerbirds. The bowers that these birds build are complex architectural master pieces where they work on for weeks. After the “buildings” are finished they start decorating them. During the courtship the female is choosing the male to mate with on the bower they have build and decorated so they must have as I believe, some sense of beauty. Speaking about this with some biologist; they didn’t agree with me about this and in their believe I was more seeing it from the human perspective instead of the natural perspective. I was projecting my own ideas on the birds they were saying. And from that moment I saw the value of my way of looking into nature. The freedom of interpreting my own thoughts on the topic of research. On the same moment when I was doing the research on the bowerbirds I came in contact with a curator of the art museum in Cairns, The Cairns Regional Gallery. As a regular visitor of musea and galleries we have spoken a lot about art, aboriginal art and the relation of aboriginal art with nature. The curator was working on a new exhibition about nature and art and she invited me to join the show with the results of the research I was doing to the bowerbirds.

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The freedom as artist gives me the freedom during my research to think on a different way than biologists do. You called me a biologist but I haven’t any paper for that, so I don’t call myself a biologist. I understand because I present my work like biologist do that sometimes it’s not very clear for people if I’m an artist, biologist or scientist. I feel myself more like an artist with a background as botanist. And the knowledge as botanist I can use in my research I do nowadays.

For the project’s scientific development, I recently teamed up with Maastricht University, who are going to make scientific studies on the transformation process of butterflies using my artistic perspective as their starting point. The questions like:

‘What is the compositon of the meconium?’ How can you manipulate this (food, temperature etc.)? What other uses are there? ‘Why is the colour of the meconium colourfast and doesn’t oxydize?’ ‘What other colours are there?’ Can you manipulate the colour?

We don’t know yet what could come out of these studies but I can believe that there will be lots of interest for example on the outcome of the question why the meconium of butterflies is colourfast instead of the colour of most natural liquids that oxydize.

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What is the Vlindermobiel? How do you use it? and what is it made of?

The Vlindermobiel is a project that I had for a long while in my mind. And now after a very successful crowdfunding campaign we have realised the Vlindermobiel.

I often do fieldwork and I always have to take a lot of tools with me. I was having the problem that I couldn’t take all the tools with me that I wanted and that was frustrating me. At the same time, I was working on an idea for an educational project with children. But I wanted to do a project not only on a school but also on a festival or a museum or in nature too. So the idea of the Vlindermobiel was born.

The Vlindermobiel is a mobile that just like a butterfly can transform in different shapes. It can be a butterfly cage for living butterflies to study, it can transform into a laboratorium and the Vlindermobiel can transform into another shape for education. In the educational project, children can learn about butterflies and their transformation process.

So it depends where the Vlindermobiel is travelling too, how he is packed and in what kind of shape it will transform in.

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Could you tell us something about the work you created for the Verbeke Foundation?
There is a short description online but it is not super clear.
http://www.verbekefoundation.com/en/all-artists/stefan-cools-nl-o1981/ is it a permanent piece or a temporary installation?

Geert Verbeke has seen my work two years ago during an exhibition at RAM Foundation in Rotterdam. Verbeke invited me to the Verbeke Foundation and asked me if I was interested to join the summer exhibition with my research. There I have build in one of the greenhouses my installation that is now on permanent view. The Verbeke Foundation has given me the possibility to do my research for the coming years at the foundation. In fact it’s an installation with nectar plants and host plants for the butterflies and a laboratory. The outcomes of the research together with new pieces that I make are added to the installation. So the installation is growing and transforming every year.

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I think you’ve traveled to many countries for your research. Could you tell us about the differences your encountered from country to country regarding the butterflies?

I think that the big difference is the season of the butterflies. In the Netherlands because of the cold winters some butterflies stay in the Netherlands as butterfly, some butterflies overwinter as cocoon and some immigrate to a warmer climate. So we have have two peak moments that we see lots of butterflies. That’s in spring and end summer beginning of the autumn. Next year I’ll do research in Australia in the tropics of Queensland. In the tropics there are not much differences in winter and summer so there are during the whole year butterflies. That means that instead of one or two and sometimes three generations of butterflies in Europe, there will be probably more generations born in Australia in one year. That will be very interesting to see because that means that the climate in the tropics is very good for the butterflies and the time of transformation from egg to butterfly will be faster than in Europe. I can imagine that this can have consequences of the colours of the meconium of the tropical butterflies.

I believe that wonder is one of the most important things in live. I wonder every day while working in and with nature. That’s the basic that I need for my art, without wonder I can’t work. It can be found in the simple things of life. And that is something I want to show to the public with my educational projects. I believe that wonder is something that makes you feel more connected to everything you are surrounded with, I think that this is something we are loosing nowadays if we are not learning again how to wonder.

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When i met you in Maastricht, i asked you if climate change was having any negative impact on the butterfly population but you seemed to say that it was actually good for them. Could you tell us more about it? How are the new condition benefiting (or not) the butterflies? How do you explain it?

That’s not completely true, at the moment climate change is negative for the butterflies. Like the last winter was so warm that some of the butterflies were coming out of their cocoon too early because they where thinking seen the temperature that it was spring. But on that moment so early in the year the butterflies can not find any nectar plants to feed from. Because those were not yet in blossom.

But what I meant to say is that what we see is negative doesn’t need to be negative for the butterflies. Butterflies are very good at adapting to new conditions. I think the monoculture is something more to worry about. That is what we want to tell to the people with the Butterfly Gardens we are creating. Plants that we see as weeds in the garden and parks are very important for butterflies. Most of the host plants where the caterpillars eat from are weeds. Without those weeds the butterflies will disappear.

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Any upcoming research, project, event you could share with us?

I’m heading to Australia again next year. This time I will be working at the laboratory of The Butterfly sanctuary in Kuranda for 2 weeks. And after that at Tanks Arts Centre / Botanical Gardens in Cairns for 3 weeks. These residencies are part of my long term project. During this period I will perform research on the tropical butterflies that can be found in Cairns and surroundings. The results of these projects will be presented at The Verbeke Foundation in Fall 2017.

After the research period in Australia I’ll go in June 2017 to do a Residency at the Van Gogh Huis in Zundert (NL). During a month I will research the butterflies Vincent could have seen during his childhood in Zundert. I will make a reconstruction of the garden of his parental house.

Thanks Stefan!

The Tapijnkazerne area which i visited during the Week of New Maastricht:

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Macro Photographs of Singapore’s Most Unusual Insects and Arachnids by Nicky Bay

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Cicadae Parasite Beetle (Rhipiceridae)

One of my favorite Flickr accounts to follow is Singapore-based photographer Nicky Bay (previously) who ventures into some of the most ecologically diverse (ie. creepiest and crawliest) places in the world to shoot macro photos of insects, arachnids, and fungi. Bay went on 46 different shooting excursions in 2014 and discovered creatures that seem more at home in an Avatar movie than here on Earth. He’s also begun working more with ultraviolet light that he uses to reveal the natural fluorescence of many organisms he encounters. My favorite discovery while scrolling through Bay’s 2014 photos is this species of moth that builds a cage out of its own caterpillar spines to protect itself while in a pupal stage. You can follow his day-to-day adventures on Facebook.

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Archduke larva (Lexias pardalis dirteana)

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Caterpillar

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Freshly moulted Jumping Spider

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Harvestman illuminated with 365nm wavelength ultraviolet light; Millipede fluorescence.

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Treehopper (Membracidae)

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Cuckoo Bee

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Caged pupa. The spines of the caterpillar were used to construct this magnificent cage for protection during pupation.

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Bioluminescent fungi

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Longhorn beetle

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Huntsman Spider consuming prey exposed under ultraviolet light for 20 seconds.

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Twig Spider