Category Archives: MU

The New Newsroom: Lost (and found?) in the information stream

We consume more news than ever but does that mean that we are better informed?

Every day, we eat up, share and generate stories through news apps, podcasts, Twitter, youtube, facebook updates and even VR. Yet, it seems that the more intimate we get with the creation of information, the less grip we have on its meaning and on the impact its manipulation has on politics and society. The exhibition The New Newsroom. Reporting Redesigned at MU in Eindhoven, explores how we can use the power of digital technology to create meaningful content and regain control of information.

In The New Newsroom, journalists, technologists, artists and designers investigate innovative formats, analyse the news and present their findings in stimulating visuals and installations

The exhibition is packed with emoticons, VR installations, humour, poetry, anecdotes and other weapons of mass distraction. And yet, the more you engage with the art and design works in the show, the clearer the message: the shape of information is evolving faster than ever and we need to probe and question its new guises if we don’t want to remain trapped inside filter bubbles and lose all consciousness of what makes and breaks society.

Here’s a quick tour of some of my favourite works in the show:


Reporters without Borders, Uncensored Playlist, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Reporters without Borders, Uncensored Playlist, 2018

China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Egypt are some of the countries at the bottom of the list for freedom of press. The Uncensored Playlist is the result of a collaboration between Reporters Without Borders Germany and local journalists and musicians to by-pass censorship. They turned censored news stories into songs with innocuous titles that can then be streamed for free via music apps.

Using music as a loophole, the platform aims to get the work of exiled journalists across the border, into people’s playlists. Just like other pop songs, the music spreads through word of mouth, turning news stories into hits.


Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018


Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018


Lilian Stolk, Emoji Newsfeed, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

I had no idea that there are already 3000 emojis for us to chose from. 100 are added every year. The Unicode Consortium determines which icons are added, but news media also plays a role in the pre-selection and modification of the icons. Proposals that meet a large audience in the media, are more likely to be added. Lilian Stolk monitors the development of emoji as she sees the process as a reflection of the choices and changes society is going through. Her colourful and ridiculously interesting Emoji Newsfeed charts the controversies and strange stories surrounding emoji communication.


Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen. Photo: Cassie Brown. Insta: @show_you_mine


Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen


Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, Pics or it Didn’t Happen. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Pics or it Didn’t Happen is an archive of photos banned from Instagram.

Arvida Byström and Molly Soda collected these images -most of them strange rather than offensive- into a book as a guarantee that they would not disappear: “We have to think about how to archive the web,” they told the Independent. “Putting something in a book is an interesting way to take encapsulate something, but also elevating the things that we aren’t supposed to be seeing.”

According to their own analysis, the social platform tends to reject (mostly female) bodies that aren’t young, hairless, lithe, and white. The tendency to favour the standard over what is considered deviant reflects the way society perceives, regulates and suppresses bodies.


Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska, Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska, Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska‘s Computational Propaganda About Computational Propaganda is a troll campaign that looks at the social and political responsibility of the five Big Tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft).

The troll campaign is executed by a bot that has no political agenda other than stressing the presence of the GAFAM in popular political discourse. “Using Big Data analysis techniques to extract hidden correlations from Wikipedia, the bot is built to spark discussions that link the companies to major social and political issues. The resulting assumptions are spread on social media under the viral form of internet memes. The memes are tracked and recorded, so that their aftereffect can be observed and scrutinized.”

I need to come back with a more detailed story on that one soon!


DROG, Slecht Nieuws, 2017
. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The disheartening influence of fake news highlights the need for greater media literacy. Including among adults. Slecht Nieuws (Bad News), a game made by DROG, entices players to fabricate and spread fake news themselves. By learning to recognise the methods involved in the spread of disinformation, players are thus better equipped to distinguish falsehood from truth.

Forensic Architecture, al-Jinah Mosque

In March last year, the U.S. forces bombed a site in Al-Jinah, Syria, claiming that it was a terrorist meeting place and that the only causalities were terrorists.

Forensic Architecture worked with Human Rights Watch and British blogger Bellingcat to analyze numerous videos and images (from both before and after the drone strike) and interviewed survivors, first responders and the building’s contractor to demonstrate that the U.S. had in fact aimed fire at a mosque. Their work revealed the fatal misindentification, the killing of civilians and a possible cover-up by U.S. forces. After making the information public, the Pentagon eventually retracted part of their statement and confessed the target was indeed, “part of a mosque complex.”


Coralie Vogelaar, Looking for a Possible Algorythm for the Popular News Image, 2016


Coralie Vogelaar, Recognized / Not Recognized – A Comparative Movement Analysis of Popular and Unpopular News Images, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Coralie Vogelaar, Recognized / Not Recognized – A Comparative Movement Analysis of Popular and Unpopular News Images, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Coralie Vogelaar, Looking for a Possible Algorythm for the Popular News Image, 2016. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Coralie Vogelaar browsed through the databases of the large press agencies for photographs of ten high-profile news events and used search engines to determine how often each image – 850,000 in total – was published online. She then compared the most popular photographs to the least published ones of the exact same situation to figure out what made news agencies favour one over the others. The result, Looking for a Possible Algorithm for the Popular News Image, is puzzling. Each of the iconic photo is brought side by side with its least published “twin” and soon patterns in the focus and composition of the images seem to emerge: babies and tears have to be clearly visible, for example. Gestures well defined and crowd movements easy to interpret.

The artist then attempted to translate these images in Recognized / Not Recognized, a two-channel video installation that reproduces these images in the form of a performance piece created in collaboration with choreographer Marjolein Vogels. Nine dancers move from one frozen position to another: on one screen, they mimic the news photograph that was most popular and on the other, the simultaneously shot but failed image.

Interestingly, the successful images often show people in poses that evoke famous western artworks, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà or Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. From a vast ocean of photographic data, we have the tendency to favour images that confirm our visual frame of reference.

Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018


Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018


Donghwan Kam, After Photography, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

In After Photography, Donghwan Kam renders iconic news images in 3D and then walks around with his VR headset and a digital point-and-shoot camera he modified to capture the virtual through the use of sensors attached to the front of the device. He thus cuts through the numbness of yet another image of human suffering to create a personal relationship with the event.

Submarine Channel & VPRO, The Industry – Mapping the Dutch Drug Economy (intro), 2017

The Industry, an interactive documentary made by VPRO and Submarine Channel, delves into the drug industry in The Netherlands.

The work interweaves hard facts and figures with personal stories from the people who keep the industry going: housewives, students, dockworkers, weed growers, full-time coke dealers, etc. You can meet the protagonists “on location”: in cannabis plantations hidden in villas, coffeeshop, containers in harbors, etc. Some spaces are real, some are reconstructions based on existing spaces.

Soon enough, you realize that the shady drug world is all around you. 



More images from the exhibition:


Jim Brady, Mobile Journalism, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Daan Wubben, In Aerial Times. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Maxime Benvenuto, Lexicographies of Propaganda and News, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


Maxime Benvenuto, Lexicographies of Propaganda and News, 2018. The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer


The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned – MU Eindhoven, 2018. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The New Newsroom: Reporting Redesigned, curated by Nadine Roestenburg & Angelique Spaninks, remains open at MU in Eindhoven until 11 November 2018.

Image on the homepage: Donghwan Kam, After Photography.

A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, MU in Eindhoven invited the public to a 2 day long immersion into all things bio art and bio design. The Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend lined up a series talk, panels, workshops and performances and explored how the techniques and challenges of life sciences are embraced by contemporary artists and designers. There’s more details in the first part of the report. Head this way if you haven’t read A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 1.)

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Masterclass: Artificial idiocy with Agi Haines. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Isaac Monté, The Art of Deception (Heart of Stone)

But before i proceed with the final part of my report from the weekend, I need to say something about Eindhoven. Several years ago, i wrote about an exhibition in Eindhoven. I can’t remember what exhibition i was reviewing at the time but i do remember that i wrote that the city looked ‘as dull as dishwater.’ I’ve had a change of heart. Eindhoven always had the Design Academy, the fantastic Van Abbemuseum, the MU art center and various other interesting cultural spaces. But now they have Strijp S, a 27 hectare huge area attracting a dynamic crowd of artists, designers, concept stores, juice bars, a communal vegetable garden and organizations. Strijp S used to be the industrial site of the company Philips. It’s a mere 15 minute walk away from the city center and that’s where MU is now located. And Baltan Laboratories. And the BioArt Laboratories. And more. Each time i go to Strijp, there’s something new, thrilling and stylish to discover.

End of the parenthesis. Let’s get back to Body of Matter and to the artists’ talks, shall we?

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Hongjie Yang, Human Tissue Vase, 2015

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Lecture Hongjie Yang. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Hongjie Yang, Human Tissue Vase. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Hongjie Yang‘s Human Tissue Vase is made of human kidney cells that have been grown on a 3D vase-shaped scaffold. I first dismissed his work, thinking that Tissue Culture and Art Project had been there before with their Victimless Leather jacket. But Yang’s piece has a different focus.

It’s less about the ethics and politics of using tissue culture and more about exploring the place that biotechnology can occupy in the history of design techniques and aesthetics. Furthermore, the designer was also intrigued by the kind of relationship we might develop with artifacts that share genetic information with us. Would we care more for an object made using our own cells? Will human-derived objects blur the distinction between person and object, between alive and inanimate?

The designer is particularly interested in examining the influence that human progress has on aesthetics. New technologies can be seen as disrupting any idea we might have about aesthetics and about the sublime. They create the conditions for new objects and aesthetics to develop. The chisel was disruptive, it enabled for a finer shaping of wood or stone. The Industrial Revolution in England was also aesthetically disruptive because it led to the invention of bone china. We could multiply the examples. But now that we are entering the Post Natural Age, what will the new chisel be? Will we see the emergence of lab-grown china? Will biotech innovations transfer into new aesthetics?

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Lecture Floris Kaayk. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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The public during the Body of Matter special weekend, with Floris Kaayk‘s The Modular Body video in the background. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Floris Kaayk! I had almost forgotten how impressive his work is. I remember seeing Metalosis Maligna for the first time, it was clearly a mockumentary but i was still tempted to believe that the story it narrated was true. Shot in the style of a documentary, the video informed the public about a disease that affects patients with medical implants. Metal implants get infected and start growing inside the body until they sprout out of it, start eating the flesh away and turn human patients into half-organic, half-mechanical beings.

Kaayk creates fictional films, interactive projects and online fictions. He takes a well-known media format and subverts it by replacing existing events with fictional stories. In 2012 his online media project Human Birdwings was all over the press. Told through a series of short youtube videos, the work chronicled the successful adventure of a man building a set of wings that allowed him to fly. Most major news outlet fell for it. Until Kaayk revealed that the inventor and the story were purely fictitious.

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Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body, 2014

Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body, 2014

Kaayk is now working on a new internet story called The Modular Body. The work is inspired by 3D-printed organs and the media format adopted is the one of kickstarter pitch videos. The artist was interested in the gap between what the science can actually do and the way the media presents it. If you read the press, you get the felling that human kidneys, hearts and noses are routinely printed and implanted. But the implementation of 3D printed technology in medicine is still years away from now. The Modular Body fictionalizes this 3D printed body and presents it as the solution to our outdated bodies. Kaayk envisions that in the future we’d have 3D printed body parts that work like detachable modules. We’d be able to combine, plug and connect them to each other according to our needs. We could replace any part that doesn’t function optimally and adapt it to whichever situation we might face. The Modular Body is still a work in progress and it will take the form of a series of footage fragment. The Body of Matter exhibition showed extracts of the final work. It’s pretty gruesome. There are raw bits of flesh crawling over a table.

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Conversation between Charlotte Jarvis and Dr. Reinout Raijmakers from Science for Life

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Charlotte Jarvis, Et In Arcadia Ego. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Charlotte Jarvis, Et In Arcadia Ego. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Charlotte Jarvis invited Dr. Reinout Raijmakers to join her in a conversation about art & science because he is the scientist she turns to whenever she has an idea for a new project but doesn’t know whether it is feasible, which field of science might help her give a tangible form to her projects, etc.

She briefly explained one of her latest works, Et In Arcadia Ego. Part of the MU exhibition, the piece was Jarvis’ attempt to confront her own mortality head on. She worked with Prof. Hans Clevers and Dr Jarno Drost at the Hubrecht Institute to grow gut cancer tumour from her own cells. The project started with a rectoscopy to collect colon tissue. The samples were then grown in vitro and then submitted to mutations that made them cancerous.

Jarvis also talked about Music of the Sphere, a collaboration with Dr. Nick Goldman, the molecular biologist who stored Shakespeare’s Sonnets and other data into synthetic DNA. The artist used Goldman’s technology to encode a new musical recording by the Kreutzer Quartet into DNA. The DNA has been suspended in soap solution and broadcast on the audience with soap bubbles. The ‘recording’ fills the air, pops on visitors skin and literally bathes the audience in music.

The moment i almost dropped my pen and paper was when she talked about her desire to work with scientists on a new project that would consist in encapsulating and recreating the smell of her husband. She could make a fortune if she managed to patent the process! I wouldn’t mind packing a little flask of my boyfriend’s smell whenever i have to travel. Jarvis’ idea actually sparked some animated discussions in the public about perfumes, hormones, pheromones, sexual attraction, Putin body odour and all kinds of notions more or less related to the smell of people we love or loathe.

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Launch of publication The Art of Deception and science panel by Isaac Monté. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Launch of publication The Art of Deception and science panel by Isaac Monté. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Isaac Monté, The Art of Deception. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Isaac Monté, The Art of Deception. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Isaac Monté talked to me about his project a few months ago (see Can organs be objects of design?) but the show allowed me to finally get to see the final 21 decellularized and modified pig hearts. They are incredibly beautiful and moving. The hearts and their story deserve to tour widely in exhibitions across the world.

The designer worked with Professor Toby Kiers (Free University Amsterdam) to decellularize pig hearts and manipulate each of them as if they were blank canvases that could be tattooed, embroidered, stained, dressed up with precious materials, filled with with concrete, etc. The decellularization process involves stripping organs of their cellular contents, leaving behind a scaffold that can be repopulated with stemcells. Isaac had invited 2 scientists to join him and discuss how far scientists but also artists or designers can go when it comes to manipulating organs. One of the scientists explained how they use decellularization technique in order to respond to the lack of organ donations. Her work consists in exploring how we can turn an unhealthy liver into a liver that can safely be transplanted. They would get rid of the cells in the liver and then fill the empty matrix with good cells.

The designer documented the whole research and creation process in The Art of Deception book.

That’s it for my report from the Body of Matter weekend. May the event inspire other places around Europe to set up new initiatives, commissions and competitions that will help artists and designers dialogue with scientists.

Previously: Plastic trash, rotting rubber & wonky skeleton. Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture at the Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend, A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 1), Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design

A weekend of bio art and bio design at MU in Eindhoven (part 1)

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Agi Haines, Drones with Desires. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Kristin Neidlinger, Wearable garments that give you goosebumps when someone thinks about you. Kristin Neidlinger, Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

At the end of January, the MU art space in Eindhoven dedicated 2 days to bio art and bio design. The Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend invited the public to take part in talk, panels, workshops and performances and explore how the techniques and challenges of life sciences are embraced by contemporary artists and designers. The event followed the theme of the ongoing exhibition Body of Matter which explores (until tonight!) how biotechnology can modify the body and the perception we have of it. What will the ‘normal’ body look like in 5, 10, 20 years time? How will our identity and sense of self change with body modification? Should we impose limits to the way science is going to shape bodies, both on the inside and from the outside? Will science expand our understanding of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’? What role can aesthetics play in discussions about body enhancement?

The weekend was also an opportunity to reflect on the outcome of the Bio Art & Design award which, each year, offers artists and designers a total of 75 000 euros and the opportunity to collaborate with researchers and develop ambitious works that engage with life sciences.

My plan was to wrap up the whole event in one big post but the weekend was so dense in new ideas, food for thought and speculations that i had to write separate stories. First there was Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture which was so stimulating and smart that i decided to dedicate a full post to it. And now i’m going to split the rest of the weekend into two stories. Today, i’ll be sharing my notes from Friday. Tomorrow, i’ll post the ones i took on Saturday.

Body of Matter – Body based bio art and design. Video MU

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William Myers presenting his book Bio Art. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The first speaker who took the floor was the co-curator of the Body of Matter exhibition. William Myers is a teacher, a curator and an author. In 2014, he published ​Biodesign: Nature + Science + Creativity and a few months ago, he looked at the more artistic side of creative works that explore life sciences in his book Bio Art: Altered Realities (i reviewed it last year.) In this publication, Myers argues that bioart doesn’t just encompass the art that engages hands-on with living materials but it can also define works by artists who use more traditional media to respond to shifting definitions of identity, nature and life brought about by the latest advances in life sciences. To him, bioart includes thus art that uses biology as a medium and art that uses biology as a subject. A good example of this broadening of the definition of bioart is Vincent Fournier‘s ongoing series Post-Natural History. At first sight, the photos look like typical animal portraits. Until you realize that there is something off… The species are ‘newcomers’, they have been modified using synthetic biology either to enable them to conform to man’s own needs and desires, or to help them adjust to the biological changes our planet is going through: extreme temperatures, rising pollution levels, etc.

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Emma Dorothy Conley presenting the MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Emma Dorothy Conley, MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Emma Dorothy Conley, MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

I interviewed Emma Dorothy Conley a couple of months ago when her project MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency was announced as one of the winners of the BAD Award competition. Her presentation in Eindhoven refreshed my memory about all things MSA and microbiome. The human microbiome is the collection of microbes that colonize the human body and they do so in such quantity that they outnumber our own cells ten to one. They live inside our body and on our skin and because these bacteria can vary considerably based on our age, diet, habits, geographic location and overall health, scientists believe that they can be used as a unique identifier, much like fingerprints.

Because we shed bacterial cells wherever we go, we might soon see emerge the use of microbiome sequencing in criminal investigations or for commercial or surveillance purposes. Emma’s project explores how we can protect our bioprivacy from these intrusions. The most promising of the strategies she investigated seems to be an obscuration solution that we could spray on our body. The blend mixes all kinds of revolting ingredients such as fermented food and zoo poo to create additional noise and hide the bacterial information that your body carries.

Conley imagined that you could donate a sample of poo or other bacteria-rich bits to an MSA bank. The sample would be added to a pool of bacteria that would be used to make a solution that people would apply on their skin to make their bionome anonymous.

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Lecture by Orion Maxted lecture Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Performance The Machine by Orion Maxted. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Orion Maxted is a performance artist and curator who investigates theatre in relation to systems and algorithms. More specifically he tries to makes machines out of people.

An example of artworks that interest him in that respect is Douglas Gordon’s 1993 video 24 Hour Psycho which, as its title clearly indicates, is a video installation showing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic slowed down so that it lasts for 24 hours. The piece contains the instruction to reproduce it in infinite variations: 24 hour Star Wars, 66 hour Jaws, etc. A work like that one made Maxted think about machines and about mass producing copies of an artwork.

Maxted works with improvisers whom he defines as ‘persons trained to process information in real time.’ He brings them together to ‘form a single thinking system.” Improvisation, according to him, is key to the process because it is full of algorithms, feedback process, etc.

He and his improvisers performed 2 works during the Body of Matter / BAD Award Special weekend. The first one was The Machine. Completely improvised using algorithms and patterns, the show explores our relationship to machines and the development of language. The actors reproduce and modify each other’s words and gestures according to an algorithm, creating a continually evolving feedback loop. The result is puzzling and entertaining, you sometimes wonder whether the human participants are obeying and serving the system or mischievously generating glitches.

The performance of the final evening worked in a similar fashion, except that it used systems biology computation to generate performance parameters for actors.

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Miserable Machines. Lecture and performance by Špela Petrič. Body of Matter – MU Eindhoven, 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

Špela Petrič, Miserable Machines: Soot-o-mat

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Špela Petrič, Miserable Machines. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

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Špela Petrič, Miserable Machines. Body of Matter – Body based bio art & design, MU Eindhoven, 2015. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

The elegant patterns of Špela Petrič‘s vases are drawn by mussels. More precisely by tiny muscles removed from the molluscs body and then attached to an electro-stimulated design apparatus. The muscles are kept ‘alive’ by being repeatedly washed with water and shocked so that each tiny spasm of energy they produce is used to scratch lines onto the object. Because the contractions happen only once every 20 minutes or so, the design process takes several hours. The work is both absurd and poignant. A creature is killed in service to the machine, the design, and the product. The work speaks of the commodification of life and the ruthless exploitation of living systems, but it also symbolizes us, the mass of humans actors entrapped in the machine of capitalism.

That’s it for part one! See you tomorrow same time, same place for my notes from Body of Matter / BAD Award Special Day 2.

My images from the Bioart weekend are on flickr.

Previously: Plastic trash, rotting rubber & wonky skeleton. Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture at the Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend, Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design.

Plastic trash, rotting rubber & wonky skeleton. Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture at the Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend

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Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus

A few days ago, the MU art center in Eindhoven organized a Body of Matter / BAD Award weekend of talks, masterclasses, panels and performances. The event accompanied Body of Matter exhibition, an exhibition that looks at how biotechnology might in the near future modify the shape, functions and even our perception of the body. The show also offers the opportunity to discover the winners of Bio Art and Design Award which each years enables young artists and designers to develop collaborate with prominent Dutch science centers and develop ambitious projects related to the latest developments in art sciences.

A lot happened during that weekend and I’ll come back with more details about it later on. Today, i thought i should dedicate a full post to Maarten Vanden Eynde‘s brilliant lecture on the first evening. He talked about how the fish, the beaches and even ourselves are chocking on plastic, about King Leopold II of Belgium and his brutal exploitation of Congo, and about the Homo Sapiens, a species so presumptuous it gives itself the title of ‘doubly wise.’

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Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus, part of the Body of Matter exhibition. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for MU Eindhoven

Vanden Eynde doesn’t define himself as a bioartist. What interests him is the Genetology (The Science of First Things), Eschatology (The Science of Last Things) and how these two relate. As a result, his work hovers between past and future. His talk zoomed in on the piece he is showing in the Body of Matter exhibition as well as on 3 other works related to the body and to the evolution of our planet:

Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together as if the person who assembled the bones had no knowledge of human anatomy. The name of the piece refers to the mistakes done in attempting to reconstructing the skeleton but it also mocks the arrogance of our own species which define itself as Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Given the unethical way in which we behave towards the environment, other species or between ourselves, the title of Sapiens Sapiens is unquestionably inappropriate.

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Maarten Vanden Eynde’s lecture during the Body of Matter special weekend, 22 January 2016. Photo by Hanneke Wetzer for MU Eindhoven

Vanden Eynde also took us through another of his work that is directly related to the body: The Invisible Hand, a rubber copy of the right hand of Leopold II of Belgium. The artist made it at night by climbing on the equestrian statue of king in Brussels.

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The Invisible Hand, Art Brussels 2015, Belgium

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The Invisible Hand (making-of), Brussels, Belgium

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The Invisible Hand (making-of), Brussels, Belgium

From 1877 until his death in 1909, Leopold II, had an unprecedented influence on the current Democratic Republic of Congo. He was the founder and private owner of the Congo Free State, a territory he was eventually forced to cede to Belgium in 1908. The Congo Free State then became a Belgian colony under parliamentary control.

Although the king never set foot in the country, he changed, exploited and shaped it so fundamentally that the result is still visibly present today. The Invisible Hand refers thus to Adam Smith‘s 1759 theory of the same name. The concept could be summed up as follows: individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interest and profit may frequently benefit society and the entire economy more than if their actions had been directly intended to achieve the greater good. Of course few attained that more unwillingly than Leopold II whose reign is marked by the atrocities that Belgians committed in Congo. With the chief goal of ruthlessly exploiting the natural resources of the African country, Leopold II’s politics nevertheless instigated a local economic growth, but at a high price. More than 10 million people are estimated to have died as a consequence of Leopolds ‘Invisible Hand’.

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Nsala looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia, 1904

The name ‘The Invisible Hand’ doesn’t just refer to Smith’s theory of an unobservable market force, it also alludes to the custom of chopping the hands of enslaved people who didn’t work hard enough.

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The Invisible Hand (making-of), Ngel Ikwok, Kasai-Occidental, Democratic Republic of Congo

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The Invisible Hand (making-of), Ngel Ikwok, Kasai-Occidental, Democratic Republic of Congo

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The Invisible Hand, Art Brussels 2015, Belgium

But let’s get back to the artwork, Vanden Eynde went to the Democratic Republic of Congo with the copy of the hand of the ruler who had never traveled to his ‘own’ colony. The artist brought the mould to an abandoned rubber plantation in Kasai-Occidental and filled it up with natural rubber. Strangely enough, the rubber reacted to oxygen and decayed quite rapidly, the white rubber hand turned into a black one that smelled atrociously.

The hand traveled back to Belgium where it was presented inside an old Victorian vitrine at the art fair Art Brussels, completing the problematic circle of colonial treasure hunting in relation to historical fetishisation.

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Plastic Reef, Manifesta9, Genk, Belgium, 2012

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Hordaland Art Center, Bergen, Norway, 2013

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Glendale College Art Gallery, Los Angeles, US, 2009

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Fish caught in a plastic containers.Its teeth seem to fit the bitemarks on the plastic debris. Photo

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Beach trash in Montevideo. Photo

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Plastic flocks together with patches of sargassum seaweed floating in the North Atlantic Gyre. Photo

Next, the artist talked about Plastic Reef, a work that explores the longevity of plastic trash that floats around our oceans, litters our land, is buried underground and might very well outlive our species. Plastic doesn’t decompose, it shrinks down through friction and light into ever smaller pieces. These tiny plastic particles are called “mermaid tears” and in some parts of the ocean, their masses can be even greater than plankton. Some sea creatures mistake the particles for food, putting them directly into the food chain and thus potentially onto our plates.

Today there isn’t a single cubic meter of sea water that is free of plastic particles. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea and according to Captain Charles Moore, we can’t even see all of it because plastic is present up to 100 meters below the surface of the sea. Entire gyres have taken shape in our oceans in which plastic trash is being washed around by the currents and form what looks like islands of rubbish. The biggest water-based plastic trash aggregation, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to be about the size of Central Europe.


Al Jazeera, Micro-plastics fill world’s oceans

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Peanut the turtle before being rescued from the plastic ring of a six-pack holder. Photo Missouri Department of Conservation, via The Dodo

The artist visited ocean gyres around the world and collected hundreds of kilos of plastic debris from each place. He then melted the trash to form a sculpture that grows in size and weight each time it is exhibited, reflecting how the material is relentlessly invading our planet and damaging its fauna and flora.

The trash became beautiful again and seemed to solve two problems at the same time: the plastic in the ocean and the disappearing of coral reefs world wide, the artist writes

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1000 Miles Away From Home, Hordaland Art Center, Bergen, Norway, 2013

The final work that the artist presented are five snow globes that symbolize the five main oceanic gyres. The globes contain water and bits of plastic debris Vanden Eynde collected in the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The snow globe is like a time capsule for the future. When it is shaken the water creates a micro gyre making the plastic swirl around.

I really want one of those snow globes….

There’s only a few days left to visit the Body of Matter exhibition at MU in Eindhoven, it closes on 7 February 2016.

MSA: The Microbiome Security Agency

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Emma Dorothy Conley is an artist, designer and also a producer at the Center For Genomic Gastronomy. Concerned by newspaper stories about the microbiome and how we shed bits of it wherever we go, she decided to investigate the future of microbiome privacy.

The microbiome is a unique collection or community of microbes that live inside and outside our bodies (and pretty much everywhere else on our planet.) Your own microbiome functions as a record that reveals information about the people you’ve met, the places you’ve been to and the food you’ve eaten. In the future, microbial residues collected at crime scene could even help track down criminals. “All you need is an extensive database than currently exists,” explains Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at Argonne National Laboratory.

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Of course, the idea that the microscopic organisms that cover our body might one day be used to identify us raises a series of privacy and ethical concerns. The Microbiome Security Agency proposes to create a toolkit of DIY biological information manipulation tactics that would enable us to protect and secure our own data.

The Microbiome Security Agency (The MSA) investigates the future of microbiome privacy issues and prepares citizens for a future where our personal information is at risk through our biological datasets.

The MSA is one of the winning works of this year’s edition of the Bio Art & Design Award. The international competition invites young artists and designers to collaborate with Dutch science centers in order to develop thought-provoking art and design projects that engage directly with life sciences. The winning projects are currently part of Body of Matter, an exhibition that interrogates our ideas about the body.

The website of the MSA is packed with super useful and interesting information but i still wanted to ask Emma a few questions about the work:

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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

Hi Emma! What inspired you to work on the Microbiome Security Agency? Did you read any news stories related to the human microbiota and loss of privacy, for example?

Microbiome research is quite prevalent in popular science news, so ​over the last few years I’ve ​
been​ seeing lots of articles every week about emerging research in the field. There were lots ​of articles ​that discussed the uniqueness of an individual’s composition of bacteria, however I​ never found​ anyone pointing ​exactly ​to emerging privacy issues. It seemed like a gap in the conversation that needed to be investigated farther.

People love to read and talk about poop, so pieces on the topic of fecal transplants ​were constantly popping up,​ and​ being shared​ ​and debated online. In fecal transplantation for medical purposes, the donor has a healthy composition of gut bacteria, while the recipient doesn’t. We know our compositions of gut bacteria are fairly unique to us, so​ I started to wonder​, what ​does it mean​​ to give away or take on elements of someone else’s microbiome?

​Investigating this idea of ​”​unique​ness,”​ I started looking up different​ papers on the subject and different​ research groups that take bacteria samples from the general public in exchange for a report of their microbi​al makeup. I thought maybe I’d send in ​a fecal sample and see what my composition looked like​ and how it changed over time​. ​While reading ​the marketing material​ from these microbiome research groups​, I started to seriously question the collect​ion and databasing process​es that these groups use​. The company UBiome, ​for example, ​advertises, “Sequence your microbiome through citizen science!”

In exchange for a ​payment and sending in your fecal sample, ​along with ​loads of personal information about your daily habits, diet, ​and demographics, you receive a report of your ​microbial composition, with little to no actionable information. Is this citizen science? And what do they do with all of this personal information—and personal biological information?​ ​That’s where the project began.

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MSA Samples All

Can you tell us about the MSA DIY toolkit? Which kind of tactics will it provide citizens with? And how affordable and easy to use will it be for everyone?

We set out to ​find a do-it-yourself means for manipulating your microbiome in an effort to protect the information it might reveal. This is very tricky. For many health reasons, you really don’t want to change ​a healthy microbiome very much. ​Your bacteria ​help ​in lots of important bodily processes. It’s widely thought, for example, that the overuse of antibiotics has led to​ many current health issues plaguing the western world. So, instead of a toolkit for DIY microbiome manipulation, we created a system that asks citizens to support each other by investing in their microbiological privacy together. The MSA created ​a ​Community Bacteria Bank. Individuals invest in the bank by donating bacteria-rich samples​ (pretty much anything)​. These samples are processed into an “obscuration solution” to be applied to the skin—anonymizing the pre-existing bacteria. The Community Bacteria Bank functions as a working prototype, testing out ​one possible ​future scenario​ ​or ​system,​ along with​ products and processes,​ for securing our microbiological data.

Leading up to the creation of the bank, we decided to organize the project into two​ research​
categories: destroying and obscuring. Destroying eliminates important information, while obscuring adds noise and anonymizes important information.

In our destroying experiment​s​ we treated fecal samples with household cleaning products, attempting to ​eliminate the​ traces of​ DNA of the bacteria from these samples. Three people donated six fecal samples each, which were treated with:

1. Microwaving
2. Alcohol
3. Peroxide
4. Aceton
5. Ammonia
6. Bleach

Eliminating the DNA would mean that the bacteria would be unidentifiable. We found that it was actually quite difficult to destroy all the DNA from these samples. It was often lessened​ by the cleaning product​, but in equal parts, so the composition was still clear. Peroxide was the most successful, so if you need to destroy a fecal sample in a hurry, it’s your best bet.

From there we moved on to​​​ obscuring the DNA of skin bacteria​, which turned out to be a​ much​ more ​successful approach. In this experiment, we wanted to create an “Obscuration Solution” that could be applied to the skin microbiome to add noise and make your own bacteria unidentifiable. We wanted to create a bizarre, fake microbiome that would hide your own.

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To do this, we collected samples of bacteria-rich items from all over and blended them together. We randomly selected different foods, feces, soils, etc. containing what we knew would be a diverse selection of microorganisms​:​

> red ruffed lemur feces
> greater rhea feces
> white-faced saki feces
> kefir
> epoisse cheese
> kombucha 1
> kombucha 2
> natto
> compost
> kimchi
> soil
> seaweed

Samples of the blended mix were sent to the lab and the DNA from the bacteria was sequenced and amplified, resulting in a synthetic DNA mix resembling a completely new and unique ecosystem of bacteria. This DNA solution was placed in different mediums that could be applied to the skin: a powder, a mist, and a gel.

What’s with the fecal sampling? Why would people try to collect fecal matter at the zoo?​ ​and why the zoo, why not from our pets? or from a public park?

Pets, parks, ​zoo animals, ​everything is good! The beautiful thing about bacteria is that they are just about everywhere. We collected fecal samples from a zoo for two reasons: ​the ​gut ​microbiome contains a diverse selection of bacteria, so you get a dense, varied ​assortment in just a small fecal sample​.​ Gut bacteria compositions also change based on what we eat and where we live, so stool samples from exotic zoo animals can add a lot of diversity to the blended mix.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered while developing the project?

In terms of the research, one challenge​ was performing a difficult experiment in tracking and tracing the changes of the skin microbiome over time. Could we begin to put stories together about where someone ha​s​ been and who they​’ve been around by comparing their makeup of bacteria to those people and places? We tried sampling the skin microbiome as well as different environments by using tape to grab bacteria off different surfaces. We haven’t been successful in proving or disproving traceability yet, but I think it is very important research and I hope there is a lab or research group interested in doing a full study.

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Bacteria Bank. How It Work: AOMs

In terms of the project, realizing that a DIY solution was not (and rarely is) as good as a do-it-together solution was one of the biggest challenges and revelations. We wanted to design something that empowered individual’s to help themselves and to help each other. We wanted to find a clever solution that loudly out-smarted an unfavorable system, rather than​ encouraging others to​ silently hid​e​ in the shadows of that system. The Community Bacteria Bank was designed to do this. It houses the diverse​ bacteria​ samples donated by the public, but it also ​includes satellite-objects, called AOMs, that function like ATMs. These AOMs are designed to be temporary receptacles on the street. Citizens can donate a small bacteria-rich sample at an AOM, but they can also received a dose of the “Obscuration Solution” in the form of a mist, powder or gel. When applied to the skin, this “Obscuration Solution” adds a layer of DNA (not bacteria, just DNA) that obscures the bacteria on the user’s skin.​ The idea is that if we all donate samples to the mix, it becomes very diverse and adds a lot of noise to the Obscuration Solutions. If we all use the same Obscuration Solutions, our skin microbiomes will all look the same and our microbiological information will be secure.​
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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

I’m also curious about your collaboration with Guus Roeselers and his research team. How hands-on did you manage to be with the scientific protocols and process? Were you allowed to get inside the labs and work along with the scientists?

I was very lucky to work with Dr. Guus Roeselers. ​In addition to being extremely knowledgeable in regards to the science, he is incredibly creative​ and interested in important cultural and ethical questions. He was always willing to​ imagine and​ explore different futures scenarios, regardless of whether they were controversial or even likely. ​For many reasons, it ​was not possible for me to work in the lab at TNO​.​ In some ways​,​ ​this ​​was very fitting given the idea of the project.​ I prepared many of the samples at my home or in my studio: an average citizen, creating an “​Obscuration ​S​olution” to protect the average citizen. The samples were processed and sequenced and the DNA was amplified by technicians in the lab​, but Guus and I designed and executed all other aspect​s using effective and safe at-home practices.​

The masks and outfits you were on the homepage of the project are quite striking. Can you tell us something about them?

The MSA​ has​ agents​ who​ run the organization. They help in collect​ing ​bacteria-rich samples,​ and​ also manage the AOMs and maintain the bank. They show citizens how to collect and donate samples and explain how the Obscuration Solutions work. MSA Agents wear shimmering, colorful uniforms and large white masks to protect their faces and protect their samples​ and solutions​. The uniforms are designed to be bold and noticeable ​to reinforce the idea that this is a project about​ empowerment​, inspiration ​and fun, rather than fear​fulness.​ ​

Our goal is to create more options for individuals, to test out possible futures, and to challenge the notion that we should fear those with power rather than be empowered ourselves. The MSA is interested in a proactive approach to ​building a future we want to inhabit, by creating options to work with​,​in a complex world​​ filled with unknowns and promise.

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MSA: Microbiome Security Agency, Body of Matter, Installation view, MU, Eindhoven. Photo courtesy of the artist

Thanks Emma!

MSA: Microbiome Security Agency is part of Body of Matter. Body based bio art & design which opens at MU in Eindhoven on 27 November. The show will be running until 7 February 2016. Also part of the exhibition: The Art of Deception by Isaac Monté and Drones with Desires.
Related story: Matter of Life. Growing new Bio Art & Design.

Drones with Desires. A machine with inbuilt human memories

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

Agi Haines seems to be anesthetized to the most visceral and crude guises of the future human body. She designed hybrid organs custom-designed to overcome specific illnesses and made realistic sculptures of babies distorted to respond to threats of global warming or increase a child’s prospects to become an athlete, etc. On the one hand, Agi is unquestionably one of the most fearless and interesting creators of her generation. On the other, her works are so raw and challenging I can only look at the homepage of her website through my fingers.

Her latest project, Drones with Desires, is one of the winning works of this year’s edition of the Bio Art & Design Award. The international competition invites young artists and designers to collaborate with renowned Dutch science centers in order to develop thought-provoking art and design projects that engage directly with life sciences.

True to form, the drone she worked on doesn’t look like your usual sleek and mechanical machine. It’s a blob.

For this work, Agi Haines’ brain was scanned and the visual anatomy of the connections in her brain were translated into an artificial neural network. This network will be used to control the motion of a drone by running sensory inputs through this network to form decisions regarding movement. Over time, the drone will learn on its own, fashioning behaviours and preferences unique to its experience but anchored in the architecture of the artist’s brain connections. As the drone learns, its results may shed light on how this process happens in the human brain.

The focus of ‘Drones with desires’ is to breathe life into mechanical devices through altering their material substance. With an increased efficiency of modelling the brain for artificial intelligence or the introduction of mechanics within biomedical sciences, where are the boundaries of humanness in a world full of integrated and invasive technologies? How might we respond to a machine that characterizes human behaviors through a reconstructed sensory nervous system? This project will explore the thin line between natural and artifice, by creating a machine with inbuilt human memories.

The work was developed in collaboration with Marcel de Jeu and Jos van der Geest, Erasmus University Medical Centre, and Jack Mckay Fletcher, Christos Melidis and Vaibhav Tyagi, CogNovo Plymouth.

Drones with Desires will premiere this Friday at MU in Eindhoven. It will be part of Body of Matter which will present 10 artists and designers whose work challenges our ideas about the body. In the meantime, i got to talk with the designer:

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

Hi Agi! To start off the project, a diffusion tensor MRI scan was taken of your brain and the information was translated into an artificial neural network based on the visual anatomy of the connections in your brain. Could you explain us how this worked?

Is this some basic and banal process? Are there other contexts when this kind of translation is made?

This was a fascinating and arduous process, after taking an MRI with Marcel de Jeu and Jos van der Geest at Erasmus MC the data was translated from the scan through looking at the connections between different areas in the brain, measuring the strength of these connections and translating this information to weight strength within an artificial neural network.

Its conception was the result of collaborative input from various researchers, and in fact this process is unique. It was designed by a neuroscientist Vaibhav Tyagi and computational neuroscientist Jack Mckay Fletcher specifically for this project and its interpretation into a machine was performed by roboticist Christos Melidis. It not only tells us a lot about how we generate models of the brain but may also potentially inform scientific testing tools.

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

You have a computer replication of your brain?!??! That sounds very Ray Kurzweil. How does it feel to be able to see a replication of your brain? And, based on your own research for the project, what do you think of his statements that within 15 years technology will allow human brains to be connected directly to the internet?

Although a replication of my brain it is still only a simulacrum and not actually my brain itself, yet even though I am distanced from it there is still something quite unnerving about seeing how technology can learn directly in relation to the human brain and how this may play a part in artificial intelligence

I believe that we are already hybrid creatures made of varying parts, some naturally produced and some artificial. And perhaps there may eventually come a time in which we can be directly connected to the Internet but its introduction may be so gradual that it seems no different to having a gold tooth.

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

Did you learn something about the functioning of your brain by watching its replica?

Yes but perhaps more about brain function in general rather than mine specifically; in fact I was concerned we might find something abnormal about my brain function. I particularly learnt a lot regarding brain modeling, its benefits and drawbacks, purposes and problems.

With what kind of drone are you working? Could any type of drone work?

Yes technically any machine could be controlled using the network but we have produced our own drone. It is more replicative of the sensory nervous system and looks like a floating mass of tissue with wings. We wanted to imagine how such a machine might be utilized within society. If a machine could replicate your decision-making processes as well as your flesh could it become a secondary version of you? And if so what would it be used for? Medical testing? Geographical safety mapping?

The reason why we chose a drone as the machine to translate the data into was not only to probe a popular technology known for being representative of thought and action but also the fact the brain is afloat plays on the ethereal quality of thought processes.

How hand-on you were with the scientific processes? Did you delegate all the scientific manipulations to the scientists or did you manage to engage directly in the development of the work?

My attempt to engage as much as possible with these scientific processes mainly surfaced through working out new ways to integrate ideas, theories and practices from amalgamating what at first seemed like dichotomous fields. Some aspects of the work, for example the coding itself, was an extremely complex language to learn within this short time. Yet luckily all collaborators gave me extremely valuable lessons within their respective fields regarding electronics, anatomical neuroscience, computing and modeling which I have had to research and physically interact with in order to produce the final piece, as well as to comprehend significant crossovers that informed all the decisions regarding the visuals and behaviors of the drone.

So you had the idea for the project and you had your brain scanned. Where else did you apply your knowledge and particular expertise as a designer?

Beyond the obvious physical production of manufacturing, building and painting objects and generating, producing and editing film, this large collaboration consisted of a significant amount of both practical and managerial parts. My main focus was to use my role as a designer to highlight valuable questions concerning the scientific processes and research questions surrounding the topic of brain modeling, and offer space for reflection regarding the implications of such research, which in turn can have potential impact to a public as well as professional audience.

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

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Drones With Desires, 2015. Image courtesy of Agi Haines

Which challenges have you encountered while developing the project?

Overall this has been an intensely challenging project, particularly concerning the research and planning involved, perhaps the main challenge was marrying the artistic concept and scientific theory with the logistics of keeping an object afloat for a long period of time has been a big challenge.

What will the work look like when you show it at MU?

The drone will be moving freely within a darkened space and the public will be able to walk around and alongside it, altering its behavior and in turn learning processes as it moves. Video will also be shown of how the scan images lead to the production of connections, the data it is receiving and how this could potentially alter plasticity in the brain structure.

Thanks Agi!

Drones with Desires is part of Body of Matter. Body based bio art & design which opens at MU in Eindhoven on 27 November. The show will be running until 7 February 2016. Also part of the exhibition: The Art of Deception by Isaac Monté.

Can organs be objects of design?

Designer Isaac Monté has been pushing ideas of beauty and deception to their most ‘visceral’ limits using decellularization, a process which consists of removing all of the cells from an organ leaving only the extracellular matrix (the framework between the cells) intact.

In collaboration with scientist Toby Kiers from the VU University Amsterdam, the designer used a pig heart as if it were a material that can be tattooed, embroidered, covered in fur and otherwise transformed. The work aims to explore how far a ghost organ can be manipulated for its creative potential, but it also questions whether biological interventions and aesthetic manipulation can be used as tools for the transformation of inner beauty. The ghost organs in this case work as a metaphor for regenerated artificial life. The discarded dead hearts will not function as canonical organs, but rather as a representation of how far science can manipulate the human body.

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

The work is called The Art of Deception and it is part of Body of Matter which will open next week at MU in Eindhoven. The exhibition will give visitors an opportunity to discover 10 artists and designers whose work challenges our ideas about the body. The show will also premiere the three winning projects of this year’s edition of the Bio Art & Design Award. The international competition invites young artists and designers to collaborate with renowned Dutch science centers in order to develop thought-provoking –and sometimes downright provocative– art and design projects that engage directly with life sciences. Monté’s The Art of Deception is one of the winning entries of the competition. I saw a preview of his work at the Van Abbemuseum a few weeks ago and i’m gutted that i won’t be in Eindhoven to see how the project has evolved in the meantime. Fortunately, Isaac has found some time to chat with me and answer my many questions about his work:

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

Hi Isaac! As a designer, what made you want to look into decellularization?

The project started actually because I was triggered by the huge amount of food and more specifically meat, that is being thrown away in supermarkets, before it is even being sold. I am not a vegetarian and it is not my aim to turn people into vegetarians, but I find it a shame that food is being thrown away because it expires before it is being sold. Like this the animal was raised and slaughtered for no reason.

So I looked into a method to transform expired meat into a new raw material.
I figured out there was a technique called decellularization, which was being used for organ transplantation, to clean the organ from cells, DNA and all content.
What is left is extra cellular matrix, mainly collagen. This expired meat turned transparent white and I made a collection of vessels and lighting objects out of it.

Later on I decided to continue with this technique and apply it to the heart, the human’s most vital organ.

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The Art of Deception. Work in progress photo by Isaac Monté

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The Art of Deception. Work in progress photo by Isaac Monté

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The Art of Deception. Work in progress photo by Isaac Monté

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The Art of Deception. Work in progress photo by Isaac Monté

I do write regularly about art &biotech project but i was actually quite shocked when i read that you tattooed on a decellularized pig’s heart. So how much do you expect people to be scandalized by the project? Is the reaction of the viewer important?

Some people call me a design activist. I am not sure whether I like that or not and if I should be a designer or an artist. But they refer to what I am doing in my work. I am always triggered by a social or an ecological problem. A problem that we are not aware of (anymore) Something that became part of our daily life.

For example pets/animals that are being killed in traffic or cigarette waste in the streets.
Therefore I use design as a medium to create awareness for these kind of issues or even behavior change. It is never my intention to shock and the work itself is not condemnatory, but it makes the spectator think and form its personal opinion.

I the past I made birdhouses out of used cigarette filters, as a reaction against the huge amount of filters that are lying around in the streets. They pollute water and birds eat them and therefore die. On the other hand, birds use these cigarette ends in their nests because the nicotine keeps leeches and other parasites away.

Further on I also made a collection of masks out of fur from roadkill. As a reaction against the fact that a pet or animal which we consider to be so worthy and so beautiful, turns into a piece of waste the moment it is killed in traffic. And of course the whole fuzz that is going on in the fur industry. There is just free fur lying around in the streets.

With this project, The Art of Deception, I am researching how far we can go as designers. What is ethically allowed and what is not.
The idea is to challenge science by re-inventing a biomedical technique. Does the ghost organ represent a blank canvas to designers? Can organs be objects of design? Will humans be able to manipulate organs for aesthestic purposes?

The heart is the crystal cage where inner beauty is supposedly kept, the safe-deposit box of emotions and generally accepted as deep and meaningful.
Ultimately our aim is to explore ghost organs as a metaphor for regenerated, artificial life. The discarded dead hearts will not function as canonical organs, but rather as a representation of how far science can manipulate the human body.

Our project asks: how can science transform the raw, grotesque and hidden inside into a new manipulated unseen beauty? Is this inner beauty the last remaining frontier free of deception? Can inner beauty be designed?

A more beautiful heart does not improve its functionality or the survival or success rate of its owner. But it will introduce beauty in the organ we most closely associate with life itself – like introducing beauty, even if unseen, in our “source” of life. Further on it creates the possibility of customizing one’s own heart. The aesthetic transformation from grotesque to beautiful will only be visible in the in-between moments, when the heart is not yet implanted – and therefore not functional. It seems as if beauty and function cannot be enjoyed simultaneously.

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

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The Art of Deception. Photo by Monica Monté

Apart from tattooing, what else will you do to these organs?

We present a collection of 21 decellularized hearts, molded and manipulated in several iterations to explore the organ’s aestheticization. Such alterations suggest deception, a behavior found across countless species to trick others to obtain survival or reproductive advantage.
We embroidered a heart with UV-sensitive yarn, we tattooed a heart, we injected the vessels with resin and dissolved the heart itself (so only the vessels remain), we managed to let the heart glow and the closer the spectator comes the brighter it glows, we managed to shrink a heart to 1 cm, we have a heart with hair growing out of it, we contracted a heart out of the yarn which is being used for surgery, we 3D printed a new aorta (square shaped) with biological tissue, we make a heart breath like a lung, we gave it ‘fur’ like a beast, we laser engraved it with the logo’s of haute couture brands (fashion victim), we made a heart of stone with golden vessels (like a piece of jewelry), we plastinated a heart, we repopulated a heart with iron filings which are constantly moving around and protecting the heart (armored heart), ….

One of the questions that your project asks is how far can science be allowed to manipulate the human body? Did you manage to elaborate an answer to that?

It is speculative, provocative design in which we don’t present answers. It is actually the project itself asking the question to the audience or the spectator how science and design are allowed to manipulate the body. The project does not give any answers but it aims to create awareness around this issue

How about designers? Do / should they have a say in the way science manipulates the human body?

I think it could be very interesting for scientists to cooperate with designers.
As we are more and more designing our own bodies and manipulating our body, we are becoming humanoids I believe there a great opportunities for collaborations.
Science is ‘designing’ the human body, so why not working together with designers

How hands-on were you with the scientific processes? Did you delegate all the scientific manipulations to the scientists or did you manage to engage directly with the development of the work?

For the Bio Art and Design Awards I was linked to Professor Toby Kiers of the VU (Free University) Amsterdam, she was my partner in crime for this project. Apart from that we managed to set up active cooperations with Dr. Renée van Amerongen of Swammerdam Institute of Life Sciences, Dr. Monique Verstegen of Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam, Dr. Yvonne Steinvoort of Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam, Dr. Jos Malda of the University Medical Center Utrecht, Professor Paul van der Valk of Free University Amsterdam.

I was always very eager to work together. I did not want them to do the work for me. We always did things together or I did it myself. Of course I do not have the scientific knowledge, that is why we set up those cooperations, but they were not just executing my ideas, we worked as a team.

Which challenges have you encountered while developing the project?

Technical challenges such as the decellularization process.
The project was a lot about running experiments.

The most challenging to me was to develop the concept for each of the 21 hearts and to set up collaborations to make it possible to execute these concepts.

Schermafbeelding 2015-11-12 om 09.15.32
View of the work at the Van Abbemuseum. Photo courtesy of Isaac Monté

I saw your work at the Van Abbemuseum, it was part of the show Thing Nothing. How different will the piece be when you show it at MU?

I will show a collection of 21 pieces. All of them will be presented in glass vessels (as in the Van Abbe.) They will be categorized in 3 different themes and therefore presented on 3 long tables. The first category deals with interaction, the second are medical interventions and the 3rd one we consider to be ‘personalized.

Thanks Isaac!

Check out Isaac’s work at Body of Matter. Body based bio art & design which opens at MU in Eindhoven on 27 November. The show will be running until 7 February 2016.