Category Archives: science

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


K. rhaeticus microscopy, picture Dr. Alf Spitschak


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Margherita!

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

RIBOCA. A moment to reflect on our age of technoscience

Previously: RIBOCA review. A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene.

Second part in my overview of Everything was forever until it was no more, the first edition of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago.


Sasha Huber + Petri Saarikko, Dziedināšana Remedies, 2018

The artists invited by curator Katerina Gregos investigate change. In particular, how change, because of its relentless speed and much proclaimed inevitability, seems to escape robust critical scrutiny. Some of the main sub-themes of the biennial looked at issues as vast as our flawed relationship to other living species, the negotiation of collective historical memory in post-Soviet regions or the impact of unseen technologies on landscapes and society. I only had a couple of hours to visit the exhibitions but even as was reading the catalogue on the way back home, i had to admit that it was a lot to take in for a sole event.


Kerstin Hamilton, A World Made by Science, 2018

Still, RIBOCA turned out to be one of the highlights of 2018 for me. I discovered new artists, new perspective on Baltic states, was intellectually stimulated and eavesdropped on heated discussions about the private Russian funding of the biennial (only a few years after the annexation of the Crimea had put strain on the relationships between Russia and formerly Soviet Baltic states.) I also admired the way each exhibition, no matter how wide-ranging its focus, anchored itself firmly in the historical and architectural context of Riga.

Here are some of the most exciting works (for me):


Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014


Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014


Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014


Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014. Exhibition view. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

We tend to regard individual animals, especially the ones we turn into food and consumer goods, as mutually interchangeable within a herd. All cows become the same, as do pigs and sheep. We rarely consider their sentience: what they think and feel or the nature of their inner world. To us they are mindless animals. Something similar happen to human animals once they are part of a crowd: they are said to adopt a ‘herd mentality’.

As Nabil Boutros‘s portraits demonstrate sheep, like human beings, regain their individual character when separated from the flock. He photographed sheep, lambs and rams, as if they had commissioned these portraits themselves. Each animal’s distinct features and individuality then becomes apparent.

It becomes impossible, in front of these portraits, not to ascribe psychological features of human beings to the individual animals. They appear confident or insecure, modest or cheeky, anxious, surprised, inquisitive, thoughtful, upset, arrogant, withdrawn, excited, seductive, etc.


Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

The Zoological Collection of the Museum of the University of Latvia features the usual skeletons, taxidermied bodies, pinned down insects and other animal remains for us humans to gawk and marvel at. Erik Kessels believes that human animals are often as strange and exotic as the ones in zoological displays. To prove his point, he placed found photos inside the exhibition cases, pairing them with the original artifacts in associative and often comical ways. Both male and female individuals of our species are caught preening, mating, eating and performing other rituals.

The odd juxtapositions force us to have a more introspective look at our own species and the deep connections we share with other animals.


Maarten Vanden Eynde, Pinpointing Progress, 2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Titled Pinpointing Progress, Maarten Vanden Eynde’s sculpture is an homage to the Town Musicians of Bremen, a sculpture based on the story of the Brothers Grimm, in the centre of Riga.

The artist stacked on top of one another technological products that used to be manufactured in Riga and exported all over the USSR and beyond. The objects become smaller and smaller as they reach the top of the sculpture. A bus, car, moped, bike, computer, radio, telephone, camera and a transistor. Pinned on a needle, as if they were insects in a natural history museum.

Progress comes with the promise that we are moving forward, towards a better situation. The faster we get there, it is suggested, the better it is. New inventions swiftly follow one another, often shrinking in size, with nano-technology the ultimate goal. Nanotechnology will potentially have implications on a macro scale. And because we won’t be able to perceive its impact with our unaided human sense, we will have to believe the new forms of progress nanotechnology bring. In this context, information and faith in progress replace material goods as the most valuable resources in capitalist society.

Vanden Eynde’s sculpture wasn’t the only work in the biennial that questioned our age of technoscience…


Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Genetically modified cat from The Infinity Engine, 2010


Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018

Infinity Engine explores the societal and ethical challenges of DNA programming and all the applications it enables, from the production of transgenic organisms to 3D bioprinting of human organs.

In collaboration with reknown scientists, Hershman-Leeson created a functional replica of a genetics lab, complete with printed scaffolds of human noses and ears and scientific equipment.

The installation was fascinating and i wish i had had a full afternoon to explore its informative content. One of the rooms was wallpapered in images of hybrid crops, animals and interiors of biomedical engineering labs across the world. Another room allowed visitors to read files of legal documents related to genetic engineering. The most curious was the speculative ‘capture room’, devised in collaboration with biohacker and molecular biologist Dr. Josiah P. Zaynor, in which facial-recognition software captures the images of the visitors, attempts to deduce information about the person’s genetic makeup and adds the data to an evolving composite archetype.

The project points to the possible implications of this kind of genetic research: on the one hand, the astonishing medical breakthroughs; on the other, the new forms of governmental and corporate surveillance it enables. The work also invites us to ponder upon uncomfortable questions: How do these scientific practices challenge our understanding of human identity and life? Who owns the engineered human body parts when human cells and tissue are turned into commodities? How might bio-engineering affect human evolution in a planet that is increasingly uninhabitable?


Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov


Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Stelios Faitakis


Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion (detail), 2018. At the Former Biological Faculty

Stelios Faitakis created a spectacular site-specific mural for the lobby of the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia.

His work follows the style of Byzantine painting and specifically the iconostases of Orthodox churches – the icon-covered panels that separate the nave from the sanctuary. The figure that dominates the New Religion is the scientist. In his biblical epic the artist raises questions about the central role that techno-scientific progress plays within the value system of Western society.

Faitakis vision of techno-religion is a dark one. Its mural depict scientists signing contracts with pharmaceutical companies, observing a gigantic nuclear mushroom cloud or working calmly next to a rabbit with its skull open.


Kerstin Hamilton, The Science Question in Feminism, 2018

Kerstin Hamilton‘s The Science Question in Feminism paid homage to female physicists, chemists and biologists from the Baltic and Nordic region in a series of photomontages that subtly highlighting gender inequality in science. Latvian chemist Lidija Liepina, for example, helped create the first Russian gas mask while she was still a student. Latvian biologist and botanist Magda Staudinger was acknowledged as the collaborator of her husband when he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The works are inserted inside single vitrines and spread all over the Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. If you don’t pay attention you might even think they are relics from the glory days of the institution.

While scientific results can arguably be regarded as factual and objective, there is little doubt that the complex structures that surround the scientific knowledge production are socially constructed. These structures have rarely been favourable to women, who systematically have been excluded from formal and informal scientific networks.

Danilo Correale, Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy, 2014-15

Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy was a 52 weeklong project where the artist tried to comprehend the ability of the Amazon algorithm to get to know the ideological viewpoint of its customers. Over the course of one year Danilo Correale bought books Amazon suggested to him, starting from a text by Judith Butler. Once the book arrived he ripped off one page and returned the now-damaged book to Amazon. He then proceeded to buy the first book in the list suggested by Amazon, using the refund granted by the e-commerce giant.

In every image, next to the book, lays the page that the artist cut out in order to create a new publication of 52 pages: a symbolic representation of the algorithm that modelled the choices for Mr. Bojangles (Correale’s username on Amazon) and aims to make each and everyone of us a nicely predictable customer.


Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov


Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov


Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov


Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

I didn’t see this one but i’m a fan of Robert Kuśmirowski

His astonishing talent consists in turning discarded materials into time capsules that give the illusion of decay and bygone times. The title of the work commissioned especially for the Former Bolschevichka Textile Factory in Riga, IGRA, means ‘plays’ in Polish, and refers to phrases such as ‘playing with death’ and ‘playing with fire’, while simultaneously providing an anagram of ‘Riga’.

IGRA consists of a large machine for producing vodka, referencing the illegal production of moonshine at hidden locations in the forest. The work is constructed from equipment found by the artist: ladles, pipes and piping systems. The last tank of the installation contains 40 litres of vodka, which drips into a glass throughout the duration of the exhibition, creating the illusion of a working vodka distillery.

More works from RIBOCA:


Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018


Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018


Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018. Residence of Kristaps Morbergs. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018


Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018. Installation view. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018


Sven Johne, Anomalies of the early 21st century/Some case studies, 2015. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov


Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst, The Week Has Eight Days, 2018


Femke Herregraven, Malleable Regress, 2016-2018


Alexis Destoop, Phantom Sun, 2016. Photo: Dirk Pauwels

Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies)

New scientific techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9 have raised debates about whether or not we will soon be able to get babies à la carte and whether this will be ethically acceptable.

If making designer babies ever becomes acceptable, genome modification would not be used solely for therapeutic reasons (to eliminate genes causing disorders such as cystic fibrosis for example) but for enhancement. Parents who can afford the expense would then be able to ask labs to give them a full list of the traits they can select for their child and ensure that he or she will be faster, smarter, stronger and sexier than their peers.


Pınar Yoldas, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017


Pınar Yoldas, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017. Installation view at the Scales School exhibition, Pera Museum. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz

Artist and researcher Pinar Yoldas is participating to A School of Schools, the 4th edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial, with nine delicate 3D printed statuettes – one for each month of human pregnancy – that reflect the characteristics of gods and goddesses in Greek mythology.

Her installation Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies) invites us to consider the societal impact of a gene editing tool that might in the future allow some of us to tweak human DNA and ‘play god’ with future generations of children.

Yoldas’ designer babies have been genetically altered to be superior beings. They are endowed with truly exceptional levels of intelligence, beauty, clairvoyance, longevity, social status or even moral reasoning. Each of them has grown in a very peculiar environment that only enhances their specific and extraordinary gift but that makes it difficult to distinguish whether their identity has been shaped mainly by their background, by their education or by the fact that their genes have been ‘improved.’ What is sure is that these god-like individuals come with their own insecurities and weaknesses. They are scientific marvels, military experiment, display of privilege and power or cultural artifacts as much as they are flawed human beings.

Let me introduce you to a couple of these kids:


Pınar Yoldaş, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017. Installation view at the Scales School exhibition, Pera Museum. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz

Boreas is the first designer baby to have been gifted with a superpower. His is longevity. He was “made in China”, the first country to edit the genes of human embryos using the CRISPR-cas9 tool back in 2015. It has also often been said that China, or at least its government, is more tolerant towards programs that could be regarded as “eugenics” such as selective abortion of fetuses with severe genetic disorders.

Kronos was born at Duke University Hospital. The identity of his parents is classified, all we know is that his birthgiver was a third-year graduate student in that university. She had agreed to deliver him to pay her student loans. 6 months after his birth, Kronos was relocated to an education facility and bred to have perceptual time wrapping. He’s an ongoing experiment and his progresses, his ability to slow down or accelerate time, are carefully monitored by the team of scientists who take care of him.

My favourite in the group is Artemis because there’s something almost inevitable about her existence. Her parents are Nike. She’s an athlete (what else?) engineered to serve the American corporation’s propaganda. Whether she finds her role and existence ethical or not is of no significance to her designers.

Aphrodite is exceptionally beautiful of course. She is the child of Hollywood stars. She is a star herself, an influencer on social media. She is not sure if she’s adored because of her personality, because her two mothers are so famous or simply because of her own fame.

What distinguishes Hermes is his lineage: Mark Zuckerberg, Beyonce Queen Elizabeth, Elon Musk and King of Saudi Arabia. As befits an heir to world’s most powerful people, Hermes was born in the “New Cayman Island.” He’s neither particularly smart nor beautiful but he possesses the genetic imprint from 7 bloodlines from across the world’s richest new “aristocracy”. And that’s enough to make him exceptional.

Calculus is a secret military experiment. He is extremely disciplined and dedicates all his time and precocious intelligence to study and sport. He doesn’t seem interested in anything else.


Pınar Yoldaş, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017

Pınar Yoldaş’ small 3D-printed models are accompanied by a publication that further explores the story of each baby. I found Genetically Modified Generation to be very moving. The beauty and delicacy of the tiny sculptures draws you into a nuanced and insightful meditation about the ethical dilemmas society would face if the gene editing technique was adopted without a rigorous public discussion of its impact on individuals and society.

Finally, and in the own words of the artist:

The bio-critical, techno-feminist aesthetic disrupts the mainstream media’s infantilizing superhero narrative that conditions us to think that we need saving instead of being able to change and develop our own world.


Pınar Yoldaş, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017. Installation view at the Scales School exhibition, Pera Museum. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz


Pınar Yoldaş, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017. Installation view at the Scales School exhibition, Pera Museum. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz


Pınar Yoldaş, Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies), 2016-2017. Installation view at the Scales School exhibition, Pera Museum. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz

A School of School, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial is curated by Jan Boelen and organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). The exhibitions remain open at various locations in Istanbul until 4 November 2018.

Also part of the biennial: Halletmek. The Turkish art of speeding up design processes.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

The project description explains:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thanks Tina!

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

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

Cellout.me: What does it mean to own someone else’s DNA data?


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

At the end of 2015, artist Jeroen van Loon offered his entire DNA data – 380 GB of personal data – for auction. The starting price was an extravagant 0 euro. Anyone could place a bid through www.cellout.me. A year later, the auction closed and the artist’s full genome sold for 1100 euros to the Verbeke Foundation.

The highest bidder had just acquired an installation composed of the server cabinet where the data are stored, framed pictures documenting the DNA extracting and encoding processes, four letters written by experts as well something more difficult to fully grasp: an individual’s entire DNA self-portrait.

In their letters, experts from very different fields attempt to untangle the meaning and implications of Cellout.me. Auction house Christie’s Amsterdam seeks to estimate the artistic value of the artist’s DNA; specialists at medical center ErasmusMC in Rotterdam looked at the ethical dimension of the artist’s work and what it means to own his genome which they compare to the digital version of an individual. KPMG, a company with expertise “in all things Big Data” investigated the potential fluctuations of value of the artist’s DNA through time. As for cybersecurity company Fox-It, they wrote perhaps the most dramatic note, they underline the fragility of this DNA which needs to be protected from the greed of ‘gold miners’ and other people or companies eager to speculate and profit from this new type of data.

The letters highlight how a project that can be summed up in a couple of words (Artists Sells Own DNA for 1100 Euros!!!) hides various levels of complexity, meanings, ramifications and uncomfortable questions regarding ownership, privacy, the place of DNA in big data and digital culture in general, bioethics, etc.

Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me – selling human DNA data

What are the consequences of owning someone else’s DNA data? How does this influence the spatial privacy of the biological owner and his family members?

The installation is currently on view at Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I took the exhibition as an excuse to contact Jeroen van Loon and ask him the questions above. And more:


Photo by Erik Borst: In front of the HiSeq DNA sequencer, which takes 2 weeks to sequence a full genome

Hi Jeroen! The idea of selling your full genome might sound a bit abstract and too conceptual to most people. DNA is a very very long sequence of ACTGs (3 billion lines!) Could you briefly tell us about some of the ethical and cultural questions raised by the auction of your DNA data?

The main difference when thinking about selling DNA data (and I mean DNA data, not biological DNA) compared to other types of data – let’s say credit card or social media data – is that DNA data is not constrained to one single person. DNA data is about me, but also about my sister, parents, grandparents and also my son. So when I decide to sell my DNA data, the first question one could ask is if it’s even my data to sell. Who is the owner of my DNA data? Do I have any authorship or copyright concerning my DNA data? Should I inform my family members and ask for consent when doing something with my DNA data? Scientists call this characteristic of DNA data spatial privacy. Further more, if I find your DNA on a soda can and I sequence it, is it then my DNA data?

Apart from the selling questions, one of the main questions revolves around the monetary value of human DNA data. Because, how do you come up with a certain price tag for my DNA data when we discard the production price for the creation of that DNA data? What makes my DNA data any different – and more of less worthy – than yours? To make it more difficult, what we know today about human DNA data isn’t the same as what we might know in let’s say 15 years. The information value of human DNA data changes because of new scientific research. So linking the price tag to the current information level could also be problematic.


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, artist presentation at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

The most distressing aspect of the work for me is that it projects you into a very uncertain future. Right now it’s probably not very easy, practical nor affordable to faithfully transcribe someone else’s genome and draw profit from it. But one day it might. And since you share the DNA material with your existing and future family, it means that your work might be of concern to them. Did you justify your work to them? How did they react to your project?

Yes, I explained my intentions and what I would do with my DNA data. Everybody found it interesting, some found it a little scary, including myself, and others, like my son, was, and is, too young to think anything about it. I did not ask anybody for consent, either in a formal or informal manner. You could call this egoistic, which it probably is.

The main reason for doing it this way is that you might otherwise not have asked this particular question. The artwork is not a metaphor, narrative or visualisation, it is a documentation of a real life action. And it is this action that creates the questions concerning this future digital culture I wanted to show. If it was not a real life action and thus without consequences, it would not have been able to ask these questions.

This is not to say that this does not scare me sometimes, but right now this discussion is in an ‘ignorance is bliss’ place in my mind.


Photo by Erik Borst: Isolating DNA from blood sample

You asked specialists from various fields to ponder upon the significance of the work. One of them was cybersecurity company Fox-It. In their letter, they insist on the need to protect this type data, because DNA is “the new gold” and “access to the goldmine” should be controlled. Yet, the description of the work states that “The artist decided not to stipulate a contract with the eventual buyer” What motivated this decision? I’m particularly curious about the absence of contract since it is so important to protect your data and encrypt it carefully, especially when the data is so personal.

I came up with the idea to add a contract, which would state what the buyer could and couldn’t do with the DNA data, during the final production stages of the artwork. I think I got cold feet. It was the same reason why I wanted to begin the auction price at the production price of the artwork. Both ideas were abandoned after conversations with fellow artists when I realised they would greatly damage the core idea behind the work. It would create a watered-down version of the artwork.

When content becomes binary code we see the same questions pop up regarding copyright, authorship, piracy, privacy, original/copy, remix and so on. This happened to music, cinema, news, and will happen to our DNA data as well. When DNA sequence technology becomes easier, cheaper and more widely available, more companies/organisations will offer ways of e.g. sequencing, storing, sharing, owning, buying or selling DNA data.

As with all other types of digital content, DNA data will also be (il)legally recorded, shared, hacked, leaked, mixed and so on. My point was to show what kind of new questions could arise when human DNA data was sold, not to find the most secure way of transferring it. The actual selling asks not only these questions but also shows possible implications.

What happened since you sold your DNA data? You just sent the whole installation to the Verbeke Foundation and then it disappeared from your preoccupations?

My focus as an artist is on visualising, documenting and revealing digital culture, not on DNA and its discourse. DNA was only my focus because it became data. So to be very honest; when the work was sold my preoccupation with my DNA data was finished.

I try to keep up a little with news about DNA sequence possibilities. I recently saw a Dutch TV commercial in which they offered to sequence parts of your DNA for your, a sort of 23andMe.com. The fact that this is now on Dutch TV means that we will have to deal more and more with the questions surrounding data and DNA and therefor I feel happy to already have finished the work since I tried to reveal digital culture with this work.

I did write a small text about my final reflections on the selling of my DNA data for Digimag Journal | Issue 75 | Digital Identities, Self Narratives. The interesting part was that a lot of people around me were encouraging me to place fake bids to get higher bids. Even journalists told me they would write about the work if the price would be higher. This really frustrated me, as if a work is only interesting if it’s worth as much as possible. The strange thing was that during the last month of the auction I got the same feeling, ‘the work is useless and failed if it’s being sold for 500 euro…’ Which of course doesn’t matter, it was only my own insecurities. The only thing that matter was that my DNA data was sold. For how much or little didn’t matter, the selling itself was important, not the price. But it did get me thinking about what would change the price. I don’t think there’s any difference in the order in which the 3 billion ACTG’s are positioned, rather I think it could be a difference in context. Who sells it, when, where, how and why, meaning the value of DNA data resides in context rather than in production as perhaps is the case with all art.

Have you never been worried by the fact that the work could have been bought by some private company that speculates on data? By Amazon or Google for example?

I did, this was precisely the worry that made me think of the contract and start looking at the production price. The thing that scared me the most was that someone would buy it, analyse the sequenced data so they knew e.g. what my chances are on getting alzheimer’s disease and publishing all this information so my family members could read about their own chances of getting it without having the chance to say ‘no, I do not want to know this right now.’.

During the last 30 minutes of the year-long auction there where four different potential buyers of which one had a relation with the medical industry. What could have happened if Verbeke haden’t bought it, I don’t know, perhaps it wouldn’t be an artwork anymore, it would just be data.


Photo by Erik Borst: In ErasmusMC’s data center: the hardware responsible for storing and analysing DNA


Photo by Erik Borst: Transferring 380gb of DNA data from ErasmusMC’s data center to the artist’s hard drive

Do you think it could turn out that yours was actually a very wise move? That the Verbeke Foundation might do more to protect your DNA data than you (or anyone else) could do? That it now feels some kind of responsibility towards it?

I never thought about it that way. Could be I guess. Since there is no contract they can do whatever they want with the work, sell it, show it, dismantle it, put it in a depot. I don’t have any say in it, so when Aksioma asked me if it would be possible to show cellout.me, I first had to ask if I could loan the artwork. It would be interesting to document the opinion of Geert Verbeke, owner of the Verbeke Foundation, about his responsibility towards the artwork and the data.


Photo by Erik Borst: First step: generating blood samples


Photo by Erik Borst: 3 vials of blood

Was the ‘blood-to-data’ process a long and difficult one? What was it like and who did you work with?

The team of André Uitterlinden (Professor of Complex Genetics at Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) helped me with understanding the procedure of sequencing my DNA and the actual sequencing. Through this understanding I could decide how many photos I needed to show the blood-to-data process. All photos were taken by Erik Borst, with which I discussed how the images should look.

After generating a few blood samples the biological DNA was extracted from my blood. The sequencing itself took two full weeks, this was due the fact that my DNA data was sequenced in a 30-fold depth, meaning it was of laboratory quality. When the sequence was finished the data was checked by bioinformaticians, with which I discussed before hand what kind of output I needed for the artwork. The staff was extremely helpful and interested as they saw this work as an opportunity to communicate about their work and DNA in general.


Jeroen van Loon, Cellout.me, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

I’m also curious about the aesthetics of the piece. The final installation looks like a normal server cabinet, it could host any type of data. What guided your artistic decision to showcase and communicate the process this way? Was it just the most practical option?

One of the most difficult tasks during the production of the work was to think of the medium in which I wanted to show the DNA data. I found it very difficult to create a visual link between the auction and the actual data. In my mind, the medium in which I wanted to show the work didn’t need to be an artistic representation or imagination. The work is not a visualisation, it is a documentation. I struggled with this because I was mainly thinking about how it was going to look inside a gallery. I thought of tripods, pedestals, mounted screens, framed harddisks, printed DNA code and so on, all terrible.

The night before I had to finished my proposal, I got the idea of using a server cabinet (don’t remember how I got the idea), I found it the most honest way of documenting the auction and the data since I could use a screen for each. Showing the actual raw data file on one screen and the realtime auction results through the website www.cellout.me on another, all inside the same object. The tall blackish server cabinet itself is beautiful; it’s nearly the same size as me, the glass door reflects you when your looking at the data, it’s an object that people know, they relate it to data, datacenters, google, facebook and so on. It’s a closed cabinet with the data inside as if it’s an box waiting to be opened. It was the perfect medium to communicate my thoughts, and indeed a very practical one.

What are you showing at Aksioma exactly? The full installation? Other materials?

I’m showing, with the help of the Verbeke Foundation, the full installation.
The presentation consists of the server cabinet, the blood-to-data photo series and the four texts written by Christie’s, ErasmusMC, KPMG and Fox-IT – which have an English translation that the audience can take home.

Thanks Jeroen!

Cellout.me, Jeroen van Loon’s solo show is at Aksioma in Ljubljana from 21 March until 20 April 2018. The opening and artist talk titled “The selling of human DNA data” take place this Wednesday 21 March at 7 pm.

Other works by Jeroen van Loon: An Internet featured in How artists and designers are “materialising the Internet.”

Alchemy. The Great Art

In medieval Europe, alchemy was the Ars magna, the ‘Great Art’.


Sarah Schönfeld, All you can feel, Crystal Meth (Planets), photo-pharmaceutical series 2013. Crystal Meth on photo-negative, enlarged as c-print


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, a show which will close this Sunday at Berlin’s Kulturforum (i’m writing this post in a hurry in the hope that some of you might still catch it) explores the enduring relationship between alchemy and art. The alliance between the two fields is an intimate one: both art and alchemy are about creation, both rely on experimentation, knowledge-seeking and passion.

Mixing historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, the exhibition also rehabilitates alchemical practices and illuminates their legacy. We often dismiss alchemy as a charlatan pseudo-science which sole purpose was chrysopoeia (the making of gold.) Most of its adepts had a very modern pursuit though: they wanted to imitate the divine act of creation itself and even to surpass it. This drive to transmute existing matter into a man-made compounds still influences many artists (and scientists) today, especially the ones whose work investigates processual transformation of material.

The parallels between the old-time practice and contemporary life do not end there. The need to mine the alchemical “first matter” (prima materia) from below ground echoes our ‘extractivist’ society. As for the creatures of doctors Faustus and Frankenstein and the disquieting new forms of life elaborated in research laboratories, they are the scions of the homunculus, this tiny human being grown in a glass jar and depicted in medieval manuscripts.

While searching for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of immortality or the panacea, some experimenters made – sometimes by chance – discoveries that paved the way for modern chemistry and pharmacology. The by-products of alchemists’ exercises, such as porcelain, gold-ruby glass and phosphorus, are still very much valued today.

Alchemy. The Great Art manages to pack the historical, the spiritual, the hocus-pocus and the protoscience dimensions of alchemy into a rich and fascinating show. My pitiful article, however, doesn’t have the ambition to cover the multiple perspectives on alchemy presented at Kunstforum. It will mostly look at a few artworks i discovered while visiting the show:


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld. Photo via tissue magazine

One of the focal points of the exhibition is Sarah Schönfeld‘s Hero’s Journey (Lamp). Over a period of ten weeks, the artist asked partygoers of Berghain, allegedly Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub, to donate their urine. She then treated the yellow liquid with an antimicrobial agent often used as a preservative in the cosmetic industry.

The biological excretions are now contained inside an illuminated glass case. The urine shines like gold and constitutes a kind of monument to the club’s mythical status as well as to the ecstatic emotions induced by recreational drugs.


Sarah Schönfeld, Adrenaline – Adrenaline on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series


Sarah Schönfeld, MDMA on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series

For the All You Can Feel photo series, Schönfeld developed a process that she calls “modern alchemy.” She sprinkled all sorts of mind-altering substances, from caffeine to neurotransmitters, onto photo negatives. The results of the chemical reactions between the negative’s emulsion and the drug was then submitted to photographic process.

When asked by VICE how she managed to create images that match so adequately the feeling that these various drugs impart, the artist answered:

Well, I didn’t think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.


Heinz Hajek-Halke, Untitled, 1950-1970. © Heinz Hajek-Halke / Collection Michael Ruetz / Agentur Focus

It was particularly interested in the suggestion that photography, an artistic discipline born out of darkrooms and chemical laboratory experiments, used to be surrounded by an alchemical aura. Schönfeld’s work evoke photograms, the photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper which is then exposed to light. There were some beautiful examples of photograms by Walter Ziegler in the show but i can’t find any image of them online, alas!

Heinz Hajek-Halke also experimented with photographic processes, exposures, instruments and materials. To create his “colour lucidograms” series, he drizzled soot-blackened glass negatives with liquids such as turpentine to produce craquelure-like patterns as the original congealed.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Der Lauf Der Dinge/The Way Things Go, 1987

Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) is a famous video that follows a 30 minute long, uninterrupted chain of physical and chemical experiments full of carefully prepared explosions, accidents, fires, etc.


The Ripley Scroll, 18th century (Mellon MS 41, Beinecke Library). Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library

The copy of the Ripley Scroll i saw at Kulturforum is one of the most exquisite artifacts i’ve seen this year.

There are some twenty copies of these alchemical scrolls in existence. Each of them is a variation on a lost 15th century original. The manuscripts use pictorial cryptograms to detail the various processes involved in the preparation of the philosopher’s stone.

Although they are named after the English priest, author and alchemist George Ripley, there is no evidence that he designed them himself. The link with the alchemist is that the elaborate imagery of the emblems derives from his verses.


Traité de Chymie, France, circa 1700, S. 10/11. © The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

This watercolor shows that many early alchemists used instruments similar to the ones pharmacists or chemists would use later.


Natascha Sonnenschein, Paradies der Künstlichkeit, 2001. © Natascha Sonnenschein / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2017


Facettierte Deckelflasche mit Montierung, circa 1700. © bpk / Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Sigismund Bacstrom, Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity, 1797


Johann Friedrich Böttger, Gold- and Silver nuggets, circa 1713. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut, Elke Estel

One gold, one silver nuggets, allegedly transmuted by Johann Friedrich Boettger for King August of Poland in 1713. Boettger probably made them from ducats to win the King’s favour.


Louis-Jacques Goussier: Chymie, Laboratoire et Table des Rapports, in: Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1771. © bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek. Photo: Dietmar Katz


Yves Klein, Anthropometrie in IKB on Monogold, 1965 (exhibition poster), Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris. © Yves Klein / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

More views of the exhibition space:


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, an exhibition curated by Jörg Völlnagel, remains open until Sunday 23 July at Kulturforum in Berlin.

Previously: The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic. An Illustrated History and Artefact: are technology and magical thinking really incompatible?, From swarms of synthetic life forms to neo-alchemy. An interview with Adam Brown.

Alchemy. The Great Art

In medieval Europe, alchemy was the Ars magna, the ‘Great Art’.


Sarah Schönfeld, All you can feel, Crystal Meth (Planets), photo-pharmaceutical series 2013. Crystal Meth on photo-negative, enlarged as c-print


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, a show which will close this Sunday at Berlin’s Kulturforum (i’m writing this post in a hurry in the hope that some of you might still catch it) explores the enduring relationship between alchemy and art. The alliance between the two fields is an intimate one: both art and alchemy are about creation, both rely on experimentation, knowledge-seeking and passion.

Mixing historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, the exhibition also rehabilitates alchemical practices and illuminates their legacy. We often dismiss alchemy as a charlatan pseudo-science which sole purpose was chrysopoeia (the making of gold.) Most of its adepts had a very modern pursuit though: they wanted to imitate the divine act of creation itself and even to surpass it. This drive to transmute existing matter into a man-made compounds still influences many artists (and scientists) today, especially the ones whose work investigates processual transformation of material.

The parallels between the old-time practice and contemporary life do not end there. The need to mine the alchemical “first matter” (prima materia) from below ground echoes our ‘extractivist’ society. As for the creatures of doctors Faustus and Frankenstein and the disquieting new forms of life elaborated in research laboratories, they are the scions of the homunculus, this tiny human being grown in a glass jar and depicted in medieval manuscripts.

While searching for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of immortality or the panacea, some experimenters made – sometimes by chance – discoveries that paved the way for modern chemistry and pharmacology. The by-products of alchemists’ exercises, such as porcelain, gold-ruby glass and phosphorus, are still very much valued today.

Alchemy. The Great Art manages to pack the historical, the spiritual, the hocus-pocus and the protoscience dimensions of alchemy into a rich and fascinating show. My pitiful article, however, doesn’t have the ambition to cover the multiple perspectives on alchemy presented at Kunstforum. It will mostly look at a few artworks i discovered while visiting the show:


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld


Sarah Schönfeld, Hero’s Journey (Lamp), 2014. © Sarah Schönfeld. Photo via tissue magazine

One of the focal points of the exhibition is Sarah Schönfeld‘s Hero’s Journey (Lamp). Over a period of ten weeks, the artist asked partygoers of Berghain, allegedly Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub, to donate their urine. She then treated the yellow liquid with an antimicrobial agent often used as a preservative in the cosmetic industry.

The biological excretions are now contained inside an illuminated glass case. The urine shines like gold and constitutes a kind of monument to the club’s mythical status as well as to the ecstatic emotions induced by recreational drugs.


Sarah Schönfeld, Adrenaline – Adrenaline on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series


Sarah Schönfeld, MDMA on photonegative analogue, enlarged. From the All you can feel series

For the All You Can Feel photo series, Schönfeld developed a process that she calls “modern alchemy.” She sprinkled all sorts of mind-altering substances, from caffeine to neurotransmitters, onto photo negatives. The results of the chemical reactions between the negative’s emulsion and the drug was then submitted to photographic process.

When asked by VICE how she managed to create images that match so adequately the feeling that these various drugs impart, the artist answered:

Well, I didn’t think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.


Heinz Hajek-Halke, Untitled, 1950-1970. © Heinz Hajek-Halke / Collection Michael Ruetz / Agentur Focus

It was particularly interested in the suggestion that photography, an artistic discipline born out of darkrooms and chemical laboratory experiments, used to be surrounded by an alchemical aura. Schönfeld’s work evoke photograms, the photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper which is then exposed to light. There were some beautiful examples of photograms by Walter Ziegler in the show but i can’t find any image of them online, alas!

Heinz Hajek-Halke also experimented with photographic processes, exposures, instruments and materials. To create his “colour lucidograms” series, he drizzled soot-blackened glass negatives with liquids such as turpentine to produce craquelure-like patterns as the original congealed.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Der Lauf Der Dinge/The Way Things Go, 1987

Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) is a famous video that follows a 30 minute long, uninterrupted chain of physical and chemical experiments full of carefully prepared explosions, accidents, fires, etc.


The Ripley Scroll, 18th century (Mellon MS 41, Beinecke Library). Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library


The ‘Ripley Scrowle’ (detail), 18th century. Image: Beinecke Library

The copy of the Ripley Scroll i saw at Kulturforum is one of the most exquisite artifacts i’ve seen this year.

There are some twenty copies of these alchemical scrolls in existence. Each of them is a variation on a lost 15th century original. The manuscripts use pictorial cryptograms to detail the various processes involved in the preparation of the philosopher’s stone.

Although they are named after the English priest, author and alchemist George Ripley, there is no evidence that he designed them himself. The link with the alchemist is that the elaborate imagery of the emblems derives from his verses.


Traité de Chymie, France, circa 1700, S. 10/11. © The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

This watercolor shows that many early alchemists used instruments similar to the ones pharmacists or chemists would use later.


Natascha Sonnenschein, Paradies der Künstlichkeit, 2001. © Natascha Sonnenschein / VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2017


Facettierte Deckelflasche mit Montierung, circa 1700. © bpk / Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Sigismund Bacstrom, Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity, 1797


Johann Friedrich Böttger, Gold- and Silver nuggets, circa 1713. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut, Elke Estel

One gold, one silver nuggets, allegedly transmuted by Johann Friedrich Boettger for King August of Poland in 1713. Boettger probably made them from ducats to win the King’s favour.


Louis-Jacques Goussier: Chymie, Laboratoire et Table des Rapports, in: Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1771. © bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek. Photo: Dietmar Katz


Yves Klein, Anthropometrie in IKB on Monogold, 1965 (exhibition poster), Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris. © Yves Klein / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

More views of the exhibition space:


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Alchemie. Die Große Kunst/Alchemy. The Great Art (exhibition view.) © Photo: David von Becker for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alchemy. The Great Art, an exhibition curated by Jörg Völlnagel, remains open until Sunday 23 July at Kulturforum in Berlin.

Previously: The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic. An Illustrated History and Artefact: are technology and magical thinking really incompatible?, From swarms of synthetic life forms to neo-alchemy. An interview with Adam Brown.

From animal sensors to Monet as a painter of the anthropocene. 9 things i learnt on the opening day of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium

hm_logo-dfee15ae76931dadea656b538e9873b100bdb6c18860b1ea064a64caabed63d8This week, i’m sure, i’ll finish blogging all the notes and photos and ideas i picked up during the HYBRID MATTERs symposium that took place in Helsinki over a month ago.

HYBRID MATTERs is a Nordic art&science network program that investigates hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The actors of this hybrid ecology are many. They are genetically engineered plants, cloned trees, animals used as sensors. Or they are robots, software and networks that encroach on the biological and sometimes manage to fuse with it. Some of this hybrid ecology is the direct result of human actions but increasingly, we see signs that biological and technological entities are escaping human control and are transforming the planet.

30public77249_b
The audience of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

I already profusely wrote about the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition. Today i’ll get to grips with the symposium. All the talks are online. So instead of summing up what each speaker has said, i’m going to highlight a couple of points they made because i found them worth mentioning, rediscovering or simply because they were new to me (Claude Monet as a painter of the anthropocene!)

Three keynote speakers took the stage on the first days of the symposium:

Steen Rasmussen is Professor at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT), University of Southern Denmark. A major part of his academic activities involves researching how to create life from scratch, ‘a bit like an alchemist’. That’s what the first part of his talk was about but my notes will be focusing on the second part of his presentation. The one that exposed the potentially radical consequences that BINC technologies will have on our society. I loved his talk, it was lively, enlightening and there was a very ‘combative’ energy to it.

Jussi Parikka, Professor in technological culture & aesthetics at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), was the arty one. His talk explored the geophysics of media technologies, the bits and pieces of our planet that lurk inside our electronic gadgets and the role that art can play in making this situation more visible.

Jennifer Gabrys, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmith, looked at how animals are increasingly made into sensor nodes and networks that inform us on environmental conditions.

3magnus53aeea_b
Steen Rasmussen at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Steen Rasmussen

We’re going to kick off with Steen Rasmussen‘s talk Welcome to the BINC-Age: The brave new world of living and intelligent technologies. What did i retain from it?

1. This is not just another industrial revolution

As the BINC technologies (the biotech, infotech, nanotech, and cogitive-sciences) converge, they will change technology and drive society to radically different places.

Rasmussen believes that we can’t predict where the rapid development of artificial intelligence is going to leave workers.

Several studies have concluded that within the next 15 to 20 years about 50% of all known job functions will be taken over by more efficient informational systems. This means that there are big changes coming up and they cannot be compared to the changes that took place with the automation in factories during the Industrial Revolution. At the time, it was clear what was going on, where the jobs were going: the farming hands were going to be employed in the factories. Today, the outlook is not so clear.

6xqpwt8tsmwazpdaecc5g6cfurepxo3ljpirw3digag
Image found in Stephen Hawking: This will be the impact of automation and AI on jobs

30483112563_879fc64a69_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote listing the ways in which the BINC economy will be different from the economy of the Industrial Revolution

2. In this new economy, we can make profit without production

A key element of the new economy is that we can make profit without production. This has never happened before.

Compare the sale of these two Swedish companies. Minecraft, which had 40 employees, was sold for 14 billion Swedish crowns and Volvo, with its 23 000 employees, for 7 billion crowns only.

3minecrafed5f21e_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote

Today, the leaders of the BINC economy are google, microsoft, amazon, etc. Unlike General Motors, they don’t have million of employees. All the rules we’ve known for so long don’t apply anymore. If we look at history, all the major changes of production, communication and transport were accompanied by important changes in our institution and economical sector. BINC technologies have the potential to do the same to our current post-industrial world.

Rasmussen believes that the BINC transition is more fundamental and that it is akin to the transitions humanity experienced going from hunter gathers to agriculture.

3. It’s more complicated than ‘post-truth’. There are different conceptions about the nature of truth

Rasmussen has tried to engage with institutions such as the EU commission, the German Parliament, the Danish Parliament, etc. He tried to start a discussion with policymakers about how these BINC technologies are about to change the world. He soon realized that the issues related to the impact of BINC are not part of policymakers’s main interests. Why is that?

Part of the explanation might be found in what we call ‘truth.’

Truth cannot be absolute because it is ultimately coloured by your underlying interests. People from the field of humanities will have a deep interest in understanding fellow men. Those from natural and engineering sciences will have a deep interest in controlling nature. Whereas, people with a background in social sciences will have a deep interest in becoming free from oppression.

There is only one scientist among the 179 members of the Danish parliament. Besides, Rasmussen doesn’t know of any engineers or natural scientists holding a lead position in the Danish press. All of them are communicators. This means that these are people who believe that truth is relative. As for the increasingly popular social media, they function like echo channels where crazy ideas and misunderstanding take ground. That’s how we end up with ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year in Oxford Dictionary. According to Rasmussem, politicians’ lies (whether we’re talking Brexit or Trump) wouldn’t be taken so seriously if truth wasn’t seen as relative and if our narratives still made sense.

4. We need to start producing new narratives

His conclusion is that we need to tell stories about ‘the new brave world of BINC.’ Or someone else, with their own idea of ‘truth’, might do it for us. These narratives should explore questions such as:

30politicsoughtotbeab31486a8_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote

Jussi Parikka’s talk, For a Damaged Planet: Slow Violence in the Age of Fast Computation explored the geographies of supply chains that make out technological possible (but also highly toxic for the environment and for workers living in far away countries.)

3jussi61e92eda_b
Jussi Parikka at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Jussi Parikka

5. The contemporary is not the present

It is the result of the collaboration of different registers of time. War is a good example. A war cannot be summarized in human casualties, it is an entanglement of social and natural history and parts of it remain around us, as residues of a slow chemical violence that permeate the soil, in the air, long after peace treaties have been signed.

World War I was a mass mobilization of new technologies that came to define the 20th century in so many ways. Wrist watches, for example. Or the technologies of chemical warfare that were deployed so effectively during the war and would later provide the backbone of the pesticide industry. Both are still with us today.

slide_9materials
The dynamics of two decades of computer chip technology development and its mineral and element impacts. In the 1980s, computer chips were made with a palette of twelve minerals or their elemental components. A decade later, 16 elements were employed. Today, as many as 60 different minerals (or their constituent elements) may be used in fabricating the high-speed, high-capacity integrated circuits that are crucial to this technology. SOURCE: Intel Corporation

6. We need to start looking at hardware again

We need to be aware of what hardware infrastructure does to our world because it is part and parcel of this slow media violence.

100 years ago we relied on a couple of key materials (wood, iron, copper, etc.) The 20th century saw the arrival of plastics. Meanwhile, a broad variety of minuscule elements that are crucial for our technological society have appeared and they require new minerals. Computer chips, for example, demands dozens of minerals. The extraction, transport, processing and production of these minerals is key to our technological culture. It is also highly damaging for the environment and for the labour conditions of human beings who are invisible to us. We’ve all heard of coltan. The case of earth minerals might be less well-known. They are part of the production of electronic objects and their extraction and processing involve great costs for the environment.

0he-edge-of-the-lithium-pools_liam-young
Unknown Fields, Lithium Dreams

A work like Unknown Fields’s Rare Earthenware visualizes this toxic violation of the planet. One of Unknown Fields’s most recent works explores lithium, a metal seen as essential to the development of ‘green technologies’. Its extraction and production, however, come with toxic ecological consequences.

7.The Anthropocene plays a part in our visual culture

0impression-sunrise
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1873

Unknown Fields’ work fulfills very well this role of making the anthropocene more tangible. But we can reinterpret art history under the light of this new era. In his essay, Visualizing the Anthropocene, Nicholas Mirzoeff explores how art can visualize the Anthropocene. Part of his text revisits key works of art history. For example, he invites us to re-interpret Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise and see the particular light that bathes the scene painted as the result of industrial smog, a registering of the afterglow of the coal-based economy. With this work, Monet is a painter of pollution.

Jennifer Gabrys‘s talk was titled Animals as Sensors. Mobile Organisms and the Problem of Milieus. Its content drew on her book Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet which looks at sensor technologies distributed in the environment and how they weave new relationships with the environment and make the Earth programmable.

3sabine3bd5ca82_b
Jennifer Gabrys at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Jennifer Gabrys

Gabry’s talked focused on one particular chapter of the book, the one that explores ‘animal sensing’ and how animals are sensors themselves of large scale phenomena.

8. Sensors distributed in the environment are not just sensing worlds but making worlds

You can sense climate change through the way moss is responding to its environment. Similarly, the tagging of animals informs not only the journeys these animals take during their migrations but also the environment that they inhabit. For example, Southern Ocean seals tagged to capture ocean data are also indicators of longer term shifts in climate. Sensors can pick up any disruption in the behaviour of the animals, in their habitats, in the place where they go to die, etc. This data will then inform policy and management decisions.

9. Citizens can play a part in animal sensing

The Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has released a tracking app that allows you to follow the movements of wild animals all over the world in near-real time. These movements are collected by tiny GPS tags carried by the animals and are stored on a free online infrastructure used by researchers to share, analyze, and archive animal movement data. With this tool for citizen engagement, people are invited to participate in the research projects and upload real-life observations and photos of the tagged animals.

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was a collaboration between the Bioartsociety and the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance, Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The event was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium.

Previously: HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet, Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

Photo on the homepage from Unknown Fields, Lithium Dreams.

From animal sensors to Monet as a painter of the anthropocene. 9 things i learnt on the opening day of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium

hm_logo-dfee15ae76931dadea656b538e9873b100bdb6c18860b1ea064a64caabed63d8This week, i’m sure, i’ll finish blogging all the notes and photos and ideas i picked up during the HYBRID MATTERs symposium that took place in Helsinki over a month ago.

HYBRID MATTERs is a Nordic art&science network program that investigates hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The actors of this hybrid ecology are many. They are genetically engineered plants, cloned trees, animals used as sensors. Or they are robots, software and networks that encroach on the biological and sometimes manage to fuse with it. Some of this hybrid ecology is the direct result of human actions but increasingly, we see signs that biological and technological entities are escaping human control and are transforming the planet.

30public77249_b
The audience of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

I already profusely wrote about the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition. Today i’ll get to grips with the symposium. All the talks are online. So instead of summing up what each speaker has said, i’m going to highlight a couple of points they made because i found them worth mentioning, rediscovering or simply because they were new to me (Claude Monet as a painter of the anthropocene!)

Three keynote speakers took the stage on the first days of the symposium:

Steen Rasmussen is Professor at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT), University of Southern Denmark. A major part of his academic activities involves researching how to create life from scratch, ‘a bit like an alchemist’. That’s what the first part of his talk was about but my notes will be focusing on the second part of his presentation. The one that exposed the potentially radical consequences that BINC technologies will have on our society. I loved his talk, it was lively, enlightening and there was a very ‘combative’ energy to it.

Jussi Parikka, Professor in technological culture & aesthetics at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), was the arty one. His talk explored the geophysics of media technologies, the bits and pieces of our planet that lurk inside our electronic gadgets and the role that art can play in making this situation more visible.

Jennifer Gabrys, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmith, looked at how animals are increasingly made into sensor nodes and networks that inform us on environmental conditions.

3magnus53aeea_b
Steen Rasmussen at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Steen Rasmussen

We’re going to kick off with Steen Rasmussen‘s talk Welcome to the BINC-Age: The brave new world of living and intelligent technologies. What did i retain from it?

1. This is not just another industrial revolution

As the BINC technologies (the biotech, infotech, nanotech, and cogitive-sciences) converge, they will change technology and drive society to radically different places.

Rasmussen believes that we can’t predict where the rapid development of artificial intelligence is going to leave workers.

Several studies have concluded that within the next 15 to 20 years about 50% of all known job functions will be taken over by more efficient informational systems. This means that there are big changes coming up and they cannot be compared to the changes that took place with the automation in factories during the Industrial Revolution. At the time, it was clear what was going on, where the jobs were going: the farming hands were going to be employed in the factories. Today, the outlook is not so clear.

6xqpwt8tsmwazpdaecc5g6cfurepxo3ljpirw3digag
Image found in Stephen Hawking: This will be the impact of automation and AI on jobs

30483112563_879fc64a69_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote listing the ways in which the BINC economy will be different from the economy of the Industrial Revolution

2. In this new economy, we can make profit without production

A key element of the new economy is that we can make profit without production. This has never happened before.

Compare the sale of these two Swedish companies. Minecraft, which had 40 employees, was sold for 14 billion Swedish crowns and Volvo, with its 23 000 employees, for 7 billion crowns only.

3minecrafed5f21e_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote

Today, the leaders of the BINC economy are google, microsoft, amazon, etc. Unlike General Motors, they don’t have million of employees. All the rules we’ve known for so long don’t apply anymore. If we look at history, all the major changes of production, communication and transport were accompanied by important changes in our institution and economical sector. BINC technologies have the potential to do the same to our current post-industrial world.

Rasmussen believes that the BINC transition is more fundamental and that it is akin to the transitions humanity experienced going from hunter gathers to agriculture.

3. It’s more complicated than ‘post-truth’. There are different conceptions about the nature of truth

Rasmussen has tried to engage with institutions such as the EU commission, the German Parliament, the Danish Parliament, etc. He tried to start a discussion with policymakers about how these BINC technologies are about to change the world. He soon realized that the issues related to the impact of BINC are not part of policymakers’s main interests. Why is that?

Part of the explanation might be found in what we call ‘truth.’

Truth cannot be absolute because it is ultimately coloured by your underlying interests. People from the field of humanities will have a deep interest in understanding fellow men. Those from natural and engineering sciences will have a deep interest in controlling nature. Whereas, people with a background in social sciences will have a deep interest in becoming free from oppression.

There is only one scientist among the 179 members of the Danish parliament. Besides, Rasmussen doesn’t know of any engineers or natural scientists holding a lead position in the Danish press. All of them are communicators. This means that these are people who believe that truth is relative. As for the increasingly popular social media, they function like echo channels where crazy ideas and misunderstanding take ground. That’s how we end up with ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year in Oxford Dictionary. According to Rasmussem, politicians’ lies (whether we’re talking Brexit or Trump) wouldn’t be taken so seriously if truth wasn’t seen as relative and if our narratives still made sense.

4. We need to start producing new narratives

His conclusion is that we need to tell stories about ‘the new brave world of BINC.’ Or someone else, with their own idea of ‘truth’, might do it for us. These narratives should explore questions such as:

30politicsoughtotbeab31486a8_b
Slide from Steen Rasmussen’s keynote

Jussi Parikka’s talk, For a Damaged Planet: Slow Violence in the Age of Fast Computation explored the geographies of supply chains that make out technological possible (but also highly toxic for the environment and for workers living in far away countries.)

3jussi61e92eda_b
Jussi Parikka at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Jussi Parikka

5. The contemporary is not the present

It is the result of the collaboration of different registers of time. War is a good example. A war cannot be summarized in human casualties, it is an entanglement of social and natural history and parts of it remain around us, as residues of a slow chemical violence that permeate the soil, in the air, long after peace treaties have been signed.

World War I was a mass mobilization of new technologies that came to define the 20th century in so many ways. Wrist watches, for example. Or the technologies of chemical warfare that were deployed so effectively during the war and would later provide the backbone of the pesticide industry. Both are still with us today.

slide_9materials
The dynamics of two decades of computer chip technology development and its mineral and element impacts. In the 1980s, computer chips were made with a palette of twelve minerals or their elemental components. A decade later, 16 elements were employed. Today, as many as 60 different minerals (or their constituent elements) may be used in fabricating the high-speed, high-capacity integrated circuits that are crucial to this technology. SOURCE: Intel Corporation

6. We need to start looking at hardware again

We need to be aware of what hardware infrastructure does to our world because it is part and parcel of this slow media violence.

100 years ago we relied on a couple of key materials (wood, iron, copper, etc.) The 20th century saw the arrival of plastics. Meanwhile, a broad variety of minuscule elements that are crucial for our technological society have appeared and they require new minerals. Computer chips, for example, demands dozens of minerals. The extraction, transport, processing and production of these minerals is key to our technological culture. It is also highly damaging for the environment and for the labour conditions of human beings who are invisible to us. We’ve all heard of coltan. The case of earth minerals might be less well-known. They are part of the production of electronic objects and their extraction and processing involve great costs for the environment.

0he-edge-of-the-lithium-pools_liam-young
Unknown Fields, Lithium Dreams

A work like Unknown Fields’s Rare Earthenware visualizes this toxic violation of the planet. One of Unknown Fields’s most recent works explores lithium, a metal seen as essential to the development of ‘green technologies’. Its extraction and production, however, come with toxic ecological consequences.

7.The Anthropocene plays a part in our visual culture

0impression-sunrise
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1873

Unknown Fields’ work fulfills very well this role of making the anthropocene more tangible. But we can reinterpret art history under the light of this new era. In his essay, Visualizing the Anthropocene, Nicholas Mirzoeff explores how art can visualize the Anthropocene. Part of his text revisits key works of art history. For example, he invites us to re-interpret Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise and see the particular light that bathes the scene painted as the result of industrial smog, a registering of the afterglow of the coal-based economy. With this work, Monet is a painter of pollution.

Jennifer Gabrys‘s talk was titled Animals as Sensors. Mobile Organisms and the Problem of Milieus. Its content drew on her book Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet which looks at sensor technologies distributed in the environment and how they weave new relationships with the environment and make the Earth programmable.

3sabine3bd5ca82_b
Jennifer Gabrys at the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. Photo by Petri Tuohimaa

HYBRID MATTERs 24.11.2016 Keynote Jennifer Gabrys

Gabry’s talked focused on one particular chapter of the book, the one that explores ‘animal sensing’ and how animals are sensors themselves of large scale phenomena.

8. Sensors distributed in the environment are not just sensing worlds but making worlds

You can sense climate change through the way moss is responding to its environment. Similarly, the tagging of animals informs not only the journeys these animals take during their migrations but also the environment that they inhabit. For example, Southern Ocean seals tagged to capture ocean data are also indicators of longer term shifts in climate. Sensors can pick up any disruption in the behaviour of the animals, in their habitats, in the place where they go to die, etc. This data will then inform policy and management decisions.

9. Citizens can play a part in animal sensing

The Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has released a tracking app that allows you to follow the movements of wild animals all over the world in near-real time. These movements are collected by tiny GPS tags carried by the animals and are stored on a free online infrastructure used by researchers to share, analyze, and archive animal movement data. With this tool for citizen engagement, people are invited to participate in the research projects and upload real-life observations and photos of the tagged animals.

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was a collaboration between the Bioartsociety and the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance, Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The event was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium.

Previously: HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet, Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

Photo on the homepage from Unknown Fields, Lithium Dreams.

The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism

laura-beloff-ja-jonas-jorgensen-the-condition_2016_kuva-anna-autio
Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen, The Condition, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

The Condition might look like a standard (media) art installation but don’t let its playful appearance fool you. The deeper you dig, the more you realize how many thought-provoking ideas and issues the work raises: new forms of ‘natural selection’ where it’s the prettiest -not the fittest- that survives, novel ecology in which salmons and tulips are grown à la carte, intersection between the design of biological organisms, aesthetical criteria and capitalistic values.

The Condition consists of a grid of 12 little Christmas trees in white pots. They swirl gently according to an algorithm that translates online space weather data as rotation speeds onto the grid of the boxes. To complicate things even more, some of the trees are cloned trees from Denmark, others are wild Finnish trees. The rotation boxes hung on the wall recall the clinostat, a device designed to negate the effects of gravitational pull on plant growth and development. This installation setup explores how Christmas trees are able to cope in changing environments. Not all thrive equally. Some of the plants are fine, some seem to suffer, some have recovered, others haven’t. Which suggests that even artificial organisms placed in a very artificial setting are subject to some kind of natural selection.

laura-b0e-condita-autio
Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen, The Condition, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

A video posted by @wemakemoneynotart on

30882210614_b7e8c5f07c_b
Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen, The Condition, 2016. Opening of the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition. Photo by Anna Autio

The tree used in The Condition is the Nordmann fir. This coniferous tree is not only the most popular Christmas tree in Europe, but also a complex postnatural organism in which organic matter, cultural meaning and the technological coexist.

The typical Christmas tree is a species that is far natural than we might think. If you live in Europe, chances are that your Christmas tree comes from Denmark (where it was originally imported from Caucasius.) Christmas trees are a highly successful business there. The country produces 10 million trees per year (that’s almost twice the population of Denmark), 90% of which are exported to other European countries. But if you leave things in the hands of nature, you end up with a number of trees that are not pretty enough to decorate your living room in December so scientists at Copenhagen University’s Tissue Culture Lab are cloning it, using somatic embryogenesis, a new method where plants are produced from single cells without sexual reproduction. The aim of the research and experiments is to produce ‘perfect trees’ that are grown in the fields of the country before being exported all over Europe. These trees are designed and replicated to match the customers’ wishes.

“Christmas-trees are like humans, they come in all shapes and sizes,” Christmas tree producer Bernt Johan Collet explained to Euronews. “But a supplier wants symmetric trees, because you don`t want to throw away half of them. The French want a little tree, like this one. The Dutch and the Danish want a tree with some space between the branches. Because they can put the decorations in between.”

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Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen, The Condition, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

With their irreverent use of the Christmas tree, artist Laura Beloff and historian Jonas Jørgensen are probing questions such as: What kind of life forms will survive with us or without us in other kinds of conditions than what we currently have on planet Earth? What kind of conditions and organisms are forming at the intersection of technological and biological evolution and human agency?

By exposing the mini forest to changing conditions, the work investigates whether or not Christmas trees can survive in changing environmental conditions; on a different planet, on a polluted place, in closer symbiosis with technology or in an environment that has experienced drastic changes. Besides if the survival and evolution of a plant is determined by Western cultural values and aesthetic preferences, what happens if this cultural basis disappears?

Check out Laura Beloff’s presentation (it starts at minute 27, then comes back minute 49 and and then at 1 hour 10 minutes but i would highly recommend you listen to the other speakers as well) in which she put The Condition into the context of her own research on postnatural organisms and ‘survival of the prettiest’:

HYBRID MATTERs Symposium Panel II. Plant subjectivities, assemblies and assemblages, with Kira O’Reilly, Laura Beloff, Jens Hauser, Monika Bakke. 25 November 2016 at the University of the Arts in Helsinki

(more info in the PDF of the paper.)

The work was part of the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition that closed a few days ago at Forum Box in Helsinki. The show was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium. I got the change to attend the symposium and to visit the final exhibition. More episodes about the whole event will be on your desk starting tomorrow!

Previously: HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet.