Category Archives: space

An artificial planet made entirely of human bodies

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Instagram Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram Photo


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

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

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

Thanks Julijonas!

Previously: The Euthanasia Coaster.

The Architecture of Closed Worlds. Or, What Is the Power of Shit?

The Architecture of Closed Worlds. Or, What Is the Power of Shit?, by architect, engineer and curator Lydia Kallipoliti.

On amazon USA and UK.

Lars Müller Publishers describe the book: What do outer space capsules, submarines, and office buildings have in common? Each is conceived as a closed system: a self-sustaining physical environment demarcated from its surroundings by a boundary that does not allow for the transfer of matter or energy. The Architecture of Closed Worlds is a genealogy of self-reliant environments. Contemporary discussions about global warming, recycling, and sustainability have emerged as direct conceptual constructs related to the study and analysis of closed systems.

From the space program to countercultural architectural groups experimenting with autonomous living, this publication documents a disciplinary transformation and the rise of a new environmental consensus in the form of a synthetic naturalism. It presents an archive of 37 historical living prototypes from 1928 to the present that put forth an unexplored genealogy of closed resource regeneration systems.


Ant Farm, Clean Air Pod, 1970

If the title of this book doesn’t get your attention, i don’t know what will. Its content deserves all your consideration too. It’s excellent.

Air conditioned office buildings, shopping malls, airplanes, even large areas of cities work as enclosed worlds. But what happens when you push the experiment further? When you attempt to re-create a miniature Earth on Earth (as with Biosphere 2), install villages on the ocean floor or live in isolation with a few other men as if on a journey to Mars?


Auguste Piccard, FNRS Balloon to Stratosphere, 1931


John McHale, Man Plus Exoskeletal System, 1972

Lydia Kallipoliti authored an architecture publication in which architecture assumes a minor role compared to the ones played by biological science, technology and human resilience. Each of the “living prototypes” she examines explores new ideas on autonomy, inter-connectivity, environmentalism and survival.

One of the most striking lessons of the book is that it is extremely difficult to create a miniaturized world without inheriting some of the problems of the surrounding world. No matter how much control was exerted on the synthetic habitats, no matter how ambitious the vision, the breadth of of engineering and human ingeniosity, the results were marred by surprisingly mundane obstacles: gerbils outsmarting the machine, bacteria loss, fingernails and skin infiltrating collectors or simply the difficulty of implementing behavioural changes.

Closed Worlds also raises questions i had never considered. The central one being that shit (and any other type of waste) is part of the ecology of life. Without the digestion and re-circulation of resources and junk you cannot achieve environmental autonomy.

There are 37 historical prototypes in the book. Some evoke fears of nuclear bombs, toxic air quality or imminent ecological collapse. None really manages to solve the problem that motivated the research in the first place. Each prototype is described with a clear language, even with humour sometimes. The presentation is accompanied by a brief analysis of what went wrong in the experiment, a feedback drawing that illustrates the fluxes of resources and often also with a short essay by an architect or other expert who has an in-depth understanding of the prototype discussed.

The Architecture of Closed Worlds is the catalogue of an exhibition that took place at two years ago at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Along with the 37 “Living Prototypes”, the book features a colour-coded timeline that charts their model and how they fare from the point of view of consumption and production of resources as well as the transcripts of lectures given as part of the exhibition programming.

Here are some of the prototypes evaluated in the book:


The Cunningham Sanitarium, Cleveland, ca. 1928

Once the largest hyperbaric chamber ever built, Cunningham Sanitarium was a spherical steel structure designed to maintain a pressurized atmosphere and treat various diseases with ‘abundant oxygen’.


Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, the Aqua-lung, 1942

Aqua-Lung was an open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) that allowed Cousteau and Gagnan to become “amphibian men” and film and explore more easily underwater.


Snapshots from NASA’s promotional motion picture for television, The Case for Regeneration (1960), illustrating daily practices of personal hygiene and nutrition. From the US National Archives, College Park, Maryland

In the early 1960s, the NASA isolated 4 men in a sealable steel spherical hull. The Living Pod was designed to take care of the basic physiological requirements of its inhabitants for a full year, with minimal re-supply once every three months. NASA documented in real-time the residency of the crew in a promotional motion picture for television entitled The Case for Regeneration.

The experiment involved the conversion of all human waste into oxygen, water, and, it was hoped, food. In the enclosed experiment, the subjects experienced nausea, headaches and eventually contaminated the system with their human waste. Shed hair, fingernails and skin started infiltrating the collectors. The experiment ended before the scheduled date.

This failure was a demonstration of the difficulty of ensuring the 100% recyclability of waste required of closed-loop systems.


Peter Caine and the Street Farm collective, the Eco-House, 1972

The experiment i found most inspiring happens to be a dwelling system built with so little concern for aesthetics that its neighbours called it an “eyesore” and were delighted when it was demolished.

Peter Caine, a member of the Street Farm collective built one of the earliest ecological houses in central London. The Eco-House was built as a laboratory and living experiment. It was a fully functional, integrated system that converted human waste to methane for cooking and grew fruits and veggies in a hydroponic greenhouse.

For two years, Caine and his family were part of the house’s digestive loop.

The house required constant care and the symbiotic relationship between dwelling and dwellers was such that the house got sick when Caine got sick.


Mars500, Collaboration of Russia, China, and the European Space Agency (ESA), Moscow, Russia, 2007–2011. Photo: European Space Agency

The MARS500 mission was a psychosocial isolation experiment run by the European Space Agency, the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems and China, in preparation for an unspecified future manned spaceflight to Mars.

The final stage of the experiment, which was intended to simulate a 520-day manned mission was conducted by an all-male crew. The mock-up setting simulated an Earth-Mars shuttle spacecraft, an ascent-descent craft, and the Martian surface.

The study was an overall success in yielding data on the human effects of isolation experienced during a deep space mission. Nevertheless, participants experienced a host of health issues, sleep problems in particular.

The design of the book is particularly spectacular: the typography, the infographics, the layout, the archive images are a joy to look at. See for yourself:

By the way, while doing some research to write this review, i discovered the existence of the Museum of Shit in the North of Italy. I’m actually planning to go as soon as life is a bit quieter over here.

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Xandra!

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

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

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Andy!


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


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

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

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Andy!


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


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

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

M. A. A. R. S.: Learning to become Martians

Benjamin Pothier/Hervé Studio, Trailer M.A.A.R.S. Atacama’s Journey

The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the harshest environments on Earth. It is so dry that the central sector can go through periods of up to four years without any rainfall. As for the land, it is so arid, so deprived of water and nutrients that it is almost sterile. Yet, the desert harbours the world’s largest supply of Sodium Nitrate, a well-known fertilizer. The area seems to be as intriguing as it is inhospitable. It’s in the Atacama desert that the oldest artificially mummified human remains have been found. And while most cultures around the world primarily preserved the dead elite, the Chinchorro performed mummification on all members of their society. But the reason why i mention this extraordinary desert today is because it is one of our closest analogues for Martian surface conditions.


The paste-faced head of a Chinchorro child mummy is held straight by a stick that emerges from the top of the skull. Photo: Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic


Science In The Wild [MAARS] Mars Atacama Research & Simulation expedition. Photo by Benjamin Pothier


Science In The Wild [MAARS] Mars Atacama Research & Simulation expedition. Photo by Benjamin Pothier

Benjamin Pother, an artist, anthropologist and PhD Candidate in the Planetary Collegium research group at Plymouth university recently joined a team of scientists and explorers including astronaut candidates for an expedition to the Atacama desert and a hike to the Ojos Del Salado Volcano, a nearby active volcano that boasts the highest lake in the world.

The 15 day trip, called M.A.A.R.S which stands for Mars Atacama Analog Research & Simulation, offered the group the opportunity to conduct a range of experiences and measurements for scientific purposed and future space missions, including the test of Astronauts Gloves (gloves are, it seems, one of the main engineering challenges of space missions.)

Pothier documented the Atacama journey in a short video that not only reveals amazing landscapes but aso touches upon issues such as survival in hostile environments.


Refuge #3 at 5837 meters, Atacama. Photo: Benjamin Pothier


Atacama team during an approach. Photo: Thomas Edunk


Dr. Horodyskyj repairing a weather station at 4800 meters, Himalayas. Photo: Benjamin Pothier

Hi Ben! Is the possibility of actually living on Mars a plausible one? I thought we’d only send robots to mine for us there?

Well, as far as I know there are still many challenges to overcome before any human will be able to first go to Mars (and come back safely) .

I was recently invited to deliver a talk about my experience of participation to Art expeditions in extreme environments and a Mars Analog astronaut training, at the Earth without Humans II symposium. It was co-organized by Kapelica Gallery, the European Space Agency and Ars Electronica.

Earth without humans II / Zemlja brez ljudi II (there’s also a longer video summing up the event)

During the Symposium I got the opportunity to learn more about future Mars Missions, as other speakers included researchers from NASA and the European Space Agency ESA , as well as the Artists/Architects Marko Peljhan and Barbara Imhof. Marko is one of the founder of the visionary Makrolab project, an autonomous habitat and art/architecture/technology project developed in the early 90s that has been deployed at documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale, etc. but also in the Arctic and other extreme environments. Barbara is what we have to call a “Space Architect”. Within her studio LIQUIFER SYSTEMS GROUP, she has developed self-deployable habitat for extreme environments and a large number of other space related architecture projects (some being funded by ESA or the European Union ), and to come back to Mars, she designed the LAVAHIVE proposal for a modular habitat on Mars using available Mars soil, that was awarded the 3rd prize for a NASA 3D printed habitat competition in 2015.

So if humans are actually going to live on Mars one day, it might definitely look a little bit like this at the beginning.

Currently, some of the challenges include the duration of the flight, and the needed payload to send to Mars, including tonnes of food and supplies for the astronauts ready to go on this first mission (astronauts on space shuttle missions and flights to the International Space Station currently get 3.8 pounds (1.7 kilograms) of food per day). Not to mention the exposure to cosmic rays that definitely have an impact on human physiology, especially during a mission that will last at least around 21 months which also brings psychological challenges for the future crew. But you are right that in the very near future it’s still robots that are going to be sent to actually mine the Martian soil, for the first time (as far as we know).


Part of the M.A.A.R.S team (left to right): Thomas Edunk, Jason Reimuller, Chris Lundeen, Benjamin Pothier, Etsuko Shimabukuro, Casey Stedman. © Sebastian Gonzalez Martin

What do you personally think about the possibility of living on planet Mars. Would you be tempted to travel there? To me, going there sounds like the most punishing adventure conceivable. i’ve always thought that Martian settlers would be like the convicts who were sent to Australia. Have you learnt anything during the expedition and research that could make a trip to Mars a bit more alluring?

For the question of the possibility of actually living on Mars, I have no doubt that there is nowadays a conjunction of political, scientific and economic (and cultural) forces that are working together, or at least in the same direction, to make this possible in the future. I don’t think we can compare it to the time, back in the 1950s, when people were imagining flying cars, if you know what I mean. I think there is really a very strong possibility that it will happen.

Then, on a personal level. And to be very honest, I definitely don’t project myself in the future going to Mars. But, you know, when I was younger I never thought I would go one day at 20 degrees from the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean, visit the northernmost human settlement on Earth, nor join an international group of astronaut candidates up to 5837 meters high on the world’s highest active volcano on the driest desert on Earth. But I actually did.


Benjamin Pothier working near the Tibetan border 5300-meters, 2016. Photo by DR. Horodyskyj


20 degree from Northpole Svalbard. Photo: Benjamin Pothier

However for Mars, it’s first very very unlikely that anybody would think “hey! let’s invite that “crazy” artist-researcher for the trip, he is apparently very good at vegan cooking, that could be useful!” Hahaha! But more seriously, even if I had the opportunity I would definitely not go, it’s not for me something that I “couldn’t refuse”. Even though I am very interested in the technologies, processes and strategies that are being developed to go there one day.

But, and it’s more a comment of the evolution of space technologies and its accessibility, than of any of my, let’s say personal and professional skills to actually be able to do it or be selected to do it. At the moment I really and honestly don’t plan nor “dream” to go to Space, or even at the very border of Space, nor on the Moon… but I wouldn’t say that it can’t happen in the future. I am nowadays much more aware of the requirements to actually “go to Space”, in terms of training and skills. And if I’m lucky enough to live 50 more years, I think Space is going to be something much more accessible in the not too distant future. For scientific, economic and technological reasons.

Then, to be clear, because of my various practices, these days I know more and more people and I have friends and colleagues like the artist-astronaut Dr Sarah Jane Pell who are very much likely than me to go to Space in the quite near future (Hi Sarah!) Anyway there are various plans being set for Mars at the moment from MARS ONE (I don’t know if it’s in standby or not) to NASA Projects. Insider tip, it seems quite clear through the discussions I had and research I made that we have good chances to see first a permanent or semi-permanent settlement on the Moon. I think they will need to test on the Moon various habitat concepts. It sounds like a very reasonable projection. I am definitively less convinced by the one way scenarios.

But to make the trip more alluring, according to some of the last research you might be able to have some fresh vegetables on the menu on Mars and during the flight, mostly tomatoes, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa and chives … and strawberries !


Photo by Thomas Edunk


Helicopter view on the way to Lukla‘s airport. Photo: Benjamin Pothier


Crossing a bridge in the Hymalayas with Dr. Horodysky

How do you complement each other and manage to help and support one another over the course of these expeditions?

For the question of being supportive to each other, when we were in the Atacama desert quite recently. The driest desert on Earth, and the environment the most similar to Mars in terms of geology on our planet. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in various “extreme” situations with some astronaut candidates. We spent around 15 days in the Atacama. One of the candidate was Etsuko Shimabukuro. A Japanese lady with an amazing life path and a very good level of physical training. She has been selected for the MARS ONE program. I don’t know if this program will happen or not, but anyway they plan to send people for a one way trip to MARS, no coming back….

And you could feel that Etsuko is definitively ready for a one way mission, physically and psychologically. And I really respected her preparedness, mindset , whatever you can call it. A very Zen-like mental state in fact. And I think the first way to support others is to show confidence through your own behavior. To teach by example.

Same with many other members of the team. I enjoyed discussions and daily life during this experience with Casey Stedman, an Air Force pilot and astronaut candidate with a record of previous participation to NASA isolation & simulation missions. He also participated to one HI-SEAS mission that many people in the art community know because Angelo Vermeulen, who is as much an artist as a researcher, was the team leader of one of those long duration simulation of Mars habitat near a Volcano in Hawai. And like Etsuko, Casey also had his own ways of behaving, coming from his various training and pasts experiences, as well as from his personable character. And I totally respected and I think understood his understanding of group cohesiveness.

During the expedition I think we also supported each other by sometimes taking care of each over. Like when, at an unexpected moment, someone pops up some chocolate from his pocket to share with the team. When you are in the middle of nowhere, it’s freezing outside and there is a sand storm…

People are there because they have an adventurous mind, and they have been selected because they have a quite decent physical training, and we mostly all deeply enjoyed every day to be part of this. A truly unique experience. And there was a lot of jokes and very unique moments and discussions. But still you have to act with a sense of responsibility, because any problem that can happen on those remote locations could very quickly turn into a disaster. Some of my colleagues have lost friends or guides in the past. Some have been themselves the victims of 10 or 100 meters non-lethal “falls”, that still leave you with bruises and broken ribs, and slight PTSD… And by a sign of destiny I wasn’t at the Everest Base Camp the day an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015. It’s too long to explain this here, but I was supposed to be there the day the avalanche almost completely destroyed the Everest Base Camp. So all of this makes you think twice about what’s important in life, I guess…

It’s a balance between thinking about your own safety, being part of the group, and more or less constantly checking the person next to you. It was as much daily basic questions like asking your team mate if he took his Diamox that you need to take in order to adapt to very high altitude, or being sure that nobody is dehydrated, or if someone start to act “strangely” , because high altitude can also have psychological impacts. And I guess astronauts on the ISS have some very similar procedures. To an awesome discussion I had with Chris Lundeen, the project Coordinator of the Project PoSSUM, during our push climb to the highest point I went on Ojos Del Salado, the refuge #3 at 5837 meters. It’s always easier to say it after the trip, and we all had some down at a point, but being laid-back in stressful situations is usually a proof of professionalism.


Team Atacama at camp 2, 5300 meters. Photo: Thomas Edunk

Which kind of strategies for survival have you developed/used in Atacama that could be applied to Mars?

I would say that most are psychological, then of course we now have an experience of one of the few geological terrain on Earth that are very similar to a Martian landscape. What I tend to develop personally is the ability to act as a film maker even during those hard experiences, meaning to use cameras and lenses and other gears very precisely so you don’t break anything and provide as much awesome shots as you can. I’ve done that from the high Arctic to the Atacama desert. But in fact it’s a mindset that can be applied to the use of any technical equipment during any demanding experience, be it life on Mars or in Antarctica. It relies mostly on the concept of “drill”.

And as I mentioned previously, the “survival strategy” I tend to develop on the psychological side is more a collaborative one than the over competitive one. I have been part of rock bands and artists collective in my past, and even played basketball teams. So I tend to have that approach to group cohesiveness, a team, one goal, winning together, to say it short. But at the same time, as an artist I tend to develop a strong personal view on most of things, and I usually tend to question authority… So I think it’s a kind of balance that would also be necessary for life on Mars.

I see it more like a Free Jazz Band than a special forces squad approach to group collaboration, probably. Or maybe a subtle mix of both, even though in my artist’s life I’ve met Special Force members who were very cool, and Free Jazz musicians who acted like perfect egotistic morons, hahaha! Life is full of paradoxes, you know… But more seriously…there is this notion of super skilled and at the same time very autonomous people, who also work together on something. Strong training and a sense of improvisation. You find it in Free Jazz. And nothing can beat good Free Jazz.

Then you have the experience of high altitude, which is mandatory in astronaut training because you have to train for hypoxia, the lack of oxygen that can happen in case of depressurisation of your space habitat or ship. Astronauts train in hyperbaric chambers in order to have an experience of enduring this lack of oxygen that very high altitude climbers experience at their own level. Then, even if I slightly injured myself on the last trip, my training in aikido and dance and my study of human movement and performance was definitely useful to go through the physical challenge that it was. Mostly endurance. Knowing how to properly use your body so you will not break your back, all those things.


High Altitude Hypoxia testing with professor Richalet

How do you train to climb to such high altitude? i read you almost lost your right eye while you were there?

First, as I said previously you have to prepare for hypoxia. In order to do so I passed tests with the professor Richalet a Paris-based world-renowned specialist in very high altitude and extreme performances. I virtually biked on top of Mount Blanc, the highest French mountain, with sensors on my body and a regulation of the level of oxygen I was receiving during effort. For the last four expeditions I also trained physically, including 30 minutes to one hour daily physical training and 7 hours walk with around 13 kilos of equipment in a rocky forest near Paris.

And even though I’ve been pretty lucky for the previous expeditions I indeed injured myself a little bit in Atacama. Basically a blood vessel exploded in my right eye the second time we climbed up to 5837 meters high, which is my own record at this point. Probably because of the sudden effort on the last part of the trail, and of course the altitude itself. Anyway I’m back and safe with no sequels… Don’t forget that I am an artist first, not a professional alpinist. I’m amazed to have been able to go up to 5837 meters already.


With Casey Stedman in the Atacama


Selfie in the Atacama desert. Photo: Benjamin Pothier

The trailer of MAARS mentions the fact that what mankind will have to do is adapt to Mars instead of replicate the conditions we have on earth. Could you give us some examples?

Sure, getting back to the work of Barbara Imhof for example. Challenges of building proper habitats on Mars. To Provide oxygen, water and food to the crew, construct a durable habitat. Then of course you will have a sort of new kind of humanity, living on a closed system with life support. Barbara through LIQUIFER partners with 12 other European research institutions and companies in the development of the EDEN-ISS project. Future Mars inhabitants will need to have food production, that’s why amongst other research project about growing food in Space, this one will be tested over the course of one year, at the German Neumayer III station in Antarctica. Of course it’s exciting as is, but also for another reason.

The Space race was responsible for innovations and inventions that are now part of our daily life, living on the ground, on Earth. Be it the computer mouse, freeze-dried food or the mobile phone. And I have no doubt that some of the research that are deployed nowadays in order to prepare a possible life on Mars in the future will have some impacts on our daily life on Earth. And hopefully some will be useful for the upcoming challenges that are brought by climate change and the anthropocene at large.

So of course for Mars it will be technical and psychological adaptation to a closed environment with life support. I’m quite certain that the crew will have Daily Tasking Orders (DTOs), like the ones on the ISS (International Space Station), meaning a very clear schedule of daily tasks for each crew member. But considering the duration of the mission I guess psychologists working for NASA or ESA are doing some research on this. Anyway, life in a Zen monastery, on the ISS or in submarines, prove that humans can adapt to a very precise daily schedule for long duration.

We had that discussion with the Team in Atacama during a workshop on Space exploration lead by Jason Reimuller, the Director of the PoSSUM program. A very surrealist moment that I remember very well. We were near the Salt lake of Laguna Verde at an altitude of 4300 meters, in a small wooden shelter made of scrap materials, with heavy winds outside, almost sand storm, not the one you would face on Mars, but still very heavy, and we discussed space exploration, EVA suits, astronauts anecdotes and team building. All of this in this shelter that looked like a mix of a Mountain cabin, a Hobo handmade shelter and maybe even a contemporary art installation or sculpture. A D.I.Y shelter. Very Vernacular.

Everybody agreed that for long term missions you need more than engineers, scientists and pilots. You need arts, culture, you need a creative cook that will protect the crew from boredom. You need a group narrative. And you could use science in order to prepare all of this, but pro tip : “you’ll need an artist” .

What can your artistic perspective on anthropology and extreme environment bring to the research on space travel? What is your role during this type of expedition? I suppose that it is not limited to documenting the adventures?

Well, I’ve grown up an interest in Space Art since the early 90 ies, following the work of Marko Peljhan, Ewen Chardronnet and so on, I was also a lot into Astronomy in my teenage years, participating to observation workshops in the mountains in France. And of course my deep interest into Sci-Fi since my young age, first through literature then through movies, made me aware of all those topics. I definitely don’t consider myself a performer, but after 15 years of Aikido and studying and practicing contemporary dance for more than 8 years, through the supervision of world renowned choreographers like Josef Nadj, I think I can tell one or two things about human movement and extreme performance. This brought me for example to publish a peer reviewed paper dealing with the questions of human movements in zero gravity environment in Technoetic Arts Journal.

More specifically for the expeditions, I am also now a trained civilian first aid responder level one both alone and in team (two different diplomas and training). As an artist I am usually more used than researchers to collaborate with companies, meaning that I’ve provided in the past solar power solutions, up to date two ways radios or satellite terminal to the expeditions, that I used for daily blogging for newspapers and magazines, but that were also useful as backup tools and ressource for the researchers, or testing techwear garments like NASA Aerogel hardshells and other kind of cool prototypes. There is also something reassuring for people to be “part of a documentary process” during an expedition. I tend to think that I also bring something more subtle and hard to define which is related to the mystery of artistic creation itself…

To my surprise most of the people on our Atacama Mission had that kind of artistic sensibility at some levels. I’m also kind of specialized in the study of hunters and gatherers tribes, for my anthropological research, and it seems to fit with the small team expeditions mindset.


Benjamin Pothier, Crow Order (Found materials)


Benjamin Pothier, Comet (Found materials)

And on the other hand, what do these expeditions bring to the way you approach your artistic work?

The first teaching of those type of expedition is to put you in a state and situation where you just can’t give up, because at some point if you stop walking for example, you are simply going to die frozen in the mountains. A very direct Zen teaching! hahaha! And as an artist working on even a simple sculpture can look sometimes like an insurmountable mountain… I tend to be more laid-back facing obstacles, even if I have my ups and downs, like anybody. But I don’t give up on the long run, something like this, and extreme expeditions teach you that. The good old hard way… it teaches you resilience.

Then travelling is a way to encounter new cultures and civilizations at a certain level. Maybe I’m wrong but I think that most artists have a kind of internal visual library of forms, shapes, that comes from their knowledge of art history, through books and exhibitions, but the very vernacular mountain shelter made with scrap materials that’s currently influencing the look and shape of my next sculpture, well, I had to walk 15 days up to 4800 meters in the Himalayas to see it… And it’s probably because I didn’t have time to make so much photos of it. That its shape and “vibration” (let’s try not to be too much “new-Age” , hahaha…) is resurfacing in a new work. And I’m talking about an art work, a sculpture, not an attempt to make a 1/100 scale architectural model of the shelter. Beyond film and photography , I have a regular practice of sculpture with found and upcycled materials, and of course I bring back objects from my travels that I integrate in those sculptures…

I’m also sure that the colors I saw for example in Nepal, from people’s clothing to painted buildings or spices in shops, or specific gears related to climbing, will have an influence in the coming years on my work production. But for me it’s a very slow, almost organic, process to integrate new influences of this kind.

Finally on a technical level, I have acquired a fairly good expertise on rugged, waterproof, dust proof, etc. And ultra portable technical solutions for autonomous film making ,sound recording and photography (and self survival) on the harshest environments on Earth, from cameras to portable solar power solutions and telecommunication devices, and this has definitely an impact on the way I can imagine the future of my artistic practice. This lead me to be hired recently as a film director by The Crowd and the Cloud, a US production company, during my first expedition in the Himalayas, I directed the Himalayan sequence of a four part documentary that was broadcasted on PBS this year:

The Crowd & The Cloud, Sherpa Science

And it’s probably also one of the reasons why Herve.io co-produced my latest project, including a 360 film shot during the Astronaut training in the Atacama.

And we will show the project for the first time during the Balance-Unbalance 2017 conference in Plymouth (UK) from August 20th to 24th

All of those experiences and my interest in techwear even lead me to collaborate closely with a very technical bag brand from Berlin, BAGJACK, which is almost mythical in the techwear scene (Even William Gibson is a hardcore fan…) And we developed together a bag prototype for my expeditions, based on an existing model but with some new featured that I designed. We plan to release a very limited series of those bags, and for me it’s definitely at the border of design and art. I hope to collaborate more closely with innovative brands in the future in order to develop those kind of super cool hybrid projects.

I was reading an interview of you in which you explained: “I’m working with an artist based in the Netherlands who is doing space art and we are going to send a photograph from the Mars Curiosity Rover test site to the moon through a radio telescope, and then, another radio telescope on earth is going to receive the image.” Could you give us more details about that?

Sure, amongst other colleagues I already knew, I had the chance to meet for the first time Daniela De Paulis, an amazing artist based in the Netherlands, at the last Computer Arts Conference in Paris. We discussed about her work and I discovered that she was actually the artist who developed a very innovative Space Art project that I knew already through the various contemporary art “scenes”. She has worked on this technology in collaboration with the radio amateur community and people from Dwingeloo radiotelescope in the Netherlands.

To quote her official statement :

(…) a live radio transmission performance between the earth and the moon. During the live show the digital images of the seven colours of the spectrum are sent as sound signals to the moon from a radio station located in Brazil, the UK or Switzerland and received back from Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands. The performance also includes a live video connection with radio amateurs based at Dwingeloo radio telescope.

(…) Communication Moon Relay was a military project by the U.S Navy using the technology ‘Moonbounce’, also called Earth-Moon-Earth. This is a radio communications technique developed shortly after WWII which allows sending radio signals to the Moon and receive them back as reflection. Communication Moon Relay grew out of many ideas and concepts in radio espionage. Some impetus for the project was provided by the post-war efforts to develop methods of tracking radio signals, particularly those originating in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

So basically this technology will let us send to the Moon and back images as radio waves. And through that technique we will send a photograph I took of the Atacama desert landscape, a landscape so similar to Mars that the NASA tested the Mars Curiosity Rover there before sending it to Mars… So you will have a photograph of a Mars simulation test site, taken during a Mars Analog simulation mission , going to Space and back to Earth.

And there will be alterations and glitches on the image that will come back, because the surface of the Moon isn’t smooth, it’s not flat. I’m sure it will be quite cool visually, but I also find it very exciting mentally. The way I see it , it’s a kind of “Baudrillardian” Space Art. And you know, that’s typically the kind of projects I like to engage into… I’m not a headbanger, but to quote one of my colleagues at the Planetary Collegium, “I like heavy mental” … hahaha….

I would like to thank my family for their support all along those years. The Dr Ulyana Horodyskyj and the PoSSUM Team, as well as the other members of our Team, including Thomas Edunk who was my very cool team mate in the Atacama expedition and who provided some of the expedition photographs.

Thanks Ben!

For an overview of one of Benjamin Pothier‘s previous adventures, check out: Because i always wondered what an artistic residency in the Arctic might be like…

Book review: We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future

We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future, by Aleksandra Mir.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher MIT Press writes: Over the past three years, Mir has maintained dialogues with professionals in the space industry and academia who have informed and inspired her. The work draws on themes relating to current debates, recorded events, scientific discoveries, technological innovations and predictions of imagined futures that currently affect all our lives.

This book contains both reproductions of the finished work and images from its collaborative creation with twenty-five young artists. It also contains sixteen in-depth new interviews with a wide range of professionals working in the space industries today, providing an intimate and informative insight into the present and future of space exploration.


Aleksandr Mir, Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions at Tate Liverpool, 2017


Aleksandr Mir, First Woman on the Moon, 1999

If ever Aleksandr Mir gets tired of being a fabulous artist, she’ll make an equally great career as an interviewer. I got this book in the hope i’d discover more of her work (which i did) but i ended up being hooked by her conversations with scientists involved in space research.

Some of the people she talks to bring radically new (at least to me) perspectives on space research, some of them even have titles and jobs i had no idea even existed. I particularly enjoyed the discussions with Clara Sousa-Silva, a Quantum Astrochemist hired by the MIT to find alien life; Jill Stuart whose research focuses on the politics and governance of outer space; Stuart Eves who works on Space Traffic Control (a mission which seems to involve outdated space stations in need of ‘de-orbiting’ and space junk threatening to smash into satellites); Alice Gorman, a pioneer in Space archaeology and a believer in the importance of preserving lunar heritage; Thais Russomano, a medical doctor who specializes in space physiology and tele-health; Jayanne English, observational astronomer and expert in how to visually communicate space research findings… I guess i could go on till i’ve listed each of the 16 interviews.


Aleksandr Mir, Gravity, London, 2006

Mir knows a lot about space: in 1999, she was the ‘first woman on the moon‘ and has been exploring the challenges of space exploration ever since. She doesn’t just bring knowledge to these discussions but also wit and a much-needed critical, feminist and artistic point of view on space research. While she talks with the scientists about topics as diverse as baryonic matter, reproducing in zero gravity or the privatization of the spacerace, Mir is also investigating the many ways art and the humanities can play a role in space research.

As the conversations with the researchers demonstrate, scientists and artists have far more in common than we might suspect: they feel the loneliness of lab/workshop life, the need to come up with original ideas while questioning the concept of the authorship, and their work sometimes touches on similar issues, in particular how technology can lock us into specific ways of seeing or how humans feels the need to locate themselves within the universe.


Aleksandr Mir, Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions at Tate Liverpool, 2017


Aleksandr Mir, Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions at Tate Liverpool, 2017


Aleksandr Mir, The Space Age Collages, 2009

I’m not someone who likes to think about the future (way too scary these days!) and nothing is less appealing to me than an intergalactic trip but this book has taught me the influence that space research has on our everyday life. As Matthew Stuttard, Head of Advanced Space Projects at Airbus, told Mir:

“People use Space all the time, but they don’t realise it, because it is an invisible technology, up there, out the way, woven into our lives.”

We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future is easily one of my favourite books of 2017.


Aleksandr Mir, Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions at Tate Liverpool, 2017


Aleksandr Mir, Satellite Porto Alegre, 2013


Aleksandr Mir, First Woman on the Moon, 1999


Aleksandr Mir, First Woman on the Moon, 1999


Aleksandr Mir, Machines, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo on the homepage via Caribbean 360.

The Venice Biennale reports. Part 2: Abu Bakarr Mansaray’s UFO and other futuristic flying machines

One of the artists whose work impressed me the most at the Arsenale exhibition of the Venice Art Biennale is Abu Bakarr Mansaray. An autodidact from Sierra Leone, the artist has always been equally curious about practical science, engineering, toy manufacturing and traditional African crafts. He applies this knowledge to drawing futuristic worlds inhabited by flying machines piloted by skeletons, tanks that look like dinosaurs, dangerous computer virus, 'Hell Extinguisher', aliens and other 'sinister projects.' All the machines and scenes of mayhem are annotated with great details about the functioning of his formidable creations.

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Abu-Bakarr Mansaray, A Nuclear Mosquito From Hell

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Terrific Poisonous and Hostile, 2011

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The most dangerous and destructive object

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Sufisticated Hell Lizard, 2011

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Beyond Creation, 2004

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Kaitiri Watini

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Kaitiri Watini (detail)

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Return of the Xynomoph, 2013

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The Chamber of the Unknown, 2012

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One of the African Black Magic. The Witch Plane

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Abu Bakarr Mansaray, Appajax, 2000

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Nuclear Telephone Discovered in Hell (detail)

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Nuclear Telephone Discovered in Hell (detail)

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Masibo

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Inferno

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DPG Universal

More photos.

Check out Abu Bakarr Mansaray's drawings at All the World's Futures, the 56th International Art Exhibition in Venice. The shows remain open until Sunday, 22nd of November 2015 at the Giardini and the Arsenale venues.

Previously: The Venice Biennale reports. Part 1: Angels, giant lizards and a Trojan horse.

The Venice Biennale reports. Part 2: Abu Bakarr Mansaray’s UFO and other futuristic flying machines

One of the artists whose work impressed me the most at the Arsenale exhibition of the Venice Art Biennale is Abu Bakarr Mansaray. An autodidact from Sierra Leone, the artist has always been equally curious about practical science, engineering, toy manufacturing and traditional African crafts. He applies this knowledge to drawing futuristic worlds inhabited by flying machines piloted by skeletons, tanks that look like dinosaurs, dangerous computer virus, ‘Hell Extinguisher’, aliens and other ‘sinister projects.’ All the machines and scenes of mayhem are annotated with great details about the functioning of his formidable creations.

0AbuANucliairMosquitofromHell.jpg

Abu-Bakarr Mansaray, A Nuclear Mosquito From Hell

0Terrificpoisonousandhostile2011-1024x682.jpg

Terrific Poisonous and Hostile, 2011

0aamostfrighten90.jpg

The most dangerous and destructive object

0suphisticatedhellli.jpg

Sufisticated Hell Lizard, 2011

0a0beyondcreation1.jpg

Beyond Creation, 2004

0h2kaitiric4e06c5.jpg

Kaitiri Watini

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Kaitiri Watini (detail)

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Return of the Xynomoph, 2013

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The Chamber of the Unknown, 2012

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One of the African Black Magic. The Witch Plane

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Abu Bakarr Mansaray, Appajax, 2000

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Nuclear Telephone Discovered in Hell (detail)

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Nuclear Telephone Discovered in Hell (detail)

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Masibo

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Inferno

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DPG Universal

More photos.

Check out Abu Bakarr Mansaray’s drawings at All the World’s Futures, the 56th International Art Exhibition in Venice. The shows remain open until Sunday, 22nd of November 2015 at the Giardini and the Arsenale venues.

Previously: The Venice Biennale reports. Part 1: Angels, giant lizards and a Trojan horse.