From the Fields to the Sea to the Soul

From the Fields to the Sea to the Soul

From the Fields to the Sea to the Soul

An essay by William Myers

For the past decade the fields of bioart and biodesign have flourished, as evidenced by numerous works, from material prototypes and completed architecture, to elaborate art installations and imaginative science-fiction-like speculations in video. Educators have been a part of this emergence including university deans and museum curators who have initiated exhibitions and courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels to propel the movement still further. Another source of fuel has been the stream of festivals, publications, and awards that have illuminated some of the most promising approaches to working with the Life Sciences in the making of art and design. Among the latter has been the seminal Bio Art & Design (BAD) Award in the Netherlands and its accompanying annual exhibition. This award started in 2010 and has since anointed and funded 30 winning projects.

Evolutionaries at MU Hybrid Art House presents together the three new winners of the BAD Award from 2020 along with nine additional artists selected from the pool of 27 previous winners, one from each past year. The combination of the works brought to the gallery helps us see how the way we work with biology and how we describe and exhibit it tend to mirror our societal values and goals. In short, the approach is quickly moving away from domestication and exploitation or extraction towards collaboration and mutual benefit between human and non- human species.

The works also embody some of the re-occurring themes in a decade’s worth of content, presented each year in a variety of programs; among them is the notion of fluidity across platforms, fields, and identities which reflects developments at universities towards crossdisciplinarity, in creative practice towards the multi-media presence of art, and of course, in how identities, be they national, sexual or gender-focused or otherwise intersectional, are becoming better understood as moving across multiple dimensions. Another of the themes is interconnection, specifically the degree to which it manifests and how it is resisted or embraced. This is arguably the most important phenomena of the 21st century, as reflected in the cultural and political impacts of social media, the climate crisis, the globalization of trade and finance and, at the micro-scale, the emergent understandings of the human microbiome and epigenetics. Still another major theme recurrent and best described in unity is that of bodies, time, and power, in which works of art and design attempt to accelerate social change to achieve greater social and environmental justice. Finally, as many of the works were developed in the sea-conquering nation of the Netherlands by artists, scientists, and designers working there, bodies of water are a prominent consideration if not a dominate theme or context that inform them.

Part 1: Collaboration Human/Non-Human

An important question that links these themes with the direction of the Life Sciences in general and with synthetic biology in particular is what are the implications of reducing Biology to a data science? This seems to be the de-facto evolution observed in numerous fields, from healthcare, to marketing, to finance; that is, to take the approach of engineering which abstracts, standardizes, and modularizes whatever elements it can in order to establish control. This also allows for optimization or mass production at great efficiency. However, there are unintended consequences and behaviors that arise when we focus on collapsing everything into data. This idea was put forth well in an essay by Christopher Alexander in 1964, contributed to a conference on “Architecture and the Computer” in the early days of digital parametric tools for designers: 

“The effort to state a problem in such a way that a computer can be used to solve it will distort your view of the problem. It will allow you to consider only those aspects of the problem which can be encoded — and in many cases these are the most trivial and the least relevant aspects.”[1]

There are perhaps similar risks with biology. For instance, with popular understanding of DNA as a blueprint or software code that builds all the wetware that is our bodies and brains, are misleadingly simplified in their linearity. We are more akin to dynamic ecosystems in motion linked not only with the microscopic metropolis of non-human life that lives in and on our bodies but also with the experiences of generations past via epigenetic markers and the consequences of our environment on our telomeres. Entanglements are messy but it is through attempting to engage with and not reduce or abstract them, which brings us to better understanding of our interconnectivity. This notion is at the heart of one of many fascinating exchanges recorded between Drew Endy president of the BioBricks Foundation and one of the founders of synthetic biology and Donna Haraway, a prominent scholar in Science and Technology Studies (STS). In 2019 they discussed ancient and modern processes of making vanilla extract, about which Endy says:

“Some people are opposed to bio-synthesizing a few of the molecules found in this bean by engineering brewers’ yeast, while other people think “What's the big deal? I’ll just run this in a fermenter and I’ll get the same chemicals.” I never understood the two voices in opposition. This is a riff on your talking about the care of each other: Previously, I only saw the landscape as defined by the molecule, or the molecule and the money, and not as a richer, entangled landscape with multidimensional meaning to it.”[2]

The noted scientist goes on to explain how his viewpoints changed upon meeting and learning the story of a vanilla bean farmer from Mexico, and coming to see how the manufacturing of molecules has profound power to shape landscapes, economies, lives, and history in ways that are seldom considered in the laboratory. 

Artists and designers often experience training that gives them sensitivity to such consequences and considerations of context. This may be also why they tend to approach the non-human with notable respect and humility. They resist othering the non-human and reject the Enlightenment era conclusion well-embodied by Descartes that all animals are essentially machines, or non-thinking automata. To be fair, artists are not the only ones who have rejected this long-disputed and more-or-less extinguished idea in Philosophy, but one need not look further than the 60 billion chickens slaughtered every year on earth to realize that most of the world still prefers the Cartesian elevation of the human high above all other creatures.   

Of course, there have long been alternative views that arose from places other than Western Europe. Animism, for example, although the term itself is a modern anthropological construct, describes a wide range of belief systems of indigenous people, going back as far as such systems have existed for humans. It is characterized by the assignation of spiritual essence to creatures, objects, and phenomena.[3] While such systems are not based in scientific knowledge, their intuitive basis, or their universal humanity, can be seen in contemporary forms in, for example, techno-animism in Japan based in ancient Shinto beliefs, aspects of do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, and concepts such as Actor Network Theory (ANT). Another way to think about the current dominating characterization of the non-human as without soul or spirit is to observe how this is a necessary condition to tolerate extractive capitalism. Modern science and museum practices can be seen as complicit in this condition, as Anselm Franke, curator of the exhibition Animism remarked, how we tend to think of how a specimen in a natural history exhibition, a beetle for example, only obtains what approaches a “soul,” as it were, from the needle with which a human has stuck it to the wall.[4]

Part II: The Illusions of Pure Form & Nature & Money

The search for essential form is not a completable mission, but a worthy journey when pursued with earnest hope to see forms in greater resolution, in new dimensions, or with richer links between them. This was at the heart of the work of artists such as Karl Bloßfeldt, the German photographer and teacher who meticulously captured morphological variety in plants at 40x magnification, and published the images as a resource for artists, designers, and architects in 1928. His work so impressed Walter Benjamin, a leading cultural critic at the time, that he praised Bloßfeldt for “proving right” the pioneering artist Moholy-Nagy for declaring photography limitless; Benjamin further commended the images for illuminating influential forms “erupt[ing] at points of our existence where we would least expect it.”[5]

A similar effort through other means was underway a few years later in New York, with the organization of the ground-breaking Machine Art exhibition in 1934 at MoMA. The catalogue introduction to that show evokes Plato’s admiration of “straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made from them by lathe, ruler and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely.”[6] The text makes a persuasive case for a new emergent beauty of form as produced in industry with its updated tools and designs with new functions. It supports this idea by recognizing such new elements as moderate complexity, motion, sound, and function as part of a new kind of beauty whether intentional or not, just as the curve of a snail’s shell, may be pleasing to the eye but engineered blindly via evolution. 

In our current era, almost 100 years after Bloßfeldt and Machine Art, and following the celebration of complexity and contradiction that characterized much post-modern art and design, we can recognize a deliberate hunt for more nuance and hybridity. Between the old harmonies and disharmonies (or notions of beauty) we detect a broader space of possibility, just as we do between concepts such as nature and culture, local and global, analog and digital, well and unwell in health, or even “woke” and uninitiated in some discourses. The dismantling of the binary as related to aesthetics, politics, and design is an ongoing project with a steady trajectory. Guiding lights in these different areas have emerged, helping us to identify new dimensionalities, such as the publishing and exhibitions of the Next Nature Network, the book The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing, the description of our accidental megastructures in The Stack by Benjamin Bratton, and the essay Compulsory Able Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence by Robert McReur, among others. 

A further point is to be made about the changing definition of nature, captured well in an essay by Philip Upsprung.[7] This work urges us to think of the difference in the kinds of changes “the natural” has undergone in the 20th vs. the 21st centuries, such as the notion that nature is no longer inexhaustible, the view of earth from space, and the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. One could go further and witness how what had been called “natural” forms of conception, love, healing, or growing food have all blurred, to name just a few. The “natural”, is a construct, naturally, used most often to advance an agenda, a word as a modifier to pinpoint a meaning convenient for someone, to convey positivity or legitimacy, which has a long history of being problematic.

To avoid the topic of money in understanding the art and design at hand is perhaps noble to some but misses an opportunity for critical reflection. The fact is most projects of bioart and biodesign generate financial losses. To use the language of capitalism, they tend to be investments and not products. They are also, more often than not, initiated by women. Bioart and biodesign generally remain outside of major public collections, private holdings, and auction houses, at least for now. This is a testament to most of the artists and designers’ intentions to avoid exploitation of the non-human, to develop an all-species type of advocacy, and to truly learn more about scientific research processes while responding to the urgent questions the research raises. Beautiful, stable objects do not often emerge from the end of the processes of these practitioners. They seem drawn in by the meaning, not the money.  

 Part III: The Sea, the Field, and the Soul 

As the seas rise, crops burn, and shouts for justice go unheeded, artists and designers contemplate paths to better worlds. They also illuminate the extents and intricacies of the wicked problems at hand, and what they mean for us culturally. It is when they can do this, with original aesthetic language and inventiveness, that they often achieve a new understanding of the issues for themselves, and can bring viewers along on their journey. Such invitations abound in Evolutionaries, Bio Art & Design from the Sea to the Soul, on view at MU Hybrid Art House in winter 2020 to spring 2021. Most of these works are the fruit of collaborations between artists and scientists working in the Netherlands and they address an array of topics like the possibility of same-sex biological parents, the colonial origin of zombie stories, and what can be learned from watching a plant slowly play with a machine. Bioart and biodesign, as practiced by this talented pool of international artists, take on the vastness of our polluted seas as well as the disquiet of the souls sensitive to the weight of collective injustice. To the well-tuned ear their work cries for revolution and evolution simultaneously. 

The twelve international artists or collectives in Evolutionaries include the three winners of the BAD Award in 2020. Their winning projects are presented in the context of new or recent work from one winner from each of the previous nine years. As mentioned earlier, these works, like much of the work from the past several years, take on or link in some way with the themes of interconnectivity, fluidity, the combination of bodies-time-power, as well as bodies of water.  , These explorations take many forms, in media across video, sound, living matter, robotics, and food.

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy presents their O.F.F.I.C.E., an interactive space, punctuated with broadcast performances, documenting ten years of their research mapping food controversies, prototyping alternative culinary futures, and envisioning more just and ecologically sound food systems. The collective has done this in creating a joyous jumble of sometimes humorous and other times biting critical projects, from capturing the flavor of smog to presenting a fine-tasting barbeque sauce made with ingredients devised from radiation-treated plants. Relatedly, the work of Dasha Tsapenko in collaboration with microbiologist Han Wösten, called Fur_tilize, offers a speculative view into a value-building form of fashion, in which a garment with a hemp felt basis is coaxed to evolve through phases of growing: producing materials as well as food for consumption. This example of hyper-localized farming-couture is a winner of one of the 2020 BAD Awards. Together these works compel a more nuanced and personal view of interconnectivity, by brining what touches our bodies or that which we put inside ourselves is part of a wide web of relationships, some of them problematic, while others hopeful. 

Jalila Essaïdi’s work Double Edged is a multi-layered exploration into the contradictions and tensions arising from the stark realities of the military-industrial complex and the legacy of its waste streams. The work highlights the glowing isotope of hydrogen that leaks from munitions dumped into the sea, making a fascinating, even beautiful visual effect while announcing its danger and damage. This makes it ever more clear how stability is an illusion, how the wastes and sins from our past remain with us and poison us if not dealt with properly, something that can be said about other types of legacies including that of a colonial past. Another work that implicates macro-level systems at work in our society is Michael Sedbon’s CMD: Experiments in Bio-Algorithmic Politics 2.0. This project builds on his winning installation of 2019 and presents an artificial ecosystem in which photosynthetic bacterial cultures are sharing their resources through systems designed to resemble human economic markets, either following capitalist or more communal models. An optimization process of the rules of the market is taking place throughout the exhibition, allowing the algorithm to explore different systems and modes of resource distribution. The work help prompt questions, such as will all of us end up suspended in such systems, in a dystopian future wherein surveillance machines are continually optimizing and controlling us? Or are we perhaps already there? This pairing of works foregrounds the theme of fluidity, of the changing character of the systems that affect us, sometimes invisibly and certainly, often without our active consent. 

Experimental media artist Ani Liu presents multiple works that help us question the cultural and scientific discourses that shape our notions of the female body. Two of them are prototype garments for simulating the experiences of incontinence and the pains of childbirth. Another is a performance captured in video titled Mind Controlled Sperm, in which a computer-brain interface is used to allow the artist to control a sample of human spermatozoa. As with much of Liu’s work, these projects use a language of technology to speak about larger, dysfunctional dynamics at play in the world. It also invites us to imagine corollaries or inverses, such as a mind-controlled uterus, the uncomfortable notion of which speaks volumes. 

The artist Charlotte Jarvis takes another approach to undermine the male-centric symbolic power of semen with In Posse: she has been working over the last few years to make viable sperm that is her own. Using the latest CRISPR-Cas9 technology combined with a procedure to generate stem and then sex cells from her own tissue, the artist has collaborated with Leiden-based scientist Susana Chuva de Sousa Lopes to advance the project and present it in galleries and museums around the world. Accompanying it are re-interpretations of the Thesmophoria, the ancient Greek fertility festival to which only women were admitted. At the same time as Jarvis has been developing these strands of In Posse, she has been pregnant, experienced labor and become a mother. This iteration of In Posse - commissioned especially for Evolutionaries as a two channel film installation and essay - is Jarvis’ attempt to reconcile these experiences with the process of making the project. It is also a manifesto of sorts, and a review of where the project stands creatively, scientifically, ethically and personally. 

Cecilia Jonsson presents the work of micro-organisms collected from a sewage treatment facility in Contemporary Diagram – Berlin. These were placed on iron surfaces and exposed to infra- and ultrasound, formulated using the artist’s voice and music by composer Alexander Mosolov (1900 – 1973), resulting in a variety of corrosion processes and patterns. The work can give new meaning to older, such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which the author describes with great attention how the sewer is like the conscience of a city, a place where all are equal and that which is otherwise hidden is revealed. So too are the intricates of Jonsson’s work a kind of portrait of a city told through the invisible life that feasts within the process of its macro-metabolism. The artist and researcher Xandra van Der Eijk offers Ghost Reef, an updated version of a work presented as a previous winner of the BAD Awards, in which the sounds, forms, and textures of the vast spaces beneath the North Sea, one of the busiest in the world with human activity, are brought into the galleries. The project evokes a 21st century sublime, at once exciting and frightening in the mysterious and inaccessible nature of underwater environments colored by the evidence of human footprints that are perpetuating extinctions and the climate crisis. 

Two works that touch on alien-ness and otherness while embodying the theme of bodies, power, and time are presented by Agi Haines and by Nadine Botha. The former is titled Alter-Terrestrial and is about the “adaptive purgatory” species find themselves in when entering or returning from outer space. These exist in a fascinating liminal state, of being neither earthly or alien as they have been re-designed, in some way, by the extra-terrestrial experience. The artist represents in forms how the deliberate design of such future species might appear. The latter project is The Orders of the Undead, a study of stigma, othering, and viruses read through the phenomenon of zombies as seen in popular culture. Nadine Botha and her scientific collaborator virologist Henry de Vries, the second BAD Award winning team of this year, have cut through video fragments from film and television, exploring the metaphorical power of zombies and the stories told about them in four short films, linked to old and new narratives concerning contagion, segregation, and death. Bodies here are a kind of lens, through which we can examine on metaphorical planes the value systems and often-dysfunctional power dynamics embedded in how we have lived in the past and how we might design biology in the future. 

Sissel Marie Tonn, the third BAD Award winner of 2020 in collaboration with microplastics researcher Heather Leslie and molecular cell biologist Juan Garcia Vallejo, present the work Becoming a Sentinel Species: a video work of science fiction, about a time in the future when humans become ultra-sensitive to microplastics. In this vision of the future the tiny pollutants trigger extreme immune system reactions and unleash cytokines that produce strange and hallucinatory states, such as re-living moments of our water-based ancestry. The work is a reminder of how entwined we are with the ecosystems we co-create for ourselves, and is exceptional in its layering which connects with all the themes mentioned, from bodies and water, to time, interconnectivity, and fluidity. The latter you can even see in multiple ways, as in the fluids in the body, the sea, and the change of mental and physical states of its fictional subjects.

The work of Špela Petri? also touches on an alternative understanding of time as well as meditative states to allow for reflection and greater understanding of a non-human perspective. In PL’AI a climbing cucumber plant is surveilled by a computer that has control over a small moving part which it uses to try to touch the plant, but is limited to the speed at which the plant grows. It is therefore challenged to keep predicting where the growth will direct the plant up a trellis, meanwhile the plant interferes and influences the computer’s learning system with its growing behavior. The slow-motion performance resists any firm form or categorization, collapsing difficult questions about nature, culture, and machines into play, where they perhaps have more meaningful ways of finding answers.

The Evolutionaries exhibition marks a decade of support of the type of collaborations between the arts and sciences that produce illuminating, provocative, and sometimes innovative outcomes. The show also signals that bioart and design over the past ten years has grown more complex and critical. Yet, the BAD Awards have been consistent in their effect of boosting the careers of artists, enlivening the cultural scene in the Netherlands and abroad, and inviting scientific researchers to be an active agent in the creative process, sometimes triggering them to think more expansively or innovatively about their own research area.  

The Life Sciences are changing rapidly as synthetic biology develops and there has been a wave of exhibitions, school programs, awards, books, and festivals presenting similar content to Evolutionaries. This may be an unusual time however, for bioart and design in light of the pandemic and the risk that fear of the invisible or a lack of confidence in science might get the better of us. There is little doubt that how we view our environments, ourselves, and each other is in some fluctuation due to the risk of infection. We must be wary however, not to over-sanitize in multiple-ways. That is, be vigilant about health risks being used as a cover to discriminate or sow division, or to sell you more cleaning products than you need. 

Finally, we are challenged to continue cultivating the community of scientists, artists, and designers who have been brought together by the BAD Award and the bioart and biodesign exhibitions staged by MU Hybrid Art House as well as collaborating venues. Building and strengthening our collective bonds may be more difficult and yet more important than ever. I therefore register the sincere hope that the award may continue and, as it does, act as Agar medium on a Petri dish: supplying the essential nutrients for the flourishing of new knowledge and experimentation. 

Footnotes

[1] Christopher Alexander, ‘A Much Asked Question about Computers and Design.’ Architecture and the Computer, First Boston Architectural Conference, 1964.
[2] Conversation transcript, by Drew Endy and Donna Haraway. Published October 3, 2019. See ‘Tools for Other Species Futures’ and other sections, published under ‘Other Biological Futures’, in the Journal of Design and Science (Issue 4), MIT. Edited by Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Natsai Audrey Chieza. https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/otherbiologicalfutures
[3] Anselm Franke, ‘Animism: Notes On An Exhibition,’ e-flux, journal #36, July 2012. See: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61258/animism-notes-on-an-exhibition/
[4] Comments by Franke on Animism noted by the author were presented live at conference: Between the Discursive and the Immersive, 3-4 December, 2015, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen. See: https://stedelijkstudies.com/issue-4-between-discursive-and-immersive/#after_full_slider_1
[5] Walter Benjamin, Neues von Blumen” (1929), in Hella Tiedemann-Bartels (ed.), Gesamelte Schriften III (Kritiken und Rezensionen), Frankfurt am Main, 1972, pp. 151f.
[6] Plato: Philebus 51c; quoted in Machine Art, MoMA, 1934. See catalogue facsimile at: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1784
[7] Philip Upsprung, ‘Double Helix and Blue Planet: The Visualization of Nature in the 20th Century,’ published in Nature Design, Lars Müller, 2007, pgs 180-189.