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Posts from the ‘Artists’ Category

Beatriz da Costa 1974-2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 - 2012

Beatriz da Costa, 1974 – 2012

The artist Beatriz da Costa lost her long, fierce battle with cancer on the evening of 27 December 2012, at the age of 38.

This is not an obituary, but simply a personal reflection on the Arts Catalyst’s work with this courageous woman and inspired artist, who at her death had not yet achieved her full potential, but had still produced a remarkable and influential body of work. (There is a full biography on Wikipedia.)

I first met Beatriz in 2003, at our second presentation of GenTerra at the Natural History Museum in London, as part of our CleanRooms exhibition, a work on which she had collaborated with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Beatriz had been unable to attend the first presentation in 2002 at Gallery Oldham, due to ill health. GenTerra was one of CAE’s “participatory theatre” works, which enabled its audiences to consider the consequences of creating transgenic life forms. GenTerra was a fictitious biotechnology corporation “balancing profits with social responsibility”. Lab-coated assistants (members of CAE) introduced GenTerra’s bioproducts to the audience, and would explain the practical applications of such research, such as disease treatment and xenotransplantation. Audience members were taught how to grow and store their own transgenic bacteria. They could then choose to spin a bacteria release machine with only one of its ten chambers holding active transgenic bacteria. They were told that the bacteria they might release into the environment was a benign strain and had to decide whether to play this game of ‘genetic Russian roulette’. The bacteria release machine was designed and made by Beatriz.

Beatriz with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

Beatriz da Costa with her bacteria release mechanism. GenTerra, Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa

It is interesting to realise now how widely and deeply Beatriz’s interests as an artist paralleled and intersected with those of the Arts Catalyst, yet we did not work with her as a solo artist until 2009. Beatriz specialised in the intersections of art, science, engineering, and politics. She and her collaborators – including as a founder member of Preemptive Media, and a collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble – frequently engaged the public by running workshops that translated challenging new technical and scientific developments into accessible activities. She was an innovator in the use of technology and biotechnology in her art, with a remarkable drive to intellectually grasp and gain the technical skills to engage with emerging areas of science and technology. In 2008, she co-edited the MIT Press anthology Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience.

PigeonBlog, Beatriz da Costa, 2008. Photo: Kristian Buus

Pigeonblog, Beatriz da Costa. Interspecies, A Foundation London, 2010. Photo: Kristian Buus

In 2009, we presented Beatriz’s project Pigeonblog as part of Interspecies, an exhibition and programme which explored artists’ attempts to collaborate with animals. Pigeonblog was a collaboration between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers, a citizen scientific data-gathering initiative designed to college and distribute information about air quality conditions. Pigeons carried custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server. Pollution levels were visualised and plotted in real-time on an Internet map. Interspecies was shown at Cornerhouse, Manchester, and at the A Foundation in London.

That year, we also invited Beatriz to create a new project for the exhibition Dark Places, a series of commissioned artists’ projects exploring spaces and institutions below the radar of common knowledge, and examining how artists are evolving strategies for art as a form of knowledge production.

Beatriz’s project for Dark Places, A Memorial for the Still Living explored the ‘dark places’ of zoological science and presented a sombre reflection on endangered species of the British Isles. Produced remotely, with Beatriz sending detailed lists of species and specifications, the artwork manifested as a striking art installation which confronted visitors with the reality of British species threatened with extinction. Continuing the artist’s investigation into interspecies, her interest was to confront visitors with the only mode of encounter left once a species has become extinct: the description, image, sound or taxidermed shell of a once thriving organism. However, rather than focusing on already extinct species, her focus was on the ‘still living’; species classified as being under threat, but which still stand a chance for survival if immediate action is taken. Beatriz posited that, after they have been eradicated from our planet as a result of hunting, loss of habitat or climate change, our only opportunities for interaction with these species will be with bottled and mounted specimens. The possibility of an encounter ‘in the flesh’ will have disappeared, with humans reduced to studying preserved examples of each species.


A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa. Dark Places, John Hansard Gallery, 2009-10. Photo: Steve Shrimpton.

A Memorial to the Still Living (detail), Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

A Memorial for the Still Living, Beatriz da Costa, 2009. Photo: Steve Shrimpton

To realise this exhibit, Beatriz worked collaboratively with the Arts Catalyst team and the collection curators at the Horniman Museum and the Natural History Museum in London. Central to the installation were taxidermed specimens of endangered animals alongside preserved botanical samples of plants under threat. Each specimen was given a ‘birth date’ (the date of classification and inclusion into the corpus of western science) as well as a ‘death date’ (the date of projected extinction).

A Memorial for the Still Living was shown as part of the Dark Places exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton (1), and then as a solo exhibition at the Horniman Museum in London. To coincide with the exhibition, the artist released the Endangered Species Finder, a mobile application that facilitates encounters with other species within their ‘natural’ environments. Beatriz believed that experience and encounter, not just policy and regulations, are what ultimately change our behavior towards our environment. Through her encouragement of a ‘go out and meet the species before it’s too late’ attitude, she hoped to make a small contribution to the collective effort of examining our current relationships to non-human species.

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Endangered Species Finder, Beatriz da Costa, 2010

Of course, the project and its title, A Memorial for the Still Living, acquired a powerful poignancy after Beatriz’ diagnosis with breast cancer and as the disease progressed. Constructing the installation exactly to her specifications became invested with great importance for us, and I will mention here our producer Gillean Dickie, who worked creatively and collaboratively with Beatriz to fix every small detail as the artist wanted it.

Whilst more than 13,000 people saw the installation in Southampton and London, Beatriz herself never saw it in its physical form because she was too ill to travel. We documented it on video and photographs for her, and when she felt well enough, she came to London in early 2011 to talk about the work in a public event at the Arts Catalyst. Our curator Rob La Frenais took the opportunity to record an interview with Beatriz about her work, an interview which we will make available soon.

There is no doubt that we would have commissioned Beatriz again. We were in early discussion with Botanic Gardens Conservation International about a potential project with Beatriz, and we also – as she became more ill – discussed showing her powerful video installation, Dying for the Other, in the UK, a work which documented the lives of mice used in breast cancer research and humans suffering from the same disease. In order to produce Dying for the Other, Beatriz documented scenes of her own life during the summer of 2011 and combined them with footage taken at a breast cancer research facility in New York City over the same time frame.

Despite her worsening condition and the many surgeries that she endured, Beatriz – Shani to her friends, as we were by now – was often in contact with us, discussing projects, being interviewed by Skype for a research project by an embedded researcher with Arts Catalyst, discussing future plans until she could no longer think clearly or type and it had become clear to us all that her time was running out. It is of some consolation that she died at home, with people she loved, yet still unbearable and unfair that we have lost this vibrant, clever, committed woman and artist.

1. A Memorial for the Still Living was commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and co-curated with the Office of Experiments, John Hansard Gallery and SCAN, for Dark Places.

How life transforms: reflections on a conversation with Rob Kesseler and Enrico Coen

Micrograph of seed

Rob Kesseler, from Seeds, time capsules of life, Rob Kesseler, Wolfgang Stuppy,
Papadakis Publisher..

Why do I like Rob Kesseler’s work? At first glance, his highly detailed, colour-enhanced micrographs of pollen, seeds, fruit and leaves might pass for the sort of “science photography” that has become familiar in the media, particularly in publications such as New Scientist. Is there a difference when an artist produces these images? Kesseler’s work focuses almost entirely on the microscopic aspects of plants: their functional, structural, decorative qualities. He translates that material into imagery, which he incorporates in a whole series of works in different media – glass etchings, ceramics, sculptural objects, and large format images. Visually, his works combine astonishing detail with meticulous colouration, giving a luscious, seductive quality to subject matter that seems at the same time alien and familiar.

At the Arts Catalyst, we generally say we’re not really interested in art that ‘illustrates’ science. But Kesseler clearly isn’t illustrating science. He’s sharing his fascination in the intricate structure of these forms and in the process of making images. If this jogs us into thinking about biodiversity or how natural patterns and forms come about, that doesn’t appear to be his primary intent, although he collaborates extensively with scientists.

Micrograph of pollen printed on silk, hanging from tree

In an era of quick fixes, instant gratification and time-saving tools, I’m fascinated by obsessives – which many artists and scientists are. Kesseler has been collecting, preparing and studying plants and their pollen for many years. His images give me aesthetic pleasure, yet this aesthetic pleasure derives from a combination of eye appeal and intellectual-emotional appeal. I’m not just looking at his work out of context. From my background, I know what the object in the image might be, the process by which the image has been made, and the technical and artistic skill that has gone into its making. I’m aware of the artist’s intent in how it is presented. I am also mesmerized by the intricacy and breadth of nature’s design. Yet even my ‘pure’ visual aesthetic appreciation is culturally shaped: by fashion and by years working within the contemporary visual arts.

Micrograph of plant fragment

Artwork by Rob Kesseler, from Seeds, time capsules of life, Rob Kesseler, Wolfgang Stuppy,
Papadakis Publisher.

The other evening, I chaired a discussion between Rob Kesseler and biologist Enrico Coen, organised by the Art, Science and Technology research group at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. In his new book Cells to Civilizations, Coen attempts a unified account of how life transforms itself – from the evolution of complex animals, to how a newborn learns to behave in society, to the development of human culture. He identifies some shared core principles underlying evolution, development, learning and culture, and suggests that there is always a ‘twin feedback loop’ of reinforcement and competition – an accelerating and a limiting force – and, in each case, drivers of population variance and persistence. That’s an incredibly brief précis of Coen’s investigation into the relationships between our biological past and the evolution of human culture, in which he also introduces the concepts of cooperation, “combinatorial richness” and recurrence and discusses their roles in the process. Once you grasp his basic idea, it becomes an entertaining game to identify ‘twin feedback loops’ at work in all sorts of cultural changes around us (including these periodic upsurges of interest in ‘art and science’).

In our brief conversation, we talked about how images are made and used in science and in art, and about the role of aesthetics. Coen felt that imagery in science is primarily used to communicate findings, and therefore it is intended to be ‘provocative’ in some sense. Kesseler said that in his artwork he tries to bring out the 3-dimensionality of forms, their structure and characteristics. Both mentioned that aesthetics change as a consequence of our experiences. But our conversation was constrained by time, and I hadn’t then delved into Coen’s book, so I want here to think a little more about some of his ideas.

At the conclusion of our meeting, I was left wondering how valid it was to extend an approach of identifying common mechanisms in evolution, development and learning (that we can comfortably understand as subjects for scientific investigation) to encompass human cultural change. Surely this is too complex a subject for scientific study. Culture has been said to be “what makes us human”, encompassing all that we inherit by learning from others, including language, customs, technology, and material artifacts. But culture, it seems, is not limited to human beings. Researchers are discovering and studying the foundations of such social learning and traditions in a wide variety of species including primates and birds.

Book cover for 'Cells to Civilisations'

In Cells to Civilisations, Coen argues that the ingredients for human cultural change are grounded in evolution, development and learning over many generations. He also points out that our scientific understanding of these processes is in itself a cultural product. Theories of evolution, development and learning, such as those developed by Darwin or Turing, are themselves outcomes of our cultural heritage. And so indeed is all science, and all art. Culture creates the conditions in which science and art – and aesthetic appreciation – develop, and science and art feedback into the evolution of culture. As artists and scientists, we are products of the frameworks within which we operate. Thus Coen’s book presents a counter-perspective to some popular misconceptions of both science and art, firstly that science can be culturally neutral, and secondly the notion of the artist as solitary genius. Rather, Coen says, science is completely embedded in and framed by culture, and the development of an artistic work is the outcome of a culture formed by multiple individuals in a particular society at a particular time.

Coen also suggests that humans readily acquire concepts that allow us to deal with objects that we can see or touch (apples or mountains, for example), in which we have many generations of experience in understanding, but that we struggle with concepts that require us to think in other dimensions or on other scales outside our immediate experience. Thus Einstein’s theories of relativity are harder concepts for us than Newton’s laws of motion. Which perhaps suggests that the work of artists like Kesseler can help us to “conceptualise” ideas and forms that exist in a liminal space beyond our normal senses and experiences, by finding morphological parallels in the visible world.

The conversations was recorded and is intended to be broadcast on Mark Aitken’s gardening programme ‘I can hear the grass grow’ on Resonance FM

Biopoetic investigations – Agnes Meyer Brandis

Moon Goose Colony, Agnes Meyer Brandis, 2011

The work of artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis creates new stories, at the same time fantastical and believable, through the fusion of detailed factual research and enchanting fiction. Her new work The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility has been commissioned by The Arts Catalyst for our Republic of the Moon exhibition, which opens at FACT, Liverpool, in December.

Meyer-Brandis studied mineralogy at the University of Aachen, before transferring to the Art Academy in Maastricht, Netherlands, to study sculpture and to the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. For many years, her work explored deep in the dark zone below the earth and ice, fascinated by what lay beneath her feet. In her SGM-Iceberg-Probe, she developed an elegant probe that could be lowered into a bore hole from an exploration tent into the deep layers of the Earth, revealing on a monitor and through headphones the moving images and sounds of subterranean life forms and rocks.

SGM Iceberg Probe - field test

SGM Iceberg Probe - screenshot

In 2007, she shifted her poetic-scientific investigations to include the skies, exploring birds, clouds, planets and heavenly bodies. In her project Cloud Core Scanner, she explored the phenomena of cloud cores in weightlessness with the German Space Agency.

The artist in weightlessness

One of my favourite projects was the Public Meteor Watching event that the artist organized outside the National Center For Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Ekaterinburg, Russia, at which hundreds of local people gathered to witness the occurrence and impact of a meteor, predicted from the artist’s calculations, an astonishing demonstration of imagination, organisation and sheer chutzpah.

Public Meteor Watching, Agnes Meyer Brandis

In The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, Meyer Brandis develops an ongoing narrative based on the book The Man in the Moone, written by the English bishop Francis Godwin in 1603, in which the protagonist flies to the Moon in a chariot towed by ‘moon geese’. Meyer-Brandis has actualised this concept by raising eleven moon geese from birth within her project Moon Goose Colony at Pollinaria in Italy; giving them astronauts’ names, imprinting them on herself as goose-mother, training them to fly and taking them on expeditions and housing them in a remote Moon analogue habitat.

Below stills from the project and an extract from an interview with the artist.

Moon Goose Colony

Interference patterns – Semiconductor

Semiconductor – artist duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt – have put their new film ’20HZ’ online.

2oHZ, Semiconductor, 2011

I encountered their early experimental animation work when part of a panel which selected them for an artists’ residency at NASA Space Sciences Lab in Berkeley in 2006. Their mesmerising ‘Brilliant Noise’ (2006), in which grainy black and white images of the sun, using raw satellite data captured by the Soho satellite, presented a radical aesthetic alternative to the glossy, cleaned up, over-coloured cosmological photos produced by NASA, and the witty ‘Do You Think Science …’ (2006) – both embedded below – were part of a remarkable body of work that resulted from that residency. Since then I’ve watched with admiration their steadily growing output of moving image works, which continue to explore the physical universe and the material nature of our world and the scientists who study those.

In ’20HZ’, the pair play with data from a geo-magnetic storm in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, this time captured by the CARISMA radio array, generating sound and moving images, visually reminiscent of some of Woody and Steina Vasulka‘s experimental video works but part of a growing area of astronomy data-generated work. ’20HZ’ is showing as part of the Invisible Fields exhibition at Arts Santa Monica, Barcelona.

Brilliant Noice, Semiconductor, 2011

Do You Think Science …?, Semiconductor, 2011

A Mexican space opera – Juan Jose Infante

A man stands in front of a launch site in the desert

Juan Jose Diaz Infante, initiator of “Ulises I”, a Mexican artists’ satellite

Mexican artistJuan José Díaz Infante came to visit us in London the other day, to take part in Kosmica and to talk to us about his project to build and launch an artists’ satellite.

You can watch his talk at October’s Kosmica.

In a mid-life crisis, says Juan, some people will buy a Lamborghini, “but I said no, I’m building a satellite”. There have been many satellites launched, but very few launched as an art piece. Juan José’s inspiration was in response also to Mexico’s drug war, which has made everyday life in Mexico very difficult – there have been over 30,000 deaths relating to the drug war. He wanted to make his own reality. The idea of future is different for different generations, he says, and for a child of the 60s, the future had hope, and space was connected to that future.

He read an article in Scientific American on how to make your own satellite, and his talk at Kosmica told us of his achievements, in less than a year, towards making a satellite, and in identifying and securing a launch site for it (he has booked a launch slot at the new Tonga spaceport). He also discussed the satellite as a “poetic experience”. He has put together the Mexican Space Collective – including artists Arcangel Constantini, Iván Puig, Cabezas de Cera, Arturo Márquez, Hugo Solis, Francisco Rivas, Marcela Armas, Gilberto Esparza, Omar Gasca, and Ariel Guzik – who are making works for the satellite. He is using the term ‘opera’ for a new hybrid. The opera will be written as an algorithm, and the satellite designed as a musical instrument to ‘play’ the opera and to interact with the composition.

You can read more about the project here.

Reunions and resistance – Critical Art Ensemble

Great to meet up with Steve Kurtz at AND festival, Liverpool, last week, recovered from his four-year ordeal of FBI intimidation.

Photo of Steve Kurtz in panel discussion smiling in black jumper and blue jeans

Photo of Steve Kurtz by Steve Reynolds

Kurtz’s story is well-known and much written about. But for those on another planet at the time: in 2004, Kurtz, of art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), together with his scientific collaborator Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, were slapped with charges of bioterrorism by the US Dept of Justice. These were triggered by CAE’s art projects critiquing commercial biotechnology and US biowarfare research, and Kurtz’s biological lab equipment and supplies, discovered because he had called 911 to report that his wife had died of heart failure.

Men in white hazard suits enter a house marked of by yellow warning tape

The FBI searching Kurtz's house

When the bioterrorism charges could not be substantiated – after several months and a pile of public money – the DOJ downgraded the crime to “mail and wire fraud”. These charges involved a minor contractual technicality over Ferrell’s sale of some harmless bacteria to Kurtz for his project “Marching Plague” (commissioned by Arts Catalyst). Under the US Patriot Act the maximum sentence for these charges was five to twenty years. The FBI continued for four years to try to find ways to reinstate the bioterrorism charges.

Critical Art Ensemble, Marching Plague, action on Isle of Lewis (2006), commissioned by The Arts Catalyst)

Ferrell eventually pleaded guilty to these smaller charges to avoid a federal trial, leaving Kurtz to forge on alone for both Team Art and Team Science. Ferrell wasn’t so much scared of the DOJ as just extremely ill. He has had non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the past 30 years, and three strokes since the charges were brought against him.

In 2008, after a long expensive legal battle, a judge finally dismissed all charges against Kurtz.

But has Kurtz really recovered, as he says? He talked at his keynote lecture at AND festival / Rewire conference about the Lacunian “big other”, and the policeman and the lawyer who now sit in his head. Critical Art Ensemble will be at Documenta next year, enfolded into the bosom of the mainstream arts world, presenting critical work that is powerful but covers subject matter that other artists do. Is CAE going to play it safe now? Has the FBI won, in some sense, by quieting their critique and dulling their actions?

What inspired me so much about CAE was their tactical invasion of specialist knowledge economies, such as biotechnology, that are controlled and commodified.

But talking to Steve, I am reassured and immensely cheered. He is a remarkable man, battered but resilient, and absolutely unbroken. Expect more mischief-making and provocations in new and unexpected knowledge domains. I will report.

Three smiling people in a dark bar

Absolutely sober Arts Catalyst / Steve Kurtz reunion at AND festival. Photo:: someone in a bar

Steve Kurtz case dismissed

Steve Kurtz working on Critical Art Ensemble’s Marching Plague, 2006, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

BUFFALO, US. Artist Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, has had the mail and wire fraud case against him dismissed by Federal Judge Richard J. Arcara.

In June 2004, Professor Kurtz was charged with mail and wire fraud stemming from an exchange of $256 worth of harmless bacteria with Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. In May 2004, FBI agents and the Joint Terrorism Task Force had raided Kurtz’s home, seizing art works and research materials (as well as the bacteria) for the Marching Plague project, which aimed to critique the history and current status of biowarfare research. Despite this and initially being suspected of being a bioterrorist, Kurtz was able to reconstruct the research and produce the film Marching Plague, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst.

The prosecution has the right to appeal this dismissal. For more information about the case, please visit:

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