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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.

Installation

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.

Extreme citizen science: rainforests, urban jungles and the arctic perspective …

A group of young Congalese men in a forest, one with a handheld device

Baka people from Mang-Kako geomap the sacred Moabi tree, 2007. Photo: Jerome Lewis

Last week I attended the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit with Lisa Haskel, Arts Catalyst’s resident research engineer, to catch up and connect with latest developments, and to present our Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Although the notion of the amateur scientist is ages old, the term “citizen science” is generally used for the systematic collection and analysis of data by networks of volunteers. The most familiar are perhaps volunteer distributed computing projects, such as SETI@home, ClimatePrediction.net, and CERN’s LHC@home, in which people sign up the spare processing capacity of their home computers. A recent wave of projects more creatively engages people in basic research: in Galaxy Zoo, for example, people classify images of galaxies, while the Evolution Megalab recruits volunteers to survey snail shell bands.

Day 1 of the summit was presented largely from the professional scientist’s perspective. There was a lot of rhetoric about citizen participation in science, but most discussion focused how to “harness” the power of many minds to help science, how to recruit and incentivise citizens to “generate high quality data” (the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” was disconcertingly used by one contributor).With a few exceptions, such as iSpot, an online nature community, most projects neglected the value of people’s own expertise and ideas. Surely there are other ways to involve people in science using online technologies other than just crowdsourcing or crowd computing. A few of the presenters began to raise this as an issue, Francois Taddei asking the critical question: who benefits from these projects?

A man is presenting in front of a powerpoint screen

Ngoni Munyaradzi presenting the project ‘Transcription of bushman historical text’ at the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit, 2012

The afternoon introduced citizen science projects from around the globe, some of the standard data collection model, others more engaging. I particularly liked Ngoni Munyaradzi’s project to crowd source translating notebooks and art that contain Bushman culture, and the initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute which trains local people to monitor chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania and Uganda using smartphones.

Two young Tanzanian women work on a map

Monitoring ape habitats. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute

I was very excited by Jerome Lewis’ work with indigenous people in Congo and Rwanda. In 2009, Lewis developed an icon-based interface on a hand-held device that could be used by forest-dwelling people to geotag trees important to their way of life, the mapped information being communicated to logging companies and policy holders. The method has spread like wildfire, Lewis noted, because it’s so effective, allowing peaceful communication via maps. Critically, Lewis noted, the communities themselves have to decide what the benefits are to their participation in such a project. There are no payments or gimmicks to incentivise participation.

Lewis then outlined his “Hackfest” challenge: to design a new portable device, specifically requested by local people in Congo to monitor poaching, a device that can meet specific requirements, such as accurate geo-referencing under rainforest canopy, withstanding heat and humidity, able to tolerate a week without charge, and updatability. Lewis also wants to work with hackers to create sensors that can enable long-term monitoring of changes caused by mining concessions and climate change. He articulated passionately how important it is to develop accessible analytic tools for use by local people to visualise and analyse results themselves, and that this needs to include the largely excluded: rural people, semi/non-literate people, women, and the urban poor. You can watch Lewis’s presentation here.

Lewis’ UCL collaborator Muki Haklay then launched their new Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) initiative, and outlined what they meant by extreme citizen science: firstly, everyone can participate, not just educated people; secondly, extreme citizen science moves the location of citizen science from populated, wealthy parts of the planet to everywhere, and thirdly, it transforms people’s roles in projects from just data collection and entry to shaping the problem and analysing data, participating in problem definition and the entire process of science.

A group of people help to fill a red weather balloon

Lisa helps with the PLOTS balloon

The second day of the summit combined presentations with a hands-on hackday. A greater proportion of the discourse felt more in tune with my own interests in co-creation or a bottom-up approach to citizen science. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), for example, is an activist-led US group developing low-cost DIY open source environmental and health tools to research and monitor their own environments. PLOTS demonstrated a mapping kit using a red weather balloon, plastic bottles, and a camera hacked to take infrared digital photos, to which the noise monitoring folk also attached a device.

Aerial photo over UCL with balloon sized coloured dots

Data gathered by noise monitoring app on PLOTS balloon

Lisa Haskel and I presented the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API), which follows a similar open source community-centred ethos. The API comprises an international group
of individuals and non-profit organisations, including Arts Catalyst. Founded by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, its goal is to promote the creation of open source communications, sensing and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. API is a collaboration with the community of Igloolik and other small settlements in Canada’s High Arctic.

A group of Inuit people gather around a portable device

Igloolik community members study aerial images, API Foxe Basin field trip. Photo: API

As Dr Michael Bravo writes in ‘Arctic Geopolitics & Autonomy‘, the API project has developed as a collaborative artistic and technological response to Igloolik’s own considerable arts and media history. Igloolik hosts a permanent population of only 1500 people, but it has for centuries been a crossroads and meeting place for Inuit peoples, traditionally known for regrouping, resting, eating, socialising. Today, it is the home of IsumaTV, an independent interactive network of Inuit and indigenous filmmakers and media workers, and ArtCirq, a community-based circus and multimedia company. Peljhan came to Igloolik with a history of having explored how autonomy can be performed through technological experiments that have traveled to different extreme environments.

One of API’s evolving projects is to build mobile, habitable living and working units to enable people to live on the land away from settlements (as many Inuit like to do), all the while remaining connected through communications technologies such as live video streaming and data connections. The units will be powered solely with renewable energy sources. Through these units a number of activities can be pursued: scientific monitoring, filmmaking and editing, sustainability hunting, environmental assessment, and technology research.

Inuit man using electronic telescope

Herve Paniaq searches for holes in the pack ice while navigating in Foxe Basin, August 2009. Photo: API

I presented the history, social context and collaborative approach of API, and Lisa Haskel discussed the sensor network that API is developing for use by local people for a variety of their own purposes, and the data gathering interface that she is working on. You can watch our presentation here and read more about Arctic Perspective Initiative on the Arts Catalyst’s website and the project’s own site.

Lisa stayed on for the practical workshops on Day 3, which I didn’t attend, but my mind was buzzing with possibilities and connections.

Two Inuit and two other men in a makeshift blue tent

Makeshift medialab, Foxe Basin field trip, August 2009. Photo: API

Science diplomacy 2: From the High Arctic to central Africa

Day 2 at the Royal Society’s meeting on science democracy.

Finally, the issue of interdisciplinarity was raised by Stephen Hillier from Edinburgh University who sees multidisciplinarity projects as a priority, reflecting the current popularity of cross-department initiatives in HEIs. Director of the British Council, Martin Davidson, didn’t address interdisciplinarity explicitly, but one assumes that links exist across the BC’s arts and science activities. A question from the floor prompted a confession by Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences that it was extremely difficult to get scientists and social scientists to work together. How much more difficult then to achieve international collaboration between scientists and cultural professionals. No mention of this, of course, but I accept we’re a pretty lonely voice here, although some people in emerging technology sectors, such as nanotech and synthetic biology, are beginning to recognise the potential of incorporating thinking about design, imagination, culture and public engagement with philosophy, ethics and social dynamics as new areas of research and development emerge.

In the afternoon we had two cracking sessions covering specific examples of science diplomacy. ‘Environmental security: Poles apart?’ had a strong line up, including Howard Alper from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, and Diana Wallis MEP, who concluded her presentation by observing that our transnational structures of governance and democracy are simply not up to the challenge of climate change in the Arctic. A little liveliness flared in the slightly pissy exchange between one of the Canadian delegation and Wallis, as he pressed her for a ‘definition’ of the Arctic (Canada is really not happy about the EU wanting a seat at the Arctic table). Fascinating and thorough, the session nuclear diplomacy included presentations by two impressive women deeply immersed in arms control and nonproliferation, diplomat Anne Harrington and scientist Arian Pregenzer. Ambassador Tibor Toth gave a riveting talk on the international network of stations set up around the globe to monitor for nuclear detonations, and gave an insight into the unfolding story of detecting theNorth Korean blast last week.

The day ended with a presentation from Rwanda’s Science Minister, Romain Murenzi, explaining Rwanda’s science policy in biodiversity, energy, climate change and telecoms. He mentioned One Laptop One Child, an idea pioneered by Nicolas Negroponte, as a central policy of his government. Such a window onto the world for the children of Rwanda could help to accelerate the cultural transformation that Rwanda is so desperately trying to affect in a region with a turbulent history of vicious colonialism and bitter civil war. This is a region where the free exchange of knowledge and ideas would surely make a huge contribution to an open, tolerant society, and where finding solutions to social, economic, political and environmental problems through international interdisciplinary collaborations may make a major contribution to achieving peace in the region.

From biohacking to biotech porn

Andy Gracie, Small Work for Robot and Insects, 2002-3

Last week, I was at the Waag Society in Amsterdam for its EcoArt lecture event, with Andy GracieBrandon Ballengee and Boo Chapple. The lectures were held in a historic anatomy theatre, where autopsies used to take place in front of a public audience, in the extraordinary building the Waag Society occupies, a former weighing station in the heart of Amsterdam.

The delightful Boo Chapple modeled her wearable carbon-offsetting outfit and discussed other personal waste recycling schemes for the environmentally anxious. Andy Gracie explained some of the ideas behind his fascinating ecology-robot systems, including biohacking (which perhaps more aptly describes parasitic activity than the current biopunk usage), artificial ecologies and biosemiotics. He described how his installations – digital artworks that invite technological sytems to dialogue with natural living systems or phenomena – provoke interlinked emergent behaviours in both robots and organisms. Brandon Ballengee, whose book and exhibition of his recent work in the UK will be launched at the Royal Institution in the spring, discussed theories on declining and deformed amphibians, his work as an artist studying these and the alternative theory that he and his scientific collaborator have come up with (a joint scientific paper is being published).

The EcoArts event was organised as part of a residency at Waag by the astonishingly inventive Adam Zaretsky, an artist who can stretch the boundaries of taste in a profession characterized by transgressors (rendering a recent media arts panel almost speechless by starting his presentation with a biotech porn video), whose ability to produce a staggering and apparently endless flow of ideas is second to none. Adam will be speaking at our Eye of the Storm conference at Tate Britain this month.

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