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Posts tagged ‘citizen science’

The performance (and performativity) of science

B&W photo. Man dressed as giant butterfly

Jan Fabre, A Consilience, 2000. With Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology, Natural History Museum

The text of short talk that I gave at DASER in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, as part of a themed event on science and performance (you can also watch it here – and see the other speakers’ talks):

Whilst the Arts Catalyst’s work is primarily situated in the visual arts, we see our work – the artistic outputs of our work – as ‘experiences’, in which the medium itself is not the main criteria. I would like to look at three projects that the Arts Catalyst has commissioned, which centre on or incorporate performance as an artform or tactic, and to discuss them through the lens of ‘performativity’, a term which has increasingly entered the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades.

Previously used primarily within theatre and the performing arts, the term ‘performance’ – or the notion of ‘performativity’ is now often employed as a principle to understand human behaviour. The notion that we ‘perform’ our role in society has roots in the 1940s and 50s in the writings of scholars such as Erving Goffman, who in his highly influential book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), emphasized the link between social life and performance. In the 1990s, Judith Butler famously theorized gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. Scholars interested in the notion of performativity stress the active, social construction of reality, as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs.

The concept of performativity in the social sciences sprang from its use by the language philosopher J L Austin, who argued against the predominant view in philosophy at the time (1970s): that the chief business of sentences was to state facts. In particular, he described a type of sentence, ‘performative utterances’, which perform a certain kind of action (such as ‘I name this ship …’). This concept of ‘performativity’ has been picked up, developed and extended by theorists across many disciplines. It has broadly come to be used to describe theories, models or activities that affect and are affected by their actions, rather than being objective observations or truths.

In the study of science, until recently, experiment – science’s interaction with the world – was viewed as something secondary to theory and technology was barely theorised at all. But a new generation of historians and philosophers have pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. In the 1990s, Andrew Pickering argued that studies of science should go beyond science-as-knowledge to include the material, social and temporal dimensions of science [1]. Rather than seeing scientists as ‘disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations’, he suggests that we should start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency.

Two artists, one dressed as a beetle the other as a fly, converse

Jan Fabre & Ilya Kabakov, Eeen Ontmoeting/A Meeting

From the earliest days of the Arts Catalyst, I have been interested in commissioning art, in any medium, that reflects this ‘performative turn’, exploring how scientists shape society, culture and the world and are also shaped by them, rather than art that simply represents scientific discoveries or technologies.

The first project I want to speak about, Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, we were inspired to commission when my colleague at the time Rob La Frenais interviewed the Belgian artist Jan Fabre and returned to the UK to show me a film that Fabre had made with the famous Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, in which Fabre represents the world of the beetle, and Kabakov the realm of the fly.

We invited Fabre to undertake a residency at the Natural History Museum in London, a working scientific research institution as well as, of course, a world-famous public museum. He proposed to interview senior entomologists, each to be costumed in the guise of the insect of the scientist’s focus of study. Fabre himself was an amateur entomologist. To our surprise, the scientists not only agreed to participate, but there was such enthusiasm that we practically had to hold casting sessions.

In the end, five scientists, including the Keeper of Entomology Professor Dick Vane-Wright and the Deputy Keeper Dr Rory Post, took part in a series of conversations held in the museum’s extraordinary backstage collections. As well as discussing their scientific interest in the subject, each was happy to ‘perform’ a number of physical actions of the insects of their field of study. Through this, the film – shown in the museum as a two-screen installation – played on the notion of how the insects and their behaviours act on the humans who study them, as much as being purely the objects of scientific curiosity.

Extracts from Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, 2000, featuring Professor Dick Vane-Wright

In my second example, we brokered and facilitated a collaboration between the French dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois and the multidisciplinary scientific Biodynamics Group at Imperial College London. They worked together from 2000 and 2005, studying control and movement of the body in weightlessness, including a number of zero gravity flights with the European Space Agency and the Russian Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, that we organised.

This work led to installations, performances, films and scientific papers, as well as a published scientific paper and a whole new area of scientific research for the Biodynamics Group.

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (video extract), 2000

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (performance), 2003

In the spirit Pickering’s introduction of a ‘performative image of science, which aimed to rebalance our understanding of science away from an obsession with pure knowledge and towards recognising science’s material powers, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – in their book Laboratory Life – suggest that the aim of science is not to provide facts or representation about nature but rather to ‘perform’ it [2]. Among their cast of actors are the new products of science, such as genetically modified organisms.

In the US group Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory performance GenTerra (2002), performed as part of Arts Catalyst’s CleanRooms exhibition, audience members could grow and own a sample of transgenic bacteria and, after an intensive learning experience, make their own decision on the ‘release’ of transgenic organisms into the environment.

Since the 1970s, spectacularly rapid developments in the biological sciences have become a source of concern as well as excitement. Many scientists warn of the dangers of commercial pressures to push forward with biotechnology, a technique that contains many unknowns and many defects, leading to real and possible dangers to our health and to the ecosystem.

Man in white coat shows petri dishes of bacteria on release device to young boy

Critical Art Ensemble, GenTerra, 2003

Critical Art Ensemble’s work from 1993 to around 2006 sought to expose misinformation about biotechnology that came from such sources as market directives and science fiction. As few people have direct experience of working with biotechnology, the subject can seem abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. A key Critical Art Ensemble tactic therefore was to bring this science out of the lab and stage it in the public domain – giving people direct experience of common scientific processes and reliable information on a one to one basis.

The artists’ projects described above give present a few brief examples of how tactics of ‘performing science’ can focus attention on science’s ‘performativity’: on science as a series of actions that affect the world.

(This talk drew on an essay I wrote about Critical Art Ensemble’s work for the book: ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ in Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies and Rachel Zerihan, Published by Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (Princeton University Press, 1986).

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Viaduct


Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen -Belare 2008-2009

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.


Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)


Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

2014-07-27 13.50.46

Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIY biology residency at Arts Catalyst

Shoestring Lab workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Shoestring Biotech: build your own lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Biology is a growing global network of individuals that aims to promote citizen science and access to biotechnology. Participants may call themselves biohackers, biotweakers, bioartists (or simply artists), citizen scientists or amateur/independent biologists, depending on their approach and background. Interests of DIY (do-it-yourself) biologists include building their own low cost lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment.

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Manchester’s MadLab (Asa Calow and Rachael Turner) was invited to be The Arts Catalyst’s first “institution in residence”. They took up their residency with us for two hectic weeks of Lab Easy in March. The residency offered both a professional development opportunity for MadLab, and the chance to run a series of workshops to engage a wider London public in the methodologies and ideas of DIY biotechnology. Ambitiously, Lab Easy held almost daily public workshops: from culturing bioluminescent bacteria to DNA extraction, cellular gastronomy to genetic modification. There was also a family day, an evening DIYBio salon and a peripatetic market foodlab in Deptford Market.

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Gjino Sutic's live mechatronic heart

Gjino Sutic’s live mechatronic heart

The residency attracted an extraordinary international gathering of artists, biohackers, designers and scientists, many of whom helped to devise and run the workshops. Not a day went by when someone from another DIYBio space across the globe turned up with a rucksack and unpacked various experiments. They included Dr Mark Dusseiller of Hackteria and Biotehna, Gjino Šutić from Zagreb, Ellen Jorgensen from GenSpace New York, Cathal Garvey from Cork, Thomas Landrain from La Paillasse Paris, Brian Degger from of Maker Space Newcastle, Kristijan Tkalec from Biotehna Llubljana, and Martin Malthe Borch from Copenhagen. MadLab and collaborators filled the Arts Catalyst space with wonderful conversation and strange experiments – as well as piles of petri dishes, boxes of pipettes, biotech kits, bits of electronics, soldering irons, trays of soil, jars of pond water, live fish, dead squid, bits of lego, a live biomechatronic heart, and in one corner a plastic cupboard area marked ‘Do Not Lick’, containing the outputs – I believe – from the self-cloning bacteria workshop (AKA genetic modification for beginners).

Bioluminescence, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

The Arts Catalyst’s involvement with amateur biology largely stems from its collaborations with Critical Art Ensemble, SymbioticA, and other artists and art groups since the early 2000s. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a US art collective of tactical media practitioners who appropriated scientific knowledge and practices with the aim of bringing biotech into the public domain for critical examination, a tactic they called “contestational biology”. Arts Catalyst presented CAE’s GenTerra in London and Oldham, and collaborated on Marching Plague, projects which contributed to CAE member Steve Kurtz’s 4-year hounding by the FBI on unfounded suspicions of bioterrorism – In partnership with SymbioticA, a biological arts centre from Western Australia, we have run a number of ‘biotech art’ workshops, introducing artists and creative practitioners to hands-on experiences and critical and ethical discussion around biotechnology practices, including the BioArt Workshop in 2005  and Synthesis workshop in 2011. We have also worked extensively with the ecological artist Brandon Ballengee, whose practice incorporates primary biological research, largely into amphibians, and whose interests include the effective role that public volunteers (citizen scientists) can play in amphibian conservation efforts. We are interested in both the critical interrogation that artists can bring to advanced biology, as well as their playful, experimental and participatory approaches to art and research into living systems.

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Coincidentally Claire Pentecost, an artist and a long-term collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble, who was centrally involved in campaigning against the FBI’s case against Steve Kurtz, was London during the residency researching a new project on soil science, and called in to visit. It was a fascinating meeting of two generations of practitioners involved in DIY Bio and a moment of realisation of how the Kurtz case altered the amateur biology landscape at least in the US. Whereas, in 2004, FBI agents invaded Kurtz’s house in hazmat suits, arrested him and saddled him with mail fraud charges that took him four years to clear, in 2012 the FBI invited and flew 60 or so of the most prominent members of the DIYBio movement – from across the US, Europe and Asia – to a 3-day FBI organized conference in California. How times change.

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

At the DIYBio Salon, Claire asked about the politics and critical stance of the new generation of DIYBio practitioners as represented at Lab Easy. Ellen Jorgensen from Genspace felt that DIY Bio was a movement of individuals with some unifying principles – freedom of expression, freedom of speech – but a spectrum of politics: some saw a DIY biology lab as a political statement, while others just want to do some science; some wanted to push boundaries, while others wished to operate within the regulations of established science. Cathal Garvey (a trained geneticist with a Class 1 licensed lab in his spare bedroom) spoke out passionately against patenting: “Most of you are not aware that you do not own your own DNA”; and Marc Dusseiller (nanoscientist and co-founder of Hackteria) spoke of a gradual movement towards a world without patents, as more people and companies, particularly in the developing world, are becoming involved. He felt that DIY Biology plays a role in a cultural shift towards openness: part of a pattern of movements including open democracy, open access to publications, open data, and open science.

More pics below …

PS. Interesting blog post (in Danish) about LabEasy from one of the collaborators, Martin Malthe Borch.


Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Bioeletronics, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioelectronics, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

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,, 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

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