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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 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz. 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.

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

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