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Transformism: new works by Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson, 2013

In ‘Transformism’, the Arts Catalyst’s latest exhibition which has just opened at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen reflect on our compulsion to alter and shape the materials, objects and living entities around us. They wonder at our ingenuity, and contemplate our relationships with biology and matter as they are radically transformed by human agency, whether the impulse is artistic or scientific.

Today, in our attempts to rework our living and material world to fit our beliefs of how it should be, we have powerful new tools. Molecular biology, nanoscience and engineering are converging, provoking scientists to dream up all kinds of transformed matter: vaccine-producing bananas, fluorescent cats, bacteria that excrete diesel, trees that clean up pollutants, nanorobots that can enter human cells. Science proclaims a new revolutionary age, in which we can make almost anything, if we only understand and imagine it. Yet the urge to create new forms and objects, whether driven by need, desire or simply fantastical dreams of what might be possible, is ages old. To understand where we’re headed, we should have some perspective on where we’ve come from.

Urpflanze Part 2 (detail), Melanie Jackson

Melanie Jackson’s investigations into mutability and novel forms are rooted in her awareness of the visual, sensual, historical, political and scientific aspects of materials and plants, and her interest in the intertwined role of myths and fantasy with aesthetics and technology. She is intrigued by scale, conscious that many new types of matter, such as liquid crystals, microscopic biological entities and smart materials, are rendered invisible because of scale or concealed within a hermetically sealed interface, yet they impact dramatically on our macroscopic visual and tactile environment and our dreams of magical abundance.

The Urpflanze (Part 2) is the second part of Jackson’s ongoing investigation into plant form, aesthetics and transformation that takes its lead from Goethe’s concept of an archetypal plant, the Urpflanze, from which all plant forms could be generated. Contemporary science similarly imagines the potential to grow or print any form we can imagine, by recasting physical, chemical and biological function as a substrate that can be programmed into being. Jackson’s work begins in the botanical garden and looks to the laboratory, from clay pits to the factory floor, from analogue to digital clay, from its own animated pixels to the interior of the screen in a series of moving image works and ceramic sculptures.

Kingyo Kingdom (detail), Revital Cohen, 2013

Revital Cohen’s work explores themes relating to nature, technology, and human behaviour. In particular, living creatures that are produced and used as artefacts fascinate her. Her interest in these designed animals – whether pets, farm animals, or living drug factories – is driven by what motivates and influences the breeders and scientists, and what this commodification means for our relationship with these fabricated living beings.

In Kingyo Kingdom, Cohen explores the genus of fish that have been designed for aesthetic purposes, questioning the definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What are the design criteria involved in creating living creatures? Cohen’s interest in the cultural perceptions and aesthetics of animal-as-product took her to Japan where exotic goldfish have been developed over centuries of meticulous cultivation; breeding out dorsal fins and sculpting kimono-like Ranchu fish tails. Kingyo Kingdom explores the unique culture of breeders, collectors and connoisseurs with footage from the Japanese national goldfish competition, questioning the design and commodification of this species.

Kingyo Kingdon (film still), Revital Cohen, 2013

‘Transformism’ is the latest manifestation of the Arts Catalyst’s extensive investigations into how arts practice, culture and contemporary science interpenetrate and influence one another.

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler has asserted that the divorce between the rhythms of cultural and technical evolution is symptomatic of the fact that today technics evolves more quickly than culture (1), but perhaps there is more interplay than we realise. The works in ‘Transformism’ meditate on the vibrations and circulations of our changing material world and explores our complex relationships with the things we create, in the process softening the boundaries between culture and technology.

Transformism is at the John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ, from 22 January to 9 March 2013

The Transformism exhibition guide, with an essay by Isobel Harbison, is available from the John Hansard Gallery or can be downloaded in a variety of e-formats from The Arts Catalyst website.

Notes
1. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus

 

A tale of singing worms

Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (2011). Photo: Jan Sprij

I’m just back from Leiden in the Netherlands, where the Waag Society had invited me to give a presentation at the award ceremony for the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a collaboration with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. This was the second year of the award, which can be won by artists and designers who graduated no longer than five years ago.

The jury handed out four awards of €25000 to designers and artists to work with partner scientists with whom they were matched at an earlier stage in the competition process.

The winners were Lionel Billiet (BE) who proposes to develop lichen graffiti on buildings, Susana Cámera Leret (ES) and Mike Thompson (UK) who want to explore the metabolomics of urine and develop metabolic paintings, Tiddo Bakker (NL) who will give plants a voice through measuring their activity with a tension meter, and Zack Denfeld (US), Catherine Kramer (AU) and Yashas Shetty (IN), who plan a series of recipes that imagine near and far future diets of ageing Netherlanders.

The final works of the winners of last year’s awards were exhibited upstairs at the Naturalis, Leiden’s Natural History Museum (on until 8th January ). I liked Matthijs Munnik’s ‘Microscopic Opera’, an audiovisual installation in which tiny nematodes perform an abstract opera under microscopes. Munnik developed a system to translate the movements of the c.elegans worm – a model organism often used in research labs – into sounds in real time. I found the “music” of the worms’ opera rather appealing and I enjoyed the simplicity of the concept and the effectiveness of its execution.

Arctic architecture competition: winners announced

The winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition are announced.

Three architects – Richard Carbonnier (Canada), Giuseppe Mecca (Italy), and Catherine Rannou (France) – have been selected as the joint winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition. The challenge of this international competition was to design a zero-footprint mobile research unit for use by local populations in the Arctic. The unit is intended to facilitate a diverse range of technological research opportunities, such as remote sensing, environmental monitoring, video editing and streaming, and communications systems.

The three winning entries, each awarded €1500, were selected by an expert jury from 103 submissions from architects and engineers in more than 30 countries. The competition was the first phase of a design process, the next phase of which will involve working with the winning submissions through a collaborative design effort with local community members from Nunavut, Canada. A prototype unit will be tested in the field next year in Igloolik, Nunavut, by local media workers, hunters, youth and elders of the community.

API is committed to the empowerment and sustainable development of Northern communities through the collaboration and combination of science, arts, engineering and culture. The unit aims to serve as a model for mobile research in the north, incorporating proven local expertise, sustainable resources, and high tech solutions, while promoting open source data sharing strategies and management. All required power will come from green sources.

The Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a transnational art, science, and culture work group composed of HMKV (Germany), The Arts Catalyst (UK), Projekt Atol (Slovenia), Lorna (Iceland) and C-TASC (Canada), API is the brainchild of Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, who met and worked together for the first time as crewmembers of the Makrolab in Blair Atholl, Scotland in 2002, a project produced by The Arts Catalyst.

For more information:
Download PRESS RELEASE of full announcement of the winners

Open sourcing the Arctic

Arctic Perspective Initiative field trip to Foxe Basin, Arctic Canada

I returned last week from a week in Iceland, where I was judging the architecture competition for an Arctic mobile media-centric work and living unit, and meeting with the other partners of the Arctic Perspectives Initiative (API) - HMKV, Germany, Projekt Atol, Slovenia, The Arts Catalyst, UK, C-TASC, Canada, and Lorna, Iceland.

Marko Peljhan (Projekt Atol) and Matthew Biederman (C-TASC) had made a working trip to Igloolik, Nunavuk, in the far north of Canada, during July and August, traveling with a group of Inuit elders and their families in small boats to different islands around Baffin Island and Foxe Basin, revisiting places where the elders had lived before they were moved to the settlement. The journey was being made for a film by Izuma TV, and Marko and Matthew were invited along by Paul Quassa. They reported that it was a very emotional trip for the participants. For the artists, it was a real experience of what it’s like to “live on the land”: arguments over the best routes through sea-ice, fog-bound on barren islands for days, running short of food. The artists tested communications equipment, environmental monitoring equipment and aerial photography from a UAV., which proved useful for collecting aerial images of the sea ice (pictures from the trip are below). As the artists told the story of their trip, we began to get a clear sense of what this ‘mobile media-centric unit’ might contribute to local people’s lives.

The jury selection process went well. We had a fantastic expert jury, including Johan Berte, designer of the Belgian Antarctic station, Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, architect Andreas Muller, and architecture curator Francesca Ferguson. We had received 103 entries from 30 countries. It was a little deflating at first to realise how little research many entrants had made into conditions in the Arctic. There were frequent assumptions about flat, smooth stable ice sheets (more appropriate to Antarctica) rather than the softening tundra and melting sea ice that characterises much of the Arctic today. But in the end we found three deserving prize-winners. Our next steps are to announce the winners to the international media, take the winning designs (and shortlist) back to Igloolik to consult with the people there, and then begin the design process in earnest.

The partners are planning a series of exhibitions and publications in 2010 to share the process – and the wider cultural, environmental and geopolitical context for the project – with a broad public audience. More at the Arts Catalyst‘s website and the Arctic Perspective Initiative website

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