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Posts tagged ‘art’

Graveyard of Lost Species: a monument for a changing estuary

Boat with engraved letter on its hull on a marsh.

Graveyard of Lost Species, 2016. Photo: Simon Fowler

A few weeks ago, Arts Catalyst launched the Graveyard of Lost Species, a public monument by artists YoHa (Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji) and Critical Art Ensemble in partnership with Arts Catalyst.

Graveyard of Lost Species is an outcome from an ambitious 3-year collaborative inquiry with people of Leigh-on-Sea and Southend on the Thames Estuary. Created from a Thames bawley fishing boat, rescued from the estuary mud by the partners, the names of lost species gathered through research with local people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend, including fishermen, amateur ecologists, divers, walkers, artists, sailors and others, have been laser cut onto its hull and decks. These lost species include not just wildlife and fauna but also – recognising the inter-connections of ecology, industry, society and culture – traditional industries and occupations that have declined or disappeared, as well as objects, words and phrases associated with these. The artwork is dedicated to the people of Leigh and Southend-on-Sea.

The trigger for the collaborative project (its overall title being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone) was YoHa artist Graham Harwood’s observations of the vast industrial infrastructures being constructed along the Thames estuary, where he lives in Leigh-on-Sea, their impact on local people, traditional industries and the estuary’s ecology, and the lack of local voices in these processes.

Traditional marine based industries (such as fishing, cockling and boat building) have for centuries provided employment for communities along the estuary. However, this heritage is rapidly declining. The government and large corporations have devised new schemes for the area, including the London Gateway, the largest deepwater port in the UK, which was under construction when we began the project. Such rapidly changing situations and intense economic interests in the area greatly concern people in local communities, but they feel they have had little or no say. Harwood, Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble) and I, drawing on their artistic practices and my curatorial interest in developing collaborative inquiries that combine art and citizen science, decided to initiate a new project. We wanted to explore whether, by using art as a critical and investigatory tool and working with a growing group of local people, we might be able to make a difference to how people think about the estuary and how it might survive the pressures that face it.

Interior of boat with carved words visible

Graveyard of Lost Species (interior).

From 2013, we have led a set of enquiries with people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend to gather local knowledge of and expertise about what is being lost or is disappearing and what changes are taking places in the area. These began with consultation workshop to ask local people what their concerns were in respect to the new wave of industrialisation of the estuary and the impact on local culture and estuarine ecology. Much of the discussion focused on local concerns about the impact of the super port dredging activity on fish stocks, diversity and the cockle beds, and potential impact of the port’s activity on estuary wildlife, including migrating birds. Another area of discussion was the nature reserve of Two Tree Island, where many local people walk their dogs and forage for blackberries, which is built on a former landfill site that has no records of what was dumped there (as there were no regulations in force at the time).

Two main strands for our inquiry emerged. One was to uncover and highlight local knowledge about the changing ecology, society and industry of the Thames estuary by collecting stories of lost and declining species, and then to create an appropriate public monument to Leigh’s past and future. Kurtz asks: “How do you make a monument that, rather than creating a smooth ideological space in which all people are expected to feel and believe in the same way, instead accounts for difference and allows for the contradictions and conflict of history, that lets all the different voices speak out? It might be a community but there is not unity of story – there are vastly indifferent interpretations of what’s going on.” The artists’ answer was to create an ‘anti-monument’, one that would come apart, like the memories it marked, over time, and return back into the mud.

A second strand of inquiry was to investigate Two Tree Island to try to build up a picture of what might lie under the nature reserve and how toxic it might be, through speaking with people who worked there and by running citizen science workshops, and to develop creative responses to the relationship between people, soil, water and what grows in a polluted environment.

Boat on marsh

Graveyard of Lost Species in situ. Photo: Steve Barnes.

During 2014, with little funding confirmed, the team decided to run some public activities and workshops for local people to get things going, raise awareness of the project and attract participants and contributors. We set up an event at Leigh on Sea Marine Festival at which YoHa and Claudia Lastra with artists Andy Freeman and Fran Gallardo invited visitors to “eat, small and taste the Thames estuary”: tasting estuary vapours through e-cigs, smelling distilled oils from local fauna, and eating delicacies made from foraged and prepared foods from Two Tree Island. Alongside this, Freeman presented several proposed citizen science and monitoring initiatives. Following this event, we offered a series of free public exploratory workshops focused on Two Tree Island. These included a mud walk led by local amateur biologist Paul Huxster, studying eelgrass and cordgrass spatial fluctuations across the tidelands, a digital mapping workshop led by Freeman, introducing participants to a range of citizen science tools and techniques, and a wild eating and foraging workshop led by YoHa and Gallardo, guiding participants through the potential hazards of eating wild herbs, plants and fruits on this former landfill site.

Man sniffing something in the hand of smiling woman

Wrecked team at the Leigh Maritime Festival, 2014

With some funding secured from Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust, activities and investigations were able to unfold in a more structured way in 2015. We invited Critical Art Ensemble to the UK for a month-long residency. Two local artists – Warren Harper and Stuart Bowditch – joined the team as researchers, conducting research with local people, connecting stories and examples of the ‘species’ that once flourished in the Estuary and are now disappearing. Harwood identified a local wreck – the ‘Souvenir’, a 40ft 12-ton Thames bawley grounded on the estuary mudflats. Over the summer, Harwood and Stuart Mchardy cleaned and reconfigured the boat. They sailed it ashore, siting it for its preparation and engraving in a prominent public setting by the shore on Belton Way, the main thoroughfare between Leigh station and the old town, with a large noticeboard outlining the nature of the project and the monument to lost species. The Souvenir attracted the attention of hundreds of interested passers-by, many of whom stopped to share their memories and stories with the artists and researchers.

Gallardo, YoHa, Freeman and Arts Catalyst, supported by the expertise of environmental chemist and food scientist Mark Scrimshaw, led the Two Tree inquiry. We organised a series of public events involving local foods, their source, preparation and consumption, to explore environmental change. Alongside these tastings, citizen science workshops further investigated the traces of waste disposal on Two Tree Island.

This intertwining of contemporary art practice, expert scientific knowledge, citizen science techniques and various forms of local situated knowledge has co-produced, and continues to generate, a significant new knowledge archive about the estuary, as well as generating a public conversation around the many changes to the ecology and community of Leigh on Sea. We are collecting the knowledge archive on a website –, which includes transcripts of interviews, photographs and short films.

This collective knowledge is now also taking physical and visual form, giving voice to the contributors and giving back to the community, through the public monument Graveyard to Lost Species and a soon-to-be published ecopolitical book of recipes from the local area, co-authored by Gallardo and Claudia Lastra. As the project moves forward, we are looking at other ways in which local views can be creatively expressed and heard in the governance of the estuary.

This summer, with planning permission granted from Southend Council and Natural England for its siting and installation, the Graveyard to Lost Species was sailed back onto Leigh Marshes to become part of the local landscape. With the names of many lost species carved into the boat’s hull, decks and interior, the artwork is visible to the public from the shore, and publicly accessible by foot at low tide, so that visitors can read the text on and inside the boat. It will gradually decay over many years back into the mud.

I hope that you will feel inspired to visit the monument, which is sited a short walk from the road as you enter Two Tree Island coming from Leigh-on-Sea station. Ordnance survey grid reference is TQ 82738 85478.

Further outputs, writing and discourse will continue to unfold over the coming year.


The active role for culture in a divided nation

Poster showing coastline. Text: No man is an island. No country by itself.

Wolfgang Tillman poster (detail), 2016

A surprising number of people have said to me lately that they don’t know any Leave supporters at all. So I think I should say that Leave voters include members of my family, neighbours, and friends I have met through my non-work related interests.

I’m trying to understand why they voted Leave (which are not uniform, although – yes – immigration is a common theme), even though I disagree passionately with the decision they took. Many people feel ignored and disempowered by the political establishment and were delighted at the chance to say “fuck you” to their recommendations. Others blame different aspects of the EU for their woes – from immigration to the decline of the fishing industry to perceived threats to their culture to a vague fear of “faceless” unaccountable bureaucrats. Others, yes, I think were misled by the lies and propaganda sent out by ambitious, mendacious politicians and promoted by tabloids owned by an anti-EU tycoon. But, as we know, the Remain campaign’s response to those misrepresentations was too late and rather feeble.

In any case, how could complex arguments for our membership of the European Union and the ramifications of withdrawing be explained and conveyed through a campaign motivated by power play and presented as a stark IN/OUT choice? It took me quite a lot of research to understand, even partially, the various ramifications of the decision I was about to take; time which most people don’t have.

Of course, I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the vote. I am desperately worried for all our EU immigrants and visitors – as well as, frankly, anyone with a non-white skin – who appear now to be being openly insulted by loons who have misunderstood this vote as some kind of validation of their racist isolationist ideologies. I am scared for the protection of our environment, deeply concerned for my son, given the work done by the EU to give rights to disabled people, worried about my daughter’s future, and frightened of an extreme right mandate emerging from this. Culturally, I feel European as well as British, English, etc, etc. Selfishly, I don’t want to lose my freedom to travel and work in Europe. But those of us in the Remain ‘camp’ need to understand that we have more in common than we realise with many Leave voters. Particularly those frustrated people in communities who feel left behind by economic growth, their industries decimated by Thatcher, their community spirit and personal wellbeing shat on by so-called “austerity” policies, (sparked by banking idiocy, in which they played no part, and a political ideology that they probably didn’t vote for) and their voices totally ignored. Remainers state their bafflement at communities who appear to have scorned the EU’s investment in their communities. But handouts from the EU don’t rebuild community spirit and pride.

As for the demographic analysis of who was IN and who was OUT: it’s helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I fall into a number of OUT demographics. I am not a young person and I live in a small town that voted to leave (“Little England”). Conversely, Leave voters include many whom we assume would vote Remain: immigrants – both EU and non-EU -, people with degrees, academics, socialists, artists, scientists, young people, disabled people, those who care about the environment, Londoners, Scottish people, and people in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Leave camp also includes people with whom I would find very little in common, and those with whom I would find it pretty impossible to have a fact-based tolerant conversation, but I’m just saying there are many with whom we can talk.

I believe that leaving the EU and the single market is bad news for us all. We are all victims of a political and media campaign of over-simplification, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lies, sparked by an internal party political struggle. Handing power to those who don’t believe in the welfare state, nor in rebuilding and investing in communities left out in the cold by the UK’s economic growth, and who intend to dismantle the NHS, is not something that many Leave voters intended.

I am not being an apologist for the bigotry, racism and violence that emerged during the campaigning and since the vote. It is disgusting and shocking. Yet I hope we may prevent further division and bolster the tolerance and openness that still exists across our society. Somehow, we need to find a new political conversation that is more informed, kinder, more inclusive and nuanced, before we head down this road of no turning back and find ourselves in a more divided world than the one we already live in. This conversation is going to be desperately needed, whether we proceed with Article 50 and leave the EU, or (and perhaps even more so) if the desperate attempts to circumvent it are successful or the whole thing is fudged.

How does art and culture play a role here?

I’m not sure that we will get this new conversation, this lead, this honesty, from politicians. With one or two honorable exceptions, they are still – 3 days after the referendum – hiding in their sixth form common rooms, squabbling about who is going to be head prefect. We can, of course, keep lobbying them, hoping they will eventually get their shit together. And as for the EU leaders baying for our exit before the dust has even settled on this momentous (and advisory) referendum, how unhelpful and divisive can you get? Shame on them as representatives of a united Europe.

But party politics and policy, in any case, change back and forth with the prevailing wind. Our role in the arts is to affect and change culture. This is more permanent. We need to make work within the communities that are not in the major cities and who are not the usual audiences. We need to make work and open conversations around complex issues such as migration, race, climate and environmental change, the commons, how to nurture health and a sense of well being, and disability rights. We need to work with scientists, other experts and communities to do this: we need informed conversations. But even more than this, we need to create new visions of the tolerant, progressive, inclusive society we could be. We need to seed hope. Art, as ever, has a role to play.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

– John Donne


Critical art and outer space: examining space as a global commons

Illuminated globe outline with two people visible behind

Joanna Griffin & Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration

The ‘Critical Issues in Outer Space’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ huge Annual Meeting in San Francisco last week was scheduled in the daunting 8am slot on the final day. Nonetheless, a good audience gathered, perhaps indicating the rising interest in the topic of outer space within geography.

Julie Klinger, convener of the session, gave a stimulating presentation on the new challenges to international outer space treaties (that designate outer space as a common heritage of all humankind) from state and private sector interests in off-Earth mining *, particularly looking at mining interests on the Moon.

Danny Bednar’s paper considered the complex landscape of actors and interests involved in today’s outer space activities – from use of orbits, exploration of the solar system, to proposed colonization and exploitation. He proposed that concepts of ‘governance’ from the social sciences, which emphasize the shift in the processes of politics away from purely state actors to numerous private interests, can make a useful contribution to understanding current space issues.

My paper – which you can listen to below – discussed some of the critical strategies employed by curators and artists to engage with the political and spatial nature of outer space as a global commons, including Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab, Joanna Griffin’s Satellite Stories and, in collaboration with Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration, my own work with the European Space Agency and International Astronautical Federation and the ITACCUS committee, and Arts Catalyst’s exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’. I argued that critical artistic and curatorial practices can contribute to our understanding of outer space as a dynamic and socially constructed space, and help to shape the social imaginary of the region around our planet as an important global commons.

(apologies for poor audio quality)

The session included by a Skype presentation by James Ormrod, presenting the book that he has co-edited with Peter Dickens ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space’, a strong collection of texts from many disciplines, showing the compelling contribution being made to our understanding of outer space issues by the social sciences, arts and humanities. I’ll try to review this book in a later blog post, but in the meantime I’m thoroughly enjoying read the essays in it. I should add the proviso that art is represented in the book by a chapter that I have written, in which I chart the construction of a ‘space imaginary’ through the visual arts.

* Four months ago, the US Senate passed the Space Act of 2015, which grants U.S. citizens or corporations the right to legally claim non-living natural resources — including water and minerals — mined in outer space. This law directly conflicts with international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the US is a signatory, states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Legally, the US cannot give rights to claim off-planet resources to which it does not have ownership.


Acronyms, bat caves and sentient architecture: February update from Washington DC


Dense mass of bats within a passageway in Carlsbad Cavern using thermal imaging camera (c) Nickolay Hristov / Louise Allen

So here I am, back in Washington DC on Super Tuesday (writing this the day before I post), observing a racist litigious pathological liar, serial bankrupt and (it almost goes without saying) climate change denier head towards the Republican nomination. Anyhoo, I’d better get this blog updated on my February DC art-science activities before House of Cards Season 4 starts on Friday, because that’s going to wipe out this weekend.

February started strategically with a meeting of SEAD (The Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design) Working Group hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The group shared and discussed trends that have emerged in the last few years since the network’s White Papers initiative in 2012, the outcome of which was published by MIT Press as ‘Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation‘. I was asked to present to the meeting on the international context for art, science and technology – a wide brief for a fifteen minute presentation! Luis Girao from the EU was also present for part of the day and spoke about the EU’s STARTS initiative.  The meeting follows the recent National Academies launch of the planning phase of a project to examine the value of incorporating curricula and experiences in the arts and humanities into college and university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and workforce training programs, as well as integrating more STEM into the academic programs of students who are majoring in the humanities, arts and related disciplines.

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

From strategy to academia, I dived straight into the massive College Art Association annual conference, this year in Washington DC, which included a panel discussion on ‘Cultivating an Ecology of Networked Knowledge & Innovation thru Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts & Design’, moderated by Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina. Malina noted that the current enthusiasm for “STEAM” – the introduction of art into science and technology teaching – is driven and shaped by the desire to attract and retain more scientists and engineers, rather than for having more science/technology-informed artists. I would say this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Panel member Nettrice Gaskins gave an inspiring presentation on the art/science programme she runs at the Boston Arts Academy, and noted that she had found it easier to get artists to engage with science, than to get scientists to engage with the arts. There was also a great talk by biologist Nickolay Hristov about his work at the Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in North Carolina, where he studies bats and develops new techniques for filming and visualising bats.

In the overwhelming number of sessions, panels and talks at the CAA conference, one of my standouts was the ‘Ecologies of Creative Activism’ session, organised by the New Media Caucus, where I found much potential fodder for the Arte Util archive, including the work of ecoarttech – a delightful project on goat keeping and Desert Art Lab‘s community cactus gardens.

Amazing to catch up with some wonderful artists from different parts of the world converged on DC for the CAA meet, including Jane Prophet, Marta de Menezes and Armin Medosch. Fantastic conversations.

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

During the month, I also enjoyed the latest edition of DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous), again at the National Academy of Science, which had some cracking talks, including Richard Foster’s illuminating reflections on creativity, a subject which usually makes me nod off, and architect Philip Beesley’s talk on his fascination with non-repeating geometries and living architecture: his idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and responsive to nature, rather than rigidly repelling natural forces. Video of the talks here.

Beesley’s Sentient Chamber,  created by a group of architects, engineers, scientists, and artists in his Living Architecture Systems Group at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was installed upstairs from the DASER salon as a site-specific interactive work in the National Academy of Sciences’ spectacular building on Constitution Avenue. This experimental and delightful work incorporates new lightweight structures, interactive robotics, and ideas from synthetic biology to pursue an architecture as close to being alive. In form, the artwork is a suspended translucent artificial forest that reacts to your presence with changing light and murmuring sounds.

Both the exhibition and the DASER series are organized by CPNAS – the National Academy of Sciences’ Cultural Program – which is led and championed by curator JD Talasek, who attracts my huge admiration for the quality, breadth and boldness of the contemporary art program that he has introduced and sustained at the NAS for several years.

Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in London

Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, London. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, London. Photo: Alec Steadman

I’ve been back in the UK for the opening of Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology in King’s Cross London, an exciting initiative for Arts Catalyst after more than twenty years pioneering art that engages with science and technology in society. In those two decades, we have commissioned over 13o artists’ projects and many exhibitions, presented in partnership with galleries, museums and other spaces across the UK and internationally. So what has driven us to set up our own Centre now?

At Arts Catalyst we remain committed, since our very first projects in 1994, to enabling and promoting artists who are investigating topics relating to contemporary science and technology and its interplay with society and the environment. Our mission is to commission and exhibit artworks that challenge our contemporary science and technology saturated society to reflect on its present shape and consider the future. We want to prompt artists, scientists, participants and audiences to ask fresh questions, explore new ideas and perspectives, and co-produce alternative solutions.

Underpinning our work is a belief that the most compelling challenges facing society, including stewardship of the planet’s natural resources, healthcare for all, future energy choices and managing emerging technologies (such as human gene editing), need transdisciplinary approaches and the voices of many diverse stakeholders. We see artistic projects as catalysts to serendipitous ideas and new directions for research, and for opening dynamic public conversations about the challenges of our changing world.


In recent years, we have keenly felt the need to have a physical space where artists and scientists can meet to experiment and generate new projects and ideas, and where we can enable more frequent direct interactions between artists, experts and audiences. We also want to use the Centre as a site for consolidation and reflection on our work further afield. Over the past decade, our investigative interests have often engaged with the ‘global commons’: those transnational realms such as outer space, the polar regions, the atmosphere, the oceans, and Earth’s biodiversity. Now we are keen to investigate the ‘commons’ – the idea that certain cultural and natural resources should be accessible to all members of a society, held in common and not owned privately – closer to home, in London and the UK.

Our opening project presents some of these themes. ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practice in Art and Science’ explores art as an investigative social process and experience, and reflects on science in this light too. The exhibition is built around two key elements: our ongoing art and citizen science project, led by artists YoHa and Critical Art Ensemble, with communities on the Thames Estuary – Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, alongside a presentation of the Arte Util Archive, a project initiated by artist Tania Bruguera, that chronicles the history of art as a useful tool or tactic for changing how we act in society.

Wrecked on the Inter-tidal Zone - installation shot. Photo: Alec Steadman

Wrecked on the Inter-tidal Zone – installation shot. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

The exhibition activated by talks, workshops, and resident researchers, exploring the contention that art – and science – should work collectively within society to be more useful. Contributing artists and scientists include Alistair Hudson, Co-Director of the Arte Util Association, Graham Harwood, artist from YoHa, Kit Jones from the Centre for Alternative Technology, Dimitri Launder, ‘the artist-gardener’, Dr Sylvia Nagl, transdisciplinary complexity scientist, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead from the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, design-activist Lisa Ma, artist Fernando Garcia-Dory, Sue Hull, Co-Director of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, hacker and electronic engineer Paolo Cavagnolo, artist and technologist Andy Freeman, and artist researcher Fran Gallardo.

Lisa Ma Workshop in Notes from the Field. Photo: Alec Steadman

Lisa Ma Workshop in Notes from the Field. Photo: Alec Steadman

During the exhibition, we will be contributing to the Arte Util Archive, proposing projects particularly relating to the archive sections ‘Science’, ‘Technology’ and ‘Environment’, both from Arts Catalyst’s back catalogue and further afield. Projects we have proposed for inclusion in the archive so far include Biosphere 2, Makrolab, East of Eden, Arctic Perspective Initiative, Open Sailing, and Aerocene.’

The criteria of Arte Util state that initiatives should:
1- Propose new uses for art within society
2- Challenge the field within which it operates (civic, legislative, pedagogical, scientific, economic, etc)
3- Be ‘timing specific’, responding to current urgencies
4- Be implemented and function in real situations
5- Replace authors with initiators and spectators with users
6- Have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users
7- Pursue sustainability whilst adapting to changing conditions
8- Re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation

We invite you to drop in, view the exhibition, chat to resident researchers, join talks and workshops, and propose projects for the archive yourself.

Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science is on until 12 March at Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, 74-76 Cromer Street. London WC1H 8DR. On Thursday 18 February, artist Fernando Garcia-Dory presents a discussion and workshop on his Bionic Sheep project, part of the Arte Util Archive. You can also propose projects for the Arte Util Archive directly on their website.

Arte Util Archive, Arts Catalyst Centre installation. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

International Summit on Human Gene Editing: missing voices, divergent views … What is the role of the artist?

Film still, Gattaca

Film still, Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol

A hugely significant meeting in Washington DC last week barely made it onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Yet its subject could hardly be more important or more contentious. Scientists have recently stumbled on a cheap, straightforward and precise way to edit DNA in cells. Should it be used to create genetically modified children?

Scientists have been tinkering with genomes for decades, but it could be said that genetic engineering has been far more thoroughly explored in film, fiction and art than in real life, where the tools have been limited. Now there’s a technology that brings much closer the possibility of genetically modifying human embryos, to cure genetic diseases or, as David Baltimore the biologist and Nobel prize winner who chaired the summit noted: “to alter human heredity”.

Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Max Plank Institute, who jointly discovered the CRISPR-Cas9 system (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The International Summit on Human Gene Editing, which took place over three days, was organised by the US National Academies of Science and Medicine, the Royal Society in London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and attended by over 500 participants from more than 20 countries. It was sparked by the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 system (explained in this short video) by researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emannuelle Charpentier. CRISPR-Cas9 has made it possible to edit the DNA of any species with incredible precision, relatively cheaply and efficiently. Laboratories are already using the technology to modify genetic material in cells and breed laboratory animals for research related to disease. But Chinese researchers recently used CRISPR–Cas9 to modify a gene in human embryos, triggering this gathering of scientists, doctors, legal experts, ethicists, industrialists and other stakeholders (and a sprinkling of artists) to discuss whether international guidelines or a moratorium on research is advisable.

Eugenics and Health Exhibit

Setting a context, Daniel Kevles gave a shocking and fascinating history of eugenics in the early part of the 20th century, which included theories that traits such as ‘pauperism’, ‘mental retardation’ and ‘criminality’ were passed down in families. He noted that, in the States at that time, the drive for eugenics had a racial component: at the time, there was a social fear of “the menace of immigrants” from southern Europe. Kelves drew some obvious parallels to the contemporary situation, noting potential dangers from the history of eugenics.

There were a number of scientific panels about the potential of this technology for overcoming genetic diseases, and a great deal of discussion around ethics and international governance, particularly focusing on human germline genome modification (genetic changes that can be passed onto future generations). The breadth and diversity of views on governance was represented, at one extreme, by philosopher and bioethicist John Harris (whose position can be deduced from the title of his recent book ‘Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People’) who argued for a gung-ho carte blanche on all human germline gene editing research, and at the other, several calls for a moratorium (and even a total ban) on editing the human germline genome, either because of the moral status of the embryo, or – more commonly – grave concerns about ethical and safety implications, by speakers including the Editor of Nature, Phillip Campbell.

Stelarc, artist who explores bodily enhancements with robotic and bio- technologies

Social science scholars and ethicists raised concerns that altering human genomes could create inequality and discrimination, and sociologist Ruha Benjamin pointed out that the line between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement was not clear, and that, quoting disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare, “although fixing a genetic variation that causes a rare disease might seem an obvious act of beneficence, such intervention assumes that there is robust consensus about the boundaries between normal variation and disability”, which – she noted – there is not. Just as the diversity of disciplines demanded seeing things from other perspectives, the diversity of cultures also led to challenges, with Chinese representatives struggling with concepts such as the rights of embryos and those deaf people who consider deafness a culture not a disability.

Social scientist Charis Thompson noted several important missing voices and debates in the summit, including health disparities, commercialisation, cross-border care and medical tourism, interests of other species, and citizen use of these technologies such as bioart and biohacking. Missing voices, she said, included disability perspectives, race perspectives, and gender and queer bioethics. Thompson’s view was that there should be a temporary ban on research to allow these missing conversations to take place.

David Baltimore, biologist and Nobel Laureate, presents the final summary at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing

David Baltimore, biologist and Nobel Laureate, presents the final summary at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing

In the final Q&A, the irrepressible bioartist Adam Zaretsky made it to the audience microphone. I couldn’t quite follow his point (it had to do with humans already being altered under the aegis of health) , but he made enough impact to nudge David Baltimore’s final summation.

At the end of the day, Baltimore read a statement written by the organising committee, that endorsed basic research into human gene editing, whilst noting the many important and worrying issues with germline editing (genetic alterations in gametes or embryos that would be passed on as part of the human gene pool). However, it fell short of calling for a moratorium or ban, merely stating that clinical use would be “irresponsible” until safety issues were resolved and there was a “broad societal consensus”. It called for an ongoing international forum.

As he read this last part of the statement, Baltimore inserted one word that was not in the published announcement: “We therefore call upon the national academies that co-hosted the summit … to take the lead in creating an ongoing international forum to discuss potential clinical uses of gene editing; help inform decisions by national policymakers and others; formulate recommendations and guidelines; and promote coordination among nations. The forum should be inclusive among nations and engage a wide range of perspectives and expertise – including from biomedical scientists, social scientists, ethicists, health care providers, patients and their families, people with disabilities, policymakers, regulators, research funders, faith leaders, public interest advocates, industry representatives, ARTISTS [emphasised and seemingly adlibbed, to audience laughter], and members of the general public.”

If the notion of artists engaging with these issues was taken lightly, paradoxically there was also some alarm at the idea of bioartists and biohackers accessing CRISPR-Cas9 technology, a seeming contradiction which I have come across time and again in the attitude of experts towards artists who are engaging with advanced, highly regulated or emerging technologies (whether nuclear, space, medical or genetic): the dismissal of art as a frivolous practice set alongside fear of its transgressive power and public reach.

The summit showed the complexity and depth of voices and conversations that need to be brought into this vital societal debate, and there is clearly a role for the skills of the critically engaged artist.

And although this summit had a specific focus on human gene editing, it is important that possible nonhuman applications of CRISPR-Cas9 should not be overlooked either by critical artists or by regulators. In a world in which humankind’s actions are destroying the biodiversity of the planet, should we commodify and alter what we have left? Should we use this technology for de-extinction of species we have lost? How does this technology change our responsibilities towards other species as well as the human race?

Questions of how artists and cultural institutions can best engage with biotechnology and biomedicine are being explored in the ongoing programme Trust Me, I’m an Artist, in which the author’s organisation The Arts Catalyst is a partner, together with Waag Society, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Ciant, Kapelica Gallery, Medical Museion, Capsula and Leonardo/Olats.

Relevant blog posts:
Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIYBio residency at Arts Catalyst
Proposal: an arts/science ethics advisory panel
From biohacking to biotech porn
The role of the arts in biopolicy-making

Also read:
Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society
Critical Art Ensemble’s biotechnology critiques projects
Science Gallery’s Human+ exhibition, exploring humanity’s technologically enhanced future
When stem cell science and performance art collide: artist Stelarc

Genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9
Video of highlights of the Synthesis: art and synthetic biology workshop


Cooking up interdisciplinarity (with added artist)


Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Discussions about the future of science and technology have increasingly considered how interdisciplinary working might contribute to science’s discoveries and technology’s innovations. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was launched in the US in 2003, a program designed to “stimulate new modes of inquiry and break down conceptual and institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research”.

The central tool of NAKFI is an annual themed “think-tank” style conference, attended by around 100 participants selected from an international open call. Participants work in interdisciplinary groups to try to address urgent scientific or societal challenges. Afterwards, they can apply for seed grants to enable further pursuit of their ideas.

Previous NAKFI conferences have brought people together from science, engineering and medicine. For the first time in the 2015 conference, the academies decided to include artists and designers. The intention was explore how bringing together arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can help to stimulate innovation, as well as how such collaborations might encourage public and academic discourse around critical societal, scientific and environmental issues.

Silhouette of man in front of installation

Ruth West et al., Atlas in Silico, installed at NAKFI 2015. An interactive art installation featuring the entire first release of 17.4 million metagenomics sequences from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and founder-director of Le Laboratoire, an art/science innovation space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked to chair the 2015 NAKFI steering committee and invited me as a member. This role involved helping to select participants from the open call, generating ‘seed ideas’, and mentoring some of the groups during the conference. I was impressed by the openness of the committee to the possible forms and impact that projects resulting from the conference might take. Most members were scientists or technologists, but had appreciation of the arts from different perspectives.

So does NAKFI work, as an initiator for innovative projects, and as a contribution to breaking down institutional and systemic barriers to interdisciplinary research? NAKFI has funded many interesting looking projects through the process in the past, so perhaps that ticks the first part of the question. Whether it has had a long-term impact on interdisciplinary research in the US can probably only be answered by a longitudinal and attitudinal study of participants and their institutions.

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions as yet from the 2015 conference, including the effectiveness of adding artists into the mix, partly because it’s early days in the development of the proposed projects. The ideas and content of the discussions are embargoed until Spring 2016, however I think I’m allowed to make some general observations.

As with earlier conferences, the goal was to come up with concrete project proposals. However, the type of impact of the project could be cultural/artistic, as well as educational, social or scientific. Participants were allocated to ‘seed idea’ groups, whose composition was largely led by participant preference, which – whilst apparently a good idea – meant that one group I was mentoring contained no artists, while a second held no scientists. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I felt both groups could have benefited from the absent expertise and perspective, although they were both interdisciplinary and came up with exciting initial proposals.

One realisation I had, observing the conference unfold and speaking with people who had attended previous conferences, was that the group dynamics this year were far more animated than in previous years. One person remarked that back in 2004 there had “nearly been a stand-up fight” between two group participants, but that was a far cry from the impassioned debates, emotional arguments, group upheavals and reformations that characterised 2015’s conference. One organiser suggested it was because the artists were more “desperate” for funding, but I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the tendency (even tradition) for artists to offer the dissident voice, to question consensus and to seek alternative ways of doing things. It’s important too to emphasise that it was not only artists reassigning themselves to other groups, and that some artists stayed in groups where they were uncomfortable, but I like to think that these tendencies of artists I mention can actually benefit such an experimental process.

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

In accepting the committee role, I was motivated by my interest in exploring the role of contemporary art in society, and particularly its potential inter-relationships with science. While interdisciplinary research and education are enduring interests for me, I’ve been less involved with the innovation agenda, but it seems to me that engaging the interest of policymakers and those in industry can help to strengthen interdisciplinary research involving artists. In the USA, the agenda of ‘STEM to STEAM’ (transforming research, innovation and education policy by placing art and design at the centre of science, technology, engineering and medicine) is being discussed in the National Academies of Science, major universities, and even the US House of Representatives. So I was interested in the NAKFI conference as a testing ground to explore the potential role/s for art within innovation.

And then too I have an underlying urge, which I know I share with many artists, to initiate projects that may have clear practical benefits for people. This tendency in art is something that, in an art historical context, the Arts Catalyst will be exploring at our new centre in London in its opening exhibition: ‘Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’. Perhaps the role of art is to experience and understand the problem, rather than to seek a solution. But this act of problematising can itself inflame a desire to transform those situations.

The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) aims to catalyse interdisciplinary research at the intersection of science, engineering and medicine. You can sign up for NAKFI email alerts and apply to attend their next conference.


Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn

Blue skies at Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn


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