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A new alchemy: Biotechnology as art

Lab & Library — Jens has just curated an interdisciplinary art-science exhibition in California that aims at overcoming mutual ignorance in our hyper-specialized society

Since the earliest anthropomorphic statues, myths of vivification or the ‘giving of life’ have surrounded artefacts made by the artist’s hand.

Today, artists who employ laboratory methods in the context of Synthetic Biology are getting particularly ‘close to life’ today: They stage microbes that possess the technical ability to make gold and clean water while playing music, grow a living brain cell sculpture entirely nourished by paper from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, create artistic biobricks, replace banana-as-we-know-it by protocells containing engineered bacteria to produce banana-as-it-could-be in an automated DIY biolab resembling a tabletop DJ turntable.

Lab and Library

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Artists have previously staged ‘artificial life’ (concerned no more with life-as-we-know-it but with life-as-it-could-be, according to pioneer Christopher Langton) through hardware and software of computers and robotics to simulate living systems. But increasingly, they are using the so-called ‘wetware’ of convergent living technologies.

I am an interdisciplinary researcher affiliated both with the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) Department of Art and Cultural Studies and the Department of Health Sciences. I have been investigating literally ‘living’ contemporary art forms dealing with Synthetic Biology, Do-it-yourself biology & biohacking, supported by the first fellowship the Novo Nordisk foundation granted in the area of ‘art and biosciences’.

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Beyond the usual realm of academic papers, as one of the major outreach projects, I have been invited by the University of California Irvine and by the director at the university’s Beall Center for Art + Technology David Familian, to curate a larger interdisciplinary exhibition entitled, precisely, WETWARE (until 7th of May), to initiate an artists in residency program at the Center of Complex Biological Sciences, and to moderate an international symposium cross-fertilizing positions of artists, biologists, lawyers and science philosophers.

‘Interdisciplinarity’ is a fashionable term that is not missing from any funding application today. But in academic practice, interdisciplinarity often evaporates like hot air once confronted with the everyday business of canonized curricula, coded publication opportunities and our colleagues’ unwillingness to leave their comfort zone. Fruitful misunderstandings also prevail when artists mistake natural scientists as mere technical service providers. Or when natural scientists see art as just a useful tool for science communication. Opportunities to create alternative outreach such as WETWARE are therefore rare – but they may point to possible epistemological strategies where the Humanities and the Natural and Medical Sciences can merge in-depth, instead of just opportunistically lurking at each other.

One of the key elements in WETWARE has been to set up specific art-science residencies, both at the University of California Irvine and in Denmark, for which funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation and the EU Synenergene project for responsible research and innovation in synthetic biology had been secured.

At UCI, British artist Anna Dumitriu was chosen to engage in artistic research in the Lab for Synthetic Evolution. Not only did she become familiar with so-called XNA research on non-canonical amino acids and produced a beaded necklace based on lab member Xiang Li’s research working with an antibody purified from the blood of an HIV positive patient. Her actual necklace both represents and physically contains the actual 21 amino acids of the antibody in the precise order – and thus stimulated lab members to come up with new alternative, and effective, amino acid structures in their own research.

…the feeding of the artificial brain follows a strict diet: the brain food consists exclusively of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit… ‘food for thought’ becomes ‘thought for food.’

Russian-Belarussian duo Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand developed a system of so-called protocells – precursors or models of cells formed by an innate, complex chemistry – that visualize the movements of phytoplankton in a biosphere as seen from space. Visually, it stages a prebiotic harbinger of phytoplankton, punctiliously irradiating the whirling climate of a hypothetical planet; conceptually, it impressively materializes the fragility of our ecosystems and biospheres at a miniature level. Domnitch and Gelfand have been selected both for the UCI and the Danish residency at Steen Rasmussen’s lab FLinT (Center for Fundamental Living Technology) at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.

Likewise, Turkish artist Orkan Telhan was invited to conduct ‘gastro-physical’ research at FLinT. He recently developed his Microbial Design Studio and Bananaworks. His practice brilliantly illustrates the current trend to transfer the open source spirit from hardware and software culture to wetware, and move from the production of artistic forms or objects to the very conception of systems, media and devices that can produce ‘alive’ art today – art, in this case, not to be experienced audio-visually, but as taste and smell: In times when the Cavendish, the most popular banana in the international market, is threatened by the Panama disease, Telhan creates transgenic bacteria that can at least reproduce Cavendish’s smell and taste in semi-living encapsulations.

Engineered bacteria are also the protagonists in Thomas Feuerstein’s biotechnological sculpture PANCREAS – wetware in the most literal sense, since the term denotes functional elements equivalent to hardware and software found in biological systems or in a person, for example the nervous system and the human mind. PANCREAS (etymologically from the Greek pánkreas, pán = “all”, kréas = “flesh”), presents itself as an artificially grown ‘brain-in-a-vat.’ Glucose, as a universal fuel of life, which all cells, especially brain cells, feed from, becomes the artistic material. PANCREAS transforms books into sugar (glucose) that feeds human brain cells. The books’ paper is shredded, soaked in water, and pressed into an artificial intestine (fermenter), in which specifically modified bacteria break down the cellulose into glucose, which is fed to the brain cells growing inside a glass tank. However, the feeding of the artificial brain follows a strict diet: the brain food consists exclusively of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit… ‘food for thought’ becomes ‘thought for food.’

Other artists, indeed, prefer not to technically modify bacteria but to stage the innate technological capacities of supposedly primitive organisms. US artist Adam Brown, in a neo-alchemist fashion, lets bacteria ‘square the circle’: His biotechnological installation The Great Work of the Metal Lover hosts extremophile bacteria that produce gold, thereby seeming to solve the alchemist riddle of the philosopher’s stone, the Magnum Opus or Great Work of the alchemists to transmute base matter into the noble metal of gold. Extremophiles play an important role in our understanding of the origins of life. Moreover, they can metabolize and filter toxic metals out of industrially polluted soils. While Humans tend to look down upon these bacteria as primitive enemies, or mere workhorses in biotechnology, Adam Brown stages them to produce that most coveted of all metals associated with everlasting longevity.

Instead of bearing longevity in mind, current cultural and educational policies seem indeed to be unfortunately very shortsighted. Such hybrid research takes time and needs long-term engagement, without promising immediate economical implementation or clear job profiles. But it fuels potential collaborations across disciplines as a key factor in the survival of an excessively hyper-specialized society we live in. Hybrid actors between the humanities and the natural sciences hopefully will have the evolutionary capacity to adapt and survive the current climate of educational policy making. If they cannot survive in Denmark, they still may flourish elsewhere, and be it in the ecologically dried-out California.

However, a resolutely interdisciplinary wetware project is currently spreading out at UCPH’s Medical Museion: Participants are currently chosen out of 155 international applications to feed into a ‘mind-blowing’ exhibition project that explores the connections between brain, gut, and the trillions of microbes that live on and in us. Recent research suggests that mental states and disorders are not just in our heads, but also in our bellies. The exhibition project has been awarded the Bikuben Foundation’s Exhibition PrizeMind the Gut.

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