<< preface

this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today.

>> search this blog

2008-07-24

>> Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue

http://www.cibercultura.org.br/videos/cybernetic%20serendipity.pdf

2008-07-18

>> Charles Babbage Institute

archive of the Charles Babbage Institue:
http://www.cbi.umn.edu/collections/archmss.html

>> David Moises

>> David Moises, Severin Hoffmann, "Turing Train Terminal", 2004

from the artists' website: http://www.monochrom.at/turingtrainterminal/abstract_eng.htm

"Scale trains have existed for almost as long as their archetypes, which were developed for the purposes of traffic,

transportation and trade. Economy and commerce have also been the underlying motivations for the invention of

computers, calculators and artificial brains.


Allowing ourselves to fleetingly believe in an earlier historical miscalculation that "... Computers in the future may have

only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1 1/2 tons." (Popular Mechanics, March 1949), we decided to put some

hundred tons of scaled steel together in order to build these calculating protozoa. The operating system of this

reckoning worm is the ultimate universal calculator, the Turingmachine, and is able to calculate whatever is capable of

being calculated. One just would have to continue building to see where this may lead..."




"There are three types of points in the layout.

- The distributors are orange;
- The lazy points look the same but appear in different colors;
- And the most common point is the sprung point, which is drawn with a clear preference for the route of the train.

In order to prep the layout for input, all distributors and lazy points have to be set to 0. This is done, by pressing the RESET-Button. Now, the tape is set to 000.

To set the input to the tape, press the red SET-Buttons. So to set up the input 1+1 on the three-block layout, you need to send the train to the outer two SET lines: 1 0 1. Then press SET1, leave SET2 untouched and press SET3. These Buttons control the three points on the yellow ringline. Afterwards the green RUN-Button lets the train first write the INPUT-value into each read/write head. It then gets directed into the SET1 read/writehead and comes back out on that line. This has effectively set the digit stored in that block on the "tape" to 1. It passes the SET2 point, moves into SET 3 and sets this value to 1. Now the Input 1 0 1 is set - visible through the I/0-lamps.

The next station is the START point – Once the locomotive enters the system from that point the calculating starts. Now watch the train as it leaves again and finds a rest at the start point. The altered state, visible on the lamps, is the result. In this example 1 1 0, actually means 2 in the notation of this apparatus.

CALCULATING PROCEDURE

To set up the train set for a calculation it needs to be re-set. By pressing the yellow RESET Button all points get set to the value "0". This is visible through the three 1/0-lightsigns.

Now one can re-set the machine, by pressing the red SET-Buttons. After this the
locomotive is ready to calculate and it gets started with the green RUN-Button.

First the requested value gets written into the read/write-head (pink and orange) and then the train enters the system at the start-rail and gets directed through the system as the points have been pre-set and eventually leaves after a while. The altered state is the result.

The following operations can be calculated:


Input Output

0+0 000 000 = 0
0+1 010 100 = 1
1+0 100 100 = 1
1+1 101 110 = 2
0+2 011 110 = 2
2+0 110 110 = 2


background info: http://www.monochrom.at/turingtrainterminal/Chalcraft.pdf

>> interview with J. Presper Eckert

from: http://www.cbi.umn.edu/oh/display.phtml?id=120

Read this document on Scribd: pdf

>> Stelarc

go and visit his site: http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/arcx.html

absent body

We mostly operate as Absent Bodies. THAT'S BECAUSE A BODY IS DESIGNED TO INTERFACE WITH ITS ENVIRONMENT - its sensors are open-to-the-world (compared to its inadequate internal surveillance system). The body's mobility and navigation in the world require this outward orientation. Its absence is augmented by the fact that the body functions habitually and automatically. AWARENESS IS OFTEN THAT WHICH OCCURS WHEN THE BODY MALFUNCTIONS.

Reinforced by Cartesian convention, personal convenience and neurolo gical design, people operate merely as minds, immersed in metaphysical fogs. The sociologist P.L. Berger made the distinction between "having a body" and "being a body". AS SUPPOSED FREE AGENTS, THE CAPABILITIES OF BEING A BODY ARE CONSTRAINED BY HAVING A BODY.

Our actions and ideas are essentially determined by our physiology. We are at the limits of philosophy, not only because we are at the limits of language. Philosophy is fundamentally grounded in our physiology . . .


obsolete body

It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment.

The body is neither a very efficient nor very durable structure. It malfunctions often and fatigues quickly; its performance is determined by its age. It is susceptible to disease and is doomed to a certain and early death. Its survival parameters are very slim - it can survive only weeks without food, days without water and minutes without oxygen.

The body's LACK OF MODULAR DESIGN and its overactive immunological system make it difficult to replace malfunctioning organs. It might be the height of technological folly to consider the body obsolete in form and function, yet it might be the height of human realisations. For it is only when the body becomes aware of its present position that it can map its post-evolutionary strategies.

It is no longer a matter of perpetuating the human species by REPRODUCTION, but of enhancing male-female intercourse by human-machine interface. THE BODY IS OBSOLETE. We are at the end of philosophy and human physiology. Human thought recedes into the human past.



redesigning the body

It is no longer meaningful to see the body as a site for the psyche or the social, but rather as a structure to be monitored and modified - the body not as a subject but as an object - NOT AN OBJECT OF DESIRE BUT AS AN OBJECT FOR DESIGNING.

The psycho-social period was characterised by the body circling itself, orbiting itself, illuminating and inspecting itself by physical prodding and metaphysical contemplation.

But having confronted its image of obsolescence, the body is traumatised to split from the realm of subjectivity and consider the necessity of re-examining and possibly redesigning its very structure. ALTERING THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE BODY RESULTS IN ADJUSTING AND EXTENDING ITS AWARENESS OF THE WORLD.

As an object, the body can be amplified and accelerated, attaining planetary escape velocity. It becomes a post-evolutionary projectile, departing and diversifying in form and function.


the hum of the hybrid

Technology transforms the nature of human existence, equalising the physical potential of bodies and standardising human sexuality. With fertilisation now occuring outside the womb and the possibility of nurturing the foetus in an artificial support system, THERE WILL TECHNICALLY BE NO BIRTH. And if the body can be redesigned in a modular fashion to facilitate the replacement of malfunctioning parts, then TECHNICALLY THERE WOULD BE NO REASON FOR DEATH - given the accessibility of replacements.

Death does not authenticate existence. It is an out-moded evolutionary strategy. The body need no longer be repaired, but could simply have parts replaced. Extending life no longer means "existing" but rather "being operational". Bodies need not age or deteriorate; they would not run down nor even fatigue; they would stall then start - possessing both the potential for renewal and reactivation.

In the extended space-time of extraterrestrial environments, THE BODY MUST BECOME IMMORTAL TO ADAPT. Utopian dreams become post-evolutionary imperatives. THIS IS NO MERE FAUSTIAN OPTION NOR SHOULD THERE BE ANY FRANKENSTEINIAN FEAR IN TAMPERING WITH THE BODY.


the anaesthesised body

The importance of technology is not simply in the pure power it generates but in the realm of abstraction it produces through its operational speed and its development of extended sense systems.

Technology pacifies the body and the world, and disconnects the body from many of its functions. DISTRAUGHT AND DISCONNECTED, THE BODY CAN ONLY RESORT TO INTERFACE AND SYMBIOSIS.

The body may not yet surrender its autonomy but certainly its mobility. The body plugged into a machine network needs to be pacified. In fact, to function in the future and to truly achieve a hybrid symbiosis the body will need to be increasingly anaesthetised.


the shedding of the skin

Off the Earth, the body's complexity, softness and wetness would be difficult to sustain. The strategy should be to HOLLOW, HARDEN and DEHYDRATE the body to make it more durable and less vulnerable.

The present organ-isation of the body is unnecessary. The solution to modifying the body is not to be found in its internal structure, but lies simply on its surface. THE SOLUTION IS NO MORE THAN SKIN DEEP.

The significant event in our evolutionary history was a change in the mode of locomotion. Future developments will occur with a change of skin. If we could engineer a SYNTHETIC SKIN which could absorb oxygen directly through its pores and could efficiently convert light into chemical nutrients, we could radically redesign the body, eliminating many of its redundant systems and malfunctioning organs - minimising toxin build-up in its chemistry.

THE HOLLOW BODY WOULD BE A BETTER HOST FOR TECHNOLOGICAL COMPONENTS.


high fidelity illusion

With teleoperation systems, it is possible to project human presence and perform physical actions in remote and extraterrestrial locations. A single operator could direct a colony of robots in different locations simultaneously, or scattered human experts might collectively control a particular surrogate robot.

Teleoperation systems would have to be more than hand-eye mechanisms. They would have to create kinesthetic feel, providing the sense of orientation, motion and body tension. Robots would have to be semi-autonomous, capable of "intelligent disobedience". With Teleautomation (Conway/Voz/Walker), forward simulation - with time and precision clutches - assists in overcoming the problem of real time-delays, allowing prediction to improve performance.

The experience of Telepresence (Minsky) becomes the high-fidelity illusion of Tele-existence (Tachi). ELECTRONIC SPACE BECOMES A MEDIUM OF ACTION RATHER THAN INFORMATION. It meshes the body with its machines in ever-increasing complexity and interactiveness. The body's form is enhanced and its functions are extended. ITS PERFORMANCE PARAMETERS ARE NEITHER LIMITED BY ITS PHYSIOLOGY NOR BY THE LOCAL SPACE IT OCCUPIES.

Electronic space restructures the body's architecture and multiplies its operational possibilities. The body performs by coupling the kinesthetic action of muscles and machine with the kinematic pure motion of the images it generates.


phantom body

Technologies are becoming better life-support systems for our images than for our bodies. IMAGES ARE IMMORTAL, BODIES ARE EPHEMERAL.

The body finds it increasingly difficult to match the expectations of its images. In the realm of multiplying and morphing images, the physical body's impotence is apparent. THE BODY NOW PERFORMS BEST AS ITS IMAGE.

Virtual Reality technology allows a transgression of boundaries between male/female, human/machine, time/space. The self becomes situated beyond the skin.

This is not a disconnecting or a splitting, but an EXTRUDING OF AWARENESS. What it means to be human is no longer the state of being immersed in genetic memory but rather in being reconfigured in the electromagnetic field of the circuit - IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGE.





fractal flesh

The self-similarity found throughout nature - the small-scale infinitely reflecting the large-scale - could be absorbed into the human/machine symbiosis, in terms of both form and function. Granted the evolutionary importance of the human hand, for example, a post-evolutionary strategy might see each of the fingers having its own hand, vastly amplifying and fine-tuning human dexterity.

Alternatively, PYRAMID-PERSONAGES, able to operate simultaneously through macro to micro scales, could experience space/time realms and relations perceptually veiled from our present physiological perspective. THE RECURSIVE BEING WOULD MORE EFFECTIVELY EXTRUDE ITS EXISTENCE THROUGH A TELEMATIC SCALING OF THE SENSES.

Consider

  • a body that is directly wired into the Net - a body that stirs and is startled by the whispers and twitches of REMOTE AGENTS - other physical bodies in other places. AGENTS NOT AS VIRAL CODES BUT AS DISPLACED PRESENCES

  • a body whose authenticity is grounded not in its individuality, but rather in the MULTIPLICITY of of remote agents that it hosts

  • a body whose PHYSICALITY IS SPLIT - voltage-in to induce involuntary movements (from its net-connected computer muscle stimulation system) and voltage-out to actuate peripheral devices and to respond to remote transmissions

  • a body whose pathology is not having a split personality, but whose advantage is having a split physiology (from psycho-social to cyber-systemic) . . a body that can collaborate and perform tasks REMOTELY INITIATED AND LOCALLY COMPLETED - at the same time, in the one physiology . . or a body whose left side is remotely guided and whose right side intuitively improvises

  • a body that must perform in a technological realm where intention and action collapse, with no time to ponder - A BODY ACTING WITHOUT EXPECTATION, producing MOVEMENTS WITHOUT MEMORY. Can a body act with neither recall nor desire ? Can a body act without emotion ?

  • a body of FRACTAL FLESH, whose agency can be electronically extruded on the Net - from one body to another body elsewhere. Not as a kind of remote-control cyber-Voodoo, but as the DISPLACING OF MOTIONS from one Net-connected physical body to another. Such a body's awareness would be neither "all-here" nor "all-there". Awareness and action would slide and shift between bodies. Agency could be shared in the one body or in a multiplicity of bodies in an ELECTRONIC SPACE OF DISTRIBUTED INTELLIGENCE

  • a body with TELEMATIC SCALING OF THE SENSES, perceiving and operating beyond its biology and the local space and human scale it now occupies. Its VIRTUAL VISION augmenting and intensifying it retinal flicker

  • a body remapped and reconfigured - not in genetic memory but rather in electronic circuitry. A body needing to function not with the affirmation of its historical and cultural recall but in a ZONE OF ERASURE - a body no longer merely an individual but a body that needs to act beyond its human metabolism and circadian rhythms

  • a body directly wired into the Net, that moves not because of its internal stimulation, not because of its being remotely guided by another body (or a cluster of remote agents), BUT A BODY THAT QUIVERS AND OSCILLATES TO THE EBB AND FLOW OF NET ACTIVITY. A body that manifests the statistical and collective data flow, as a socio-neural compression algorithm. A body whose proprioception responds not to its internal nervous system but to the external stimulation of globally connected computer networks

>> symbioticA

from: http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/research

"SymbioticA is a research facility dedicated to artistic inquiry into new knowledge and technology with a strong interest in the life sciences. SymbioticA has resident researchers and students undertaking projects that explore and develop the links between the arts and a range of research areas such as neuroscience, plant biology, anatomy and human biology, tissue engineering, physics, bio-engineering, museology, anthropology, molecular biology, microscopy, animal welfare and ethics.

Having access to scientific laboratories and tools, SymbioticA is in a unique position to offer these resources for artistic research. Therefore, SymbioticA encourages and favours research projects that involve hands on development of technical skills and the use of scientific tools.

The research in SymbioticA is speculative in nature. SymbioticA strives to support non utilitarian, curiosity based, and philosophically motivated research.

In broad term the research ranges from identifying and developing new materials and subjects for artistic manipulation, researching strategies and implications of presenting living art in different contexts, and developing technologies and protocols as artistic tool kits. Some of the projects in SymbioticA are also very relevant to scientific research and the complexity of art and science collaborations is intensively explored.



Areas of continued research

Art and Biology
In broad terms the main focus of research in SymbioticA is to do with the interaction between the life science, biotechnology, society and the arts. As an area of growing interest, SymbioticA is well positioned as one of the major international centres researching and developing art and biology projects. Beside the support for hands on art and biology projects, SymbioticA has already hosted philosophers, anthropologists and social scientists for short and long term research projects into art and biology.

Art and Agriculture/ Art and Ecology
As a subset of art and biology and through the strong connections with the Faculty of Agriculture and natural Sciences, SymbioticA is interested in research in the somewhat contradictory areas of agriculture and ecology.

Bioethics
As part of the engagement with debate over the implications of developments in the life sciences with culture and society; SymbioticA encourage research into the ethics of manipulating living systems for utilitarian, speculative and seemingly frivolous ends. Art can act as an important catalyst for ethical exploration. In addition some of the research in SymbioticA attempts to approach bioethics form a secular non-anthropocentric perspective.

Neuroscience
SymbioticA has a long involvement with neuroscience as it is one of the main research areas of SymbioticA’s scientific director Prof. Stuart Bunt. Projects that deal with neuroscience and robotics are of particular interest. See www.fishandchips.uwa.edu.au

Tissue Engineering
SymbioticA have built a reputation as the leading laboratory that investigates the in vitro growth and manipulation of living tissue in three dimensions. The work of The Tissue Culture & Art Project, and many other subsequent projects, guided the developments of protocols and specific techniques of tissue engineering.

Bioreactor
The development of a life sustaining device for tissue engineered art is an area of investigation that requires expertise in diverse knowledge pools from biology, through engineering and fluid dynamics to art and display strategies. Artists in SymbioticA and scientists from the School of Anatomy and Human Biology have been researching the development of an “artistic” bioreactor for the last five years.


History_________________________________________________________________
SymbioticA was established in 2000 by cell biologist Professor Miranda Grounds, neuroscientist Professor Stuart Bunt and artist Oron Catts. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A) had been working as artists/researchers in residence in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology and the Lions Eye Institute since 1996. The shared vision of Grounds, Bunt and Catts for a permanent space for artists to engage with science in various capacities led to the building of the artists’ studio/lab on the second floor of the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia.

Funding for the space was provided by the Lotteries Foundation of WA and The University of Western Australia

School of Anatomy and Human Biology and History with Artists______
The School of Anatomy and Human Biology has a long tradition of working with artists, with the departmental corridors lined with art and scientific images. Hans Arkeveld, sculptor and painter, has been working with the department for the last three decades. Other artists have come and gone on an ad hoc basis, but although many observed and gained inspiration there, it was not until Catts and Zurr entered the laboratories and used the tools of scientific research to produce their art work that the potential of a space such as SymbioticA was conceived.




Winners of the 2007 inaugural Golden Nica for Hybrid Arts in the Prix Ars Electronica

SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning and critique of life sciences. SymbioticA is the first research laboratory of its kind, in that it enables artists to engage in wet biology practices in a biological science department.
SymbioticA sets out to provide a situation where interdisciplinary research and other knowledge and concept generating activities can take place. It provides an opportunity for researchers to pursue curiosity-based explorations free of the demands and constraints associated with the current culture of scientific research while still complying with regulations. SymbioticA also offers a new means of artistic inquiry, one in which artists actively use the tools and technologies of science, not just to comment about them, but also to explore their possibilities.

>> Eduardo Kac, "GFP Bunny", 2000

http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html

"My transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. "GFP Bunny" was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France. Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere [1], is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

WELCOME, ALBA

I will never forget the moment when I first held her in my arms, in Jouy-en-Josas, France, on April 29, 2000. My apprehensive anticipation was replaced by joy and excitement. Alba -- the name given her by my wife, my daughter, and I -- was lovable and affectionate and an absolute delight to play with. As I cradled her, she playfully tucked her head between my body and my left arm, finding at last a comfortable position to rest and enjoy my gentle strokes. She immediately awoke in me a strong and urgent sense of responsibility for her well-being.


Alba is undoubtedly a very special animal, but I want to be clear that her formal and genetic uniqueness are but one component of the "GFP Bunny" artwork. The "GFP Bunny" project is a complex social event that starts with the creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature (i.e., "chimerical" in the sense of a cultural tradition of imaginary animals, not in the scientific connotation of an organism in which there is a mixture of cells in the body) and that also includes at its core: 1) ongoing dialogue between professionals of several disciplines (art, science, philosophy, law, communications, literature, social sciences) and the public on cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering; 2) contestation of the alleged supremacy of DNA in life creation in favor of a more complex understanding of the intertwined relationship between genetics, organism, and environment; 3) extension of the concepts of biodiversity and evolution to incorporate precise work at the genomic level; 4) interspecies communication between humans and a transgenic mammal; 5) integration and presentation of "GFP Bunny" in a social and interactive context; 6) examination of the notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness; 7) consideration of a non-semiotic notion of communication as the sharing of genetic material across traditional species barriers; 8) public respect and appreciation for the emotional and cognitive life of transgenic animals; 9) expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to incorporate life invention.

GLOW IN THE FAMILY

"Alba", the green fluorescent bunny, is an albino rabbit. This means that, since she has no skin pigment, under ordinary environmental conditions she is completely white with pink eyes. Alba is not green all the time. She only glows when illuminated with the correct light. When (and only when) illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation at 488 nm), she glows with a bright green light (maximum emission at 509 nm). She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version (i.e., a synthetic mutation) of the original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells (including human cells) than the original jellyfish gene [2].

The first phase of the "GFP Bunny" project was completed in February 2000 with the birth of "Alba" in Jouy-en-Josas, France. This was accomplished with the invaluable assistance of zoosystemician Louis Bec [3] and scientists Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet [4]. Alba's name was chosen by consensus between my wife Ruth, my daughter Miriam, and myself. The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my family and living with us from this point on.

FROM DOMESTICATION TO SELECTIVE BREEDING

The human-rabbit association can be traced back to the biblical era, as exemplified by passages in the books Leviticus (Lev. 11:5) and Deuteronomy (De. 14:7), which make reference to saphan, the Hebrew word for rabbit. Phoenicians seafarers discovered rabbits on the Iberian Peninsula around 1100 BC and, thinking that these were Hyraxes (also called Rock Dassies), called the land "i-shepan-im" (land of the Hyraxes). Since the Iberian Peninsula is north of Africa, relative geographic position suggests that another Punic derivation comes from sphan, "north". As the Romans adapted "i-shepan-im" to Latin, the word Hispania was created -- one of the etymological origins of Spain. In his book III the Roman geographer Strabo (ca. 64 BC - AD 21) called Spain "the land of rabbits". Later on, the Roman emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba (5 BC - AD 69), whose reign was short-lived (68-69 AD), issued a coin on which Spain is represented with a rabbit at her feet. Although semi-domestication started in the Roman period, in this initial phase rabbits were kept in large walled pens and were allowed to breed freely.

Humans started to play a direct role in the evolution of the rabbit from the sixth to the tenth centuries AD, when monks in southern France domesticated and bred rabbits under more restricted conditions [5]. Originally from the region comprised by southwestern Europe and North Africa, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is the ancestor of all domestic breeds. Since the sixth century, because of its sociable nature the rabbit increasingly has become integrated into human families as a domestic companion. Such human-induced selective breeding created the morphological diversity found in rabbits today. The first records describing a variety of fur colors and sizes distinct from wild breeds date from the sixteenth century. It was not until the eighteenth century that selective breeding resulted in the Angora rabbit, which has a uniquely thick and beautiful wool coat. The process of domestication carried out since the sixth century, coupled with ever increasing worldwide migration and trade, resulted in many new breeds and in the introduction of rabbits into new environments different from their place of origin. While there are well over 100 known breeds of rabbit around the world, "recognized" pedigree breeds vary from one country to another. For example, the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) "recognizes" 45 breeds in the U.S.A., with more under development.

In addition to selective breeding, naturally occurring genetic variations also contributed to morphological diversity. The albino rabbit, for example, is a natural (recessive) mutation which in the wild has minimal chances of survival (due to lack of proper pigmentation for camouflage and keener vision to spot prey). However, because it has been bred by humans, it can be found widely today in healthy populations. The human preservation of albino animals is also connected to ancient cultural traditions: almost every Native American tribe believed that albino animals had particular spiritual significance and had strict rules to protect them [6].

FROM BREEDING TO TRANSGENIC ART

"GFP Bunny" is a transgenic artwork and not a breeding project. The differences between the two include the principles that guide the work, the procedures employed, and the main objectives. Traditionally, animal breeding has been a multi-generational selection process that has sought to create pure breeds with standard form and structure, often to serve a specific performative function. As it moved from rural milieus to urban environments, breeding de-emphasized selection for behavioral attributes but continued to be driven by a notion of aesthetics anchored on visual traits and on morphological principles. Transgenic art, by contrast, offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context.

As a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but on the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy. This integrated process is important because it places genetic engineering in a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated. In other words, biotechnology, the private realm of family life, and the social domain of public opinion are discussed in relation to one another. Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d'art, either inert or imbued with vitality. Such an approach would suggest a conflation of the operational sphere of life sciences with a traditional aesthetics that privileges formal concerns, material stability, and hermeneutical isolation. Integrating the lessons of dialogical philosophy [7] and cognitive ethology [8], transgenic art must promote awareness of and respect for the spiritual (mental) life of the transgenic animal. The word "aesthetics" in the context of transgenic art must be understood to mean that creation, socialization, and domestic integration are a single process. The question is not to make the bunny meet specific requirements or whims, but to enjoy her company as an individual (all bunnies are different), appreciated for her own intrinsic virtues, in dialogical interaction.

One very important aspect of "GFP Bunny" is that Alba, like any other rabbit, is sociable and in need of interaction through communication signals, voice, and physical contact. As I see it, there is no reason to believe that the interactive art of the future will look and feel like anything we knew in the twentieth century. "GFP Bunny" shows an alternative path and makes clear that a profound concept of interaction is anchored on the notion of personal responsibility (as both care and possibility of response). "GFP Bunny" gives continuation to my focus on the creation, in art, of what Martin Buber called dialogical relationship [9], what Mikhail Bakhtin called dialogic sphere of existence [10], what Emile Benveniste called intersubjectivity [11], and what Humberto Maturana calls consensual domains [12]: shared spheres of perception, cognition, and agency in which two or more sentient beings (human or otherwise) can negotiate their experience dialogically. The work is also informed by Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy of alterity [13], which states that our proximity to the other demands a response, and that the interpersonal contact with others is the unique relation of ethical responsibility. I create my works to accept and incorporate the reactions and decisions made by the participants, be they eukaryotes or prokaryotes [14]. This is what I call the human-plant-bird-mammal-robot-insect-bacteria interface.

In order to be practicable, this aesthetic platform--which reconciles forms of social intervention with semantic openness and systemic complexity--must acknowledge that every situation, in art as in life, has its own specific parameters and limitations. So the question is not how to eliminate circumscription altogether (an impossibility), but how to keep it indeterminate enough so that what human and nonhuman participants think, perceive, and do when they experience the work matters in a significant way. My answer is to make a concerted effort to remain truly open to the participant's choices and behaviors, to give up a substantial portion of control over the experience of the work, to accept the experience as-it-happens as a transformative field of possibilities, to learn from it, to grow with it, to be transformed along the way. Alba is a participant in the "GFP Bunny" transgenic artwork; so is anyone who comes in contact with her, and anyone who gives any consideration to the project. A complex set of relationships between family life, social difference, scientific procedure, interspecies communication, public discussion, ethics, media interpretation, and art context is at work.

Throughout the twentieth century art progressively moved away from pictorial representation, object crafting, and visual contemplation. Artists searching for new directions that could more directly respond to social transformations gave emphasis to process, concept, action, interaction, new media, environments, and critical discourse. Transgenic art acknowledges these changes and at the same time offers a radical departure from them, placing the question of actual creation of life at the center of the debate. Undoubtedly, transgenic art also develops in a larger context of profound shifts in other fields. Throughout the twentieth century physics acknowledged uncertainty and relativity, anthropology shattered ethnocentricity, philosophy denounced truth, literary criticism broke away from hermeneutics, astronomy discovered new planets, biology found "extremophile" microbes living in conditions previously believed not capable of supporting life, molecular biology made cloning a reality.

Transgenic art acknowledges the human role in rabbit evolution as a natural element, as a chapter in the natural history of both humans and rabbits, for domestication is always a bidirectional experience. As humans domesticate rabbits, so do rabbits domesticate their humans. If teleonomy is the apparent purpose in the organization of living systems [15], then transgenic art suggests a non-utilitarian and more subtle approach to the debate. Moving beyond the metaphor of the artwork as a living organism into a complex embodiment of the trope, transgenic art opens a nonteleonomic domain for the life sciences. In other words, in the context of transgenic art humans exert influence in the organization of living systems, but this influence does not have a pragmatic purpose. Transgenic art does not attempt to moderate, undermine, or arbitrate the public discussion. It seeks to offer a new perspective that offers ambiguity and subtlety where we usually only find affirmative ("in favor") and negative ("against") polarity. "GFP Bunny" highlights the fact that transgenic animals are regular creatures that are as much part of social life as any other life form, and thus are deserving of as much love and care as any other animal [16].

In developing the "GFP Bunny" project I have paid close attention and given careful consideration to any potential harm that might be caused. I decided to proceed with the project because it became clear that it was safe [17]. There were no surprises throughout the process: the genetic sequence responsible for the production of the green fluorescent protein was integrated into the genome through zygote microinjection [18]. The pregnancy was carried to term successfully. "GFP Bunny" does not propose any new form of genetic experimentation, which is the same as saying: the technologies of microinjection and green fluorescent protein are established well-known tools in the field of molecular biology. Green fluorescent protein has already been successfully expressed in many host organisms, including mammals [19]. There are no mutagenic effects resulting from transgene integration into the host genome. Put another way: green fluorescent protein is harmless to the rabbit. It is also important to point out that the "GFP Bunny" project breaks no social rule: humans have determined the evolution of rabbits for at least 1400 years.

ALTERNATIVES TO ALTERITY

As we negotiate our relationship with our lagomorph companion [20], it is necessary to think rabbit agency without anthropomorphizing it. Relationships are not tangible, but they form a fertile field of investigation in art, pushing interactivity into a literal domain of intersubjectivity. Everything exists in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. By focusing my work on the interconnection between biological, technological, and hybrid entities I draw attention to this simple but fundamental fact. To speak of interconnection or intersubjectivity is to acknowledge the social dimension of consciousness. Therefore, the concept of intersubjectivity must take into account the complexity of animal minds. In this context, and particularly in regard to "GFP Bunny", one must be open to understanding the rabbit mind, and more specifically to Alba's unique spirit as an individual. It is a common misconception that a rabbit is less intelligent than, for example, a dog, because, among other peculiarities, it seems difficult for a bunny to find food right in front of her face. The cause of this ordinary phenomenon becomes clear when we consider that the rabbit's visual system has eyes placed high and to the sides of the skull, allowing the rabbit to see nearly 360 degrees. As a result, the rabbit has a small blind spot of about l0 degrees directly in front of her nose and below her chin [21]. Although rabbits do not see images as sharply as we do, they are able to recognize individual humans through a combination of voice, body movements, and scent as cues, provided that humans interact with their rabbits regularly and don't change their overall configuration in dramatic ways (such as wearing a costume that alters the human form or using a strong perfume). Understanding how the rabbit sees the world is certainly not enough to appreciate its consciousness but it allows us to gain insights about its behavior, which leads us to adapt our own to make life more comfortable and pleasant for everyone.

Alba is a healthy and gentle mammal. Contrary to popular notions of the alleged monstrosity of genetically engineered organisms, her body shape and coloration are exactly of the same kind we ordinarily find in albino rabbits. Unaware that Alba is a glowing bunny, it is impossible for anyone to notice anything unusual about her. Therefore Alba undermines any ascription of alterity predicated on morphology and behavioral traits. It is precisely this productive ambiguity that sets her apart: being at once same and different. As is the case in most cultures, our relationship with animals is profoundly revealing of ourselves. Our daily coexistence and interaction with members of other species remind us of our uniqueness as humans. At the same time, it allow us to tap into dimensions of the human spirit that are often suppressed in daily life--such as communication without language--that reveal how close we really are to nonhumans. The more animals become part of our domestic life, the further we move breeding away from functionality and animal labor. Our relationship with other animals shifts as historical conditions are transformed by political pressures, scientific discoveries, technological development, economic opportunities, artistic invention, and philosophical insights. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as we transform our understanding of human physical boundaries by introducing new genes into developed human organisms, our communion with animals in our environment also changes. Molecular biology has demonstrated that the human genome is not particularly important, special, or different. The human genome is made of the same basic elements as other known life forms and can be seen as part of a larger genomic spectrum rich in variation and diversity.

Western philosophers, from Aristotle [22] to Descartes [23], from Locke [24] to Leibniz [25], from Kant [26] to Nietsche [27] and Buber [28], have approached the enigma of animality in a multitude of ways, evolving in time and elucidating along the way their views of humanity. While Descartes and Kant possessed a more condescending view of the spiritual life of animals (which can also be said of Aristotle), Locke, Leibniz, Nietsche, and Buber are -- in different degrees -- more tolerant towards our eukaryotic others [29]. Today, our ability to generate life through the direct method of genetic engineering prompts a re-evaluation of the cultural objectification and the personal subjectification of animals, and in so doing it renews our investigation of the limits and potentialities of what we call humanity. I do not believe that genetic engineering eliminates the mystery of what life is; to the contrary, it reawakens in us a sense of wonder towards the living. We will only think that biotechnology eliminates the mystery of life if we privilege it in detriment to other views of life (as opposed to seeing biotechnology as one among other contributions to the larger debate) and if we accept the reductionist view (not shared by many biologists) that life is purely and simply a matter of genetics. Transgenic art is a firm rejection of this view and a reminder that communication and interaction between sentient and nonsentient actants lies at the core of what we call life. Rather than accepting the move from the complexity of life processes to genetics, transgenic art gives emphasis to the social existence of organisms, and thus highlights the evolutionary continuum of physiological and behavioral characteristics between the species. The mystery and beauty of life is as great as ever when we realize our close biological kinship with other species and when we understand that from a limited set of genetic bases life has evolved on Earth with organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

TRANSGENESIS, ART, AND SOCIETY

The success of human genetic therapy suggests the benefits of altering the human genome to heal or to improve the living conditions of fellow humans [30]. In this sense, the introduction of foreign genetic material in the human genome can be seen not only as welcome but as desirable. Developments in molecular biology, such as the above example, are at times used to raise the specter of eugenics and biological warfare, and with it the fear of banalization and abuse of genetic engineering. This fear is legitimate, historically grounded, and must be addressed. Contributing to the problem, companies often employ empty rhetorical strategies to persuade the public, thus failing to engage in a serious debate that acknowledges both the problems and benefits of the technology. [31] There are indeed serious threats, such as the possible loss of privacy regarding one's own genetic information, and unacceptable practices already underway, such as biopiracy (the appropriation and patenting of genetic material from its owners without explicit permission).

As we consider these problems, we can not ignore the fact that a complete ban on all forms of genetic research would prevent the development of much needed cures for the many devastating diseases that now ravage human and nonhumankind. The problem is even more complex. Should such therapies be developed successfully, what sectors of society will have access to them? Clearly, the question of genetics is not purely and simply a scientific matter, but one that is directly connected to political and economic directives. Precisely for this reason, the fear raised by both real and potential abuse of this technology must be channeled productively by society. Rather than embracing a blind rejection of the technology, which is undoubtedly already a part of the new bioscape, citizens of open societies must make an effort to study the multiple views on the subject, learn about the historical background surrounding the issues, understand the vocabulary and the main research efforts underway, develop alternative views based on their own ideas, debate the issue, and arrive at their own conclusions in an effort to generate mutual understanding. Inasmuch as this seems a daunting task, drastic consequences may result from hype, sheer opposition, or indifference.

This is where art can also be of great social value. Since the domain of art is symbolic even when intervening directly in a given context [32], art can contribute to reveal the cultural implications of the revolution underway and offer different ways of thinking about and with biotechnology. Transgenic art is a mode of genetic inscription that is at once inside and outside of the operational realm of molecular biology, negotiating the terrain between science and culture. Transgenic art can help science to recognize the role of relational and communicational issues in the development of organisms. It can help culture by unmasking the popular belief that DNA is the "master molecule" through an emphasis on the whole organism and the environment (the context). At last, transgenic art can contribute to the field of aesthetics by opening up the new symbolic and pragmatic dimension of art as the literal creation of and responsibility for life.

(to see Eduardo Kac's notes, please visit the url above)

2008-07-17

>> Critical Art Ensemble

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of five tactical media practitioners of various specializations including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art, and performance.

Formed in 1987, CAE's focus has been on the exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism. The original members are Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Steve Kurtz, Hope Kurtz and Beverly Schlee. Their book projects include: The Electronic Disturbance (1997), Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas (1998), Flesh Machine; Cyborgs, Designer Babies, Eugenic Consciousness (1998), Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (2001), Molecular Invasion (2002), and Marching Plague (2006).

(wikipedia)


Washington Post:
"The FBI's Art Attack
Offbeat Materials at Professor's Home Set Off Bioterror Alarm



By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- "A forensic investigation of FBI trash." On the telephone, Beatriz da Costa says it wryly. Her humor sounds bitter. She's talking about the detritus of a terror probe at the Buffalo home of her good friends, the Kurtzes.

She's talking about the pizza boxes, Gatorade jugs, the gloves, the gas mask filters, the biohazard suits: the stuff left by police, FBI, hazmat and health investigators after they descended on the Kurtz home and quarantined the place.

The garbage tells a story of personal tragedy, a death in the Kurtz household, that sparked suspicions (later proved unfounded) of a biohazard in the neighborhood. And it tells a story of the times in which we live, with almost daily warnings about terror, and with law enforcement primed to pounce.

Steve Kurtz, a Buffalo art professor, discovered on the morning of May 11 that his wife of 20 years, Hope Kurtz, had stopped breathing. He called 911. Police and emergency personnel responded, and what they saw in the Kurtz home has triggered a full-blown probe -- into the vials and bacterial cultures and strange contraptions and laboratory equipment.

The FBI is investigating. A federal grand jury has been impaneled. Witnesses have been subpoenaed, including da Costa.

Kurtz and his late wife were founders of the Critical Art Ensemble, an internationally renowned collective of "tactical media" protest and performance artists. Steve Kurtz, 48, has focused on the problems of the emergence of biotechnology, such as genetically modified food. He and the art ensemble, which also includes da Costa, have authored several books including "Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media" and "Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas," both published by Autonomedia/Semiotext(e).

The day of his wife's death, Kurtz told the authorities who he is and what he does.

"He explained to them that he uses [the equipment] in connection with his art, and the next thing you know they call the FBI and a full hazmat team is deposited there from Quantico -- that's what they told me," says Paul Cambria, the lawyer who is representing Kurtz. "And they all showed up in their suits and they're hosing each other down and closing the street off, and all the news cameras were there and the head of the [Buffalo] FBI is granting interviews. It was a complete circus."

Cambria, the bicoastal Buffalo and Los Angeles lawyer best known for representing pornographer Larry Flynt, calls the Kurtz episode a "colossal overreaction."

FBI agents put Kurtz in a hotel, where they continued to question him. Cambria says Kurtz felt like a detainee over the two days he was at the hotel. Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo office of the FBI, says the bureau put Kurtz in a hotel because his home had been declared off limits. The probe, Moskal says, was a by-the-books affair from the very beginning.

"Post-9/11 protocol is such that first-responders have all been given training about unusual things and unusual situations," Moskal says.

And obviously, says Lt. Jake Ulewski, spokesman for the Buffalo police, what the cops eyeballed raised some alarms. "He's making cultures? That's a little off the wall."

Erie County health officials declared the Kurtz home a potential health risk and sealed it for two days while a state lab examined the bacterial cultures found inside. Officials won't divulge what precisely was examined, but it turned out not to be a danger to public health. And the house was reopened for use.

Still, federal authorities think something in that house might have been illegal, Cambria surmises. But Cambria denies there was anything illegal in the house. William Hochul Jr., chief of the anti-terrorism unit for the U.S. attorney's office in the Western District of New York, would not comment on the investigation.

Kurtz, on Cambria's advice, isn't speaking to the press either.

Da Costa, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who has flown to Buffalo to help out, says Kurtz is "depressed" and dealing with the loss of his wife, who died of a heart attack. Today the Buffalo arts community will memorialize her.

Adele Henderson, chair of the art department of the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Kurtz has tenure, is among the people who've been questioned by the FBI.

On May 21, she says, the FBI asked her about Kurtz's art, his writings, his books; why his organization (the art ensemble) is listed as a collective rather than by its individual members; how it is funded.

"They asked me if I'd be surprised if I found out he was found to be involved in bioterrorism," she says.

Her response? "I am absolutely certain that Steve would not be involved."

They also asked about "his personal life," Henderson says, but she would not describe the questions or her responses.

The investigation, she says, will have no bearing on Kurtz's standing at the university, where he is an associate professor. (Prior to Buffalo, he taught at Carnegie Mellon University.)

"This is a free speech issue, and some people at the university remember a time during the McCarthy period when some university professors were harassed quite badly," she says.

Nonetheless, considering the kind of art Kurtz practices and the kind of supplies he uses, "I could see how they would think it was really strange."

For instance: the mobile DNA extracting machine used for testing food products for genetic contamination. Such a machine was in Kurtz's home. His focus, in recent years, has been on projects that highlight the trouble with genetically modified seeds.

In November 2002, in an installation called "Molecular Invasion," Kurtz grew genetically modified seeds in small pots beneath growth lamps at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, then engineered them in reverse with herbicide, meaning he killed them.

"We thought it was very important to have Critical Art Ensemble here because we try to have our visiting artist's program present work that takes our curriculum to the next step," says Denise Mullen, vice dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, whose Hemicycle Gallery hosted Kurtz's molecular exhibit.

Beyond the cutting edge of art, she says, "we want work that is really bleeding edge."

In Buffalo, in the aftermath of the bioterror probe that has found no terror, activist artists have scooped up the refuse from the Kurtz front yard and taken it away, perhaps, says da Costa, to create an art installation."



In 2007, Lynn Hershman made a film, "Strange Culture", about ths trial and the life of Steve Kurtz.

>> Joe Davis, "Microvenus"

www.thegatesofparadise.com/joe_davis.htm


"Art as a Form of Life
More copies exist of one of his works than of all previous artworks by all prior artists. Yet his self-replicating creations have never been exhibited in the United States.

Joe Davis: Genestheticist

Photograph by Kathleen Dooher
Davis with one of his more conventional artworks.
FAST FACTS:
  • Expelled from three high schools and two colleges: for writing about atheism, refusing a haircut, making a still (which exploded), being elected student body president on a "free marijuana" platform and working on an underground anti-war newspaper.
  • Walked into the M.I.T. Center for Advanced Visual Studies uninvited in 1982. Secretary called the cops. Forty-five minutes later, Davis walked out with an appointment as a research fellow.
  • Latest project is to build a biomechanical ornithopter powered by electrically stimulated frog legs and to fly it across the Charles River.
  • Uses hollow steel peg leg to open beer bottles, to accompany the band (bugle-style) at his local bar, and to charm curious women at parties.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.--Either Joe Davis is late or I am lost. I check my watch and look for the third time at the address he gave me for the studio where he creates his avant-garde art: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, building 68, sixth floor, room 604D. Here it is, locked and looking nothing like an artist's workshop. "SEVERE EYE DAMAGE" cautions a sign on the door, referring to a laser (not the artworks) inside. There are trash bins marked "WARNING: RADIOACTIVE WASTE," walk-in refrigerated vaults containing cells in stasis, ultracentrifuges the size of washing machines. But no paints, no cameras, no sculpting tools.

I wander downstairs to the office of Alexander Rich, the biophysicist who famously discovered left-handed DNA (the normal stuff twists to the right), who worked out the structure of transfer RNA, who last year won the $250,000 Bower award, and who invited Davis into his lab in 1992 as a "research affiliate," which grants Davis a space to work and access to the lab's expensive tools but no financial support. There is still no sign of Davis, until I press my nose against the window of a door into a small white room.

The room is warm: 98.6 Fahrenheit, the temperature of the human bowel. There, on wire shelves next to flasks in which swim various strains of gastrointestinal bacteria, sit five mason jars marked "Self-Assembling Clock." In each jar rest the jumbled parts of a disassembled timepiece. I recognize this as Davis's work, part of his six-year-old "experiment" to test whether, given the right conditions and enough time, the components of machines can self-assemble into working devices, just as life supposedly arose spontaneously from colliding precursory biochemicals billions of years ago. That theory, still unproved despite almost 40 years of research, suddenly strikes me as less plausible and yet more profound.

Tick tick. I turn to see Davis walking down the hall, his selfmade peg leg clacking, steel on tile. The test tube stopper plugging its end has worn down. Ask him how he lost the limb, as someone does at his fiftieth birthday party the following night, and he raises an eyebrow, inhales deeply and recites one of his poems, a dark, frightening, erotic poem of slithering asps, black waters and an embrace with the long, luscious lips of an alligator.

Ask his friends, and they say he lost the leg in a motorcycle crash 20 years ago, when he was still a sculptor and bike mechanic in Mississippi. That is where he grew up with his chemist father and five siblings, until problems at school got him sent up to the grandparents in Delaware and to a psychiatric evaluation at age 13. In his report, Dr. Jastak suggested that young Joe should "apply his artistic abilities to his scientific ventures," maybe even pursue a career as a scientific artist. Quite a prescient forecast for 1964, although Jastak probably imagined Davis drawing pictures of atomic airplanes for a living.

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
Design for a microbial fishhook.

Davis himself had altogether different ideas about how science and art could be coaxed or forced together, ideas that have often made both professions uncomfortable. For seven years he championed a space shuttle experiment that would have shot a 100,000-watt electron gun into the magnetosphere to create the first artificial aurora. After selling his Harley to fund the design and touring the lecture circuit as the default spokesman for art in space, Davis finally persuaded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to accept the payload, only to see it scuttled when the Challenger exploded.

No matter; he was already plotting other ways to make artistic use of high-voltage electricity and spacebound signals. In the early 1980s, he drew up plans for channeling lightning bolts into a pulsed laser of almost unparalleled energy and into towering sculptures that would change the bolts' color and emit incredibly loud tones—designs that also remain unbuilt, awaiting a sponsor. Later that decade, Davis led a quasi-covert operation that recorded the vaginal contractions of ballerinas with the Boston Ballet and other women, then translated this impetus of human conception into text, music, phonetic speech and ultimately into radio signals, which were beamed from M.I.T.'s Millstone radar to Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti and two other nearby star systems.

The Air Force soon found out about the million-watt Poetica Vaginal broadcast, as Davis calls it, and shut it down. But the 20-minute message was many times longer than the the first deliberate attempt to say hello to extraterrestrial ham radio operators, a string of 1,679 bits that Carl Sagan and Frank Drake beamed from the giant dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 26 years ago. That message, like every engraved plaque and recorded video disk that NASA allowed on the Pioneer and Voyager space probes, made no attempt to convey what aliens would probably be most curious to know about humans: how we reproduce.

"The images of humans placed aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft show impeccably groomed men that lack any facial and body hair," Davis hoots, "and women with no external genitalia." Poetica Vaginal was in part a response to this curious censorship. "By making this attempt to communicate with the other," he explains, "we're really communicating with ourselves."

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
Kepler's nested polyhedra; blueprint for a supervirus?

"This is probably one of the strangest art collections on earth," Davis says, as he opens the door to a refrigerated room. I enter and follow his gesture to a rack of urine-colored liquids in bottles. "This is sort of the ski resort of the farm," he says—the "farm" being Davis's term for the menagerie of paramecia, stentors, rotifers and other assorted protozoans that he cultivates as artistic and scientific media. Back in his lab, Davis sits down next to a jury-rigged assemblage of borrowed lasers, optics and stereo equipment and shows me the movies he made of these microanimals. They are mildly interesting to look at, but extraordinary to hear. His documentaries of the lives of cells have soundtracks, recorded from a scanning laser as the protozoans squirm beneath it. On the shelf above Davis's head are more pens in the farm, mason jars labeled either with scientific names or with pet names such as scary finbacks and green scudders. Davis says the he has spent enough time listening to their behavior that he can now distinguish many species from their microacoustic signatures alone.

"The audio microscope originated from a conversation with a medical student who had just returned from fieldwork in Ecuador," Davis says. "She told me she heard a story from a magician, a witch doctor, about a certain plant in the mountains that sings a different song than plants of the same species in the valley. She asked whether there any way she could listen to this singing. A lot of things are inspired by questions people ask me."

Watching and hearing microorganisms dance about made Davis wonder what it would be like to feel them move. What if he could somehow set up a rod and tackle to fish for stentors? On the face of it, this is a crazy idea: stentors are trumpet-shaped animals just a couple hundred microns long. Davis found a fellow in the micromachine lab who was willing to etch 25-micron fishhooks in the margin of his microchip design, but after the first two attempts failed Davis has decided to make his own photolithographic templates. The two have worked out a way to thread microfibers through the eyes of the hooks and melt them in place. David Gessel, an engineer with Nebucon who has aided Davis on several projects, has sketched out a scheme for making a fishing rod. Sensors connected to the fiber would control servos to make the miniscule tug of stentor feel like the jerking head of a marlin.

As Davis describes his plans, his eyes squint with intensity, giving the grizzled 50-year-old man an almost boyish expression of awe at the weirdness of nature and the power of technology to poke at it. His enthusiasm is contagious; it makes me wonder whether I could watch a protozoan take my hook, listen to it thrash, break a sweat as I fight it to a draw, and yet not come away with a new perspective on the ocean of microscopic life in which we are immersed, usually imperceptibly.

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
The Microvenus icon.

It was about 15 years ago that Davis first realized that genetic engineering was creating a rich new medium for art—life itself. He convinced molecular biologists at Harvard Medical School and the University of California at Berkeley to teach him how to synthesize DNA and insert it into the genomes of living bacteria. That took some persistence: "In the beginning scientists were not comfortable talking to me," Davis recalls. "It took a while for them to trust me with their secrets." That is probably a good thing, he admits. "I still come up with ideas that are dangerous and don't realize that they are dangerous. For example there is a 200-mer [a sequence of 200 amino acids] that folds into a highly geometric capsule. I had this idea of creating Kepler's nested polyhedra [once thought to define the planetary orbits] in these viral capsids." Fortunately, Davis ran the idea by one of his genetics mentors first. "He pointed out that I could inadvertently create a supervirus."

Instead Davis set about creating what he calls "an infogene, a gene to be translated by the machinery of human beings into meaning, and not by the machinery of cells into protein." His idea was to send a message in a bottle to extraterrestrials: to genetically engineer a sign of human intelligence into the genome of bacteria, grow them up by the trillions and fling them out across the heavens, to land where they may. Like Poetica Vaginal, the real message was of course aimed not at aliens but at a public that has yet to digest the fact that DNA can encode any information, not just genetic sequences.

For his bottle, Davis chose E. coli, a bacterium on which humans depend for proper digestion and one that, in NASA experiments, has survived more than five years of exposure to the intense cold and radiation of deep space. For his message, he selected Microvenus, a simple symbol—like a Y and an I superimposed—that is both a Germanic rune representing life and an outline of the external female genitalia.

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
Palmtop gallery: billions of E. coli with Microvenus encoded in their genomes.

Digitized and translated into a string of 28 DNA nucleotides, Microvenus first slipped between the genes of E. coli in 1990. The bacteria quickly multiplied in its beakers into billions of cells, each carrying a separate instance of the icon. "I'm probably the most successful publisher in history," Davis says with a laugh. "There are more copies of my work than of Salvador Dali's, Escher's and all the rest of them put together."

Without a doubt, Microvenus was the most highly reproduced graphic that almost no one had ever seen, because no gallery has been willing to risk the public display of genetically engineered bacteria in the U.S. It was not until last September that Microvenus was finally put on public display in a positive-pressure biological containment facility erected at the Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria. Visitors could see cultures of the transgenic bacteria along with posters of the icon and explanations of how and why the image was encoded into the E. coli genome.

And it was at Linz that Davis was also able for the first time to exhibit Riddle of Life, a second genetic artwork he created in the mid-1990s. That project began when he learned about a classic rivalry in the history of genetics, between physicist Max Delbruck and biologist George W. Beadle. "This was back before they had worked out the code that matches 20 distinct triplets of DNA nucleotides to the 20 amino acids," Davis explains. "They didn't even know whether there were 'spaces' that separated each triplet." Delbruck believed DNA must contain spaces between its "words;" Beadle disagreed.

In 1958 Beadle was awarded the Nobel Prize (as was Joshua Lederberg). On learning the news, Delbruck and his co-workers dashed off a telegram encoded as a continuous string of 229 As, Bs, Cs, and Ds. Beadle quickly surmised that the four letters symbolized the four bases of DNA, broke the telegram into triplets and decoded the message: "BREAK THIS CODE OR GIVE BACK THE NOBEL PRIZE LEDERBERG GO HOME MAX MARKO STERLING".

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
The Riddle of Life, in toothpicks.

The next day, Beadle sent Delbruck a telegram written in a different four-letter code—one that lacked a space character. Delbruck soon solved the puzzle and read the note: "GWBTOMDIMSUREITSAFINEMESSAGEIFICOULDDOTHEFINALSTEP".

Not one to be gainsayed, Delbruck conspired to get the final word. "As Beadle stepped up to the podium in Stockholm to receive his award from the king, a courier walked in," Davis narrates, his eyes widening. "He handed Beadle a ladderlike toothpick model, each rung stained in one of four colors. Beadle decoded the message on the spot," Davis says, his voice trailing to a whisper. "I AM THE RIDDLE OF LIFE. KNOW ME AND YOU WILL KNOW YOURSELF," read the toothpicks. "I found that so moving, so moving," Davis says.

Inspired by the story, Davis worked out a logical code for translating the language of English into the language of life. (Delbruck's and Beadle's codes were arbitrary.) He cloned the DNA sequence representing the "Riddle of Life" quotation and sequestered it safely in a noncoding part of the E. coli genome. Then he sequestered the E. coli in a safe part of the Rich lab, where it has remained ever since. (The Riddle of Life organisms shown in Linz were created from scratch in Europe.)

In a keynote lecture at the Ars Electronica exhibition, Davis described his most ambitious transgenic artwork yet: putting an image of the Milky Way into a mouse's ear, an idea inspired by a children's story written 30 years ago by a girlfriend. In order to encode such a large amount of binary information in DNA, he spent years figuring out a general method for archiving computer databases in biological form, a "supercode" that guarantees the infogene will be biochemically stable and yet prevents the host from translating it into protein.

Courtesy Ars Electronica Festival 2000. Copyright Joe Davis.
Davis at Ars Electronica 2000.

Despite his professional success—widely acknowledged as a pioneer of transgenic art, he gave 14 invited lectures last year at universities and conferences—Davis still remains utterly dependent on donations of equipment and expertise from scientists. "They are increasingly skittish about getting too close for fear of the wrong kind of publicity," he says. "Fortunately, Joe's always been a good Tom Sawyer of people," Gessel observes. "It helps that he is consistently rigorous in his intellectual approach," and that he isn't in it for money. Indeed, because he sells his conventional sculptures to friends at cost and cannot sell his transgenic art at all, even now Davis flirts on the verge of homelessness, with no fixed address. He returned from Europe last fall to find an eviction notice on his door. Much of what he rescued from the sheriff's auction is now jammed into a decrepit Volvo station wagon that he obtained in trade for a self-assembling clock. Davis keeps Mississippi plates on the car, even though he hasn't lived there in decades, to squeeze through a loophole that exempts it from property taxes.

As I leave Davis's office and walk past the M.I.T. Media Lab, where so many millions of corporate dollars have chased so many abortive attempts to weave technology into a cultural fabric, it strikes me as unwise and even perverse that the same society offers so little support for art that does not merely comment passively on the transformations and ethical dilemmas that science forces on society but rather actively enacts and illustrates them, coopting the tools and media of science itself.


--W. Wayt Gibbs"

>> Blast Theory, "Can You See Me Now?", 2004


http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_cysmn.html


Can You See Me Now? is a game that happens simultaneously online and on the streets. Players from anywhere in the world can play online in a virtual city against members of Blast Theory. Tracked by satellites, Blast Theory's runners appear online next to your player on a map of the city. On the streets, handheld computers showing the positions of online players guide the runners in tracking you down.

With up to 20 people playing online at a time, players can exchange tactics and send messages to Blast Theory. An audio stream from Blast Theory's walkie talkies allowed you to eavesdrop on your pursuers: getting lost, cold and out of breath on the streets of the city.

Locations

The work was premiered in Sheffield at the b.tv festival. Other venues include the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival in Rotterdam; the Edith Russ Site for Media Art in Oldenburg; the International Festival for Dance, Media and Performance in Köln; Gardner Arts Centre in Brighton; ArtFutura in Barcelona; the InterCommunication Center (ICC), Tokyo; Interactive Screen at the Banff Center, Canada; Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; We Are Here 2.0 in Dublin; Donau Festival in Austria and as part of In Certain Places in Preston.

Conceptual Background

Can You See Me Now? draws upon the near ubiquity of handheld electronic devices in many developed countries. Blast Theory are fascinated by the penetration of the mobile phone into the hands of poorer users, rural users, teenagers and other demographics usually excluded from new technologies.

Some research has suggested that there is a higher usage of mobile phones among the homeless than among the general population. The advent of 3G (third generation mobile telephony) brings constant internet access, location based services and massive bandwidth into this equation. Can You See Me Now? is a part of a sequence of works (Uncle Roy All Around You and I Like Frank have followed) that attempt to establish a cultural space on these devices. While the telecoms industry remains focused on revenue streams in order to repay the huge debts incurred by buying 3G licenses and rolling out the networks, Blast Theory in collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab are looking to identify the wider repercussions of this communication infrastructure. When games, the internet and mobile phones converge what new possibilities arise?

These social forces have dramatic repercussions for the city. As the previously discrete zones of private and public space (the home, the office etc.) have become blurred, it has become commonplace to hear intimate conversations on the bus, in the park, in the workplace. And these conversations are altered by the audience that accompanies them: we are conscious of being overheard and our private conversations become three way: the speaker, the listener and the inadvertent audience.

Can You See Me Now? takes the fabric of the city and makes our location within it central to the game play. The piece uses the overlay of a real city and a virtual city to explore ideas of absence and presence. By sharing the same 'space', the players online and runners on the street enter into a relationship that is adversarial, playful and, ultimately, filled with pathos.

As soon as a player registers they must answer the question: "Is there someone you haven't seen for a long time that you still think of?". From that moment issues of presence and absence run through Can You See Me Now?. This person - absent in place and time - seems irrelevant to the subsequent game play; only at the point that the player is caught or 'seen' by a runner do they hear the name mentioned again as part of the live audio feed from the streets. The last words they hear are "Runner 1 has seen ______ _______".

Proximity and distance exist at five levels within Can You See Me Now? Firstly, any game of chase is predicated on staying distant from your pursuer. Secondly, the virtual city (which correlates closely to the real city) has an elastic relationship to the real city. At times the two cities seem identical; the virtual pavement and the real pavement match exactly and behave in the same way. At other times the two cities diverge and appear very remote from one another. For example, traffic is always absent from the virtual city. Thirdly, the internet itself brings geographically distant players into the same virtual space. It also enables those players to run alongside the runners as it streams their walkie talkie chat. Fourthly, the name of someone you haven't seen for a long time but you still think of brings someone from the player's past into the present: their name is spoken aloud by a runner on the distant streets of the city and exists for a seconds before fading into the ether. Finally, the photos taken by runners of the empty terrain where each player is seen are uploaded to the site and persist as a record of the events of each game. Each player is forever linked to this anonymous square of the cityscape.

With the advent of virtual spaces and, more recently, hybrid spaces in which virtual and real worlds are overlapping, the emotional tenor of these worlds has become an important question. In what ways can we talk about intimacy in the electronic realm? In Britain the internet is regularly characterised in the media as a space in which paedophiles 'groom' unsuspecting children and teenagers. Against this back drop can we establish a more subtle understanding of the nuances of online relationships. When two players who know one another place their avatars together and wait for the camera view to zoom down to head height so that the two players regard one another, what is going on? Is this mute tenderness manifest to anyone else and should it be?

And alongside these small moments, there is a louder and more forceful set of interactions between runners and players based on insults, teasing, goading and humour. These public declarations seem to happily coexist with the private moments that appear marginal to the casual observer. Yet, this demotic discourse also can surprise: the online players understanding that the runners are tired, cold, struggling with the environment on the street can become a powerful emotion.

A player from Seattle wrote: "I had a definite heart stopping moment when my concerns suddenly switched from desperately trying to escape, to desperately hoping that the runner chasing me had not been run over by a reversing truck (that's what it sounded like had happened)."

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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.