Mutable Matter

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Project Updates category.

Imaging Detroit @ MODCaR

Image source: MODCaR

Here is a preview of summer project No.2, my fellowship at the Metropolitan Observatory for Digital Culture and Representation (MODCaR). MODCaR describes itself as a ‘nomadic Michigan based non-profit research organisation’ that examines the relationship between the production of images and the production of city publics. To quote from their ‘mission’:

‘Our charge is to explore visual narratives at the national and international scale and to render explicit the complex relationship between experience, the constructed image, meaning and the public.’

This statement resonates with my interest in the construction of particular spaces and their impact on the agency of publics (the nanoscale, the climate). Working with the ‘observatory’ seemed like an exciting platform to try out some new ideas.

Apart from analysing lots and lots of films on Detroit, MODCaR is organising a free, public film festival in Detroit showing documentaries on the city non-stop for two days. Entitled ‘Imaging Detroit’, the festival is intended to allow Detroiters to reflect upon the various forms their city has taken on in different contexts. Anyone can participate with a film, from established film-makers to primary school kids. The call for entries can be found here. I am also making a short film, with audio recordings of Londoners talking about their associations with Detroit. The festival will also feature discussions chaired by so-called ‘DJs’ (discourse jockeys), a mix of Detroit and non-Detroit based film makers, policy makers, urban analysts, art critics, activists, economists etc.

Image source: MODCaR, from ‘The MODCaR Guide to the Picturesque’

Below are the festival details, if you are planning on coming (you can also volunteer to help set up the festival grounds). A flyer/poster can also be downloaded here.

Imaging Detroit will open on September 21st at 6pm at Perrien Park,
between East Warren Avenue and East Hancock, Grandy and Chene streets
in the Near East Side neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan.
The event will run until midnight on Saturday, September 22nd
and is free and open to the public. 

Contact information:
MODCaR pamphlet downloadable here

DIY City Branding @ Cities Methodologies 2012

The article revisions marathon has been completed, so now I can proceed with my summer experiments, of which ‘DIY City Branding’ is the first. The project draws on my research on public engagement with environmental controversies and new technologies, as well as my activist work in London. It emerges from an interactive photography project called ‘DIY Skyline’, in which people modify the skylines they can see from their windows and balconies. By placing objects of their choice in these places and photographing them against the sunset, a ‘home-made’ skyline is produced. ‘DIY Skyline’ could have been restaged with projectors in the gallery in a shadow puppet theatre like manner, but in the end I decided to take the opportunity to emphasise the discussion on city branding a bit more clearly.

What is city branding? After witnessing the success of New York’s ‘I love New York’ campaign’, which has been described as ‘a city branding itself out of a crisis’ (a great book on that is Miriam Greenberg’s ‘Branding New York: How A City In Crisis Was Sold To The World’), other cities are trying to follow this example (e.g. ‘I AMsterdam’). City Branding is not always connected to crisis management, but also to the desire to fix or change a city’s image in the public perception. The website ‘City Mayors’ states that there is nowadays an imperative for cities to become ‘successful brands’ (there is also a short article on the Guardian website here). If you google ‘city branding’, you will find many publications on the subject, including books, free leaflets and critical commentaries. The film ‘This Space Available’, recently screened and debated at the Open City Docs Fest at UCL, gave the example of Houston, Texas, which banned billboards and other excessive advertising signage in order to turn itself into a brand – a brand emphasising quality of life (‘even a tree becomes part of the brand’).

So how does ‘DIY City Branding’ work? Actually, part of it didn’t work! The idea was to put down several coats of a metallic primer (the black paint) which would allow us to paint over it and affix ‘iconic’ buildings made from magnetic sheet (the same that is used for fridge magnets). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the same paint we used in the trial, so naturally, the paint was too weak and the magnets didn’t stick. We had to make do with white tack. Basically, I took pictures of the London skyline from different places (the initial idea was to take them from ‘privileged views’ and ‘unprivileged views’, but that proved too confusing) and made stencils from them. These stencils were transferred onto the wall and painted over with white, so that, after the masking take was removed, only the black skyline(s) could be seen.

Next, a collection of ‘iconic’ skyscrapers, used in city branding, were turned into stencils (to scale with the skyline, so that sizes could be compared). These stencils were then used to make the magnetic buildings that people could add to the skyline to signify certain characteristics (‘progress’, ‘romance’ etc). They could also ‘commission’ new iconic buildings from one of the architects at the exhibition. Some visitors also used crayons (see last image in the post).

Underneath the skyline, a set of instructions called ‘City Branding in 10 easy steps’ could be found. Based on city branding leaflets available in the public domain, these ironic instructions sought to provoke debate about a very real issue: the role different publics in city branding. City branding publications emphasise the necessity to involve as many stakeholders as possible and not let big money rule (‘brand partnership’) – otherwise the brand is unlikely to work. At the same time, the reality often looks very different. The project tried to ask what could potentially be done with this zone in between: can different groups of Londoners use their role in city branding? Should it be a goal to participate in branding at all? What are the alternatives?

DIY City Branding was shown as part of UCL’s UrbanLaboratory’s Cities Methodologies 2012 exhibition, also accompanied by a public talk called ‘The ImageTM of the City’, which was jointly given by myself and Mireille Roddier from the University of Michigan (more about this in another post – you can see some of Mireille’s images from the exhibit on her Paris Je t’M blog). The talk was recorded for a podcast, so if it becomes available, I will link to it from here. For now, feel free to engage in your own ‘city branding’ discussion – no matter what shape it may take….

PS: Does anyone need any giant fridge magnets of iconic skyscrapers?? ;)

Mutable Matter@AAG 2012

Just wanted to remind everyone about the two sessions I am participating in: ‘Ruinations’ (followed by a panel and ‘Design, Design Activism and the Democratic Production of Future Social Natures’ where I shall boldly present in the ‘Radical Democracy, Alternatives, Utopia in Architecture and Design’ section. The ‘Design Activism’ sessions are pursuing a productive dialogue between designers and geographers, whereas the ‘Ruinations’ sessions are bringing together geographers, artists and architects. Both sessions address social change, and how we are – or could be differently – implicated in it.

The ‘Ruinations’ sessions draw attention to the social violence that is committed through certain forms of artistic/commercial/academic exploitation of urban decay. Participants seek to illustrate how even some well-intentioned projects can disempower local residents and lead to further displacement. By contrast, ‘Design Activism’ intends to explore possibilities for positive change through design or related strategies. An ambitious aim, but we’ll see what we can come up with… Looking at the offical post-session plans, brain storming in local bar might indeed lead to unexpected ideas!

How on Earth does one have an Earth in politics? … and other themes from the Terra Infirma workshop

Image: ‘Sumision’ by Santiago Sierra

It is one week after the Terra Infirma workshop, and I am still processing the discussions. Others who attended seem to be, too, as I am still getting e-mails with ideas and questions. In this blog post, I will try to outline a few themes that came up during the day, and especially the remaining questions. An outline of the day can be found on Nicola Triscott’s blog.

The intention behind the workshop was to bring together different people who are using the word ‘geopolitics’ in ways that challenge the ‘commonsensical’ notion of the term, according to which the Earth either becomes a mere stage set for a narrative of ‘heroic men’ or a physicality at the service of discrimination against particular population groups. As Joanne Sharp pointed out at the beginning of her presentation, geopolitics is also identified with the task of ‘mapping troublespots’ and of working towards a ‘terra firma’ – stable ground. So, on the 27 January 2012, a group of geographers, scientists, artists, architects, policy researchers and others met up in an effort to ‘destabilise’ and, in particular, to ask: ‘what does the ‘geo’ in geopolitics’ actually do?

The first destabilising agents were identified as the kinds of things that are excluded from the dominant interpretation of geopolitics. In the introduction to the workshop, I grouped these exclusions into three strands: the exclusion of physical earth forces and phenomena in politics, of ‘marginal’ voices and of particular practices. Biopolitics, which gives a particular image of how physical and political life are intertwined, constituted a second point of departure. The relation with biopolitics raises questions what a corresponding geopolitics might do and whether it is perhaps already in existence, for instance, if one considers the managing of issues such as climate change or natural resources. Here, the concern was how to avoid or counteract social Darwinist links between the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ and the political, and instead take on the problematic, as Andrew Barry put it, of the ‘nagging interference between the natural and the social’, which is present in geography and, one could argue, in geopolitics.

Climate change/Anthropocene

Climate change – and especially the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ – featured prominently in the workshop as motivation for rethinking politics. Explorations of this theme began with references to geographer Simon Dalby and his critique of geopolitics. Dalby, in turn, was criticised for not challenging geopolitics enough, by maintaining a focusing on ‘horizontal connections’. Proposed alternatives included ‘vertical’ or ‘temporal’ thinking (‘when do I belong?’), as in Irit Rogoff’s sense of ‘terra infirma’. For some speakers and participants, ‘terra infirma’ also implied that not an ‘anchoring in the Earth’ was needed, but an ‘unanchoring’; not ‘grounding’, but a focus on the dynamism of our planet. Against this background, geopolitics morphed into a concern about choices and limits: ‘what we can or can’t do differently’ on/with our planet. Related contributions focused on ‘stratigraphic anxieties’ – the fear of becoming ‘just another geological stratum’, highlighted the asymmetry of the agency of Earth forces and humans (in both ways) and called for attention to a ‘non-vitalist materiality’. An example of the latter involved humanity’s continuing ‘becoming with’ minerals/fossil fuels, adding a further dimension to our struggle with fossil fuel dependence.

Questions in this context addressed the usefulness of attending to non-human agency (particularly the ‘non-vital’) in politics, the impact of fusing of the represented and the representing subject in the naming of the ‘Anthropocene,’ and the danger of using the term politics in connection with the physicality of the Earth. The example of geo-engineering raised further concerns, such as the use of military language around ‘pre-emptive’ efforts to make climate change happen on particular human terms. As a technology, which seems to be most intimately tied up with the planet’s physical and political fate, it invited discussions about the effects of its different modes of application on human identity (as ‘makers of climate’). Here, questions around the responsibilities of governance and ethics of experimental trials were raised, as well as questions around access, creation and levels of control. Questions that did not get answered (directly at least), due to time constraints, included:

  • Given the problematic genealogy of the term ‘geopolitics’ – with its tradition of physical features determining politics – and the normal hesitancy around using the term, why would you want to use it in connection with geology, geography, human origin stories etc? Are the dangers that this kind of connection gets abused for ‘crude’ determinist politics not too great, especially, as geography has often been portrayed as an ‘aid to statecraft’ (e.g. Mackinder)?
  • In what ways is climate change instrumentalised differently as a ‘threat’ by governments etc, for instance, compared to the War on Terror? Is its potential for provoking a rethinking of global politics suppressed or redirected in certain ways?
    (Note: in a post-workshop discussion on this topic, it was suggested that what we may be seeing is an uncanny mobility and flexibility of neoliberal experiments in filling the space opened by climatic/geological events – an example being the reorganisation of the school system after Hurricane Katrina e.g. criticised by Naomi Klein as disaster apartheid).

Feminist theory

A meeting ground between the different approaches to ‘geopolitics’ seemed to be found in feminist theory, and particularly in its attention to corporeality. According to my notes, the most often named theorist in the workshop overall (both by speakers and other participants) was Judith Butler. Her work was regarded as inviting an engagement with subjects within networks of power and as highlighting problematic connections between bio- and geopolitics. A further benefit of feminist theory was seen in attention to the margins (e.g. the work of bell hooks) and in highlighting the tension between the need to ‘embed practices of the everyday’ and ‘not losing the bigger picture’. Examples cited included the ‘bodily challenge’ to systems of geopolitical violence (e.g. setting oneself on fire) and the embodiment of this violence in particular ‘villains’, and the attention to the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ in the work of Elizabeth Grosz.

Post-colonial theory

Post-colonial theory and its notion of the ‘subaltern’ was mentioned as a source of challenge to traditional geopolitics’ language of ‘inside/outside’, and as a lens which flagged up already existing conflations of the ‘bio’ and the ‘geo’ (e.g. how bodies are marked, controlled to ‘stay in place’; Orientalism etc). This particular theme further emphasised the link between bio- and geopolitics and depoliticisation: how (real or perceived) physical ‘misery’, ‘crisis’ or ‘geographical disadvantage’ is utilised to justify intervention and place the ‘physical’ issue above politics. The rhetoric of ‘doing whatever is necessary to remedy the situation’, and doing away with the usual political conventions, was shown to render people as politically inactive, as almost ‘already dead’ (‘homo sacer’ status). This post-political stance, and its systemic and anonymous nature of violence/denying agency, was seen as being on the increase ‘throughout global capitalist relations’.

Space vs Earth

The discussion also brought up challenges to the ‘spatial logic’ of traditional geopolitics. One challenge was described as emerging from post-structuralist critique, but was seen as insufficient, leading to a situation of ‘critique from everywhere and nowhere’. Another was presented as a disciplinary issue: that geography should ‘forget space’ and instead focus on the problem of the ‘geo’ as both a physical and social phenomenon. This provocation arose from a dissatisfaction with the status of the earth as either ‘determining’ or ‘constructed’ – and neither position appearing convincing or useful. An additional dissatisfaction seemed to arise from the separation of the ‘geo’ into ‘above ground’ (geography) and ‘below ground’ (geology). The question summing up this discussion was phrased as follows: ‘Can one think of forms of experimental research which engage with the ‘geo’? It was argued that while there has been, for instance, artistic experimentation with the sciences, there has been little experimentation with geography/geology/earth sciences.


Experimentation represented a theme in its own right, with the need or desire to experiment being implicit or explicit in most contributions. Questions around what responsible experimentation in geopolitics might look like, whether there are alternatives to experiments, and what logics of experimentation are already followed guided this discussion. The scale of the ‘geo’ figured as a strong attribute and the effect it has on blurring boundaries between subject and object of experimentation. Examples included the naming of geological ages, geo-engineering and post-geopolitical-event ‘social engineering’, such as state strategies following the 9/11 attacks. The interplay of ‘geo’ and ‘social’ events or engineering was identified as a distinct concern (e.g. the above mentioned neo-liberal experiments following geological events). In addition, participants pointed towards a lack of experimentation with concepts such as ‘energy’ which seem to elude the concerns with materiality and discourse. The opposite of mobility, stability, was also attended to, especially the need for making the outcomes of particular experiments durable, perhaps even moving towards something like a ‘wider geo-social contract’ involving ‘gift economies’, ‘denizens’ and other new constructs. Such proposals prompted questions of how such visions relate to the abstractions of more traditional critical geopolitics – which tend to feature states, territories, citizens – and what languages and concepts the different alternatives to geopolitics might want to exchange for productive ends?

Multiplicity of visions

Finally, it was proposed that a multiplicity of perspectives might be the most helpful strategy to challenge the dominant practices and discourse of geopolitics. Multiplicity also showed up in discussions of particular alternative visions, which highlighted the issue of visibility and representation. Questions that remained in this area included:
How, why and for whom should such visions gain a bigger presence? And in what kinds of spaces and to what kinds of audiences? How do these visions address how people ‘care’ and ‘respond’ in different ways about how they are represented?


Session 1 – Theoretical Provocations
Nigel Clark – ‘When am I?’ Geopolitics and Stratigraphic Uncertainty’
Kathryn Yusoff – ‘Geologic Life or how to get up with dead things
Joanne Sharp – ‘Displacing geopolitics: imagined geographies from the margins’

Session 2 – Methods & Materials
Nelly Ben Hayoun, Carina Fearnley, Austin Houldsworth – ‘The Other Volcano’
Angela Last – ‘Public visions across scales – The Mutable Matter project’
Bron Szerszynski – ‘Making Climates’

Session 3 – Embedding Experimental Geopolitics
Andrew Barry – ’Geopolitical fieldwork’
Alan Ingram – ‘Contested visibilities: geopolitics and contemporary art’

Event: New maps for an island planet

Image: Ackroyd and Harvey, Lost Souls, 2007

Another event I am very excited about: ‘New maps for an island planet’. It is a book launch and panel in relation with the ‘Interdependence Day’ project. The evening will involve ‘discussion about the creation of new maps for navigating the complex challenges presented by global economic and ecological crises’.

The panel, moderated by Quentin Cooper, will consist of geographer Doreen Massey, architect Carolyn Steel and writer Andrew Simms. The poet Lemn Sissay will also perform at this event.

The book that is being launched at this event is called ‘ATLAS: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World’, edited by Renata Tyszczuk, Joe Smith, Nigel Clark and Melissa Butcher. I also have a ‘map’ in this publication and will participate, alongside other people who have contributed to the ATLAS, in the Open Book session taking place after the panel. In this session, I will run my ‘Mutation’project.

Date: Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: London, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
Tickets: £10, £5 concessions (you can book here)

The flyer/poster can be downloaded here.

Postscript: An edited podcast from this event is now available here.

‘The most striking things we have been producing is people’ – Notes on innovation

How far should people be empowered – and in what kinds of ways? Through my research, which involves enabling different kinds of people to make creative contributions to anything from the development of new technologies to attempts to solve environmental problems, I have become aware of the increasing rhetoric around people as co-experimenters/co-innovators/co-researchers. It is interesting to hear from ‘grassroots’ activists such as the ‘open design’ front that governments are opposed to ‘open innovation’, while, more and more, politicians describe co-innovation as a citizen’s duty. This contradiction was fully enacted at the ‘Futur En Seine’ festival in Paris or, at least, on the day I attended. Unfortunately, I had made a mistake while setting my watch, so I turned up on British time, which meant, I missed the first two or so presentations. Luckily, the presentations I caught were very relevant to the debate. The first one I caught, sitting next to a giant humming projector, was by Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms on the ideas behind – and the activities of – the FabLab project (see above video for a similar presentation).

As far as I understand, FabLabs are part of the outreach of the Center for Bits and Atoms. The labs are installed in places all over the world with some equipment and mentors, but, rather than seek to teach people how to produce identical stuff with identical tools, their aim is to work with already available materials and techniques, in order to produce truly local technology. Gershenfeld explained the reason why the programme was put into place as wishing to provide a model which offers true empowerment. FabLabs, he noted, should especially be considered as a better model of development, in the sense that the widely-used ‘aid – education – business’ model does not seem to work. By contrast, FabLabs offer a model that could be described as: empowerment, education, problem-solving, job-creation, in(ter)vention. The important thing, Gershenfeld emphasised, is to focus on humans, not products. As he put it: ‘the most striking things we have been producing is people’.

The take on ‘producing people’ was relayed by Bror Salmelin from the European Commission. His super-fast presentation was difficult to follow in detail, but I managed to catch the main ideas. These are also boiled down to (to stick with his cooking metaphor) at the beginning of the following video as the necessity to involve ‘all players’ to form a ‘new societal contract between individuals, businesses and society as a whole’:

At the Futur En Seine conference, Salmelin started by painting a picture of lack: current lack of skills, of networks, of connectivity (it was not clear whether he was talking about the internet or innovation in general). He contined by reporting that the commission had come to the conclusion that expert/science based innovation ‘is not mainstream anymore’. The consequence had to be a re-think, but one that required ‘courage’ on the part of the government (and potentially everyone else involved) not only in terms of governance, but in terms of funding and creating the right environments and networks. Half-way through the presentation the tentativeness gave way to appeals to curiosity and exporation and to pleas to ‘make things happen’.

The reason for citizens to participate, according to Salmelin, should be to move away from the status of user/consumer/object of innovation to a more active form of consumer who co-shapes the products and services s/he wants. The benefits were both sold as giving citizen-consumers more control over innovation through their input, but also as benefitting European economic health. The idea that came across was that capturing citizen-innovation (= maximising the use of ‘national intellectual capital’) would lead to a ‘more sustainable world’. The subsequent panel, consisting of all presenters from that particular session, brought out even more strongly the duty of citizen to become part of, as Salmelin put it, ‘living labs’. Many designers agreed that everyone needed to take responsibility for the future to help figure out how to make it more sustainable, to change unhelpful systems.

As part of the same post-talk discussion, I also noticed other means with which the need to participate was supported. Examples include the creation of paranoia through phrases such as ‘Who owns your data and can capitalise on it? Regulation is not enough – please participate!’, and the appeals to responsibility and choice (the motto of the festival read: ‘Et vous, le futur, vous le voulez comment?’ And you, how would you like the future to look?)

There are so many interesting things in the current discussions around innovation that one could fill at least one entire book  (most probably, they have been written already). What I started probing during the festival was the tension between ‘experimentation’ and ‘open innovation’ being seen as both as grassroots-developments (by designers and some politicians and academics) and as ‘top-driven’ (mostly by other academics and politicians): where does the imperative to innovate come from? And who benefits from it? Another question is: what kinds of ‘system change’ is aimed for, and what kind of changes will be tolerated? If the imperative to innovate is top-driven or dependent on existing structures, is innovation merely there as a last resort to keep the overall ‘unhelpful’ system alive?

This problem was particularly evident in the ‘Open Design’ workshop I attended, where most of the energy seemed diverted into determining how to fit open innovation models within existing economic models/funding structures, and, of course, into devising ways of making processes more transparent in the face of copyright: how can money be made from open design? How can the economy in general profit from it? A strong trend appeared to be the investment in a maker-centred (neo-medieval?) model, in which the designers offer the blueprint for the product, the customer downloads it and takes it to the maker, pays the maker, and the maker shares the profit with the designer. Another model was to create income by producing limited editions (as physical products) which would attract design afficionados who are willing to pay for exclusivity. This is not to say that open design is full of misguided idealists who unknowingly aid capitalism in spreading further out of control. But there are issues that are currently not being debated enough. As one workshop participant put it: there is a difference between a community model and a business model. How can we invent truly sustainable systems?

Some useful thoughts on the ‘knowledge economy’ can be found in a lecture and article by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. Although she focuses on how academic research is affected by the ‘paradigm for innovation’, many parallels can be drawn with other areas in terms of managing ‘innovative’ output and the artificual creation of conditions for innovation.

Questions around innovations also surfaced during a panel on synthetic biology. The event, entitled ‘We Neet to Talk About Synthia’ was part of the art-science workshop ‘Synthesis’, a collaboration between UCL and Arts Catalyst. (Some bits of the event can be found as videos here.) I remember being very happy about the kinds of questions that got raised. In fact, I was so happy that I ended up with about 30 pages of notes (not A4, mind you).

The evening began with a short introduction by social scientist Jane Calvert, who is also part of the Synthetic Aesthetics project, based at the universities of Edinburgh and Stanford. Two more discussants (Alistair Elfick and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg) were part of this project. The first part of the discussion mainly took place between scientist John Ward, engineer Alistair Elfick, artist Oron Catts – and, later, the audience.

Synthetic biology had already come up in the context of ‘open design’ at the Futur En Seine conference. An example mentioned was the iGEM competition, which also resurfaced during the ‘Synthia’ event. At the Paris debate, Neil Gerschenfeld said that he does not believe that we are going to “outbiology our biology’ through experimentation with synthetic life. A similar idea was expressed by John Ward who, after giving a brief (and refreshingly clear) overview of his research, stated that ‘we are not going to replace anything in technology (or nature), but complement what is there’. ‘What is there’ was further illustrated by Alistair Elfick: he explained that there are currently about 20,000 known molecules ‘made by nature’, but about 30,000 potentially existing molecules that have yet to be found or synthesized.

The most disturbing aspect for most audience members, judging by the questions, seemed to be what Oron Catts dubbed the ‘paradigm of engineering’ that appears to dominate experimentation with all levels of life from the ‘nano’ to the ‘geo’ (via neuro, bio etc). Politicians, scientists and engineers appeared to see life as too much as in need of instrumentalisation, in order to end up, as Elfick phrased it, ‘hopefully doing useful things for mankind’. Not only was this ‘engineering mindset’ regarded as problematic in terms of its human-centredness, but also in terms of its generation of an illusion of control over nature: it seems easier to focus on engineering problems/solutions than to address how these problems arrive in the first place. Also, it was feared that humans were being engineered in the process, either literally or as a side-effect. There was a sense of alarm about a ‘flatness of value’ of life that was being introduced into society.

Elfick and Ward tried to counter these concerns in different ways: Elfick argued that ‘we have already been using life in a very instrumental way’, so using life-forms for our own good should be seen as more of a natural continuation, rather than a drastic step or paradigm shift; Ward emphasised that he hoped to gain a better understanding of natural processes through his research, in order to advance the development away from an oil-based economy towards something more renewable. Catts, on the other hand, suggested that to apply real engineering principles to biology is very much a new field/mindset.

Audience probing also led to the topic of funding: who is pouring money into synthetic biology? What ‘products’ are expected from researchers? As one audience member put it: ‘will we see things designed on purpose under the capitalist system?’ In other words, will we have innovation for innovation’s sake, to cater to the most promising markets rather than to the greater good? Ward answered this question after some hesitation. He was ‘not sure what to make of that’. He stated that he is usually more concerned with finding out how creative/innovative we can be. To him, there were potentially radical applications – from the practical to the decorative. He mentioned the example of melanin control, which could be used to produce decorative patterns on your body, but also to alter your body in radical ways. Elfick described how research money came from different sources in different countries: in the UK mainly from research councils, in the US, a lot of ‘oil money’ and corporate money was funding the research.

Standardisation and the elimination of ‘imperfection’ was another topic addressed by both panellists and audience. Elfick proposed that standardising was connected to the drive to make things accessible. Ward reminded that everything in biology evolves through imperfect replication and that noone wanted to engineer this capacity away. As for accidental releases of ‘powerful things out there that close down the possibility for ‘imperfect life” (audience member quote), Ward believed that ‘there are systems in place that keep things in check, that make sure nothing happens’. Elfick stated that it was the challenge to work with biological organisms that evolve, instead of working with predictable, stable things that attracted him to the subject in the first place. And there are indeed, considerable challenges (for examples of synthetic biology challenges, check out ‘Five hard truths for synthetic biology’ by Roberta Kwok in nature news).

The concern about a potential elimination of imperfection was also extended into engineering society. Here, Catts referred to the latent desire to find biological evidence for containing behavioural misfits (i.e. political dissidents?). Elfick rejected this idea by pointing to the ‘big gap between modifying microbes and modifying humans’. Also raised was the question of perfection and of beauty: what do the scientists and engineers view as beautiful. This difficult question was tackled by Elfick who hopes that current research would ‘create things that are as beautiful as the ones we are working with. It would be nice to engineer the environment around us as pleasant as possible, for instance, without monoculture’.

Due to technical problems, the Q & A had to stop early, although some questions kept being debated over drinks before the second set of presentations. At the beginning of the evening, Oron Catts had mentioned the difficult role of the artist working with science and technology: while having the duty to contribute to creating ‘cultural language for things that are happening in labs’, the artist is also exploiting this to profit from it. The three artist who presented their work in the second half of the event negotiated this tension in different ways.

The first artist, Tuur Van Balen, began by announcing his interest in ‘stuff we cannot quite predict’. One of his questions was: ‘how do we know what direction is forward/sideways’. His project ‘Pigeon D’Or’ addressed this in a rather humorous way: what if pigeons became real technologies and part of architecture? Would people interact with pigeons differently if they shat soap – and, if yes, how? What effects on city living would this engineered ‘technology’ have?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King discussed their project E.chromi, their ‘infiltration’ of the international iGEM student competition for synthetic biology. The research-and-critique-in-one they presented consisted of engineered bacteria that can identify and signal pollutants in water through colour changes. The latter half of their presentation showed how what kind of consequences their invention might have: from yoghurt that colours stool if a particular disease is present in the body to terrorist groups fighting the patenting of particular ‘colours’.

Last on was Andy Gracie and his ‘Quest for drosophilia titanus’: to breed fruit flies that can live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Inspired by sources such as NASA’s investment in astrobiology and experiments in the direction of terraforming, he decided to embark on a project that would explore the possibilities of and for life – and that simultaneouly asked how far you can follow the scientific method and still end up with art. Relating some rather grim anecdotes from the experimentation phase (note: I’m so glad I’m not a fruit fly, whether inside or outside of a laboratory!), he offered his experimental set-up, including mutated fruit flies and lab diary, for inspection by the audience.

No more organised debate followed, instead the discussion was continued at the individual ‘artist tables’. One question that remained for many at the end of the event was: what more can be said or done at this point? Do we have to wait until new technologies are developed to a stage where they are a radical new step – or can we somehow influence how technology is being conceived?

Mutable Matter June Talks

This month I will be giving two presentations on and around the Mutable Matter project.

The first one, entitled ‘Articulating Matter – Reimagining Public Engagement with ‘Invisible Risk” will take place at the geography department at UCL on 7 June 2011 (Bedford Way, Room 113). The seminar will start at 2pm.

The second talk is at the ‘Visualisation’ conference at Southampton Solent. Below are the details for this event given to me by the university. I will talk about ‘Accessing the Invisible: the Politics of Inhuman Scales’.

Date: Tuesday 14 June 2011

Place: Solent Lecture Theatre, James Mathews Building, Southampton Solent University, High Street, Southampton

Time: 1.30 to 5.30 pm, followed by a Reception.

VISUALiSATION is FREE to students and staff of Solent University. For all others a fee of £5.00 is payable at the door. To reserve a place email


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