Just a quick note about a forthcoming event at the UCL’s Tesla art-science forum.
‘The project brings together bioart, ice sculpture and sound, in an investigation of delicate relationships in the Arctic ecosystem. It traces their individual and collective journeys, in terms of investigative art/science research as well as in terms of being part of the experimental European/world wide collaborative e-MobiLArt project.’
Details about the event, including instructions how to find the room (print them out, you will need them – I had quite some trouble finding the lecture theatre last time…), can be found here.
See you there!
Image source: Exploring the Invisible
Thanks to a friend who specialises in knowing about free things in London (thanks, Ron!), I found out about the Tesla art-science group at UCL and their free talk series, facilitated by Gordana Novakovic and Amanda Egbe. Conveniently close to the British Library where I’d been hovering over some books for most of the day, their most recent talk, ‘Creative Collaborations with Superorganisms’ also made a convenient break from reading/writing routine. The talk was given by Dr. Simon Park, a microbiologist from the University of Surrey, who became interested in engaging people with field through art-science.
I think the talk would have been equally interesting had he just talked about microbes for hours. After all, one doesn’t get exposed to the intricacies of the field through mainstream media very often, apart from the one half hour of ‘The Material World’ once a week if you’re lucky or, somewhat second hand, through a food scare or the like. Although I do listen to ‘The Material World’ as often as I can, there were quite a few things in his talk I did not know about or had ascribed to the latest fantasies of social scientists or science fiction writers. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that we can culture and study only a small part of bacteria ‘out there’ (I think it was around 1% !) – there is a vast area of what Park terms ‘Dark Microbiological Matter’ of which we don’t know what they do in the environment.
At the beginning of the talk, Park traced the joint human-bacterial history and co-evolution. Obviously, humans entered the picture a bit later and remain ‘a process instead of becoming a finished beast’ (I think he was quoting W. Hou Je Bek there). Park showed how our body is made up of distinctly separate, but symbiotic bacteria and cell territories. A telling example later on about our relationship with bacteria was death by cyanide: cyanide is not harmful to the body, but kills the bacteria in such a fashion that the bacterial exodus kills the body.
In terms of our human-bacterial future, Parks pointed towards the current climate change debate. He lamented that we only know that bacteria can have huge effects on the climate, but about the ‘how’ we can only speculate.
Next, we were given an insight into bacterial life which is ‘not as simple as people think’. For instance, they can respond to their environment, order themselves into formations, communicate with each other, pack hunt, ‘vote’ on a decision (e.g. sporulation) and grow into different shapes according to their environment. Their behaviour ‘in the wild’ also differs from their behaviour in controlled laboratory environments (must be one hell of a job to study them!). It was interesting to hear that bacteria sometimes ‘form patterns that scientists don’t understand yet’.
Park then moved on to the ‘art side’ of the talk, drawing attention to the fact, that microbiology already meets art (the word ‘bacteri-art’ came to my mind…) in both useful and annoying ways: all art has invisible microflora growing in or on it (which can destroy artworks or be the purpose of them at the same time), and there is, of course, an overlap of artistic and technical representation in science illustration. We were shown some examples of ‘art directly or accidentally portraying microbes’ – examples of illnesses or notable absence of bacteria – and some more recent examples of artworks where microbes were used as part of the artistic process, starting from Alexander Fleming’s ‘germ paintings’. Other artists included Daro Montag, Edgar Lissel and Susan Boafo (who used algae and light for her project ‘Speaking with the Sun’).
In the last part of the talk, Park presented some of the outcomes of his own collaborations. In the first of these, the ’60 Days of Goodbye Poems of Ophelia’, artist Jo Wonder and Park tried to recreate the John Everett Millais painting with bacteria to document the painting’s life cycle. It was quite amusing to hear Park talk about ‘finding a suitable bacterial palette’ for the ‘morphing painting’. I wonder what Millais would have though about this endeavour…
Other projects included the ‘Microcosmos’, an installation using the colour, shape and even DNA sequences to created sounds and moving visuals, ‘Cybernetic Bacteria’ which explored links between organic and digital forms of communication, a project amplifying ‘bacterial fingerprints’, ‘Exploring the Invisible’ during which bioluminescent bacteria were grown in such quantities that they could run their own photobooth, and ‘Creative Collaborations with Natural Unruly Forms’, a project using Park’s ‘favourite’ species: slime mould. The latter explores the slime mould’s capacity to move over objects in search of food, creating ‘intelligent biogenic designs’. If I remember correctly, slime mould can even find the quickest way out of a maze (which I probably wouldn’t ;) ).
The Q & A was also very fascinating. We all came from quite different backgrounds with different interests in the subject matter, so the questions and comments ranged from our body’s design based on cell death to the ‘geology of blood’ (how iron and other ‘inorganic’ substances evolved into the body from the environment). The latter prompted Park to talk about the ‘arms race’ between the body and bacteria to bind iron during an infection.
So, by the end of the evening, we all ended up with a positively weird picture of hungry, ambitious, sociable, hitch-hiking, exploring, communicating bacteria which artist are helping to ‘express themselves’ in different sort of ‘collaborations’, for instance, by making them grow on and in different materials (I most vividly remember the growths in the agar agar jars and the shockingly exquisite bacterial fabric designs). It made me very curious about what kind of ‘collaborations’ there will be in the future between different forms of live – in and outside of art. Watch this space!
Mysterious sun or poisonous vapour? Somewhat disconnected thoughts on the history of imagining electricity
Source: Tesla Society
While struggling to get the right sort of camping gear and all sorts of other stuff together for the first public appearance of Mutable Matter, I’m also in the process reading articles about electricity. Not because I am paranoid that a lightning bolt might hit my tent next week (though if one tent is going to be hit, it’s bound to be mine!), but because I am curious how people have imagined or are imagining electricity and what consequences this had/has.
The first article I came across was Steven Connor’s ‘Volts from the Blue’. It opens with a delightful paragraph on how the author’s mother imagined some kind of ‘electric matter’ creeping out of sockets. She thought that ‘one should never leave unoccupied plugs switched on overnight lest the electricity should leak out, and spread across the room at ankle level, in a deadly, prickly, miasmatic carpet’. Wow – this is even better than the dialogue in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book ‘The Disenchanted Night’ in which a couple is wondering what would happen if the wires broke and electricity ‘leaked out’ and accumulated in places (a great sentence is: ‘My dear wife, one can breathe electricity without the least danger.’). I guess if we had more people like Steven Connor’s mother, we would not have so many problems with household CO2 emissions from standby appliances! Anyway… The article pulls together very nicely how electricity was imagined in the last four centuries and manages to give an insight into how its assumed ‘strange’, ‘mysterious’ nature lent itself to all sorts of speculation – and application.
According to Connor, the first ‘epoch’ of electric imagination is characterised by electricity as a ‘sensory object, something that could be seen, known and understood.’ At times it was even described as ‘aromatic’ (!). The second stage of our interaction with it (‘after Faraday’) is more abstract, use-value orientated. Electricity could now be managed and more efficiently exploited, so it did not matter anymore what it was made up of. It became invisible in more than one sense. From Connor’s article one gets the impression that the ‘immaterial’ is associated with the future. Creating ‘energy from nothing’ is still a dream (as is ‘substance from nothing’ if one recalls early announcements from certain nanotechnology pioneers).
‘Electricity represented the future, gas the clinging, lingering past. Gas was slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy. Electricity was fast, clean, absolute, mathematical and abstract. Gas lighting is mysterious, impulsive, erotic…’
Connor also writes that ‘dematerialised electricity began to immaterialise the world’. Hmh. Did it?
The article triggered connections with a number of things I had come across recently e.g. the film ‘The Prestige’ (with David Bowie as Nikola Tesla!), Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’, the aforementioned ‘The Disenchanted Night’, and, of course, the debates about the current energy dilemma: are the non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or gas currently portrayed as ‘slow, odorous, insidious, organic, laborious, approximate, fluctuating, mucky, noisy and massy’? Do we think of them as that when we fill up our car, cook our meals or turn on the heater?
Is energy from sun, wind or water the new fantasy of ‘energy from nothing’? Or is energy ‘from the elements’ in fact more ‘primitive’ and fickle than non-renewable resources? And which category does nuclear energy belong to? How people relate to different kinds of energy and how a particular energy is portrayed or imagined fascinates me. Always, the depictions seem to be riddled with contradictions. I vividly remember a discussion I had with a landrover owner who got annoyed that yuppies now rode them around town as a status symbol and don’t use them like him – to drive into the hills and appreciate nature. The destruction of the nature in question through roads, car tires, pollution, CO2 emissions etc is completely disconnected from this picture.
Nigel Thrift’s ‘Electric Animals’ talks about a different kind of nature. He finds that software enables the creation of an ‘electric wilderness’ by animating inanimate constructs. Recently, technology is not just handling, disenfranchising or ‘immaterialising’ (= extinguishing) animals, but it is learning from them and integrating animalistic elements into its design (think Luigi Colani/Janine Benyus or robotic hedghogs?). Thrift puts it this way:
‘just as the materiality of technology has become an insistent force in the world of animals so the materiality of animals has become an insistent force in the world of technology.’
His other statement that ‘the future has a tendency to turn up not as some kind of gleaming and polished modernity but as overused and battered pieces of equipment’ I had to think about when I read ‘The Disenchanted Night’, which follows the (one could say ‘nonlinear’) development of (and public reactions towards) artificial lighting. Sometimes things discarded by ‘progress’ re-materialise: the lightbulb is in some respects more archaic than the gas lamp. What I also found interesting was the mixed reactions towards gas and, later, electricity. Some considered electricity to be clean, purifying and ‘good for your health’ and others fearfully put up their umbrellas to ‘protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun’.
Electricity’s primeval connection with thunder and magic is not only evoked Schivelbusch’s book, but also in the film ‘The Prestige’ (follow the link to look up the plot summary). It makes you think about how electricity must have appeared like magic when it was first implemented in everyday life – and how it still achieves to imbue buildings, performances or new technological gadgets with aura of ‘magic’. Two major figures in the development of ‘electricity for the masses’ – the ‘unseen’ Thomas Edison (see Channel 4 review) and the more visible, eccentric Nikola Tesla – are also featured in the film. The Prestige shows them as rivals obsessed with proving that their way of working with electricity is the right one, probably after the ‘real’ rivalry of the ‘War of Currents’. Actually, the visibility is sort of reversed in the film and played around with all the time (after all, this film focuses on the enmity of to magicians!). For instance, Tesla, defamed as a madness-ridden magician or alchemist, is hiding away in seclusion – he is ‘visible’ only in the film. Edison is not visible in the film, but is the more acceptable public figure, an ‘engineer’ – and his light bulbs are everywhere. On the other hand, Edison’s lightbulbs are now so taken for granted and do not spell-bind as much as the visible electric force of the Tesla coil which is re-build and shown by many ‘coilers’ around the world. And certainly, how the two engineers envisioned electricity contributed to their invention style.
From: The Prestige
I wonder whether the current combination of ever-presence and hiddenness of electricity makes us not try to build a picture of electricity and the materialities that give rise to it – and our ability to handle it in such a casual manner. In this respect I agree with Connor that dematerialised electricity immaterialises. But I also wonder whether it can re-materialise?