How do we speak of a ‘thing’ as our understanding of material artefacts increasingly slip into immaterial data?
Organised by Maria Grade Godinho and Chris Speed of the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, the Centre for Design Informatics and New Media Scotland, the Evaporation of Things was a symposium accompanied by an exhibition of objects looking at the transient states between data and biological materiality. The two-day conference featured talks by a variety of artists and scientists on the many unknowns, conundrums and discoveries prompted by practices that map and extrapolate data through and from the living.
The event was hosted at the University of Edinburgh’s Inspace, a new media laboratory functioning as a platform for both talks and exhibitions. The exhibition included biological or biologically related objects situated between conception, production and outcomes.
C-LAB featured objects from three recent artworks accompanied by videos. In Laura Cinti’s Nanomagnetic Plants (2008/11) where plants become magnetically actuated using magnetic nanoparticles, a series of test tubes were shown featuring serial dilutions of the fluid. In other words, the method used to generate these plants becomes an invisible interface.
Howard Boland’s Stress-o-stat (2011) inversely provided methodological insights by exhibiting the invisible fluids used to produce a work that enables the invisible processes of stress in bacteria to be seen as light.
With the help of Eustace Fernando, we were also able to show aspects of the living work Transient Images (2011) where sewage bacteria are used through a series of calculations to degrade dye and thereby produce an image in a transient state (appearing and then disappearing).
Deborah Robinson showed the developing video work titled Parasite (2012-2013) where fragments of historical footages on malaria were obfuscated by digital parasites.
Ai Hasegawa showed her work I Wanna Deliver a Shark... (2012-2012) posing the unsettling question of bringing a child into todays world by juxtaposing this with how we treat other living creatures. As a speculative idea, she proposes the idea of giving birth to other creatures, such as a shark, to rethink our place in the lifeworld.
Introducing the conference was Steve Yearly, the director of ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, explaining the forum’s aims and structure including its anchoring to the arts as an area that instigates debates on societal impacts and policy making surrounding biotechnology.
First up from the organising team was Maria speaking of her experience of working with both genetics and living animals as data and how this made her aware of the broader implications of her research that could not be confined to laboratory spaces or its operations.
Following on was Chris showing footage from the Challenger accident (1986) highlighting the changing state of data and materiality. In the video we become aware that we are listening to data of the space mission take-off (e.g. altitude, speed, bearing). We witness the disconnection between the physical event and its data as ground control continues the data read-out almost 10 seconds after Challenger explodes. At this point Chris suggested, someone must have tapped the person looking at this data on his shoulder and asked him to look out the window. An eerie start to begin to think about our increasing reliance on data to read or see the world.
The first session, DATA, included speakers Mike Phillips and Vincent Danos.
Mike began his humorously titled presentation I’m melting, melting taken from the Wicked Witch of the West by looking at the manner in which data is becoming increasingly interchangeable between systems and the manner in which machines themselves are acting on behalf of us pointing to the Flash Crash in 2010 where machines had their power plugs literally ripped out after two algorithms on the stock exchange went into a bidding war. His own research looks at how biomedical data can be explored and visualised in new ways from wearable technologies to 3D software and dome displays.
Moving into the bio computational, Vincent looked at methods for modeling polymer of simple glucose molecules that form structurally super-packed starch. As a research dealing with highly complex modelling, Vincent reminds us of the two-folded risk and promise of developing platforms, tools and grammar that may fail or offer new understandings to help feed an increasing population.
We devoured our lunch before the next session FLESH with Laura Beloff and Gill Haddow.
In Laura's talk titled Real-world encounters, connections and effects, she considers the historical idea of biosemiotics that brought about concepts such as Umwelt (Uexküll, 1934) suggesting that each organism lives in a sort of bubble with its environment and is therefore optimised for such living. She juxtaposes this concept with ideas of extensions of the body and how our flesh is becoming increasingly displaced by technologies. In her own often ironic artworks she explores how we may get intimate or fleshy with uncertain data connections as a sort of exercise, such as a wearable robotic tail whose horizontal movement is controlled by ocean currents and vertical motion by tram-line 4 in Helsinki.
Setting the scene in Gill's talk was a trailer from the horror movie Splice where human and animal genes are mixed resulting in all sorts of conundrums when the organisms enters into a social context (e.g. being a lover, a mother, etc). Yet, Gill suggest that in spite of such farfetched stories, recent attempts in the sciences to develop cybrid or a hybrid human-animal cell provides fascinating interactions between scientists, media, publics and regulatory forces offering a glimpse to how we categorise such fleshy data and negotiate what it means to be human.
Inspace was set up with several objects and video projections. As 'things', they were complete works, parts or processes used in the art making. So with a beaker of gin and tonic, the artists took the floor to speak of these 'things'.
The following day, we were back into the thick of things with material or immaterial objects brought in by participants to speed-date their state of evaporation.
I presented a plant that through its material form we understand it as insensitive to touch, yet scientific data demonstrates the capacity of normal plants to respond to touch gestures. Howard, on wondering why the last and most important part of one of his videos in the exhibit did not show (his bacteria blushing red), presented the transition settings of itunes hinting that the smooth transition functionality was literally erasing his footage to provide a pleasant ‘evaporation’ into the next video. The highlight, of course, was Maria’s thing, a scan of her 12-week old baby....being inside her, she knows it’s there but she can only see it as a scan.
The final session, INTERSTICES, included talks by Maria Valdes Hernandez and Oron Catts.
Maria's talk charted the biomedical and statistical terrain of the ageing brain and contemplated how 'art' could contribute to the production of MRI images by using colours to reveal a more whole or ‘real’ image than its corresponding 'raw data'.
Oron provided a rich and engaging talk taking a historical dip into the idea of generating life from dead matter, our gaze at technological wonders and the tragic lives we continue to spectate in a circus-like manner. Focusing on the eye, he suggests that Craig Venter’s synthesising of life (Mycoplasma laboratorium) was set up to look like two blue circles of mycoplasma where life seemingly stares back at us with eyes as if the genome itself is life or is living.
His recent project involving a crash-site of German bombers in northern Finland (from WWII) plays on these points by considering how glass shatters and brutally pierces the eyes of the pilots and the possibility of regenerating some of such life-matter.
To demonstrate the vigorous force of this experience, Oron’s thing was therefore fish eyes, plexiglass, a hammer, pliers and tweezers, and inviting the audience to pierce the lens by hammering glass bits into fish eyes.
The epilogue and questions evaporating at the end was, at least in our case, both ontological and epistemological in nature. For instance, how do we understand the importance of the genomes in defining what it means to be something faced with Craig Venter’s ‘booting up’ of a genome inside another cell (a take over), and perhaps more importantly what happens after it has booted up (i.e. does it carry on dividing - and what is it then?).
Or in another evaporating question, how do we trust the images we compose and corroborate from raw data as truly telling and more real than the data itself.
Inspace at night was a bit to chilly for the bacteria in Transient Images to 'do their thing' to completion. We thought we'd share the final 'evaporation' that took place back in Amsterdam.