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Lab-made art

Artists use tools from science to craft their work

In Culturas degenerativas, fungi crawl over books and distort digital texts that talk about humans controlling nature

Cesar & Lois

Copies of books that discuss the efforts of humans to dominate nature, such as De natura deorum, by the Roman orator Cicero (106 BC–43 BC), serve as a banquet for a colony of fungi of the species Physarum polycephalum, which is a type of yellow mold. The fungi on the pages are captured by a camera that is connected to a computational visual attention system and feeds an artificial intelligence algorithm that simultaneously distorts a database: the result is the fungi seem to slowly “eat” digital documents as well. All of this, which is being promoted through a Twitter account, is part of the artistic display Culturas degenerativas (Degenerative cultures), on exhibit until September 23rd at the Brighton Digital Festival in England. “The manipulation of live organisms or algorithms allows art to put forward esthetic and conceptual dialogs based on how we think and do things today,” notes Brazilian artist Cesar Baio, coauthor of the work along with The League of Imaginary Scientists (LOIS), an artist collective headquartered in the United States.

As a professor in the Arts Institute at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Baio works in a transdisciplinary area known as art-science, which has gained recent popularity and uses scientific methodologies, equipment, and concepts, not only as tools in the process of artistic creation, but also as forms of expression. Baio is also one of the founders of the Laboratory for Research in Art, Science, and Technology at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), which has supported projects like this since 2015. “It is a kind of structure that brings together researchers from various areas, such as philosophy, biology, and computer science, and who are interested in discussing different fields of knowledge,” he says.

He talks about how the inspiration for the laboratory came from initiatives such as the SymbioticA Laboratory at the University of Western Australia, established in 1996 by the Finnish designer Oron Catts, who is known for using stem cells and tissue cultures such as raw materials for his artwork. “Even though I am part of a university with a heavy focus on research, SymbioticA is free to support independent artistic projects,” says Catts in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP. “Artists can complete a residency in other laboratories of the university and have access to the same equipment and technological resources used by any researcher in the institution. This is a way to free up these tools from the somewhat restrictive agendas of science and engineering such that they can be used in more vital, cultural contexts,” he notes.

Cesar & Lois Fungi crawl over books and distort digital texts that talk about humans controlling natureCesar & Lois

In Brazil, similar experiences have begun to emerge, as evidenced by a study published in the June issue of the magazine Ciência e Cultura (Science and culture), which provided the context for academic output in the area of art-science in Brazil. “Based on data extracted from Plataforma Lattes and from Google, we identified 131 researchers who work in this field in Brazil,” reports the author of the article, João da Silveira, pharmacist, choreographer, and visiting researcher from Harvard University in the United States. Out of this group, 51 profiles, which were considered the most relevant in terms of scientific output, were analyzed. The factors that were studied included schools and areas of formal study and employment, as well as the gender of the researchers. According to the study, of the 51 profiles, the majority were women (31). The majority of the researchers in the study (66.7%) work in the Southeast region of Brazil—followed by 11.8% in the Central-West, 9.8% in the South, 9.8% in the Northeast, and 2% in the North.

One of the groups identified in the study is based at the Center for Art and New Organisms (NANO), established in 2010 at the School of Fine Arts at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “Our projects involve working with living organisms and artificial systems,” explains artist and coordinator of NANO, Guto Nóbrega, who studies ways of producing art through plant activity. In one of his most prominent projects, BOT_anic, a plant known as “jiboia” (Epipremnum pinnatum) is monitored as it guides the movements of a small robot. “When a person breathes close to the plant, electrophysiological changes take place on the surface of the leaves and are captured by sensors. The electrical signals activate the motors of the robot, which then moves toward the person,” explains Nóbrega, who wanted to stimulate debate around the sensitivity of plants and the relationship between humans and machines.

It is not uncommon for natural history museums, planetariums, and botanical gardens to host exhibitions with images and illustrations created by artists and researchers. One example is the ArtBio collective, which has been promoting the Brazilian Scientific Art Show since 2014 with photos taken using microscopes. “Science and art are languages that unmask veils and mysteries. Each showpiece opens itself to the spectators, not as an absolute certainty, but as an ambiguity in the act of contemplation,” says designer De Aquino, one of the organizers of the show. The relationship between art and science, above all, is not limited to initiatives of scientific dissemination, as observed by professor Martin Grossmann at The School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). “Pioneering fields, such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence, have caught the attention of artists and researchers who are interested in exploring new esthetic possibilities,” confirms Grossmann.

Guto Nóbrega In the work BOT_anic, a plant controls the movements of a small robot that interacts with the publicGuto Nóbrega

The researchers who work in this intersection complain about the difficulty in obtaining funding for their projects. “The funding agencies don’t have a specific area or subarea for research focused on the relationships between art and science and, for this reason, it is more difficult to coordinate appropriate assessments for this type of project,” explains visual artist and curator, Pablo Gobira, professor of the Graduate Arts Program at the State University of Minas Gerais (UEMG) and one of the founders of the Laboratory of Poetic Frontiers in 2013. For Gobira, a common link between artists that work in art-science is the effort to make available to the public their own reflections about art—which is not always viable. “Today it is possible to create a drawing on a Petri dish using genetically modified microorganisms, but this does not mean that any esthetic experiment results in art,” considers Gobira. He believes that artistic processes do not only involve creativity, but also concepts integrated with the piece.

The connection between science and art is far from being a novelty—the two fields journeyed together in the past. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) created masterpieces of anatomy that gained scientific interest. “The use of mathematics and geometry helped to revolutionize the representation of perspective in works of art of the Renaissance,” emphasizes Grossmann. At the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, new techniques, such as photography, provided unprecedented fields of work for art. From this point forward, other fields of knowledge, such as engineering, not only became sources of inspiration but also began to offer artists methods of work, as written in an article published in 2015 by Cristina Barros Oliveira, researcher for the Institute of Art History at the New University of Lisbon. Artists, such as Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) of France, led the way in experimenting with new materials. His work of 1915, O grande vidro (The large glass), constructed from two immense plates of glass—in which strands of lead, oil, and varnish are used in the composition—is a benchmark, notes Grossmann. It is believed that the first artist to use living organisms in an exhibition was photographer Edward Jean Steichen (1879–1973) of Luxembourg. He combined different species of plants from the Delphinium genus, resulting in new varieties that were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

In the mid-1990s, advances in biotechnology allowed for the emergence of bioart, an artistic movement inspired by the techniques of genetic engineering. “Manipulating life became a new form of esthetic creation,” confirms Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac. A resident of the United States for 30 years, where he teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kac gained notoriety in 1997 when he implanted a microchip in his own body as part of an artistic experiment named Time capsule. In 2000, through collaboration with scientists from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, the artist shocked everyone with the creation of an albino rabbit, called Alba, which emitted green light when subjected to blue light—researchers had introduced into the reproductive cells of its mother a gene that produces a fluorescent green protein, GFP, extracted from a kind of jellyfish. “My goal was to create a living being that had never existed before in nature,” says Kac. The work generated controversy and, to this day, is the focus of debates about the limits of genetic manipulation and of art itself.

In a declaration published last year, Kac and other artists define bioart as a form of artistic expression that uses proteins, living tissues, and DNA as tools. Portuguese artist Marta de Menezes, one of the signatories of the declaration, alerts that the objective of bioart is not to praise biotechnology. “Art can raise questions about whether or not a certain technique should be used and also argue ethical issues at stake,” confirms de Menezes. In recent works, she explores the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which has the potential to correct genetic defects associated with disease.

Robertba/ARS Electronica Cyanobacteria populate computer motherboards in an exhibition by Hideo Iwasaki and Oron Catts in 2010Robertba/ARS Electronica

The artist began to work in this field at the end of the 1990s when, still studying plastic arts at the University of Lisbon, she began to paint screens that refer to biological themes, such as neurons and embryonic cells. Her marriage to an immunologist and friendship with scientists led her to develop an interest in the work carried out in biological laboratories. “I began to write to researchers, asking them to accept me as a residency student in their labs,” says de Menezes, who made her debut in 2000 with her project Nature?, which involved a large oven serving as a habitat for live butterflies. Her project was inspired by the research of Dutch biologist Paul Brakefield, who studied the factors that affected the formation of the wing patterns of butterflies.

Brakefield’s team had developed a technique that does not involve gene manipulation and which has the capacity to change wing patterns while still in the cocoon. “The manipulated butterflies presented patterns never before seen in nature. I realized that that had artistic potential,” recalls de Menezes, who did an internship in Brakefield’s laboratory. In her opinion, the procedure does not hurt the butterflies as they do not have nerve endings in their wings. The goal, according to de Menezes, is to question the concept of natural versus artificial. She recalls that, in one of the meetings with Brakefield’s team, they discussed why their work was science and hers was art, if the raw material was the same. “What makes my work art is not the type of material I use, but rather the questions that I raise with my artwork.”

But often the scientist and the artist coexist in the same person, as with the Japanese biologist and bioartist Hideo Iwasaki, coordinator of the Laboratory for Molecular Cell Network & Biomedia Art at Waseda University in Tokyo. After studying for years the pattern formations of cyanobacteria, also known as blue algae, Iwasaki decided to incorporate the object of his research into the works of art he produces. “I develop artistic practice as much as scientific study in the exploration of critical thinking about what life is,” confirms Iwasaki. In 2010, he and Catts, of the SymbioticA Laboratory in Australia, created a project called Biogenic timestamp, in which they worked with a cyanobacterial culture that obtains energy through photosynthesis. The algae were applied to a computer motherboard which, to this day, continues to be affected by the work of these organisms.

According to the creators, the colonies attach themselves to the metallic surfaces of the hardware in a representation of the integration between living beings and technology. “The esthetic approach is one of the ways to explore the limits between scientific knowledge and understanding of life. Biological materials are interesting means to provide such discussion, but the most important aspects are the philosophical and ethical concepts tied to the artwork,” says Iwasaki.

Scientific article
SILVEIRA, J. R. A. et al. Arteciência: Um retrato acadêmico brasileiro. Ciência e Cultura. Online. Vol. 70, no. 2. 2018.