Nicole Grüneis is on the staff of the Ars Electronica Center’s Education and Cultural Communication department, where her job includes designing exhibitions’ supplementary program of guided tours and workshops. In this interview, she talks about mediating visitors’ encounters with “Project Genesis – Life from the Lab.”
The New Weathermen (Photo: Martin Hieslmair)
How did you approach the challenge of producing an exhibition about a topic as complex as synthetic biology?
Coming to terms with synthetic biology is totally dependent on explanations by experts. And major roles in this field are played by genetic engineering and molecular biology, subjects redolent of laboratories. When these things are suddenly played up in the mass media and presented as phenomena that will radically change everyday life as we know it, people tend to get apprehensive. Our aim is to relieve visitors’ anxieties by showing how human history has always been accompanied by developments in synthetic biology. We’re hardly in a position to convey detailed information about these subjects, but we certainly can offer explanations of fundamental concepts in order to establish a basis upon which to form an opinion. Infotrainers are on the spot if people want to talk about something in particular. After all, nurturing cultural communication isn’t limited to getting across scientific facts. Actually, the Infotrainers can make their most valuable contribution by facilitating a process of dealing with ethical, moral and philosophical issues.
Which groups is this exhibition appropriate for?
For everyone. Synthetic biology affects all of us. Our job is to make this subject attractive for as many people as possible, and that includes children. By no means do visitors have to have a scientific background; all they need to bring with them is interest and openness. Every target group is offered an approach suited to it—for instance, we have an exhibit entitled “A Crazy Chicken” produced at Linz’s Kindergarten of the Future. This story about oddly shaped eggs is ideal for elementary school pupils. For grown-ups, there’s the Project Genesis Special Tour that starts in BioLab and goes into the scientific basis of synthetic biology and the history of its development. Synthetic biology didn’t emerge fully formed overnight; rather, it developed step-by-step over many years from biotechnology, which, in turn, accrued over centuries or millennia as humankind learned to cultivate plants and domesticate animals. This is something that came about very, very slowly. This is a disputed issue even among experts—where cultivation stops and synthetic biology begins. There is no strictly demarcated boundary. But when you talk about biobricks and organic modifications, manipulation of organisms, you have to have some idea about what DNA and genetic sequencing actually are. BioLab gets this across very effectively. These fundamentals enable exhibition visitors to successfully encounter the artworks on display and their intentions.
“AEC” encoded as DNA
And what about those who don’t want to take a guided tour?
Of course, people can tour the exhibition on their own. The definitions of key terms that constitute the outer shell of the exhibition’s architecture provide a solid introduction to the basics and, thereby, conceptual access to the works of art on display. In the middle of the exhibition space, there’s a workshop area that’s a setting for various hands-on activities. For instance, “ARS DNA” demonstrates how information can be stored to memory as DNA. A visitor can input a series of characters like a name or a birth date, and it comes back converted into a DNA sequence. The original idea was the invention of George Church, who did it for the first time. This also provides an interesting linkup to the theme of this year’s Ars Electronica Festival – Total Recall, because it turns out that DNA is an extremely effective means of long-term information storage. The sequence can then be printed out as a sticker, which visitors can take home as a souvenir or adhere to a wall with other messages.
During the Ars Electronica Festival, students from the École de recherche graphique in Brussels will also be hosting a hybrid workshop designed to give kids an introduction to scientific hybridization from September 6-8. They’ll be able to use newspaper clippings to construct a hybrid creature and print it out as a new life form. Visitors can also take these objects home with them, or leave them to be part of the exhibition.
Nicole Grüneis started out as an Infotrainer at the Ars Electronica Center in 2009. In July, she joined the staff of the Education and Cultural Communication department, where her job includes designing the program of guided tours and workshops that accompany exhibitions.