Project Genesis started from Futurelab’s partnership within the Studiolab initiative, funded by the European Commision Seventh Framework Programme. Within Studiolab there were three main topics: Future of water, Future of Social Interaction, and Synthetic Biology. For several reasons Ars Electronica chose to focus on Synthetic Biology. Key factors such as a a S1 (security class one) level lab directly in the Ars Electronica Centre, the history of the Prix Ars Electronica having a history of granting awards to significant and powerful works of bio-art, a number of Ars Electronica Festival topics: Next Sex, Life Sciences, Genetic Art – Artificial Life, Flesh Factor, and Hybrid, all touching on the topics of scientific advances, their potential impact on society through the lens of the artist. These factors made a lot of sense that this was the topic that made most sense, as it address a new technological turn, in particular the speeding up of reading and writing of genetic material.
Studiolab spans three years, with a unique and sturdy consortium of organisations such as universities, research facilities, and art centers. The focus of Studiolab was to take the artist’s studio and examine how day by day it becomes more like a scientific laboratory, as place for creative invention and experimentation. The aims are to create new networks, to create incubation opportunities, to educate the general public, and to present the findings of this unique research at Ars Electronica. This timespan allowed deep investigation into the topic, and we resolved to develop a project, or a process whereby artists could undergo mentoring through a masterclass, improving their immediate networks, and from there incubate new art works.
One of the early project strategies of building relationships with artists was the coordination a masterclass: Living Logic. The masterclass was designed with the intent to dig deeper into synthetic biology by inviting renowned mentors like George Church, Joe Davis, Manuel Selg, Markus Schmidt, Jens Hauser to work with a group of artists, designers, architects, musicians, biologists, ethicists, DIY biohackers, and biobrickers to join three days of informal lectures and discussions. The topic was centered on what it meant to be entering the age of living logic, where the programming, modeling and prediction of lifeforms is actually possible. Each mentor was invited to speak to their special expertise, and to open the discussion as wide as possible, and to be inspiring.
The sessions covered the field in practical and theoretical ways:
Manuel Selg led a hands-on experiment, transferring the gene coding for fluorescing protein from a jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) into harmless E.coli bacteria.
Prof. George Church demonstrated the broad scope of synthetic biology today, through a discussion on state of the art and future potentials of synthetic biology.
Joe Davis, on the other hand, delivered his insight into the life and practice of an artist in the modern age, covering a wide territory, from Vitruvius, and Plato to the genius of modern Scientists and Philosophers, to mathematics, communication with extra-terrestrials, and his bacterial radio.
Schmidt and Hauser discussed the ethical and artistic nuances of existing art works and lay out possible theoretical frameworks for dealing with and making new works.
Project Genesis Exhibition
The project began through an open called titled “Yours Synthetically” with the aim towards creating an area for critical discussion around Synthetic Biology. The initial idea was to mount a modest exhibition in the Ars Electronica Center Biolab. However, with the richness and variety of the responses to the open call, this idea was transformed into an exhibition covering two full floors with 18 artworks from artists from within Europe and around the world. Project Genesis not only created a space for stronger relationships between different departments of Ars Electronica, but also, thanks to the Futurelab network and infrastructure, it enabled the development of three completely new bioart projects: Common Flowers / White Out by Georg Tremmel (JP/AT) and Shiho Fukuhara (JP); Metabodies by Sonja Bäumel (AT) and Manuel Selg (AT); Chroma+Phy by Theresa Schubert (DE) and Rüdiger Trojok (DE), and Synthetic Memetic by Matthew Gardiner (AU/AT).
Sonja Bäumel investigates humanity’s intimate relationship with nature and uses our skin as a location to ask questions. Allowing her work to go beyond genetic manipulation of a single organism. She actively cultivates, cares for, and observes bacterial imprints from humans. InMetabodies, she reminds us that 2-3kg of bacteria live within each of us, and that they form a vital part of our bodies flora. Using a bio-sensor of sorts, Bäumel tries to peer into the world of bacterial communication, of Quorum Sensing. Her subject’s hands are imprinted into agar gels after activities like showering, jogging and sex. The bacteria flourish with varied colours and textures from person to person, from activity to activity. She points out that even within the immediate environment of our skin, we have diverse and populous bacterial inhabitants, all playing a vital role in our biological makeup, even down to genetic expression through a phenomenon known as epigenetics.*
Common Flowers / White Out
What happens if we consider reversing an evolution made through synthetic methods. Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara carve open a hole in genetic engineering, and state their proposition in relatively simple terms: ￼The goal of the ‘Common Flowers / White Out’ project is to develop a toolkit and the expertise that will enable non-specialists to remove previously introduced genes from genetically-modified plants. This project is inspired by the first commercially available GM flower – a blue carnation, which has been developed and commercialised by Florigene Ltd and which is currently availably worldwide. The impact of these terms are far from simple. Hands up any scientist who can argue or define what a de-engineered organism is. Is an organism that has been engineered to add a new feature, and then had that feature removed in a clone or later decendant still engineered? Is it still a classified bio-security risk to nature? If we can determine the sequence, we could find the same as the original, and if it was the same, what is it then? Can it possibly carry a ghost-trace, a scar of technology, a memory of being changed?*
Resident Ars Electronica Futurelab artist and researcher Matthew Gardiner examined the way in which DNA can be a carrier of data. DNA can be coded to carry digital data, to be written like a hard drive, not as a living organism but a structure programmed with binary data. Gardiner chose to create a genetic sequence that coded the first line of the Rick Astley song Never Gonna Give You Up, in reference to pop-meme known as Rick-Rolling. The synthetic meme, now encoded as in the length of DNA known as a gene (ask Richard Dawkins if he agrees) was inserted into a paintball bullet and became a meme-bullet. A bullet when shot, would splatter a mixture of paint mixed with meme-paint. Gardiner’s interpretive artwork suggests that based on social media trends, the general public would faster and more readily copy and reproduce trivial data like music, movies and other slices of pop culture rather than sacred texts or deep philosophy. Cultural memes have a higher degree of integrity for short periods, relative to their time. Saving them, or blasting them in a meme-bullet is simply an acceleration of an existing trend.
Carrying on from the research towards encoding data into DNA, we asked the question: How can the general public begin to understand this quite complicated process? How can we make data to DNA transcoding visible? If we can do this, what data would they save, given that DNA samples have been extracted from million year old animals. The idea that data can be saved in DNA, and that it could be a very stable storage mechanism, leads us to question, what would we save? Ars DNA is an instant workshop to convert your thoughts into a DNA sequence that could be synthesized by a laboratory.
*Excerpts from the Ars Electronica Catalogue Essay by Matthew Gardiner.
Matthew Gardiner, Christopher Lindinger, Gerald Priewasser, My Trinh Gardiner-Müller, Gerfried Stocker, Manuel Selg, Sonja Bäumel