Bacteria to Elephants: Practices of Bioart

Mediated Earthworks: New Media Goes Wild by Scott Hessels/ Communicating Bacteria by Anna Claire Dumitriu/ Elephant: The Construction of Contemporary Representation Images by Rattapol Chaiyarat/ A maze about maize: An Amerindian Divinity and its Transgenic Avatars by Pat Badani
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 14:45 - 16:05
Chair Person: 
Tony Allard
Scott Hessels
Anna Dumitriu
Rattapol Chaiyarat
Pat Badani

Mediated Earthworks: New Media Goes Wild

by Scott Hessels

An increasing number of new media artworks are being created in remote, wilderness locations using the natural landscape as a formal property of the work.  Sophisticated sensor, location and presentation technologies are producing artworks inextricably linked to the natural features of their sites.  New media is introducing new types of environmental agency in sculptural, visual, cinematic, and narrative construction.

Recent developments in the portability and cost of emerging technologies now makes it possible to bring sensors, projectors, GPS readers and light installations out into the same isolated deserts that once drew a group of conceptual sculptors in the 1960’s.  The Earthworks movement broke free from the art object through systems, performance, deconstruction, mapping, dispersion, growth, negation and marking.  Each of these strategies can now be done computationally and a body of work is emerging that shares many of the same qualities and principles of these earlier sculptures.

 Now captured data may have replaced the bulldozers, but these too are works not placed in a landscape, but utilizing the landscape itself as the impetus for creation. Earthworks connected physically, interactively with their environments and were designed to react to the forces found there; their new descendents also react to those forces but use technology to mediate.  Once again, artists are using modern tools on old materials. 

Communicating Bacteria

by Anna Claire Dumitriu

The “Communicating Bacteria” Project combines bioart, textiles and 3D mapped video projections to explore new research currently being undertaken in the field of bacterial communication. The project a collaboration between artist Anna Dumitriu, microbiologists Dr Simon Park and Dr John Paul and video artist Alex May.

Bacteria have intricate communication capabilities, for example: quorum sensing (voting on issues affecting the colony and signaling their presence to other bacteria); chemotactic signaling (detecting harmful or favourable substances in the environment); and plasmid exchange (e.g. for transfer of antibiotic resistance genes). Using signaling chemicals such as Homoserine Lactone, the bacteria pass on messages to nearby cells, which can be either part of their colony or other living cells (including eukaryotic and plant cells).

The antique whitework (white on white) embroideries are worked in to by hand with delicately stitched images of communicating bacteria whilst additional patterns are created using a genetically modified strain of Chromobacterium violaceum called CV026.  Chromobacterium violaceum is white in its natural state but turns purple when it receives a communication, since bacteria grow in colonies and individual bacteria are continually sending and receiving signals it always appears purple. But the CV026 strain is in effect mute. It can receive a chemical communication signal but cannot send one, so it only turns purple in the presence of a communication from another bacterium. When exposed to unmodified Chromobacterium violaceum it slowly turns purple as the chemical signal spreads. 

Around the time of the enlightenment the perversely difficult practice of whitework embroidery was considered to be the highest level of achievement for a woman at the same time that the male counterparts, the “gentleman scientists” began to rigorously study the Earth.  By combining whitework with microbiology Dumitriu considers paradigmatic changes in the process of scientific research.

The final outcome of the project is an installation comprising embroidered textiles with killed bacterial decorations, objects created during the research process and delicate  3D mapped video projections that reveal the bacterial communications behaviours taking place.

Elephant: The Construction of Contemporary Representation Images

by Rattapol Chaiyarat

My work in general explores the relationship between human culture and the elephant. The images present the experience of the animals in nature through simulations. In the enclosure, the surface of information is cleverly constructed; it contains fabricated material that symbolizes nature. It also contains the actual animals that represent their own species in the wild. The work demonstrates the reality of how we view elephants and engages with the different representations informed by history, tradition and culture.

This research is aimed at creating a body of work that communicates, in digital and video imagery, key issues around the representation of elephants. To develop this work I will investigate the changing role of the elephant in Thai culture both in historic and contemporary terms and explore the impact of imported ideas on the process of change. A significant corollary interest in this research is the problem of representation and simulation in contemporary life and the impact it has on perception. My art work is a fabricated simulation created from material images. The animal images are transformed into illusions and explore how humans experience nature through simulation. In this way I engage with different kinds of representation for their specific forms and effects.

Sometimes experiencing nature has nothing to do with the real or unreal. The model of tropical rainforests in a controlled environment such as in some botanical gardens, may even look healthier than the real one in South America or Asia. In many regions tropical rainforests are threatened by uncontrollable factors such as over logging, mining, and the expansion of human settlement, as well as global warming, so the experience of the model is a fiction of the ideal, and does not match the reality of the world.

The images express social commentary on the changing role of domesticated elephants in Thailand. The images also demonstrate the animals on display in contemporary society. We love to look at them and appreciate the greatest living figures. We manipulate them in a way that provides us animals of almost absolute integrity. We project images of fabricated environment onto the animals in the way that we want to see. We place them in our society and celebrate our triumph over nature. Elephants still continue their journey through the coexistence of cooperation and confrontation between human culture and the animals. This journey probably will never end and we may have to walk with them every step of the way.


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A maze about maize: An Amerindian Divinity and its Transgenic Avatars

by Pat Badani

This paper discusses a project that explores biodiversity at the intersection of ancient and contemporary science and technologies. It responds to the following questions: “Where is corn growing? Where is it going? And, why should I care?” It investigates current practices of resource conservation, environmental preservation, sustainable technologies and biodiversity protection in Mexico, the USA and Canada. Presented as a multi-modal project incorporating electronic media, the project is designed as a maze about maize, because nothing is clear-cut or simple when it comes to the pros and cons of agro-practices today. The complex foundational issues and convoluted stakes derive from history, ethnology, sociology, biopolitics, law and intellectual property, agronomy, ecology, science, and technology of maize.­

The essay discusses the plant’s evolution from its status as Amerindian divinity, to its contemporary transgenic avatars in the Americas. The author draws on her knowledge of sacred native beliefs and rituals to grow bountiful maize in Mexico where she lived in the 80s, as well as those practiced by ancient Southwestern Amerindians. She also discusses how her interest in corn grew during her years in academia at a university in the heart of the Corn Belt in Illinois (USA) where she interviewed area specialists about the impact of monocultures on economies and livelihoods resulting from the expansion of fields of transgenic yellow corn that cater to a growing industry of feedstock for cattle, corn fructose for foodstuffs, and bioproducts such as corn plastics (PLA) and corn ethanol.

The author investigates several positions: maize as part of the spiritual, social and economic fabric bonding indigenous cultures today in Mexico (the center of diverse corn in Mesoamerica); maize as lucrative commercial product for exploitation by multinational industries; and finally maize as savior plant in a society polluted by its own waste and quickly depleting non-renewable resources. By investigating these cross-sections in time and place, the paper exposes why should one care about maize. It unravels the myths and realities behind the multiple viewpoints and discordant voices about the subject, and speculates on possible alliances.