Digitization of Biological Data

Microscopic transformations: scientific visualization, biopower, and the arts by Roberta Buiani/ Design for Life by Meredith Walsh/ Leaf++ by Salvatore Iaconesi,Luca Simeone and Cary Hendrickson/ Mass Body Index: Bio-OS, a Biological Operating System by Mike Phillips, Birgitte Aga, Gianni Corino, Hannah Drayson, and Simon Lock/ Examining Issues of Body Image and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome within the Digital by Mark William Palmer
Tuesday, 20 September, 2011 - 14:45 - 16:25
Chair Person: 
Oron Catts
Roberta Buiani
Meredith Walsh
Salvatore Iaconesi
Mike Phillips
Mark Palmer
Luca Simeone
Birgitte Aga
Gianni Corino
Hannah Drayson
Simon Lock
Cary Hendrickson

Microscopic transformations: scientific visualization, biopower, and the arts

by Roberta Buiani

Of the variety of microorganisms immortalized by countless techniques and technologies (electron microscopy, 3D modeling etc..), viruses are among the most fantasized about. Their size and nature makes finding appropriate visualization models and methods of analysis rather challenging. As a result, visualization becomes highly diversified, as attempts to portray these submicroscopic substances abound and compete with each other.

I argue that the above visual diversification reveals dynamics and approaches that define the scientific visualization of viruses as a very peculiar expression of today’s biopolitical life regime. In fact, the aesthetics and location of scientific visualization in popular science magazines and science journals reveals the urge to constrain, regulate and control these visual expressions to serve a number of agendas and recommendations. Thus, these images seem to support and tiredly repeat old ideas of viruses as spectacles, or as vicious invaders, an attitude that reminds us of the way foreign politics would treat the “immigrant alien” or the “imminent pandemic.” This inclination, however, is constantly ousted by a drive towards new ways of seeing, representing, and challenging older ideas of contagion and infectious diseases that incorporate more holistic and innovative concepts into the images.

This double tendency equally emerges from the work of the scientist and the creative intervention of artists who have engaged with the practice of visualization and have witnessed first-hand the processes and negotiations involved in the production of scientific visualization. By comparing the work of artists like Luke Jerram, Susanna Edwards and Caitlin Birrigam with examples of scientific visualization to be found in magazines and journals such as Nature and Science, I plan to illustrate 1) how the variety that characterizes the scientific visualization and representation of viruses and other submicroscopic entities constitutes a productive force reflecting but resisting conceptual and visual control over visualization and 2) how the intervention of the artist and the myriads of companies dedicated to the improvement of visualization trigger molecular, though gradual changes that in the long un will transform the way in which we see the object of visualization, the concepts and notions that frame it, as well as the object itself.

Design for Life

by Meredith Walsh

To design novel biological systems, synthetic biology has created new software technologies, such as GeneDesigner, Rosetta, Foldit, and molecular graphics programs such as Chimera, that draw on other areas of design such as architecture, fashion, media production and electrical engineering to manipulate DNA and produce novel protein structures –the work horses of cellular function. 

These new design technologies, it is argued, capture a surplus essential to life within a web of aesthetic and cultural practices, aimed at mass producing novel life integral to the digital economy and biocapital. (Mackenzie 2010)  Rather than capturing a surplus essential to life, however, I suggest the creation of these technologies as a means to design novel biological systems signals a change in the meaning of biological life indissociable from its digital aesthetic expression.

To address the creation of new media technologies to synthetically produce novel biological systems, as it bears on what is meant by biological life, I will draw on my recent research at the Pier Luigi Luisi Synthetic Biology Laboratory in Rome.  (http://www.plluisi.org/).  Drawing on Greg Lynn’s development of architectural design software to create architectural forms, based on geneticistWilliam Bateson’s notion of symmetry breaking, I have begun to explore the generative design of proteins aesthetically interpolating the experimental debate between the control of life through bioinformatic design and its emergence through the random sequencing of DNA.  (http://walsh2010.anat.org.au/)

(Please note my creative research is indissociably theoretical and practical, interplaying the philosophy of biological science with the aesthetics of bioinformatic design and experimental synthetic biology.  To what extent I discuss the practical dimension of my work, however, will depend on its progress at the time of presentation) 


by Salvatore Iaconesi, Luca Simeone and Cary Hendrickson

Natural interfaces and cross-medial technologies allow for the creation of new publishing paradigms in which the term "book" can be disarticulated and rearranged into unexpected forms, fostering new ways of interacting with data and information.

Leaf++ is the product of a research project that goes in this direction in which a prototypal interactive system involving computer vision, gestural interfaces, augmented reality technologies and cross medial systems to create a novel tool to experience botanical information about plants and their leaves.

In Leaf++ an interactive surface and a mobile application can be used to access information of a leaf. By placing the leaf on the interactive surface or by taking a picture of it using the mobile application, a computer vision system is able to recognize it (if it already has been added to a database) and to show available information sources including scientific classification and information, habitat information, world diffusion data, seasonality, curiosities, videos, images and stories regarding the leaf and the plant to which it belongs. Researchers and other forms of users are also allowed to add information to the system: by simply uploading texts, images, videos and geographical locations, they can contribute to the set of information available for the recognized leaf.

The overall interactive system comes out as a really significant experience, employable according to various usage scenarios that go from scientific research to education, to mobile and museum-based entertainment,  which not only suggest possible effective uses for these ubiquitous, cross-medial technologies, but also enacts information access and knowledge sharing practices which are outstanding from the point of view of their usability, and of the cognitive approaches fostered by such direct, "augmented" methodologies.

Leaf++ is a cross-medial, augmented reality, multi-author, emergent, evolving and disseminated publication.

Mass Body Index: Bio-OS, a Biological Operating System

by Mike Phillips, Birgitte Aga, Gianni Corino, Hannah Drayson, and Simon Lock

Mass Body Index describes an ongoing project being developed by i-DAT called Bio-OS, a Biological Operating System. Bio-OS builds on the i-DAT’s ‘Operating Systems’ (www.op-sy.com) initiative (Arch-OS, CO-OS and Eco-OS). These open tools for gathering data from environments (buildings and landscapes) and organisms (crowds and bodies) will be focused on delivering dynamic and interactive outputs through a range of technologies (such as social networks, streaming media, mobile phone Apps, Full Dome environments, etc). These ‘Operating Systems’ dynamically manifest ‘data’ as experience in order to enhance perspectives on a complex world.

The intention of Bio-OS is to make the data generated by human biology tangible and readily available to the public, artists, engineers and scientists. The Operating Systems project explores data as an abstract and invisible material that generates a dynamic mirror image of our biological, ecological and social activities. The Operating Systems project proposes a range of tools and initiatives that have the potential to enhance our ability to perceive and orchestrate this mirror world.

Bio-OS builds on this open technical framework to offer the opportunity to collect and manifest biological data. Dynamic visual and sonic experiences derived from human movement are being tailored to enhance public understanding of the collective, mass biology. In this context Bio-OS and its distribution and engagement mechanisms provide an open tool for public engagement with a domain that is primarily owned by medical, scientific fields. 

Bio-OS provides accessible (through hacks, wearable devices, phone Apps and domestic and public health technologies and social media tools) that are being deployed in daily life for monitoring health and activity. Data collected from these tools feed dynamic databases that facilitate a shared understanding of the mass body index through visualisations and sonifications – a data body culture of health.

Bio-OS implements processes topically described as the ‘Internet of Things’, in this case the human body becomes a networked and shared ‘thing’. Bio-OS generates a rich mix of quantitative and qualitative data. Collectively these processes establish an open participatory ‘techno-ethnography’, mechanisms for evaluating engagement and participation through a rich mix of qualitative and quantitative data.

Examining Issues of Body Image and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome within the Digital

by Mark William Palmer

Body image can be altered by pain, ‘peripheral ‘injuries such as amputations, or insults to the central nervous system. These conditions have also formed the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical enquiry into how we might understand embodiment. Within clinical practise attempts are made to ‘repair’ patient’s body image through rehabilitative techniques however the means of assessing these changes has been that of self-portrait sketches.

The use of self portraits has been problematic in that it has often been limited by the abilities of the patient and not without irony the additional limitations that the condition itself can place upon them.  Alexa Wright’s work on the Sci-Art funded After Image project (1997) investigated the phenomena of phantom limbs however the techniques involved in creating these images were not ones that could be easily utilised by patients within a clinical setting. As a result of this research was instigated that examined the possibilities of the manipulation of an avatar for suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPD) within the Digital to communicate their experience of their body image; this was instigated by allowing patients to remove, scale, displace and render the body in a variety a ways. Alongside this it has also been discovered that games utilising devices such as the WiiMote have allowed patients suffering from conditions such as CRPD to begin reintegration of ‘disowned’ and painful limbs into their body image.

This paper will examine issues surrounding issues concerning the perception and depiction of the body within the digital. It will draw upon research interviews with users of the system to explore how the digital, rather than promoting notions of ‘virtual’ self can help us understand our experiences of the physical. In so doing it will draw upon a phenomenological understanding of embodiment and seek to critique the structures that often assert the digital a space of the incorporeal.