Poking the uneasiness in the name of art – Ecologies in the Laboratory workshop
We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something that may be shaped and altered.
I have arrived at the Otaniemi campus of Aalto University. It’s Monday, the last day of October, and there’s a possible whiff of snow in the air.
In the Lumarts laboratory of the LUMA Centre (natural science and math), artist and researcher Ionat Zurr, laboratory master Marika Hellman and lecturer Kira O’Reilly of the MAECP programme are all waiting for us. This trio is responsible for introducing the students to the theme of the course, which is to consider the laboratory as an ecology.
Biofilia is a research and teaching lab in biological art and a facility for art and biology. The lab opened in December 2013.
Marika Hellman is an alumni of Otaniemi. Soon after graduating she began planning the Biofilia lab that is contained within Lumarts, down to its technical details. Hellman is now instructing others in the use of live matter materials in the lab, while also continuing to develop the lab further.
Ionat Zurr and another pioneer in the field, Oron Catts, were the experts invited to plan Biofilia lab. Zurr is an artist, researcher and curator of the SymbioticA lab at the University of Western Australia.
The five-day workshop has been arranged in collaboration with Aalto University. During the workshop, the students of the Theatre Academy’s MA programme in Ecology and Contemporary Performance (MAECP) get to familiarize themselves with the laboratory and learn to use the tools and techniques of life science. Over five days students discuss, do practical work and participate in lectures held by representatives of the field Christina Stadlbauer and Bart Vandapurt.
Bright fluorescent lights illuminate the laboratory and all surfaces are gleaming white. On the shelves are different kinds of volumetric flasks, their slim necks glistening. They contain fluids in different bright colours: cyan, dark red and sea green.
Where does life begin? Who are we? When working with living materials you are working with the death at the same time.
As an example, Zurr shows us a picture of a mouse with an ear on its back. This scientific project was created by an engineered constract that looks like a human ear. After mouse the screen shows a hen which is bred featherless. It is an example of human manipulation of living organisms. Next, we see Eduardo Kaci’s GFP bunny, glowing a fluorescent green. Students on this course will also be working with living material.
- Not with mice though, but cells and bacteria, Zurr says.
During the course students get to study hands-on in the lab, and for the last day the course calendar lists the following assignment: Killing and cleaning. In art that uses biology, working with live matter always ends with the death of the artwork or the killing of the artwork. The question of life and death is heavily present in the laboratory.
Being alive is a violent act.
Zurr mentions e.g. Marta De Menezes, who, in her artwork altered the one of the eye patterns from the wing of a butterfly. De Menezes stated that she saw the wings of the butterfly as a canvas on which to make art. The artwork gets the students thinking about whether humans have the right to change nature. The idea of shaping butterfly wings to your liking involves a certain uneasiness.
Behind the Lumarts laboratory is a smaller space, enclosed in glass walls. This is Biofilia. Before we step inside the lab and explore it, Marika Hellman guides the students in using the lab to make sure that health and safety will not be compromised.
Lab supplies include e.g. plastic measuring flasks, pipettes, microscopes, a centrifuge that separates different compounds, a fume cupboard to ensure different substances can be handled safely, two hot air ovens for samples and a PCR device that propagates e.g. DNA samples up to a thousand times.
The students present in the Otaniemi lab have a background in e.g. music, graphic design and performing arts. Previous scientific knowledge is not a precondition for participation, says Zurr. Her background also consists more of the arts than the sciences, as she has studied art history, photography and media.
What the people at Biofilia have in common is an interest in living matter as art material, and the cooperation between art and science.
Hellman appreciates the capacity of art and biology to open up the vocabulary, concepts and complex details of scientific research. According to this lab master, bio art constitutes an exceptionally important part of the Aalto University curriculum, and collaboration between art and science may lead to new and surprising innovations. According to Hellman, bio art is an important factor in, for example, understanding genetic technology.
Art helps science understand itself.
On the Wednesday morning of the workshop week the promise of snow has come true, and the ground is covered in a thick white layer. White are also the lab coats the students are putting on.
Today, at the workshop’s halfway point, the students are about to isolate their own DNA.
It sounds grand and complicated, but in practice the students start by gently biting their own cheeks for 30 seconds. Then they put 15 ml of water in their mouths from a tube, and gently rinse for 30 seconds.
Marika Hellman points out that it is not advisable to swallow the fluid since this is lab water, not primarily meant for drinking. The students gently spit the water back into the test bottles. Having rinsed their mouths with it, the water now contains bacteria and e.g. some remains of breakfast.
What do you think you DNA will look like? What color? Pink? Red? Blue?
Although it is part of us, we know very little about our DNA.
At this stage the students’ work methods begin to differ. Some have been given the task of trying a more DIY approach, using washing-up liquid, water and sea salt. Other students analyze their DNA in a more professional manner with lysis buffer, protease and alcohol. Zurr laughs, telling the students they can now separate their DNA both at home and in a night club.
The time has come to investigate DNA as a material to work with, rather than as information.
Zurr says that we use metaphors to try understanding phenomena. By choosing to use certain metaphors, however, we automatically exclude other metaphors and the ways of thinking they contain. That is why it is good for artists, for instance, to discover new metaphors that would never occur to those looking at things from a scientific perspective. One of the students describes her bottled DNA as looking like “the Northern lights”.
New ways of describing lab phenomena also question the old ways and may open up new paths of thinking, which we can again use to expand our understanding of something. As the lab crew begin tossing off descriptions I can’t be completely sure when they are joking and when they are being serious: for example, Zurr refers to her DNA as beautiful.
When I ask her about this, Zurr replies that according to her, art that works with biological material is not intended to be beautiful, but to ‘poke the uneasiness’ in people.
- I have a problem with the word ’beautiful’, says Zurr.
Raising feelings of uneasiness is her artistic method for creating discussion. Zurr thinks it important to process e.g. current political issues by artistic means, in connection with increasingly controlled life processes.
Although Marika Hellman is here to guide the students in using the laboratory, she always learns new things herself. According to her, the best thing about the workshop is the students’ opportunity to bring their own unique views to the forefront once they have participated e.g. in lectures that deal with the challenges of lab-grown tissue.
- After the course, students have a deeper understanding of different levels of research. This enables them to participate in the public debate regarding, for example, gene technology. They also become familiar with using live matter in their work, says Hellman.
Ionat Zurr is on the same lines. She shares how the techniques and technology of researchers need to be made accessible also to other people, in order for the debate to gain more voices and perspectives. When an exchange of ideas takes place between artists thinking within the contexts of society, philosophy and aesthetics, and scientists, who view things through a different lens, the dialogue is enriched. In addition to science, bio art helps us understand life and what it is to be a human being.
- Current radical, avant-garde art is to be found in laboratories and bio art, says Zurr.
Zurr explains that living matter is increasingly becoming raw material for people to manipulate. According to her, also non-scientific people would need to learn more about something that will eventually change how we look at life. How we see ourselves, the human body, non-human life and ecology is undergoing a revolution as science takes new steps forward.
For MAECP student Ida-Elisabeth Larsson this is the first time in a laboratory. Ida Larsson, a former student of choreography, feels that the most important aspect of the course is to learn more about art and biology and the different ways that artists engage with the aesthetics, politics and materiality of the laboratory. The human microbiome presented to the students during the course raised questions for Larsson, coming from the world of dance, such as what kind of role the body, or body state of a lab worker, plays in the formulation of new research.
I think the arts can give perspectives that are more poetic, in a way. By that I don’t mean poetic as in just lyrical and lovely, I mean how in poetry often language doesn’t conform in the ways that we expect it to, but rather will allow us to have experiences that are more usefully ambivalent and complex.
When the DNA is in the jar and has been separated from the fluid into its own deposit, Ionat Zurr gets serious and asks the students a question:
- Does anyone have a problem with gene modification?
The lab goes quiet, but only for a moment. Then someone says yes, but only because he doesn’t know enough about GMO.
- But yeah, I definitely have a problem with it.
Next, the students will combine their own DNA with cells from an apple, in other words a small-scale gene modification. Students are still given the option not to participate actively in the work, but no one wants to remain on the sidelines. Another topic of discussion is whether modifying genes is playing God, or can otherwise be considered ethical. Zurr says she is glad the students feel uncomfortable working with GMO.
- When I experience a sense of conflict in my work I feel good, because then I know I am processing something important.
The writer is a communications trainee at the Theatre Academy, and this was her introduction to the fields of chemistry, biology and lab work.