Sunday, May 8, 2011

[Yasmin_discussions] art and science: re-drawing boundaries


Thank you for your very interesting and informative post
your your work as an artist in synthetic biology

You ask the question: re artists and synthetic biology

" By capitalising on emerging
technologies too quickly, do we end up metaphorically mapping art works from
diverse areas onto a desired category ? "

The answer is of course : yes, and there is a real danger of 'eliding' into
new hot topics without really dealing with the substance- jen hauser has a long
curatorial practice in art and biology and I am sure that he is careful not
to confuse synthetic biology with other areas of art and biology= but indeed
its early in synthetic biology research and there are only a handlful of artists
like you working actively in that territory

but your email about your own work as an artist
in a practice based art PhD in synthetic biology is a bit of a mind
blower- a few months ago I was at a Leonardo LASER evening
that was packed with biotech people, with the art hacker community talking
about DYI genetic engineering equipment= just like in the 70s the
first home computer clubs were started at the start of the digital age

it seems to me we are in the middle of a rather profound cultural change
in how we view life- with genetic engineering, synthetic biology,
artificial life,
physical intelligence we are seing a number of linked approaches that
bring living systems into the artists studio at the cutting edge of research

stuart kauffman in his recent book 2008, Reinventing the Sacred: A New
View of Science, Reason, and Religion.
attacks some of these issues head on ( from his point of view in the
science of complexity)

there are some rather profound boundaries that we are now beginning
to transgress

- the boundary between living and non living systems
-the boundary between humans and non humans

annick= you are quite right to correct me- that the ventner work doesnt breach
the living/non living boundary= but rather introduces the possibility
of new life
forms on earth that are not a result of darwinian evolution= and so its
the darwinian earth life vs new life forms that are non darwinian

and why do we need boundaries= all philosophical systems develop detailed
ontologies= that define what objects are grouped in the same class so that
one can reason about them= and different ontological systems not only
lead to different epistemologies but 'meaning' becomes destabilised as
boundaries shift

this yasmin discussion seeks to look at how science and technologies
are shifting profound ontological categories

one of the fascinating things is that artists are right in there in the
research labs making meaning at the same time as the scientists
(howard boland's work is a great example)


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Howard Boland <>
Date: Sun, May 8, 2011 at 3:50 PM
Subject: Re: [Yasmin_discussions] Yasmin_discussions Digest, Vol 112, Issue 1

Dear Yasminers,

As a first time poster a quick introduction is in place.  I am currently
doing a practice-based art PhD titled "Art from Synthetic Biology". It
entails an immersive laboratory practice working both independently and
alongside scientists. For the last couple of years, I have been practicing
hands on genetic engineering and synthetic biology using the MIT Registry of
Standard Biological Parts. For instance, I have engineered a genetic device
that allows visualisation of invisible processes such as super-oxidised
stress in bacteria and in so trace memories of growth.

I would like to comment on four aspects: the minimal genome, orthogonal
ribosomes, standardised parts and the Synth-ethic exhibition.

The idea of "the minimal genome" and circumventing 4.5 billion years of
evolution sounds dramatic but the base genome minimalised (from Mycoplasma
genitalium) is of 'natural' origin. It is, of course, 'artificial' through
manipulation (reduction), and more so in Craig Venter's use of a
computational language (e.g. 'booting' up the DNA inside an existing
organism or to paraphrase, "it's a bit like having sex with someone – and
when the whole thing is over, the other has become you").

Moving onto the Ortogonal Ribosome (OR), developed by a group at University
of Cambridge and presented at the Royal Society in London, the idea here is
to tap into the amber stop codon and integrate modified amino acids during
protein synthesis. To do this, a similar "booting" concept emerges, through
the creation of 'artificial' (or orthogonal) ribosomes able to fabricate
'unnatural' proteins. The upshot is an extended genetic code and a new
arsenal of proteins. Jason Chin, heading the group, reflected somewhat in
awe that it has only taken 10 years (since the beginning of modern synthetic
biology) to redraw a 4.5-billon years history of 'natural' building blocks.

Standardised genetic parts, like biobricks used in my own work, are less
dramatic and more like tinkering with electronics, but lets not be fooled in
think that wet and electronic processes are the same. Much work is needed to
regenerate or convert existing material qualified and quantified by
fundamental research into this standard (there are about 700 parts adhering
to the MIT biobrick standard). Also, the goal of having enough parts and
robotics-systems to develop wet devices using computers remains a remote
idea (even with current efforts).

Ten years is not a long time and I would be cautious about over-dramatising
the situation. Whilst conceptually hinting towards major applications,
synthetic biology should still be understood in terms of fundamental
research. Much effort is driven towards manipulation in silico rather than in
vitro with the final removal of human wet work. Understanding life as it
emerges under these conditions as artificial, returns us to the age-old
anthropocentric discussion of nature and man that continues to patronize
nature. Whilst the idea of the synthetic often has foreign and plastic
connotations, the synthesis or reprocessing uses existing matter. 'The
extended nature' works better for me, such as the production of
metalloproteins etc. made possible through OR. A question I would like to
pose is whether or not the shared dialectic between synthetic biology and
computational language is an attempt to diffuse ethical implications?

Finally, and to Jens, the Synth-ethics exhibition intrigues me. However, I
was hoping to also see works that not only loosely relate to synthetic
biology, specially, given the dramatic material argument launched on Bioart
(delineating it from traditional representation - except that which has a
synecdoche relation with bio matter). By capitalising on emerging
technologies too quickly, do we end up metaphorically mapping art works from
diverse areas onto a desired category? The exhibited works are interesting
and exciting. I would however like to pose a question: What artists out
there are currently developing a synthetic biology practice and what are
they producing? Whilst the 'Synthetic Aesthetic' network is geared at
bringing together artists/designer with scientists in synthetic biology, are
there other artists working directly with these processes?

I want to propose a future exhibition that would involve artworks that
actually employ synthetic biology and show living devices, perhaps we could
call it 'wet-devices' and use it as a platform to negotiate some of the
ethical dilemmas thrown up by synthetic biology (e.g. instrumentation and
industrialisation of life).

Howard Boland
Director of Artistic Engagement,

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