This research project (slides) is an analysis of unorthodox biology practices. Of Do-It-Yourself Bio Laboratories granting access to knowledge and technologies outside institutionalized science. Of artists resourcing to DIYBio to archive their research objectives. Of Bacteria, redefined by relations when they become actors in DIYBio practices and transformed into subjects in Art. And finally about Science, about epistemology and the politics of knowledge distribution, access, and authority. From a New Materialist, Actor Network perspective, the definitions are built in relations always constrained by their political and social material specificities. Transdiscipline becomes essential to decipher the complexities of the present.
I argue that this moment in the history of our understanding of bacteria as a phenomenon can be transformed by DIYBio practices and embodied in creative ways within the realm of Art. The subversive DIYBio projects and the autonomy of aesthetics become a fertile field for a creative reinterpretation of the concept of bacteria and our relation to them. DIYBio projects and Artworks become embodied theory. A different understanding of Bacteria transforms an ecological approach? A New Materialist, post-anthropocentric perspective transforms an ecological approach?
My first inquiry is, how does a concept like “Microorganism” or “bacteria” is defined in the acting of it, from its relations in different contexts. And more specifically, how do scientific concepts like bacteria are transformed when appropriated by DIY practices and Art? Departing from bacteria as a constituted and constituting phenomenon entangling science, politics, and culture, this new materialist approach understands Art as a space for unorthodox and subversive inquiry. My selection of artworks embodies a non-anthropocentric understanding of bacteria as intra-action within machine-animal systems, symbiosis entangling matter-meaning and nature-culture. They represent a form of being in the world, of understanding and being in nature and of imagining the biocultural histories of the present. Bacteria emerges as the “other” differing regarding non-humanity, reconfiguring environmental humanities as a subject performing a transcendental environmental role. This is an answer to the warning biologists have made about an anthropocentric bias (McFall-Ngai et al. 2013) and how it has led to a microbiology associated mainly with human interests, to be understood as microscopic in a human scale and to a separation and relative neglecting of environmental microbiology.
The acting and relationships that constitute bacteria are also modified by DIYBio practices. A rapidly increasing number of “Do-it -Yourself” Biology practices and laboratories have appeared in the last decade. They are characterized by the interest in appropriating the topics, tools, and aesthetics formerly considered exclusive of the scientific realm. They are symptomatic of a desire to participate in the knowledge and creative possibilities of Biology. They are associated with movements aiming to the democratization of Science, called Open Science or Citizen Science. They are also a response to the fast development of the Biological Sciences and their direct impact on life and the availability of resources these developments carry with them. Everywhere in the world, there are informal labs tampering with the knowledge and tools formerly exclusive to institutional biological science, called ‘DIYBio’. This trend has gained much strength, as part of the hacker culture, with labs and courses all over the world, including Hong Kong. My research includes field work with the DIYBio group in Hong Kong, whose meetings I have been following for several months.
This moment in the history of our understanding of bacteria can be embodied in creative ways within the realm of art. The autonomy of aesthetics allows it to be a fertile field for a creative reinterpretation of the concept of bacteria and our relation to them. Artworks become embodied theory. The work of Gilberto Esparza, Interspecifics and Ana Laura Cantera are the concrete cases from Art I am researching, that embody a present stage understanding in the history of bacteria, in the construction of Bacteria as a phenomenon. This research develops how these artworks are part of a DIYBio culture and a non-anthropocentric understanding of bacteria as intra-action within machine-animal systems, symbiosis entangling matter-meaning and nature-culture.
Among other things, I am proposing that art appropriating resources from biology is a critical and creative appropriation of Scientific tools and knowledge. And second, part of the contemporary Biohacking culture, by making the appropriating tools of biology through DIYBio practices. Moreover, these artworks seek to generate critical perspectives towards our relationship with the environment and transform the vision we have our ourselves within it.
And as a telling example, they frame Bacteria as active agent/ subject, and topic. To name my selection of artworks I use the term “Bacteria focused Art” before the complications implied in the concept “bioart”.
The first example, Autophotosyntetic plants, is a symbiotic system producing its own energy and cleaning wastewater. Where columns of biological fuel cells produce energy. It is the metabolism of bacteria that produce energy and cleans wastewater of the city it is presented. The columns are connected to a nucleus in the center, providing it with the cleaned water, where an ecosystem lives, including protozoa, algae, plants and other bacteria. The energy sustains the system and flashes light so that the plants in the nucleus can complete their photosynthesis processes in the dark room. There is a monitoring panel reporting how well each column is doing and what is the exact source of wastewater for each of them. The last step in the development and collaborations so far includes the coding of the DNA of the bacteria in the fuel cells to determine which bacteria are living there and producing the energy. Autophotosyntetic Plants is a collaborative project directed by Gilberto Esparza.
The second project is Non-Human Rhythms by the art collective Interspecifics. The Energy Bending Lab is an instrument comprised of a set of custom-built modular synthesizers and transduction tools that creates a real-time sonification of the electric properties found in different kinds of bacteria and their activity in microbial fuel cells. Beyond the aesthetic result, producing sound art similar to what we hear through other processes, the notion consistent with my research is making perceivable the unperceivable, sensible/hearable the invisible, and working from DIYBio knowledge and philosophies to generate hybrid systems.
A third artist, Ana Laura Cantera produces biodegradable bacterial fuel cells in relational art. In Ninhos de Equilíbrio the sculptures and installations are built collectively and integrate the technology of bacterial fuel cells with biodegrading materials found in the place of the installation. The small structures, camouflage among the termite mounds in the landscape, producing the energy that illuminates their interior during a lifespan before disintegrating.
All of this examples are biocultural artifacts, as simultaneously hardware, wetware, and software, as hybrids of Science and Art that generate a space of possibility for an embodied transdisciplinary approach. They all learn from available DIYBio knowledge online and offer workshops of DIYBio. They allow me to identify the sites of our cultural and materially dependent understanding of Bacteria. Again departing from the Actor Network notion that definition that comes from the relation.The being is not fixed and material, it depends on how is it performed and on the relations. Within this process, the definition of bacteria changes because the relationship with it changes.
One of the phenomena I have so far observed is that of Art as space of possibility for unorthodox inquiry. The artists that want to tinker with biology often resource to DIY Biology practices and online resources. On the other hand, DIY Biology labs, use Artists (professional) or amateur artistic projects to generate a space of possibility for questioning, for learning, for creating, outside the utilitarian constraints of institutional science.
Therefore, in the realm of art, I am searching to understand the potential of art as space for unorthodox inquiry (Junkyard? Or space of extraordinary possibility?)
And also the potential of Contemporary Art practices collaborating with microorganisms through DIY practices.
These topics interest me to understand the value of DIY Bio and Art intersections: What is possible? What is valuable artistically? What is acceptable? Is artistic value a relevant or desirable trait in these practices? I am expecting to provide a better understanding of so-called bioart practices, of the creative aesthetic projects of DIYBio. Moreover to help my reader understand who has access and authority in scientific knowledge and how to Art and DIYBio transform those power relations and enviromental activism.