On 15 and 16 November 2012, Espacio Fundación Telefónica’s auditorium hosted a meeting of experts who addressed, from different perspectives, the concept of artificial life and the challenges posed by contemporary research in fields such as robotics, synthetic biology and art.
During the first part of the summary of the seminar we examined Gusz Eiben’s and Rolf Pfeiffer’s reflections on robotics and artificial evolution. In the second part we have seen the presentations by Steen Rasmussen, Ricard Solé and Álvaro Moreno on artificial life and synthetic biology. In this third and final part, the history of the VIDA. Art and Artificial Life awards is the highlight of “Art in the face of the new challenges of (artificial) life”, a presentation by Karin Ohlenschläger, professor of the European University of Madrid and curator of the VIDA 1999/2012
Art and Artificial Life exhibition, and “From artificial life to synthetic biology: rematerialization, proper adjustment of the media and construction of authenticity”, by Jens Hauser, a researcher from the Institute for Media Studies of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, curator, writer, and media arts theorist.
Art and Artificial Life
In her presentation, Karin Ohlenschläger, a professor from the European University of Madrid and curator of the Arte y Vida Artificial. VIDA 1999/2012 exhibition, focused on the links between the development of artistic experimentation and the scientific breakthroughs throughout the 20th Century, making reference to the Telefónica’s Cubism Collection and Art and Artificial Life. VIDA 1999-2012exhibitions, both on display within the halls of Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid. According to the curator, in art, cubism reflects an opening towards a more complex and complete reality, a reality marked by scientific and technological progress. Cubism abandons the renaissance perspective and opens up to a multispatial and multitemporal approach, leading to the representation of all possible perspectives in the same plane. When looking at a cubist painting you must move around mentally in order to reconstruct and recognize the figure, leading to a more active and engaging relationship between the artist, the work and the spectator. Conceptually, this foreshadows the idea of the work of art as an open and evolutionary system, as its interpretation combines the position and varying perception of spectators when they confront the work. Scientific discoveries, which were discussed by the avant-garde artists of the 20th century, led progressively to the conception of art, no longer as a mirror of reality, but rather as a generator of knowledge. According to Ohlenschläger, the collage technique itself could be extrapolated to the practice of assembling DNA fragments assembling that artists such as Paul Vanouse or Eduardo Kac would develop. The Second World War and the memory of Auschwitz and Hiroshima would mark the beginning of a new era in which many ethical and aesthetic questions arose regarding the relationship between man and power, science and war. Fundamental questions about life emerge, while art seeks to become more identified with life through practices linked to the body (body art, happenings) and everyday life. In the mid-60s, Joseph Kosuth’s work One and Three Chairs (1965) exemplified the idea of art as information and the search for a new relationship between language and reality, one that displays the very process of thought itself. The idea of the object as information is also the subject of another chair, the Robotic Chair (2006), by Max Dean and Rafaello D’Andrea, who turned a common object into a creature with life of its own, capable of communicating with its parts and of rebuilding itself. By the end of the 20th Century, art started applying the new digital tools to explore the dimensions of virtuality: the spectator is no longer in front of the painting, but inside it. The same thing occurs in Char Davies’ Osmose (1995), an enveloping 3D environment. Works of art now propose new conceptions of life.
In the 90s, before the VIDA contest, Fundación Telefónica organized two events of great significance in the relationship between art and artificial life: one was the Arte Virtual (Virtual Art) exhibition in 1995, curated by artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which showcased for the first time in Spain the work of pioneers such as Myron Krueger or Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau; the other, in 1996, was the fifth edition of Cyberconf, a conference on cybernetics and cyberculture, which drew a large crowd of theorists and scientists. Suzy Ramsey and Lozano-Hemmer developed the idea of the first art and artificial life contest, a contest like no other on this subject which has become an international model and in which 1,500 artists from 36 countries have already participated. What motivates artists to research artificial life? It is not the art market, nor the museums or galleries, although many of the works have been on display at centres and museums (such as the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the ICC in Tokyo and the MoMA and the Whitney in New York). These artists are driven by the same concerns that drive scientists: making visible that which is invisible, examining the functions, relationships and uncertainties to which technical innovations lead. Art focusing on artificial life seeks to cross boundaries and establish productive interference between art, science and society.
Karin Ohlenschläger then proposes a journey through the Art and Artificial Life. VIDA 1999/2012 exhibition, which is structured into different sections. Firstly, the different ways of understanding and working with the code of life, which lead to the identification of life with text and analogies between life and communication, are explored in works such as Life Spacies II (1999) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Génesis (1999) by Eduardo Kac, Electric Sheep (1999) by Scott Draves and Delicate Boundaries (2007) by Chris Sugrue. Secondly, the changes to industry and labour brought about by robotics, which pose crucial challenges for human beings, confronted with a creation that could surpass us: this contradictory relationship of domination and submission lies at the core of works such as Divine Methods/ Hidden Motives (2005) by Erik Olofsen, La Cour des Miracles (1997) by Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers and DogLab (2004) by France Cadet. Thirdly, communication between natural and artificial beings, as well as the rapport between biological, technological and cultural systems, is reflected in works such as Autopoiesis (2000) by Ken Rinaldo, Plantas nómadas (2008) by Gilberto Esparza and Spore 1.1 (2004) by Douglas Easterly and Matt Kenyon. Fourthly, the relationship between communication and computation is examined in works that explore, for example, the relationship between poetry and IP protocols, such as IP Poetry (2006) by Gustavo Romano, and the paradoxes of language, such as Head (1999-2000) by Ken Feingold and Mission Eternity (2007) by the etoy collective. Finally, the exhibition explores the sensitive membranes that comprise the interface between living beings and their environment, in works such as Ocular Revision (2010) by Paul Vanouse and Hylozoic Soil (2009) by Philip Beesley and Rob Gorbet. The works gathered in the VIDA 1999/2012 exhibition bear witness to the validity of a statement by artist Wolf Vostell, with which Karin Ohlenschläger closed her address: “the things you do not know are the ones that will change your lives.”
From Artificial Life to Synthetic Biology
Jens Hauser, a researcher from the Institute for Media Studies of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, closed the symposium with a presentation in which he reflected on the new functions in artificial life and the functions of art in society. Art, as Hauser points out, is not about solving problems, but about creating them. This leads to a new way of looking at artists’ approach to the issues posed by disciplines such as synthetic biology, so in vogue these days. The media used by artists change over time and, therefore, even an award such as VIDA has adapted over time to accommodate itself to the current environment and ensure its survival. The first prize of VIDA edition 14.0, Pigeon d’Or (2011) by Tuur van Balen, has, in Hauser’s opinion, a symbolic value, being indicative of the awards’ future evolution. Van Balen has developed a project with the goal of equipping common pigeons with new features to turn them into cleaning machines, in line with the current trends of altering living beings, rather than simulating life in digital environments.
Hauser quotes the initial definition of artificial life proposed by Christopher Langton in 1987: “Artificial life is the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviours characteristic of natural living systems. It complements the traditional biological sciences concerned with the analysis of living organisms by attempting to synthesise lifelike behaviours within computers and other artificial media.” In Langton’s original text, Hauser sees an attitude of rejection towards carbon that even leads him to spell the word incorrectly. He leverages this anecdote to describe two opposite trends in research on artificial life: “carbophobes”, who seek to breathe life into technology (by means of robots, evolutionary processes, genetic algorithms, etc.), and “carbophiles” or “carbofetishists” who aim to technologize animate matter (through experiments with genetic modification, synthesis of DNA sequences, tissue and cell engineering, etc.). Artists such as Eduardo Kac are representatives of the latter trend; his work is framed within the growing presence of art and biology laboratories throughout the world, partly inspired by the work of SymbioticA since 2005. Hauser argues that the confluence between art and science is not as idyllic as we like to think and that there is tension between “carbophilic” and “carbophobic” trends. In the relationship between art and artificial life, however, there is a fluctuation between the imitation of life and its manipulation that can be traced all the way back to the automatons of the 18th century, already mentioned by other speakers. Jens Hauser makes reference to Jessica Riskin’s article “Eighteenth Century Wetware”, in which the author talks about the generation of an appearance of life through movement and the use of materials that imitate the organic. Machines such as Vaucanson’s Duck are thus linked to the work of contemporary “carbophile” artists, such as Wim Delvoye, who, in his project Cloaca (2000), created a machine that imitates the digestive system, by means of a complex faeces-producing system.
Synthetic biology, in Hauser’s opinion, is the discipline in which “carbophiles” and “carbophobes” meet and start talking again, resulting likewise in a meeting of the virtual and the real. As a discipline the history of which can be traced back to the early 20th century, with Stéphane Leduc’s essay La Biologie Synthétique (1920), synthetic biology explores the grey area between the organic and the inorganic, and represents biology’s transition from a descriptive science to an analytic and – ultimately – a synthetic one. Synthetic biology seeks to apply engineering principles to biology and, to that end, it makes use of traditional techniques as well as computer-based simulations. Synthesis is something that art and biology share in this point, and this is something that Jens Hauser and Markus Reid explored in the Synth-etic exhibition, curated in 2011 for the Vienna Museum of Natural History. This exhibition, which focused on human intervention on biotechnologies and the responsibility that this implies, included works such as Roots (2005-2006) by Roman Kirschner, Latent Figure Protocol (2007) by Paul Vanouse and the already mentioned Pigeon d’Or by Tuur van Balen. These examples are clear indicators of the variety of aesthetic and artistic results that can be obtained by manipulating living matter and they lead us to the epistemological twist posed by art based on biological media: it is no longer just about what we know, but also how we know it.