Day 1, Stream 3


Chris Salter: Hexagram Concordia Institute for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technology, Canada


Iain Haig: RMIT University, Australia

Monika Bakke: Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

Adam Brown: Michigan State University, United States

Stuart Bunt: University of Western Australia

Guy Ben-Ary & Mark Lawson: Curtin University, Australia / SymbioticA – University of Western Australia



Iain Haig  The absent abject body in media arts

I plan to present an image-rich 10 minute provocation outlining my research into the absent abject body in media arts. Paradoxically, while much of media art centres around ideas of the reconfiguration and augmentation of the body through technology, the body as a theme, in all its messy, bodily and abject materiality, has been largely omitted from the framework. While some media artists have engaged in themes of the abject body, they have remained largely on the periphery.

The dominant trajectory of media art culture has been one of progress, sophistication, advancement – a ‘futurist’ art of the 21st century. Contemporary media art and its common crossovers with art and science can also be seen to have connections with the period of the enlightenment, of rationality and reason, when the aesthetic appeal and pleasure of disgust and the abject were consciously eradicated, disqualifying them from the aesthetic register.

A common direction of much electronic art has indeed been to secure an aesthetic that is removed from more base level concerns of revulsion, the abject and the grotesque, towards an aesthetic which distances itself from the body, with its moist interior and bodily fluids. With the evolution of increasingly sophisticated technologies, we leave the body further and further behind in the rush of the media vortex; yet conversely, as I highlight, the rise of technology has made us more aware of the physicality of our ‘meat bodies’.

I will show examples of recent new works, including Some Thing (2011), Night of the living hippy (2012) and Workshop of filthy creation (2012)


Monika Bakke  Microbial Identity: Art and biodiversity of self

Knowing that nonhuman microorganisms outnumber our own cells, we are only just starting to understand the extent of the impact these organisms have on our physiology. Our microbial fingerprints are very complex and specific because as individuals we differ remarkably in the microbes that occupy the habitat of our bodies. Human Microbiome Project’s goal is to establish the largest microbial map of a human body serving as habitat, showing that microbes play a vital role in our lives. This certainly calls for a shift from the traditional notion of body understood as a sealed one-species unity to the notion of human-nonhuman ecology. Such a realisation made the editors of a special issue of Nature dedicated to microbes, in 2008, propose to rephrase the question “Who am I?” and start asking “Who are we?”

Yet our microbial self is of interest not only to life sciences, but also to art and humanities. Artists such as Sabrina Raaf, Stephen Willson, Sonja Baumel, Stelarc and others consider microbes outside of pathogen histories, and work with microbial communities inhabiting human bodies. Examining their work, I am going to show various strategies employed to deal with both the prominent presence of microbes themselves and the impact the microbiological research has on us. Starting from an individual microbial cartography of a human body, I will move on to the serious practical consequences of microbial research, such as controlling our health and identity in medicine, forensics and other profiling practices. I will also elaborate on the ontological consequences of considering the human as a cellular minority. In this context our bodily identity seems to be process-based and graspable only through its current function in the web of trans-species dependencies; hence the life form we identify as our own is only a specific temporary trans-species ecology which constantly reconfigures itself.


Adam Brown  The Great Work of the Metal Lover: Art, Alchemy and Microbiology

The alchemical term ‘The Great Work’ (Latin: Magnum Opus) refers to Western alchemy’s perhaps defining, yet seemingly unobtainable, objective – to create the ‘philosopher’s stone’, a mysterious substance considered capable of transmuting base metals into gold or silver. The term has also been used to describe personal / spiritual transformation, as well as individuation, and as a device in art and literature.

The Great Work of the Metal Lover straddles art, science and alchemy in its attempt to solve the ancient riddle of transmutation through modern microbiological practice. A metallotolerant extremophilic bacterium is paired with gold chloride in an engineered atmosphere to produce 24 carat gold. Extremophiles are microorganisms that are able to survive and flourish in physically and/or chemically extreme conditions that would kill most of the life on our planet. It is believed that they hold the key to understanding how life may have originated, due to their unique ability to metabolise toxic substances such as uranium, arsenic and gold chloride. Gold, in turn, has been treasured throughout history for its rarity, malleability and incorruptibility, as it resists oxidation, corrosion and other chemical bonding processes.

This artwork, in addressing the scientific preoccupation with trying to shape and bend biology to our will in the post-biological age, questions the ethical and political ramifications of attempting to perfect nature.


Stuart Bunt  Unintelligent design, the evolutionary limits to biological design

The increasing use of biological forms and metaphors in art, engineering, architecture and design is based on assumptions about the efficiency, beauty and novelty of biological design, while the apparent efficiency and complexity of natural mechanisms has even been used by ‘intelligent designers/creationists’ to reject evolutionary orthodoxy. I will challenge these assumptions by presenting case studies of ‘unintelligent design’, biological inefficiencies and limitations. While biological structures are indeed marvellous in their design and intricacy, there are many design restrictions on biological tissue that man-made constructions can escape. The very nature of our carbon-based life forms restricts the temperatures, pressures and chemistry that can be employed in construction. Cells require a constant energy supply, while the need for nerves and blood supply means that many kinematic pairs are impossible in biological organisms. Biological scale is also restricted by this cellular basis; Reynolds numbers restrict the physical capabilities of biological organisms. The need to self-assemble, the fact that evolution can only act on pre-existing structures and can never start with a ‘blank page’, the need for variability; all place constraints on biological solutions. Selection drives the evolution of a beneficial trait until the marginal costs of continuing are balanced by the costs of not doing so. Evolution selects for traits leading to reproductive success rather than for longevity or health. Much of modern medicine is actually about treating the results of developmental and evolutionary compromises. Even some of our aesthetic tastes may be evolutionarily determined. I will discuss how inaccuracies (usually referred to as ‘natural variation’) are key to evolution and natural selection. How, paradoxically, far from being perfectly adapted biological machines, we may actually be selected and developed to be imperfect.


Kirsten Hudson, Guy Ben-Ary & Mark Lawson  The Dynamics of Collaborative Resistance: Negotiating the methodological incongruities of art, cultural theory, science and design

In potēntia is a liminal, boundary creature created as an artistic and speculative techno-scientific experiment with disembodied human material, diagnostic biomedicine equipment and a stem cell reprogramming technique called ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPS). It is a functioning neural network or ‘biological brain’ encased within a purpose built sculptural incubator reminiscent of eighteenth century scientific paraphernalia, complete with a custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system and DIY electrophysiological recording setup. Created by artists Guy Ben-Ary and Kirsten Hudson in collaboration with Mark Lawson (Course coordinator of Product and Furniture design at Curtin University) and Stuart Hodgetts (Director of the Spinal Cord Repair Laboratory at the University of Western Australia), in potēntia prompts us to consider how techno-scientific developments have led us to a point where, rather than being a concrete and discrete category, who or what is called a person is a highly contingent formation.

Starting from the position that the collaborative dynamics of art, cultural theory, science and design offer fertile grounds to both critique and resist the fetishisation of stem cell technologies, this paper explores how the collaborative team behind in potēntia critically and creatively embrace the methodological dialectics that occur when trying to accommodate the different disciplinary methods and approaches of art, cultural theory, science and design. Constantly negotiating aesthetics versus accuracy, tacit knowledge versus discovered knowledge, risk versus rigor, experimentation versus speculation, appropriation versus expertise, protocol versus intuition, known versus unknown, proof of concept versus creativity, and problematising versus problem solving, this paper positions in potēntia as an exemplar of multi-disciplinary collaborative practice, to suggest how cross-disciplinary collaboration, although fraught with friction and challenges regarding disciplinary protocols, priorities and precedents, also presents new and unique opportunities for unexpected creative discoveries to emerge.