22 02 2009


My artistic themes reflect on the limits of life and death in the context of molecular genetics. The installation, Tremor, was produced in April 2007 using video microscopy in the context of developmental biology and zebrafish genomics. Extreme close up evaluations of mutant zebrafish embryos were used capture the essence of the life force as movement, but also show, paradoxically, that making and unmaking the gene requires a pathological trespass into the mystery it seeks to reveal. In microscopic studies of embryonic growth, visual distortions, physical vibrations, shadows, reflections, scratches, and microbial parasites randomly appear. Awkward co-ordination of eye and hand movements, control of the image and the limitations of a fixed viewpoint were used to engage the viewer in a visceral and psychological reading of a mediated life form. I showed how physical contact and looking create tremors and palpitations that are tactile, reactive and deadly because the embryonic organism is sensitve and frequently dies.

k1 Stills, Tremor (2007)

Zebrafish belong to a group of model organisms deliberately bred to study vertebrate development. They are used to search for mutations randomly using classical forward genetics, and then selectively bred. Historically, shared characteristics suggested linear chains with humans as the dominant species, but as the all life is revealed in greater genetic complexity, it sheds new light on human evolution and our interconnection to other species becomes more pervasively subtle. Humans share ancestors with fish but the transgenic application of our molecular self to other species now renders evolutionary comparisons redundant.

Insights into biological phenomena made by molecular geneticists show ephemeral changes in the structure of DNA over time and detail what happens in the process of one cell division to the next. The chromosomes condense, intermingle and disentangle to become separate entities. There are anomalies and disappearances in this biochemical transfer and signalling process that remain unfathomable. In genomic research hybrid forms of “betwixt and between” are collected and stored. Potential states of biotic life that are neither fully alive, biologically dead or self-regulating are sustained experimentally in a state of permanent existence. This imperceptible movement and crossing over of signals is vitally associated with the extreme limits of our perception and conscious experience.

The maintenance of life relies on infinitely subtle events within networks of liquid bodies. Where forces merge they are catalyzed by electrical polarities. In our own bodies its been estimated that 50 million cells are being generated, killed off and replaced every single second. In these cycles, life and death phenomena connected to our being and non-being are choreographed at miraculous speeds that are virtually impossible to imagine or represent. The birth, death and differentiation of cells are governed by metabolic changes that come about through positive and negative charges between electrons and protons.

Cells arrive and depart around the vast emptiness of atomic forces. The vital functions of the human body have always provided the basis of cosmological models. Biological life is based on bonds between carbon atoms, and the stability of organic molecules relies on the limits of temperature, salinity and acidity of water as a transport medium. The interior oceanfront of our watery cells and the polarised shaping of the human body plan have co-evolved through a chemical alliance with other life forms.

In the 60s, the theoretical biologist Lynn Margulis helped formulate the evolutionary origin of nucleated cells. Theories of symbiosis integrated the view that all organisms alive today are equally evolved from common bacterial ancestors. Her work on Endosymbiosis (meaning living inside) demonstrated that genes found in the cell bodies of animal, plant and other nucleated cells originated as micro bacterial genes.

Nucleated cell types in plants and animals rely on smaller bodies called organelles, (the chloroplasts and mitochondria), replicating outside the nucleus to function. These bodies evolved and were integrated into the outer cell membrane or cytoplasm, through symbiosis. In animal cells these organelles and plastids are the shape and size of bacteria and they represent the sites of cellular respiration that produce energy from oxygen and nutrients. Vitally these organelles have their own DNA system for protein production and replicate independently at different rates from the rest of the cell. The organisation and different structural parts of cell cycles in nucleated cells are dependant on the metabolising function of these ancestral partners.

Life is improvisation and incorporation. What Margulis calls, a super organismic system. The naked permeability of our cell walls make us part of a perilous creation and a symbiotic intimacy is enfolded into our subliminal awareness and physical vulnerability. Every membrane in our bodies relies on strategic metabolic pathways catalysed by the mutuality of our bacterial counterparts and we are in effect, a hives of generative microbial organisms bound together for life. Each living cell in a human body can be conceived of as a factory of smaller satellite shells containing many evolved replicators co-existing together.

There are many different hypotheses about the origin of the first life on earth and how it evolved from pre-biotic organic compounds. All living things have an implicit alliance with evolution and survival. In evolutionary biology, fragments of molecular transmission are compared and tested against existing theories. In recent genetic studies on fruit flies it was found that bacteria and animals swap entire genes wholesale, acquiring entirely new functions in a very short space of time (Jack Werren, 2007). This new finding has implications for gene-sequencing projects that discard bacterial genes from samples, seeing them as contaminants.

All bio chemical reactions in the human body are carried on in similar ways to that of the first living molecular combinations that arose in the ocean. The cycles of life, reproduction and death established then, migrated into the interior media of our bodies. The human immune response mechanisms that identify inside, outside, self and non-self principally mimic archaic survival strategies used by life forms four and half billion years ago, to survive, migrate and evolve.

Our blood is a pinched off piece of the first oceans on earth and the cyclical processes of birth, fertility and death are mirrored in the circulation and developmental regulation of both our nucleated and un-nucleated blood cells, a beautifully cohesive system whereby, multiple types of cells with differing life spans and functions are renewed throughout our lives from stem cells in our bone marrow. The maintenance, renewal and division of our blood from bone marrow stem cells is a continuation of the cell division method by which the structure of blood first came into being. The vascular and blood system generate the running current bringing oxygen to our cells. This oxygen is transported by the cell blood pigments made up of haemoglobin, an iron-containing molecule that forms an unstable, reversible bond with oxygen. When red blood cells expire other circulating blood cells destroy them. Under a microscope these dead cells are identified as Haemoconia, meaning, blood dust.

Ninety five percent of the biomass of the Earths oceans are microbial and fifty percent of the air we breathe is released by photosynthetic microbes and marine algae. The first forms of microbial life were anaerobic, poisoned by the same oxygen they produced as a waste product. The poisons that killed them can be traced on the earth’s geological record. Their extinction led to iron banding in rock formations. Haemoglobin in our blood and geological ferrous oxides overlap. The Haemoglobin molecule is made of amino acids but each also contains atoms arranged in a large circle made up into geometric pattern of four smaller circles at the very centre is an iron atom called the Haeme.

The intricate design of respiration that gets oxygen molecules across our cell membranes uses an electron catalyst in the cell organelle, mitochondria to create energy. The inspiration and expiration of molecular gas connects us to the most intrinsic atmospheric poison on earth. Mitochondria, oxygen and blood are part of a primeval alliance, but in the biological phenomena known as programmed cell death this alliance is dramatically reversed. All our cells retain a repertoire of mitochondrial DNA that can trigger a biochemical death inducing signal cascade that can kill us. DNA in mitochondria can spontaneously kill us from within.

Programmed cell death is intrinsic to the common pattern of growth and development in animals and plants. But mitochondrial genes can also trigger cells to break open in an oxygen outburst, relinquishing their deadly content to destroy living tissue. In this disaster the blood based immune system is inadequate to task and billions of years of evolutionary co-operation breakdown causing catastrophic and deadly diseases. Mitochondria genotype lineages are maternally generated and the perilous evolutionary step that resulted in their incorporation into animal host cells make them menacing, hostile and dangerous to humans. They are executioners and show how shock waves and arrested trauma from the earths past extinction episodes can consume life in the present.

In Margulis’s words, “Feeding, moving, mutating, sexually recombining, overgrowing, predacious, and energy expending symbiotic micro-organisms preceded all animals and all plants by at least two billion years”. Weaving a fully living body together is like making a larvae infested garment with a pattern cut from the vital functions of slime.

k2 Stromatalite Colonies, Clifton Lake, Western Australia.

Photosynthetic Cyanobacteria are one of the earliest recorded forms of life on earth. Four and half billion years ago at the edge of a watery universe their primitive cells and heliotropic filaments became the metaphorical, mouths, ears, hands, eyes and brains of the planet. These living light structures have an unbroken record of survival and modern colonies are still found around the world today. They split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas and built resilient ecosystems in the form of mound shaped mats called Stromatalites. Rare colonies of living Stromatalites have persisted throughout all of earth’s major extinction episodes and their ancient bodies partly submerged in shallow, tidal water provide an image of a microbial planet. Feeding, growing and rapidly multiplying colonies sweat out layer upon layer of slimy deposits slowly leached from the atmosphere and from sediment to create mounds that stretch out along the shorelines like a swollen quilts. Their longevity and resilience is tied to a clockwork copying process and their repeating molecular sub units are like a cellular heart beat governing the biosphere. The oxygen they liberated produced the diversity of all land based complex multi-cellular life. Stromatalite flesh is solar driven. Light tolerant bacteria live on the surface, transforming carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorous into nutrients. The sulphide using bacteria dwell under them, whilst the bacteria that need light and sulphides move between. Lung like, the gases in the bacterial community move up and down with their constituent bodies. These mutualistic bacterial communities are the key example of how symbiotic evolution works.

The bacteria are multi cellular gliding filaments, shaped liked threads, spheres or branches, occasionally they float out and form green jelly balls or scum in the water. These modest looking microbial communities represent an eco-system that has survived for billions of years. They exist like immortal beings on earth. The interior of our bodies are like planetary systems and there are genetic similarities between human pathogens, extremophile bacteria and the microbial flora and fauna living in the anaerobic environment of our gut.

Extremophile bacteria are distinguished by their survival abilities in non-aerobic and toxic environments. They have an extreme grasp and purchase on life and they provide astrobiologists with genetic tools for understanding potential embryonic life forms on other planets in the solar system. The vital functions and laws of life correspond to the cosmological. Some organisms can survive in extreme ecological niches. Archaebacteria have an extreme biology. For instance, its suggested that trace water on Mars in the form of highly concentrated brine may support a “salt-loving” extremophile bacteria or that ice water might support bacteria that love freezing temperatures. Terraforming space projects depict humans from a Noah’s Ark Earth taking biotic life in microbial form to and from other planets. The specialised chemical adaptations of extremophiles make them useful as transgenic artefacts – useful for cutting and pasting with other robust genomic models such as the plant, Arabidopsis. The process of combining bacterial plasmids with other transgenic systems is the fundamental basis of all bioengineering and provides the foundation of molecular genetics. But the spectre of mitochondrial programmed cell death casts a menacing light on evolutionary processes which hint at discordances, intrinsic poisons, ecological catastrophes and extinctions. Biological systems, cosmological systems and political and social systems overlap.

My artistic concern is to attempt to interpret biological systems psychologically. Central to this interest and enquiry is the realisation that the shaping of the human body plan has co-evolved through a chemical alliance with other life forms. The theories of symbiogenesis, propose the microbial instrumentation of the human body and consciousness. The atmospheric chemist, James Lovelock references over thirty million types of living beings in his theories of Gaia. He describes how their living interaction leads to the constant modulation of the Earth’s temperature, acidity and atmospheric composition. The Gaia vision evokes the haunting possibility of an archaic form of microbial sentience diffused through all living systems, a kind of protean subconscious that prefigures human consciousness.

The work I am doing is broadly concerned with patterns of growth, morphogenesis and linkages between the atomic and the cellular. I am interested in cosmological phenomena (such as radio frequencies, pulses and magnetism) in relation to stillness and movement. In molecular genetics, the energy and function of cells are physically and systematically switched on and off molecule-by-molecule and the vital signals of life visually recorded in a causal atlas of patterns. Organic proteins dyes in vivid fluorescing colours are introduced into cells that transform these brief signal cascades into sensuous visual patterns. The generation of constant, fatal mutation in reproduction disassembles the order of a transforming life. It reproduces the limits of life in a corresponding image of death. Death is an inherent part of life and shadows of our mortality echo with past extinction episodes on earth. All organisms live within limits of their electrochemical metabolic functions and these structures and these functions generate extreme and networked physiological environments.

In molecular embryology the emphasis is on key structural molecules that control morphogenesis and the fundamental body plans of adult organisms. Stem cells are used to form bridges between human anatomy and mechanism. Cell movement, morphology and genes are induced within in-situ cell cultures to map out spontaneous interactions, patterns and movement as they occur in real time in all directions simultaneously. The idea is to trace the co-ordination of events in molecular synthesis that control cell differentiation. This is done by metaphorically throwing switches backwards and forwards in time so that the architecture of life and death are recorded as fate maps. Organic proteins dyes in vivid fluorescing colours are introduced that transform brief signal cascades into sensuous visual patterns. In the case of heart development precursor cells are coaxed along specific developmental pathways to make pulses, heart tubes and blood. The reasoning is that birth defects in humans might be reversed and that the genetic basis for heart disease become clear. The precursor cells behind the creation of the human heart get labeled to indicate how they affect the pulse and specific heartbeat patterns are given the names of novels, songs and dances. All these scientific artefacts attempt give an ordered and clinical account of mortality implying that death is controllable, optional and reversible.

But the body of a recently dead organism is more than non-life. The immune system cells are still active in a recent corpse and continue to search for the physical entity that is disappearing from view. When cell division stops, a body gradually releases enzymes that trigger putrification. Tissues gradually get broken down by bacterial parasites, worms and scavengers and all these agents have their own microbial symbionts and parasites. In this chaotic decomposition, fertility and the struggle and predation between life and death goes beyond genetic description. It speaks of the fusion of symbiotic life forms and of the bedrock of subversive violence in the human biography. Death is an inherent part of life and shadows of our mortality echo with past extinction episodes on earth. On the microbial level we are both host and hostage to our own executioners.

According to the philosopher, Villem Flusser, “The cultural function of gene technology does not serve humans to preserve acquired information like a library but serves humans to preserve themselves from death and extinction”.

The integration of art and the life sciences allow us to explore the nature of our fragile origins, our identity and our destiny.


Keller, Evelyn Fox. (1995) “The Biological Gaze,” in Future Natural. Ed. Sally Stafford. Routledge.

Margulis, Lynn& Sagan, Dorian. (1995) What is Life, University of California Press.

Margulis, Lynn. (2001) The Symbiotic Planet, Pheonix.

Margulis, Lynn& Sagan, Dorian. (1997) Microcosmos, Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution, University of California Press

Grady, Monica. Search for Life. (2001) The Natural History Museum. London.

Landis, Geoffrey. (2001) Martian Water: Are There Extant Halobacteria on Mars?, Astrobiology, Vol1, No.@ pp.161-164.

Warren, Jack, (2007). (Drosophilia symbiosis)

Flusser, Villem, (1999) (Memories) in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. Ed: Tim Druckery, MIT Press

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One response

31 08 2009

A good articles is the best.


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