Our cultural concept of Mars has historically been entrenched with its possibilities of life since Lowell gazed at Schiaparelli’s canali over a century ago. Perhaps a small misinterpretation of language, an optical illusion or the dream of an optimist unlocked the myth of a war torn planet where unrivalled irrigation skills implied markings of intelligent creatures (Lowell, 1909). With new discoveries and development of technological tools, Mars has become reduced from inhabiting man-like creatures to worms, plants and gradually only a potentiality of microbes. Indeed, many scientists shared this disappointment as the Mariner orbiters first laid their eyes on a hostile planet engulfed in dust. Beginning with the Viking mission, the raging dust storms’ settled and its two Landers unravelled for the first time the alien world of Mars – a dry rocky desert covered in iron oxide yielding the ochre-red hue as well as its name, the red planet. Hitherto the only set of tests for carbon life probing Martian soil showed incomplete but daunting results. Its controversy sparked a complete re-thinking of ‘what life is’ and ‘where we can find it’. The robotic invasion of Mars has since re-awoken its potential, catalyzing a range of new research disciplines drawn to the possibilities of finding life. The red planet remains a frontier for life through its history both as a cultural and scientific space. Our engagement attempts to open artistic areas in primarily scientific spaces and to address cultural aspects and experiences that also take place. The Martian Rose is an artistic investigation into boundary conditions of life beyond terrestrial settings.
The Martian Rose developed from a previous work that provocatively examined notions of culture and nature by introducing genetically modified plants into pristine wilderness. A journey deep into Mexico opened a hyperreal and bioinvasive exploration aimed at investigating genetically altered living systems and their interaction with our culture and ecosystem. Thereby, challenging frontiers surrounding constructions of nature, belonging and otherness. Keeping within this bearing, we turned our attention to more recent frontiers and production of life in these realms. This led us to a world beyond our own, researching possibilities of life outside Earth. Mars is often referred to as our final frontier because it evokes a sense of wonder and mystery that science fiction valiantly tries to capture (De Goursac, 2005).
Whilst scientific research has become increasingly sensitive to questions of ‘what life is’ and ‘where can we find it’ by probing new chemical and atmospheric configurations; interdisciplinary fields combining genetics, space- and nanotechnology have emerged posing a challenge to the search path for life and consequently to trajectories of an extraterrestrial dream. The question ‘of life’ in this context is all of a sudden reconfigured to: Can we create life outside of Earth?
Our interest started with the long leaping idea of creating life for Mars.
A rose for Mars is perhaps a symbolic delve into poetic imagery whose beauty merges with the harsh conditions of its destination. What does it mean to create life for Mars? Is it our goal to make Mars habitable?
The dream of extraterrestrial life, the alien, is amongst our oldest longing for otherness. Science fiction as well as our faith in imaging technologies expresses a desire to metamorphose these dreams by creating spaces, cultures and virtual species outside our terrestrial life. Interestingly, it is Earth’s own extreme environments where the closest fit to ‘aliens’ are found. Thriving in conditions otherwise detrimental to life, extremophiles are found in many improbable settings. Even the driest area on Earth, Atacama Desert in Chile, harbours life such as bacteria, algae and fungi. Hidden within rocks and below the surface, these places are training grounds to understand why it is difficult to find life ‘out there’. As Neason (1999) points out, “I don’t recall in my entire career anyone handing me a rock and asking: ‘Is it alive?’ ” (p.31).
Our idea of genetically engineering a rose to withstand Mars’ harsh environment aimed at staying within the framework of botany and reconstructing life for extreme conditions. Envisioning this proposal involved the potential aesthetic breakdown through genetic manipulation and importantly, the romantic idea of giving a rose for Mars. Projects on synthetic biology funded by NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts includes redesigning plants to withstand increased stress and experiments have been successfully carried out using techniques of gene splicing to incorporate genes from the extremophile, Pyrococcus furiosus (microbes living in deep sea vents) into tobacco plant cells (Boss & Grunden, 2005). Modifying a rose, not just to better cope with the stress of Mars (radiation, lack of oxygen, water deficiency and low light), but perhaps to thrive in these settings, offered a pathway to investigate ideas of reconstruction. From an ornamental perspective one might ask what would such a plant look like? Would it still have petals? Would there be changes to its colorations? What does this change in ornamentation tell us? Genetically modified organisms (GMO) have become a model of the perfect industrious machinery whose lush ripening tomatoes grows as an Aristotelian ideal to its counterpart, the natural. Our influence on roses’ morphology goes back thousands of years. For roses themselves, the impossible dream (for breeders) was fulfilled using gene silencing technology unfolding the first roses with blue petals and further boost the ornamental production in biotechnological industries. Immutable barriers of life on Earth are being transformed through recombination preparing the existence of life in new conditions. In agriculture, strategies are already in place for engineering stress tolerance.
If Mars is found dead, its only option for life may be genetically engineered.
Alas, Mars’ extreme environment is beyond the limits of what plants can survive. Its surface is photochemical and highly oxidative on organic material, as evident from the Viking mission tests and more recently, in the dark belt tracks left behind by the rovers. A more practical approach to this environment would be to totally or partly shield the plants. Indeed, any long-term colonisation of another planet would need to consider the option of using existing abiotic factors. Experimental proposals have suggested utilizing Martian soil as a source for nutrition when designing future greenhouses for Mars (Wheeler & Martin-Brennan, 2000). By building a composition of various mineral layers we produced a primitive version of Martian soil used in a jar greenhouse.
A rose was planted inside the greenhouse sealed for self-containment. As time went by, the pressure inside the jar increased, and due to a small possibility of explosion, we terminated the experiment.
To further understand the impact Mars would have on a rose we consolidated relationships and collaborated with a several university laboratories. (Direct contact was made with scientists as liaising through UK artistic bodies proved difficult.) Our aim was to gain practical insight to how organisms are exposed to Martian conditions and the research behind this.
Perhaps more likely than at first thought was our candidate, a rose, our most eloquent exchange symbol, brought forward to Mars. We stopped again to ask ourselves: What would Mars do to a rose? An inviting gesture to a romance, simulated doubly with the help of scientific tools found in these very laboratories.
The Mars Simulation Laboratory at the University of Aarhus has constructed a planetary simulation chamber, called a bio chamber used to expose biological samples under proxy Martian conditions. The main focus of the lab’s research is the study of processes on the surface of Mars. It is recognized as one of ESA’s Mars Express Collaboration Laboratories. Our discussions with the scientists at the laboratory started in 2005 when we first visited to investigate possibilities of using the bio chamber for artistic purposes. The bio chamber is a steel container with several ports used to produce vacuum suction, relevant gas compositions and flow of liquid nitrogen to cool the chamber. The environment inside (abiotic parameters such as pressure, temperature, gas composition and radiation) and its mechanics are controlled from a computer. The chamber has two docks, by placing a sample in the first dock and equalizing the pressure with the main dock; new samples can be added and lowered into the chamber whilst in operation.
The rose was subjected to Martian parameters on Tuesday (Marti) the 27th March (Martius) 2007. As no experiments using plants in the bio chamber had been performed before, our unusual sample ensued difficulties locating roses able to fit in the tight constraints of the metallic tubes. For six hours the rose was living (or dying) in temperatures below -60˚C, atmospheric pressure of only a hundredth of Earth’s, prevalence of carbon dioxide and UV light penetrating unshielded.
During the rose’s exposure something happened inside, a strange in-animated descent on Mars, capturing an interesting experience we wanted to bring back. The instruments and functional effects surrounding the bio chamber; the reflecting aluminium jacket, flashing LED lights and bubbling liquid nitrogen, evoked a spectacle found in space exploration and further reconnecting us to Mars.
Upon returning to Earthly parameters, the chamber was dismantled and from the inside we collected a frozen rose.
The crystallized water indicated that cell membranes had been crushed and no precautions were taken to prevent this. Plants that make it through hardy winters, manage by pumping sugar into their cells preventing crystals to form and slowing down all activity until they enter a state of hibernation. The darkened petals of the rose were wrinkly and once thawed it could not hold itself up and collapsed like a limp wire. Plants have little adaptation to low-pressure conditions, which interferes with turgidity, and the collapse of the rose was probably a combined effect of thawing after being suspended in low pressure. It was, however, when the exposed rose was brought ‘back to Earth’ (taken out of the chamber) that we realised the stress these parameters had. It’s questionable if plants could be revived after. One option was to use glycerol to preserve them at an earlier stage but we were eager to see if the rose could be resurrected.
By exposing a non-modified rose to proxy Martian environment, we can see and experience what is produced.
The Martian Rose aims to open discourses and communicate ideas of what we are left with and reflect on both the Martian atmosphere and how technologies are used to simulate this space. The Martian Rose has been exhibited in a custom built chamber made of steel and suspended from the ceiling; influenced by the aesthetics of the high-tech objects found in these labs – their rawness, solidness and design for precision with integrated functionality. The rose was planted in a mound of Martian soil, iron oxide, and rested on a glass plate lit from the below. The explicit image of ‘a rose in Martian soil’ contrasted with the chamber’s precision and hardness.
Suspended from the ceiling the installation allures to a probe in space…a floating grave.
In The Martian Rose – although the rose morphology remained surprisingly intact – our outlooks of a cryogenic frozen rose in an unprotected atmosphere led us to direct our engagement into The Mars Project which considers more suitable biological specimens – extremophiles. This is perhaps less romantic but it may allow life under these conditions.
In hostile settings, bacteria are able to produce incredible sets of response patterns as a result of adaptation. Evidence has shown that bacteria are prone to self-engineering and social structuring as survival strategies (Ben-Jacob & Levine, 2005). Biological interdependency found between bacterial organisms can allow necessary ecological nutrient exchange. An important aspect is changing parameters in the bio chamber which are currently surface based. We are interested in modifying these values to find a clear starting point for life, for us this is perhaps where otherness begins. The Mars Project – Biosynthesizing Otherness continues our artistic investigations into boundary conditions of life beyond terrestrial settings. Our interest lies in what happens inside the bio chamber, such as response patterns produced by bacterial colonies and finding openings for interacting with these samples. The exopod is our proposed tactile platform which uses a bio chamber with modified parameters to allow functional life, moving from surface to a deep underground setting of Mars. Life may be slow in this environment, however, we are more interested in the formation of patterns and using these as feedback loops to create interactions with ‘the aliens’ and perhaps be abducted.
Our projects and experiments form explorative journeys through scientific spaces. The Martian Rose is a romantic play to initiate strategies of engagements, experiences and interactions with life and death inside the bio chamber conditioned to a Martian environment. It is a bizarre narrative construction giving a rose for Mars, a simulation in a simulation. The ground we covered is also worth mentioning, our path moves through the fields of GMO and the desire to produce a rose for Mars borrowing from our toughest life. Extreme conditions never come alone, not here nor on Mars. Thinking about engineering life for these environments is part of thinking about our future wherein plants will remain an essential life support system. The story of Mars is a wonderful journey which is still ongoing. And the planet is predicting our destiny – a dead world rolling through space. Perhaps this is part of our installation. But the thought does not end here, and we keep looking for new ideas in a new area of understanding and producing life. Our longing for ‘the other’ somewhere out there is deeply rooted. Whether we gaze at the stars or into a chamber – it is our seeking to bring aliens and extreme life closer to our experimental sphere.
We’d like to express our sincerest gratitude to;
Mars Simulation Laboratory, University of Aarhus: particularly to Dr Jon Merrison for helping to conduct the experiment with us and to Dr Per Nørnberg for liaising the project.
The Open University: Professor Nigel Mason, Department of Physics and Astronomy, for research evaluation and Professor Charles Cockell, Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, for correspondence and relaying the project.
Office of Contemporary Art Norway: for financial support
The Arts and Genomic Centre, University of Amsterdam: where we initially presented The Martian Rose proposal at its launch.
UCL Graduate School: for Bursary Award for BA Festival of Science (British Association for the Advancement of Science).
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