MutaMorphosis: Challenging Arts and Sciences
November 8-10, 2007
Prague, Czech Republic
Artists and scientists from all over the world came together to address a theme of extreme and hostile environments, a theme that stands important in our changing world and society.
The conference was organized by CIANT | International Centre for Art and New Technologies as part of the ENTER3 festival and in the framework of the 40th anniversary celebrations of Leonardo journal and ISAST – the International Society for Art, Science and Technology.
– Background (by the conference co-chair Roger F. Malina)
Forty years ago in Paris, a group of artists, scientists and engineers got together and decried the lack of professional venues where emerging work bridging the two cultures could be presented, debated and promoted.
Frank Malina, himself a research engineer and a professional artist, convinced Robert Maxwell of Pergamon Press to take on the challenge of publishing a peer-reviewed scholarly art-science-technology journal. It was the first time such a project had been attempted.
Forty years later, the Leonardo Journal, now published by the MIT Press, has documented the work of more than 5,000 artists, scientists, engineers and scholars. If we could bring together these new Leonardos, they would dwarf the creative talent of Leonardo da Vinci and his Renaissance colleagues.
A new Renaissance is under way, and at no time in human history have the challenges of a sustainable civilization on our planet been more daunting. It is surely through the work of these new Leonardos that we will change our ideas about the world and how to act in the world.
Leonardo/ISAST now helps organize workshops and conferences, awards prizes and publishes books and journals on-line and in print. In celebration of our 40th anniversary, we would love to bring together all the artists, scientists and engineers who have used the Leonardo projects to document their work and who, through the Leonardo network, have found new collaborators.
Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to create a temporary city of 20,000 people nor do we think such an approach reflects the networked, distributed society we are now building. Instead we are organizing and co-sponsoring a number of events and projects as one way to bring artists, scientists, engineers and scholars into creative friction, face to face, on-line and through publication and dialogue.
We hope that artists and scientists will present their work that challenges our views of what it means to be human, and our place on the planet in the future.
We hope that the conference will challenge the artists and scientists to respond and confront the many problems facing us in the decades ahead. We have built an unsustainable culture. We cannot continue arts and sciences as usual, but more closely couple our dreams and projects to the cultural changes needed to create a sustainable and peaceful planetary society.
Finally we hope to challenge routine ideas of why artists, scientists and engineers must collaborate. Artists should certainly appropriate all science and technology for their ends, but as a result science and engineering must change their content and process.
The theme of extreme and hostile environments is an interesting way to examine the mutations under way. We indeed need to replace the Gaia myth with a realization of the fragility and ever changing ecosystems of which we are a part. Human testing of the limits of their living conditions is an ever present cultural process. Migration has always been a vital way that we have survived since our origins in the African rift valleys. Such migration can be physical, social and intellectual or indeed within the construction of our own cognition and consciousness.
The testing of limits and survival in extreme conditions provides other ways, less teleological and anthropocentric, to look at the work of artists and scientists today. In a sense, the idea of survival in a changing environment replaces ideas of progress or indeed aspects of and scientific realism and truth. Creativity and innovation are responses to change and evolution, but these in turn feedback into the way that life, human and non human, develops, the way we organize our societies and modify the environments in which we live.
The call for papers was structured around three axes:
Living Beings: How Arts and Sciences deal with new ideas about strategies of life in extreme conditions.
Space: How Arts and Sciences face radically different physical scales and extreme environments.
Cognition: How Arts and Sciences address evolving ideas about cognition in extreme environments.
– Kick-off ideas (by steering committee member Louis Bec)
These axes will make it possible to mark out the ‘mutamorphoses’ and the challenges facing contemporary societies in order to better understand them.
1. LIFE FORMS
Within the broader context of life forms, the case of Extremophiles, which have become perfectly adapted to conditions that seem not to be conducive to any form of life and have colonized every environment, has opened up a fundamental field for reflection on the origins of life, namely the bypassing that is carried out in response to adaptive conditions and the social and cultural evolution of animal and human societies in response to the transformations of different milieus.
Certain Hyperthermophiles ‘love’ heat and sulphur, developing in deserts and the sulphurous hot springs of Yellowstone Park. Others, such as archeobacteria, thrive around underwater hydrothermal vents at elevated temperatures, even though the proteins of most organisms stop being functional at such temperatures. Psychrophiles have evolved within the Antarctic ice at very low temperatures. Halophiles withstand high salt concentrations and proliferate in environments normally considered abiotic.
All these organisms have developed ingenious and complex adaptive strategies for survival. In artistic fields, work is being done that makes use of microorganisms, bacteria, genes, incubators or experiments carried out in the framework of research into artificial or hybrid life. Other artwork concerns itself more particularly with eco-systemic transformations within environments themselves and their effects on the development of the adaptive conditions of animal and human societies.
LIFE FORMS, taken as specific living matter, have constantly been constituted in the midst of extremes, always pushing back limits. Ever since they opened up to the endogenous exploration of metabolic, molecular and genetic complexity, they have installed themselves in the ‘outside limits’ of transgression, genetic manipulation, organ transplants, cloning and various biotechnological experiments. They have lost their natural ‘given’ quality to become a ‘project’, a wholly different milieu in which a ‘life factory’ has become possible, producing hybrid life forms with the aid of interactive devices, as well as connections between living and inert matter using nanotechnology and biomicrochips. The work of certain artists engaged in the fields of ‘Bio-Art’, Tissue Art, Transgenic Art and Skin Culture have made use of cutting edge research to develop new forms of artistic expression. These modifications of life forms, carried out on life forms by life forms, pose a central question: are they part of an adaptive and preventive strategy meant to respond to the hazards of a catastrophic, ‘mutamorphosed’ future?
The conquest of outer SPACE pursues the ‘expansionist’ project of life forms by doggedly exploring the universe methodically, delving into hostile and dangerous environments where the conditions of life are profoundly different from those on Earth. If the exploration and the colonisation of planetary systems have haunted the imaginations of men, it seems that the permanent establishment of human colonies, with the help of technological devices aiming to ensure ‘acclimatisation and viability’, remain the main objective – and the best response – to the atavistic impulse towards a migratory exodus as a survival method. It is the 20th century, with the means of propulsion and the improved materials it has developed, which has enabled man to engage concretely in the first phases of this epic by carrying out the first manned space flight and the first steps on the moon. The stationing of communications and military observation satellites and of permanent European and other international platforms in space appears to be an intermediate phase in a more far-reaching project. Weightless environments, whether ‘natural’ or ‘induced’, have become ‘laboratory environments’ opening up new lines of research for science and industry. Different fields have welcomed the scientific experimentation being done at such laboratories, which do not only basic research, but also various types of research in industrial fields such as fluid mechanics, human physiology, cristallisation and biology. Exploration is being pursued by launching missiles and spacecraft towards ever more distant and inhospitable environments. Space probes are launched that are equipped with cameras to photograph and chart desert worlds. The images they collect have made it possible to reconstruct these extreme environments with great precision by analysing the constituent elements, the atmospheres and the subsoils of the planets these probes explore, constantly in search of liquid water, which is synonymous with life. Other probes have made it possible to disembark autonomous exploratory robots able to move at great speeds and repair themselves to survey new environments. Such instruments, which are able to drill, analyse soil and atmospheric samples, have been installed permanently in order to study, foresee, scrutinise and scout. If these robots are given a lifespan of several dozen years, it is to allow their builders to go on to establish a permanent adaptive project in the environment. They are a vanguard for subsequent occupation phases planned for very long durations. But let us make no mistake. Despite the scientific and technological trappings of these projects, we find ourselves within a gestural language which is fundamentally ‘artistic’, a gestural language which spans and makes use of different domains of knowledge and technology in order to create an immense and intense stage which transcends the terrestrial framework and opens up onto a prospective universe yet to be constructed. Nelson Goodman said ‘We aren’t talking about multiple ways of replacing a single real world, but a multiplicity of real words’. Inspired by the new creative potentialities, the world of culture and art is trying to make use of the conditions of outer space to carry out experiments and epoch-making events. The weightless environments thus induced have become a field of multiple activities, from dance and performance art to creative efforts revolving around a ‘cultural conquest of space’ (cf. Annick Bureaud, ‘Mir 2003’: Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research).
And that is but the beginning.
In parallel, by studying the possibility of the existence of life at the frontiers of the universe, EXOBIOLOGY is trying to answer one of the human race’s eternal, intriguing questions concerning the possible existence of other forms of life in outer space, which is to say in unfamiliar environments. Exobiology has taken this mission upon itself. Interdisciplinary science covers extremely varied fields of research, such as bioastronomy, radioastronomy, the study of the origins of life on Earth, its evolution and its limitations, the formation of planetary groupings, biochemistry, planetary conditions in the solar system, etc. It estimates that the probability of finding life forms or civilisations comparable to our own is minimal, and its diagnostics have had the merit of posing the problem of research into extraterrestrial life in a scientific manner, isolating the factors involved in the apparition of intelligent life. We have seen that research into life on Mars has given rise to a variety of experiments that make use of robots. Spanish researchers will explore Mars in the years to come with a robot that uses the latest microchips and DNA, one of the specific foundations of living matter on Earth. Will such experiments make it possible to know whether life exists or not on Mars? Moreover, how shall forms of life that may be foreign to the mental categories of life on Earth be recognised?
The OCEAN DEPTHS also represent an extreme environment. They constitute a biotope which is not very favourable to the development of life, as the conditions which characterise it (high hydrostatic pressures, very low temperatures, total darkness, limited nutrient bases) considerably limit the development of life forms. However, man has gradually explored 80% of the Earth’s marine floor, that is to say 65% of the surface of the globe, by means of various submergible devices and other technological probes. New species and specimens have been discovered in this hidden biomass, revealing previously unknown forms of life such as Riftia Pachyptila, the giant tube worm of the depths or the bigfin squid known as Magnapinnidae, filmed in May 2001 at a depth of 3,380 metres, both of which have adapted to amazing environmental conditions.
The fascination with underwater environments has given birth to several ‘utopian’ projects under way at the moment. New types of habitats are being constructed such as the underwater abodes designed by Jacques Rougerie named Galathée and Hippocampe, semi-submergible vessels and aquariums such as Oceanopolis Nausicaa, representing an exploratory project which is a harbinger of future phases of a colonisation of the marine depths.
The example of the SeaOrbiter is illustrative. It is a sort of robotic iceberg, part of which is underwater and the other part above water. Conceived by the French architect Jacques Rougerie, the explorer Jacques Piccard and the astronaut Jean Loup Chrétien and envisioned for 2008, it is an example of a habitable structure which might be created in the near future. The structure would serve as a scientific base for the study of the sea, making it possible to observe and analyse marine currents, surface temperature variations, the exchanges of gases between the atmosphere and the ocean and measure levels of marine pollution. It would also make it possible to prepare for space exploration missions.
NASA’s NEEMO (Extreme Environment Mission Operations) programme has also established an underwater habitat called Aquarius off the coast of Florida. Aquarius, located 4.5 Km from the shores of Key Largo, is an underwater laboratory located under 20 metres of water at the base of a large coral reef where ‘oceanauts’, much as their counterparts in outer space, explore and study an environment which is hostile to humans. Aquarius contains life support equipment which makes it possible for scientists to live and work under water, in facilities that provide an acceptable level of comfort and are fitted with sophisticated research equipment.
Yet another field of exploration is opening up: that of NANOWORLDS.
The issues involved in a real conquest of infinitesimal space are just as intriguing as those involved the conquest of outer space and hint at hard to predict mutagenic consequences. Nanosciences are studying new phenomena and manipulating – on an atomic, molecular and macromolecular scale – materials which manifest properties different from those observed at larger orders of magnitude. They are making it possible to begin constructing new inorganic structures, molecular motors and materials and are intervening, by means of biology and genetics, in the constitution of revolutionary biomedical research.
A first particularity of nanotechnologies is that they are transversal in nature. They gather a great deal of disciplines around themselves, particularly genetics, physics, molecular biology, neuroscience and computer science. A second particularity is that they directly manipulate the ‘building blocks’ of inert and biological matter. In this universe, where the frontier between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is blurred and it is impossible to make any observations of a tangible reality, a ‘Gulliverisation’ occurs, making minute functions expand symbolically and laying the foundations of an incommensurable, boundless world. Once again, art is making inroads into a territory where the observation of nanometric objects, processes and their effects are unobservable. The extension of our responsibility with regard to bionanotechnological artefacts such as ‘green goo’ and the impossibility of mastering creations which are capable of organising and replicating themselves, pose difficult problems relating to ethics, transgression, supervision and misuse, making this space a ‘crucible’ which is both fascinating and dangerous at the same time.
Cognition is presented in this context as an ‘extreme’ environment to be explored, a milieu in that it provides a space for thought, the formulation of ideas, perceptual and information processing, memory, language, behaviour and decision-making. This environment is thus a material space for the elaboration of knowledge, which must then go on to know itself and leave a record of the process. It is at once an object and a project whose main objective is to understand the nature and structure of mental operations.
New imaging methods play a leading role in this research. They make it possible to visualise and record both normal and pathological thought systems in the brain as quantifiable phenomena. Since this research relies on cameras and probes, the objectives and the methods operative in this context are identical to those on planets or the ocean depths. Thus exploration through imaging, electrophysiological technology, organic elements and brain functions constitute a cartographic biotopology. Computerised simulation models, computational analyses, behavioural studies and artificial intelligence are all tools that aim to understand the way the cognitive system works. The sciences of COGNITION are thus a mosaic of diversified disciplines, a fleet of ships in formation and charged with exploring this extreme continent of the brain and delving into issues associated with the emergence of sense and spirit. The most important of them are the neurosciences, cognitive psychology, linguistics, epistemology, computer research and artificial intelligence. The domains of artistic expression have not yet been included in an accepted nomenclature, but they are among the disciplines that are trying to shed light on those issues using experimental methods which are different and yet at times quite closely related—particularly when they use interactive computer technology. They are the object of important scientific studies in the domains of perception, the creation/cognition dyad, learning… It may be affirmed that creative activities have participated, for quite some time already, in this enterprise in a decisive manner to the extent that they have revolved with unusual tenacity around the quest for the elaboration of complex symbolic forms, constantly constructing representations, sensorial interpretations and intelligible processes of the world. For the human race has started exploring this mental environment ever since the dawn of time using a variety of strategies, technological tools and metaphorical systems. It is by means of these tools that the different phases of humanisation illuminated by anthropology and paleontology have taken place. They have played a constitutive role in the deveopment of the brain, of memory acts, of individual and collective behaviour and of linguistic, paralinguistic and kinaesthetic constructions.
If, at present, researchers are concerned with creating representations of thought structures and processes using scientific methods in order to better understand them, artistic activities have been oriented towards experimental procedures using different technological devices dealing with sensoriality, spatial cognition and the exploration of cognitive and communicational interactive domains. Thus, the continual drive of past and present artistic, philosophical and epistemological questions as well as the extraordinary number of productions of the indivisible dyad of art and technology underpin the new research fields being investigated by the sciences of cognition with the aid of computer simulations of cognitive processes.