Campus News

Artists merge science and art to answer life’s questions

Students participate in a workshop by artist Zbigniew Oksiuta held at the Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published September 19, 2016

“Biology is not only a subject of the work, but often the medium of the work as well.”
Paul Vanouse, professor of art and director
Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts

Eight artists from around the world will travel to UB beginning this month to explore life’s greatest questions through biological art residencies in Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts.

The artists are the second cohort to carry out residences through Coalesce, which helps scientists, artists, designers and architects actively learn and examine the broader cultural meanings of their work.

Residents will have the opportunity to form mentorships with UB faculty in the life sciences and gain access to laboratory equipment, and are provided the creative space and technical support to study genomic and microbiomic concepts. The center also offers public workshops, graduate positions, interdisciplinary coursework and exhibitions.

“Biological art, or bioart, is a highly interdisciplinary new field in the arts. Biology is not only a subject of the work, but often the medium of the work as well,” says Paul Vanouse, professor in the Department of Art and director of the Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts.

“Through this medium, artists are engaging some of the most important philosophical and ethical issues of our time, from the changing definitions of life to the shifting policies surrounding its alteration and ownership.”

Coalesce is a collaboration between the Department of Art and the Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM). A major initiative of GEM, the program aims to expand public understanding of and participation in the life sciences.

“GEM brings together academics, educators, artists and students from across the disciplines to interrogate, explore, educate and imagine the human side and impact of genome and microbiome research,” says Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and GEM co-director.

“Coalesce provides a space, a common context and the opportunity for diverse and varied individuals to talk and learn from each other.”

The Fall 2016 class of artists-in-residence includes:

Kathy High, “Gut Love”

This project will produce two experiments around questions concerning gut microbiota and the immune system. A patient with Crohn’s disease, High’s interest in gut microbiota began with her own body.

In “Testing the Waters,” High will examine the reactions of the blood immune system against fecal microbes. In her second experiment, “Family Crests,” she will plate fecal samples from entire families in Petri dishes to identify their microbial community profile.

High will present an early demonstration of “Gut Love” and an accompanying lecture at 1 p.m. Sept. 30 in 310 Capen Hall, North Campus. The event is free and open to the public.

She will work with Elizabeth Wohlfert, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, and Jeff Lackner, professor of medicine, both in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

High is an interdisciplinary artist and professor of video and new media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, “SELL/BIO”

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg and her DNA-derived self-portrait. Photo: Dan Phiffer

SELL/BIO will investigate the transformation of human bodies into corporate profits, specifically the ethically controversial and largely unregulated practice of extracting and selling human DNA.

Dewey-Hagborg will craft portraits of people using their own purchased cells as material, giving a face to biological exploitation. She will present the project in development and an accompanying lecture at 1 p.m. Oct. 28 at a yet-to-be-determined location.

She will work with Heather Ochs-Balcom, assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Tao Liu, assistant professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Dewey-Hagborg is a transdisciplinary artist and assistant professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Nicole Clouston, “Soil”

Using soil as her medium, Clouston will engage the ways in which we are connected to the vast array of microbial life present within it.

"Soil," a sculpture by artist Nicole Clouston that uses soil and the microbial life within it as its medium.

The project involves filling a series of clear acrylic prisms with mud and nutrients, such as cellulose, sulphur and calcium carbonate. When exposed to light, the microbial life within the dirt — including bacteria, molds and yeasts —flourish in varied sequence and layers, creating vibrantly colored bands throughout the sculpture and the “after-the-rain smell” produced by bacteria.

An early presentation of “Soil” and a lecture by Clouston are scheduled for Nov. 18 at a yet-to-be-determined time and location.

She will work with Lauren Sassoubre, assistant professor of environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Solon Morse, Coalesce lab manager.

Clouston is a practice-based researcher completing her doctorate in visual art at York University in Toronto.

The Spring 2017 class of artists-in-residence include:

Timo Menke, “The double nature of culture: Radical human-plant donation”

Menke will test the ability to transfer human characteristics to plants using his own body tissue and DNA. The artist will use his body to feed, spice and “give back” to nature after ages of environmental exploitation.

His mentor has yet to be determined.

Menke is an artist, filmmaker and educator living and working in Stockholm, Sweden.

Lucie Strecker and Klaus Spiess, “The Performative Biofact”

This project will create a semi-artificial, semi-natural being whose existence alternates between animate and inanimate, which Strecker and Spiess describe as a “biofact.”

Using sensors, the artists will develop a live performance where the biodata of a participating audience — such as warmth, bodily fluids and breath — influence the biofact’s behavior.

They will work with Marc Halfon, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Strecker is a performance artist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Applied Arts Vienna in Austria. Spiess is a former endocrinologist and associate professor at the Medical University Vienna.

Byron Rich and Mary Tsang, “Open Source Estrogen”

Open Source Estrogen" by artists Byron Rich and Mary Tsang.

A form of biotechnical civil disobedience, the project aims to develop a system of protocols for the emancipation of the estrogen biomolecule, demonstrating the various ways that estrogen performs a molecular colonization on our bodies, society and ecosystems.

The artists will create low-cost, do-it-yourself tools for collecting environmental estrogens using cigarette filters, broken wine bottles, smashed silica gel and more.

Their mentor has yet to be determined.

Rich is a media artist and assistant professor of art at Allegheny College. Tsang is an artist and biologist pursing a master’s degree in media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

For more details on the Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts and how to engage with the artists-in-residence, visit the Coalesce website or contact Vanouse.