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New biological art lab to explore life’s biggest questions

MFA student Van Tran Nguyen, a GEM/Coalesce graduate assistant, in the laboratory. Photo: Coalesce

By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD

Published March 18, 2016

“The possibilities and potential here are incredibly exciting, and vital to how we define ourselves as human beings.”
Paul Vanouse, professor of art and program head
Coalesce Center for Biological Art

DNA forensics. Genetically modified organisms. Engineered human tissue.

These hot topics, says art professor Paul Vanouse, are “some of the biggest technological breakthroughs and toughest ethical challenges we face today.” And all are rooted in biology — a field many of us literally haven’t touched since that frog in high school dissection class.

Enter the Coalesce Center for Biological Art, a new studio laboratory space opening next week on the third floor of Hochstetter Hall on the North Campus, and a grand new experiment in interdisciplinary learning. Appropriately named, its aim is to get UB students, researchers and the public together to explore biological concepts like microbes, genes and stems cells through a tangible, creative lens.

Complementing UB’s expertise in the life sciences, Coalesce is a key project of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community, one of UB’s three Communities of Excellence. The hybrid facility will support the study of biological art and emerging practices in the arts.

Sponsored by GEM and the Techne Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies, Coalesce launches on March 23, 24 and 25 with a series of inaugural events and public activities to get the campus and the community engaged with the evolving practice of bio art:

Ruby Merritt, Sequence Stratigraphic-Material Units 1994-Present, Found Rocks, Fossils, Minerals, Wood. Installation View for The Vermilion Stained Exhibition, UB Department of Art Gallery.

  • Wednesday, March 23: Vanouse will lead introductions and a tour of the new space from 4-6 p.m. in 308, 359 and 363 Hochstetter Hall. The public can RSVP for this event at coe-gem@buffalo.edu.
  • Thursday, March 24: Architect and artist Zbigniew Oksiuta will lead a Biological Habitat workshop for students and faculty from 4-6:40 p.m. (This event is full.)
  • Friday, March 25: The public is invited to attend a workshop titled “Skin: Membrane: Habitat,” from 4-6:30 p.m. Oksiuta will give a talk at 4 p.m., followed by a roundtable discussion from 5-6:30 p.m. on the various meanings of “skin” featuring Oksiuta, WBFO Artist in Residence Shelley Jackson, and several UB faculty and visiting researchers.

Vanouse will oversee Coalesce along with evolutionary biologist and laboratory manager Solon Morse, who earned his PhD in biological sciences from UB. Vanouse already uses the space for his Art in Life and BioArt visual arts classes, but the GEM programming will include even more activities each semester, including graduate student positions, interdisciplinary coursework, residency opportunities, DIY workshops and exhibitions.

Just as important, Vanouse adds, Coalesce is designed to let scientists and non-scientists explore the broader cultural meanings of their work, where students and community members, schools and teachers can create conversations that question the bigger picture: What does it mean to be alive, to design a living organism? What makes an organism qualify as an invention, or an artwork?

“The possibilities and potential here are incredibly exciting, and vital to how we define ourselves as human beings.”

For more information about Coalesce and its future events, visit the Coalesce website.