Trophies of Empire -Bones of Contention?

Window shopping? Gina Czarnecki's 'Trophies' on view @ the Bluecoat Liverpool

We always hear about how we live in a ‘throw away’ society; well this also applies to our bodies; after death in western countries most of us are placed in a variously ornate chipboard coffin and then blasted to a cinder.  Things are changing, there are now a growing number of options for eco burials in woodlands etc with biodegradable coffins.  What we don’t tend to think about is the increasing amount of discarded body parts being produced as a result of various surgical procedures, childbirth produces placenta, surgical operations replacing worn out parts include hearts, kidneys  and joints.  Cosmetic surgery is on the increase; apparently a record rise in ‘man boob’ operations up by nearly a third in the UK. All that adipose tissue from hips and tummies is duly thrown away.

It’s now been a few weeks since the opening of Gina Czarnecki’s retrospective at the Bluecoat in Liverpool.  The show  comprises a number of Gina’s works focussing on biomedical topics over the past 10 years. The most recent work is a series of sculptures collectively called ‘Wasted’. There has been a fair amount of  coverage [links below] about ‘toothpalace’ sculpture made from kids donated milkteeth and the ideas behind using stem cells in biomedicine. Here I am writing about a related project that I was involved in called ‘Trophies of Empire’.

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In vitro culture from football culture

Artist John O’Shea has been forging ahead with his Wellcome funded apig bladder football project which has a fantastic broad canvas encompassing football terrace fanaticism through to an exploration of the processes of making his own ‘bladder’ football  in vitro via cell tissue culture and extracellular matrices! Yey hey! You may ask what the…?? As a scientist interested in the collision between art and science processes I think this project takes some beating.
I won’t give you all the background to this project which is explained by John on his own site . Currently John has just finished the first phase of the project in which he explored the origins of football and the parallels between the production of the current synthetic plastic football and the  loss of ‘ownership’ of the football fan of the modern game of football.  This part of the project culminated in a series of workshops where people could have a go at making their own footballs from pigs bladders through to a debate hosted by Andy Miah on football fanaticism through to the opening of a pig bladder football boutique in the bohemian Bold St in Liverpool as part of the aptly named Abandon Normal Devices Festival.

I popped into the shop and as you can see there was a range of pig balls on display alongside some rather slick designed tops; the whole shop put me in mind of a sort of upmarket ladies underwear boutique (I have a good imagination). Anyway I think John is now starting to learn some tissue culture as a prelude to growing an in vitro-virtual human bladder.  This will involve him working in a ‘state of the art’  science lab in liverpool university using 1000’s of pounds worth of tissue culture media. This project should also feed back into the science research of collaboration of Professor John Hunt’s group  at University of Liverpool’s Clinical Engineering Research Unit by exploring the manipulation of human cells into frameworks appropriate for bladder tissue engineering strategies for bladder cancer patients.

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Visceral Reaction?

Went to the Visceral living art exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin the other day. It was well worth the trip. We got to see some of the output from some ten years of collaborations and residencies from artists working in SymbioticA, the art-science lab in Perth at the University of Western Australia. I like the idea suggested by Marshall McLuhan that artists might be regarded as canaries in the cultural coal mine of scientific research alerting the public to the consequences of new technologies. This fits in with my feeling of  scientists working alone in the semi darkness in the bottom of a  diamond mine; when we find a whopping big diamond we jump up and down for a while and then put it in our pocket and start digging for the next one. Guess we should tell someone about this big diamond but it sometimes takes too much time and effort and we are more excited about finding the next one. Well there are an increasing number of canaries out there nowadays twittering away (why do artists twitter so much more than scientists?  NO one I work with tweets) and doing art as well. Not sure if they are aware of all the noxious fumes emanating from our mines but they sure are producing some exciting art work.

‘Living art’ is how the exhibition is described and that is what excited me; seeing a group of living art exhibits together like this left me like the veritable kid in a sweet shop (aka candy store). I didn’t know where to start; whether to join the resident cricket audience listening to a lecture on their sex lives or whisper my fears to the semi-living worry dolls. I work with bacteria, insects and cell culture and felt very much at home in the exhibition,  this sort of exhibition is primarily about producing great art, but there is also the opportunity to build a bridge across from the science lab and translate some of the  new technologies being developed and ethical dilemmas facing us. Continue reading

How human are we?

Extra Ear London, Los Angeles, Melbourne 2006 ...

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Went to a lecture at FACT Liverpool last night by Stelarc. This chap messes around with his body in the name of art. Stelarc is a Greek/Australian-based performance artist incorporated themes of cyborgization and other human-machine interfaces; it is amazing, strong stuff. He talked about the blurring of boundaries between dead and undead (us or zombies?) and at what stage you cease to become yourself for example if your body was to be made up almost entirely of prosthetics. At what point do we accept that we have become machines? Companies will now deep freeze your body perhaps to be resurrected in a few hundred years time or for a reduced price…. just the head.  He has experimented with a third arm and linked himself up to the internet and invited users to manipulate his arm via electronic links his body.

Stelarc has a neat party trick, if the conversation on the bus ever gets boring he can always roll up his sleeve and enquire ” have you seen my third ear?” Yes, stelarc is growing an ear on his arm. The next step is to wire up the arm ear with a microphone which is WiFi enabled so that people can listen in via the arm ear.  Its not ‘his’ ear but an ear to be used by others. There followed a fascinating conversation between Liz Carr an Abnormally Funny Person and Stelarc about the body, its boundaries and the the use of the third ear (This was part of the amazing DaDaFest in Liverpool).

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Science and Culture

Being in Liverpool there is a debate to be had about what is ‘culture’. I was reading Phil Redmonds blog about his suggestion that culture could be defined as ‘arts, literature and shared lifestyle’. Then goes on to comment about scientists….me included who said ‘hey wait a minute’ we think that science has its place in culture….

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This is a blog about my interests in science and art and how I am working within and between the boundaries of the two.  There will be posts on my current research on the tropical disease leishmaniasis and the insects (sand flies) that spread the disease and my interests in microbes. Also stuff that interests me where artists are working  on an equal footing and in close collaboration with scientists.

My journey into ‘artscience’ for want of a better word started in Liverpool during Capital of Culture year 2008. I was desperate to do some art work related to my research on tropical diseases; the superlambanana wagon came along and I hitched onto it and got the LSTM to sponsor a lambanana. That was when SuperKalazarlambanana…the name that was far too complicated and everyone mispelt, was created one afternoon between myself and my PhD student Hector Diaz. (see also LSTM page on our lambanana).

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