Friday Seminar Series

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The ethos of SymbioticA is that ideas are discussed and shared openly and the Friday Seminar Series is designed to allow an open forum to disseminate artistic, scientific, ethical and philosophical research and practice of resident researchers, visiting artists and scholars. Our Friday Seminar Series are held salon style, in our studio space and commence at 3:00pm on Fridays. These seminars are open to the public.

Life is a Mess: Towards a “Gene-Eccentric” and Post-Teleological Discourse in Bio-art

Date: 28 June 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Dr. Yun Wah Lam, Associate Professor of Department of Chemistry, City University of Hong Kong

“Organisms are, in actual fact, algorithms. Human beings, giraffes, viruses are all algorithms. They differ from computers only in the sense that they’re biochemical algorithms, which have evolved at the whim of natural selection over millions of years.” -Yuval Noah Harari

Biological knowledge accumulated in the past 150 years, especially the recent explosion of genomics, has demystified life to such an extent that it convinces some thinkers that “life is an algorithm”. Although the use of anthropometric and engineering metaphors in biology has been an old fixation, “life as algorithm” is increasingly becoming a mainstream, not only in art and philosophies but also in science. This view engenders the aspiration that an organism can be reprogrammed with the editing of one or few genes, just like a programme can be debugged by changing a few lines of code. We argue that the current understanding of biology is still so primitive that this algorithmic narrative is premature if not erroneous. Here, we consider three lines of thinking in support of this argument.

First, human-built machines are designed around explicit purposes, and progress is defined by the refinements towards these purposes. Evolution, however, is aimless, driven by the provision of variations that may deal with unpredictable challenges in future. Some of the variants, after being amplified to meet these challenges, remain as genetic remnants even after these challenges disappear. As a result, an organism’s genome is full of redundancy and unnecessary complexity, records of long forgotten evolutionary dramas. Instead of thinking “organisms as algorithms”, it is probably more pertinent to imagine the genome of an organism as fragments of memories collected throughput its evolutionary past and of natural history of the planet.

Second, genome-centricity envisages the genome as a self-organising code sufficient to build and operate life. In reality, however, the flow of genetic information involves such a complex interlocking system of regulatory steps that a Newtonian prediction of biological phenotypes from the genome is impossible. Instead, biological systems behave stochastically, in which the activation of individual genes in unpredictable bursts. As a result, each cell in a genetically identical population behaves differently under an identical stimulation. Recent studies have attributed this stochasticity of gene expression might provide the missing link that enables establishment of the Turing patterns, conceived by Alan Turing in his last contribution to science. Hence, it is the unpredictability, not the precise programmability, that give rise to orders and patterns in biology.

Third, environment interacts with the genome. We and others have shown that the mechanical, topographical and chemical characteristics of tissue culture vessels can determine cell behaviours. Inspired by one of the first tissue culture artworks, “Victimless leather”, we investigated how cultured cells respond to their immediate surroundings. We optimised a protocol that fossilises biological tissues, a process that naturally takes millions of years, within two days. After the subsequent removal of organic matters by calcination, this technique produces silica three-dimensional replica of the original tissue, hence petrifying carbon-based biological structures into glass. We then used these fossilised tissues as cell culture surfaces for both cancer (HeLa) and non-cancer cells (human fibroblasts and adult stem cells) on them. HeLa cells on fossilised tissues proliferated at the same rate as they did on flat glass surfaces but non-cancer cells, growing at the same rate as HeLa on flat glass, stopped dividing almost immediately. Our data suggests that the signals that regulate cell proliferation and differentiation, at least in part, are harboured in the physical topography of tissues, and not chemical signals as we always assumed. This information, not stored in the genome but entangled in the contour and topography of the body, represents a level of cognition about which we are only beginning to fathom.

Studying biology in purely algorithmic terms is a dangerously human-centric perspective. Our approach, through our studies of evolutionary memories, stochastic gene expression and the cellular haptic responses, underscores the messy reality of life: the illogical, unpredictable, uncontainable, and “wise”. In line with positions from art and biology, it works to enact creative perspectives grounded in the limits and possibilities of biological matter, to take a post-anthropocentric turn in our understanding of intelligence or cognition in biology, as part of a project to think beyond a gene-centric, mechanistic, and teleological view of biological matters.

Dr. Yun Wah Lam received his PhD training in the lab of Dr. Davina Opstelten at the University of Hong Kong. After receiving his PhD in 1997, he joined the group of Prof. Angus Lamond in Dundee, Scotland, where he developed an interest in the relationship of the architecture of mammalian cell nucleus and the regulation of gene expression. Lam uses live-cell imaging techniques and classical biochemical approaches to study protein localization and interactions in the cell nucleus. In parallel, he is involved in an international effort to map the human nucleolus proteome. Recently, in collaboration with Jens Andersen (Odense) and Matthias Mann (Munich), he adopted the technique of SILAC (Stable Isotope Labeling with Amino acids in Cell culture) to quantify, by mass spectrometry, the global dynamics of the human nucleolar proteome in response to changes in metabolic conditions. The resulting paper, having received over 100 citations in 24 months, was featured as the "ScienceWatch hot paper" in The Scientist magazine (March 2007). Lam was the recipient of the second prize of the Roche "Imagining the future" contest in 2006. He joined City University of Hong Kong in 2007.  

The Entanglement of Art and the Political: The Agency of Art in Post-Arab Spring Cairo

Date: 5th July 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Suzi Elhafez

The research examines the agency of art to shift socio-political paradigms and reclaim Arab futurity in post-Arab Spring Cairo by recognising the impact art had, in shaping the Egyptian body politic and redirecting the public realm. The art of the Arab Spring served to embody the politics of endurance and to redefine the character of contemporary Arab identity. Art created a platform for the generation of discourses that engaged and reflected the changing needs of the body-politic towards freedom and pluralism; guided by a social (re)claiming of identity and a reconceptualised social, political and cultural structure for a future of self-authenticated transformation.

Art is operative within the socio-political space of the public realm; the space where nature, culture and history intersect. Premised on the notion of entanglement, the socio-political space, becomes one where every action and event potentially plays an agentive role in shaping the whole. In this context, the impact of Art on Egyptian civil society is considered in relation to its agency; that is its contributory power, as action or discourse directed towards transformation, progress and a self-authenticated modality of modernisation and change in a Middle Eastern region in crisis. In a period of vast political transformation, the Arab Spring of 2011 evoked fundamental shifts in political structures of power, overturned socio-cultural values, challenged religious orthodoxy and subverted politicised ideological frameworks operative in the public space. Art was a central modality in confronting deeply relevant concerns characterising the social and political realities inscribed within the experience of Arab youth, who specifically led the greatest popular mobilisation in contemporary Arab political history and were at the forefront of generating public art that would characterise and historicise the scope of cultural production to come out of Egypt during this tumultuous time.

The interdisciplinary research is considered through the conceptual lens of Entanglement; from the tangibility of matter to the materialisation of the immaterial. Barad expounds on the conceptual implications for thinking about the nature of entanglement, as agents intrinsically connected, entangled and interwoven within complex systems of nature, culture and history. This bridges the space between art and the political through a very simple premise: the concept of entanglement is predicated on the connection or relationality of non-local particles to affect while simultaneously being affected by the whole. Expanded in a cultural, socio-political context, this has powerful and contributory ramifications. It implies that the change in the state of one constituent of a system; renders the entire system fundamentally changed, shifted and reorientated. This is precisely what the research proposes: the agentive role of art to re-orientate socio-political paradigms, particularly in a complex political context like Cairo. By re-orientating one aspect of an organisational system (through art as action) it is possible to shift, impact and re-orientate the whole system itself towards re-configuration, and a self-determined modality of modernisation.

Suzi Elhafez is a doctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne, her interdisciplinary research intersects physics, philosophy, political theory and Arab history. Her multi-modal art practice spans across visual and digital practices informed by techno-scientific methodologies of image-making, sound, as well as discursive and social-based practices that directly engage with institutions in the public realm across Australia and the Arab region.

“domestiK9”: AI-Mediated Care of Optogenetic Pets

Date: 19 July 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Callum Siegmund-Bant

Optogenetics is a technique developed in the early 2000s which allows unprecedented neural control. By genetically engineering neurons to express light-sensitive proteins, an internal beam of light aimed at the target neurons causes them to fire impulses. In doing so, the activity of neuronal circuits can be manipulated, giving us the ability to affect the behavioural (functional) output of animals.

While this technique has revolutionised the field of neuroscience, the videos from these experiments are disturbing and visceral. Recently, the circuit responsible for triggering an animal’s desire to hunt down objects in their visual field was discovered. Experimenters were able to leverage this circuit by attaching a movable ‘carrot on a stick’ to the mice’s head, controlling its movement through a maze. The theorized uses of these optogenetically-controlled mice as land mine detectors conjure dystopian images. However, I began to wonder: can optogenetic neuroprostheses be used to care for pets?

To explore this question, I turned to a speculative design. A critical transhumanist approach was taken in response to the US Transhumanist Party’s current Transhumanist Bill of Rights (TBR), which protects sapient beings from non-consensual experimental research aiming to improve the life of sentient creatures. This leaves all non-sapient creatures open to integration with neuro-prosthetics as long as their use can be justified. Dogs were chosen as the target pet given their non-sapient classification by the TBR.

Current scientific research from optogenetic mice was extrapolated into applications for dogs, resulting in “domestiK9,” a speculative smart home system which extends the care of its AI to optogenetically engineered dogs. Through learned behavioural cues the dog is able to induce a walk protocol, in which the AI controls the dog to the park where they can play together. I argue that a learned behavioural cue implies that the control/care is consensual. Further, I argue that, ironically, some agency is reintroduced to the dog, which previously relied exclusively on humans to “safely” engage with the outside world. In doing so, the use of optogenetics is just a newer, more invasive version of the leash, albeit with an artificial handler. Yet, an underlying repugnance still emanates from the speculative system.

Through this repugnance, “domestiK9” aims to act as a provocation for both Transhumanist ethicists and the general public to consider the implications of the transhumanist sapiocentrism.

Callum Siegmund-Bant is a Neuroscience Honours student under Stuart Hodgetts (School of Human Sciences) and Ionat Zurr (School of Design/School of Human Sciences), interested in optogenetics and biohybrid robotics.