2019 Seminars

Quantum Entanglement: the Relational Dynamics of Art in Arab Political Environments

Date: 26 November 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Suzi Elhafez

The research examines the entanglement of art and the political in post-Arab Spring Cairo. The research identifies three central elements of this nexus. The first is the entanglement of politics and religion in the evolution of the Arab polity and the formation of Arab-Islamic political environments today.

Secondly, the transformative role of art intensified the impact of the Arab Spring movement, through the political participation of youth that served to subvert the dynamics of power between citizenry and the mechanics of statehood and sovereignty.

And third examining the relational dynamics between art and politics in post Arab spring political environment identifies the crucial predicate of democratic and secular institutions, at a juridical governmental level. For the practice of art and the appearance of cultural production to remain visible and free in the public realm, urgent political change and ideological transition is required at an institutional level.

The seminar will explore the first central element; how the research uses the conceptual lens of quantum entanglement to examine the co-ordinated evolution of politics and religion in forming the genesis of the Arab-Islamic polity. Drawing on the orthodoxy of quantum theory and its heterodoxical application beyond the physical sciences, entanglement is used to assess the rationality of how these factors have co-evolved historically and their contemporary manifestations uniquely shaping the conditions of the modern Arab political landscape.

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. 

FUN GUYS, Grow Your Own: Material, Snack, Remediation

Date: 22 Nov 2019
Time: 3pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Triana Martínez

The conception we have of waste is based on a product life cycle in a commercial world. Circular economies are currently proposing to return to a scheme of flow of goods that intersect generating a cycle where the disposal of one process becomes a complement to another until the cycle is closed, involving the cycle of nature. Perfect machines do not exist and in this work scheme you have to nurture the system to maintain it. The idea of generating closed cycles implies a reduction in the impact on the environment since ideally, less is exploited and less waste is generated. In this desire to integrate natural cycles into the circular economy, it is worth thinking about the rhythms and times that it has.

It is here that the times of the plastic do not fit in since the short use that we give it and the long time it takes to degrade does not correspond. In other words, our usage scheme is not proportional to the time it takes for things to degrade.

It is then necessary to use materials that break down in a manner that is consistent with the cycles of the land so that the system can be closed. This work seeks to generate a biocomposite material by growing the mycelium of a fungus in vegetal waste to offer a product that can be integrated into a system composed of cycles that in their sum create a closed life cycle system.

Triana Martínez (b. October 1991) is a Designer (industrial/strategic/system) and Artist (Experimenting) whose experience draws from robotics and educational furniture to interior design. Martínez is a kick-off architectural concept designer for Architectural Tactics, Manager and strategic designer for Proyectil Mx. She was awarded with the Gabino Barreda Medal in 2017 and currently seeking new material sources and questioning the foundations of industrial production and consumerism.


Date: Friday 1 Nov 2019
Time: 3pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Sam Fox

Sam Fox will talk about elements of his novel-in-development The Cryo-Synaesthetic Organ (working title).

Sam will introduce some concepts about states and phases of agreement within monstrous alliances of resistance, ideas about languages of collectivism, and narrators in speculative literature that desire to be ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

Sam is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia and a local writer and performance maker. He is also an organiser with Arts & Cultural Workers for Climate Action and this presentation will make some references to that movement.

Prom[y]thea – Learning From Failing Bodies’ Failure

Date: 30 October 2019 **Note this talk is on a Wednesday and not the typical Friday
Time: 1pm **Note this talk is at 1pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Joana Magalhães

In this informal talk, JM will revisit the modern Prometheus, briefly covering the historical road of regenerative medicine and the current need for the incorporation of a sex and gender perspective. Furthermore and following the release of the global journalism investigation “Implant Files” – that found that health authorities are failing to safeguard patients, especially women, from poorly-tested medical devices – and the work “social life of scaffolds” (Bronwyn Parry, 2018), she will focus on the need to re-examine regulatory and ethical boundaries in regenerating bodies and human-non-human materiality.

Joana Magalhães, PhD, is a biomedical researcher in the fields of Regenerative Medicine and Osteoarthritis at the Institute of Biomedical Research of A Coruna (INIBIC), Spain. Concurrently, she develops STEAM-for-health media strategies from a gender perspective, having produced and co-directed television and radio series, especially for children. Early on, she was a scientist-in-art-residence, at Fundación Luis Seoane, for “TRANSCÉNICA” and she participated in the collective exhibition “Ollo da Arte” at NORMAL, with “I publish therefore I am”. Moreover, she is a board member of the Spanish Association of Women in Science and Technology (AMIT) and the Spanish Representative for the Young Scientist Forum - European Society of Biomaterials.

Our Ancestors, Our Objects: Perspectives on Material Culture Research and the Native Body

Date: 4 October 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Dr Gretchen M Stolte, Nez Perce and Berndt Foundation Research Fellow

In 2016, I was awarded an Australian Humanities Travelling Fellowship grant to conduct research in the United States at various museums, including the Nez Perce Museum in Spalding, Idaho. The aim of the project was to understand how museums engage with Nez Perce communities when museums are documenting, labelling and exhibiting Nez Perce beaded objects. The inspiration for this project was a general interest in methodologies of museum collections care but it was also a personal exploration of my own Nez Perce heritage. What started as an inquiry into museum processes slowly turned into a deeper appreciation of the nature of Native American beadwork in general.

Beadwork held in museums is, by its nature of production, an extension of the Native body. Along with leather, glass beads, sinew or even modern threads, beadwork also includes blood, hair and sweat from the makers of the works. It will be argued then that beadwork is Ancestral in nature. This presentation will briefly introduce the politics of access and how different museums engage researchers with their collection goals. From open access to various forms of gatekeeping, the politics of access is a complex one with various results. Complicating all this is the nature of beadwork objects as extensions of the Native body – both culturally and physically. Highlighting some of the major beaded works found in the Nez Perce Museum, this presentation will challenge notion of who is an Ancestor in a museum. With the case of beaded objects, the Native body is more than what we might think. As such, it will be argued that prioritising access to all objects in collections – not just the secret or the sacred – is equally as important as any other form of access.

Dr Stolte is a Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) American Indian and has degrees in art history and anthropology focusing on the material culture of First Nations peoples both in North America and Australia. Gretchen’s PhD research focused on the relationship between images and identity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in urban and regional centres around Cairns, Queensland. Her research will be published in a monograph to be available in March, 2020. Dr Stolte is also a practicing bead artist and well-versed in several techniques of cultural stringing. She is currently the Berndt Foundation Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, exploring the ways in which collections research is an invaluable part of museum practices.

Opera Without Bodies***EVENT CANCELLED

Date: 27 September 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Sarah Collins

It has long been claimed that opera can give expression to the uneasy relationship between the body and the voice. Operatic voices on stage seem to exceed the capacity of the bodies that produce them in a way that makes them almost uncanny, creating a rift between the sound and its source that makes it seem as though the voice is coming from elsewhere, directed by an external agent. For some, the uncanny nature of operatic voices emblemizes the notion that human action is shaped by social conditioning and biopolitics. For others, this uncanniness emblemizes the fact that we can never truly know ourselves beyond what can be known and described using the conventions of language and culture. Bodies on the opera stage are mere tools for symbolic expression, mechanized according to the requirements of the words and music, just as our own sense of agency is limited by the symbolic structures within which we must operate.

Yet there is an increasing awareness of the ways in which bodies can resist these structures and open up new avenues for human agency. This new focus on the resistant body goes hand-in-hand with a sense that in our search for knowledge we generally prioritize intellectual over physical activity—an imbalance that has led to the sense that experiences based on passionate feeling, the irrational, or the pre-cognitive are of lesser value, or unduly subjective. New studies into gesture and movement have suggested that bodies are not only inscribed with meaning but they can generate knowledge through somatic experience and can be a site for resistance, particularly against discursive attributions of race and gender.

If bodies and voices are seen as uncannily split and otherworldly in opera, how do operatic bodies achieve the type of material resistance and agency suggested by these new studies into somatic experience? In this paper, I will explore this question in relation to a historical moment in the 1920s that saw a convergence between ideas about human bodies and mechanization on the one hand, and strategies of artistic expression designed to thwart this sense of mechanization, through gesture, on the other. The discussion will touch on the work of Gordon Craig, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and draw from ideas about puppetry and epic theatre before digging deeper into Ferruccio Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust. Busoni’s opera exhibits a puppet-play aesthetic, uses an off-stage chorus and employs other techniques of defamiliarization that suggest ways in which operatic bodies must be made fragmented, partial and sometimes even absent in order to probe the limits and possibilities of their resistance.

Sarah Collins joined the University of Western Australia in 2018, after holding research fellowships at Durham University and the University of New South Wales, a visitng fellowship at Harvard University, and a lecturing appointment at Monash University. She is the author of Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott (Boydell, 2013); editor of Music and Victorian Liberalism: Composing the Liberal Subject (Cambridge UP, 2019); and co-editor, with Paul Watt and Michael Allis, of the Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford UP, forthcoming). Her research has been published in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Twentieth-Century Music, Music & Letters, Musical Quarterly and elsewhere. She has co-edited special issues of Nineteenth-Century Music Review, Musical Quarterly and the Australian Humanities Review. Sarah is also reviews editor of the Journal of the Royal Musical Association and the RMA Research Chronicle.

Sarah's current research focuses on the intersection between political, aesthetic and ethical concerns in music literature of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (including music historiography, music criticism and aesthetics). Her broader research interests include British music and modernism, Anglo-European musical relations during the inter-war period, cosmopolitanism, 'new' modernism, and disciplinary history.

Sarah has been a peer reader for the Journal of the American Musicological Society, the Journal of Victorian Culture, Cambridge UP, Oxford UP, Ashgate and Boydell, and has served as President of the Victorian Chapter of the Musicological Society of Australia, and as secretary and treasurer respectively of the Queensland chapter.

Death and the Dividual: Towards a Theory of Death as an Assemblage

Date: 30 August 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Benn Van Den Ende

The concept of the dividual has existed in anthropological literature since Strathern’s (1988) studies into the concept of personhood that existed amongst the Melanesian people of eastern Oceania. As Budja (2010), Bruck (2001) and Chapman (2000) note, the concept of the dividual is also important when examining funerary rites and rituals, the disposal, and the memorialization of the dead in certain cultures. The concept of the dividual also appears in the later writings of Gilles Deleuze in his postscript on the societies of control (1990), where he contrasts it with the production of the individual in Foucault’s disciplinary societies. In this presentation I hope to make these two uses of the dividual meet in the context of death via the concept of the assemblage. Specifically, I wish to work towards an assemblage theory of death, where death is viewed as a process with varying components, and where the material artefacts of the dead can be understood as acting, in a Latourian sense (2005), construing the dead self as a dividuated entity.

Benn is currently a PhD candidate at UWA with an interest in the following research areas: New technology, governmentality, biopolitics, the political and social aspects and meaning of death and dying, as well as critical theory and the philosophy of science and technology more generally. Benn's doctoral thesis focuses on the affects of new technologies on governance with a focus on the concepts of governmentality and the dividual. He has a keen interest in interdisciplinary studies and collaboration.

Botched Geology, Abiotic Perspectives and the Extreme Outback

Date: 16 August 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Rob Kettels

Rob Kettels is a contemporary artist, high-altitude mountaineer and long-distance desert walker. In this artist talk, Kettels will discuss his recent art exhibition ABIOTICA (2019), which examines the contemporary human relationship to the abiotic. Along with another art project One Lake Two Names (2016), that saw Kettels attempting – and failing – to reach on foot, arguably the most inaccessible and extreme environment in the outback. Yet the subsequent failure of the project’s original intentions, led to a new artistic direction, one that seeks to scrutinise failures and slippages in neo-colonial ideologies. Specifically, ones which attempt to order, classify (or conquer) nature to fit Humanist and imperialistic power paradigms.

Kettels practice involves journeys into geographically remote desert country in Western Australia, where embodied experiences, and materials collected, are used to articulate the ways in which land is anthropomorphised. ABIOTICA, used discarded drill chips and minerals sourced from reverse circulation (RC) geology drill rigs, and geophysical core samples estimated at 1.2 to 1.5 billion years old. Working like a botched geologist, Kettels sorts the drill chips and core in a way that does not fit with their intended meanings – subverting the original system of knowledge – by giving them a new kind of agency. Furthermore, the exhibition considers abiotic and geological perspectives, not as a static domain, nor the background to humanity, but as a network of forces set across deep time, interconnecting biology and mineral in what Associate Professor Monika Bakke calls a continual metabolic network of self-organising matter.

The One Lake Two Names art project took place – using a custom-made walking cart – on ‘Wilkinkarra’ the Aboriginal name, or ‘Lake Mackay’ the colonialised name, which is a 3,494 km² salt lake in the Central Desert (Australia’s fourth largest lake). The original purpose of the undertaking was to cross the lake and go face to face with the source of fear in Euro-Australian outback mythologies. Yet the futility of the project has become a metaphor for failures in neo-colonial assumptions, made more pertinent because the lake – one of the most pristine environments on earth and culturally significant site to the Pintupi people – is under threat from mining, as it is the world’s largest Sulphate of Potash (fertiliser) deposit.

Although different in scope, both projects are an artistic investigation and intervention into failed neo-colonial ideologies that are leading to anthropogenic time stamps, now, and far into the future.

Rob Kettels has embarked on a creative practice PhD at Curtin University. His practice includes ephemeral sculpture, assemblage, installation, audio-video and photography to reveal autobiographical, cultural or ecological issues. In 2019, Kettels presented an academic paper in the Art in the Anthropocene conference at Trinity College in Dublin. He holds a Bachelor Degree in fine art (First Class Honours) from Curtin University, and is the recipient of a Curtin University postgraduate research scholarship.

Biogenesis - Visually Articulating BioArt for Mainstream Media

Date: 9 August 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Steven Alyian

Biogenesis is a new 6 part television documentary series produced for the ABC that profiles Australian Bio Artists, all of which are or have been artists-in-residence at SymbioticA. Director Steven Alyian is a media artist that has a long history of visually documenting the work of SymbioticA’s projects and will talk about the production of this series, the story of how it was came to be and the trials of tribulations of being the mediator between passionate artists and television production executives with no understanding of BioArt. This talk will investigate the role of storytelling and visual media in the transmission of bio-art concepts, how to translate the often visually elusive work into something that is purely visually driven and designed for entertainment of the masses.

The full series of Biogenesis will be available to stream on ABC iView from Saturday August 10th and was produced by Blue Forest with assistance from Screenwest, Screen Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).

The series features the work of artists Guy Ben-Ary, Nina Sellars, Helen Pynor, John A Douglas, Tarsh Bates and Mike Bianco.

Steven Alyian (Steven Aaron Hughes) is a film director, video artist, musical composer and live performer. Founding member of film production company Blue Forest. As a director, editor and visual effects artist Steven has worked on countless internationally recognised productions. His artistic works are interactive and performance based experiences using dynamic video projection, three-dimensional mapping and reactive sound. Working closely with Biological Art lab SymbioticA, Steven is a frequent collaborator with famous Australian performance artist Stelarc. Steven hosts large scale public events that challenge political norms and encourage positive interaction with the natural environment. He enjoys collaboration and performing live for audiences on stages, in the wild and in the suburban spaces where we are told not to go. Steven is co-founder of music festival Camp Doogs and writes, records and performs music as Injured Ninja, Usurper of Modern Medicine, Selfless Orchestra, Doublethink Prism and many more.

Theory of Mind and Socially-Assistive Robots

Date: 29 July 2019M
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Ziggy O’Reilly

Some studies have shown that children on the autism spectrum are motivated to engage with, and show novel social behaviours towards, socially-assistive robots (Dautenhahn, 1999). These behaviours are puzzling considering that individuals on the autism spectrum are thought to have global difficulties in social understanding and social interaction. One theory posits that these social difficulties are the result of impaired Theory of Mind (i.e., the ability to accurately attribute mental states to social agents) (Baron-Cohen, 1997). However, Theory of Mind has traditionally only been studied in response to humans, or in response to non-human agents that have little ecological validity (i.e., triangles shapes).

Interestingly, a recent study found that individuals who have high autistic traits have attenuated impairments in Theory of Mind in response to stories of animals, in comparison to stories of humans (Atherton & Cross, 2019). This challenges the idea that individuals on the autism spectrum have global deficits in social understanding, and instead raises the possibility that these difficulties might be selective and agent-dependent. Consequently, our study aims to investigate if Theory of Mind impairments are selectively attenuated in response to two moving humanoid robots in children on the autism spectrum. This could further our understanding of why children on the autism spectrum show social behaviours in response to socially-assistive robots.

To explore this, the current project developed a new experimental paradigm based on the Frith-Happe Animations, which show two triangles moving and interacting in a variety of ways (Abell, Happe and Frith, 2000). We translated these animations to videos of two humanoid robots moving and interacting. To develop these videos, we borrowed methods from dramaturgy, film studies, animation and human-robot interaction such as; storyboarding, improvisation, illustration, prototyping, prop design, software development, filming and visual effects . The aim is to create an ecologically valid and reliable experimental paradigm to investigate the differences and similarities in Theory of Mind between children on the autism spectrum and neurotypical children in response to social robots.

Working with social robots has raised many ethical concerns about the future roles of social robots in educational and therapeutic settings. Consequently, I hope the talk encourages discussion about the social and psychological implications of interacting with and attributing mental states to, non-human social agents.

Ziggy O’Reilly is passionate about the intersection between social robotics, social cognition and robot ethics. Primarily, she is interested in researching the social cognitive and perceptual processes underlying human interactions with social robots. Additionally, she is interested in how this knowledge could inform the ethical design of social robotics and exploring their impact on society. Ziggy is currently a Master of Biological Arts student at SymbioticA, the University of Western Australia and is working in collaboration with the Australian e-Health Research Centre, CSIRO and the School of Psychological Science, the University of Western Australia. Her research project is investigating how neurotypical children and children on the autism spectrum perceive two moving and interacting humanoid robots. The overarching objective is to further understand why socially-assistive robots elicit novel social behaviours in children on the autism spectrum.

This is You and If You Are a False Don't Entry

Date: 19 July 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Chris Cobilis

In this informal artist's talk Chris Cobilis will discuss two projects: Ghost of Record Store (If You Are a False Don't Entry) and This is You. Both projects utilise copying/borrowing/plagiarism/unoriginality and focus on the labour of user-generated content.

Chris Cobilis is a musician living and working in Perth. His 20+ years toiling as an improviser and playing in bands has informed an ad hoc practice taking in conceptual composition, installation and original music for film, dance and theatre. Cobilis has performed internationally since 2006 and in 2012 undertook an Asialink Arts residency in Taiwan. For the past 8 years he has been the administrator of SymbioticA, which has had a profound influence on his thinking when approaching each new project.

Growing and Greening Democracy by Rethinking Community and Community Governance: Challenging Visions of Future Planning

Date: 12 July 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Clare Mouat

Growing and greening democracy in urban planning and governance requires us to rethink the ethics and practices of community in terms of symbiotic human relations to each other and our environment. From its foundations urban planning has had an inextricable relationship with utopian and aspirational notions of the future and the pathways to get there. Post-human or more-than-human relations are stretching the limits of anthropocentric institutionalised urban planning as we envision our cities now and ahead.

As humanity faces the challenges of uneven, unjust, and unhealthy urban development globally and locally that are exacerbated by climate emergencies and neoliberal capitalism, planners are essential. They are both essential institutions of capitalist development and the democratic site of negotiating change even in non-essentialist ways. As such, and because local governments are the closest level of democracy to communities, they well-placed to respond to contemporary challenges and to coordinate responses from local to city-regional scale and to inform other globally through policy mobility. Conventionally, metropolitan strategic planning visions tend be dominated by demographics and built environment and rely heavily on willing municipal councils, individuals, communities, and developers to buy-in with more or less collaborative input along the way. However, as this lecture will show, to green and grow democracy towards healthy, harmonious, and just development we need to rethink community and community governance in terms of human, more-than-human, and posthuman relations and wellbeing.

This informal lecture will explore the speculative possibilities of historical, contemporary, and possible urban futures based on rethinking community ethics and practices, and the implications in a post-anthropocentric and (post)digital era, with selected themes including the importance of libraries, poetry and people; contesting digital and orthodox ethics of cyborg and smart city developments; and greening democracy through posthuman connections that bring pollinators (honey bees) and rivers into personhood and relational planning for wellbeing. Open discussion will invite guests to contribute to how planning can envision, negotiate, and implement meaningful posthuman futures across the spectrum from the nano to the pan-global scale.

Clare Mouat is a Geography and Planning lecturer at the University of Western Australia. She champions growing and greening democracy by rethinking community and community governance towards healthy, harmonious, and just development. Clare advocates transformative practical wisdom in how we reconfigure community and plan for regenerative community governance; learn to disagree in developing harmonious multi-lot housing; manage resource conflicts towards a sustainable beekeeping industry, and develop meaningful theory and practices underwriting progressive urban futures.

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

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.

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.  


Date: 21 June 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Drew Thornton

Play video games with flies and ask questions about consciousness. Is it real teamwork, or just a bug in the system?

TAKE me BACK to JUPITER! is Drew Thornton’s dissertation project for SymbioticA’s Master of Biological Arts. It involves a custom-built virtual reality enclosure, live flies, and a multiplayer science-fiction shooter arcade game for human and insect participants.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Art is Knowledge”?

Date: 14 June 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Dr Boris Oicherman, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota

Just as we should view art not as an accumulation of so-called art objects, but as a way of approaching knowledge, we should also view knowledge not as an accumulation of data, but as a flexible mechanism for reorganizing reality. -Luis Camnitzer, An Artist, a Leader, and a Dean Were on a Boat…

During three days in May 1970 an unusual event took place in Venice, CA. Robert Irwin, an artist known at the time as a minimalist painter, hosted a NASA-commissioned scientific symposium in his studio: The First National Symposium on Habitability of Environments.

The motivation for the symposium was set by changing needs in the space program at the end of the Moon landing era and the acute question it brought about: what would it take to construct an inhabitable environment for humans in outer space? Irwin, then an artist in residence with the NASA subcontractor Garrett Corporation, found scientists’ approach to this problem to be overly technocratic and lacking the perspective of the very human who would inhabit new environments. He believed that art, as a discipline dedicated to subjective experiences, was in the position to restore that perspective. Together with his collaborator, NASA program psychologist Edward Wortz, Irwin decided to turn a scientific symposium into an artwork crafted for a single purpose: to challenge NASA’s approach to habitability.

Frequently mentioned and routinely underexamined, The Symposium on Habitability provides an utterly unique case study for development of artistic agency. A radical hands-on attempt of an artist at challenging the dominant research discourse in the science of space travel, the significance of Irwin’s act is in proposing a new model of creative practice where the artist functions as a meta-scholar, temporarily attaching one’s art to other disciplines to create new insights. But what systems in arts support such a model of practice? More specifically, what are—or rather what should be—the institutional implications of this practice on art museums? Even more specifically: what operational, curatorial and financial practices should be in place in a university art museum that is interested in supporting artists in engaging head-first with social and academic discourses far removed from the arts?

The program of the Target Studio for Creative Collaboration at the Weisman Art Museum is an experiment in developing and implementing such practices. In this talk, I will begin with the analysis of the Irwin-Wortz collaboration as a case study of artistic engagement with knowledge, and describe the way this analysis leads to a curatorial platform. I will then share the experiences and the lessons learned from the first two years of implementing this platform at the Weisman Art Museum.

Dr Boris Oicherman is the Cindy and Jay Ihlenfeld Curator for Creative Collaboration, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota.


Date: 31 May 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Santiago R. Perez

The era of the “PostDigital,” is characterized by the collapse of distinctions between the “newness” of the digital (now banal and ubiquitous) and the nostalgia of the analog. It is also characterized by the opportunistic mining of both domains, towards new hybrid (physical / digital) material practices.

PostDigital technologies and practices challenge designers to critically examine the changing conceptions of matter / material, transcending the physical / digital oppositions of an earlier generation. Within this context, the rise of AI, Robotics and related technologies, create both new, speculative opportunities for design, and at the same time, posit the immanent “Loss of Control” of the designer, over Line, Form and Material, and ultimately, Spatiality.

This informal lecture will consider the speculative possibilities of new material practices, and the implications of material production in a “PostDigital” era, with selected work including robotic fabrication, material assemblages influenced by bio-structures, and full scale built work. The lecture is presented as a continuation of topics introduced in the “BAY ONE” exhibit at the UWA School of Design, to establish a discourse interrogating the PostDigital.

Santiago R. Pérez is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Design, University of Western Australia, focused on the convergence of Architecture + Design with Experimental Materials, Large-Scale Fabrication and Robotics. Pérez has directed the development and installation of multiple large-scale “Design-Fab” projects as a primary component of his teaching and research, in collaboration with Universities, Art Museums and Public Agencies in the United States. These include a permanent visitor pavilion for the Bachman Wilson House by Frank Lloyd Wright, at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the RoboFAB Bike Trail Pavilion in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and installations sponsored by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Lawndale Art Centre in Houston, Texas.

Pérez is active in development of experimental work focused on Materiality, Computation and Robotic Fabrication, and has been published internationally. Recent publications include:

“Loss of Control” in Lineament: Material Representation and the Physical Figure in Architectural Production (Gail Borden and Michael Meredith, eds.).

“Para-Bodies: Rethinking Material Intuition in the Age of Parametric Design” in Unconventional Computing: Design Methods for Adaptive Architecture, Rachel Armstrong & Simone Ferracina, editors

Pérez received a Master of Architecture with Distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he studied under Japanese Architect Tadao Ando. He was awarded a Post-Graduate Research Fellowship, as a Researcher in Residence in the offices of Tadao Ando in Osaka, and AMORPHE Architects in Tokyo, headed by Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama. These experiences served as a critical foundation, early in his training, for subsequent development of teaching and research, combining a passion for 20th C. Modernism + Material Practices, with the development of 21st C. emerging Digital + Robotic Fabrication Technologies and Computational Design.

Copyright in Bioart

Date: 24 May 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Jani McCutcheon

As a fusion of art and biological science, bio art has an uneasy relationship with copyright. While the confluence of biology, science and art is fertile creative territory, it challenges a number of copyright subsistence doctrines. This can exclude bio art creations from the copyright domain, denying bio artists the copyright protection enjoyed by their conventional artistic peers. As bio art makes stronger claims to a legitimate artistic practice, it precipitates a reflection on whether it should stand on an equal footing with other artistic works protected under copyright law. This talk will describe the broad spectrum of creations that might arguably fall within the contested definitions of bio art. It then explains the potential misalignment between bio art and copyright. Finally, it explores the practical and normative ramifications of this dissonance.

Jani McCutcheon is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia Law School, where she teaches Intellectual Property law, Creative Expression and the Law, and Marketing law, and is the Director of the Law and Society program. Jani has also practised as an intellectual property law solicitor, and worked as a legal research officer for a Member of Parliament. Jani has a Master of Laws by research, writing her major thesis on the ‘new signs’ under the Australian Trade Marks Act. She has published book chapters and numerous articles in respected Australian and international journals and has presented at and convened Australian and international conferences and seminars on intellectual property law issues. She has been a visiting scholar at Berkeley Law School (2016). Jani is currently writing a monograph Literary Characters in Intellectual Property Law (Edward Elgar 2020), and has just submitted her co-edited collection of essays The Research Handbook on Art and Law, (Edward Elgar 2019). Jani is also co-editing a collection Feeling Art: Intellectual Property, Disability And Sensory Art. Her research traverses a number of issues concerning the interface between copyright, moral rights and literature, the nature of the work in copyright law, the copyright doctrines of originality, authorship and fixation, the interface between law and art, and disability exceptions in copyright and moral rights law for artistic works. Jani convened the Art in Law in Art conference hosted by the University of Western Australia Law School at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in July 2017, and the Art After Death Symposium at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in 2013, as well as the Feeling Art international Experts Workshop at Maastricht University in June 2018.

Acts of Resistance in Generative and Biological Arts

Date: 10 May 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Vladimir Todorovic, School of Design, The University of Western Australia

This talk explores connections and affinities between a selection of generative and biological art projects. Presented generative artworks tend to favor beautifying, mimicking and digitally replicating life and its processes over other aspects of art making. In such artificial simulations, artists problematize gaps and likeness between software-based systems and living forms. Discussed BioArt projects illustrate unique treatment of living matter through artists' struggle with established systems of control. In both disciplines of generative and BioArt, I attempt to locate artists' creative acts of resistance and their multifaceted manifestations; a concept reiterated by Deleuze in his lecture "What is the Creative Act?" from 1987. Both practices often create speculative blueprints by modifying, designing or tinkering with the (non) artificial living systems.

Vladimir Todorovic is a filmmaker, artist and educator. He works with new technologies for immersive and generative storytelling. His projects have won several awards and have been shown at various festivals, exhibitions, museums and galleries including: HANIFF, Cottbus (28th), Visions du Reel (49th, 46th, 44th) Cinema du Reel (37th), IFFR (42nd, 40th and 39th), Festival du Nouveau Cinema (42nd), BIFF, SGIFF, L’Alternativa, YIDFF, Siggraph, ISEA (2019, 2016, 2008, 2006), Ars Electronica, Transmediale, Centre Pompidou, The Reina Sofia Museum (Madrid) and Japan Media Art Festival.

Algorithmic Environments: A presentation on the use of Artificial Intelligence by the Government of Canada

Date: 3 May 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Carlos Jabbour 

This talk will begin with an overview of technologies and key terminology used in AI development, followed by real projects being developed by the Canadian government. These projects, using sophisticated algorithms to augment human efforts, automate manual tasks, and possibly improve the lives of citizens are towards enforcing Canada's environmental protection laws. Examples of predictive models being developed to identify violations of environmental regulations and other security applications will be discussed. Technical methods and ethical issues will be examined and open for group discussion. 

Carlos Jabbour is a Data Scientist working for the Government of Canada's Department of Environment and Climate Change.

Design Tactics for Uncertain Times

Date: 26 April 2019
Time: 3:00 pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Kirill de Lancastre Jedenov

Cities, buildings and objects are not isolated entities. In our interconnected world, they are part of larger complex systems. The built environment faces old and new challenges: climate change and natural catastrophes, pollution, water shortage, unemployment, food supply constraints, inefficient infrastructures, living conditions inequalities, short term rent of private houses and subsequent rent increases, displacement of low-middle classes from city centres, empty investment properties, cyber security and surveillance mechanisms, highly educated homeless individuals, privatisation of public spaces, refugee influxes, cultural tensions, extremist groups, populism and unannounced acts of random violence. Some cities and regions now accept crisis not as an anomaly but as an endless continuing situation. For many, crisis is the new normal. Our world is finite, fully explored and with increasing levels of consumption, students expectations to design through massive amounts of materials and human labour will be increasingly difficult to fulfil. In this context, architects and designers cannot continue to work with the classical methodologies of the tabula rasa or rehabilitation of the pre existing as it once was. It is important that students understand that there are other available fields for them to operate.

Kirill de Lancastre Jedenov is Assistant Professor at The University of Western Australia. He has co-founded Kaputt! Arquitectos and Jedenov Arquitectura. He has studied and/or worked at ISCTE–University Institute of Lisbon, Universität Innsbruck, Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon and Universidade Lusíada, Lisbon among others. His work has been published/shown in several books, magazines, journals and conferences in Portugal, Spain, Holland, Hungary, Sweden, Australia, United Kingdom, Finland, Austria, New Zealand, Canada and China.

Is AI an Earmouse?

Date: 12 April
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Jerry Galle

Derived from big data and concocted into existence from a humanly impossible discernible data pool, AI is the most transformative technology of our time before it has even been layered into shape. With this talk I'd like to critically approach uses of AI within creative contexts, taking my work and collaborations as examples. Furthermore, just like genetic engineering has become a field filled with potentially vast possibilities, so has AI had an impact on our society. Both are considered to be potentially disruptive because of this potential. Equally so, both are hyped, rendering them a thrilling unknown, especially if and when the two would "join forces". A question that could be asked is: Are both mere nursery tales? Because much like the earmouse couldn't actually hear through its ear, AI does not possess intelligence as we experience it.

Jerry Galle is a Belgian artist mainly working with software, online interventions and robot drawings or paintings. His work often reflects on contemporary techno-driven models. Practices such as hacking or disrupting binary codes and unmasking AI pretexts are central to his output. He is a teacher and researcher at the Media Arts department in the School of Arts, University College Ghent, Belgium and is also a fellow at v2 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His work has been shown in Muhka, Bozar, Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, British Film Institute, Wiels, International Film Festival Rotterdam, EMAF, Museum Dr. Guislain, Frankfurter Kunstverein, v2 and Ars Electronica among others.

Science (Fiction) and Food: Popular Culture and Food Production Practices

Date: 5 April 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Dr Heather Bray, The University of Western Australia

The relationship between food production practices and science has long been complex and contested. On one hand, science is the basis of many food production practices on which we now depend to make food safe, affordable, convenient, tasty, and nutritious. However, more recent innovations in agriculture, for example the use of gene technology, are considered by many to be undesirable, and risky. Representations of science and technology in food production practices in science fiction seem to reflect these sentiments, with science and technology portrayed as ‘unnatural’ and therefore ‘bad’. In this presentation Heather will draw on work co-written with Prof Rachel Ankeny which connects selected examples of science fiction and popular culture to innovations in food production. We contend that scientific interventions are often black boxed and that binary distinctions of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are unhelpful in promoting constructive conversations about the role of science and technology in food production, as are approaches that rely on ‘education’ to address key fears and concerns. It’s time for new approaches.

Dr Heather Bray currently co-coordinates the Science Communication major within the Bachelor of Science, and the Masters of Science Communication at UWA. Her research explores community understandings of, and attitudes to, the role of science and technology in food production, in particular genetically-modified crops and food, and the use of animals. Her work aims to build trust between different stakeholders in the agri-food system.

The-Not-So-Sterile Womb: New Data to Challenge an Old Dogma

Date: 29 March 2019
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Lisa Stinson

The human body plays host to a complex ecosystem of trillions of bacteria. These microorganisms are essential collaborators in human physiology, providing nutrient breakdown in the gut, contributing to metabolic function, calibrating the immune system, and defending against pathogens. We have co-evolved with this ecosystem, or “microbiome”, for millennia. It has long been assumed that the womb is sterile and that the establishment of the human microbiome commences with the birthing process. Recently, bacterial DNA has been identified in umbilical cord blood, placentas, amniotic fluid, and the fetal gut in uncomplicated pregnancies, leading to the hypothesis that the seeding of the human microbiome may commence in-utero. However, these data have remained contentious due to entrenched methodological errors that plague this field of research. Lisa has spent the past four years developing and optimising new techniques to study the microbiome of the human fetus. Her research demonstrates that bacterial DNA, intact bacterial cells, and bacterial metabolites are present in-utero, and have the potential to influence the developing fetal immune system. In this presentation Lisa will present her PhD data, providing new evidence to overturn the sterile womb dogma.

Lisa Stinson is a reproductive biologist and molecular microbiologist at The University of Western Australia and the Women’s and Infants Research Foundation. Her research interests include the early life microbiome, the developmental origins of health and disease, and preterm birth. She recently submitted her PhD thesis titled “The not-so-sterile womb: New data to challenge an old dogma”. When she’s not in the lab, Lisa actively partakes in science communication and outreach.

Microbial Agency, Ltd.

Date: 22 March 2019
Time: 3:00 pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: WhiteFeather Hunter

The concept of “agency” is a popular framework for discussing work with vital (live) materials, often used to imbue them with human qualities such as the capacity for “collaboration”. Biomaterials development communities, including artists, can be particularly fraught with makers who envision such relationships as edgy, post-human initiatives. WhiteFeather’s previous MFA thesis work, Biomateria; Biotextile Craft (2015) was deeply influenced and also critical of these conceptual links, inspired by texts such as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which was itself influenced by Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory.

WhiteFeather will present an artist talk, providing an overview of her own biomaterials research projects, including tissue-engineered textile “sculptures”, bacterial cellulosic garments and other textile objects generated from kombucha, as well as microbial textile dyes. These projects will be discussed within the critical framework of “agency” and the multiple structural limitations that all but null any form of actual agency in biomaterials production.

Canadian artist-researcher, WhiteFeather Hunter, has recently joined the University of Western Australia to complete a PhD in Biological Art, happily occupying a desk and lab bench at SymbioticA in the process.

Behind the Lens: Visual Perception in Humans, Insects and Other Animals

Date: 1st March 2018
Time: 3:00pm
Location: SymbioticA
Speaker: Drew Thornton

Experience visual phenomena and take a glimpse into alien thought-bubbles with Behind the Lens — Visual Perception in Humans, Insects and Other Animals.

In this seminar and discussion group:
⁍ Examine the physiology of vision, and the meaning of seeing.
⁍ Discuss the significance of sight in philosophy of mind.
⁍ Look at—and through—the eyes of other animals, including spiders, flies, toads and cuttlefish.

Drew Thornton is working on his project and dissertation with SymbioticA, exploring perceptions of non-human consciousness. At the end of 2019, Drew will complete his Master of Biological Arts and exhibit his final project, wherein audiences will come eye-to-eye and go toe-to-toe with a buzzed-up colony of houseflies.