Art and Agency in Times of Wetware
“Those robots aren’t conscious,” insisted Mom. She’d had a lot of red wine in the kitchen, and now they were all back on the champagne. “They’re just a bunch of goddamn machines.” – “You’re a machine, too, Aunt Amy,” put in Willy. “You’re just made of meat instead of wires and silicon.”
Rudy Rucker, Wetware (1988)Rucker, Rudy: Wetware. New York, 1988.
While artists have staged ‘Artificial life’ previously via hardware and software of computers, and robotics, to simulate living systems, increasingly, in the light of today’s convergent living technologies and synthetic biology, the notion has shifted toward wetware itself. The influence of information processing technology reaches a new level in man-made ‘wet machines.’ On the other hand, the innate technological capacities in supposedly primitive organisms and ancestral biological systems are currently reconsidered in their complexity that the human mind only very slowly starts to understand: bacteria, microbiomes, phytoplankton and extremophiles are being investigated while taking into account their own agencies and potentials to synthesize. Hence, with the term wetware as a trans-disciplinary discursive apparatus, the notions of art, agency, and animation acquire new meanings, translated into a recent exhibition with the same title held at the Beall Center for Art + Technology at the University of California IrvineThe exhibition Wetware: Art, Agency, Animation, was co-curated by the author Jens Hauser and David Familian, and presented works by Adam Brown, Gilberto Esparza, Thomas Feuerstein, Klaus Spiess and Lucie Strecker, Orkan Telhan, Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, and Anna Dumitriu, February 6 – May 7, 2016.. In the context of earlier 20th century avant-gardes in the US, Wetware: Art, Agency, Animation also echoes and updates Jack Burnham’s seminal exhibition from 1970, titled Software Burnham, Jack: Software. Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art. New York, 1970., which examined information technology’s new meaning for art, and already demonstrated art’s move towards concerns with natural and man-made systems, dynamic processes rather than objects, and the importance of ecological relationships.
Not only the question What is Life? but its logical extension What is Artificial Life? has been a recurrent inquiry in cultural history in our attempt to understand – philosophically, scientifically, and artistically – and to recreate what actually constitutes aliveness. In our efforts to comprehend the intrinsic features that make living things essentially alive, reconstruction and recreation, synthesis out of analysis, appear to be a consistent human drive. Although there is no evidence that humankind truly understands what it creates, some see synthesis even as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman What I cannot create, I do not understand – a sentence coincidentally coined the same year in which Rudy Rucker’s biopunk sci-fi novel Wetware was published, and where a race of intelligent robots creates new organic synthetic hybrids called ‘meatbops.’Rucker, Rudy: Wetware. New York, 1988.
Indeed, we may not yet have comprehended that ‘meaty’ or ‘wet’ living machines today operate on scales and in modes different from the ‘dry’ mechanical, electronic and computational ones we know and can recognize. Instead, with the advent of disciplines such as synthetic biology, machines may reproduce, proliferate and become pervasive, while being hardly identifiable. Wetware, then, can mean protocols and devices used in molecular biology and synthetic biology. It encompasses the biological and systems theoretical understanding of life and blurs the line between organisms and machines. It can describe technical entities equivalent to hardware and software found in, or implemented in living systems and organisms, including the nervous system and the mind, and standing in for any kind of information processing necessary for biological systems.
Conceptually speaking, the history of art itself is full of synthesis. Uniting disparate elements, putting them into a collage to create new works, metaphors, sensory experiences, or aesthetic genres, is also inherent to a certain human curiosity, present in every epoch, for finding new ways of creating with new expressive media and techniques. Likewise, the historical fascination with staging aliveness – rather than merely representing it – permeates cultural history, on the whole, and art, in particular. Since the earliest anthropomorphic statues and pneumatic figures generating simple movements, myths of vivification surround artifacts made by the artist’s hand. The animation of malleable matter, of course, stands in a long pictorial tradition, as well, and, beginning in the 19th century, biological metaphors are even employed in the discussion of artworks themselves as organismsWaetzoldt, Wilhelm: Das Kunstwerk als Organismus. Ein aesthetisch-biologischer Versuch. Leipzig 1905.. Again and again, these discussions emphasize how artworks, by means of form, material or process, manifest a touch of aliveness. Art has imagined, represented and mimicked, then simulated and – quite recently – manipulated living beings and systems, for real. As a result, it has become less and less object-centered and increasingly performative and processual. After painting, sculpture and automata, art in the late 20th century has employed ‘dry’ informatics and robotics to present aliveness, as well as ‘wet’ cell, molecular and synthetic biology.
When, in 1995, artist and theorist Simon Penny asked “Why do we want our machines to seem alive?”Penny, Simon: The Pursuit of the Living Machine. In: Scientific American 273, no. 3, September 1995, p. 216. he had in mind the then recent developments in “Artificial Life, the generation of life-like behavior by computer programs in digital environments.”Ibid. Penny saw this phenomenon as a pursuit of humankind’s eternal drive both “to imitate nature (a process known as mimesis) and to simulate the qualities of human being (anthropomorphism) [so to] blur the lines between the animate and inanimate, between human and machine. Ibid. But at this particular moment, What was Artificial Life? Especially since the 1980s, art has frequently been concerned with software simulations and robotics, following Christopher Langton’s much-quoted manifesto that “Artificial Life is the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural living systems. It complements the traditional biological sciences concerned with the analysis of living organisms by attempting to synthesize life-like behaviors within computers and other artificial media.”Langton, Christopher G.: Artificial Life. In: Christopher G. Langton (ed.): The Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems held September 1987 in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Vol. VI. Redwood City, 1989, p. 1.Because it seemed possible to abstract the logical form of a machine from its physical hardware, it is natural to ask whether it is possible to abstract the logical from of an organism from its biochemical wetwareIbid., p. 21 by therefore “locating life-as-we-know-it within the larger picture of life-as-it-could-be.”Ibid.
While Langton bluntly wished to get rid of “incubators, culture dishes, microscopes, electrophoretic gels, pipettes, centrifuges and other assorted wet-lab paraphernalia,”Ibid., p. 39. artists often quite literally applied his dogma, in accordance with the then readily available media: robotic entities, electronic avatars, chaotic algorithms, knowbots, cellular automata, neural networks, computer viruses, virtual ecosystems, etc. populated the media arts scene for many years. Such forms of A-Life indeed depended, as Richard Doyle points out, mainly “on their ability to seduce humans. That is, their ‘liveliness’ – their ability to achieve the reproductive success and other ‘lifelike behaviors’ in the virtual ecology of the computer – depends on their success in representing ‘life’ to their human wetware.”Doyle, Richard: Wetwares. Experiments in Postvital Living. Minneapolis/London, 2003, p. 28.
Today, then, What is Artificial Life? The wet-lab paraphernalia are back, and a clear shift toward hybrid and semi-living systems in art is evident, as well, with a focus on projects that challenge the boundaries between the living and the non-living, between synthetic and organic life, thus including manipulated carbon-based life. Science philosophers, such as Marc A. Bedau, editor-in-chief of the international journal Artificial Life, suggest that research goals of synthetic biology, such as artificial cells that clean the environment or produce alternative fuels, or the attempts to synthesize protocellsRasmussen, Steen, et al. (ed.): Protocells. Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter. Cambridge/London, 2009. from scratch in a test tube, today constitute cases of ‘wet’ Artificial Life. And this may even put an end to the old controversy over whether Artificial Life in silico can be literally alive, or is merely a simulation or representation. In an article provocatively entitled What is Life? – in reference to Erwin Schrödinger’s seminal text from 1944Schrödinger, Erwin: What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Cambridge, 1944. – Bedau argues that “soft Artificial Life has created remarkably life-like software systems, and they seem genuinely alive to some, but others ridicule the whole idea of a computer simulation being literally alive.”Bedau, Mark A.: What is Life? In: Sarkar, Sahotra and Plutynski, Anya (ed.): A Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. New York, 2007, p. 455.Alternatively, the strong version of wet artificial life is intuitively plausible; we usually accept that something synthesized from scratch in the lab could be literally alive.Ibid., p. 460.
Currently, synthetic biology is being approached as a discipline in which top-down and bottom-up approaches, and the virtual and the actual, oscillate. Simulation and material organic implementation are no longer thought of as opposing but compatible methods. The discipline aims at applying engineering principles to biology in order not only to modify but rather to build up ‘life’ from scratch and design ‘living machines.’ In DNA synthesis, genetic information is chemically produced and transferred into foreign cells; with DNA-based biological circuits, organisms can be equipped with new functions; minimal organisms research tests biological units that have been reduced to their minimal functions necessary for survival; protocells, early stages of cellular life forms, can be produced out of lifeless chemical substances; and xenobiology constructs functional biological systems not-yet-existent in nature and, moreover, not intended to interact with it.Schmidt, Markus, (ed.): Synthetic Biology. Industrial and Environmental Applications. Weinheim, 2012.
For Artificial Life art today, this means that simulation and organic re-materialization can no longer be regarded as distinct operations, but as wetware compatible. Those artists who enter the labs, or create their own, are particularly ‘close to life’ in the literal biological sense, and the discipline of synthetic biology is well suited to upgrade art historical paradigms of ‘creation’. At the same time, the democratization of lab tools has lead to their subversion by tinkerers and tactical media activists, who apply the critical potential of open source culture from the digital age of media art to DIY biology. With the progressive convergence of hard, soft and wetware, ‘wet corners’ are being set up in already existing hacker spaces and media art associations, often following a creative and political paradigm of appropriation having its forerunners in Super 8 film clubs, video groups, local open-access TV channels and the computer hacking movement.
It is in this context that the exhibition Wetware, and its related artist-in-residency programs, intervenes. It features artists who increasingly extend their work towards practices in the light of today’s convergent technologies. However, they do not act as illustrators of technical novelty, rather they turn the utilitarian mission of wetware on its head. By materializing ‘living machines’ beyond simulations, they challenge experimental systems and tools over and above their utility in the natural sciences and question guiding metaphors. Wetware juxtaposes art projects that, likewise, creatively and critically investigate the anthropocentric mindset in engineered moist Artificial Life and the responsibility that arises with it. Hence, the concepts of art, agency and animation are shifting. Art moves beyond its gilded cage of symbolism and engages with techno-scientific processes that increasingly shape worldviews today. Agency is not reserved for human beings anymore, but equally ascribed to non-human life, machines and experimental systems. And the meaning of animation – in its common sense of making movies or special effects – is turned back to its original signification: the quality or condition of being, or being made alive or lifelike.
Primitive Technicity and Animated Encapsulations
However, when foretelling What is Life? in the future, we may consider not only the standardization and modularization of abstract units similar to hardware and software, transposed to wetware, but also ask – as anthropologist Stefan Helmreich does – What was Life?Helmreich, Stefan: What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies. In: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Summer 2011), p. 671-696. Would we discover the future of possible forms of life in the rear view mirror of how life originally emerged in the realm of what Helmreich calls ‘limit biologies’? If ‘life’ as a concept is above all “a pattern transposable across media,” Ibid, p. 676. then we may take a closer look at the extreme ecologies of ocean life, such as in phytoplankton, or at the ability of bacteria to survive extreme conditions: “Limit biologies like ‘Artificial Life’, extreme marine biology, and astrobiology point to larger instabilities in concepts of nature – organic, earthly, cosmic,”Ibid, p. 677. of aliveness as such. What is more, one will find at these limits a whole range of phenomena that can be addressed as the innate technical capacities of microorganisms when “pressed against the boundaries of what biologists believed living things capable of”Ibid, p. 683. – ‘nature’ that itself engineers and synthesizes, so to speak, including bacteria evolving to eat plastic or other man-made trash.
Wetware art embodies and poetically materializes such philosophical and epistemological questions. For example, Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza’s practice emblematically reflects on life as a pattern transposable across media, shifting notions of Artificial Life from the mechanical, electronic and computational back to the organic realm. The visitor encounters somehow familiar, buzzing diptera defending their living space with their inexhaustible, somewhat too steadily circling rotor blades, tied to thin electric cables. Giant caterpillars appear to have caught their teeth on telephone wires, burrowing their way into and hampering telecommunication, and multipeds with cylindrical torsos and delicate limbs do away with the waste of urban civilization – all these soft and hardware Parasites are exclusively constructed out of humankind’s technological waste. By contrast, Esparza’s BioSoNot presents itself as a musical synthesizer that allows humans to hear electrical oscillations of bacteria in microbial fuel cells as they clean contaminated water – and, as a matter of fact, the artist uses autochthonous ‘naturally synthesizing’ bacteria only, not engineered ones. In the same vein, Adam Brown’s Great Work of the Metal Lover hosts extremophile bacteria, often used in ecological remediation to filter toxic metals out of industrially polluted soils. Here, they produce gold, thereby seeming to solve the alchemist riddle of the philosopher’s stone. Such procedural art works express less the ‘autonomous’ and ‘intelligent’ behavior, often claimed in earlier A-Life art to describe the mimicking of human cognition, but rather their systems’ decentralized and collaborative intelligence to clean up humankind’s mess in times of major ecological and atmospheric crises.
Meanwhile, the Panama disease is threatening the Cavendish, the world’s most popular banana, and Orkan Telhan constructs a Microbial Design Studio – a countertop wetlab to engineer bacteria at home that can reproduce Cavendish’s smell and taste in semi-living encapsulations. Another type of encapsulation is the key element in Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand’s live installation Luminiferous Drift. Considered bottom-up A-Life, so-called protocells – models of cells formed by an innate, complex chemistry – visualize physically simulated movements of phytoplankton in a biosphere as seen from space, thus impressively materializing the fragility of our ecosystems and biospheres at a miniature level. One ‘limit biology’ models another in an interplay of non-human actors that carry out a dazzling spectacle of what can be called microperformativityHauser, Jens: Molekulartheater, Mikroperformativität und Plantamorphisierungen. In: Stemmler, Susanne (ed.): Wahrnehmung, Erfahrung, Experiment, Wissen. Objektivität und Subjektivität in den Künsten und den Wissenschaften. Zürich/Berlin, 2014, p. 173-189..
Microperformativity and Macroconcerns
In Klaus Spiess and Lucie Strecker’s biotechnological stagings, microperformativity also plays a central role. For Hare’s Blood + a ‘molecular animal’ has been designed in the form of an engineered artistic biobrick, a standardized genetic sequence incorporating gene sequences isolated from the blood of Joseph Beuys’ famous hare, and turning the politically engaged happening artist’s utopia of an equitable counter-economy upside down, in light of the current speculation in bio parts. Engineered bacteria, then, are the protagonists of Thomas Feuerstein’s biotechnological sculpture Pancreas – wetware in the most literal sense used in science fiction and denoting functional elements equivalent to a computer found in biological systems or in a person – here, in the human brain. Feuerstein refers to another connotation of wetware, namely that “in comparison to hardware and software, wetware is a somewhat dysfunctional component, first and foremost a source of errors [and] may be blatantly inferior, but some of its interior aspects are – still – unattainable to hardware and software.”Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey: Hardware/Software/Wetware. In: Mitchell, W.J.T. and Hansen, Mark B. N. (ed.): Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago/London, 2010, p. 191. Touching upon the brain’s position between spiritualism and metabolism, the artist feeds human neuroglia cells with glucose to grow into the shape of a human brain, thanks to specifically modified bacteria that produce glucose by breaking down cellulose from shredded books. However, the feeding of the artificial brain follows a strict diet since it exclusively consists of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: ‘Food for thought’ becomes ‘thought for food.’
Anna Dumitriu’s lab investigations into synthetic evolution and non-canonical amino acids focus on the interplay between abstract modeling and three-dimensional wetware folding of amino acids in antibody research, while questioning biology’s terminology and heuristic metaphors, such as the image that all forms of organic life are made of amino acids that join together like strings of beads. Here, the object of presentation and the mode of representation become one and the same: In Engineered Antibody, a beaded necklace, human size, both represents and physically contains the actual 21 amino acids of an antibody – in Necklace, then, Dumitriu relocates and miniaturizes the ‘string of beads’ metaphor at the actual genomic level: engineered, circular plasmid DNA sequences are themselves considered the ‘necklaces’, but ‘worn’ inside the bacterium itself this time.
Micro-sculptures of this kind invoke historical precursors, such as Jack Burnham’s writings on “The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century.”Burnham, Jack: Beyond Modern Sculpture. The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century. New York, 1968. Held in high esteem in media art circles as influential ‘guru’ reading, the book is unfortunately overlooked in classical art history. At the very moment Lucy Lippard diagnosed the period of the “dematerialization of the art object”Lippard, Lucy R.: Six Years. The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. New York, 1973. with its greater focus on ideas and actions, Burnham provides a retrospective, biologistic and informed by the history of technology, of over 2500 years of sculpture, arguing that its very ‘survival’ is dependent on its transition from material objects to complex systems: from idealistic-vitalist imaginary shapes to organicistic processes in which macro phenomena of the living are explained by underlying micro phenomena, a transition “of sculpture from a psychically-impregnated totemic object toward a more literal adaptation of scientific reality via the model or technologically inspired artifact,” therefore towards “life-simulating systems through the use of technology.”Burnham, ibid., p. 7. Influenced by cybernetics, and the modern genetics it inspired, but also by environmental concerns, as well as the early systems biology of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Burnham calls for a departure from form and a reorientation toward functionality in sculpture of the future “away from biotic appearances toward biotic functioning via the machine.”Burnham, ibid., p. 76. He hopes that spectators of such art would be stimulated to adopt a planetary-holistic environmental consciousness - not contra but qua technology:
If man is approaching a time of radical change, one not controlled by natural selection and mutation, what better nonscientific way exists for anticipating self-re-creation (not procreation) than the spiritually motivated activity of artificially forming images of organic origin? Could it be that modern sculpture is this process vastly accelerated?Burnham, ibid., p. 374.
Against this background, then, it is even more plausible why Burnham became the initiator of the seminal Software show in 1970 in New York. Despite the far-reaching technological advances experienced since that time, many of the exhibition’s claims take on unexpected pertinence today. While overcoming distinctions between art and other cultural practices deeply influenced by new information technologies, Burnham also anticipated art’s general move towards “concerns with natural and man-made systems, processes, ecological relationships,”Burnham, Jack: Notes on art and information processing. In: Burnham, Software, ibid., p. 10. picking up the assumption that if “we build machines in our own self-image […] a separation between body and mind may be no more than an illusion fostered by our lack of scientific knowledge about human biology and communication systems in general.”Ibid., p. 11. The influence of the, then, rapidly developing information processing technology “on notions such as creativity, perception and art”Ibid. reaches a new level in man-made ‘wet machines,’ and it is worth noting that Burnham himself claimed that, in fact, “the division between software and hardware is one that tangibly relates to our own anthropomorphism,”Ibid. and that needs to be overcome. He also pointed to two other features that become relevant again in Wetware: “the steady trend towards democratization,”Ibid., p. 13. when technologies which two decades ago still were only accessible to a highly skilled elite become tools for laymen in short time, and the challenges that arise when such practices update older definitions of art, since “ars in the Middle Ages was less theoretical than scientia: it dealt with the manual skills related to a craft or technique. But present distinctions between the fine, applied, and scientific arts have grown out of all proportion to the original schism precipitated by the Industrial Revolution.” Therefore, Software made “none of the usual qualitative distinctions between the artistic and technical subcultures.Ibid., p. 14.
In light of the recent DIY biology trend, on the one hand, and the hype around synthetic biology, on the other, it is surprising how visionary such statements sound four and a half decades later – a nearly incommensurable time span, if not an eternity, in terms of Moore’s law! According to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observations and predictions in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of transistors per chip that result in lower prices per transistor and drive a profound technological and socio-economic – and consequently, as we know, cultural – change, would double approximately every two years. Today, however, it seems that the semiconductor industry is no longer catching up with these predictionsMitchell, Waldrop M.: More Than Moore. In: Nature, Vol. 530, (11 February) 2016, p. 144-147. and that the “Moore’s law really is dead this time,”Bright, Peter: Moore’s law really is dead this time. In: Ars Technica, (11 February) 2016; http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2016/02/moores-law-really-is-dead-this-time as a result of such problems as heat in ever smaller chips and quantum physics phenomena when attempting further miniaturization no longer achievable with conventional materials. Is wetware the way out? Many anticipate the still underexplored promises of fluid, chemical and wetware computing on the basis of cells, DNA, neurons etc.: “Never mind tablet computers. Wait till you see bubbles and slime mold!”Popkin, Gabriel: Moore’s Law Is About to Get Weird. Never mind tablet computers. Wait till you see bubbles and slime mold. In: Nautilus, Issue 21, “Information. The Anatomy of Everything”, (12 February) 2015; http://nautil.us/issue/21/information/moores-law-is-about-to-get-weird In the arts, with all its aesthetic and technical subcultures, it is definitively time for a wetware update.