Artists digging into science: Exhibit at CMU gallery highlights the crossovers between disciplines


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"It's the wild, wild west."

You thought the rush to stake territorial claims was so yesterday? Or that space was the final frontier? Think again. The new unexplored lies in the cross hairs of art, science and technology, and the field is attracting enough interest to threaten a stampede.

The above comment came from San Francisco-based artist Philip Ross during an interview with Andrea Grover, curator of the exhibition "Intimate Science," which opens Friday at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mr. Ross works in an area referred to as "bio techniques," creating sculptural and architectural objects using plant and fungal materials as his media. He controls their environment to make the organisms assume unusual forms, taking more than two years to achieve a 10-inch by 10-inch by 10-inch work. The result is "nothing you would ever find in nature." If this sounds too strange to grasp, consider the honorable Japanese art of bonsai with its trimmed, shaped and miniaturized trees.

For 16 years, Mr. Ross has been exploring use of the fungus Ganoderma lucidum, known more commonly in health food circuits as reishi, as a construction material, and has a patent pending.

"It has very serious potential as a renewable material," Ms. Grover said, "like the new plastic, but biodegradable, nontoxic, edible. ... At first he met with rejection. Now he's somewhat an authority."

Mr. Ross is among six artists or artist groups featured in a show researched in 2010 while Ms. Grover was an Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow at CMU's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry and the Miller. She began by looking at artists who held residencies in scientific or industrial environments in the 1960s and discovered significant differences between their processes and those followed today.

Early efforts ranged from an art and technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which placed artists in California high-tech industry sites, to an East Coast collaboration among artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and two Bell Labs engineers, Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer.

"Several of the [proposed] projects were never realized, or failed," Ms. Grover noted by phone from her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. She is curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton.

More recently, artists began to work independently, enabled by the Internet, which provides access to source material and individuals as well as to fabrication processes. The exhibition "looks at how networked communication and open source culture have contributed to this shift from artists aiding science to 'doing' science, and the impact this imparts on the way scientific knowledge is acquired, used and shared."

The show title came from an editorial by executive editor Roger Malina in the MIT journal Leonardo. Two factors that have separated science from the general public, he wrote, are the specialized instruments used and their accompanying language, and that science is often carried out in isolated environments.

"In an interesting new development in the art world," he wrote, "a generation of artists is now collecting data about their world using technological instruments but for cultural purposes.

"Shared tool-using leads not only to shared terminologies but overlapping epistemologies and ontologies. These artists both make powerful art and help make science intimate, sensual, intuitive."

The research is self-initiated and carried out in home laboratories or in a domestic environment, Ms. Grover said. It's "small, agile, hands-on, artist-driven."

That is not to say amateur. Most artists, she said, particularly those applying the biological sciences, either formally studied biology or have spent 10 or more years becoming conversant with the area they're working within. They want to contribute to the research, and their interest is sustained. "They're not just visiting."

Allison Kudla of Seattle makes living installations by combining computer fabrication technologies and plant tissue culture. A video shows a programmed, custom-built mechanical arm cruising above a mat of plant growth. At a predetermined spot, the plotter spurts out a mossy green blob of algae, growth gel and fast-spouting seeds, which eventually grow into a fractal pattern that has been observed in both bacterial growth and urban sprawl. ( http://blip.tv/allisonkudla/capacity-for-urban-eden-human-error-4380040 .)

Londoner Markus Kayser traveled to the Sahara to explore energy production and raw material, combining micro-manufacturing with natural energy in "SolarSinter," a custom-made 3-D printer that used solar power to transform sand into glass objects. His "SunCutter" focuses sunlight to cut programmed shapes through plywood, but would also work with paper or card stock.

Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara, of BCL in Tokyo, bio-hack carnations genetically engineered for a purple bloom back into living plants, which they plan to make available as an open source population.

Machine Project is a Los Angeles nonprofit storefront that provides workshops for artists and others that range from plant tissue cloning to basic soldering and mushroom identification. They also collaborate on programming with arts institutions, museums and others across the country, encouraging outside-the-box, nonspecialist thinking with the desired results of new approaches and discovery. "They aim for a collision of unlikely populations," Ms. Grover said, "a cross-pollinating audience."

The local participant is the Center for PostNatural History, led by Rich Pell, CMU associate professor of art, which states a goal of advancing "knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature and biotechnology."

Modeled after a natural history museum, it concerns itself with life forms that don't appear in scientific taxonomy, such as transgenic organisms altered by selective breeding, genetic engineering or "other methods of biological tampering." Museum items will be included in the exhibition, but the center itself will hold a grand opening at 6 p.m. March 2 at its 4913 Penn Ave. location, Garfield.

Ms. Grover curated "29 Chains to the Moon: Artists' Schemes for a Fantastic Future" at the Miller in 2009, which featured artists' proposals of ways to provide food, energy, shelter and transportation to a growing global population. She noted that the artists are engaging in very serious pursuits and that the work is not intended to be ironic.

One goal of such projects has been scientific transparency, a concern that grew more urgent as transgenic organisms entered the marketplace with the accompanying fear they may enter the natural environment.

The wild west that Mr. Ross alluded to has intensified as entities as widespread as corporations and the National Science Foundation have taken note of the trails artists and like groups are blazing, with endgame possibilities ranging from warm and fuzzy to less than desirable.

At noon Friday, Ms. Kudla and Ms. Ross will speak about their work in Room 203, Margaret Morrison Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, followed by lunch. At 5 p.m. Ms. Grover and attending artists will lead a tour of the exhibition. A 6 to 8 p.m. reception will include the launch of a related publication, "New Art/Science Affinities," which explores citizen science. The chapters address artists as researchers, popularizing science, working within the area of "maker culture," physically working in lab environments, and in a visionary, more speculative arena.

From noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Machine Project will conduct a "Mind Reading for the Left and Right Brain" workshop, "pitting the electronic and the engineered against the human and the organic." Participants will build a primitive lie detector, be led by the artist/intuitive duo Krystal Krunch to develop their psychic abilities, and join artist/inventor Sara Roberts for a sound-based activity using Earbees, looping recorder and playback devices. The $25 fee includes a galvanic skin response kit, which the participant keeps. Space is limited and persons should register ahead through the gallery.

"Intimate" continues through March 4. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Information: www.cmu.edu/millergallery or 412-268-3618.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published January 18, 2012 5:00 AM


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