Last weekend saw the launch of the 2018 edition of the Edinburgh International Science Festival and, as always, the events on offer are tailored science enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds and span much further than the realm of day-to-day research. A perfect example is Synthetica, a contemporary art exhibition which is bringing together science and art in a quest to ask several difficult questions: how does fusing cells from different kingdoms challenge current classification systems? How does genetic alteration of an organism affect its relationship with other organisms? And how can using robotic devices to control a lifeless bird change our perception of what a living organism is? Hosted in Summerhall over the next month, this bioart exhibition features many examples of the subtle beauty and meaning of scientific images and objects which, normally, may be seen either as mundane by scientists or as downright confusing by the general public.
Highlights include the works of Marta de Menezes, Ting-Tong Chang, as well as Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Tarsh Bates. Marta de Menezes, for instance, has been collaborating with scientist Luis Teixeira and philosopher Maria Antonia Gonzalez Valerio to genetically modify the fruit fly Drosophila, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, in order to alter and understand its relationship with the parasitic Wolbachia bacterium. Past the biological aim of these modifications – seeing which Drosophila genes are important for its relationship with this parasitic bacterium – the piece, called Origin of Species, also sparks the more philosophical question of whether the identity of an organism is defined by its intrinsic properties or by its relationship to its environment.
The work-in-progress piece of Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Tarsh Bates also plays with the concept of identity. Crossing Kingdoms presents the attempt to fuse human and yeast cells, through images and videos projected onto a deconstructed incubator – quite the cathartic sight for a cell biologist who has one too many times dealt with dodgy incubators. Crossing Kingdoms aims to challenge not only our tolerance of experimental biology, but also how such hybrid life forms fit in with the systems we currently use to classify living organisms and how these can affect our society.
Last, but not least, Ting-Tong Chang’s P’eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness explores the notion of life itself through four ‘kinetic sculptures’ consisting of taxidermy crows fused with computer circuits, which result in almost lifelike robotic movements of the otherwise lifeless birds. These automatons challenge our definition of a living organism, while also reminding us of similar conundrums posed by science fiction – is there a solid line between the living and the unliving, especially when science and technology are deeply involved?
Synthetica is open until 13th May at Summerhall.
This article was written by Teodora Aldea and edited by James Hitchen