Category Archives: The Art of Science

Art of Science: The Curious Craft of Growing Ears

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe, 2014

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe, 2014

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh famously cut off his own ear. Now, another artist, Diemut Strebe, has made him a new one from tissue engineered cartilage. Strebe took genetic samples from Lieuwe van Gogh, a descendant of the artist’s brother Theo van Gogh, and created a new ear, titled Sugababe.

The harvested cells were grown onto a 3D printed scaffolding made to resemble the ear Van Gogh is to said to have cut off in 1888. The ear is displayed in a case containing a nutrient solution which could, in theory, last for years. Visitors to an exhibition in Germany last year could “talk to” the ear through a microphone which converted their voices into nerve impulses. (OK, sure, whatever. It can’t hear.)

Earmouse1

Vacanti and Langer’s Mouse

Strebe is just the latest in a line of artists and scientists who have freaked people out by growing ears. The first were Robert Langer of MIT and Charles Vacanti of Harvard, who in 1995 succeeded in growing a pretty convincing-looking ear on the back of a mouse.  Although the ear represented a huge advance in tissue engineering, the undeniable creepiness of the image worked against it. Critics pounced on the mouse as a sign of the imminent arrival of human-animal hybrids and a bustling trade in body parts, even taking out ads in the New York Times to denounce the new technology. In fact, the technique has mainly been used to help children born with missing or underdeveloped ears and people who have lost their ears to fire or trauma.

Stelarc, Ear on Arm, 2006-

Stelarc, Ear on Arm, 2006-

The most famous engineered ear in the world resides on the inner arm of performance artist Stelarc. His ongoing “Ear on Arm” project began in 2006, when surgeons inserted a “biocompatible scaffold” under the skin of his left arm. Since then he has undergone numerous procedures to upgrade it.  In a 2012 interview with Wired, he noted “At present it’s only a relief of an ear. When the ear becomes a more 3-D structure we’ll reinsert the small microphone that connects to a wireless transmitter.” In any Wi-Fi hotspot, he said, it will become internet-enabled. “So if you’re in San Francisco and I’m in London, you’ll be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing, wherever you are and wherever I am.” (An update on Stelarc’s website indicates that the microphone was successfully inserted and used, but later caused a serious infection and had to be removed.)

Stelarc says his project “sees the body as an extended operational system,” a subject with obvious relevance in a world where we’re tethered to our smartphones day and night. Alas, his experiences with surgeries and infections indicate that, for most of us, keeping the tech on the outside of our bodies is a safer option. And the revulsion that has greeted all three of the artificially grown ear projects I’ve described indicates that society has no great longing to change that.

Art of Science: Katie Lewis – Visualizing the Unquantifiable

Katie Lewis, Accumulated Numbness. pins, enamel, pencil

Katie Lewis, Accumulated Numbness. pins, enamel, pencil

Katie Lewis uses simple materials like pins and thread to create her artworks, which are based on data she collects about her own “bodily sensations” – but she won’t tell you what sensations she’s measuring. Twinges in the back? Rumbles in the tummy, perhaps? She says she uses a very strict method to collect and visualize her data, but she won’t tell you what her method is, either. According to Lewis, it’s all about questioning medicine and science’s view of the body as a quantifiable and endlessly analyzable thing.

She organizes her data into “grid-like charts and diagrams mimicking science and medicine’s representations of the body as a specimen, visually displayed for the purpose of gaining knowledge” – a mindset she sees as false. “The artificially rigid organization of my materials alludes to control – of the individual body as an institutional domain, and of irrational experience as a manageable, concrete set of events.”

Color me conflicted. On the one hand, I understand the artist’s resistance to the idea that every aspect of the self and the human experience can be quantified, crunched and displayed in neat charts. On the other hand, a lot of it can be quantified, and creating art from the data can be beautiful and meaningful, if never the definitive measure of a life.

You can see more of Katie Lewis’ art at her website.

Art of Science: Send Me to the Arctic, for Science and Art

Help support my art-science residency in Finland and this Reindeer Moss could be yours.

Help support my art-science residency in Finland and this Reindeer Moss could be yours.

I have been writing about the intersection of science and art here at The Finch & Pea for the past 3 years. I’ve been painting cells, bacteria, viruses and more for even longer, but I’ve never had the opportunity to work with real scientists in a lab – until now! I’ve been selected to be the Artist-in-Residence at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Finland in October and November 2015.

This is Kilpisjärvi. Photo by Tea Karvinen

This is Kilpisjärvi. Photo by Tea Karvinen

I’m very excited about this opportunity and I’m asking for your help to make it happen. I just launched an Indiegogo campaign to help pay my expenses for this amazing experience.

Installation view of Culture Dishes at AAAS, 2014

Installation view of Culture Dishes at AAAS, 2014

The Ars Bioarctica Residency Program is a joint project of the Finnish Bioart Society and Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in sub-Arctic Lapland. The residency has an emphasis on the Arctic environment and art-science collaboration. I’ll have access to the station’s lab and equipment and I’ll be working side-by-side with scientists conducting research on vegetation, local fauna, and soil chemistry. izzyscarffinland2Kilpisjärvi’s location near the Arctic Circle puts it on the front lines of climate change, a subject of much of my recent art.

Like most art residencies, this one is unfunded. I hope to raise enough money through Indiegogo to cover my travel and room and board and to buy some art supplies. To thank you for your support, I’ve come up with an array of amazing perks, including a scarf and print based on Reindeer Moss, a lichen native to the region.

There’s lots more information about the residency on my Indiegogo page. Please look, click, spread the word, and support sciart!

UPDATE: As of 5pm on May 14, this project is fully funded! Thank you so much for your support.

Art of Science: Shawn Smith’s Wild Pixel Kingdom

Shawn Smith, Pronking Impala, Mixed Media, 2015

Shawn Smith, Pronking Impala, Mixed Media, 2015

Centuries ago, when an artist wanted to depict an animal he hadn’t seen before, he had to rely on descriptions or travelers’ sketches. This led to the creation of many inaccurate images, perhaps the most famous of which is Dürer’s rhinoceros.

We’ve come a long way since the 16th century. But have the enormous advances in the capture and dissemination of images really brought us closer to the visual reality of animals in the wild? Shawn Smith’s exhibition Pixels, Predators and Prey at the Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia, explores this question to intriguing effect.

Smith’s show “examines the evolutionary collision between nature and the digital world through the creation of a pixelated natural world.”

Growing up in large cities, Smith’s interactions with nature were limited to the pixelated representations he viewed on television and on his computer screen. These images would later serve as inspiration for Pixels, Predators and Prey.

Smith examines how we experience nature through the lens of technology by creating three-dimensional sculptures of two-dimensional images sourced from the internet. Each nature sculpture in Pixels, Predators and Prey is built pixel-by-pixel with hand-cut, hand-dyed strips of wood in an overtly laborious process that is in direct contrast to the slipperiness and speed of the digital world.

The work in the exhibition draws inspiration from biology and the struggle a single cell must endure to remain alive. In the same way a cell plays a crucial role in the identity of an organism, Smith explores how each pixel plays an important role in the identity of the object. – Artisphere

Smith’s work is beautiful, original and thought-provoking. However many photographs we’ve seen online, can we honestly say we know what a shark or deer truly looks like? Although those large animals, like the Pronking Impala (above) are the most striking, perhaps the most creepily seductive piece in the show is the half-pixelated, half-naturalistically rendered brain and spinal cord, portentously titled Becoming. Are we? And if so, should we be afraid?

Pixels, Predators and Prey is on view at Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery until June 14. You can see more of his work at his website.

Shawn Smith, Becoming, Mixed Media, 2014

Shawn Smith, Becoming, Mixed Media, 2014

Art of Science: Mr. Cunningham’s Dinosaurs

Illustration by Jack Cunningham

Illustration by Jack Cunningham

I stumbled upon the work of animator and illustrator Jack Cunningham the other day, when I saw 3D prints of his dinosaurs featured on CoolHunting. So I went looking for more, and I found his tumblr, which is full of pictures but almost devoid of words. And then I found…nothing.  So I really don’t know who Jack Cunningham is, where he’s from, or what his favorite color is, but I guess he likes dinosaurs. This drawing of people and dinosaurs on a busy city street made me wonder what life might be like if events had taken a different turn 65 million years ago.

3D Printed Dinosaurs by Jack Cunningham and Vincent Techer

3D Printed Dinosaurs by Jack Cunningham and Vincent Techer