Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society

The Arts Catalyst and UCL explored the cultural dimensions of synthetic biology in a week-long interdisciplinary exchange lab and series of public events

Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research, which applies engineering principles to biology in order to design and fabricate new biological systems that do not exist in the natural world. It promises new drugs and materials for medical applications, and new routes to make biofuels and chemicals. It could have profound implications for the way we perceive and use living things.

Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society was an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, scientists and other disciplines to collaboratively explore synthetic biology's ideas and techniques, and its social and cultural implications.Participants were selected through an international open call.

Two public evening events during the week were intended to broaden the exchange with the public.

We Need To Talk About Synthia

We Need To Talk About Synthia was a panel discussion and artists’ presentations, exploring the cultural and societal implications of synthetic biology. The event's title was inspired by Craig Venter and his team who in 2010 built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they called the world's first synthetic life form. They called it Synthia.Panelists are Professor John Ward, Head of Synbion, the UCL-Birkbeck Synthetic Biology Network, Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, The Centre for Biological Arts School at the University of Western Australia, and Dr Alistair Elfick, University of Edinburgh. It will be chaired by Dr Jane Calvert.  Embedded video of the event can be accessed by scrolling down or here at The Arts Catalyst Vimeo album.

Artists’ presentations by Tuur Van Balen, Andy Gracie, and Daisy Ginsberg.

Synthetic Biology Film Night

An evening of films on the broad theme of synthetic biology included short films of animation, science-fiction, and documentary - followed by the classic 1962 B-movie ‘The Day of the Triffids’, based on the novel by John Wyndham in which a species of mobile stinging plants, created in an experimental lab, begin to take over the world. Film programme

Synthesis Exchange Laboratory

The Synthesis exchange laboratory was devised and led by Professor John Ward and colleagues at UCL with artist-designers Oron Catts and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. The exchange process was intended to explore and challenge the notions of synthetic biology, the level of control and manipulation of living systems, the application of engineering logic, and the social and cultural dimensions of synthetic biology; with the hope to inspire proposals for future projects from all participants. Other contributors to the laboratory include scientists Alastair Elfick, University of Edinburgh, and Ferman Federici, University of Cambridge, and historian and philosopher Joe Cain, UCL.

Artist Melanie Jackson was commissioned to make an artist's film from her engagement with the laboratory process and investigations of synthetic biology.

Exchange lab participants

Melanie Jackson, artist, UK
Laura Cinti, artist, UK
Brendan Clarke, philosopher & historian, UK
Irilenia Nobelli, bioinformatics, UK
Tom Bailey, theatre practitioner, UK
Veronika Valk, curator, Estonia/Australia
Niccolo Casas, architect, Italy
Eliza Dominguez Huttinger, systems & synthetic biologist, UK
Anne Brodie, artist, UK
Thiago Soveral, architect, Brazil/UK
Helen Bullard, artist, UK
Joy Yueyue Zhang, social scientist, UK/China
Jennet Thomas, artist, UK
Nathan Cohen, artist, UK
JD Talasek, curator, USA
Sneha Solanki, artist, UK
Katy Connor, artist, UK
Orkan Telhan, artist-designer, USA
Matt Johnson, industrial designer, UK

Partners and funders

Synthesis is organised by The Arts Catalyst with UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics. It is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from The Arts Catalyst (Arts Council England funded), the SynBion network (funded by BBSRC and EPSRC), SymbioticA (The University of Western Australia) and Synthetic Aesthetics (funded by EPSRC and the National Science Foundation).

Further labs are intended in Edinburgh, Stanford, US, and Perth, Australia.

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

James Acord: A Life in the Nuclear Age "You Can't Make This Shit Up"

A tribute to James Acord, the nuclear scupltor

James Acord was the only private individual in the world licensed to own and handle radioactive materials. He is likely to remain so since the authorities closed the loopholes after he achieved his license. His work was a story of a 20-year performance, a cat and mouse game with the nuclear regulatory authorities, in which he pursued his dream of converting highly radioactive waste into inert metal for use in art. Along the way, he created sculpture and events that probed the history of nuclear engineering, often incorporating radioactive materials. His astonishing story shines light on the secrecy and security with which society cloaks the nuclear industry.

The evening will include an exhibit of work by James Acord, stories of his work, film clips, photos, and a reading from 'The Book of Ash', a novel based on Acord's life, by the author James Flint.

James Acord was a master storyteller, and we will also have an 'open mic' session, so that those of you who knew Jim can contribute your stories of him, or re-tell stories that he told you.

James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, passed away on the 8 January 2011. The Arts Catalyst worked closely with Acord over many years. We invite you to join us at this event to remember and celebrate his life and work.

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Contemporary Nomadism: Autonomy & Technology in the North

Arctic Perspective Initiative international partners talk about the project that has lead to the exhibition

Introducing the international project behind the Arctic Perspective exhibition, a panel of artists, academics and architects explore its cultural, historical and political contexts. The Arctic Perspective Initiative  aims to support a thoroughly contemporary nomadism via open and free media, environmental monitoring and communications technologies.


Marko Peljhan, artist and instigator of Arctic Perspective Initiative (Slovenia)
David Turnbull, science sociologist (New Zealand)
Richard Carbonnier, architect (Canada)
Inke Arns, curator (HMKV Germany)
Chair: Michael Bravo, Scott Polar Research Institute (Canada)

Arctic Perspective highlights the cultural, geopolitical and ecological significance of the Arctic and its indigenous cultures. In collaboration with the people of Igloolik, Kinngait, Iqaluit, Mittimatalik and Kanngiqtugaapik in Nunavut, Canada and other Arctic communities, artists and architects are devising a mobile media and living unit and infrastructure, powered by renewable energy sources. The unit will be used by Inuit and other Arctic peoples for creative media production such as film-making, communications and monitoring the environment, while moving, living and working on the land. The exhibition includes architectural models of winning designs from the Arctic Perspective open architecture competition by Richard Carbonnier (Canada), Catherine Rannou (France) and Giuseppe Mecca (Italy), with photographs, videos and maps from the project.
The Arctic Perspective Initiative is led by artists Marko Peljhan (Slovenia) and Matthew Biederman (US/Canada). The exhibition has been curated by The Arts Catalyst. Collaborators: Miha Bratina, Ziga Testen.

Partners and funders

Arctic Perspective Initiative
Canadian High Commission, London
HMKV, Dortmund
Projekt Atol, Slovenia
Lorna, Iceland
C-TASC, Canada
Arts Council England
Cultural Programme of the European Union
City of Dortmund
Federal Centre for Civic Education
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia


Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Planetary Breakdown: autonomous infrastructures for a sustainable future

An event investigating artistic strategies for sustainablity and survivability following impending climate change. A collaboration between Arts Catalyst, Intersections, AV Festival and Baltic.

"Following Helen and Newton Harrison’s notion of the ‘Force Majeure – that we should be preparing for different forms of governance following radical blows to the existing infrastructures by inevitable climate change – Autonomous Infrastructures looks at the many models created by artists and by communities of people operating semi-autonomously in society in intentional and utopian communities. The event examines the symbolic nature of many of these initiatives and proposse the future realisation of unrealised artists infrastructures." - Rob La Frenais

Produced by Intersections (Newcastle University), Arts Catalyst and AV Festival 10.

Day 1 Tuesday 9 March 2010
Autonomous Infrastructures: sandpit (invited)

The first day was a invited group of around 30 people, mainly artists. We looked at different approaches artists are taking to the question of change and sustainability and, working as small teams, hothouse some potential strategies. 

Day 2 Wednesday 10 March 2010
Symposium: Planetary Breakdown: autonomous infrastructures for a sustainable future

Day 2 was a public symposium with three panels looking at alternative approaches to: communities, trade and energy. The symposium brought together an exceptional range of artists, academics and other industry experts to look at future approaches to living. It explored the possibility of creating new autonomous infrastructures across energy, trade and transport, offering a space for everyone to contribute to an active dialogue about our futures. Speakers: Alternative Communities: Malcolm Miles, Lise Autogena, Nicola Triscott, chair David Butler. Trade: Kate Rich, Ashok Sukumaran, chair Sally Jane Norman. Energy: HeHe, London Fieldworks, Bryony Worthington, chair Rob La Frenais

Reviews of Planetary Breakdown symposium




Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

From Farm to Pharm

From Farm to Pharm: The Evolution of Artificial Selection

New York artist Brandon Ballengée was artist in residence at Gallery Oldham in November 2002 as part of the CleanRooms exhibition. Working in collaboration with a small group of unemployed young people, he developed a project which explored the origin and growth of current practices in genetic engineering. The group visited English farms, pet shops, urban parks, markets, and biotech laboratories to help trace the history of humankind’s struggle for dominance over natural evolutionary forces. According to the Ballengée, “the ‘Unconscious’ selection of our early ancestors shifted to selective breeding or artificial selection and has now evolved into the manipulation of individual genes to create entirely new species.”

Creating images of hundreds of species/breeds, they created two enormous visual time-lines exploring the changes in plant and animal life over the last 25,000 years. The work became an integral part of the CleanRooms exhibition and toured with it to the Natural History Museum in London in 2003, where Ballengée was again artist-in-residence and further developed the work in collaboration with the public and museum scientists.

Brandon Ballengée creates multidisciplinary works from information generated by ecological field trips and laboratory research, exploring the boundaries between art, science and technology. Since 1996, Ballengée has collaborated with numerous scientists to conduct primary biological research and advanced imaging procedures. His works have been exhibited in New York, Beijing, Vienna, London and other cities. He has also conducted many workshops on the themes of ecology, field biology and genetics with children and the general public.


Gallery Oldham, Oldham, Greater Manchester, UK

5 October - 30 November 2002

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, UK

20 June - 3 August 2003


Arts Council England

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 

Research is Not Terrorism: Steve Kurtz

Steve Kurtz, artist, activist and researcher, arrested by the FBI

Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble spoke about his case for the first time since his arrest in the USA. He was accompanied by Claire Pentecost from the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund.

Steve Kurtz was wrongly arrested in 2004, the FBI on charges relating to bioterrorism, because he had sourced some harmless bacteria to use in an artistic project. The bioterrorism charges were finally dropped by a Grand Jury, after an international storm of protest, however Steve still faces FBI charges of mail fraud (a charge traditionally used by the FBI when they can't pin another charge on someone - Critical Art Ensemble are known for their political views expressed through their work). Also indicted was Robert Ferrell, head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health. The charges concern technicalities of how Ferrell helped Kurtz to obtain $256 worth of harmless bacteria for one of Kurtz's art projects.

Artists, scientists and civil liberties groups internationally have publicly condemned both the old and new charges and the continued harrassment of Steve Kurtz and many people that he has worked with. These new charges still carried a potential jail sentence of 20 years and threaten many researchers in the sciences who source material in a similar way.

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Ecoventions: Art & Ecology Projects

Artist Brandon Ballengé led a series of art and ecology fieldtrips and ecology study days, 'bug parties' and a public bioart laboratory in Yorkshire, London and Essex.

During 2007 and 2008, atist Brandon Ballengée led numerous public fieldtrips and biodiversity walks, projects with schools, workshops, study days and events, and ran a public bioart laboratory, as an integral part of his UK amphibians study and residencies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Gunpowder Park and SPACE London, organised by Arts Catalyst.

More than 1000 people participated in these many events and activities.

Brandon Ballengée at Gunpowder Park & SPACE, 2007

In Summer 2007, artist Brandon Ballengée led a series of art and ecology field trips and study days in the fields and marshland at Gunpowder Park, a new country park in the Lea Valley, on the boundary between London and Essex, exploring the present species of insects and amphibians. The projects were organised in collaboration with Arts Catalyst and SPACE, a gallery in East London. Urban ecologist Dusty Gedge, and wildlife photographer David Cottridge also joined Brandon to lead a study day of particular interest to artists wishing to develop their ecological-art practice and ecologists interested in working with artists to raise awareness of ecological issues.

The artist also set up installations, Love Motels for Insects, at Gunpowder Park and SPACE, sculptural works that use ultra-violet (black) light to study and photograph spiders, moths, beetles and other nocturnal creatures, and ran a popular 'Bug Party' at SPACE, a drawing workshop for all ages which incorporated music, graffiti art, and an urban bug hunt to discover the insect life of Hackney.

Ecoventions Art & Ecology Study Day, Sunday 15 July 2007

Ecoventions Fieldtrips, Sunday 22 July & Sunday 29 July 2007

Projects with Mulberry School for Girls and other London and Essex schools, 2007

Bug Party, Sunday 30 September 2007, SPACE, 129-131 Mare Street, London

Love Motel for Insects: Gunpowder Park Variation - Commissioned by Arts Catalyst & Gunpowder Park

Love Motel for Insects: Hackney Variation - Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst & SPACE


Brandon Ballengée at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2007-8

Brandon was resident artist at Yorkshire Sculpture Park during summer 2007 and the lived and worked at YSP in June and July 2008, collecting samples from the ponds and lakes in order to research rates of deformity and mutation in the park's resident frogs, toads and newts. During both summers, he led field trips and projects involving school groups and the public in collecting samples and conducting aquatic surveys. Throughout his stay in 2008, Brandon worked in a studio at Longside Gallery and set up a public bioart laboratory there, inviting visitors to drop in and talk to him about the project and to participate in his research.

Biodiversity walks, June & July 2007

Artist's talk, Saturday 14 June 2008

Open bioart laboratory, Weds-Sun, June & July 2008

Biodiversity walks every Saturday, June & July 2008

Bug Party, Saturday 16 August 2008

Love Motel for Insects: Yorkshire Sculpture Park Variation - Commissioned by Yorkshire Sculpture Park


Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Interspecies London - Symposia, Workshops, Family Day

Interspecies uses artistic and participatory strategies to stimulate dialogue and debate, showing artists in contact with real animals and negotiating a new power relationship, questioning the way we view our interactions with animals during Darwin's anniversary year

Interspecies asks: Can artists work with animals as equals? If not, what is the current state of the human-animal relationship?

The exhibition and programme of related events centres around a durational work by Kira O'Reilly and draws together projects by Nicolas Primat and other artists who explore playful speculations on relations between species. Antony Hall Enki Experiment 4 encourages visitors to communicate with an electric fish on the same level.  Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson's Radio Animal* invites visitors to consider ‘unwelcome’ visitors but have for whatever reason found their way into what we may consider our own territories. Work includes: Nicolas Primat Portrait de Famille, The Making of Les Petits Hommes VersKira O'Reilly Falling Asleep With A Pig. Ruth Maclennan Harry and Three short films on Hawks and Men. Rachel Mayeri Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends. Beatriz da Costa PigeonBlog.

Talks & Symposia

Exhibition tour with curator Rob La Frenais, 6pm Friday 2 October 2009

Non-Human Primates symposium with Sarah-Jane Vick - primatologist and psychologist; Patrick Munck - artist, videographer and collaborator with Nicolas Primat; Rachel Mayeri - artist, chaired by Rob La Frenais, 7-9pm Friday 2 October 2009

Tour of ENKI Experiment 4 with artist Antony Hall, 2pm Saturday 3 october 2009

Animals, Humans and Power symposium with Giovanni Aloi - editor Antennae; Ruth Maclennan - artist; Helen Macdonald, author of Falcon; Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir; Karen Knorr - artist and photographer, chaired by Rob La Frenais, 3-6pm Saturday 3 October 2009


Primate Cinema workshops on How to Act like an Animal with artist Rachel Mayeri, 1-3 and 3.30-5.30pm Saturday 3 October 2009

Family day

Becoming Bowerbirds workshop with artist Sally Hampson (based on an Arts Catalyst project at Zoological Society London), 2-5pm Sunday 4 October 2009

Interspecies Tales with poet and storyteller Shamin Azad, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm Sunday 4 October 2009

Links to artists' websites

Kira O'Reilly, Antony Hall, Ruth Maclennan, Rachel Mayeri, Beatriz da Costa, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson

Exhibition supported by

Arts Council England, Darwin 200, A Foundation

*Animal Radio is a Story Gallery, Lancaster commission funded by the Henry Moore Foundation.

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Art and the Atomic State

A discussion event to accompany the Atomic exhibition.

Panelists: Artists James Acord, Carey Young, Mark Waller with Keith Franklin, BNFL, Mark Ramsay, Imperial College Radiation Safety Officer, and Helen Wallace, Greenpeace. Chaired by Nicola Triscott, Director of Arts Catalyst

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: 

Space Day

Arts Catalyst, in collaboration with the art and science departments at Lambeth Academy (a secondary school in Clapham), ran an art-science day focusing on Space

The whole school was taken off timetable (600 students) and all lessons delivered that day were hands-on and/or interactive and dealt with space topics.

Nicola Triscott, director of Arts Catalyst, delivered a talk on art, space and weightlessness to the whole school. Five artists ran workshops with students through the day: Artist Antony Hall worked with sound and podcasts, Joanna Griffin developed an orbital installation with the students using Google Earth and satellites; Mandinga Arts created alien masks and Dimitri Launder and Joel Grey landed a Space Pod in the school atrium that became a debating forum on the politics of space travel.

Editorial checked: 
Taxonomy - artists practice: 
Taxonomy - geographies: 
Taxonomy - themes: