The Alien World of ‘Wetware’

By Michelle Turken

Behind the non-descript double doors of the Beall Center for Art and Technology lives an alien world, one in which artificial life reigns supreme.  As I entered the interdisciplinary exhibition “Wetware: Art, Agency, Animation”, I was confronted with eerily lit sculptures, a pile of discarded tech and whirring robots that looked like they’d been plucked from your wildest sci-fi fantasies.

Highly futuristic and interactive, the exhibit featured art embodying the convergent technologies of today. Blurring the distinctions between living organisms and machines, artists employed informatics and synthetic biology to stage “aliveness”, prompting us to ask ourselves the cliché yet altogether important philosophical question — what is life?

The agency of experimental systems, non-human organisms and robots are illustrated through a series of displays ranging from “Engineered Antibody”, a beaded necklace which painstakingly represents amino acids folded in the precise structure of an antibody to “The Great Work of the Metal Lover”, a biotechnological apparatus containing extremophile bacteria that generate real gold.

Here, gold production is achieved by introducing these specialized bacteria into an engineered atmosphere, enclosed within a tailored alchemical bioreactor. Crafted by Adam Brown in collaboration with Kazem Kashefi, “The Great Work of the Metal Lover” includes an exhibition of the alchemical bioreactor along with a series of microscope photographs showcasing gold deposits generated by the bacteria.

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“The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” a piece created by Adam Brown and Kazem Kashefi, showcases the intricate visual structures of gold deposits vis bacterial production. Photo courtesy of Michelle Turken.

In a different context, these images could be interpreted as abstractions of flowers or clouds, with their delicate strokes of white interspersed with flecks of gold, rather than as bacterial secretions. Other exhibits included “BioSoNot”, a contraption which allows viewers to detect the electrical oscillations of bacteria as they purify tainted water, and “Parasites”, an installation consisting of robotic forms which develop to suit urban settings.

Moscas (Flies)”, made out of discarded cell phone vibrators, and “Pepenadores (Gleaners)”, built of recycled toy motors, digest mankind’s technological waste, moving and making sounds to claim their respective roles within the metropolitan landscape. Climbing over piles of antiquated tech on their spindly legs, “Pepenadores” appear more like living spiders than artificial machines.

“Luminiferous Drift”, designed by Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, was an exciting performance piece that reveals the fluctuations of phytoplankton in the biosphere of an imaginary planet. Clustered in a dark room, viewers stood transfixed as Gelfand released an emulsion of fabricated protocells into a rotating concoction of aqueous solutions. As soon as the cellular solution met its counterpart, the basin fluoresced bright blue as the jet stream was imbued with biosynthesized light.

After the performance, Gelfand, a filmmaker by training, discussed his interest in the project, stating that he wished to “explore light in its full dimensionality.” The undertaking began when photographs of bioluminescent plankton were captured by the international space station. One of the earliest life forms, plankton are responsible for much of the chemistry that sustains our fragile ecosystems, exhibiting a complex feedback system interpreted by some as a form of intelligence. Believing that phytoplankton may formulate the origin of extraterrestrial beings, Gelfand was inspired to simulate the actions of these organisms on a revolving celestial body, devoid of life.

An innovative and thought provoking collection of interactive exhibits, “Wetware: Art, Agency, Animation” introduces visitors to the complexity of ‘artificial life.’ Whether you are an engineer, scientist, artist or sci-fi fan, this exhibit is a must-see. Admission is free and open to the public. The exhibit is open until May 7, 2016 and gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday, from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.