Inoculum – Connecting the Other

In the age of the anthropocene our understanding of media and materials is in flux

Through the thesis of the anthropocene nature becomes a man-made result. The awareness of environmental destruction and accumulation of global disasters resulting from human interference into the ecological system demands reactions. Technologies and technical improvements have overlaid natural processes and gained a certain autonomy from their human creators. The invention and accumulation of tools and technologies was a condition for the designing of the environment and changes of the planet through human work [1]. In view of this background Peter Sloterdijk suggests the term Technozän (technocene) for describing the current era more appropriately [2].

Consequently, for Inoculum the technical manipulation of nature and the significance of biomaterials is brought into the focus of our debates. Originating from Latin in oculum means in the eye. On a scientific and cultural level we embark not only into an investigation of how nature can be represented but centre our eyes also on how nature can be constructed, by which methods and materials. The Inocolum conference situates these questions in a historical, social and philosophical context. It is presenting current scientific research and artistic practices by eleven international experts from the natural sciences, arts and philosophy.

0275-IMG_2013_04_14The inoculum itself is the material in test tubes and petri dishes where microorganisms are injected or taken from for research, diagnostics or cultivation. This biotechnical method is called inoculation. Taking this as a metaphor, the Inoculum conference will vaccinate and cultivate an interdisciplinary debate and interspecies exchange. The idea for this event was incubated in the framework of the international research project »Physarum Chip – growing computers from slime mould«. It examined the potential of slime mould, a well-known lab organism, as a computing substrate through its self-assembled and fault-tolerant networks and aimed at building a functional biomorphic computing device, a hybrid chip. The biologist of the research group Martin Grube – also a speaker at the conference – transfers the projects observations to a meta-level about general life concepts:

»In contemporary research, biology usually relies on model organisms, which are thoroughly studied to reveal basic principles of life. Here the slime mould species Physarum polycephalum offers feasible models to test or even inspire cognitive concepts, as they grow as scalable networks on their substrate.«

To situate the projects research results in a wider context, we invited two more scientists who are researching slime mould from a different angle. One of them is biophysicist Hans-Günther Döbereiner who also chaired the first international workshop on Physarum transport networks »PhysNet« only two months ago. According to him, »humans and slime moulds are distant cousins«, when we look at basic underlying principles of decision making, which function analogue to simple heuristics governing human behavior.

Connecting the Other

Physarum_mediumtest_SchubertComparisons between humans and other life forms are currently in the focus of many researchers not only in the life sciences, it also is a popular topic in humanities. The idea of »otherness« is central to sociological studies. Usually it describes the creation of a majority that shares certain characteristics and a resulting opposite minority – the »other« – that differ from that uniting feature. Through interaction with other people identities are created and, more importantly, we »adjust our behavior and our self-image based upon our interactions and our self-reflection about these interactions« [3].
The understanding of who and what the »other« is, is therefore important for knowing ourselves. Yet what happens if we stop thinking in categories? What if we forget about the proclaimed human superiority and understand ourselves as an animal like any other? What if also interactions with other creatures shape our identity? For Inoculum we try to look for points of connections instead of differences.

Laura Benitez Valero – invited speaker from the field of philosophy – puts the idea forward that »some bioart projects are confronting us to think the possibility of a distributed agency (…) [a concept] that includes the others that co-configure a context with us, leaving behind the binary division between human – non-human.« In that sense bio-artist George Gessert notes that contemporary art, especially bioart offers alternatives and suggests – already through the usage of its very materials – nondualistic possibilities.[4]

opening_CA_biowerkstatt_2015Artists take on this discourse and examine the relationship between the human and other life forms in their works. In doing so they transcend the usage of living biological matter – be it of human or animal origin – as a mere tool and enter collaborations with animate beings. Inoculum artist Maja Smrekar is an excellent example for testing these assumptions. In her project »k9_topology: Hybrid Family« Smrekar takes extreme steps to create a scenario for co-habitation and cross-species hybridization between dogs and herself. This kind of blurring of the borders between human and animal challenges to re-consider what »being human« – »being animal« actually means.

The investigation and probing of new biomaterials is a principal topic to the Inoculum conference. The fact that biotechnical methods have spread into DIY-cultures and that the knowledge thereof is more readily available has allowed also non-scientists to lay hands on experiments and simple manipulations. This is also how I learned about cultivation methods of organisms and how my fascination for the peculiar slime mould creature started.

modular sound (2)Slowly more institutional frameworks to support and finance this kind of artistic research are created. The FEAT program is the latest example where on a European Union level artists can collaborate with pioneering scientific
research. In that sense the »PhyChip«-project was an unplanned precursor of such official platforms. Being an interdisciplinary project within the so-called »Future and Emerging Technologies Scheme« it was the only project in this program that included an art university as part of their investigation. Being part of a scientific research group as an artist is a challenge but also a great opportunity. One of our results is the »Non-Human Rhythms«- performance by our team member and sound artist Leslie Garcia. In it, the bio-electrical activity of Physarum polycephalum is translated into sound events in real-time. Performing as »Interspecifics collective«, the name is suggesting that also the partaking biomaterials are becoming a performer
equal to the human counterpart.

Creating the inoculum for debate

KUM_8_weekA curatorial decision for this event was to emphasize on the discursive aspect. After an opening lecture by Hans-Günther Döbereiner introducing us to the universe of slime mould research, there will be four interdisciplinary panels over the course of two days. Each panel includes two speakers and is followed by a long moderated discussion. We want to create the framework or metaphorically speaking the inoculum for profound discussions. We want to set a breeding ground for future collaborations. Finally we will close the event with a lecture by artist and theorist Suzanne Anker. Amongst others she will speak about the petri dish as a cultural icon. A very suitable symbol that I would also like to apply to our conference where our ideas will confidently find the right culture medium to grow.

Exhibition for the oculum

Alongside the talks an impromptu exhibition is emerging. Each speaker was invited to bring along an object that is important for his/her research and relevant to the talk. Thus there is a concrete and tangible manifestation of the spoken presentations and performances in the space that remains to be seen for the duration of the event. The chosen objects range from a custom-built growth chamber for Physarum, to drawings, photographs or artificial flesh. Additionally documentation of artistic experiments from the PhyChip-project will be on display.

I would be very pleased to welcome you in Berlin!

Theresa Schubert, 25 January 2016, Berlin


[1] Jürgen Renner, Bernd Scherer (eds.), Das Anthropozän, 2015, pp. 12-13

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Das Anthropozän – Ein Prozess-Zustand am Rande der Erd-Geschichte?, in: Renner/Scherer 2015, p. 27

[3] Zuleyka Zevallos: http://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources/

[4] George Gessert, Green Light, 2010, p. XIX