Random thoughts- bioart

I’ve found that one of the greatest barriers to writing something down regularly these days is a concern that I’d piss someone off.

What a way to grow up.


While wrapping up last of the sequencing reactions accumulated these past few days I found myself wondering about bioart again- there was a time when I was completely nuts over the concept of artscience, and pushed as hard as I could to get some bioart representation within the Genspace hierarchy. We didn’t even have PCR machines back then, it was before Ellen got the equipment from Vector donated after it downsized and closed down the lab she was managing, and way before we found MEx through bunch of random people. It was a life time ago.

Anyway, my earlier perception of ‘artscience’ at the time, as vague as it was, brought to mind something curious, something like Leonardo Da Vinci but for the modern age. Scientific discovery and application dictated by aesthetic sense to create something beautiful and perhaps even meaningful. Being freshly out from school it was a view uninformed by realities of both scientific research and how many artists operate.

From a general point artscience as it stands right now seem to refer to anything and everything created and curated using tools normally reserved for usually inaccessible scientific research for purposes of artistic expression- and nothing else. It’s art as usual except the tubes of paints and canvas got switched out to some other things associated with science (or should I say popular perception of science? No real scientist I know plays around with that much colored liquid, or uses racks of test tubes). 

It brings up an interesting question on what artscience actually is. When you really dig into the history of arts from across the globe, the techniques of art was never really far away from experimentation and keeping track of data- the practice of simply walking into a store to buy tubes of paint without knowing how it’s made and where it came from is a ridiculously modern one. Same goes for architecture. The amount of experimentation and fundamental knowledge that has to be learned to be even remotely adapt at the craft is extensive- otherwise you have a lot of dead people on your hands. Experimentation, data gathering, perfection over life time and generations- are all rather common practices in the arts.

In that light, what IS artscience? It’s highly probable Da Vinci was on the cutting edge of chemistry at the time just from making his paint and gunpowder for fireworks. Same goes for almost all the older masters. If it’s simply using scientific means and tools for purposes of art how is that so radically different from what people had been doing for most of history, when you consider that ‘traditional’ tools of art themselves were products of experimentation?

Here’s another kicker- the relatively recent interest in bioart, itself a practical artscience of sorts, is based on broader accessibility of the tools and better abstraction of ideas that allows any sufficiently funded and motivated artist to use the tools usually associated with pure research. Easier accessibility to better and more professional tools of the scientific trade by the layman will be a continuing trend for the foreseeable future… So what does artscience do that’s really different when the science part of it is as normal as walking into an arts supply store and buying tubes of paint?

Is it even real? If it is, where is it going?


And all this is without even getting into the difference between science and technology.

Imagine science film festival

Just a quick note before I doze off for tomorrow’s work.

NYC, befitting its status as one of the more interesting places to live in around the world, is the host to this amazing event called the Imagine Science Film Festival. Now I’m nuts for all things science, but I especially love this festival in comparison to other science-y things to see and do around the city (with possible exception of DIYBio-NYC).

I personally believe that arts and sciences go hand in hand and that current division between the sciences and the ‘humanities’ is something of a temporary cultural aberration that we’ll all look back and laugh at. And the kind of works I saw at last year’s Imagine Science Film Festival events showed me a glimpse of what a future with sciences and humanities intermingled together might look like. It’s not so much as the specifics of the individual films but the overarching theme pervading through the atmosphere of the whole festival itself that caught my attention. Perhaps it’s the passion of the event organizers rubbing off on others watching the films. Perhaps it was just me realizing something I already had inside me through the mirror of projector screens.

If you’re in the NYC area, make sure to check out the webpage for the imagine science films and mark the dates on the calenders (there’s a screening benefit program this September 9th). Last year most of the screenings were free and I get a feeling that it will continue to be that way this year as well. If you’re not in the NYC area, feel free to donate in return for some cool t-shirts 😉 You’ll be supporting a worthy cause.

And here’s the festival trailer for your viewing pleasure.

Le Corbusier, The City of To-Morrow And Its Planning

It’s 12:15 AM and I’m dead tired from writing proposals all day. So here’s a quote from Le Corbusier’s ‘The City of To-Morrow And Its Planning’ that I found especially profound.

We prefer Bach to Wagner, and the spirit which inspired the Parthenon to that which created the cathedral… This modern sentiment is a spirit of geometry, a spirit of construction and synthesis. Exactitude and order are its essential condition… Our trend is towards higher and more impartial gratifications, by reason of the mathematical spirit which inspires us; we can create in a detached and pure manner. Such are the epochs which we call classical.

Safe to say, after Hans Bellmer and Jasper Johns I’m beginning to find the wild world of urban planning and architecture to be strangely attractive. A lot of that stuff is like mathematical physics of the most abstract kind. I guess it can’t be helped. They all strive toward some manipulation of space. One with vectors, the other with human life.

Lately, no matter where my eyes turn toward to I see artscience in birthpain.

Lisa Randall opera

Brief post amidst a mild snowstorm nursing a mug of hot chocolate:


The prominent particle physicist/cosmologist Lisa Randall is apparently hard at work writing an opera with the artist Matthew Ritchie, according to a detailed interview on the Boston Globe. The opera is an hour-long piece between two performers with the title of “Hypermusic Prologue: A projective opera in seven planes”, obviously having to do with the physicist’s expertise in the field of physics.

I have mixed feelings about this, since I hope this to be a good musical piece as well as something that’s scientifically meaningful. Though I must say I do welcome the increasing exposure of ‘artscience’ in increasingly mainstream spotlight. I’ll certainly try to watch it when it comes out, though at the moment it seems they are not planning on bringing it stateside. 

A colleague of mine jokingly pointed out that the mediums of science and opera both share a similarity in being hard to comprehend. I certainly hope this work will end up being simply beautiful in artistic standpoint instead of becoming an intellectual tryst of one of the most educated people on the planet. 


P.S. I attended the ITP 2008 winter show yesterday, held at the NYU school of arts. It was amazing. I felt like a child in a toy store, except that these toys remixed melodies and mixed cocktails. I took bunch of cellphone pictures which are admittedly grainy. I’ll post them up with description of the event soon.

artscience rant

Just a little something I jotted down a moment ago on notepad, about art, science, and artscience (and possibly what artificial life has to do with it all)


A machine to create as we know it can only a machine that follows certain mathematical patterns giving output that can be interpreted by both the machine and observers as being coherent. Would it imply that there is something missing in such interpretation of the acts of creation or that act of creation and all subsequent endeavors are in effect replicating mathematical algorithms/formulae? Moreover, what exactly is the drive behind the origin of the will to create? In case of artificial machines we can say that we coded its mind/body to act in certain expected way, but the same cannot be applied to the creators of the creating machines, since (as far as we know) we haven’t been programmed by some entity in such specific manner as to will to create objects and ideas (and even that would create the question of who created the entities, so the whole line of questioning is more or less a dead-end). The obvious answer to the explanation of the behavior of creativity as things stand right now, would have to be drawn from the thermodynamic characteristics of the life-like intelligent systems themselves. Arts, and any type of object/idea creation by life-like intelligent systems must be a direct result of the thermodynamic system that forms the basis of the life-like intelligent systems themselves. In short, art is science.

Neal Stephenson notes

I’ve been googling some Neal Stephenson articles on the net in preparation for his new upcoming book, Anathem.

Here is an interesting excerpt from a Wired article I encountered from a blog about Neal Stephenson and his upcoming work (I recommend you read the full article as well if you are interested in current status of Neal Stephenson’s life).

Stephenson spends his mornings cloistered in the basement, writing longhand in fountain pen and reworking the pages on a Mac version of the Emacs text editor. This intensity cannot be sustained all day–”It’s part of my personality that I have to mess with stuff,” he says–so after the writing sessions, he likes to get his hands on something real or hack stuff on the computer. (He’s particularly adept at Mathematica, the equation-crunching software of choice for mathematicians and engineers.) For six years, he was an adviser to Jeff Bezos’ space-flight startup, Blue Origin. He left amicably in 2006. Last year, he went to work for another Northwest tech icon, Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Intellectual Ventures, an invention factory that churns out patents and prototypes of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Stephenson and two partners spend most afternoons across Lake Washington in the IV lab, a low-slung building with an exotic array of tools and machines to make physical manifestations of the fancies that flow from the big thinkers on call there.

“In Neal’s books, he’s been fantastically good at creating scenarios and technologies that are purely imaginary,” Myhrvold says. “But they’re much easier imagined than built. So we spend a certain amount of our time imagining them but the rest of our time building them. It’s also very cool but different to say, ‘Let’s come up with new ways of doing brain surgery.'”

That’s right–brain surgery is one of the things Stephenson is tinkering with. He and his team are helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors. It’s the kind of cool job one of his characters might have.

This article seem to further compound my idea about Stephenson’s (or any other writer/artists’) almost instinctive urge to see the products of their written fantasies manifest in their world in a more corporeal form. Many artists throughout history seem to share that trait in particular, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Jasper Johns, methods of manifestation sometimes taking form of involvement in things of the ‘secular world’ or integration of their artistic ideas into lifestyles and memes. Such universally observed trait might as well be the reason that synthetic biology, or rather, any and all forms of artificial life holds so much promise for artists of the world. Synthetic/artificial life might as well be the catalyst needed to bridge the unreasonable cultural and intellectual gap between the arts and the sciences.

Indeed, I might even go as far as to say that the utility of artificial life in the field of arts would be an inevitable development of the future, based on the innate human desire to breathe life into immaterial thoughts.

Once I get past the deadline season, I might do a bit more detailed post on the matter of human creativity and obsession towards its manifestation…

Abstraction- Engines of Art

The update at this blog had been intermittent for a while due to my personal circumstances, with moving to a new apartment, and the need to write up bunch of papers happening all at once. Now that I am a bit more settled I should be able to write here regularly. At least I hope that is the case… I do not think I can handle as much workload for a while.

I have always been interested in writing things. Writing is something that comes natural to me, in that while I am certainly not good at it, I can always pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard and scribble/type away as I drift away to a state of reverie. It is the same as with reading a good book. There is no need to force myself to concentrate. The process is quick and natural like playing an old instrument while intoxicated by its melody, a sort of self-reinforcing phenomena.

As such, it was only natural that I would try to fulfill my predilection toward the ever vague idea of beauty. I have always been puzzled by the nature of beauty since young age. I can tell for sure when something is beautiful to me or not, yet it is quite impossible to pinpoint the specific quality of the thing/person/situation that makes it appear/smell/feel beautiful in my senses. There is no consistency in the things that are capable of displaying the traits of beauty, as a garbage can and a work by Michelangelo might display the similar sense of sublime, that strange trait that we can only refer to with the vague term called beauty. And this *beauty* appears quite immaterial. I do not believe there is a single thing in this universe capable of appearing beautiful to all observers for all lengths of time. The trait of beauty can be highly subjective, and is bound to fade away after a period of time (when in view of a single observer) regardless of the hardiness of the physical material that radiates the feeling of beauty in its observers.

Would such traits suggest that the beauty literally is in the eyes of the beholder? There is no evidence to think that inorganic objects in this world is capable of reacting to certain objects in a way that an organic, conscious object would react to a thing of beauty. So it would be possible to assume that the ability to perceive beauty and react toward it in this world is limited to complex life-like systems (this is an assumption based only on what we know about complex systems and the physical relationships within the universe at the moment, of course). Yet the problem does not quite end at that point. Prokaryotes are complex life-like systems, yet can we possibly assume that such microbiotic systems are capable of feeling the thing we conscious human beings refer to as beauty? I have never talked to a prokaryote culture before, so I would not know. Let us re-examine the trait of beauty and beautiful things in this world for a moment. From what I can tell, beauty requires significant amount of neuronal resources in terms of sensory organs and processing units, aka the CNS. Would that mean that the ability to perceive beauty must be limited by the capacity of the senses? That external catalysis of sorts is always required in order to perceive/imagine beauty? It might be tempting to say yes to such an assumption, but I think we must remember that there are plenty of things in this world that are considered beautiful despite having no physical counterpart. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful future. Such are more or less information based constructs that might be represented by certain physical objects and situations in this world but not tied to the specific characteristics of the material. If beauty is intimately tied to its nature as a construct of information, then it is possible that the ability to perceive and react to beauty is intimately tied to the information processing capability, like the brain, which is in itself a vast complex adaptive system.

I think we might be onto something here. If the things I have outlined above have even a modicum of truth in it, the illusive nature of beauty might in fact be tied to the informational structure of the brain and its interaction with the external world, within which learning and memory themselves might act as catalyst between the world and the brain in perceiving and reacting to beauty…

Here is a million dollar question. If the immateriality of the concept of beauty and its acting in concert with innate mechanisms of brain and memories are true, would it be possible to write a finite-length work capable of giving persistent impression of beauty by conjuring up any and all images and ideas that can be felt/perceived by the readers mind? Would it be possible to write a piece that can simulate almost infinite gradient of human ideas and feelings within the readers mind by the virtue of ever changing yet persistent nature of human memory and innate information processing capacity of the human brain itself, using only limited number of imageries and terms that can be utilized in a single work of writing? The idea behind such a writing would be similar to the idea behind the evolution of natural language, of how limited number of alphabets are capable of composing rich vocabulary and astronomical variety of written, spoken works and ideas born from those works. Instead of alphabets, however, the work would have to discover and utilize certain archetypes of ideas, patterns and imageries as to make it possible for the reader to create something entirely new every time he/she reads it, the only characteristic shared between the infinite variety of reconstructions being the persistent presence of the indescribable beauty.

The ideas of artscience and artificial life takes on an entirely different perspective when viewed in such light. Artificial life would no longer be static art, but rather an *engine of beauty* in a persistent yet ever changing universe. Just as Kurzweil proposed the universe of meaningful information, artificial life might as well be the first step in a whole universe of sublime beauty.