lnside the BIO∙FICTION Science Art Film Festival
BIO∙FICTION Science Art Film Festival was a three-day event hosted by Biofaction KG as part of the SYNENERGENE project from 23-25 October 2014 at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria. With insights of more than 30 speakers, various workshops, art installations, film screenings, and panel discussions, the festival was one of the highlights of the Synthetic Biology (SynBio) event calendar 2014.
Synthetic biology is defined as a field which combines both biology and engineering science and therefore involves different methods and disciplines. The overarching aim of synthetic biology is to create biological functions and systems which do not exist in nature. The focus of this field is on science, technology, and engineering.
The aspiration of the festival was not only to provide a platform for presentations, networking, and exchange, but to be a forum for in-depth professional discussions and to engage the wider public. The major controversies raised during the lively discussions were focused around three topics. It was repeatedly pointed out that an excessively reductionist view of nature is misleading, especially when combined with a neo-liberal approach. Such topics as DIY biology, iGEM, and biohacking, the potential for democratization of science and technology as well as the subversion of knowledge and science also received significant attention during the festival.
Already in the first thematic block “Homo faber: engineering life” the link between scientific theory and the field of synthetic biology was pointed out. The practice and hierarchy in science is changing (Christopher COENEN), which is most evident in the field of synthetic biology. The tendency towards a culture of discourse in the sense of Habermas is therefore gaining relevance again. Furthermore, it became evident to what extent conceptual understanding differs within the sciences. Here the understanding of the main task of science was the primary source of the controversy: On the one hand, the concept of “warrior of science” (Ned BUDISA) represents the spirit of the explorer who is on his way to conquer the world and is also prepared to steer the evolution in a direction corresponding to human needs (Philippe MARLIERE). The opposite point of view represents the scientist whose main objective is to understand nature – not to declare it as an enemy (Katharina ZAKRAVSKY).
In the block “Homo communis: do-it-yourself biology” an increasingly attention-grabbing topic was discussed with representatives of the community: biohacking. As it became obvious during the festival, biotechnology will become more and more accessible to the wider public, turning it into a real citizen science. Projects like bento-lab, a personal laboratory in a laptop-sized format, will further contribute to such development. Ilya LEVANTIS from London Biohackerspace, Thomas LANDRAIN, and Peter VAN BOHEEMEN presented the work of their community labs and biohackerspaces. In addition to presentations of different biolabs and DIY bio projects here in Europe, the subsequent discussion, mainly among the representatives of the community, proved to be very exciting. Safety, ethics, and the public image were the main aspects which made clear that self-regulation and community-building (or “scene” formation) are very important in this community (Rüdiger TROJOK). Interestingly, regarding their rules and values the community differentiates itself from iGEM, whose main interest is rather directed towards creating an economically lucrative ThinkTank. Possible contributions of young scientists and biohackers in political terms were touched upon in the block “Homo societatis: responsible research and innovation (RRI)”. Virgil RERIMASSIE from Rathenau Instituut presented a report (the summary is available here) where he shared the experience of initiating a dialog between future scientists (participants of the iGEM contest) and future politicians (members of political youth organizations in the Netherlands) on the implications of SynBio.
Not only the content, but also the habitus and the course of the discussion were interesting. The focus seemed to be more on sharing and understanding each other’s viewpoints and perspectives than on really carrying out debates. This may be because of the interdisciplinary character of the whole festival and the high quality of contributions. The presentations could stand side by side, without contradicting each other, but rather showing a different aspect of the raised topic. In addition to presenting various perspectives of different disciplines, the overriding focus of the event lay in the reflection of the logical and institutional structure of science, research, and academia, its future and possibilities of reforming it, often in relation to the DIY movement.
Another interesting observation is the formation and development of the complex “SynBio” itself. Apparently, actors and protagonists in this field want, along with the technical and scientific aspects of this field, to reserve a place for art and take SynBio out of the purely scientific context. Thus, another significant part of the festival’s presentations and discussions was dedicated to reflections on the role of art and artistic expression for SynBio, as well as the use of SynBio for creating living artworks. These topics were discussed in the block “Homo aestheticus: life as medium for artistic expression”. Examples of projects at the intersection of art and science include Yeastograms – a method of using baker’s yeast to produce artworks developed by the Bioart Club pavilion_35. Anna DUMITRIU gave a talk about the project “Trust me. I’m an artist”, focusing on biomedical art and exploring ethical issues and responsibilities in collaborations between art, science, and institutions. The important thing to note is that such collaborations between artists and scientists also became possible with the development of open access to technology and the rise of the DIY biology/biohacking movement. In this way artists receive new forms of expressions through SynBio and scientists, through collaboration with artists, can better reflect on their work.
The main points of bioart include the design and transformation of human to animal bodies or body parts and plants on the cellular level, returning to human enhancement with scene artists such as Stelarc or Eduardo Kac as a starting point. In this context, films also play and important role in reflecting the current state of the field and speculating about its future development. During the Festival 60 shortlisted films were screened, covering a wide variety of topics starting from utopian products and applications, which could be developed using SynBio, to abstract visualizations of living forms.
The mutual inspiration of art, technology, science and literature is not new and exists since the foundation of the disciplines themselves – but is often ignored or forgotten. With this explicit invitation of scientists to the art at and at the same time turning to the public, SynBio seems to want to take a step to disclose this already existing relationship, in order to strengthen interconnectedness and in general bring it back into the consciousness of the people and actors.
Vera Borrmann and Antonina Khodzhaeva