Living Artwork and Questioning the Ageing Process – a Visit to STATE Studio Berlin

I’m fiiinally making some time to write blog posts about all the wonderful places I’ve been as part of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship over the last few months, so if you’re interested in science communication/how science can be communicated using art, then be sure to check back over the coming weeks. Last week I talked about a fantastic exhibition that I visited at the Red Dot Design Museum in Singapore, which was more data visualisation than art, so today I thought I’d highlight something that’s more obviously in the art sphere; STATE Studio in Berlin, Germany.

STATE Studio, Berlin

In between Fellowship trips (I did two legs – North America and Asia), I sneaked in a
weekend in Berlin. This wasn’t strictly Fellowship-based travel as it wasn’t in my itinerary, but STATE Studio’s work merging art and science is the reason I went to Berlin, so I’m counting it as part of the Fellowship
experience.

STATE Studio is a public gallery, showroom and event space that was established on the back of STATE Festival; Berlin’s festival for open science, art and society. The team also have an agency made up of a collective of artists, designers, scientists and cultural producers, to create innovative experiences to engage the public with science. The Studio part of STATE opened in October 2018 (after my Fellowship was funded, hence the last minute addition to my itinerary!), and is home to various exhibits that focus on cutting-edge scientific research, innovation, and creativity. In the words of STATE, “It’s a place for creative synergies between science, art, and innovation to discover and explore the breakthrough developments that shape our future.”

For me, the two standout exhibits were, the Living Canvas installation, and ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR.

Living Canvas, Fara Peluso with biotech start-up Solaga
Artist Fara Peluso with her Living Canvas exhibit. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

The Living Canvas is the first thing you see when you walk into the STATE Studio space – at first glance it looks like a regular painting, but on closer inspection it’s clear that it really is living. Within a chunky glass frame is a growing algae biofilm, and it comes complete with external circuitry that supplies that algae with life-giving saline solution. What I found super interested is that the algae biofilm inside the Living Canvas is actually in constant interaction with the exhibition space itself; the algae is filtering the air around it, removing carbon dioxide and pollutants, and releasing oxygen and water – which you can see as little bubbles on the inside of the glass, giving the impression that the piece is sweating.

The Living Canvas was designed by artist Fara Peluso, in collaboration with Solaga, a Berlin-based biotech start-up which specializes in the development of innovative solutions for air filtrations and regenerative energy production based on algae biofilms. In interviews since the exhibition opened, Fara has explained that she wanted to initiate a discourse on sustainability and new technologies, and so created a work of art that will continue to develop over the course of the exhibition’s lifetime.

As part of the Living Canvas exhibit, Fara Peluso also runs an algae cultivation workshop at STATE. The Algature workshop combines DIY Biology and speculative design, giving attendees an opportunity to develop their own algae cultivation tool that they can then take home to purify the air in their own spaces.

ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR, Emilia Tikka with the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)

After admiring the Living Canvas exhibit I headed upstairs to a bigger space which included the ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR exhibit (I originally found out about STATE Studio from a piece that Nature did on this exhibit). This was one that I found really interesting because it’s a photography exhibit, and therefore something that could be translated into the format of a blog post with relative ease.

Photographs by Zuzanna Kaluzna form part of Emilia Tikka’s ÆON. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

STATE has a residency program, where artists spend an extended period of time within a scientific research environment. A residency is designed to provide an intimate link between artists and research institutions, in the hope that the artists can produce innovative work that defies convention and provokes curiosity, whilst also enabling scientists to reflect on the potential impact that their work may have on wider society. This exhibition was a result of Finnish artist and designer Emilia Tikka‘s residency at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). There, she worked on uncovering the molecular hallmarks of ageing, and exploring the potential of CRISPR gene editing technology to reverse the biological clock. According to STATE, “ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR – addresses philosophical and societal dimensions of the desire for eternal life.”

The main body of the exhibit is made up of photographs, styled and conceptualised by Emilia Tikka, and shot by Zuzanna Kaluzna. The photographs tell the fictional story of a potential future; a couple are given the choice to defy the ageing process – the man agrees to, and inhales the CRISPR therapy, the woman does not. The resulting images are confronting as you see the consequences of their decisions; the man ceases to age, and the woman continues to do so. The fictional inhaler that Tikka designed is also part of the exhibit.

Emilia Tikka’s speculative design for a CRISPR–Cas9 inhaler. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

Clearly, Emilia’s work is speculative; you absolutely cannot take CRISPR gene editing technology via an inhaler, and then never see another wrinkle again, but the potential for CRISPR to be able to do something like this isn’t actually that far fetched. The world’s media recently exploded when a scientist from China revealed that he’d used CRISPR to edit the genomes of human embryos so that they would be immune to HIV infection.

CRISPR is a perfect example of the speed that science is moving at, and just how far the ethical and societal impacts of that are lagging behind. In my opinion, this exhibit at STATE Studio is a great way to stimulate conversation around these complex scientific topics.

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