Blending art and science, bioart project infuses poetry into plant’s genome

A compelling bioart project leverages climate geoengineering in an unlikely way: It introduces poetry into a plant’s biology through dew and in the process makes a profound statement about climate change, biodiversity and the interconnectedness of humans and the environment.

Humans often introduce toxic elements into the environment; researchers then try to mitigate the damage. A refreshing and highly original project from the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) introduces a new paradigm altogether by offering something prolific or life affirming.

Joel Ong

Terra Et Venti, by AMPD professor and interim director of Sensorium Joel Ong, infuses plant microbial DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that contains the genetic code of organisms) with poetry and thereby engenders this literary art form into the plant’s genome. Curiously, this venture is borne of the fusion of two seemingly disparate fields: science and art or, more specifically, plant biology and poetry.

Ong is a media artist and serial collaborator whose work connects scientific and artistic approaches to the environment. He sits down with Brainstorm to discuss the evolution of his bioart and Terra Et Venti.

Q: How did you first become interested in bioart?

A: I was a budding ecologist. A lot of my notable memories were outdoors and sensorially oriented – visual, tactile or sound-based. These set the framework for a more creative way of thinking about the sciences.

Bioart is typically hard to define but it’s a creative strategy for making living art, and a speculative practice that presents views of a biotechnological future that may be considered controversial, chipping away at the essence of what we know or recognize as life. Bioart creates an aesthetic language for us.

Q: One of the tenets of bioart is that the environment is active.

A: Through my graduate work in nanotechology and sound, it became apparent how active the environment is. I was inspired by early visions of the atmosphere as an infinite and everlasting repository of our actions and utterances. This is something computing pioneer Charles Babbage (1791-1871) spoke of.

I wondered about encoding information into the wind or listening to what is airborne. Following some experiments in sonification and poetic impressions of the wind, I began focusing on the genetic materials of airborne particles.

Q: Tell us about your first work that looked at ecological cycles in this way.

A: We flew weather balloons holding petri dishes and aerial monitoring equipment to observe bacteria in the air. We found highly mobile bacteria Pseudomonas syringae (P.syringae) that are best known as plant pathogens, but they also ride the water cycle to transition between soil, plants and air.

We learned that P.syringae also catalyzes ice formation. And so, it is implicated in the next frontier of climate change action as one particle that could be used in solar geoengineering.

Setting up weather balloons for observation of aerial microbes. From left Kieran Maraj, Mick Lorusso, Cheng Shao and Joel Ong.

 

There are related, controversial experiments, backed by investors like Bill Gates, which aim to reflect the sun’s radiation away from the earth through increasing cloud cover in the stratosphere. Naturally, there are ethical considerations because the atmosphere has less obvious boundaries and such actions may cause profound changes in weather patterns.

Q: What is the Terra Et Venti project?

A: Terra Et Venti is a research-creation project that aims to develop a multi-species empathy towards the organisms in the air. My work with P.syringae, and the common weed Arabidopsis Thaliana, is conducted at the Guttman Laboratory (University of Toronto).

I introduced poetry into its genome, imagining the bacteria would ride on the plant’s respiration cycles into the atmosphere and form clouds. The clouds would make rain, which would contain the bacteria. So, we would get poetry embedded in rain.

<Caption> Terra Et Venti: Sculpting a Cloud

Terra Et Venti: Sculpting a Cloud

 

Q: On a microbiological level, describe the process of creating genetic poetry.

A: Through standard lab techniques, you can customize what strand of DNA you want, have it made and inserted into the bacteria.

In this case, a list of possible phrases was generated by a machine-learning algorithm trained on the works of Argentinian writer/poet/philosopher Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) who conceptualized the universe as a vast library.

I used a cipher to re-code each letter of the text into DNA bases, then these were run through a lab program to determine which DNA fragments would be least obstructive for the bacteria.

I ended up with “Terra et Venti,” which means “between the air and wind.”

Q: What is the message you would like to convey?

A: Existing avenues of research in climate geoengineering are dominated by a desire for control. This underlying philosophy concerns me. I am interested in ways to soften this approach. I’m currently working on theoretical ideas around queering the atmosphere, and how computational creativity can promote a “strangeness” in this new cultural frontier of the atmosphere. Working with microorganisms is an important backdrop to discuss how we can be better stewards of our environment.

Q: Where has Terra Et Venti been exhibited?

A: It has been shown at the Kittredge Gallery in Washington’s University of Puget Sound (2018). It is currently in the exhibition “Art’s work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures” at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Terra Et Venti will also be featured in “Life Studies” at OCAD University in October 2020.

To learn more about Sensorium, visit the website. For more about Ong, visit his faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca