DIYbio flower revolution in Asia

In DIYbio on February 13, 2011 at 11:45 am

The most successful of these DIYbio activities in the rest of Asia is related to the famous art centre in Yogyakarta called “House of Natural Fiber” (HONF). In 2009 and 2010 they organized a series of workshops led by artists (Marc Dusseiller, Shiho Fukuhara, Georg Tremmel)  in cooperation with the Microbiology Lab of the Agriculture faculty in the Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in which they hacked webcams and even Sony’s PS3 Eye into digital microscope, used them as haemacytometers and bacteria counters and even explored various other alternative functions for micro-organism detection. They also worked on simple scientific protocols as a response to urgent social needs and protest tools against government policies. HONF’s recent project “Intelligent Bacteria – Saccharomyces cerevisiae” was nominated for the prestigious Transmediale 2011 award because of this original use of scientific protocols as forms of a peaceful protest. The collective created a simple kit for alcohol brewing and distilling of Indonesian fruit as a response to the newly imposed tax laws which tripled the price of wine and even beer and pushed the local population into lethal experiments with distilling and brewing their own alcohol.

Similar to the initiative in the Philippines (Biomodd and BedroomLab), the DIYbio in Yogyakarta has a strange obsession with flowers and plants. While in the Philippines the plants are used for building future sustainable server farms (Biomodd), in Indonesia fruit and plants are used basically as a political medium for resolving social issues and questioning the global biotech networks.  Following Japan, the flowers are even used for supporting the Creative Commons License in the first ever biopiracy protest flower revolution – the “Common Flowers: Flowers Commons” project. The project which started in Japan and Germany was only promoted in Indonesia but offers a very interesting case study of global biotech networks and the grassroot biopiracy response by developing nations around the world because of GM patents.

The Japanese and Indonesia biopirates basically reversed the “jailed” and genetically modified and copyrighted blue carnations and released them back to nature and to the land where these flowers originated and where they belong. Since these plants are officially considered not harmful, it is not illegal to release them into the environment, but the Japanese company that owns the patent decided to avoid public reactions against GM and outsourced their “production” to South America. The blue Moondust carnations were developed by the Japanese beer-brewing company, Suntory, as the first commercially available genetically engineered flowers, and although the company was granted permission to grow them in Japan, they simply outsourced the production to Columbia, from where they ship them as cut-flowers to the worldwide markets.

In the “Common Flowers” project the artist collective (BCL) reversed the plant growing process by technically cloning new plants from the purchased cut-flowers using Plant Tissue Culture methods. Using DIY biotech methods involving everyday kitchen utensils and materials purchasable from supermarkets and drugstores, they “freed” the GM carnations back into nature in undisclosed locations to support the idea of creative commons and even bio-sharing: “By freeing (‘jail-breaking’) the flower from its destiny as a cut-flower and establishing a feral and more ‘natural’ population of blue carnations, the flower will be given a chance to reconnect to the general gene-pool and to join again the evolution through natural selection. Common Flowers hopes to touch is the question of patents on plants and on lifeforms in general. In particular what form of legal protection for their plants was granted and does the act of simply growing plants constitutes a violation of Suntory’s copyright. Is this reverse Bio-piracy?” (Fukuhara &  Tremmel, 2010)

The more socially and critically involved hacking is typical for the rest of the Asia DIYbio scene (except Singapore) because of its close ties with the EU based initiatives. The best definition of this style of DIYbio hacking is given in one recent interview with the BCL collective that created the “Common Flowers”: “Hacking has to be effortlessly elegant. A small gesture with a big outcome. With Bio-hacking in particular we mean the attempt to regain the power about our shared biological destiny. We need to get involved, we need to understand, we need to learn. Not only we as artists, but we as a society.”  (Gfader, 2010) The strategy of “small gestures with a big outcome” uses a non technological jargon to explain the basic low-tech and high-impact strategy of the DIYbio movement which in the Asian context uses scientific protocols are used as a form of political protest and social empowerment and not only as a medium for technological progress and scientific advancement. HONF as a new media art laboratory running ever since 1999 in Yogyakarta implements such simple, community and open source based technologies to improve the daily lives of people there and agriculture is a very important part of this.   Also in the Philippines, the DIYbio activities that are just starting around the SABAW Media Art Kitchen and their “BedroomLab” workshops and meetings are targeting agricultural “hacks” in the form of urban farming, bio-fuels and solutions dealing with ecological issues. The interest in plants and digital technologies that we can follow in all local projects is becoming something of a distinctive sign of the Asian DIYbio scene.

Even the very successful Biomodd [LBA2] Philippines project that was started in 2009 as an art initiative by a Belgian artist Angelo Vermeulen works with the idea of bringing plants and computers together for socially and ecologically sustainable future. The Biomodd project started as an art idea that soon developed into serious, community driven research project into issues of symbiosis of biology and electronics as sustainability solution. Through a partnership with the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU) and a whole range of Filipino cultural partners with more than 100 Filipino artists, scientists, engineers, gamers, craftsmen, volunteers and students, the project was able to attract a critical mass which turned it into an international success story supported by the famous TED foundations. Over the course of eight months an installation was created that literally fused a living ecosystem of plants with a modified computer network. The monumental sculpture contains system of recycled computers intertwined with an aquaponics system that serve as cooling devices for the computers use for various games etc. The synergy between technology and biology brings together computers, algae and plants but also various people that took part in this open source educational and art project which involved the public in a serious ecological debates about the sustainable future.

The DIYbio movement in Asia is socially oriented and driven and involves actors that are closely connected to local even indigenous cultures. We can clearly see this in the case of the “Intelligent Bacteria – Saccharomyces cerevisiae” project by the HONF collective. The project is offering a solution to a serious social problem related to the unsafe and unsterilized alcohol production that leads to dangerous methanol poisonings which are killing people in Indonesia on a monthly bases.  Due to the regulation from the Ministry of Financial Department that increased duty on alcohol in April 2010, local traditional alcohol drinks became popular again and started to appear in the markets in large quantities, often containing very dangerous methanol substances. Artists together with researchers at the Microbiology department of UGM in Yogyakarta conducted a research in introducing a proper and safe fermentation technology for the general public. The DIYbio in Indonesia basically democratized a science protocol that will make the home fermentation of alcohol safe. This protocol supports an old tradition of fermentation that is more part of the indigenous cultures in Indonesia rather than the official religion. Through a publically available kit and instructional video the artists and scientists involved in this project are trying to connect traditional knowledge of brewing with modern technologies that make the production of alcohol safe but also to open to discussions. The project has an artistic aspect in the form of an acoustic installation that responds to the high number of poisonings and deaths of alcohol consumption in Indonesia. What makes the project outstanding is how DIYbio and open source approach to science connected contemporary art strategies with local and traditional knowledge and culture. This offers a specific form of science communication based on appreciation on local and traditional knowledge and culture related to alcohol production and knows how to connect them with modern technologies and methods.

These examples of experimental form of research, investment and even artistic creativity show clearly how the “low-tech but high-impact” logic of the DIYbio movement operates in various contexts and how it can connect science, culture and society in ways that traditional STS policy discussions could not even imagine. The artistic and scientific solutions and protocols are affecting but also involving large groups of citizens and stakeholders in the process of the research, creation and production. Whether in USA, EU or Asia the DIYbio revolution involves open source laser cutters and other open hardware tools that can create cheap lab equipment, synthetic biology recipes and other protocols that spread like cooking recipes, self-organized clinical trials and other community related projects that are challenging not only in technological but also in social sense. The strategies and interests of these groups are starting to converge into one informal “pop biotech” network between ASIA, USA and EU that is very different from the official flows of knowledge and expertise in the biotech industry but which also reflects many of the common issues and problems with biotechnologies.


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