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Biological data as an artistic medium - What are the implications?

August 6, 2020  |  Genefer Baxter,  IMRSV Arts

“Artists who create and innovate and ask questions are not that different from the kind of scientists we have here,”

Ben Doranz, President and CEO of Integral Molecular

It started in 1976 when Science Center President Randall M. Whaley saw an opportunity to, “create a receptive atmosphere for the exchange of ideas between artists and scientists that might help solve problems and generate ideas.” That hypothesis was the genesis for our Esther Klein Gallery (EKG); a space where artists showcase their works across different mediums, exploring the intersection between art and science. And in 2017- after bringing science into the gallery- we created the BioArt Residency in partnership with Integral Molecular, to bring artists into the lab.

 

Through the BioArt Residency, artists take part in a three-month program shadowing scientists and using the observations to create artwork that is eventually displayed at EKG.  “Artists who create and innovate and ask questions are not that different from the kind of scientists we have here,” explains Ben Doranz, President and CEO of Integral Molecular. “So putting the two together, it’s not like apples and oranges, it’s like McIntosh and Honeycrisp apples. They’re all apples. We’re creating and we’re innovating and we’re asking questions—we’re just doing it in slightly different ways.”

 

Read on for an update from current BioArtist in residency, Genefer Baxter on role of biological data in art.  

 

Biological data as an artistic medium - What are the implications?

By Genefer Baxter, IMRSV Arts

2019 UCSC Bioartist in Residence

Often operating beyond the status quo, artists are frequently found at the forefront of innovation. With powerful technologies becoming more accessible, these artists are beginning to take on the role of designer, creating projects that feel more effectual than traditional media like painting or sculpture.

 

Technology enabling the digitization and analysis of biological data such as heart rate, thumbprint, faceID, genome, and now the immune response, is the primary driver of this change. This specific type of data is not only being transformed to make visual art for aesthetic purposes, but can power interactive installations.

 

The addition of biological data in art has many implications, one of which being an increase in hyper-personalized experiences. It is in this type of artwork, where viewers (now referred to as participants) are arguably being impacted more directly than they have been in the past.

 

What new responsibilities, if any, does this leave the contemporary artists using biological data in their work?

How is biological data being used in art?

 

There are a variety of interesting projects coming from artists working with biotechnology. So called bio-artists may use living tissue, blood, DNA and everything in between, to make a statement or provoke deep thought [1].

 

Biological data art can be thought of as a subset of bioart. It, in contrast, uses information from biological phenomena rather than physical matter (e.g. actual blood) as its primary medium. Biological data sets in art can include information from heart rate monitors, breath sensors, and body tracking to completely immerse participants.

 

This data is not just valuable to artists, but to psychologists, scientists, and anyone else interested in the human condition and emotional response. Marketers for example, use biological data coming from eye tracking tests to sell you products and services more effectively [2].

 

The value of biological data 

 

Within numbers, lies a new way of understanding ourselves. Not only does this information provide a broad document of a life, it can reveal something deeper and even more essential about the very nature of human beings.

via GIPHY

Businesses have been measuring our information for marketing, research, and health purposes for decades. And the source of the information has remained consistent; us. The difference between then and now though, lies in advances in Biometrics Monitoring Devices (BDMs).

 

BDMs allow us to capture continuous and contextual biological information [3]. Once data is captured, it can be processed in record time and with high accuracy. A simple example would be how a Fitbit or Apple Watch can analyze how active you are by counting your steps in real time. Data alone is not valuable, but those who learn how to extract insights from it gain an important strategic asset.

 

It is important to remember that, similarly to air or water, data cannot technically be “owned”. The rights to what is contained in your database however, can be [4]. Thus, the power lies with whoever owns the database. Companies like Walmart, Apple and Google for example, all capitalize on biological data thanks to their own powerful databases fueled by BDMs.

 

Biometric monitoring is quickly becoming a billion-dollar industry [5], as it is extremely useful in pattern recognition for understanding user behavior.


Artists are becoming aware of this trend. Now capable of creating their own mini-databases, some are testing the waters by developing rich data collection and analysis systems. These systems help to analyze participant experiences to improve storytelling. HUSH, an experience design studio based in New York, recently developed a project for Facebook’s various Global Partner Centers. This project provides “important guests” with unique, customized experiences based on existing and newly generated user data [6].

Photo via heyhush.com

“With great power…”

 

Art and design are becoming harder to distinguish as new technologies enable creators to build product-like installations. Today, just about any creator with internet access can set out to solve real-world design problems, ultimately affecting real people.

 

Neri Oxman, head of the The Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab, influenced the spinning patterns of silk worms to create a pavilion, an early look at the architecture humans may one day inhabit. Christian Bök engineered a life-form to become a durable archive for writing and storing poetry, one which we may coexist with on earth indefinitely.

And it’s not just established, well-off artists developing this type of work. Impactful projects can now be created using affordable mini-computers like Arduino, DIY genome editing technology like the CRISPR Kit, and massive data sets from open-source libraries found on the internet.

 

In the midst of the technological innovation and democratization age, we, not just as artists but as producers of products and services in general, have an opportunity to exercise self-awareness, and maybe even a little caution.

 

When we collect information with the goal of producing something, it is easy to get caught up in sheer curiosity, profit margins, and in the slippery belief that humans might one day benefit from our invention. Without foresight, we could be setting ourselves up as a society to suffer the consequences of collecting and using such a large amount of participants’ biological data.

Taking hold of the reins

 

One could argue that the free flow of information is what enables humanity to thrive. How then can we continue to use data freely for things like art, research, and marketing, while enabling the generators of that data to maintain control of how it’s shared and used?

via GIPHY

What can us artists do?

 

Throughout history, artists have criticised the status quo and envisioned better futures. As governments and businesses begin to take advantage of the ability to harness and process information, we have the opportunity to be more transparent and mindful of our audiences than they have been thus far.

 

Here are a few ideas for how artists and designers can begin to tackle the problem of handling data responsibly:

 

  • Implement a certificate showing data privacy compliance for artworks and installations; Artists would be able to certify their work, showing participants that they adhere to the best data protection practices during the entire data lifecycle. Similarly to a “Fair Trade” or “Biodegradable” mark, being transparent in how data is used in an installation could eventually be seen as a badge of honor for artists and design studios.

  • Take advantage of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on the blockchain; Creators can build projects within a metaverse & sell work in the form of NFTs. In metaverses like Decentraland, artists and musicians can also host events which guests can safely and privately participate in. The advantage of this is that the identity of each data owner remains anonymous and their information secure as they interact with the art.

  • Integrate with already compliant platforms/devices; There are some platforms which have been heavily scrutinized in terms of data collection/usage. If artists are unsure of how compliant their own installation will be, it’s possible to use devices which are under at least some supervision, to play it safe. Check out this virtual exhibition hosted completely in VR!

 

Develop diverse and accessible projects; Developing installations where algorithms reflect a homogeneous data pool contributes to what is called “tech bias”. By designing instead for different ages, ethnicities, and handicaps, we minimize the risk of building from data which perpetuates bias, ultimately limiting accessibility.

Biostory - A model for handling biometric data

 

Biostory is an art installation which takes the above ideas into account. Created by myself and Marco Locatelli, Biostory will be featured at the Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, PA in 2020, as part of the Science Center’s artist residency program in collaboration with scientists at the biotechnology company Integral Molecular.

Biostory art frames

The goal of the exhibition is to 1) create awareness of the value of biometric data and to 2) illustrate a sustainable model for handling that personal data. We’ve dubbed a person’s biological information a “Biostory". Your Biostory is a visual, personal narrative told through biometric data, specifically coming from your immune response to an antigen.

 

The unique part of this project lies in how each contributed Biostory is compensated. This is possible via creating an NFT on an Ethereum-based blockchain  (Learn more here).

For art’s sake?

 

The democratization of science and design tools and processes is exciting. However, we should reflect upon how our audience could be impacted by biotech practices within art, especially when it involves such personal data.

 

Solutions to the data rights problem might begin with us adopting the philosophy of the self-sovereign identity. This is the idea that the identity holder need only reveal the necessary data for any transaction. They remain in control of how their data is used, ultimately breeding trust in their interactions with art and business [7].

 

Art is a powerful platform. It opens up a space in which we can ask important questions, without having to commit to any position or heed to social norms. But as our artworks actively include people on a more personal level than ever before, we are left with a certain degree of responsibility for their information.

 

Participants’ concern about their biological data is not about secrecy or solitude, it is about trust. When our public trusts us, they feel free to engage in our work in a deeper and more meaningful way. This makes for a better and more enjoyable experience for all parties involved.

 

Sources

[1] Bioart - An introduction

[2] Eye Tracking in Market Research

[3] Biometrics Monitoring Devices - A Digital Revolution

[4] Can you own your data?

[5] How Big Tech Is Going After Your Healthcare

[6] Facebook Global Partner Center Experience

[7] Introduction to Self-Sovereign Identity and Its 10 Guiding Principles

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