Bio-Robotics and interfacing with Autonomous Artistic Sculptures.

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IPSc derived human cardiac cells grown on silk disc. 14/10/2016

In November 2015 I was successful in my application for a research grant from The Australia Council for the Arts to work on a project I had been thinking about for many years.

Over the course of the last 15years, my work has been primarily about building analogue automatons, essentially robots that do not rely on digital computers nor microcontrollers to undertake crude but creative tasks. After collaborating with a fantastic team of engineers, scientists and artists for the cellF project  in 2014, I had a greater understanding of laboratory protocols and tissue engineering. This gave me a better grounding to make the leap from electronic based actuation to biological –  together with SymbioticA and AusCo I started working on Movement and Interface – Possibilities of interfacing human heart cells to artistic robotic bodies.


After weeks of basic lab training, inductions and ethics approval I was able to start initial experiments. Under the guidance of Guy Ben Ary and SymbioticA I was able to purchase materials and seed my first human cardiac(heart) cells.

In order to get moving quickly we chose to start with progenitor cells as they would give results quicker and we could learn the basics. The downside being that these cells are extremely expensive and are unable to be frozen – so once the vial is used more is needed to be purchased.

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Human Cardiac Progenitor cells. 003 #manipulatinglife

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Due to many factors, the Progenitor cells were not viable and greater understanding of the process of differentiation was needed, to get better efficiency with twitching muscles. Luckily there has been some scientific focus on cardiovascular disease and recently companies have been releasing products to help with laboratory experiments in this field. Surprisingly I was able to buy online Human IP StemCells and a Cardiomyocyte Differentiation Kit

The most amazing thing is that after just 2weeks of working with these new cells I had successfully cultured spontaneously twitching human heart cells in a dish!!!

Furthermore as the cells matured and my lab technique developed I was able to manipulate the way these muscle actuators could move. At such an early stage I was pleased to see that with creative use of scientific processes I could get quite diverse movement potentials.

I had a clearer vision for producing a self propelled bio-engineered structural artwork due to these very early experiments. Here you can see a freefloating mass of attached cells twitching WITHOUT the use of a microscope – with the naked eye – also foreign materials introduced and flexed by the twitching cells… Huzzah!

006 #manipulatinglife #invitro with #ipsc derived human #cardiomyocytes experimenting concentric torque and robustness.

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6months into these investigations I was able to consistently culture twitching cells and improve efficiency. Also my knowledge of lab protocols as well as use of equipment had increased in order to document my work more effectively.

The idea of this artwork is to engineer a self-propelled autonomous biological sculpture and my primary plan was to grow human heart cells on a scaffold of some kind. I experimented using decellularising cellulose materials such as fruit and wood, coral and sea sponge as a substrate on which to attach these twitching cells… We settled on exploring the possibilities of silk as a basis to build the robot bodies.

I was very fortunate to have the assistance of Rodney Dilley who has extensive experience with tissue engineering as well as working with silk devices. Together we devised a process to print silk structures with the light beam of a motorized microscope. Our first experiments were quite crude and rigid but they were able to confirm that the cardiomyocytes would indeed be able to attach to the silk, very exciting advancements.

The process of printing silk with light on a motorized microscope is unique, I have not been able to find reference of it being done before, it has the ability to produce very detailed structures at the macro scale and is repetitive thus ideal for scientific analysis and experimentation. With guidance from Guy Ben Ary on how to use the equipment I developed a virtual model of my scaffold shape in the microscope software. Essentially we are ‘hacking’ a feature that is used to take pictures of petri dish cultures and re purposing it to make pixels of light in a model of what will eventually become an intricate silk design.


Virtual model of silk scaffold

The innovative printing process we developed uses aqueous silk, generously supplied by Ben Allardyce at Deakin University, that is treated with a photosensitive compound inducing hardening when exposed to light, thus the tiny light beam from the microscope is momentarily shone onto the silk in the pattern I have designed on screen, then what results is a silk structure ready for seeding with twitching cells. Genius!


Actual model of a printed silk scaffold

Here is a boring movie of the process, for my own archiving purposes really.

It is important to get these structures as thin as possible, so as to facilitate their bending by the heart cells. I tried many things to make them microns thick, even to the point of designing a custom 3Dprinted positioning device that is fully adjustable on the Zaxis to have more control over the end result.

Much more experimentation is required for developing shapes that both align with efficiently creating movement of the flexing structures as well as assisting with the (as yet undecided) over arching narrative of the artwork itself.

Of primary importance is making the movement visible to the naked eye so currently we are exploring potential processes of self-assembly and trying to optimize the torque strength of the contracting cardiomyocytes.
Below is a movie documenting some of the tests we have done with the human heart cells, flexing and moving different materials. Flexing of foreign fibers, microbeads and PDMS discs can be seen. Towards the end of the clip – Printed silk structures manipulated by live human heart muscles. the printed silk material is easy to make out by its repetitive hexagonal-type construction – this is actually the shape of the aperture of the microscopic light beam.


Prototypes of biobots made from human heart cells and printed silk:


Work is ongoing on this project with the date for completion around late 2018 to mid 2019. Optimization of cell/silk attachment is the priority however there is always room for more twitching efficiency even though I am already extremely happy with the dynamic action of these little actuators!

Animals, Anthropology, Biological Computation, Biology, Biometrics, Education, Nature, PDF, Science

Darwinism About Darwinism (Joeri Witteveen)


Review of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection by Peter Godfrey-Smith (Oxford Uni Press 2009)

“… devoted to fleshing out what makes a population Darwinian. This is done by scoring a given population on a variety of parameters, such as H, the fidelity of heredity, and V, the abundance of variation. So, instead of saying that a population must have heredity and variation—in the vein of the classical approach—the Darwinian populations framework ranks populations according to how much it possesses of each. The H and V parameters are familiar; they are derived from the classical summaries. The other parameters are less obvious. G-S discusses several important ones, but notes that these do not exhaust the options; other parameters may also be important in judging how Darwinian a population is. The new parameters that are discussed at some length are α, defined as the competitive interaction with respect to reproduction, C, for “continuity” or smoothness of the fitness landscape, and S, the dependence of reproductive differences on “intrinsic character.” The concept of continuity was introduced by Lewontin as the principle that “small changes in a characteristic must result in only small changes in ecological relations” (Lewontin 1978: 169). G-S extends this principle, and turns it into a parameter. One way to understand C is as the smoothness of the fitness landscape. The smoother the fitness landscape, the higher the value C takes for the population under consideration. C is determined by causes of both internal and external nature. Internal influences stem from the organism’s physiology and development. External influences on C are location, and interaction with others. G-S assigns the internal/external difference its own parameter, S, for “intrinsic character.” The higher a population’s score on C and S, the more Darwinian are the individuals it is composed of. C and S not only tell us something about what makes individuals more Darwinian, they also serve as a replacement for another vexed notion in evolutionary theory: drift. Selection is often contrasted with drift; change may be due to selection and/or drift. G-S suggests that the C and S parameters dissolve this dichotomy. What we take to be drift is in fact a combination of low values of C and/or S. So drift and selection are not two distinct factors, but are “distinctions along the gradients of S and C” (p. 61). After having discussed some of the parameters, G-S introduces a spatial framework of three-dimensional “Darwinian spaces” as a tool for further analysis. Along each of the three axes of a Darwinian space, we can put a parameter, on which a score from 0 to 1 can be obtained. For instance, if we put the H, C, and S parameters along the axes and start scoring populations, one that scores close to (0,0,0) is very marginal, and one that sits close to (1,1,1) is a paradigmatic Darwinian population. Scoring somewhere in between will make it a minimal Darwinian population.”


Algorithm, Analog Computing, Art, Automata, Bacteria, Biological Computation, Biology, Cybernetics, Deep Learning

Beyond design: cybernetics, biological computers and hylozoism (Pickering 2008)

community video, video

Community Video : Community Action


1974 also saw portable video technology used twice to dramatic effect in the service of the same squatting community. Ben’s Arrest lasts only two minutes; the video comprises a single take, which follows the forceful eviction and arrest of an Afro-Caribbean teenager from a squat in Kentish Town, North London, by bailiffs and police. It was the first time video material was used as evidence in a court of law in the UK and aided the arrested youth’s acquittal28. In the words of Hopkins it ‘showed in grim close-up the arrest of a black guy who just happened to be picked on by the police as we were on the street with a camera.’29 Sue Hall, was organising the painting of houses on Prince of Wales Crescent on the day the video was shot. She later recalled arriving on the corner of the street and seeing a police van parked outside the row of squatted houses; ‘I went home to get the Portapak, thread the tape and put the battery in… I went back as fast as possible just in time to see the police coming out with what they claimed were stolen goods and violently arresting a young black man before apparently beating him up in the back of the Transit van whilst I was still shooting video.’30

An article published in The Guardian in 1974 covered the outcome of the making of the second video:

Film Tape Allowed in Court: A Video Tape recording of squatters being evicted from a London home will be admissible as defense evidence in a case of alleged assault – provided that Scotland Yard forensic scientists are satisfied that the tape is authentic… Mr Peter Darcy and Dr John Pollard, who are accused of assaulting a police constable during their eviction from a house in Prince of Wales Crescent, Chalk Farm, North London, by bailiffs and police earlier this year, believe the film is crucial defense evidence… the application has been adjourned while Scotland Yard makes a duplicate and tests it thoroughly for defects and tampering… Birnberg [the counsel for the defense] argued that there was no difference in principle between the recording of a human voice and a video tape. 31

The language used in this article points to video’s relationship to liveness and authenticity, whilst the police still viewed the new medium with trepidation. The defence was successful as Hopkins later recounts in an interview:

All the people who had been arrested or charged were able to brief themselves from the videotape, which was played again and again and again until everyone knew exactly what happened in what order. And when the police came to give their evidence it was so transparently, obviously faked, that everybody got off. So as a piece of social action, getting 15 or 20 people off of police charges…was a beneficial act, which couldnt have been done without video.32

Capitalism, PDF, sciencefiction, utopia

Alexander Kluge: Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome (1973).pdf

“Written in a quasi-documentary style, this fascinating hybrid work combines science fiction with modernist forms of montage and reportage to describe a future in which Earth has been almost totally destroyed following the catastrophic Black War. The planet’s remaining inhabitants have been driven underground or into space where the struggle to establish a new society rages on.

Whether describing the scene in China where the devastated landscape is reconstructed according to old paintings, or in the galactic realm of the Starway where giant, turf-battling, corporate colonizing forces exploit the universe’s resources, Kluge tells his tale by inventing various forms of “evidence” that satirize the discourses of administrative bureaucracy, the law, military security, and the media. He gives us some of his most bizarre and hilarious characters in this peculiar world in which the remains of the past are mixed with the most advanced elements of the future. The cast includes highly specialized women workers who have adapted to the massive gravitational field of their heavy-metal planets, a commander with lethal foot-fungus, and ex-Nazi space pioneers who, in their lonely exile from the conflagrations on earth, spend their time carving enormous facsimiles of operatic sheet music in the forests of uninhabited planets.

With parody, and humor, Kluge shows how the survivors of Armageddon attempt to learn the art of civilization, and, despite the disaster they have suffered, how they set out to reproduce at new sites a caricature of a classic and fascistic feudal capitalism.” (from the back cover)


Architecture, Art, gas, PDF, Photography

Gas Tanks (Bernd and Hilla Becher)

“Typological, repetitive, at times oddly humorous,  photographs of industrial structures are, in their cumulative effect, profoundly moving. The Bechers’ serenely cool, disarmingly objective, and notoriously obsessive images of water towers, gas tanks, grain elevators, blast furnaces, and mineheads have been taken over several decades, under overcast skies, with a view camera that captures each detail and tonality of wood, concrete, brick and steel.
In this work, the Bechers’ present four principally different forms of gas holders or gas tanks in 140 photographs taken during the years 1963-1992 in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and the United States. The subjects are photographed under overcast skies that eliminate expressive variations in lighting; the Bechers make no attempt to analyze or explain them. Captions contain only the barest of information: time and place. On the subject of gas holders, the Bechers limit their remarks to a minimal functional description, leaving the aesthetic dimension of their subject to the photographs themselves: much of the fascination of these photographs lies in the fact that these unadorned metallic structures, presumably built with little concern for their visual impact, are almost invariably striking in appearance.”


Analog Computing, Bio hacking, Biological Computation, Biology, Biometrics, Brain, Cybernetics, DNA, Science

Mind-controlled transgene expression by a wireless-powered optogenetic designer cell implant

“Mammalian synthetic biology has significantly advanced the design of gene switches that are responsive to traceless cues such as light, gas and radio waves, complex gene circuits, including oscillators, cancer-killing gene classifiers and programmable biocomputers, as well as prosthetic gene networks that provide treatment strategies for gouty arthritis, diabetes and obesity. Akin to synthetic biology promoting prosthetic gene networks for the treatment of metabolic disorders, cybernetics advances the design of functional man–machine interfaces in which brain–computer interfaces (BCI) process brain waves to control electromechanical prostheses, such as bionic extremities and even wheel chairs. The advent of synthetic optogenetic devices that use power-controlled, light-adjustable therapeutic interventions18 will enable the merging of synthetic biology with cybernetics to allow brain waves to remotely control the transgene expression and cellular behaviour in a wireless manner.”