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Knowledge Begins With Artistic Metaphors


The shocking reality described by science and the incredible discoveries of the future have begun to draw constant attention from artist-scientists and to be reflected in projects that use advanced technologies in the fields of robotics and genetic and bio-engineering. We spoke about technobiological art, “wet technologies”, non-biological intellect, and hybrid systems made up of living and non-living components with artist, art theorist, and curator of the Kaliningrad branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Mr. Dmitry Bulatov.


Russia 2045: Famed futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil came out with a prediction near the end of last year that human beings will be able to obtain completely artificial bodies within the next 20 years. Are there real grounds for supporting such a prediction?


Dmitry Bulatov: In his predictions, Kurzweil is relying on Moore’s Law, which says that computing power doubles every two years. Kurzweil examines that trend with relation to various generations of computing devices made in the 20th century (electromechanics, relay technology, electric lighting, etc.) and extrapolates the trend of growth in computing power into the 21st century, coming to the conclusion that that growth itself will accelerate exponentially. In other words, if at the beginning of the 20th century humankind doubled computing power every three years, and in the middle of the century every two years, then in the present day it is doubling annually. Relying on those calculations, Kurzweil then makes his prediction with regard to the future.

If we agree that the extrapolations were done correctly and that there will be no physical limitations in Moore’s Law in the future (something which is not beyond dispute), then the scenario described by Kurzweil could very well become a reality. However, given that the prediction is based on empirical observations, I would supplement it with another empirical observation, by Finagle-Murphy, that asserts that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.


Russia 2045: What steps does humankind need to take in order to make this prediction a reality?


D.B.: I think that work directed toward making this prediction a reality will require very significant organizational efforts and financial support. If we’re talking about a large international project that brings together, for instance, 5,000 scientists and engineers from different countries, then the cost will be comparable to that of the Large Hadron Collider.

However, I believe that the main obstacle in the way of achieving this is not technological, financial or organizational barriers—all of those are surmountable. The problem lies in the fact that all the typical excuses used by scientists of the type, “Damn it, I’m an inventor, not some sort of social scientist!”, stopped working immediately after Robert Oppenheimer, anticipating the success of the Manhattan Project, closed his eyes to its moral and ethical consequences. Today it’s utterly clear that GNR technologies (genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics) are not just dual-use technologies but fundamentally accessible technologies, which, with the knowledge of just one single technique, can be used to tackle a whole range of different tasks. So first and foremost, in order to make Kurzweil’s prediction a reality, think tanks along the lines of the Foresight Institute need to be created. Such organizations would in the near term be able to produce an evaluation of the different aspects of the project being developed. And in the middle term, they would be able to study whether there is a need to reevaluate the existing ideological, moral, and ethical theories regarding the possibility of making changes to the human species.


Russia 2045: Do you think the human body can be improved by creating artificial organs? Can the functioning of some of them be improved or, for instance, superfluous ones be gotten rid of and superpowers be added?


D.B.: I think that instead of speaking in terms of improvement, we can speak in terms of regeneration of biological organs and of expanding human capabilities overall. For example, scientists calculated long ago that people think at a fixed speed—a bit more than a thousand calculations per second. That number is determined by our biology and will not increase significantly. The capabilities of non-biological intellect in this regard are limited only by production power.

There are currently dozens of projects underway at various international laboratories devoted to the subjects of replicating and expanding the functions of the human body (vision, hearing, etc.). Work has been done on an artificial heart. In the near future hybrid systems made up of a combination of living and non-living parts will make it possible to return lost or originally absent functions—and, of course, to markedly enhance them in comparison to the normal systems. However, big, systemic problems stand in the way of creating these different hybrid constructions, the main one of which is synchronizing these systems with different times. The thing is that the stage at which technobiological creatures appear can be defined as a measure of the presence of innovations in the system (concept of thermodynamic time as formulated by Ilya Prigozhin). That kind of time is a synonym for the movement, development and rise of everything new. This time invariably comes into contradiction with physical time, calendar time. These two different kinds of time—thermodynamic (innovational) and mechanical (calendar)—are not equivalent and are extremely difficult to synchronize. At present we don’t know how exactly the conflict between them will manifest itself, but it can be said with confidence that on the whole a unified system will prove to be hazardous: Different kinds of time cannot get along.


Russia 2045: How does contemporary art reflect these trends in the development of humanity? To what extent do viewers accept, or approve of, the presence of these themes?


D.B.: Artists working the area of technobiological art (what I specialize in) use the latest technologies and research methods in the areas of biomedicine, robotics, human-machine interfaces, nanotechnology, etc., as artistic resources. This is a new, never-before-seen tool kit for the artist, one that provides powerful possibilities for expression.

And, most importantly, it is a highly relevant field. At the moment, in the world of technobiological art, a lot of attention is being paid to the unification of digital, computerized equipment with the “wet biology” of living systems. The intersection of these fields creates a special environment that has been given the name “wet technologies”. Within this environment it has become possible to create works of art that combine attributes of a living organism (growth, variability, self-preservation, etc.) and of a technological product (prefabricatedness, interchangeability, expanded functionality). Before our very eyes a new category of “semi-living” works of art is arising and taking shape. This is a true revolution in art.


Russia 2045: How could art help to promote the project of creating an artificial body?


D.B.: It isn’t right to think of science art strictly as a tool for popularizing science or new technologies. That would basically be the same as saying the point of cinematography is to produce advertisements. After all, this is not about what art can also say in the language of science and technology but about what it is that only art can say and do. Art, for example, is not compelled to focus on interpretations of the laws of logic in nature, which is what science mainly does. What it can do is draw attention in its statements to a host of unobvious things related to the use of new technological capabilities.

This attribute of science art is particularly valuable today, at the early stages of development of different high-tech fields, when there are the most uncertainties, and when diverse points of view need to be encouraged, as without a diversity of views science and art simply cannot exist.

In other words, in his work an artist must not only affirm scientific and technological versions of reality but must also outline the boundaries of these ideas’ applicability using art. In that way, it does not allow the system of science and technology to lock itself onto a foundation that can and should by the laws of logic drain the surrounding world and human beings . . .


Russia 2045: In contemporary art, new scientific ideas are often given the opportunity to take a less substantial form than in the laboratory. It’s easier to receive a grant for one and the same breakthrough experiment by describing the activity as art than by making it out to be scientific research. Is it the same for ideas related to cyborgization?


D.B.: Outside Russia, that is the case on the whole, but only for those very few projects that exhibit a rather high level of scientific and artistic potential. One of my favorite examples in this area is a joint project by the name of “MEART” by an Australian group of artists called Simbiotica and a team of American neurobiologists led by Dr. Steve Potter (Laboratory for Neuroengineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA). At first glance this project can seem rather radical. You be the judge: It is a “semi-living” robo-system that has several hundred neurons from a rat embryo and a mechanical arm and hand that makes these spontaneous pictures based on photographs and paintings. The authors of the project describe its overall objective as “trying to create a being that over time will develop, learn, and express itself through art . . .”

Another no less interesting example is the well-known “Third Ear” project by Stelarc, in which the artist employed the help of specialists in the field of tissue engineering to have an additional ear grafted onto his right forearm. This “Third Ear” of Stelarc’s cannot actually hear, but with an implanted Bluetooth headset, it takes on other functions unexpected for such an organ, such as being able to be used as a transmitter, a hub for Internet access, etc. Technology built into the body by way of symbiosis gives rise to a new form of evolutionary synthetics—a new kind of evolutionary energy appears. This particular example is of course only a kind of prototype, something that can be used for working with this topic. But on the whole it can already be said that new technological possibilities that have come about as a result of modern scientific investigations—research projects that are at once unique, interesting, and frightening—are viewed by artists as a subject in need of artistic examination.


Russia 2045: Are there a lot of artists in the world who work in this field? Who are they, and what kinds of things are they creating?


D.B.: Outside Russia there are a fair number of institutions, artists, scientists, and festivals that specialize in the field of technobiological art and science art in general. It’s impossible to describe them all, so I will just say that you will have a greater chance of seeing interesting work being done in this field in experimental laboratories than in museums—for example, at the laboratories of the ZKM Center for Art and Media (Karlsruhe, Germany), the Ars Electronica Center (Linz, Austria), the ICC-NTT InterCommunication Museum (Tokyo, Japan), the Hexagram Institute (Montreal, Canada), the Art & Genomics Centre (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), the Exploratorium (San Francisco, USA), the Center for New Media (Berkeley, USA), the Mixed Reality Lab (Singapore), and so on.

There are artists who are captivated by problems of science and technology, and scientists who have come to realize that the discipline of science is not exclusively functional. And there may be groups that have both artists and scientists within their ranks. Incidentally, many Western scientists long ago came to realize that contemporary art is not only an investigative tool but also can act as first-class advertising, capable of attracting private funding to a scientific laboratory. Over time, many scientists actually take a liking to contemporary art, and they begin not to aim specifically for financial support but just to create for the sake of creating. For example, the director of the Mixed Reality Lab (Singapore), professor Adrian David Cheok, accompanies every one of his scientific creations with an artistic project and exhibits widely at contemporary art festivals all over the world. Or Dr. Ken Goldberg, a prominent American scientist who has received a number of awards for his scientific work in the field of artificial life and robotics. A number of his projects and installations have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and are part of the collections of the George Pompidou Centre in Paris and of the ZKM Center in Germany. There are many examples, and, what’s more, scientists understand the specific nature of contemporary art and do truly interesting artistic work.


Russia 2045: What do you think about the idea of creating an international interdisciplinary center devoted to the work of creating artificial organs and an artificial human body? Would you be interested in participating in the work of such a center?


D.B.: I like the idea of creating such an interdisciplinary center. Creating institutions of a new kind, working to build new models of the outside world, exchanging information with colleagues, organizing exhibitions and conferences, publishing books—these are all parts of a single economy of a “knowledge society”. Such work is aimed at producing new meanings and definitions, at producing new research methods that were once considered unacceptable or simply inconceivable by a single imagination. Artists can play a very important role in such projects given that, more often than not, artistic metaphors and art-technological statements serve as the starting point for refining knowledge. In that way, people gain a solid humane foundation that allows them to work with new life forms, bringing a person into harmony, drawing him into a social and industrial environment, into a technological environment, and in that way changing his life.

Dmitry H.
Artist, art theorist, Curator of the National Center of Contemporary Arts (Kaliningrad branch)

‘In the near future, hybrid combinations of living and nonliving elements will help to recover lost or missing original features. And of course, greatly enhance them in comparison to the usual ones...’

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