* Article: Hackerspaces and DIYbio in Asia: Connecting Science and Community with Open Data, Kits and Protocols. by Denisa Kera . Special issue (#2) of the Journal of Peer Production on Bio/Hardware Hacking, 2012.
In this fascinating article, Denise Kera describes two particular examples:
* Indonesian fermentation-hacking: Bacteria want to be free
“In South East Asia, the whole DIYbio movement remains closely connected to the workshops and projects organized by HONF and their Education Focus Program (EFP) in Yogyakarta (rather than Singapore). The DIYbio activities are an important focus not only because of the rich food culture, but also because of the rural context. The “House of Natural Fiber” (HONF) in Yogyakarta organized a series of DIYbio workshops in 2009 and 2010, 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). The central focus of discussion were the fermentation techniques commonly employed and the key role of bacteria and yeast in our environment. They used hacked webcams and even Sony’s PS3 Eye turned into digital microscope as haemacytometers and bacteria counters, and explored several other alternative functions for micro-organism detection. The same tools were simultaneously used as a source of data for the audio-visual performances, simple DIY protocols responding to urgent social needs, as well as a protest medium against government policies. For their project “Intelligent Bacteria – Saccharomyces cerevisiae” (2010 – 2011), which embodies this citizen science and holistic strategy, they were awarded a prestigious Transmediale 2011 prize for media arts in Berlin. The original use of simple scientific protocols as forms of a peaceful protest against high government taxes on alcohol, and as a source of data for VJing and art installations, created a synesthetic experience around fruit wine. Artists, scientists and local villagers worked together under this project and defined a simple kit for alcohol brewing of Indonesian fruit (jackfruit, pineapple, and salakto). These cheap and safe procedures for brewing wine (Hujatnikajennong, 2009) were a form of a protest against the newly imposed exploitative tax laws tripling the already high price of wine and beer, pushing the local people into often lethal experiments with distilling and brewing their brews. .
This project created not only interesting performances and installations shown in galleries around the world, but also a solution to a plague of unsafe unsterilized alcohol production leading to dangerous methanol poisoning. In today’s 24/7 news cycle such cases were often mentioned but quickly forgotten by local media. However, due to a April, 2010 regulation from the Ministry of Finance increasing the duty on alcohol, local traditional alcohol drinks containing very dangerous methanol substances became popular at the markets. Artists from HONF together with the researchers from the Microbiology department of UGM university in Yogyakarta conducted a series of workshops to define proper and safe fermentation processes, and create a kit for the general public. They basically democratized a science protocol for making home wine, while at the same time were essentially supporting an old tradition of fermentation that by far is more a part of the indigenous cultures in Indonesia than the official religion. Through a publically available kits and instructional video, the artists and the scientists involved in the project basically connected traditional knowledge about fermenting with modern, Arduino based, open source gadget technologies that make the production of alcohol not only safe but also, and this is critical, visible and open to tips and tricks which keep it so. The acoustic installation based on the fermentation process was a response to the high rates of poisonings and deaths due to 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, but also to otherwise seemingly remote and arcane science. This created a special science communication project based on an appreciation of the local and the traditional knowledge and culture related to alcohol now supported and reinforced by modern technologies and methods.
The DIYbio in Yogyakarta has a strong interests in flowers and plants, similar to the other emergent initiatives in the Southeast Asia region such as the Biomodd project in the in the Philippines connecting plants and computers in elaborate ecologies. Nevertheless, there is telling difference. 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 flower protest, the “Common Flowers: Flowers Commons” project. The project started in Japan and Germany and was only promoted in Indonesia with a workshop, but provides a fascinating case study of a grassroots biopiracy response by developing nations to a GM patent. The Japanese and the Indonesian biopirates essentially reversed the “jailed” and genetically modified and patented blue carnation gene, and then released the reverse- engineered flowers back into nature. Since these plants are officially considered benign, it is not illegal to release them into the environment. The Japanese company that owns the patent decided to avoid public reactions against GM and then outsourced their “production” to South America. The blue Moondust carnation was developed by a Japanese beer-brewing company, Suntory, as the first commercially available genetically engineered flower. Although the company was granted permission to grow them in Japan, they simply outsourced production to Columbia, from where they ship their “fresh-cut flowers” worldwide.
In the “Common Flowers” project the artist collective (BCL) reversed the plant growing process, cloning new plants from the purchased fresh-cut flowers using Plant Tissue Culture methods. Using DIY biotech methods involving everyday kitchen utensils and materials available at any supermarket and drugstore, in undisclosed locations and moments they “freed” the GM carnations back into nature 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).
This more socially and critically involved hacking is typical for the Asia DIYbio scene (except Singapore) due to its close ties with the EU based initiatives. An excellent verbal definition of this vision and style of DIYbio hacking was given in an 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 . In the Indonesian context they display their competence and commitment by using scientific protocols as a form of political protest and social empowerment, and not merely a medium for technological progress and scientific advancement.
HONF as a new media art laboratory — running since 1999 — implements such simple, community and open source based technologies to improve the daily lives of the local people that are dependent on agriculture. Also in the Philippines, DIYbio activities that are just starting around the SABAW Media Art Kitchen and their “BedroomLab” workshops and meetings are trying to target agricultural “hacks” in the form of urban farming, bio-fuels and solutions dealing with ecological issues. The interest in plants and digital technologies underlying all these bottom-up local projects is becoming something of a distinctive sign of the Asian Hackerspace scene. Even the very successful Biomodd (LBA2) project in the Philippines that began in 2009 as an art initiative by a Belgian artist Angelo Vermeulen uses the idea of bringing plants and computers together for a socially and ecologically sustainable future. We see how rapidly how an art idea was transformed into a serious, community driven inquiry into issues of symbiosis of biology and electronics as sustainability solution. Through a partnership with the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU), a whole range of local cultural partners and more than 100 Filipino artists, scientists, engineers, gamers, craftsmen, volunteers and students, the project attained a critical mass that turned it into an international success story supported by the famous TED foundations. Over the course of eight brief months an installation was created that literally fused a living ecosystem of plants with a modified computer network. The monumental sculpture is composed of a system of recycled computers intertwined with an aquaponics system that serves as a cooling device for the computers used for various games etc. The synergy between technology and biology brings together computers, algae and plants along with diverse people that took part in this open source, educational and art project. This involvement of the public in serious ecological debates about the sustainable future is an exemplary case of Hackerspaces-in-action.
All of these real-life and real-time examples of experimental forms of research, investment and even artistic creativity show clearly how the “low-tech but high-impact” logic of Hackerspaces operates in various contexts and how it can connect science, culture and society in ways, which we could not even have imagined before. The artistic and scientific solutions and protocols impact and involve groups of citizens and stakeholders in the process of the research, creation and production, but as well in emergent critical and almost always edifying discourse driven by the hacker’s motto that not only code but also bacteria and plants want to be free.”
* Open Source Digital Geiger Counters in the Tokyo Hackerspace
“The last case study in our thumbnail survey will focus on Tokyo Hackerspace, and emphasize how a vast range of citizen involvement in science, technology, and policy are subtly related to alternative R&D spaces. Their Safecats project initiated shortly after the Fukushima meltdown and ghostownification of an entire region. The goal was to create “open source humanitarian hardware” for participatory sensing of radiation, shows clearly the limits and possibilities of connecting community, science and technology. The open source DIY tools were both a design response to the challenges of gathering independent data and understanding the spread and effects of radiation, but also political gadgets of social action and even personal fetish objects for dealing with uncertainty and trauma. The DIY and open hardware aspects of building low tech tools added to the personal, social, and public sensing activities an aspect of healing and catharsis related to the extraordinary challenges of this collective trauma, but also to a situation of extreme uncertainty. It is now frankly acknowledged that participatory monitoring over DIY Geiger counters and similar low tech solutions generated rather than tamed the uncertainties surrounding radiation, because they showed how difficult and maybe impossible it is to get accurate data about the unfolding situation and decide on the right course of action. In this sense, participatory monitoring is not only about crowdsourcing data, but as well involves dispersing individual and collective anxiety, hopes and fears. It is in the wild, which Fukushima has been in spades, a therapeutic mobile device rather than policy mechanism, a form of post-apocalyptic ritual of everyday and every night catharsis and healing, with occasional elements of protest and reflection.
DIY open hardware tools for radiation monitoring in Japan are more like technological fetishes and power objects, with ability to connect anxiety and hope, symbolic and real power over the circumstances, scientific (objective) data with primal human emotions. These radiation monitoring devices support a very distributed and multi-faceted response to the catastrophe, in the early days with utopian calls for a return to nature and in the end staging carnivalesque attitudes embracing an almost post-humanist and ironic relation to radiation (“Tokyo Radiation Levels” project by Steven Danieletto or “Tokyo Kids& Radiation community” on Facebook). The DIY tools, such as iGeigie, a functional assemblage of iPhone with Geiger counter, retain a deeply symbolic function related to the idea of “nuclear society” (uncannyterrain.org) and issues with survival on a human scale. Another Safecast apparatus involves binding together a Global Positioning System receiver with a Geiger counter, managed through a Arduino controller mounted to the outside of an automobile with a data card (memory stick or SD card) uploading data in real time. Within the DIY context, this is a contemporary version of the nuclear shelter, prototyped and calibrated not in the ‘closed,’ sealed zero risk environment of the bunker stocked with canned foods, but in the open, managing fear and uncertainty through abstraction, knowledge, mobility and portability (Whitington & Kera, 2011).
The Uncannyterrain.org documentary film project shows how Safecast data are used for exploration of food contamination and organic farming. Strikingly, an ethic of openness extends even to contamination, at least in some cases, what one baker refers to in terms of “coexistence.” As the filmmakers write (Koziarski, 2011): “Ohashi may need to look outside Fukushima now for organic suppliers for his bread. He says we need to learn to coexist with radiation. Suzuki and Fukumoto are leaving the idyllic farming community of Kaidomari to live in balance with nature elsewhere. Hongo won’t sell his potentially contaminated rice this year, but he’s eating it himself. Yoshizawa wants to save his 300 irradiated dairy cows from a death sentence.” All of these decisions imply a commitment not to nuclear technologies but to living in the light of their consequences within a vision of nature that combines coexistence and compassion with the patently not-natural and pervasive radiation. In this sense, DIY monitoring tools are not media for assessing our situation and creating a public pressure on some policy makers or even protesting against the circumstances.
These tools do not serve only rational goals and needs, but are also means of that carnivalesque, ironic and semi-magical interaction which Brenda Laurel calls “designed animism”; this theatricality reminds us data are never passive representations, but triggers for action: ‘Sensors that gather information about wind, or solar flares, or neutrino showers, or bird migrations, or tides, or processes inside a living being, or dynamics of an ecosystem are means by which designers can invite nature into collaboration, and the invisible patterns they capture can be brought into the realm of the senses in myriad new ways.” (Laurel, 2009 p.262) These DIY fetishes are tools of negotiation with non-human forces in ways which are not only scientific (calibration) or political (protest), but as well deeply personal and even for some people manifestly spiritual (therapy, reflection, irony).
The anthropological fascination with fetish objects struggled with a primal problem of many epistemologies, namely the association of symbolic and material realms. Some of these traditional practices and associations, expressed in ritual and myth, appear as powerful spiritual technologies operating through elemental materials bound together in figurative form (Mauss, 2001; Pietz, 1991). Currencies such as cowry and glass, technologically powerful objects for binding, piercing and reflecting, powerful figures forged or carved as rulers under public gaze or in secrecy, are all examples of such fetishes similar to DIY open source hardware. They also use powerful technological objects and transform them into alternative, low tech and imaginative uses that open new possibilities of interaction. These DIY tools embody the critical design attitude behind “what if… ?” approaches, functioning to awaken users to possibilities of various futures. They incorporate even “design noir” attitudes (Dunne & Raby, 2001) that insist our tools are often the expression of our unconsciousness, being symbolically powerful instruments with which we actively explore the aberrations, transgressions and obsessions in our society and nature. Canivalesque and therapeutic design behind the Hackerspace projects in Japan is an affirmative celebration of the “Unpredictable potential of human beings to establish new situations despite the constraints on everyday life imposed through electronic objects”. (Dunne & Raby, 2001 p.7)
DIY Geiger counters and similar participatory devices are typical “noir” and fetish tools. Pace Dune and Raby, they are media “that fuse complex narratives with everyday life… a fusion of psychological and external `realities’” in which “ the user would become a protagonist and coproducer of narrative experience rather than a passive consumer of a product‘s meaning…. objects that generate `existential moments’ – a dilemma, for instance -which they would stage or dramatise.” We need, however, to resist Dunne and Raby’s judgmental definition of these tools as basically wicked and means of self-reflection: “These objects would not help people to adapt to existing social, cultural and political values. Instead, they force a decision onto the user, revealing how limited choices are usually hard-wired into products for us. On another level, we could simply enjoy the wickedness of the values embedded in these products and services. Their very existence is enough to create pleasure.” (Dune & Raby, 2001 p.46) To be sure, the carnivalesque and therapeutic dimensions of a ritualized practice of moving through contaminated spaces, as an active technological reflection on environmental uncertainty, raises a range of performative and experiential practices associated with these tools. But what is overlooked here is that the participatory DIY monitoring of radiation with open source hardware tools becomes a form of modern technological ritual, bringing together a community facing a dangerous and uncertain situation and trying to cope with it as best they can. In the case of Japan it has also triggered a natural geopolitical experiment of lowering the energy demands of the whole country and pushing production and industry to China in order to shut down the nuclear facilities.”