Visions of mimicking, synthesising, or designing life forms have an ancient pedigree, bouncing back and forth between the occult, the philosophical, and the scientific. Artists working with the tools of science and technology have also played a key role in shaping and interrogating imaginations of creation – and in revealing the way that tools shape the relationship between what can be imagined and what can be implemented.

A new e-book from Leonardo and MIT Press (disclosure: which I co-edited) takes its starting point in recent developments in synthetic biology and computing technologies that open new avenues for ‘wet’ intervention in biological lifeforms and ‘dry’ simulation of their properties. It asks how artists are currently engaging with ‘life’ at these intersections, with newly commissioned essays from practitioners in bioart, A-life, and biohacking. But the book also looks some way back into the history of these relations, reprinting a selection of ancestral articles from the Leonardo journal.

The e-book is part of the EU funded Studiolab framework for art-science projects, which also funded Medical Museion’s ‘Biohacking: Do It Yourself!‘ exhibition and event series.

It is available from amazon as a Kindle e-book for £4.83, and the full description and link to a web-companion are copied below:

This groundbreaking collection documents artists use of biotechnologies and artificial life. The editors have commission original essays by key figures across these intersecting fields and collected over 40 related articles previously published in the Leonardo journal that document the ideas and practice of artists, theoreticians and historians. Chapters include: Between Bio, Silico and Synthetic: Of Life and Arts; Artificial Life and the Arts; Bioart; Bio-Fiction, Design, Architecture; DIY Biology-Biohacking. 

Artists have opened new avenues in the art world by employing these developments in biotechnology, synthetic biology and Artificial Life; going from inanimate to autonomous objects to living creatures; exploring the thin border between animate and inanimate; confronting the grown, the evolved, the born and the built; and raising aesthetic but also social, political and ethical issues. 

New forms of ‘exo-life’ may not arrive on Earth from outerspace by hitching a ride on a meteorite, but instead come out of the lab, designed by scientists – or perhaps artists – weaving together biology and computing in a petri dish or bioreactor. 

Over the last fifty years our ideas about the nature of life have changed dramatically. Revolutionary advances in genetics and molecular biology have given us new insights into how carbon based life on our planet originates and functions. In more recent years the development of synthetic biology has dramatically expanded our ability to design and modify life forms. At the same time, disruptive developments in computing technologies have led to the possibility of generating digitally-based artificial life. And outside traditional institutions, emerging DIY, bio-hacking and citizen science movements have begun to appropriate laboratory technologies, challenging ideas about the governance of the life sciences. 

Suzanne Anker, David Benqué, Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Alessandro Delfanti, Tagny Duff, Cathal Garvey, George Gessert, Eduardo Kac, Denisa Kera, Marta de Menezes, Jane Prophet, Tom Ray, Ken Rinaldo, Edward Shanken, Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau, Polona Tratnik, Nell Tenhaaf, and Adam Zaretsky are among the 45 authors. 

A web companion to this e-book is available at: http://synthbioart.texashats.org 

The Meta-Life e-book is a project by Leonardo/Olats (www.olats.org) as an outcome of the European Studiolab Project (studiolabproject.eu/), supported by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme, in partnership with Leonardo/ISAST (www.leonardo.info) and MIT Press and in collaboration with ATEC at the University of Texas at Dallas (http://utdallas.edu/atec/).

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