Living Logic Masterclass
by Raphael Kim

Living Logic was a three-day masterclass that took place at the Ars Electronica centre in Linz Austria, between 27th and 29th August 2012. This was part of the Studiolab project - a three-year Europe-wide initiative funded by the EC seventh framework programme. Living Logic was an exciting opportunity for select artists and designers to engage in discussions of current trends in synthetic biology, and also to experience some of the mechanics of molecular biology first hand.

Day 1

The first day was a taster session to give the participants better understanding of how synthetic biologists work and also a short but valuable glimpse of what actually goes on in the laboratories, with the aim to enrich future art and design projects. It was also designed for artists and designers to approach projects from a different perspective, and encourage collaboration with scientists.

Ars Electronica Centre (photo: Raphael Kim)

It all kicked off at the Ars Electronica’s certified level 1 Biolab. Matthew Gardiner - the artist and senior lead researcher at the Ars Electronica Futurelab - gave an introductory talk to open up the masterclass. Participants then spent the rest of the day learning about the practical aspects of synthetic biology under the tutelage of Manuel Selg and Stefan Schwarzmair.

The first ‘hands-on’ activity we worked on was pipetting - a classic laboratory procedure to transfer liquid samples, often in micro-litre ranges. This was done using a handheld device called pipettes. It was a start of something very small!

Manuel Selg (photo: Raphael Kim)

Pipetting Lesson (photo: Raphael Kim)

Armed with our pipettes, and a few words of advice from Manuel and Stefan, the participants then proceeded to create our genetically-modified organism. To put it simply, the goal was to ‘genetically modify bacteria to glow in the dark’.

PCR machine (photo: Matthew Gardiner)

PCR is a common technique used by molecular biologists to make copies of a selected gene. It’s a bit like a genetic photocopier. This technique was used to amplify a gene that causes things to glow, called GFP (green fluorescent protein) gene.

Gel electrophoresis machine (photo: Raphael Kim)

Once amplified, the GFP gene was adhered onto a carrier DNA called a plasmid vector, which was then inserted into bacterial cells.

Glowing bacterial colonies (photo: Raphael Kim)

On the second day, the participants were given a talk by Joe Davis, the artist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. The charismatic artist gave a passionate presentation on his thoughts, work philosophy and a host of his past and current projects. One of works presented was the award-winning Bacterial Radio - a first part of his ongoing project envisioning many different kinds of electrical circuits created with genetically-modified bacteria.

On the final day of the masterclass, Markus Schmidt and Jens Hauser gave a joint presentation on aspects of collaboration between science and art, especially those around the theme of synthetic biology. They showed examples of previous projects from various artists and designers, which included works from RCA DI graduates.

The day concluded, rather aptly, with a talk from one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, George Church, who gave an insight into current and future trends in scientific research and development from his field.

Many aspects of synthetic biology were covered ranging from whole genome engineering, DIY biology, organs on chips, de-extinction of species and many more. One of the key lines George emphasized during his talk was that ‘DNA isn’t just about genomes, but also about materials” - implying that the code for life was now becoming a more tangible and sculpt-able medium that could be manipulated by scientists and artists alike. And using a combination of 3D printing, CAD technology and DNA synthesis, George explained that it was now possible to create scaffolds that would form the basis for electronics and architecture, which no doubt would open up new possibilities for a host of other creative applications.