No Hammer Needed: An Interview with Luciana Haill

Anna Dumitriu (AD) interviewed the Institute of Unnecessary Research’s Head of Hypnagogia Luciana Haill (LH) in January 2024, following Haill’s recent exhibition/happening “No Hammer Needed” which took place at St Andrews Mews in Hastings (UK) in October 2023.

AD: What is your background? How did you come to make such complex and fascinating artwork that crosses and combines neuroscience, dreams, and nostalgia?

LH: I studied Interactive Art in the first degree of its kind led by Professor Roy Ascott in the early 90s which was ideal for developing digital interdisciplinary practice. I worked freelance in multimedia for a few years in the early days of internet browsers and made visuals for raves in London.

I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain since I had viral meningitis as a teenager. That was when I learned that although I was experiencing excruciating headaches and neck pain, the brain does not possess its own pain receptors, full ‘meta’ jacket I guess!

My pain was in the meninges (the lining of the brain) nerve endings squashed against my skull, for me any sounds were incredibly resonant and overpowering. There was no medication for this. I experienced my first altered state of consciousness when I fainted in my private bathroom in the hospital in Kent. I clearly recall a stunning ultraviolet neon mauve lozenge shape horizontally stretching in front of my eyes like a welcoming space portal, and as soon as I questioned how I had not previously noticed the feature in my room before, I was awakening back in the bed, with no memory of falling. This phenomenon I would not forget, and one that has only happened twice in my life. It led to my increased fascination with the brain and how consciousness is filtered and delivered. 

Improvised live AV and brainwave art with noise group Pyramid of Dwarves  

I worked as a Neurofeedback assistant for a private company in London analysing 20 channels of EEG in therapy sessions for a few years. I’ve also had the pleasure of being a visiting lecturer for several years on the University of Brighton’s Digital Media Arts MA course. 

AD: You have recently completed your exhibition “No Hammer Needed” can you please tell us about it? What could the audience see/experience and why did you choose that title?

Jason Williams’ light to sound intervention, hearing the Dreamachine 

LH: After 5 weeks I inadvertently made an interactive, immersive installation suggesting a nightclub setting, I made a unique remix of the present and a fictional future with the audience, and their cognitive reactions were recorded using a brainwave monitor. I am concerned with accessing what is not available, maybe perversely, but maybe ’ironically’ my art is an eyes-closed experience, sometimes meditative, and anachronistic, with additional augmented reality art giving heritage a new audience for demolished local landmarks in my hometown of St Leonards in East Sussex. My work does not hang on walls, it exists in your mind, seen when your eyes are closed, or experienced through your smartphone. My art combines neuroscientific technology, with a lot of research into emotional intelligence and meditation, working with some incredibly skilled trainers & masters, recreating an accessible experience for everyone to have an altered state or drugless high. ‘No Hammer’ coalesced the augmented with the flickering ‘entoptic’ art in one space and importantly provided a private studio and showcase for 5 weeks in Hastings.

At the doorway upon entering the space the audience would first encounter the tall graphic displays for ‘Apparitions’ and ‘Pioneer’ – my augmented reality artworks that are special applications for smartphones that trigger lost landmarks and local heritage in life-size experiences. Guarding the entrance was the metal teapot that was the inspiration for the entire project (it was the sole survivor of the sea storm that destroyed local beach huts) owned by the narrator’s family. The Apparitions were also triggered by enlarged postcard printouts on the floor and a long table viewed through an iPad on a tripod, these markers enabled people to see some of the details and hear the special soundtracks for each hauntological experience. Postcards with instructions for downloading the app for free and where to stand in town for the Memorial and Pier to be fully realised were available. Ideally, guests will be inspired to seek out and experience the demolished local landmarks for themselves a short distance away in the centre of town, where Hastings Memorial is geotagged to its original location.  

Upon entering the space the audience first encounters the tall graphic displays for ‘Apparitions’ and ‘Pioneer’ – my augmented reality artworks that are special applications for smartphones that trigger lost landmarks and local heritage in life-size experiences. The metal teapot stands by the entrance on a pedestal, this was the inspiration for the entire project – it was the sole survivor of the sea storm that destroyed local beach huts owned by the narrator’s family. The Apparitions are also triggered by large format printouts on the floor and on a long table viewed through an iPad on a tripod, these enable visitors to see more close-up details and soundtracks for each hauntological experience. Postcards with instructions for downloading the app for free and where to position oneself in town for the Memorial and Pier to be fully realised were available. Ideally, guests will be inspired to hunt the demolished local landmarks for themselves, for instance, Hastings Memorial Clocktower is geotagged to its original location about 100 metres away in the centre of town and is triggered using your smartphone’s GPS.

Apparitions AR in front of the Dreamachine 

Immediately visible is a classic red Dreamachine I assembled, laser cut from an acrylic sheet and spinning at 78rpm on a retro turntable as the persistent focal point (personally I find the flickering light very conducive to working all the time). A few people recognised this portal and would come and sit close with their eyes closed. I occasionally invited visitors to come and sit close to experience the 60-year-old kinetic art object and ask them what they had felt or seen after a short time. This was sometimes done in small groups of 3, afterwards sharing the unexpected random images with me, this was an honest and accessible part of the show. They have checked a consent form in advance to entering the installation. As long as they are not photosensitive then they could progress further into the room for my choreographed strobe lights, & brainwave biofeedback, and eventually a personalised VJ treatment. The antithesis of standing around or even dancing in a dark crowded nightclub, with flashing lights and strangers, my guests each privately experienced the intimate installation space, beginning by taking a comfortable seat in the white futuristic padded rocking chair. They are their own therapy, as once the flashing programmable white light session is underway, and their initial apprehension or attempts at control dissipate, the real experience unfolds, of calm self-reflection. This may touch on voids, or epochs of sadness, but all these pass within synecdoches or minutes. The strobe light was choreographed over 13 minutes to adjust between calming and invigorating rates of flashes gradually, unlike a club where very hectic repetitive flashing lights can induce stupor or ecstasy, this is a connoisseur’s strobe treatment. 

Personal VJ’ed interactive Art : Brainwaves beyond the brain 

The display method is intrinsic to the dreamlike quality of the visuals as each active participant is asked to keep their eyes closed, which is tempting to not obey. And the experience is deepened by closing your eyes to engage in art. You are the art; you are the process, you are the projector of the visuals. I enjoy chatting with each person after the strobe light has completed its special programme, finding out where they went, what they felt and so on.

The projected visuals are improvised live, mixed by myself in my role as Token Girl, using VJ skills acquired during lockdown to generate new mythological multi-layered postcards. I became fascinated by repurposing obsolete postcards as brightly lit digital ephemera, on the fly. Creating impossible scenes of faces and local landmarks such as Hastings Castle sliding into the sea with real-time brainwave data pouring over model villages, iconic landmarks, and Edwardian portraits. Feeding into the VJ software are their real-time brainwaves and scans of vintage postcards of local heritage and portraits from the early 1890s to the 1960s. Brain biofeedback interpolating with local landmarks creates a new, ever changing layered map of memories and minds. I realised they are evoking autobiographical memories, and from the feedback people described tentatively they were potentially augmenting their sense of self.

Personal VJ’ed interactive Art: Brainwaves beyond the brain Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity and I have been using this for almost 30 years in my art. Guests are connected to my EEG sensor which is a flexible band housing 5 dry electrodes across the forehead, that detects neuronal electrical activity from the pre-frontal and left and right cerebral hemispheres above each eyebrow. A small amplifier is attached to the chair and transmits this data via Bluetooth 5 metres across the room to where I am positioned in neuro-therapist and VJ roles. My system combines the brainwave signal in response to the flickering light in a feedback loop and the special VJ software allows me to add this visual analysis into a multi-layered, sound-reactive composition. See videos here.

The visual layers dissolve through each other using customized smearing FX to deliver a ‘nostalgic melt’ that does not change quickly. The music they experienced was also made by myself in our duo called Per Diem in 2018 and I chose these as it evoked the right atmosphere for this melting nostalgia, using VJ club tech but without the clubbers, or fast music with mind-dulling repetitive beats. The same music is played through the room to guests and in high-quality headphones for a more immersive experience by the performative participant at the same time 

AD: What was the reaction of the visitors and participants? 

LH: Some were content with this initial AR part of the exhibition and did not feel ready for an altered state of consciousness. However for the explorers, curiosity and initial apprehension transformed into feelings of contemplation and introspective thoughts. Afterwards, I received gratitude I read in the feedback, this came from anonymous, private unprocessed thoughts flowing that these guests had not anticipated. I also organised a guided walk between two of the lost landmark sites in Hastings and St Leonards on Sunday 22nd of October to demonstrate how to get the most from the portable artworks using smartphones which had a keen gathering. 

Heritage Augmented Reality walk into town to trigger life-size versions
Apparitions – St Leonards Pier

Back in the Mews inside The No Hammer installation with flashing lights, repeated floods from storm Ciaran and Southern water issues, combined with a quiet location became more challenging to attract an audience, however, I understand it’s not for everyone. Many described this as an immersive and transformative experience, the ability to access calm self-reflection during our busy lifestyles. This is a polarizing treatment for me. Sometimes I cry when I do this alone, I certainly didn’t anticipate that.

Participants realised something that a press release or ticket could not have convinced them of. For some, this was the elusive gift of self-awareness through quiet reflection. It’s not something I can elaborate on verbally. There is a knowing, a wry smile on the face, a gentle nodding, even a tear, but I can tell when they ‘got it’. Most people are initially apprehensive or try to control it in an executive manner. Some friendship groups took turns and watched each other have the longer solo white strobe light experience. When in the reclined chair they described how they were affecting an atmosphere of reflection or reminiscence. A sense of intimacy and risk that they may encounter sadness or brief melancholic images on the route to their self-reflection; distancing from immediate surroundings and feelings. 

Discussing the white strobe light experience with each guest as they watch their EEG 

AD: What is next for your work? What work would you like to make? 

LH: I would like to undertake a residency to develop slow art into a longer durational experience. My work delivers similarities to ‘sensory mindfulness meditation’ where ‘your focus of attention is in the moment and not on external ideas or thoughts, and the wonder and awe early visitors to sea piers, who would gaze to horizons and feel a sense of awe about life on this planet. Themes of transcendence and self-reflection and of great importance to me, and I would like to develop these through engagement with scientific research into how AI and Art can assist with grief and digital reminiscence. ‘Beyond Localism’ is a new artwork that examines gentrification analogous to social taxidermy. I am discussing the white strobe light experience with each guest as they watch their EEG working on a new AR experience about ‘Lucid Grieving’ that’s been informed more since my No Hammer show, and this is something I want to release control with and engage more with AI, ideally into an installation and performance of Digital reminiscing. Expand the hauntological lost heritage in augmented / extended realities with iconic sites internationally.

I am fascinated by Victorian slum living, explored in mixed reality (not VR) immersive experiences giving a 3D environment within Unity games engine that creates an ‘Asylum for sleep’ another work in progress, ‘Living in Anaesthesia’ and ‘lunchtime lobotomies’. I’m not proposing to attempt to create a group theme narrative but these are what most my daily reading materials incorporate. Combined with the psychological benefits of nostalgia, grief and digital reminiscence. I enjoy bringing forgotten technologies into the present using contemporary techniques, often involving smartphones and special lighting. I am keen to reveal how ground-breaking our predecessors at the turn of C19 were with ambitions and revelations parallel to current VR and mixed reality experiences in art and cinema. I am particularly interested in the history of George Albert Smith and his interest in hypnotism and psychical research. I have previously recorded the brainwaves of clients during hypnosis and have a fascination with the supernatural. I would also be keen to lead workshops and have many years of teaching experience at the University of Brighton. I would love the opportunity to incorporate some of these new skills and creative processes to the next level. 

AD: Is there anything else you would like to tell us? 

LH: Everything was stacked against me on this occasion, an unplanned series of crises overlapped and I felt overwhelmed, lost and trapped. In the end, I felt inspired, energised and inspired to make new work from the engagements I had managed, thanks to my mentors, friends and supporters. 

See more at No Hammer Needed

Performing Alchorithms?

Let’s start with an invitation. Please read Alcho: An online experiment of Performing Alchorithms, and if you are interested in evolving protocols as a way to share processes contact Annie Abrahams for a private Alcho performance session.

Through Alcho Abrahams asks: “Is it possible to create an algorithm that includes human behaviour, that evolves over time and in the process integrates aspects of the personalities of all the participating individuals? Because there are humans involved she thinks the project will probably turn out to be an erratic, iterative, evolving, experiential happening. Abrahams is interested in the written traces; in the instruction sets, as markers of the evolving Alcho processed through humans by writing and performing.”

And then let’s try to explain where the project comes from.

An Alchorithm is:

  • A song from 2011 by a Japanese hard rock group called “Awkward Hure”.
  • A process or set of rules to be followed in order to decide whether another drink is applicable. The alchorithm can only be used by those that are drunk.
  • Alchorisma + algorithm  Abbreviation: alcho

Algorithm = a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

Alchorisma = The theme of a work-session organised by Z33 and Constant. 2-8 December 2018, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium.

Alchorisma alludes to the relationships between algorithms, charisma, rhythm, alchemy and karma. It looks at integrating cosmogenetic views with the charisma surrounding technology, at ways to infect existing algorithmic models with ideologies that acknowledge the importance of co-existence with non-human entities.

Alchorisma is also the online platform with ideas, prototypes, reflexions as these evolved over time between 2018 and 2021. When visiting the publication an algorithm determines the links on the pages and makes you wander through the website on different pathways every time you go there.

Intrigued, Annie Abrahams applied for the first work-session.

Although very suspicious of alchemy and karma, she wanted to open herself to other than failing rational and artistic approaches of eco-technological issues.

It kind of worked. Abrahams wrote afterwards: “a spirit is not a thing, nor is it of the imagination, it’s all encompassing, everywhere, it relates things, trees, humans, stones and whatever … it is a consciousness of entanglement, of interdependence – if you experience it, everything becomes related and I, Annie, can call this feeling by touching beautiful old “dying” trees.

She also thought that the work-session could be an occasion to think about the relation between protocols used for optimization and the way she uses protocols in her performance practice; her’s don’t determine outcome, but rule behaviour, giving it constraints, while leaving complete freedom for interpretation.

During the Alchorisma work-session RYBN and Abrahams developed and tested a first Alcho: an algorithm that includes human behaviour, which evolves over time and in the process integrates aspects of the personalities of all the participating individuals. They determined variables and used instruction and meta-instruction sets with the objective to propagate a performance from one person to the next.

The development was based on a simple flowchart of an iterative process and German dancers Deufert and Plischke’s methodology for shared performance writing through transmission and reformulation, which in itself is an adaption of the game of consequences for the production of movement descriptions.

It looked easy to modelize the iterative process of the Alcho but turned out to be time consuming. Here is the first alchorithm (Alcho) written by Annie Abrahams and RYBN. A second alchorithm and details on the developing process can be found in the Alchorisma publication.

After starting the implementation the experimenters noticed that they forgot some essential elements. For instance they did not think of a surveillance system and so soon lost track of what was happening. Moreover, in the optimisation of the alchorithm they had left out an intention to have the performance transformed through the subjectivity and interpretation of the writer AND the performer.

It was shocking and amazing that in our happiness at succeeding in making something that could work, we had quite naturally left out essential relational and qualitative elements.” Abrahams wrote in her report on the process.

Two initial performance instruction sets used during the test.

So the experiment wasn’t a frank success, but it wasn’t without results. It continued to travel. Abrahams stayed intrigued in evolving protocols as a way to share processes and so when the time was ripe proposed an online version that you are invited to join in.

Re-enactment by all participants of the test Alcho of the initial instruction set during the end of residency presentation at Z33. Photo Peter Westenberg.

Sublime Highways of the Air

Originally written as part of the ‘Atmospheric Encounters‘ [1], exhibition at BOM 19th May – 28th August 2021

A whole new perspective can be gained from being aloft in a balloon. Far from the violent wrenching experienced when taking off in an airplane, a hot air balloon floats its passengers up into the sky almost unobserved. The flight is silent, save for the burners which are opened at intervals to heat the air. The ground drops away, the once-familiar now replaced with a vista of broccoli-like trees, miniature houses and toy cows. In ‘Falling Upwards’, Richard Holmes writes ‘Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story; quite often a tall one. And very frequently it is a story of courage in the face of imminent catastrophe’.

The industrial revolution prompted an explosion in human activity and population. There were huge advances in manufacturing, science, medicine and more. The use of coal powered factories changed the atmosphere as well as urban areas and ways of life. Lighter than air transport was possible for the first time and humans began to explore the atmosphere. In 1783 the first manned balloon flight was made by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. Richard Hengist Horne wrote in 1851 of the ‘Sublime highways of the air’ describing the balloon mania that gripped the 19th century. Men and women took to the air and floated in uncontrollable ways, at the whim of the air currents. The longest flight, the highest flight, acrobatic activities and science were pursued. However, the lack of control and some high-profile catastrophes deflated the enthusiasm for ballooning, to be replaced by more controllable forms of lighter than air travel and exploration.

Putting aside anthropocentric excursions into the atmosphere, animals and plants have been airborne for a very long time: the evolution of flight and gliding has occurred in a multitude of organisms in varied habitats. Indeed, some spiders have been described as ballooning, as they send out streamers of silk that can catch the wind and bear them aloft where they become part of the aeroplankton. Aeroplankton is the atmospheric equivalent of ocean plankton and consists of a myriad of tiny creatures that float and drift in the air. Many thousands of different species spend part of their lifecycle in the air: from pollen to spores, wind scattered seeds to microbes and more complex organisms. These microbial assemblages can be propelled into the atmosphere by mechanisms such as storms, raindrops splashing onto soil and sea spray. Shape and weight contribute to the length of time they spend in the atmosphere. Aeroplankton are aloft for an average of 3 days, allowing plenty of time for them to cross land and water, arriving at new places to inhabit.

View of the Gloucestershire countryside and atmosphere above from a hot air balloon. Image: M. Grant

There are also microbes that appear to inhabit the atmosphere, particularly clouds. Next generation sequencing [2] has been used to explore the composition and activity of cloud assemblages or communities. There is evidence that the microbes in clouds are metabolically active, i.e. are alive and functioning, and have roles as cloud condensation nuclei, or cloud seeds, on which water vapour condenses. The most commonly acknowledged to have this property is Pseudomonas syringae [3] but many species have now been shown to be able to help form clouds. What of the microbes not in the potentially protective environment of a cloud? Experiments have shown that bacteria, such as the soil microbe Bacillus subtilis, can survive the range of temperature, desiccation (removal of moisture), and pressure conditions of not just the troposphere but also of the stratosphere. (The troposphere stretches from Earth to around 7 miles upwards.)

The stratosphere is the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere above the habitable troposphere, approximately 10-50km from the Earth’s surface, and is accessible by balloons. It incorporates the ozone layer and accommodates a wide range of temperatures (0 to -60 ᵒC) and pressures (110 to 22,000Pa). Experiments started in the 1930s to reveal microbes that live in this habitat, and now there is a list of nearly 50 species or genera that have been isolated and cultured [4]. Often the time needed to create cultures is slow and has led to concerns about terrestrial contamination. However, great efforts are made to prevent contamination and experiments are used to model efforts made to prevent planetary contamination, for example for missions to Mars. The use of chemical treatments such as UV-C radiation, ethylene oxide and sodium hypochlorite (bleach) have been tested. The idea of using antimicrobial surfaces to prevent transportation of terrestrial microbes into the stratosphere has also been pondered. Copper containing surfaces are known to be antimicrobial and have been used to prevent biofouling by barnacles on ships and microorganisms in hospital settings. Fascinatingly in 1843 Jean-Francois Dupuis-Delcourt constructed a copper balloon, just to see if it was possible, which could have flown but he ran out of funding before getting the project completed.

Colony of Mortierella humilis isolated from the atmosphere above Saana Vanka in northern Finland. Image: M. Grant

The culturing of microorganisms has held a fascination for many researchers – from the arts, sciences or other fields of study. The billowing growth of the fungus Mortierella humilis evocates clouds. It was detected in near ground atmospheric sampling experiments, using a tethered balloon to keep the experimental equipment in the atmosphere, recently made by the High Altitude Bioprospecting (HAB) team in Kilpisjarvi, northern Finland.

“A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation” from Airopaidia

In comparison to the A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds drafted by William Angus for Thomas Baldwin’s ‘Airopaidia’: containing the narrative of a balloon excursion from Chester (1786). I t is easy to cross the macro and micro scales of the two images and centuries of time between the first forays into the atmosphere and some of the latest. ‘A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds’ shows the river Mersey meandering through a green landscape partially covered in white billowing clouds. It is overlaid with the air current driven twisting route of the balloon, again reminiscent of microbial movement. Another image from Airopaidia shows ‘A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation’ laid out before those ingenious and fearless travellers of the 18th century. 360ᵒ cameras are now making this viewpoint more commonplace and increasing the feeling of living in multiple miniature worlds inhabited by assemblages of human and nonhuman actors. Both these image types are evocative of the circular Petri dishes in which stratospheric treasures are encouraged into visible colonies displaying the otherworldliness of hidden microbial flora.

“A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds” from Airopaidia

The HAB team have made two expeditions to sample atmospheric micro-organisms. The first used a balloon and a rocket to propel the experiment into the atmosphere, though unfortunately one of the tall tales with a catastrophic ending foretold by Richard Holmes ensued. The second HAB team expedition, to northern Finland, was part of the Finnish Bioart Society’s Field_notes programme, exploring ‘The Heavens’ as an art-science field laboratory. Tethering hand-made, sterilised silk windsocks to a balloon-kite hybrid (Helikite), the team captured microorganisms from approx. 70m above ground. Bacteria and fungi slowly materialised on agar filled Petri dishes and were 16S rRNA [5] sequenced for identification. Many of the genera or species found were similar to the ones previously found in the stratosphere: Paenibacillus, Cladosporia, Pseudomonas, Micrococcus. One had a name evocative of not the Arctic but the Antarctic: Micrococcus antarcticus. This psychrophilic (cold adapted) bacterium was originally isolated at the Chinese Great-Wall station in Antarctica and was described as being closely related to other microbes found there. These include Micrococcus luteusArthrobacter citreus and Kocuria rosea, which have been implicated in cloud seeding, and were also found in the HAB experiments in Lapland.

The question remains of whether these are regular residents in Lapland or visitors carried on potentially high-altitude winds and captured in the windsock. Atmospheric modelling has suggested that in the autumn in northern Finland there is a low quantity of microorganisms resident in the atmosphere but that this is the time that they are most abundant in the Southern hemisphere [6]. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that the microbes actually came from Antarctica, and instead may be more ubiquitous than we give them credit for, but nevertheless there is a suggestion that they could have made such a long journey. As has been suggested that ‘aside from some understanding of their diversity, properties of airborne microbial communities and their sources in the Arctic have yet to be investigated’ the role of aeolian sources are being investigated in both the Arctic and Antarctic [7].

Bacteria and fungi isolated from the atmosphere above Saana Vanka in northern Finland. Image: M. Grant

Whereas Micrococcus antarcticus seems somewhat ‘exotic’ in its discovery, other microbes appeared more customary in hindsight. Several species of the fungus Cladosporia, with their distinctive black pigmentation were found by the HAB team. A previous survey highlighted these fungi to be highly prevalent in outside dust samples gathered from across the east half of the United States of America [8].

Some of the microbes sequenced returned new identifications: perhaps highlighting that there is always more to be discovered in our desire to understand the planet and its myriad environments and habitats. Discovery of multicellular organisms (macro-organisms) is relatively rare but micro-organisms continue to be discovered regularly. Should the humans of planet Earth be allowed to bioprospect these microscopic forms of life and potentially exploit any novel properties they have? That remains a contested issue for further discussion. This is not a new dilemma, the human race has harnessed many (micro)organisms for their own benefit – from making bread and wine to degrading hydrocarbons and pollutants, and producing antibiotics. How can, and should we go about the work of discovering and living with these forms of microscopic airborne life?

[1] Atmospheric Encounters is an exhibition by the High Altitude Bioprospecting team that explores the microbes that can be found in the atmosphere using DIY devices. The exhibition centres around the microbes found during field_notes field lab expedition to the arctic circle in northern Finland in 2019 with the Bioart Society. The identification of the microbes formed a large part of the expedition and this is explored in pieces in the exhibition but also conversations around the ethics of bioprospecting in the atmosphere are contemplated. IUR section heads Melissa Grant and Oliver de Peyer led the HAB group at field_notes.

DIY atmospheric microbial sampling device (HAB device). Image: Thom Bartley

[2] Next generation sequencing refers to the developments since 2009 for the large-scale sequencing of genetic material – this can cover whole genomes or parts of them, for instance, for the identification of microorganisms in particular settings or environments.

[3] Pseudomonas syringae is a bacterium that is a commonly plant pathogen.

[4] An excellent review of the microbes discovered in the stratosphere has been made by Priya DasSarma & Shiladitya DasSarma (Survival of microbes in Earth’s stratosphere, Current Opinion in Microbiology 2018, Volume 43, Pages 24-30).

[5] 16S rRNA is an essential and abundant nucleic acid structure found in bacteria. The sequence is specific to the originating bacterial species and can be used in identification

[6] Burrows et al. Bacteria in the global atmosphere – Part 2: Modelling of emissions and transport between different ecosystems. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 9, 9281–9297, 2009

[7] Šantl-Temkiv et al. Aeolian dispersal of bacteria in southwest Greenland: their sources, abundance, diversity and physiological states. FEMS Microbiology Ecology, Volume 94, Issue 4, April 2018

[8] Barberán et al. Continental-scale distributions of dust-associated bacteria and fungi. PNAS 2015, volume 112, pages 5756–5761

Just Like in the Movies: The Science and Fiction of Organ Transplantation

A transplant surgeon once asked me why people have so many doubts about becoming an organ donor. Why do they think organs transplantation is dangerous or immoral? I believe the main reason is that what they see on television and read on the Internet raises so many philosophical questions. For example, when I think of organ transplantation the first image that come into my mind it that of COMA. I saw this movie in the late 1970s as a young girl. It was the first thriller I saw, very exciting. The movie tells the story of healthy people who get into a COMA after undergoing a relatively simple surgical procedure. These COMA patients are moved to a special clinic where they are to receive proper medical care. But as the heroin of the story discovers, the Jefferson Institute is not a hospital, it is a repository of fresh, healthy human bodies whose organs are collected and traded on the black market.

The story, written in 1977 by Robin Cook, is a reflection of the developments in medical science at the time. A number of successful first organ transplants were performed in the late 1960s. One breakthrough followed another. The first successful heart transplant was performed in 1967 by the charismatic South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard. His patient, Louis Washansky, lived another 18 days after the procedure. He died of pneumonia. This medical breakthrough fueled fiction and wild fantasies.

One need not be a science fiction writer to envision the possibility of future murder rings supplying healthy organs for black-market surgeons whose patients are unwilling to wait until natural sources have supplied the heart or liver or pancreas they need. More prosaically, shall people near death be allowed to sell their heart or liver to the highest bidder or shall the future use of such vital “spare parts” be decided by some agency set up by society ” wrote a New York Times commentator about Barnard’s revolutionary transplant.

In the years that followed, the techniques improved and with the discovery of cyclosporine in the early 1970s, organ transplantation became a more and more a common medical procedure. It radically changed the way we perceive the human body, and therefore human beings.

Transplant medicine, forced us to replace a holistic image of the body with a mechanistic image. The body changed from a unique entity into a  body made up of interchangeable parts. The body became a machine and organs become a commodity.

The fact that we can so easily replace body parts also raises a another philosophical question. How is the body related to the ‘I’, or the soul? Can you just take part of a body and transplant it to another body without affecting the identity of the recipient of the organ?

This question is older than transplant surgery. Take for example the silent movie Les Mains du Orlac from 1924. This movie narrates the story of a successful pianist who loses both his hands in an accident. His girlfriend cannot accept the loss and urges the doctor for a transplant. Coincidentally, a violent criminal was executed the same day so his hands are used. You can guess it, those hands lead a life of their own. These were the hands of a murderer. Orlac cannot control the hands (with which he cannot play the piano) and starts killing.

A more comical and absurd variation on this story is the halloween episode of The Simpsons Halloween Special IX, Hell Toupee. The story is similar to Mains du Orlac: serial killer Snake is executed and Homer Simpson gets a hair transplant that same day. He looks good, only the nerves from hair transplant grow under his skull to his brain and take control of Homer who suddenly behaves like a serial killer.

Here you can see how he wants to kill his own son with a sledge hammer. It is bizarre. It is funny. What do these fantasies, these horror stories tell us about how people feel about and think of organ transplantation?

Bruce Hood, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Bristol, studied the effects of information about the donor’s moral character on the potential heart recipient. It made a huge difference. Most of the respondents did not want the heart of a rapist or serial killer. I fully understand this. It’s just not a nice idea that walk around with the heart of a rapist beating in your chest. According to Hood, we feel that way because we deep down believe that after a transplant we become a little bit like the other person.

 “Essentially they believe they will take somehow on those characteristics of the donor.”

I give you another example. Not fiction but a true story: Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was a serious criminal, convicted for multiple rape and even murder. He was sentenced to life for his actions. He did not like that. That is why he asked the American state to be executed. He wished to die in front of a firing squad. But he had one more wish. He also wanted to donate his organs. This happened in 1977. Someone got a kidney (the other was damaged by a bullet). Two others got his corneas. Strange thought? That’s also what Timothy Smith songwriter, singer of the punk band the Adverts, thought. He wrote a song about is:

I’m lying in a hospital,
I’m pinned against the bed.
A stethoscope upon my heart,
A hand against my head.
They’re peeling off the bandages.
I’m wincing in the light.
The nurse is looking anxious,
And she’s quivering in fright

I’m looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

The doctors are avoiding me.
My vision is confused.
I listen to my earphones,
And I catch the evening news.
A murderer’s been killed,
And he donates his sight to science.
I’m locked into a private ward.
I realise that I must be

Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

I smash the light in anger.
Push my bed against the door.
I close my lids across my eyes,
And wish to see no more.
The eye receives the messages,
And sends them to the brain.
No guarantee the stimuli must be perceived the same

When looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

Gary don’t need his eyes to see.
Gary and his eyes have parted company.

These kinds of reflections go beyond biology. It’s about the relationship between body and personality. Body and identity. Organ transplant enables people to fuse. That simply must have an effect on the recipient. At least, that what some people, with no medical expertise think. There are plenty of high-profile cases of people claiming to have changed character after a transplant. Their  stories are weird and amazing and very entertaining!

Take for example, the remarkable story of Sonny Graham. Too good to be true one might say.  He married the 20 years younger widow of his heart donor. (When he got the heart he was married to another woman with children!) Several years after the wedding, he commits suicide with a firearm. Just like his heart donor did.

Would you like to hear more stories like this? Then watch Mindshock transplanting memories, a channel 4 documentary. The main message of this documentary is that the heart is also a carrier of memories. You hear two scientists, who come up with very plausible explanations.

The Daily Mail is always a source of good stories. The one about a woman who started reading Dostoevsky after her kidney transplant is my favourite. Other stories are about fast food, green peppers, sports. Alle these articles tell more or less the same story: it is difficult for the recipient of a donor organ to let go of the thought of the other. The other person whose heart is pumping your blood through your body.

That is exactly what the 21 grams is about.

The movie begins with the following image: Sean Penn lying in an hospital bed, holding a heart in glass jar in his hand. His own heart. Someone else’s beats in his chest. Even if you do not have a medical background, you can see clearly his heart was in dire need of replacement. It does not look healthy.

Anyway, with that new heart his life becomes an emotional roller coaster. He argues with his wife (he finds out she once had an abortion) and becomes obsessed with that new heart. He must and know who was the previous owner of his new heart. He hires a private investigator to find out who that person was. He learns that the heart belonged to happily married man with children. Killed in a car accident.

As soon as he discovers this, he starts chasing the widow. She is a nice woman, beautiful woman. He makes contact with her. The rest is easy to guess. I find the most dramatic scene when she lies with her head on his chest and listens to the beats of her deceased husband’s heart. The film does not have a happy ending. But I can recommend it. It is very relatable.

This I cannot say about Heart of a stranger ‘based on a true story’. This story is about a female piano player, who receives a heart from a young brash drunkard. After her operation she turns into a ruthless woman. With a lust for beer. The story on which the film is based is that of Claire Sylvia, allegedly her first words after the successful heart transplant were: “I am dying for a beer.”

She had never drunk beer in her life.

Gold from Seawater – Inspiration for the IUR

Cover of Mr Henry James Snell’s “Processes for the Extraction of Gold from Sea-water (Works, Plants etc etc)”

It’s not just what we remember that’s important, but what is remembered about us. How do we achieve immortality? Is it through our genes as they are passed down? Why is it that sometimes we can feel so close to ancestors we have never even met? Our director, Anna Dumitriu has attempted to trace a genetic link to between her family history and her art-science practice.

Henry James Snell

The inspiration behind the Institute of Unnecessary Research is Anna Dumitriu’s great grandfather Henry James Snell 1842-1927. He was a renowned stained glass and ceramic painter (with studios in London and Brighton), a playwright and a songwriter (and father of seventeen children with three different women). Five of his books of plays, poems and enamel painting techniques can be found in the British Library rare books collection and he was known to have painted over three thousand stained glass windows.

HJ Snell’s Gold Works, Isle of Wight, UK

Whilst investigating the properties of enamel painting he found he was able to extract silver. This lead to further experiments into methods of extracting gold from seawater. Nobel prize winner Sir William Ramsey was retained by a syndicate, called the Industrial and Engineering Trust (Limited), to develop H J Snell’s work. Shareholders included Lord Brassey, Lord Tweedale, Hon. Alban Gibbs, several manufacturers and Albert Sandeman, foremost owner of the Bank of England. The syndicate had the modest capital of £3,000 in £1 shares.

Gold Works, Hayling Island, UK

Ramsey made experiments and stated in a formal report that “there is no doubt Snell has proved that gold can profitably be obtained from sea water on a large scale, and the amount of the gold obtained is so large that whether the cost of the treatment is £1 a ton or even the outside figure of £8 a ton, which it could not exceed, it would not make very much difference.”

HJ Snell at the Gold Works, Isle of Wight, UK

This research was unnecessary because the cost of electricity required to undertake the work would actually have been more than the gold that could be extracted by those means. If on the other hand nuclear fusion was possible, or green energy was used, it would be a relatively easy process, potentially leading to a crash in world gold prices and of course global economic disruption (especially at the time of the experiments when the gold standard was in practice). This has many parallels with contemporary cryptocurrency mining and blockchain technologies and a new artwork to explore this aspect of the story is currently being developed by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May.

Gold Works, Hayling Island, UK

Anna Dumitriu originally spoke about  H J Snell’s experiments  in her talk “Science and Art – A Genetic Link?” at the Catalyst Club in Brighton  on 21st February 2006, and later that year published an article in Aesthetica Magazine on the subject.

HJ Snell’s Gold Ore Concentrators

Also in 2006 she created a performative intervention “Putting Back Henry’s Gold” where she hired a boat from Brighton Marina, went out to sea and poured 24 carat gold dust into the water. The work can be seen as a reaction to the extraction of natural resources and its economic impact.

HJ Snell’s Laboratory