Laura Cinti: C-LAB

On Bio art, living materials, and a search for one of the most endangered organisms on Earth

Please can you tell me a bit about C-LAB?

C-LAB is an art-science collective that explores the connections between art, science and technology. Howard Boland and I are the primary artists and we create artworks centered around genetics, biodiversity and space science. Our projects are closely linked to ongoing scientific advancements, critical thinking and future possibilities.

For example, one of our artworks - Living Mirror - is a unique display that uses living magnetotactic bacteria to produce images in real-time. We collaborated with scientists and engineers from AMOLF, a biophysics institute in the Netherlands, to develop this work. By leveraging the bacteria's light-scattering properties (seen as a shimmer) when exposed to alternating magnetic fields, we created a living biological display.

In another artwork, The Martian Rose, we worked with the European Space Agency in Denmark. We exposed living roses to the harsh conditions of the Martian atmosphere using their planetary simulation chambers. The outcome of this experiment served as a poignant reminder that space, unlike the asteroid from the story of the Little Prince, is a place of death.

In addition to creating artworks, we curate exhibitions, workshops and events. For example, we organised a series of public art-science exhibitions in Spitalfields, London, as part of a collaboration spanning across Europe. We also curated the first official public exhibition in the UK featuring living genetically modified organisms at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Through our collaborative projects, we aim to spark conversations and inspire new perspectives on the world.

What is bio art?

Bio art is a diverse field where art meets biotechnology. It can generally be defined as an artistic practice involving biotechnology to manipulate life processes. Some of its distinctive features can be traced to the use of materials and processes that require specialised bio-scientific knowledge and having to deal with institutions, regulations, safety and ethical frameworks.

Unlike the focused and structured meanings in scientific practices, artistic discourses offer alternative approaches that bridge the gap between these understandings and a wider range of experiences. This opens up new avenues for exploration and understanding.

For me, bio art is a way to bring ideas to life and make them a part of our world. It's not just about using scientific tools and processes; it's about how it interacts with our culture. Bio art allows us to connect with living organisms from different perspectives and explore the hidden aspects of their lives that we don't typically experience.

You seem to have been working in this field for a long time! Since before it was perhaps as much of a household name.. What do you think it was that drew you to this specific area?

Yes, we have been exploring this exciting area of research since around 2000. We've delved into the intersection of science and art, which has led us to create a series of techno-scientific projects. Working with bio art is thrilling because it involves taking risks (failure is common) and pushing ourselves to work with materials that few artists are exploring. It's a challenging yet rewarding journey and has allowed us to question what art can be.

How has all of your research changed the way you think about materials, as an artist and in your day-to-day life?

Definitely! As an artist, I'm fascinated by the ‘hidden’ biological processes and the potential to use them as part of my artistic practice.

Do you think of the processes/cells/plant-matter that you work with as materials, or does that label not apply anymore when you study them this closely?

Living materials (plants, bacteria or cells) have a different nature compared to traditional art inert materials (like clay). When studying and engaging with these living materials at a close level, you explore their inherent characteristics, behaviours and potentials. We can manipulate and transform them artistically. In the context of bio art (or art-science), these become part of the artwork through unique possibilities and interactions. However, the label of ‘materials’ in this context acknowledges the living and dynamic nature of the entities, recognising that they possess their own agency and complexity. I am interested in the interconnectedness with larger systems, their roles in shaping environments and the ethical considerations surrounding their manipulation and use.

Please can you tell me about your most recent project Living Dead

I was fortunate to receive an EU production grant to create an artwork about the biodiversity crisis. My project focused on using drone technology to search for an extremely rare plant. I teamed up with Dr. Debbie Jewitt, a conservation scientist and drone pilot, who helped conduct surveys using specialised sensors in South Africa. The project was exhibited at Ars Electronica and presented at several conferences, showcasing both the scientific and artistic aspects of our work.

The plant we were looking for is called Encephalartos woodii, and it's one of the oldest seed plants in existence. Sadly, it's also one of the most endangered organisms on Earth. Back in 1895, a single male specimen was found in the Ngoye Forest in South Africa, but it was taken out of its natural habitat. Since then, all the plants of this species that exist are clones of that original male, and they are all male themselves. This means that without a female plant, it may never be able to reproduce naturally. We believe there's a chance that a female still exists in the Ngoye Forest, which hasn't been fully surveyed.

Although we didn't find an Encephalartos woodii during our survey of a small part of the forest, our use of drone technology showed promise in locating rare and endangered species. It was an exciting development. We plan to expand our search area, use aerial mapping techniques, and employ machine learning for analysis in the future. As a result of our work, we created a series of maps and a documentary that formed the foundations of the artwork. Through this project, we aimed to raise awareness about the urgent biodiversity crisis we're facing.

This project serves as a powerful reminder of how delicate biodiversity is and how close we are to losing species forever. The story of the enigmatic cycad, its discovery, and its disappearance from the wild emphasises the importance of conservation efforts in safeguarding the Earth's rich diversity of life.

Find the work of C-LAB here