Exploring the sublime of life
- a research stay at the MPIC-CBG Dresden


In occasion of an artist residency at the Centre for High Performance Computing (ZIH) at TU Dresden in autumn 2007 I was also invited at the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG). I was introduced in a one day trip in the basic facilities of the Max-Planck-Institute and the Biotec Centre of TU Dresden as well [1].
In my evening presentation "We are all donuts - discussing the robustness of aesthetic strategies in the field of art & biology" at the “Dresden Forum on Science & Society” I discussed with the scientific public several positions labelled in the pertinent art literature as „bio-art“ [2] . The unanimous refuse of all the artistic positions was for me as an artist quite astonishing, but the argumentation unambiguous: In the eyes of the scientists the artistic positions work sometimes in fact with techniques used in the life sciences, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic conceptual questions which drives the molecular biologists, physicists and bio mathematicians.

Finally I “abused” the audience for a little performance creating a kind of human cellular automaton. We played with the principles of a la ola wave modifying the rules standing up or sitting down according to the states of the neighbours (see picture). This experiment was the conceptual starting point for the choir project Music of Life which was presented a year later in 2008 at the Deutsche Hygienemuseum and the Cynetart Festival in Dresden. Finally the institute's director Marino Zerial invited me to come for a longer stay at the MPI to learn more about the material culture in biology.

the architectureof MPII-CBG is the result of an intense dialogue
between the scientists and the Finnish architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen

The research stay - connecting life and image

The research stay at the MPI CBG at the end of April 2008 brought me closer to the miracle how things move in a cell. The members of the Zerial group gave me an idea of the transport mechanisms in the cell managing for instance how vesicles are transferred between the membrane and the inner part of the cell (see the fluorescent microscope picture by Akhila Chandrashaker). But I also could follow how extracted liver cells of a mouse reorganize to reform a tissue.

Eugenio Fava introduced me to a large scale screening experiment switching off systematically the 20.000 genes of a whole genome. The resulting 2,5 million automated microscope pictures produce a mountain of data. It was remarkable to observe in general how important imaging technologies are at the MPI-CBG. Marino Zerial concludes that “in this type of institute the microsope seems to be the daily pipette.”

The so called microtubules build a major part of the cell's stabilizing skeleton. These tubes play as well an important role for the cell transport as a kind of pathway: Little transport molecules walk along this microtubules carrying much larger vesicles from the outer to the inner part of the cell and vice versa. Till Korten from the Diez group taught me how to invert this mechanism. With a substrate we fixed the transport molecules on a microscope carrier and after we added fluorescent marked microtubules. Under the fluorescence microscope the microtubules glided over the molecules and appeared like animated fancy filaments (see also the start sequence of the video).

Interviews - the sublime in biology

Eugenio Fava considers biology in a long historic tradition starting with the discovery of the cell 300 years ago by Robert Hooke’s microscope. A big change of paradigms in biology constitute currently the large screenings switching of systematically thousands of genes. Fava see here are analogies particle physics and astronomy changing the physical experiment into data mining analyzing millions of images. The challenge is how to deal with this overwhelming complex network of functions which can’t be grasped anymore by a human brain: “Sometimes you feel lost” concludes Eugenio Fava, “it is like diving in a big ocean”.

For Marino Zerial the “industrial perspective” [3] in biology comes a long with a conceptual in biology: “Today the question is to understand not single components but the design of a system.” For the institute’s director life is an emerging result of the interplay of single components. As human beings “we are much more than the sum of our parts.” We differ not so much in our parts from other organisms, but more in their interaction. The sublime of life is based in the resulting ungraspable complexity.

[1] Special thanks to Heiko Keller for organizing this round trip through the labs.
[2] Works were presented by Peter Gerwin Hoffmann, Critical Art Ensemble, Eduardo Kac, Joe Davis, SymbioticA Research Group. It is remarkable that the Cloaca cycle by the belgium artist Wim Delvoye which is seldom mentioned in the pertinent anthologies got the most positive feedback from the scientists in Dresden.
[3] Marino Zerial quoted his friend and colleague Anthony Hyman.

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