Citizen Science and Art: Exploring biohackers and bioartists


Back in January I met Glendon Mellow at Science Online. Since then I’ve been following his impressive work at the intersection of art and science and thinking a lot about where the relationship between the two might be found in citizen science. Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog has featured numerous articles about the intersection of science and art, from everyday science art, to visualizations from space, to scientifically literate illustrations with contemporary aesthetics, to exhibits about the intersection of art and science from around the nation.

Here at the intersection of art and science we find a space for rethinking the way that we communicate scientific information, what information is communicated, and what audiences we communicate with. Artists not only illustrate or otherwise create to communicate science, but also to provide insight into the relationship between science and society—productive tensions between scientific progress and critical questioning about what it means for us as humans.

Another place where we find productive tensions somewhere between tradition and radical innovation, following Thomas Kuhn, is in hacker, maker, and DIY communities. In these communities we find incredible technical innovation, interest in scientific research practices as well as critical engagement with the politics of our science and technology, especially concerning who is provided access. They’re also influencing science. Alessandro Delfanti‘s new book reminds us that “Open biology is embracing values and practices taken from the world of hacking and free software,” which has some interesting implications for science and citizen science, because it suggests that “science is experiencing the same type of differentiation and complexity shown by hacker cultures” (p. 12).

Bringing together science art, amateur biology, and DIY and hacker ethics to explore emerging engagement with amateur biology, Mary Tsang and Benjamin Welmond have teamed up to create a documentary: DIYSect. Tsang studied biology and art and comes to the project as a bioartist, and Welmond studied film and comes the project as a filmmaker. Together, they will travel around the United States and Canada to document the work of biohackers, bioartists, citizen scientists, scientists, writers, and curators who participate in DIYBio and BioArt projects.

DIYSect 2

From the North East to the South East and across to the West Coast, the team will visit biohackers and bioartists and others as they begin several discussions about how these amateur enterprises are developing. Tsang and Welmond are especially interested in questions about how biology, biotech, and biohacking influence our social, political, and philosophical outlooks. Bioartists provide especially critical insight to these questions and so become an important part of the project. Wythe Marschall offers one argument for the importance of such work here.

These filmmakers hope to generate interest in biology and biotechnology, engage critically and without fear current trends these research spaces demonstrate, explore how bioartists are raising and engaging such questions, and also examine the range of applications and accessibility afforded by the uptake of biological and biotechnology research by the DIY community.

DIYSect will be a web-series of 8-10 minute episodes, available at no cost on Vimeo, with several topics focusing especially on citizen science and DIYBio (How to Build Your Own BioHackLab, DIYBiology: A Tale in Two Parts, and The Future of Citizen Science) and also on issues that are likely to generate some difficult but interesting questions for those participating in citizen science projects (Genes, Self, and Identity, PostNaturalism: New Breeds of Hybridity, and Putting Patents on Life).

While the documentary has yet to be made, you can check out some previews on DIYSect’s homepage, and support their project over at Kickstarter. The project will be funded if it reaches its $8,000 goal by Wednesday Aug 7, 11:59pm EDT. Stop by and lend them your support!

Reference: Delfanti, A. (2013). Biohackers: The politics of Open Science. London: Pluto.

This post originally appeared on PLOS CitizenSci.

Categories: Citizen Science

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About the Author


Ashley R. Kelly

Dr. Ashley Rose Kelly is an Assistant Professor at Purdue University in the Brian Lamb School of Communication (Fall 2014). Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She holds an M.A. from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University. You can find Ashley on twitter as: @ashleyrkelly