Hackteria.org: Nomadic Science and Democratized Labs

Coordinator: Denisa Kera, National University of Singapore

Marc R Dusseiller, dusjagr labs & hackteria, Switzerland



The “Hackteria | Open Source Biological Art” initiative started in February 2009 when Andy Gracie, Marc Dusseiller and Yashas Shetty initiated a new model of interdisciplinary cooperation during the “Interactivos 09 Garage Science” workshop at Medialab Prado in Madrid. Instead of using the predominant artist collective model, they intentionally decided to use the hackerspace model of cooperation in interdisciplinary projects. This model is based on the idea of co-working in alternative and independent, temporal spaces rather than building stable structures, such as art laboratories and (new)media centres, or looking for residencies in science laboratories etc. This model also rigorously uses wikis and “work in progress” documents instead of well documented and presented final artworks, which tour various festival and exhibitions. The mode of presentation are workshops involving various people in groups in various parts in the world and sharing know how on what works and what does not work.

The Hackteria network managed to expand over the years to more than a dozen members and over 40 projects from life science to nanotechnology, molecular gastronomy to agriculture. It involves scientists, artists, engineers, hackers, science communicators, educators, and philosophers, who mainly identify with tinkering as an approach to knowledge rather than art per se. The “open end” workshop style of collaboration encourages collaborations between scientists, hackers, and artists, which combine various expertises, rather than in creating some final work. The wiki platform proved to be an effective model of communication but also organization, which supports both the maker, DIY ethos, but also the global network of members based in very different locations around the world (India, Spain, Switzerland, Slovenia, Singapore, and Indonesia). The art and design practices were from the right beginning inspired and modelled after the tinkering, hands on approaches based on open source software and hardware tools, which are common in hackerspace culture. In a typical Hackteria event, the interest in experiments and science protocols goes hand in hand with interest in creation of low tech equipment, which is also useful for supporting research in developing countries, such as Indonesia or Kenya.

The usual start of any Hackteria workshop is related to an attempt to create a lab in a place, where there was no access to laboratory infrastructure before and to demystify, what is happening in the science labs in front of some new public. It can be a gallery space, like in the NanoŠmano project, which happened in collaboration with Stefan Doepner (Cirkulacija 2) and Kapelica Gallery in Ljubjana, Slovenia, or it can be the a mobile food truck on the streets of Yogyakarta, which was a project started with the House of Natural Fiber and the HONFablab, in January 2012, pushing the limits of how to democratize science. The interest in building alternative science laboratory is related to the genealogical interest of the group in tinkering, 16.century culture of mechanical artists and alchemists, which seems to be going through a certain revival. Science laboratories used to be places, where the noble gentlemen and the members of various learned societies would go to experience how new knowledge is produced and to discuss the dangers and opportunities this brings to the society and humanity itself. Science laboratories today are highly contested zones, where politics and profit making rather than pursuit of knowledge play an essential role and form our future. The romantic ideal of gentlemen science, which started the whole scientific revolution back in the 16.century, has very little in common with the reality of today’s militarized and bureaucratized spaces, which are designed in order to make any exchange of information and knowledge with the outside world and lay people impossible. These spaces are defined not by curiosity, but by security protocol. Any reflection and decision making are just political negotiations between economic, political, and NGO elites, joined by professional science communicators, PR specialists, and lawyers as witnesses and mediators of the process.

This is part of the reason, why Hackteria starts its workshops with empowering groups to build their own labs from low tech and hacker equipment they can find around. In Indonesia the work started in the flea market where the group purchased old scanners, webcams, and similar tools, which were transformed into a microscope, sterilization equipment, or even added as a “retro-modernist” decoration. Democratizing science by building laboratories on unexpected places and by performing protocols with unexpected equipment is a type or partially comical and partially serious performance. It is a “proof of concept” that research is possible in such unexpected place, but it is also about exploring the artistic aspects of the common “scientific” performances of protocols.

This interest in building alternative and nomadic labs is one of the hallmarks of Hackteria projects. It lets common citizens and participants in the workshop to understand the limits and possibilities of any laboratory equipment and to develop a critical, but also creative and relaxed attitude towards science. Most citizen science activities are too serious nowadays. They all usually perceived and defined by data collections or screensaver activities, which everyone hopes will improve the professional scientific research and popularize science. It is believed that ordinary citizens can easily learn how to spot and describe a bird, a bat or a flower, and they will feel better when they can perform this care for biodiversity and their environment. Some even take part in a gamified, puzzle solving activities, so they waste their time on something useful for science, like recognizing the connection between neurons or protein structures. None of these activities however involves the citizens directly in laboratory practice and generation or probing of scientific knowledge or the decision making and policy of some emergent scientific field.

Hackteria projects offer an interesting precedent in this respect. They not only involve the citizens directly in the use of laboratory equipment and some protocols, but they let people build their own, low tech and cheap equipment. This collective hacking of consumer electronics into lab equipment pushes the citizen science and DIY activities to serve a whole new purpose: they democratize science by demystifying its tools and protocols and showing its limits. Hackteria projects demystify and democratize science by creating cheap microscopes from hacked game webcams, which enable such equipment to be used anywhere in the world. They also show how nanotechnologies are part of our everyday life and reality, thus enabling everyone to have an informed opinion on such matters, just like a Victorian gentleman would do in some of his friend’s house lab in the 17.century.

Hackteria nomadic labs present a new trend in the hackerspace, maker, and DIYbio movement. They are organizing more transient zones and mobile R&D workshops rather than seeking for a stable space. Connecting travelling and hacking has an interesting genealogy going back to the Greek work “theorein” (theory, science, knowledge), which meant simply a diplomatic mission to another Greek cities in order to observe some festivities. Science and knowledge need to be exposed and performed in various new groups, customs, and environments, in order to fully understand their possibility and meaning. Growing number of alternative R&D projects are moving away from the static, location-based model, in which the goal was to setup a co-working space or community lab, to a nomadic and mobile models, allowing greater intensity of experiments and networks between various technologies and communities.

The extreme case of such mobile and nomadic kitchen-lab was tested on the streets of Yogyakarta (Indonesia) in January 2012 as a model for future science – society interactions. The mobile push carts, angkringans, and similar food trucks, which are omnipresent on the streets of Indonesia, offer an ideal setting in which to revive 16th.century origins of science in the alchemist’s kitchens and to remind us of the artisans’ experiments, which always involved not only observations, but also tasting. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) approaches in citizen science projects are embodied in the street food culture of Indonesia, which could serve as a model for public participation in science initiatives. Science simply needs to go to the streets, it needs to taste and to involve people in a visceral and embodied level in order to provide a real participation and a more democratic policy model. These food laboratories on the streets of Indonesia are keeping the idea of citizen science alive and tasty because they let everyone to be part of the cooking and to provide feedback on the process, an immediate and honest peer review process. They also allow people to interact with each other while the meal is prepared and consumed on all the important matters for the community.

Indonesian angkringans are the perfect mobile labs and model for citizen participation in science that can truly democratize the decision process. We need mobile labs, wearable labs, etc. to bring science experience back to its roots, which is our curiosity about the world around, ability to digest and transform all energy into something creative. With this project, Hackteria tried to reconstruct the idea of a science back to cooking, to remind this culinary primate, homo sapiens, that tasting and probing the world around and sharing knowledge with others is in our nature. It was also a tribute to the alchemists, who made the first connection between cooking, distilling, understanding and playing with the world in their kitchen labs. It was also a tribute to all the angkringans and mobile cookers in Indonesia that offer such powerful metaphor for citizen science.

Hackerspaces and alternative citizen labs, such as Hackteria, are becoming important sites of translation between scientific knowledge and technological innovation produced in the traditional and official labs and the everyday interests, practices, and problems of ordinary people around the world. These translations are happening through collective and global tinkering, building and testing of prototypes in various settings and contexts with more inclusive agenda of involving anyone, who is willing to tinker, learn, and share knowledge. The resulting, disruptive prototypes are not simple cases of disruptive innovation and technology, which are waiting to be scrutinized by a government and regulatory bodies and then utilized by some startup company or a large corporation. They embody new models of interaction between research, design, policy, and adoption, which happen through the engagement of intermediaries and which allow user adoption to become a form of collective hacking, tinkering, and deliberation happening simultaneously and on an unprecedented scale.