MAKING_LIFE 2014–2015

Yes, finally, an update from the magnetos
posted by sarah on 30 April 2015


It looks like we are driving toward a project. With no further due, we give you:

"We have no reason to believe that anything answering to this function has a physical existence in the various parts of space, but it contributes not a little to the clearness of our conceptions to direct our attention to the potential function as if it were a real property of the space in which it exists."
– James Clerk Maxwell, 1862.

The Ironic Biomantic Machine is a prophetic machine devoted to answer any question about the future of synthetic biology raised by a visitor to the exhibition. In the tradition of using pieces or even whole animals, dead or alive, to predict the future, we are planning to use colonies of magnetotactic bacteria to do the job. This way, we hope that there will not be any anthropocentric bias in the interpretations of the living answer. The whole process is twice ironic: once because of the play on words of the title of the piece (iron-ic, magneto tact-ic), and twice because, of course, the bacteria do not actually answer any question about the future. In fact, all they will do is move according the movements of magnets that actually translate and transduce the questions of the visitor.

A World of Promises

From its inception, synthetic biology has been concerned with promises. Some, like Evelyn Fox Keller, even argue that synthetic biology was, from the start, the very promise of biology itself: “to many authors writing in the early part of the twentieth century”, she wrote, “…the question of what life is was to be answered not by induction but by production, not by analysis but by synthesis.” Today, the promises of synthetic biology are still abound, but are somewhat addressing a more pragmatic purpose: “for synthetic biologists”, write the editors of a recent and very visible anthology, “biology could be just another material to engineer, its living machines driving twenty-first century progress”. Again, they insist, and evoke “this desire… to design biology rather than to understand it.”

At the same time most biologists, true to their rationalist and mechanist inheritance, strongly oppose any mention of a potential transcendent designer, they cultivate this desire, which ultimately amounts to this wish for mankind to design its “successor”, or more prosaically, for parents to design their babies. In other words: no design in life if a watchmaker, or a great architect or whatever name you please to grant Him, could be the designer, but all design if we can take his place. The problem is not design, but the designer: the Gnostic script has been reworked to accommodate us—and especially synthetic biologists among us—in the part of the demiurge.

The will to self-design supposes some sense of anticipation: the science of heredity turned upside-down. Genetic engineering is also a kind of prophetic technology: given this instance of a “genetic message,” given a normal functioning of the “genetic program,” one should obtain a certain result (that given body, and maybe even that certain mind). Genetic determinism is today’s credo for brand new religions, new kinds of cargo cults derived from the central dogma: transhumanists, extropians, etc. Synthetic biologists just want to improve on it: genetic engineering is still too much of a craft, their goal is to make it more predictable, systematic, functional, efficient, and “ultimately cheaper” (still in the words of the editors).

When the religious is disqualified, there remains the mantic, its prophetic function. For all technology indeed develops a mantic function, and requires a kind of act of faith in the mantic workings. In order to use a specific artifact, one must believe that it could, or rather that it will, do the job at hand. Technologies are teleological devices, and the intention to use them is but the flip side of their purpose—when they actually work. Final cause is the bottom line of any technological artifact: to use them is to conjure up their workings.

Human Error and the Prophetic Machine

As sure as progress eventually became the cardinal principle of modernity, the anticipation, nay, the technological conjuration of progress, lies even more deeply in the modern psyche. And when we decided that we could actually be that rational, we turned to the machine to make it happen and shouted ek-statically, “I wish by God these calculations could be made by steam!” (Charles Babbage) The (difference) engines of progress, no less: to get rid of human errors by mechanical means.

Dominic Pettman insists, and rightly so: “human error is evident wherever human eyes care to look without the rose-tinted lenses bequeathed to us by our forefathers.” Günther Anders even diagnosed an acute case of promethean shame potentially generalized to all late modern humans: the shame to have been born rather than to have been fabricated, this eerie feeling that whatever we do, we will never measure up to the standard now defined by the machine. It was already confirmed on the 1952 U.S. presidential election night, when the CBS crew refused to believe the first computerized prevision made by a computer (the UNIVAC), only to realize a few hours later that the computer had been right all along. This inspired CBS commentator Edward R. Murrow’s most famous quote, and probably the most efficient way to state the “human element” problem: “The trouble with machines is people.”

Hans-Georg Gadamer once considered that “Hermeneutics is a mantic art involved in the translation of the unintelligible into the intelligible. However, within modern contexts the term possesses a more methodological sense – ‘a universal doctrine for the interpretation of signs’.” To think and to project share the same Indo-European root, -men. It gave the Greek mantis, usually taken to be synonymous in English with “seer”, “diviner, prophet; akin to Greek manesthai, to be mad” (Merriam Webster). Plato had already noticed this kinship, and defined three modalities of the mantic function, this daemonic madness: prophecy, poetry (or “possession by the muses”) and erotic intoxication.

The mantic function certainly concerns time, but it is in no way limited to the predictive function along the past-future axis of chronological time. The story is well known: Prometheus always had a brother. The one who thinks before the fact, the wise and prudent, the one who is even thought to know the future, is brother to the one who thinks after the fact, the idiot, the one who forgets. When their titanic match is over, when their duel among themselves, but also with the Gods, and first of them Zeus, and Hermes, and also with men and even with the first woman, Pandora, when all this is over, there is but one remainder, one evil trapped in the box: Elpis. The story seems to end with this: Pro- and Epi-metheus’ series of double-faults cost us the match and deprives us of hope. Really? In fact the only evil that we are spared might not be hope, but anticipation of worse. Could we now find another positive meaning to this, and restore our conjuring powers to a better light?

There is a fine line between conjuration and advocacy, prediction, anticipation and hope. Usually, all these processes are put in relation to the contingency of the future (remember Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” ). But what if the mantic function could deal with the future contingents (that is neither necessary nor impossible) on an alternating mode, forever oscillating between pro- and epi- manticism, pro-phecy and pro-duction, poesis? It is basically what we propose with this piece; that, and to minimize the human error in the mantic process. We propose, hence, to build the Ironic Biomantic Machine.

Bacterial OuiJa, Yes!

Traditionally, the mantic arts have often made use of animals either in parts (as in aruspicina, with the study of entrails, or patilomancy, with the study of excrement), or through the study of their behavior (also known as theriomancy or zoomancy): by cats (aeluromancy), roosters (alectoromancy), horses (hippomancy), fishes (ichthyomancy), rodents (myomancy), ants (myrmomancy), spiders or crabs (nggàm), snakes (ophiomancy), bird formations (auguri) or migration patterns (avimancy), etc.. During the 2010 world cup final of soccer, Paul the octopus foretold the victory of Spain over the Netherlands, as it had successfully predicted the outcome of all seven of Germany’s matches during the competition, thus proving once again, if needed, the excellence of octopomancy. In Northern America, our desire for an early spring is infirmed or confirmed in advance each year with the help of a well managed session of groundhogomancy. This piece modestly proposes to add to this long lasting series of well-established cultural practices, through the careful staging of magnetobacteriamancy (MBM hereafter).

In fact we propose to build a biocomputing machine that will, without any human interpretation required, answer directly to the questions raised by the contingent futures of synthetic biology. It is crucial to us to eliminate the human source of errors, the ideologies, the conservativeness and the resistance to change, and to let life itself answers these questions. Our proposed device is thus an automatized mantic machine: there will be no human mediation, no operator, between the answers provided by the bacteria and the truth seeker, the questioner. Also, it seems only fair that it is one of the most basic life forms on Earth, but also the beast of choice, the model organism of synthetic biology, i.e. the prokaryotes bacteria, that provides the answer. Ultimately, our machine also closes the loop of the history of computing. While Leibniz allegedly invented the very idea of a universal characteristic and thus re-invented the binary language on the well documented cultural instances of computation and permutation provided by sikidy (a geomantic technique from Madagascar) and the Chinese practice of the Yi Jing, we quite simply propose to inverse this historical trajectory to let a modern day (bio)computer tell us about the contingent futures of Life itself (no less).

In order to do so, we will recycle in an inverse fashion a device used in necromantic practices (also know as (spiritualism) séances): the bacteria will answer the question through the mediation of an OuiJa board, also known as a spirit or talking board. It is a flat board usually marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. The classic design uses a planchette (small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic) as a movable indicator to indicate the spirit’s message by spelling it out on the board during a séance. We will make no such use of the planchette in our design, since the bacteria will directly move over the board and thus answer. We will thus avoid the usual critiques of the scientific community, which has long held that “the action of the board can be parsimoniously explained by unconscious movements of those controlling the pointer, a psychophysiological phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect”.

The Ironic Biomantic Machine

In our system, the question of the visitor will be translated and transduced into direct movement of the bacteria on the Ouija board. The questions will be typed on a keyboard and the ASCII codes of the letters composing the words of the question will serve as inputs for further programming the movement of the bacteria. The resulting sequence will be translated into instructions to move a set of motorized permanent magnets located under the Ouija board, much higher in amplitude (up to 50mT) than that of the earth's magnetic field.

Magnetotactic bacteria are self-propellant bacteria with an internal chain of magnetic Fe3O4 crystals. This chain passively aligns them to external magnetic fields, which they exploit in nature to find their desired water depth with the right oxygen concentration. By aligning with the earth's magnetic field, in most cases pointing downwards into the earth, they transform a 3D-search into a 1D-search. The bacteria will be placed in 5 micrometer shallow glass channels. This is spacious enough for the bacteria, having a length of roughly 7 micrometers and a thickness below 1 micrometer, but keeps them always into focus. Our system will thus be able to track the trajectories of many bacteria at once with high spatial and temporal accuracy. Image processing techniques will then allow us to increase contrast and perform tracking at a high resolution.

The whole project is twice ironic: once because of the play on words of the title of the piece (iron-ic, magneto tact-ic), and twice because, of course, the bacteria do not actually answer any question about the future. In fact, all they will do is move according the movements of magnets that actually translate and transduce the questions of the visitor. The piece will thus encourage the visitors to reflect on the contingent futures of synthetic biology: its only value will be in the questions themselves.


Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 18.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy, Synthetic Aesthetics : Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature, MIT Press, 2014, pp. x-xi.

Dominic Pettman, Human Error : Species-Being and Media Machines, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, p. 34.

Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolescence of Man]. München: H. Beck, 1956.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics”, Theory, Culture and Society 23(1): 19-56, 2006, p. 19.

Angus Nicholls, “The Secularization of Revelation, From Plato to Freud”, Contretemps, 1: 62-70, September 2000.

Giorgio Agamben, “Bartelby, or On Contingency” in Potentialities. Collected Essays in Philosophy, edited and translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, pp. 243-271, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 266.

Stephen Skinner, Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy, London: Routledge, p. 4.

Wikipedia, entry “Ouija”,