Interview by Bilge Hasdemir
Martin Calvino is an artist with a scientific background who is enthusiastic about placing himself in situations in which the artistic mind can surprise and stimulate the scientific one. His educational background in Plant Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology supports him in the explorations of novel hypotheses and new capabilities at the intersection of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence.
His interest in the use of plant genome browsers as artistic objects led him to merge art and science into profound creative projects. Calvino took the chance to develop a new avenue of artistic research by combining plant genetics and genomics with computational art during his short residency at the Laboratory of Computerized Languages at the University of the Republic of Uruguay in 2016.
Since then, his artistic practice has been mainly drawn on three components, computer algorithms, plant genomics, and abstract art. Up until now, he has linked possibilities of coding and visual aesthetic principles with genome data. Moreover, recently, he has been working on the creation of art from constructing synthetic microRNA genes using machine learning.
Calvino introduces a new form of artistic expression called GAGAISMO (Geometric And Genomic AbstractionISM) to explain his kind of aesthetic philosophy of work in a more conventional theoretical structure. By developing new tools and techniques to support GAGAISMO as a novel form of creative expression, he not only contextualises the logic of his work(s) but also provides a significant methodological contribution to his field of practice. In the context of GAGAISMO, genome data, which becomes a primal matter for art, is manipulated by computational tools. By using computer algorithms, Calvino transfers genomic information into the new field of visual imagery and creates novel visual forms which have not only artistic but also scientific value.
Similar to the visualisation approach, he sonificates the genome data in some of his other works as well. By discovering the possibilities of genome sonification throughout the different sound compositions deriving from different sonification of wild and domestic species, Calvino touches upon not only the reduction of genome diversity and genetic variation as a consequence of plant domestication but also domestication of science-based data for art purposes1. No matter which medium is in use, his works remarkably demonstrate that any scientific tool that deals with genes and genomes can be co-opted for art creation.
Besides the tango [dance] as one of the essentials of his life, it also appears in his art and science-focused works. In his work dealing AI-Generated Tango, he would like to generate novel tango lyrics by discovering machine creativity in its purest form. As a significant detail, his genuine engagement with the tango brings a grateful approach to its history and culture.
He merges his two great passions: art and science. This enthusiasm leads him to bring a new form of creative expression which convey scientific knowledge in artistic form. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the challenge, which is primarily identified as scientific, often turns into creative artistic experimentation. And it proposes a new and fascinating idea which will be approached next, again with a scientific mind but with an artistic sensibility.
In your practice, you connect art, science and technology; could you tell us when and how did the fascination with the incorporation of science into art come?
I started to incorporate science (plant molecular genetics and genomics concepts) into my art practice in the first half of 2016. During that time, I thought I should have a topic for long-term artistic exploration, and in doing so, I realised all my previous years as a scientist could serve me well. This notion of blending art with science was reinforced during the second half of 2016 while doing a short-term residency at the Laboratory of Computerized Languages, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of the Republic of Uruguay.
It was there that I learned I could develop a new avenue of artistic research by combining plant genetics and genomics with computational art. It was there where it took form, in part because the principal investigator of the lab, Daniel Argente, gave me a book to read written by Eduardo Kac, who was a pioneer in biological art, and in part because I was working on the creation of artworks inspired on plant genome browsers as artistic objects.
Prior to 2014, I was already creating abstract paintings (acrylic on canvas) and drawings. I remember having my drawings ‘on display’ on the laboratory bench and desk while doing science at graduate school. My wife, Jusleine Daniel, was INSTRUMENTAL during these years as she consistently encouraged me to keep creating art in parallel to all the scientific activities I was pursuing while in graduate school. Thus, art and science were always there, but at the time, I could not foresee them as a single endeavour.
In your work, you combine genomics with creative coding and abstract art and introduce a new form of artistic expression called GAGAISMO. Could you explain a little bit more about this concept?
In the process of bringing forward creative explorations by combining computer algorithms with genomics and art, I soon realised I needed to develop the proper discourse and theoretical framework that could explain and contextualize my philosophy of work and, at the same time, provide guidance to all those who may be interested in exploring this avenue of artistic expression in the future.
GAGAISMO reflects that and stands from a term I’ve coined based on the concepts of ‘Geometric And Genomic AbstractionISM’. As a discipline, it encompasses and reflects upon the practice of using genome data as raw material for art, either directly by co-opting scientific principles and tools; or indirectly as an inspirational source.
As bioinformatics includes a set of computational tools used to access and manipulate genome data for research purposes, GAGAISMO includes a set of computational expressive tools used to access and manipulate genome data for artistic purposes. It is geometric abstractionism guided by genomics and enabled by computers.
What are the expressive tools of GAGAISMO as an artistic discipline? So far, I have explored the use of genome browsers as inspirational art objects, the visual deconstruction of genes by experimenting with novel ways to visualize the contiguous arrangements of nucleotides in a string of DNA, the application of concepts from maize genome evolution to glitch art; the creation of art based on frequency occurrence of CG and CCG sequence contexts; the creation of art from a reduction in genome diversity ought to plant domestication; the construction of artworks based on multiple sequence alignments of orthologous gene copies; and recently the creation of art from constructing synthetic microRNA genes using machine learning. My work demonstrates that any scientific tool that deals with genes and genomes can be co-opted for art creation.
Can the results of artistic experimentation influence scientific research? It certainly can! When I worked on analyzing and visualizing the frequency occurrence of CG and CCG sequence contexts from orthologous gene copies of the VERNALIZATION 1 gene from related grass species and reconstructed it based on its C+G content, I could observe the importance of the 5’UTR region relative to the rest of the gene body.
This result for me was surprising as I haven’t thought that way during my years as a scientist, and only became evident when I approached the topic with an artistic mind. As I continue to work on GAGAISMO and develop it further, I am enthusiastic about placing myself in situations in which the artistic mind can surprise and stimulate the scientific one.
Sonification, genome visualisation, plant domestication. What feedback did you get from the audience who experience your “auditories perceptions”?
The feedback from the audience has been of a varied nature when listening to both genome sonification works. When I presented the work to scientists, they tried to relate what they were listening to and what they knew about genome biology. When I presented the work to non-scientists, the response was more aligned with the quality of the sound being rendered, with feelings of surprise and/or annoyance.
The rendering of genome data in an auditory format through the use of synthetic sound created with oscillators had a very peculiar sound, and not many people liked the nature of sound created with a laptop computer. I think there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to genome sonification, especially from the perspective of sound composition, and this is something I am looking forward to addressing in future work. Even those who liked the ‘pipe-organ-like’ sound had expressed that sound composition felt very similar to each other even though they were rendered to represent different genes and/or gene contexts.
I think sonification has the capacity to portray genome architecture in a compelling way as it is easier for us to listen to a sound composition than to glance at a sequence file composed only of four letters. Furthermore, current genome browsers are pretty much deprived of any sound cue when accessing and displaying genome information. Without a doubt, I find future work combining sound with interactivity within the graphical environment of a genome browser a fascinating idea. What needs to be asked within the scientific community at large is if the rendering of genome data that can be perceived through different senses could somehow trigger new avenues of intellectual work.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the development of a particular project?
The biggest challenge I face, not only once but every time I am working on the development of a particular project, is finding a good question that can be approached with a scientific mind, be expressed with an artistic sensibility and has the potential to be implemented in computer terms. There had been instances in which I struggled to finish a project because I lacked the ability to express it in code. Thus, there is always a technical barrier that limits any scientific and artistic aspiration I may have at any given moment. It is a reality that is under continuous change as I learn new programming skills.
The other big challenge, and on many occasions a bottleneck, is reading the necessary amount of research papers until I can foresee a story from beginning to end. For GAGAISMO to work, it has to have a solid scientific principle as the guiding force of the artwork being brought forward. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a true integration of science with art. The application of principles from maize genome evolution to glitch art is a clear example of one of my works in which I had to go through a great deal of scientific conceptualization for a good integration with computational art and glitch rhetoric.
There will be a point in time when I will have to come back to the lab and be a scientist full-time if I want to push my art into the frontier. Facing scientific challenges on a daily basis as a creative mechanism to develop cutting-edge art is something I find myself thinking often. This is true of my current work at the intersection of art with machine learning and artificial intelligence. In the process of learning a new field of study and struggling with implementing machine learning algorithms and computer science concepts, new opportunities for artistic expression emerge.
What directions do you see taking your work into?
There are two main directions I would like to take my work into. First, I would like to expand on artistic possibilities by incorporating installation art and performance. So far, I’ve focused on creating visual art in static form and sound compositions to a lesser extent (genome sonification), and I feel there is a new world to be explored by combining hardware and physical computing as well. The incorporation of performance art into GAGAISMO would entail a more direct encounter with society, contrary to the self-absorbed nature of scientists and computational artists. Second, I would like to zero in on machine learning and artificial intelligence and combine it with aspects of systems biology.
What is your chief enemy of creativity?
Stress! I cannot create when I am stressed out. Lack of dedicated time for artistic experimentation and production also affects my creativity, as it develops by continuous exposure to a seed idea. I also get creative by doing work because the act of doing in itself triggers all sorts of ideas to do next. Lack of reading is a big enemy of my creativity. That’s why I am always reading.
You couldn’t live without…
Jusleine (wife) and Milena (daughter). I couldn’t live without art and science. I couldn’t live without a computer. I couldn’t live without drinking coffee and yerba mate. I couldn’t live without tango.