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Link in BIOS - Bold Creative Steps in Far North

15 Jun 2023

Whangārei's creative stocks are on the rise - we look at how a collision of art, biology and technology has thrown open the doors of possibility. 

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BIOS installation. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

Creativity is limitless - but often, it is kept within some long-established boundaries.

Ask anyone on the street where you'll find art, they'll probably tell you a gallery. Ask them where they'll find biology, they'll likely point you towards a science lab. Technology? The local Noel Leeming.

Defiantly refusing to be restricted by such traditional conventions, Northland creative studio AwhiWorld put those pre-conceptions in its rearview mirror, transforming gallery space at Whangārei Art Museum into an innovation lab over the past three weeks.

BIOS (running until 18 June) is a large-scale, immersive installation which doubles as a creative innovation research site. Its name is derived from the Greek word for life - perfectly fitting for the flora and fauna involved - and also happens to be the primary system used to run a computer. 

The project has put AwhiWorld Co-Director, BIOS curator and Whangārei resident Dr Maggie Buxton outside her comfort zone - not because of its content, but by its location. 

"It was interesting to work in a gallery space this time - normally we work in alleyways, parks and empty shops. It's had challenges but also the reward of reaching a different type of audience, bringing people into the space that wouldn’t normally feel comfortable being there."

Creative collision 

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BIOS installation. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

To underestimate the creative potential in science is as shortsighted as to dismiss all art as just paintings and sculptures. BIOS has proven an engaging collaboration between both fields. 

The interactive research and practice zone - which includes areas dedicated to experiments with bio-matter, mini-installations using 3D projection and interactive sensors - sees local cross-disciplinary artists bringing their work to test their ideas and learn from others. It stems from AwhiWorld's year-long incubator project, supported by Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage's Innovation Fund.

Buxton co-produced BIOS with her partner, creative technologist Kim Newall and they were assisted by Kerikeri-based creatives ThoTho (Alan Thomas and Vivian Thonger). Their collaboration is producing impressive results.

“This is the largest-scale lab we’ve hosted in Northland, and the range of work and technologies used are much more ambitious. The idea is to support creatives to experiment and research and allow audiences to discover science- and technology-based art practices.

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Sharyne Lewis/Bailor the Skies (far right) performing with Kim Newall and Vivian Thonger (& Alan Thomas not pictured). Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

"It’s a learning zone but also open to the public to experience creativity in action. People often come to galleries and just see the result, but here you see the process too, which is more interesting, I think.” 

That's also one of the biggest impacts on locally-based dancer and multimedia practitioner Sharyne Lewis - who goes by the artist name Bailar the Skies - in her involvement in the lab.

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Sharyne Lewis/Bailor the Skies in performance as part of BIOS. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

She explains "Each day is completely different. When you walk in, it's an evolving lab rather than an exhibition. Every time you enter, the visuals are different.

"It's been really cool actually seeing other participants, other artists and people come into the space and how they would interact with it.

"It's evolving just like nature is. And if we look closely, we see the simplicity, but we also see the complexity in it. I feel like that's a good analogy for this exhibition."

Far-reaching impact in the Far North

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BIOS installation. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

Whangārei Art Museum Director Simon Bowerbank admits "To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. The idea was to hand the space over to Maggie and her team for a few weeks and just let things develop from there. A laboratory should be a place for experimentation, after all.

"I liked the idea of the incubator as a proof of concept for something that would sit in between a conventional educational space and a workshop for people who are already invested in the art world. If resources allowed, I’d love to extend the program into a dedicated space that would enable non-experts to experiment and see their creative development represented."

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BIOS installation. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

Bowerbank's not been the only one impressed, with many wowed by the assault on the visual senses that BIOS provides. The depth of the technology involved has been unexpected for most who enter - including a partnership with international transdisciplinary collective SEADS (Space Ecologies Art and Design), where real-time data is shared between BIOS in Te Tai Tokerau and concurrent installations in Aberdeen (Scotland) and Bahia (Brazil). Signals sent from BIOS are also visualised in a web-based VR environment created by the SEADs team. 

Along with running e-textile workshops in the community, AwhiWorld's been ensuring BIOS is a memorable event. 

Bowerbank elaborates on the lab's impact on Whangārei Art Museum Director's patronage. 

"As you might expect, our usual exhibition attendees are primarily there to look at art in a more passive way, so it has been a nice change of pace having a stream of makers come through. We’ve had a huge variety of people get involved - not just as visitors but as active participants - sharing their own ideas, projects and viewpoints on art and creative practice.

"Just the other day, we had two children come through who said it was 'the best thing they’ve ever seen.'”

Visitors to the BIOS installation.Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

Buxton adds "We have had some fabulous conversations with people coming into BIOS - many of them makers, creatives and artists but also creative tourists from around NZ and the world who haven’t seen anything like what we have been doing before and are excited by what is happening in our region."

When asked how special it is to have something like this in Northland, Bowerbank replies "We’ve certainly seen a positive response from the community, but the question could just as well be, 'How special is it to have someone like Maggie working in Northland?' 

"I moved here from Auckland about three years ago to set up the Hundertwasser Art Centre, and over that time I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality and quantity of dedicated people like Maggie who are out in the community putting together major projects like this out of whole cloth, despite significant challenges."

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BIOS installation. Photo: Nimmy Santhosh/Whangārei Art Museum.

Buxton underlines “Exciting things are happening in Northland, and we want the larger “Awhi Incubator” project to elevate Northland as a place for creative innovation. More artists are embracing technology as they find ways to counter the immense disruption we’ve experienced in the past three years – we want to support that process.” 


Written in partnership with AwhiWorld - more details on BIOS or their incubator project, click here.