2018/2019 The Art of Biology

On January 16th 2019 the eleventh edition of the CONGres was held at Amsterdam Science Park. The theme of the conference was ‘The Art of Biology’.

Our speakers:
Prof. dr. ing. Hendrik Richter
Hans Mulder
dr. Rogier Trompert
dr. Stephan Besser
dr. Timothy Yaczo
Prof. Jon Sakata
Hanneke Hulst


Artis Library Curator, Hans Mulder
With the utmost pleasure we, the Conference Committee, would like to announce the introductory speaker of Congo’s Conference 2018/2019: Hans Mulder of the Artis Library.

Between 1500 en 1900 the way man described, pictured and understood nature fundamentally changed. Inventions, discoveries, and new research methods forced man to adjust his concept of nature and his own place in the world. The road to new understanding was a bumpy one. And still quite a number of people are finding it difficult to deal with the consequences of new facts.

This presentation briefly discusses five important natural historians: Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) who tried in word and image to be as complete as possible about all life on earth. Observation was important to him, but living in the sixteenth century he could not discard mythical animals; Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), who as a self-educated researcher tried to describe and picture the invisible; Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) who is considered to be the first ecologist, studied the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. She was a gifted artist and was the first western woman to see a spider killing a bird; Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), who – not hindered by modesty – came up with a system that tried to order nature; and of course Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose theory of evolution by natural selection completely changed what we know about life in general.

These stories will be richly illustrated with images from books of Artis Library of the University of Amsterdam by Hans Mulder, the curator of the Artis Library.


Prof. dr. ing. Hendrik Richter // The Art of Sand Bubbler Crabs
With the utmost pleasure we, the Conference Committee, would like to announce the first speaker of Congo’s Conference 2018/2019:
Prof. dr. ing. Hendrik Richter.

An interesting branch of biology deals with animal behaviour. Particularly the behaviour of simple life forms can often be understood as to follow certain rules, which in turn can be expressed by an algorithmic description.
A main idea of generative art is that the art work is created by an autonomous, non-human system, frequently by setting up an algorithmic framework that gains functional autonomy and may develop over time. In other words, in generative art the “artist” creates an algorithmic process and sets it into motion. Subsequently, the dynamics of the algorithmic process generates the art work. As in nature we frequently observe structures and process that are aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly beautiful, is appears natural to take inspiration from biology for generative art.

The talk uses the example of the collective feeding behaviour of sand bubbler crabs. Sand-bubblers are tiny crabs dwelling tropical beaches. Their feeding behaviour involves creating patterns consisting of tiny sand balls that are placed in curves or spirals, straight or bent lines, which finally form overall structures, thus producing astonishing works of natural art. The algorithms presented produce generative art by recreating these patterns. In nature, the patterns are monochromatic as the balls all have the colour of the sand they are made from. The artistic interpretation of the patterns suggests using colours for making them visually more appealing.


Robert Zwijnenberg of Leiden University.

No Art, No Future.
Contemporary biotechnological practices that involve genetic modification and manipulation of living beings (humans, animals, plants) present a challenge to traditional notions of nature and the human body. The question is not only who has the right to re-design life, which is ultimately a question of legal and moral ownership and the commodification of life and nature, but also do we think it is necessary, and if so, how do we want to re-design nature and the human body? What limits do we wish to impose on biotechnological innovation involving nature and the human body? And what notion of “being human” and of nature are these limits based on? We require a radical rethinking of these traditional notions.

Should art have a prominent role in our reflections on the applications and implications of biotechnology, not to illustrate, decorate or explain biotechnology but as a relevant and unique voice in ethical debates?

During the day, from 17:30-18:00 there will also be parallel short lectures about several subjects by Rogier Trompert, dr. Stephan Besser and dr. Timothy Yaczo. They will speak about scientific illustration in biomedical sciences, contemporary Neuroculture and the quest for patterns and Neuroscience and Storytelling.


Prof. Jon Sakata

He received his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Texas at Austin.  For his PhD, he studied the neural correlates of behavioral plasticity in response to social experiences as well as species variation in behavioral plasticity.  Prof. Sakata started studying songbirds as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, where he investigated social and sensory contributions to the control of song.  As an investigator at McGill University, he and his lab research the mechanisms underlying song learning and control, with a special emphasis on social influences and biological predispositions on learning.

He will speak about How studying songbird communication can provide insight into human speech and music“.
The melodic songs of birds (“birdsong”) are a source of inspiration and fascination.  Much of the research into the biological basis of birdsong aims at understanding how birds produce their vocalizations.  As early as the 18thcentury, people have noted that, in a variety of species of birds, the songs that adult birds produce are profoundly influenced by experiences during development.  Since those early findings, researchers have discovered that birdsong is learned during a sensitive period in development and that this process of birdsong learning shares many parallels with the process of speech and music acquisition in humans.  My talk will highlight the various parallels between birdsong, speech, and music, with an emphasis on the influence of social interactions and biological predispositions on vocal learning.


Hanneke Hulst

Hanneke Euphemia Hulst was born in Hoorn, on the 5th of April 1983. After completing her secondary education at the R.S.G. Wiringherlant in Wieringerwerf in 2001, she started her studies in Health Sciences at the VU University in Amsterdam. Hanneke obtained a Bachelor (2004) and a Master (2005) degree. From 2005-2008 she joined the Master of Neuroscience program at the VU University Amsterdam and obtained a second Master degree with a specialization in preclinical neuroscience.

From August 2007 – September 2008, Hanneke worked at the Image Analysis Center (IAC) of the VU University Medical Center as radiology reviewer and scientific researcher focusing on Multiple Sclerosis (MS). By the end of 2008, her PhD project started under supervision of Prof. dr. Jeroen Geurts, Prof. dr. Frederik Barkhof and Prof. dr. Bernard Uitdehaag at the VU University Medical Center (depts. of Radiology and Anatomy and Neurosciences). Her work focused on understanding cognitive decline in multiple sclerosis. Since 2013, she is working as an assistant professor at the department of Anatomy and Neurosciences, continuing the line of work with a specific focus on cognitive rehabilitation in MS. She evaluates the effects of non-pharmacological interventions, like computerized training programs and dancing, on cognitive performance and brain plasticity.

Besides her scientific work, Hanneke writes popular scientific columns for www.msweb.nl and EOS Psyche en Brein, and is the general manager of stichting Brein in Beeld (www.breininbeeld.org): a foundation that translates science to the general public. This year she became member of the prestigious Royal Young Academy (de Jonge Akademie) of the KNAW.


Rogier Trompert
“Anatomy in both men and animal is, in my opinion, the most beautiful art ever made. It is a privilege to be able to study and visualize it.”

‘Scientific illustration in biomedical sciences’
• Highlights in anatomical illustration, from Leonardo da Vinci to contemporary scientific illustration.
• Biomedical domains served by scientific illustrators
• The benefits of professional visualization for scientist in article submission, didactics, fundraising, ethics and general public education and marketing.
• The making off: an example of an illustration project.

Rogier Trompert received his master’s degree in 1999 at the University of Maastricht, Master Scientific Illustration Maastricht. He works for the faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences of the Maastricht University at the department of Anatomy and Embryology and the Zuyd University of Applied Scienences. From 2004 he teaches at the Master Scientific Illustration where he became program director in January 2012. Rogier Trompert is active in the European Association of Medical Illustrators AEIMS (Association Européenne des Illustrateurs Médicaux et Scientifiques) since 1994 and currently serves in the AEIMS Board of Governors and is country representative for the Netherlands. In 1999 he founded the company Rogier Trompert Medical Art. He works for medical specialists, pharmaceutical companies, universities, museums, scientific magazines and publishers.


Dr. Stephan Besser
Worlding the Brain: Contemporary Neuroculture and the Quest for Patterns
Contemporary neuroculture has been defined as the “incorporation of neuroscientific knowledge into our life, culture and intellectual discourses” (Anker & Frazzetto 2009). Currently, the fascination with the brain as a source of human subjectivity, behavior and sociality extends far beyond the realm of cognitive neuroscience. ‘Neuro-novels’ such as E.L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain (2014) and Bart Koubaa’s Het gebied van Nevski (2007) offer literary explorations and reworkings of brain knowledge, while films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and numerous works of contemporary art address the relations of the brain to memory, identity, politics etc. At the same time, neuroscience itself is thoroughly influenced and shaped by its cultural surroundings and the technical, conceptual and linguistic tools it uses. In this presentation, I will take the science fiction film Avatar (2009) as a starting point for the exploration of a key topic of contemporary neuroculture, namely the fascination with patterns in the brain and in the world. I will look at two aspects in particular, namely 1) the imagination of a profound similarity of forms (isomorphism) in the brain and the world and 2) the synchronization of many brains and bodies in supra-individual groups and networks. These notions cut across the science/arts-divide and point to the relevance of neuroculture as a research object that brings these fields together.

Dr Stephan Besser is Assistant Professor of Dutch and Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam and program director of the Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies (OSL). Together with prof. Patricia Pisters he coordinates the research group ‘Neuroaesthetics and Neurocultures’ at ASCA/UvA. A key publication on the topic of his talk is his article “How Patterns Meet: Tracing the Isomorphic Imagination in Contemporary Neuroculture” in Configurations 25.4 (2017): 415-445.


Dr. Timothy Yaczo
‘Texts With Brains: Neuroscience and Storytelling’
Central to this talk is how both texts by neuroscientists as well as stories of neuroscience shape and address us: the ways we enter those scenes of address, how we inhabit them, and therefore how we proceed to make uses of them to shape what is given when we enter and re-enter those scenes.

“My research tracks the concept of neuronarrative by analyzing the reciprocal and catalytic relationships between neuroscience and literary media. From the patient we read about who struggles with a brain tumor, to the villain who one comes to discover acts because of a neurochemical imbalance, stories play out cultural, technological, and highly personal excitements and anxieties about the place and importance of brain knowledge today. They invite new literacies of readers by demanding that one learns from the vocabulary of scanning machines and the latest anatomies, as well as encouraging one to think through and with accounts of everyday life that centralise the significance of brain activity.”

He coordinates the Comparative Literature MA programme at the University of Amsterdam, where he also teaches in Literary and Cultural Analysis. His publications can be found in Configurations and Thamyris/Intersecting.