States of Design 07: Bio-design

The work of bio-designers generates uncanny visions that can confront our deepest beliefs.

When the materials of design are not plastics, wood, ceramics or glass, but rather living beings or living tissues, the implications of every project reach far beyond the form/function equation and any idea of comfort, modernity or progress. Design transcends its traditional boundaries and its implications aim straight at the heart of the moral sphere, toying with our deepest-seated beliefs. The figure of the mad scientist playing God in order to create a new being that turns into a harbinger of Armageddon does not, however, apply to most bio-designers. Some work with visible organisms such as plants and animals, others with bacteria and cells, others still tinker with DNA to create new beings, but they never work alone in an ethical vacuum, preferring instead teams that also comprise physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, chemists and bio-ethicists, and sometimes even economists and philosophers. Their work is encouraged and celebrated in a few centres of "irradiation" of these new ideas, such as the indomitable Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London, the Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin, and the Paris-based Le Laboratoire gallery and research centre founded in 2007 by David Edwards, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, which has helped designer Mathieu Lehanneur propel himself in this realm. Many of them were featured in MoMA's 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind and are now part of the museum's collection.
Top: Revital Cohen, <i>Life Support,</i>
2008. Greyhounds that would
otherwise be put down after
intensive exploitation on the
racecourse are re-employed
as breathing aids for patients
on life support. The resulting
symbiosis alleviates the
dependency developed during
the dog’s racing training.<br />Above: Susana Soares, <i>BEE’S,</i>
2007–2009. By using Pavlovian reflex
conditioning, bees can be
easily trained to recognise a
wide range of biomarkers and
hence to diagnose a whole
spectrum of diseases.
Top: Revital Cohen, Life Support, 2008. Greyhounds that would otherwise be put down after intensive exploitation on the racecourse are re-employed as breathing aids for patients on life support. The resulting symbiosis alleviates the dependency developed during the dog’s racing training.
Above: Susana Soares, BEE’S, 2007–2009. By using Pavlovian reflex conditioning, bees can be easily trained to recognise a wide range of biomarkers and hence to diagnose a whole spectrum of diseases.
Lehanneur , like designers Revital Cohen and Susana Soares, incorporates living beings into holistic projects that rely on natural cycles, harnessed towards new functions. Lehanneur has used plants—and in one case also fish—to conceive new domestic appliances that are symbolic of a new approach to domestic life. Such projects include the 2006 O Oxygen Generator, a domestic breathing machine that uses oxygen-producing Spirulina platensis algae, a system being studied by NASA for astronauts' long-term space missions; the Bel-Air organic air-filtering system of 2007, also based on plants—Gerbera, Philodendron, Spathiphyllum and Chlorophytum are among the most effective—absorbing the toxins emitted by manufactured goods in our domestic environment; and Local River, a home storage unit for live freshwater fish aquaponically combined with a mini vegetable patch—the plants extract nutrients from the fish waste and thus naturally clean the water for the fish, "in a sort of decorative and at the same time functional 'refrigerator-aquarium'", as the Science Gallery website explains.
Mike Thompson, <i>Latro,
Algae Powered Lamp.</i> Owners of Latro are
required to look after the
algae much like a pet animal.
Mike Thompson, Latro, Algae Powered Lamp. Owners of Latro are required to look after the algae much like a pet animal.
Susana Soares graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2007 with her project BEE'S, New Organs of Perception, comprising a series of three alternative diagnosis tools that use trained bees—which have an extraordinarily sensitive olfactory system, able to detect pheromones and toxins—to perform a health check-up, detect diseases and monitor fertility cycles. Each object has a number of chambers related to the diagnosis (two—yes/no—for pregnancy and three for fertility cycles) and bees trained by Pavlovian reflex to target a specific marker odour in the breath; when the insects sense a specific smell they go into the corresponding chamber, thus indicating the diagnosis. Soares's work has continued with mosquitoes—Am I Attractive? (2009) studies how different individuals' body chemicals prove attractive or repulsive to mosquitoes, in order to find one more weapon in the effort to defeat malaria—and has recently moved into hunting, instead of harnessing, pathogens of all kinds— Pathogen Hunter (2010) is a timely system of tools and training for detecting pathogens and managing outbreaks.
The implications of bio-design aim straight at the heart of the moral sphere
The Tissue Culture & Art
Project (Oron Catts & Ionat
Zurr). <i>Semi-Living
Dolls,</i> 2001. Display, Doll H
and Doll D.
The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr). Semi-Living Dolls, 2001. Display, Doll H and Doll D.
Revital Cohen, also a graduate of the Design Interactions programme (2008), already has several collaborations with scientists under her belt. One of the best known is her Life Support graduation project, in which animals such as retired working dogs and transgenic sheep are connected to their human master/patient in a symbiotic rapport and become live organ replacements for individuals with respiratory or renal problems. In other words, they are turned into medical devices. The suggestive pictures in which humankind's best friend, albeit healthy, cheerful and unharmed, is seen tethered to its patient, sparked a lively debate that included suggestions to use humans instead.
Tuur Van Balen, <i>Synthetic
Immune System,</i> 2010. This research tests the
externalisation of our
immune system by delegating
certain metabolisation
processes to outsourced
micro-organisms.
Tuur Van Balen, Synthetic Immune System, 2010. This research tests the externalisation of our immune system by delegating certain metabolisation processes to outsourced micro-organisms.
Moving down several notches in scale to tissue design and engineering, instead of animals and plants some designers use bacteria and cells to "cultivate" typefaces and posters or "grow" wedding rings. The bacterial typefaces in Jelte van Abbema's Symbiosis (2009) are used to print posters whose colour and resolution evolve with the bacterial lifecycle of multiplication and death. Tobie Kerridge, Nikki Stott and Ian Thompson's Biojewellery (2007) provides couples with what its designers call "a unique symbol of their love for one another" by creating rings out of their bone cells, which are extracted (with just a little pinch!), harvested onto a bioactive ceramic scaffold and then combined with precious metals to finish the rings.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg,
<i>The Synthetic Kingdom,
A Natural History of the
Synthetic Future,</i> 2009. In the <i>CMYK Plaque</i> project
modified E. coli bacteria
are rearranged in coloured
polka-dot biofilms for
pharmaceutical and dietary
uses.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Synthetic Kingdom, A Natural History of the Synthetic Future, 2009. In the CMYK Plaque project modified E. coli bacteria are rearranged in coloured polka-dot biofilms for pharmaceutical and dietary uses.
The most celebrated and influential among all "culture" designers are Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who in 1996 founded the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A) at the University of Western Australia in Perth. In 2000, they also established SymbioticA , a collaborative artistic laboratory dedicated to the study and critique of life sciences located within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology that has hosted more than 50 residents, including scientists and philosophers. To describe their tools of the trade—fragments of bodies that are partly grown and partly constructed, and are sustained by artificial means—Catts and Zurr coined the term "semi-living". If the things we surround ourselves with every day can be both manufactured and living, growing entities, "we will begin to take a more responsible attitude towards our environment and curb our destructive consumerism."
James King, <i>Dressing the
Meat of Tomorrow,</i> 2006. The most interesting
and aesthetically pleasing
examples of bovine anatomy
are used as templates to
create moulds for the in-vitro
meat.
James King, Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow, 2006. The most interesting and aesthetically pleasing examples of bovine anatomy are used as templates to create moulds for the in-vitro meat.
My first direct experience with a semi-living creature was with Victimless Leather (2004). I might as well call it Vic, since during the making of Design and the Elastic Mind we grew quite close. It was a small-scale "leather" jacket grown in vitro, a layer of mice stem cells growing onto a biodegradable polymer matrix shaped like a miniature coat. Catts and Zurr came in from Australia and set up at a friendly lab at Columbia University. There, they got the little thing going in a bioreactor, which they then brought to MoMA and plugged in. Its presence was unmistakable, a slight mist partly covering the walls of the ampoule in which the coat sat, plastic tubes providing the nutrients to feed its evolution. It was alive, no doubt about it. At some point during the show, Vic started growing too fast and one sleeve almost came apart. It was time to stop it, the designers decided. But did that mean killing it? Was that a transformation from semi-living to undead? I was upset, in all honesty, and did not watch as the plug was pulled.
Jelte van Abbema,
<i>Symbiosis,</i> 2009. The experimental project
involves printing with
bacteria.
Jelte van Abbema, Symbiosis, 2009. The experimental project involves printing with bacteria.
Catts and Zurr want to train us to tackle complex ethical dilemmas and acquire a more responsible stance towards biotechnology before power and profit gain mislead progress. As they explain, the possibility of wearing leather or eating beef without directly killing an animal is "a starting point for cultural debate". In 2006, RCA Design Interactions head Anthony Dunne launched his students into an acrobatic bio-design and ethics exercise, asking them to design the Meat of Tomorrow, based on SymbioticA's first in-vitro beef patty, edible meat grown in a laboratory from sample cells. One of the students, James King, designed a beautiful steak based on a cow's MRI scans. The new meat certainly raised complex philosophical issues about our relationship with animals, nature and food, but, alas, what should this meat look like? What flavour should it have? How should it be served? King scoured the British countryside with a portable MRI unit, looking for the most beautiful examples of livestock. The most aesthetically pleasing examples of anatomy will be used as templates to create moulds for the in-vitro meat.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg,
James King & the Cambridge
University iGEM 2009 Team,
<i>E. chromi,</i> 2009. The chromatic code linked
to different pathogenic agents
enables the diagnosis of
diseases to be associated
with the colour of faeces.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, James King & the Cambridge University iGEM 2009 Team, E. chromi, 2009. The chromatic code linked to different pathogenic agents enables the diagnosis of diseases to be associated with the colour of faeces.
One more step down in scale leads us to synthetic biology, an area that is galvanising science and design with its focus on redesigning, engineering and constructing entirely new biological systems. As the aptly named website Arts Catalyst explains, such systems could lead to "new drugs and materials for medical applications, and new routes to make biofuels and chemicals". Daisy Ginsberg, a 2009 RCA graduate, is the most active advocate of an alliance between design and synthetic biology. She provided scientists with a clear way to explain their area of research, and even proposed adding a branch to the tree of life in her 2009 visualisation and animation The Synthetic Kingdom. She established Synthetic Aesthetics, a research project run by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University to spark interdisciplinary experiments.
The Tissue Culture & Art
Project (Oron Catts & Ionat
Zurr). <i>Victimless
Leather: A Prototype of
Stitch-less Jacket Grown in
a Technoscientific “Body”,</i>
2004.
The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr). Victimless Leather: A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket Grown in a Technoscientific “Body”, 2004.
She also worked with James King on E. chromi, a collaboration with the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) 2009 Team of the University of Cambridge. The students re-engineered E. coli bacteria so that they would change colour when exposed to chemicals produced by the human body in the presence of different pathological conditions. The outcome was a new diagnostic system called E. chromi : the patient ingests a drink, much like a probiotic shake, laced with the engineered E. coli; the bacteria then react with the enzymes, proteins and other chemicals present in the gastrointestinal tract and turn different colours for different diseases. The patient's stools tell the story, and the different colours are presented for comparison in the Scatalog, a collection of samples in a briefcase that until the beginning of the month was on display at MoMA in the exhibition Talk to Me.
Other designers are tackling synthetic biology, for instance Tuur van Balen with his Synthetic Immune System, based on re-engineered yeast. The field is under construction and many issues need to be discussed, from the ethical implications to copyright ownership and the role of artists and designers. We Need To Talk About Synthia, a panel held in 2011 at Arts Catalyst in London and inspired by Craig Venter's 2010 announcement of the making of a new bacterium genome, eviscerated many of them. The Synth-ethic: Art and Synthetic Biology exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Vienna, in 2011, also explored the new field, as does a new master's degree course of Art Science at the University of Applied Arts in the same city. Other courses are popping up around the globe, often a testament to the indefatigable SymbioticA pioneers. A book by William Myers entitled Bio-Design will be published in 2012 by Thames & Hudson (disclaimer: this author will contribute a preface).
Designers and scientists seek each other. Scientists, in particular, find in their collaboration with designers the breathing space away from rigorous scientific scrutiny they sometimes need. Experiments with design are often considered directional or speculative, and designers can indicate new behaviours and unexpected applications, a focus on human life that might at times elude scientists. Although I have always shied away from the bombastic declaration that designers can change the world, thanks to these collaborations they just might.
—Paola Antonelli
Critic and curator, MoMA

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