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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critic and curator, MoMA