How can artists and designers become active in the complex field of biotechnolgy? This question has always been hovering above me when I engaged with the topic. Where do I start? How should I ever grasp the knowledge seemingly necessary for working with living organisms? What is my role as a designer?
Gerfried Stocker provides interesting insights in his interview in Home Made Bio Electronic Arts. He describes two different approaches how to work with novel technology. The first is straightforward, using the knowledge and the technology to realise your ideas. The second one is the more interesting approach: To see technology as a new medium and examine the medium and its implications and its influence on society. Seeing the values and the system behind it and describe it with simple means, treating it as a sort of reflective media. This proposal for an approach helps me engaging with the topic because this way I can let down fears and uncertainty and observe biotechnology and biodesign from a different perspective.
Stocker claims that the experiment itself we conduct is less important than the idea and the communication. The work itself should contain a symbolic and narrative, that helps us to better understand the world.(Landwehr, D., Kuni, V., 2013) Although I understand his point of view, I am not entirely agree with his proposition. From my experience, the experimentation and engagement with the medium and the materials are essential in developing the idea. The material process engages and affords the designer and his work as much as the other way around. Lust, a Dutch design practice, describes research as the key part of the work. Through doing as much research as possible and therfore developing a "vocabulary" of the project, it does not matter in which form the design project manifests itself. It can be a film, a physical object, a workshop or else, as long as it reflects the research, experimentation and knowledge that is created during the process.(Sueda, J., 2014)
An important point Stocker makes is that in dealing with this novel media you are sort of 'letting in society'. It mediates a new and complex topic to the public and fosters participation. Stocker describes art as an advocate of society, acquiring the tools and aiming to empower society in the sense of empowering it, not popularising science.
Biodesign marks a shift in paradigm in synthetic biology. What used to be man and machine growing together is now taken even further. The 'dead' machine and anorganic materials interacting with living organism is here no longer of interest but the actual living matter itself. As Stocker describes it, it feels like he is drawing a line between machine (dead) and life. A machine, a moving agent, has a notion of life or even a soul. I therefore would not consider it dead, only because it is made of anorganic materials (yet). In Indonesia the machines are receiving blessings and considered alive.
However, the development towards manipulating life is a border we are crossing: Man has long been the actor, but can he also be the object? What man does to nature, can he do it to himself? Experimentation on humans are nothing novel, humans have been dissected and experimented on since the early days, showing our interest in how we function. But with genetic manipulation, it is taken a step further as the sphere of implication is incomparably bigger.
The DIY and OpenSource community has openly embraced and pushed the development in biodesign and bioart. By doing it yourself and becoming active, you are not only gaining the greatest insigths, but conquer new fields. It is not about making a new product but providing an alternative proposal, fostering a shift in paradigm. By turning people and society into actors, it teaches them to take on responsibility and a sense of the matter. The OpenSource community is about developing and sharing knowledge, collaboration and empowering and enriching already existing work. Hence it is not surprising that the DIY and Hacking community has openly embraced the field of biodesign and bioart, encourage collaboration of designers and scientists and drive critical reflection about these topics. (Hackteria.org)
In my work towards the Biodesign Challenge I struggled in the beginning with all these questions mentioned above. Where do I start? What should I read? How much knowledge is enough? Through the slow and tough process of trying to appropriate knowledge and confidence, I realised that it is impossible to gain that much knowledge to be confident in a field, especially in biotechnology. This way would also reflect the first approach Stocker mentioned. It took time for me to realise that it is not about gaining as much knowledge as possible but to see biotechnology from a different angle - as a novel and reflective medium. In a field that diverse, it also helped narrowing the topic down and from this starting point, broaden the field with experimentation and material engagement.
- Landwehr, D., Kuni, V. (2013). Home Made Bio Electronic Arts. Basel: Christoph Merian Verlag.
- Sueda, J. (2014). All possible futures. London: Bedford Press, pp.87-91.
- Gage, G. (2017). Electrical Experiments with Plants That Count and Communicate. Video file. Retrieved 27.4.2018 from https://www.ted.com/talks/greg_gage_electrical_experiments_with_plants_that_count_and_communicate/transcript?language=en