Synthetic Aesthetics, exploring the territory between art, design and synthetic biology

by Regine Debatty, We Make Money Not Art

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Interview with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Regine: "...Synthetic biology is a bit of a daunting area of research. It seems to be highly technical and almost too abstract. How much background in Synthetic Biology would the designers and artists who apply for the residency need?

Daisy: Synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to biology - living matter has become a new material for engineering, a new technology for design and construction. The promise is that we can simplify the way we engineer life, making it predictable and useful (though biology's complexity still challenges us, for now). The discussions today are creating a framework that could influence biology and nature for generations to come. The deeper I get, the more fascinating and complex it becomes and the faster the field is evolving. For the last two years I have been engaging with the construction of this potential future and the ethical implications it presents. My RCA projects, The Synthetic Kingdom - a proposal for a new branch of the Tree of Life - and Growth Assembly, with Sascha Pohflepp, investigate this (both currently on show in the Wellcome Trust's windows).

The principles behind synthetic biology are straightforward: standardization, abstraction and modularity. Synthetic Aesthetics is not looking for designers or artists necessarily expert in genetics, rather, how might design and art work in dialogue with the evolving science? We're interested in the overlaps between synthetic biology and design, the ways that we can explore and interrogate science, opening up new thought areas and processes. We're asking: how would you design nature?

Synthetic biology is multi-disciplinary, from computer scientists to mechanical engineers. As design advisor with James King to the 2009 Cambridge University iGEM competition team (International Genetically Engineered Machines), we joined undergraduates in Maths, Physics, Engineering and other subjects in a two-week synbio crash course last July. After this introduction, the team began designing using synthetic biology. After ten weeks, they had made E.coli that secrete many different colours visible to the naked eye, which we named E.chromi. We experimented with ways design can help science innovate, using design methods of narrative and design workshops to help the team engage with the bigger picture - the social, cultural and ethical consequences of their research. Cambridge went on to win iGEM out of 120 teams and 1500 students! 

What are these "embedded residencies" going to be like? Artists and designers will be invited to spend time in labs and scientists in art workshops? What would the outcome of the residency be? A tangible product/project such as "E. chromi: The Scatalog" that you designed with James King?

We want to introduce molecular scientists and engineers to creative design processes, while inducting artists, designers and others to the ideas of rapid prototyping of biology, lab craft, and tools for designing living systems. We're used to artists going into labs, but not the other way round. We hope tangible projects come out of the six exchanges; collaborations that extend beyond the four weeks the twelve participants spend in each other's workspaces. The outcome may be an object, writing, an installation, a protocol, a new kind bacteria or something entirely different that we don't have a precedent for yet. We hope to exhibit these..."

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by Regine Debatty, We Make Money Not Art