Designing semi-living products

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Next up is Michael John Gorman who is developing the program for a new life sciences museum and forum that will be located at Munich's beautiful Schloß Nymphenburg. He introduces his fellow panelists as “leading lights in manipulating life in a creative way”: Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and executive director of Genspace and Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA and Professor at RCA London, who will start with a short introduction into the topic.

Oron is one of the first researchers who has grown artificial in-vitro meat. The designer got interested in the topics of tissue engineering and semi-living products when he saw a picture of a mouse with an ear on its back in a BBC documentary back in the early 90s. "The rise of tissue engineering marked an important shift in the way we think about bodies and technology." While the idea of growing body parts to replace sick organs became popular among scientists, Oron found it even more compelling to build body parts that could survive outside of the body.

From Manufacturing to Growing

The idea of creating semi-living objects was born. He thought that it could solve environmental problems if we could shift from a culture of manufacturing to growing. Rather than fabrics we would have something like a forest or garden for making our domestic products. At the same time, he has been concerned about the implications this shift will have for life. What happens when life becomes a raw material to be engineered? How will our relation to other living beings change?

To raise questions around the topic, Oron set up a series of art projects – from dolls made out of living tissue people could tell their secrets to to in-vitro frog steaks to a leather jacket grown in a technoscientific "body". The latter was shown at MoMA in 2008 as part of the "Design and Elastic Mind" show. However, the mice stem cells they have utilized grew so fast, that it got out of control and Paola Antonelli, the director of MoMA, decided to turn the "life support" off. This evoked an interesting debate and press responses like "MoMA kills art" or "An artwork exploring the question of life gains an unexpected facet when it must be killed." For Oron, that marked the success of the piece.

DLDsummer 2016 - Day 1

Can semi-living products solve the problems of our food industries?

Today, we see a rise of biotechnological consumer products. One example is Meadows, a VC-funded startup that claims to grow meat and leather in a better, animal- and environmentally friendly way. However, Oron believes they are rather a symptom than representing solutions. When you work in a lab, you know about the amount of waste and effort you have to separate the lifeform that you are working with from any other one, he argues. "If you have industrial farms like one that only grows cows, they will not solve any environmental problems, but cause more of them. Rather than industrialized biology, we should biologize the industry and start to think about it more like a forest or ecosystems rather than monocultures."

Following up on Oron's intro talk, Michael John asks about safety concerns having artists and amateurs tinker with these biological materials. Ellen explains that there are safety protocols they have developed within the university context. For example, you would only work with organisms that are seriously debilitated. If any of them got loose, they will have an extremely difficult time living outside of the lab. You do not want to use any genetic material from a pathogen either. There are clear guidelines about what type of organisms' DNA are safe. From Oron's experience, artists usually are highly responsible. "I do not believe that any artist wants to kill their audience. However, what we do know is that governments are paying money to scientists and engineers to do black research that is designed to specifically kill people. I would be more concerned about that."

DLDsummer 16 - Panels & Speakers

As Michael John is ideating this new space for life sciences in Munich, he asks his fellow panelists for their ideas on what should be included there. Ellen suggests featuring in silico design of DNA circuits. She explains that the image of the scientist as a bench biologist manipulating cells and DNA is changing. Now everything is hidden behind a computer screen. You can design an experiment and then send it to a remote service, for example, to Transcriptic in California. They will perform it for you and send you the results. Oron adds that museums should move from being places of death to ones of life. So on the one hand, the different forms of life should be represented in the museum, on the other hand the museum itself should remain in a kind of living state and thus continue to grow and change.

Mentioned in this live blog

Ellen jorgensen quadrat
Ellen Jorgensen
Biotech Without Borders
Biotech Without Borders
Headshot 2017
Michael John Gorman
Founding Director
Oc bw 1x1
Oron Catts
Symbiotic A: The University of Western Australia
Co-Founder and Director
Symbiotic A: The University of Western Australia

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