Biologists, artists, designers, students and architects shared information and experiences about biodesign during a spectacular evening programme. No fewer than 18 sessions touched on such subjects as biohacking, design fiction, synthetic biology, living material, biological urbanism and the city as metabolism. Here follows an impression of the issues addressed.
The experts were: Jessica de Boer (www.jessicadeboer.com), Nadine Bongaerts (www.biotecture.nl), Anna Dumitriu (www.normalflora.co.uk), Ellen ter Gast (www.ellentergast.com), Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (www.daisyginsberg.com), Ingrid van de Heijden (www.thecloudcollective.org), Arne Hendriks (www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net), Michael Hensel (www.ocean-designresearch.net), Ferdinand Ludwig (www.ferdinandludwig.com), Eric-Jan Pleijster (www.lolaweb.nl), Virgil Rerimassie (www.rathenau.nl), Daniel Schoenle (www.hp4.org), Floris Schiferli (superuse-studios.com), Gerjan Streng (www.thecloudcollective.org), Mike Thompson (www.mike.co.uk) and Liam Young (liam-young.tumblr.com).
Table: Synthetic Biology
Moderator: Arjen Oosterman, editor in chief Volume
The Synthetic Kingdom, with designer and artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Daisy Ginsberg kicked off with an introduction to her latest project, entitled Designing for the sixth extinction. The sixth major wave of extinction appears to be on its way, and man is responsible for it. While nature preservationists struggle to preserve existing ‘nature’, synthetic biologists are working to design new organisms that will protect mankind. What would ‘wild nature’ look like in a synthetic biological future?
Daisy emphasised that developments in the field of Synthetic Biology (the design of living material) are now occurring rapidly. She believes we should hold up both dystopian and utopian visions of the future for ourselves.
The key issue in the ensuing discussion was whether synthetic biology really is a new dimension, or whether it is the logical next step in how we have been manipulating biology for centuries. And what exactly is ‘natural’ in a world where natural and man-made things are more interwoven than ever before?
Someone from the audience posited the view that the relentless process of evolution could be viewed as a form of tyranny. Wouldn’t liberating ourselves from this constitute the ultimate freedom?
Table: Towards a Biological Urbanism
Moderator: Marten Kuijpers, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Life Lines with Eric-Jan Pleijster, architect
Eric-Jan Pleijster of Lola Landscape Architects told the story of how a landscape architect can work on a plan area of 15 hectares, and how he can mediate between man and nature.
He is working on a restructuring project in the Westland region, where a vast area of glasshouses has been built in recent decades without any good plan or economic structure. Transport used to be by water, but now roads have taken over. All the open space has disappeared, and the area now resembles a dense city with five small villages wedged in it. There is too little space for water retention. Flooding occurs and crops fail after heavy rainfall. It is not a pleasant residential area because of the lack of open space.
The proposed plan consists of two layers: a) basic conditions for nature and water; and b) a number of features that facilitate nature (hiding places, nests) and where nature and man are brought together (the so-called ‘nature attractions’).
The challenge was to create a broader waterway where a more natural situation can develop. No more hard edges, gradual gradients, low and high, wet and dry. We didn’t want to remove sand (closed ground balance) and deposit soil on the other side. Residents really wanted a line of separation that and also offers ecological opportunities.
The designers created natural attractions: an Animal Tree, a Bat Bridge and a Fish Step.
The Animal Tree is a sort of apartment complex for various animals (butterflies, birds, insects, bats) made up of separate modules. For the Bat Bridge, we came up with the most natural possible bridge, a living bridge with space for five types of bats in the area.
Questions from the audience: ‘You often talk about creating conditions. Does your plan also include the monitoring of what happens? Are you succeeding with those natuurpalen? And do you have funds to make adjustments later?’
Answers: Yes, we provide the initiative. Biology and ecology offer prognoses. We’re going to monitor the spawning of fish, and that will tell us whether we need to water conditions, the water level for example. We also want to monitor the natural conditions in terms of growth. It could take up to ten years, and during that process we may be able to intervene.
Table: Living Material
Moderator: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Good Life & Bad Life, with medical biologist and philosopher Ellen ter Gast, and artist Anna Dumitriu
Anna Dumitriu wants to arouse curiosity with her works, which are conversation pieces aimed at acquiring more knowledge. She explained her experiments with bacteria. An interesting question is whether or not artists and designers are subject to the same rules. What sort of rules should you have to comply with? Art projects can help outsiders to better understand bio ethics, since they shed light on how ethics is institutionalised today. Scientists have to complete lots of paperwork before they can get to work. And incidentally, there is no good format for artists to complete such forms.
It is important to know the dangers of the material you work with. There are, for example, various levels of risk. It is clever to treat everything as though it could kill you. A Field Guide to Bacteria by Betsey Dexter Dyer is an interesting book to gain a better understanding of bacteria and its dangers.
More bacteria live on the tip of one finger than there are people in the whole world. It is also interesting to take the perspective of a bacterium. What exactly does a bacterium want? One thing it certainly wants is division and growth.
According to Ellen ter Gast, a genuinely ethical question is how biotechnology questions us. Biotechnology probably makes us less special. Certain holy borders are now being crossed. Maybe we have to redefine who we are. Mankind is a very small population on earth. Ellen explained that more new technologies will probably occur around bacteria than around DNA. Real ethical questions are therefore not about what’s allowed or what’s not, but about who we are.