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Will Our Future Be Biologically Designed?

Speakers at the Museum of Modern Art's panel on synthetic biology and design, "Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design," convened by Senior Curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)
Speakers at the Museum of Modern Art’s panel on synthetic biology and design, “Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design,” convened by Senior Curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)

The atomic bomb is perhaps the most exaggerated example of mankind’s ability to turn scientific knowledge into an agent of destruction. After the horrific, unprecedented devastation of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein lamented, “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” The 1996 cloning of Dolly the sheep was a clear example of an advance in scientific knowledge — humanity’s increasing ability to manipulate not just nonliving substances, but living organisms too. As the 21st century progresses, synthetic biology, broadly defined as the manmade creation of biological entities that do not exist in nature, is poised to become both the most constructively revolutionary field within design and science and also the arena fraught with the most ethical conundrums.

Paola Antonelli at the Museum of Modern Art's panel on synthetic biology and design, "Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design," convened by senior curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art) (click to enlarge)
Paola Antonelli at the Museum of Modern Art’s panel on synthetic biology and design, “Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design,” convened by senior curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art) (click to enlarge)

On October 28, Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), hosted “Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design,” an evening of presentations and discussion about the field of synthetic biology. Like MoMA’s ongoing Design and Violence project, “Synthetic Aesthetics” expanded the discussion of design beyond form and function, into questions of impact.

Antonelli began the evening with an incredibly engaging and clear breakdown of the areas of most relevance for synthetic biology: medical use, environmental solutions, food, and bio-warfare, as well as an increased understanding of the building blocks of biology. She also discussed the ethical tension between imagining a utopian or dystopian future and the reality that increasing knowledge of DNA sequencing could lead to the ability to create these fates — a responsibility of vision and action that falls not just on scientists and engineers but also on artists whose work incorporates imagined biology. The four speakers that followed Antonelli approached synthetic biology from different professional backgrounds and corresponding orientations towards the subject. The variety among them was itself indicative of the tensions within the field.

Installation view of The Living’s Hy-Fi, the winning project of the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1’s 2014 Young Architects Program, June 27–September 7, 2014 (photo by Kris Graves)
Installation view of the Living’s Hy-Fi, the winning project of the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1’s 2014 Young Architects Program, June 27–September 7, 2014 (photo by Kris Graves)

Columbia University professor David Benjamin and Harvard professor and researcher William Shih presented essentially optimistic visions of synthetic biology. Benjamin is co-founder of the Living, the design firm behind Hy-Fi, the 2014 New York winner of MoMA’s Young Architects Program. At MoMA PS1, Hy-Fi was constructed of biodegradable bricks that were produced from corn stalks and mushrooms roots. Benjamin also discussed his other projects, including Amphibious Architecture, which consists of floating light tubes in the East River whose illuminations monitor the presence of fish and the level of water pollution. Shih presented developments in “DNA origami,” the ability of designed DNA strands to create three-dimensional structures; he suggested that such organisms might have the potential to fight diseases like cancer in a vastly effective way — a particularly positive note.

William Shih at the Museum of Modern Art's panel on synthetic biology and design, "Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design," convened by senior curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)
William Shih at the Museum of Modern Art’s panel on synthetic biology and design, “Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design,” convened by senior curator Paola Antonelli, October 28, 2014 (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)

Artist, writer, and designer Daisy Ginsberg and journalist Daniel Grushkin presented more nuanced, sometimes bipolar, visions of the potentials of synthetic biology. Ginsberg discussed her work on E. Chromi, a project that proposed a hypothetical scenario in which bacteria within our gut could be programmed to secrete colors indicating everything from contaminated drinking water to disease; poop of different hues could function as a diagnostic tool. E. Chromi won the Grand Prize at the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition in 2009 and appeared in MoMA’s 2011 exhibition Talk To Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects.

But Ginsberg was quick to point out the potential ethical implications of what she termed “narrative-led science.” Her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction uses beautiful images to explore the possibility of synthetically created, environmentally friendly biodiversity, complete with slug-like creatures that clean soil pollution and a spindly creature that scatters seeds, aiding the resilience of local fauna. But her description alludes to the unpredictable outcomes of manipulating existing ecosystems: “If nature is totally industrialized for the benefit of society — which for some is the logical endpoint of synthetic biology — will nature still exist for us to save?” Like Ginsberg, Grushkin tangled with the implications of envisioning a manmade biological future. “Narratives influence production,” he cautioned. Grushkin is not opposed to synthetic biology, he said; he is co-founder of Genspace, a nonprofit that provides access to biotechnology, including a research lab, for people outside of the scientific community. But he stressed the need for codes of principles that could frame the discussion and advancement of this emerging field.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & James King, with the University of Cambridge 2009 iGEM Team, "The E.chromi Scatalog" (2009), (photo by Åsa Johannesson)
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & James King, with the University of Cambridge 2009 iGEM Team, “The E.chromi Scatalog” (2009), (photo by Åsa Johannesson)

The notion that imagined realities might give birth to material realities imposes serious ethical questions on artists who use synthetic biology in their work. Artist Michael Burton’s photographs depict a future in which the human body becomes the site of genetic manipulations, both for environmental adaptation and for profit. A few years ago, artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of SymbioticA created “Victimless Leather,” a very tiny leather coat made of living mouse stem cells, which was included in the 2008 MoMA exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. A problem arose: the living cells caused the coat to keep growing, and Antonelli was forced to “kill” the piece. When does synthetic biology art become life?

It’s intellectually difficult, and ethically questionable, to oppose synthetic biological design across the board — too many positive medical and environmental applications are possible. But it’s also impossible to close one’s eyes to the potentially disastrous applications. “Synthetic Aesthetics” provided no simple answers, offering instead an essential platform to discuss both philosophical and material outcomes.

“Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design” took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on October 28.

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