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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)

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)

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)

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)

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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Julia Friedman

Julia graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in European History, and from NYU with an M.A. in Visual Arts Administration. She works as Senior Curatorial Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy.

4 replies on “Will Our Future Be Biologically Designed?”

  1. Yes, what if nature was industrialized? Like, if we could use plants in buildings….oh wait, we already did that 5000 years ago.

    MoMA seems like an ADD amateur student who jumps from subject to subject with little knowledge or care into any one thing to make much of a difference. Perhaps they should look beyond academia and back to the real world.

  2. Immortal Ghostbusters quote–“I liked the University; they gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector — they expect results.”
    Same can be said about MoMA. Would help if they had less career curators.

  3. I’m glad MoMA is joining the conversation. The IMN (theIMN.com) has been talking for years about the ethical implications, and the possible trajectories of social change, that will arise as we are more and more able to engineer biology. As the MoMA discussion here makes clear, it’s not enough to develop lists or even categories of “Good BioSynthesis” and “Bad BioSynthesis” —we must think like futurists, several moves ahead, and try to develop probable scenarios, imagining how they might play out under various conditions… and which ones lead to futures we prefer, or prefer to avoid.
    The reason this conversation is important (even if “artsy people” participate) is that day-to-day decisions are usually driven by the need to “get results” or to feel significant or to avoid suffering, etc. Those goals are partly defined by our immediate context (which is the quickest route to work this morning?) but also profoundly defined by the stories we live out, the practical values we embrace, what Grushkin calls “narratives.” Only in hindsight do the ethical implications of our narratives and daily choices come into focus… when it is too late. (Julia Friedman vividly illustrates this in her lede, with Einstein.)
    Whether we are researchers or engineers, tradesmen or executives, artists or entrepreneurs, we must learn to lead from the future, so that our decisions in the present benefit from our imaginative hindsight.

  4. We must tread carefully here. Better question to ask, is should we tread here at all?

    Anyone read Book of Enoch? Nothing new under the sun. What one thinks is new and innovative has already been tried. It has already been done. Do we intend to create another [race] of King Og(s) of Bashan? Lift an automobile and toss it. For humanity’s sake?

    Professing to be wise, they became fools. And, while they were at it, got us all killed. Because, we enabled them. We allowed it. Who just funds DARPA? Who funds DoD? Who funds the USG? What is the “consent of the governed?’ What is a democracy? So what about that 49%? What if they don’t — consent?

    Has anyone even asked Francis Collins and what he really thinks about all this?

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