Recommended Reading: Mushrooming Materials With ‘Other Biological Futures’

Recommended Reading: ‘Other Biological Futures’ 

The way we produce and work with materials is changing. The world of bio design dreams of artificial leather, DNA-based dyes, and zero plastic. It’s a brave new world of design-led thinking mixed with a healthy dose of scientific research. In our last issue, we explored craft’s relationship to the environment. Relating to this the essays and interviews brought together in ‘Other Biological Futures’, an open-access MIT edition of ‘Journal of Design and Science’, the relationship between material and maker is wrought even closer…

The co-editors of the journal are artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, who explore how the foundation of design materials are evolving. A fundamental question asked is, ‘can biology do this better?’. They sketch out the ways in which biodesign isn’t just a catch-all phrase for ‘good’ sustainable practice; as they point out from mass-farming practices and industrial fermentation to cotton t-shirt production, biology and design have been used to in industrial processes for years. It’s how we approach the ethics of these innovations that will matter for the future, as the introduction puts it, the issue considers the “different kinds of colonisation in biodesign, raise ethical issues in designing living matter and, hopefully, reach beyond our networks and cultures to encourage the imagination of ‘other biological futures’”. 

Natsai Audrey Chieza’s Ted Talk on the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor,
which makes a striking red-purple pigment

Chieza’s design practice, Faber Futures, looks at craft’s responsibility to the environment. Chieza’s background is in architectural design and material futures helped steer this visionary company, developing new ways to truly commit to sustainability. The systems and supply chains that govern the current fashion industry are some of the most polluting for the planet. The work by Faber Futures ask us to think about the source of our materials and where they come from. In 2019, Chieza was given the Index Award for developing a chemical-free, water-saving bio-fabrication system. Bringing together design thinking, technology and natural resources, the studio used this bacteria to create beautiful fabrics.

Left: Project Coelicolor: Scale, Void, Assemblages, 2017, Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks. Photo by Immatters Studio
Right: Unity screenshot, work in progress from The Wilding of Mars, 2019.

Meanwhile, Daisy’s art practice focuses on the impact of the Anthropocene, which refers to the current geological age, defined as a period in which human activity is at its peak influence on the environment. Having spent over a decade researching synthetic biology and the design of living matter, her most recent work merges technology, ecology and extinction. From bringing back the scent of extinct flowers to envisioning how we might ‘wild’ the plant Mars, her imaginative leaps into future ecologies ask what humanity can do to ‘better’ the world.  

Their issue brings together thinkers from across a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds; scientists, designers, creative writers, curators, artists, bioengineers, activists, historians all share their perspectives on our current age and ways bio design might rethink our current approach to materiality, technology and ethics.

A core question in the journal, and a wider debate for those studying the Anthropocene, is if all humans have an equal impact on environment and climate disaster. For design writer Rab Messina, the new turn towards western bio designers taking fluids like blood, sweat, even vaginal tissue, from their own bodies directly relates to guilt for the environmental damage caused through colonisation. In ‘If You’re Reading This Your Too Tall’ Messina enters into a conversation with Dutch artist Arne Hendriks to explore the possibilities of humanity shrinking down to the size of a chicken. Privilege is presented as a visible advantage in height, which leads the conversation into very interesting directions. 

Concept image. Credit: Arne Hendriks and Jasper Van Den Berg

A microscopic zoom in on the edibility of insects opens up a conversation around an imagined future of factory-farming. PhD researcher Josh Evans and mushroom farmer and activist Chido Govera challenge current mass-production practices to ‘decolonise edibility’. Two Hawaiian based researchers explore what other cultural models could teach us about planetary care, led by artist Ahilapalapa Rands and microbiologist and indigenous science educator Kiana Frank.

It seems a key component of thinking through bio design is temporalities, with essays running backwards and forwards through millennia. You could read about Betul Kacar’s work as an astrobiologist, who brings back to life ancient genes and evolutionary histories, making ‘molecular time machines’ to force us to look backwards. Alongisde Kacar, afrofuturist author and filmmaker Ytasha Womack explores how fiction can imagine new futures in ‘Future Shaped by Pasts that Could have Been’. Past, present and future are presented as a multiplicity, as spatial dimensions that can be explored through the mode of the ‘time machine’. 

Ytasha Womack speaking at ‘SONIC ACTS FESTIVAL – THE NOISE OF BEING’ (2017)

Squarely in the present, a conversation between bio artist Ionat Zurr and curator/robotics expert Maholo Uchida explore how new life might be created. Viewing tissue engineering and organ fabrication as new materials, Zurr approaches these through a design perspective of the ‘semi-living’; asking questions of identity, self-hood, and humanity. Uchida’s interest in robots asks similar questions; what are the ethics of creating non-human life?

The concepts wrangled with in this journal are daunting and difficult. Choosing to explore these mainly through conversations opens up the ideas in a very human way. It’s easy to follow trains of thought, explanations are put through the test of verbal communication – even when the conversation veers into the theoretical. For those thinking about the future of materiality – the who, how and why of the basis of crafting instruments – this journal is an exciting place to start. 


READ ‘OTHER BIOLOGICAL FUTURES’ HERE.

Words: Jade French

Review: ‘Water Rising’ at GroundWork Gallery

In appropriately apocalyptic weather, I ducked into GroundWork gallery. The pouring rain provided the perfect atmosphere in which to explore the exhibition ‘Water Rising’ (9th March-1st June 2019) at the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the environment and sustainability. Past exhibitions have included Dutch artist Jan Eric Visser who transforms inorganic household waste into sculpture, as well as specific shows focusing on environmental features such as wood, birdlife, fire and ice, and sunlight. GroundWork are leading the way with what a local gallery space can do – broadening Norfolk’s horizon’s to engage with global artists.  

Tucked away by edge of the River Ouse in King’s Lynn (Norfolk) ‘Water Rising’ exhibited a series of artists to explore the nuances between calm and storm, plenty and drought, power and flow. Overall, the effect of a group show organised around a defining element served to bring together practitioners in photography, film, ceramics, glass and jewellery under one unifying theme.

Three pieces stood in for the ways they engaged psychically with the environment. Peter Matthews’s durational large-scale drawings explore the isolated power of the Sublime. He makes his pieces by walking along the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, stopping to draw directly in the water. With material lapping into the ocean, the resulting painting and drawing takes on a ritualistic repetition. Marks are made in time to the movement of the water, bringing together an experimental take on the relationship between an individual and their environment.  

On a smaller scale, Annie Turner also works directly with a source of water, the River Deben, a tidal river in Sussex which washes up all manner of fossils, sharks teeth, feathers and more. Turner collects these to create memorialising sculptures. What looks like woven baskets on closer inspection are revealed to be delicately hand-made from stonewear. These archaeologically inspired ceramics, although modern, retain the look of something found and rusted. Turner creates a new brand of natural-industrial in works like ‘Tide Line’ and ‘Flotsam’.

Perhaps narrowing the scale even further, Helga Mogensen’s hand-made jewellery brings the environment to the skin working with silver, steel, copper, brass, driftwood and fishskin to create beautiful wearable objects. Drawing on lived experience, her work palpably draws on the Reykjavik environments she’s inspired by. Colour, shape and texture work in harmony to evoke beaches full of driftwood even as she contains her found materials in the form of necklaces and brooches. The spiny threads that hold each element together poke out haphazardly, defying neatness and convention.

Helga Mogensen. L: Royal Madness. Driftwood, thread, paint. 2016.
R: The Red Thread, Names of Places 3. Driftwood, thread. 2015.

Their current exhibition ‘Fragile Nature’ (running until 15 September) is an intergenerational conversation between artists Elspeth Owen, Paca Sanchez, Lotte Scott, Emma Howell. Titled ‘Fragile Nature’, each artist explores a different medium. There’s Sanchez’s modernist explorations, which abstract natural forms such as seeds, flowers, stems and twigs into geometric patterns alongside Lotte Scott’s feminist geographies, which experiments with charcoal, lime, soil to explore place, time and material. Emma Howell taps into grief and loss in her work with colour, providing a robust counter to melancholia, whilst Elspeth Owen creates egg-shell thin ceramic vessels to explore fragility in a different way. 


Words by Jade French

GroundWork’s current exhibition ‘Fragile Nature’ runs until 15 September.