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Is synthetic biology catalyzing a new synthesis between the Arts and the Sciences?

It may in part be wishful thinking, but when I look at this emerging synthetic biology interface between science, engineering, design and art, I feel that I may be looking at the seeds of a cultural revolution.

It’s been a little more than 50 years since C. P. Snow (1959) warned us about the growing divide between our Two Cultures: the Sciences and the Humanities. Snow could see what was coming and he was worried about this emerging imbalance and believed it a hindrance to solving a variety of societal problems we are facing.

Since the 1960s the social sciences and the arts have increasingly dominated the public discourse and mostly set the cultural agendas in the western societies, probably more so in Europe than in the US. The complementary part of our culture, mainly driven by the natural sciences and engineering, has during this period lived a more invisible life away from the public mainstream. In more than a generation there has been few visible cross-cultural movements based on mutual inspiration between these two cultures. There are many good reasons why this divide emerged in the first place and why it has persisted for so long. Also the causes as well as the impact of this divide certainly deserve to be further explored and discussed. But that’s not the topic right now. Our topic is this new intercultural movement.

(Vienna Museum of Natural History, photo by Anna Frandsen)

At the BioFiction event in Vienna, Austria, May 13-14, 2011, I realized that something new and different is happening at this interface between the two cultures. The involved individuals are clearly inspiring each other and many had created something genuinely new. Many excellent projects were showcased and some of the presented works were selected from the Synthetic Aesthetics program. The venue was the beautiful Vienna Museum of Natural History.

Judge for yourself when you enjoy these snippets below selected from this new cultural interface. You can feel the spunk and vitality in these new ideas, visions, projects, installations and films.

Christina Agapakis’ (scientist) and Sissel Toolas’ (smell artist) joint “smellomics” project starts at 14:40 minutes into the movie: (http://vimeo.com/27487577 ). The first part of the presentation is an excellent tour of the underpinning science by Christina, who has a precious gift for science communication. Their project is ingenious, charming and fun.

Now enjoy James King, self-proclaimed speculative designer, who has created vivid, beautiful and informed visions about where biotechnology could go from here. He has created insightful and fascinating visions e.g. about our future foods or medicines:  http://www.james-king.net/projects/cellularity

Rachel Armstrong MD, science fiction writer and PhD student in living architecture, has since 2009 been our local FLinT lab designer & artist at large. Admittedly, we, the scientists in the FLinT lab, were initially a bit worried about having a creative and very active designer on the loose in the middle of our experimental science lab, not the least Martin Hanczyc, who had initially inspired Rachel with his metabolic oil droplet based protocells. However, curiosity won over fear and we jumped in. Since day one it has been a great experience and a mutual inspiration for everybody involved in this collaboration.

Rachel’s central and beautiful idea is simple and obvious: Let’s not waste energy on inefficient and non-sustainable, dead building materials, which actually often originate from previously living organisms e.g. lime stones (from CO2 fixating bacteria) and wood (from trees). Let’s use living architectural materials, or better yet, designed metabolic materials (e.g. protocells) for the purpose at hand. Such metabolic materials could repair themselves if we feed them appropriately and they could be CO2 negative due to their metabolism. Cracks in walls could self-heal and living bio-based scaffoldings could grow together into walls and larger structures. Now, see how Rachel summarizes her story: http://www.science-society-policy.org/people/profiles/media/video/surviving-the-21st-century-with-living-technology

Designer and artist Sonja Baumel’s living clothing vision was a first prize winner at the BioFiction festival. Sonja’s daring and colorful vision proposes to utilize the already existing symbiotic relationship between humans and the microorganisms living on our skin and let the symbiotic external skin adapt to the external environment and our wishes about colors and decoration. See Sonja’s adaptive living clothing concept in action:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg6s_fEHc1Y

The biohacker community also belongs to this new movement. Thomas Landrain, co-founder of the Parisian biohacker lab at La Paillasse is also a synthetic biology PhD student, whom I had the chance to talk to and discuss what they are up to.  What is most exciting to me, from a scientific perspective, is how part of this new biohacker community seems to be sharing ideas, visions and individuals with the computer hacker- and do-it-yourself robotics communities, the 3D printing (FabLab) communities as well as designers, artists and writers. Have a look at their mind-map. To some of us seasoned scientists, this mind-map brings vivid associations to where part of the scientific community also wants to go and what that might bring us in terms of technologically, see e.g. “The Eye of the NBIC storm” and the “Sustainable Personal Living Technology”.

Here I believe it is relevant to remember how the sustainable energy revolution started. In Denmark in the mid 70’s I saw first hand how visionary craftsmen, engineers and entrepreneurs joint forces and got the process off the ground. Later on the government and big business had to be brought into the game kicking and screaming. They resisted as long as they could. However, a generation later the wind power company Vestas became one of the largest and most profitable businesses in Denmark and this bottom up movement transformed our western societies and the way we view the environment. Here my favorite Margaret Mead quote comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

I cannot conclude this short cultural tour without mentioning the iGEM (International Genetic Engineered Machines) competition. Some of these science-based teams have also started to engage designers, artists and philosophers in their projects. Further, some of the iGEM participants are part of the emerging biohacker movement.  The iGEM competition is a truly wonderful experience for adventurous students who are willing to push the envelope.  Participation means long hours, steep learning and lots of fun, as you can tell from their presentations and movies. FLinT has proudly supervised and co-sponsored the first Danish iGEM student teams and we have strongly supported this competition since we got our labs established in Denmark.

What is intriguing about this new interface is the symmetry by which the creativity and insight are engaged from both cultures and how they mutually support end inspire each other. It’s not the usual analytical reflection and critique from the humanities on the sciences we’ve seen every day for the last 50+ years.  The arts and the sciences together create new visions and gestalts about where we might want to go in the future.

Congratulations to Markus Schmidt and his crew for organizing the BioFiction event at the beautiful Vienna Museum of Natural History as well as Jane Calvert and her co-organizers for their bravery and vision of launching the Synthetic Aesthetics projects. Jane and co-organizers had wisely required participating scientists and artists to spent significant time in each other’s labs to ensure a balanced interaction. Also the sponsors should be acknowledged for their willingness to support something out of the box.

Most importantly, of course, I want to congratulate the many young visionary artists, designers, engineers, scientists and biohackers for breaking new cultural grounds.

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