joeke van der veen
Human as Resource
How harvesting and processing human materials can help us to reconsider our current production system.
'Bio design refers specifically to the incorporation of living organisms as essential components,'
William Myers explains in his book Bio Design. According to him, the pressure of the degradation of the environment demands recognition of the fragility of nature. This is a huge contrast with the 20th century, when mechanization was used in order to overpower and control the forces of nature.
Using nature as source of inspiration is not new. In the nineteenth century, Art Nouveau already revolved around the imitation of nature in the design of objects and structures. However, the imitation of nature only offers superficial likeness to the natural world; it merely concerns itself with the decoration of objects. This design 'language' does not go further than symbols and metaphors.
On the other hand, bio design tries to achieve qualities of natural forms, such as adaptability, efficiency and interdependency. These qualities can be achieved by exploring the biological processes of living organisms and placing them in a design context. Thereby, one creates awareness of the fact that design in the twenty-first century should not only, or even not at all, be about decoration. Design is expected to perform in new ways and focuses on its impact on worldwide energy and resource cycles, by incorporating cycles from nature instead of cycles of industry and consumerism. And even by incorporating living organisms.
When biological processes have to replace industrial or mechanical systems, it is necessary to stimulate cross-disciplinary collaborations. In this case, such collaborations will be between designers and scientists. This asks for a reconsideration of the role of the designer within his new collaboration.
On the one hand, you see the designer who focuses on the usage of life sciences in their contemporary design objects. They dive into the world of science and try to find a specific biological process or organism that can be of value for their design process. These designers focus on developing their idea by facing the difficulties of production by actually doing it. They show that you do not have to look into the future to see the possibilities of bio design.
Suzanne Lee, for example, grows pieces of cloth from cellulose using the recipe of kombucha, a natural and fermented green tea. After meeting with a biologist, the fashion designer experimented with green tea, sugar and microbes that spin tiny threads in the liquid over time. After a couple of days, a layer of cellulose forms on top of the liquid. This layer can be modelled into a three-dimensional shape. When the material is drying, it will knit itself together.
'With synthetic biology, we can actually imagine engineering this bacteria to produce something that gives us the quality, quantity and shape of material we desire,' She says. What excites her is the efficiency of the microbes; you only grow what you need, without producing waste.
It can therefore be a smart and sustainable addition to our increasingly precious natural resources.
This project, called Bio Couture, shows not only that bio design has a lot of possibilities. It also shows that bio design is still in its infancy. Lee admits that the garments made from kombucha are not water resistant. That is, the garments need their water-absorbent characteristic to grow and become the material Lee was looking for in the first place. In order to make the material water resistant, it needs chemicals. This proves that bio design, despite its potential, is not ready to replace the contemporary industrial system.
The role of the designer as the asker of uncomfortable questions focuses on the ethical issues of bio design. Rodrigo Martinez, a researcher at Ideo Boston who focuses on life sciences and synthetic biology, says: 'There is an opportunity for designers to not just help with the packaging of science or technology, but telling stories about what it is that it does and how it does it. Especially in an area like synthetic biology where it is not easy.'
Synthetic biology sees DNA as something to be manipulated and rearranged. This brings responsibility with it. It is not only about the possibilities but also about ethics and oversight. It is important to ask the right questions. How can we ensure that this knowledge is used for the greater good? How should it be regulated? And by whom?
As William Myers mentions in the book Bio Design, in the designers' ability to collaborate with scientists and therefore design 'life', lays power that they should protect and cherish. That is why it is so important to not only look at the possibilities and ideas and how it can be achieved, but also to look at the accountability of such an idea.
We therefore should not only discuss the question what we can do, but also what we should and should not do. An example of a scenario where this question was asked was reported at The New York Times. The article is about a group of scientists and ethics who paused their work on a new genetic technique, called Crispr-Cas9. This technique enables DNA to be edited so physicians can alter the human germ line, including the eggs and sperm. Although this technique would make it possible to cure genetic diseases and enhance physical or mental traits, it would also contribute to permanent changes to the human gene pool and alter the nature of the human species in order to create 'designer babies'.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is a designer who explores these concerns and visualizes them. She sets her mind on asking the right questions about the ethics of synthetic biology. In her project 'The Synthetic Kingdom', she explores the question of how we will classify what is natural and what is unnatural when life is build from scratch. In her video, she explains that synthetic biology is about picking a feature from an existing organism, locating its DNA code and inserting it into a biological chassis. She explains that these synthetic organisms are no different than other life forms, except that we invented them.
Even though biotech promises control over the natural world, living machines still need controlling.
According to Ginsberg, biology does not respect boundaries or patents and that is why it is relevant to ask if simplifying life to its molecular interactions might degrade our sense of self.
'The Synthetic Kingdom' can also be seen as a visualization of our desire to shape everything to our expectations, even our own DNA.
This seems to be a logical consequence as our contemporary production system is based on consumerism. It is based on what companies think the consumer needs. And over time we got used to the on-going stream of materials, energy, food and products. Machines are created to keep this fast-going stream going and resources are degraded to feed these machines. If we can adapt the cycle of production to our expectations, why not change our body and other living organisms to our expectations?
However, in case of a bio design process, it would work the other way around. We look at the behaviour, ability and speed of the biological process or living organism and as consumer we adjust our expectations to this system.
In her TED talk, Suzanne Lee talks about telling the microbes what to do; which shape they need to make and how many. What if we let the microbes tell us what they can do and how many they can make? Only then are we truly bio designers.
Gidion, quoted in the book Bio Design, seems to agree with this production cycle, or, more aptly said, non-production cycle: 'We need an attitude turning radically away from the idolatry of production.'
In order to turn away from the idolatry of production and to be able to adapt our expectations to the cycle of nature, we have to explore this cycle first. We have to understand the cycles of biological processes, investigate their time schedule and behaviour.
And were can we start better then with ourselves, with our own bodies? Everybody undergoes daily cycles of their body. If you drink a lot, you have to pee. If you exercise, you will sweat. The biological processes of your own body produce human materials, such as urine, sweat, hair and blood. These processes we cannot escape. We have to adapt ourselves to them. Therefore, it can be very useful to integrate human materials into design and production processes. A biological process such as the growth of kombucha is something not many people really understand and can relate to themselves. Therefore it is easy to expect that the cellulose can be pushed, degraded and edited in order to perform in ways we expect from it. But pushing the human body is a feeling we all know. Hold in your pee, because it is not the right moment to go to the toilet. Sitting too long in front of the computer because you want to finish your assignment, although you feel your back is complaining. We all experienced the effects of pushing or degrading our bodies. This makes the barrier to push the body in order to produce more and better materials higher, just because we can relate it to ourselves.
One example of a human material is urine. For most people, urine is a liquid to flush down the toilet, but for some scientists and designers it is a very useful material. Ruben Verwaal from the University of Groningen researched the role of urine in the development of medicine in the eighteenth century. And other studies show that in the late nineties, the Stockholm Water Company diverted urine from four housing projects to a grain farmer. The scientists connected to this project concluded that urine could replace quick-acting mineral fertilizers. They also calculated that one Northern European adult's urine contains enough plant nutrients to grow fifty to one hundred percent of the food requirement for another person.
Urine appears to contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These are also essential plant nutrients that are usually mined from the earth or extracted from the air. The Rich Earth Institute in Vermont collected almost four thousand gallon of pee. This 'urine depot', collected from friends, family and volunteers, served as testing material to replace chemical fertilizers.
The human fertilizer made from a urine solution was sprayed on some hay fields and shown to be twice as productive as unfertilized fields.
Pee does not seem to be the most likable material to water your fields with, but as Jay Bailey, owner of Fair Wind Farms, says: 'With the cost of fertilizer these days, I would certainly give it very serious consideration.'
Urine is sterile when leaving the body. However, there are some exceptions in cases of bladder infection or salmonella poisoning. The Rich Earth Institute proved that either solar pasteurization or long-term storage in a warm greenhouse was very effective against the risks of pathogens. They now also try to trace the left-over pharmaceuticals that can end up in urine.
Another problem with using urine as valuable material is the so called 'ick factor'. Only a chosen few would be willing to collect their own urine with jugs and funnels. A much more realistic option would be a urine-diverting toilet. The 'Not In My Backyard Toilet' of Henriëtte Waal is such a urine-diverting toilet. It is an installation that shows the concept of collecting urine and turning it into something valuable and useful. She introduces 'pee-cycling' with a toilet that uses fermentation in order to use the urine as fertilizer for gardens. It is an installation that does not force its resources, in this case the users of the toilet, to produce more materials. Instead, it just uses the amount of pee that is delivered. In this case, the toilet is used as tool to harvest the urine. When put on a strategic location, such as a place where a lot of people urinate in public, it can collect a lot of urine.
Mika Rottenberg is a video and installation artist who also involves human materials in her projects. For the video 'Cheese' she was inspired by the Sutherland Sisters. These seven sisters from the nineteenth century were known for their ankle-length hair. Mr. Sutherland came with the idea to sell a hair tonic with the family sign on it and the family became millionaires almost overnight. Rottenberg saw this way of designing a product based on the long hair of the sisters as 'milking their own hair'.
It was not about the product, but it was about selling their image. 'Cheese' shows images of women who milk their floor-length hair to make cheese. In her videos, Rottenberg researches what our bodies are capable of doing and how it can create a product. She creates small factories based on typical features of the body and blows this up. She is interested in what our bodies produce and in what these products can be commodified.
With this idea in mind, human hair can be a very interesting material. The characteristics of hair offer much more than only a decorational function. Laura Cinti proves with her 'The Cactus Project' that human hair can participate in the genetic engineering movement. She introduced hair keratin genes into cells of cactici to let hair grow ot of the cactus instead of the usual sharp thorns. Cinti explains how this changes the view on human materials: "Why should we still call this hair human? Doesn't it belong now to the cactus and not in a trivial sense either? Or better still, doesn't it become just a standard biological part, to use a revealing phrase from the biological engineering laboratory at MIT?"
The hairy cactus of Cinti is a good example of the issue Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg explains in her video 'The Synthetic Kingdom'. This synthetic organism invented by Cinti proves that biology indeed does not respect boundaries or patents. Now that we came to the point that we can place a copy of a gene of genetic material into antoher living organism, we face the difficulties of what belongs to what or who. Can we call a cactus with human hair still a cactus, when the living organism consists out of human and vegetable characteristics?
Also, we as humans are used to a unique position in the world. But how unique are we if even cactici can replicate human materials? It is relevant to ask the question Ginsberg already formulated: does simplifying life to its molecular interactions degrade our sense of self?
Our sense of self seems to be based on our belief that we are different than any other life form. We can drive cars, fly around the world without the need to have wings, talk and study. But maybe the most important reason we see ourselves different than animals and plants is because we have a sense of self. We are capable of understanding our and others feelings and are aware of the different perceptions different people bring along. This sense of self gives us as human beings a unique position in the world. But it also brings arrogance and lack of care for other life forms along.
If we loose our sense of self, or even a small part of it, by the upcoming of bio design, we might gain new and interesting points of views on ourselves as human beings. By using our own human materials in design and production processes, we can become resource and cosumer at the same time.
We might even gain new perspectives on our own identity. And on the production cycle we are in now. When we use our own human materials for production, we can expect that there need be changes. In our belief that we are all unique human beings, it is most likely that we will treat our human materials also als unique materials. Different hair types need different ways of processing. And what about credits? Should we place labels on the products made with our human materials with a personalization of who deliverd the materials? And when we treat humans as unique resources of materials, should we also treat animal and vegetable resources as unique living organisms? We might see that resources of materials must be treated with respect, such as we have to treat every human being with respect.
Contributing to our own society by making our human materials available and useful gives us a new and maybe even more valuable position in our environment.
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