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Bio Art and Design

Recently discovered first rock paintings were executed at least 40.000 years ago. They were found in a forest cave in Indonesia, at Borneo Island. They depicted a stunning scene of a hunting party. We humans have been observing, documenting and manipulating nature – considering the ‘nature’ as opposed to humans or human creations, separated from any form of life and phenomenological events – as ‘the other’, trying to understand and categorize every specimen for our knowledge and to our benefit. The botanist and explorer Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) have started the humongous work of life forms’ categorization, in which at this point in 2020, still there are quite a few not discovered yet.

 

Representations of all the specimens that we know have been documented in diverse kinds of mediums. Nevertheless our relation with the other living creatures has been present since the human kind exists: our food, our clothes, where we live and every single material we use, is a processed by us fragment of ‘nature’. Throughout the development of our technology we have refined systems that operate in many layers of our life, improving tools that we use from the microscopic to astronomical level. Artists, designers, technicians, scientists and engineers have been creating and developing further technological advancements through their work, which reveal questions that are important for the social, political, ecological and other aspects relevant for the evolution of our society. The artistic and designer approach to ‘the others’ brings attention from the materials we use on a daily basis, futuristic speculations, documentations and the awareness that the natural environment calls for.

 

Within the Covid-19 pandemic that started in 2020 we all understood that the way we have been dealing with the environment is definitively not sustainable. Several initiatives in many scales not only try to research, but also try to illustrate this sustainable future. Bio-designers search for alternatives in a form of new bio-materials, which can lead our society to a different direction in how we ‘deal’ with the non-humans. Bio-artists raise questions about the same subject in the speculation of a future creating metaphors, symbolic actions and sometimes, each time more, experimenting in lab facilities that expanded tremendously in the last two decades all over the world, including DIY facilities and instructions about how to ‘play’ with other organisms at home. Creators with curiosity and/or learned scientific knowledge (or with a minimum of scientific background), have a special function in the bio-art and bio-design disciplines: they have the knowledge acquired and valuable tools that helps in the collaboration with professionals from other disciplines and this knowledge is also added as an artistic tool. This interdisciplinary field where art / design / science becomes a platform for the creation of artifacts and bodies of knowledge, however it is a paradoxical field. For example, if we take the ‘plant’ as a subject, you can approach it in different angles, from its history, color, inter-relations with its surroundings, taste, form, etc. In one of the plant-communication angle, scientist Monica Gagliano (Research Associate Professor in Evolutionary Ecology, & Senior Research Fellow at the Biological Intelligence (BI) Lab, University of Sydney) through scientific methods is establishing a communication with plants (which means the plant has a sort of ‘intelligence’). At the same time the plants are the main food source that we humans and other specimens have, and also becomes a ‘material’ explored further in the bio-design industry. In which role would a bio-artist or bio-designer approach it (the plant)? If the plant is considered an intelligent being, would it have any law protecting it as an intelligent life form? Ethics plays a big role when working with other living organisms, especially with, for example, on a one hand, the availability of CRISPR technology which is the most popular form of the powerful gene-editing technology, purchased easily via a webshop for any customer and on the other hand, the contamination of terrestrial life forms in space (by our activities). The biologist and philosopher and biologist Humberto Maturana affirms that the problem is not the technological advance, but who is making it.

 

The approach that the emerging and expanding bio-design industry is also offering as a ‘sustainable dream’ is also questionable: are we substituting the ‘materials’ that we use now for other ones? Do we keep the same process and speed? Would a mango-skin textile alternative industry be the replacement for the actual one we have? Would it be in favor of biodiversity while avoiding mono-culture? These are just a few questions that one can think about and take it in consideration when working with, or feel a desire to work with other life forms. The way we have learned to investigate and research is to isolate the ‘object’ from its surroundings. That perhaps is not the most favorable way of studying and ‘working with’ other life forms – and in this case, the models which we use to improve and implement (in) our culture are inspired by nature: we know that ‘things’ in nature work as a network, connected on different levels, not as  isolated beings. The ‘object’ case of study is always collected from the natural environment, isolated from the other specimens from the sample in order to be studied. It becomes an object decontextualized from its environment. We can take the human body as a representation of the complexity of an ecosystem: it is composed of algae, bacteria, viruses and human cells. With a better understanding of the surroundings and interplay between species, it could be the vector for the next approach to design a ‘living community’. The timeline of bio-art and bio-design presented in the Bio Research Website, that is continuously growing as an organism, is an attempt to demonstrate the overlap of technological discoveries together with the biological revolution. In this open map we point out relevant individual and collective groups of artists, designers, creators that can be used as guidance for which future we would like to create and share (time-line under construction).