GROW YOUR OWN… is a new exhibition created by Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin that invites you to consider some of the potentially ground-breaking applications and uncertain implications of synthetic life.
Tackling the provocative questions that designing life raises, GROW YOUR OWN… gives you the opportunity to help shape future discussions around synthetic biology – an emerging approach to genetic engineering, bringing together engineers, scientists, designers, artists and biohackers to design ‘living machines’. The exhibition is curated by artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Anthony Dunne (Royal College of Art), Paul Freemont (Imperial College), Cathal Garvey (bio-hacker) and Michael John Gorman (Science Gallery).
As the foundations of a ‘synthetic’ biology are built, how might designed life merge into our own? Where is the boundary between our things and our selves: the designed products that we consume, and our own bodies and identities? We imagine ‘nature’ as something untouched by human culture; synthetic biology may dissolve the divide, if it ever existed.
The works here include ‘real’ organisms, both unmodified and designed, and their fictional relatives. They all ask us to consider blurring species and even living kingdoms, and test where our limits lie: E. coli smells like banana to smell ‘better’ from a human perspective, cheese is made using bacteria collected from our bodies. As our bodies are infiltrated by designed life to meet our needs, animals are designed for human desires, and cities are hacked with architectural parasites. Is this a future where “we are what we eat”, or “we eat what we are”? All of this takes place around the Community Biolab, where synthetic biologists and biohackers invite you to become implicated in the redesign of life.
Synthetic biology might change our understanding of design and nature, but it could also change the cultural and biological ecosystems we are part of. Synthetic biologists are engineering organisms, but they are also designing and agreeing the standards and the legal and commercial frameworks that underpin a new technology. Biology doesn’t adhere to laws or country borders. Today, patented genetically modified organisms are already grown in many countries. Their tendency to spread or evolve has to be managed using laws and regulations.
Science and society together have to decide whether we need different rules for synthetic biology: from what can be owned to what can be put into the environment, to what new laws might be needed to control biology and human interests in it.
The artists and designers here use a wide range of approaches to open up questions about these interactions between science and society. Together, they make visible the difficult questions about biodiversity, conservation, intellectual property, corporate responsibility, privacy, piracy, politics, biological pollution, and the interaction between knowledge and technological progress.
What is a machine? Mechanical parts put together to perform a useful function? Synthetic biologists believe that those parts can be made from biology. Living things were part of machines for thousands of years, from oxen driving ploughs to horses pulling carts. As synthetic biology transforms life into living machines, will mechanical machines, powered by long-dead biology like oil, coal or gas, be a quirk in history?
The works here investigate the use, design and creation of living machines — from aesthetics to ethics. Wild bacteria are collected to produce pigments to meet our aesthetic desires, while extremophiles perform alchemy, seemingly producing gold from nothing. Designers use bacterial ‘workhorses’ to produce new materials and manufacturing processes. These products may look very different to those built by industrial robots that we know today.
Perhaps all of nature will become a useful machine, as landscapes are transformed to produce rocket fuel, and our faulty organs are replaced with lifesaving biological machines. Meanwhile, a machine prints protocells at the touch of a button and the proto-life forms quickly dissolve back into the liquid they emerged from.