In 2018 the Ars Electronica STARTS Prize for Artistic Exploration, awarded to artworks with a potential to influence or alter the use, deployment or perception of technology, went to the young Italian interaction designer Giulia Tomasello for her ability to satisfy the desire to return to nature and to biology, and the ever growing need for woman empowerment manifested in today’s digital society. The winning project was Future Flora, a kit to treat vaginal infections which made use of home-grown bacteria: a process as easy as the wearing of a sanitary pad.

Bringing together the latest scientific discoveries in the role of the microbiome in human health and traditional self-medication methods such as the yogurt tampon and vaginal seeding, the kit is as discrete in size as it is disruptive in terms of social and cultural impact. Future Flora aims at taking advantage of the existing symbiotic relationship between bacteria and the human body – the latter always explored as a social construction rather than a given datum – providing women with a way to become active participants in their own well-being.

Being naturally inclined to break female taboos while drawn to the potential offered by design and science to erase the boundaries between technology and the human body, over the years Giulia moved from Pesaro to Milan, then to Eindhoven and London. Now – after experimenting with self-heating shoes, conductive second skins, smart textiles, vegetable cellulose, and living bacteria –  she is presenting her research around the world so that women can have a greater understanding and confidence in their bodies.

From a tiny terrace in Cambridge – where she is currently based while developing her latest project Alma –  Giulia talks me through how the Prize has increased her self-awareness and her belief in the potential of her own work.

Federica Fontana: First of all, I would like you to tell me about Future Flora: what concept is behind it, what led you to this project, and in particular how your research developed?

Giulia Tomasello: Future Flora was born in 2016, it was my final master’s project at Central Saint Martins School in London. During previous years I had studied product design at NABA in Milan, where I graduated with a project on wearable technology, specifically an interactive corset. Then I moved to Eindhoven, where I did a year of social design, which features in the social engagement aspects of Future Flora. From there I moved to London, to attend the MA Material Futures, which is actually more oriented towards materials and living organisms than interactive textiles, so I became interested in this and tried to create a connection between textiles, technology and living organisms, and then between the organisms inhabiting our bodies and ourselves. I began to experiment with interactions based on direct contact between the individual and living organisms, rather than fabrics.

The master is a two-year course. The first is research-based and the second is dedicated to writing the thesis. Initially I started working on another project: I went into biotechnology and learned how to cultivate organisms and cellulose like kombucha at home. But then I reflected on this symbiotic relationship between bacteria and the human body in connection with my interest in female taboos, so I decided to change my research topic. Three months after the presentation of my thesis I started to research how to grow bacteria: I was working at the London biohacker space guided by experts, and gradually the project took shape.

Future Flora came out as a kit designed to help women prevent vaginal infections through a bacterial culture grown on a gelatine pad –  the material biologists use to grow bacteria because it contains nutrients for their growth. The kit itself comes with an instruction leaflet that women can follow to learn how to grow their own medical treatment; when ready, they just place it inside their underwear and wear it. In this way the bacterial culture meets the vaginal flora, stimulating the growth of the missing bacteria.

Federica Fontana: Sparking a critical debate on taboos relating to women’s health is an important part of the project, and alongside the kit you also produced a documentary entitled Girl BiophiliaConsidering this project, do you think women are ready for such a change, to recognise and eradicate a mentality imposed on them since childhood?

Giulia Tomasello: Girl Biofilia was produced four months after my thesis in collaboration with art director Maja Zupano. We worked on this video together, trying to imagine what a woman could think of this new treatment and opportunity. Through this research I understood  that, even if initially women could be frightened or intimidated by the idea, when they realize how important and innovative it is to know themselves and to consider their body from a bacterial point of view – not necessarily treating it with medicines – their approach then changes, and they could even feel confident in adopting this new ritual.

When the project first came out I had some very negative feedback from women, because in my opinion there is still some resistance from society. The project serves precisely this purpose: to generate a conversation from an educational perspective, both to make women feel at ease, and to make society itself understand that these medical issues are actually very common: 75% of women suffer from Candida every year, and 10% of them are chronic sufferers. I think women were not ready yet in 2016, but within two years, while I was presenting the project in different parts of Europe and Asia through lectures and exhibitions, I realised that society itself was changing.

Also, the fact that Future Flora was awarded such an important recognition as the STARTS Prize – which is given by the European Union in support of innovation, technology and science in the arts –  testifies to the fact that something has changed, and it is in everyone eyes: for two years H&M has been selling t-shirts with the words “empowering women” or “female power” written on them and the #meetoo movement also seems to have awakened an awareness in women, a desire for redemption and the will to take a stand. Now more women seem to be ready to accept a product like this, with the idea that it might, one day, become mass-produced. After Girl Biophilia was released, many people wrote to me asking where they can buy the kit, because the documentary makes it seem so real as if it is already on the market.

Federica Fontana: Regarding this, I was wondering what kind of feedback you received when you presented the project. I read that when it was published on Deezen in 2016 it received a lot of criticism both from women and men…

Giulia Tomasello: On Dezeen I received a lot of negative comments from both sides, but I think that was due to the nature of the web. Anyway this made me realise that there is still a part of society that is not ready to talk about female taboos and to find solutions. Although women of the 60’s and 70’s have been fighting for this, today we still encounter the same problems in society; just being in 2019 doesn’t mean that anything has changed. People often ask me if I am a feminist: the point is not being feminist, it is being aware of your body as a woman and maybe having your own opinion and proving it right. This doesn’t have to mean that I am a feminist, nor that this should be labelled as a negative thing. Yet, I was the object of such criticisms.

When I graduated this project was very badly received: at Central Saint Martins I almost failed, and the first time I presented Future Flora in Italy in 2016 the fact that I could talk about such intimate issues in public raised many doubts, people did not understand the project’s educational strengths nor its potential to really change things in terms of social awareness and prevention. But at the same time, at exhibitions and during my conferences, I met several men who have also had a favorable response to the product and even remarked “it would be perfect for my partner”, showing greater understanding of these somewhat delicate issues.

Federica Fontana:You mentioned the STARTS Prize: what did winning this award mean to you and what are your future projects from now on?

Giulia Tomasello: For me the STARTS Prize was a recognition. Thanks to this award I realised that finally someone had seen Future Flora in the right light, which is not only a means to provoke society –  even if it does –  but also a way of finding out if you can change everyday reality by provoking a debate. Would women take care of their own body and become more aware of it in terms of disease prevention one day?

As a student I developed the project more on an educational level, trying to increase women’s familiarity with their bodies and to stimulate discussion, the latter being equally important, because doing a super innovative and cool project it’s useless if women themselves are  not ready to use it, or do not understand its value. Following the award, I’m considering investing and carrying Future Flora forward in the future, because it’s now the right time to do so, both for me and for society. I was asked to present other projects I developed in recent years at Ars Electronica and, in doing so, I realised that they all revolve around the same Future Flora premise, so now it’s clear to me that female self care technology and science are really my field. Thanks to the prize I am now more determined to carry out my research.

At Ars Electronica I also presented my new project, a wearable biosensor monitoring the pH variations in vaginal fluids. Women constantly secrete fluids and unfortunately they never know why – whether it is due to the normal phases of their period or to the beginning of an infection – until they get symptoms. I want to create something that could warn a woman if her pH is too high – which could mean she is developing a bacterial infection – or too low – meaning she is likely developing Candida. The idea is to act preventively, with the help of something you can wear every day in your underwear.

The sensor will be connected to an app like those of period tracking, and most likely its name will be Alma. The project is already halfway through, I’m developing it in a Cambridge laboratory in collaboration with three scientists who are working on the biosensor while I’m developing the prototype wich will integrate the technology, the communication, and the educational aspects of the project. This work goes hand in hand with Future Flora, but while the latter could only become widely distributed after a number of years, Alma could find an application in the nearer future, as it is conceived as an accessory.

Federica Fontana: Among the projects revolving around the universe of Future Flora there is one which questions the semantics of the word “cunt”. Can you explain to us what this work consists of?

Giulia Tomasello: This one also deals with breaking female taboos from an educational perspective. I was invited alongside 7 other female artists to take part in an exhibition entitled Reclaiming the word cunt and we each produced works to discuss and revisit the use of this word. I worked with Ahaad Almoudi, from Saudi Arabia: she made a video, and I created a zine to approach the term from an etymological and theoretical angle, trying to understand why today the word is perceived to have such a disdainful meaning. As a symbol, we both adopted the image of a pomegranate, for historical reasons –  in the seventeenth century pomegranates were often represented next to a pregnant woman to symbolise wealth and prosperity – as well as for the fruits’s appearance, which recalls female anatomy in many ways. The colour of pomegranate juice is featured both in the video and in the publication.

Federica Fontana: As you said before, as a student you carried out some experiments with kombucha. Could you tell us something about Bio Conductive Skin?

Giulia Tomasello: Those experiments were the initial developments of my thesis project, but then I switched to Future Flora. The idea was to cultivate cellulose like kombucha and then hack its growth process by adding conductive particles such as graphite or copper and eventually get a conductive cellulose. When electronic fabrics are no longer resistant or conductive, they tend to be thrown away and considered as electronic waste, but with biological textiles you could biodegrade the biological elements and recycle the electronic ones to create a new fabric. Bio Conductive Skin was a way to find a sustainable solution for electronic fabrics. Later on, I also tried to create a wearable second conductive skin, but it is still just work in progress.

Federica Fontana: Let’s return to Future Flora. Offering the possibility of growing living organisms at home for therapeutic purposes, this work also seems to me to be a way of re-establishing a connection between women and science. This citizens’ receptiveness to science is innate within the biohacker movement, but in your research this trend is not aimed at an enhancement or a redesign of nature, but rather reconnecting with it on a different level. Could this be taken as symptomatic of a difference between the male and female approach to biohacking?

Giulia Tomasello: Yes, the project revolves around this combination of science and technology to allow women to create their own medical treatments, and this is because recently the biohacker movement has been developing so fast that, who knows, maybe one day we all might have an incubator to grow bacteria at home. Although it comes from a very hardcore movement like that of the biohackers – where chips are implanted under the skin as a kind of symbol of extrapower, and somehow become similar to a machine – Future Floraoperates at a more speculative level.

Plus, my approach is trying to boost women through science and technology by giving them the right tools for a greater understanding of intimate prevention, and how to become more aware of their body and themselves. My point is: if biohackers can teach themselves how to cultivate bacteria, why can’t we all do the same one day, perhaps from a medical perspective? Even when I’m working on wearable tech, I always try to develop projects related to healthcare and well-being, because I think that is where it’s needed.

There are some female biohacker groups like GynePunk in Spain whose approach is much more hardcore compared to mine, but, since these issues are still so delicate, I want to create a safer environment for women to feel comfortable. That’s why my kit is made of glass, like a precious object that can be kept naturally on a bedside table without being ashamed to have it on show. In my opinion, the educational aspect and the spread of knowledge are what is missing nowadays.

Federica Fontana: Speaking of GynePunk, I was thinking about your work also in comparison to other female artists who deal with similar issues. For example to Juno Calypso, who focuses on the artifact construction of femininity and its stereotypes, practices and rituals – all of which are often imposed on femininity. What are your thoughts on this kind of work?

Giulia Tomasello: Juno Calypso has always been one of my references for the visuals. The aesthetics of Girl Biophilia was modelled on hers, meaning a very clean, elegant, feminine style, to make women feel at ease, protected and confident. I think the fact that these artists are more concerned with denouncing problems than with finding solutions is down to context. I have a background in product and interaction design and so I am trained to do something that is the solution to some need. The year of social design at the Design Academy really helped me understand how important user experience really is. You can design the most beautiful product in the world, but it is useless if nobody can use it. I want to do something that will help people and that even if it seems speculative today, perhaps in the future could become reality.

Federica Fontana: Among your inspirations you always mention the book “Our Bodies Our Bodies Ourselves”: how it has influenced you?

Giulia Tomasello: “Our Bodies Ourselves” is a 1970s volume written by women who called themselves Women’s Doctors and used to meet once or twice weekly to discuss issues such as menstruation, contraception, childbirth and pregnancy. At that time these topics were considered taboo and women had no way of approaching them, except by speaking to doctors, who were usually male. Sensing the lack of a feminine approach, these women began meeting in Boston to start conversations.

During the meetings experiences were shared, and the group attempted to collectively arrive at solutions or remedies for the individuals’ problems. They subsequently published a book which was sold very cheaply, so as to be affordable to every woman. The book has had several reissues over the years and it is like a bible for me, because it shows how women are able to increase their awareness of their bodies and spread this knowledge to others through an educational model, which makes it clear to everybody that there’s nothing weird in talking about such topics and there are other women out there ready to do that.

Recently I have been writing a chapter of a book soon to be published, entitled “Empowerment and Selfcare: Designing for the Female Body”, and written in collaboration with the designer Teresa Almeida. Like me, Teresa works on projects about women’s health, tackling them from a technological and scientific point of view. This publication focuses on the relationship between design, technology, science and the female world.

Federica Fontana: Biocouture designers are exploring how organisms like bacteria, yeast, fungi and algae can grow material and how this material can be used to create new kinds of compostable and biodegradable clothes. In particular, Suzanne Lee has stated that “microbes are the factory of the future” and will play an increasingly important role in our lives and well-being. Do you agree with her?

Giulia Tomasello: I think it’s the way forward. Taking into account the increasing focus on plastic, for example, or on electronic components, designing with living organisms or algae and fungi is definitely the future. If you think that even the H&M Foundation has instituted a Global Awareness Award to fund five studies aimed at producing biological materials within an industrial context, it’s clear that the issue of materials sustainability has become pressing for many. So developing a biological material that can be integrated into everyday life, also from an artistic point of view, is the right direction to go, for me. The conductive kombucha project I was working on at university was actually building on Suzanne Lee’s Bio Couture.

I also have faith in the future of wearable technology: I think one day technology will indeed be wearable, even if we are far from that point at the moment, because there are still problems involving washability and feeding. More needs to be invested, and the right direction to take is and will be that of medical well-being and health.