By Julia Buntaine
JB: I’d like to start out by framing your work within the biohacking/biodesign movement. Could you talk a bit about your involvement in this field in the context of contemporary art, and how you approach this type of work?
RK: I feel a little uneasy when I get asked to talk about contemporary art as I don’t feel qualified to do so. Rather, having studied under, and being influenced by Dunne and Raby’s work during their tenure at the Royal College of Art in London, my work shares many elements of their Speculative Design thinking instead: focusing on emerging technologies and asking questions about their social and cultural implications through design, it intentionally contrasts the agendas of many forms of contemporary design that simply try to find solutions to given problems.
I strive to apply this philosophy in projects that explore advances in biotechnology, such as synthetic biology: asking questions on how they may shape our future society and culture. How could we hack or redesign microorganisms in order to create alternative roles in our everyday lives? What could their possible contributions be outside of the usual premises of food, medicine, and sustainability, and even turning to unusual fields such as finance and space travel?
A key feature that I believe separates myself from other speculative designers, and one that helps to position my identity as a so–called ‘biohacker–designer’, is the process (and materials) I employ. These are sometimes (but not always) biological in nature—such as the use of DNA, cells, culturing techniques, and molecular biology.
Consequently, for such processes—which have included culturing of microbes like bacteria, fungi, and rotifers (tiny plankton–like animals found in soil and moss), and indeed genetic modification of some of them—I seek appropriate environments and advice to address the legal and ethical challenges that they bring. These may be in the form of active collaborations and dialogues with professional scientists and their labs, or outside of them, by engaging with DIY maker communities such as the London Biohackspace.
In terms of promoting biohacking and biodesign, I feel there still is a big gap within the creative sector, between those who are merely curious about incorporating hands–on biology in their work and those who put their curiosity into practice. So I try to organize and run activities that aim to address some of the reasons that might be behind such a gap. For example, back in 2014 I ran a workshop at the department of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, looking at the notion of ‘bio–bricks’ and helped participants to design and build a genetic circuit which was subsequently used to modify bacteria. It was the first of such kind to be held at an arts institution in the U.K., and it helped greatly in demystification of the processes behind genetic engineering, and also encouraged discussions around ethics and possibilities for the creative sector.
JB: A number of your pieces merge biotechnology with the economy. Your piece Microbial Money posits a hypothetical reality where microorganisms act as alternative models for the economy. Can you talk about the genesis of this piece, and your process of creating it?
RK: Over the last couple of years, I have undertaken a host of small projects that explore the role of biotechnology in our economy. With recent advances in synthetic biology, the possibility of designing and hacking life forms is becoming easier than ever before, and I have been fascinated by the possibility that microorganisms could be engineered to be used as a form of money in the broadest sense.
I was aware that undertaking projects exploring money and synthetic biology was going to be tough, as both fields are difficult to position in the context of painting “positive outcomes” in the media: we always read and hear of horror stories, that of Frankenstein–style bioterrorism, and greedy bankers wreaking havoc on economic stability. Nevertheless, the thought of the unpredictable nature of biology interacting with the equally unpredictable, and also potentially volatile, nature of the finance industry was too good not to pursue further.
Microbial Money was inspired by a scientific study that examined bacterial behavior to help scientists to understand how financial trading decisions—the buying and selling of stocks—could be optimized in the future. What I liked about the study was the use of living organ- isms to forecast a possible outcome. Nature and biological patterns have long been associated with superstition and fortune telling, and using bacteria to produce a form of a new techno–cultural ritual in the financial industry was a compelling concept that I felt needed exploring.
Microbial Money is a speculative project, depicting a range of fictional scenarios where microbes are used by the so–called bio–financiers from investment banks. Driven by competition and economic downturn, they seek ways to gain advantage in the stock market through the help of microbes and a bio–hacker, painting a some- what dystopian vision of how ethics could be implicated in this context.
JB: Space Bacteria, a collaboration you conducted with Jae Yeop Kim, examines the future of our microbiomes as we become a space–exploring and extraterrestrial species. Through the course of this piece, what did you come to think about our species’ future in space—what will it look like?
RK: Given their versatility, it is likely that microbes will be utilized as part of a terraforming process. According to scientists, microbes are likely to be used as a living machinery to help establish a Martian biosphere that would allow other life forms to thrive. They could be used to increase Mars’ atmospheric pressure and mean temperature, melting ice to create pools of liquid water, increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and providing an atmospheric shield to UV radiation.
In light of this, agricultural application of human microbes, which are not adapted to survive the harsh Martian conditions, may not feature until post–terraformation of Mars. However, Space Bacteria is not a proposal for better agriculture, nor promotion for sustainability. It is a story that celebrates the poetry of space travel and our biological identities, and the beauty of microbial life forms.
What’s more, the project encourages us to think about what we can do with microbes on Earth as much as on another planet: could we start designing culture chambers and fermentation vessels to represent Martian conditions? Could we start rigging DIY–style, low gravity chambers, or put our bodily microbes (and our bodies) under extreme conditions to test how they perform? What about the physicality of microbes: How would they behave, grow, and form in shape and texture?
There are many types of ethical dilemmas we now face with terraforming. A particular dilemma may concern the donation of what are effectively parts of our body and spreading them on another planet. Yet people should be aware that we are already interchanging our own microbes constantly, with each other and with our own environment. I see it as a sort of dynamic, ongoing cycle: think about our daily contact and exposure with other people, in addition to the physicality of having a relationship where bodily fluids are exchanged. What’s more, we also live in a fast–paced and constantly changing world, with better access for world travel and in- creased exposure to new microbes. Our identities are constantly being switched, so would it not be a natural part of our microbial cycle for our microbes to be spread, exchanged, grown, and adapted?
JB: Both of your works Biomaid and Microbial Breathalyzer capture the microbes we exhale upon breathing. From your perspective, what is so important, and special, about an individual’s breath?
RK: Both of the projects mentioned here, as well as a more recent project Peck As You Go, all explore the possibilities of harnessing functions of microbes that reside in our mouths, especially those that could be transmit- ted from one person to the other through an individual’s breath, or through their saliva/spit. The interesting aspect of the human oral microbiome—at least from a scientific standpoint—is that there are thousands of unidentified species of microbes in our mouths, and that there are ‘signature strains’ that are entirely unique to each person. Some of the questions that are addressed in these projects include: what role might these unidentified microbes be playing in how our bodies function? How could they be harnessed for a new healthcare application? And how could their uniqueness help in driving such applications?
Dealing with the ecology of the human mouth as part of the narrative added a cultural dimension that allowed us to think about how biotechnology could shift our preconceptions found in our everyday lives. For example, Peck As You Go is a fictional proposal designed to monetize microbes found in human saliva, to be used as an alternative decentralized form of living currency. Payments to an individual involve exchange of saliva, facilitated through kissing and spitting, encouraging us to reconsider the true value of a kiss, and also the notion of spit and spitting not as cultural taboo but as something of value and a potential charity.
Incidentally, the concept behind the Peck As You Go project was inspired by a scientific study that measured the amount of bacteria transfer during an intimate kiss. Claiming that a ten-second French kiss can spread 80 million bacteria between mouths (and other numbers in between for different durations), the study not only led to the concept of kissing as an act of payment but also enhanced the plausibility that microbes could be effectively quantified and measured, possibly into units of monetary value.
JB: All of your projects, as posted on your website, include concept sketches, diagrams, and a detailed story of the piece’s narrative. In this way, many of your pieces serve a “how–to” guide for hypothetical science–art collaborations. Are your works, as is, an end in themselves, or do you hope that they’ll be utilized in real life some- day?
RK: I would be very surprised if any of my schematics and/or objects are reproduced in professional contexts by those working in science and engineering, as they are not practical nor scientifically feasible to use. For example, in the piece Rotifer Farm, I lay out a schematic and the accompanying installation of a fictional farm in which microorganisms could be domesticated and cultured for a host of human–microbe interactions. And while some features of the installation are credible, certain aspects are not, such as the lack of features that minimize exposure to contamination from outside of the farm.
Realistically, professional microbiologists would have added some sort of sterile hood over the farm; a pressure–driven air circulation system that keeps contaminated air away from cells being cultured. Or perhaps they would have added an extra seal above the culture chambers. Both of these features, in addition to being extremely expensive to set up, would have compromised the visibility of culture chambers and the accompanying delicate features that celebrated the intricate nature of our interactions with the microbial world.
The intention of most works I produce is, therefore, to start discussions about certain aspects of biotechnology through aesthetics, rather than to serve a utilitarian role within science per se. What I have also found is that works that tend to be most effective in evoking debates are best produced when unhindered by scientific rigors and practicality.
This does not mean, however, that my designs are not informed by tools and visual languages adopted in science. In Space Bacteria, the schematics depicting objects—such as a ‘biopack’ designed to hold human micro–biome samples—were actually a near copy of the real device used by NASA for a similar mission. It is a compelling challenge to find a balance between fiction and reality, both of which are informed through comprehensive research, albeit implemented in different ways.
The goal is to provide just enough plausibility for the viewer to suspend disbelief whilst spiking their interest using provocative aesthetics at the same time.
JB: What are you working on right now—what are you most excited by in the micro world?
RK: I am currently at a stage of finalizing my latest project, called Reviving the Drachma. It is a fictional proposal to bring back the Drachma, the obsolete Greek national currency, among the oldest currencies in the world. This time however, rather than functioning as legal tender, the Drachma is given an alternative role. Redesigning bacterial cells harvested from the surface
of an old Drachma banknote issued in year 1970, and embedding them onto the surface of the new one, the Drachma is transformed into a “living banknote” that allows the bacteria to flourish and respond to fluctuations in the Greek economy.
Here, the Greek economy is represented by the national stock called Athens General Index, and it was changes of its price that were used to activate the bacteria. Live online stock prices were converted into a set of electric currents used to trigger a range of genetic responses from the bacteria. Flourishing beside the face of Zeus on the new banknote, the bacteria execute their genetic program to glow green as a warning signal at the brink of a financial crash, and release biodegradable enzymes that break down the banknote soon after. The result is not “gut–friendly” but “economy–friendly” bacteria that originate from generations of Greek society, and that acts as a beacon of economic health, telling of the country’s fortunes and tragedies through cycles of gene expression and self destruction.
This project has in fact initiated the start of my PhD study which I am currently undertaking at the department of Media and Arts Technology, at Queen Mary University London: the key technology that makes the bacteria respond to the stock market, as demonstrated here, is part of the Internet of Things (IoT) framework, whereby a connection is made between the activities on the Internet and those made by the microbes in the real world. As more and more objects become connected to the global online network, I suspect that many microorganisms will be connected in a similar way too in the future. And it is this type of relationship, between IoT and the resulting applications in biotechnology, that form the basis of my PhD.