The evolution of bio-sciences knowledge such as synthetic biology, bio-robotics, bio-engineering of materials, bioinformatics, influences contemporary art and design which are pushed to rethink their responsibilities in communicating through critical expressions, interpretations and accessible/appropriate language, the repercussions of this evolution on people’s lives. The progress of science triggers infinite revisions of the ways of seeing the world around us, and of approaching life.

Design and art as interpreters of social requests and new ways of living are called upon shaping these changes and translate them into objects, images, devices which could interface people and activate the change induced by knowledge, through either functional or conceptual and speculative forms.

The current developments of new bio-sciences are there to demonstrate that we are fully living in what Kevin Kelly, in the far 1994, forecasted as Neo-Biological Civilization, in which: “in the intersection between human and technology emerge lines of a techno-biological society. The limit between the ‘artificially produced’ and the ‘naturally born’ is close to being trespassed: what is artificially constructed and what is naturally generated show more and more similar characters and integrate more and more according to the same laws of operation”[1] .[i]

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This revolution is important also in terms of ethical impacts because it involves issues like genetic modifications, reproduction of tissues and organs, and in general a paradigm shift due to the fragmentation of the border which used to separate artificial world and natural world.

Designers and artists deal with the encounter with biosciences from different standpoints: some investigate the opportunities of bringing closer science and society through design, with a particular attention to the ethical implications through their expressive and communicative abilities; others interpret the hybrid dimension of the natural-artificial through material experimentations; others decode the new dimensions by using techno-scientific tools like 3D printing and generative algorithms. Many of these experimentations are not translated into products which can be reproduced on a large scale and then marketed, but are proposed as suggestions, conceptual speculations, critical anticipations of possible futures. In several cases, however, the scientific data on which they are based are not treated with enough rigor or depth. Designers and artists show in these cases limit themselves to the enthusiasm of the inspiration without understanding the scientific principles they refer to, running the risk of beating a track which then fails to be consistent with the selected references.

It is necessary for art and design to acquire research and relational tools which are appropriate for facing multi-disciplinary paths, in order to gain a kind of scientific and technological expertise which cannot be learnt in art and design schools. It is necessary to be able to read and understand the scientific literature or to engage in dialogues with scientists experts in specific domains or processes.

Often it is useful for the designer or artist to work closely with scientists, starting from the awareness that in order to produce innovative or experimental results, in terms of research, it is necessary to build communal interests and objectives, so that collaborations with technologists and scientists could be biunivocal and useful for all parties involved. The most interesting outcomes are seen when artists and designers carry on part of their activities in the scientific labs, where they participate first-hand in the research to develop experimentations which can then position themselves in the intersection among different disciplines. All the new and unusual competences acquired on the spot will then be integrated in a culture of expression which will then evolve into project thinking and quality.

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The anticipation induced by science

Design and art express the best their potential of anticipation in depicting future scenarios induced by new conquers in bio-sciences.

One of the fields which is of the most interest in contemporary science is synthetic biology: it moves in a territory on which natural and artificial interface and, for this, it rises debates and reflections around ethical and social issues. Synthetic biology proposes a new way of interpreting living systems, through which “biological objects” can be reproduced and reprogrammed in a lab environment. With this new paradigm biology acquires a potential of transformability which revolutions all the previous parameters, leading in the near future to a deep change not only in the methods used for healing people but also in industry and economy[2].[ii]

The transformations triggered by the new scenarios of synthetic biology and bio-nanotechnologies lead design and art to ask themselves about their own opportunities, but also about the responsibility of translating of such complex, difficult to understand and viewable into something which could be accessed by anybody. With regards to synthetic biology, art and design have the possibility of envisioning new hybrid scenarios which will constitute the field of action of this new discipline. These scenarios are constituted by new products, behavioral models and forms of consumption in which natural and artificial merge until they cannot be distinguished anymore. It is a new point of view which needs to be translated in forms which could be easily accessed by the most people possible, in order to make it acceptable and understandable, as well as useful and proactive.

Design needs to prompt questions about new paradigms and, through the intersection between thought, representation, and matter, propose keys for interpreting the new conquers of science. For example, can a skin grown in a lab from cells extracted from living organisms, not as a simple aggregation of cells but as hierarchical and functional structure following natural processes of growth and replication, be defined as natural, or is it artificial? Neither of the two: it is hybrid as many objects of our futures will be, with which users will have a different interaction from the one they used to have with conventional objects. The categories of natural and artificial will have to be redefined and probably it won’t be possible to delimit them anymore.

The new hybrid products will have to be grown, cultivated, bred in order to function in a sustainable way with renewable energies and resources. Some clues of this scenarios can be found in the concepts of lightning systems founded on fungi, bacteria, or algae’s luminescence or in bacteria-powered machines. In these products, nature enters not only as a project reference or as inert raw material, but as live matter, biologically active. In this revolution, together with science, it is useful for artists and designer to try to anticipate the way in which all of this will happen in terms of interfaces, usability, visual impact, psychological impact, ergonomics.

One of the most interesting interventional fields for designers and artists which aim at translating scientific principles and knowledges from biosciences into material objects is that of exhibitions in science museums. In this case it’s also a new professional figure whose activity is founded on understanding deeply those principles and translating them into objects which could communicate to the widest target possible very complex concepts in a very simple and intuitive way.

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An example that prefigures of new medical research and clinics scenarios is the Human Body-on-Chip exhibition showed in the new Corporea Human Body Interactive Museum inaugurated on March 4, 2017 in Naples.

The exhibition proposes one of the most promising paths in the field of synthetic biology: the reproduction of synthetic human organs. Only one drug on 3000 potentially active molecules has an effective clinical outcome. For this reason, the average cost of research and development for each drug on the market is about 1 billion euros. 30% of potentially effective drugs have failed in human clinical trials because they are toxic even though they have passed pre-clinical validation on animal models. About 60% of developing drugs are failing due to lack of efficacy.

To solve this problem, bioengineering has developed devices called Tissue-on-Chip or Organ-on-Chip, platforms that include in-vitro engineered human tissues integrated into microfluidic circuits designed to robustly simulate the biomolecular therapeutic response such as drugs and nutrients in different human organs, like lung, liver and heart. These models can be used to predict whether an active principle or a vaccine is effective and safe for humans faster and more economically and ethically viable than current methods. Additionally, these tests can help personalized medicine, developed on a specific patient using homologous tissues.

The installation consists of a plexiglass shape of a woman’s body on which are placed microfluidic circuits that summarize the functioning of complex organs specifically: lung, liver, intestine and heart. The circuits are made of transparent acrylic polymers in which micro-channels printed with microfabrication techniques passing through the areas where the human tissues of the various engineered in vitro organs are housed. Individual organs on-chip are connected through microfluidic channels in a similar manner to the arteriovenous connectors of native organs by simulating the overall functioning of the human body after taking a drug or nutrient element. These models can be used to predict whether a pharmacological active principle, molecule, active ingredient or vaccine is safe or toxic to humans in a faster, more economic and effective way than current animal testing methods.

The ultimate goal is, therefore, to speed up the development of medical research during clinical trials. By creating an integrated human-on-chip body, researchers can test the effects of a substance throughout the body before any test in humans.

Human body-on-chip installation is the result of the meeting between the bioengineering skills of the Center for Advanced Biomaterials for Healthcare in Naples (CABHC-IIT) that, in collaboration with the University of Naples Federico II (CRIB), have developed the scientific part, with design and digital fabrication skills of the DREAM Laboratory of Città della Scienza in Naples [3]. The collaboration between design and science has allowed to develop a representation of a very complex research through simple and contemporary language, developing an iconic artifact that quickly captured the attention and curiosity of the museum and media audience. A very effective result in terms of communication and dissemination of science when compared to similar instances developed by scientists without the support of designers.

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One of the most interesting interventional fields for designers and artists which aim at translating scientific principles and knowledges from biosciences into material objects is that of exhibitions in science museums. It is a new professional ambit founded on understanding deeply those processes and principles and translating them into objects which could communicate to the widest target possible very complex concepts in a very simple and intuitive way.

One of the fields in which science prompts design and art to envision new scenarios of life is that of the cyborg universe. The aspiration of man to enhance her/his body and her/his capacities is an atavistic attitude. Since the beginning of history, humanity has struggled to reach further, faster, stronger, wider, more complete, objectives. In the mechanical era men managed to expand their own bodies in space, while in the digital era it is our nervous system being expanded all over the globe, and even beyond its limits. Many technical solutions, devices, and mass media became human extensions and space of public domain. Their influence on people consists in the activation of new ways of using senses in an augmented manner, and through new configurations. The way of acting and using devices undergoes constant transformations, which then also influence the enhancement of human possibilities.[iii]

The English scientist Kevin Warwick, expert in artificial intelligence (AI), and professor of cybernetics at Reading University, published a document titled The Future of Artificial Intelligence and Cybernetics, in which he foresees different scenarios which have as a background the fusion between biology and technology through cybernetics. From these scenarios emerges the idea of introducing biology in robotics, going beyond the belief that robots are just artificial machines. In the Cybernetic Lab of Reading directed by Warwick a robot named Gordon has been realized; it has a brain which contains neuronal cells coming from mice. The direction is that of the fusion between living being and machine.

Warwick proposes also the brain computer interface scenario as an opportunity not only in therapeutics but also for the control of tools and devices, or for enhancing sensorial capacities. One of the modes is the BrainGate: a micro-electrodes implant with a very small diameter, less than 90 microns, which allowed patients affected by SLA of composing 6 words per minute and controlling robot arms through neuro signals.

Kevin Warwick experimented these technologies in order to test extra sensorial inputs and to experiment a primitive form of communication between two nervous systems, his own one and his wife’s. A wheelchair guided through neurosignals with the long term objective of communicating thoughts, emotions, sensations, and feelings from brain to brain.

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Analogously, Neil Harrison, British/Catalan color-blind contemporary artist, had an antenna implanted in his skull in order to perceive the visible colors as well as the invisible ones, the infrared and the ultraviolet. It is called eyeborg, and it has been developed by Adam Montandon, student at Plymouth University, to be then successively improved with the contribution of other scientists. It works as a videocamera mounted on the head, capturing colors and converting them in sound waves instantaneously. Harbisson’s works are either visual and musical and they investigate the relationship between color and sound, experimenting the limits of human perception and the opportunities of artistic expression through sensorial extensions.

Color Scores, for examples, is a series of painting in which Harbisson transforms into color the first 100 notes of some music tracks, while the Sound Portraits are sound portraits of people, obtained by pointing the eyeborg on different parts of their faces, translating into notes the acquired colors. Once again the boundary between biological and digital dissolves. Through the similarity of intents by Warwick and Harbisson we can perceive the dissolution of the frontiers between natural and artificial but also the reduction of the distance between the interests which move scientists and artists in their researches, which, even if with different results, share visions and aims. In these hybrid dimensions of encounter between creative expression and science, and between biological and synthetic, will take place many of the most interesting episodes of art and design in the coming years. It is for this reason that educational structures will need to adapt themselves and acquire the necessary tools and skills in order to teach to new students multidisciplinary methods, transversal languages, and relational capacities.


Notes:

[1] – Preface by Franco Berardi to Kelly, Kevin. Out of control. La nuova biologia delle macchine, dei sistemi sociali e del mondo dell’economia. Apogeo Editore, 1996, tr. It di Kelly, Kevin. “Out of control: The rise of neo-biological civilization.” (1994). Addison-Wesley Publishing Company

[2] – De Lorenzo, Víctor. “LA BIOLOGIA SINTETICA COME UN NUOVO QUADRO INTERPRETATIVO DEI SISTEMI VIVENTI.” Istituto Lombardo-Accademia di Scienze e Lettere-Rendiconti di Scienze 148 (2014)

[3] – In the Human-body-on-chip exhibit the part of scientific research and organ-on-chip realization was developed by Paolo A. Netti, Giorgia Imparato, Jong Noh, Francesco Urciuolo, Raffaele Vecchione, the design project and the plexiglass shape realization was developed by DREAM laboratory with the supervision of director Amleto Picerno Ceraso and of Città della Scienza ‘Exhibition Team director Carla Giusti with the collaboration of designer Sara Nappa (DREAM) and Valentina Latilla (CRIB) and Corrado Tamborra (DREAM). Technical support: David Dannhauser, Maria Iannone, Domenico Rossi (IIT).

[i] – Prefazione di Franco Berardi a Kelly, Kevin. Out of control. La nuova biologia delle macchine, dei sistemi sociali e del mondo dell’economia. Apogeo Editore, 1996, tr. It di Kelly, Kevin. “Out of control: The rise of neo-biological civilization.” (1994). Addison-Wesley Publishing Company

[ii] – De Lorenzo, Víctor. “LA BIOLOGIA SINTETICA COME UN NUOVO QUADRO INTERPRETATIVO DEI SISTEMI VIVENTI.” Istituto Lombardo-Accademia di Scienze e Lettere-Rendiconti di Scienze 148 (2014)

[iii] – (Przybyla, 2012). (Klichowski, Michał, and Mariusz Przybyła. “Cyborgization yesterday, today and tomorrow: Selected perspectives and educational contexts.” (2016).

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