Material Beliefs Marries Design & Biotechnology

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October 14, 2008. The Crossing Over: Exchanges in Art & Biotechnologies exhibition at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which will run through November 21, explores the overlap of art, design and biotech, and the increasingly shifting boundaries between the biological and the biotechnological. Material Beliefs, a collaborative of designers, engineers and scientists, contributed a display of products and devices. The products suggest a number of potential scenarios being made increasingly likely by galloping advances in bioscience. MB objects include an interface that could allow a person to interact with a brain cell culture located in a remote laboratory, a posse of carnivorous “domestic entertainment” robots, a biometric devise helpful in child surveillance and wedding rings grown using bone tissue donated by the bride and groom. I.D. spoke to MB’s Tobie Kerridge at some length – but in plain English – to find out what the group is doing to make biotechnology more accessible, and more relevant.,,

Material Beliefs focuses on technologies that blur the boundaries between our bodies and materials. Does this kind of "hybridity" already exist in some rudimentary ways? What is its value?

Yes, sociology of science employs the term "hybrid" to talk about mundane arrangements of people, material objects and institutions. A good example is playing a computer game, a hybrid arrangement of fingers, eyes, buttons, the CPU, a chair, etc. The difference is that Material Beliefs is addressing technologies that are still in the lab, things that are not yet part of our everyday lives. We then use design to situate these emergent technologies, through collaborations and prototypes. The Biojewellry project, which generates or grows a pair of rings out of the bone cells of two lovers, is fascinating and morbidly romantic. Is this kind of project most useful in terms of creating more interest among lay people in science? Or is there a deeper kind of research that is also being served here?

You hit the nail on the head. Biojewellery was also funded by EPSRC under the Partnerships for Public Engagement awards. I worked with Nikki Stott and Ian Thomson to show how tissue engineering could be pushed sideways from labs and medicine, into everyday situations. The couples are getting married or committing to one another, and for a range of reasons see the tissue-engineered bone rings as linked to that tradition.

As a designer, I feel it’s not Material Beliefs’ job to encourage young people to be scientists, much less to be evangelical about recent government policy that suggests people need to learn about science. I do believe that there is an opportunity to take the things we do in design and use them as tools to let people have access to science and technology, and see it as something they can use and have an opinion about, on their terms, rather than encountering technology as novel lifestyle or health products they may feel that know very little about. How far can this hybridity be taken – for instance, into half-flesh, half-circuitry robots, or…?

We’re interested in research that extends cybernetics and robotics in to life sciences like biology and chemistry (the Neuroscope project is an example of this) and biomedical engineering, where medical applications extend into embedded electrical engineering, like Vital Signs (see below). I mentioned Institute of Biomedical Engineering, this is a place that knows how to make medical artefacts, and is now augmenting prosthetics with mobile phone technology: “The idea a few years ago of having a biological-silicon hybrid was science fiction, but now, because silicon technologies are getting smaller, and our understanding of biological systems is getting better, one can actually see how you can put the two together.” – Professor Tony Cass, Deputy Director and Research Director, Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Imperial College London, June 6, 2007.

Vital Signs are a set of prototypes exploring the impact of networked body sensors on child monitoring. Tracking of wearers and location services would be extended by incorporating live biometric signals, including respiration, heartbeat and movement. Vital Signs demonstrates how absent bodies are transformed into data and broadcast across networks to become expressed as behaviours in products.

Neuroscope is a design response to the Neural Animat research. The project proposes a novel relationship between the laboratory and the home, locating complex scienti?c processes within everyday life. In this context a new generation of interactive devices known as Neuroscope emerge, which blur the boundaries between consumer products and biological systems. The device provides an interface for a user to interact with a culture of brain cells, which are cared for in a distant laboratory.

In your work, do you ever experience resistance from the public on moral grounds?

Problems arise I think through where the work is encountered. Blogs are often the worst place to encounter the work, because the blog entry is already pretty brief, then the comments quickly get out of hand. It’s not really about having a problem with resistance, just having the chance to get everything out on the table. The best format for doing this tends to be a public debate with different voices, including a scientist, an engineer, someone from medicine, a designer, a sociologist and a science communicator.

Even the most basic scientific terms may be difficult for most people to understand. It seems as if two levels of design need to happen at MB: one to do the research and create the project and another to communicate it in a way that is easily accessible and engaging (visually and conceptually). How are you responding to this at Material Beliefs?

One problem is that we say the work is not product design, while also saying it is not art – this tends to erode the ground we claim to be standing on! There is a great book called "Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation and Creativity" that talks about non-productive design. It’s a US report, with editorial contributions from Phoebe Sengers and (media/digital artist) Natalie Jeremijenko. Any way, it makes a case for working in labs with technology and being a designer, without having to make productive innovations. We want to show process.

Rather than focusing on the outcomes of science and technology, Material Beliefs approaches research as an unfinished and ongoing set of practices, happening in laboratories and separate from public spaces.

The Materials Belief lab becomes a site for collaboration amongst scientists and engineers, designers, social scientists and members of the public. Alongside existing research activity such as collecting experimental data, writing academic papers and funding proposals, the collaborations lead to a parallel set of outcomes including interviews, brainstorming, drawing, photography, filming and discussion.

These collaborations lead to the design of prototypes, which embed these parallel outcomes into something tangible. These prototypes are exhibited, transforming emerging laboratory research into a platform that encourages a debate about the relationship between science and society.