Another fellow creative working at the intersection of science and art, in this case, fashion, is the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who has been quoted as saying, “Synthetic biology is maybe the most important field of development for fashion. It can bring health, fashion, and sustainability to the next level”. As someone who has explored textiles and fabrics in the artwork, how much do you agree with this statement, and what role do you see BioArt having in perhaps exploring use cases for synthetic biology beyond the scope of traditional academia and industry.
Anna Dumitriu: First of all, how much do I agree with her idea that it’s the most important field for fashion – I mean it’s an important field for sure, because if you go into the materials to make clothes, these are from plants and animals, and you can make that all more sustainable. I don’t think it’s just “for fashion” though. It’s a hugely important field for lots of things, but we’re still not there yet because there’s a resistance to synthetic biology in a lot of places.
I think the first step is to have this debate introducing the use of synthetic biology in safe ways that aren’t causing things like monocultures. Monocultures in plants for instance are a huge issue. For example, we have the cavendish banana and its panama disease, this Fusarium, that’s killing the world’s most widely eaten fruit and it might be wiped off the face of the earth, and what do you do about that? Is it ethical not to use synthetic biology or things like that to stop these problems? I mean rice for instance is a big producer of greenhouse gas, but it’s not something that is talked about because it’s such an important food element, but there could be ways you could actually use the methane and things that it produces. They have these methane eating bacteria and things like that, and could that be an approach, so it’s not just for fashion that synthetic biology is an important field.
Can art support such debate?
Art can go into these kinds of subjects and create open debates and open discussions with people where we can have exciting conversations that introduce people to these new ideas. There’s a notion, I don’t know who coined the term, but this notion of ‘weak signals’ from the future, and so it’s almost like the artists are going there and finding out what these kinds of future technologies might be or are becoming, and reporting back to the rest of us and sharing what might be possible. And then when people have it explained to them from an art perspective, the audiences can ask questions, peel away layers and understand the real stories behind the scientific research. They are then protected against the scare stories that the media might put out when they can do that.
I think artists can communicate in other ways that are not just playing the media game. Some artists might play that game, but I’m not interested in playing that game. I want to communicate the science and the issues, and allow people to reflect culturally in a comprehensive way so they can think about the ethical impacts. Ethics happens when there are (at least) two opposing views and no clear answer. That’s why I want to help people reflect aesthetically because I think you can experience things through the non-verbal and non-intellectual as well, and think about it from that perspective too, which is another way of communicating in a way that science rarely tries to do.
Do you see yourself as an inspiration for the younger generation, and people that may think, “I’m not sure if art is for me or if science is for me, or even if I could combine them…”
Anna Dumitriu: Well, I’m very happy if I can inspire people to do things like this, and I try to support younger artists who approach me and give them advice; how they can get into working with scientists or doing this kind of work. Also, you know, giving people who don’t meet scientists the opportunity to meet them through some of my workshops. For example, we’ve done things like MRSA quilt making it a workshop where we stitched antibiotics onto quilt squares. We used different antimicrobial substances like turmeric, garlic on antibiotic discs, we used a chromogenic agar that makes MRSA grow blue, and we took them back to the lab and inoculated them with MRSA, which grew over a day or two and revealed the effects of the antibiotics. We posted images of the results online, and I later transformed the quilt squares into an artwork. So people could see their preconceptions about what’s antibiotic or not antibiotic, what’s antimicrobial or not antimicrobial, and how this all works, but also chitchat with the scientists while they’re doing it, and this is the most important thing because when you’re making things, you’re talking with scientists who are also making things with you. They’re making a craft thing, and you’re making a craft thing, it’s like you can ask silly questions. Through doing the work and making these things together, people can better see through that. It was interesting one time, the scientists were doing this sort of “dumbed-down” version to explain things for the audience. But there was a little girl of about 8 or 9 years old asking: “but how can it work like that when I’m doing it like this?”, and the scientists were like: “Oh yeah… so hum… you know, it is like this…” and they’d have to go into a more detailed explanation because she’d already… “I’m not falling for that simple explanation” because the art had got her a step on in her understanding of it. So, you know, that sort of thing, like when you go to a science festival, and a certain kind of audience has been chosen to go to a science festival. Then you’ve got to have the courage to put your hand up at the back of the room and ask a question. You’re not going to ask a stupid question about some little thing. But when you are hands-on with the scientists, as in this drop-in artwork workshop, in an art museum, you can more freely ask questions.
Once, a little girl kept coming to my workshops in Oxford. I had this big “BioArt and Bacteria” show at the Museum of History of Science in Oxford, and it was really popular and I did lots of hands-on workshops there. They’ve got this room in the basement where they have a big wooden table, it’s actually the original alchemy lab of Oxford University. The little girl kept dragging her parents back in and she would be excitedly asking me, “when are you coming again?”, and at one point I asked, “so what do you want to be when you grow up?” and she said, “I want to be a synthetic biologist!” and she was only about 8 years old, and this was even three or four years ago, so you didn’t really hear that many 8 years old’s say they wanted to be a synthetic biologist.
If you could say some words to aspiring Bioartists who are working in STEM/STEAM, or are doing creative work in other sectors but they would like to combine their interests in this intersection between science and art, what would you say to them?
Anna Dumitriu: I’d say do it. Start collaborating with scientists if you’re not from a science background, and if you are from a science background and are interested in it the other way around, you don’t have to work with an artist if you want to do it yourself and you want to be creative, but look more deeply into art. Go to art museums and think about the concepts, the way the work is exhibited, and think about the importance of the… kind of the artistic side and the aesthetic side and the art historical side. Read art history and try to understand more about the art world, because I sometimes think when scientists get involved in art, they haven’t looked… you know they don’t go very deeply into the art side because they have a lot of knowledge on the science side and they think that’s enough. I think maybe it’s true in the other direction as well, it’s good for artists to be exposed to working in labs and scientific ways of thinking. I would encourage a natural blurring of boundaries, you need both together, I think. You need to go deeply into both the science and the art. So that would be my advice. Find people to work with and collaborate, and be interested and read a lot and think about it. I think one problem is that people approach scientists, and they… like art students, sometimes they are like, “Oh, I’m doing a project, I want to do this, can you help me?” But they don’t say, “I’m doing this project because I want to reach out to people about this issue, and I would like to learn more about this issue” and not just make something to make it, but to explore it and investigate it and investigate the person they’re talking to about their work and their interests, and go on a shared journey to communicate this to people and also to make art that reflects on it. So it’s about that being deeply interested in the things that you’re doing on both sides because art is very complicated and the art world is a very bizarre thing, it’s just as bizarre as the scientific community and all the intricacies of it. There are many different art worlds as well, and it’s the same with science communities, isn’t it? So with all these things it’s for you to understand the complexity, but start, focus, and keep doing it. Ignore the people saying, “That’s weird, don’t bother doing that” (laughs). Because most people that you reach, until you start really getting it out there, the people around you are probably not going to understand what you’re doing, so don’t expect… just like being a scientist where you don’t expect to be able to tell people at dinner parties precisely what you’re doing.
Is there anything you’ll be working on as we inch ever closer towards 2022?
Anna Dumitriu: Yes, the current projects I’m working on are a project with an EU chicory, it’s called the EU CHIC project, and the piece that I’m making with Alex May is called “Biotechnology from the Blue Flower”. Goethe, the famous artist and scientist from the past, was very inspired by a text by a German author called Novalis who wrote a book called Heinrich von Ofterdingen, where he describes something called Die Blaue Blume, “The Blue Flower”, which became the central theme of German Romanticism which was this very important thing. This idea of the Blue Flower inspired Goethe to his idea of Urpflanze or “The Primal Plant”. The idea that he thought that all plants stemmed from this original plant, and there’s a quote from Goethe that’s something along the lines of, “The unnatural, that too is natural”, which I really like. So we’re doing the project about genetically modified, CRISPR edited chicory plants, because they believe that probably chicory was the Blaue Blume (Blue Flower). There’s all this mythology about it growing on roadsides and being created from maiden’s tears as they cried for their lost lovers and things like this. And oh! It’s supposed to offer a key to knowledge and things like that. There’s all this weird mythology about the chicory flower, and so taking it from that perspective, the important thing is that the blue flower was the central theme of this German Romanticism, which was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the Romantic Movement was the reaction against the Industrial Revolution. So you had Romanticism on one side and the Industrial Revolution on the other side, and they did not meet. But now the chicory plant is central to both this aesthetic sense, but also is right in the heart of the new biotechnological revolution because this CHIC project is one of these projects exploring, in Europe, what the public, you know, are happy with. What level of modification are the public going to be happy with, these little knockouts? The methods they use for gene editing plants aren’t transgenic things. They knock out genes and it could occur in nature; it would just be much slower. It doesn’t have any harmful substances in it, it’s not exposed to radiation which is the natural plant breeding method, which is usually irradiating the plant to cause mutations, so are the public happier with this idea? So now it’s right in the center of this debate of what is natural and what are the public ready for. So in this new biotechnological revolution, which kind of, you think, “is it about what is natural?” and so it goes back to this Goethe quote, “The unnatural, that too is natural”.
I learned how to CRISPR edit chicory protoplasts in the chicory plant cells at Keygene, and we were looking at, you know, doing the CRISPR modification with agrobacterium and how they do that at Wageningen Plant Science. We’re developing this new work which will be a 3D printed work that somehow is based on the shapes of the leaves but uses glitches in the digital technology and wireframes, so the sculpture is somewhere between the natural and the digital, but in a 3D printed form. The sculpture also includes the root, which is very important in the scientific sense because they’re trying to make inulin from this chicory root; that is a very good dietary fiber, and they’re knocking out the bitter terpenes that are in the chicory plant to make the extraction of the inulin more efficient.
So in this case we are using 3D printing in plastic, in PLA, which is a biologically made plastic and biodegradable, and this will take the form of a reliquary containing the actual modified leaves… not in the form of the living plant but as killed, sterilized leaves or protoplasts. They will be inside the plant somehow, either in the root or in the flower; I’m still working on that bit. We also want to 3D bioprint a chicory leaf or a chicory flower that contains the modified protoplasts that would all sprout from it and I’d love to timelapse film it. Goethe also said that he thought that you could grow any plant from the leaf. The weird thing is now, because if you have the growth factors for the plant, you can really chop up the leaf and grow the plant from it. So I think it’d be nice, as a homage to Goethe to have these protoplasts growing into little plants from a 3D bioprinted leaf or flower. So that’s something we still really want to do when we can get back to the lab.