The first episode of the DIYSECT web-series, 'Learning in Public' introduces several members of the do-it-yourself biology movement (Norfolk's Biologik, Victoria's Biospace, and Sunnyvale's Biocurious), as well as tactical performance artists Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble), Claire Pentecost, and subRosa (Faith Wilding and Hyla Willis). What these groups have in common is idea of public amateurism: hacking hardware, ideas, and life, and revealing that process in the public sphere. These practices reinforce the idea that you don't have to be classically trained to engage with biology, and show that having access to the tools of biotechnology empowers the everyday citizen with technical knowledge as well as social-political insight into the world we live in.
Key Words: DIYBio, learning together, role of experts, hacker ethic, deconstructing the "black box," public amateurism, barriers to public literacy, social resistance, open laboratory doors, tinkering
"Learning in Public" features:
- Mackenzie Cowell (cofounder of DIYBio)
- Patrik D'haeseleer (member at Biocurious)
- Jameson Dungan & Rhett Sanders (founders of Biologik)
- Derek Jacoby (founder of Biospace)
- Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble)
- Claire Pentecost (artist and writer)
- Faith Wilding (subRosa)
- Hyla Willis (subRosa)
A community of hackers, hobbyists, and educators
You might recognize Jameson Dungan, one of the founders of Biologik Labs, as the guy in Norfolk with the thick dreadlocks, and car with a BIOPUNK license plate. Together with Rhett Sanders, they hope to use the lab as a grounds for additional tutoring for biology students, developing low cost tools for amateur scientists, and inspiring anyone who is curious to learn more.
Biocurious is one of the first community biology labs in the United States, and has been at the center of several exciting projects including the Glowing Plants Project, and the Bioprinting project. The lab hosts everything from walk-in bioluminescence community meetups, to PhD level projects being developed by computer scientists with an interest in biology.
Founded by Derek Jacoby, Victoria's Makerspace & Biospace is hosted in University of Victoria's tech-park. We expect to see interesting cross-disciplinary innovations from this enormous space. Jacoby has strong roots in the DIYBio community, emphasizing education, safety, and democratic decision-making for the greater good.
Also featured in the episode:
The Hacker Ethic Deconstructing the "Black Box"
Over the past 30 years, 3D printers have revolutionized the way we look at manufacturing. "With modern medicine we live much longer," explains scientist Anthony Atala in his TED talk, " but our organs tend to fail the longer we live." Early experiments found that they could successfully print live cells through a conventional printer onto paper, and still have viability. Anthony and his fellow scientists have even developed structural prototypes of what could eventually become transplantable kidneys.
While the technology might seem daunting, the members of BioCurious realized that the technology for bioprinting could be recreated using knowledge of basic 3D printing and inkjet printing technology. Using a few CD drives, an inkjet cartridge, and an Arduino, the DIY BioPrinter is being used to print two dimensional plant and E. coli cells. Like many projects in the DIY community, the goal is to demonstrate that these "black box" technologies can be taken apart and understood, and eventually repurposed for the masses. The instructions for building the printer are all available online in order to encourage continued experimentation and innovation into the possibility of a DIY BioPrinter.
The Fuzzy Saboteur Science for social resistance
Molecular Invasion (2002)
...was a public experiment conducted by Critical Art Ensemble, Beatriz da Costa, and Claire Pentecost. In the prior five years, CAE’s work was heavily focused on demystifying biotechnology in the public sphere and initiating critical discussions where politicians, scientists, and other “experts” had neglected to do so.
As a legal condition for patenting their transgenic crops, Monsanto had published documents listing any chemicals that could potentially render their resistance inactive. Listed was a vitamin B enzyme, P5P, which CAE used to reverse-engineer Monsanto’s crops so that they were no longer resistant to their herbicide counterpart. The public demonstration made its first appearance at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, where they grew Monsanto’s cash crops (canola, soy, and corn) and sprayed them with Roundup Ready herbicide laced with P5P. All the plants subsequently died.
Although Steve Kurtz explains that the demonstration was not a direct attack on Monsanto, the project was definitely on the side of organic farmers. The multinational corporation had instigated legal battles with several organic farmers, suing them for “patent infringement” on transgenic seeds that had flown over from neighboring Roundup Ready fields. What happens when nature-turned-molecular capital becomes completely privatized? This was the basis of the piece’s title, Molecular Invasion, where the reduction of organisms to the molecular level meant that they could be turned for profit, patented, and removed from communal ownership.
Molecular Invasion at the World Information Organization, Amsterdam manifestation
Aside from sheer provocation,
Molecular Invasion wanted to demonstrate the power of biohacking for civil action — "to turn a trait of adaptability into one of susceptibility" — to show that corporations can be vulnerable, too. The piece would be the beginning of a development of a “defensive kit” that organic farmers could use against any unwanted transgenic crops. In what CAE calls "Contestational Biology," in the battle against the pan-capitalist profit machine the best weapon disturbs its profit flow. There is no question that a tool like this would take years of scientific research and monetary investment to create, though Kurtz and Pentecost hope that Molecular Invasion will at least raise people’s consciousness.
Cyberfeminism & Biotechnology: combinational theater
Critical Learning through Art & Social Activism
subRosa began exploring and critiquing robotics, biotech, and other industries when they realized the hyperbolic, and often masculine language being used in these fields. “[Carnegie Mellon University, the university where subRosa started] was getting really into robotics and other technology, but it also became a very masculine environment,” notes Hyla Willis, one of subRosa’s founding members.
Most concerning was the language being used in reproductive technologies, which did little to explain the way it worked or the ramification on a woman’s body. Ads promoted a miracle technology, capable of creating a baby when it used to be impossible, with little to no ramifications. Though certainly these advancements brought great joy to countless families, subRosa is not quick to trust the ulterior motives of the profit-machine. “Basically it’s a grand social experiment, being played on women and regulated in the free market” explains Hyla. For example, subRosa’s research found projects being developed by both the Defense of Science Office (DSO) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), using these technologies to chemically retool the modern soldier’s body. Are we (and have we always) living in a culture of eugenics, masked by promissory language of progress?
In 2001, subRosa organized Expo Emmagenics, the world’s first “woman friendly” conference for new products in reproductive technology. This fictitious exposition presented conference goodies like the Sperm Saver, The Embryo Action Monitor, and Human Caviar. Members of subRosa dressed in lab coats and gave demonstrations on Advance Reproductive Technology (satirically labeled as ART), performing technologies that were often given the black box treatment. While the whole “expo” was clearly tongue-in-cheek, subRosa initiated serious discussion about science & consumerism in a form different from traditional activism in the public sphere.
Intermediale Festival: Art Happens!, Mainz, Germany, March, 2001
Another important Subrosa project was the International Markets of Flesh (2003), which closely scrutinized entrepeunerial developments of organ harvesting. The project began with a public presentation in Mexico, where members of subRosa passed around anatomically accurate models of organs that were commonly traded on the black market. "We suggested holding them against their bodies in the locations indicated in our anatomical diagrams. This embodied performative moment evoked a lively interchange, and our audience was reluctant to let go of the organs (we even lost a few hearts in this performance).” The performance ended with a questionnaire asking participants “What is your Flesh Worth?” and received a certificate with monetary value attributed to their organ supply. Like many of subRosa’s project, this one asks the important question: with these new technologies, who actually owns our bodies?
Arte Nuevo InteractivA ’05, Patio Central del Centro Cultural Olimpio, Yucatan, Mexico, June 25, 2005
Research in these technologies,
as long as they remain dependent on the human body, will always have consequences. Artists like subRosa work to provoke discussion and educate everyday people about these developments so that they can make more educated decisions about their own bodies. By creating a heightened, and often performative reflection of corporate biotech culture, subRosa is able to develop an engaging and entertaining platform to discuss innovation in these technologies.