Biohacking and the Future of Materials at Biofabricate 2016

Published on: December 19th, 2016

BiotA Lab bioreceptive architectural material prototypes from the Biofabricate 2016 conference.

Over the weekend, I found myself in a small biohacker space in Brooklyn. Seemingly a far cry from my usual wanderings at museums or Parsons’ Making Center, it felt fitting to be taking a sample of my own DNA to learn the protocol for a space I hope to find myself in more often.

I learned of Genspace through the Biofabricate 2016 conference, hosted by Parsons this year. The conference included a full day of presentations broken into four sections accompanied by an exhibition and workshops around the school. In the first set of talks, “Design Boundaries: What Role for Design in Biotech?” Anthony Dunne opened the conference by speaking about the public perception of bio-hacking and the tenuous relationship between designers and the media. Many of his students’ projects had been featured in the news with their speculative designs perceived as real (when in fact they were exploratory scenarios using science), creating a slew of intense reactions towards the work. While causing viewers to question and discuss speculative design is a fantastic outcome, it highlights how unsettled people are with the idea of bio-materiality and the crossing over of these products from the research lab to the marketplace

This unsettled feeling was unpacked in the second set of talks titled “Biological Boundaries: Public Understanding, Technology Access and Genetic Ownership.” Mark Drury, founder of the company Mother Dirt, opened his talk by spraying live bacteria on his face then confessing how hard it has been to convince consumers to follow suit. The idea that bacteria could make us cleaner and healthier seemed to be a pill too hard to swallow. However, in the same set of talks, the question of bio-ethics felt like growing lump in everyone’s throat as the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg explained the process behind her project “Stranger Visions,” in which she took DNA left behind in public spaces to make 3D portraits of the people they used to belong to. Her work beat businesses and scientists to the technology, in which she questioned who had the rights to DNA left behind in public spaces and the ethics of using these technologies. Her exhibition drew ire at MoMA, but soon after, a similar technology was being sold to police departments. Dewey-Hagborg highlighted the need for awareness and by having these difficult conversations in the safer realm of museums and academia before they are used against the public. Her work demonstrates how art and design’s presence in biotechnology acts as a very necessary component to the work.

Ultimately, this would not be a design conference without discussion of how people are already using bio-materials in the marketplace.  The talks titled “Living Materials” and “Lab to Street: Crafting the Future” showed how designers were already appealing to the market with more sustainable materials and Adidas showed how far this interest reached. The athletic wear company took the opportunity to reveal a prototype for a new, biodegradable shoe made from synthetic spider silk, which has been described as the strongest material on Earth and difficult to recreate. This was a grand display of corporate interest in biofabricated materials and revealed steps being taken toward future production. Presentations by Spiber, The North Face, MycoWorks, and Criaterra, all showed how these materials are making huge progress for application in products we already use from purses to buildings.

Overall, the conference had enough of an impact on me to encourage me dig a little deeper into the world of biohacking, which is why you’ll suddenly find me sampling my DNA and figuring out how to turn it into bioluminescence. Conferences such as this show us where designers are looking for materials and inspiration for the future. They also show us the uncomfortable line that we, as people who think about design, must discuss the potential consequences of when these creations leave the laboratory.

—Leticia Cartier Oxley

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Caroline Dionne, Program Director

Program Update

Parsons is not currently admitting new students to this master’s degree program. Parsons is now offering a Graduate Minor in Design Studies that is designed to complement the MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies and other graduate programs across the university in design, liberal arts, and social research.