Designer Agi Haines not only uses biotech, she uses it on the human body. “I think we’re really malleable.” Her work touches upon the tension that splits the debate on human enhancement: should we try to improve our own biology? From a previous post you may remember Agi’s self-defibrillating heart, which shows how bioprinting may one day merge an eel’s electric organ with a human heart. As a speculative biodesigner, Agi confronts people with their unknown inside. But the world of science is not always open to that.

Good decisions need good info, so democratic biotechnology seems to face a challenge. Citizens should have some knowledge when they have a say. Yet to get informed on biotech may take years of study. When even the term ‘biotechnology’ is foggy territory for most, how can citizens know anything about its implications?

Through experience, for instance. Speculative design objects could help democratize technology by making future applications more tangible. This is the language of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, former teachers of London-born designer Agi Haines.

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One of the Circumventive Organs by Agi Haines

Tangible it is, the work of Agi. Even without touching, you will feel it in your stomach. The hybrid heart above is part of the series Circumventive Organs, which explore the possibilities of a biotechnology called bioprinting. When complex structures can be printed with different kind of cells, new organs could be invented. Agi imagined possibilities of combining organs of different organisms. The possibilities, and their price; no invincible heart without open heart surgery.

Another articulate project is Transfigurations, which examines the bodily modification of babies. A new-born with improved caffeine absorption or heat dissipation could have substantial benefits in global warming and the stress of modern life. Is bodily modification too much to prepare your child for the future? The work makes me wonder about Agi’s intentions. Would she be in favour of such biotech developments?

Since Agi is currently artist-in-residence in Amsterdam, I decided to reach out and chat with her about the drives behind her work and how to have influence on science.

Physical philosophy

The disgust is by design. The stomach-turning is intended. Agi combines the idealistic promises of new technology with the painful reality of its functioning. “Not everyone would be happy to just go into open heart surgery.” Her work makes people reflect on the desirability of new technology.

Such reflection goes beyond getting under our skin; the questions raised by Agi’s work are philosophical. Apart from confrontation with the bloody sacks of flesh that we are, they challenge the existence of a static human essence. That is, the idea that our species does not change over time. Most people nowadays believe in evolution, but less realize this means we are in evolution ourselves. Hybrid organs or sculpted babies confront people with their human body as something changing.

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With rising temperatures, will future generations grow more skin to keep their head cool? One of the Transfigurations by Agi Haines

Much of the debate on human enhancement is divided into two camps. Transhumanists embrace technologies that change our biological makeup. From life extension and extra memory, to designer babies and night vision. According to transhumanists like Nick Bostrom, we should use new technologies to overcome our biological limits and enable other valuable experiences.

Bioconservatives oppose augmenting our current life form with technology. They rather stick to a certain ‘essence’ of what would make a human human. The motives in the bioconservative camp are manifold; from religious beliefs to environmental ideologies. Some worry about social order between humans and augmented posthumans, others fear the loss of authenticity or autonomy.

Agi’s projects seem to pose a threat to such a spotless human essence, but do they?

Adopting animal organs in our own body becomes less strange when we consider our cellular history. Agi points out the case of mitochondria. Once foreign bacteria, they have evolved to become the ‘powerhouse’ of our human cells. From symbiosis to fusion. “Things like mitochondria have become so included in our body that we now think they’re not an organism in their own right, but a part of us.” These adopted organisms throughout our body illustrate the potential for a something like an eel’s organ.

Still, printing hybrid organs might seem artificial. Now it’s us – not nature – combining tissue and shaping flesh. But is this new? Haven’t we already been doing this in the field of surgery? Agi mentions the teeth-pulling and lead-filling of dentistry. Or consider the wooden pirate legs that foreshadowed today’s bionic legs. Maybe it’s just natural for humans to fix our shortcomings. If so, where does the natural flip to the artificial? In contrast to all the mechanical fixes of our biological shortcomings, a foreign organ might even be more natural.

Agi Haines at Mediamatic, photo: Gijs de Boer

‘Kunstformen der Natur’ by Ernst Haeckel and Agi Haines, at Mediamatic. Photo: Gijs de Boer

Her open-mindedness about editing the human body might put Agi in the transhumanist camp, but the work is not about taking sides. “The point of the work is to make the audience wonder what position they want to take.” Speculative designs are often critical, but can at the same time promote technology. “Speculative design has been criticized a lot for being dystopian, with a focus on the dark side, but I think there are enough designers who are taking different positions to encourage an interesting discussion.”

By populating the scope of possible futures, it should become easier to choose a preferable track. But that is easier said than done. The visions of speculative design have to reach the lab to really have influence on technological development tracks.

Influence on lab research

Biotech allows the practices of design and science to converge, but there is still a gap to bridge. The ethical questions raised in biodesign do not always rhyme with research. “I started to get frustrated that some scientific disciplines deemed art as ‘fun’. It’s belittling the questions that people are trying to ask, as if the research isn’t as useful or worthy as other research.”

Agi’s initial response to the question whether she has influence on the scientific lab is telling. “I do, I think I do, I hope I do.” We can sketch two ways for Agi’s views to end up in labs: directly and indirectly. In her projects, Agi often collaborates with scientists. This format seemingly enables more philosophical questions to infiltrate the lab directly.

Yet even for the collaborating scientist, it’s hard to incorporate the fruits of labour. The nature of the results differs; where science seeks answers, an artistic project poses new questions. “A lot of the time the work is critical about science or how decisions are made within scientific research. In that case it’s difficult for some collaborators to publish their involvement. As it is often perceived negatively.” Direct influence comes with its restrictions.

This working document shows ways for citizens to influence the lab.

This working document shows ways for citizens to influence the lab. Biodesign operates in the field of discourse (purple).

The indirect way is through the vague and bloomy fields of discourse. Recall our visual on how to influence the lab. Speculative design can influence what people talk about, and this in turn can influence what happens in the lab. How? A first step is demystifying these talking ‘people’. “Scientists are included in the general public.” And so are their friends, family and bosses.

Secondly, we can illustrate the ‘talk’ of those people. Discussion is often facilitated and stimulated at bioart and biodesign exhibitions. Such events are also visited by scientists. “I’ve met a lot of interesting scientists who have been to the exhibitions, because they are more fascinated by the speculative side of things, but they don’t get to interact with it in their everyday work.” Indirectly, these scientists may alter their lab decisions based on Agi’s work.

Bioresearchers seem to be surprisingly open to reflection. Still, their daily practice does not connect well with the questions biodesign raises.

Relationship problems

Agi’s work prompts questions about our relation with our bodies and technology. Questions that are at the heart of biotechnological development. But they cannot just be answered through lab research. Maybe that is the value of such physical philosophy.

Design and science have a love-hate relationship, according to Agi’s experiences. The designer’s attitude of the question mark has not yet found its place in the scientific lab. Yet, collaborations seem to have potential. So do open discussions. Are there ways for scientific research to incorporate artistic reflection? Will symbiosis in truly collaborative projects be possible? And how can biodesigners lend a hand to advance this evolution?

Next up are views from researchers.

GIJS DE BOER | CORRESPONDENT DESIGN & DISCOURSE