“SXSW is crazy. Synbio is here to stay.”
Austin, TX. March 13, 2015. Tens of thousands of people are swarming towards the city for 5 days of “tech” and “innovative” talks before letting Austin pulse on other musical vibes. South by Southwest was born in 1987 and started out as a well-regarded music festival. Fast-forward 28 years and SXSW is today so much more. Over the years, it has evolved into a truly unique mix of genres, adding features to its arsenal, such as a cinema festival, an educational festival and the famous SXSW Interactive, which is dedicated to emerging technologies. SXSW is an incredible melting pot of interesting if unlikely associations where (h)ac(k)tivists rub shoulders with corporates, where the McDonald’s stand lies next to the MIT Media Lab, where Kendrik Lamar sings alongside Miley Cyrus. Here mainstream trends, capitalism, government policies are all criticized and praised at the same time.
A plethora of offerings (and media!) literally invade the city’s largest hotels and even restaurants, public places, bars and the iconic Austin Convention Centre. Those events possess a broad appeal and cater to a wide audience, from the casual observer to the more specialized one. It goes without saying: there are must-see events. Think of last year’s videoconference from “Most Wanted” Julian Assange (Wikileaks), this year’s Paola Antonelli’s (Museum of Modern Art) fascinating keynote mixing future and design this year, or even the traditional festival’s closing speech by Bruce Sterling, the science-fiction writer, design fiction voice and son of Austin.
The massive scope of the whole event means that seeing everything and attending everything is sadly wishful thinking at best. Twitter itself (which gained some major recognition in the 2007 edition of SXSW) is bubbling with an endless stream of livefeeds of keynotes, self-promotion and selfies, performance photos, future concerts and the ever popular « free food » schemes. At the end, each person experiences a unique SXSW depending on his/her own sensibilities, interests and… off time serendipity. But all are eager to show their work, find partners and share ideas about artificial intelligence, robots, space, UX design, Internet of Things, wearables, health tech… and now synthetic biology.
A few steps away from the bustling city center, a little house is home to a rather unusual Saturday night. A glass of wine in one hand, pipette and latex glove on the other, get ready for a biohacking night, hosted by the canadian start-up Synbiota! Here, no flashing stroboscopes, we use fluorescent bacteria instead, which attendants learn to prepare and happily make “shine” with the color they fancy. Thanks to this kind of events and by means of toolboxes combining both computer software and biological material, Synbiota wishes to make biotechnology accessible to everybody both in terms of cost and required training. Last year, the start-up won the SXSW accelerator competition in the « Innovative World Technologies » category. However this year, Synbiota is not the only one speaking about synthetic biology anymore and a whole bunch of biohackers, mostly from the US, takes an active part in this SXSW.
Leaving the kitchen, converted in an improvised laboratory, the night goes on with the visitors joining the Moonshine restaurant lounge where the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab is welcoming them for its grand opening night. This decidedly unconventional MIT laboratory encourages original research, blending fields such as design, multimedia and technology. This year, synthetic biology has been chosen as the main focus of its whole festival program.
In a partnership with the MediaLab, BioHacking Safari is cooking up round tables and workshops with the help of MIT MEDIA LAB bio-engineer Charles Fracchia and Genspace (biohackerspace in NYC) co-founder Daniel Grushkin. The central question: how to innovate in biology today? The direction we choose: to mix different fields, people and approaches around biology, and more especially around synthetic biology. The means: some time to share and experiment with passionate figures from diverse background.
How to innovate in biology today?
Through an extensive programme, the 2015 edition of SXSW is the living proof that biotechnology is invading inch by inch every discussion by the smallest crack or interstice, sometimes joining unsuspected application fields. Rob Carlson, an activist for bioeconomy, knows those trends pretty well. He is simultaneously involved in a biotechnology investment fund (Bioeconomy Capital), a consulting firm (Biodesic), the DIYBio.org group (Do-It-Yourself Biology) and many others. His current interests are “drugs, crops and industrial products”. With his book called Biology is technology published in 2011, Rob Carlson opens new perspectives in synthetic biology, and more generally in biology.
Antidiscipline as a driver
Nowadays, biology is not only perceived as a scientific discipline we study, but actually asserts itself as a technology we use. As such, new hands, with vaying degrees of experience, grab a hold of it every day with a strong will to create, thus changing our relationship with it.
Paola Antonnelli, MoMA’s senior curator at the Architecture & Design department and founding director of Research & Development releases stunning examples, such as the Hy-fi project, which won the architecture competition hosted by PS-1, a branch of MoMA. A circular tower was literaly growing in the courtyard of the exhibition place, before being composted at he end of its life. This intriguing temporary installation is made of organic (corn stalks and mycelium) and reflective bricks, the latter helping the former to grow. Built by the design firm The Living, in partnership with companies like Ecovative, this structure tells how architects seize the living world today.
Convinced that in the next few years some knowledge in biology will be standard requirement, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s words take root in our minds when he affirms « It’s not a matter of if you need to learn about biology, it’s when. » And for the MIT Media Lab, the choice has already been made. Biology is there indeed. Tuned up with electronic design. Twisted with speculative design. While creating interfaces and crossroads between disciplines is becoming a more mainstream scientific approach, the Institute teams are compelled to work on an antidisciplinary level. Sometimes through an eye trained to a different field, sometimes by using our own unique and hybrid nature and perception of things. You can have a taste of antidiscipline through Sunanda Sharma’s and Charles Fracchia’s (respectively members of the Mediated Matter group and the Molecular Machines group) experiences, exclusively on display at the Moonshine throughout the SXSW interactive event.
On her counter in the Moonshine lounge, Sunanda, biologist in a composite team, showcases a lab-made biomaterial derived from chitin which is one of the most abundant biopolymer on Earth, especially among crustaceans. From it, the team built a new type of 3D structure, cleverly printed under the appearance of a giant leaf which could lead us to rethink the way we conceive our world…
Right next to her, behind his display stand, we find Charles Fracchia. The man is a trained biologist but his hobbies include electronics and informatics, spurred maybe by his fondness for Iron Man… He develops software and hardware allowing to put a biology experience in context by measuring and recording a number of data linked to parameters that could impact the way the experience is running. Efficiency, timeliness and reproducibility, doing experiments in biology could enter a new era.
Accessibility as a lever
Surfing on a wave of a hacking-tinkering philosophy, the idea of experimenting and innovating in biology gets popularized.
Everyone agrees: when no major investment is needed, when only a garage or a garden shed, little equipment and a few days are all it takes for you to reach the first stage of your prototype, nothing prevents you from getting started and… probably start over again. Blurring the lines between disciplines is a key to promote technological, economical and social innovation. However it needs to be supported by easing the pre-requirements, be they educational, monetary or based on human relations, or even a combination of them.
A group of biohackers is sitting side by side in the Moonshine lounge and, one after the other, each of them is introducing himself in a few words. Mostly from the US, however some European folks are able to join the conversation. Little by little, other curious people take a seat and enlarge what truly started as a round table. The value of people becoming intuitive with technologies and their benefits, by putting them in the hands of every curious individual brings about a consensus.
And then, the Moonshine is starting to showcase scattered small workshops, allowing people to experience Mitch Altman’s meditation masks (through visual and sound pulses) and Backyard Brain’s surprising kits. Tim Marzullo, cofounder of this startup, creatively detects, picks up and uses human or non human body electrical signals, in order to spark interest and an understanding in neurosciences. Through a simple wall and a few cleverly placed electrodes, guests can use their own muscular activity to remote control their neighbor’s hand…
« The best way to learn bioengineering is to do » argues Connor Dickie, Synbiota CEO, who is seizing the opportunity of being at SXSW as a perfect ramp to launch his new crowdfunding campaign (which proved to be successful). And so, DNA tinker studio is adding to their already rich line-up. With this kit, you could be able to invent the next generation of products with synthetic biology. More sophisticated than the former one, this toolbox is easing the process of making not electronic, but biological circuits, and then crafting his own biological “machines”. Bacteria which will emit different scents depending on the ambient temperature? Which could produce medically useful molecules? One question remains… What will yours be like?
Accordingly to Joi Ito’s famous mantra “Demo or Die”, Rob Carlson affirms that in matters of synthetic biology, we are already in the demo phase. However, the perspective of an upscaling still presents obvious challenges, although it should reveal the inventiveness and the obstinacy of the actors. Acculturation, questions of intellectual property, stakes of standardization, encouragements to invest, legal adaptations and reforms are the hot topics discussed amongst the experienced biohackers, affiliates to an institution and all other people standing here.
Art as bridges
« We have a chaotic emerging environment, but it’s happening and fascinating » states Joi Ito. Synthetic biology digs grooves, if not trenches, in which new investigators sow seeds with passion and relevance every day. Artists, designers and writers all draw possible several futures, stage some pasts and narrate the present; but above all they penetrate, tame and manipulate living materials. Bioart is mixing art and biotechnology, as mentioned in a SXSW official panel dedicated to this question. According to its stakeholders, it casts us away from our comfort zone, through its educational role, the unpleasant questions it raises and independently of its eventual border-line legal aspects. It makes things visible and, through that, it creates a unity and necessity of his approaches.
What can we learn about someone from just faint traces of DNA unknowingly left behind, from the saliva on a discarded chewing gum or from a cigarette left in an ashtray on a bar counter? With her project Invisible, the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg surprises her audience at SXSW. Using those samples taken without permission from public spaces, she paints the portraits of those negligent consumers. To protect people from those intrusions, she created an invisibility kit « Erase and Replace » containing a spray which is able to conveniently remove any genetic footprints lying around!
Creating and challenging public imaginary brings back memories of « The Other Dinner », an experimental performance by Chloé Rutzerveld that she demonstrates in part behind her stand in the big room of the Austin Convention Center. At lunch time it is worth going for a little walk to have the chance to taste some intriguing fine chocolates stuffed with…. mice livers collected in a local shop. Thus, Accompanied in this endeavour by Lucas Evers, founder of the Waag Society wetlab in Amsterdam, the pair questions our cultural habits and their evolutions, regarding food and especially meat.
“There is a lot of confusion about where sort of innovation by artists and designers is a visualisation of real innovation and where is design fiction” confides Lucas Evers.
« Nobody tries to play God with biological art, there is a humility and reverence, and it’s nice » assures Paola Antonelli. If for her, the debates around biotechnologies obviously impose ethical reflections, Rob Carlson emphasises the importance of involving people who are in need of tools to reach realistic solutions that are up to their stakes, and not only to rhetoric enthusiasts. When many discussions seem to run in circles, the secret resides in the implementation according to Joi Ito’s principles.
The curtain comes down on the SXSW interactive 2015 of BioHacking Safari. As custom dictates, here too the last words will be Bruce Sterling’s.
A cohesive community has to confront its darkside, whether it is dispersed all over the planet, as the biohacker’s group to whom this advice was given, or transient and local as the community which is reunited by SXSW each year. Waiting for your views on this thought, be ready and let’s meet there in 2016.
Written by :
Quitterie Largeteau @QuitterieL >Text/Sound/Translation
Aurélien Dailly @dailylaurel >Illustration/Photo
Jonathan Lee Tin Wah & Nicolas Séjournant -> Translation