MAKING_LIFE 2014–2015

Your Synthetic Future

(at the Speed of Light)

Custom made hardware, Zeiss microscope with sample, computer, custom made software

Thierry Bardini, Laura Beloff, Erich Berger, Cecilia Jonsson, Antti Tenetz

Since its inception, over a century ago, synthetic biology has been heavily relying on promises. For instance, one of its main contemporary proponents, J. Craig Venter, has once declared "genome design is going to be a key part of the future." Today, synthetic biologists want to improve on genetic engineering: in their eyes, it is still too much of a craft. Their goal is to make it more predictable, systematic, functional, efficient, and ultimately, cheaper, or, in other words, to do away with the essential "messiness" of life. They essentially promise a life tamed and rationalized, always ready for their re-engineering efforts.

The most interesting feature of synthetic biology, however, does not reside in its capacity to efficiently produce genetically modified organisms but rather in its ability to breach the once clear and impenetrable frontier that has kept apart the analog and digital modes of existence. It is exactly what J. Craig Venter means when he says that he wants to digitize biology, to be able to convert the analog DNA code into digital code, and vice versa. In the promises of tomorrow's synthetic biology's achievements, the digital and the analog modes of existence mesh seamlessly.

Our piece proposes to elaborate on these two essential characteristics of synthetic biology: the art of promises and the digitization of life. In this perspective, we have built an oracular machine devoted to unravel your synthetic future.

Traditionally, the mantic arts have often made use of animals, dead or alive, either in parts or through the study of their behavior. This piece modestly proposes to add to this long series of well-established cultural practices, through the careful staging of an interactive prophetic apparatus based on the conjunction of three ecologies: a live medium with aquatic creatures under a microscope, a digital ecology with simulated flocking creatures, and a human-machine user interface (microphone, switch and screen).


We have built a biocomputing machine, which, without any human interpretation required, answers directly the questions raised by the contingent futures of synthetic biology. The seer is the apparatus, directly interfacing with the future seeker. In our system, at rest, the analog and the digital ecologies mingle: the digital creatures flock and follow the analog creatures. When the visitor asks his or her question out loud in a microphone, the two ecologies are disconnected, and the flocking behavior in the synthetic ecology is guided towards one quadrant of the screen, arbitrarily assigned, in a OuiJa board-like design, to one out of four possible answers: yes, no, probably no, and maybe yes. Instead of reacting to the analog creatures of the live medium, the digital creatures react to the analog waves of the visitor's voice. Their behavior becomes personal.

This piece thus encourages the visitors to reflect on the contingent futures of synthetic biology: its main value is in the questions themselves.


Synteettiseen Tulevaisuuteesi (valon nopeudella)

Elektroniikkaa, Zeiss mikroskooppi ja näyte, tietokone, ohjelma tietokoneelle

Thierry Bardini, Laura Beloff, Erich Berger, Cecilia Jonsson, Antti Tenetz

Kolme erillistä ekologiaa yhdistyvät tässä teoksessa ennustus-koneeksi, joka koostuu mikroskoopin kautta välittyvistä vesieliöistä elinympäristössään, ekosysteemissä parveilevista digitaalisista olioista ja ihmisen + koneen muodostamasta kokonaisuudesta (mikrofooni, kytkin ja näyttö). Käyttäjien äänen esittämät kysymykset ohjailevat tässä systeemissä olevien digitaalisten olioiden parveilua. Eläimiä, joko eläviä tai kuolleita, kokonaisia tai niiden osia, on perinteisesti käytetty tulevaisuuden ennustamiseen. Näiden sijasta tässä teoksessa oraakkelin roolissa toimivat tämän päivän uudet synteettiset ekologiat. Synteettisen biologian pääajatuksia seuraten, myös tässä teoksessa nämä ekologiat murtautuvat rajan lävitse, joka aikoinaan sijaitsi selkeänä analogisen ja digitaalisen olemassaolomuotojen välissä.

Teos kannustaa yleisöä pohtimaan synteettisen biologian monia mahdollisia tulevaisuuksia: teoksen arvo ja merkitys ovat nimenomaan yleisön itsensä esittämissä kysymyksissä.