Art and design cannot be told apart according to formalist criteria. A chair does not necessarily design make, and a bas-relief in molded resin that looks like abstract expressionism could actually be the germ of a new mass-produced design for a building façade. To find a subtle principle of distinction, one has to transcend aesthetics and fly into the sphere of ethics: While an artist can choose whether or not to be responsive and responsible towards other human beings, by definition a designer must be. In good design, ethics are as important as aesthetics.
The ethical reverberations of design are part of its nature — positive, progressive, economical, necessary, beautiful, modern. And yet so much contemporary design is about experimenting and tinkering, looking for answers that might not yet have questions attached. Moreover, with new fields of design affecting people at deeper levels — think of the psychological impact of a chair versus that of an interface or an interaction — designers can learn a lot about how to grapple with ethics from scientists.
Two case studies provide us with distinct yet complementary insights: SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the study and critique of life sciences located within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, and Dunne & Raby, a unique design practice based in London.
Oron Catts, the artistic director of SymbioticA, studied product design before undertaking a more dedicated and nimble exploration of deep ethical issues. He is now an artist. Together with Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, he started the Tissue Culture and Art Project, an influential think tank that gives life to some of our most deep-seated dreams and nightmares: autonomous products made of living cells that are not organic replacements of body parts, but rather new designs that use the same tissue engineering technologies. They call them “semi-living entities.” The value of this research is immense and flows into worldwide biotechnology efforts, providing much-needed design support for scientists while stimulating designers’ minds. Equally valuable is the debate that SymbioticA’s creations incite.
In “Design and the Elastic Mind,” the 2008 exhibition at MoMA which I curated, SymbioticA presented two projects: Pig Wings, a group of three mummified wing-sets that had originally been harvested on scaffolds out of pigs’ mesenchymal cells, and Victimless Leather, a semi-living entity. I will never forget VL — I shouldn’t have given it a name, I guess, but as it turns out, that is exactly how the artists expected me to react. VL was the small-scale prototype of a “leather” jacket grown in vitro. Like all in-vitro tissue, it was a living layer supported by a biodegradable polymer matrix, only in this case that matrix was shaped like a miniature coat. The artists started the project in a bioreactor at Columbia University and then brought it to MoMA, where it was installed in the exhibition galleries within its own incubator, fed nutrients, and monitored. At some point during the show, VL started growing too fast and one sleeve almost came apart. It was time to stop it, the artists decided. But did that mean killing it? Was that a transformation from semi-living to undead? That first question was the inkling of an awesome chain reaction, just the first button the artists were able to push. Their work asked: If the things we surround ourselves with every day can be both manufactured and living, growing entities, will we “begin to take a more responsible attitude toward our environment and curb our destructive consumerism?” There were many more buttons, as it turns out, and the conversation about VL became very public and extraordinarily opinionated, involving not only ethical but also religious points of views, along with some misconstructions — VL was not made of stem cells, as some argued. The discussion continues today and VL is now immortal, at least in people’s minds.
As such technologies progress, VL and other entities will undoubtedly raise questions about the cultural and aesthetic implications of biotechnology’s ability to manipulate living systems for human- centered purposes, ranging from vegans eating in-vitro meat to, very simply, the meaning of life. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are among those responding. For many years, they have focused on a new form of design practice that some call Critical Design, others Design for Debate. Dunne has described it as “...a way of using design as a medium to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.”
Design for Debate does not seek to produce immediately “useful” objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios. In an early-2008 interview, Dunne explained, “Usually, designers would make technology more user-friendly, easier to use, more attractive. But as technology is becoming more complex, and the impact it might have on our lives becomes more dramatic, designers are starting to use imaginary design products to debate and discuss future possibilities. Design in that way can facilitate a debate about whether we want these futures or not.” In “Design and the Elastic Mind” Dunne & Raby presented a group of needy and moody robots, light-years from the Jetsons’ superefficient caretaker Rosie, whose neuroses mixed with ours to create a new domestic psychological landscape that 20 years from now could be great fodder for French movie directors. Of course these projects only scratch the surface of Dunne & Raby’s archive, which has had tremendous influence on contemporary design practice worldwide.
As a matter of fact, the duo is also responsible for shaping some of the brightest young design minds on the planet through their role at the Royal College of Art in London, where Raby teaches and Dunne is the head of the design interactions department. In 2007, Dunne presented the students with SymbioticA’s research and launched them into an acrobatic bio-design and ethics exercise, asking them to design the Meat of Tomorrow, based on SymbioticA’s first in-vitro patty. One of the students, James King, designed a beautiful steak based on a cow’s MRI scans. “We’re not just talking about new forms of media,” Dunne said, “but redesigning parts of people, redesigning animals using tissue as a component in a product. I think what design can do is fast forward and imagine what happens when those technologies enter everyday life and what kind of new products might emerge.” Dunne & Raby and SymbioticA have shown us that the dialogue between designers and scientists is mutating design and therefore mutating the world. The implications splinter in all directions, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics being only one of them. Stay tuned.
Originally published March 23, 2009