Art, science and technology together: an unusual outlook on life

Hideo Iwasaki presents papers on the interface between science and art during the biology workshop.

Synthetic biology is a new approach to bioengineering. It involves modeling and the construction of organisms at the molecular scale, or the redesign of parts, devices or natural biological systems. It is a technology that seeks specific objectives through an intentional design. Instead of evolutionary pressures, the world of the living beings becomes a product of design choices. Through a fast progress, it has generated expectations to produce new biological applications in medicine, agribusiness, genomics, energy and other areas.

"It is a field that offers a new insight on how to relate to life. Its rapid advancement has resulted in many scientific and philosophical debates because it produces advances that lead to some exaggerations. Therefore, synthetic biology causes interest in some designers and artists involved in biotechnology," said biologist and artist Hideo Iwasaki, from the Waseda University, on the Biology Workshop of the second day of the Intercontinental Academia (ICA).

Martin Grossmann, former director of the IEA-USP and member of the Senior Committee for the ICA, chaired the debates of Iwasaki's presentation and drew attention to the unusual union between biology and art. According to Grossmann, Iwasaki has innovated with the presented theme, a mix of science, technology and design.

Coordinator of the Laboratory for Molecular Cell Network & Biomedia Art at Waseda University, Iwasaki talked about the work of the Synthetics Aesthetics, an experimental project run by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University. In 2010 the most renowned synthetic biologists, artists and social scientists gathered to explore collaborations focused on the conception, construction and understanding of the living world.

Grossmann and Iwasaki debating.

At the time, Iwasaki developed the project "Biogenic Timestamp" in partnership with Oron Catts, from the Aalto University of Helsinki. The work was defined by the microbiologist as a "critique to the hype of synthetic biology, a provocation on the link between the scale of geological time and the biological one."

They worked with tissue culture from cyanobacteria, a group of bacteria that obtains energy by photosynthesis and is among the most primitive forms of life. The community was applied to a computer board, which has undergone the action of these organisms to date. The work was exhibited in Austria and Japan. According to the creators, the experiment shows that the bacteria are able to internalize our technologies and creations, and modify them as they see fit.

Another project, no less surreal by Western standards, is inspired by a relatively ancient habit in Japan, which is to create monuments in memory of insects, snails, plants, various objects and even the spirit of sperms.

Iwasaki showed that in some medical and research institutions, such as the Department of Human Sciences at the Waseda University, there is the habit of annual celebrations held in honor of animals used in experiments. In zoos there are funeral ceremonies for animals that have died. In 1971 a monument was created to honor the spirit of sperms.

Engineering principles applied to the complexity of living systems: biology transformed into a new design material.

Iwasaki thought of a memorial for artificial cells. "I am a microbiologist, so I can finally pray for the bacteria we use in experiments," he compared.

“The memorial service for synthetic cells” is the name of the technical and artistic work by Iwasaki, which will be displayed during the Kenpoku Art Festival 2016, a great show that dialogues with nature and art, incorporating science and technology. It is held in six cities in the northern Ibaraki Prefecture.

According to Iwasaki, his work is scientifically "stimulating, because it forces to think what life is in fact." The two projects that the scientist presented at the workshop seem to handle different things, but they actually "deal with the issue of time and how humans are involved with life," he said.

He cited a paper on the establishment of a bacterial cell from a chemically synthesized genome. "There is no common sense among scientists to answer if it is a living organism or a type of synthetic life. So I see that each one's subjective criterion of what life is is required for this kind of judgment," he added.

Photos: IAR/Nagoya