Combining precedents from biological art, bioethics, biological design and critical design, this class acted as an introduction to biodesign as an emerging field of design. Students became familiar with the idea that life is increasingly used as a medium of expression and intervention in numerous fields such as art, design and architecture.
Each student was given a culture of Physarum polycephalum—a yellow single-celled amoeba that is colloquially known as slime mould—which was their primary design material. Since this studio necessarily involved manipulating another living organism, this class also acted as an introduction to the bioethics of design.
Culturing Physarum Polycephalum by Matthais Widjaja is an diagram showing time required for P. polycephalum to grow.
As students cultured their organisms in their studios they became familiar with two ethical frameworks: Arne Naess’ concept of Deep Ecology and Peter Singer’s Utilitarian Ethics. During studio discussions, students voiced varying ethical concerns about the use of living organisms for design. Some were directly related to the use of P. polycephalum, while others related to broader bioethical issues (e.g. the use of animals as food, industrial farming, ecological rights, anthropogenic climate change). These discussions offered fertile ground for students to translate ethical questions, in which they were personally invested, into concepts and ultimately designs.
In the first half of this class, students worked on individual projects, while the second half was dedicated to one group project inspired from one of the individual projects.
Physarum Polyoculus by Simon Bow. The project examines the tension between the desire humans have to observe another organism’s growth and the contrasting conditions required for that organism to grow. P. polycephalum grows well in damp, moist environments and will not grow in the light. This project created a interactive paradox with P. polycephalum and Arduino-based electronics. The project was devised to be installed in a dark room and when viewers walk in front of the sensor (right) a light turns on to reveal P. polycephalum (left); however, this action inhibits the growth of the amoeba.
Physugi by Tiew Kok Seng explored the symbolic use of P. polycephalum . Drawing from the traditions of wabi-sabi, the celebration of imperfections, and kintsugi, the use of gold to repair broken ceramics, this project looks at living organisms as literal and symbolic medium to express ideas of ‘nature’.
Slime Mould Sound by Lucinda Trevaskis. The project examined the possibility of sonically amplifying the agency of P. polycephalum through translation. Using an Arduino microcontroller to record the electrical activity of P. polycephalum, the data was then translated into low frequency sound.
Canopy by Matthais Widjaja was a speculative concept that explored the possibility of using P. polycephalum, grown on overlapping acrylic sheets, as a canopy to provide shade.
Physarum Eatery by Hae Yun Jung explored how P. polycephalum might be used as food to promote bioethical discussions about food. Drawing inspiration from past precedents of mould as food–’Caca de Luna’ (Enteridium Lycoperdon)—this project treated P. polycephalum as a live gourmet ingredient.
After a class vote, Physarum Eatery, was chosen as a the final project that the whole studio would develop further. The final concept for this project focused on biophilia, a term made popular by E. O. Wilson which describes an affinity between humans and other organisms. Students described their project as a performance that used food to promote a biophilic conciousness and an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between humans and other microorganisms, including P. polycephalum.
The performance focused on introducing P. polycephalum and its habitat to the audience by offering P. polycephalum on oyster mushrooms and a bed of edible dirt made of nuts, rye bread and black olives. It was important that audience members were informed prior to consuming the food that it contained an organism not commonly associated with food in order to allow audience members to develop their own relations with the organism and to navigate their own ethical choices around what types of organisms they consider ethically acceptable to eat.
Physarum Eatery debuted during a school-wide exhibition and two student-performers served over fifty P. polycephalum-based dishes, all of which were consumed throughout the night.