Like any artifact of culture, design objects are often much more than the sum of their parts. Their forms and materials crystallize thought processes, tools, desires, and imagined futures, both near and far. Indeed, a group of design works that were added to MoMA’s collection in early June far transcend their materials—and in doing so, help us shape individual and collective perspectives on the changing world around us all.
One of the new arrivals at MoMA is Baskets, a series of three delicate, sculptural designs resulting from a collaboration between the architectural studio Aranda\Lasch and Terrol Dew Johnson, a nationally recognized Tohono O’odham basket weaver. In 2004, Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch were recent graduates of Columbia University’s architecture program, where they had been knee-deep in digital design, software, and computer screens. That winter, they made a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, where they happened upon an exhibition dedicated to the art of basket weaving. The pair recognized almost immediately in these ancient and beautiful analog craft processes a connection to the digital algorithms with which they were experimenting. Their resulting project, Baskets, explores algorithmic design as a continuum stretching from the computer-aided techniques in design and architecture—outlined in their influential 2005 manifesto, Pamphlet Architecture #27: Tooling—back through the creative traditions of one of the world’s oldest material practices.
These works were created via a reciprocal and extended collaborative partnership between them and Johnson, whose work they saw for the first time in the weaving exhibition. Over many months, Aranda and Lasch digitized patterns described by Johnson and, in response, Johnson made physical the digital algorithms provided by the architects. The trio even went out into the Arizona desert together to collect materials for the works in the series that Johnson made. (Others were 3-D printed.)
Together, they produced a collection of experimental woven constructions that highlight parallels between craft, design, and architecture, digital and analog algorithm-based processes, repetitive manual and automated practices, and different methods of knowledge sharing. Rooted in the tradition of experimental architecture and design practice, we can think of these works like three-dimensional architectural exploratory sketches that investigate how advanced computational methods and ancient algorithmic codes can be used to foster contemporary architecture and design.
Algorithms are, in many ways, the basis of life itself—nature is predicated on sets of biological instructions that create the patterns, codes, and frameworks of our world at micro and macro scales. During the same acquisition meeting that welcomed Baskets, MoMA acquired a digital rendering and two 3-D printed models of the “Autodesk Virus”—or Synthetic Phi-X174 bacteriophage, as it is known in the lab—which uses design and science to synthetically replicate the chemical instructions in DNA.
Phi-X174 is an artificially produced virus that is harmless to humans but capable of destroying the cells of the E. coli bacteria. The virus stands at the confluence of design, science, and technology in a field called synthetic biology, whereby the core materials and processes that underpin the life cycle of all living beings become artificially replicable by humans and, consequently, a building block for design. (We devoted an earlier post to a public program held at the museum on this subject in fall 2014.) The Phi-X174 bacteriophage is particularly important to the history of synthetic biology. It was the first DNA-based genome to be sequenced (in 1977), the first to be completely artificially synthesized (in 2003), and the first to self-replicate once inserted in a host cell (in 2010).
Autodesk is well known for AutoCAD, the software it developed and introduced in 1982 that has become a near ubiquitous staple for architects and designers globally. In 2014, the Autodesk team of Andrew Hessel and Jackie Yuan, along with Dr. Paul Jaschke of Stanford University, demonstrated that the synthetic replication of Phi-X174—once a lengthy and multimillion-dollar process—could be simplified and made accessible via software. Their Viral Design Studio is based on similar principles to AutoCAD. The Autodesk Virus is therefore both a design tool (a software program) and a design object (the synthetic virus itself). Both could radically widen real-world design applications of synthetic biology, from personalized drug development to target cancers to development for less beneficial purposes like bio-warfare.
Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen’s Kingyo Kingdom and Sensei Ichi-Gō also investigate—on deeply critical terms—the confluence and tensions of biology, design, and technology. Cohen and Van Balen both studied in the Design Interactions program at the Royal College of Art in London, and established their experimental art practice in 2008. Kingyo Kingdom (kingyo is Japanese for “goldfish”) is a documentary film that traces the biological design of the ranchu fish, a descendent of the carp, across centuries of Japanese culture. The ranchu, prized for certain carefully produced variegations of color and a form engineered to be admired from an aerial viewpoint, was first developed in the Edo period in Japan. Its present-day incarnations represent a fetishization of form where biology has been manipulated in pursuit of aesthetics (a popular ranchu head shape is that of a shishi, a mythological lion).
Cultures across the globe have manipulated biology via animal breeding and plant hybridization for millennia. Cohen and Van Balen’s documentary highlights the ancient tools, criteria, trade, ceremonies, and contemporary economies inherent to this biological design process in the 21st century. The most successful goldfish specimens demonstrate the human control of natural biological processes, much like the standardized manufacture of objects heralded man’s control over the physics of industrialization in the early 20th century. The processes and rationalizations of the postwar period have, today, become inextricably linked to the new tools of bioengineering.
Sensei Ichi-Gō (“person born before another” + “the first, number one”) is a work in two parts, each of which extends the exploration of designing biology begun in Kingyo Kingdom. In collaboration with a science laboratory, the first part produced an “edition” of 45 sterile goldfish—no longer animals capable of participating in the reproductive cycle of life but, instead, objects of design. The second part of the work consists of blueprints for an assembly line apparatus that, like Cohen and Van Balen’s 75 Watt—also part of MoMA’s collection—makes visible the processes of fabrication and assembly of this standardized design and replication of life. Unlike 75 Watt, in this case the designers are absolute that this apparatus will never be turned on, a directive meant to underline their concern about our human capacity to use it well.
These latter designs by Autodesk and Cohen and Van Balen deliberately prompt questions that are widely germane to the field of design—questions of access, dissemination, and deployment of new tools—and yet are given new urgency and context by their authors. Therefore, when we acquired these works we asked three individuals with relevant yet highly different types of expertise to respond to our proposal to bring such works into MoMA’s collection.
Dr. Nita Farahany, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, a professor of law and philosophy, and the director of the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University, underlined how important it was that such works be shown in the MoMA galleries. She told our acquisitions committee, “With these unprecedented opportunities and achievements [in the field of synbio] comes an obligation to consider carefully both the promise and potential perils that they could realize…. Adding these works to the museum’s collection fosters greater public dialogue and democratic deliberation to ensure that synthetic biology advances as good science.”
Autodesk Distinguisher Researcher Andrew Hessel, of the team behind Phi-X174, reminded us that we all design life on a daily basis: “When we choose to have children, plant a garden, put fish in an aquarium, or select a desirable trait in a plant or behavior in an animal, we are exercising our control over living systems. Conversely, when we choose to go to war, slaughter an animal for food or other materials, harvest a crop, or even disinfect a surface, again we are exercising this control. Biological engineering gives us new, more specific tools for understanding and manipulating living things.”
And respected design theory professor Clive Dilnot underlined the fact that, to a great extent, our daily lives are now predicated on a world where it is very difficult to discern what is “natural” and what is “artificial,” whether we are talking about the way we design our food, our clothes, our cities, or our children.
These new works are diverse in origin and intent, but each one allows us to better understand in unique and compelling ways the importance of process to designers and users, whether for practical reasons such as iteration and experimentation or as a conceptual avenue of speculation or imagination. Alongside process, this group of works also asks us to reconsider the tools and technologies of contemporary design, specifically the algorithms that underpin computer-aided design software and the biological building blocks of synthetic biology. Both come with ancient roots and contemporary existential questions that we look forward to raising with you when these works go on display in the MoMA galleries. As Hessel said when we asked him if he thought his team’s work, and the attendant questions it raises, belonged at MoMA, “If not museums, then where?”