Living Design

Revital Cohen’s The Immortal

This is an introduction to the work of various designers and artists that can be described as ‘transhuman’. It is appeared in Polish in Autoportret in autumn 2012.

A series of life support machines were plumbed together in London over the summer. A heart-lung machine, a dialysis machine, an empty incubator, a mechanical ventilator and an intraoperative cell salvage machine were linked by tubes and wires.  Electrical currents, oxygen and artificial blood (albeit in the form of saline water) pumped through these channels. Pulsing lights and a low hum – signs of constant exertion – filled the gallery at the Wellcome Institute where this series of interlocked machines was exhibited. Revital Cohen’s project presented the unsettling prospect of life support machines organized as an interdependent system; in fact, as a kind of body. Each machine manages what doctors call a ‘vital function’, the biological processes on which life depends directly. Entitled ‘The Immortal’ (on film here), Cohen’s project seems to suggest the possibility that we can sustain eternal life, a deep-seated human fantasy. Yet life itself was missing.

Artificial hand, from Ambroise Paré’s Instrumenta chyrurgiae et icones anathomicae (Surgical Instruments and Anatomical Illustrations), Paris, 1564.­
i-Limb ultra from Touch Bionics

The various machines which have been conjoined to make up ‘The Immortal’ are all forms of prostheses. They were designed and manufactured to compensate for weakness, failure or deficiencies in the human body. They even resolve matters of doctrine. The intraoperative cell salvage machine recycles a patient’s own blood during operations, satisfying the prohibition of blood transfusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the Wellcome Institute exhibition shows, the history of this branch of human ingenuity is long and often unhappily circular. French surgeon Ambroise Paré designed mechanical hands to replace those amputated on the battlefields of sixteenth century France.  His 1564 manual, Instrumental Chirurgiae et Icones Anatomicae, was displayed close to Touch Bionics’ new ‘’, a highly sensitive powered prosthetic hand, often worn by veterans who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Replicating the subtle and complex movements of the human hand with remarkable accuracy, the i-Limb ultra is supplied with different ‘skins’. One is translucent, allowing its owner to show off his or her hand’s internal mechanisms. By putting the i-Limb ultra in the company of Paré’s historic designs, the curator’s point is clear: whilst electronics and engineering have advanced to extraordinary degrees of refinement, warfare remains brutal and primitive.

The title of the Wellcome Institute show suggests that prosthetics offer ‘Superhuman’ potential, that is to extend our human capacities and abilities by incorporating technology into our bodies. The promise of what is often called transhumanism is not just that we can repair our failing bodies but we can become more than human. Might you elect to replace your birth-given hands with prosthetic ones if they were stronger, more nimble, more musical, more beautiful? Whilst this kind of fantasy, of course, has long been the realm of science fiction novels and Marvel comics it seems to be increasing within reach.

For some commentators, one of the litmus tests for transhumanism will be the moment when prosthetics or implants are preferred over the original human organ or limb which they replace. When people choose to amputate healthy parts of their body in favour of prostheses, we will have crossed into the transhuman age. But this is, perhaps, already an out-of-date view. Rapid developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are perhaps the most important catalysts in the creation of the transhuman.

This threshold has been foreshadowed by lots of speculative thinking. Ray Kurzweil’s prophesy of the impending arrival of what he called ‘the Singularity’, the moment when artificial intelligence reaches human levels of intelligence, has lead to much dizzying speculation about the gradual blending of the biological human brain with computer technology. One day soon, wetware will meet hardware. Commentators talk with enthusiasm about the prospect of the development of cybernetic brains within a generation, a kind of a neural external hard drive which gives its owner to have perfect recall, photographic memory or access to the entire content of a library. Perhaps as we face the overload of data which seems to be an inevitable byproduct of progress, the cyber brain will be a necessity. Trajectories extrapolated from current development in genetics seem to suggest the possibility of ‘upgrading’ future children to be disease-free. Others enthuse about the dramatic extension of human life. The predicted development of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic organs has been accompanied by dizzying projections about future average life expectancy … 120, 140, 200 years or more.

Whilst these scenarios might seem distant prophesies, traces of new nature are here. Biochemistry is widely used to improve intelligence: one in ten students polled at Cambridge University in 2009 admitted to using cognitive enhancement drugs in the course of their studies. And other species are being transformed by genetic engineering. We are already able engineer mosquitoes to produce sterile progeny. If they become extinct, the threat of diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria which they transmit will diminish too. With the future of nature looking increasingly man-made, commentators are keen to describe our era as a post-evolutionary age. In other words, the slow evolutionary processes that occur through natural selection have been accelerated by new technologies that originate in the lab.

The books and articles dealing with the prospect of Transhumanism could fill a library (or perhaps a cyber brain). Nevertheless, little has been said or written about its impact on the practice of design. After all, for much of the last century, design had an easily recognizable form. Working in studios on drawing table and then computers, designers created the forms of our vehicles, tools and products. Employed by manufacturers, their task was to make the things which fill our world work better, look more attractive or be more sellable. The ethical questions were, on the whole, rather uncontroversial. Was one material more sustainable than another? Was it right to design things which might hurt people? Now when design can mean the reorganization of nature and even of ourselves, the stakes seem higher.

Over the last few years, Transhumanism has begun to attract the attention of designers. For some, it offers new opportunities for speculative enquiry into the future, and perhaps even a chance to reclaim a visionary role for design which has been extinguished by (the very real) pressures of sustainability or the narrow parameters of the market. For others, the laboratory – and not the factory or the studio – is place where the future is being made now.

The challenge for designers in this brave new world is to define their role. Many of the projects which consider transhumanism – like Cohen’s ‘The Immortal’ –occupy the border zone between art and design, not that this concerns Cohen: ‘The place I am coming from is design thinking. I see that in my process, in the way I work and in the way I approach these objects, redesigning them objects and rebuilding parts of them. But if they are defined as art, this also is fine by me.’


Others see the laboratory a place where design can have the greatest impact. , a UK based project to develop bacterial biosensors which respond to pollutants by changing colour, is the product of a collaboration between designers and scientists. For Daisy Ginsberg – one of the designers working on the project – synthetic biology and the other new fields of scientific inquiry which are already changing our world need to be invigorated with new ideas about design too: ‘Synthetic biology is modeling itself on an old fashioned view of design’. For Ginsberg, this means ‘designing things out of context’ with little regard for ‘lifespan and disposal … They are making bacteria produce unnatural things because they fit in systems which already exist. What is required is ‘a much bigger vision’. Design thinking means eschewing big abstractions like humanity for clearer thinking about how humans behave and shape their world. That bigger vision means thinking more widely and even politically about the uses to which synthetic biology might be put.

The E. chromi project – like many transhumanist design schemes – uses the timeline as a method for imaging future applications of technology. Its authors have projected a long future for bacterial biosensors. By 2039, they suggest that consumers will be able to buy yoghurts which seed these warning signs into their stomachs. Thirty years later Google, they suggest, will release pollution-mapping bacteria that will stain the sky red when pollution reaches critical levels. In one sense, there is nothing new in all of this. Design has often claimed an anticipatory role. Much modernist design at the beginning of the twentieth century was motivated by a strong sense of the inevitably of progress. The task of the progressive designer was to bring the future into being. Even in the commercially-minded world of the present, designers are commissioned today to give form to the things and spaces we will need tomorrow. Whether the cycles are short (a few months in the case of new mobile phones) or a long (decades envisaged by transport schemes), they are always rooted in the technological and economic limitations of the present. Looking more than fifty or one hundred years ahead, Ginsberg and her colleagues are proposing go beyond the extrapolation of fact. And, like much futurology today, the E-Chromi timeline expresses an ambivalent view of progress. When Google’s warning clouds cross national borders in 2069, in their scenario, a diplomatic crisis is triggered.

Arne Hendriks

If such schemes have little immediate prospect of being materialized as products, speculative design does not, however, necessarily mean useless design. Some designers have turned to forms of transhumanism to ask important questions about our relationship to our environment. In a witty project entitled ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, Dutch designer Arne Hendriks asks us to consider what the benefits of reducing the average height of our species to 50 cms. The broad trend for humanity to grow taller as a result of better diets and healthcare means that we need more energy, more food and more space. Affluence too seems to produce excessive growth too. ‘While in most developed countries family size has been shrinking’ notes Hendriks, ‘the average home has actually grown in size’.  The resource benefits of downsizing the human are clear. And, as Hendriks points out, there have been many people for whom 50 cms is a natural height.  The social prejudices against shortness are a form of collective height dysphoria – an excessive preoccupation with size. Hendriks’ project – in the form of talks, exhibits and articles – sets out to survey the biological means for reducing the size of humanity. This might mean changing diet or living in a warmer climate (where people are on average smaller) or it might be a matter of design: embryo screening would allow future parents to screen their babies for size.

If the proposal that future progeny might be ‘screened’ sets alarm bells ringing, reverberating with echoes of China’s one child policy or even eugenics in the Third Reich, that is Hendriks’ point. He calls ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ an exercise in ‘speculative modeling’, a lesson that he has learned from historians and futurologists who have asked ‘what if’ history had taken a different course. ‘The what-if factor makes it possible to ignore some of the immediate practical objections’ says Hendriks, ‘and paint our desired picture of the future, and enter it. It enables us to practice and prepare for future scenarios, and to map any difficulties that are hard to encounter in a more cerebral approach. Also, perhaps, it’ll make some of us excited about the new possibilities’.

Bullet-proof skin

6a00d8341bf67c53ef014e8acd355a970d-800wiDesigners have long drawn inspiration from nature. Often this is a matter of aesthetics. And, occasionally, it is the ‘genius’ of nature on which a claim is made. The champions of biomorphic design claim that nature has already solved many of the problems faced by engineers and technologists through billions of years of ‘research’ otherwise known as evolution. The structures, growth patterns and behaviour of living forms can teach designers how to shape our world with greater efficiency and utility.

Of course, the recent fashion for biomorphic design has taken hold at the moment when nature no longer seems natural. By contrast, Artist Jalila Essaïdi has developed a ‘post-evolutionary’ approach to the development of a new material. Spider silk – a material long-celebrated for its elasticity and strength – can now be produced by splicing the spider’s silk-making genes into goats. The protein can be harvested from their milk. Working with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands, Jalila Essaïdi seeded this material with human skin cells. The resulting in vitro skin grown in a lab at the University of Leiden is ‘bulletproof’.

Essaïdi  then arranged for the skin to be shot with .22 calibre long rifle bullet (adopting the name of this project, ‘2.6g 329m/s’, from the weight and size of the bullet). It performed as well as a bullet proof vest, though did not survive the experiment. Her intention was not just to test her new material but also our preoccupation with ‘safety’. ‘By creating this “bulletproof” human skin I want to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety’ she says. ‘With this work I want to show that safety in its broadest sense is a relative concept, and hence the term bulletproof’. Superheroes have skins and suits which can deflect bullets. But what underpins this fantasy? In what circumstances would you need bulletproof skin?

E. chromi

In the summer of 2009 a group of students working in labs at Cambridge University spent their time working out how to make bacteria secrete coloured pigments. Taking genetic material, available as BioBricks (standardized sequences of DNA), they modified E. coli bacteria to produce different colours. The project showed how bacteria could be turned into biosensors, registering the presence of different pollutants.

Whilst the science was relatively clear, the purposes of this new technology was not. With designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King, they set out trying to imagine future uses. As Ginsberg says, the narrative drive in most applications of new science is ‘save some poor person in a distant country’. But they decided to bring this technology back home’ by designing a timeline proposing ways that E. chromi, as they named this modified bacteria, could develop over the course of the next century. The scenarios that they came up with started with the immediate and familiar, such as testing polluted water in the developing world, and ended with high drama of war, terrorism and new types of weather.

Designers know how to make objects which will be meaningful and useful. Ginsberg and King – working with the science students – imagined commercial applications for E. chromi in the form of products. They included the Scatalog, a cheap portable testing kit for disease, predicted for 2039. After being ingested as yogurt, the E.Chromi will colonise the human gut. Coloured excrement would become a early-stage warning system for different human diseases.

Designers also know how to make vivid and attention-grabbing images and objects. The Scatalog – in the form of a suitcase with compartments of coloured faeces – drew considerable attention in the national press. The benefits of this kind of this kind of attention is, from Ginsberg’s perspective, rather mixed: ‘When you are working with the science itself, the speculation can be so grounded in realistic technology that the it becomes confused with reality. Even though we’d set the Scatalog at about half way along our time line, we’d given it physical form. It eclipsed the rest of the project and was confused with the reality of the project, which is the pigment itself.’ ‘This made me realize, she continues, ‘that part of the complexity of working with speculation is that when it goes out into the world, it can start to define reality itself. The speculation becomes real and now there are several scientists trying to make the poo real.’

The Immortal

Trained as a designer on the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London, Revital Cohen has devoted much attention to the machines used to support life. ‘The Immortal’ is Cohen’s most recent exploration of the theme. She has organised a series of life-support machines to pump air and liquids in sequence, suggesting a biological structure or perhaps even a body. The technofantasy of the cyborg has long occupied a central place in science fiction. A patient attached to a kidney dialysis machine or a new born baby in an incubator are his real and rather mundane cousin.

When used in medical care, these industrial machines typically disappear into the background. They only hold the attention of the doctors and nurses who use them or perhaps the patients who are wired into them. ‘Designed and created to perform a single, most meaningful function’ says Cohen, ‘we never subject these devices to a critical investigation as industrial products within the context of material culture’. Styling, branding and the other attention-demanding features of modern design have little place in this world. ‘I don’t know if they can be defined as commodities, as treatments, as products or as computers  .. it depends on who is selling and who is buying. In certain parts of the world they are commodities and commercial products. In other places, they are just governmental tools and outside of the market. So they have their own logic according to politics.’

The challenges faced by Cohen in securing these machines for display in London reveal much about the priorities and politics of health care. ‘Its interesting that a dialysis machine very easy and cheap to get hold of’, she says, ‘but an infant incubator is almost impossible because apparently in the Third World they are in most demand. The emphasis there is on saving the young rather than that old.’


Jarosław Kozakiewicz’s 2011 film ‘R/evolution’ takes as its point of inspiration the recent discovery that Oriental Hornets harvest the sun’s energy using their own solar batteries. The insect’s exoskeleton contains many oval-shaped interlocking protrusions which trap sunlight, like microscopic batteries. These hornets are the only known species which collect energy in this fashion.

728_2111_articlesKozakiewicz has long practiced in the space between art and architecture, often drawing insights from nature and natural science. The body has been the subject and the point of origin of many of his schemes for buildings, artworks and even landscapes. In 2007 Kozakiewicz adapted his ideas about the common geometry of the body and the cosmos to reshape a postindustrial landscape in Boxberg, Germany, in the form of a left ear. More recently, he designed observation tower overlooking the Warta river, deriving its polyhedral form from the arrangements of the orifices of the human body.

‘R/evolution’ projects a futuristic vision in which humanity is also equipped with solar panels. Silvery panels seem to grow across the shoulders. The precise nature of augmentation is not specified: are these panels worn or grown? Similarly the circumstances in which energy needs to be trapped in this way are not explained. With the sun beating down on Earth, humanity seems to need to draw its energy directly from sunlight rather than through digestion. Where have the plants and animals on which mankind feeds gone? Although presented in the manner of a documentary film, ‘R/evolution’ raises more questions than it answers. Like many works which explore transhumanism, Kozakiewicz’s futuristic project seems to walk a line between both promise and anxiety.

As the title of the short film suggests, we are on the threshold of a post-evolutionary age when the slow cycles of evolution are accelerated by human intervention. The behavior of the hornets living in large communities resembles, in some respects, that of mankind. Kozakiewicz’s draws attention to the aggressive mass behavior of both species.


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