6 results for “Next Generation”

Next Generation: Exploring the vegetal cyborg with Marie Declerfayt

NextNature.net
January 20th 2020

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Want to see your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Marie Declerfayt is a recent graduate from Design Academy Eindhoven. What follows is an edited version of her thesis relating to her graduate project, Botanical Bodies. Playing with the boundaries between human and vegetal existence, Declerfayt's speculative project creates space for us to …

Showcase your work on nextnature.net!

NextNature.net
January 6th 2020

Are you a recent graduate or young maker who feels your work deserves a spotlight? Does your project seek to understand how technology becomes so omnipresent, complex, intimate and autonomous – a nature of its own?

You are the Next Generation, and we are looking for you!

Next Nature will be launching an open platform to showcase your work and stimulate discussion. We are welcoming submissions that can enrich and challenge current ways of thinking about our future with technology.…

Next Generation: Why Annie Larkins’ egg project is essential for future food thinking

Freya Hutchings
November 29th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

For her MA Material Futures graduate project, designer Annie Larkins set herself the impossible challenge of reverse engineering the humble chicken egg from scratch... That is, without a chicken.

The project started as a response to concern for the environment, an interest in …

Next Generation: Unleashing nature’s untapped potential with Amelie Unger

Freya Hutchings
November 17th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Continuing our Next Generation series is Amelie Unger, a recent design graduate who draws design solutions from nature's untapped potential. Unger is a recent MA Interior Architecture graduate from the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Her fascinating perspective calls for a new approach …

Next Generation: Biophilic design with Daniel Elkayam

Freya Hutchings
October 29th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Meet Daniel Elkayam, a fresh-faced Industrial Design graduate, based in Jerusalem, Israel. For his graduation project MAYMA, Elkayam worked with algae in ways that implore us to "imagine a world in which we harness nature in our favor without harming it," as the …

Next Generation: Get to know Valerie Daude

Ruben Baart
October 17th 2019

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Kicking off this series is Valerie Daude, a recent MA graduate in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). She is interested in how gut bacteria play critical roles in maintaining our human health in many aspects, and aims to understand how …

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Want to see your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Marie Declerfayt is a recent graduate from Design Academy Eindhoven. What follows is an edited version of her thesis relating to her graduate project, Botanical Bodies. Playing with the boundaries between human and vegetal existence, Declerfayt's speculative project creates space for us to imagine how plant-human hybridization may transform our ways of engaging and living intimately with ecosystems in embodied ways.

Botanical Bodies: an essay by Marie Declerfayt

Botanical Bodies is a speculative design scenario that investigates the possibility of using plants as a raw material for the creation of human-compatible organs. Scientific progress in understanding complex living organisms has made it possible to engineer life, and the hybridization of species has become a designed process. This project explores how plant-human hybridization might become a necessity for preserving ecosystems endangered by human activity. 

Using bones and wood as a case study for this possible blend, Botanical Bodies looks at the implications of human symbiosis with the vegetal kingdom. Through extracting a wooden bone from a living tree and implantating it into the human body, this work imagines how the distinctions between humans and plants, crowds and forests, bone and wood may fade away towards a new synergy. 

Whereas the post-human is usually imagined as a blend of the organic and the digital, human and technology, the possibility for humans to merge with vegetal life is becoming a reality in today’s scientific landscape. What if the human of the future becomes more plant than robot, more connected with the environment rather than taking advantage of it, more prone to merging with other life forms rather than seeking to stand out?

The vegetal cyborg

Using digital and mechanical prosthesis to repair damaged organs, enhance skills, and acquire new properties is something dominant in current narratives of human improvement. Whilst this direction is slowly becoming a reality (i.e chip implantation, mechanical hearts), other possibilities to enhance the human body are being researched. 

Progress in the field of synthetic biology (design and construction of new biological entities) makes it possible to imagine new ways of modifying the human body. Previously overlooked organisms, ranging from bacteria to plants, can now be engineered to gain new functions and serve designed purposes.

"Previously overlooked organisms, ranging from bacteria to plants, can now be engineered to gain new functions and serve designed purposes."

The similarities in structure between human organs and plants has become a focus for scientists around the world. For example, one study has combined cardiac tissue and spinach (using decellularized plants as perfusable tissue engineering scaffolds, 2017, Gershlak-Hernandez-Fontana, Worcester Polytechnic Institute), and another has explored using rattan wood for bone growth (From Wood to bone: multi-step process to convert wood hierarchical structures into scaffolds for bone tissue engineering, 2009, Tempieri-Srio-Ruffini-Celloti-Lesci-Roveri). 

While scientists are working with very precise questions and with microscopic but functioning samples, speculating about the possibility of modifying the human body with vegetal matter raises all kinds of questions concerning the ways we relate to our bodies, the environment, and what it means to be human.

Wooden bones 

My decision to focus on using bones as a site for human-vegital merging is inspired by their characteristics: they are a structure crucial for our mobility, they are the slowest renewing organs of the human body (taking up to 10 years), and are closely tied to the human immune system. We attribute much importance to our bones; what happens when this importance becomes linked to other life forms?

"We attribute much importance to our bones; what happens when this importance becomes linked to other life forms?"

We are all intimately familiar with our bones in terms of their shape, the movements they allow, the structure they create, however, we don’t visually see them as a material in the way we interact with our skin, for example. Given that they remain unseen, wooden bones have similarities to human bones in terms of their texture, warmth and weight. Although metal is traditionally used to repair bones, it always acts as a support rather than seamlessly blending into the body. Wood as an organic matter seems more likely to be accepted by the body as it can merge with existing tissues.

The separation of species

What changes if we consider wood not as an unchangeable material but as an organic, evolving, growing matter extracted from a tree that can support and grow within the human body? We can then enter another perspective: the possibility of becoming a chimera with a plant.

As anthropologist Anna Lauwenhaupt has written, hybrids between species have historically been perceived as an aberration : 

“Enlightenment Europe...tried to banish monsters. Monsters were identified with the irrational and the archaic. Category-crossing beings were abhorrent to Enlightenment ways of ordering the world. Later on, rationalization meant individualization, the creation of distinct and alienated individuals, human and non-human.

Individualizing our bodies from our environment has created a separation between living beings, where to be human is to demonstrate difference, where taking advantage of other species rather than collaborating with them has become the norm. Therefore, we continue to see trees as a means for the production of wood for heating, shelter, cooking. Conventional uses of wood have become so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine another relation with it.

However, it is interesting to consider how the perceived autonomy of the human body can be easily challenged. For example, there are more foreign cells in the human body (microbes) than human cells, yet I still call myself a human. Moreover, wood and bones share very similar structures on a microscopic level (in terms of mechanical strength, size and structure), making the engineering of wooden bones far from being pure speculation.

"The perceived autonomy of the human body can be easily challenged."

Artist-sholars Elaine Gan and Niels Budandt evoke this perception:

“The imagined autonomy of the individual was tied to the autonomy of the species. Each species was thought to rise or fall on its own merits, that is, through the fitness of the individuals it produced. […] Today the autonomy of all these units has come under question  […] We can’t segregate our species nor claim distinctive status - as a body, a genome, or an immune system. And what if evolution selects for relations among species rather than “individuals”?”

If we understand ourselves as relative to other beings, alternatively we can perceive ourselves as part of a broad, interconnected network of living things, rather than as individuals defined by our seemingly unique characteristics. So, could we engage in a new relationship with the vegetal world by merging with it?

Creating a zero sum game

Why would such a hybridization the way I depict it (transplantation after transplantation, slowly merging into the vegetal world and becoming a new kind of chimera, a blend of tree and human tissues) be desirable?

And how do we reach a level of symbiosis, where all organisms involved gain something from this interaction? From a human perspective, there is a lot we could gain from becoming a bit more plant. On top of being able to replace our bones with organic matter that can be easily cultivated, the possibility to access plant awareness is tempting - we are learning more and more about how trees perceive their environment, how they can communicate with their peers and other species, how they feel pain, and respond to danger.

"From a human perspective, there is a lot we could gain from becoming a bit more plant. "

This broadening of human perception could be a gateway for connecting with all kinds of other species and perspectives, towards readjusting our relations in ecosystems currently endangered by a long history of damaging, anthropocentric activity. As for plants, what would they have to gain if humans felt more like them? Even though we are unable to perceive their needs from our limited perspective, we may be able to interact and exist with vegetal life in profound new ways.

If our symbiosis with other organisms is characterized by care and respect, we can strike a better balance between the worlds of human and non-human others. Indeed, blurring species boundaries might help us go beyond our conception of the vegetal world as a passive, unconscious resource for human use, and towards a shared, embodied existence of cooperation, collaboration and conscientiousness.

"Blurring species boundaries might help us go beyond our conception of the vegetal world as a passive, unconscious resource for human use, and towards a shared existence."


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Are you a recent graduate or young maker who feels your work deserves a spotlight? Does your project seek to understand how technology becomes so omnipresent, complex, intimate and autonomous – a nature of its own?

You are the Next Generation, and we are looking for you!

Next Nature will be launching an open platform to showcase your work and stimulate discussion. We are welcoming submissions that can enrich and challenge current ways of thinking about our future with technology.

The showcase allows any kind of creators to upload your work for possible publication. All submissions are reviewed. Creative responses are never static; they are constantly shifting, merging and adapting as we venture into the unknown. We want to make sure that you, as the Next Generation, are at the forefront.

We are calling for all boundary-crossing creative interventions, disruptions and diversions to get the recognition they deserve.

So be bold, get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate the future together.

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

For her MA Material Futures graduate project, designer Annie Larkins set herself the impossible challenge of reverse engineering the humble chicken egg from scratch... That is, without a chicken.

The project started as a response to concern for the environment, an interest in vegan alternatives and sustainable food production, as well as a genuine appreciation for the complexity and dynamism of eggs; their form, nutritional value and symbolic existence across a range of cultures. An Egg Without A Chicken draws on an often overlooked history of unnatural processes that have shaped how ‘real’ eggs exist today, and forms a playful challenge to our current understandings of what is natural, or sustainable. 

"This project is a celebration of the egg"

Why make an egg?

Larkins identifies the intrinsic value of eggs as a versatile, nutritional and widely eaten food source: “eggs are a biological masterpiece; eaten across every culture and have been seen since prehistory.”  Moreover, she recognizes how eggs intersect with human culture in multiple ways: “eggs are highly symbolic, associated with religion and folklore, life, creation, fertility, beauty, health, purity, mystery and nature to name a few.” 

"Eggs are so commonplace that we overlook this everyday masterpiece."

However, in the context of our current food culture, eggs do not wield this kind of symbolic power or appreciation. Larkins highlights how “meat, eggs and dairy are so ubiquitous that they are no longer respected as they should be [...] eggs are so commonplace that we overlook this everyday masterpiece. By attempting to recreate them, perhaps the value we place on the original will be reconsidered.” What emerged from the project was a range of curiously shaped plant-based eggs that tell an important story.

Looking back to go forward

Larkins' humorous faux egg creations are inspired by a more serious history of human design when it comes to seemingly ‘natural’ chickens and their eggs. Her research charts developments such as the first dispersal of chickens away from their origins through trade, the ‘hen craze’ of the nineteenth century, which saw an unprecedented acceleration in selective breeding, through to the use of incubators and battery cages that mark present-day exploitative industrial farming methods. 

The designer’s research process also sheds light on how the taken-for-granted process of a chicken laying one egg per day is far from natural - laying habits have been manipulated by humans through selective breeding and the use of artificial light. Larkins recognizes how historical stages of human intervention have gradually “transformed the egg laying hen from an animal to an egg making machine.”  Furthermore, she emphasizes how “the contradiction between natural and unnatural in the chicken egg epitomizes the wider problem with industrial production of food.” 

“The contradiction between natural and unnatural in the chicken egg epitomizes the wider problem with industrial production of food.”

The project asks, can we break the cycle of human exploitation by reconnecting with our food, by trying something new in order to confront the animal and environmental impact of current practices? For Larkins, “it is clear that our current system of industrial farming is unsustainable. We will continue to need protein as part of a healthy, balanced diet so alternative forms of protein need to be explored [...] The reality is we need a variety of approaches against our broken food system.”

What makes an egg an egg?

When researching current vegan replacements for eggs, such as ‘egg-white’ powder and developments in lab-grown substitutes, Larkins was left unsatisfied - “I felt that many [existing] egg alternatives missed the essence of what an egg is.” It became essential for her to create an egg that would look, taste, behave and be of the same nutritional value as a ‘natural’ egg. After tireless experimentation, and the use of the molecular gastronomy technique of spherification, Larkins’ final ‘eggs’ were made using pea protein, salt, food coloring and algae-derived acid, before being dipped into Candelila wax to create a cracking shell.

With the unnaturalness of eggs forming the starting point of her project, Larkins pushed the boundaries imitation and familiarity by creating three impossible eggs: a long egg, a multi-yolk egg and a square egg. These exaggerated eggs are a playfully absurd speculation on what eggs might look like when no longer subject to the biological constraints of a chicken.

They also play on the fact that eggs have always been shaped by human needs, and consider, how might these needs translate in future adaptations of the egg? Like real eggs, Larkins’ impossible eggs are also influenced by human desire; the multi-yolk and long egg satisfies our need for more, whilst the square egg could result in more economic and efficient packaging. All ask us to question, how different are Larkins' egg replacements from the 'natural' eggs we encounter everyday? How do we define what is unnatural? Where do we draw the line, and who decides?

The future of eggs?

Is this project an operational plant-based alternative to eggs? In sum, no. Rather than boasting the perfect egg replacement, Larkins claims her project succeeded in creating "a range of edible objects that vaguely resemble an egg.” She states truthfully, “my egg tastes worse, is less nutritious, has an appearance nowhere near as satisfying, is less versatile, and has an incalculable environmental impact of its own that is almost certainly larger than a chicken egg.” But should this matter? After all, creating the perfect egg substitute was not the point of the project  - from the beginning Larkins acknowledged it was an “impossible task.” 

"Future food explorations need not always be working prototypes but can exist as valuable thought experiments."

Rather than evaluating the project in terms of its success as a plant-based alternative, we should consider it an impactful narrative that reconnects us with the uniqueness and complexity of this normalized food source, and consider the outcomes as tangible guides for difficult conversations regarding the hidden exploitation and contradictions inherent in chicken egg production. At the same time, the project is light hearted; it employs humor and absurdity to help us reassess our present. Larkins celebrates the fact her project will not be widely consumed: “the egg will not be tasted by most who encounter the project, which again helps to position it as an object of discussion.”

So, what to take away from this project? Importantly, that future food explorations need not always be perfect replacements but can exist as valuable thought experiments. An Egg Without a Chicken fosters a newfound respect for the biological complexity of ‘natural’ eggs, as both shaped by human desire but at the same time impossible to recreate (yet). For sure, Larkins did not end up with an egg, but rather a set of storytelling egg-ish objects that reflect the past as well as a hopeful future for eggs - “this project is a celebration of the egg, which is both hugely complex and yet so familiar it is unexceptional. It aims to re-frame the egg as more valuable than its price reflects.”

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Continuing our Next Generation series is Amelie Unger, a recent design graduate who draws design solutions from nature's untapped potential. Unger is a recent MA Interior Architecture graduate from the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Her fascinating perspective calls for a new approach to building in landscapes affected by desertification: living architecture that transforms with the climate.

Unger's No Solid Ground  is a speculative research project that responds to an urgent need for sustainable, habitable structures in desolate and constantly shifting desert regions. Unger moves beyond anthropocentric architectural methods that attempt to override or contain nature. Instead, she incorporates the adaptive capabilities of animals and plants to create architecture that responds to nature without trying to resist it.

Her research is visualized as a series of cell-like pods that would provide for the needs of humans whilst supporting the surrounding ecosystem. Unger’s ecologically inspired concepts represent a promising shift in approach to climate change: self-adaptive, non-static structures that bring technology and nature together in mutually beneficial ways.

We caught up with Amelie to find out more about No Solid Ground.

What Inspired this project and why did you choose to focus on the problem of desertification?

The project was inspired by a trip to the German North Sea island, Sylt. This island is one of many great examples of how nature has been adjusting and reshaping the environment over time. Through erosion, Sylt went from being part of the mainland to becoming an independent island.

Lately, the human impact on Earth is transforming landscapes through desertification and rising sea water so drastically that we will have to rethink the way we are building. The current architecture is based on the belief that buildings will stay in the same place for 50-70 years, but it will not function on a ground which is slowly turning into a desert or sea.

I believe that we can solve this problem if we use nature’s design and start to understand and embrace a flexible kind of architecture which is able to shift with its surroundings.

Since there is already great development when it comes to building with rising sea levels, I decided to focus on flexible living structures in arid regions to start a conversation about how we can continue offering livable space in times of desertification.

What adaptive possibilities does your project draw on?

We are not the only ones that have to adapt to changing environments. Plants and animals had millions of years of experience in this field. Compared to this, the human experience in adaption is just a spec of dust.

Drawing from this thought, I designed all of the pods with different functions in mind which came from animals and plants’ abilities to adapt to their surroundings. I used the skills of algae plants to purify the air and turn CO2 molecules into reusable biomass. The colorful sea slug, Chromodoris roboi, became the inspiration to create a hide-away which scares away predators while the ability of the so-called ‘glass frog’ - which can change its appearance from transparent to solid - inspired the exterior membrane of my project. All of these designs draw from nature to create weird looking living organisms, able to stay alive in the hostile environment of the desert.

"I see these spaces as an opportunity to start a conversation about how we can provide safe living spaces in arid regions in the future. "

How do you imagine these spaces being used, and what problems would they solve?

By building flexible housing structures in the desert, we could break the cycle of climate refugees: right now, most people living in bigger cities close to the coast. These are already endangered by rising sea levels. In arid regions, desertification will force people out of their homes and on the move to find a new place in these already in these already overcrowded and endangered cities by the sea.

I see these spaces as an opportunity to start a conversation about how we can provide safe living spaces in arid regions in the future. I also imagine them as actual living spaces that would allow people to remain in these regions instead of displacing whole populations.

The design of the pods could also be adapted to house public buildings and indoor crop farms, creating whole villages

Do you see your work as a form of biomimicry?

I definitely see my work as a form of biomimicry. I look at nature as the first designer on this earth, and I believe that we need to adjust to it instead of nature adjusting to us. Nature’s ability to move sand dunes is so complex that we still can’t completely grasp the way it works. How are we supposed to to build something that would stand against this sheer force we don’t understand? I am suggesting that we need to adapt if we want to continue living in these areas. The exterior of my project is supposed to become one with nature by moving within the architecture of the sand dune while the interior mimics the behavior of organisms which have successfully adapted to their hostile environment.

"I look at nature as the first designer on this earth, and I believe that we need to adjust to it instead of nature adjusting to us. "

How do you think biomimicry can transform our relationship with the environment?

Maybe biomimicry is our chance to finally make peace with nature, we would not fight against it anymore, but instead work with it. I can imagine that there lies a lot of untapped potential within this approach to building and designing.

Do you see your work as a Utopian project or a science fiction-fueled geoengineering nightmare?

I hope that people see my project as a Utopian project, but I think right now it is more of a a fiction-fueled geoengineering nightmare to them. The design is supposed to not resemble the way we are building today to create a clear departure from contemporary architecture, but it is designed to offer all of the necessities we know from our current homes. So I imagine it as a quite comfortable Utopian living scenario.

"Today’s designers play a huge role in finding creative solutions to complex problems. "

Why is it important to create speculative designs and visualizations that address wider issues?

I think it is good to let your imagination run free before putting boundaries on what you can and can not do as a designer. How to make a project work should not hinder you from making the project. Today’s designers play a huge role in finding creative solutions to complex problems. Speculative design and visualization are great ways to approach wider issues from a more playful and free point of view.

"Maybe biomimicry is our chance to finally make peace with nature, we would not fight against it anymore, but instead work with it. "

How did you present your project? How did audiences engage with it? 

To make this project tangible for the audience during the exhibition, I built a table with all of the information printed on it. Instead of just reading and looking at the images, people were able to engage with the table by moving magnifying domes over the tabletop. They looked at my project the same way I used to look at all of the organisms which inspired my design. For me, this was a great way to start conversations with people from a range of backgrounds. The most memorable visitor was a biologist who understood all of the inspiration, but said he had never thought of nature’s designs as being useful for humans too.

Is speculative design a field you hope to continue in? What’s next for you?

I definitely hope to continue in this field. I see my living cell as my entry into the field, and will continue working on the topic of building in times of climate change since it is very important to me. Currently, I am working on different essays regarding this topic, and I will continue to follow this direction. 

And one for the road: what other projects or designers inspire you right now?

The works of photographer Tom Hegen inspire me a lot right now, especially his ‘Greenhouse’ series, which shine a light on the practice of growing crops with the use of LED light in the Netherlands. Also the works of my friends Gill Baldwin and Carlijn Olde Beverborg are very inspiring to me; they question how we are living in times where machines take a constant place in our homes and everyday lives.

[post_title] => Next Generation: Unleashing nature’s untapped potential with Amelie Unger [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => next-generation-amelie-unger [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-11-20 19:08:44 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-11-20 18:08:44 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://nextnature.net/?p=125027 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [post_category] => 0 )[4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 121984 [post_author] => 2194 [post_date] => 2019-10-29 14:10:07 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-10-29 13:10:07 [post_content] =>

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Meet Daniel Elkayam, a fresh-faced Industrial Design graduate, based in Jerusalem, Israel. For his graduation project MAYMA, Elkayam worked with algae in ways that implore us to "imagine a world in which we harness nature in our favor without harming it," as the designer puts it.

Delving into the notion of biophilia — the belief that humans have an inherent tendency to make connections and form relationships with the natural world — Elkayam wonders about how humans relate to the natural world, and how the use of living materials may affect these (often consumerist) relations.

Welcome to the Next Generation: Get to know Daniel Elkayam.

What is MAYMA?

MAYMA consists of three tanks that contain formations of modified microscopic algae. Within each tank, the algae is manipulated into unnatural shapes that replicate man-made material fibres.

With the help of Dr. Filipe Natalio from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Elkayam developed a genetically modified outer shell for the algae which allows for the exchange of gases needed to sustain photosynthesis. The result is a living material that is autonomous yet confined, both natural and unnatural.

Elkayam sees MAYMA as a speculative venture into how we can make new connections with nonhuman life. His work explores how we can look afresh and reconnect with overlooked resources when they are presented in new forms.

The development of his project, and the deeper scientific exploration it involved, allowed the young desiger to see algae in a completely new light — as an untapped resource with dynamic possibilities. MAYMA brings together scientific exploration, human desire and the needs of algae in thought-provoking ways.

"How may our consumption habits change if the materials we use are alive? "

Making the unfamiliar familiar

MAYMA evokes familiar archetypes such as the aquarium, house pants and traditional weaving techniques. Elkayam introduces algae in familiar ways to find a middle ground from which people can connect with it as both a potential resource, and as a living being for which humans have a responsibility. This feeling of responsibility is something Elkayam sees as crucial for living with nature in the future.

The designer seeks to ask, "how will the relationship between human and nature change if humans have to take care of the materials that purify the air around us? Would it be the same as taking care of a pet?" and "how may our consumption habits change if the materials we use are alive? Would this new duty of 'care' make us consume less?"

Questions like these encourage us to think more deeply about our current use of natural materials. For instance, how deeply can we connect with a non-living wooden table? What duty of care do we have for it, beyond preserving its aesthetic appearance? What will happen if the natural materials that surround us are not inanimate, silent witnesses to our everyday lives, but alive, responsive organisms that require our care?

Rethinking biophilia

When we think about connecting with nature in a biophilic sense, Elkayam challenges us to think through the contradictions that surround our relationship with nature.

We may see MAYMA as another example of human mastery over nature, and think to ourselves, what’s different here? This is where Elkayam’s work challenges us to dissect our notions of what is natural.

Elkayam aims to create a productive tension between living and static, domestic and wild, touched and untouched. Projects like MAYMA can encourage us to let go of the romantic ideal of unspoilt nature, and see how scientific exploration can re-enchant us with natural materials in unexpected ways.

"Will organisms such as algae become our next co-designers?"

Algae as co-designers

Elkayam’s project can be seen as tentative investigation into where the boundary lies between nature’s autonomy and humanity's desire for connections with it. It opens up discussion about what kinds of relationships we can form with living organisms when we let go of the idea of nature as pure, static, balanced and harmonic.

If biophilia is about making connections with the natural world, then we must learn to connect with new, not-so-natural nature that surrounds us.

In this case, can connections be made stronger when we can experience natural materials in ways that incorporate the needs and desires of both the human and nonhuman?

Will organisms such as algae become our next co-designers, or perhaps, our next natural companions? 

MAYMA consists of three tanks that contain formations of modified microscopic algae. Within each tank, the algae is manipulated into unnatural shapes that replicate man-made material fibres.

MAYMA is one part of Elkayam's two part graduation series SEAmpathy.

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Kicking off this series is Valerie Daude, a recent MA graduate in Social Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE). She is interested in how gut bacteria play critical roles in maintaining our human health in many aspects, and aims to understand how biological organisms interact with their human host.

This research has led her to design the Microbial Self project, a series of interactive facial prosthetics that measure and visualize the diversity of microbial species inside our guts, hence give insides on our bodily and mental health condition.

According to the designer, "the masks act as body extensions that enable a dialogue between us and the microorganisms inside of us. Displaying your 'inside' in the middle of your face, hiding your identity and sharing it with your microorganisms."

Welcome to the Next Generation: Get to know Valerie Daude.

Where does your fascination for microbial design come from?

As a woman of 1,92m, standard organizations like ISO or DIN consider my size non-standard. As a result, the world that has been built does not fit my body size and makes me experience the negative aspects of industry standards every day.

This motivated me to research ergonomic theory, the process of normalization and standardization of the human body, and especially historic concepts of the normal or average.

I found that the first physical unit of measurement was the human body itself. The resulting anthropic units went beyond focusing on the body, and were used to define the dimensions of the world.

How did this insight inform your work?

While trying to define alternative units to measure the human body, I learned that our physical and mental health is highly influenced by trillions of microorganisms that live within, on and around us. 

The differences between bodies on a microscopic level have a much bigger impact on humans’ overall wellbeing, more than differences in size and dimension. This insight made me change my focus from defining a body through its anthropometric measurements to interpreting the body in a much smaller and much more diverse unit — I started to investigate the microorganisms inside the body. 

Tell us a bit more about these microorganisms

Only 43% of each human body's total cell amount is human. The remaining 57% are microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Their population and genetic material are referred to as the human microbiome.

Bacteria far outnumber other microbes, and most species are found in the gut. Their diversity is essential for many aspects of our physical and mental well being. Between 400 and up to 1000 different bacteria species live in a healthy gut. The more different species you have, the better it is for your body.

They help us to digest certain food, synthesize vitamins, balance our immune system, and through the gut-brain axis, they influence our cognitive functions, mood, and even our behavior.

Each human body has its own unique set of microbes that constantly change over a lifetime. Diet, exercise, hygiene, medication and many other influences from our environment determine the composition of our microbes.

We constantly influence our microbial bodies without being aware of the impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

And your project aims to visualize this?

Yes, I am working on methods to measure, visualize and display the diversity of our gut bacteria. Therefore I developed the concept of Microbial Masks, which have an integrated breath test that analyzes the diversity of gut bacteria through chemicals in your breath.

With every breath, the mask translates the results into a readable color code that is displayed on the mask.

Who are the masks for?

First and foremost, it's an ongoing design research project. At this stage, the project aims to explore through speculation how relationships between humans, as well as between humans and microbes, will be affected through advances in microbiome research.

To date, the relationship between humans and microorganisms has largely been biased. Microorganisms, especially bacteria, are primarily associated with diseases, contamination, and death.

Changes in present-day society such as diets with increased sugar, salt, and saturated fat, insufficient exercise, overuse of antibiotics, disinfectants, and pesticides cause a microbial imbalance in our environments and our bodies.

This contributes to an increase in obesity, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, depression, and mental health concerns. We need a paradigm shift, from thinking about microbes as enemies that have to be eliminated and destroyed, to thinking about achieving a healthy microbiotic environment within and around us. 

Where could you see the masks first introduced?

In a later stage of the project, the breath test technology could be implemented into wearable healthcare devices.

Nowadays, patients have little power in most healthcare systems and are depending on the decisions of healthcare professionals. Through self-tracking devices, individuals can get involved in the management of their microbial balance within the gut, and by extension, their overall health.

Would you wear this yourself?

I would wear and present the Microbial Masks on public events, symposiums, or exhibitions and invite others to test them. The main purpose of them is to open up conversations about the future application of microbiome research, data security, and to challenge the relationship between humans and microorganisms.

This phase of the project is not about introducing the design or technology to the market. Rather, the purpose is to gather people around these speculative objects as a way of maintaining interdisciplinary debate and creating new perspectives on scientific research.

The Microbial Masks are physical, haptic and form interactive conversation pieces that challenge the senses and imagination, triggering the exchange of insights between different professions, from artists to scientists, to learn from each other’s perspectives.

On a scale from 1-10, how speculative is the project?

I see this project as a near-future scenario in which healthcare becomes much more personal, political and expressive. In general, I would rate it a 7.

There are some parts, like the breath test, which is still a concept. But there are already diagnostic tools, like the hydrogen breath test, that can measure bacterial growth in your digestive tract through chemicals in your breath.

Also, the application of this technology in a mask can not be ruled out. In China, it is already very common to wear masks in public for health reasons. Although it is much more likely that many would prefer to keep the information gathered by the Microbial Mask private. 

Apart from that, the potential of microbiome research in healthcare is real. More and more at-home gut bacteria testing kits appear on the market. They all claim to help improve health.

Although the tests are questionable, in terms of their reliability, the market is growing rapidly. I took this extremely impersonal and quite slow procedure and transformed it into a more sensual and faster method: a breath test.

The microbiome holds the ability to influence our body, identity, health. Masks aside, one may argue that designing your microbiome is a form of biohacking, would you agree? Why?

Yes, definitely. Biohacking doesn't have to be related to micro-dosing, LSD or implanting chips. It's also about the controlled enhancement of your physical and cognitive performance, through the use of technology and biology.

There is constant interaction between microorganisms and hosts, autonomous processes of unconscious exchange that can enhance or decrease the host's performance. Humans are influencing their gut microbiome through everything they eat, inhale, absorb, digest and synthesize. Presumed that this influence may be conscious, guided, and goal-oriented, it can be interpreted as biohacking. Thereby the goal is to enhance the host’s overall health, cognitive function, and performance achieved through a balanced and diverse gut microbiome.

Why should we share this data?

Our body produces measurable data at every moment, and we could use this data to improve care and find new treatments for disease. Due to emerging molecular technologies, scientific knowledge and advances in human microbiome research are booming. This will inevitably bring striking changes in  understanding ourselves, normalcy, health, and illness, and consequently transform medical care, plus personal and public health.

The enormous amount of data we could generate by monitoring all those autonomous microorganism processes in our gut, with every single breath, holds exciting potential for researchers and doctors - on the condition that the collected data remains anonymous and is protected to prevent its misuse. This data could improve healthcare and find new treatments for disease.

Understanding how microorganisms interact with their human hosts could explain different aspects of many complex diseases. We can gain better insight into metabolic diseases, diabetes and Alzheimers, immunological and autoimmune diseases, or even behavioral changes, like depression and anxiety, or autism and ADHD in children.

What’s the dream scenario for this design? What’s the nightmare?

The nightmare would be if microbial data would be used to exclude, discriminate, or disadvantage people. It could be extremely problematic if insurance companies or employers want to have access to this kind of data. Furthermore, choice of friends and partners may be influenced, since body contact significantly influences the microbial communities on a human's skin.

The dream scenario is to use microbiome research to improve healthcare and to create a collective understanding of the importance of microbes for ourselves and our environment.

I designed the three Microbial Masks based on bodily systems which are highly influenced by our microbes. The digestive system, the respiratory system, and the immune system. In the future, wearables in healthcare may be defined as an extension of the body, technology that merges with your body like an external organ. I am not a big fan of the sleek industrial design of standard wearables in healthcare today. The aesthetic translations of my research are also visual proposals for a more expressive and sensual design of future wearable healthcare products.

We live in a microbial world, without being aware of it. We might need to conceptualize the human body as an ecosystem and the human being as a superorganism, rather than a single individual.

Catch Microbial Self as part of the Dutch Design Week at the DAE Graduation Show 2019. From 19 — 27 October at Melkfabriek, Eindhoven.

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This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Want to see your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Marie Declerfayt is a recent graduate from Design Academy Eindhoven. What follows is an edited version of her thesis relating to her graduate project, Botanical Bodies. Playing with the boundaries between human and vegetal existence, Declerfayt's speculative project creates space for us to imagine how plant-human hybridization may transform our ways of engaging and living intimately with ecosystems in embodied ways.

Botanical Bodies: an essay by Marie Declerfayt

Botanical Bodies is a speculative design scenario that investigates the possibility of using plants as a raw material for the creation of human-compatible organs. Scientific progress in understanding complex living organisms has made it possible to engineer life, and the hybridization of species has become a designed process. This project explores how plant-human hybridization might become a necessity for preserving ecosystems endangered by human activity. 

Using bones and wood as a case study for this possible blend, Botanical Bodies looks at the implications of human symbiosis with the vegetal kingdom. Through extracting a wooden bone from a living tree and implantating it into the human body, this work imagines how the distinctions between humans and plants, crowds and forests, bone and wood may fade away towards a new synergy. 

Whereas the post-human is usually imagined as a blend of the organic and the digital, human and technology, the possibility for humans to merge with vegetal life is becoming a reality in today’s scientific landscape. What if the human of the future becomes more plant than robot, more connected with the environment rather than taking advantage of it, more prone to merging with other life forms rather than seeking to stand out?

The vegetal cyborg

Using digital and mechanical prosthesis to repair damaged organs, enhance skills, and acquire new properties is something dominant in current narratives of human improvement. Whilst this direction is slowly becoming a reality (i.e chip implantation, mechanical hearts), other possibilities to enhance the human body are being researched. 

Progress in the field of synthetic biology (design and construction of new biological entities) makes it possible to imagine new ways of modifying the human body. Previously overlooked organisms, ranging from bacteria to plants, can now be engineered to gain new functions and serve designed purposes.

"Previously overlooked organisms, ranging from bacteria to plants, can now be engineered to gain new functions and serve designed purposes."

The similarities in structure between human organs and plants has become a focus for scientists around the world. For example, one study has combined cardiac tissue and spinach (using decellularized plants as perfusable tissue engineering scaffolds, 2017, Gershlak-Hernandez-Fontana, Worcester Polytechnic Institute), and another has explored using rattan wood for bone growth (From Wood to bone: multi-step process to convert wood hierarchical structures into scaffolds for bone tissue engineering, 2009, Tempieri-Srio-Ruffini-Celloti-Lesci-Roveri). 

While scientists are working with very precise questions and with microscopic but functioning samples, speculating about the possibility of modifying the human body with vegetal matter raises all kinds of questions concerning the ways we relate to our bodies, the environment, and what it means to be human.

Wooden bones 

My decision to focus on using bones as a site for human-vegital merging is inspired by their characteristics: they are a structure crucial for our mobility, they are the slowest renewing organs of the human body (taking up to 10 years), and are closely tied to the human immune system. We attribute much importance to our bones; what happens when this importance becomes linked to other life forms?

"We attribute much importance to our bones; what happens when this importance becomes linked to other life forms?"

We are all intimately familiar with our bones in terms of their shape, the movements they allow, the structure they create, however, we don’t visually see them as a material in the way we interact with our skin, for example. Given that they remain unseen, wooden bones have similarities to human bones in terms of their texture, warmth and weight. Although metal is traditionally used to repair bones, it always acts as a support rather than seamlessly blending into the body. Wood as an organic matter seems more likely to be accepted by the body as it can merge with existing tissues.

The separation of species

What changes if we consider wood not as an unchangeable material but as an organic, evolving, growing matter extracted from a tree that can support and grow within the human body? We can then enter another perspective: the possibility of becoming a chimera with a plant.

As anthropologist Anna Lauwenhaupt has written, hybrids between species have historically been perceived as an aberration : 

“Enlightenment Europe...tried to banish monsters. Monsters were identified with the irrational and the archaic. Category-crossing beings were abhorrent to Enlightenment ways of ordering the world. Later on, rationalization meant individualization, the creation of distinct and alienated individuals, human and non-human.

Individualizing our bodies from our environment has created a separation between living beings, where to be human is to demonstrate difference, where taking advantage of other species rather than collaborating with them has become the norm. Therefore, we continue to see trees as a means for the production of wood for heating, shelter, cooking. Conventional uses of wood have become so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine another relation with it.

However, it is interesting to consider how the perceived autonomy of the human body can be easily challenged. For example, there are more foreign cells in the human body (microbes) than human cells, yet I still call myself a human. Moreover, wood and bones share very similar structures on a microscopic level (in terms of mechanical strength, size and structure), making the engineering of wooden bones far from being pure speculation.

"The perceived autonomy of the human body can be easily challenged."

Artist-sholars Elaine Gan and Niels Budandt evoke this perception:

“The imagined autonomy of the individual was tied to the autonomy of the species. Each species was thought to rise or fall on its own merits, that is, through the fitness of the individuals it produced. […] Today the autonomy of all these units has come under question  […] We can’t segregate our species nor claim distinctive status - as a body, a genome, or an immune system. And what if evolution selects for relations among species rather than “individuals”?”

If we understand ourselves as relative to other beings, alternatively we can perceive ourselves as part of a broad, interconnected network of living things, rather than as individuals defined by our seemingly unique characteristics. So, could we engage in a new relationship with the vegetal world by merging with it?

Creating a zero sum game

Why would such a hybridization the way I depict it (transplantation after transplantation, slowly merging into the vegetal world and becoming a new kind of chimera, a blend of tree and human tissues) be desirable?

And how do we reach a level of symbiosis, where all organisms involved gain something from this interaction? From a human perspective, there is a lot we could gain from becoming a bit more plant. On top of being able to replace our bones with organic matter that can be easily cultivated, the possibility to access plant awareness is tempting - we are learning more and more about how trees perceive their environment, how they can communicate with their peers and other species, how they feel pain, and respond to danger.

"From a human perspective, there is a lot we could gain from becoming a bit more plant. "

This broadening of human perception could be a gateway for connecting with all kinds of other species and perspectives, towards readjusting our relations in ecosystems currently endangered by a long history of damaging, anthropocentric activity. As for plants, what would they have to gain if humans felt more like them? Even though we are unable to perceive their needs from our limited perspective, we may be able to interact and exist with vegetal life in profound new ways.

If our symbiosis with other organisms is characterized by care and respect, we can strike a better balance between the worlds of human and non-human others. Indeed, blurring species boundaries might help us go beyond our conception of the vegetal world as a passive, unconscious resource for human use, and towards a shared, embodied existence of cooperation, collaboration and conscientiousness.

"Blurring species boundaries might help us go beyond our conception of the vegetal world as a passive, unconscious resource for human use, and towards a shared existence."


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