“We will introduce contestable design into the long history of design at RCA”

The Royal College of Art is heralding its appointment of Oron Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr as visiting faculty at its School of Design, saying they will continue the critical design work pioneered at the RCA by the soon-to-depart Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby.

Australia-based Catts and Zurr work in the fields of regenerative and synthetic biology – their work includes projects to “grow” meat and leather products and investigations into genetic manipulation.

But where does the science stop and the design begin? How can Catts and Zurr bring their practice to the design studios of the RCA? And how will they build on the legacy of Dunne and Raby? We spoke to them to find out.

Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts
Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts

Design Week: How do you define your practice?

Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr: We are dealing with life. More to the point, we are interested in exploring the shifting relations to, and perceptions of, life in the light of new knowledge and the ways this knowledge is being applied.

We attempt to find ways to culturally articulate these new relations to life by developing working contestable prototypes. In 1996 we started an artistic research project called The Tissue Culture & Art Project, exploring the use of tissue technologies (which now can be referred to as regenerative biology). In 2000 we set up SymbioticA, a research lab (now Centre) at The University of Western Australia. SymbioticA’s research is broader in scope and explores the impacts of much of the sciences and technologies (in particular the biological) on life and on our culture and society.

The approach of both initiatives is concerned with hands-on, experiential engagement with the tools and knowledge of contemporary modes of life manipulation. We are now working on the cusp of art, design and critical cultural studies, as hands on practitioners, curators and scholars.

DW: Which of your projects do you think best sums up your ideas and aims?

Extra Ear – ¼ Scale, created by The Tissue Culture & Art
Extra Ear – ¼ Scale, created by The Tissue Culture & Art

OC & IZ: It is very hard to single out one project as a sum-up – all our projects deal with the multifaceted idea of care and control of life; and our perceptual shifts towards life in the current “biological revolution”.

Growing products rather than manufacturing them has been the central aim of the Tissue Culture & Art Project. Its work builds on recent developments in biomedical research such as tissue engineering and regenerative medicine/biology. These technologies’ goal is to evoke the latent regenerative abilities of organs and tissue.

TC&A developed and explores the concept of semi-living products, and developed prototypes for application not considered by the medical establishment. In a series of hands-on artistic experiments ranging from the construction and growth of symbolic to pseudo-utilitarian objects, TC&A has explored the philosophical, ethical, epistemological, and practical aspects of creating living products.

For example, in the Pig Wings Project (2001) TC&A developed CAD-CAM protocols for the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. In the project we used biodegradable scaffolds and differentiated stem cells to critique Genohype, a media-based over-exaggeration of the promises of genetic manipulation.

Another series of works developed for the Technologically Mediated Victimless Utopia (which started in 2000 and is ongoing) employed tissue engineering to create in-vitro meat and leather products that questioned the tendency of Western technology to obscure its victims—namely, other life forms that people consume every day.

These works explore post-sustainable space by presenting tangible and evocative ways to reconfigure life transformed into raw materials developed for human purposes. Ironically, these ideas are now pursued by commercial companies, such as Modern Meadow.

DW: How does your view of biology differ to that of a scientist (if it differs at all)?

Victimless Leather
Victimless Leather

OC & IZ: As artists/designers we a mainly working with regenerative biology, with what we call Semi-Living beings. We grow/construct carbon-based life forms made of living fragments of complex bodies, that are sustained alive through artificial support mechanism, and are always potentially dying. It can be argued we are following an intrinsically human practice of exploring and exploiting life through manipulation.

However, as contestable designers, our approach differs quite substantially from what biologists and engineers are doing. Our intentions are non-utilitarian, non-instrumental and open to debate. Rather than celebrating the technological approach to “life”, we look at how life asserts itself as a context-based materiality, defying human and technological controls. We celebrate failure and embrace futility. We rejoice life.

We do not follow the scientific methodologies of repeatable experiments as a way to prove a phenomenon.  Rather our work is, in many respects, critical and about problematising ideas and notions of life.

As contestable designers we are offering alternative scenarios which are purposely frivolous and ironical, but at the same time are informed and experiential – to counterbalance the dominance of the engineering approach. Also, we are the link between the labs and the audience (whether they are in the lab or in the art gallery, public or private spaces). Therefore, we are using carefully considered aesthetical techniques to create an evocative experience and somewhat visceral encounters.

As artists/designers we are we are celebrating our limitations and failures in relations to our “negotiations” with living materials. We are conducting more open-ended research and welcoming unexpected surprises.

DW: How does your work fit into the context of the RCA?

We are offering to introduce the idea of contestable design, into the long and highly regarded history of design at RCA.  Building on the amazing work pioneered by Dunne and Ruby to do with critical design, we would, however, like to shift the focus away from the speculative, into the contestable.

The idea of contestable design comes from a position of an experiential, knowledgeable, intimate, nuanced as well as playful place. We develop working prototypes base on the actualities of new scientific knowledge and technological knowhow and use them for cultural discussions; not necessarily celebrating the emerging knowledge and developing technologies but rather culturally scrutinising and articulating in order to make sense of their broader societal and ethical meaning.

DW: How do you hope to progress your work at the RCA?

OC & IZ: We hope to be able to set up working labs where these prototypes can be developed, where students actively use the tools and technologies of science not just to comment about them, but also to explore their possibilities.

We want to build on the work we are doing at SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia, to focus on experiential engagement and develop programmes that would allow RCA researchers’ access to labs and techniques usually reserved only to scientists and engineers.

We hope to strengthen the collaborations between SymbioticA, the RCA and other institutions to develop a community of well-informed, curious and critical thinkers and makers that will help identify and make sense of the most pressing problems of our time.

Discover more:

Dunne & Raby to leave Royal College of Art

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