Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society

A still from Melanie Jackson's Urpflanze film. A scientist working on a botanical experiment.
Melanie Jacksons, Synthesis, The Urpflanze, 2011.

The Arts Catalyst and UCL explored the cultural dimensions of synthetic biology in a week-long interdisciplinary exchange lab and series of public events

Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research, which applies engineering principles to biology in order to design and fabricate new biological systems that do not exist in the natural world. It promises new drugs and materials for medical applications, and new routes to make biofuels and chemicals. It could have profound implications for the way we perceive and use living things.

Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society was an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, scientists and other disciplines to collaboratively explore synthetic biology's ideas and techniques, and its social and cultural implications.Participants were selected through an international open call.

Two public evening events during the week were intended to broaden the exchange with the public.

We Need To Talk About Synthia

We Need To Talk About Synthia was a panel discussion and artists’ presentations, exploring the cultural and societal implications of synthetic biology. The event's title was inspired by Craig Venter and his team who in 2010 built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they called the world's first synthetic life form. They called it Synthia.Panelists are Professor John Ward, Head of Synbion, the UCL-Birkbeck Synthetic Biology Network, Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, The Centre for Biological Arts School at the University of Western Australia, and Dr Alistair Elfick, University of Edinburgh. It will be chaired by Dr Jane Calvert.  Embedded video of the event can be accessed by scrolling down or here at The Arts Catalyst Vimeo album.

Artists’ presentations by Tuur Van Balen, Andy Gracie, and Daisy Ginsberg.

Synthetic Biology Film Night

An evening of films on the broad theme of synthetic biology included short films of animation, science-fiction, and documentary - followed by the classic 1962 B-movie ‘The Day of the Triffids’, based on the novel by John Wyndham in which a species of mobile stinging plants, created in an experimental lab, begin to take over the world. Film programme

Synthesis Exchange Laboratory

The Synthesis exchange laboratory was devised and led by Professor John Ward and colleagues at UCL with artist-designers Oron Catts and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. The exchange process was intended to explore and challenge the notions of synthetic biology, the level of control and manipulation of living systems, the application of engineering logic, and the social and cultural dimensions of synthetic biology; with the hope to inspire proposals for future projects from all participants. Other contributors to the laboratory include scientists Alastair Elfick, University of Edinburgh, and Ferman Federici, University of Cambridge, and historian and philosopher Joe Cain, UCL.

Artist Melanie Jackson was commissioned to make an artist's film from her engagement with the laboratory process and investigations of synthetic biology.

Exchange lab participants

Melanie Jackson, artist, UK
Laura Cinti, artist, UK
Brendan Clarke, philosopher & historian, UK
Irilenia Nobelli, bioinformatics, UK
Tom Bailey, theatre practitioner, UK
Veronika Valk, curator, Estonia/Australia
Niccolo Casas, architect, Italy
Eliza Dominguez Huttinger, systems & synthetic biologist, UK
Anne Brodie, artist, UK
Thiago Soveral, architect, Brazil/UK
Helen Bullard, artist, UK
Joy Yueyue Zhang, social scientist, UK/China
Jennet Thomas, artist, UK
Nathan Cohen, artist, UK
JD Talasek, curator, USA
Sneha Solanki, artist, UK
Katy Connor, artist, UK
Orkan Telhan, artist-designer, USA
Matt Johnson, industrial designer, UK

Partners and funders

Synthesis is organised by The Arts Catalyst with UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics. It is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from The Arts Catalyst (Arts Council England funded), the SynBion network (funded by BBSRC and EPSRC), SymbioticA (The University of Western Australia) and Synthetic Aesthetics (funded by EPSRC and the National Science Foundation).

Further labs are intended in Edinburgh, Stanford, US, and Perth, Australia.