CGG: Bio hacking like a punk band

Interview with Zack Denfeld, Emma Conley, and Connor Courtney from The Center for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG) by Arif Kornweitz from Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee - originally shared as a podcast “Center for Genomic Gastronomy & Oliver Barstow Summer Academy 2017”

Hackers & Designer invited Zack, Emma, and Connor to give a workshop called the Rare Endophyte Collectors Club at the 2017 H&D Summer Academy. The workshop's output was also displayed at the Summer Academy exhibition

Arif: To start off, Zack - can you tell us what “looking for endophytes is a new way of seeing" actually means?

Zack: Endophytes are the microorganisms that live inside of plants. It is only since the last decade that we actually understand things about these living microorganisms. So, to see plants like we see human bodies is a new way of seeing.

Now we understand that our human bodies have all these things that live on our skin. Plants also have microorganisms that live inside of them. It is really opening up our eyes to how complex biology is and seeing that we are really just one organism. We have all these smaller organisms that live on us and inside us, as do plants. As we look to nature and to different fields to try to isolate these bacterias and fungi in petri dishes, we are trying to see them for the first time and understanding the complexity of life!

Arif: How do you do that?

Zack: The technical aspects are really simple, which is why we brought them to On and Off the Grid. We don’t need much at all. You can do this off the grid - you don’t need to be in a science lab. You can be in a basic kitchen. In our case, we just took some agar, some potatoes, and some sugar and combined it all in a pot. Then we put the mixture in petri dishes and placed plant clippings with exposed edges on the growth medium. Then we let the bacteria and fungi grow out onto the petri dishes. After three or four days we saw the colonies of bacteria and fungi increasing in size.

Arif: Before we talk more about the practical side of it, Emma, maybe you can explain to me why we need to engage in this kind of DIY biology.

Emma: Because the participants are mostly designers and hackers, programmers or computer scientists, we asked them if this was a worthwhile practice to learn. They said that they may never use this exact methodology again, but, that they really liked that the workshop demystified the science for them. They could understand these basic ways of doing scientific experiments and processes that before seemed hidden.

I think that when we do DIY biology experiments it democratizes the sciences. People participating feel like they have the tools and knowledge for having a say in how these processes should go.

A lot of times in professional labs the work revolves around patents. We’re dedicated to opening that up and questioning it. What can a creative commons for biology look like? If we are all participating in it, how do we share that knowledge together? That’s why we think it’s important to bring this kind of practice to groups like Hackers & Designers and also to the general public and young people who are starting to engage in the world of expertise. They can have the opportunity to play around and experiment with things that they may never be experts in. That’s a very exciting practice that we should all do more of!

Arif: It really feels like there is a link between hacking DIY culture and bio experiments. I makes me think of this quote by Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, who says that “biotech is the new digital.” What is your view on this idea? I don’t think that these two fields are the same.

Zack: A lot of biology gets talked about as if it were code, but life is not code. A lot of the things that happened during the digital revolution, let's say in the last 40 years, are not going to happen on the same time scale. I think this is a mixed metaphor.

What Negroponte is probably right about is that he wants to apply a neoliberal agenda to emerging biotechnologies. And that might happen, because that’s what the MIT Media Lab tends to do. It will be different, though, because biology slow and not linear. You can do some things in the lab, some molecular biology that can go fast, but the fantasies of working at the pace of the digital do not take into account the slowness of life and the fact that biology isn’t binary. I don’t really like Negroponte's metaphor. Computer hacking is also not the best comparison for biohacking either.

I’m looking for new metaphors. That’s why it’s important to share accessible knowledge, to hack biology for fun and pleasure and not just for profit. To do things based in places we are mostly familiar with and have access to, like the kitchen, where you can ferment and brew beer without an agenda.

We have participants imagining themselves as a biohobbyist like they are in a punk band. Compared to imagining yourself being on track to work at a big pharmaceutical company or founding the next .com start-up, this is a very different way of looking and acting.

Arif: So, the practice of engaging with biology is a way of slowing down...

Zack: Slowing down, but also learning that there’s no such thing as a truly sterile or isolated environment. Labs are messy and we want to do biology out in the world. If we only do it in clean and sterile rooms there will probably be problems down the road. We aim to keep the borders between the lab and the world more open and more ready for unexpected messiness to enter back into the world.

By the end of the week, participants wanted to put things in the petri dishes (the potato and agar-medium for the organisms to eat and live on) that were not the things we originally thought they would. At first, we encouraged them to look at leaves and roots and pieces of plants. They found other kinds of organisms that they just stuck into the petri dishes, like mushrooms and lichen. We examined some interesting things that started to grow at the opening of the show. It was cool that participates so quickly started questioning on their own - “oh in this lichen, which is not quite a plant...are there endophytes?"

Arif: Emma, could you also give an example of what happened during the workshop?

Emma: The participants had been working together for a week when we first met them. It was more about us getting to know them and them getting to know us rather than them getting to know each other.

We broke up into groups and one group went directly to the kitchen and made the petri dishes for their plants to grow in. The other group discussed and made a contract. The contract was a set of questions of whether or not they were willing to give up their rights to their microorganisms. They discussed if they would do anything with their microorganisms after those two days of workshop. Because 20% of the organisms in endophyte research are new, this group also thought about what to do if they found a new microorganism. They asked as well what we, as the workshop leaders, may do with the findings if they did not do anything with them. We discussed, argued, and debated over the ethics of this kind of practice.

People’s personal thoughts and desires were a bit conflicted with questions about money and percentage of the profit. Most of them were just happy that there would be new information for anyone to use and that it could be licensed for free, but some wanted 175% of the profit!

Arif: You say new organisms grow and come into being. What does that actually mean?

Emma: They are not new, they already exist of course! Humans just don’t know about them. That’s why it’s funny how we use this word *discovery*. We know that it’s a problematic idea. Organisms are living things that existed without us being in control of them or knowing about them or using them. What is interesting about endophytes is that they have lots of applications, specifically in agriculture. The microorganisms that live inside of a plant will help that plant in various ways. Maybe it will help the plant take nutrients. It has been found that plants that grow in drought-tolerant areas often have very specific microorganisms that help them. It can very easily commercialized. Discoveries are exciting and dangerous things!

Zack: The synthesis of life is a huge focus right now in biotechnology research. Some people are trying to sequence DNA of microorganisms from fjords or deserts or all kinds of strange landscapes. In a way, we are replicating that process and bringing it to other venues. People in these other venues can do bio research more critically because they are not embedded in the professionalization of that world. Their job doesn’t depend on discovering something.

We talked about patenting and profit and naming rights. Some people are like, “oh it’s my baby, you’ve got to be careful with the naming!” and others are unconformable giving it a name at all. There’s a deep history in science of giving Latin names. Now, though, Latin names make less sense. This is because we are moving from a recording information as a tree of life based on observable traits and phenotypes to a tree of life based on data and genotypes.

There are a lot of organisms that don’t even have a name, they just have a number. I think this is kind of depressing. We don’t want to give on random Latin name, so we give them a long list of numbers like someone in jail? How do we acknowledge that this is a thing that we need to name and do it the right way? That’s a big decision for a lot of people!


Follow-up email conversation between H&D and Emma:

H&D: Can you explain a bit more about the way CGG is organized? You guys are spread over Europe. How do you manage to sustain collaboration?

Emma: CGG is definitely a decentralized studio. We currently live between multiple countries, have members in Ireland, Norway, Portugal, and the U.S., and work with collaborators from all over the world. Much of the work we do is interactive and participatory, so we are often travelling and working on a different project in a different country every month or two. This allows us to meet in person quite often despite living in different places. We also use a suite of online tools to manage the studio and communicate daily. These tools are used for everything, like basic planning and logistics, applications and proposals, and design and production.

H&D: Do you use any existing models or frameworks, like cooperative organization models?

Emma: We don't use any specific models to structure ourselves, but we do continuously tweak our modes of working to find a unique system that functions well for our needs and missions.

H&D: How much do you rely on technologies in the way you are organized? We rely very heavily on communication technologies, digital design programs, and collaboration technologies. They allow us to work remotely and still share and receive feedback and make new iterations quickly.

H&D: What are the biggest challenges of not being at the same place?

Emma: Occasionally, time zones differences are difficult. Other than that things move pretty smoothly until the fabrication stage. When working in 3-dimensions or with food, it can be difficult when we are not in the same location. To manage this, we do a lot of prototyping and prefabrication work and then spend a bit more time onsite to produce, cook, or build things together.

H&D: How do you find projects to work on?

Emma: We apply for lots of grants and opportunities (both for funding and to show/share work). We collaborate with lots of different people, so sometimes collaborators bring in new opportunities, and more often now institutions ask us to participate in exhibitions, festivals, workshops, etc.

H&D: You are an interdisciplinary and research-driven collective. Your work moves within a wide range of disciplines and fields of knowledge. Are you cautious about being a professional amateur? How do you deal with this position between disciplines?

Emma: We are very aware of our professional amateur positioning, but a lot of times it is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It allows us to ask unusual questions, bring separate groups of professionals together, communicate with the public, and imagine new ways of being. At the same time, we do consider ourselves to be professionals in the arts, design, and culture. We do have an expertise. It just sits between other groups of professionals and touches on their work in different ways.

H&D: Are there people or organization you would never work with?

Emma: We only do projects that interests us in some way. We occasionally turn opportunities down, but only if the opportunity doesn't fit with our goals as a studio. Generally, the collaborating institution sees the nuances in our work and asks us to participate for a particular reason. Sometimes we work with unusual audiences or collaborators, but we always work with our mission in mind. And in fact, sometimes doing projects in strange contexts can help in imagining very new or different approaches.

H&D: A lot of your projects seem to develop fluidly, morphing into new projects and collaborations. How do you determine when a project is finished?

Emma: We consider most of our projects to be areas of research. In this way, the projects are never done. They can always grow and change formats and develop. Each installation, intervention, workshop, event, and performance is a way to share our ongoing creative research.

H&D: Could you tell what CGG has been focusing on since the Summer Academy? What explorations are coming for 2018?

Emma: We've further developed our To Flavour Our Tears concept here and we ran a new iteration of smog tasting here!