“DIYsect”, the webdoc on the road towards biotech ethics
Published 22 September 2014 by Ewen Chardronnet
Makery met Mary Tsang and Ben Welmond in Los Angeles, during the finishing editing stages of “DIYsect”, a webdoc that means to bring together bioartists and biohackers. The first episode has been online since September 19th.
Los Angeles, correspondence
Mary Tsang and Ben Welmond are two young artists who complement each other: Mary Tsang comes from Los Angeles and studied biology and art whereas Ben Welmond comes from the Washington DC area and works as a producer and video maker. They meet at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and decide to pool their expertise in order to produce a webdoc. During summer 2013 they manage to raise funds for DiYsect via the Kickstarter platform and then embark on a large tour of the United-States to meet biohackers, bioartists, synthetic biologists, authors and experts.
The result is a fine web series that provides the current field status in the United-States.
DIYsect, Mary Tsang and Ben Welmond, trailer:
DIYsect opens the discussion on this assessment: biotechnology is taking up more and more space in our society and with the progress of synthetic biology it won’t be long before we can easily conceive and build our own organisms. Scientists foresee personalised medicine, alternative energies produced by bacteria, and the resorption of hunger in the world thanks to transgenic livestock… However, a large number of these inventions are concentrated in certain social and/or academic backgrounds, and research is influenced by the industry that finances it.
“Our goal is to allow the general public to realise that this biotechnology will determine a great deal of what will constitute our society in the future: food, the way diseases are treated, and who will access what. It is not easy for neophytes to understand all these issues. We want to explain things clearly and synthetically. So many technologies affect us. I am not a biologist but I wanted to make a documentary that educates people, particularly on this topic”, says Ben Welmond.
“We wish to offer the general public knowledge in order to help people overcome their fears and join the debate on these new technologies.” Mary Tsang
According to Tsang and Welmond, the community of DIY biologists and biohackers in the United-States consists of a conglomerate of people from the maker culture, people who take part in the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation) contest or hacker ethics activists who encourage others to dismantle things in order to understand them and decentralise knowledge for the benefit of all people.
“We went to meet key people, such as Ellen Jorgensen and Nurit Bar-Shai who co-founded the New York Genspace Community Lab in 2009. Numerous community biolabs have emerged over the past few years with very diverse orientations,” says Mary Tsang. She has nothing but praise for the last meeting of the Hackteria network this spring in Indonesia: “Taking part in Hackteria was a true turning point for me. Coming back to Los Angeles to work on the film was a bit difficult. I would like DIY labs to be closer to artists. We so much appreciated meeting people like Steve Kurtz!” Welmond adds: “The political analysis approach is important and, on this topic, our mentor was Richard Pell who leads the Centre for Post Natural History. He was our professor at Carnegie Mellon.”
DIYsect, episode 1: “Learning in Public” (Sept. 2014):
When asked where their documentary stands, Mary Tsang answers: “We are trying to create a dialogue between biohackers and bioartists. We think that in view of their position, artists are able to problematize the future of science and confront the norm. They re-contextualise the bio lab. We are far off the start-up dimension of synthetic biology.”
Throughout the episodes one can rediscover several leading artists who raised the ethical issues of the past twenty years, such as Steve Kurtz from Critical Art Ensemble (wrongfully accused of bio terrorism in 2004), the pioneer artists in the field Joe Davis or Eduardo Kac (the fluorescent rabbit), the provocative artist and mad scientist Adam Zaretsky, the art critic Claire Pentecost, and many others. The docu-web series is divided into five thematic episodes approximately ten minutes long: DIY and public amateurism, “genocracy (genes, identity and authority)”, bio terrorism, hybrid practices, etc.
Can be viewed online throughout the autumn on diysect.com