For eight days in February, 20 artists and scientists explore together in Tokyo the field of possibilities in DIYbio within the framework of BioCamp: Gardens of ‘Biotechnik’.
Tokyo, from our correspondent (words and photos)
Monday afternoon on the 5th floor of Red Bull Studios in Shibuya, 20 people are gathered around four long tables, several piles of stones and various bits of local flora. Their exercise is to place these elements with intention and sensibility in order to create an ephemeral garden on each table.
This was the conceptual workshop that opened BioCamp: Gardens of ‘Biotechnik’, a week-long program of discovery and practical initiation to DIY biotechnology on February 10-17, curated by the BioClub in Tokyo and organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center as part of the MeCA (Media Culture in Asia) festival.
“In these workshops, of course it matters what you do, but it matters more who you do it with,” says Georg Tremmel, bio artist and co-founder of the BioClub. From more than 70 international applications received, 20 artists and scientists from various countries and backgrounds were selected to participate in BioCamp, with half of them coming from Southeast Asia. Not all of them have some knowledge of biology, but all of them certainly have an interest in it.
A “total confusion” of DIYbio techniques
The idea behind BioCamp is to gather 20 people with a focus on diversity (cultures, disciplines, practices, gender), expose them to a “total confusion” of DIYbio techniques, put them into four mixed groups, offer them guidance from renowned biotech experts, and then see what kind of projects emerge from it all. “We try to be as ambiguous as possible, so that people can project their own ideas,” Georg continues. “My hope is that we map out an idea space of possibilities worth exploring, and the foundation for art projects that we can develop upon.”
The week is rich in shared experiences, beginning with a practical fermentation workshop to make tempeh and other delicacies, according to the method perfected by the Indonesian collective Lifepatch, represented this week in Tokyo by Andreas Siagan and Nur Akbar Arofatullah. Sunday, the BioCampers enjoyed an exclusive visit of the imperial greenhouse inside Shinjuku Gyoen park. The program includes technical workshops and public talks by American DIYbio pioneer Joe Davis, British bio artist and researcher Ionat Zurr, Austrian media artist Günter Seyfried, French DIYbio personality Thomas Landrain… not to mention Japanese fab/biohack academy graduate Masato Takemura, who is giving a course in mealworm-tasting, as part of the series HTEAA (How To Eat Almost Anything).
This afternoon, Japanese gardener and academic researcher Tomoki Yamauchi is giving a workshop on the various notions of gardens, comparing Japanese and Western gardens, reviewing the participants’ neighborhood photos of elements for possible gardens, and finally inviting them to compose their own garden within the space of a tabletop—according to the sensibilities, esthetics and philosophies that exist between nature and urban culture, inanimate objects and living ecosystem, self and others.
Chiaki Ishizuka, bio artist and director of the BioClub, takes this metaphor of the garden as a place of encounter and reflection very much to heart. “We conceived BioCamp like a planter where you cultivate ideas,” she explains. “This eight-day program is a framework for the participants to grow. People are like plants that we nourish with water and soil, we inspire them with workshops in fermentation, agar, CRISPR, etc., we provide a new context for bio creativity. But the technical workshops by themselves aren’t interesting. What’s most important is to think about why biotech should be open to normal people. What kind of projects will they do? If there’s no purpose, there’s no point.”
Referring back to the garden, Chiaki evokes the typically Japanese notion of the vitality of inanimate objects… before contrasting it to the normality within the scientific community of treating living creatures (such as lab mice used for experiments) as soulless things. “Biotechnology is very close to our life, we should think very carefully about how we use it,” she adds.
Another one of the BioCamp facilitators, Sachiko Hirosue is a lab scientist and medical researcher (bio materials, lymphatics, immune modulation, vaccine development) who often collaborates with Hackteria in Switzerland (where she works), as well as with Lifepatch in Indonesia and (Art)ScienceBLR in India. She also emphasizes the need to nurture the relationship between science and society: “Just being able to question in a safe environment, where there isn’t this patriarchal doctor-patient relationship, is very valuable.” For her, even “bio art as a word is interesting and difficult. Now it’s still in a nascent stage, but it evokes a fascination with techniques that are recreating the power dynamics in science that favor people who have access to or knowledge of these techniques.” She hopes that open science will lead to “more critical questioning, more conversations, exploring alternative ways of looking at a disease and changing the culture around it.”
Among the diversity of BioCampers, affinities merge and friendships form fast in the informal open environment. Nay Win Kyaw, a young wildlife conservationist who raises and releases freshwater turtles that are endemic to his native Myanmar, first met Georg during the MIT Bio Summit in Boston last September.
With his academic background in forestry and ecology, always exploring the relationship between flora and fauna, Nay has at least one personal objective for his DIYbio sojourn in Tokyo: to learn how to cultivate his own garden.