In residency at the Re-store experimental platform for reusing materials in Paris, thr34d5 (threads) medialab uses design and open source as vectors toward a more inclusive society, with a little kombucha on the side. Interview.
In computer programming, a “thread” is a very small sequence of instructions during which the user can continue to interact with the program, even when it is executing a task. Because nothing is blocked during intense processing, threads allow an application to run more smoothly. And of course, a “thread” is also an online discussion or conversation. It’s the name that Adrien Rigobello, Nadja Gaudillère, Vivien Roussel, Tim Leeson, Niels Barateig and a few others with backgrounds in design, art, architecture and education chose for their collective. Or more precisely, “thr34d5”—a cryptic name with a hacker’s nod to the intimate relationship between letters and numbers. thr34d5 and its multiscale experimental laboratory, Kombucha Applied Research Program (KARP), are currently exploring the many properties of kombucha. Makery wanted to know more—they chose to respond collectively.
Makery: Who are you?
Thr34d5: We are artists, architects, designers, engineers, artisans, citizens. We have also been activists in our respective fields, but until now we didn’t have a common space in which to pool our research and explorations. We had an irrepressible need to open a common space for discussion. All thr34d5 members certainly share a passion for passing on knowledge, which we have each developed in various forms before working together. We are interested in exploring techniques, social aspects, acquisition of knowledge, local territories and social engagement—neither simplistic nor elitist. Complex practices such as biodesign and computational design allow us to collectively explore their philosophical meanings and apply them to action-research in the field.
With such different backgrounds, how did you meet?
We met in various places: hackerspaces, fablabs, biohackerspaces, events, conferences… Actually, in places where each of us was exploring other perspectives. Curiosity about the world and a constant desire to challenge dominant models led us to find each other. We share a mode of action that questions inclusiveness in both practice and theory. In a time of climate emergency, we choose to focus on the social aspect of design. Modernism and scientism have undone social ties; we unite our efforts to create inclusive time-spaces, common discourses.
When and how did you decide to work together to create thr34d5?
Thr34d5 was founded in January 2017 with a dozen graduates of the first Master Design by Data course at Ecole des Ponts ParisTech. Once we opened up to this world of data and developed critical thinking as designers and artists, we realized that we had to continue this dynamic, without really knowing what our common adventure would become.
Thr34d5 took a new turn in 2019 by deciding to become an NGO, which was the type of organization that seemed best suited to what we wanted to do: rebuild our relationships with the world through design, art and engineering, for those who need it most.
How did you get involved with Re-Store?
After our kombucha kimono won first prize for Wearable Tech in the Reshape.io competition, we launched a program for open source applied research on this biomaterial. We needed space, and we were looking for a community around re-use and craft, practices that resonate with the direction of our research. We were particularly attracted to the fact that this space is well anchored in its environment and its positioning, which we could also develop. It’s not the bourgeois customers of Le Bon Marché who need smart design objects but marginalized communities who live in areas such as Plaine Commune. If design must have meaning, then we choose to use to benefit those who seek it.
You seem to have a very clear position on open-source and its philosophy…?
These days, open-source is geared toward experienced users. As soon as we examine this issue through the prism of digital citizenship and commons, it’s easy to see the interface biases in this field and its practices. So finally, the people who most need access to this open knowledge can’t benefit from it.
Our research is especially oriented toward articulating together reflexive and manual intelligence as modes of transmission—such transmission helps to define society by encoding cultural rituals. It’s crucial for us to make sense of these two forms of intelligence together in order to be inclusive. Very early on, the Web was described as a “shared cognitive apparatus”. What is its role in our relationship with the world and with others?
We are also researching another aspect of open-source that is dear to us, which is how it articulates with living things. We believe that preserving living things as a commons is both necessary and non-negotiable. The political management of these resources—from bacteria to bigger fauna and flora—is becoming a crucial issue facing the growing power of models that aim to control everything while denying their cultural and social impacts. Biotechnologies are not ordinary tools—they manipulate all the things we live with, which surround us and constitute us. Defining living things, as well as the ways in which we interact with them, is a complex issue, which should remain open and accessible. Finally, still aiming for inclusiveness, we believe that in order to rethink our ways of life, we should include in our reflections the Other, non-human, so that we can imagine relationships that are not exclusively consumerist or functionalist.
reGROW for the Reshape competition:
How did you come to work with kombucha?
Kombucha has been known as a fermented beverage for more than 2,000 years. Symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) multiply during fermentation and pair up. It’s a system that was initially synthetic (manmade, or perhaps the result of an error) and then became a social artifact.
During fermentation, a layer of cellulose forms on the surface of the tea solution that hosts it. There has been very little industrial use of this material, and many hackers and/or biologists have taken to it since the 2000s. What’s singular about kombucha as a material is that, unlike wood and leather crafts, there are few cultural traditions directly associated with it. Between its particular esthetic, its mechanical characteristics that outdo any synthetic polymers and its sustainability, kombucha is a perfect candidate for our research on modes of transmission!
Kombucha Applied Research Program, by thr34d5:
What else are you working on?
We started by launching the KARP program so that we could develop a community of practitioners and researchers who want to share knowledge about this material. We offer a participatory science laboratory that is open to the world, where anyone can participate in our exchanges (either in person or remotely) in order to extend and contribute their expertise and knowledge. We exchange with members and partners from places such as France, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Canada, Colombia, South Africa and Egypt.
Furthermore, the design theories and methodologies that we develop work very well with the Fab City concept and its origins in fablabs. We invest a lot in this field at the international level in order to share these new practices, so that they can grow and mature through the network and diverse fields of application. We published a research article on this subject during FAB15 in 2019.
We’re starting to apply our research in design theory to the field of computational architecture too, in practices that are somewhere between algorithmic design and artisanship. Plans for automation in the construction sector blatantly overlook the whole social aspect, so we are opening up this discussion.
What are your projects for the coming year, and the future of thr34d5?
In Paris, our community is growing, and we’re experimenting with kombucha in several directions. We’re developing partnerships with beverage manufacturers and textile designers, helping them to better understand the material and what can be done with it. We’re also developing a collaborative research project with kombucha beverage designers and producers in Montreal. We will be at FAB16 in Montreal, where we hope to present the results of our research. The city of Montreal is especially advanced and interested in these initiatives, so we hope to produce inspiring and exemplary results for global programs, always pushing the Fab City concept further toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Other projects in progress deal with sustainable and inclusive design strategies. It’s a test year for upscaling! We are humbled by the enthusiasm expressed by both public and private actors for our NGO. Now we’re looking for a new space to support our current and future members to further develop our perspectives and achieve a greater impact!
More information on thr34d5.org