Bioengineering—the combination of biology and the methodology of engineering—is a popular topic in scientific circles. Bioengineers seemingly come up with clever new innovations on a daily basis—a low-cost oral cancer screening tool here, a surgical robot there. Dutch artist Tuur Van Balen is exploring the limits of this bioengineered new world with a series of projects intended to push the boundaries of morality.
We first wrote about Van Balen when he performed a filmed demonstration of how to make antidepressant yogurt using a bacteria culture of lactobacillus (available at your local health food store), a $600 electroporator, and DNA coding instructions from the Parts Registry. Van Balen didn’t actually create the antidepressant yogurt, however. He just went through the steps, which he developed with help from scientists.
"In the yogurt hacking performance, that was to demonstrate and show how accessible these things are," he says."But I wasn’t DNA hacking on stage. That would be mostly illegal in Europe, because you can’t take genetically modified organisms out of the lab."
That’s not to say Van Balen never follows through with his projects. "As a designer, I play with the border between what’s real and unreal. I do find it important that’s it not just speculation,"he says.
Take the Pigeon d’Or piece, where the artist designed a harmless bacteria that when fed to pigeons turns their poop into soap. "With help from a scientist, I did go and make this bacteria in the lab, but I couldn’t take it out," he says.
Why pigeons? Says Van Balen: "Pigeons are already a product of biotechnology. They have been bred over generations to come home quicker. Because pigeons have such a controlled evolution, they were a nice starting point for this project." This is because of the use over the centuries of pigeon posts, as well as the sport of pigeon racing, which is popular in Belgium, the U.K., and elsewhere throughout the world.
Note: Van Balen doesn’t actually modify the pigeons. That would be a whole other level of morality to contend with.
The DIY Prozac and pigeon poop projects may be his most well-known works, but Van Balen has come up with a handful of other biotechnology-inspired pieces in the past five years. One piece, entitled Cook Me - Black Bile, proposes using yeasts to both measure levels of serotonin in the blood and adjust them depending on the subject’s happiness level. Another, Synthetic Immune System, consists of a network of biosensors made of yeast that monitor bodily deficiencies—i.e. an inability to break down lactose or a lack of vitamins.
Next, Van Balen is working on a project that will involve an exploration of the relationships between animals and plants. Rest assured that it will, like Van Balen’s other works, contain "a narrative around this kind of ethical gray zone. Stuff that might be possible, but we’re not quite sure yet whether we want this or not."