Interview with Orkan Telhan
From the artist's website: "Orkan Telhan is an interdisciplinary artist, designer and researcher whose investigations focus on the design of interrogative objects, interfaces, and media, engaging with critical issues in social, cultural, and environmental responsibility."
The following excerpts are taken from a conversation about biodesign and the DIY maker culture, which took place between Caitlin Alyse Baiduc and Orkan Telhan on 2 March 2014.
Caitlin: What do you see as the driving forces that are causing artists and scientists to have these strong collaborations?
Orkan: The honest, more sincere, answer would be…. Artists and designers have always been very inquisitive about the world. They sometimes they use artistic means, sometimes science, sometimes engineering to inquire about complex social, cultural, political phenomena and respond to them in their own language. And it is important to note that, like many other fields, the arts are also becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in the past ten years. Artists are coming from different backgrounds. And as they are disposed to different skills—from writing to making various forms of representation or designing tools and technologies, they are naturally mixing them in their work The topics that they’re dealing with – or we are dealing with in that respect – also require knowledge that lie beyond the boundaries of a single discipline. So to be able to ask deeper questions, we often need to be in dialogue with other fields. We need to learn how to look at the world from different perspectives; sometime we need to measure, sometimes we need to talk to locals. So I would say it’s a natural convergence that artists and scientists are coming together based on their shared interests to be able to make a better sense of this world.
Caitlin: How long have you been involved with biodesign and could you give your own definition for it, so we’re working with the same definition here?
Orkan: I’ve been thinking about biodesign … since 2009, but I’ve been actively involved either in the community of biological design or synthetic biology since 2010. Not necessarily always making work that manifests some form of synthetic biology, but either presentations, conferences, papers, panels – trying to shape the community through some sort of creative and critical input. My definition of biological design is quite broad, but it is mainly concerned about the ways designers can use biotechnologies to work with living matter or ask critical questions concerning the nature of the living. Designers … always try to … interface the world of technology or that world of scientific knowledge with everyday life, so that they matter to people on the streets. This isn’t a mere attempt of popularization, but rather a matter of translating knowledge into meaningful artifacts or experiences that can … make a difference in people’s lives. … If I try again, biological design is a way of translating the emerging biotechnologies into everyday life, sometimes to build new interfaces, products, and experiences, sometimes to raise critical questions regarding the implications of these technologies.
Caitlin: You’ve talked about this notion of wanting to apply biodesign and technology to the everyday life, it sounds like that’s a kind of trend or theme or thread throughout biodesign … are there any other themes or threads of interest that you’d say are emerging or will be emerging in the near future of biodesign?
Orkan: Biodesign is … part of the DIY maker culture, because there’s a big movement toward make your own things, do your own things, build your own things to be able to learn about them. We learn by making. And it’s [biodesign is] finding a place in that culture. So there’s a big DIY bio community that’s growing all around the world – DIY medical community, DIY biological tool-making community. Biological design is integrated into this maker culture, which just means that people are spending a lot of time on problems that lie beyond what typical scientists or engineers are thinking about. There is a group of people that ask tougher questions sometimes than what scientists could ask in academia. People are trying to find solutions to problems that are restricted or patented to incorporations or things that are really not so easy or feasible as research projects. Sometimes ten different artists or ten different designers can come together and work on things that are much more effective than a single lab. In a way, biological design is rooted in this culture of making where people ask questions or find outcomes to experimenting [with] things… not only by studying them from other people’s work.
Caitlin: You’ve talked about open source technologies … and the notion of the DIY maker culture; can you talk about within your own artistic and design practice how you’ve appropriated some DIY technologies? Can we talk about an example from your own work?
Orkan: I will talk specifically about biological design. How do I incorporate that into the maker culture? Because I use DIY and open source in almost every aspect of my work, when I build software, when I build hardware – I always work with DIY, open source tools. But with biological design, the tools that enable me to do DNA assembly or … have wet lab experience (build things in the microorganism’s world), they’re all tools that are designed by either friends or communities of people that contribute to the public domain. For example, I work with Synbiota, an open source biological design and knowledge management platform, and Genomikon, a company that builds DNA design & assemble kits to be able to combine online biological design skills with a wet lab making experience. Both companies are fairly new initiatives. They are working hard to bring very cutting edge technology to public domain so more people can join the discussion on topics related to design of living matter. More recently, in my own work, I have been developing these microbial fuel cells with the biology department here, where we are designing not only the new, next-generation microbial fuel cells, but also trying to come up with new ways to integrate them to everyday life. Because production of electricity is one thing, but what does it mean to grow energy in your household is a larger question. This has significant social, cultural, and economic implications than just packaging electricity. Our relationship with energy and living matter has always been problematic, and as we arrive to the 21st century, with a planet that is ... getting more and more depleted out of its resources. It is very important to ask what does it mean to grow certain things (growing energy in your household) in the expense of other things. So I approach it from a designer perspective. I not only work with the biology people to really make better microbial fuel cells but also try to ask deeper questions with them: What does it mean to interface living things—as microbial ecologies—to produce things? Why growing electricity should be at the disposal of only a select group of people? How can we reach out to underserved communities to teach them about science as well design, basic electronics, and computation, using this very simple set-up? I have the hope that, if more people join the conversation, there will be more and diverse forms of knowledge contributed to the public domain.
Caitlin: Working with these open source technologies, do you ever find yourself running up against limitations or what would you consider the limiting factor in using such technologies?
Orkan: The limiting factor is an interesting thing. … I always think … for example, when you work in biology, the limiting factor is the chemicals or reagents that you need to buy, which can be expensive, … or the equipment and infrastructure that you need to be able to run the experiments. But I realize more and more that limitations are bringing more and more people together. … The more people run into limits, the more they come up with creative solutions to make things possible. … So people are trying to solve each other’s problems. … Limits are fostering the creative process and aligning interests.
Caitlin: And when you talk about these community members, can you elaborate a little bit? Are these people from other universities … or community members … from the public at large?
Orkan: There are people who … do these things with an amateur spirit even if they need to work at companies to make a living from the same work. During the day they work at their companies, in the evenings, they join to discussions or run little experiments in their households. You know biology cannot really be done safely at a kitchen sink. … You have to have a little setup somewhere. Like a community lab, hacker/maker space. … As I am in academia, I am very lucky that I can work with the facilities in the biology department. I don’t have any infrastructural limits in that respect. This means that there are academics who are willing to be part of the DIY community, as part of their scientific outreach or part of their personal motivations. Some people want to share knowledge and be part of the global community. There are people in companies who are also trying to make a living out of what they’re doing. So their work is open source, but they have to make some money to run their startup ventures. … And there are also a lot of students who are in different universities who have extra time and need new problems to deal with. … The other group is writers or journalists, who really write the history or the theory or the social context of this community. So they [writers and journalists] also have a big input. They go all around the world…. They build the communication infrastructure. They write about the work and make us … aware of each other’s work.
Caitlin: Do you see biodesign as having a lasting impact into the future?
Orkan: It will get diversified. First of all, the low-hanging fruits will be gone. People will not be making very simple biological designs that will speculate the immediate implications of GMO … or some hype about the lab-grown meat or burger. That period will pass, and people will move on to more interesting problems. And I am hoping that it will not only go towards speculative designs, but will go towards alternative venues where artists and designers can really work with scientists and have some impact on their work. I believe in critical science and critical engineering where people with various disciplinary backgrounds can work together towards for new kinds of creative and critical designs, and move beyond making symbolic gestures. Don’t get me wrong; I am all about smart symbolic gestures. I just don’t want to limit artist’s impact to these. People often see that the solution is to bring an artist next to a scientist to have a critical dialogue. But the conversation may not be critical at all if the artist cannot speak the language of the scientist and stubbornly try to push for his/her own agendas or vice a versa. It is usually better when you have artists or scientists understand the criticality of their own work, and then be in dialogue with each other to exchange perspectives, methods, tools, or technologies. … This will have a much [longer-lasting] impact in the field. … I’m all about diversifying experiences. Biological design will not fade out but it will get filtered. People will move to new areas. I hope that, in academia at least, there will be a more long lasting impact. … I want to keep teaching my course where more and more students learn how to make things with living matter and become more informed intellectuals. They don’t have to become artists, but they should learn how to ask questions like artists? Those who manipulate living matter will know more about what kind of questions are at the root of this process than those who just make up their minds from speculations? Because we are doing all of this at a tremendous speed. We are transforming nature and that’s the only way to become aware of how we can be responsible to the planet. And for me that is the bigger picture. All of this is not to make more art, but learning to become more responsible – more responsive – to the needs of the planet.
Caitlin: And for those really critical interactions that you’re talking about between artists and scientists … Do you [think this will require] people to have dual training or just people who are able to think critically about the science?
Orkan: Each field has a different definition of criticality for themselves. When an engineer makes a new model of a camera, it’s always a critique of the previous one. It’s not only adding new features, but seeing the limits of the previous version and expanding it. The sciences do it the same way. There’s always a model or a theory, and then they want to expand that – to expand the limits on that – and try to explain more things in different ways. So when artists bring criticality, it’s not about just resisting a certain set of questions … but giving some input or showing some directions that scientists would not normally see, because they are very preoccupied with a particular way of looking at things. So I would see criticality as a way of looking at the larger, tougher, deeper questions, as opposed to just trying to find an easy research topic that will bring people fame and fortune. So I think artists need to learn more about the language of the sciences so that they can go beyond the metaphors, because … Art relies on metaphors and its relationship to its own history … Artists, if they want to have an impact on the sciences, they have to learn more about the sciences and the history of the sciences. A lot of scientists are very educated and they know a lot about the arts, [more than what] the artists know about the sciences. That has to be leveled. There has to be more cultural exchange between people.
Caitlin: I just want to leave you with a little space, if you have any kind of concluding remarks or comments? Anything you really want to say [about the topics of biodesign and DIY culture]?
Orkan: Maybe I can leave you with this question that I mentioned. I have been thinking about the question: What kind of science lies beyond the scientists? What does that mean? What does it mean for other disciplines to tackle scientific problems. … Or you can ask the same thing – [what does it mean to have] art beyond the artists? Because the disciplinary focus formulates the questions, the methods, the resources of that particular field in such a way that an outsider can come and show a completely different perspective. … We are moving to an era when a lot of people can do science, because they can be enabled. They can speak the same language. They can measure the same way, so you can have consistent, repeatable, observable scientific results. … So science outside of scientists will have some impact. … It’s going to have a lot of impact on underprivileged or marginalized communities who don’t have access to knowledge. In America we have a problematic education system where education only goes to the group of people who have the rights or who have the resource to have the education. So it needs to … appeal to a more diverse audience. We try to reach out to high school kids or younger kids, to be able to get them excited about the sciences. I want them to become artists … to become good scientists, engineers, and designers. This is only possible when you show them that science can be done by artists and scientists and designers, and it’s not restricted to any particular way of thinking. With that, I will leave with the question: what is science beyond the scientists?
Caitlin: Thank you, Orkan. That was excellent.