“Can we design our way out of this? If we are to survive, we must design our way out.” implores Professor Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab in an episode of Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design. She is talking about our ecological crisis, obviously.
Since the industrial revolution, we have been guided by an ecology-indifferent method in designing our world; that of assemblage; the assembly of discrete homogeneous materials to make a whole. This sits in contrast to nature’s method; that of the nurturing of a whole constituting of various heterogeneous parts that are constantly evolving and growing. It is this dichotomy that Oxman challenges in her vast body of research. She has been heading a research group called Mediated Matter at MIT Media Lab since 2010, which operates at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology. For us regular people, that means they do crazy things in a lab that eventually may or may not save the world from spontaneously combusting.
In 2016, Oxman and her team were commissioned to contribute to the 3D printing company Stratasys’ ‘The New Ancient’ collection curated by Naomi Kempfer, their creative director. The collection marries ancient crafts and designs of past civilizations with advanced technologies to reimagine design in and of the modern world. And so, Mediated Matter created Vespers; a series of hauntingly mesmerizing death masks in three series inspired by the mystical notion behind the ancient tradition: the transition from death to new life.
The most iconic death masks; from ancient Egypt’s King Tutankhamun to ancient Greece’s Agamemnon, were made of precious stones and minerals to pay homage to the deceased’s spiritual or religious affiliations. The first series features the death mask as a cultural artifact: using colors and minerals (like bismuth, silver and gold) from customary practices across regions and eras and correlating them with underlying geometries. Polyhedral meshes were evolved into subdivided surfaces using an algorithm; emulating cellular subdivision in nature. Stratasys’ color multi-material 3D printing technology enabled the design of objects at a cellular level; the smallest printed feature size was a minute 16 micrometers to match the resolution of structures found in nature.
Death masks throughout history were believed to guard the soul against evil spirits on its journey to the afterlife; death being a conduit to another life. This idea that the soul can be guided from a state of death to a state of life inspired the design of masks for the second series.
In Vespers II, the composition is dictated by the distribution of a martyr’s last breath. Demonstrated through changes in form and material heterogeneity, from undulated to smooth, from surface to volume; this series conveys the notion of metamorphosis. Using spatial mapping algorithms, the surface colorations and truncated geometries in the first series are transformed into colored, internal strands within transparent, smoothly curved volumes in the second.
“Vespers ‘masks’ five imaginary martyrs; each martyr is memorialized three times, through sequential interpretations at three different moments: the past, the present, and the future. This series conveys the notion of metamorphosis.” Oxman says of Vespers III.
It treats the mask as a site for new life; a habitat for microorganisms. Devoid of any cultural affiliations and initially colorless, these masks are paradoxically the most ‘alive’ of the three series. In their initial experiments, the team integrated chemicals into the resins used for 3D printing. These chemicals act as signals to activate certain responses in biologically engineered microbes; genetically modified E. coli bacteria in this case, which are spray-coated onto the printed object. Once added, the microbes display specific colors or fluorescence in response to the chemical signals. A feat achieved by beginning to integrate tools from the advances of genetic engineering today, into the processes of digital fabrication. “We can define very specific shapes and distributions of the materials and the biosynthesized products, whether they be colors or therapeutic agents, within the printed shapes,” Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, a graduate student from the group says. Some of the initial test shapes were made as silver-dollar-sized disks, and others in the form of colorful face masks, with the colors provided by the living bacteria within their structure. The colors take several hours to develop as the bacteria grow, and then remain stable once they are in place. The masks literally ‘re-engineer’ life by guiding living microorganisms using spatial features from the artifacts of the dead.
To create Vespers III, a novel method for printing 3D objects that could control living organisms in predictable ways was developed. Coined Hybrid Living Materials (HLM), this platform that Mediated Matter has created has opened up a whole other world for exploring an entirely new class of materials that imbibe the biological and the digital.
“There are exciting practical applications with this approach since designers are now able to control and pattern the growth of living systems through a computational algorithm,” Oxman says. “Combining computational design, additive manufacturing, and synthetic biology, the HLM platform points toward the far-reaching impact these technologies may have across seemingly disparate fields, ‘enlivening’ design and the object space.”
The incredible possibilities that their research enables could span a wide breadth of application domains; from customized cosmeceutical and antibiotic production in wearable devices to smart packaging and surface coatings that can detect contamination, to environmentally responsive architectural skins.
It would be fair to believe that it is in these rare and scattered conscious breakthroughs that we even have a chance at survival, which we could use to rectify the recklessness that has guided the entirety of our existence here.