Yiannis Melanitis interviewed by Susana Correia
Biology and Design
The design of organisms
1.Can you define and explain your area of work?
The first performance works created an assemblance between the body and the machine through
originally designed software. A tele-surgery performance (Predictable Lab), robotic structures interacting with animals (Bio-robotic Symbiosis), remotely controlled avatars (Pleasure Machine), body-to-animals attachment/ connection by sewing (Animal Accessories).
I recently introduced ‘Bio-performance’, an environment controlled by genetic algorithms by means of a system irreversible in time, a conception of the "analogical body" (as opposed to the digital one) which attempts to re-establish the corporeal status of experience by de-depending the body from the domination of simulations or virtual allusions. Virtuality was based on the fusion of corporeal space with computer space consisting a functional-geometrical entity, a machine-man circuit. The distinction between geometrical and functional space in performance theory was emphasised by Oscar Schlemmer in his works and lectures at the Bauhaus. Geometrical space refers to linear constructions and orbital dancing methods, whereas functional space invokes the response of the agent. Schlemmer's "Dance in space" and "Figure in space with Plane Geometry and Spatial Delineations" performances, intended to transform the body into a "mechanised object" operating into a geometrically divided space, pre-existing the performance. Moreover, the proposition for the remotely controlled dancer of the mechanical ballet might serve as an endeavour to reform the body into a receptor of information that comes from the
container space. Hence, movement was precisely determined by the information from the environment. The biological aspect came foreword due to the need of defining the nature of time throughout the performance.
Similarly to the way biological organisms function irreversibly in time, the performance repetitions should not be identical but rather based on a flexible, non strictly- defined structure, which is subsequently changed by the environment. Not only performance changes, but the body itself is reconstructed throughout the interactive loops. The body is not active itself. It becomes re-active when ‘positioned’ inside a flux environment.
The concept of the performer owning an altering body whose form is perpetually dissolved and
recomposed, leads us to consider performance as an organism. The technique of this transformation is realised by emphasising its bio-analogical responses. Genetic information, due to its complexity, provides a source of transforming the body into a complex system, which brings about unpredictable outcomes. If a performance theory aimed to present the body as a bio-analogic system, all representations and interactions should be replaced by competitive systems and evolutionary processes.
A substantial discrimination between the geometrical space of Oscar Schlemmer and the bioperformance may be observed in their relationship with the body:
Schlemmer: space = soft ["a space filled with pliable substance in which the figures of the sequence of the dancer's movements were to harden as a negative form." The body of the dancers obtain an 'object' quality, moving in a rather predictable way.
The body "disappears" and is remotely controlled. Its feedback is determined by external information.
body = soft, malleable. The body is "liquid space" within space.
The latest work is a bio-engineered fly with musically reconstructed DNA, the ‘musicalized fly’, realised with a portable biotech lab and the support of Joe Davis. The prototype DNA code of a fly gene will be transformed to a music pattern via the music programming language MAX-MSP. A small number of different acoustic variations will be selected by acoustic and aesthetic criteria. The initial sound output will be resynthesized by means of transforming in reverse music information to DNA. The recomposed DNA will be inserted to the flies.
2.Once design seeks to improve the human being’s relationship with the environment (life and work) by developing instruments, which can improve life quality, health and safety. And knowing that a design exercise seeks the economy of resources and a structure that works perfectly in its function is there a similar way of working in biology (or science)?
One should distinguish design from art…Even more, scientific methodology is quite different than artistic strategy or social design. There is no purpose in art… Art can be registered simply as a human activity. The energy of the artist is what matters…So biology, as a ‘sub-division’ of life. is by itself a reduction. Art retrieves what biology deprives from life.
3 Is that possible to think in an interaction between design and biology? How?
Biology is the mould of all designing… It creates an interface by which environment acquires life (i.e.
genes). In a schematic way, genes are the interface of life towards the environment. Furthermore, the
redesigning of organic structures occurs throughout human lifetime. The brain is not hardwired and several
parts of it may be structurally altered if a certain activity is repeatedly executed. So the body is not
Contemporary art is concerned with the body functions instead of its images. If genes are to be involved in
the artistic process, the aesthetic issue seems to be unimportant at an early stage. The suggestion to
reconstruct or regenerate the human body through genetic engineering recalls Langton’s statement: “Art
+ Life= Artificial Life” in the form of “Art + Humans=Artificial humans”. In this latter case, art has no aesthetic
target. Aesthetics will appear as one of the outcomes of the artwork, once the artwork has been
4.Can the design (or improvement) of organic structures be a reality?
In fact, it is a necessity without a goal. And the novelties precede and overwhelm the needs of society.
Reality reposes the question of redesigning…
5.In an exercise of design in which the resource is live material, what are the deontological / ethical
matters in question (if there are any)?
I’m not sure if ethics or deontology could or may be imposed on societies; what usually occurs is that
society first produces the novelties and afterwards the legal framework to encounter them.
6. In microbiological terms I know that exists biological manipulation to improve some agents in order to
progress their functions to human beings. The same thing is true in macro biological terms? What kinds of
manipulations are being (or could be) done?
M. : This matter is more complex and therefore more interesting. This is due to the fact that the multiplicity of
choices will lead societies to exclude pathways of self-evolutions due to aesthetic criteria.
By considering life in terms of a structure, several corporeal alterations occur, and bio-information is about
to reform the body. The new anatomy has to be experienced literally, even if it requires support by
simulated environments. The figural and functional data might be re-organised in such a way as to evoke a
mutated aesthetic outcome. The process of mutating life is considered a rather artistic implementation,
which questions whether the external, inserted parts will be integrated to form a new corporeality. Thus, the
body's capacities appear unknown…
7. Is the creation (design) of living beings with (bio-engineered) improved forms desirable?
The concept that the body is unique has already been discarded by the evolution theory, yet current
discussion evolves predominantly around the issue of life itself becoming the object of designing.
What we may assume is that the superiority of the “biological form” over “artificiality” was based on the
separation of Man from Nature. In the case where Nature includes all potentials, this separation may be in
dispute. As Langton suggested, what we call “nature”, includes humans, machines, as well as all products
of human intelligence.
Advancing even further, as Langton would put it, “the body as it would be if it was not what it is”, suggests
a fabricated human being.
The term “Nature” embodies all further evolutions; if all biosystems are considered as “variations” engaged
in potential evolutionary designs, bioinformatics could provide alternative ways of reconsidering their
As it has already been argued, Nature has always been an undefined term. It is now more appropriate to
say that if humans are part of nature, nature chooses all potential evolutions…
8. If you consider a work team that includes biologists (or scientists) and designers, how do you think the
dialogue will be processed? And which would be the difficulties and the advantages?
This dialogue would have to define a unifying concept of the bioforming activity because of the difficulty
to outline the different developmental pathways… bioart is dialectal with life itself…
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