INTERVIEW: HELENE FURJÁN & LEE NENTWIG | IMAGES: DR. RACHEL ARMSTRONG
Institutionalized knowledge relies on specialists who focus their entire careers in narrow niches of the sub-fields of distinct disciplines. People who resist compartmentalization are often tagged generalists, their hybrid interests seen as skating across the surfaces of fields, a broad but superficial intelligence. Yet, interdisciplinarity does not exist without such hybrids who refuse to concentrate on one field and whose investigations are as rigorous as they are broad.Dr. Rachel Armstrong grew up equally at home in the sciences, humanities and arts, refusing to see why they shouldn't be explored together. In college her interests spanned medicine, biology and design. The combination of these interests eventually led her work into the emergent field of synthetic biology. Utilizing a range of different methods, Dr. Armstrong has never been comfortably confined in any particular discipline. Instead, she works across disciplines and learns through the process of collaboration. Today, as a Professor of Experimental Architecture in the Department of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, Dr. Armstrong continues to bridge the fields of science, architecture and biology. Her experiments explore the future of human society with a focus on sustainable ecosystems. She is establishing an alternative approach to sustainability that couples the computational properties of the natural world to develop a 21st century production platform for the built environment, which she calls 'living' architecture.
Where does the term “black sky thinking” come from?
The term “black sky thinking” comes from the semiotics of space exploration, not just space as an abstract concept, but how we experience the cosmos in which we exist. We take for granted the laws built on at least five hundred years of enlightenment thinking that has rationalized, reduced, and obstructed our understanding of Earth so that when we make work or operate within our environment, we’re full of assumptions. We have become so accustomed to the expected ways of asking questions or what we can explore that they have become unshakable habits, even when we venture into unfamiliar places – like deep space. We keep on doing the same things again and again, and then try to convince ourselves that small changes are enough, that small differences might one day get us there.
Black sky thinking is a way of re-opening space to the unknown, to the invisible and the unexplainable. These concepts are at the heart of living - not just living as a biological or an organic process, but living as the experience of environment, as moments of inhabitation. How do we make spaceships that enable us to live in space? Our environments are now so lively and animated that we can no longer assume a building will be enough--that an inert object will to be able to negotiate space for us. When we are facing ecological crises, population-scale challenges, issues of natural resources, and other pressing problems, we need alternative ways of thinking about living and being in the world that take us away from our assumptions that are founded on 500 year-old paradigms of theory and practice. We need bold forms of thinking that take leaps into the unknown, not as an unconsidered act of self-destruction, but to equip ourselves with tools that deal with risk, and with things that we can’t describe well. We have to forge languages that allow us to develop new and meaningful approaches, to retain value that is important to us while re-empowering ourselves within the unknown, to connect with others, and to re-enchant our experience of reality so that we don’t end up terribly disillusioned. Not to deny the huge challenges that we’re facing, but to reinvigorate what it means to be human right now.
How does black sky thinking differ from short-term thinking or “blue sky thinking”?
We need to challenge the centrality of the machinic metaphor of life. The success of the metaphor is that you can embody the philosophy of that worldview by making a machine. “Blue sky thinking” looks at innovation at the edges of machine-thinking. But ideas that fall outside of this thinking are consigned to a rhetoric that can’t be embodied. If you take the process of living and being itself as the central lens through which you start to articulate an argument of possibilities, you start seeing things differently. Black sky thinking is a different kind of computation, a different set of values, exchanges, and choreographies for sorting, ordering, and valuing the world. Machines live in a deterministic reality. If they come across something that they don’t already know how to deal with, they crash. Biology doesn’t work that way; organic life doesn’t work that way. If you go back to the origin of life on earth, you see that chemistry doesn’t work that way either. As a discipline, biomimicry doesn’t interrogate the nature of life from outside of the machine metaphor: genetic programs, a hierarchy of skins, tissues, organs and bodies is assumed to be based on the way that discrete objects are ordered and related, like cogs in an appliance. We need to physically interrogate processes of being through a different lens that gives us the opportunity to make important changes. In this age of biotechnology and complex chemistry, we have a different set of tools to ask new questions. The first thing is to unlock our expectations so that we can start to see things we think we already know from alternative perspectives.
The Hanging Gardens of Medusa, a laboratory sky garden made by Dr. Armstrong in collaboration with Nebula Sciences to determine the ability of different forms of life to survive in extreme environments.
Can you explain the concept of natural computing?
At the heart of all this is what I’m calling “natural computing,” a term that started to gain popularity around the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in 2012. As it turns out, Turing was not looking at digital computation as the end-goal of his work; he was actually interested in how nature computed (see his 1952 paper, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”). He understood that natural computing is not perfect. But Turing’s interest in the computational capabilities of the material realm gives us new possibilities in the context of environments. The machine metaphor creates a set of ideas that already limits the kinds of solutions and experiences that we encounter. It assumes that all objects are at equilibrium until an external source of energy acts upon them. In fact, machines are seen as separate from their environment (i.e. they are closed systems) and have to be secondarily connected up to their surroundings. Such principles are considered as unshakable laws of physics, which cannot be contravened. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that systems in equilibrium move towards increasing entropy--they can conserve or dissipate energy, but not increase it. However, while machines clearly obey these classical laws, the kinds of systems that Turing was interested in – i.e. “life” – appear to contravene them. Specifically, life appears to become more ordered and complex over time and so, it seems to disobey these principles. But how might this be possible? In 1867, James Clerk Maxwell developed a hypothetical model that could violate the Second Law: two boxes of gas particles in equilibrium (equal mass, pressure and temperature), with a door between. With the help of an ‘intelligent demon’ that could control the flow of particles, faster particles could be moved one way, and slower ones the other. With the demon’s assistance, the faster particle box ends up with a higher energy than the other, which can be captured to do work. In other words, like life, the system becomes more ordered with time – but only with a little ‘intelligent’ help from the outside. In 2016, physicists reported the first photonic model of Maxwell's demon, replacing the boxes of gas particles with two pulses of light. The demon can escort the brighter beam (with more photons) in one direction and the dimmer beam (with fewer photons) in the other. Equal pulse energies cancel out; the imbalance—and the resulting photoelectric charge—produces energy. When you deal with life, you are working with systems that are not at equilibrium, but at what we call a “far-from equilibrium” state. Unlike machines, their ‘magic’ appears from their openness and connectedness to their environment. Maxwell’s Demon, an agent from elsewhere, enables life to disobey classic thermodynamic rules – even if this disobedience is temporary. These open systems possess energy and therefore have agency, are sensitive to their environment, and are in constant flux. Classical science tends to control environmental factors, turning its experimental models into closed systems and therefore, neglects this unfathomably weird and illogically contingent mode of existence. The basis of natural computing is visible at a molecular level: it’s parallel, not series, processing. Intelligence is not separate from the body in a molecular computer, the two are completely entangled. Machinic abstractions tend to remove value as an inherent process of a system, and then try to add it back in retrospectively, rather than having those values utterly woven into the way that we work and exist in the world. I was recently on a bus with a wonderful female mathematician, Françoise Chatelin, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Toulouse and head of the Qualitative Computing group at the Centre Européen de Recherche et de Formulation Avancée en Calcul Scientifique (Cerfacs). She investigates the mathematical ways the human mind builds its image of the world. Chatelin told me about her project, the Mathematics of Life, and that irrational numbers, for her, started to describe more closely the nature of life and it’s infinitesimal relationships than the integers that we currently use. She aims to engage in computing based around irrational numbers. She opened up my eyes to the fact that it matters how we compute because, fundamentally, computing is how we sort, order, and value the world.
How does this relate to an ecological form of thinking?
In an ecological era, we’re going to have an ecology of worldviews and ways of seeing that we then need to be able to navigate between. Rather than a Theory of Everything –which proposes to smash the quantum together with relativity and classic science into a meta-solution – we need to embrace the idea of many ways of knowing partially. This is a kind of infraknowledge whereby you can only get incomplete views of things, but the more of those that you have, a holographic kind of contingency condenses in between those spaces, which helps us synthesize a form of hyper knowledge by triangulating a position between different modes of knowing and experience. Innovation is no longer going to just be a question of scientific genius. Science will be part of the practice, of course, but it’s going to a synthetic form of knowledge. Ecological knowledge is exploratory, a kind of knowledge that will change and surprise you. There will be a necessary diplomacy in integrating our findings that we’re lacking right now. As philosopher Isabelle Stenger may best explain:
“If there is to be an ecology of practices, practices must not be defended as if they are weak. The problem for each practice is how to foster its own force, make present what causes practitioners to think and feel and act. But it is a problem which may also produce an experimental togetherness among practices, a dynamics of pragmatic learning of what works and how. This is the kind of active, fostering ‘milieu’ that practices need in order to be able to answer challenges and experiment changes, that is, to unfold their own force. This is a social technology any diplomatic practice demands and depends upon.”
- Isabelle Stenger, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices” (2013) On an individual level, the digital revolution has allowed us to realize our multiple identities. We each consist of a world of multiplicities that rework themselves constantly, a bit like the way that your body reworks your flesh. In classical theories of biology, change is considered error. But change is actually a very successful 3.5 billion-year survival strategy in which error is almost irrelevant. In fact, change is the generator, a search for potential over evolutionary time. Each iteration of life is not exactly the same as before, they are not exact replications. Everything is slightly different. That’s a strategy! Just small changes in the way we frame things can help us to develop the next set of tools, select the next set of materials and methods, and prototype these things into existence. The prototype is the designer’s way of, to paraphrase Donna Harraway’s notion, of bringing ‘to functionality’ ideas that seem far out and impossible, unreachable and unfundable. That’s where experiment lies.
"Machines live in a deterministic reality. If they come across something that they don’t already know how to deal with, they crash. Biology doesn’t work that way, organic life doesn’t work that way."
What are protocells, and why do they interest you?
Protocells have become powerful for me, because they do things that I never imagined that they could. At the Southern University of Denmark, my then-supervisor Martin Hanczyc, showed me an old soap recipe from the end of the nineteenth century by Swiss zoologist Otto Bütschli. This simple saponification process uses olive oil and a strong alkaline, which produces a cell-like structure that seems to grow from that oil field and move across the plate, something like an artificial organism. We ran our own experiments with low expectations--we’ve all seen the laundry advertisements on T.V. where the grime gets busted by the clever soap. But under a microscope at low power we saw these amazing bodies that were growing tails, communicating with one another, and making population-scale formations which then also created different effects. That was absolutely revelatory. I had never thought that something without a central code was capable of such highly complex behavior. And if that was possible with something so historically well-known as the process of soap-making, then what else have we missed? What other kinds of molecular interactions are we taking for granted that we could actually deploy in different ways? In modern science, everything is universalized and calibrated. But when we observe this world of non-equilibrium systems, we can see that there is a different language, and a different kind of computation which cannot be completely predicted by digital computing, just like a weather forecast. We look at clouds formed by invisible fronts of hot or cold air where transformations take place at interfaces, giving rise to a vast diversity of clouds or winds. Clouds are not just the objects that you see hanging in the atmosphere; they are visible effects produced by much larger fields of action (colliding bodies of hot and cold air) that extend beyond the apparent boundaries of the clouds. Without these invisible gaseous collisions in the atmosphere, clouds could not exist, let alone be so persistent, yet protean. The role of the designer changes in hypercomplex spaces. A different set of criteria exists for the kinds of materials and environments that you select. Recipes are created to produce incredible events, alchemical possibilities, or nuanced characteristics of space, not perfect objects. The designer is no longer at the top of the pyramid; in fact, there is no pyramid anymore. And without only top-down control to dictate the order of things, design become a lot more interesting. It becomes a learning experience, one that requires you to pay attention. In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013), Timothy Morton defines the hyperobject as something so vast and ephemeral that it is not visible, nor can be experienced in its totality, but only ever in some kind of partial encounter. Hyper-complexity has a very similar impact on design. When you can’t possibly predict all of the outcomes--even for something relatively simple--you require a different level of design engagement. The protocell became a visualization system where I could test these ideas and see the elegant, diverse creativity in the repeatability of the chemical world. Projects like Hylozoic Ground, architect Philip Beesley’s installation for the Canadian Pavillion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, embody this thinking. I designed the chemical systems for this work using very simple ingredients to show a native chemical technology of fluids. Mostly, we try to articulate the performance of liquids through the framework of machines such as hydraulics, which convert fluids into forces that can power mechanical joints and systems as an alternative energy force, but not operate through the full repertoire of (nonlinear) fluids as a generative set of exchanges. I was also asked to curate a space as part of the Vita Vitale exhibition in the Azerbaijan Pavilion for the 56th Venice Art Biennale by Artwise Curators and used this as a further opportunity to explore the technology of (metabolic) liquids. The IDEA Laboratory included four groups of artists and designers (EcoLogicStudio, Julian Melchorri, Studio Swine and Mike Perry) and a collaborative work: eight bioreactors ran as an experiment to see if natural biofilms would attach to plastics. The goal was to use organic nets made from biofilms that could solve two problems at once for Venice; the overgrowth of eutropic organisms and the number of degradative microplastics in the lagoon. Plastics collected from a beach cleanup were placed together with biofilms native to the same environment. I expected the eight tanks would all look the same, and it would be terribly dull. Three and a half of those experiments, produced the expected outcome—bioplastics seamlessly intertwined with biofilms. But one didn’t grow anything at all, presumably because some sort of antibiotic was present. Polystyrene also created the conditions where biofilms were split into their constituents - algae and bacteria, and generated two completely separate microorganismal populations. One of the bioreactors grew mosquito larvae. In the remainder the bioplastic communities were rolled up into tight little balls of algae, something I wouldn’t have predicted. This must have had something to do with the flow of the water in the tank to aerate the microorganism communities. The unexpected results helped us communicate to the public why designing natural systems was different from designing within a mechanical paradigm.
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These studies of chemical systems in liquid environments show how different liquid infrastructures [interfaces between hydrophobic and hydrophilic liquids, and alkali-activated gels, liquid environments within structural (polymer) frameworks] enable different sets of spatial relationships to occur between reactive species. The experiments provide model systems for how space and time can choreograph the production of structure and transformation. Rather than being pre-determined and printed, these hyper-complex systems self-organize.
How can microbes help buildings?
If we want the natural world to thrive and grow around us, we need to create the right interfaces, mediating spaces that allow us to have the impacts we would like on our natural systems. At present we encounter these impacts – what bacteriologist and arts collaborator Simon Park at the University of Surrey, calls “microgeographies” – as incidental findings. Microgeography is the study of the urban microbiological landscape, and the application of microbial properties to urban design and architecture. I am interested in exploiting the properties of these organisms that might have architectural applications including their innate pattern-forming ability, their use in the construction of biomaterials, and their potential, through bioluminescence, to provide low-energy lighting systems. If you look at a building that has been around for twenty or thirty years, you’ll start to see dark patches on the sides of buildings where there is less light and more moisture that microorganisms take advantage of. What happens if, instead of getting rid of those stains, we find a way for the microbes to work symbiotically with the building skin? We could make the transition from the building that turns natural resources into waste that cannot be reutilized by biology, to buildings as transformers of natural resources that can be used by other natural systems when they leave our living spaces. Rather than reducing everything down into inert substances, the resources that come through our buildings could become re-complexified, we could think of architecture as being a producer of soils. In other words, could our buildings be conceived literally as possessing a web of intersecting and mutually-reinforcing physiologies? Why do we have drains and not circulations? Why do we have ventilation systems rather than breathing systems and membranes of exchange? What if buildings produce a kind of biomass, make methane, filter water, or seed organic waste with microorganisms in compost elevators that heat the building as a by-product? If there is more diversity in the transformations that happen within buildings we would make cities that no longer destroy soils, but potentially produce the most fertile soils in the world, which can then give rise to much more sustainable visions of cities as forests. You can think of odor capturing and surfaces that adsorb pollutants, or simple hydroscopic materials that take away, or store, water. Rather than come up with the grand solution typical of the 20th century, architecture becomes a practice of prototype, modes of embodiment and experimentation. It is an exciting time for young designers to be coming into this space. Not because there are better answers, but because we can ask better questions. It’s a different kind of virtuosity. Virtuosity not as the goal, but as the alchemical consequence of being around, experiencing, immersing, sharing, continually learning and staying with, to again paraphrase Donna Harraway, the "trouble" of design. We do this through experiment, which becomes the keystone for all kinds of different relationships, people coming together with things to offer, sharing risk, but all investing in the possibility of change. At the core is a question. If you have the right question, very little resources will go a long way. Understanding and communicating what this means to other people is also part of the experiment. And that can be really simple. At the 56th Venice Biennale IDEA Lab, it was storytelling. There was a kind of enchantment in talking to the people as they came into the space, and showing them the things that they were observing. Once they could see the story, they could conduct the experiment in their mind’s eye and conceive of the possibilities. And that bit of light was really enough. There were seeds sown. They would walk away with something new. With careful choreography and a well-shaped question at the heart of it, storytelling becomes powerful. Stories are enablers, a kind of framework for knowledge transfer that opens up creative, imaginary spaces. When you have looser structures for engaging imaginatively with the possibility of change, like storytelling, dancing, or making something, more people can use the knowledge and take it in different directions.
"It is an exciting time for young designers to be coming into this space. Not because there are better answers, but because we can ask better questions."
You talk about walking a line between the known and the unknown, order and chaos, and embracing intuition which we often hear in our discussions with artists. How did you arrive at this way of thinking?
When I was a kid, jam jars were my prototyping system. I was always trying to encourage creatures to make things, and get along together, in ways that they weren’t. I’d encourage them with water, sugar, soil, and anything else that I could find in the kitchen. I lived my life in my knickers and vest because I’d come back in from the garden utterly caked in mud and my mother had to wash everything by hand because we didn’t have a washing machine. But when I went to study biology, I realized that there was not much experimentation like my childhood jam jar ecologies. We were taught that a rabbit had long ears so that it could hear danger far away, a twitchy nose to smell, big feet to run away, and a little tail to signal to its mates with. Nobody in those days would say, “Well, what if – a rabbit could glow in the dark?” So I went into medicine because it was the closest that I could get to designing and engineering with living things.In my third year, just before I qualified as a doctor, I went to a leprosy colony in India. What struck me was the extreme relationship between environment and the body. I witnessed the inside of a world where people had built their own pots and pans with handles about a meter long, they had made wax prosthetic noses to create dignity, but also to hang their glasses on. They weren’t just re-designing bodies, they were building their own technology and in so doing, reconstructing their lives. I was out there transferring tendons from fingers into thumbs to provide grip. But a tool that would allow them to work huge mechanical advantages was of no benefit if they didn’t have a place to educate their children, and live in the world safely. I saw an empowering transformation: before, they were outcasts and were left by their families to die; then they built their own village and tools, and developed a sense of place in the world. When I got back to the U.K. I had lots of questions that medicine couldn’t answer about how bodies live in the spaces they occupy. I knew at that time that I needed to work with the arts, not to answer those questions, but to try to develop a language to ask better questions about the things that intrigued me. Then, I was asked by Neil Spiller to teach his students at the Bartlett School of Architecture in the mid 1990’s. I would give them access to medical expertise and they would teach me what was important to them, which I wouldn’t get in clinical environment. It was a Pandora’s Box, I couldn’t put it away. I attempted a couple of times to go back to medicine, but these questions about individual experience, environmental impacts, and the role of culture were just so important, and the abstractions of a medical clinic seemed woefully inadequate to address. So I went on to get a PhD in architecture and, since then, have not been able to stop doing experiments.
As you've discussed, you work in a multiplicity of different ways and you’re operating at a variety of scales. How do you keep it all straight?
By taking a first principles approach to what it is that I'm testing, and its importance. Designers bring to science an integrative, synthetic type of knowledge; but we also bring value. Scientists appreciate that designers are willing to take on the risk to reputation when they don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Science, in its hierarchical form, can’t do this. Designers also help develop a stage before formal question making and can dwell in the realm of curiosity – let’s call it the exploration of pre-proof of principles – you’ve got a good idea, you don’t know whether it sucks or whether it rolls, but you can try it out as a design and you can still get something positive out of it, you can discuss it as research. Science won’t allow this until there is a certain level of certainty, where the system is tipping towards a particularly desired outcome. We can start to ask questions that are not characteristic of scientific research: “Why do we want to do that? Who would benefit from it? What communities are we trying to reach? And what will be the changes for them if we do that?” Science makes a universalist assumption that anything it discovers is ultimately useful – given enough time, someone will know how to apply all scientific findings. Design offers a kind of choreography that can potentially speed up this process of chance. If you shape those questions by understanding their context, then you get the right people with vested interests in change asking really interesting possibilities of an experimental proposal. I think you have to really map out that space by asking, “Why are we doing this?” – and then, prepare to be surprised by your discoveries.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Turing. A.M. (1952), ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences, 237(641): 37–72.