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Future Nature

Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg explores how radical tech is changing nature. This month, in three different shows across London, she’s resurrecting the smell of an extinct hibiscus, orchestrating a deepfake dawn chorus, and populating Mars with extremophile flowers. Life (forms) will never be the same.

I love your piece in 24/7, the exhibition about the effects of our non-stop lifestyle that’s opening shortly at Somerset House. It’s so different from everything else in the show.

Well, instead of looking at how the 24/7 lifestyle affects humans, I wanted to see how it affects other species. Birds are singing higher, earlier, and for longer now. Near airports, blackbirds are singing 23 minutes earlier, before planes start taking off. When Somerset House asked me to pitch a piece, I said, ‘Let’s rebuild the dawn chorus using machine learning.’ Then I won the pitch and had to figure out how to do that.

How did you do that?

We had to find a data set of 50,000 bird vocalizations – great tits, robins, song thrush and so on. And then we had to train a GAN, a generative adversarial network, to –

What the heck’s a generative adversarial network?

Well, you take a big database, usually of images, and you train two artificial neural networks to talk to each other about the images. One network says, ‘Here is the image,’ and the other network says, ‘Ok, I think that is an image of x. Is that right?’ The first network says, ‘Nope, you’re wrong’ and the second network makes a new guess, and so it goes on. They are in an adversarial conversation.

In the end, what you get are new, fake things emerging out of the GAN – fake things that look like the real thing.

I’m doing the same thing as creating deepfake Mark Zuckerbergs, only with song thrushes

You may have seen deepfakes on the news recently. There was one with Mark Zuckerberg saying something in a video that the real Mark Zuckerberg has never said. Those deepfakes are generated through GAN. You teach the networks to figure out how Mark Zuckerberg’s face works. And once they know that, you can tell the networks to make the deepfake Mark Zuckerberg say anything you want him to and it will look totally real.

That’s terrifying for the future of politics.

And global safety. I’m doing the same thing as creating deepfake Mark Zuckerbergs, but with song thrush. And using sound, not image, which is quite new. One of the datasets we’re using is from Xeno-canto which is an online repository for sharing bird calls. Bird enthusiasts around the world record birds singing and upload their files.

So you start with a collection – dataset – of fifty thousand bird calls and then?

We train the networks to learn how a song thrush sings, how a robin sings. Each bird call is segmented into little chunks, and we stitch these chunks together to create new, synthetic bird songs. The synthetic birds don’t sound quite right, but each time they are taken through the machine learning process, they get better.

Do you want your deepfake song thrushes to sound like a real song thrush?

No. We want them to be a bit weird. But then the next problem is, how do you put it together to make a dawn chorus? A dawn chorus is incredibly complex. You have all these different species singing together, but there is some order to how it kicks off. It’s all about where the birds are in the tree and how big their eyes are and who gets the light first.

But isn’t your data set also already fictional? Because certainly in a city, there are no more song thrushes.

Well yes. This piece is about the diminishing number of birds in cities being replaced by urban sounds. And then this is where you start to understand that the point of doing all of this is not only to make a synthetic dawn chorus. It’s to understand machine learning.

When it comes to synthetic biology the horse has bolted

It’s only when you play with machine learning that you begin to understand it?

When you start to play with it, you start to understand what questions we need to ask about it, what about it should worry us. It’s the same with synthetic biology.

Only by playing with synthetic biology can we understand the ethical issues around it? That sounds a bit dodgy. I mean, playing with synthetic biology is playing with life.

What you have to remember is that when it comes to the ethics of synthetic biology, the horse has bolted. I’m in a privileged position – I can take time to explore these things through my work and then use that as a way to ask the questions that need to be asked. The more we do that, the more we will be able to steer these new technologies somewhere that’s not terrifying.

But I’m not very hopeful, especially with AI.

He found himself in a basement in Berlin with the Chaos Computer Club, Europe’s largest association of hackers

What about synthetic biology, that’s also scary. And that’s what your work mainly engages with.

Yeah. I didn’t actually know what it was until 10 years ago, when a friend, Sascha Pohflepp, asked if I’d heard of this new thing called synthetic biology. He had found himself in a basement in Berlin with the Chaos Computer Club, Europe’s largest association of hackers. And there, giving a talk to them, was an MIT engineer, saying that he had a vision about engineering biology. Turns out he was Drew Endy, one of the architects of synthetic biology.

Engineering biology? Isn’t that genetic engineering?

Well, yes you already had biologists doing genetic engineering, but they didn’t approach it like this guy. They’d tinker around and maybe take this gene from this plant and put it over here in this other plant and see what happened. Visionaries like Drew Endy thought this was a terrible way to do it. They wanted to make DNA work like computer code, so you could just code for what you wanted a life form to do and it would do it. Truly design life.

Biology though, is messy and super, super complex. It turns out DNA is not like computer code where you can write, ‘If you sense this, print this’ and it always works. With DNA, everything is nesting and interacting in different ways within the code as well. So, Endy’s vision didn’t quite turn out like he imagined. Not right away. But in the short time that I’ve spent working with synthetic biologists, we’ve now reached a point where lifeforms are beginning to be engineered in the way Endy envisioned. Basically, it’s done by using machine learning to crunch through the massive amounts of data and find patterns.

Synthetic biology is more than just taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato

Better Nature, solo show at the Vitra Design Museum, Germany

And the idea is to do what with this God-like ability?

To use organisms like plants or bacteria to make chemicals and materials and fuel and medicines.

So, it’s not about making new creatures? Because when I hear ‘synthetic biology’, it sounds to me like, ‘This afternoon I’m gonna go down to the lab and make a mouse with flippers and a beak’, you know, Frankenstein monster stuff.

Yeah I know what you mean. And we’re not far off creating synthetic single-celled organisms but we’re not at your example yet. I’ve heard scientists express regret about the name. One of the reasons to give it that new name was because there was such a backlash against the term ‘genetic engineering’ in the ‘90s. And actually ‘synthetic biology’ is even been rebranded as ‘bio-design’ now.

But just to be clear: synthetic biology – or bio-design – is essentially genetic engineering?

Yeah. Just a bit souped up.

Synthetic biology is more than just taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Genetic engineers did that by the way. They put an anti-freeze gene from a cold-resistant fish into a tomato to make cold-resistant tomatoes.

Did it work?

Yeah, that’s one of the more controversial examples of genetic engineering in the public imagination. Another classic was modifying bacteria to produce insulin rather than getting it from pigs. Diabetics have been using insulin made by genetically-modified bacteria since the ‘70s. So we already design with living material. In fact we have engineered dogs and cabbages and broccoli for thousands of years. It’s what humans do. We breed and cultivate things.

It’s extraordinary when you see a newly-created worm and it’s got a different genetic code to the one all life on earth operates on

You mean selective breeding? Taking wolves and eventually ending up with pugs and corgis?

Yeah. That’s a kind of engineering of biology. And that’s the way that synthetic biologists rationalize what they’re doing.

I’ve never been convinced of the argument that connects the two. Selectively breeding over generations so you take the pups with the squishiest nose and breed only from them so the next generation’s noses are even squishier is like a form of natural selection, but with humans doing the selecting. It seems completely different from taking your pug and bussing in a gene from another species, a yak, a jellyfish, a yucca.

As an artist with a background in critical design what I want is to ask questions about all this. I’m pushing for a space for critique within this science.

You mean critical in terms of the ethics?

In terms of ethics but also in asking how do we make scientific-artistic projects that can actually open up new ways of thinking about this science? Most synthetic biologists are busy engineering lifeforms, and these lifeforms are just machines to them, living machines.

I’ve gone through a big transition. Before, I was trying to understand, why do these scientists and engineers want to design living things? In doing that, I got to see the excitement of creating new life, and it is extraordinary, when you see a newly-created worm wiggling across a computer screen projected six meters wide at a conference, and this worm has got an expanded genetic code, different to the genetic code all life on earth operates on. You get enchanted and seduced by the science.

But then I decided that I needed to be in a cultural space rather than always the outsider in the lab. The danger was I couldn’t be critical in the lab anymore because if I pushed too far with the questions, I would burn the bridges with the synthetic biology community. So, I went back to do a PhD at the RCA (Royal College of Art) to explore how I felt about making the world a ‘better place’. I wanted to explore the questions: ‘Whose better?’ and ‘Who decides?’

Conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund and people who like engineering living things, getting a bit tipsy and trying to work out if they have anything in common

Have you made work that asks these questions?

Yeah. It grew out of going to a conference where conservationists and synthetic biologists were meeting for the first time. Conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund and people who like engineering living things, together in a room, getting a bit drunk and trying to work out if they have anything in common. One of the topics was about engineering things to save other things, designing coral that could withstand warmer water, and then releasing it into the wild to save the coral reefs. My mind was blown. I was like, ‘Wow, what would the wild look like in that future?’ and ‘Who’s in control?’ and ‘Who actually owns the patent for genetically engineered coral?’

I decided to make a project that explored those issues, Designing for the Sixth Extinction, where I took digital photographs of a real forest and superimposed organisms that I’ve imagined. Each of those organisms is a machine that I designed to solve a particular problem. So, I looked into pathogens that kill trees, real pathogens, and imagined organisms that could solve that problem. They are imaginary beings, but underpinning their design is real science. So my fictional organisms run on an expanded DNA code, which is what some synthetic biologists are trying to do right now. Rather than a genetic code made of A, T, C and G, which is what everything living on Earth is made of, they’re trying to add extra letters into the genetic code.

‘Self-inflating Antipathogenic Membrane Pump Patent Drawing’ from Designing for the Sixth Extinction, 2013-15, a fictional biological device designed to treat the infection that causes sudden oak death.

Seriously? Adding new letters to the vocabulary of life?

Yeah. It’d be like Mac versus Windows. So, you could release that expanded-code coral into the wild and it wouldn’t mate. Or that’s the theory anyway.

Yeah sounds like the perfect premise for a Hollywood horror flick, you know, ‘We created mutant coral, and it’s Ok folks, it can’t breed’. But then, one night, deep in the ocean, the replicants began to replicate...

Sometimes my fictional creations turn into real ones. Like with my E. chromi project. That was a collaboration with student scientists at Cambridge who genetically engineered E.coli bacteria to secrete colour pigments visible to the naked eye. Their bacteria won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

When E. chromi detected a particular disease, they would release the corresponding pigment, so your poo would come out a different colour

There is a competition for engineering living machines?

Oh yeah. I collaborated with another designer, James King on this. Our role was to speculate on what could be done with them. We imagined live yoghurt, but with these bacteria in it instead of lactobacillus. They’d be ingested and colonise your gut, and they’d be programmed to keep watch for any early chemical markers of disease. When they detected a particular disease, they would release the corresponding pigment, so your poo would come out a different colour. We made a piece called The Scatalog showing our fictional multi-coloured poo in a neat little case.

Then I went to a conference at Stanford and there were these scientists from the Beijing Genomics Institute showing a picture of our E. chromi Scatalog – showing them as a real-life goal for living diagnostics. Now in 2019, engineered probiotics are a thing.

E. chromi Scatalog, 2009.

But your chromatic poo wasn’t real, it was plastic?

Yeah. I have avoided using genetic engineering because I don’t feel the need to exploit other organisms in my work to make work about exploiting organisms. I can make fictions or artefacts that tell these stories without doing that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get implicated.

Making an artwork seems harmless, but with the dawn chorus project we are making synthetic birds that may be more appealing to listen to than real birds. And we’re advancing the technology of deepfakes. We’re getting seduced into the fantasy of technology as well.

So you never actually genetially engineer stuff yourself?

Resurrecting the Sublime is the first time that there’s actually been genetic engineering as part of a project for me. It’s about bringing back the smell of extinct flowers. I worked on it with smell artist Sissel Tolaas and biotechnology company, Gingko Bioworks. Christina Agapakis, creative director of Gingko, found pressed flowers in the Harvard Herbarium that are now extinct. Her team was able to get DNA out of them, analyse it, and predict the smell molecules that the plants would have been able to produce. Sissel was then able to reproduce the smell of the flowers and I designed various installations for the piece. The largest so far is two vitrines like the kind you’d find in a natural history museum filled with stuffed animals, only you enter the vitrine in order to experience the smell. You become the display.

Resurrecting the Sublime: digital reconstruction of the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, Mount Haleakalā, Maui, Hawaii, around the time of its extinction in 1912.


As we were working on this it dawned on us that all these flowers became extinct for the same reason: colonial action. Capital was what extinguished these flowers, and you require huge capital to bring back even just their smell.

I see, this is all part of asking the right questions.

Yes, and it’s also about the idea of the sublime. The sublime was about the moment of awe and terror in the face of Nature’s power.

Yes the original eighteenth century Romantic idea of the sublime was. But has the idea of the sublime changed in the 21st century? We can control nature now.

Well, there was a sense of control over it even then, because you could go up the Alps on a train, have a look at the terrifying sublimity of it, and go home again.

That’s a very different sort of control to what you’ve got now with engineering life forms.

Yeah. So, for me, Resurrecting the Sublime is a play on the history of the sublime and representation. Because what we have here is not a true representation of Nature. We end up with something that’s still a speculation. Because we know what aroma-molecules the plant would have produced, but we don’t know the amount of those molecules.

How can you not know the amounts?

Because there’s no recipe. It doesn’t say, ‘Four grams of this or five grams of that.’

So, what we end up with is a very fuzzy picture of how the flower might have smelt.

But that, to me, as an artist, is even more interesting because one moment, you can look through the mists of time and see this flower, and then it’s gone again. So this is a different way of working with biotech. It’s like, how do you use biotechnology to talk about loss?

We can evoke memory with biotechnology. We can talk about colonialism through this. We can also ask whose flowers are these now?

It’s interesting that ‘colonization’ is the word that we’re using about going to Mars, and we’re using it without any irony or awareness

You also have a piece at the Design Museum’s big autumn show, Moving to Mars.

Yeah. The show is about how design can play a role in the human colonization of Mars. I really, really disagree with Mars colonization.

Why is that?

It’s interesting that ‘colonization’ is the word that we’re using, and we’re using it without any irony or awareness of the genocide and social and environmental impact that colonization has previously brought.

Current efforts to colonize Mars are led by private space exploration companies and what’s happening is the reprisal of the same colonial structures we are familiar with here on Earth. The colonizing capitalists will end up having a nice time reaping the financial benefit, while those in the colonies will be suffering under horrendous conditions to exploit and strip-mine another planet.

Yeah I see that with Mars colonisation, capital will continue exploiting human workers, only on another planet. But how is Mars itself suffering? If you go to colonize Papua New Guinea or Peru, there are people and animals there that you can exploit and decimate. Mars is red dust.

Mars may already have organisms, we just don’t know.

Not only is Mars -60°C but the air is like dry-cleaning fluid, the dust is like knives. It’s a terrible place for any life

It may have organisms?

Yes. We just don’t know what they look like yet, so we haven’t discovered them. But also, to imagine that it’s a frontier, that it’s empty, and that therefore it’s our right to exploit it – I challenge that assumption.

My challenge to this rhetoric is to propose colonizing Mars but with other species. Humans will never go there. So my piece is a simulation of wilding Mars: seeding it with Earth biology.

Work in progress, video stills, The Wilding of Mars, 2019

Does NASA know what you’re doing?

Yeah. We’ve been advised by a scientist at NASA to try and model this. I’ve spoken with scientists whose work is to try not to infect Mars with Earth biology, because the other problem is, if you go to Mars, you’re taking Earth life there, and you may never be able to tell if there was indigenous life there before because it may become impossible to differentiate Earth life from it, if it is water-based and similar. Or, you may just kill it all off. Or, it may not exist, but maybe one day it might have existed, and the fact that we’ve gone there means that we’ve precluded it having the right to do so.

The artwork is simply a simulation of seeding Mars with vegetation over a million years, and just letting it evolve.

The show is all about us humans getting to Mars, and then at the end you go into a space where my piece is and it’s just plants waving in the wind. My Mars simulation could evolve in different ways. Same planet, same landscape, but different plants.

You do that by what? Just letting the programme run?

Yeah, just running it. Oh God, I sound crazy.

A great kind of crazy.


Moving to Mars at the Design Museum

24/7 at Somerset House

A new version of Resurrecting the Sublime will be in the newly-opened permanent exhibition Being Human, at the Wellcome Collection.

Better Nature, solo show at Vitra Design Museum, Germany until 24/11/19

Eco-visionaries at RA where The Substitute, a piece on the extinct northern white rhino will be shown.

Check Daisy’s website for other exhibitions and on where to see her work internationally including a big new installation at Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Machine Auguries (bird project, 24/7) commissioned by Somerset House and A/D/O by MINI with additional support from Faculty and the Adonyeva Foundation. Machine learning by Dr Przemek Witaszczyk.



Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith