As pointed out by many scholars in the last few years, the community spirit is important in DIY endeavours (Grushkin et al, 2013; Seyfried et al, 2014). A characterising feature of DIYbio is the widely shared opinion that more hands and more brains working together can do more by joining forces than the same hands and brains could achieve by themselves.
In the 2000s, quite a few DIYbio practitioners worked from home, in kitchens, garages or bedrooms (see e.g. Carlson, 2001, 2005; Wolinsky, 2009). But since the start-up of Genspace, New York City’s Community Biolab, in 2010, community laboratories appearing in numerous locations have provided new spaces for fringe biotechnologists. In the 2013 survey by Grushkin et al, 92 per cent of the respondents reported that they work in group spaces (just over 16 per cent reported that they also worked at home). Since the tools needed even for simple biotech experiments can still be quite expensive, it makes sense to pool one’s resources.
Fringe biotechnology is rhizomic in the online distribution of advice, discussion boards, and available protocols across geographical borders. Concurrently, however, specific groups and spaces for fringe biotech tend to be very much local in their grounded presence within a community, and also urban in their location: almost all community labs, science and art centres and other fringe biotech spaces are located in medium-to-large cities (see e.g. Landrain et al, 2013; there are of course exceptions, such as Cultivamos Cultura in countryside Portugal).
Opened as a Biosafety Level One (BSL-1) laboratory,Footnote 13 the first with such classification outside of institutions and industry, Genspace in Brooklyn quickly established itself as one of the most successful spaces on the DIY scene (Ireland, 2014; Wohlsen, 2011). The community lab hosts an eclectic range of activities, from iGEM teams to workshops by established artists such as Oron Catts. Director Ellen Jorgensen estimates that about a third of the people that make use of its lab for a small monthly fee are artists, about a third are IT programmers and the last third are “just curious” (Ireland, 2014). One of the founders of the community lab, artist Nurit Bar-Shai, describes the community lab as “a diverse community that explores cross-disciplinary visions through its art-science programs” (2014).
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is one of the artists who has made use of Genspace’s facilities. The series Stranger Visions features realistically rendered sculptural portraits based on DNA she obtained from loose hair, cigarette butts and used chewing gum. After using forensic DNA phenotyping technology at Genspace, the artist used custom software to visualise what one can assume about the DNA owner’s appearance, and created her sculptures based on that. Dewey-Hagborg seeks to raise awareness about genetic privacy and the possible implications of current technologies, through showing that a single, abandoned strand of hair can provide strangers with access to one’s genetic information. She has stated that “[a]rt at the intersection of science has a liminal status, and therefore a critical potential”.Footnote 14 The combination of critical potential and an open-ended material object that does not tell the viewer what to think recurs in bioart approaches.
Taking advantage of the large number of volunteer hands that are attracted by and help build a community-oriented attitude in their lab, the people at Genspace wish to supplement institutional science by doing projects that require time and manual labour, but not high levels of skill. Their Barcoding Alaska project seeks to taxonomically classify a large number of arctic plants using DNA barcoding, a simple protocol that any layperson can do given the ‘recipe’. In this way, they are contributing to the knowledge pool (spoken introduction by Ellen Jorgensen, Open DNA Barcoding Night, Genspace, 2013). This approach puts a strong emphasis on science communication, spreading enthusiasm for the science, and connotes to the numerous hobbies focused on collecting and categorising, such as stamps or herbariums. It can be considered part of a bigger movement towards crowd participation, crowdsourcing and peer production in citizen science utilised in a number of other projects worldwide (Bonney et al, 2009).Footnote 15 Such interests exist side by side with the more individualist aims of artists and entrepreneurs (Bar-Shai, 2014, writes that she finds in Genspace a place to “explore failure and doubt, and bring the same freedom, curiosity and experimental practices that I have in my art studio into the biology lab”, and a semi-regular at the Genspace community nights, a software engineer who stated that he comes to Genspace mostly for the community spirit, nonetheless expressed his goal of professionally transitioning into bioengineering). In addition to the open nights, Genspace also offers courses in biotechnology and synthetic biology, currently at the cost of $300 for four three-hour sessions (Genspace, 2016).
Genspace’s website (2016) features the catchphrase “Remember when science was fun? At Genspace it still is”. This discourse asserts that they are practicing both science communication and, in fact, science, and also suggests that they see institutional science as less fun – compared, perhaps, to the joyful appreciation of making sense of the world often seen in children and youths. As such, they facilitate entry into their lab for audience groups who would not feel comfortable entering a scientific facility, but may still find it rewarding to engage directly with ‘tinkering’ in the laboratory or at the big communal table placed outside the Genspace Biosafety Level 1 lab.
The Waag Society
The Waag Society in Amsterdam, one of the most established institutes at the cross-section between art, science and technology, has an active Open Wetlab Community. Although more institutionalised than most DIY laboratories, and participating in (and getting funding from) multiple EC projects, the Waag Society’s Open Wetlab shares the ideals of open-source, democratisation of knowledge and hands-on engagement for the public. In 2015, they launched what they call “the first BioHack Academy in the world”, with a more in-depth course (10 classes over 2.5 months) in working with biomaterials using self-built, open-source hardware (Waag Society, 2015, and personal conversation with Pieter van Boheemen, 2014).
Their website states that the Open Wetlab seeks “to involve the industry, artists and designers, but also the political forces and the public, hands-on in the shaping of biotechnology, as well as in what biotechnology creates”. The same statement also professes that the Waag Society “promotes the production of bio-art because we believe that bio-art is visionary and can be guiding for new prototypes and applications. Thus, we investigate to what extent and how art and science can work together and in what way art can influence a scientific agenda” (Waag Society, 2015). Lucas Evers, head of the Open Wetlab, is an artist. Since the Wetlab’s opening in 2012 they have, among other events, hosted a DIY series of public events called Do It Together, where DIY biologists, scientists and artists present frameworks for public engagements, from human blood cell tournaments (artist Kathy High) to future food (Centre for Genomic Gastronomy). The boundaries between art and design are also currently quite permeable: designer Agatha Haines is an artist in residence at the Open Wetlab for the year of 2016.
In both Genspace and the Waag Open Wetlab, as in most community labs with organised programs, experienced DIYers, sometimes employees, oversee the activities and teach newcomers the basic skills needed. Most active DIY biologists do have some background in biotech, although an undergraduate degree in biology is more common than a PhD (see the survey by Grushkin et al, 2013). Despite the process of ‘de-skilling’ and lowered costs of practicing biotechnology in the last few years, the ‘democratisation’ of science does meet this obstacle: While it is the matter of a few minutes to teach someone to use a pipette or seed agar plates, the knowledge of why we should do it, what is possible and what is safe, is not so easily acquired. Therefore, the current proceedings often take the form of one or more knowledgeable leaders of the experiment, directing the others at each stage (personal conversations with Pieter van Boheemen, 2014, and Martin Malthe Borch and Rüdiger Trojok, 2014). This is in conflict with the explicit intensions of many fringe biotechnologists, who state that they seek to dismantle hierarchies and open up science to those who are currently outsiders (see e.g. Delfanti, 2013; Meyer, 2014).
DIY also encourages individuals to solve puzzles for themselves. The tension between individual and collective forces in DIYbio is recognisable from what Gabriella Coleman (2013) described in her study on ICT hackers. The “hacker ethos” and its ideals of problem solving, tinkering and freedom (Kostakis et al, 2015; Levy, 2001) ring true for a number of fringe biotechnologists. London Biohackspace is one of several community labs that grew out of existing hackspaces,Footnote 16 and are located next to or within them (another example is Biologigaragen, situated within Labitat in Copenhagen). This also facilitates that some existing members of hackspaces join biohackspaces, bringing with them an interest in ICTs and electronics. When I visited London Biohackspace, in a room in the basement of the London Hackspace, in January 2014, its members consisted of a small group of active participants who sought to increase their knowledge of biology and develop their laboratory facilities. At that point, they had not done much “actual lab work” (personal conversation with Simon, 2014), apart from participating in the iGEM competition along with University College London. Their lab is not yet BSL certified, and they do not offer courses, rather aim at learning together through reading and doing. So far, they focused on building equipment such as a shaker platform, gel electrophoresis box and microscopes from scratch, and more recently the Juicyprint, a bioprinter that should run on fruit juice and print bacterial cellulose shapes (LBH, 2016).
This focus on hardware and software before wetware (biological materials) is common especially in the biohackspaces. While most actors and scholars use ‘DIYbio’ and ‘biohacking’ synonymously (Meyer, 2014; Seyfried et al, 2014), some see relevant differences. In a practitioners’ discussion forum, one actor (defining himself as a biopunk, which he described as a hacker culture) found the difference between DIYbio and biohacking to be that DIYers think it important to build stuff themselves, whereas to biopunks, “this adds no extra value” – they will use whatever is most efficient (Splicer, 2010).Footnote 17 However, a comment to this statement by another biohacker, Cathal Garvey, contradicted Splicer’s representation of the situation: “in my experience, there are many people in the DIYbio community who are ‘in it for the wetware’, rather than obsessively making their own equipment and sequencing things using only their own tools” (ibid.), highlighting the intricate web of terminology, interactions and self-conceptions among fringe biotechnologists.
As mentioned, far from all bioart is DIY. A range of artists work within institutions, be they dedicated to art or science or something in between. The SymbioticA Centre, founded in 2000 at the University of Western Australia (UWA), is the first artistic centre in the world to be based within a biology department. In 2008, it also became a Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts. SymbioticA offers residencies, BSc, MSc and PhD programs, and a range of activities including open seminars and exhibitions. The Director of SymbioticA, Oron Catts, observed in a recent interview that their more than 70 residents have included “techno-utopians, we had very critical artists, theoreticians, geographers and philosophers and designers and architects and artists… performance artists, media artists, formalist artists who wanted to use it as a formalist material” (Reeve, Catts and Zurr, 2016).
The Centre consists of a small office space and a PC1 laboratory, which is mostly used as a storage space for a large number of artworks, leftover components of residents’ projects and a number of odd objects. The staff and residents more often make use of the PC2 and PC3 laboratories in the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, to which the Centre belongs.Footnote 18 In order to use these labs, they have to go through inductions, follow lab procedures and get approval from the UWA ethics committees for their projects.
Oron Catts established the Tissue Culture and Art Project with his partner Ionat Zurr in 1996. Ożóg (2012, p. 44) names “promoting a ‘Do It Yourself’ approach that is unprejudiced and founded on sound knowledge” as an important aspect of Zurr and Catts’ activities. In The DIY De-Victimizers (2006), the artists developed a kit, called DIY DVK m1, which would allow people to “bring back” individual cell lines of dead meat in order to, as they ironically put it, “allay some of the guilt people feel when they consume parts of dead animals” (Catts and Zurr, 2013, p. 110). The artists explicitly sought an absurd approach in their performative installation, to bring through their critique of the hypocrisies of human interactions with other living beings.
Although they value the democratisation of science, Catts and Zurr (see e.g. 2014) in their articles criticise the standardisation of biocomponents, which makes routine out of the manipulation of life. De-skilling is important for letting amateur beginners into biotechnology. However, Catts and Zurr see the ways in which it is being done as a worrisome development.Footnote 19 This illustrates an important point of contention among these practitioners: the opinions as to what level of manipulation of living matter is desirable or acceptable, and how we should relate to and discuss the current state of biotechnology (Ginsberg et al, 2014, p. xiv). This mode of engaging with biotech and its societal aspects is not, per se, science. Ionat Zurr, in a 2013 research interview, has stated that “I’m not even trying to be the scientist or the engineer, I have my other skills”. She considers her role to be supplementary to science in a different sense, through critical inquiry into the rhetoric and conditions of scientific work and the place of its products in society.
Catts has stressed that the SymbioticA approach, and the outcomes they are interested in, are “very, very different” from those of the DIY and biohacker communities, although some of the rhetoric and ideas are similar to their own. He says that he is
now making a point of distancing myself to some extent and what we do at SymbioticA from those amateur bio-hacking communities, because I think that the problem is now that there seems to be an attempt to cluster all of those approaches as one way of doing things […] I like some of the stuff they are doing with the biohacking and amateur biologists, but I’m not really finding too many connections in regard to the way they do it, and the reasons they are doing it, and the outcomes they are interested in (Catts, 2013, research interview with the author).
Catts delineates the artistic approach as something essentially different from the DIY communities. Similarly, Kera (2014), biohacker and researcher at the National University of Singapore, has argued that while “most bioart projects place biotechnologies in the context of art institutions and galleries, DIYbio and biohacking activities grow and spread through the emergent culture of hackerspaces, makerspaces and citizen science laboratories”. The products of these actors’ activities are notably different: while artists seek to create artworks – as Kera points out with the aim of exhibiting them (although such artworks are often shown in Science Centres and other untraditional venues for art, not just in art galleries) – biohackers seek other outcomes such as producing new knowledge or developing new equipment. However, these boundaries are very blurry, since several biohackers without artistic backgrounds have produced artworks, considering this form a good communication venue (for instance, Martin Malthe Borch and Cristina Muñoz from Biologigaragen created the Urine Journey, described as “an interactive art-science installation” in which energy is produced from urine, a process displayed at art fairs in a “urinal”, see Borch and Muñoz, 2014), and SymbioticA has since the early 2000s hosted workshops in which they teach DIY alternatives to expensive gear and materials, with a twist. Like the workshops hosted at sister Centre Biofilia in Helsinki, the focus is also on “broader philosophical and ethical explorations into the extent of human intervention with other living things” (Taipale, 2014).Footnote 20
As a fringe biotechnology space, SymbioticA differs from the open community labs in two important ways: (1) Its labs are not open to the public. SymbioticA, set within the UWA, operates on an ordinary university model of application and acceptance for residencies and educational programs (they do host weekly seminars that are free and open to the public). (2) It is not cheap. Upon acceptance, the prospective resident must commit to pay bench fees for the use of UWA’s professional laboratory equipment and consumables. Due to the grant system, both artists and academics have the opportunity to apply for funding for such residencies; however, this is far from the inclusive system of most DIYbio labs.
These spaces, we see, to varying extents accommodate a range of different practices. Differences in motivations, interests and aims between actors are real and prominent: not only between DIYbio and institutional bioart, and between diverse geographical local situations, but also between different actors within a single laboratory space. The distinctions between artistic, educational and entrepreneurial activities, and the range from techno-optimist to techno-critical and sociocritical approaches, appear more important than the division between DIY and institutional practices – but the issue of funding is notable as perpetuating this division (Delfanti, 2013; Mitchell, 2010).
Comparative consideration of these approaches can showcase the differences. But fringe biotechnologists, as mentioned, have some important factors in common: they bring biotechnologies into the public gaze, opening them up to scrutiny and facilitating discussion. Also, their alternative utilisation of the technologies makes them subject to questions regarding ethics, responsibility and biosafety. Hackers, artists and scholars alike often refer to the Kurtz case as exemplary of the negative turn these questions can take.