‘Synbio Chic’: A designer’s perspective. Victoria Geaney Interviewed by Sarah Sewell
Collaborating with designers, who sometimes take a highly conceptual approach, can help scientists to envisage exciting new ideas and applications. A good example of this is the work of Victoria Geaney, a designer who worked with synthetic biology students at Imperial College London to bring together the worlds of Fashion and Science. Victoria came to the University of Cambridge on the 30th of October to give a lecture, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to send Sarah Sewell to investigate:
SS: Do you want to start off by introducing yourself? And give me an overview of why you are here today?
VG: I am a PhD fashion researcher at the Royal College of Art [London]. I have been working with synthetic biologists at Imperial College growing bacterial cellulose, and I have created a waistcoat out of what we have done so far. I am keen to move it on from bacterial cellulose experiments that have been done before, such as Suzanne Lee’s work, which is why I incorporated green fluorescent protein into the garments in order to make them glow. The idea behind that would be a proof of concept approach to show how in the future, a wearer (such as a cyclist) could light themselves by night using bacteria on clothing. Light is quite important in my own work as a designer and also sustainability, so thinking in the future how we can produce a cradle-to-cradle fashion approach, almost getting rid of waste products and getting bacteria to make something useful again.
SS: So are you interested in it not just in terms of a fashion context, but the wider implications of the materials that you are using?
VG: For me it is a fashion context, or to be worn on the body, but also I like to know about the wider applications and to be informed by them as well.
SS: Was there anything in particular about synthetic biology that drew you as a source of inspiration for your designs.
VG: I kind of fell into it! I suppose I always struggled with science at school, and I thought there must be some way to access it, more in a creative way myself. Every collection at university was usually something to do with science, or science related. Whether that was looking at specific exhibits at the Wellcome Collection or the Hunterian Museum, or going to the Science Museum [London] and looking at things there, and finding out about the how, and why, and what makes these components up, the systems behind them. Because I have always been interested in the future, and fabrics and fashion as well, I went along to Imperial – they had an outreach evening, and ended up speaking to the synthetic biologists for a long time. Then [I] kept going up there having conversations saying what can we do? How can we push this? What can be done? Can we grow fabric? Can we grow this? And can we grow it in shapes? Can we have a t-shirt mould so you have no waste material? That idea of having a t-shirt mould that cellulose would form around, cutting out a lot of issues within the fashion cycle at the moment. Whether you could dye it, or have the pattern move, there are just so many things from a fashion perspective that haven’t been explored at the moment. And also as it is quite a new area, it is interesting to collaborate in a creative, applicable and interesting way, from a completely different perspective than maybe scientists look at it.
So my friend, one of the synthetic biologists eventually said they had chosen to look at the material bacterial cellulose for their iGEM project. This meant that we would actually be applying the ideas that we had been discussing in a real context. He was quite keen for me to come in and discuss what could be done with the material and the applications of it… Maybe relating [it] with something you wear on a daily basis, something textural, may make people change their perceptions on Synthetic Biology if they could see a potential positive, useful or aesthetically interesting application. I still think there is a lot of scope [for using the material], which is why I have started my PhD looking into growing wearable technology, and what you can do with that.
SS: How much have you noticed there has been a difference in perspectives with the people you have been working with? As obviously you have been coming at it from an art perspective, looking at the materials, whereas for a lot of scientists it is more seeing what can we make with this technology, it is a slightly different view point, how have you found that as a thing to work with?
VG: It is interesting, as I think maybe as scientists you have to focus on what you are doing, but once you are allowed that space to explore what could be done with it, they all get very excited about it, they all have ideas that they want to explore. Maybe just allowing that creative energy is what I bring, and that excitement! I suppose if you have been working on something, it can take an outsider to get more excited about it… You know you will never do half of these things but it can be interesting to think about them, about what can be done, and maybe that is how creative people can help scientists, and the other way around. Still it’s good to get them excited about what they are doing- the human-centric approach which maybe they don’t always think about.
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I think it is great you can do this exploration, even if it just to test what you can do, that is the sort of thing that can lead to a future development that can be really important.
VG: There are a lot of places and a lot of people that are thinking very far ahead, 2050 and beyond, very futuristic designs looking at synthetic biology and what they could eventually do with it under concepts they have created. But I like to help make it happen, it’s maybe not so future thinking, but it is very new to actually be working with applying the fabric and doing things with it.
SS: You have mentioned some of the inspirations and the people you have been working with, But as you have been going along have there been any developments or events that have inspired you or been a turning point in your work, or has it been a more general collection of ideas?
VG: It’s interesting because I was very focused on this idea not too long ago…[but] I was accepted onto the MIT workshop, [and] got the opportunity to hear talks by Lining Yao of MIT about a project called bioLogic – and you think these are just ideas, but they are doing it already! So that was a turning point I suppose. I heard a talk recently by Veronica Ranner – some people are so inspiring when they talk, it is all the ideas you are thinking about but it completely changes your perspective. It really brought it home to me that you always need to think about the end product, and her way is completely selfless and quite medical based – it really made me think that [fashion and wearable technology] is very aesthetically concerned and I really need to think about how it can actually have wider applications and uses, maybe medical, and help change people’s lives for the better, rather than just a gimmick. Which was actually being discussed – wearable technology could be seen as a gimmick in fashion, not in other areas. We adopted it 10-15 years ago, we can add things, we can add lights, we can add sensors, we can do really cool things! But then why? ok, you have got something that moves but is anyone actually going to wear that? Is it going to be useful? But in other applications, that could be really useful, maybe medicinal, or well-being and health, which synthetic biologists are quite keen to work with. So it has changed my way of thinking.
SS: I think it is really important to start off with these ideas, even if you are doing it because you think ‘wow, that would be really cool’, I think that has got its own merit in the development. We have talked quite a lot about your inspirations, but could you tell me a bit more about the things you have been doing with these fabrics made out of bacterial cellulose and GFP?
VG: It is formed from green Kombucha tea, sugar, and cider vinegar and grows in vats in the laboratory. The Imperial team optimised bacterial cellulose biosynthesis in Gluconacetobacter xylinus and functionalised the material in order to expand its properties. The cellulose takes two weeks to ferment and form in the lab, producing ‘sugar leather’ or ‘grown eco-leather’. The fabric is then washed, dried and treated to eliminate any bacteria.
I worked as a Fashion Designer with the Imperial students to produce a design solution that would be easily understood, and appeal to a universal audience. We centred on a unisex waistcoat to showcase various grades of the material – such as the thickly-layered cellulose buttons, and the finer, almost paper-like fabric for the body of the waistcoat, in order to show how adaptable and versatile this material is.
SS: What does the cellulose actually feel like? is it best suited to certain types of garments such as raincoats, or could it be used for anything?
VG: The final material that we produced feels almost like tissue paper or paper at least. It is very fragile and tears quite easily, maybe almost leaf-like but without the moisture repellent, waxy feel. It rustles too, so is quite a noisy material – a sort of dried paper. Earlier versions of the material were hardier and a bit thicker, perhaps almost like a sugar or vegetable leather. The material took to dye well as it is so absorbent due to its cellulosic nature. We used indigo commercial dye for some of the earlier samples but were keen to use more natural dyeing methods on the final garment so used blue coral (chromoprotein) and GFP, both grown using E. coli and then extracted by the scientists. The samples with the dyes feel smoother, softer and more like leather. We therefore thought a wax-feel waistcoat would work best for the project, but a raincoat would also work – apart from the main issue with the bacterial cellulose which is its inability to resist or repel water! This is something that I am interested in working on in the future though, the possibility of building in properties such as water resistance.
SS: Could I ask where the GFP comes into it? I was wondering how it continues to function.
VG: So, GFP and chromoprotein dye were used to colour different areas of the waistcoat and accessories. By taking the DNA coding for the blue pigment production from a coral, and fluorescence from a type of jellyfish, the scientists placed the DNA into E. coli. This meant that the E. coli would grow the dye (chromoprotein) and the iGEM team extracted the dye by breaking open the cells and filtering them. So using E. coli they got GFP and RFP, and I used the GFP on areas of the waistcoat and accessories, which glows once placed under UV light.
SS: One of the things I was interested in is how long the effects last as it is a protein so I imagined it would degrade fairly rapidly?
VG: We thought it would too, and that the glowing effect would only last for a couple of weeks. However, it was painted with the GFP last July, so about a year ago. We put [the waistcoat] under the UV lamp last week and it still glows, we were pretty amazed it was still glowing to be honest. But my plan would be to combine it at an earlier stage, so grow [the garments] with colour, if possible, which I think would be a lot more effective.
SS: Talking about the design process, how much of it is conceptual and how much of it is hands on, is there a dependence on the labs you are working with to get the materials?
VG: It is very dependent on the laboratory. You can grow bacterial cellulose without using synthetic biology techniques, so you can grow your own bioplastics. So I can work on those things, which I do. But you are very dependent on the laboratory, so my other projects can either be conceptual or collections.
SS: How do you find working with scientists? I think that might be a loaded question!
VG: Well I was very lucky, they were lovely people, and I think I was a bit of light relief. I felt a bit bad taking all of the samples they had been working on because I needed to check what I could do with it, how the feel and the texture, the actual use of it. But they seem to really embrace the art and design aspect of the project. I went to the Imperial Festival of Science and displayed the waistcoat there to members of the public and other scientists, and it was generally well received, because it is something that is actually applied. So it is taking what they work on and actually thinking about the wider applications.
SS: What are your plans for the future?
I’m looking to go to MIT, as well as continuing to work with Imperial and the University of Nottingham as well. I’m spreading myself all over the country! Now I am expanding out to other areas, so if people want to collaborate with me, or come and see what I am doing please do get in touch. We have just formed a BioChanges group at the Royal College of Art, and are going to get in speakers, run workshops and discuss the evolving areas of Synthetic Biology and Design. We have got some interesting people coming in, including tutors from SymbioticA in Western Australia in January.
SS: Do you have ambitious goals or possibilities that you would like to explore, and are their limits to what can be achieved?
VG: Having a textile that acts as a second skin, movable- a hood appearing if it starts to rain. I suppose art allows you to explore without an end point. But fashion is something that you need to produce something that people will use in the end, so it would have to adhere to that. By applying different principles, thinking about a future society and what would be useful, then you could make useful and innovating designs both for now and for the future.
I never thought you can’t do something, always try and push the concepts and ideas, even if it is just fun. I think that gets people onside immediately, and they will go with you wherever. As long as it is an interesting idea that is innovative.
We want to offer a big thanks to Sarah Sewell for conducting the interview and Victoria Geaney for her time. For more information about the Imperial iGEM project ‘Aqualose’ see here. To find out more about Victoria’s work you can visit her website, and for those interested in the intersection between science and design, please contact her regarding the BioChanges group at Royal College of Art at email@example.com.
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