‘What happens when you are able to design living organisms. Imagine being able to take some creature and then design it into a product. What would that look like?’

That’s Michael John Gorman speaking. He is director of the Science Gallery in Dublin and co-creator of an exhibition and event series entitled ‘GROW YOUR OWN…’ The show explores the emerging field of ‘synthetic biology’, the practice of re-engineering living organisms to fulfil our needs and desires.

Among the curators of GROW YOUR OWN… are Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art in London, who spoke at WDCD13, and artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who will take the stage at this year’s WDCD event.

Participants responded to a call for project proposals issued to synthetic biologists, bioartists, biodesigners, amateur biotechnologists and biohackers. The call yielded 25 exhibits and installations that speculate on and provoke discussion about how far we might venture in designing the future of living organisms.

Exhibits include life-saving hybrid organs combining human, leech, eel and snake tissue; cheese made with the bacteria from human armpits, toes and noses; and a ‘transgenic-cloned mouse’ with Elvis Presley’s DNA and behavioural traits.

Such projects are intended not so much to shed light on a future of living machines but instead, to force us to consider what the curators call the ‘uncertain implications of synthetic life’.

Among the participants is artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who constructed portrait sculptures of strangers by analyzing DNA extracted from cigarette butts found on the street. That enabled her to determine the physical traits of unknown Dublin smokers and print them in 3D, which makes you wonder that if an amateur can find out so much from the traces we leave behind, just imagine what experts can discover.

In Post Natural History, photographer Vincent Fournier presents a collection of what he calls ‘upcoming living species’ in the form of classic encyclopaedic entries. His cabinet of curiosities features creatures that have been genetically reprogrammed to adapt to new conditions created through climate change, pollution or disease.

‘It’s not clear if it’s true, if it’s not true, if it’s serious, or if it’s ludicrous,’ comments Fournier, whose inventions look eerily familiar, drawing on the past while projecting into the future. What’s more, his freak show is based on current synthetic biology, prompting one visitor to ask, ‘What responsibility do we have when life becomes a codeable thing?’

‘This type of technology is about to go to a whole new level,’ says Michael John Gorman. ‘But do we really want to create this? Just because we can, does it mean we should?’

Opening image: Pangolin, as part of Post Natural History by Vincent Fournier, an exhibit in GROW YOUR OWN: LIFE AFTER NATURE at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.