Interview by Diana Cano Bordajandi
New York designer, artist and researcher Ali Schachtschneider is reinventing today’s fashion using biotechnology. As a resident artist and design experimenter at Genspace, the world’s first community lab supporting citizen access to biotechnology, her work is focused on bio-design. She conducts lab-based research to create clothing using biologically grown materials such as mycelium and cellulose.
Her most recent project Vivorium explores how we perceive our bodies in relation to materials and fashion and envisions a future scenario in which living materials will be used to design clothes and furniture. This alternative application of biomaterials offers a speculative future lifestyle that the artist presents through a collection of images, a narrative book, a film and a series of objects.
Some objects can be worn, like the wetgarment – made from sheets of grown cellulose material that can be placed on the body – or the fungal footwear – made from mycelium. Other objects go further and become “extensions of the body”, like the olfactorxtender, a device containing genetically modified bacteria that produce a pleasant banana fragrance. This object fits into the nose and can be used as protection against unpleasant scents.
Through Vivorium, Ali blurs the lines between fashion design, biotechnology and their interaction with the human body. However, Vivorium is not the first project by Ali that aims to re-conceptualise the way we think about clothes and fashion. She has done this in previous projects too, including her design concept named Eat-a-wearable and a video collaboration with the fashion and beauty website Refinery29. Eat-a-wearable goes beyond growing clothes; it enables the wearer to eat them too!
The set – which is not an actual product but a design concept – includes a collection of bacteria, cell cultures and algae that can be used to create edible clothing. This requires people to redefine their relationship with fashion design while incorporating an environmentally-friendly practice into the design process.
The idea of incorporating sustainable practices into fashion design is crucial in an increasingly polluted environment, and for this reason, Ali creatively reshapes clothing manufacturing through her work. Vivorium and Eat-a-wearable point towards an ominous future where we will be forced to discard the unviable fashion production methods and (re)imagine design processes.
You are an artist, designer and researcher working at the intersection of fashion, materials and biology. How and when did the fascination with them come about?
My fascination with these began when I was a kid playing with worms and salamanders and all things living really. I was usually covered in dirt, sand, leaves, water etc., materials of biology. I’ve always had a deep curiosity about the ‘natural’ world. Building on that, I am a former ballet dancer, so performance has been with me and an interest in the aesthetic and dress aspect of performance and the way they feed into the actual act of performance.
Along with that, as a teen, I suffered a life-altering chronic illness. I felt at the time like a research subject, literally probed by the medical community. I began to see the reality of medicine wasn’t always clear cut, and scientific research related to my symptoms was way ahead of the human experience — which happened to be my life.
Looking back, I see my work with biology as a way of taking back research into my own hands and using it in a way that feels useful and familiar. Using materials, which really are an interface between the body and environment, and repurposing biological tools to speak about their role outside of the lab; in the context of fashion and materials — spaces which I’m intimately familiar with. All of this brought my current fascination, and it more fully formed when I was a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, studying Fashion Design.
I didn’t know that my interest was really in the interaction of the body/the person with the materials on and around them; I hadn’t really learned of the industry and practice of fashion. I was quickly horrified by the environmental and human cost of the industry and the people that it inherently is built to exclude. This led me to search outside of the field and ultimately to ‘sneak’ out of my program.
I decided rather than changing my major; I would make fashion what I wanted it to be. I ultimately found my way as a BFA student into an MFA course in Bioart. That was transformative. I had followed the work of artists Lucy McRae, and the work of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, as well as designer Suzanne Lee before that class and my interests in the field really developed further through the class. I found my niche and fully dove into the bio-design world.
The class also led me to Genspace, where I’ve been a researcher since. Before that class, I’d read about the community biotech lab in the New York Times but felt it was inaccessible until I visited and learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong. So I continued as a Fashion Design student and proposed what I was doing to the school all the way until I graduated. Now, they’ve incorporated biodesign into the University, which is absolutely amazing to see happen so quickly.
I began doing my own research there, mainly with biomaterials. It has been an education in itself, finding my place in the emerging industry/field of biodesign. I have really been able to create and structure my work around what I want. It still feels timely and keeps my curiosity fixed.
In Vivorium you explore alternative ways of perceiving and interacting with the body, materials and biodesigned objects. Could you tell us the intellectual process behind this project?
Thank you. This question is one that I love and one that often is left out of the conversation when I talk about the project. The project came about from and is rooted in intellectual interests; scientific research in parallel with an intense interest in design studies, philosophy, fashion studies and emerging technologies.
I was reading and experimenting hands-on more than making for the first few months of the project. I was incredibly inspired by work by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work (philosophy). I was reading everything I could find relating to the idea of the body as an assemblage of components.
Deleuze and Guattari’s writing and ideas regarding interaction with things as an extension of the body and the body as constantly changing, as a result, really changed my understanding of what materials and fashion could be. I began asking rather, what can fashion do?
Their work led me to the iconic work of Donna Haraway. Haraway is a thought leader and well-known professor working with science and feminism. Her work, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, changed the understanding of my work. I then read loads of work related to feminism, technology and science and began to try to materialize my understanding of them in my research and projects. I have always been a lover of research and learning, and perhaps less so than a producer of project outcomes.
I began fully to embrace the two together and to understand what I was doing as a process and constant change. So these things were a huge influence on Vivorium. I took a stab at really experimenting with and performing based on my understanding of that research.
I really explored the practice of lab research, and I was at the same time heavily interested in ways of making materials that were made more ‘sustainable’ and in the scientific processes that relate to that. Add to that a huge passion for the work of Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunn (“Speculative Everything” etc.) for materials in every sense and with the senses… That said, with Vivorium, I intentionally steered away from making the project academic.
I was working with various mediums, including fashion, so it seemed that to really speak to those in fashion, I needed to make the work accessible to those who speak that language as opposed to using the academic style of writing and presenting etc. This led me to work with design as a provocation and to attempt to really push the imagination of what fashion, art, design and material could be and do.
So, Vivorium became those things; a speculative future lifestyle where they are blurry, informed and made with or for biology. The project ultimately is about blurring lines between things, using fashion and expanding what we consider it to be through interaction with biology and the body and everything around us. It’s about reconsidering time, processes, material and what it means to relate and be part of the environment, and thinking of the body is always changing and extended by the things around. It’s an exploration and experiment.
I still explore and consider my body of research related to many ideas. At the time of making the project, I found it challenging to make the work accessible and to talk about design and aesthetics as well as to really talk about the science/technological/philosophical etc. interests and ideas in a way that was broadly understood. But attempting to do so potentially makes the work communicable with a larger audience of people. I enjoyed that challenge and lost a lot of sleep over it!
I have continually tried to talk about the complex technologies I work with and the intellectual ideas at the most basic level in a way that anyone can understand. Attempting to do so has really changed me and taught me how important it is to do that. The more I truly know a subject, the easier it is to talk about it in a way that is completely understandable. I want to enable a conversation about the essence of the ideas, not have people confused by technical or fancy jargon.
Now, with a continued and expanded interest in the subjects I worked with throughout Vivorium and my extreme fascination with synthetic biology, biotechnology etc., I ask more questions related to those ideas. I continue my research practice and have gained more understanding and practice. And my current obsession is with the work of Timothy Morton. So keep your eyes out for what that leads to!
In which ways do you think are interactive and digital technologies changing or affecting human behaviour?
I think a lot about the ways that interactive and digital technologies are changing and affecting our human behaviour. I think they are and have always driven human behaviour and are interconnected with and caused the formation and advancements of our cultures and societies through time.
So now, with digital technologies and biotechnological advancement, we have a whole new understanding of the world and our position within it. We have reshaped and continue to shape behaviours which incorporate and are changed by them. In Vivorium, I experimented a lot with the way I was utilizing these technologies and how they changed communication.
So, one example of how I dissected this in an attempt to understand my own ideas of them I used my phone as a research tool. For multiple days, without any notice, I began changing the way I communicated through the piece of technology. T
o understand it as merely an extension of my body. I even went for days at a time, disrupting my usual use of the phone by communicating purely through pictures and emojis — something I had previously steered away from. It changed the way I understand the phone as a tool and mediator and how it can affect behaviour.
At a higher level, the way we are reshaping communication with digital technology is really fascinating, as is the understanding of ourselves and what we can do. I am very interested in the spaces and ways that the internet can create new communities, am trying to grapple with data, especially biological data and privacy. And am constantly fascinated by the patterns of behaviour that stem from the human incorporation of technology into daily life. I am on my phone and computer and can hardly function without them. That is incredibly interesting…
As a resident artist at Genspace, how do you think this experience will shape the way you approach the art form?
As an artist at Genspace, I’ve gained incredible knowledge of what it actually means to work with biotechnology. I work both with speculation and hands-on lab work, and these inform one another. The years I’ve spent at Genspace have allowed me to gain an intimate familiarity with the tools and concepts that I often read about in papers and enabled a deeply informed understanding of what is plausible vs what is hype with particular technologies versus what isn’t.
I have learned by doing and know very well the outcomes of a protocol may not be as intended. I try to respond in a way that is strategic but flexible enough to know when what is intended is not what makes sense. I have also been able to enter the education space and had the opportunity to teach an amazing assortment of people about the work that I do, the intersection of biotech and design, and what it might mean for the future.
I’ve had many experiments turn out not as expected, and those have been the most informative. Failing over and over again leads to knowing just how naive an idea may have been. Sometimes the tension of these failures can be disappointing as a perfectionist, but the more I zoom out and think about the larger reasoning for doing what I do, thinking about a process’s relevance outside of the laboratory helps me move to new ways of thinking or new approaches to the experiment. I’m not afraid to think weirdly.
The other incredible part of being there is the community of people I’ve met and formed relationships with. I have a real family as a result and have had the opportunity to meet and form relationships with a global group of amazing people. It has also enabled access to speaking on an even level with incredibly knowledgeable scientists/ scholars/ critics/ etc. The conversations with these people continue to inform my understanding of the biotech space in a way that seems timely.
I still, at times, have trouble with scale and time in light of the years I’ve spent in the lab. And synthetic biology, biotech and many organisms still fascinate me as much as the first day I transformed bacteria. Overall, I feel my time at Genspace has enabled me to do what I do. Where else would I, as a designer, be able to incorporate biotech into my research and use it in ways that I want? Where else could I engineer an organism to produce something I find useful without the limits of production, competition etc.?
Genspace has also led to my confidence in and access to an emerging industry, to seek out opportunities, to be invited to exhibit, speak and give presentations at places like MIT, SXSW and others, and even led to my position as part-time faculty at Parsons School of Design — teaching BFA and MFA students across the University students to work with Biodesign.
I’ve really been able to form my work and career based on this. It’s been an amazing growth in light of my non-traditional background. I had no formal training in biology before Genspace beyond what I learned in school. And now I get to interface and speak as a thought leader, so it’s honestly pretty amazing.
What is your chief enemy of creativity?
The main enemy of creativity for me is getting stuck in details. If I’m working with something that is very intricate, complex and involved, which is usually the case, I can get fixated on the smaller details. I have perfectionist tendencies, which are amazing and detrimental at the same time.
When I use perfectionism and detail obsession to my advantage, it works well but can easily undermine my creative capacity. My other big creative enemy is an overload of ideas and interests.
I often am in many places and spaces at once with my interests, so it takes focus and determination and discipline to harness that to be beneficial or to focus on less at once. That is a place where ballet has been extremely relevant — as I learned persistence and dedication, which I can apply to the process of research.
You couldn’t live without…
I could never live without imagination and the ability to use my actual body and life as a way to experiment. So that is multiple intersecting things… I would be so lost if I were unable to think freely, research, investigate and pursue products of imagination. Provoking thought related to the limits of imagination is something I love. So, imagination and pushing the boundaries it is part of what I love to do and challenge myself to attempt fairly constantly. I’d be lost without that.
I’d also be lost without other living things…