A/D/O by MINI | Biodesign with Natsai Audrey Chieza

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Biodesign with Natsai Audrey Chieza

Through projects like introducing bacteria into fashion, biodesigner Natsai Audrey Chieza uses technology as a tool to help bridge the chasm that has opened up between humans and natural systems.

It’s fair to say that Natsai Audrey Chieza is not a big fan of labels. “I don’t like neat little boxes,” said the designer-cum-architect-cum-biologist-cum-educator, whose studio Faber Futures straddles the arts and sciences. “For me, design is inherently open: it’s a way of seeing and a way of being, not a specialty. I want to talk about how can we design our politics better, how we design our communities better. How can we redesign the way in which technology interacts with our society better. I’m not so interested in talking about the shape of a chair.”

A conversation with Chieza is a wild romp through time and space, taking in everything from Leonardo DaVinci to Extinction Rebellion, microbiology to indigeneous communities, and much in-between. “We live in an extremely complex world and it’s clear to me that to solve real-world problems we need a level of literacy across disciplines,” Chieza said. “Historically, the arts and sciences were extensions of the same thing – a quest for truth and meaning – but as specialities and subspecialties evolved, we somehow stopped speaking to each other. I want to jumpstart these conversations again.”

This polymathic approach has seen Chieza collaborate with laboratories and industries around the world, from setting up a creative residency at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston to working with synthetic biologist John Ward at University College London. The latter collaboration focused on applying Streptomyces coelicolor bacteria to the fashion industry and led to Project Coelicolor, perhaps one of Faber Futures’ best received works, which won a lucrative Index Award 2019.

By using natural bacterial pigmentation processes in dying fabrics, Chieza and Hall managed to reduce waste water by 500 times and eliminated the need for chemical fixatives. She’s recently co-edited MIT's open online journal with artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg to create an issue called Other Biological Futures, which collates key essays in the field in the hopes of getting this work “out of the lab and into society.”

“We have our work cut out for us – there really is no time to waste,” Chieza said forcibly. “It’s no longer really up for debate that we are living through ecological breakdown and climate emergency, so it’s time to ask how can design not just facilitate dialogue but galvanise action.” This action is made particularly complicated, in Chieza’s view, because our entire technological logic is built on a fundamental error: a blinkered commitment to petroleum- and silicon-based systems.

“We’ve gone so far down this road that we can no longer see that it was a choice,” she said. “There are so many other modes of production and in fact nature is the apogee of the exact thing we’re trying to mimic: it prototypes at speed, it self-regulates, it scales massively, very little energy is lost from the system. Biology is fundamentally less wasteful, more innovative and more sustainable – it’s so compelling to me as a designer – and yet we’ve forgotten how to work in harmony with it.”

Faber Futures used the dyes to pigment silk for its Assemblage project. Photo by Oskar Proctor

Chieza’s speech is peppered with words like “harmony” and “collaboration”, but there is nothing hippy-dippy about her choice of language. “It’s a very practical description of what it means to work with biology,” she explained. “You cannot bend it to your will in the same way as a piece of metal, you have to deeply understand the processes at play in particular lifecycles and then find ways to integrate human systems with them. It’s very much a collaboration between human and non-human agents.”

This recognition that humans are enmeshed with nature is something we seem to only now be re-learning as a society, after decades of insulating ourselves in technologically regulated, hermetically sealed boxes. Indigenous cultures the world over have never forgotten this basic truth, of course, and operate through a complex stewardship model that relies on hybrid biological-technological systems.

Chieza points to the Maori of New Zealand as a particular inspiration here: “they understand the fundamental physical principles of energy-in-energy-out so much better than we do.” Whereas the West has become hooked on the magic money tree of unlimited economic growth powered by fossil-fuel extraction, other cultures are aware that there’s no such thing as a free buck.

Chieza is not calling for a sci-fi future where humans live in Avatar-like harmony with nature (not yet, at least). She still draws heavily on existing technology in her work, using sensors to collect data on batches of bacteria, for example, or investigating the potential of AI to help create hybrid systems. Instead of seeing human technology as the end point, however, Chieza uses it as a tool to help bridge the chasm that has opened up between us and natural systems.

“Digital technology was designed by a very small group of people with a very specific worldview, but it now controls our lives. I think that partly explains the divisions that we’re living through at the moment,” Chieza concluded. “With biological engineering, we have an opportunity to integrate far more diverse worldviews from the beginning, and ensure nature is encoded into the system. We need to make sure this next wave of technology works for all of us.”

Text by Jonathan Openshaw.

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