Although Oron Catts trained as a designer, he has always positioned himself as an artist. He’s also the director of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia. Now, he is returning to the design world as Professor of Contestable Design at the Royal College of Art in London, and he told DAMN° why.

DAMN°: You’ve said that life is your primary design material. What is life to you?

The Mechanism of Life – after Stéphane Leduc, 2013. Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Corrie Van Sice. Custom design rapid prototype printer, computer, chemicals, and dyes
Oron Catts: That’s exactly the question I’ve been asking myself for at least 25 years now. In a sense, life is not only my material but also a subject of investigation. My interest is in how rapidly the relationship with the concept of life is changing, especially now that we – as humans – are starting to use life as a raw material to be engineered. One of my conclusions is that we are suffering from acute poverty of language to describe what life is. In English there are 59 words to describe shit, but only one word to describe life in all its manifestations. This is where Ionat Zurr and I have started talking about the concept of semi-living, because we realise there are different levels of life that we engage with when we start breaking it down into its components and engineering living systems in different ways.

The language we use defines the way that we act in the world, which is why we have to constantly question the terminology we use to describe to things. A more urgent issue is that, along with much of our language, we are still operating political, economic, scientific, and other systems based on the 19th-century logic of the Industrial Revolution, as argued by Yuval Noah Harari in his book A Brief History of Humankind. Design is one of these systems – it needs to prepare itself for a major assault on what it is, as we start to engage with questions about biotechnology and artificial intelligence that design doesn’t have the tools to answer.

Disembodied Cuisine. Installation at L’Art Biotech in Nantes France, 2003 // Tissue Culture & Art Project // Photo: Axel Heise
DAMN°: Is that what your new notion of ‘contestable design’ is about? How is this different to speculative and critical design?

Oron Catts: Yes, I am developing the notion of contestable design at the request of the RCA in London. How it differs from Anthony Dunne’s speculative and critical design is that Dunne maintained his position as a designer to try to change design from within. I am not as interested in changing it as in provoking it, and even though I trained as a product designer I call myself an artist. I see contestable design as an artistic intervention in the design world. For one thing, contestable design needs to deal with the actual rather than the speculative, and to develop working prototypes based on an intimate understanding of the technology, to provoke cultural debate and discussion. If designers and engineers see challenges as opportunities, contestable design sees solutions as symptoms. I’m not interested in what the solution is for but what it represents. It is an extremely pessimistic pursuit to constantly look for what’s wrong, but this kind of approach is disappearing because education, government, and economic systems are feeling so threatened by what’s coming. Actually, I think the 21st century is going back to the dark ages, where there is a sense – and we are told – that we don’t need to know more. The neoliberal agenda creates an illusion of advancement through constant innovation, but this innovation is just tinkering with what we already know.

Victimless Leather, 2004. Prototype of a stitch-less jacket, grown from cell cultures into a layer of tissue supported by a coat-shaped polymer layer Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr / Tissue Culture & Art Project
Semi-Living Worry Doll / Tissue Culture & Art(ificial) Wombs. Installation at Ars Electronica in Linz, Au ria, 2000 // Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr / Tissue Culture & Art Project // Handcrafted from biodegradable polymers, PGA mesh, P4HB, PLGA, and various surgical sutures // Approximately 10 x 7 x 5 mm
DAMN°: Then why call yourself an artist, if, as you have said, people tend to believe designers more?

Oron Catts: Artists and designers have different social contracts. This became particularly clear to me when the fictional stories of speculative designers, even if they were very loose projections based on a partial understanding, were considered more believable than the actual scientific work with biological material done by artists. On the other hand, we should all be developing our critical faculties more and should not trust anyone, artist or designer – you shouldn’t trust me as the expert in this interview. However, for a designer to tell a client that they shouldn’t trust them is impossible, so then it’s better to be an artist. Non-contestable design is, by definition, pleasing to the audience and the clients and gives us a sense that we are contributing to a preferred outcome. Artists are not confined by the need to please, which gives us more agency, but then we are not taken as seriously. It’s always a trade-off.

DAMN°: How can we further develop our critical faculties and learn to identify these technology fantasies, such as with the in-vitro meat?

Oron Catts: For one thing, with any fledgling field that still has to overcome massive technological obstacles, if there are 10 times more marketing and PR people involved than scientists, then it is trying to sell something that doesn’t really exist. It is investing in selling us the dream that the problem can be made to go away, not in solving it. Many people I speak to in the start-up realm admit to fabricating data and information because the pressure to raise funding is greater than the pressure to generate new knowledge.

In order for us to become more aware of this cycle of hype, we also need to understand some basic biological and scientific principles. For instance, there was a student who claimed to develop a paint that can photosynthesise. But this is something scientists have been trying to do for 200 years. Obviously it wasn’t true, but it was a really nice story. So, we need to be wary of seductive narratives. I will say something quite controversial here: if it’s in a TED Talk, be suspicious.

This article appeared in DAM62. Order your personal copy.
Tissue Engineered Steak No.1, 2000. A study for Disembodied Cuisine artists // (The first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals) // Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Guy Ben-Ary / Tissue Culture & Art // Prenatal sheep skeletal muscle and degradable PGA polymer scaffold