“I am a rising senior at Clark University. I was the People Team intern for summer 2022 and had a rotational position that exposed me to various roles and aspects within the People Team.
I chose Ginkgo because of their whimsy culture and their simple mission to make biology easier to engineer. From hilarious slack emojis to dinosaur memes, I made a lot of funny memories during my time. I loved the fact that I could approach anyone and get to know them at Ginkgo. The employees are whimsy and the work environment is welcoming and supportive.”
“I work on the Decepticons team in the Software department at Ginkgo. My project this summer was to create a new Organick step for the cre lox operation, which is a way to recombine DNA. I chose to work at Ginkgo because I believe the cross section between biology and technology is fascinating, and wanted to be able to contribute, learn, and grow here! Working at Ginkgo has been a wonderful experience, which in large part has to do with the people I get to work with. I love all the pop culture references and all the events Ginkgo has for the interns and employees!”
— Yasmine Karni, Software Engineering Intern, Digital Tech Division
“As a computer science and brain and cognitive science major at MIT, I was excited to contribute to Ginkgo’s ambitious scientific endeavors in health and sustainability. I interned as a full stack software engineer on the Impressionists team, where I was able to expand my technical skill set as well as explore how an innovative biotech firm operates. Ginkgo is made up of amazing people and I have truly enjoyed every part of my internship!”
— Ariel Fuchs, Software Engineering Intern, Digital Tech Division
The Stories We Tell: Blackness As Biotechnology, Collective Imagination, and Study
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — Muriel Rukeyser
In Search of A Laboratory
‘A laboratory is simply a place where we tear things to pieces.’ is an offering given to us by George Washington Carver in an interview with Glenn Clark in 19391. Dr. Carver expands our sense of space and tells a story that dissolves the laboratory as a site of enclosure. Based on this re-frame offered by Dr. Carver the laboratory can be:
The living room The street The metro The backyard The classroom The art studio Under the hush harbor Inside the woodshed Inside the protest Inside the co-op Inside the forest
In search of a laboratory, I moved to Dawn, VA in June of 2021. Tucked in between the ancestral lands of the Mattaponi and Youghtanund, are the acres where my great grandmother and father farmed to feed 4 generations. On the property were horses, gardens, chickens, hogs, cows, and a smokehouse. There are family stories of Big Ma’s flower garden stopping cars. There are family stories of Big Ma’s laboratory stopping cars. Thirty minutes from Richmond, an hour and a half from DC, and five minutes from Kings Dominion, I am renting a house from my grandaunt, who maintains the house in case any of the grandchildren need shelter. In 2021, I sought that shelter to publish this project. In 2021, I sought that shelter in search of a laboratory.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story
I entered the Ginkgo Creative Residency with the goals of writing a speculative fiction story on the world of Cykofa and to get first hand insight on the inner workings of industrial biotech laboratories — all while learning alongside brilliant biotechnologists, designers, and storytellers. Through a deep research period in Boston filled with countless critical conversations, a writing period in the woods of Dawn, VA where it felt like time slowed, and an energizing experimental period in my printmaking studio where I workshopped how I would publish the story, the first iteration of the Cykofa project emerged.
What is Cykofa? Where is Cykofa? When is Cykofa?
We know this place as the North Carolina Black River, they know it as Cykofa. A parallel universe suspended amongst the past and future — where cornrows are cryptography keys, data farms are data forests, the weaving loom is a computer, a cloth is a document, and chain link fencing from demolished prisons are used as architectural membrane woven with plant life. In Cykofa the trees have learned to speak using the data Cykofians have encoded in the tree’s DNA and tree ring memory.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story is a long-form, speculative fiction, poetry narrative told through the journal entries of a non-binary, biotechnologist, protagonist named Seeda and the found data within a 2,600 year-old ancient, bald cypress tree named Cy. Cy, is our narrator — a tree — but also a portal, allowing us to traverse deep time and connections.
The people of Cykofa have traditionally hosted their data within the DNA of their trees, but what happens when Seeda discovers a rip in the dendrochronological memory, exposing select datasets from our world?
What started out as a short speculative fiction story about an indigenous community with advanced biotechnology, in a parallel universe on North Carolina’s Black River, turned into an excavation project using language to blur the arbitrary lines of biotechnology, spiritual ecologies, and Blackness through collected seed data, remembrance, and experiment.
In accordance with Akan wisdom, if the “san” in “sankofa” means to “return,” the “ko” means to “go,” and the “fa” means to look, seek, and take, then by replacing the “san” with “cy,” short for cypress tree, I am inviting us into a world where we return to our ecosystems and re-imagine time.
Cykofa Is A Methodology
The code is in our node.
We are constantly engineering each other. Biotechnology is what happens inside the relationships you develop within the laboratory of care work. Biotechnology is what happens inside the relationships you develop within mutual aid. Biotechnology is the Black study2 Big Ma engaged within the laboratory of her flower garden. It’s a thing that is simultaneously material and beyond. In the circle of the concert, club, church, cookout or ring shout we are at all times refactoring eachother’s code with our whine, our shine, our dining time. Using only the data of where we came from, who we came from, and what we belong to, we are bioengineering a whole new reality as a call back to the world we carry in our blood stream, in our head, in our hearts, braided into our hair. We are bioengineering a whole new story as a call back to the world we carry in our blood stream, in our head, in our hearts, braided into our hair. Following our Sankofa sensibility we might find ourselves underneath a tree. Remembering where it all used to be3.
Cykofa is a methodology. Cykofa is a long form poem. Cykofa is a scientific paper. Cykofa is an academic essay. Cykofa is a song. Cykofa is a prayer with a question mark. Cykofa is a chorus. Cykofa is speculative fiction. Cykofa is a short story. Cykofa is a laboratory. Cykofa is a place.
Remembering where it all used to be.
Cykofa Narration Process
The first step is always research.
Thanks to the Ginkgo Creative Residency, I spent the month of October in Boston and was able to have the most insightful conversations and experiences around the infinite forms of interspecies communication, where the laboratory is and/or where it could be, the entanglement of science and capitalism, what science stories we might tell if colonization never happen, etc. Additionally, I was able to attend Ginkgo’s Ferment conference at the closing of my trip to learn more about the current stories we’re telling about industrial biotechnology. Countless conversations and zoom calls in Boston, wet lab tours, days of reading, days of data compiling and more all informed the database that was used to generate the language of Cy’s voice within the story.
The Cykofa Narration Database ultimately underwent four drafts.
In the first draft I combined YouTube transcripts, found PDFs, website text, poems, journalism articles, etc. from biotechnologists, biotechnology thought leaders, Afrofuturists, poets, visual artists, musicians, community organizers from all backgrounds. This was too wide of a dataset and the generated voice of Cy seemed scattered.
In the second draft I specifically focused on combining the words of biotechnologists and abolitionists because of a theme I started to notice arising from my research and conversations. It seemed some of the most necessary components for biotechnology to be deployed ethically was community engagement, collaboration, and accountability. Three key factors, from my observation and experience, abolitionists are the most qualified in facilitating through their experience with working within mutual aid networks, transformative/restorative justice healing circles, community teach-ins, direct action interventions and more. It turns out, when combined, the voices in these datasets were so different that it started to sound like, Cy — what would be our narrating tree — was arguing with itself.
So I went back to the drawing board and took the first draft where I combined YouTube transcripts, found PDFs, website text, poems, journalism articles, etc. and removed all the data entries expect those by Black and Indiegonous biotechnologists, bioengineers, biodesigners, and biotechnology thought leaders. That still didn’t feel right. Then I realized it was because I was only focused on biotechnology as something that happens inside the lab or for the purposes of industry and capital accumulation.
By the fourth draft of the database, I began to imagine biotechnology through the lens of Blackness and Black study. In this dataset I combined Black biotechnologists, bioengineers, biodesigners, and biotechnology thought leaders with Black futurists, poets, witches, visual artists, musicians, healers, craftspeople, and community organizers. The voice of Cy began to sing a new story.
Blackness as Biotechnology
If our colonial story of biotechnology is “the exploitation of biological processes for industrial purposes” what stories might emerge if we expand our definition past industry and root it in a story of relation and Black feminist ecologies?
Research shows that trauma is carried in the body through epigenetics. I imagine joy, wisdom, choregraphies of care work, and creative expression are stored somewhere in the body as well.
Christina Sharpe’s groundbreaking research and book titled, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being4 was a totem during this research process. She talks about “The Wake” as the aftermath of the Middle Passage invoking a definition of “the wake” as “a trail of disturbed water or air left by the passage of a ship or aircraft.” The wake as an aftermath or consequence, but also the wake as it relates to the sociality of death, suffering, and ceremony. She talks about the work inside the aftermath of the Middle Passage as “wake work”. I imagine the modes of being invoked as an after-effect of the Middle Passage as “wake engineering” akin to bioengineering. I titled the fourth draft of the database, “Wake Engineering” to invoke the biotechnology that happens inside the labor and love of inventing ways of living with and within the unlivable — an ontological project that takes the form of Blackness. Blackness as a general sociality which relies on relation and generativity as a central aesthetic is an aesthetic shared by biotechnology.
During an interview with Sarah Rees5, referring to the ontology of Black folks Arthur Jafa was quoted invoking Nam June Paik saying,
““The culture that’s going to survive in the future, you can carry around in your head.” The culture you can carry in your head. We’re super strong culturally in those spaces where our culture was carried on our nervous systems: music, oratorical stuff, dance. Those are all things that you carry in your body. So if you’re enslaved in Africa, put on a ship, brought to the Americas, you can carry those things with you.
But all this sort of material expressivity – painting, sculpture, architecture – erodes really fast because you can’t carry a building when you’re on a slave ship. And even if you’re emancipated from the slave ship and introduced into this new alien environment, whether you’re on a chain gang, plantation, prison, doesn’t really matter. You can continue to sing. You can continue to talk. You can continue to dance.”
Biotechnology is Parliament Funkadelic leaving liner notes inside your hips during the Mothership Connection Concert on Halloween Night in Houston, TX in 1976. Biotechnology is Emma Dupree, a herbalist elder, engaging in interspecies communication in North Carolina for over 90 years. Biotechnology is Aretha Franklin turning the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church into a laboratory — rearranging our cells to the tune of Amazing Grace, in 1972. Biotechnology is ancestors braiding seeds into the hair of enslaved peoples so they may have familiar food wherever they land. Biotechnology is Grandmaster Flash invoking rolling circle amplification at his turntables as he iterated on the science of hip-hop. Biotechnology is what happened inside Fannie Lou Hamer’s university of Black study known as the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. Biotechnology is the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program that fed the stomachs and imaginations of entire communities across space and time. Biotechnology is the United Order of Tents one of the oldest Black secret organizations founded by churchwomen and a Black feminist care ethic in Norfolk, Virginia in 1867. Biotechnology is them organizing mutual aid networks that gave people loans when banks wouldn’t and paid for people’s healthcare and funeral costs when they couldn’t. Biotechnology is the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama leaving codes in quilts to remind us everything we need is already within us.
The majority of Black and Indigenous folks may never sit at a bench in an industrial biotechnology lab and that’s okay because they never needed to. We do a kind of science that keeps us bound up with each other, our ecosystems, and the truth of our dreams6.
This is the organizing framework from which the database that would inform Cy’s voice, our ancient bald cypress tree narrator, was built.
Cykofa Database is partly inspired by a collection of found data assembled based on a series of research themes I developed during the Wherewithal Research Fellowship from 2020—2021 generously funded through the Washington Project for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
These 5 themes are titled:
Polycultural Design: Fractal Framing and Visualizing the Archive
The Tree Ring Shout: Data Encoded Plant DNA and the Black Water
Seed Data: The Archive, Non-linear Narrative, and Collective Memory
Cloth Cryptography: Weaving Documents and The Coding Language of the Grid
Black Feminist Labor and Technology: Computation, Automation, and Fugitive Practice (Embodying Obfuscation and Load Balancing)
The second part of the process of Cykofa Narration is the writing which is also layered, because again, I can’t do it alone. Because again, I don’t want to do it alone. Because again, I was never supposed to do it alone.
Writing in collaboration with the computer and my references that make up the seed data whom, I call the choir — after Saidiya Hartman’s invoking of the choir in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval7 — is a hands-on approach, engaging with the language as material.
First: I gather found data from the internet and build the database with the gathered seed data.
Second: I group specific data entries from the database based on who I think would yield an interesting narrative and my computer program weaves this data together into one narrative. From this computer generated conversation, a surprising theme generally arises from the transdisciplinary, non-linear, poly-vocal, stewed body of language. I copy the generated Cykofa Narration directly from my computer’s terminal.
Third: I print out a hard copy of the narration from the terminal and then cut and recombine the narration, by hand, depending on the type of tone and conversation I’m trying to invoke and the themes that are already present.
Lastly: From those themes, I name the title of the chapter, write Seeda’s journal entries alongside the narrative theme generated from the data, and weave the de/reconstructed Cykofa Narration and Seeda’s journal entries together, by hand, in ways that feel compelling and play with pace, rhyme, and resonance.
Through exploring using data from multiple disciplines, writers, and voices, and weaving those sources together to create one non-linear narrative the story begins to arise from collective hums building into a choral hymn instead of individual sentences accumulating into one linear plot. Through deploying collective imagination as an aesthetic, I hope to experiment with data composting to contribute to the Black study aesthetic of re-appropriation, quilting, sampling, collage and co-authored narrative building. By reappropriating “digital waste” I imagine a world where waste doesn’t exist. Cy has been patiently rooted in the Black water inviting us to listen for over 2,600 years.
Do you know how the Black River got its color? The branches and the leaves stain the river, giving it its color and name. Imagining there is data stored within the DNA of the leaves and branches, the Black River becomes a large compost tea of mystery, brewing song, scream, prayer, play, language, and dance into one decomposed story where there is no beginning or end. Inspired by the Black River as an ecological gumbo, I reappropriate the data from our world as found/scrap material to write alongside and tell a story of a new world. The call was the Black River, the response is Cykofa.
The creative residency at Ginkgo Bioworks further informed the collective aesthetic of this project. The work of Grow Your Own Cloud8, previous Ginkgo Bioworks residents, have deepened my imagination around possible convergences of biology and technology that yield emergent and reciprocal modes of existing within abundant ecosystems. Staying with the ethos of relation, during the residency, my understanding of the emergent possibilities within biotechnology deepened. Once inside the walls I realized they were porous, permeable, soft and melting or eroding in some places. Inspired by the ephermatility and shifting nature of the walls encircling our capitalist formations and stories of biotechnology I set out to try to write a different story so we all might dream together. While trying to abandon the aesthetic of single authorship through writing alongside the choir of my references and the conversations inside the Ginkgo residency I deploy poetry to aid in the decay of the walls, letting the Black River take us downstream where we can join each other in a spectacular shock of recognition9.
Lastly, I completed the printing, cutting, and binding at Studio Two Three in Richmond, Virginia. The book features a risograph printed cover and vellum sheets as an experiment in translucency and opacity. Printing on vellum allowed me to create three narratives in one book: Seeda’s Journal Entries, Cy’s Narration, and both read together. Printing on translucent paper also creates material echoes to the story itself, reinforcing the parallel universe theme and the layering process of the Cykofa Narration methodology and my risograph printmaking practice.
Sometimes zines are textbooks, but at all times zines are meeting places. I have long thought of my publishing practice as one related to a sort of social architecture, where words on the page invoke a space where we can all congregate and find each other. My art practice got its start in 2014 when I published a collectively produced zine showcasing the art, style, and culture within DC’s metro area. Fast forward 8 years and I still find storytelling and publishing to be ripe sites for study and worlding. Remembering a new world is always possible wherever we’re standing, I hope the story of Cykofa inspires us to create our own pluriverses beside the river, in the living room, on the street, under the tree, wherever our laboratory happens to be.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story Book
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story Chapters
Chapter 1 — Southern Trees Bear Strange Data
In this chapter, I meditate on the body as a node in a larger system. Chapter 1 is an ode to the body as a blurry boundary, queerness, interconnectedness, and relation.
Chapter 2 — The Nature of the Node
Chapter 2 introduces Seeda as a character, their job, their position as a worker, what they wear, what their lab work looks like, what lab work could look like, etc.
Chapter 3 — Dance Often Accompanies This Ritualistic Occasion
In chapter 3 there is a wider introduction to the world of Cykofa, the technology of Cykofa and the many work groups or “guilds” that exist within the community. We’re also introduced to care as a central part of their culture.
Chapter 4 — Secret or Sound Off?: Haunting As Resistance
In chapter 4 I am invoking Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Does Seeda report this finding, the finding of our data/our world, to the elders and the board of discovery? Should they try to make contact with us in this world? In this chapter I invoke the Black feminist decision/dilenma of silence vs. screaming and the joy and pain in between.
Chapter 5 — The Black Water Speaks: All Water Has Perfect Memory
Chapter 5 is where Seeda gets swallowed by the Black River and receives an assignment.
Cykofa x Meaning
I want to conclude by returning to the original question of this year’s creative residency: How have language, metaphor, and fiction shaped synthetic biology, and can we find new scripts to generate other meanings?
Synthetic biology is just synthesis. There is no such thing as a new thing. Every output is a composite of what came before. Every invention is a loop.
Through composting our “data waste” or digital detritus, Cykofa becomes a window to a more beautiful, sustainable, and livable world, using the current material of the world we’re already swimming in. Through exploring using data from multiple disciplines, afrofuturists to biotechnologists, weavers to poets, braiders to mathematicians, and quilting those sources together to create one non-linear narrative the story begins to arise from collective hums building into a choral hymn of care and curiosity — these disciplines share more in common than we’re taught, inviting us to cultivate meaning from the mixture.
Blackness As Biotechnology
Blackness is nothing if not a composite, where collective imagination is the embodiment of a loop. On January 2019, in her transformative book Dear Science10, Katherine McKittrick writes,
“To be Black is to live through scientific racism and, at the same time, re-invent the terms and stakes of knowledge. The reinvention becomes an invention-appreciation of our relational lives…To be Black is to recognize and enervate the fictive perimeters of you, Science, and notice that the enclosures of biological determinism and the potentials of opacity, together, provide the conditions to concoct a different story altogether.”
It is from this place where I hope to enervate the fictive perimeters of science and generate meaning through remembering the emergent, world bending science of survival as experiments in “human being” that my ancestors invoked so I may present this story to you.
Epistemology is all bound up with the colonial invention of “human being” (as separate from “nature”).
I hope Cykofa generates meaning through acting as one potential meeting place for many Black study experiments to come. Through learning alongside: The folks within the Ginkgo and Faber Futures team and their extensive network, the choir of Black references that became emergent datasets of poesis, and the forests and the rivers I explored while generating this project, I hope to compost all that I’ve learned and repurpose it into a kind of curriculum. When accepting her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the year I was born, Toni Morrison offered, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” I am interested in doing language and doing language differently so we may imagine new forms of being and living together. By doing language differently we create new maps for people we’ll never meet — making new meaning for future generations.
Before biodesign there were shamans collaborating with microbes11. Before biodesign there were herbalists healing entire communities12. Before biodesign there were farmers working with soil and soul as an interface to care for and tend to healing intergenerational trauma from the Atlantic slave trade13.
Instead of “capitalizing on the demand for novelty”, what we might demand is not liberatory or ethical “biodesign” but just plain old liberation and abolition from the capitalist infrastructure that only understands the language of domination and exploitation. Abolition of all the fictive disciplinary boundaries and colonial stories that inform our definitions and modes of working today. It’s never too late to go back and get that which we have forgotten14. Cykofa is an invitation to remember where it all used to be15.
If you’re interested in following the Cykofa story head over to Seeda School. Named after the Cykofian future ancestor Seeda, Seeda School, is a learning platform for abolitionist skill building and imagination. Through this weekly newsletter you’ll find updates on Seeda Press, a publishing program for anti-disciplinary Black feminists, online courses taught by a Black feminists, site specific study sessions where we practice interspecies communication through engaging our sensorium, ceramic collections of Cykofa artifacts, and more.
I want to give a huge thank you and shout out to Allie and Srijani of the NGS Computational Bio Team — it was actually Srijani who planted the brilliant idea that DNA sequencing could somehow happen within Seeda’s body, Jenny Molloy and Aishwarya Venkatramani of Open Bioeconomy Lab who allowed me to imagine the economy and culture biotechnology deserves, Corinne Takara — artist & STEAM Educator — who is the connector of all connectors, your words and support reverberate throughout my thinking in this project and beyond, Erika Szymanski whom I had a brilliant conversation with about microbes, interspecies communication, and invoking pluiverses, Elaine Shapland and the whole Build team and Bradley Barber and the whole Biofab team for allowing me to tour your labs and ask dozens of speculative science questions, Maria Astolfi head of iGEM Design League whom I had an amazing conversation with about scientific curiosity sustaining beyond childhood and culturally integrated pedagogy, Leon Elcock who I had such an energizing conversation with about the intersection of abolition and biotechnology and how we might organize around worker power in biotech, Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke at Grow Your Own Cloud whose projects and research around encoding data into the DNA of plants help seed my imagination and the story of Cykofa, Andrea Ling who helped inform my thinking around the function of architectural ephemerality and how it can invoke systems rooted in a culture of communal care, Yasaman Sheri with whom I had an expansive conversation with about the role of speculation within design, Atsede and Amber of NGS who allowed me to tour their labs and walked me through all of their DNA sequencing technologies which informed my imagination on what DNA sequencing labs and capabilities could look like inside a forest, Anna Greenswag, Senior Lab Manager, who allowed me to nerd out with them on all things science fiction, what a lab situated in a forest might look like and function as, and thank you to the scientist who we stopped in the hallway to talk about waste and together imagined circular functions and the composting outputs of waste in science labs.
And I of course want to thank Grace Chuang, Joshua Dunn, Christina Agapakis, Eli Block, Natsai Chieza, and Ioana Man for our many conversations, connecting me with the aforementioned folks, and sharing links and resources that helped me further connect my ideas informing the themes that emerged in the data.
Last but never least I must give thanks to my ancestors, loved ones, and the 100+ database entries of Black scholars, artists, poets, scientists, and abolitionists whose work I wrote this story alongside.
What you can’t see are countless notes, mind bending conversations, book cover sketches, scraps of paper on the floor from my writing and collaging process, lunches beside rivers and under trees, but I hope I was able to communicate how ever-changing this project is and how much this project has changed me. Like a river, I look forward to continuing.
Spearheaded and curated by Ginkgo Bioworks and design agency Faber Futures, the Ginkgo Creative Residency provides an experimental platform for creative thinkers to explore at the intersection of design and biology. This year in our fourth open call, we asked designers to think critically about meaning: How have language, metaphor, and fiction shaped synthetic biology, and can we find new scripts to generate other meanings? If DNA is the “code of life”, what new perspectives can help us read, think, story and make worlds with biology?
Following the review of applications from 24 countries across five continents, we are thrilled to welcome Ayana Cotton as Ginkgo’s 2021 Creative Resident! During their three month residency at Ginkgo, Ayana will converge the disciplines of art, writing, and programming to weave experimental, speculative fiction through a triptych of short stories taking root in a parallel universe.
Ayana Zaire Cotton is a non-binary, neurodivergent artist, writer and software engineer living in Dawn, Virginia, USA — understanding there is more that binds these disciplines than separates them, they can best be described as a weaver engaged in a practice of “Sankofa Narration”. Sankofa is a word and symbol of Ghana’s Akan Twi and Fante languages, which translates to “go back and get”. Centring a Sankofa sensibility, today, they build databases as vessels holding seed data and experiment with shuffling algorithms to spin non-linear narratives to construct new stories (worlds) from the “digital waste” of our existing one.
In the last years, Ayana designed and built databases to weave non-linear narratives from foraged text. They recently developed the Black Feminist World Database (BFWD), consisting of curated excerpts from digital artefacts in the form of biographies, interviews, and scholarly articles of Black feminist world builders born between the 1700s to the 2000s. Inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumb’s call for us to find ceremony, they’ve created Daily Seed as a monthly zine of daily, non-linear narratives woven using the seed data and shuffling algorithms of the Black Feminist World Database.
As Ginkgo’s creative in residence, Ayana will continue their practice of reverence, remembrance, and worldbuilding using language. Building on their experience constructing generative databases as well as themes identified in their recent body of research titled “Crafting Care: The Spiritual Poetics of Design, Computation, and Abolition”, Ayana will collect layers of meaning from the Ginkgo lab and algorithmically weave them into three short stories bringing us into the mythology of Cykofa, a place on the North Carolina Black River. In Ayana’s words: “This world is made up of similar “laws of nature” we’re familiar with, except in Cykofa, cornrows are cryptography keys, the architecture is assembled with forest material for ephemerality, historical and research “documents” are woven cloth read-only through weaving patterns and the trees have learned from the data we’ve encoded in their DNA, allowing them to communicate with those who know how to access the memory stored in their tree rings.” We’ll get to experience this world via narrations from the perspective of a bald cypress tree over 2,600 years old and of a young, dark-skinned, non-binary biotechnologist living in Cykofa.
Ayana is our fifth Creative Resident, following Natsai Audrey Chieza, Yasaman Sheri, Andrea Ling, and the duo Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke. Learning from the Hybrid Lab experience of the previous cohort, Ayana will design their working methods to bridge time spent immersed in the Ginkgo lab with moments for embodied research, reflection and creation in ancient woodlands. As we all find our feet and learn to navigate the world as reframed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are very excited to explore collaborative and dynamic methodologies to reveal the meaning of what we do.
Ayana will receive mentorship from the creative residency team at Ginkgo Bioworks and Faber Futures. We also welcome our external jury to offer our residents critical perspectives and additional mentorship: poet and artist Sasha Stiles, social scientist Jane Calvert and Beth Semel, scholar and Associate Director of the Language and Technology Lab at MIT.
We’re excited to have Ayana join us and will be sharing updates on their time at Ginkgo here on the blog and on the Ginkgo Creative Residency’s Instagram @ginkgocreativeresidency.
Hey everyone, Leo here! I’m the Systems Administrator of the shiny MacBook Pros and Apple products that we use at Ginkgo. My team is “IT Engineering” and I work on configuration management, automations, DNS changes and some scripting. Big shout outs to my awesome colleagues Connor & Alex for all the hard work they have done on so many projects!
So, what’s IT Engineering about?
IT Engineering is like the glue of the Digital Tech team. We bounce between a large number of Enterprise SaaS products that we manage, as well as supporting a number of the products that Ginkgo employees use.
A large part of our typical day is supporting our Helpdesk Engineers and setting them up so they are prepared for common issues they may encounter in a typical day. Security and compliance are a big topic, and everything we do is geared toward that. Of course, we always take user experience into consideration.
My time at Ginkgo is approaching 2.5 years so I have much to share! I am the team lead for IT Engineering. Much of what we do is behind the scenes and I’d like to give you a glimpse into what my day-to-day is like.
I add value to my team and the company by owning various administrative tasks such as:
Managing vendor relations;
Working on software solutions that get us to our desired future state (think OKRs);
Sourcing IT hardware; and
Managing financial IT purchases.
What am I working on this week?
Yesterday I spent the better part of the day standing up our Jamf Pro Sandbox environment. Jamf Pro is Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s Active Directory. Essentially if there is a way to manage or automate Windows devices via Active Directory, then Jamf Pro can do it for the Macs.
Much of our time is spent developing automations that allow us to quickly onboard and offboard users and services, for applications and for directory services. Our work also includes supporting Identity and Access Management as we try to leverage single sign-on (SSO) and technologies like SCIM provisioning (where we can quickly onboard users to our applications as well as reduce password fatigue).
Other areas I will dive into this week will be onboarding a new application in our SSO solution, and some configuration and management of our virtualization environment. I will also be working on educating the IT HelpDesk team and building runbooks on how to assist users with Zoom meetings, Zoom Webinars, Zoom Rooms, and Zoom Phones. Migrating the company over to Zoom from another solution was a big project for our team, and it was a big success!
Let’s talk about MacBook Pros!
Everything, literally everything, that was done to create and manage the Macs was done manually, either by the Helpdesk or IT. This was incredibly time consuming and tedious. Hundreds of clicks and steps. Not fun.
A few hundred automations later and dozens of scripts (mostly in Bash or Zsh), and we are in a much better place. Now software is automatically deployed to end user endpoints.
Furthermore, Apple has baked-in security into the OS. This is a great thing but at the same time, a technical challenge I have been working to overcome via various extension attributes, kext, Team ID, bundle IDs etc.
What does any of that mean? It means we want to automate away any and all user and HelpDesk manual interactions, via code and configuration management files.
Example: Configuring our Macs with our Antivirus software was not as straightforward as one would assume! Apple requires that applications be manually given permissions, such as full disk access. This is because Apple believes in an Opt-In policy, not Opt-Out like Facebook.
In sum, Apple requires the Admin or the user to consent for an application, Opt-In, to be able to access all the files on your system, instead of automatically giving the app that access and then requiring you to Opt-Out. This is particularly good for microphones and webcams, as it would be creepy if an Admin or App could gain access to your mic or webcam without your consent.
This definitely needed an automated solution! So how do I do this? Well, that depends on the version of MacOS–which is why I pushed hard to standardize our version of MacOS!
For example, on MacOS Mojave I used a series of terminal commands to extract critical information such as the Team ID, bundle ID, and Kext–and then input those identifiers into our scripts. Then I modified the script to provide the correct level of permissions for each app. I’m simplifying a bit here, but let’s say many hurdles have been jumped to figure it all out!
Then all of that changed with Catalina, and even more with Big Sur. That’s why we now tightly control MacOs upgrades, to keep all the automations in alignment. Once we have redone the automations we verify that our new automations work with minimal impact to our users before an OS upgrade is made available to Ginkgo users.
Desired Future State
100% automation, I want to take a newly arrived Mac out of its box with no configuration done by the HelpDesk, and hand it to the user on their first day. The user then only needs to sign on with their credentials and boom! All the configurations push along with all of the apps. That’s it. Basically no user or HelpDesk interaction is required.
Jamf Connect auto-signs the user into our IDP (Identity Provider), which gives the user access to all their assigned SaaS apps. All the locally installed apps are deployed with Jamf and permissions are provided by Jamf Pro.
Note: The only exceptions so far are mic and webcams, due to Apple requiring consent explicitly from the user, But, as I said above, this is a good thing.
As I also discussed earlier, I manage operating systems upgrades and updates with Jamf Pro. I do this by making upgrades available with the click of a button, and having smaller updates automatically install (but require the user’s consent to take effect or reboot the machine). I also restrict software we do not allow running in our environment; that said, we are always on high alert to not negatively impact our users’ productivity.
I’ll show a super simple example how I would do a small fraction of one of these steps via Terminal via the codesign command to provide the Unique Team Identifier variable:
Terminal(hostname):~ username$ codesign -dr- /Applications/nameofantivirus.app
designated => identifier "nameofantivirus.app" and anchor apple generic and certificate 1[field.1.3.941.193434.118.104.22.168] /* exists */ and certificate leaf[field.55.3.941.193435.122.214.171.124] /* exists */ and certificate leaf[subject.OU] =
I then take the Team ID and use that in our scripts to identify the app I am declaring. This is one of multiple ways I do this. Depending on how the developer made the software, this method may or may not work.
Other more recent configurations forced me to make custom modifications to Jamf’s AMP policies where I had to make a custom profile that translates into custom code, just for AMP, so that the new network socket module could operate correctly without user or HelpDesk interaction.
Current Projects in the works for IT Engineering
Zero Touch Deployment for the MacBook Pros: This is the short way of referring to what our desired future state is for the Apple Products in our environment.
Management of MacOS upgrades and updates via Jamf Pro
Cloud imaging solution for Windows 10: This will allow us to image devices at all our future sites, regardless of geographical location. Our goal is to have one source of truth for all Windows imaging, thus reducing issues caused by old images.
Smart IT vending machines + Smart lockers (fully automated vending machines): This allows people to authenticate into the vending machine with a FOB, and allows us to automatically track its inventory and have it re-stocked, manage costs, and control who can take what.
Education and training: We are spending a lot of energy in keeping our IT support team trained and keeping our runbooks up to date. We are growing quickly and solid processes and procedures will help us scale and solve user issues quickly and efficiently
Ginkgo’s IT Engineering is a complicated and fast-paced work environment. There is never a dull moment. I look forward to continuing to implement the various solutions for Ginkgo moving forward so we can more efficiently enable our users to make biology easier to engineer.
Over the past few years we have developed a body of work exploring alternative relationships between living organisms and data, most notably through our research initiative Grow Your Own Cloud. We were delighted to be awarded the Ginkgo Creative residency as it was something we have aspired to, and with the theme for the residency being ‘Skin’, we initially envisaged exploring ways in which skin could become a site for novel data interactions.
Meanwhile a global pandemic began to brew. The cities we were in at the time (Paris and Warsaw) went into lockdown. The parks were bolted shut. The restaurant boarded up. Alone in the city, the lack of physical contact with other people became clearly noticeable. Isolation brought a growing sense of touch deprivation. Meanwhile things became ever more screen based. Normal life became Zoom life. All of this meant the residency which usually involves creatives spending time at the famous Ginkgo lab would instead take place online. The residency was going to be a residency of firsts. We were the first duo. We would be the first virtual residents. So what is the reality of a remote residency?
The remote residency began with us in France and Poland connecting with the Ginkgo Residency team – Christina Agapakis, Josh Dunn, Grace Chuang and Kit McDonnell in the US, and Natsai Audrey Chieza in the UK. Connections were facilitated through Zoom, Slack and Slides, digital staples of the pandemic, but the nature of embarking on fresh and creative research through these channels gave this process a different flavour. Our research scope centred on better understanding aspects of synthetic biology, exploring the science of skins, especially the skin microbiome and delving into interspecies communication. Zoom became a highly efficient research resource, allowing us to instantly connect with microbiologists, mammalian engineers, organism designers, founders, software designers, DNA encoding specialists, and even designers at Ginkgo.
We were able to indulge in conversations about the nuance of viruses, biological scales, genetic modification, engineering nature and alternative biological futures. Our catch-ups with the Ginkgo residency team were always full of wonderful insights, references and critical feedback. Our weekly calls with Josh in particular were a highlight, giving us a chance to dig into big questions around synthetic biology. It was an interesting feeling to essentially have a direct line to so much human knowledge that thanks to online tools we could literally download. A seemingly endless fountain of inspiration and ideas, and we leave the residency with a multitude of potential ideas for future works.
With a virtual residency, the sense of space takes on a decentralised character, existing in multiple places at once. There is a trade-off at play, a lack of grounding which in turn creates the sensation of an almost limitless span. In the circumstances, it became very natural for our research net to be cast wide. Outside of the Ginkgo community, we spoke to an array of experts including 3D artists, dancers, choreographers, experience creators and permaculture practitioners. As restrictions eased in Europe this led us to take a field trip to Farma in Sweden to experiment with some of our research in the forests amongst our guides Henno and Henriette. Perhaps had the residency taken place in its normal format we would not have had the impulse to bring in this range of voices and views.
In previous projects and residencies working physically was a given, it helped us to not only express ideas, but to display them and allow others to follow our process and progress. We used digital boards with varying degrees of success to replicate this. While being digital natives, the creative process we follow as a duo perhaps was not conducive to a pure digital collaboration. We could see the benefits whenever tasks were systematised or routine, however in any instance requiring a deeper collaboration or expansive, creative thinking, the tools and process fell short. Another limiting factor of course was our physical separation from the activities at Ginkgo. As people we thrive on connection and collaboration, and while the digital world offers alternatives with certain benefits, our experience was that it was harder to feel close to the action, to the science. We were able to dive into theory, but moving towards the practical from a non-theoretical point of view was a challenge.
As has been the case for many, the sometimes endless hours on Zoom took their toll. We quickly learned that in this model of working and collaboration we had to be gentler on ourselves, taking care to be away from the screen, even while knowing we had a limited time to connect with each other and the Ginkgo universe. Accepting the situation as it was, helped us to redefine and manage our expectations and to see elements of our research as experiments within experiments. We conducted workshops with the Ginkgo team through digital channels bringing them into our ideation process, immersing them in our research contexts and challenging them to collaborate across fields. Ultimately this sense of social isolation, physical separation and virtual connection proved to be a strong source of inspiration for the direction of our research project.
Unheard, Unseen and Undetected
‘We change through the collaborations both within and across species. The important stuff for life on earth happens in those transformations, not in the decision trees of self contained individuals’ – Anna Tsing
During our interview for the residency we had created a speculative data mapping for the types of data we might encounter through a residency exploring interactions between data and skin. Within this map was the term ‘Interspecies Gossip’, which seemed to resonate with everyone conceptually. To us this term was originally not particularly related to the pandemic, rather it referred to the interconnectedness of things, living and inorganic, that we had so often theorised around through our work on Grow Your Own Cloud, inspired by the writings of people like Ursula K. Le Guin, Timothy Morton and Anna Tsing.
Everything is connected. All the interactions are interwoven. All the pieces should fit. Gossip is what holds it all together. Interspecies Gossip was a guiding metaphor that describes the holistic communication occurring and diffusing in living systems, across scales, temporalities, geographies, and between species. Our desire was to create ways for human beings to get back in touch with the ‘gossip’ in natural systems, working with skin as a native technology. We wanted to imagine ways in which we might facilitate communication between species and natural systems, and allow human beings to once again be part of the gossip ecosystem within the biological cloud.
As a duo, we have often framed our research around a question – What will it take for human beings to once again see themselves as part of nature?’ During the residency we continued to approach this question, by seeking to establish strategies for humans to encounter a seemingly hidden world, not as a master, guest, host or spectator, but as an equal participant amongst other beings. Through what mechanisms can we as human beings step back into the gossip that for the most part goes unseen, unheard and undetected?
Our research approach is centred on exploring values and needs that include both the human and nonhuman. We wanted to continue to follow a sense of responsibility and acknowledgment of the multifaceted, nuanced world of living systems. Neither romanticising it, nor sensationalising it, rather placing it in a relatable, even mundane light. With Ginkgo largely focusing on the micro-world, we saw opportunities to bring people into contact with a microbial ecosystem that they are currently fearful of, showcasing how the distances between threat and benefit are often razor thin and highly dependent on perception. With a research topic that was so ambitious in scope, it was vital to break it down into components. As a result we split our investigation into streams of research; skins, home, nonhumans and gossip, that combined to help form the eventual body of work that we now call Interspecies Gossip.
Skin as an Interface
What even is a skin? Skins were a topic and material we had thus far not researched and the beginning of the residency was filled with curiosity about what we might discover. With a vast scope of possible skins to think about; animal skins, vegetable skins, architectural skins and so on, we made the decision early in our process to focus on human skin. This felt appropriate at a time where two emergencies were dominating much of the discourse, particularly in Europe and North America: the emergent COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing systemic racism, which may be characterized as an epidemic with regards to the mistreatment and deaths of Black people in particular, as well as indigenous people and people of colour. With interpersonal contact restrictions, arising as a result of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, we had an urge to develop ways for people to get back in touch with their bodies and skin. Working with the true diversity of skin was also vital, to counterpoint, unlearn, rethink and reframe systems of colonial power, visions and norms, particularly in the fields of biodesign and bioart, which skew highly towards white skin and pink flesh.
From the outset we were looking for ideas on how skin might facilitate new lines of data exchange and interaction between species. We met with Shawdee and Elie, mammalian engineers at Ginkgo, with whom we spoke about engineering skins, growing skins and the skin’s role as a barrier. This sparked more conversations about the use of terms like barrier that relate so strongly to notions of defence. This theme continued through our conversations with Patrick Boyle, head of codebase, as we started to imagine new metaphors. Could we, rather than thinking of war as a metaphor, start to think about communication? Could skin be seen as a habitat, a bridge, an interface?
Our guide to the world of skin throughout the residency was Jasmina Aganovic. We met regularly with Jasmina, often coming with a list of questions that she would devour, connecting dots while sharing knowledge and anecdotes with us. In our first meeting with Jasmina she told us about her views on the skin microbiome, and a phrase that would become central to our research; the skin microbiome as the “eyes and ears”. She told us of her experiences developing Mother Dirt as a response to the way modern cosmetics have ‘blinded’ the skin. This idea of a dulling of the senses really spoke to us. Could we find ways to reawaken the skin, drawing attention to the skin microbiome? The skin microbiome as Jasmina described it, could also be seen as a manufacturing site, giving us a sense of a thriving, busy community of microorganisms working together. It was a powerful figurative image. We could almost start to feel it.
By getting back in touch, we use skin as a tactile instrument to understand and embody the non-codified, non-binary data that exists within, amongst and across species. To explore these notions further we began working with performers and dancers, in particular Marianna Minasova, a choreographer based in Copenhagen. With Marianna we discussed how consent is established in bodily practices and how this might extend beyond the human. We theorized and speculated on how the skin might be transformed from a passive site to an active site of communication through movement, touch and rituals.
Life at Home
Our research context became the space we used most—the home. The place inhabited by people quarantined, spending increasing amounts of time due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This was an important decision and was a natural way to ground our research and creative direction. We had seen Ginkgo’s resident yeast expert Sudeep go viral prior to starting the residency, with his marvellous guide to home culturing. It got us thinking about the types of new rituals people were exploring in the home, and especially about how the organisms that live with us at home can be part of those rituals.
The new rituals of the pandemic were shared and spread organically through social media with platforms like TikTok and Twitter feeding our need for connection, social validation and entertainment. It seemed as if all roads led back to the screen. Our own personal screen fatigue at this point inspired us to situate our work in that world, using and appropriating aesthetics, but somehow taking the spirit to an offline format. Yet beyond screen fatigue, the escape and fun that these platforms represented was inspiring to us. With many people stuck at home, could our research help provide some magic and fantasy through the microbial cloud?
To explore the world of microscopic life at home, we read Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn. This was an instant breakthrough – to comprehend that while we might be home alone, we are never home alone. The book explores some of the species and ecosystems with whom we cohabit. What struck us was that Rob seemed to be asking the same fundamental questions we have been asking—why do we continue to see ourselves as separate from nature? What was intriguing in Rob’s work was that he was proving through science and demonstrating through science communication how flawed that feeling is. We simply, due perhaps to our size and senses, overlook what is right in front of us. Or sometimes underneath us, above us and on us.
The human senses are developed to sense at a particular scale; things which are too small or too large fall outside of our focus leaving eyes, ears, noses and skin oblivious. Inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass we begin to wonder that with a multitude of organisms interacting across scales and genetic frontiers, can there truly be a universal language, perhaps of chemicals, that underpins everything, or are we all simply existing in a series of translations? Can we establish ways to be native to our homes, by getting back in touch with the tacit knowledge that natural systems hold?
The word gossip has many meanings in the human context. It typically connotes scandalous secrets and illicit tales passing from ear to ear. Yet gossip is so much more than that. At its essence it is simply a way to share stories and connect. During the pandemic in a world of screen based connection, algorithmic feeds and glitchy audio, the lack of space for serendipity, for mishaps, mischief, and ultimately for gossip was evident.
As so often in times of lack, other options emerged. Entertainment sought to fill the void, but the social bonds that only gossip can create, when practised healthily, are not so easy to replace. More than anything, tales of ‘she said’, ‘they did’ and ‘you’ll never guess what’ strengthen our social connections, a nourishing almost ritualistic practice that gives us a little boost. Perhaps then instead of peeking through curtains, binging on 90s re-runs, developing a taste for so-called conspiracy theories, or just being totally fed up with a situation largely out of our individual control, we can look to gossip as a way to do what it does best – connect. But how can we get our fix of gossip at a moment where moments of magic are scarce and other human beings are off limits? How about getting in touch with other species, an unlikely set of new tale tellers, rumourmongers and eavesdroppers.
In the spirit of reaching out during the pandemic, we decided to write to Rob and let him know how much his book had inspired us. Rob got back to us almost immediately and we began having wonderful chats discussing our ideas around Interspecies Gossip, connecting our musings with his scientific knowledge. We began to see the home as a nest of nonhuman gossip that, were it audible, would be deafening. The home was repositioned as a context in which organisms from diverse geographies and temporalities converge in a multitude of ecosystems.
While we think of gossip as a strictly human affair, the microbes do love to gossip. They share stories about their past. Their love lives. Their darkest fears. Their hopes. They even gossip about the humans who live amongst them. They use various languages and dialects ranging from chemical signatures, alluring odours and inaudible audio. Their conversations diffuse across different perceptions of reality, space and time. They work with evolutionary senses, which though seemingly familiar, are tuned to hear, smell, see, taste, and feel in ways which bend human conceptions.
Each organism has a unique story to tell of where it has been, who it has met, and what it has been through. Through our conversations with Rob, we created a cast of species to encounter within Interspecies Gossip; Springtails eagerly hopping around, Mycobacterium vaccae sharing good vibes, Stachybotrys moulds waiting for the flood that never comes and many more. We mapped organisms to different parts of the home, to critical sites and issues, as well as their interwoven and interconnected relationships. Allowing the tone of gossip to guide our approach, we projected accessible and relatable characters and personalities onto the nonhuman beings. This was a deliberate choice, as rather than seeking new ways of discussing the nonhuman world, it was more important for us that a potential audience could access and approach this world.
Interspecies gossip is a collection of stories and a guide to a new practice, that might once again connect human beings with the nonhuman kin we live alongside. In equal parts science, fiction and speculative fantasy, it reveals the conversations within, between and amongst communities of species that go unheard, unseen and undetected by human beings in their own homes. By following the guide, you embark on a journey encountering chatty viruses, bored bacteria, intoxicated butterflies and heartbroken plants, accompanied by bodily rituals designed to help you get in touch with the nature of the home. Through Interspecies Gossip, we give a voice to the voiceless, create a space for reconnection and allow ourselves to indulge in some subversive fun.
With people suffering from social isolation, touch deprivation, and increasing reliance on the digital cloud for connection, Interspecies Gossip presents an alternative hedonism, inviting you to embrace the nonhuman world, using your skin as a technology to connect to the microbial cloud. Through this work we invite you to explore the home in a new way, encountering the microbial cloud with the native technology of your skin. The skin’s true nature is revealed and its full potential harnessed. Rather than being seen as a barrier or as a site to be cleansed of microbes, we offer a practice which emphasizes the active skin-microbiome, a living interface. The eyes and ears of the body. A point of connection to another world.
You and the Home you inhabit are inextricably linked to Interspecies Gossip. The Home is transformed into a sensorial playground which your body knows how to feel. The smells that emanate from underneath your pillow are legions of bacteria, fungi and protozoa gossiping about who’s in and who’s out. The slippery feeling in your shower is a rich community of organisms, a biofilm, inviting you and your microbial cloud to dance, while worrying about what might happen after the inevitable fall from grace.
By getting in touch with Interspecies Gossip, we as humans, being, get in touch with the knowledge of living systems which we mistakenly consider only exist in exotic far-flung places. We start to understand the interconnectedness of things, how interactions extend from the microscopic to planetary scale, even within the microcosm that is the home. We attune our senses to the networks of non-binary data exchange that spread and diffuse between different beings, across linguistic chasms, throughout the living world. Above all we start to reconnect with the natural world, a world which humans have attempted (unsuccessfully) to extricate and separate themselves from. We do all this from the confines and comforts of the habitat known as the home.
The core of the work is an interactive book, designed and developed in collaboration with Henriette Kruse and Ines Alpha, which progresses through 3 chapters: Initiation, Growth, and Immersion.
In Chapter 1 – Initiation, the reader is invited to work with the skin as a performative site and develop bodily practices to touch the microbial gossip at home. We establish modes of consent, and begin exploring life at home through a series of stories, which reveal the hidden voices of the beings that live at home through chatty tales of gossip.
The tales of Gossip in Chapter 1 start with ‘Gossip About You’ which as the name suggests are stories of other beings gossiping about you, the human within the home. The second section of Chapter 1 is entitled ‘Gossip between the Species’ which delves deeper into the relationships the nonhuman species have with each other.
Further on this Chapter includes a set of stories exploring how gossip can travel through space and time. Each story is accompanied by a bodily ritual, which presents a method for the reader to literally get back in touch with other beings. Working with Marianna, we developed these analog rituals for readers to engage in our science fantasy and follow in order to make contact with the nonhuman beings. The rituals are documented through photography and video, shot in vertical formats reminiscent of the aesthetics of Tik Tok and Instagram.
Objects of Attraction
Chapter 2 is all about growing. Growing interfaces that are designed to attract more gossip to the home and body. We called these ‘Objects of Attraction’. These living objects attract and rewild the home. They can be applied to skin to create an attraction layer and can be mated to create new variants.
Towards the latter part of our residency the Ginkgo team kindly provided an opportunity for us to make use of a wet-lab at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI) in Paris. At CRI we were mentored by Jake Wintermute, a synthetic biologist and friend of Ginkgo. This physical space provided us a new impetus; not only a space in which we could collaborate together but also benefit from and learn about experimentation in the wetlab.
Through our research we uncovered that efforts to thwart and repel other species are now taking on a new dimension, through engineering the skin microbiome itself and the community of organisms that inhabit and indeed form the skin, to actively repel creatures that are deemed unsuitable, unwanted. DARPA is at work on this. A consortium including our residency hosts Ginkgo Bioworks are part of a project known as ReVector, a program looking into how genetically engineering the skin-microbiome can create long-lasting, bacteria-based mosquito repellent. As so often a militaristic agenda pushing the frontiers of human technology.
When we heard this story it immediately triggered a thought. What might happen if we turned this around. What if we rather than repel, we drew other species towards us, using that magical power – a sense of attraction. Might we invite the other species to play with us? Can we refuse to acknowledge the false separations and bifurcations? Is it instead possible to merge bodies, and join forces?
In living systems, attraction is rife, through colour, through sound, and through the chemical signalling of smell. Pheromones are key in this world, simple chemicals that provoke outsized reactions in all manner of beings. Whether you are a Leopard or a Centipede there is a chemical that will work its magic on you. These chemical formulas have evolved with the species to elicit particular reactions that can lead to fear, joy or arousal. Similarly to modifying the skin microbiome, perhaps synthetic biology can be applied to conjure up new signals of attraction.
Through our research we were pointed to the complex and downright confusing world of pheromones, discovering gems such as Xt-109_polyphropenel, a pheromone that works wonders on Asian Elephants. It also attracts Monarch Butterflies and hundreds of types of moth. In essence a perfect manifestation of Interspecies Gossip. We decided to explore what might occur when we play with these pheromones to attract other beings, bringing more life and more gossip into the fray. When an organism creates a pheromone. Could we engineer new combinations of pheromones, and imagine creating our own ‘Home-mating systems’. Taking genetically modified organisms, that mate with one another, through a metabolic pathway that might create interesting fragrance variations through mating.
In order to create the attraction we worked with technology that has long since been developed in living systems. Yeasts are one of the first model organisms, and working with the scientists at Ginkgo Bioworks and CRI Paris, we quickly understood that not only could yeasts on their own attract other species due to the whiff of ethanol they emit, but we could modify the yeasts to emit particular pheromones to attract all manner of beings. While we were unable to perform this for real in the lab context, we explored this speculatively working with Jake Wintermute and Sudeep Agarwal, the yeast Viking, who helped us understand the basic principles of what might occur if we were to modify yeast to emit pheromones and then mate them to create new combinations. This thought was intriguing.
As Sudeep explained to us, imagine if we took 6 genes (a, b, c, d, e, f) that are involved in creating a fragrance. Each gene has a degree of variation, especially genes c and E. We might then take two strains of yeasts, and in yeast(1) we would include genes (a, b, d, f) and in yeast (2) (a, b, d, f). To create interesting variations then, we would add a ‘library’ of genes to yeast(1) e.g. c-1, c-2, c-3 etc. and in yeast(2) similarly we would add e-1, e-2, e-3 etc. On their own neither of the yeast strains produces any fragrance. The magic happens when we mate the two compatible individuals.
We were aiming at producing objects that could be applied on your skin like soaps, however as mentioned instead of cleaning they would leave an attraction layer on the skin. The objects had to also provide a suitable environment for the yeast. We wanted the objects to relate to the skin, so used the metaphor of ‘Soap’ – imagining a care product that could be applied to skin and would attract other species. Of course we could not create a real soap to house the yeast as the alkaline environment would be unsuitable for their growth. Instead we experimented with various biomaterials, eventually settling on a formula based around agar-agar and amino acid growth media that would provide a nourishing habitat for the yeast to grow.
Merging with other species
In Chapter 3 – Immersion, we are pointing at the idea of blurring the boundaries between biological and computational, human and nonhuman worlds until they merge. This is the grand finale of the speculative fantasy. The participant has now gone through understanding their home from a new microbial perspective. They dance the rituals at home, almost inviting the stories to emerge. They grow Objects of Attraction, and after adding the attraction layer to their skin, they step into the world which stretches beyond their own body. They are being invited to let themselves get lost and become part of the interspecies gossip.
For this final part, we worked with 3D artist Ines Alpha. We sought to bring our thinking to life through augmented reality and graphics that would appear on the skin, embodying and encapsulating this merge. In the final sequence we see one of the protagonists of the story and various organisms coalesce, culminating in an almost take-over of the human being and human body.
The core aspects of the project are reflected in a deep belief in sharing a welcoming environment and openness. A gratitude towards diversity and otherness that encompasses all beings. Through the lens of other species, particularly microbial species that inhabit the home, Interspecies Gossip explores issues such as migration and borders, the climate crisis, defence, and the pandemic itself. It discusses these subjects in a subtle and non-dogmatic manner, promoting a holistic view of the world, an interconnected system where intertwined planetary issues and relationships are to be explored, not hidden.
At a time where we see the fragility of human society and the manner in which human activity can affect connected ecosystems, the project renders the home as a connected ecosystem. This may be applied to any sense of ‘home’ through a universal sense of exploring the place which one calls home. The project imagines that the results of such explorations would differ greatly depending on geographic location, due to the unique ecosystems, cultural values and types of encounters that each person would bring to their use of the guide.
Throughout the work we see examples of how diversity only brings further richness. The diversity of the nonhuman world in particular is highlighted. We seek to propose models of attracting and co-existing, rather than separation and repelling the other. The non-binary and queer nature of the multispecies and living systems are featured, portraying how other species often demonstrate modes of being that humans do not universally accept, and how living systems are organised to thrive within this melange. The project combines these values and inspirations, to point towards the promotion and necessity of equality and respect amongst people and other beings.
Clemens Winkler, one of the residency advisors suggested a term for the residency at the outset—a Hybrid Lab experience. On reflection this seems particularly apt, with a blend of a virtual decentralised residency and a lab-based physical format, based across various sites involving partnership with scientists at CRI Paris, the University of Copenhagen, and Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston. The links and network that was built around our research had a highly multidisciplinary spirit, with the arts and science equally well represented. The various fields were able to cooperate and collaborate, private companies and public institutions allowed ideas to flow freely across borders, all contributing to a body of knowledge to share with the general public.
To say that the Ginkgo creative residency came at an interesting moment would be an understatement. The residency was decidedly experimental, with formats that constantly evolved and changed. It was a very important experience for us for multiple reasons. Firstly as designers, being exposed to so much support and guidance to engage with the scientific aspects of research was unique. Taking part in multiple sessions each week with people from diverse backgrounds helped us to constantly scope new aspects of our explorations. Through our creative process we were able to build speculative fantasies on top of the gathered knowledge, creating a feedback loop. It was a creatively challenging experience that taught us how to turn raw data, deep concepts and general models of how nature operates, into stories that comment on contemporary issues such as isolation or the perception of microorganisms from a different perspective.
In the end we see the work as a complementary assemblage of different mediums that together form a fantasy world; from coming up with new modes of deep remote research to blending fiction and nonfiction writing, creating bodily rituals with artists, filming and capturing spontaneous performances, working in the wet lab and engaging with 3D CGI graphics. The residency offered us a space and time to open our minds towards a free exploration of the mediums, issues and themes that felt important to us. This is all too rare in the world and we are truly grateful for the opportunity.
Grow is Ginkgo’s magazine about synthetic biology, published in conjunction with Massive Science. Today, we’re excited to announce that our second print edition, The Beauty Issue, has begun shipping! Order your own copy now, or send one to a friend this holiday season.
Far from your typical beauty magazine, this is a collection of mind-bending essays and stories on the science and culture of beauty — an expression of our ever-evolving and surprising diversity, biology’s most mysterious trick. Beauty is often considered a superficial quality, but it has tremendous power over us. Defined exclusively, it can become a tool of oppression. But it can also be an important source of joy and creativity, as long as it’s appreciated in all its forms. The Beauty Issue is an attempt to do just that; a glimpse into a world of beauty without boundaries.
Grow is one way we can support critical thought in synthetic biology, which has become all the more important in a year that’s made the power of biology painfully clear. At Ginkgo, we’ve been working hard to help accelerate the tools we need in the fight against the pandemic. But doing so goes beyond just creating the tools. It means asking complex questions and envisioning new collective futures in biology. It means ensuring we design technologies from a conscious place of care, equity, and inclusion. This issue isn’t specifically about all that COVID-19 has uncovered and caused, but about encouraging the different perspectives we need in order to imagine what’s next.
In this issue, you’ll find 80 pages of illustrated features by some of our favorite writers and artists, exploring everything from the billion-dollar anti-aging industry to beauty products made with synbio, from a personal essay about the world’s holiest scent to haunting dystopian science fiction, and so much more. Some pieces are a distraction from the harsh realities of this year, while others face the darkness head on. To give you a preview of what to expect, two of those essays are now available online. In Wings of Desire, Dean Kissick cuts to the heart of the mystery and asks how did beauty evolve in the first place? More specifically, how did birds become beautiful and modern get so weird? In The Ugly Truth, Arabelle Sicardi tells the story of America’s ugly laws, which punished people for being unsightly, and the fierce disability activists who fought to overturn them.
We hope that you find inspiration in the pages of this issue, and that it brightens up the end of your year. Finally, we like to think of every issue of Grow as the beginning of a conversation, and we’d love to hear from as many of you as possible.
Spearheaded and curated by Ginkgo Bioworks and design agency Faber Futures, the Ginkgo Creative Residency provides an experimental platform for creative thinkers to explore experimentally at the intersection of design and biology. This year in our third open call, we asked designers to think critically about skin as a biological interface. Following the review of applications from 14 countries across 5 continents, we are thrilled to welcome Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke as Ginkgo’s 2020 Creative Residents! During their three month residency at Ginkgo, Monika and Cyrus will develop novel approaches for data interactions through skin, building upon their experiential work in DNA data encoding and decoding.
Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke, hailing from Poland and the UK, are interaction and experience designers with backgrounds in art, design and economics. Since 2017 they have collaborated in their practice as a duo to explore alternative relationships with nature and technology and create interactive and immersive experiences that tell stories about possible futures. Their methods blend the fictional and real, using speculative design to research, interrogate, and widen imaginations, whilst grounding themselves in technical realities alongside scientists.
One of Monika and Cyrus’ ongoing research initiatives is Grow Your Own Cloud, which began as a speculative exploration of DNA data storage methods. The project centers around drawing attention to the link between data storage and rising CO2 emissions, allowing people to explore a world in which data storage is truly green. In 2018, collaborating with the University of Copenhagen Plants Genetics Lab, Monika and Cyrus developed the Data Flower-Shop, turning a flower shop into a data center from the future. Monika and Cyrus also implemented the Grow Your Own CloudData Garden, an installation that features plants encoded with data and allows visitors to retrieve data from the plants to reveal the hidden text, image and sound files stored within. By deploying scientific knowledge outside of the lab and using artistic devices outside of the gallery, Monika and Cyrus were able to educate, engage, and spark knowledge exchange of unexpected ideas and dialogue on the future of data and biotechnology. The project has received substantial attention and awards, including Prix BloxHUB and Core77, and was presented at the United Nations during the World Youth Climate Summit 2019, COP25, and Davos 2020.
In Bodies of Knowledge, exhibited in the Design Biennial BIO26 at The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Monika and Cyrus explored the role of the body in interacting with data. Monika and Cyrus created an interactive archive of contemporary dance using machine learning which enables visitors to embody data usually held within the museum’s archives. The installation integrated physical and digital space, including the visitors, their bodies, and their movements into the archive. Appropriating surveillance technologies, the installation captured visitors’ bodies—analyzing, categorizing, and dissecting them to include in the spatial displays.
As Ginkgo’s creatives in residence, Monika and Cyrus will build on the work of Grow Your Own Cloud and Bodies of Knowledge through a new project, Interspecies Gossip, to investigate how we might use skin as a data interface for storage and exchange between the species. Interacting with data can be a tangible, beautiful, and intimate process, one that is not limited to human beings. Interspecies Gossip will look into the interactions between organisms, from micro to planetary scale, the networks of data exchange that exist within the natural world, and ways to facilitate new lines of data exchange.
Aiming to immerse people of all backgrounds to inspire a more inclusive, imaginative, conscious and ethical mindset to technology, Monika and Cyrus plan to explore interactions and prototypes around how we might store, share, and transfer data through bodily interfaces; research and discuss the work in context of ethics, privacy and biopolitics; work with science and technology collaborators to evolve prototypes from speculative to material, and share knowledge through writing and workshops.
This is our fourth cohort of the Ginkgo Creative Residency, following our previous residents Natsai Audrey Chieza, Yasaman Sheri, and Andrea Ling, and it’s evident to say that 2020 is a year unlike any other. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Monika and Cyrus will be working remotely for the next three months. Though the residency presents itself in a different format than previous years, we see it as an opportunity to explore other methodologies for fruitful collaboration between the arts and science at a distance. We are excited to explore how a virtual residency might permit more open channels for dialogue and create new opportunities to showcase research outputs.
At a time where interpersonal touch and contact is restricted, data privacy concerns are at an all time high, and ongoing systemic racism has been brought to the forefront, Monika and Cyrus’ work framed around the question of skin and data is positioned within an incredibly unique period in history. This virtual residency will be an experiment in the truest sense of the word, an opportunity to test, learn and discover, during a time and space dedicated to exploring possible futures that involve biotechnology at their core.
Monika and Cyrus will receive mentorship from the creative residency team at Ginkgo Bioworks and Faber Futures’ founder Natsai Audrey Chieza. We also welcome our external jury to offer our residents with critical perspectives and additional mentorship: artist Anicka Yi, design researcher Clemens Winkler, and Amy Congdon, Head of Design Intelligence at Biofabricate.
We’re excited to have Monika and Cyrus join us, and will be sharing updates on their time at Ginkgo here on the blog and on the Ginkgo Creative Residency’s Instagram @ginkgocreativeresidency.
We’re excited for our next interview in our day-in-the-life series! Here we hear from Kristen Tran, one of Ginkgo’s first ever Automation Engineers, on her path to Ginkgo and what she’s looking forward to in 2020.
How did you find this industry and this role? What was your path to Ginkgo?
Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in biomedical engineering. I did my undergrad at the University of Texas, then came to Boston for graduate school at Boston University. After graduating from BU, I was at a networking event for women in science and engineering, and connected with a manager at Merck Pharmaceuticals, who asked me a question I’d never considered—was I interested in automation?
As it turns out, I was very interested, and my career as an automation engineer began! I already had a solid base of engineering knowledge from my education, but I built my expertise in lab automation through hands-on work. I had been at Merck for about 6 years when a friend of mine, who was working at Ginkgo, got in touch about the company’s automation team—which at that time was just one person (Jeff Lou, still our head of automation today!)—and I realized I had found my next step.
I was really excited about the prospect of building something new, and between that, and all the amazing things the company was working on, I was sold, and joined Ginkgo back in 2015 as the first member of the automation team. These days, we are a team of 13 and growing!
What is the automation team’s role and impact at Ginkgo?
Our team is in charge of automating manual processes within Ginkgo’s foundries. This means lifting all kinds of manual work off of our foundry engineers in the lab—not only automating processes they would normally need to do by hand, but also helping them to scale processes beyond human capacity, processing thousands of samples each day at nanoliter scale.
This is important work because it gives our foundry engineers more time to do what’s really valuable for them—developing new tools and processes to engineer biology. For instance, we were able to program our acoustic liquid handler to perform 2D full factorial experiments to optimize how we sequence our engineered microbes.
We do this by designing and implementing custom system integrations combining off the shelf and custom hardware and software elements—enabling our foundry engineers to program and execute personalized protocols on our automated systems.
How does the automation team at Ginkgo operate, and what is your role within the team?
On the automation team at Ginkgo, everyone does a little bit of everything. We’re very cross-disciplinary, working across hardware, software and biological process implementation. That said, we all have different strengths—largely due to the fact that we all come from different engineering backgrounds. On the team now, we have mechanical engineers, an aerospace engineer, chemical engineers, and biomedical engineers. There are some team members that came to Ginkgo right out of school, other industries, or have been working in the lab automation space for years. It’s really this mix of expertise and career backgrounds that allows the team to operate so effectively.
As the most senior member on the team, I tend to play a more strategic role in guiding and overseeing projects that come in. I also serve as a liaison between our team and all the other teams at Ginkgo—a part of my job I really enjoy, because it gives me a holistic view of everything the company is working on and where my team can help. Along with this higher level work I still very much get my hands dirty on ongoing projects, contributing directly on engineering implementation and helping to configure and design new systems, while also supporting our current systems.
While it’s not necessarily part of my job description, I’m also heavily involved in our hiring process, because I believe that at the end of the day, our strongest asset is our team. Making sure that we have the strongest, most diverse team of engineers that we can so that we continue to scale that team and deliver the best results for Ginkgo is incredibly important.
What does your day-to-day look like?
A typical day varies! It can involve anything from troubleshooting specific instruments or processes, working hands-on in the lab, installing or optimizing software or hardware—to longer-term work, working on the design and architecture of future projects. There are so many different implementation and design aspects to this job.
There’s an operations aspect as well, making sure that people understand what our platforms are capable of, training new users and helping with any issues they might have. We need to understand on an operations level if there is anything that we need to improve, and help our teams to make the most of the platforms we design and implement.
What is your favorite part of your job, or what makes you the most excited?
So for me, personally, one of my favorite things is that this job creates a lot of opportunities for variety and cross-disciplinary challenges. Since a day is so variable, there are always new problems to solve.
Another thing I love about this particular role and this team is that, because we’re a core infrastructure team at Ginkgo, I get to work with basically everyone at the company, from the foundry teams to business development and project leads. Not only does this give our team the opportunity to discover and drive efficiencies across the business, we also get a front row seat to all the latest developments across teams—an early look at the latest and greatest at Ginkgo.
The automation team is able to, within the course of our regular work, develop a truly holistic view of the company. This gives us a unique opportunity to understand how all the pieces of the puzzle that is Ginkgo fit together.
What is Ginkgo working on that you’re most excited about?
I honestly can’t name one specific project! What really excites me is that Ginkgo is working on a more diverse set of projects and problems than almost anyone else out there, whether from a customer perspective or a platform perspective. And we’re constantly working to expand the scope and complexity of the problems and challenges we tackle.
One goal of our team specifically is to help build the most flexible platform we can here at Ginkgo, that can both scale AND adapt —and that’s incredibly exciting. You don’t often see both of those factors combined and for us, it’s a key focus, and one that is critical to Ginkgo’s success.
What is one of your goals for 2020?
I would love to see more diverse applicants applying for our team—both in terms of their career backgrounds (spoiler alert: you don’t have to be a synthetic biologist to work here!) and individual experience. Ginkgo welcomes and celebrates diversity of all kinds and frankly, we’re a stronger company for that.