A curious assortment of things is scattered around the room: a screenprinting press with paper and fabric craft supplies; laboratory glassware, including beakers, pipettes, graduated cylinders and vials of questionable cleanliness; and electronic gadgets with exposed wires and alligator clips. Amid all of this, middle school children and adults are referencing paper drawings as they use a variety of utensils—cotton swabs, paintbrushes, paperclips, inoculating loops, and tweezers—to arrange different color bacteria on Petri dishes. Their Petri dishes begin to resemble the designs they drew on paper, and they add a few finishing touches with bits of toothpaste, hand sanitizer and moisturizer, and Neosporin. After a 24-hour incubation period, they will observe how bacterial growth was shaped by these materials. They will then trace digital photographs of their Petri dishes to design stencils, which will be cut by a vinyl cutter, transferred onto mesh screens, and screenprinted on paper, wood, or fabric to become enduring representations of antibiotic-responsive bioart.
The project is about translating and transferring representations across mediums: from hand-drawn sketch to Petri dish and bacteria, from bacteria to digital stencil design, and from stencil to screenprinted artifact. This process of assembling materials and techniques from biology, interaction design, and the fine arts is unfolding in our DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) design studio. It is a space where artists, designers, biologists, and local communities explore issues around emerging biotechnologies through hands-on work with hybrid materials.
Within human-computer interaction, design studio culture draws from industrial design, fine arts, and architecture, with a long tradition of incorporating different media into materially oriented inquiry . In this article, I focus on an HCI design studio as a space and practice where research through design examines wicked problems through work with hybrid materials. Alongside its emphasis on material engagement, this type of studio practice embraces a culture of open sharing and feedback among diverse stakeholders. In short, it aims to engage with heterogeneous issues through the creation of hybrid physical artifacts.
A design studio can be characterized as an assembly of people and things, brought together around matters of concern . The people who assemble might have different backgrounds, degrees of expertise, methods, and goals. Together, they construct knowledge around an issue, often by fluidly mixing and creating things that express dynamic relationships within a system . These things are physical or digital instantiations that, not unlike Heidegger’s gatherings of elements, materialize heterogeneous ideas and relationships between human and non-human actors and give form to social and political structures.
Framing the design studio as an assembly where creative work with artifacts is used to materialize issues is particularly helpful for understanding how DIY biology relates to studio practice. New biology-themed HCI projects—from fabrication techniques for prototyping with biological materials, to biological data visualizations, studies of the open science movement, and scholarship on feminist science and different ways of knowing—all raise new philosophical and logistical questions around human relationships with biological and bioelectronics systems. To explore these concerns, some HCI researchers are collaborating with biologists, but most of their wet-lab work takes place in professional labs. The DIYbio movement , which aims to expand access to biology beyond professional settings, presents a more public, iterative, and creative model for biology-themed HCI.
DIYbio is a nascent movement within the broader maker culture, broadly motivated by enabling public participation in biology. Sitting at the crossroads of synthetic biology (a new field in itself) and earlier DIY movements, the fledgling DIYbio community focuses on open sourcing academic knowledge. Not unlike creative studio work, hacking and tinkering with biology are at the core of this movement, which often catalyzes projects in informal learning environments such as makerspaces, art studios, and personal homes. What, then, is the process for integrating biomaterials into a studio space to support hands-on design work with organic, digital, and analog systems?
Setting up the space. I formed an interdisciplinary team of collaborators with expertise in biology, engineering, and design. Together we set up a BSL-1 (biosafety level 1, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) design studio and developed low-cost DIYbio tools to support creative biology work. We applied autoethnographic study methods by incorporating our own experiences as part of the design process. This was a particularly valuable method because there were no other cases to draw from while bootstrapping a DIYbio studio that did not yet exist in Phoenix (or many other places in the world).
In a DIYbio studio, the living materials being worked with embody a new set of characteristics: reproduction, mutation, growth, and death.
A BSL-1 facility supports work with minimally risky procedures and materials  and does not require major modifications to a standard DIY fabrication space. The main infrastructure—access to running water via a sink—was already in place in our studio. However, we had to make several adaptations to accommodate for biological material storage and disposal, personal protective equipment, and procedures for handling biological contamination and spills.
Working with our university’s Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), we iterated on our setup and workflow to meet the BSL-1 requirements, including:
- adding non-porous (vinyl) covers to biology work surfaces,
- setting up biohazard waste bins for biological materials and sharps,
- coordinating waste-pickup requests with our university’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) department,
- obtaining a dedicated and properly labeled fridge for organic materials and reagents, and
- conducting biosafety training with all lab members.
We relied on a combination of creative approaches to acquire the necessary tools. As much as we could, we appropriated everyday materials for biology purposes, using a pressure cooker as an autoclave, toothpicks to streak plates, bleach to handle spills, and eyedroppers for pipetting. We also built tools from scratch by laser cutting our own test tube racks, 3D printing a dremel attachment for our centrifuge, developing a low-cost, precise incubator, and hacking together a servo-based shaker for aerating liquid media. Finally, some materials—bacterial colonies, gram-staining dyes, Petri dishes, agar—had to be purchased from professional distributors.
Autoethnographic reflection. As far as we know, we are the first university-based based HCI studio to support BSL-1 work. Reflecting on our experience, we learned that, first and foremost, establishing a BSL-1 design studio is not particularly hard or expensive. Our overall setup, including all tools, basic reagents and media, safety infrastructure, and protective equipment, cost less than $2,000, which is on par with or lower than the cost of most HCI studio setups. The BLS-1 training and certification process, while somewhat lengthy and bureaucratic, was not especially difficult and did not require advanced biology expertise beyond what could be easily found in basic textbooks and across DIYbio forums (our university’s IBC also advised us and offered additional guidance).
However, while the setup was not difficult, we discovered that work with living materials involves special planning and care. For instance, the temperature and time requirements for growing bacteria (24 to 48 hours), along with autoclaving media and equipment before and after the work, required longer-term planning and a more sequential workflow. We often scheduled our work sessions on particular days—for example, autoclaving and pouring plates on Mondays, streaking bacteria on Tuesdays, and observing results on Wednesdays—to leave time for cleanup and waste pickup at the end of the week. This presented a very different time frame for iterating on our work and introduced a host of new variables to be considered during troubleshooting (e.g., a bacterial colony might grow poorly because of faulty growth media, contamination during streaking, stress incurred in transport to our lab, etc.).
These considerations shifted our sense of agency during the design process. Of course, physical interactions have always guided (and co-opted agency over) materially oriented inquiry in studio work. In a DIYbio studio, however, the living materials being worked with embody a new set of characteristics: reproduction, mutation, growth, and death. Perhaps more so than their non-living counterparts such as craft materials, digital software, and electronics, organic systems are powerful non-human actors. In a DIYbio setting, living actors such as bacteria will evolve and change, often without intervention from the designer. This introduces a new layer of control and power dynamics into design work, whereby, at the very least, additional vigilance is required that doesn’t apply to working with non-living materials such as metal or fabric.
Returning to the idea of the studio as a gathering to explore issues, what new possibilities and challenges emerge from integrating biomaterials into studio practice? How do living materials interface with and translate to more traditional media? And what new knowledge can unfold from the interactions between humans, non-human biological actors, and hybrid materials? After experimenting with a range of DIYbio protocols, we were ultimately drawn to the Kirby Bauer test for antibiotic properties to explore these questions.
The Kirby Bauer test and microbial art. The Kirby Bauer (KB) protocol is a well-established microbiology procedure for analyzing bacterial sensitivity to antibiotic substances. Traditionally, small disks containing antibiotics are placed onto agar plates that have been evenly streaked with bacteria. After incubation, one can observe inhibited bacterial growth (“dead zones”) around each substance that has antibacterial properties.
In the context of design studio practice, the KB protocol is an intriguing example of humans working with living systems to develop new situated knowledge about the antibacterial properties of everyday substances. Design studio work presents many avenues for materializing this knowledge with tangible, longer-lasting, and “safe” (non-biohazardous) artifacts. In our project, we were particularly drawn to screenprinting because of its versatility to print on paper, wood, fabrics, and other materials.
Screenprinting is one of the most popular DIY printing methods and fits with the culture and aesthetics of DIYbio. In this method of printmaking, ink is transferred through a mesh screen onto an underlying material. A stencil (vinyl, in our case) makes sections of the mesh impermeable to the ink, thereby creating the desired patterns on the substrate. Our studio has a low-cost screenprinting press, a vinyl cutter, polyester mesh screens, and a low-cost heat lamp to cure the ink onto fabrics.
Bioart studio activities. Working with a team of biologists and artists, I developed a weeklong studio module for junior high school youths as part of an outreach summer program at ASU . In the studio, participants used pigmented bacteria to “paint” different bacterial images on Petri dishes, often practicing their sketches on paper first. Adapting a version of the KB test, they added a range of household items to their Petri dishes and observed the antibiotic effects on bacterial growth the following day. Students then converted digital photographs of their Petri dishes into stencils, which were cut on a vinyl cutter. Students transferred vinyl stencils onto screenprinting screens and printed these images onto paper, fabric, and wood.
Seven students (four male, three female) enrolled in the class; all of them were initially unfamiliar with the biology procedures, digital tools, and fine-arts techniques presented in our course. We obtained permission from parents and students to audio-record our classes and gather photos and videos. We transcribed select aspects of the classes and documented our own in-situ observations at the end of each class. Open coding was applied to relevant portions of the documentation. Open codes were then grouped into themes, which were affinity diagrammed to reveal: 1) how drawing together materials from biology, fine arts, and digital design shaped studio practice; and 2) how work with the hybrid artifacts engaged participants with matters of concern.
Drawing together. The activities that did not involve direct manipulation of bacteria—discussions, sketching, screenprinting—embraced traditional design-studio principles. Students worked iteratively, freely discussed and critiqued each others’ designs, and had persistent access to various materials, including traditional drawing supplies (markers, paper), digital fabrication tools (Adobe Fireworks on laptops and a vinyl cutter), and screenprinting inks and substrates to print on, including fabrics, wood, and cardstock. The BSL-1 activities themselves were also rather freeform, as we worked with a range of “paintbrushes”—inoculating loops, swabs, and toothpicks—to draw with pigmented bacteria, the antibiotic substances that were brought from home, and two types of antibiotics in our studio (ampicillin powder and amoxicillin disks).
Nevertheless, the nuances of working with biology changed aspects of HCI studio culture. Some materials could not freely mix, certain steps had to happen sequentially, and all BSL-1 activities—streaking bacteria, observing plates, etc.—had to be carefully supervised by the instructors to ensure that proper precautions were taken. This is not unlike how the use of machines such as saws or routers is supervised in fabrication shops. Even so, our activities were more similar to studio practice than traditional biology labwork. Participants fluidly transitioned between representations on different mediums: Drawing together ideas from their paper sketches and the bacterial manifestations of these drawings, they developed digital stencil designs and then screenprinted them onto a range of substrates.
In a sense, we were not drawing with bacteria and screenprinting inks, but rather we—the human and non-human actors—were drawing together.
These material translations led us to reflect on how agency was enacted during our studio practice. In a sense, the final outcome—the screenprinted bioart—was a negotiation between the questions we asked and the digital, analog, and living materials we worked with. Each Petri dish, for instance, was a product of our initial curiosity about the antibiotic properties of an everyday item, our physical manipulation of bacteria and that item on a Petri dish, and the bacterial growth and adaptive response to antibiotic substances. In a sense, we were not drawing with bacteria and screenprinting inks, but rather we—the human and non-human actors—were drawing together. In other words, the bacteria and other materials being worked with played an active role in the design of the final artifacts. This way of incorporating biosensing into studio practice shifted our role in the design process from controlling the outcome of our projects to observing how the outcome was shaped by the active materials. Thus, while some aspects of HCI studio culture had to be changed to accommodate BSL-1 work, the resulting interactions between human and non-human actors generated new situated knowledge. The dead zones where bacterial growth was inhibited by antibiotics on our Petri dishes, which were later translated as negative space on our screenprints, revealed new information about the substances in our environment.
Engaging with issues. We—the researchers and the students—tested a range of items for antibiotic properties, including alcohol wipes, household hand soaps, Neosporin (a topical first-aid product), different brands of adult and children’s toothpaste, dog medicine, ampicillin powder (purchased from a pharmaceutical company), and a disinfecting cleaning product from our lab. Our choice of these items was initially motivated by very practical questions. Is children’s toothpaste as effective as adult brands? Does Neosporin really work? Are cleaning products as effective as advertised?
However, as we developed physical artifacts to represent the observed bacterial growth (or death), we found ourselves engaging with other entangled matters of concern. Does overexposure to antibiotic substances in our environment weaken our immune systems? How does bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, and how does the pharmaceutical industry respond to this threat? Are we, as a society, on a trend toward developing stronger (more toxic?) drugs, overprescribing antibiotics, and ultimately helping create bacteria that are more resistant? Put in Foucault’s terms , are we, in fact, supporting antibiotic resistance through our exercise of medical power? For Foucault, resistance in a political and social sense precedes the use of power and creates a dynamic of multiplicities, whereby different forms of resistance bring about different modes of control. Within the context of microbiology and our own work, we were led to think about the pharmaceutical development and overprescription of different antibiotics that were meant to counter infection, resulting in genetic mutations that rendered bacteria more resistant.
Design studio practice, by definition, is aimed at exploring heterogeneous issues, which often include not only the practical challenges of a project but also its social impacts. By combining biological, digital, and analog materials, our artifacts materialized layers of concerns, from the practical challenges of working with BLS-1 materials in a studio, to the questions we posed about antibiotic substances in our environment, to the bigger issues around public health and the pharmaceutical industry. Through our practice and reflection, we ultimately linked these questions to the dynamics of resistance and power. In our work, power relationships played out on a micro scale, between biological cells and foreign substances in our Petri dishes; on the scale of our studio space, where agency was negotiated between human and non-human actors; and finally, in much larger arenas beyond our immediate control, whereby infectious disease is regulated—and in some cases propagated—by the medical industry.
Working with a multidisciplinary team of engineers, biologists, and artists, I set up a DIYbio design studio for drawing together disparate practices from microbiology, human-computer interaction, and the fine arts. Our physical interactions with biomaterials (living, non-human actors) shaped our design process and revealed new knowledge about the substances in our environment. The artifacts we developed—the screenprinted bioart—materialize deeper concerns around biological agency, resistance, and power. Through this work, I hope to have shown how DIYbio studio practice presents a new way of working and engaging with issues.
1. An Institution for the Do-It-Yourself Biologist; https://diybio.org/
2. Blevis, B. Lim, Y-k., Stolterman, E., Vetting Wolf, T., and Sato, K. 2007. Supporting design studio culture in HCI. Proc. of CHI ‘07 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2007, 2821–2824.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) 5th Edition; http://www.cdc.gov/biosafety/publications/bmbl5/
Stacey Kuznetsov is an assistant professor at ASU. She leads the Social and Digital Systems Group (SANDS; https://sandsystems.org/), a transdisciplinary design studio and DIY biology lab. Through materially oriented inquiry her work examines how people participate in science beyond professional settings. Drawing on methods from HCI, engineering, speculative design, and philosophy of technology, her projects develop and deploy sociotechnical interventions to support creative science work in contexts such as hackspaces and art studios. firstname.lastname@example.org
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