Death on Mars
Most people think science and design are two very different disciplines. But when you combine them, all kinds of amazing things can happen.
Fresh off the back of winning Most Outstanding Presentation at the New York City Biodesign Challenge Summit, students Amanda Han, Bronwyn Hallis and Charles Yuncken take some time out of their hectic schedules to explain their project Death on Mars and why biodesign is changing the course of our future.
What exactly is Death on Mars?
Brownyn: Death on Mars is a narrative about what happens when life on Mars dies.
Amanda: It’s an interdisciplinary project involving three design students – Bronwyn, Charles and myself – who have backgrounds in visual communication and fashion. It started out as a class project where we wanted to engage with synthetic biology as a tool for sustaining human life on Mars in the year 2130.
Since humans need more than just food, water and oxygen to lead a productive and fulfilled life, we wanted to examine how synthetic biology could be used to sustain us emotionally when confronted with experiences of death and grief. We designed a memorial plant that allows Martians to preserve memories of their loved ones in a synthetic chromosome by converting their digital data (1s and 0s) into genetic code (As, Cs, Ts, Gs – the four molecules of our DNA strands). The memorial plant becomes a vessel for the memory of deceased Martians so that their connection to Martian society lives on literally.
Tell us about the class that lead to Death on Mars.
Charlie: The project was part of the Biodesign Challenge class. The Biodesign course was an interdisciplinary subject, offered to design students. The class had to design ways that synthetic biology can sustain life on Mars, and we came up with our design by asking how death practices could be practical in a Martian society where resources are so scarce. We spent nine weeks in class creating our solutions, under the guidance of our lecturers Jestin George, Briardo Llorente and Mark Liu. Then our team competed against a number of other amazing teams from the same class.
Getting to the Biodesign Summit is quite a feat in itself. What was that process like?
Charlie: All UTS groups presented their projects at the end of the semester to design and science faculty leaders, and then were selected to go to New York for the presentations. It was quite a fun process, everyone was in good spirits and there was a great class atmosphere (but from the start of the semester there were definitely some competitive vibes developing – we called our group New York!).
Bronwyn: There were five teams and we each did a practice presentation in front of panels and tutors. They deliberated after all presentations were completed and apparently the decision was unanimous!
Amanda: The process was also highly iterative as we refined the presentation – the graphics and the speech – multiple times after the subject officially concluded. We had incredible support from our tutors and collaborating with them on the project gave rise to many interesting conversations such as the importance of language in communicating design ideas without compromising on scientific accuracy.
Why did you want to enter the Biodesign Challenge?
Charlie: The main reason I wanted to be a part of it was because I believe there is incredible potential for synthetic biology to have a really big impact on the world.
Amanda: The Biodesign Challenge offered us an alternative way of creating that collaborates with organisms to imagine other ways of living. As a generation of emerging designers next in line to inherit the Earth, we urgently need to reconsider the sustainability of existing practices, dismantle systems that are broken and propose systemic changes that not only remedy impacts that have been harmful, but prevent them altogether.
Tell us about your experience in New York, in and out of the summit.
Charlie: Our main focus of attention was on giving the best presentation that we could. But every now and then one of us would look up and see the Empire State Building or a yellow cab and go, “Hey everyone, we’re in New York!”.
Amanda: We really did, and it was awesome. But the first several days in New York were spent finalising the preparation and preparing for our installation at Parsons School of Design where we did our final presentation. That was followed by the two-day biodesign summit where teams from different universities around the world presented, guest speakers shared advice and judges networked with students. The awards were announced on the last day at the New York Museum of Modern Art. To celebrate, we had drinks and some of us snuck in a visit to the world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, before flying off the next day.
What's the most unexpected thing this experience has taught you?
Charlie: That’s a hard question because the whole experience was surreal. I guess the most unexpected thing I learned was some of the bizarre normalities of scientific publishing. I know that sounds pretty boring, but no one publishes non-findings! So when someone experiments on a hypothesis and it turns out not to be true, then it doesn’t get published! That’s crazy to me because as a designer you learn from iteration, from your own and other peoples’ mistakes.
What are your top tips for students who want to pursue biodesign in the future?
Amanda: Firstly, don’t abandon your own design practice when working with new knowledge and materials. It’s easy to forget that your role is the designer, not the scientist. The balance between design and science is delicate and if you’re having difficulty advancing your ideas it’s probably due to an imbalance between the two.
Secondly, think beyond ‘the challenge’. You can start your biodesign journey now by exposing yourself to the work of existing practitioners, such as those in the Spectra exhibition in the UTS gallery, or check out all the 2019 UTS biodesign projects.
Charlie: Get used to knowing that you don’t know. Read as much as you can, the more you read, the better questions you can start to ask. Find ways to apply your own practice to new disciplines or ways of thinking. Always try to be aware of the system that you are working within, and how your work functions in that system.
Bronwyn: Have fun, think laterally, put in the hard yards and it will pay off. And even if you don’t get selected as a finalist, you can go along anyway to assist the team and watch the event. It’s incredibly inspiring.
How do you think your design backgrounds helped you to succeed?
Amanda: Our design backgrounds gave us the licence to speculate with the technology and scientific knowledge our tutors exposed us to. I think our common perspective that design disciplines should never be studied in isolation was more critical to our success than our design disciplines themselves as it made us more receptive to alternative ways of making and willing to work with ideas that we had virtually no prior knowledge of.
Charlie: The main strength we had was our ability to communicate complicated scientific processes simply. That’s because we weren’t scientists, we were designers.
What was the strangest or most interesting part of your project?
Amanda: The technology needed to make the memorial plant already exists today! It is exciting to think that our speculative design is feasible and it is interesting for the project to exist on this site of tension.
Charlie: Our project ended up going to such a strange place that I found people’s reactions to it the most interesting part of the journey. I’ve loved giving people a one sentence pitch and seeing how they react. “We’re encoding plants with the data of memories of deceased Martian people.” We’re dealing with very human experiences; death, grief and memory. And we’re relocating them into a very foreign context, so the responses we get from people gives us really fascinating insights.
What's next for the Death on Mars team?
Charlie: We’re taking the project further in a number of ways. We’re looking to present at Science Week, and finding different ways to develop and exhibit the work in new ways. We want to bring audiences in to engage with these ideas.
Bronwyn: We are also working towards getting our work published in a book, entering different competitions, and perhaps some artist residencies etc. A very unexpected and cool result of being involved.
Amanda: The ultimate goal would be to establish a formal biodesign community here in Sydney to create a space for emerging biodesigners to practice and contribute to the field right here in Australia.