As researchers trickled out of UC San Francisco’s Genentech Hall on a warm, windless evening this week, assorted visitors with stylish glasses and prettier footwear made their way against the flow and into the building’s marble atrium.
The nearby California College of the Arts and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, almost universally referred to as CCA and QB3 respectively, invited these visitors to talk about the interplay between art and design and cutting edge life sciences.
Imagine photographs produced by bacteria instead of film: is it art, or science?
Chris Voigt, an associate professor in several life sciences departments at UCSF, explained how researchers in his lab reprogrammed bacteria to print photos by mixing and matching genetic tidbits from various organisms across the living world.
Massive leaps in our ability to decode and manufacture DNA have provided scientists with an ever-growing toolkit of biological functions to dip into and apply in new arrangements. “The kingdom of life is our toybox or toolbox,” Voigt said.
Using computer programming logic, Voigt’s lab went a step further than simple photographic bacteria responding to light or dark conditions. Could the bacteria be programmed to perform a task, like detecting and marking a border between light and dark? Each bacteria would undergo a series of self tests, is it near the light: if yes, do nothing and go to step 2. Is it near the light, and near the dark? If yes, make pigment. Otherwise, do nothing.
It sounds simple (at least from a programming standpoint), but getting biomolecules to line up and execute this type of test within the elaborate chemical environment of a cell? Nope. It’s complex and delicate, perhaps sharing traits with the design projects executed across the train tracks from UCSF’s Mission Bay campus at the California College of the Arts.
Lucas Ainsworth, a B.F.A. student at the college, talked to the audience of perhaps 100 about the mental process behind engineering a mechanical toy from flat cardboard. Pushing the limits of a material known best for UPS packaging and apple boxes, Ainsworth wanted a nondurable product that could be assembled by the consumer and had a “paper asthetic.”
So he turned to a pattern used in Theo Jansen’s famous walking sculptures and came up with an elephant in 12 parts that can be assembled.
Adam Gazzeley, a neuroscience professor at UCSF, showed how his lab developed video games that train memory. The project incorporates video game designers and everything we know about cognitive brain training.
Gazzeley said the scientists were at odds with the game designers when it came to the level of fun allowed. Complex games are more fun, but any game used in research has to be simple enough to track brain behavior.
“So we have these incredible debates, ending on medium fun,” Gazzeley said.
The final speaker was Thom Faulders, an associate architecture professor at CCA. He talked about the thought process behind several projects, perhaps most noteworthy, a constantly-growing sculptural façade of ocean water mineral deposits that create a “vibrant, white surface.” Proposed for Dubai, the project would pipe highly saline Persian Gulf water onto the structure’s surface, leaving an ever-growing salt deposit skin.
QB3’s director, Regis Kelly, first thought of the idea of mixing up Mission Bay’s artists and scientists at a dinner with CCA’s president, Steven Beale. “I had thought about art as a decorative function,” Kelly said. That viewpoint changed when he saw some of the projects that art, architecture, and design students were constructing a few blocks from UCSF and QB3 at the art college’s San Francisco campus off 16th Street.
Kelly said he hoped Mission Bay would become a “hotbed of innovation of all sorts, independent of context.”