“BioClub” which started activities from 2016 based at MTRL in Shibuya, Tokyo, is a community that opens up Biotechnology skills and knowledge to the outside world and thinks together with experts. The operator Ms. Chiaki Ishizuka wants to spread interest in “Bio” which is inseparable from human beings, as a technology for learning about oneself. For this interview, I asked about BioClub’s activities and the significance of transmitting their activities through Loftwork.
Spread knowledge about Biotechnology
── First of all, could you tell me about BioClub’s activities and Ms. Ishizuka’s role?
BioClub is an open community for everyone interested in Biotechnology. We hold workshops and bigger events where we invite guests, and we also hold open meetings where anyone can participate, once a week. I am involved in the management, and in considering the management policy, I am very interested in what kind of participants gather at the event and what they are seeking. Also, people that I met while sharing what I learned through working with Biotechnology, sometimes become involved in the planning of BioClub. And ideas I get from there, also become useful in the production of the work …which is like a feedback loop.
── Who is participating in the open meetings?
In addition to Georg Tremmel of BCL which is the founder and I, who is an operator, I am also engaged in writership, and at first there were many artists in the participants. At this time there are no knowledge of bio and science, but who wants to make use of such knowledge and viewpoint in the future in the future. However, recently, there are students and some housewives, as well as architects, stakeholders, people who are interested in food.
── Will people who have not studied chemistry or Biology professionally, also be able to do tissue culture etc., if they are taught?
What is needed is not a good sense or experience, but knowledge. It is important to observe phenomena and deepen your knowledge. BioClub gives lectures little by little according to the interests of the participants, so you can acquire knowledge while still being able to enjoy it.
── What is unique about BioClub?
If the role of biotechnology research is to create experimental methods to study the unknown more deeply, then I think that this laboratory is unique in that it does not make such a purpose it’s primary objective.
Enabling you to experience the connection between biotechnology and yourself
── I heard that there is a trend of establishing labs outside of universities and specialized institutions, just like BioClub, that is occurring both in Japan and abroad.
I think that demand for outdoor laboratory like BioClub is rising. Of course, compliance with bioethics and security management are essential to every laboratory, and it is certain that high-level experiments can be performed because professional organizations have accumulated knowledge and state-of-the-art equipment. However, amateur’s unique ideas are also being sought, and domestic experts also wonder if there is more to do outside the specialized institution.
While domestic private institutions are still a small number of BioClub and YCAM laboratories, overseas, people with expertise in science firmly work to create laboratories where citizens can also participate, create a companyized organization Movement is going on. Because of problems such as security, it is very difficult to create soil that will do biological things from a new perspective.
── Speaking to experts, when do you feel that there is a demand for BioClub?
By giving a kind of bacteria called “root nodule bacteria” to plants, it makes the plants grow well without agricultural chemicals. I heard that there is a company that has studied this for a long time, but it is difficult for them to think about how to commercialize and sell it because their hands are full with the research.
In such a case, I think that people in a position like me can become an intermediary between the experts and the public. For example, if you compare how “root nodule bacteria” works to how yogurt works, don’t you feel closer to it? By doing a little translating like this, it seems to be more familiar even if I have never studied biotechnology.
── When hearing the word biotechnology, you may think of shocking images such as a Bio/Art piece on the subject of genetic manipulation, but if you listen to that story, it makes it easier to grasp and more relatable.
It is a difference in method when you want to get rid of the wall between bio and general. I think that the “tactics” of speculative art is the idea of trying to look back on people with shock and get rid of the walls.
I think that individuals want to find connections with bio from the senses and experiences of individuals. Like when you put another creature (= microorganism) in your body, what it wants and how you can make a good relationship. For example, if you warm your stomach and that creature gets cheerful, it may affect daily fashion as well. I think if it can come into contact with the bio in such way, it will become more interesting.
There is no person to whom biotechnology is irrelevant
── Loftwork is a creative agency, not a company specializing in biological research, so how does “Biotechnology” become tied together?
It is not just researchers that have something to do with biotechnology. There are roughly three categories of “Biotechnology,” medical, pharmaceutical, and agriculture (food). Each one is directly related to our life. No one is irrelevant. Therefore, I think that it is meaningful to deepen interest in biotechnology regardless of your occupation, whether you are a director or a creator.
── Do you have any ways of interacting with biotechnology that is unique to Loftwork?
I think that how we move projects at Loftwork is like a living organism. It is not a centralized structure that moves according to the direction of the leader, but it has a very organic movement where projects are created as a result of taking actions with the client, starting from scratch.
── What does it mean to say that the way the project moves is organic?
I heard about how to correct the trajectory when the project does not progress well. If you can compare it with the human body, the brain does not issue orders to the whole, but rather in the skin, the cells gather and transmit information, and each movement is different and it is established.
For example, we are exposed to ultraviolet rays every day, but if we think about medicine from the viewpoint of “Do not make it absolutely cancerous”, it will be painful to go to an extreme direction or to spend the whole time in the shelter I will. In fact, however, the cell is momentarily opposed to ultraviolet rays and has the power to self repair. In that way, when proceeding with the project, it flexibly moves and complements it on the spot. It is very living thing. It is organic.
── If you learn more about biology, it seems you may be able to make use of it for communication in the organization too.
That’s right, there is no rule that says life stays in the same state and does not change forever.
If you think in that way, you can be released from a fixed mindset, so even if you hit a wall, you can take it more easily without getting frustrated. I became able to just accept various things, without thinking over “why would someone say such a thing” (laughs).
Technology to learn about and face yourself
── So it has become possible for you to accept that there are things moving in a different dimension from human knowledge?
Yes. I think that biotechnology is a technology for learning about yourself. Human technology is not always keeping up with natural phenomena. We can not make one cell yet to satisfaction.
── Certainly, there is no technology to create a complete life form yet.
At the forefront of biotechnology, there is a coexistence of debates about how to control existing systems and use them industrially, along with a desperate desire to create human being-like life out of raw materials.
The workshop to create protocells is like that. The one where you design chemical substances that behave like cells. It is trying to make life-like things that move or divide by itself out of non-substance inside an aqueous solution mixed with a surfactant. It surprises me when I see them moving, and it makes me scared.
We do not have an easy to understand purpose like making money. We just make it because we just want to know. It is not at the level of making a robot move, and it seems to me that any argument about whether it is art, or how to classify it is irrelevant.
Rather than doing that, we can hear more interesting ideas if everyone sees it faster and talks about “What’s going on?” and it’s simply more fun too. I think we are doing BioClub because we can have such encounters.
── What kind of things do you want to do with BioClub going forward?
It would be nice if we could work with Asian artists groups such as Lifepatch, who are planning a project to learn about biological things using fermented foods through their workshops. BioClub is now a place where overseas artists interested in biotechnology come by, and artists in residences are planned in the future. In addition to increasing staff on the administration side who have knowledge about bioethics and law, we want to make the movement more active by sharing strengths, knowledge, and information, with places such as Iwasaki Hideo laboratory of Waseda University and YCAM’s Biotechnology laboratory.
Biology is something that can not be separated from everyday life. It relates to your own bodies such as a fast or slow heart rate, or menstrual cycle. There is nothing to lose by learning.
Separate from the idea of health-consciousness and health-geeks, by gaining a method to calmly capture facts through knowledge of biology, you get the value of being properly in touch with your own body. I would be happy if there were more people that can share such a philosophy. More than anything, I hope that “Biotechnology” will become more popular through this activity and become accepted as a culture.