Neri Oxman on Her Extraordinary Visions for the “Biological Age”
Neri Oxman is simultaneously a hardcore ecologist, evocative futurist, meticulous artist, and abstract scientist. The 43-year-old Israeli-American designer, architect, inventor, and MIT Media Lab professor embodies the same dualities that her work hinges upon. Oxman’s multifarious projects transcend the digital age; instead, she’s pioneering the “Biological Age” through “material ecology,” which fuses biology and technology, nature and culture, and the grown and made. Among her works are energy-generating photosynthetic wearables, a geometric dome spun by a robotic arm and completed by a swarm of silkworms, and sinewy masks modeled, in part, after the wearer’s own anatomical and physiological makeup—projects as functional and ideologically ambitious as they are beautiful.
Outstanding in their aesthetic rigor, Oxman’s brainchildren have caught the attention of leading museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. This fall, she will receive SFMOMA’s 2019 Contemporary Vision Award, and her next exhibition, “Material Ecology” at MoMA (on view from Feb. 22 to May 25, 2020), organized by Paola Antonelli and Anna Burckhardt, will present eight works from throughout her 20-year career—most notably an updated version of “Totems,” an array of vehicles for synthetically engineered melanin that debuted earlier this year in the Antonelli-curated “Broken Nature” exhibition at the Triennale in Milan.
Having pursued architecture after dropping out of medical school, Oxman went on to study at the Architectural Association in London and, later, at MIT, where after earning a Ph.D. she stayed on to become a professor and now leads the pathbreaking Mediated Matter group. On this episode of Time Sensitive, Oxman and Spencer Bailey delve into motherhood, “fossils of the future,” robotic queen bees, death masks, and more.
Oxman discusses the challenges she faced during the birthing of her daughter this past spring, the unbridled joy she’s found in becoming a mother, and the importance of looking to the past, present, and future all at once and constantly.
Oxman explains the “Biological Age,” a period she argues we’re now entering (after the digital age). She also talks about Mediated Matter group’s “wet lab” at MIT, where she and her colleagues work on a wide range of interdisciplinary projects.
Bailey asks Oxman about “material ecology,” a concept she’s been pioneering for more than a decade. The two also explore the Mediated Matter group’s platform-driven approach—or, as Oxman puts it, “the three ‘Ps’: the product, the process, and the policy.”
Oxman details her lab’s interest in—and work with—bees, speaking about her “Maiden Flight” and “Synthetic Apiary” projects specifically; gets into her “Vespers” death masks series; and looks back at her upbringing in Israel and path to MIT.
Oxman opines on her passion for Fellini films and Beethoven symphonies, describes her awe of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting, and reveals how a chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired her and a team member to start a particular project.
SPENCER BAILEY: Neri, welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s great to have you here today.
NERI OXMAN: Thank you for having me.
SB: There are so many different ways we could start. I think it’s worth beginning this conversation, though, by mentioning that we had to reschedule twice. [Laughs]
SB: The first time was because you gave birth [this past spring]. So you’re a mother now.
NO: I am. I have a three-month-old at home, waiting to be breastfed exactly in two hours from now.
NO: The second was the storm [in the New York City metropolitan area on July 22 and 23]—
SB: And the second time was the storm.
SB: I couldn’t help but smile in thinking about this, because, if you think about both of these things in the context of your work, this notion of birth—and your work has so much to do with birth, life, death, and also this notion of weather—
SB: —of weather patterns, of nature, of climate change, the climate crisis. These are issues you’re really unpacking in your work. [Laughs]
NO: That’s true. It’s funny, ironic, and complex. And it’s interesting that these are, still, the two—or three, including death—three things we still can’t design or rationalize perfectly, or create models for, is weather engineering and birth. These are probably the two single things we can’t design and entirely rationalize.
NO: Either through biological engineering or geoengineering, right?
NO: And yes, the questions relating to “How do we recreate nature? How do we approach nature at a time of crisis? How do we augment nature? How do we fix nature?” are all related to these bigger issues of life and death and the stormy weather. And I thought, Oh, Spencer, I have to cancel again!
NO: This is totally Shakespearean, right? A tale of cancelling, because of life, death, and weather.
SB: Yeah. [Laughs]
NO: So I’m super happy to be here and to talk about just that.
SB: Yeah. I think it’d be great to start on motherhood.
SB: How does it feel to be a mother?
NO: Motherhood is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my entire life. I remember, it was about two weeks ago, we went for a test and the first shots. I remember thinking—we received those documents that I had to fill out, asking me questions about depression and postpartum depression, and how depressed I feel. I looked at the doctor, and I said, “I’m the joyest, happiest woman I have ever been, so this is sort of irrelevant, to answer this questionnaire.”
It is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life. It is awe-inspiring, it is eye-opening. And it invites so much perspective into life and into work.
This morning, as I was training, I was thinking—I was with a friend, and he had mentioned how he had a friend who said when she was a mother the years seemed so short, and yet the days seemed so long. This notion that everything happens so, so, so quickly. The baby’s already three months, she’s already smiling, she’s growing so quickly. And yet, there’s also a slowness. And the beauty in that kind of duality of the slow and the fast of time at once, I’ve never experienced that, and that’s definitely very, very special.
The other thing I’ve noticed is this beautiful line: “I love her more than evolution requires.” [Editor’s note: Oxman sent an email after recording the interview to clarify that “more than evolution requires” is a reference, credited to Catherine Bly Cox, from a May 2019 David Brooks column in The New York Times.] I love Raika more than evolution requires. My connection with her is one that I cannot explain through naturalist means or philosophies. It’s beyond, beyond—beyond anything that is materially, physically, and otherwise rationally explained. And it’s very humbling in that respect.
SB: How do you think about birth now?
NO: I think … [takes a breath, lightly laughing] … very literally. I went through a forty-eight-hour labor. I was expecting an entirely natural birth. I came to the hospital and said, “Epidural? Hmm, no way! That’s not me, I don’t need epidural, I don’t need Pitocin, I can labor here outside in the park if I had to—”
SB: “I got this.” [Laughs]
NO: “Give me the woods! Yes, I can do it in the woods!” And I ended up with a C-section. It was one of these grounding experiences of feeling so connected and at once taken by fate—or not fate, but rather the circumstances of the size of my body relative to this big, beautiful baby.
NO: And coming to terms in a matter of seconds. It was, again, a very humbling experience. I had a bountiful collection of images as I was laboring; and all of these sort of helped me through these almost two days of labor, until I had to enter the operating room. So it’s humbling to think that two hundred years ago I wouldn’t be here, had we not had technology. And that relationship with, on the one hand, “I will give birth in the woods,” and on the other hand, the relevance and humbling experience of being in the operating room with my doctor and going through the operation, was, again, this kind of messy whole of embracing technology and the love for nature as it is, at the same time.
SB: It’s so fascinating hearing you describe birth in these terms, because it almost sounds like you’re describing your own work, your own process as a designer. Which often, in terms of the work you do, has a lot to do with letting go. Just kind of letting things evolve, letting things go where they will.
NO: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think I excel at that. I think I excel at being in the present as opposed to—or I would say it differently. I would say that part of being able to enter that state of flow is, I think, related to our ability or inability to be at once reflective and projective at the same time. To look back while looking at the future. But, I think, also, if we sort of put ourselves into a modality where we are doing either, we lose connection with the present.
I think of time—and just the title of your show, Time Sensitive—as a non-linear media. But rather one that can be experienced at once—all times at once. And many of our projects, and many of our works are, I think, linked to that concept of time. We start a project by looking to the far, far past. And I don’t mean two years ago; I mean two hundred thousand years ago. Pre-human. And we project to the future, and again, not five or ten years ago, but two hundred years forward, at least. So we take a very, very broad chunk of time when we start a project, and when we look at a particular material and its relationship to the environment.
SB: You’ve described this moment we’re in as the “Biological Age”—could you define that for the listeners? What is the “Biological Age?”
NO: I think we’re sort of used to this prehistoric division of times in a triage, right? That is defined by materials, actually, and was divisible by three, was defined in the nineteenth century, and focused on these two timescales. It was the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. It’s interesting that these material epochs were defined by a very physical means, and effectively by the table of the elements. And since then, since this division of time—and I think this was during the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century, right? The Nordic Museum of Antiquities [which was abolished in 1891; it is now the National Museum of Denmark] came up with this need to retroactively understand time by associating it with a particular material or material substance on the table of the elements, and that, whether it was stone or bronze or iron, came to define who we are.
To think of the table of the elements as a representational format that defines humanity is interesting, especially in the context of where we are today. Which is post the first industrial revolution, the digital age—and what we’re about to enter into now, which I like to think of as the “Biological Age.” A time where we’re sort of past the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution. We’re past representation of the humanities through the table of the elements. We’re entering representation, or we’ve sort of exited the representation of humanity through, I’d say, a kind of binary worldview: the digital revolution, the ones and the zeros that define who we are and how—by connecting humanity to all that relates to the binary space and the digital domains—and now we’re entering the biological domain. I would say, from the 117 elements in the table of the elements, to a two-bit worldview, to a four-base-pair worldview that defines the human genome—the A, C, T, and G in humans and otherwise all other species. We’ve sort of shifted from these two representations into this new representation of the biological.
The Biological Age is an age where we have disassociated ourselves from physical materials as the single-defining element of our existence in the universe. And, of course, various elements of our existence, whether through storytelling or biodigital and synthetic engineering, can be defined through the computer and the pipette. I think one of the challenges that we have as designers today is that we were used to the drafting board. We were used to working with—and this is true for designers, creators, makers, engineers, scientists—but as creators of the physical environment, we were used to having the drafting board or the computer in the digital age, and now, in the Biological Age, we have a wet lab. In my lab, we actually do have, I believe, the first BL2 [or Biosafety Level 2] wet lab where we run all of the biological experiments, synthetic biology experiments—
NO: That’s correct. So, as part of the resources that we’ve developed over the years, we have, of course, our classical tools that we’ve inherited from the past, and then we have a wet lab where our biologists and engineers but also our designers and architects will often inhabit and work on our biological experiments.
SB: So what does “wet lab” mean, exactly? [Laughs]
NO: A wet lab is a biological lab—a lab where you can experiment with not dry media, but wet media. Life. Water instead of silicon. And air instead of carbon, or rather lots of carbon and air and water.
I like to think of it as a kind of almost the opposite of the royal menagerie of the 18th century, a collection of friends who end up in our works and cohabitate our projects while also help us co-fabricating our projects. They are our partners in crime, both in process and in product. And these organisms range from bacteria to silkworms to bees, so across the six kingdoms of life; at any single moment, we have around twenty or so organisms at the wet lab that we’re working with.
SB: They’re like biological jewels.
NO: Again, we think of this lab as a cabinet of curiosities, where we don’t necessarily go to solve a problem, but we go to explore and experiment.
SB: Mmm. Earlier, you mentioned the Industrial Revolution, and, of course, in the context of time, that really is the period that created modern time as we know it. It was the train schedules, and wanting to make sure that people would be on the train tracks so they could get on the train at the right time, that the modern sort of clock and timekeeping was created. Then, after that, of course, we had global time structured. So now, in this Biological Age, do you think we’re going to see a shift in how we think about time? Specifically, I’m thinking about industrial time—time as most of us who were born in the twentieth century understand it to be.
NO: Interesting. I remember coming back from Tokyo and asking—I was taking the train, actually. A very, very old man, whom I asked for the time, he said, “You have the watch, but I have the time.”
NO: And that stayed with me. We have all of these tools and technologies for bookkeeping and timekeeping, and again, they exist in the world as tools or technologies that emulate a way of understanding the world—a way of reading the world. And, of course, in the Western world, we think in terms of years and months and weeks and days and hours, but in Far Eastern traditions and elsewhere in the world, and even just the process of giving birth was all associated with the moon. I can’t tell you how much I’ve heard about the moon: “Are you giving birth in the early phase of the moon, the late phase of the moon?”
Interestingly, when you look at the evolution of the human species, you discover that, at that time, historically, when we were still hunters and gatherers, the women would end up giving birth at nighttime, when it was quiet and they felt protected. Not during the daytime, when they had to fight the elements. And when they were protected, the hunters in the tribe were next to them, were not outside hunting for food. It’s interesting how this has been preserved. And statistically—
SB: There’s a clock within our body despite the fact that we’ve been run for so long by these industrial clocks.
NO: And still, there is something to be said about nature versus nurture that is still within us, and the clock that has kept going since, whatever, two hundred thousand years ago, when we first were introduced to this universe. Or evolved into it.
My thoughts about time are complex, not straightforward. I think, also, it is humbling to work with organisms that existed on the planet billions of years ago. So the cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are bacteria that existed on the planet, and I can’t recall the exact number, I think 2.3 billion years ago. Something like that, might be more. And there were different types of those. But they existed in freshwater ponds, and they were one of the first organisms to enable photosynthesis after the great oxygenation event on the planet. So, to convert light into sugar and produce energy. And here we are, doing just that, on so many levels and scales within our body.
I think part of creating in today’s world, in the Biological Age, demands of us to be humble and to listen to, to understand, and to tune in to these really, really wise creatures of the past. Completely different understanding of time and how time is utilized.
For example, in “Wanderers,” when we worked on “Wanderers,” one of the physical embodiments of that project was “Mushtari,” which was a wearable digestive system, if you may, that was additively manufactured as a single tube fifty-nine meters long. It was sort of folded onto the body and varied in diameter, and the goal was to create sugar cubes by way of exposing the body to the sun and ending up with sugar cubes in the pockets of this wearable digestive system. The process included, of course, the design of the quote unquote “container”; and then the infusion of these organisms, including the cyanobacteria, to convert light into sugar; and then to create edible sugar out of this sugar, saccharine sugar, or actually energy, ATP [adenosine triphosphate], that is edible. If you think about it, you have a sort of wearable pseudo-bioreactor that contains a three-or-four-billion-year-old organism that is genetically engineered and designed to convert light into sugar and sugar into its edible form. I mean, by hacking its DNA, by hacking its genome. When you think about time and how time is compressed into this single moment, when the human or the user takes on the sugar, consumes this portion of energy, and to think about what are the inputs that went into making this energy—this is incredibly overwhelming.
SB: These sort of physical manifestations of time.
NO: Yeah. I like to think of them as sort of “fossils of the future.” Instead of fossils that look at the past and tell the story or the narrative of past times, we’re creating these objects or works that narrate or project the future of time. So I think of them as fossils of the future.
SB: Early on in your career—and especially in your work at MIT—you came up with this idea of “material ecology.” Could you kind of put that into layman’s terms? [Laughs]
NO: Sure, of course. Material ecology, very simply put, is taking the field of ecology as we know it and applying it to the artificial world. And that’s it. Very, very simple.
Just to open it up a little bit, we know ecology and the field of ecological science is one that relates to the relationships between humans and other humans, or humans and other organisms, and organisms and their relationship with their environment. In material ecology, you take these networks of relationships between organisms and their environment, and you place anything created by men and women—anything that’s human-made; anything that might be considered artificial; that has not been naturally grown, but rather woman-made—in that context. So then every product and every consumable object that you can think of, whether it’s the furniture that we use, cutlery, the buildings that we have and inhabit, the cities that we build, the wearables that we construct—they’re all part of an ecology. For good and bad, right?
So, for example, with “Wanderers,” again—and we can also talk about the death masks, because they’ve sort of been designed as life masks rather—but with all of these wearable time capsules, in a way, we’ve explored the relationship between the human body … I would say between the physical, the digital, and the biological. Again, bringing together these three representational domains: the physical—the table of the elements, the material world; the digital—the two-bit worldview, all things that can be computationally grown and encoded; and the biological—the four-base-pair worldview, anything that can be naturally and synthetically grown but using biological means. And when you bring those three domains together—the physical, the digital, and the biological—then you lose track of time. Then you start mixing between materials that are made and materials that are grown. You start bringing together organisms inside a wearable and developing a relationship between the wearable and the body, and therefore augmenting some kind of relationship between the body and the building, and therefore augmenting another relationship between the building and the city.
When you stop thinking about what you create as a product, or a single object of desire that exists outside the context of its environment, then you lose touch with material ecology. But when you’re thinking about the product in the context of the body, in the context of the building, in the context of the city, then you are starting to look at relationships of a much bigger system as part of the design brief. And so the wearable digestive system is not only an object, per se, but it is connected with the human body. It filters toxins from the body. It potentially creates vitamins that are ingested by the body. It perhaps connects with the building or the physical environment, which the body inhabits. It perhaps augments an immune system on the building scale that affects how we read energy on the urban scale.
I like to think of material ecology as a field that is governed by relationships between the natural and the artificial. And, of course, we enter this ambivalent territory of what is natural and what is artificial in the age of synthetic biology. And, indeed, the Turing test of material ecology—sort of the A.I. success story of material ecology—would be one where you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between what is man-made, woman-made, and what is naturally grown. And at this moment in time, I think of it as a material singularity. At this material-singularity moment, where you cannot differentiate between what is built and what is grown, is where material ecology will become like the weather.
NO: So that’s it, basically. And then, unfolding all these relationships between the physical, the biological, and the digital, and enabling creators, whether it be designers, architects, engineers, innovators, technologists, to embrace that duality between nature-grown and man-made or woman-grown is sort of the art behind the field.
SB: It’s so fascinating to hear you say this, because these are ideas that Andrew and I, in building The Slowdown—which, of course, is sort of the home for this podcast, Time Sensitive—is all about culture, nature, and the future.
SB: And you’re talking about the physical, the digital, the biological. It’s almost like another way of saying “culture, nature, future.”
NO: And it is culture, nature, future. Because, if you think about it, the realm of—we tend to separate between those two, as the nature and the nurtured, the biological and the technological, nature and culture, grown and built. When, in fact, we’re now entering this age that we call the Biological Age, where we can genetically engineer an organ. We can genetically engineer an organism, and we can program it to function in a certain way. We can engineer it to sequester carbon. We can engineer it to generate energy. We can engineer it to signal a change in weather, a change in humidity. And so all of these, when put together, make those boundaries almost inexistent—not existent—those boundaries between nature and culture, between biology and technology. These are really interesting moments for me and for my team, as designers, that we enjoy inhabiting.
I think this is a time—this is the age—in which we cannot separate between the two. And, look, with the sixth extinction coming up soon, and the human species—what I want to say is, in the context, in the grand context of things, in the 4.5-billion-year context of things as opposed to the two-hundred-thousand-year context or the last-twenty-year context, when you think of this wide, wide range, and when you think about evolution in the course of 4.5 billion years, it becomes totally, totally humbling to think about culture and human culture—and “What is human culture?” and “What is cultural production?”—in this context.
Our latest project was called “Totems,” and it will also—a new and improved version will be shown at MoMA in 2020.
SB: This is the one that’s currently on view in the Triennale in Milan. [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on Aug. 1, 2019; the “Broken Nature” exhibition featuring an iteration of Oxman’s “Totems” project closed on Sept. 1, 2019.]
NO: Yes! And “Totems” was just about that. “Totems” started where the death masks ended. And “Vespers,” the death masks, were one of many of our explorations into how to create a living product—a product that is alive. And whether it’s a product for a wearable product or a building, we don’t really care. What we cared about was creating processes and the technologies that would enable us to design products and buildings across scales that would embed life.
“Vespers” was that project, and I’m happy to go back to it, but “Vespers,” in its third iteration, the last series—it was made of three series; one, two, and three—we were bringing the masks back to life. In the first series, we’re creating them almost as a prehistoric relic inspired by a cultural symbolic languages. The second is sort of the metamorphosis. And in the third series, we bring the masks back to life. And we’ve developed a process, or a technology, that enabled us to 3-D print with living matter, incorporate microorganisms as part of the printing process, and have them respond to biosignals that are incorporated into the printed media, thereby allowing these microorganisms that have been synthetically engineered—in this case, E. coli—to respond to particular proteins and express the colors of ancient cultures. So Aztecs, for example, these particular signs of the Aztecs. We wanted to arrive at pigmentation that cannot be photoshopped.
NO: We’ve engineered these microorganisms to generate these primitive colors and express them as part of the masks. And when we realized, “Oh, now we have a method that enables us to control the spatial distribution of these pigments, their colors, their expressions, the time of the expression, the duration of the expression. And once we have this map of the relationships between the organism—the engineered organism, the mask, or the wearable—we can very, very carefully and accurately control when we’re expressing these pigments.” Then we said, “Okay, now that we know how to do it with pigments, can we apply the same methodology for the generation of, let’s say, antibiotics? Or can this be used in the, um, not pharmaceutical—”
NO: Cosmoceutical—cosmetics plus pharmaceutical industry. Can this pigmentation be augmented? For example, contain vitamins or chemical substances that can improve or correct certain skin conditions that have occurred because of certain mutations—genetic mutations, that is. And then we start thinking about how to functionalize this platform. Many of the times we start a project, we start a platform. So we think of the project as the three “Ps”: the product, the process, and the policy. We can talk more about this later, but I wanted to get back to “Totems.”
In “Totems,” we realized that we can use the process—the platform that we’ve developed in “Vespers,” in the death-masks project—we can use it in the context of biomedical engineering. For example, to template antibiotics with very, very high spatial resolution of printing. And we can also print melanin. Now, melanin is a very, very interesting substance, because it, of course, exists in all six kingdoms of life, across the planet kingdom, the animal kingdom, bacteria, archaea, and it is considered to be a substance that is incredibly important for the survival of species on our planet. But it existed millions and millions of years ago with the dinosaurs, and it exists today in humans. And ironically, it has been associated, of course, with the notion of race. So the big question that the project asks is: How is it that a substance that has been so biologically constructive has become so societally destructive? That relationship between nature and culture, and between the positive constructive attributes of this innocent substance—melanin—that gives our skin its color, has ended up, in human context, millions and millions of years later, to be identified with a very destructive mode of being in the world and existing in the world. That exploration was, I think, the first time for us where we have entered this complex territory.
SB: You’re really getting into not just cultural, biological issues, but social issues.
NO: Social issues as well, which, of course, are tangential to culture, because they all relate to human—
NO: —what it means to be human and to human existence.
Originally, the project began with an exploration in biodiversity, and what do we do in order to keep biodiversity on planet Earth. And, you know, we’re losing it. In fifty or seventy years, with global warming and climate change, we’re not going to be here. We’re not going to inhabit this planet. It really is up to us to preserve biodiversity on the planet.
The exploration with melanin began with this question of what are those substances on our planet, or in the six kingdoms of life—or seven, depending on how you count—that have remained and have suffered the perils of climate and continue to exist to this day? Melanin is one of them. The project innocently started with this notion that we can extract it from our hair, and we can extract it from horse hair and from dog hair, and we can synthesize it by ourselves in the wet lab; and here’s all the range of colors that we can produce; and here are all the various pigments; and the realization, also, of how incredibly agile and important the attributes of melanin are—for example, in protection from radiation. We know that melanin is probably the most significant substance in our body to protect us from solar radiation, but it also protects us from radiation. And interestingly, at Chernobyl, the mushrooms that have endured the radiation from the events in Chernobyl have remained alive because of the melanin that has been contained within them.
Just thinking about: What does it mean to send melanin to outer space to fight radiation? How can melanin help us inhabit Mars? How can melanin help us protect, even augment, biodiversity on planet Earth? And how can it bring us back to a better state of being, and how we are not only towards ourselves, but how we are towards others in our relationships? This is sort of the point where material ecology stopped being about solely the physical relationships between materials, man-made and biologically grown, and entered this interesting and complex and multidimensional reality that has to do with culture and society.
SB: You mentioned climate change, and I’m just curious, being in the field that you’re in and engaging in the things that you do day to day, it’s obviously dark when you truly understand where things are going. Like, you read, you know, a book like David Wallace Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, and you realize, “Wow, we’re screwed.” [Laughs]
NO: Yeah. Yeah.
SB: Do you have any optimism? Is there a sense that you’re like “We’re screwed, but it’s not too late”?
NO: I do have optimism. One cannot think about birth without death, one cannot think about growth without decay, one cannot think about peril without opportunity. And in our work, especially with—you know, we started with the death masks, and we ended up with a product that enabled us to spatially map antibiotics to relate to tissue engineering. Every project, when it starts with this dark side of life or death or humanity, ends up with possibility. And I don’t see them as separate fates. I don’t see pessimism and optimism as binaries. I think of them rather as synergies. And that kind of pessimism and darkness that you refer to is also exactly what informs and engages and empowers and inspires a sense of opportunity and possibility in our work. So yes, I am optimistic.
SB: Maybe it’s this urgency where innovation happens, where we find—
NO: It absolutely is. I always say the best creative moments happen in darkness, and they happen quietly, and they happen gently. To see the light, you need to have darkness. When you see the first light, the first star, you see the stars in the night sky. This contrast between the darkness and the light, and between the perils of climate change and the possibility of technology in the context of global warming, is a place that my team and I enjoy inhabiting as a group, and that, of course, has to do with our respecting—and I see all these beautiful objects around your office [points to four paleolithic hand axes that Andrew has collected; see the picture at left for reference]—embodying and paying homage to the fossils and paying homage to the past just in the same way in which we’re facing the future.
NO: I’m definitely positive. Whether it is designing for Mars and for space travel, which we take on and have been [doing], and whether it ends up with a project like “Totems,” which looks into increasing, defending, protecting, but also possibly increasing biodiversity on the planet, it always comes with a sense of positive energy and outlook for and of the future.
SB: Yeah. [Pauses] Let’s talk about bees.
SB: [Laughs] A couple projects, “Maiden Flight” and “Synthetic Apiary,” that you’ve done with bees. What have you discovered through these projects? And what is it about bees that you’ve found to be illuminating, fascinating, telling?
NO: Yeah. So, to take a step back, if you think about it, the two best attributes of nature are the ability, on the one hand, to produce materials with extreme sophistication of physical properties—for example, silk. So if you think about silk as a material, it can vary its physical properties as a function of the composition between its two main chemical ingredients, the fibers and the matrix—the fiber and the sericin. And you get a material that is incredibly, incredibly soft and incredibly stiff, hard, strong. So this is one attribute [of nature]: material sophistication.
The other great attribute of nature is communication and the ability to connect and communicate between agents of the same species. Interestingly, if you think about these two attributes as a matrix, an X and a Y, where, let’s say, the Y is material sophistication, the X is communication, at the far end of the X, you have organisms like termites and like bees—organisms that are termed “eusocial,” organisms that communicate very well with each other to build things, whether termite mounds or beehives, that are larger than themselves. They do that by virtue of connecting and communicating with each other; they actually have social orders—the queen, the soldiers or nurses—and there’s an actual social order within the species that augments, that enables the communication. On the other hand, you have material sophistication with organisms like silkworms, which are non-eusocial. They do not connect with each other. In fact, they’re quite egocentric. And their function in the world is to create the silk cocoon, and to metamorphosize and continue their generation. We’re interested in both. In fact, we’re interested in, I would say, the meeting point of these two attributes. In a way, not a termite and not a silkworm, but a silk-mite.
NO: You know, how can you enable organisms that provide and produce materials with such sophistication, like silkworms—how can you enable them to be eusocial in order to also inhabit these incredible communication abilities?
We started with bees because we were interested in eusocial organisms, organisms that are defined by very sophisticated social orders and an ability to connect and communicate to build things that are larger from themselves—how can we learn from them? And can we intervene in that process, as we did with “Silk Pavilion,” to co-fabricate while cohabitating?
the “Synthetic Apiary,” which was a project we completed a couple of years ago, all happened in the backdrop of the incredibly deep and worrying decrease of bee quantity in the world, and the talk of colony collapse disorder at the time—today we know that this was not the case, but colony collapse disorder and a significant decrease in bees, and here we were thinking, Okay, as Einstein said, five years after bees are gone, we’re gone.
Bees are an incredibly important species for the existence of many, many species on the planet: plant species, animal species, of course humans. They are incredibly key for human survival. We were interested in multiple elements associated with bees—how they connect, how they distribute honey, how they create wax, how they create the hive. The structure was interesting from a mathematical perspective, the biological perspective, the physical perspective. We wanted to create a version two of the “Silk Pavilion” in the context of bees—so a hive that is at scale, in an architectural scale, that you can actually inhabit.
SB: The “Silk Pavilion” being a pavilion you made with silkworms.
NO: That’s right. And can you make a pavilion with bees? What does this look like? What is it good for? All these questions asked during a Massachusetts winter storm—
NO: —got us to the point where we had to design a synthetic apiary, a place where we could keep bees alive and thriving during the winter.
Bee colony collapse disorder, decrease of number in bees, Massachusetts winter—all these things come together to form a synthetic apiary. A synthetic apiary is a space rented inside a co-op, which we rented for bees. We started, I believe, with about 20,000 bees. I can’t remember the number precisely. But it was a space rented in a co-op environment for bees. The goal was to create a perpetual spring environment, where bees could thrive all year round. We know that during winter they go dormant, they die. Many of them die because of the harsh winter and the off-winter in other places around the planet. We thought, Well, can we create a synthetic apiary, a place that can harness all these wonderful qualities of the spring environment, and sustain the bees during the harsh winters? And, if we’re lucky, then can every city in the world have synthetic apiaries? Every city, let’s say, in the northern hemisphere and the south—cities that suffer from harsh winters—can buy into this notion of the synthetic apiary. And we’ve succeeded.
So we failed miserably on the pavilion front.
NO: To be revisited in the context of another show coming up. But we did manage to build the synthetic apiary and prove its efficacy as an environment that had a perpetual spring. And that obviously had to do with our ability as designers to control the light, the temperature, and the humidity for the bees. Once we had that environment and we knew we could understand their behavior and the metabolic functionality better, we said, “Okay, now we can experiment more with bees,” and the opportunity came to send them to extraterrestrial terrain. Not terrain, but …
SB: The “Maiden Flight” project.
NO: Exactly. And “Maiden Flight” came to us in the context of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin mission, the New Shepard mission, where we were very lucky. We got two cells—two spots—on the mission. It was a parabolic flight with a one-hundred kilometer, I believe, micro-gravitational energy to space and back. Within those two cells, we’ve explored the efficacy of bee metabolisms—specifically a queen bee that was maiden, that had both female and male germline expressed in her, the efficacy of her metabolic functionality in outer space and this space-travel mission. We’ve designed a mini-lab that we’ve constructed that would enable a single queen—and I remember the discussion: “Do we take an Italian queen bee, a Russian queen bee, two queen bees to send to outer space?” That was a very entertaining conversation.
NO: But the idea was to incorporate the queen bee with about twenty nurses. That would facilitate this “Maiden Flight” into space and expose the bee, obviously, to very harsh conditions. These are conditions that range in temperature from up to sixty degrees Celsius, and G-force from zero to fifteen.
So the question was a twofold: Can we send bees eventually to extraterrestrial terrain so that we can, once we populate planets like Mars, enjoy our fruits and vegetables, because we have bees amongst us? And/or is there anything about the micro-gravitational space attributes that augments, makes more efficient, stronger, more effective, the biology of the bee when it returns to Earth? Of course, questions that are associated with: What does the queen do? Is this replicable? Can we emulate it? Can we design a robotic queen? What does it mean to have a robotic queen? We know that bees can connect and communicate with their pheromones. Can we design a robot that spits out pheromones, thereby informing the entire hive of the location of this synthetic queen?
All of these questions, again, that point towards this duality between nature and culture, and between what is grown and what is made, came about in this project. We’re still studying that, and the hope is, at the end of this research phase, to come up with guidelines as to what must we do, and how might we design these capsules that will keep the bees alive during space travel and micro-gravitational space—and on another planet? And is there a way for us to somehow augment their abilities for when we bring them back to planet Earth? Can this add to biodiversity?
SB: Right. Earlier, you were talking about your masks projects, which obviously are connected to this in some sense, but also, I think getting into the masks would be interesting because there’s something about the issue of the masks that has to do distinctly with what it means to be human.
SB: And also this idea of, like, what it means to mask something, period—to cover up.
SB: You did the “Vespers” project, which you mentioned, but you also did “Rottlace” with Björk.
SB: Why masks? Obviously, we now know, on some deeper context about bees, but why masks?
NO: Why masks? We have been fascinated by this notion of portraiture as a means to capture, record, possibly design the expression—expression associated with life. And the masks project, it actually began with a beautiful conversation about the limits of nature, and about the nature of human nature, and what happens when we enter this creative territory that we cannot yet explain by physical means. And, of course, I did “Imaginary Beings”—before “Vespers,” there was this series called “Imaginary Beings” and “Wanderers.” And so, before “Vespers,” there were various series that explored the physical constraints of the human body. To me, as an architect—an architect and a drop-out medical student …
SB: [Laughs] We’ll get to that.
NO: I’ve been fascinated with the body as a vehicle for containing life, but also, for me, as a small building.
NO: And if you think about the body as a small building, then a mask becomes a building facade, right? And then architecture becomes much, much bigger and wider and far-reaching than space-making. It has to do with wellbeing; it has to do with physical habitation; it has to do with, dare I say, spirituality.
The death masks arrived at a moment in time where we had developed sufficient knowledge—sufficient tools, techniques, and technologies—that associated with our field, material ecology, and we were prepared to enter this new territory that had to do with things we couldn’t entirely explain. There was also Beethoven; and the old masks, the old death masks, as a relic of portraiture that was cast on the face with plaster, usually; or Tutankhamun, and the great kings and queens of Egypt that were sort of brought to life through these relics of the death masks that were made of a single material and that were assigned or that were basically portraitures of the face.
We asked ourselves the question: “Is that all there is to life? A portrait of a face? This must not be the answer. There must be more to life than the shape of your face in plaster.” Seeing Beethoven’s face in plaster, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there must be more to Beethoven than that. That’s when we started asking ourselves, “Can we use the death masks as a vehicle for life, as a vehicle to explore what it means to design a living product that perhaps, maybe, maybe not, has a personality; that perhaps has an identity; that interacts with the environment?”
When you ask “Why masks?” I have so many answers to this question. And some of these answers have to do with my personal story; and some of these answers have to do with the technological interests in creating objects that are not static, but are rather dynamic and alive; and some of these answers have to do with the cultural condition of where we’re at: What is mortality, how do we design mortality, and how do we keep the memory of our loved one in a physical vehicle? What does it mean to enliven or embody a single breath inside a mask? What does it mean to design a biological urn? Again, the duality between death and life, and the biological and technological, all comes together. As you’ve noticed, many of our themes—and the subjects of our works—go back to these very primal questions.
SB: I definitely want to get to the personal, so we’ll get there. I want to hear about your upbringing.
Obviously, this masks project evolved into “Rottlace,” which you did with Björk. Is that sort of the personality-driven concept you were talking about, like the sort of idea of creating something that expresses something very personal?
NO: It’s all of the above. It’s sort of when the personal and the technological and scientific inquiry and relationships, when all of these come together, you know you have a great project and an incredible product.
With the death masks, we started with a new technology that inspired our journey into emulating ancient patterns; and then we moved to another technology that we’ve developed to turn these patterns into channels; and in the third series, these channels become spatial houses or homes or architecture to incorporate life. And then the mask comes to life, and the life is spurred by means of incorporating microorganisms that repeat and emulate the patterns from the first series. The end of the third series is the beginning of the first series, and so on and so forth. You can think of the mask series also as a clock. A time capsule that is also a clock. So yes, what started as a death mask ended as a life-augmenting product.
SB: Let’s talk about Israel and your childhood growing up there. I know your father was an architect?
NO: My father [Robert] and mother [Rivka] are architects. My grandfather [Yosef (Joseph) Edelman] was an engineer, a civil engineer; my grandmother [Miriam] was a teacher. And these were my maternal grandparents, whom I was very, very close to. They were all builders and thinkers and educators.
SB: Was there a moment in your youth when you realized, Oh, I guess my path is kind of clear in this “building” direction?
NO: Never. Never was it a clear path, and never is it still clear.
SB: [Laughs] Yeah, I know you mentioned earlier there was a direction toward medical school.
NO: I started right after [serving in] the [Israeli] army. I entered medical school in Jerusalem, the Hebrew University, and studied medical sciences, and I stayed there for a couple of years before I dropped out. I remember clearly—it was organic chemistry; it was the third course in organic chemistry. I left the room, and I thought to myself, I’m leaving.
NO: There was a payphone outside of the building, and I called my father. And this was shortly after my grandmother died. Passed away. She was very, very close to me, and I to her. And there was sort of a moment of self-reflection, understanding that I wasn’t self-actualizing and that there must be more to life than these connections between atoms and molecules.
SB: And time is so limited, too.
NO: And time is of the essence. Of course. Carpe diem.
So I called my father, and my mother in the background said, “The architectural exams are around the corner. Would you like to try out?” I said yes, and I took the exam. I remember, specifically, one of the questions in the exam was to design a house for the moon, so design it in microgravity. It’s so fascinating how all of this comes together now in our current work. And I enjoyed it so much. I sketched through the exam, and sketched my way out and into architectural school. I landed at the Technion in Israel, the technological institution in Haifa, and stayed there for the first three years of my education; and then transitioned to the Architectural Association in London and completed my diploma there.
SB: And then your Ph.D.
NO: And my Ph.D. at MIT, then stayed there as faculty.
SB: It was while getting your Ph.D. at MIT that [MoMA senior architecture and design curator] Paola Antonelli found your work. I believe it was through [the architect] Enrique Norton.
NO: Yes! Yes.
SB: And your work “Material Ecology” ended up in her exhibition in 2008.
NO: So Paola’s working on “Design and the Elastic Mind” in 2008, and my project, which I’ve pretentiously named “Material Ecology”—
NO: —was sort of packaged as a set of objects and products that were designed for her show, and yes, I met my mentor and my friend and my colleague.
SB: Aside from the personal level of forming this great relationship with this very accomplished curator [Antonelli] at pretty much the most renowned institution in the world for what it does [MoMA], was that a very pivotal moment for you in shaping your career?
NO: I have to say yes. I have to say yes, because I remember I got two train tickets, one for me and one for the models. The models were fragile, and I didn’t want to move them around or store them. So I actually got a ticket for the work. And I remember traveling to New York and bringing the projects with me in a suitcase and showing them to Paola, and it took her, I want to say, thirty seconds to get it. She saw through the shape and into the materiality and into the computational logic and into the process. She saw beyond the product and into the process. There was just this incredible connection between the two of us, and I think that affirmation inspired me. I have embraced it ever since.
SB: And now it’s eleven years later.
NO: “Material Ecology” is actually the name of a first monograph show.
NO: Which is again, very, very, very humbling for me and for my team members who have been with me for the past almost twenty years but definitely the past ten years.
SB: When the show opens next February, what are your hopes—or, I guess, in other words, say I walk into the exhibition, what do you want me to feel coming out of it?
NO: It’s funny, yesterday in the [2020 Democratic presidential nominee] debates, there was one expression that was just great. They spoke of Cory Booker’s success and typified him as the “happy warrior.” That’s what I want people to take home back with them: that our world is in a very, very, very messy—and yes, about to enter a very, very dark—place with climate change and global warming. And yet, there is opportunity. And yet, there is possibility. And yet, there is this optimism associated with wise technological innovation. And I say “wise” because it requires wisdom and responsibility.
So “happy warriors.” Happy warriorship is something that—I’d like people to leave the exhibition empowered and inspired. Beyond that, I would like them to leave thinking, or understanding, that design is not a discipline; it is a way of being in the world. Of seeing, representing, and contributing to the world. And one that is not about prettifying or beautifying our physical environment, but rather making a difference in our physical environment to both sustain and maintain what is great and good about this universe, and, of course, our little planet; and also enable growth and enable opportunity and enable diversity. So that’s the second thing I’d like people to take home with them.
And the third and last one is a sense of humility, and understanding that a human-centric worldview will bring us nowhere. There are all these wonderful creatures around us—the silkworms and the bees. And all these wonderful materials that can be engineered to contain them that are alive, just as much as we are. If the show’s able to shift the perspective of the visitor from a human-centric view to a cross-species worldview, then we have made a difference. So these are the three messages I’d love people to take home.
SB: There’s such a strong ideological purity to what you’re saying.
SB: And in today’s world, which is so much about money, and, you know, despite that, and being in this very unique situation at MIT Media Lab, which does get funding from all sorts of different sources, you still somehow manage to keep this ideological purity. How? How do you maintain that at a time when there’s all these forces trying to counter it?
NO: Yeah. I do my best to avoid entering the mundane, although of course it is crucial when you’re just about to set up a design practice. But I think what’s so wonderful about nature is that it is mundane, but it is also accessible. I think this is an important part of being optimistic, is being able to create works that are at once accessible, but also elevate one to a higher place of being.
For me, I don’t know, I always say I grew up in my grandmother’s garden around fig trees and apple trees in an orchard, and olive trees. I did my homework on grass, and I looked at the clouds. I mean, it was a very, very innocent childhood. And I think that aspect of childhood stayed with me, or I would like to hope that it has remained there, intact, to continue producing with innocence and humility. I think those are the two attributes that I look for when I look for a team member to join us—beyond the brilliance, of course, it’s the innocence and the humility.
SB: I think it’s so interesting that, if we could call it your breakthrough moment, being in the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition [at MoMA in 2008]—you have such a “elastic mind.”
NO: It’s way too elastic for some. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] Connected to your elastic mind, you have a deep interest in music and film, like [movies by Federico] Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Could you talk about those elements in your life, and how they continue to fuel or feed the other aspects—
NO: I love old cinema! I mean, I grew up on it. And love a great nineteenth-century novel. I think, if I were not an architect, or if I were not to study architecture, it would probably have been film or music composition. And film and music were always, always close to me. As was literature. And fueled many of my interests and many of my works. And so (Nando) will smile when I say this—one of my team members—but our fascination with melanin started with Moby-Dick and this long chapter about the albino whale and the “other”—you know, how do you define other and otherly. That started with Moby-Dick. And “Vespers,” that began with a beautiful tune by Rachmaninoff—the Vespers from Rachmaninoff’s composition.
So music was always there and has always, always inspired me, but there was also a curiosity relating to doing great work. And doing work that survives the test of time, and doing work that is beyond time. Like [Beethoven’s] 9th symphony. Like the 5th symphony. Like the 6th symphony. Like [Vincent Van Gogh’s] “Starry Night.” Like [Fellini’s] La Strada. Like [Fellini’s] 8 1/2. And this big question of, how does one, as a creator and a thinker and a human inhabiting our planet, in this particular moment in time, how do we enter a kind of a space where what we create remains? Forever. It’s not another product that sells well, but it rather is an expression of what it means to be human that is there forever. And the 9th Symphony, I think, is a pretty good example. [Laughs]
NO: Or if you think of the 16th quartet, Opus 135, one of my favorites. In the notes, Beethoven writes “Must it be???” in the slow movement. And then it gets resolved later with “It must be.” I mean, very, very deep, deep questions that have to do with: What does it mean to be human? Where do we start? Where do we end? What legacy do we leave for those who come after us? What is the meaning behind the products that we produce?
And “Starry Night” is a good example. How is it that Van Gogh, in all of his “craziness” quote unquote, managed to encapsulate the cosmic radiation? I mean, if you superimpose “Starry Night” with cosmic radiation images from NASA, it literally looks the same. How did he know? How was he connected to this deep, deep understanding of the world, of the universe, and of these forces and was able to represent them in his drawings? And yet, he has the spire from the church, and he has the huts, the rooftops. So that kind of combination between an astro-biological, humane existence and a kind of spirituality that is very much connected to human nature, and to culture, has always inspired me in the great works of these wonderful artists and creators.
SB: In other words, it’s like the universe will find you if you let it.
NO: If you let it. If you open up to it. Taking on a grand design challenge, or a grand challenge in terms of fixing global warming, means that you must exit this kind of—
NO: Narrow-mindedness. And you apply a kind of broad range of sensitivities and sensibilities towards what is around you. You enter this kind of Renaissance mind—the ability to engage multiple disciplines and multiple fields and multiple domains—at the risk of being called a charlatan—
NO: —like they did with Carl Sagan; or a “crazy man,” as Einstein was referred to when he tried to come up with the uniform field theory; or plain crazy with Beethoven. Just go for it. Just go, go, go. And enjoy the ambivalence, and enjoy the messiness, and embrace it and make it part of the work.
SB: I think that’s where we’ll end. This is great. Thanks, Neri.
NO: Perfect. You’re welcome.
SB: Really enjoyed this.
NO: Thank you for the questions, I loved them all. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] Thanks for coming today.
NO: Thank you for having me.
This interview is the debut episode of Season 2. It was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Aug. 1, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker. Cover portrait courtesy Noah Kalina.