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Alter nature: the unnatural animal

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January 29, 2011 – May 1, 2011

Revital Cohen (IL)

Tuur Van Balen (B)

But man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of Nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.”

— H.G.Wells - A Modern Utopia

Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal takes you on a journey into the world of two critical designers, Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen.
Against the backdrop of progress in bioscience and technology, Van Balen and Cohen create critical design objects and installations. Their work plays into and speculates on the changing behaviours, norms and values that will potentially guide our (social) lives in a biological revolutionary era.
By extrapolating and interpreting specific social situations, habits and rituals and the way in which science and technology (can) play into these, their work demonstrates a thorough and researched reflection on our current society.
In Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal, both designers exhibit three of their works. On the ground floor of each space, two recent works are on display. Above, in the hanging sheds, one can find research work-in-progress installations commissioned by Z33.

The floating spaces reference the playfulness of tree houses, the uncanniness of domestic homes flying in a hurricane, and the experimental nature of Do-It-Yourself bio garden sheds. Van Balen and Cohen invite the visitor to step into their alter-worlds, a space with its own logic; strange at first, but somewhere recognisable.


In Life Support, Cohen suggests the use of animals bred commercially for consumption or entertainment as companions and providers of external organ replacement. In the images and research video, the designer develops a number of speculative scenarios that offer an alternative to medical therapies by proposing the use of assistance animals - who are capable of developing a meaningful relationship with a patient - as medical devices. A living lamb could be deployed as a kidney dialyses apparatus while a retired greyhound dog could be trained to become a respiratory assistance dog. This raises bioethical questions. What are the implications of breaking the boundaries between natural kingdoms as a result of developments in biotechnology?

Electrocyte Appendix focuses on the condition of man, though inspiration continues to relate to the animal kingdom. Inspired by the electric eel, Cohen designed an organ that is built from artificial cells* to convert blood sugars into electricity. The appendix, an organ without any crucial function in the body, is removed and replaced with an organ fit for life in the 21st century. It not only speaks of the surging demand for electricity, but also to cultural shifts towards self-sufficiency, the increasing individualisation and soaring social isolation. Revital Cohen:
In this future scenario the body changes its function; instead of an organism designed to attract, socialise, mate and reproduce with others, it becomes an electricity generating vessel, nurtured and harvested by its owner, designed to sustain a new form of virtual existence for an individual who lives through electronic networks.”
* Based on the research Designing artificial cells to harness the biological ion concentration gradient of Jian Xu and David LaVan, Nature Nanotechnology, September 21, 2008.

Ready-to-use Models is Cohen’s new research project, developed for Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal. With this installation, Cohen seeks to question the current definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What consequences does this choice of definition entail for our perceptions, feelings and behaviours regarding these living creatures?

Laboratories deploy animals in the development of medicines. Much in the same way as products, rodents for various experiments can be ordered from online catalogues. In this research experiment, Cohen examines the nature of the SERT Knock-out rats. These rats are manipulated to not be able to absorb serotonin, the hormone responsible for feelings of contentment and happiness, and therefore consistently display increased levels of anxiety- and depression-like behaviours.

For a species regarded as disposable product, Cohen has built a large play cage in which the environment is designed to boost the serotonin levels, in attempt to make the rat happy. With this futile and absurd intervention, Ready-to-use Models questions the exchange of roles between animal and object. The commodification of the rat is mirrored by a sequence of collected footage depicting products being defined as pets; from Tamagotchi to Fur Real Friends robots.


On the ground floor of the adjoined space, Tuur Van Balen presents Pigeon d’Or, using the possibilities offered by synthetic biology in an attempt to influence the metabolism of pigeons. Through the intake of specially designed and created bacteria, faeces of pigeons can be turned into soap. The bacteria would be as harmful to the pigeons, as yoghurt is to humans. Previously deployed as mail deliverers, spies or in races, Van Balen looks at the feral pigeon as a platform and an interface for urban applications of biotechnology. Through the pursuit of manipulating pigeon excrement and designing of appropriate architectural interfaces, the project sets out to encounter ethical, political, practical and aesthetic consequences of designing biology.

Synthetic Immune System, the second project in this space, looks into similar possibilities generated by synthetic biology, but applied to humans, and in a context of personal and participatory health care. The proposed system consists of a collection of yeasts, designed to check the body for the presence and correct balance of certain elements. If anomalies or diseases are detected, the yeast produces the necessary remedies overnight. In the morning, the user can simply take in the treatment via a mouthpiece. Van Balen plays into a series of perceived trends in today’s health care system. Calculating your statistical chances to get a certain disease, preventively altering your behaviour (or body) in an attempt to avoid the disease, getting the appropriate health insurance… All are practices that have surged since the use of ever more meticulous measure and test instruments and the commercial availability of personal DNA sequencing.
For Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal, Van Balen is developing Cook Me. Black Bile, a new research project which continues to build on the themes addressed in his earlier work. Referencing old medical practices of controlled bloodletting to maintain the balance between the body fluids (Hippocrates), Van Balen releases a leech onto his arm. He later prepares a hearty meal using the blood-filled leech as his main ingredient. Black Bile refers to one of the four body fluids as determined by Hippocrates in his theory of the four humours (slime, blood, yellow bile and black bile). The balance between these fluids would not only determine physical health, but also influence the mental condition of each person. Black bile, for instance, is linked to the feature of melancholy (in Greek μελαγχολία, or literally black bile). Bloodletting was one of the main tools to maintain the physical and mental balance of each individual. The project proposes new interactions with one’s metabolism, through biosensing and biosynthesis, similar to the Synthetic Immune System. In Cook Me. Black Bile, these interactions are proposed as new forms of cooking with cooking experiments, new recipes and cooking tools, as can be seen in the shed. Van Balen is hoping to one day serve a dish cooked with the help of a parasite and a pinch of custom designed bacteria to balance his feeling of melancholy.


At the end of the suspended bridge, Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen present a compilation of film fragments. Theatre of Paranoia explores the often irrational fears surrounding (bio)science and technology as reflected by popular culture.

Both Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen often work in collaboration with scientists and their designs – as fantastical as they may seem – are based on scientific research. However, Van Balen and Cohen go beyond the sheer investigation of new applications of existing and developing (bio)technologies. The objects, organisms and scenarios they design play into the perceived relationships between humans, animals and the urban environments. Pigeon d’Or is not really concerned with the production of soap. It rather aims to explore what it means to design biology and might leave one puzzled about the illusion of nature. Life Support is not a proposed ‘solution’ for the lack of organ donation, but a provocation employing the possibility of a symbiotic relationship. In addition, in its choice of animals, the projects refer to the contexts in which animals are already bred and used; food, entertainment, company. Electrocyte Appendix finally, not only suggests an upgrade of the body as handy feature, but also speaks of our dependence of electricity as result of the increasing social isolation in a networked society.

The objects, organisms and installations that Van Balen and Cohen design, are in that way embedded in and confront us with our current situation: values, norms and habits.

Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal is part of Alter Nature, an overarching project by Z33, the Hasselt Fashion Museum and CIAP in collaboration with the MAD-faculty, Hasselt University, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), KULeuven University and bioSCENTer. In the Alter Nature project, this research project can be understood as an elaborate case-study, and the practices of Van Balen and Cohen as a continuation of the practice of designing nature; human or other.

Tuur Van Balen (Belgium, 1981) uses design to explore the wider implications of emerging technologies. Through objects and interventions, he engages a wider audience in critical reflections on the possible roles of new technologies in our everyday lives. Since 2008, Tuur has been bringing design into the world of synthetic biology and vice versa. Van Balen has exhibited and presented his work in various contexts, both within the UK and abroad. More information:

Revital Cohen (Israel, 1981) is an award-winning designer who develops critical objects and provocative scenarios exploring the juxtaposition of the natural with the artificial. Her work spans across various mediums and includes collaborations with scientists, bioethicists, animal breeders and physicians. She exhibits and lectures internationally within varied contexts and locations - from scientific and academic conferences to art galleries and design fairs. More information:
Like to know more about the design practice of Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen, or the world of ideas that inspire them, then mark down the following dates in your calendar:
February 17, 2011, 7pm, ZEBRA DELUXE:

Somewhere art collective: Nina Pope shows footage of their new film Cat Fancy Club, a documentary that digs into the world of cat breeders. With an introduction by Revital Cohen.

Entrance price: € 5 – Students, teachers (card required), 55+, +10 groups: € 4 – CJP holders: € 2,50
March 22, 2011, 8pm, A-Z lecture:

Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen talk about their design practice and the work in Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal.

Entrance is free, reservations are required:
Ask for the complete Alter Nature calendar at the entrance desk, or check online at

More information on the works


Synthetic Immune System, 2010

The Synthetic Immune System consists of a network of glass vessels containing biosensors made of yeast. Each vessel contains a bespoke yeast, designed to monitor a specific anomaly for a specific person; helping break down lactose, caffeine or other ingredients, detecting vitamin deficits or diseases and producing chemicals or drugs accordingly. The selection of biosensors is personal and relies on one’s genetic predisposition, lifestyle and fears.

The yeasts are fed with water and sugar from a central bowl. When using the spoon to stir the mixture, a drop of blood drips into the system to disclose your body’s state. Your Synthetic Immune System will need feeding every evening to produce for your needs overnight. Every morning, use the mouthpiece to take in the different remedies produced specifically for today. The resulting symbiosis with the yeasts act as an external, synthetic addition to one’s immune system.

The work proposes new rituals, behaviours and interactions that might come with Synthetic Biology’s potential to make healthcare more personal and participatory.
Developed as part of the EPSRC Impact! Exhibition at the Royal College of Art, in collaboration with the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College.


Pigeon d’Or, 2010
The city is a vast and incredibly complex metabolism in which the human species is the tiniest of fractions; tiny and yet intrinsically linked into an organic embroidery beyond our understanding. It is within this complex fabric that (future) biotechnologies will end up.

Pigeon d’Or proposes the use of feral pigeons as a platform and interface for synthetic biology in an urban environment by attempting to make a pigeon defecate soap.

By modifying the metabolism of pigeons - specifically the bacteria that live in their gut - synthetic biology might allow us to add new functionality to animals that are commonly condemned as being “flying rats.” The pigeons would be fed a specially designed bacteria that turn faeces into detergent and is as harmless to pigeons as yoghurt is to humans.

Through the pursuit of manipulating pigeon excrement and designing appropriate architectural interfaces, the project explores the ethical, political, practical and aesthetic consequences of designing biology.

In collaboration with James Chappell. Funded by The Flemish Authorities’ Agency for the Arts.


Cook Me. Black Bile, 2011
Hippocrates' theory of the four humours sees the body as filled with four basic substances: yellow bile, blood, phlegm and black bile, each linked to a specific temperament. Bloodletting aimed to restore health by bringing these bodily fluids in balance.

Inspired by black bile, the fictional of the four fluids and the one linked to the feeling of melancholy, this device allows you to cook a hearty dish using a leech that has first fed itself on your own body.

The recipe uses yeasts, which are a chassis for synthetic biology. Similar to the Synthetic Immune System, the project explores how synthetic biology might facilitate new interactions with our own metabolisms.


Life Support, 2008

Assistance animals - from guide dogs to psychiatric service cats - unlike computerized machines, can establish a natural symbiosis with the patients who rely on them. Could animals be transformed into medical devices?

This project proposes using animals bred commercially for consumption or entertainment as companions and providers of external organ replacement. The use of transgenic farm animals or retired working dogs as life support ‘devices’ for renal and respiratory patients offers an alternative to inhumane medical therapies.

Could a transgenic animal function as a whole mechanism and not simply supply the parts? Could humans become parasites and live off another organism’s bodily functions?


The Posthuman Condition, 2008

Medical technologies have reached the stage in which biological deterioration no longer means the end of a human life. Life prolonging machines can replace our organs and allow us to maintain various degrees of living. However, as science helps us cheat nature and develop new life forms, it also confronts us with the need to reinterpret our perception of ourselves.

When digital technologies enter and merge with the body, they redefine its material and functional properties. As the human anatomy gains technological capabilities, where does the body end and the machine begin?


Electrocyte Appendix, 2009

The Electrocyte Appendix is an artificial organ that could be implanted into the body to allow people to become electric organisms. Inspired by the electric eel and the way it uses electrocyte cells to produce electrical current from its abdomens, the organ is constructed of artificial cells*. These cells mimic and improve the electrocyte mechanism by converting blood sugar into electricity.

Replacing the vestigial appendix, the artificial organ brings a new functionality to the human anatomy, giving humans the ability to farm and produce electricity directly from their body. By discarding the remains of redundant anatomical functions in favour of new abilities, the body is redesigned in order to sustain its new way of living.

Biotechnology could allow us to transform our genus into something else. The idea of our species changing from Homo-Sapiens into Homo-Evolutis (the human as a species controlling and designing its own evolution) is materialising quickly in research labs. And what kind of genus be constructed when the Homo takes after the Gymnotus? Forecasts for 2050 point towards technologically assisted reclusiveness, self sufficiency and social isolation. These behaviours are enabled by communication networks which allow one to survive without leaving the home or having physical interactions with others.

In this kind of existence, where electricity becomes vital for survival, should the body adapt to the behaviour and adjust to sustain it? Humans are by nature social animals. By retracting into a self sustaining solitude, a person becomes not dissimilar to the electric eel in behaviour. The eel is a solitary animal, it lives alone, hunts and breeds without any interaction with other organisms, it senses and reacts to the presence of others through electric charges. As we start behaving this way, should our bodies evolve to provide us with electric energy? In this future scenario the body changes its function. Instead of an organism designed to attract, socialise, mate and reproduce with others, it becomes an electricity generating vessel, nurtured and harvested by its owner, designed to sustain a new form of virtual existence for an individual who lives through electronic networks.

* Based on the research Designing artificial cells to harness the biological ion concentration gradient by Jian Xu and David LaVan, Nature Nanotechnology, September 21, 2008.
Commissioned by Design Indaba as part of Protofarm 2050 for the ICSID World Design Congress, Singapore


Ready-to-use Models, 2011
The Ready-to-use Models installation poses questions about what is regarded a design product and what counts as an animal. How does this blurring of boundaries affect our perceptions, feelings and actions? 

The bespoke rat cage has been especially designed to accommodate a SERT Knock-out rat; a laboratory tool genetically designed to continuously show higher levels of anxiety and depression. Inverting the tests used to measure stress and anxiety in lab rats, the design of the cage attempts to instill happiness in this depressed rat, treating this scientific research product as an animal. 

Since the rat cannot physically absorb the Serotonine proteins (responsible for feelings of happiness), this project is in essence a surreal endeavor to achieve the biologically impossible. More so, by attempting to measure or quantify the generated happiness levels, the rat becomes a vital component of the designed environment, thus returning to be perceived as a mechanical part.


Theatre of Paranoia

Celluloid folklore of scientific exaggerations

Featuring The Invisible Man, R.C. Sherriff 1933, The Blob, Blade Runner, Repo Men, The Fly, Gattaca, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Island of Dr. Moreau, West World, Species, Splice,

The Incredible Hulk, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein, Hollow Man, Moon, Robocop

Edited by Steven Ounanian

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