Designer Yasaman Sheri on Building more Pathways for Art-Science Creativity (and Eavesdropping on Bacteria)

"Challenging human-first perception is really interesting for me as a vehicle for experiencing other ways of knowing.”

– Yasaman Sheri

Victoria Ivanova, R&D Strategist at the Serpentine, speaks to Yasaman Sheri about her multifaceted practice, the challenges of art and science collaborations, and how the new Synthetic Ecologies Lab started by the Serpentine R&D Platform in collaboration with Sheri aims to address these.

Yasaman Sheri is a designer and researcher who works at the intersection of technology and life sciences. She has also been an educator at Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design and Rhode Island School of Design, and mentors artists exploring emerging technologies and creative science at New Inc. Sheri has a decade of experience in industry, including leading the core interface design direction for augmented reality and spatial computing operating system at Microsoft HoloLens as well as working across machine sensing platforms. She was a resident at the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks, where she was situated in a hybrid lab-studio space investigating biological sensors of flavour and olfaction. Her practice explores sensing, perception and the invisible scales at which humans frame and reframe ecologies through culture and technology.

Bacteria with a Nose — Microbial Olfaction, Ginkgo Bioworks (2018-2019) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri.

Victoria Ivanova: What’s the common thread between the different organisations and settings that you’ve been part of, and how did it all start for you?

Yasaman Sheri: Working in and with different individuals and organisations has granted me the flexibility to explore and learn about the ways in which different people come together to manifest narratives around science and technology. I find the notion of ‘roles’ interesting, particularly as a way of evolving the ways technology and society get referenced in different disciplines. ‘Bio-Designer’ or ‘Ecological-Artist’ may not have existed so long ago. We are always evolving, as individual artists and designers, as well as in our professions at large; roles shape the work and can define how we work — context matters.

As a resident at Ginkgo, my role shifted between a traditional hands on designer, to being more of a facilitator to support collective thinking, guiding conversations with hands-on exercises and prototyping imaginations with groups of scientists. I find this range between creation and translation exciting and interesting.

“My aim was to build a common language, or just enough of a shared vocabulary to gain a basic level of trust for a collaboration to happen.”

The common thread has therefore been creating a base of translation processes that ultimately lead to a general practice, for instance, by traversing language between a machine-learning expert and a geologist, or between a protein engineer and a policymaker. At Microsoft HoloLens, I worked with an optics scientist, a hand-tracking engineer, and a philosopher/researcher. At Ginkgo, I worked with a protein scientist, a synthetic biologist and an organism engineer. My aim was to build a common language, or just enough of a shared vocabulary to gain a basic level of trust for a collaboration to happen. Then I bring that knowledge of language back into learning spaces as an educator to guide students and work with them in building new ways in which designers and artists could explore with a different outlook. I’m interested in a new kind of practice and communication between different types of people that links highly specialised knowledge from within companies, institutions, schools, and many other spaces.

Sheri takes CIID Students to Nordic Food & Fermentation Lab on Research Trip (2016) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri

So much of how one might think about technology, especially in companies, can get a bit clichéd or even out of touch with a more equitable and diverse understanding of many people’s realities. I try to challenge my immediate collaborators and myself to practice shifting perspectives, and to build upon this kind of retooling. I respect scientists and because they work so differently from me, our collaborations seem to work really well – it feels complimentary and I have learned through this engagement both the limitations of my practice but also how powerful my work can be.

“I’m hopeful that people are beginning to listen more, in the biological sense, to understand how scales and perception beyond the individual human scale matter.”

However, I’d like more artists and designers to be able to engage in these kinds of conversations and partake in thinking, imagining new shapes and models in our society. How sad that it’s taken the disastrous effects of climate change or a pandemic to recognise that building collective futures requires a greater cultural awareness and interest in the biological reality of our planet. I’m hopeful that people are beginning to listen more, in the biological sense, to understand how scales and perception beyond the individual human scale matter.

Proxy Sensing, Paper Biosensor, changes shape based on interaction with molecules in air and water, 2-3 cm in size (2018-2019) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri.

VI: How has your background allowed you to do what you do now, and from where did your interest in life forms and sensing technologies emerge?

YS: My background is in physical design, actually industrial design, which tells a technological story about mass production and control on the one hand, and a story of rituals, psychology, and materiality on the other. I love how the profession taught me to think about our relation to objects and their life cycles, where they come from, and our relationship with the environment. I wanted to ask more questions about this, which led to me wondering about systems, affordances and a more critical inquiry into environment, technology and society. It also led me to the question of material interactions and relations – both embodied and remote – with systems, machines and living things. I had a strong critical interest in the philosophy of technology, particularly around the question of what apparatuses we build to aid humans in achieving survival, and what ritualistic gestures and behaviours are woven through them into society.

Today, I define my practice as design and artistic work that explores the intersection between life sciences and emerging sensing technologies. It’s always been interesting to me to think about our own perception and human sensing capabilities and why we’ve put vision so high in the hierarchy of senses. And so, when I worked with different emerging technologies like machine sensing tools and remote sensing instruments, I began to wonder, how come we’re not looking at different ways of sensing that can be more poetic, thoughtful and curious rather than having to monetise on data collected with sensors? And why isn’t the way in which life thrives outside of human perception explored more or built into our vocabulary? I am, for instance, fascinated by the invisible microbial life that is in, on and around us.

Texture of a Smell, Sense walks and markings as ways of knowing, CIID, On Sensing Course (2017) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri

These were the bigger questions that I started weaving into my work. It started as a train of thought, and then a series of curricula, work projects and experiments that sowed the seeds for my practice today: learning to expand our perception systems outside of a narrow human-ness. It’s easy for us to focus on the human because that’s how we experience the world. Challenging human-first perception is interesting as a vehicle for experiencing other ways of knowing. This became a bigger part of my work when a decade ago a geneticist introduced me to living materials, at the same time as I was learning about perfumery through my family, and also working on machine sensing and perception that augment the body, mind and perceived reality.

It was a natural step to explore our relationship with living beings and biological sensing from a creative side but also with a curiosity to experience and understand multi-species sensing. I wondered, what are the different methods by which living things experience and navigate the world? What does biological perception mean? When I arrived at Ginkgo, it was exciting to dive into these questions and to find out that there are scientists who know about this, but work with biological sensing very differently from the way I want to work with it: they see it more as an instrument and test for another larger task, while I see it as a cultural inquiry around multi-species perspectives.

VI: Apart from being a biotech start-up, Ginkgo Bioworks also runs an artistic residency programme, in which you’ve participated. What exactly did you do there and how has this experience impacted your practice?

YS: I started by creating an anthology or a survey of existing biological sensors. I then worked with scientists to design a microbial interaction. We did this by using a strain of yeast to fabricate a specific smell. We also grew a strain of E-coli harboring an olfactory biosensor, augmenting its ability to smell. Then after two days of growing in the incubator, these two different microorganisms were put on one petri dish, side by side, creating a new communication system, an interface between two types of living things. And what emerged through their proximity to one another was a molecular dialogue at a scale that was invisible to us. Due to this invisibility, we also gave the e-coli certain properties so that when it smelled the yeast, it would have a way to communicate back with me, the human. It kind of felt like eavesdropping on their molecular discussion. The scientists and I gave the bacteria the property to emit a blue output and because this elicits a visible change, it was a way for me to sense the time scale and the spectrum at which the microbe sensing happens, — a temporal reality that’s different from mine.

Yasaman Sheri at Ginkgo Bioworks Lab preparing Growth Medium (2019) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri

This experiment made me question my perception of time and how experiments happen in life. If you’re prototyping or drawing or even coding, there’s immediate feedback. You put your pen on paper, you draw and there it is: there’s a line. A sketch. We’ve designed computing interfaces to give immediate feedback too: press a button and see a letter; move your mouse, see your cursor translate on the screen. But with microorganisms, there’s the agency of another living thing; you have to give it time to grow and change. It’s not a tool: it’s another living thing.

Biosensor Anthology — Topological Series of Flavour, Olfactory and Chemical Biosensors (2018-2019)

VI: Would you say that the shift of perspective required triggers a different way of apprehending and digesting what one sees? In our current historical and cultural moment, we’re not used to thinking at the level of microorganisms and their interactions, and similarly, we’re not really used to thinking at very small or large temporal scales. Yet there’s an increasing understanding that this is something that we need to get better at if, for one, we want to at least mediate the damaging effects of climate change. Do artists and designers have a role to play in building bridges between the more everyday understanding of the world and the realities animating the kind of experiment you’ve just described?

YS: Currently, there are a lot of data points, graphs, facts, models, charts, and lots and lots of news to learn abstractly about what takes place beyond human scale. I’m interested in creating and supporting the foundation for artistic work to engage with the many living things, making the imperceptible visible in a poetic way, and in ways that connect and evoke. The challenge isn’t simply to render things that are small and large visible, but to create the conditions where the curiosity of artistic engagement with the world can meet scientific work in a generative dialogue and lead to new kinds of practice. Artists and designers can be powerful translators, the links between disciplines who have the capacity to explore complexities in a different way. This is the most challenging and beautiful aspect of working as an artist: to give shape and meaning to what’s otherwise abstract and invisible in a way that goes beyond representation and asks us to reflect and ponder.

However, there are significant barriers that don’t allow for this type of engagement between artistic and scientific communities to become commonplace. The language of the sciences, of the lab and the people specialising in very narrow domains is hard. It’s important to think of this seemingly impenetrable language as another invisible layer that’s surmountable but that requires meta-access. In other words, there’s a need to build tools to engage and be able to explore each others’ ideas.

VI: This is something that we’re investigating through the new Synthetic Ecologies Lab, which isn’t a physical lab (although, maybe one day!), but rather a space for developing this ‘meta-access’ layer and building a community around the process. As a way of working, it’s a slight shift from what most people have come to expect from art institutions, so I’m wondering what motivates you to take up this project?

YS: It’s important to create spaces and tools that allow artists and designers to build common knowledge and practice around specific topics, and help widen the circles of who’s listening to these conversations. I’m interested in creating platforms that support artistic practice, shaping and reframing developments to further the on-going dialogue with the sciences. In the context of research and development, it would mean investigating the gaps, connecting to different communities, exploring vocabularies, and landing conversations in the physical world as well as the online space, where everyone is practising daily.

Through challenging the assumptions that we’ve arrived at in science and technology as the collective inhabitants of earth, the lab aims to support artists who investigate the human relationship with the many life forms, biological temporalities and scales, and infrastructures, — physical, digital and social/cognitive, — that humans are putting down as scaffolding for years to come. Forward-thinking needs to be more radical but also soft, inclusive and collective, perhaps to have greater humility and confidence to ponder the ‘absurd’. When I think of ‘innovation’ today, I cringe. Mainstream views on innovation need to be challenged to be more inclusive of different cultures and communities, while the existing ideas of research and development needs to expand through a more artistic angle. I do think creativity and innovation, what we need ever so urgently, come out of poetry and weirdness.

How will it remember Life? Machine generated LifeForm, From the GANscope Series (2020) Courtesy of Yasaman Sheri

"Challenging human-first perception is really interesting for me as a vehicle for experiencing other ways of knowing.”

– Yasaman Sheri

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