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An interview with Nikki Stott of the Biojewellery project

a project involving transvergent threads entwining romance, ethics, art, biotechnology, and much, much more… by Nora Raggio @ SWITCH.

Biojewellery ( is a collaborative project involving Tobie Kerridge and Nikki Stott, design researchers at the Royal College of Art, and Ian Thompson, a bioengineer at Kings College London, its aim is to bring the medical and technical processes of bioengineering out of the lab and into the public arena. Funding totaling approximately £60,000 has been awarded by the Engineering and Physical Science Council as a part of their Partnership for Public Awareness initiative.

Nora Raggio (NR): Recently there have been a variety of art + science projects dedicated to biotechnology including Eduardo Kac’s projects ( including his GFP Bunny and Genesis, as well as the projects emanating from ‘Consuming Monsters’ you cite in your website including Biopresence – how does your work fit in the context of these other projects – and what made you choose issues in biotechnology instead of say – nanotechnology or space (i.e. as in cosmos) technology?

Nikki Stott (NS): Firstly we recognize that this is a rich and differentiated territory. Although art discourses are one part of this territory, Biojewellery relates more to a tradition of critical design. Work which proceeded and followed the Consuming Monsters brief employs a range of strategies to help people consider technology and science processes – imaginatively and personally. There is a line between disbelief and comfort, uncanny and familiar, distant and proximal which is regulated by a discussion. We hope to provoke this discussion by designing a set of artifacts; blogs, jewellery, photography, film, essays and systems. It is important for us that our methodology is plausible and transparent, so that others can make up their minds where they set this line.

Bioengineering was an initial focus for us because the technology and processes deal with our bodies. This provides a range of issues to work into the project; our identity and our relationship to others, and our desires versus the clinical reality of medical technology. From the outset we wanted to work closely with a group of people, ask them to contribute, and help us steer a course through these issues. This makes the debate less abstract. What better way to work with a group of people than to ask for some of their cells?

NR: How does your work fall into issues of transvergence? How would you define transvergence?

NS: This sounds interesting. Some of this language a bit academic though, or distracting because of its novelty. Key things here for us are making something which creates a debate rather than close things down. We don't want to be guilty of reducing any of the discourses the project draws upon.

We do not intend to collude with biotechnology but to deal critically with the issues surrounding its use by creating objects; imagery and writing that will address the many dualisms inherent in the subject. The project requires that we explore critiques from various academic disciplines and examine past and present cultural responses to the concept of scientific progress and possible futures.

NR: If any of the couples you choose have a dog, and this dog happened to find their bone ring lying on the floor or dresser table –would the dog’s incisions on the ring then be thought as animal, hybrid or transgenic art?

NS: I would be more worried about the ring breaking, or the dog choking! That's not to say that we wont host someone else's analysis of the dog incident on the website. After New Scientist carried an article on the project, we received an email from an ethicist based at the University of Keele in the UK. He later wrote a paper on the ethics of Biojewellery which raised a range of new issues for us.

NR: There seems to be social, technological, and ethical challenges to your project – could you briefly talk about the major challenges each of the aforementioned areas?

NS: Well the idea is simple enough. Trying to execute it in 10 months had been complex; as a difficulty arises we try to negotiate it, and it then becomes a part of the project. Nothing is set-up for us. The biggest challenge is getting cells from the couples. The ethics committee would only provide consent for operations that were medically essential for the donor. Wisdom tooth extraction is fairly common, and also provides a hole from which to take some cells - chips of jaw bone routinely come out with the tooth. The couple's consent is the first stage in a series of negotiations involving their dentists, the researchers, 2 hospital trusts (the trusts manage medical facilities with geographic areas), the ethics committee at Guys hospital, cell technicians and a surgeon. Oh, and not forgetting the EPSRC (the grant provider) and the referees, before they said yes this was all theory and narrative.

NR: Your evaluation page for the project is still blank – could you elaborate why - and what you plan to do about this?

NS: Ha, well we are working on this. Well, we know what we are trying to do, which is a start. We are trying to encourage an informed public debate around bioengineering. We are writing a couple of papers, one academic and the other about doing a public awareness project. Elsewhere we are drawing on a range of published texts, these include feedback from the website, other peoples blogs (these were fascinating), media coverage, emails we have received. There are the weblogs, which show relationships between press or public events and online activity. Later there is a public debate and then an exhibition, these will give us another set of opportunity for evaluating the project.

NR: What should happen if one or more of the couples who decide to collaborate with you fight over the issues of the ring while it is being created – and break up over the details of biojewellery ring – could you potentially be sued for this break up and what would be the consequences for the project?

NS: Lets hope it doesn't get litigious! We have seen some interesting writing on other ethical aspect of this project. All surgical procedures involving general anaesthetic have an element of risk and the carry the possibility that the patient may come to harm. This may be grounds for an objection to Biojewellery. However, the operation that our participants will undergo is necessary- to remove either a painful wisdom tooth or one that may cause discomfort in the future -so any objections as to the medical need for of this nature are obsolete. The project by its very nature is designed to draw public attention to tissue engineering; therefore it will also attract critical analysis of the procedures and methods involved. The medical professionals who are responsible for the removal of cells from the site of the tooth extraction will be subject to criticism, particularly in terms of the issue of medical need. In the case of plastic surgery ( which is now a widely accepted medical practice) how do we really define ‘surgical intervention on the grounds of wellbeing; our project might point out particular challenges within medical ethics

NR: I’m curious about the nature of collaboration in this project – Tobie seems to be keeping the blog/diary, while Ian Thompson is contributing with his bioengineering experience and EPSRC is lending the money – what is Nikki’s role – and for that matter – how do you see the collaboration working – what are the major challenges you are facing in the nature of collaboration itself (e.g. defining roles, making decisions, gaining consensus on major issues for the project)

NS: This is a large and diverse project in terms of the thinking, writing an practical activities. The collaboration allows the participants to challenge each others accepted modes of thinking regarding their own discipline and also consider unexpected connections/ relationships between these fields.

Each participant brings a different kind of knowledge and expertise to the project so the decision-making element is based on an informed discussion and the context of the subject in question.

As an object maker Nikki choose to engage with technologies, which are informing our ideas of identity and humanness. The crossover of digital and biotechnologies, ethical issues of body modification and the ideological agendas, which have shaped scientific progress, are themes that have provided a framework for the production of her practical and theoretical work.

We also spend time stuffing envelopes with print, drinking tea and writing lists.

NR: You seem to put a lot of emphasis on crafting the “consent” document, which according to the blog/diary was still being worded on March 25, 2005 – what were the issues with crafting the document to “manufacture consent” – and, given the very short period to which couples have had time to respond to your application/consent doc, etc (March 25-April 12th) – how many complete applications from couples have you received to date and what is the profile of the couples who have applied to the project?

NS: We have emails expressing a desire to get involved from over 180 couples, and are working closely with about 10 of those couples. Some of these conversations were struck up over a year ago, things drift and the consent documents allowed us to make these conversations more formal.

Created by mweisert
Last modified 2005-05-15 13:30

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