“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 Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen.

Against the backdrop of progress in bio-science and –technology, Van Balen and Cohen create critical 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 in which these new research projects are presented reference the playfulness of tree houses, the uncanniness of domestic homes flying in a hurricane, and the experimental nature of DIY 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 the first 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 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 changes 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 leach 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 and bloodletting was one of the main tools to maintain this balance.
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.

On the ground floor of the adjoined space, Revital Cohen presents work concerned with inter-species relationships as well as anatomical design.
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 explores the problematic nature of medical machinery as electronic hardware which is connected to human tissue, and how this practice could be challenged. The speculative scenarios developed 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.
The use of transgenic farm animals or retired working dogs as life support ‘devices’ for renal and respiratory patients raises bioethical questions around the implications of breaking the boundaries between natural kingdoms as a result of developments in biotechnology.

While Cohen takes on the relationship between man and animal in Life Support, the focus shifts to the condition of man with Electrocyte Appendix, though inspiration continues to relate to the animal kingdom. Inspired by the electric eel and based on research by Jian Xu en David LaVan#, 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. “

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?
It is well known that 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. Alongside bespoke species, there are prefabricated organisms, known as ready-to-use models. 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.

At the end of the suspended bridge, Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen present a compilation of film fragments; a Theatre of Paranoia, exploring the often irrational fears surrounding (bio)science and – technology as reflected by popular culture. This addition to the exhibition examines the role and function of fear within public perceptions and legitimisation of scientific progress.

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, rather it 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, and in its choice of animals refers 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. By presenting the ‘not-norm’, they indicate the norm.#

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, the University of Hasselt, 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.

Karen Verschooren, curator Z33

Photographs by Kristof Vrancken