Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is working on an interdisciplinary project to recreate the scents of plant species that have been lost due to human colonial destruction of their habitat.
Whereas others might try to reconstruct a woolly mammoth from centuries-old sequences, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is working on recreating the scents of plant species that have been lost due to human colonial destruction of their habitat.
Ginsberg studied architecture and design at the Royal College of Art in London, getting a PhD in the Design Interactions program.
She collaborated on her art project Resurrecting the Sublime alongside Sissel Tolaas, a scent researcher and artist, and Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech business.
The installation has been exhibited all over the world, from New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum to Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and is now on display at Venice’s 17th International Architecture Exhibition.
What made you a ‘guerrilla’ artist in the first place?
In 2009, I competed with the University of Cambridge iGEM team in MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
While the student team was on stage presenting their work, I was exhibiting everyone who would listen to a briefcase full of wax stool samples, each in a distinct hue.
The Cambridge students had genetically engineered [Escherichia coli] strains to produce various colored pigments, and we imagined a possible future application with designer James King: a person would drink probiotic yogurt laced with these synthetic E. coli, and their feces would turn a different color depending on the chemical markers of various diseases sensed in the body.
Did the bright turds do more than shock; did they inspire people to support your ideas?
It was a way to initiate dialogues with the folks who were establishing this new area by showing up to a genetic engineering competition with a suitcase full of colorful poos.
We were able to begin discussing what synthetic biology might be and how it might affect our lives in positive, negative, and unanticipated ways thanks to humor.
As a result of this, I was invited to join and curate Synthetic Aesthetics, a big National Science Foundation/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded research project directed by synthetic biologists Drew Endy and Alistair Elfick and social scientist Jane Calvert.
From the United States to Australia to Japan, we partnered six artists or designers with six synthetic biologists.
They lived in each other’s space for a month, first in the lab and then in the studio.
Were the synthetic biologists hesitant to enter a workshop of an artist or designer?
We merely asked them to think about: What does it mean to design life for a month?
Are you able to create it? How would you go about designing it well? Everything was out of the ordinary.
It was a purely scientific research project, not a Sci/art or public engagement initiative, with no defined deliverables other than the development of critical dialogue.
The pairings continued to collaborate—in some cases, they are still doing so ten years later—and it set a tremendous precedent for synthetic biology to engage closely with art and design.
More information is available in our book Synthetic Aesthetics.
The Effects of Synthetic Biology on Nature are being investigated.
How did the project for extinct flower aromas come about?
“Would it be conceivable to utilize synthetic biology to replicate the smell of an extinct flower?” Ginkgo Bioworks co-founder Jason Kelly asked at the commencement of Resurrecting the Sublime.
The idea of employing synthetic biology as a creative force was extremely appealing to Ginkgo, whose customers include fragrance firms.
Ginkgo’s creative director, Christina Agapakis, visited the Harvard University herbarium in 2016 and gathered microscopic tissue samples from examples of extinct flowers in their collection.
This led to a multi-year study effort and eventually to gallery exhibits where hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have now had the opportunity to experience the memory of a lost flower.
Which three flowers did you decide to resurrect?
Maui hau kuahiwi, or Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, grew in old lava fields in Maui, Hawaii.
Colonial cattle herding devastated the forest, and the final tree perished in 1912.
The final known sighting of the Orbexilum stipulatum was in Kentucky in 1881, before it became extinct and cultivation failed.
Its habitat was largely devastated by a dam in the 1920s.
The Leucadendron grandiflorum, which used to grow on Wynberg Hill behind Table Mountain in Cape Town, has been wiped off by colonial vineyards.
It was last observed in a London collector’s garden in 1805.
Have you been able to reassemble the DNA?
Because the DNA had degraded, the Ginkgo team collaborated with paleogeneticists from the University of California, Santa Cruz, to extract it.
The Ginkgo team then utilized synthetic biology to fill in the gaps in the sequences by comparing them to known sequences from other organisms that make scent enzymes in a sort of matching procedure.
They then resynthesized the gene sequences, put them into yeast, and used mass spectrometry to examine the aroma compounds.
Isn’t this something that’s been done before?
Although DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis methods had been around for decades, I believe the study was truly groundbreaking.
And no one had ever paid attention to misplaced flowers before.
The Gingko scientists and engineers compiled a list of possible smell compounds produced by each plant.
I was completely taken aback. Christina had been telling me about this idea for a couple of years, and now it was official.
It was a little disorienting.
It evokes the sublime, an eighteenth-century art and literature philosophy that encapsulates this sense of wonder and horror at the natural world.
How would you characterize the scents of the flowers?
Unlike Sissel Tolaas, who recreated the smells from Ginkgo’s lists, I am not a smell specialist.
However, as a novice, I would characterize the Leucadendron as dark and tobacco-like, the Orbexilum as citrusy and candy-like, and the Hibiscadelphus as opulent.
What do you think the reasoning is for resurrecting vanished scents?
It raises a slew of issues. These synthetic replicas of each flower’s overall scent were created.
They’re inaccurate, of course, because we don’t know which compounds were in the flower, in what quantities, whether the molecules’ function was connected to fragrance, or even if the genes were turned on to generate those molecules.
Hibiscus blossoms have no scent since they are pollinated by birds. We’re left with a hazy image of the past, a false but compelling recollection.
However, being exposed to this establishes an emotional and bodily bond with the natural world.
It’s the sense of wonder and dread, as well as the fragility of nature in the face of human destruction.
Each lost species has a knock-on impact on the pollinators it supports, altering the species that rely on them, disrupting ecosystems, and gradually contributing to climate change.
These plants may appear to be extinct or inconsequential, but their extinction is crucial.
How did you capture and impart the scent to visitors through your gallery installation?
The exhibits are built up in the style of conventional natural history dioramas.
Instead of a plush animal at the heart of an extinction story, you, the human, find yourself in the spotlight.
Visitors enter the back of the diorama, round the corner, and suddenly find themselves in a room with no evidence of living nature, only its traces: limestone stones, the smell of the lost flower, the soundscape of its lost habitat, all while being watched by others. The goal is to make you feel a little uneasy by saying, “This extinction is due to us.”
What are you attempting to communicate to people by recreating the scent of these flowers? What impact does your work have on people’s lives?
Why is it that we prefer the new over what already exists?
We divide technology and nature, although we are both parts of the natural world and would perish without it.
We spend billions on innovation and the creation of new life, whether through synbio or artificial intelligence, but we have shamefully failed to conserve the extraordinary lifeforms that already exist (of course, this does not include all peoples).
Is it because we don’t consider other lifeforms as beneficial to us, but new technologies are? This concept of utility is quite naive. This paradox is both fascinating and critical for us to comprehend.
Your most recent AI-driven project at the Eden Project is described as an artificial garden. Why is this the case?
Not for humans, but for pollinators, whose numbers are at risk all around the world.
We’ll be planting a 52-meter-long garden at the Eden Project in Cornwall [UK] in September 2021, created using an algorithm to maximize “empathy” for other species.
I’ve characterized this as planting to support the greatest possible diversity of pollinators, using regional planting lists that the algorithm selects and optimizes from.
Hopefully, this garden will appear weird to human tastes, with flowers of every hue, size, and shape, as well as patterning to promote various foraging techniques.
It’s an unnatural garden created for the sake of nature.
I’d like to challenge our perceptions of what a garden is and who it is planted for.
The algorithm will be available online, allowing anyone to make their pollinator artwork, which they will be encouraged to plant.
The Eden Project website will keep you up to date.
Current Resurrecting the Sublime Apocalypse – End Without End exhibitions
-Museum of Natural History
-Bern is a city in Switzerland.
-11 November 2017 – 13 November 2022
-Artificial Intelligence: More Than Human
-Madrid, Spain’s Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural
-The dates are July 22, 2021, and January 9, 2022.
-History that isn’t natural
-Coventry, UK’s Herbert Art Gallery
-The dates are May 28, 2021, to August 22, 2021.
THE AUTHOR IS: Lisa Melton