Undergraduate Fine Arts and Design

Posted September 6, 2019
  • Telhan’s project ”Fruits of Matadero” is a public commission by Matadero Madrid that will be on display through October of 2019.

Orkan Telhan Talks Biology, Design, and the Future of Humans

Orkan Telhan would like you to try some fruit. Microbial fruit, grown in his design studio.

Telhan’s “The Fruits of Matadero” is on view at the Matadero Madrid cultural center in Spain following a presentation in Philadelphia over the summer. Meanwhile, the associate professor of fine arts specializing in emerging design practices at the Weitzman School is readying work for “Designs for Different Futures,” an exhibition opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in October for which he is also a consulting curator. He’s also teaching two classes this semester, writing a book to help designers leverage biology, and running Biorealize, the company he founded at Penn with a colleague.

If Telhan’s present-day commitments reveal anything, it’s his intent focus on the future and how society can use design to imagine a more responsible path there. Design Weekly caught up with Telhan to talk about his current projects, his motivations and more. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your background involves graphic design, media design, computations—how did biology enter the mix?

I have always been interested in the relationship between design and technology, whether that technology is electronics, software, computer graphics. Synthetic biology is now the newest technology that is shaping the design world and the larger world around us. This is basically treating living organisms like machines, so that they can be programmed, like the way we program computers.

When I came to Penn, [the University] was very open to this combination of design and biology. And then the field grew. I always have an eye on other technologies, like how A.I. is going to shape biology and how A.I. is going to shape design, and so on. I will not stop at biology, but biology is now very crucial because of ecology, the environment, and climate change. I focus on big problems, but then use these different technologies and frameworks … for finding solutions for those big problems.

You mentioned climate change as one example, and I saw that you have a related exhibition right now—the Fruits of Matadero. Can you talk about that?

It's one of the five commissions by the cultural center Matadero Madrid for addressing climate change in Spain. They asked everyone to engage with … climate change in urban air environments, which usually manifests itself as heat waves and heat islands. The place where the project is commissioned is really an old slaughterhouse. There's no trees there. I said, 'Okay, well I can build you a shade. But I want to deal with the cooling problem in a different way.’

One way to physiologically cool is to eat certain things so that you can sweat. My work is with biology and food, so I grow microorganisms into these popsicles, so that you eat those things … and as you eat, you sweat. Basically, the idea is to really have artificial trees that have these robotic incubators; incubators are the devices that grow organisms. So, think of these, like, vending machines. You put the cartridges in, these incubators grow the organisms, and when they are ready they make them available for people to eat.

And do you see that as being an answer to climate issues?

My goal is not to fix the problem, but my goal is to really make people think about the problem. But while they're thinking, they should also cool down. The flavors of the popsicles are designed and based on different intensities of spices, which gives you different levels of sweating. They are also linked to the Paris [Climate Agreement]—like 2.5 degrees, 3.3 degrees. The intensity is mapped to those, so if you really want to go to very high, very low, or medium. It reminds you about the pledge.

I would not reject sustainability, but I focus rather on sustainment. Is the world sustainable for eight billion people? 

Since we're talking about your exhibitions, I know that you're going to be doing one at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

I am officially one of the consulting curators for the “Design for Different Futures” exhibition. But I am also commissioned to make an installation as part of that exhibition, which is called “Breakfast Before Extinction.”

Can you talk more about your installation?

The work is about the human diet, and how in the future we will be shaping the human diet based on the food that we consume, whether it's genetically modified food, food that is grown in the lab from animal cells, or probiotics that we consume to advance our features. Like in the ’80s vitamins were the thing. Now, probiotics are the thing, to augment the human body. So I want people to think about the future of food, but the future of their own body by transforming themselves with food.

It seems like a lot of your work harkens back to the idea of sustainability. Would you say that's true?

It depends on what's behind the question. Because I would not reject sustainability, but I focus rather on sustainment. Is the world sustainable for eight billion people? No, everyone knows that. But are we going to kill each other, to decide who is going to survive? No.

I care a lot about responsibility. I want people to be more responsible with their actions, so that they can make some difference in their lives. Or at least they can educate their kids in a particular way, so that the kids at least have some better chances to survive in the world. I care more about, how do we survive the planet, not just humans?

I wanted to talk about Biorealize, which you started in 2015 [with Penn colleague Karen Hogan]. Can you talk about what need you identified in the market, and how it fills that need?

So I’ve been teaching biological design for a while, so now it's [been] four or five years. And there's always a need to go to the biology lab, work with expert biologists who have PhDs or ... the skills and the knowledge about how to manipulate living organisms. And at some point, I realized that some of the tools used in the field are very archaic.

There's an opportunity there, because there's not a lot of good tools that non-experts can use. So after teaching biological design for a long time, I realized that we can bring some of the tools together, and make them smaller, and smarter, and more accessible to other people ... for growing all kinds of applications from making bioplastics to food, to new materials and all kinds of stuff.

Why is using biological materials better than other options?

In the traditional case, for example, a lot of people are trying to substitute petrochemicals with biodegradable or more-environmentally solutions … like the nylon or plastic bag. All the stuff that doesn't dissolve in the ocean, causing so [many] problems. If you switch to a biodegradable solution, we will not have that. A lot of companies are trying to eliminate all the petrochemicals from their supply chain. In the fashion world … synthetic dyes are polluting the ocean, so they want to transition into using organic dyes, and microbe-sourced organic dyes is a good solution.

There are also new opportunities if we can embed live organisms into our products. They can bring a different kind of intelligence into your product, like a biosensor detecting changes in your body chemistry. An organism in the right context is smarter than your iPhone, because it does things in a tiny little scale, in the most sophisticated way. We cannot really engineer anything that complex yet.

Are there any other notes that you would want to leave readers with?

I think the only reason why I could do this kind of work was because of Penn. The Weitzman School of Design is the only place I feel like I could do this kind of open-ended art and design research.

Is your approach a new way of thinking about design or was it once more static, where people felt more pigeonholed into certain areas?

I'm a promiscuous designer because I don't really think that there's such a thing as a disciplinary identity. Or a particular field to fit in. We always debate whether biological design is a field in itself or not. Ultimately, who cares? I see design education more like acquiring a set of literacies. One learns about programming, modeling, fabrication, or ways to grow organisms ... then bring all these different perspectives, tools, technologies, and knowledge into solving problems or mitigating major challenges.

My [academic] title uses “emerging design practices,” which is about inventing new design fields. So in the first 10 years, I [worked on] biological design, but in the next 10 years it could be another design field. I want to invent new design fields so that we don't get stuck in any of them. If you feel like biological design becomes a thing which is limiting us, let's more forward to something else.

I care a lot now about the human body and the design of the human body more than any other field. We don't have a field called human design. But fashion design works with the surface of the body. Medicine focuses on the inside. But medicine is not known as a design field, right? That's why when I focus on the idea of designing humans, the human diet is just one way of designing the human body. I have issues with how we think about humanness on every level. And this interest is not only limited to the materiality of the body. Or preferring one set of values over others. I also care about how we, as humans, think about our relationship to each other and other species. Human identity, morality, responsibilities, ethics, our place in the bigger picture … it’s pretty complex. And design is a good tool to help us interrogate and critique our values.

Designs for Different Futures” will run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 22 through March 8.

Preview image: Orkan Telhan, Fruits of Matadero, microbially-augmented popsicles, 2019.