Where others might seek to reconstruct a woolly mammoth from centuries-old sequences, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is part of an interdisciplinary project to recreate the scents of plant species lost to human colonial destruction of their habitat. Ginsberg trained in architecture and design, earning a PhD from the Design Interactions program at the Royal College of Art in London. For her art installation Resurrecting the Sublime, she collaborated with the scent researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas and the biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks. The installation has been shown around the world, from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and is currently on view at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.
Why were you first known as a ‘guerrilla’ artist?
In 2009, I turned up at MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition with the University of Cambridge iGEM team. While the student team was on stage presenting their work, I was showing a briefcase filled with stool samples made in wax, each a different color, to everyone who might listen. The Cambridge students had genetically engineered [Escherichia coli] strains to produce different colored pigments, and, together with designer James King, we imagined a potential future application: a person would drink probiotic yogurt laced with these synthetic E. coli, turning their feces a different color depending on the chemical markers of different diseases sensed in the body.
Did the colorful turds do more than shock, did they create buy-in for your ideas?
Appearing at a genetic engineering competition with a briefcase of colorful poos was a way to start conversations with the people building this new field. Humor allowed us to start talking together about what synthetic biology might be and how it might affect our lives, in positive, negative and unexpected ways. This led to me joining and curating a large National Science Foundation/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded research project, called Synthetic Aesthetics, set up by synthetic biologists Drew Endy and Alistair Elfick and social scientist Jane Calvert. We paired six artists or designers with six synthetic biologists, from the US to Australia to Japan. They spent a month together in each other’s space: first in the lab and then in the studio.
Were the synthetic biologists reticent to enter an artist or designer’s studio?
We asked them only to spend the month thinking about: What does it mean to design life? Can you design it? How might you design it well? This was all extremely unusual. It was a pure scientific research project, not Sci/art or public engagement, with no specific deliverables apart from developing a critical conversation. The pairs continued working together—in some cases they are still working together ten years later—and it established a powerful precedent for synthetic biology to collaborate closely with art and design. You can read more in our book Synthetic Aesthetics. Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature.
How did the extinct flower aroma project come about?
Resurrecting the Sublime started with Ginkgo Bioworks’ co-founder Jason Kelly saying, “Would it be possible to use synthetic biology to reproduce the smell of an extinct flower?” To Ginkgo, whose customers include fragrance companies, the idea of using synthetic biology as a creative force was really powerful. In 2016, Christina Agapakis, Ginkgo’s creative director, went to the Harvard University herbarium and took tiny tissue samples from the specimens of extinct flowers in their collections. This led to a multiyear research project and then to installations in galleries where hundreds of thousands of people around the world have now experienced a memory of a lost flower.
Which were the three flowers you chose to resurrect?
The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, or Maui hau kuahiwi, grew in ancient lava fields in Maui, Hawaii. It was decimated by colonial cattle ranching, and the last tree died in 1912. The Orbexilum stipulatum was last seen in Kentucky in 1881 before it went extinct and its cultivation failed. In the 1920s a dam completely destroyed its habitat. The Leucadendron grandiflorum, originally from Wynberg Hill, behind Table Mountain in Cape Town, was lost to colonial vineyards. It was last seen in a collector’s garden in London in 1805.
Did you manage to piece the DNA back together?
The DNA was degraded, so the Ginkgo team worked with paleogeneticists at University of California Santa Cruz to extract the DNA. The Ginkgo team then used synthetic biology to first compare the sequences to known sequences from other species that produce fragrance enzymes, in a kind of matching process, and filled in the gaps. They then resynthesized the gene sequences, put them into yeast, and tested the fragrance molecules using mass spectrometry.
Hadn’t this been possible before?
I think the work was really new, although of course DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis tools had been around for decades. And no one had focused on lost flowers before this. The Gingko scientists and engineers produced a list of smell molecules that each plant may have produced. I was blown away. Christina had been telling me about this project for a few years, and now the list was real. It was dizzying. It inspires the sense of the sublime, an eighteenth-century theory from art and literature that encapsulates this feeling of awe and terror at the natural world.
How would you describe the flowers’ smells?
I am not a smell expert, unlike Sissel Tolaas, who reconstructed the smells from Ginkgo’s lists. But as an amateur I would describe the Leucadendron as deep and tobacco-y, the Orbexilum as citrusy and candy-like, and the Hibiscadelphus as rich.
What do you see as the rationale for bringing back lost scents?
It raises a lot of questions. We built these synthetic versions of each flower’s overall smell. But of course, they’re not accurate because we don’t know which molecules were actually in the flower, in what quantities, whether the molecules’ function was smell-related, or even if the genes were switched on to produce those molecules. Hibiscus flowers don’t really smell, as they are bird pollinated. What we end up with is a blurry picture of the past, a false yet powerful memory. But experiencing this creates an emotional, physical connection with the natural world. It is that sense of awe and terror and nature’s fragility in the face of human devastation. Each lost species has a knock-on effect on the pollinators it provides for, affecting the species that rely on those pollinators, affecting habitats, and step by step, contributing to climate breakdown. These plants may seem lost and insignificant, but their loss is significant.
How did your gallery installation capture and transmit that smell to visitors?
The installations are set up like traditional natural history dioramas. But instead of having a stuffed animal as the center of an extinction story, you, the human, are in the frame. In the version at the Natural History Museum, Bern, Switzerland, visitors enter the back of the diorama, turn the corner, and suddenly find themselves in a room containing no sign of living nature, just its traces: limestone boulders, the smell of the lost flower, the soundscape of its lost habitat, all whilst being watched by others. The intention is to make you slightly uncomfortable, to say: “this extinction is because of us.”
What are you trying to say to people by reviving these flowers’ aroma? How does your work touch people’s lives?
Why do we fetishize the new over what already exists? We see technology and nature as separate, but we are part of the natural world and will not survive without it. We invest billions in innovation, on creating new life, whether synbio or AI, but have shamefully failed to protect the extraordinary lifeforms that already exist (of course, the ‘we’ here is not all peoples). Is it because we don’t see other lifeforms as useful to us, whereas new technologies are seen as useful to humanity? This idea of utility is horrifically short-sighted. This paradox is both fascinating and something we urgently need to understand.
You describe your latest AI-driven work at the Eden Project as an unnatural garden. Why so?
I am creating an artwork not for humans, but for pollinators, whose numbers are in global jeopardy. In September 2021, we are planting a 52-meter-long garden at the Eden Project in Cornwall [UK], designed by an algorithm to optimize ‘empathy’ for other species. I’ve defined that as planting to support the maximum diversity of pollinators, using carefully developed regional planting lists that the algo selects and optimizes from. Hopefully, this garden will look strange to human tastes—with every color and size and shape of flower included, plus patterning to support different foraging strategies. It is an unnatural garden designed for nature. I want to challenge what we think of as a garden and who it’s planted for. The algorithm will be online so anyone can create their own artwork for pollinators which we invite them to plant. Keep updated on the Eden Project website.
Current exhibitions of Resurrecting the Sublime
- Apocalypse – End Without End
Natural History Museum
November 11, 2017 –November 13, 2022
- AI: More than Human
Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural
July 22, 2021 –January 9, 2022
- UnNatural History
Herbert Art Gallery
May 28, 2021 –August 22, 2021
This article is reproduced with permission.