Interview with Neri Oxman at C2MTL 2013

This interview with Neri Oxman was conducted on May 22nd, 2013 at C2MTL (thanks!) for The Alpine Review. Due to space and format issues, we had to take out the section it was part of but I very much enjoyed our very quick chat and her thinking so I’m publishing it here.

AR: Very interesting talk, first of all. Beautiful imagery. I was interested by the fact that you don’t use the term ‘biomimicry,’ but I see some parallels. Is this simply a different choice of words or do you see a difference where you are trying to distinguish. 

Neri Oxman: It is an unconscious choice of words. Consciously unconscious. Biomimicry is already so charged a field with different conceptions and definitions of what it is about. It has a very strong metaphorical connotation; this notion that one can mimic biology as opposed to actually design or create biology, is much more interesting for me. Instead of design or technology recapitulating biology, can biology recapitulate technology? Can we, as designers, change the way biology works for us? Directly. That is much more interesting to me. So in a way, that is not biomimicry. It’s such a higher level than that. It’s not mimicry…

There’s more interaction and collaboration.

Exactly. There’s more interface between biology and synthetic design. Mimicry is the wrong term. It’s creation. It’s design.

The CNSILK Pavilion is a good example of that, though I suppose you’re doing both in a way. You’re using what they have and layering new work upon that. 

I never thought about it until this moment, actually. I love that! It makes me think. But it’s true. Biomimicry is all about finding good ways by which to mimic biology as opposed to ‘trick’ it, ‘hack’ it, re-invent it or re-design it.

I wasn’t going to ask, but it keeps teasing at me. When you were explaining that you fed the worms different things, I was thinking of vegans. I was wondering what their perception might be.

That is so interesting. We actually didn’t do it. We looked at research that fed the spider. Yes. We didn’t actually feed the silkworms different types of chemical agents (yet). We’d like to do that. But it’s true. If you think about the world as a cycle, like the Krebs cycle or thermodynamic cycle, we are what we eat. Our metabolic rate defines how we change the world, or what we do in the world. It’s true for biological organisms as well. What they consume, the type of mulberry leaf that they consume, defines the properties of the silk and how strong the structure will be. That’s also something I haven’t thought about, but in a way there is a life cycle, a metabolic cycle, that starts with a silkworm feeding on mulberry leaves, and then these leaves metamorphosing into the silk that is now on our Pavilion. In a way the printing technology, that is, the silkworm, is informed by the material that it has consumed, the mulberry leaf, that has transformed into the silk that it spits out. So, it’s interesting to think about technology in that way—what we feed into our machines, and the way in which our machines consume what we feed them, informs the type of products that we will generate. I guess it makes a designer a bit of an alchemist. A chemist who’s interested in material phases and what happens between those two phases as part of the lifecycle of a product. That’s really interesting.

You mention materials a lot, of course it was a relatively short talk, but you haven’t spoken specifically about what kinds of materials they are. I was thinking of the Remora, for example. 

All the Pompidou collection is photopolymers. So, polymers with different properties and material composition that are photonically [Editor’s note: They start as resins and they harden with laser light.] hardened or solidified in the 3D printer.

And most of the projects you do are with these photopolymers?

All the Pompidou work was done that way. Now with the silkworms we’ve started really understanding silk and how we can change silk. Slowly we’re moving towards more structural materials. I’m trying to move from the product scale to a much bigger scale as well.

I’ve seen some large-scale 3D printers that use some form of cement, is it another direction you’d like to go, or are you more interested in the biological materials?

Maybe a mix. The answer of constructing bigger objects by scaling up the technology is not (I think) the right way to go. If you think about termites, they create those 30m structures using a society of termites that interact together. So, we are now very interested in swarm construction. Swarm robotics.

The printer is not bigger, it’s more printers. 

Exactly. Basically, there is a graph that’s very simple: if you draw the x as the gantry size, and on the y is the product size. Currently, as you go up on the product size, the gantry goes up in size as well. You’ll see that tomorrow with printing wings for airplanes. What they’re doing at Airbus is just that. They have huge gantries that print the wing of the airplane. Once you go beyond that scale, what happens? Will you build a gantry that’s as big as the world? That’s where Google comes in with the distributed network system, not only digital and information-based, but now physical and fabrication-based as well, to create a social network of fabrication units that are smaller than the product to build something bigger.

You’re going more towards the algorithmic, trusting that many things can work together properly instead of just scaling up the ‘thing’?

Yes, but also allowing, or embracing, ‘fuzzy logics’ and nondeterministic systems that are not necessarily confined to zeroes and ones, right and wrong, left and right. If enough swarm goes here we’ll have enough material, just enough. In the same vein that biology does evolution. It will be a very interesting new field that will emerge by combining swarm intelligence and additive manufacturing into a completely new way of thinking about 3D printing. It’s exciting.

You mentioned Google, I saw that they bought a quantum computer with NASA not that long ago. Do you want time on that machine?

Yes, it would be cool to use that power for fabrication. But, if you think about The Blue Brain Project, a huge parallel computer at EPFL that runs in petabytes (1015 which is absolutely ridiculous) or 1015 petaFLOPS [Floating-point Operations Per Second] is I think how you define it. Basically, it’s just very efficient communication, but not different. Like, ‘HAL’ from Kubrick’s 2001:Space Odyssey, is still much more intelligent than the Blue Brain computer. We still have a long way to go to catch up with Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. We’re still thinking about efficiency and not really intelligence.

That’s interesting, because I was reading an article about Neal Stephenson
a few days ago.

Oh, cool! I love him.

And many science fiction writers are being talked about or challenged because a lot of our evolution and innovation seems to be inspired by science fiction, and a lot of science fiction writers aren’t going as far. Gibson, for example, is doing science fiction from two months ago. I think it’s true because we’ve stalled in some areas of innovation.

Except for Clarke, he’s still the man. One can still go back to him and think. He talks about shrinking the size of a human being, that hasn’t been done yet, in order to enable more people to live on planet Earth. Whenever you go back to Clarke, it’s so authentic.

But going back to Clarke, going back to mythologies[Part of Oxman’s talk] it’s science fiction in another direction. 

Exactly. That’s exactly what I was trying to convey.