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Exciting new window display at the Wellcome Trust headquarters

4 February 2010

WHAT IF... window art
A new window display at the Wellcome Trust probes the space between the possible and the impossible, where designers and scientists meet to explore the future.

What if...we could evaluate the genetic potential of lovers? What if...our emotions were read by machines? These are just some of the questions addressed in the new window display at the Wellcome Trust headquarters at 215 Euston Road, London.

The display features six different projects created by students, graduates and staff from the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art, each offering an alternative view of how science could influence our future. The purpose is not to offer predictions, but to inspire debate about the human consequences of different technological futures, both positive and negative, by asking 'What If…?'

Curated by leading London based design duo Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, 'What If...?' features a range of works by designers who have explored everything from clouds engineered to 'snow' ice cream, through to the social consequences of machines that could read your every emotion.

'Evidence Dolls' features hundreds of plastic dolls used to provoke discussion among young women about the impact of genetic technology and how it affects their choice of lovers. With Valentine's Day just round the corner, the piece forces the question - how will dating change when DNA analysis can reveal the presence of undesirable genes?

Other projects feature large-scale photographs and video to explore topics such as synthetic biology and the subtleties of facial expressions.

Anthony Dunne explains: "There are no solutions here, or even answers; just questions, ideas and possibilities. They probe our beliefs and values, they challenge our assumptions, and they help us see that the way things are now is just one possibility - and not necessarily the best one."

WHAT IF... window art
Image: The window display at 215 Euston Road. Credit: Dunne & Raby, 2010/Wellcome Images

The display will be refreshed with new designs throughout the year with the first instalment unveiled on Thursday 4 February.

Senior Curator at the Wellcome Trust, James Peto said: "It's great that there will be so much change built into the designs for the Euston Road windows this year. By next Christmas 'What If...?' will have showcased projects by 15 different students, graduates and staff from the Design Interactions course. The windows offer a great platform for asking some gently provocative questions about humanity's relationship with technology. We estimate that around 5000 people pass by them every day, on foot alone."

The windows of 215 Euston Road have a six-year history of providing thought-provoking features of interest to passers-by. Individual designers are given the brief of bringing attention to the building by addressing the work of the Wellcome Trust in a way that can be quickly absorbed from a passing car, while also offering something engaging for those on foot who might choose to linger longer. Past projects have included Graphic Thought Facility's vibrant neon drawings of protein structures and Timorous Beasties' giant lace curtains and lampshades embroidered and printed with a riot of images of mosquitoes, syringes, neurological patterns and much more, gleaned from the Wellcome Library.

About the projects:

What if...we could evaluate the genetic potential of lovers?
Evidence Dolls: Dunne and Raby, 2005
'Evidence Dolls' consists of one hundred plastic dolls used to provoke discussion among a group of young single women about the impact of genetic technology on their lifestyle. How will dating change when DNA analysis can reveal the presence of undesirable genes? The evidence dolls come in three versions based on penis size (small, medium and large). A black indelible marker is provided to note down any characteristics on the doll's body. Hair, toenail clippings, saliva and sperm can be stored in the penis drawer.

What if...clouds were geo-engineered to snow ice cream?
The Cloud Project: Zoe Papadopoulou and Cathrine Kramer, 2009
Developments in nanotechnology and planetary-scale engineering point to new possibilities for us to manipulate the global environment according to our needs. These advances, combined with a dream to make clouds snow ice cream, inspired a series of experiments that look at ways to alter the composition of clouds to make new and delicious sensory experiences. Using ice cream as a catalyst for dialogue, the project's focus is to welcome people into a 'nano' ice cream van and allow new audiences to experience and imagine emerging scientific developments and their consequences.

What if...our emotions were read by machines?
Belief Systems: Bernhard Hopfengärtner, 2009
Facial micro-expressions last less than a second and are almost impossible to control. They are hard-wired to the emotional activity in the brain and can be easily captured using specially developed technological devices. Free will is in question as science exposes decision-making as an emotional process rather than a rational one. This ability to read emotions technologically could result in a society obsessed with emotional reactions. Emotions, convictions and beliefs, which usually remain hidden, now become a public matter. 'Belief Systems' is a video scenario about a society that responds to the challenges of modern neuroscience by embracing these technological possibilities to read, evaluate and alter people's behaviours and emotions.

What if...we accept co-evolution with bacteria, microbes and parasites as a healthy option?
The Race: Michael Burton, 2007
For every human cell in the body there are ten nonhuman cells - bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes - living inside and on you. They are vital to many of your daily functions. 'The Race' responds to this and to human meta-genomic research to reconsider our approach to healthcare as a co-evolved organism and conglomeration of vital bacteria, microbes and parasites. The project scrutinises our inadvertent assistance of super-bugs like MRSA through the overuse of antibiotics. Instead it offers alternative enhancements, new behaviours and objects for a more symbiotic future.

What if...everyday products contained synthetically produced living components?
The Synthetic Kingdom: A natural history of the synthetic future: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, 2009
How will we classify what is natural or unnatural when life is built from scratch? Synthetic biology is turning to the living kingdoms for its materials library. No more petrochemicals: instead, pick a feature from an existing organism, locate its DNA and insert into a biological chassis. Engineered life will compute, produce energy, clean up pollution, kill pathogens and even do the housework. Meanwhile, we add an extra branch to the Tree of Life. 'The Synthetic Kingdom' is part of our new nature. Biotech promises us control over nature, but living machines need controlling. Are promises of sustainability and healthiness seductive enough to accept such compromise?

Growth Assembly: Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, 2009
Using synthetic biology, manufacturing instructions are encoded into plant DNA so that products can be shipped as seeds. Grown within plant supporting structures, the components of the Herbicide Sprayer are harvested then assembled.

What if...bacteria recoloured our world?
E. chromi: James King and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, 2009
For the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), seven Cambridge University undergraduates modified E. coli to secrete coloured pigments. These bacteria, which were named 'E. chromi', have many potential uses, including biosensors to test for pollutants in drinking water. How might the use of bacteria to produce pigments develop? What are the broader implications? The timeline considers products we might buy that use 'E. chromi', people whose livelihood might depend on it, and laws that might be needed to regulate it.

Contact:

Jen Middleton
Media Officer, Wellcome Trust
T
020 7611 7262
E
j.middleton@wellcome.ac.uk

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK T:+44 (0)20 7611 8888