I’m republishing here a piece I originally did for the site Irenebrination:
In the last few years there has been a lot of talk about new multidisciplinary or hybrid practices that, in a not so distant future, will fuse together and reinvent disciplines such as art, architecture, science and technology.
Yet in our digital network culture there are already people who have been interconnecting different fields of knowledge and linking ideas that only a short time ago seemed extremely complex or simply unthinkable. Dutch artist Jalila Essaïdi is definitely one of these creative spirits.
A few years ago, fascinated by spider silk thread – a material stronger than steel and produced by a living being – she wondered if humans would be able to develop one day a sort of bulletproof skin.
It took her quite a while to find the scientists and institutions that could support her “2.6g 329m/s” project(the title refers to the maximum weight and velocity of a long rifle bullet from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect its wearer), but eventually she got there.
In 2011 she developed a bulletproof transhuman skin through the Designers & Artist 4 Genomics Awards, a Dutch competition partnering artists and designers with life science institutions, through sponsorship from Fisher Scientific, and in partnership with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands (FGCN), Utah State University, Leiden University Medical Center and the Netherlands Forensic Institute.
Utilising the expertise of these research institutes, the bulletproof matrix of spider silk produced by transgenic goats and worms was implanted in between dermal and epidermal layers of human tissue. This super-human skin was grown in-vitro and tested at the Netherlands Forensic Institute: here skin samples applied on a block of ballistic gel stopped a 2.6g bullet shot at a reduced velocity.
Essaïdi’s project, originally inspired by social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety and invulnerability, suddenly crossed the boundaries of other disciplines. While it may take us a few more years to truly develop a bulletproof skin, Essaïdi and her BioArt Laboratories platform are unlocking innovative developments in the art field, opening new paths for a generation of imaginative and visionary artists who will be informed by a strong critical sensibility towards science and technology.
Essaïdi’s artistic inquiry may indeed be the proverbial tip of the iceberg: her research may be applied to other fields, including bio-engineering, bio-technology and nanobiology, but also fashion and textiles.
The artist, who recently published a book on the project entitled Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers, will be speaking about her research tomorrow evening at Amsterdam’s Hôtel Droog.
Could you please briefly introduce yourself and tell us more about your background studies?
Jalila Essaïdi: I was born in Eindhoven a city with technology, innovation and creativity embedded in her DNA. My father was a medical engineer at Philips and when I was young we always had the most interesting guests for dinner ranging from scientists to artists from all over the world. This atmosphere resulted in interesting discussions at the dinner table about many different topics. At an early age I was already fascinated about how two experts in a different field can have totally different points of view regarding the same topic, both are just a different approach to the truth. To use Eric Kandel’s words: “A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together”. In 2009 I earned my Bachelor’s in Art at Fontys Hogescholen where I graduated in three profiles: three-dimensional artwork, autonomous; educational research and development; and art review, art and cultural history. Driven by my fascination for the dialogue between art and science I followed two Honours classes in BioArt at Leiden University in 2008 and 2010 and since late 2012 I’ve been teaching BioArt myself at Fontys Hogescholen voor de kunsten. Also in 2012 I founded BioArt Laboratories, a platform aimed at stimulating the dialogue between art and science, more specifically ecology and the life sciences.
Your research project is pretty amazing – how did you get the idea for it and how long did it take you to develop it?
Jalila Essaïdi: The idea had been with me for quite some time, since the first time I read Dr. Randy Lewis’ 2001 publication about his transgenic goats, but I hid it away under the rug with all my other unrealistic ideas until 2010 when the first call for the Designers and Artists 4 Genomics Award went out. Around the same year a new publication about synthetic spider silk was published and I figured I might as well give the idea of bulletproof skin a shot for the award and contacted Lewis to test its absurdity level. Prior to this point everyone I discussed the idea with told me it would never work. So I was pleasantly surprised when Lewis responded in a positive way. He confirmed the properties of the silk, properties needed for the project to succeed, and was positive about the potential of combining the spider silk with human skin. This validation helped me to convince other parties and eventually won me the award. This was followed by a hectic period of convincing, organising, realising and compressing a trajectory with multiple partners – something that usually takes several years – in just a few months.
Was there a moment in your research during which you felt skeptical about your work?
Jalila Essaïdi: You need to keep in mind that I didn’t start this project to create a skin capable of stopping a full magazine of AK-74 rounds. I did not aim for something “useful”, instead I wanted to explorer how we deal with this fear of being penetrated. I wanted to get an idea about – and communicate – the mechanism involved in approaching this problem with unconventional materials. I set out to create a bulletproof skin that would still be vulnerable, in other words, I was skeptical myself from the start and pleasantly surprised by the true potential of the material in the end. But, yes, apart from that, there have been moments that I felt skeptical about the project succeeding. Especially while searching for partners after dozens of rejections: just imagine how you’d go and convince another party that you’d like to use their name, expertise and facilities in order to create bulletproof human skin.
In which ways did institutions such as Utah State University, the Forensic Genomic Center, the Dutch Forensic Institute and Leiden University Medical Center support your project?
Jalila Essaïdi: Utah State University is home to Randy Lewis’ team and provided me with a laboratory scale batch of synthetic spider silk. I teamed up through the award with my genomics partner, theForensics Genomics Consortium Netherlands, who had close partnership with the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) and Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). After the spider silk was turned in a bulletproof bio-scaffold in Germany, the dermatology department of LUMC helped me seed this scaffold with human skin cells, creating a full-thickness model that accurately represents all aspects of the human skin. This skin was then tested at NFI on their shooting range and recorded with their bright new high-speed video equipment.
You are also the founder of the BioArt Laboratories: can you tell us more about the purpose of this platform?
Jalila Essaïdi: I founded the BioArt Laboratories in mid-2012. BioArt Laboratories is a place that aims at stimulating education, participation and innovation. It is a place of experimentation, a place that allows one to learn from the experiences of others in the field of art and science, more specifically art and ecology/the life sciences. In a nutshell, it is a place aimed at awaking the multidisciplinary mind in everyone. We have big plans for the years to come, I can only say stay tuned!
Do you feel more like an artist, a scientist or a fashion designer, since, after all, this research could also lead us to develop incredibly resistant textiles?
Jalila Essaïdi: I get this question all the time and it is hard to answer. Both the artist and the scientist search for the truth, but use a different approach. I feel like an artist, but the truth is, the arts often have a hard time accepting change in their domain. It is almost like the arts don’t want to contaminate their pristine bubble of pureness. There is a big difference between the essence of art and how this beast that we call society approves of art. So, yes, I feel like an artist, a fashion designer, a scientist and much more, but in the end they are all just labels and I’m balancing somewhere in between, making the Venn diagram representing an overview of these labels more and more complicated.
In your opinion, will biotechnology and the chance to develop innovative materials have an impact also on the fashion industry?
Jalila Essaïdi: The raw materials of fashion – fibres, textiles, leather or fur – but also their properties like color, all find their origin in biotechnology. For thousands of years humankind has used biotechnology for this purpose. Will new biotechnologies that expanded to include new sciences like genetics impact the fashion industry? Without a doubt and right now we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Which topics will you be touching upon at the Hôtel Droog event?
Jalila Essaïdi: I will talk about spider silk, synthetic spider silk and bulletproof skin. Some interesting points are the ethical dilemma of the use of genetically modified organisms and donor material for artistic purposes and the ethical dilemma of the use of (artistic) research for unintended purposes.
Quite a few students and researchers are currently looking at developing projects and textiles in connection with scientific researches: in your opinion will science have a stimulating role in the future of creative disciplines?
Jalila Essaïdi: Change, innovation and knowledge shape our world. Science and creativity are the language and tools to understand and stimulate this change. Our creative disciplines, the arts, are a way to reflect on the world and its changes. So, naturally, embracing the language of change stimulates they way you can reflect on change.
What would you like to tell instead to those young people who love the creative arts but who may be skeptical about a career in science or biology?
Jalila Essaïdi: You do not need a career in science or biology to understand or work with these disciplines, especially in this day and age where world-class courses on virtually all topics are available for free online from major institutions or platforms like the Kahn Academy. But to convince young people to embrace and understand science in order to better reflect on the world and its changes I’d rather not use my own words but those of Richard P. Feynman when confronted by his artist friend who said that his science dulled down the beauty of a flower: “I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
After the Hotel Droog presentation, will you be taking your project to any other event in Europe or anywhere else in the world?
Jalila Essaïdi: On 20th March I will have a presentation of my recent book Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers at the Van Abbemuseum during the Baltan Sessions – Art, Science and Evolution, and from 4th to 7th April I will be at the 6th International Art, Science and Technology Biennale held in Prague, Czech Republic, “Enter 6: Biopolis”.
The book Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers is out now. Jalila Essaïdi will speak at Hôtel Droog, Staalstraat 7b, 1011 JJ Amsterdam, The Netherlands, tomorrow 7th March, 7.30-9.00 pm.
All images illustrate the project “2.6g 329m/s” by Jalila Essaïdi.
Images 1, 2 and 3: project “2.6g 329m/s” by Jalila Essaïdi, from the Dutch Invertuals 2011, photographs by Raw Color
4. Bulletproof skin ready to be shot
5 & 6. Stills from highspeed footage – Bulletproof skin being pierced
7 & 8. Stills from highspeed footage – Bulletproof skin stopping the bullet
9. Ballistic gel
10. The successful piece of skin that stopped the bullet partly embedded in the gel
11. A timecapsule for bullets
12. The shooting range at the Netherlands Forensic Institute
13. Jalila Essaïdi observing the skin grow at the Leiden University Medical Center
14. Jalila Essaïdi prepairing the bulletproof skin at the Netherlands Forensic Institute
15. FN P90, not the actual gun used but it is a weapon with a highly futuristic appearance which combines nicely with the feel of the entire project.
All images courtesy of Jalila Essaïdi @ JalilaEssaidi.com
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