Designer Tuur van Balen seeks to redeem the urban pigeon’s status by transforming usually vilified excrement into a useful cleaning agent. Working with biochemist James Chappell, Van Balen employed synthetic biology techniques to create special bacteria from “biobricks”, or standardized genetic building blocks, in order to modify pigeon metabolism. One of the biobricks lowers pH of the Lactobacillus, a naturally occurring gastrointestinal agent, and the other provokes expression of the grease-digesting lipase enzyme. These biobricks are used to create bacterial feed for pigeons, which consequently produce and defecate biological soap. Van Balen has designed two physical interfaces to optimise action of the winged urban cleaners: a wooden frame allows them to land on car windscreens, and an architectural pigeon house appendage is easily attached to windowsills. These contraptions pragmatically link pigeons to basic human transportation and dwelling systems.
Pigeon d’Or lends itself to multiple nested readings: the gut-hosted bacillus becomes the carrier of synthetic genetic information in microbiological terms; pigeons in turn become bearers of synthetic bacteria capable of cleaning car and building windows. This function extends a long legacy of interspecies relations where pigeons have served as messengers and gamers for their human keepers (often middle-aged men, here turned citizen scientists). Finally, the city itself is revealed as a vast, complex technozoosemiotic metabolism, created from a tightly hybridised weave of species and technologies. Earlier biopolitically-oriented art projects have used pigeons: signals from birds fed with RFID-tagged grain input unusual perspectives into CCTV networks in Urban Eyes (Jussi Ängeslevä, Marcus Kirsch, 2004), and homing pigeons equipped with networked air pollution sensors provided environmental information in Pigeonblog (Beatriz da Costa, 2006). With this work, the synthetic biology toolbox used to build artificial life forms is given vital aesthetic and conceptual diversity. And in the history of art and artificial life, Van Balen’s Pigeon d’Or is perhaps a whimsical nod to Vaucanson’s 18th century duck automat, awesomely alive because it shat.
Tuur Van Balen (Belgium, 1981) uses design to explore the political implications of emerging technologies. Through designing and experimenting with new interactions, he constructs thought-provoking new realities. Both the process of creating these objects, interventions and narratives as the resulting physical presence aim to confuse, question and confront different publics with the possible (and impossible) roles of technologies in our everyday lives. Since 2008, Tuur has been working on bringing design into the world of synthetic biology and vice versa. This has led to collaborations with the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, the BIOS group at LSE and the Haseloff Lab at Cambridge University. He has exhibited and presented his work in various contexts, both within the UK and abroad.