How to co-cultivate with living technology: In conversation with Natsai Audrey Chieza, Faber Futures
By Purva Chawla
Say you are looking at an exquisite piece of printed silk fabric. The vibrant patterns you see are organic, rhizomatic even; Yet there is the sense of rhythm and repetition that is evident.
Could you, even for a fraction of a second, imagine that it was bacteria that had created such an effect?
It is bacteria that has created these visuals. And the silk fabric belongs to a collection called Fold, generated by London-based R&D and design studio Faber Futures.
Faber Futures is spearheaded by Natsai Audrey Chieza and operates in the realms of living technology and biodesign. Among Natsai's groundbreaking works is Fold, an experiment in assigning color and pattern to textiles by placing them inside a small petri dish full of living, pigment-producing bacteria.
What qualifies as co-cultivation?
The results of this interaction of fabric and bacteria are stunning and have a rhythmic, marbled quality to them. It goes without saying, that devoid of harmful chemical agents, such a method is among the most sustainable ways to dye textiles and achieve a craft-like quality.
If you know a thing or two about biodesign as a field, you will understand why the work that Natsai Chieza is doing is particularly significant. For most research and experiments in the field, the goal is often simply to substitute existing (chemical) functions by using living organisms as building blocks.
Natsai's intent, on the other hand, is not to harvest pigment from living bacteria and use it in conventional processes. Her goal, instead, is to co-cultivate with bacteria, to intervene actively in its processes and arrive at new possibilities of desired pigments, and then direct the bacteria to attach themselves to fabric, producing results naturally and intuitively.
Enabling living technology to perform in this way, and be molded as a material, has required innovation on multiple fronts at Faber Futures. The development of living bacteria as a viable material has been a multi-pronged process: from remodeling and designing custom tools needed in the lab, using digital fabrication, to altering the nutrient flow of the bacteria itself.
From Architecture to Biodesign and Living technology
From a background in design and architecture to the world of research; from the comfort of a studio to a molecular biology lab–this is the challenging and rewarding transition that Natsai Chieza has made. In a recent chat with her, we learn about her journey to co-cultivating with living materials.
During her undergraduate studies in architecture, Natsai found herself far removed from the development of materials, only focussing on sourcing and selection– a general deficit in the architectural curriculum. Paired with a long-time interest in textiles and fashion, this unmet need to engage with materials led Natsai to the MA in Textile Futures (now Material Futures), a program at Central Saint Martins in London.
The program became a significant opportunity to consider materiality, through the lens of textile design. Here, owing to interactions with instructors, Natsai became fascinated with the intersection of science, design, and textile–development.
She found herself seeking a new way of 'making' for the future– one where living organisms would act as the primary raw materials.
This question triggered a long-standing collaboration for Natsai, with the Ward Lab at University College London. Professor John Ward became an advisor and facilitator for Natsai's research, all conducted in his lab, and helped her navigate the foreign territory of cultivating bacteria, for textile development.
Engaging with industry and supply chains
Beyond this one particular application of pigment-producing bacteria, Natsai sees unlimited potential for living materials in many other avenues. "Like wood," she says,"which has hundreds of ways of being used, living materials are firmly planted within the production of design and craft now." She cites a few other applications–technology that is bringing ink from bacteria to pens, and even food coloring drawn from living organisms.
The most promising and exciting attribute of Natsai's work at Faber Futures is that it is geared towards tangible and industry-suitable production. Rather than being speculative and occasional, the output at Faber Futures wants to engage with the supply chain for the textile and fashion industry, in a bold and massive way.
We can't wait to see this happen and be exposed to the growing potential of living materials, through Natsai's work.
Natsai Chieza is currently doing a three-month residency at Konstnärsnämnden, Iaspis in Stockholm, Sweden. Please find links below to her work, research and prior residencies.