Interview with Speculative Designer, Agi Haines

Agi Haines’ work is focused on the design of the human body. How might people respond to the possibilities of our body as another everyday material and how far can we push our malleable bodies while still being accepted by society?

Working amongst various artists and scientists who are all focused on creativity and cognition, her inspiration comes from the weird and wonderful things that exist inside us. The team at Design Exchange decided to take a closer look at the work of the amazing, young and ambitious Speculative Designer Agi Haines in a special interview.


DE: Agi Haines, can you present yourself to our creative audience and share with us what fascinates you the most in the creative world?

AH: I am a designer who is fascinated with what the affects of technology will be on the complex and varied material of the human body. The boundaries of the body are forever hard to define; it’s an amalgamation of divergent parts. Being scalped, sculpted and stitched is an acceptable part of everyday life, yet this is not always considered an aspect of design. What are the implications of recognising the fabric of the body as a potential design material? And what is the designer’s role in utilizing their practice to raise important or worthy questions regarding the future of the body?

DE: Can you share with us what stands behind your professional title as a Speculative Designer?

It’s difficult to label your own work and I think it could be given a number of them. Although I myself affiliate with Speculative design, not only due to my training on the Design Interactions program at the RCA, the term was coined by Dunne and Raby, but also because it’s helpful in the fact that it suggests an angle with which collaborators can quite easily grasp my intentions, particularly in the scientific community.

DE: Digitalization and technological developments are increasing at a rapid pace – should we continue to embrace modifications to our brains, bodies and daily lives, or are there boundaries we should overstep?

I think the desire for modification is ingrained in us and has been throughout our history, we are always finding new tools that can offer new ways to alter ourselves. And it’s no surprise that those interested in the onset of new technologies, such as designers, can find fertile ground for research within the boom of bio tech. Although there are exciting and innovate developments here, I do believe it is important to keep in touch with intentions and ethics of biological related research during the process of discovery. I think the visual sensibility of designers can offer important insights here into how we might simulate ideas that are arising through this research, which is a good way to probe these boundaries.

DE: We have noticed that you were nominated and are one of the winners of the Bio Art & Design Awards for 2015, can you share some more information about the award and your contribution?

Yes, the bio art and design awards offer a platform for collaboration and funding for the creation of an artwork that utilises or comments on methods in the biological sciences. I was matched with two scientists from Erasmus MC Rotterdam; Marcel de Jeu and Jos van der Geest and we worked on ‘Drones with Desires’, in which we used my brain data to control the movements of a drone, allowing this data to evolve we could see how the anatomy of my own brain might modify in an alternative anatomical structure. The project aimed to question the modelling techniques associated with manipulating brain plasticity. Looking at how simulacrums are made to replicate the fluid and manipulatable structure of the brain, and whether a public audience does feel as though these models can be a suitable comparison to highlight how their own actions may have an affect on the sensitive structure of our anatomy. The creation of a network and help with the robotics came from two other researchers, Jack McKay Fletcher and Christos Melidis. This trans­disciplinary collaboration is still ongoing.

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DE: You were participating in the Body of Matter exhibition at gallery MU, what was your experience there, how far can you go as a designer and can you personalise organs?

My interest in the selected pieces at the exhibition was the connection to the other the works, and how it opened up a discussion about need and desire, an aspect which I find integral to the critique of work regarding bio medical and healthcare sciences. The common theme was not only related to technology’s affect on the matter of the body but also questioning our personal relationships to it. How might these kinds of technologies encourage us to question who and what we are? It’s interesting for an audience to perhaps then decide where they stand personally regarding the use of these technologies, and how their implementations may affect their lives.

DE: You work also as a Contributing Researcher at Transtechnology Research, which is a transdisciplinary research group situated in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, can you share with us what is your role there and which are the projects you currently work on?

I am a PhD student there working towards my thesis project ‘Ideas Exchange: Understanding the Human Object.’ The research going on in the Trans­technology department is vastly diverse with an overall “objective to understand science and technology as a manifestation of a range of human desires and cultural imperatives.” My position at Plymouth University is also situated within a group called CogNovo, in which a large group of PhD students are collaborating to research projects that are all connected with creativity and cognition. There is a diverse range of disciplines involved in this group, including psychologists, roboticists, cognitive neuroscientists, artists, media philosophers, dancers etc. In itself this course is an experiment in interdisciplinary collaboration, with an attempt to create PhD outputs that are more diversely applicable and less directed to only one discipline alone.

DE:  Can we say that your work in the emerging field of creating and working with living materials is best described as a medium for futuristic design?

Although my work is definitely regarding the use of living material in everyday design futures, I do not actually use living material within my work, instead I often simulate these materials as a way to question whether in fact we should be using them. As many of the technologies I am dealing with, although in existence now, are still works in progress and we do not actually know how they will appear visually. For example, although the surgical procedures in my project Transfigurations are possible, we do not actually know how they might manifest visually as these specific procedures have never been undertaken. Also I think we have been designing modifications for the body through surgical procedures for a long time, the idea of body parts as products has been pondered over through many popular films such as Repo Men. Dentistry is a fantastic example, teeth are popularly modified and dentistry often introduces new materials into the mouth, that although innovative, are not always advertised as design products. So as the introduction of these technologies is a slow process by the time they actually become ready to be integrated into the body it no longer seems futuristic.

Image: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Transfigurations, extending the skin on the scalp increases the surface area for faster heat dissipation. With the increase in global warming this child would be able to withstand working in high temperatures due to the higher number of veins near the surface of the skin. Image: Agi Haines (c) 2016

DE: Can you share with us what stands behind the term “3D bioprinting”? 

3D printing is a technology that uses a range of materials to generate 3D structures by distributing layers of material to build up a designed shape. This has been done with plastics, foods, metals etc, but bioprinting uses this same technology to print cells in layers to form a 3D structure. So the idea is that we may be able to grow patient’s own cells and print new exchangeable parts for their bodies.

DE: Can we produce organs with the click of a computer mouse in the future, do you believe that with technology, we can alter our organs, faces and bodies in the near future?

Actually 3D printing is still extremely difficult and problematic, and although the research is developing it seems as though there is still a lot of work to be done before it’s put into use. 3D printing itself is being used to generate simulations to prepare for surgery and again is being used in dentistry to print teeth implants, but this is still not using biological fabric and the printing of cells has not yet been used. And although I do hope this technology becomes available, even if it does not, it still can offer a way of thinking about the use of human material in a production process that may lead to other insights into fixing or creating body parts. I think the closest use of this technology is currently printing skin in order to fix breakages on the site of the wound, which would be a fantastic way to encourage a debate.

DE: In your opinion, what it will feel like to be a human being a hundred years from now on?

AH: It is hard to imagine what might be happening in 100 years time, although it does seem that currently a lot of research is going into biological technologies. I think through living longer our social systems may change, and we may begin to see the body as an open system for design, one in that we are more open to modification. Yet this is always governed by fashions and ideas of social norms. I think our decisions are affected largely by networks of other cultural inputs, and if, for example, cleanliness may become even more fashionable, the modification of the body may become more invisible, rather than the body hacking visions that things such as bio printing offers. What I am suggesting is that we will always have the desire for advancement and enhancement but this may just manifest itself in the body in different ways depending on new tools, technologies or ideals.

DE: We have noticed that you’re giving a regular Masterclass in Amsterdam covering the subject of Body Prototyping in collaboration with Mediamatic. So, can we design the future “you”?

AH: I definitely think that we should consider what it might be like if we can design the future “you”, we often speculate about the introduction of these body modifying technologies but do not get the opportunity to see how it might feel to actually own them, or see how it could alter you structurally. This workshop opens up these ideas to groups of participants who have the opportunity to simulate how they might look with an external modification.

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

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DE: What is the Masterclass’s main objective and what people can learn if they decide to join this amazing experience?

AH: The experience, although with a focus on the future of biomedical and healthcare technologies actually is based on how to simulate these through traditional sculptural techniques. The participants of the last workshop came with differing objectives, to further their sculptural skills, to try out something new or as a lesson in speculative prototyping. In fact the discussions throughout the day raised some extremely philosophical questions regarding the participant’s personal ideas of self, although I do also hope that it is an opportunity for people interested in these concepts to get their hands dirty and quickly produce something extremely visually exciting, as well as learning skills that are applicable to new projects within their fields.

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016

DE: What does the full day program include and what would be the itinerary if I decide to participate in the Masterclass?

AH: The workshop firstly involves a look at other inspirational material, how others have modified themselves and the main technologies currently involved in future alterations. The participants then have some time to develop modifications of their own through a material exploration of the body, in which they learn how to quickly prototype facial prosthetics, as well as how they can generate these cheaply and easily at home at a later date. It also teaches them how to do a full face cast, resulting in a futuristic moulage of their own modified face that they can take home. Although this is a jump in the deep end for anyone who has no casting experience, this workshop is easily accessible for those who have no experience as well as those who are advanced.

It was great pleasure speaking with you. I am looking forward to attending the Masterclass: Prototyping Bodies during April at Mediamatic Biotoop, Design Exchange wish you success in your future projects.

Words: Gabriela Venkova

Masterclass-prototyping-bodies: Agi Haines (c) 2016


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