“Synthetic Aesthetics” was a two-year experimental, interdisciplinary project that supported six partnerships between synthetic biologists and artists and designers. Each group sought to accomplish two tasks: build an interdisciplinary partnership and construct a joint representation. In this article, I explore the relationship between partnering and representing in one of the six partnerships: a collaboration between an architect and a synthetic biologist. I describe David Benjamin and Fernan Federici’s work on the self-organization and structural growth of xylem cells, and their pursuit of graphical and mathematical representations of so-called biological “logic.” I analyze the case study using two frameworks in unison. The first, from research in STS, explains representation as a social accomplishment with ontological consequences. The second, by pragmatist John Dewey, describes representation as drawing out and drawing into: selecting and extracting out of the world, and molding and installing into human artifice. I study Benjamin and Federici’s work as two acts of drawing out by drawing into: constructing and representing “logic” by forming a partnership to do so; and building a partnership by jointly forming a commitment to the existence of that “logic.” Doing so also involved ontological labor: making biological “logic” and rendering cells intelligible as products of rational mechanisms (as logical cells). Thus, representing and partnering are mutually enabling, mutually dependent and capable of ontological accomplishments. The lesson is useful to STS, a field increasingly concerned with art and design as topics of study and potential partners in work.
- synthetic biology