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Wyss Institute Faculty Curate “Selects” Exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The 18th installation of the acclaimed series explores Biofuturism through art and design

By Lindsay Brownell

(BOSTON) — A century ago, a group of Italian artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives proclaimed the creation of Futurism, an artistic, design, and social movement that celebrated modern technology and imagined how it would shape the future of society. This week, a new formulation of that spirit dubbed “Biofuturism” is being presented at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum by a group of faculty members from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, all of whom work in disparate scientific fields but share the conviction that biology-based design can go beyond simply imagining the future, and instead be used to actively create world-changing technologies. The Wyss Institute is the first scientific institution invited to guest curate a Selects exhibition at the museum.

Wyss Institute Faculty Curate “Selects” Exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Digital Print, The Bionic Leaf, 2019; Designed by Pamela Silver (American, b. 1952) and Dan Nocera (American, b. 1957); Schematic designed in collaboration with Donald Ingber (American, b. 1956); Drawing by Lei Jin (American, b. 1976); Courtesy of Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University

Organized by the Wyss Institute’s Founding Director Don Ingber in collaboration with co-faculty members Joanna Aizenberg, Jennifer Lewis, Radhika Nagpal and Pam Silver, the “Wyss Institute Selects” exhibition draws from Cooper Hewitt’s expansive permanent collection of over 210,000 objects, and from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to show how artists and scientists have been inspired by nature throughout history, and to explore examples of Biofuturism in action, including geodesic domes, artificial limbs, performance enhancing clothing, and other technology innovations created by Wyss faculty. It is on view from July 12 through March 8, 2020 in the Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery, concurrently with the museum’s “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial,” which also features several Wyss Institute projects.

“As active scientists and engineers at the Wyss Institute, we were surprised and honored to be invited by Cooper Hewitt to curate a Selects installation in parallel with their Nature exhibition. We all have had long-held interests in art, architecture, and design, and have been meaningfully inspired in our own scientific research by these fields, but we go beyond the Futurists by using these ideas to guide the development and commercialization of new bioinspired technologies, which we hope will redefine our future and make the world better for all,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

“As the first scientific institution to guest curate a ‘Selects’ installation at Cooper Hewitt, the Wyss Institute has brought together a revelatory selection of objects from our permanent collection that enlist nature as a guide, from a high-performance prosthetic foot inspired by the movement of a cheetah to the tetrahedral shapes appearing in Isamu Noguchi’s rocking stool,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the museum.

Through its catalog of artifacts chosen by the Wyss members, the exhibition explores the enduring influence of nature on artists, designers, and scientists, from works that celebrate the beauty of natural forms to efforts to understand the underlying principles that provide living organisms with their incredible strength, resilience, and efficiency.

The exhibition’s Natural Forms section explores how the beauty and harmony of nature has sparked the imagination of artists and designers working in virtually every medium throughout time using a single paradigmatic natural form as an example—the “spiral” seen in shells or fossils. A Danish tea set decorated with the swirls and whorls of seashells is featured alongside a model of a spiral staircase, as well as similarly shaped earrings, serving plate, candlestick, and beechwood chair whose arms and back curve gracefully in tentacle-like shapes.

The Architecture of Life section goes deeper into the structural basis of form and features tensegrity structures designed and built by Kenneth Snelson and Buckminster Fuller, whose work inspired Ingber’s groundbreaking insights into the structure of living cells and the influence of physical forces on biological systems. This section also includes Nagpal’s Kilobots, which self-organize like swarms of ants or schools of fish to achieve tasks beyond what any one of them could perform alone. A basket, a rocking stool, and a woven wall hanging are also included, all of which feature the triangulated shapes and self-stabilizing tensegrity mechanisms that also structure the basic building blocks of life.

The Synthetic Biology section includes artistic objects that mimic biology, such as a beautifully vibrant textile by aboriginal designer Judith Kngwarreye who creates a landscape of local flora and fauna.. It also features Aizenberg’s nanoscale crystal “flowers” and artificial cilia-covered self-cleaning materials, and an artificial Vascular Tree sculpture from the Lewis lab, which features silicone tubing filled with a dyed polymer that imitates blood flow through vessels, and guides how her team builds artificial vasculatures into their 3D printed organs.

Finally, the Biofuturism section examines how biologically inspired design can change our bodies and the world. Among the items on view is a balaclava from Stoll’s Performance+ series of athletic garments that incorporates a mesh structure with copper wire that heats air to 104⁰ F before it is inhaled, decreasing the incidence of chest infection among runners and other winter athletes. The Flex-Foot Cheetah X-tend running blade is an artificial leg that interfaces directly with the human body to improve its performance, and is the only prosthetic foot that has ever been worn in the Olympics. Also included in the collection are fellow Wyss member Rob Wood’s RoboBee microscale robot whose flying motions replicate that of a bumblebee, Silver’s “Bionic Leaf” that captures solar energy to produce oxygen and fuel like a living plant leaf, and Organs-on-Chips from Ingber’s lab lined with living human cells that recapitulate the structure and function of human organs within a handheld plastic chip as way to replace animal testing and advance personalized medicine.

“We hope that the broad range of objects that we have selected for this exhibition convey the potential of biologically inspired design to have an enormous impact on nearly every aspect of human life, and encourages people from diverse fields to look to nature for fresh ideas to both existing and new problems,” said Ingber.

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