Pigeon d’Or proposes the use of pigeons as a platform and interface for synthetic biology in an urban environment. Tuur van Balen’s project attempts to make them defecate soap! By modifying the metabolism of bacteria naturally occurring in the gut of pigeons, synthetic biology allows to add new functionality to animals commonly seen as vermin and “flying rats,” turning them into tools for urban disinfection. In collaboration with James Chappell, the artist has designed a special bacteria that, when fed to pigeons, turns their faeces into a biological window soap. It has been created using “biobricks”, standardized genetic building blocks collected in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts set up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003. One “biobrick” lowers the pH level in Bacillus subtilis, the other makes it express lipase, a grease-digesting enzyme.
This both micro and macro scale art project addresses the ethical, political, environmental and safety-related consequences of synthetic biology. Will we suddenly care for the manipulated pigeon’s health – while usually trying to poison them without remorse? Will we treat pigeons differently once they become useful for cleaning our cars? Is it dangerous to release products of synthetic biology into the environment?
Van Balen has designed two functional objects: The first one is an architectural contraption by which pigeons potentially become part of the museum space. The pigeonry, attached to the museum windowsill, allows the pigeons to be fed and thus indirectly enhanced to clean the city of Vienna. The second artefact is an interface for parked automobiles, allowing pigeons to land and defecate soap on the windscreen.
Tuur Van Balen uses design objects, interventions and narratives to explore the political implications of emerging technologies in our everyday lives. Since 2008, he has been working on bringing design into the world of synthetic biology and vice versa. He is also a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art in London.