Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Biology and the City

Photo from the My City=My Body exhibition website.

A few years back, I got into a conversation with a woman who does research in public health. We were making small chat at a party when the topic turned to her area of study. Her research began with a question: Why are American girls hitting puberty at such a young age? I wondered if it was the hormones in meat and milk. She told me something more stunning: it was probably our drinking water. Her research explores whether the increased use of prescription drugs, especially birth control, is finding its way into our drinking water. You know how Vitamin C just flushes through your system when you take too much? Well, apparently, that's the case with most drugs. I don't think Britta filters for estrogen.

Photo from the My City=My Body exhibition website.

There is a new exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London called My City=My Body. The artist wanted to test the effect of Thames water on the citizens in the city and create a map of their urine samples. From the artist's statement:

My City = My Body is part of ongoing research into future biological interactions with the city. The increasing understanding of our DNA and the rise of bio-technologies will fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and our environment. Today, DNA is a tool for identification, you can have your DNA analysed over the internet and we are creating new types of bacteria by reprogramming its DNA. But what does this mean for tomorrow? Will we have DNA-surveillance and discrimination? Bio-identities and communities? And what will our new interactions look and feel like?

In search for these new biological interactions with the city, I started looking into Thames Water, London's largest "drinking water and wastewater service company." Making use of the Design Interactions work-in-progress-show, I staged an intervention, creating a map of London which contains biological information. Offering tapwater (kindly provided by Thames Water) I have asked visitors to donate a urine sample and give me their postcode, extending my biological map of London. Collaboration or not, it was often in the questions or laughs afterwards that interesting reactions came up.

Gives the saying, "we all live downstream" new meaning.

You can read an interview with the artist on We Make Money Not Art.