#btconf Berlin, Germany 11 - 12 Sep 2023

Yasaman Sheri

Yasaman Sheri is Designer & Director, investigating human relationship to technology and the creative inquiry into ecology and life sciences. Her artistic and critical practice explores the plurality of senses and sensing, perception and the invisible scales at which humans frame and reframe ecology through culture, society and technology. She is the Principal Investigator of Serpentine Galleries Synthetic Ecologies Lab and an educator and design leader with more than a decade of experience in building platforms and novel interfaces in mixed reality, immersive computing, and life sciences.

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Synthetic Ecologies


Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you so much, Marc, for that wonderful intro and also for making this conference extremely accommodating and everything's working so beautifully.

I also want to thank everyone for staying for the last talk.

I know everyone has been watching so many talks and maybe you don't have the mental capacity to listen to this one, but it's also extremely warm.

But I will try to make it hopefully worth the while.


My name is Yasmin Sherry and I'm currently living in Los Angeles and I'm coming from there.

I'm a designer, writer and researcher.

However, throughout the years I've been asked what I am.

And I like to think of myself in this way where I can stand outside of myself and kind of look from a different perspective.

This perspective has given me ways of thinking about myself differently.

So instead of telling myself what I am, I try to ask myself what I do and what I like to do.

So I like to ask questions, design and build platforms, seek creative inquiry and imagination, mentor, lead through inspiration.

And I have a curiosity-driven practice as well as work with tools for exploring ecology and life sciences in our climate crisis today.

So when people ask me what I do and what I build, this is what I like to come back to.

A verb, not a noun.

And so this talk is really mostly about breaking boundaries and to shift our perspective and consider new ways of seeing.

And so I'd like to start with someone I hold dearly to my heart who has passed away a few years ago, Bill Muggeridge.

We call the grid compass a compass computer.

And arguably the first laptop that was actually ever produced is this one.

And you can carry it with you.

We designed it to be thin enough to fit in half your briefcase so you could put papers in as well.

And there was a leg at the back that flipped down to put it at the right angle for using at the ergonomic preferred angle of 11 degrees.

And we wanted to devise a hinge that would allow it to rotate so the display could come up but also not let anything into the electronics behind.

So in order to avoid something like a pencil falling into it, let me just show you what could happen.

If you put a pencil on the back, it would roll down and drop inside.

I designed a scoop that would then self-eject the pencil when you closed it.

So there's a little trick of that.

When I got the first working prototype, I took the machine home, you know, really thrilled about wanting to use it myself.

And it was with great pride that I sort of, you know, opened up the display and thought how clever I was to have designed this latch and this hinge and all this stuff.

And then I started to actually try and use it.

And within a few moments, I found myself forgetting all about my physical design and realizing that everything I was really interested in was happening in my relationship between what was happening behind the screen.

I felt like I was kind of being sucked down into the machine.

And the interaction between me and the device was all to do with the digital software and very little to do with the physical design.

That made me realize that if I was going to truly design the whole experience, I would really have to learn how to design this software stuff.

That made me search for a name for it, which we ended up calling interaction design.

So I'll stop right there.

This obviously was Smithsonian Design Museum Cooper Hewitt in New York City.

And he actually founded the first design museum in New York City.

He founded the term interaction design.

He came from an industrial design background.

But I love this moment where you build the first laptop and you have this moment of epiphany that actually the digital system is more interesting than the physical system that he has been building.

Not to say that it's more important today.

But for him, he had that moment.

So he created a whole new field out of that.

Now for myself, in relation to that, I happen to be an interaction designer.

And over the last decade and a half, I've been building interfaces for augmented reality using a lot of the sensors that Charlie talked about.

So I'm actually really glad that she was before me.

And so I won't get into what I do in that space.

And in fact, I'd like to just pass over this work.

But I worked on the first Microsoft HoloLens operating system, first one and the second one.

And then moved on to kind of work on Magic Loop 2, lead the team there, work with Ikea Space 10, Meta currently with neural interfaces using micro gestures as well as Google X self-driving cars, blah, blah, blah.

There's a lot of work here that's really interesting.

But ultimately, a lot of this work is about working with new sensors and new inputs.

And these things that essentially Charlie talked about are being productized and being made into the market and people are using them.

In addition to that work, I began to teach.

And so part of my teaching became about inputs and interactions in that way.

And teaching students how to think about interaction design, inputs, coding, interactivity, and so on.

But what I really want to talk about today is something beyond that.

Which is I like to work across disciplines.

And when disciplines start to separate, I ask questions.

Because I know for a fact that they meld with each other.

So I intentionally put myself and situate myself in the intersections and the boundaries of disciplines.

More recently, I've been interested in gaming, in culinary arts, choreography, sciences, and biotechnology.

In fact, this example is William Forsyth, who's a choreographer.

And his this project is called Choreographed Objects.

And he's actually a choreographer working with this digital technology and how people perceive their own bodies in this digital space.

So with my students, we also try to do the same.

We try to kind of look at inputs and interactions that change our perspective of ourselves.

You can see some of this work is around gestural interactions.

Some of them is around navigation.

Some of it around eye tracking.

Some of it more physical.

We also do a lot of physical computing.

But ultimately, doing all this work and being in a space of education and academia, even though it's very hands on, we began to ask the question, how come we have to focus on machine sensing when we ourselves and the nature around us also has sensing?

So part of this questioning, kind of like Bill Muggeridge, I hope, we began to build some new form of practices.

So we actually explored smell or we explored biological sensing.

And so with the students, we would go to a biotechnology lab.

We would go to a zero waste kitchen.

We went to Noma fermentation lab, Noma being one of the world's best restaurants in Copenhagen.

We took environmental samples working with scientists.

And part of this was kind of curiosity driven questioning and try to find what is it about sensing that we're curious about.

So we went from machine sensing to biological sensing.

And what is that?

I didn't know what that was.

So for myself, I had to go investigate.

I had the privilege of being the creative resident at Ginkgo Bioworks in 2018.

And turns out that chemically and biologically, we actually do have apparatus and technological devices, even though they might be more physical, that do sense.

For example, this is a litmus test.

It tests HP.

Everyone knows that.

But actually with advanced technology, you can also sense other biological forms.

This is a molecule.

It's actually a biosensor.

It's a protein that senses molecule.

And so I began to look at, wow, there's all these proteins that sense different things.

This is called this biosensor anthology that I began to build like a list.

What do they sense?

Well, it senses nicotine, calcium, smells of different kinds, mercury, hormones, all sorts of things that exist in nature.

You can actually sense them.

But this is inside the lab.

This is me working with scientists to actually find 3D models and trying to find out what the test is.

There's a picture of me that I'm going to skip.

But I was in the lab.

And in the lab with completely different technology, with completely different materials that were actually way more physical, way more interactive, that were not digital or in this kind of computational at all, I was able to work with scientists to kind of build new biological sensors.

So here we actually have a biosensor embedded inside a living yeast.

And so this yeast can technically smell.

And so what it can smell is a smell of chamomile.

And so here the yeast is interacting with a E. coli.

And it smells chamomile.

It turns blue.

This is what we worked together to build.

Is this ethical?

I'm not sure.

But there's a lot of there's definitely a lot of people working on this.

In fact, a lot of it is happening in Germany and in Denmark, in Europe.

So for me as a designer, though, I'm not interested in working in the lab.

I'm more interested in building from a physical human perspective and sizes, scales that mean something to me.

So I began to work with paper as a material, similar to the litmus test.

And I wanted to know what it's like to have a new biological sensor.

So here we're building different sensors that test different molecules.

And I asked the question, could they could they be created in different formats?

So maybe they're actually necklace or they're wearables that are made of paper that can sense that don't have to be digital and they can be actually more physical.

This project actually led me to ask a lot of questions and write more about this idea of sensing.

What does sensing mean?

Is sensing something that should be shared by everyone?

Should people decide what should be sensed and what shouldn't?

In fact, when it came to the idea of hormones, there was a lot of conversation about the ethical elements of having a hormonal sensor.

So here I wrote a manifesto for sensing in the age of sensors.

And if you're curious to read it, here's a QR code.

I'll wait a second here.

But part of this manifesto, which is obviously not finished, and I shouldn't be the only person who writes it, is just kind of trying to bring out a lot of my learnings and thinking when I began to work with sensors and still do.

And I think that more of us should be talking about this.

As Charlie mentioned, this is going to be much more ubiquitous than we think.

So as I began to work with biological interfaces, I began to realize that my interests were in the way that we perceive, not just the way I perceive, not just the way living things perceive and machines perceive from a micro scale, but also from a micro scale.

We're talking about the climate crisis.

We're talking about the ecology.

How come no one's talking about this?

And we're kind of in our own bubbles, building whatever we want to build with the professions that we have.

So I wanted to explore this further.

One thing that I've realized with scales beyond ourselves that are bigger or smaller than us, kind of like microbiology or biotechnology or ecology when we talk about the climate is that we don't actually perceive it.

We're working with charts, graphs, models, simulations.

We don't actually fully understand the scale that we're working with.

And this is part of the challenge.

This is Google Earth.

We use it all the time to kind of understand our scale.

This is another microscope.

We're going deep, smaller.

But also simulations don't have to be in this kind of microscope, macroscopic way.

People are building simulations.

This is a long time ago.

This is a book called Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds by Mitchell Resnick from MIT Media Lab.

And it's actually a simulation of termites and how similar they are to traffic jams and all these other parallel worlds.

In addition to that, there's other simulations.

For example, we're simulating ecology inside closed spaces.

This is called Biosphere 2.

And inside Biosphere 2, there are four ecologies that was simulated as a closed system.

There's a lot of controversy around this work.

But I went to visit that space.

And I became very interested, once again, in the new kinds of interfaces that we might think about ecology.

And in this way, it was less about paper this time.

And I began to work with glass as a material.

And glass, as an interaction designer, glass is so strange to work with.

Especially because it is a material that has existed for a really long time.

And it's very...

It feels very non-technological, even though it is.

So I began to work with glass and work with glass artists to also build microscopic interactions.

So here we have actually microbes inside this closed space.

Because when we think of ecology, we think of massive scale.

But what if we would be building micro scale?

And this happened during COVID.

Which was very interesting.

Because COVID is exactly the micro scale that we're talking about that can be so challenging.

So to incorporate my curiosity into my practice, I began to have this new kind of practice.

What is it?

Who am I?

Am I a scientist?

I don't think so.

Am I a designer?

I still think so.

And so during COVID, when it was really challenging, I wanted to take all this learnings back.

And I became very interested in the desert.

And why the desert?

Well, the desert feels like a surface that is completely devoid of life.

And I wanted to know, what is a space that's devoid of life?

That life doesn't exist?

Well, that's not even true.

This is in Antarctica.

Again, Charlie, I think if you're interested in Antarctica, we should chat.

I have a really good friend, Ariel Waldman, who actually is an Antarctic explorer.

And she works with microbes.

And it turns out that there's plenty of life in deserts.

And people just don't talk about it.

Even though it's a...

Antarctica is actually a desert.

It's just a polar desert.

A driest continent on Earth.

And Antarctic explorer, and she's also president of the SF Microscopic Society.

And so I wanted to explore this idea of viewpoint.

How come we view nature as green?

How come we think of it in this way that is not realistic to what scientists think about?

And so I wanted to step back from what sciences are and what people's perspectives are.

And kind of go back into my own practice.

And my own practice being one of design.

And so I became interested in topography.

And how we have created visualizations and symbolism around life forms.

And here you can see we're even ornamentally decorating letterheads.

And this is really what we're doing with life forms.

We're decorating.

We have inside malls.

We have plants and all sorts of things.

And even inside our own typography, we have something called a horticultural dingbat.

Which is essentially a decorative object.

And so it feels kind of crazy to have nature as a decorative object.

So I wanted to go back into digital interfaces.

And I asked myself, what is it that I could do?

Well I wanted to bring microbes into people's awareness.

So I began to build, I became interested in this category of life forms called extremophiles.

And extremophiles are essentially microbes and organisms that exist in extreme spaces.

So extreme heat, extreme acidity, extreme cold, extreme salt, and so on.

I began to collect them.

Collect what kind of extreme?

Are they have unique behaviors?

Are they different colors?

What family are they?

Are they bacteria or are they fungi?

Are they algae?

Are they archaea?

And so as I began to collect these, once again building lists, I began to kind of build abstractions of them.

These abstractions then became part of my vocabulary that I wanted to share back with everyone.

And how did I share back this?

Well we built a typeface.

We built a typeface of all these different microbes that you can actually not only learn about them, but with a collaboration of scientists, we also actually built their DNA that is embedded in the typeface itself.

And so all these things could seem like an art project to someone, but ultimately I think what this is about is curiosity and discourse.

To be able to talk about why is it that we look at nature in this way?

Why is it that we don't talk about microbes?

Why is it that we don't talk about climate in our own digital interactions?

So as these works continued and as I began to make this part of my practice and bring it into something that I care deeply about, I also realized that for this to work well, we need to talk about it.

We need to have discourse.

So for me, the idea of a collective imaginary is very, very important.

So what we did many, many times is have workshops around this.

We had, for example, a lot of different physical tools, because these are invisible things, to actually begin to build.

So here's a workshop that we did called Sense Objects, and they look really funny and cute, but actually these are trying to capture the collective imaginary of a company's biotech lab, and people who have access to crazy stuff that they're building behind closed doors, but actually don't have the creative spaces or capacity to be able to imagine something beyond cancer development.

And so here we are building Sense Objects together and collecting maybe the CEO or someone else's imaginary through these objects.

And this for me was not only important, but also everyone loved it.

Everyone felt like, wow, I can't believe we're sitting with all these new technologies and we can't even imagine beyond our own funding.

So it's really beautiful to have many people involved as part of this.

And so as I continue, just like many speakers here were mentioning, I continue to do this work even though for many people it was like, why are you doing this work?

Why does it matter?

Does it even make sense?

Is it just an art project?

And I got a call from Serpentine Galleries in London to create a lab around art and technology.

And so today we have a lab called Synthetic Ecologies Lab.

What is the lab about?

The lab looks into the creative inquiry into ecology.

It's quite timely because it's really important for me to explore ecological work and also look into the artistic and design practice into the climate crisis that we have, but not from kind of a fixing mindset, but also from a more creative mindset.

An overarching goal is to also create a powerful platform for artists, designers, scientists, and many people like you who are sitting today to build tools, databases, and also interfaces to be able to imagine and experience and practice what could contribute to these kinds of narratives that we're telling each other.

In my practice, what I've always been doing is building lists.

So one thing that I noticed in list building is that there are so many different kinds of knowledge systems.

And sometimes they're siloed out from each other.

So here I am collecting all these different knowledge from graphic novels to writings about future of technology from the past to scientific knowledge to historical knowledge to indigenous knowledge.

And so I wanted to share that with other folks and make it public and make it something that is free.

So I was very inspired by Ted Nelson.

If you don't know who Ted Nelson is, I highly recommend you look him up.

He's actually, quote unquote, the father of the internet, but he created this notion of a hypertext.

And hypertext on the left being everything is deeply intertwined became hyperlink, which became essentially the internet.

And so with that mindset, we wanted to have this idea that any idea can be connected to each other, whether it's from multiple disciplinary practices.

So we collaborated with a platform called Arena.

If you don't know Arena, you should definitely look it up.

It's a very, very lovely platform for creating all sorts of things.

It's kind of like Pinterest, and there's a really lively community on Arena.

And so kind of like a book, we wanted to create a compendium, a database, an archive, a directory, a resource, and a collection that was lists.

So we built the first synthetic ecologist compendium.

And season one, we decided to focus on microbial lores, stories about microbes.

And so in this way, I wanted to not just do work on my own, but also bring this kind of curiosity-based practice with other folks to build what I call a guild.

And a guild was a collective.

And I went after the best of the best in the field.

I went after Angela DiMaiuga, who is an award-winning chef who not only thinks about what food means, but what food means in a collectivity, and thinking about the future of food for other people.

I went after a flavor historian, Nadia Bernstein.

Lucy Chinan, who created the first bio-based material practitioner, and she also made the first algae-based food called non-food.

I went after Kyra De Leona, who is a really, really thoughtful scholar and researcher.

Charles Broskowski, who is a co-founder of Arena.

Claire Evans, who is an author, an author of broadband, who I also recommend, history of women in computing.

Joshua Evans, novel fermentation lead at University of Copenhagen.

Namita Patel, a fermentation scientist at Crick Institute, where they founded the DNA.

Sital Selenki, all these people.

Alexander Boyes, my lovely producer.

And all together, we sat weekly, sitting in the uncomfortable moments of completely different practices, completely different ways of thinking, to bring together, essentially, a database.

A database that we've created for the public free, that is about the first season, about microbial lures.

And here, you can find all sorts of information, not just scientific, not just historical, all sorts, maybe even indigenous.

So for example, we have South African fermentation diet, the DADs.

We also have a Bjork quote, which I will read to you.

The nature and the word techno mean the same thing.

Depends if you look at it from the past or from the future.

For example, a little cabin in the mountain, an ape might think of it as techno.

It is in the future.

But for us, it has become nature.

We must live with both.

It is very important.

And we can't just do nature or just techno.

In addition to this whole database that we've built, we've made it so that every one of you can make your own booklet and your own database for it.

So you can make a new database and call it a new thing.

For example, Mindy Sue, who designed the website, who also is the author of Cyber Feminist Index, she wrote Slime Molds and Silicon Valley.

Another person, Somnath Bath, who also created all the visuals for it, created Machines in the Garden.

So you can have any kind of curation of this database of your own, which comes in a PDF format for yourself to keep.

This is all the list of folks who collaborated beyond the guild.

And last but not least, I wanted to talk about one last thing, which is essentially how we see the world.

And coming back to the beginning of my talk, which is about how I see myself, but also how I might see a scientist or a scientist might see me, I had the privilege to write this book with my collaborators, Wang and Sorensen.

And this book recently came out called Royal Chambers.

I highly recommend it to everyone.

It's an absolutely beautiful book.

And every story, we have five stories in it, which is about home, the notion of home and what home means.

And the one that I contributed is called A Microbial Home, Our Networks of Metabolisms.

And the whole story is that you actually live through the eyes of a microbe and what a microbe might see.

And so I actually do want to end my talk early.

I know everyone's tired and my sweat is just dripping everywhere.

But I want to say thank you for being here with me and for listening to me talk about all these ideas that for you might be new or maybe not heard before.

But I ask of you that when you leave today, break the boundaries, do the unexpected, sit with the discomfort, and invite the others.

And I like what Mark said.

Stay curious.

Thank you.