Design by Decay, Decay by Design

Grand Prize – Artistic Exploration: Awarded for artistic exploration and art works where appropriation by the arts has a strong potential to influence or alter the use, deployment or perception of technology.

Design by Decay

Design by Decay, Decay by Design is a series of artifacts that exhibit designed decay. They were done for the 2019 Ginkgo Bioworks Creative Residency on how to design a world without waste. As an architect and artist, I recognize that most of what I create goes to landfill. If that is the case, let me design waste that I can live with, garbage that retains some desirability as it degrades in sight and on site. Let me design waste as nature designs it, not only as the product of breakdown and destruction but also as input for renewal and construction. In biology, one system’s entropy is another system’s organization. With the assistance of Ginkgo, my goal was to organize decay, using enzymes, fungus, bacteria, and other biological agents as ways of decomposing and composing biological matter at the same time. By mediating decay through species selection, control of environmental conditions, and nutrient templating, I am actively pursuing mutability as a desired quality in the physical world as well as guarantee that the mechanisms of constructive renewal will be embedded into that world.

My base material system included biocomposites of chitin, cellulose, and pectin, derived from the exoskeletons of shrimp, tree pulp waste, and fruit skins. These materials can be combined in different ratios to form different bioplastics with a wide range of mechanical and physical characteristics and are environmentally responsive and easily degradable. The work was organized into 3 projects, done in Gingko’s wetlabs with its scientists:

  • Using enzymes derived from fungus and human saliva and integrating them into biocomposites with spatial and temporal control to transform the material rather than only destroy it. This was degradation as a fabrication process.
  • Using different strains of Streptomyces bacteria to colonize cellulose and different bioplastics in order to transform them. Streptomyces are common soil bacteria and secondary decomposers that produce vibrant pigments and geosmin, the compound responsible for soil smell.
  • Using different types of fungi, Aspergillus niger (black mold) and Trichoderma viride (green mold) in co-cultures to transform and selectively degrade different materials. Mold is a much more powerful and resilient decay agent and would rapidly colonize any substrate we provided.

Design by Decay

The challenge of working with biological materials and agents is that they are environmentally responsive and have agency, and the resulting artifacts are not always predictable or standardized. Contamination was common, as was loss of viability. As a classically trained architect, I am used to having precise control over my output, and the struggle in a design practice such as this is to learn how to accept the embedded tensions where material and biological agency sometimes work in contradiction to what I have planned or what I am comfortable with. It is a struggle for industry to accept this inconvenience as well. However, if we accept this inconvenience, using decay to facilitate renewal offers extraordinary advantages, such as access to circular systems and the ability to grow, adapt, and reproduce out of literal rotting, providing a resilience not found in industrial systems.

Given our state of climate crisis, we can no longer design primarily for human and economic convenience; our survival depends on changing our priorities and expectations for the material world. My goal in using these material systems and these biological agents is not to create a low carbon footprint project or upcycle waste into new products. Rather it’s to support a different mode of design, one where the process of making and breaking is provisional and not only consumptive. Design by Decay, Decay by Design seeks to redistribute value away from permanent materials that destroy ecosystems onto transient ones that restore them, finding epistemological as well as practical value in designing responsivity, degradation, and renewal into man-made objects.

Design by Decay


Artist: Andrea Ling
Curatorial Team: Ginkgo Bioworks + Faber Futures; Natsai Audrey Chieza, Dr. Christina Agapakis, Grace Chuang, Kit McDonnell, Dr. Joshua Dunn
Scientific advisors: Ginkgo Bioworks; Dr. Joshua Dunn, Dr. Ming-Yueh Wu, Kyle Kenyon, Duy Nguyen, Dr. Lucy Foulston
With thanks to the MIT Media Lab: Mediated Matter Group, team Aguahoja I
With support from Ginkgo Bioworks
Photos: Ally Schmaling, Andrea Ling, and Grace Chuang

Andrea Ling (CA) is an architect and installation artist who works at the intersection of art, fabrication technologies, and biological sciences. Her most recent work focuses on how the critical application of biologically and computationally mediated design processes can move society away from exploitative systems of production to regenerative ones. She was the 2019 Ginkgo Bioworks creative resident exploring how to design the decay of artifacts in order to access material circularity. Andrea is a founding partner of designGUILD, a Toronto-based art collective and a former project lead for Philip Beesley Architect where she worked on a series of international immersive kinetic installations and textiles for Iris van Herpen. She is also a former research assistant and designer for the Mediated Matter Group, at the MIT Media Lab, where she and her teammates won Dezeen’s 2019 project of the year with their research project, Aguahoja I, which will be shown in 2020 at the MoMA and 2021 at SFMOMA. Andrea has a MS from the MIT Media Lab and a M.Arch. from the University of Waterloo with a background in human physiology from the University of Alberta.

Jury Statement

Andrea Ling describes herself as an architect and installation artist. In architecture, most of the parts of a building will end as landfill. Natural ecosystems in contrast do not know about waste. Ling states that in biology, one system’s entropy can be another system’s organization. This insight has motivated her to enter a creative residency at Ginkgo Bioworks—a leader in synthesized biology. Artistic director Christina Agapakis emphasizes that the company’s goal is “(…) to show, through art, the immense potential of synthetic biology and genome engineering.” This is widely seen as a path into a sustainable future, replacing petroleum-based products through grown ingredients for a fuel free future.

Ling created biological artifacts to illustrate and prove the possibility of a paradigm shift in the production of goods: First, through a shared sense of agency between engineer and living material. Second, since biological ecosystems are finite, they aren’t scalable. Overgrowth will always be punished. Biological systems can provide a far more robust system of growth and decay than extractive systems. And third, biology is a value creator using decay to fuel new life. Only by integrating biological systems into design processes can we truly meet our ambitious goals for a sustained renewal.

Finally, Design by Decay, Decay by Design illustrates the potential of combining two key-enabling technologies: ICT and biotechnology. This provides an opportunity to create new products that are sustainable by design. The artwork also exemplifies the importance for a political debate around a European approach to biotech by establishing ethical safeguards for gene editing and balancing both benefits and risks for a broader application of this technology. Andrea Ling’s bold and visionary reimagination of growth and decay in service of the circular economy merits the Grand Prize in the category of Artistic Exploration of the STARTS Prize ‘20.

View full Jury Statement here.