The true story behind "the bag made from Alexander McQueen's skin" with Tina Gorjanc
Slovenian critical and speculative scenario designer Tina Gorjanc, was not expecting a media frenzy when she presented her graduate collection, Pure Human at Central Saint Martins (CSM). After researching old medical cases dealing with biotechnologies, she stumbled upon a case that dealt with the theft of genetic material. This inspired her to create a range of commercial leather products cultivated from human skin to highlight the issues present in our legal system, which technically allows for human tissue to be used in the luxury market. As the project was speculative, she used pigskin to represent human skin and suggested that the genetic material of Alexander McQueen could be exploited to create luxury products. However, after presenting her collection in 2016, a panoply of news agencies misconstrued her work, suggesting she had actually created a collection of bags and jackets using Alexander McQueen's skin. Magazines including Paper, Bazaar, The Telegraph, New York Times and the Guardian reported on her work with headlines reading "someone is making clothes from lab-grown Alexander McQueen Skin" to "Gorjanc channeling her inner Hannibal Lecter". As her project suggests quite controversial arguments, we thought it was important to clear up the 'fake news' surrounding her work and to allow the talented artist herself to speak about the Pure Human project.
How did you know you wanted to pursue a degree in the creative arts in the first place?
I started being fascinated by biology and especially by the human and animal anatomy from a really early age. I was sketching what I was observing and become obsessed with painting, drawing and sculpting. My parents encouraged me to pursue my passion and therefore enrolled me in the local Artistic Gymnasium where I obtained an artistic insight and perception of the body. I also started to express myself by putting the human body in different contexts and applying different materials to it. I discovered that fashion was the branch of design that allowed me to develop concepts with which I could attempt to reinvent the purpose of the human body. I, therefore, proceeded to carry out a BA in Fashion and Textile Design at the University of Ljubljana. Straight after graduation, I decided to move to London to pursue my career.
In London I worked for two years in the luxury industry, gaining insightful experiences from established design studios before applying to the MA Material Futures course at Central Saint Martins. During my master education, I was encouraged to undertake a more critical approach to design which allowed me to combine my skills with new emerging technologies as well as develop the ability to get a more general overview and project my work within the “bigger picture”.
How did your interest in the Pure Human project start i.e. how did you find out about loopholes associated with the patentability of bodily materials?
The idea behind the project was born while I was researching old medical cases dealing with biotechnologies and stumbled upon the first cases that dealt with the “theft” of genetic material - the Henrietta Lacks case. I then proceeded with my research to find out possible applications and use of such material and discovered it has been used as a “raw” material in the medical and pharmaceutical industry for decades, but not in other fields of practice. I also find it fascinating how much we can still relate to that story in our current time as there were not much improvement done to change the exploitation of bodily materials.
How was the general response to your controversial Pure Human project? Both the academic and public response.
There were some expected and unexpected frustrations due to the provoking nature of the project from both sides - the general public and myself. This frustration was linked to the misinterpretation of the project within a vast number of media channels. I believe that the ambiguity of the facts that were promoted within the media channels were partly left unclarified intentionally - as the shock factor of stating the untrue commercial purpose of the project probably generated a greater interest from the subscribers that stating the real facts would. However, I do also believe that the majority of the blame of the false press has to be attributed to the novelty of the design field the project was designed within (critical and speculative design) and the complexity of the scenario behind the work. Following the release of the project, therefore, were two frustrating weeks where within the media my role as a designer got completely misinterpreted. However, straight after those two weeks and after the initial shock factor of the project finally wore off I was able to witness what the project had actually provoked. Even though my intentions got misinterpreted, the project was still achieving its purpose - it was initiating debates regarding the problematic areas within our legislation and society the project is exposing and it was shifting the mindsets and ethical boundaries that were set by the society regarding bioengineering products for so long. Furthermore, the project also started to generate interest for corporations and potential future stakeholders that had previously dismissed any type of involvement with this technology.
Describe the purpose of Pure Human project in one sentence.
The Pure Human project is a critical design project that on one side aims to speculate on a potential future application for biotechnological processes within the luxury industry and on the other seeks to expose loopholes that are present in our current legal system that still enable the uncontrolled exploitation of bodily materials within products that are sold and distributed worldwide.
In an ideal world, what do you hope the Pure Human project changes about our legislation?
I believe that is essential to set legislation boundaries that are up to speed with the advances of such technologies. Currently, those laws are still characterizing bioengineered products in the same category as transplantation organs. I believe this categorization to be wrong because of the difference in their origin. There is also quite an urgent need to define boundaries when it comes to ownership of genetic material, as we don’t have much to go on it that section either. However, besides the legal implications that the project is focusing on, I do also advocate for moral, ethical and aesthetic issues that need to be considered which are associated with intentional human interference and modifications of biological tissues. I believe that calls for an urgent requirement in terms of setting a robust decision-making and risk-assessment framework within the field of biotech. I also believe that choosing the entitled organization to do such a thing can pose some risk related concerns.
If you could indeed create a line of luxury products extracted from a deceased famous person, whose body tissues would you want to use?
I am one of those people who is usually not affected by the 'celebrification' of objects, therefore, I am quite neutral in regards to that. However, I do believe that the question of which species should be revived if and when we are able to de-extinct organisms makes for an interesting mental exercise - I have actually just started in a witty book that comically tackles this problem and makes for a good evening read: Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction by Helen Pilcher. The reason why I decided to base the speculation on a human source rather than an animal one is that I believe it is really interesting how we as a society have still a really taboo relationship with human bodily materials. The common reaction to human leather is disgust, while animal leather which is still obtained in much more cruel conditions is regarded as a common everyday material. Now, human materials developed with biotechnology are fundamentally different than human materials obtained in a ‘natural way’. The bioengineered human material does not require an element of direct death of the subject or any other harmful behaviour towards him/her as they are developed by growing and multiplying a source. The project is, therefore, provoking and shifting the perception we have of skin and genetic codes as it is putting them out of their ordinary context as well as challenges the mindset we have historically developed when engaging with bodily materials.
You recently presented your Pure Human project at the Echo event in Dubai. How was this experience?
I am really pleased and grateful as the interest of the key design players and the general public towards my project allows me to present it at different events and happenings and therefore the research and concept behind it can reach more and more people. I am also honoured as Pure Human is often the first example of speculative and critical design that the public is introduced to when I travel to various locations around the world. Dubai is quickly becoming more interesting for the design community as it is evolving into a cultural hub - similarly as London did in the 50s. There are big construction plans for the next 2 years that also include a brand new design school which will act as some sort of hybrid institution between MIT and Parsons. The curiosity and support of the people towards creative practices, especially the ones that intersect with different fields such as science, technology, ethics, etc., is transforming Dubai into a new design destination and events such as Echo are introducing new emerging design practices into the city.
You created three leather goods for Pure Human project; a jacket and two bags. What part of creating these pieces was the most difficult?
The biggest challenge during the development of the project was to stay true to my role within it. As the Pure Human project touches upon various domains of the current global industry (science, legal, ethics, etc.), it becomes fairly easy to get side-tracked towards one of them and start acting within that domain. I have to constantly remind myself that I am not a lawyer or scientist or ethical expert nor I possess enough skills to be one. My role as a designer was to visualize the research that I have done in those sectors and present it to the public in a way they could easily understand and relate to.
Who do you look up to?
I admire a vast variety of different people for different reasons and the selection varies quite often as I change my current obsession - which usually happens to be my work. However, I do also try to avoid comparing myself to others and setting goals based on someone else's achievements and successes as I believe it derails my focus on what I am actually trying to achieve.
Lastly, what can we expect from Tina Gorjanc in the next five years?
I am currently working on some new critical and speculative projects challenging ethics and showcasing viable science application within a variety of different fields. Those projects happen to have different timelines, so right now I would like to believe that all of those would be developed and carried through to the end. I am also really passionate about continuing the multidisciplinary work I am doing at the moment, which will hopefully translate in a whole new set of skills and experiences in the next five years.