Backyard Biology

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= the backyard as a place of production for the DIYBio movement



Backyard Biology and the backyard as a place of production

Sara Tocchetti:

"MAKE Backyard Biology was published the 24th of August 2006. Its title, more importantly the cover’s composition, marks a first and important distinction. A zoomed-in image portrays two impersonal hands: one holding a lily while the other holds a pair of tweezers near the lily’s stamen (where the pollen is stored). The picture depicts the act of removing the stamens – ‘emasculation (ouch)’ as described by the editors, at times a required step before hand pollination. If the choice of the impersonal hand is a classical way to represent the possibility of participation (Panese, 2003), in this context the image is also a visual celebration of how maker performs as an umbrella term. This is a first for MAKE, the media upon which the act is performed is not an electro-mechanical device, but a colorful and imposing flower. The maker and the lily form a new and peculiar figurative pair whose relation needs to be explained. The image is therefore combined with the exhortation “hack your plants” followed by the proposal of “nine backyard biology projects”. Hand pollination, a classical technique used in horticulture since the 19th Century, becomes a ‘hack’ and ‘hacking’ plants becomes a ‘backyard biology’ project.

The backyard as a place of production has been part of MAKE since its first issue. As an example the column Made on Earth: Report from the world of backyard technology, is entirely dedicated to the presentation of the maker activities practiced in the domesticated exterior of the backyard. The relation between places, technologies and values is an extremely vast area of study. Following Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s work (1981) on the home and the self, the backyard becomes an additional place where the appropriative activities of the maker marks the threshold between the mass-produced and impersonal incoming objects and personal home-made ones. After the basements, the workshops, the garages, and the kitchens, the backyards are also celebrated as place of homemade innovation and not only as one for storage and leisure. Although the compound noun as backyard biology has not yet been inscribed in dictionaries [11], a search for the term shows that it is used by actors in the field of education and environmental awareness. In this context it refers to a subset of outdoor activities for children and young adults concerned with the scientific observation of living organisms and natural phenomena in areas of proximity, where urban and natural elements coexists. In some rare cases the term is used synonymously with particular citizen scientists’ activities (Reece, 2011), and to refer to conservation biology research projects (Galluzzi et al. 2010). Given this preamble, how is the category of backyard biology used in MAKE? 3.1 Hacking biology between synthetic biology and the maker

On page forty-two, although not directly inscribed in the section Backyard Biology, the front page exhortation to “hack your plants” is expanded to bugs, “living stuffs” and biology at large [12]. In a section entitled Proto – Profiles of corporate Makers who have managed to parlay their hacker sensibility into a career – Drew Endy a leading figure in the emerging field of synthetic biology is portrayed [13]. The piece entitled Garage Biotech describes Endy irritated by “bugs” as objects that “should be editable”, questioning “why can’t I just hack this stuff?”. While in a conclusive comment he states “if engineers [could] only see that biology is simply another substrate to hack” (Parks, 2006, p.42). Through the words of Endy, engineering biology as hacking becomes part of MAKE and disseminated through it. As Endy explains:

“there’s a visceral satisfaction to making a physical object. But the first time I cut and spliced a piece of DNA, I felt the same joy of making something. I was like, ‘Holy crap! It works!’” (Parks, 2006, p.43).

Engineering biology as ‘hack’ becomes an additional type of making among the ones portrayed in the magazine. Roosth, who traces more closely the role of Endy and his colleagues in the displacement of the term hack, argues that as synthetic biology has conditioned the formation of the DIYbio network, in particular in respect of the use of the term hack, its usage as a synonymous of a construction oriented biology is a foundational gesture organizing the DIYbio network too (Roosth, 2011). In conversation with her valuable work, I would like to suggest that by following hack as it has been recently included under the maker’s umbrella, a different history of the biologies produced by DIYbiologists could be highlighted.

As the eleven pages separating Endy’s portrait and the Backyard Biology Special Section are filled with the journal’s usual content, while backyard biology simply becomes part of MAKE’s usual content. Together the articles bring an up-to-date specific representation of technoscience. In the first entitled Life and Death at Low Temperature, cryobiology is portrayed as an activity transgressing boundaries by “challenging conventional concepts” such as death (Platt, 2006, p.55). In the first and second articles, the figure of the “solitary” and anti-institutional scientist/maker is opposed to the institutionalized elitist experts not to be listened to (Platt, 2006 p.55). The Kitchen Counter DNA Lab details the instructions on how to unveil the “extraordinary and miraculous blueprint of life itself”, with only salt and soap (Shawn, 2006, p. 59). While in Home Molecular Genetics, the authors explains how to construct homemade laboratory equipment such as an electrophoresis chamber out of Tupperware and Lego, and a thermal cycler made with cheap electronic components (Nakane et al. 2006). The agency of horticulture is exhorted as “hack your plants!” (Luhn, 2006, p. 71), and finally, the fabrication of a sterile hood out of a plastic box and a HEPA filter used to cultivate mushrooms is portrayed as a “cultural revolution” (Ross, 2006, p.100).

Clearly the imagery of the backyard is not only that of a place where the backyard biologist can meet “living creatures with interesting stories to tell” (, n.d). It becomes a place of experimentation and production where life and death can be given or taken; the blueprint of life itself can be duplicated and analyzed. And when the act of making is technologically weak, as in the case of grafting and hand pollination where few tools are required, it is reinforced by being called a hack.

As biology is crafted into a subject of interest for MAKE’s readership; its experience needs to be mediated by the fabrication of small-scale homemade laboratory tools. The inscription of cryobiology, molecular biology, horticulture and mycology as backyard biology extend the claim “adapting technology to our needs and integrating it into our lives” (Dougherty, 2005) to the biological. Biology thus enters the home from the backyard and becomes a material for personal experimentation. As such, the yet not clearly localized device of the home laboratory joins the basement, kitchen, home workshop, hackspace and garage as sources of grassroots American innovation. When combined, they find a place as an O’Reilly Media project; a faction of its entrepreneurial conservation.

This second snapshot proposes that the informational and digital epistemology of biology has again mutated. The use of the term hack to refer to a way of interacting with living material could be interpreted as yet another move towards what Haraway, among others [14], has described as the “translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears” (Haraway, 1991, p. 164). In synthetic biology the use of the term hack stands for a double attempt. On one side, the paradigm of the living as information and software is pursued and actualized under the contemporary discourses and practices of open source software and hardware, while on the other, the living as a material to engineer becomes hardware (Roosth, 2011). In order to analyze this movement, Roosth suggests that a shift from the cyborg as a useful analytical category to that of Open Source software, which is: “modifiable, shareable, collaboratively written, ubiquitous” might be necessary (Roosth, 201, p.108).

I have described how the category of backyard biology becomes the recipient of displaced biotechnological bodies that together with small-scale laboratory becomes new tools placed into the maker’s hand. Following this, I would like to suggest that the cyborg and its politics of kinship is still a very useful analytical figure for this subject, but perhaps its modes of production and composition have changed. The information:machine:biology recursive assemblage has become open source software:open hardware:personal biology. In this respect, cyborgs are still the products of this technocultural endeavor, but similar to how computers transitioned from ‘institutional’ to ‘personal’, the maker is now developing the language, the tools, and the spaces to think about their production as ‘personal’." (