We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the brilliant Tina Gorjanc after her talk at the Barcelona Design Week concerning Dieter Rams’s first principle of good design: innovation. She discusses the scandal surrounding her 2017 project Pure Human in which she used tissue engineering technology to create ‘fictional’ luxury leather items made from the late Alexander McQueen’s DNA. In her Phylogenetic Atelier project, she similarly explored the implications of the de-extinction process through the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback project and exposes the legislative grey areas that involve playing God. 
You are speaking in participation with Barcelona Design Week in a series of talks which is discussing the 10 Principles of Good Design, and have been selected to discuss innovation. Do you agree with Dieter Rams’ ten principles, or do you have some principles of your own that you feel embodies ‘good design’?
So I would say yes, in principle, I agree with all of the ten principles. Although I still think that because they were developed at a time when there wasn’t an emergence of those new branches that there are now, they can still fit in with some of his principles. In my lecture, I used his ideas to frame the more well-known and original branches of design, while also using the new ones which are arising that still fit into Rams’s overall methodology although they don’t really define them quite as structurally.
That's why I came up with those six sub-principles. They allowed me to better address the work I was producing. Also, when he talks about technology being in the same place as design and design being in the same place as technology, yes, I do agree with that in principle. However, what happens then when it is on the same page but leaks into the mainstream? What if we haven’t analyzed all the other aspects, negative and positive, that this design might generate? So we have to keep up the pace with all the cross-disciplines that surround design as well.
In your Pure Human collection, you got your hands on the late Alexander McQueen’s DNA from his infamous 1992 Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims collection. I love the irony in that although there are implications of horror in both of your collections, no-one was harmed in the making of them. Despite being made using cells, have you found that people still respond to your garments as grotesque?
You couldn’t believe the number of questions I got! A lot of demands. Apparently, there is quite a market for these type of garments and I tapped into it! I’m not receiving as much hate as I did before. As I said in the presentation, I was amazed at how quickly people change their mindset. After two weeks, the shock factor wore off. I think that’s because people can adapt quickly to the stretching of boundaries. This is how we are introducing new technologies into the mainstream – we always have to stretch boundaries further because, otherwise, there will not be innovation. I was quite amazed at how quickly the public could see past the sensationalistic headlines and understand what the project was actually tackling.
I would also say that I don't necessarily see my work framed as ‘sustainable’, which is how it’s framed sometimes. It’s because when you are growing human skin cells – or any other skin cells –, you are still using bovine serums; a serum derived from unborn claves. I see my work as more ethical than sustainable because it doesn't need the slaughter of animals or other types of unethical animal farming, especially concerning the tanning industry and the pollution it generates.
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McQueen both loved and hated the fashion world, and one could say it was one of the main elements in his life that drove him to suicide. Why did you choose to use McQueen’s DNA? Do you share his love-hate relationship for the industry?
I would say that a lot of the time, the reason I chose McQueen’s DNA gets really romanticized in terms of what I want to translate. He was a good designer, a really great designer in his time, and I won’t negate that. But at the same time, for me, it was way more practical. At the time, it represented one of the really rare viable sources of DNA that you could de-extinct. I was also quite interested in pushing the boundaries when it comes to him, especially because he has so much protection in terms of his personal belongings as well as obviously in the McQueen company, which protects most of his rights.
I exposed how you could get through that and exploit loopholes that would trick even someone like him, who is so well protected. So if you can get DNA like his, then it’s way easier to exploit the DNA of people from the general public. These kinds of problems were already being presented to the public, but it was through the lens of the medical industry – the first case was exposed in the 1940s or something. But at the time, because it was presented through a medium that is not so widely understandable and relatable, it wasn’t picked up by the public as much. As soon as you translate it to a medium that everyone understands, people are more prone to engage in it.
It has been said that your designs could represent the future of the leather industry, and thus poses a threat to a high profile, multimillion business. Have you experienced any backlash because of this? Do you think that tissue engineering technology really is the future?
I would say that there are a lot of giants from the industry who were quite interested in terms of seeing how in the future they might somehow apply this process, but we have to take into consideration that this type of technology has not fully evolved yet. There are companies still tackling the research on it. I think it can be the future of fashion to some extent, but it has to work in symbiosis with the already existing procedure. That is why it’s the primary concept I advertise all the time.
When we think about completely substituting an entire industry, we are often not considering the potential collateral damage in terms of people losing jobs, the craftsmanship being lost, people’s skills being lost. So how would you mediate introducing a new technology that will be more ethical and sustainable as well as keeping some of the aspects of the old technology, the craftsmanship, alive? Which is the big question, right? You always have to take that into consideration when you design, especially if you’re speculating on a new technology because someone might come and take it and might turn it into a dark application. But if all the good applications it can have outweighs this potential darkness, then it’s worth it.
You say in your documentary that “Slowly by genes, and then by larger organs, people are allowed to own a person, like it happened in the slavery days.” Using someone else’s biological material and making it into fashion must be a moral minefield. Have you encountered any setbacks because of this?
Obviously, there are some aspects of the project that I would do differently if I would have to design it with the knowledge I have now. The legislation that protected genetic information was quite liberal at the time, especially because it was derived from a deceased source. This was also one of the key characteristics that I wanted because it’s less protected; you can’t obtain consent from this person and, therefore, you are able to extract genetic information.
It’s worth specifying that you can’t own pure genetic information, you have to tweak it somehow. For this procedure, for instance, it would be that you are translating into something else, another usage, and also synthesize it, and therefore, it is allowed for a patent. But if you were just to take pure DNA, you can’t really patent it. Well, it depends on the state, but this is at least in the United Kingdom. I know that in Canada, it’s pretty liberal, so you can basically patent everything!
“We always have to stretch boundaries further because, otherwise, there will not be innovation.”
Apparently, you don’t plan to sell the Pure Human collection but are using it as a vehicle to send a message. What is that message, and do you plan to sell your garments in the future?
No! I definitely wouldn’t sell them. Well, I would say that of the main message, there are two. One is that at the time, it was really powerful because it showcased a possible objectification of the technology. As I said, at the time, this technology was still really confined to pharmaceuticals and the medical field, maybe some fossil fuel technology as well, and right now, it has opened up whole other areas where this process can be applied. Secondly, it’s also an advocate for setting up a better legal structure that will protect our genetic information, and hopefully, when the time comes when this technology is fully developed in order to be (possibly) monetized, we have already set those legal parameters.
Concerning animals, people are already able to own them, either by wearing them or owning them as pets or in zoos. In your Phylogenic Atelier project, you follow the de-extinction process of the passenger pigeon and address the possible implications of this, one being that their right as an individual would be threatened as they are genetic copies. Do you believe that this attitude would be any different to the feelings that people harbour toward animals today?
Probably? I at least hope so. Because the question arises of where do we set the boundaries when we accept that animals are as we are; a species in itself. So how can you own something and not someone else? A case can be made obviously for consciousness and so forth, but I think the main question pending is that if we can engineer life, does it really mean that we should? Are we tapping into this dark era where we are playing God too much? We need to think about those things. I’m not negating them and I’m not advocating that we should, but at the same time, we also have to take into consideration that once this technology is out, there is no path backwards. We can’t really delete all that we have done from that point onwards.
Living in London, you must be aware of the Extinction Rebellion’s ten days of protests that took place in April, demanding that the world takes climate change seriously. How do you feel about their recent proposal that people boycott the fashion industry for its negative impact on the environment?
The problem that I’m trying to face all the time is that what people are trying to demand from the general public are things that abstain from something that is already commonly, widely used. This doesn’t take into consideration that they are able to do this from a privileged standpoint. A lot of those people they are asking may not be able to afford not to buy from those fast-fashion suppliers. For instance, a big case was made when someone was talking about the Stella McCartney project and I fully agree; spend money on one item that’ll last you forever instead of on many objects that are less durable. But this doesn't take into account that, say, if you need your clothes right now at this moment and your salary is just that amount, you can’t really afford to wait four more months to buy a Stella McCartney t-shirt! So if you want to advertise that kind of aspect, I’m fully on board, but you have to think about it from the other stance as well. 
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