Jalila Essaïdi with Marcel Piët

Bulletproof Skin: 2.6g 329m/s

In collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands

The project emphatically explores the social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

Jalila Essaïdi and Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands developed the project 2.6g 329m/s which includes creation of bulletproof transgenic human skin. The project emphatically explores the social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

“I want to show that the safety in its broadest sense is a relative concept, and hence the term bulletproof. If the skin is pierced by the bullet, the experiment is certainly successful.”

Interview with Jalila Essaïdi and Marcel Piët (Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands)

Posted on 14/06/2011

2.6 g 329 m/s
Bulletproof skin –  a proof of the relativity of safety

Artist Jalila Essaidi, fascinated by nature and its potentials contrived an idea of producing a bulletproof human skin to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety. The process of making this kind of skin is, as we can imagine, extremely complicated.
Firstly, the artist had to acquire a lot of extraordinary, unobtainable materials, of which one was spider’s silk produced by transgenic silkworm. The word transgenic (refers to any organism which contains genetic material artificially transferred from another species) is important here because specific sequences of spider silk DNA are inserted into the genetic make-up of a silkworm, so an insect starts to produce a spider protein – the thread which is almost as strong and flexible as the thread of the native spider (strength relative to native spider silk is 80 %).
Next avant-garde material that the artist needed was living human skin cells, in order to blend them, of course, with transgenic spider’s silk, so after five weeks the bulletproof skin would be produced. After the production of the skin, the artist needed ballistic gel (used to simulate the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue) which is used at the shooting ranges, and last but not least – the glorious bullet, how she could finally confront the skin, test the strength of this unusual artwork, obtained from completely new invented material. Hence, the subject matter is not the only new one in this bio-art work, but also a material the work is made of. In order to find out more about this work of art and its resistance to bullets we are going to put a few questions to Jalila Essaidi and scientist Marcel Piët (the manager of the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands), who she cooperated with.

Hello Jalila, can you please tell me how you got interested in creating a bulletproof skin from spider silk?

The idea started a few years ago, when I read an article by dr. Randy Lewis, a molecular biologist. That was an article about transgenic goat, a genetically manipulated animal with special spider genes. This kind of goat produces silk in its milk (it is the silk protein which can be extracted from milk). With being ten times stronger than steel, the spider silk is more than a worthy competition to Kevlar (para-aramid synthetic fiber which bulletproof vests are produced from). Dr. Randy Lewis created it as an ideal replacement for modern-day bulletproof vests because these are heavy and not flexible. Since it is impossible to put a lot of spiders in the room because they would eat each others, he decided to make a transgenic goat, which was later replaced by transgenic silkworms (whose spider silk was sent to me from the laboratory of doctor Randy Lewis located in Utah) because it was more complicated with goats. So, when I read the article, I was thinking: why produce bulletproof vest from this transgenic silk, why not directly produce real bulletproof human out of it!? When I first came into contact with bio-art I was disappointed because I saw that a lot of projects were just concepts. For example, I thought that Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny was real, but there are a lot of theories that actually it is not. So, my main goal was to take it to the real level, I didn’t want it to remain a concept, I wanted it to balance on the transhuman border, to almost make it to tip over…, and with bulletproof skin that was possible. So, even though most of the scientists from the Dutch Genomics Centers considered my idea unfeasible, I contacted Randy Lewis and he said that he believed that a concept could work, and here is where it started to roll…

Does it mean that imagination is sometimes not far from the real world? Other people, not just scientists, can also sometimes have healthy logic ideas and not just dreamy ones about creating something in the laboratory that will actually really function on the scientific level?

A scientist can be really specialized and excel in his/her own field, but can almost be classified as non-scientist in other scientific fields.  A good artist makes art that communicates with and connects different fields. You try to make a language that is universal and accessible to everyone. I think it is helpful for projects that span many scientific-areas to have a wider perspective of things, as an artist usually does.

Your project seems quite complicated… Was it difficult to develop? Who did you exactly cooperate with?

Yes, in order to produce this skin I had to cooperate with a lot of different people and of course that is sometimes complicated. For example, several weavers left us after they overestimated themselves, but there are so many special people who you cooperate with, and it is impossible to obtain this knowledge from the books or the Internet…, because every partner has its own little specialty, a little island of its own. Since my project was about safety, I got into contact through DA4GA with my partner in this project, Marcel Piët from the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. Even though they are more focused on analyzing DNA from biological crime scenes than aiming at creating the bulletproof skin, we found common interest in this concept of safety. Another partner who I cooperated with was the Dermatology Department at Leiden University Medical Center. I got into contact with Dr. Kees Tensen and Dr. Abdoel El Ghalbzouri. They are special because they have an in vitro human skin model which is the replacement for animal testing (pharmaceutical tests etc.) and they aim to grow this model without the use of the usual newborn calf serum…

And…, in the end was the skin bulletproof and did you want it to be bulletproof or not?  What is your perception of the concept of safety in general?

From my curious human side I wanted it to be bulletproof, but from the artistic side it doesn’t matter because the concept remains.
Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father’s hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe… The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn’t pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.

Did you notice any similarities in artistic and scientific processes?

You share the passion, energy to work on it, and excitement. Sometimes I probably annoyed Marcel because I change directions – scientists are very structured!

So, even though it was with the help of scientists you succeeded in growing the combination of human cells and spider silk. How do you feel about it? And how do you see that fact from the artistic/aesthetic point of view?
When I had those human skin cells in my own hands, it was a strange and amazing feeling. Really live skin cells from another human being, put in a Petri dish. Too small for the human eye to see. Knowing that they are growing and creating art instead of serving a purely scientific purpose… Is it wrong what I am doing? People do not fear things that are wrong, they are afraid of losing their grip on the definition of wrong, having to redefine it constantly. Skin tissue engineering has been used in art before and shall be used even more in the future, normalizing the way we look at skin tissue engineering as a medium, we have to accept it as a fact. When I started to create the artwork I knew I liked the science part, but I didn’t know what exactly my art will look like. For me, there must be present an element of surprise  because I have an artistic perspective, I work in a different way than designers. My project is also about aesthetics and beauty, beauty of the skin growth and the beauty of the frozen moment – bullet which got stuck in this skin, it didn’t come through. A lab is a really sterile place while the skin is something you touch with, so I wanted to bring these two concepts together. The fact that we use human skin is because I wanted to bring it closer to the audience. It brings more discussion. Makes the concept bigger, because it comes under your skin. Transgenic goat or silkworms are just science fiction for us.

And, if it was allowed, would you create a bulletproof human?

I am not completely sure, but yes, something in me wants to do it! Or perhaps not, would it even be a human? I would definitely like to create an organism with a sole purpose to be bulletproof, my human desire to keep and hold things urges me to create art that can reproduce itself, unlike this bulletproof skin, which dies after five weeks, even if it survives the bullet-impact.

Marcel Piët

Hello Marcel, could you please tell me your perspective of this artistic project? Do you see it more as science or as an art?

I see this project as an art project, however based on scientific information. The part of this project, which I liked very much is that by using technologies and knowledge coming from science, a piece of art is created, by which social and ethical questions, in this case about safety, are raised.

How do you see the cooperation with an artist? Did you notice any similarities in artistic and scientific processes?

It is great to work with Jalila. She is very inspiring and has a great perseverance. She has gathered a lot of scientists around her project, which is an example of a good multidisciplinary science project.  So, this is one of the similarities with science. By enabling scientists from all fields to cooperate with each other, real new ideas and products are developed. In science, too, a lot of inventions have been developed through the interaction of scientists from different fields.

Did you want the skin to be bulletproof or not? And what is your perception of the concept of safety from the perspective of a scientist who is into forensic science?

As a scientist it would be great to show that the spider silk skin or various layers of  spider silk skin would stop a bullet. However, as discussed with the artist, this is not really the goal of the artistic project. With this art project we would like to start social, political and ethical discussions about safety, which is very relative. People can protect themselves from bullets with bulletproof vests, but there are always persons who would like to develop bullets that will penetrate the latest bulletproof vests. This artistic project will help to start discussions about this topic.

Scientists in fact didn’t expect this skin to be bulletproof … Does it mean that other people, not just scientists, can also have healthy logic idea, and not just a dreamy one about creating something in the laboratory that will actually really function on a scientific level?

As proven in this art project, non-scientists can also have very good ideas about developing new products. Most of the time, customers of products have the best ideas of what they would like to have. So, in general I would say that new ideas can be developed only by gathering people from all sorts of backgrounds. Scientists in the laboratory have certain skills, which others do not have. But that is also true the other way around. In this project, Jalila is very interested in biotechnology, able to read articles and possesses an enormous creativity to combine collected information with developing new ideas (realistic or not).

If that kind of bulletproof people would really exist, what kind of effect would that have on research which you are doing in the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands? Would it change anything?

It would not change the work of FGCN. FGCN is focused on developing new DNA tests to be applied in forensic work. But it is possible that the result of this work will influence the work done by Abdoel El Ghalbzouri, a scientist who is a specialist at the Leiden University Medical Center in developing methods of growing human skin tissues. It was already great to see that he was able to grow skin tissue on spider silk. The future will show us, if one can apply this knowledge in new applications.

And, if it was allowed, would you create a bulletproof human?

I would not create a bullet proof human. But this was also not the objective of this art project. The project wants to start discussions about the relativity of safety. If one is able to create a bullet proof skin for the currently known bullets, there will always be an individual to develop a bullet, which will pass the new bulletproof skin.

Interviewer: Neva Lukic