At the time that Henri Bergson wrote Creative Evolution and developed the concept of Élan vital (French for ‘vital force’), a hypothetical force once thought to cause the evolution and development of organisms, others were attempting to dismiss the metaphysical notion. One significant endeavour, taken by Stéphane Leduc, set out to prove that life is merely a chemical process. In The Mechanism of Life, published in 1911, Leduc proposed a series of chemical experiments showing the emergence of life-like phenomena of different degrees of complexity. Using seductive imagery of mainly diffusion and osmosis, Leduc attempted to prove the mechanistic aspects of life and challenge vitalism, the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.
With the recent advent of synthetic biology, where the engineering mindset is set to dominate approaches to life, we see a rehashing of similar stories from a hundred years ago. One such story is the creation of the basic unit of life, the cell, out of non-living materials. The so-called ‘protocells’ are becoming a major field of study, complete with the rhetorical hyperbole about their potential applications.
This piece reappropriates one of the simplest protocell protocols offered by Leduc, working with the diffusion of two concentrations of solutions that create temporary cell-like droplets. The droplets resemble cells with membrane and nuclei, and last for a few moments before succumbing to entropy and dissolving into a murky liquid.
This protocol is automated using another currently hyped technology: three dimensional printing. Heralded as the next industrial revolution, there is much discussion about 3D printing technology; something that parallels the assembly line of Fordism at the time Leduc was working on The Mechanism of Life. The promise of 3D printing technology is based on information transfer, as with the business model; the focus is on the instructions and the data as the currency, while the materiality is merely an optional manifestation. This is problematic as, simultaneously, the 3D printing industry suggests the ability to print actual life, or at least parts of the living. This very seductive scenario of printing life from scratch is played off in this work against the unstable, uncontrollable and transient nature of the protocell droplets as a material.
To a large extent, this piece deals with issues of cultural amnesia and reimagining; pointing attention to the use of certain visuals and expressions to persuade, hype, and then disappoint. In a time when the idea of creating synthetic life is at the forefront, it is important to culturally probe current and past approaches to the idea of The Mechanism of Life. The printed ‘protocells’ are unstable and temporary, take on forms that appear organic and then disappear. More than a proof on the mechanism of life, they are a suggestion for a humble approach to the question of what life is and how far are we willing to make life into a raw material for our own ends.
This piece recreates Leduc’s experiments using a custom-made, rapid prototyping printer to create ‘protocells’. With current attempts in creating synthetic life, it is important to culturally examine the ideas of The Mechanism of Life. What would capture the public’s imagination? The precise movement of the machine? The perfect arrangement of the droplets? Or the offputting murky outcome of entropy?