Colour Coded

  • Natsai Chieza
Faber Futures’ bacterial dye becomes first DNA-coded colour in the Forbes Pigment Collection.
On the fifth floor of Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the human history of colour is mapped out on shelves stacked from floor to ceiling. Thousands of vials line the walls, containing pigmented materials in every conceivable hue, like the shelves of an apothecary or a vast rainbow spice rack. This is the Forbes Pigment Collection – a repository of some of the rarest and culturally significant pigments employed by artists across the world since 1,000 BC.
Now there’s a new addition to the library, and it isn’t just a dye or a pigment, but a set of instructions for creating colour from bacteria – written in invisible strands of DNA.
Faber Futures and Ginkgo Bioworks worked together to create a pigment extract of S.coelicolor to donate to the Forbes Pigment Collection. We decided to go a step further: encoding archival metadata of the organism’s use case and the context of our Project Coelicolor Designer in Residence collaboration into strings of DNA, trace amounts of which are incorporated into the pigment sample.
Working in collaboration with Michael Napolitano, a design engineer at Ginkgo Bioworks, Faber Futures has explored emerging DNA-based data storage techniques to encode a contextual explanation of the project, the organism’s complete genome, and information about its potential applications, including textile dyeing:
Title: Scale, Assemblage 001, Void,  2017 Author: Faber Futures in collaboration with Ginkgo Bioworks, Medium: Blue pigment biologically derived from Streptomyces coelicolor for the intent of dyeing silk textiles. Dimensions: C32H26O14 [Molecular formula], 634.546 g/mol [Molecular weight]
More enduring than existing big-data storage architecture, DNA has the potential to store information for 700,000 years or more – and at a much greater magnitude of density. All the data in the world could be packed into a space no bigger than a small wardrobe. Colour Coded is a technical project that highlights how the alphabet of DNA is enabling a new language to be scripted and stored. As a speculative intervention, the project suggests that what lies ahead depends on how this new language and alphabet are designed to be understood (or indeed expanded upon), and that through this, new types of data-driven interactions between human and non-human interfaces could emerge.
‘What happens when we can store the internet using DNA, and then take it to Mars? Perhaps we export some of humanity’s best and worst ideas? More immediate and tangible at present is trying to understand how information storage interacts with current requirements for the preservation of material artefacts. How do we document, distribute, preserve and recover the colossal amounts of data we are generating? Do we one day stumble upon revelatory time capsules in the form of DNA that teach us something new in a place or context we cannot yet imagine?’– Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder, Faber Futures