Groomers (2015): Project Concept

Mundari male washes hair in cow urine which acts as a natural antiseptic and keeps mosquitoes away (photo copyright Tom Mcshane). A mixture of ritual, grooming, identity and biochemical ‘technology’, combined with perceived absurdity


Recent and rapid advances in biotechnology encourage us to dream of a ‘better’ biological future: self-healing architecture and designs [1,2], renewable energy [3], and potent cancer therapies [4,5], to name but a few of seemingly-infinite possibilities.

Whilst such scenarios promise improvements in quality of life, biotechnology can also mean anxiety, fear and uncertainty for some: Not necessarily due to the apparent bio-safety, ethical and legal ramifications it may bring, but its ability to disrupt our sense of identity in society. Treating male baldness, transplanting organs and sex changes etc., we can now choose who we want to be and the type of life we want to lead. But its speed to change us may compromise traditions, rituals and customs that have helped us to define who we are. What’s more, the emergence of protocell technology and the notion of creating life-like forms using non-biological materials, has thrown our idea of life into somewhat giddying disarray: If artifical life could be designed and used, who are the real protagonists of our lives?

Groomers project speculates on scenarios we may encounter as a result of our desire to create and/or protect identity in wake of protocell developments in our society, by subverting the very technology that had allowed the dissipation of their identities in the first place. They see protocells not just as globules of inorganic materials, but an actual living extension of their bodies. By embracing this notion, the Groomers design their bodies using protocells and celebrate their aesthetics by creating rituals.

A Mundari Male with orange hair which has been bleached in the sun by washing it in cow urine (Photo by Tom Mcshane) - a visual output of facial identifier, ie. hair colour/style
A Mundari Male with orange hair which has been bleached in the sun by washing it in cow urine (Photo by Tom Mcshane) – a visual output of facial identifier, ie. hair colour/style

One example of such ritual would involve a merger of the old and the new, using facial hair as their identifier, that could be extended and/or decorated using protocells. They create and reproduce Los Alamos bug variants during their daily facial grooming ritual. Using a mixture of shaving cream, natural body oils and nucleic acids, they improvise on the components needed to build the starting cell:

“…For Groomers their daily bath becomes daily birth. The act of shedding unwanted material turn into an act of creation, allowing a layer of protocells to form on top of their faces, and sometimes, on special occasions, on other parts of their body-canvases. Putting their backs to a wall, contorting their necks towards the window, they doze off to sleep whilst their creations settle. Booting-up starts at the break of dawn, but lazy ones like to have a longer lie-in….”

Project outcomes include design of the Groomers society and their belief systems, and making of objects that feature in the story, such as facial hair extensions and accompanying paraphernalia. Scenes, both fictional and real (eg. in a lab) would be documented through photography and video.

Processes and materials would play a notable role in outcome of the project, and would be refined further during the collaborative process with scientists. Five initial suggestions include the following:

1. Collection and preparation of surfactants, sourced from household precursors featured
in Groomers project such as shaving cream and residual oils found on facial skin.
2. Collection and preparation of nucleic acids, possibly derived from human or custom-
synthesized with bases/sequences specific and meaningful to Groomer’s beliefs.
3. Creation of protocells using necessary components in situ, which may be housed under
carefully-designed and 3D-printed structure/container.
4. Visualisation of protocell lifecycle in silico via 3D imaging and simulation, to form
a narrative part of the Groomers story.
5. Development of ‘wearable’ protocell framework, possibly involving custom design and
production of microfluidic chips which could house protocells and their components.

Fig.2 Modified version of the Futures Cone by Joseph Voros [6]
Fig.1 Evolutionary biologists go back to the future, Designers speculate. Modified version of the Futures Cone by Joseph Voros [6]

Project Positioning

Some evolutionary biologists strive to understand the origins of life by going back to the past. Others look forward, trying to find solutions to current problems. In the case with Groomers project, it aims to highlight a possible future scenario to encourage public discourse (fig.1).

Groomers is a type of a proposal that sits somewhere between the plausible and possible futures (fig.2). It paints a scenario where protocells and related artificial life technologies are implemented as a functional element within customs and rituals of everyday life. Expanding the idea of ‘self-organization’ and ‘evolution’ to a human level, the project tells a story of Groomers, a group of hackers who customize themselves in order to spawn new ‘cultures’ that could be passed onto subsequent generations.

Fig.1 Modified version of the Futures Cone by Joseph Voros [6]
Fig.2 Groomers project backdrop sits in the plausible and possible futures

On one level, Groomers project aims to explore behavioural shifts that may occur with advances in protocell technology. On the other, through design and story-telling, the project intends to critique our obsession of identity control, the extremes in which people may find themselves to achieve it, and the absurdity that may emerge as a result.

Cultural Reference
The project would be difficult to contextualize if the scenarios were based on existing societies or a slight deviation from known cultures. Below is an example of identity creation by a well-known ‘brand’ of people called hipsters in London [7]. They celebrate irony and self deprecation, resulting in donning of kitsch and odd objects in their trademark facial hair. But what if these scenarios could be translated into perhaps a more local cultures and societies, such as those in Denmark or Northern Europe as a whole? Within this society, would new rituals form in the future that harnesses protocells, and could they create and use a hipster-equivalent objects and decoarations using artificial life?
Group of hipsters and their decorated beards in London. Image copyright: Mercury Press and Media Ltd
Hipster beard with Christmas decorations. Image copyright: News Dog Media


1. SPILLER, N. and ARMSTRONG, R. (2011) Protocell Architecture: Architectural Design: 81. John Wiley & Sons.

2. [accessed: 4th January 2015].

3. XU, J., SIGWORTH, FJ. and LAVAN, DA. (2010) Synthetic protocells to mimic and test cell function. Adv Mater. 22 (1). p.120-127.

4. ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL. (2013) ‘Protocell’ cancer therapy gains potent backer. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 4th January 2015].

5. EPLER, K., PADILLA, D., PHILLIPS, G. et al. (2013) Delivery of ricin toxin A-chain by peptide-targeted mesoporous silica nanoparticle-supported lipid bilayers. Advanced Healthcare Materials. 1(3). p.348-353.

6. VOROS, J. (2003) A generic foresight process framework. Foresight. 5(3). p.10-21.