WDE Spotlight: Kuang-Yi Ku

In WDE Spotlight, we give the floor to various designers from the Embassies. This time we speak with Kuang-Yi Ku, part of the the Embassy of Food. What is his background? What inspires him? What does he hope to achieve with his work? You can read it in this Q&A!

Type Update
Published on 18 November 2021
Part of Embassy of Food
WDE Spotlight: Kuang-Yi Ku
Part of Embassy of Food

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, your background and your design practice?

I am Kuang-Yi Ku. I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, recently based in the Netherlands. I have graduated with triple master degrees in Social Design from Design Academy Eindhoven, Dentistry from National Yang-Ming University and Communication Design from Shih Chien University. 

Because of my medical background, most of my design practice is more or less related to medical technology and bioscience. I am especially interested in the topic of the ethical controversy and social issues hidden behind medicine. On top of that, I am extremely curious how emerging biomedical technologies can affect the future society and environments. 

Before being an artist and designer, I had worked as a dentist for around six years. I also co-founded TW BioArt (Taiwan BioArt community) to stimulate the fields of Bio Art and Science+Art/Design in Taiwan. My works often deal with the human body, sexuality, interspecies interaction and medical technology, aiming to investigate the relationships among technology, individuals and the environment.

My Tiger Penis Project has been awarded Gijs Bakker Award 2018, the annual prize for the best project by a graduating master’s student in Design Academy Eindhoven. I also won the 1st prize of Taipei Digital Art Awards in 2015 with The Fellatio Modification Project, where I involved body modification, gender studies, queer theories, and dentistry all together. My works were featured in international media such as New Scientist, The Huffington Post, Elephant Magazine, DAMN° Magazine, Dezeen, Designboom, VICE, Dazed Digital, Daily Mail, New York Post and so on.

Tiger Penis

Your project, the Tiger Penis is part of the Embassy of Food during Dutch Design Week. What can you tell us about this project?

Many cultures have their own systems of alternative medicine, whose effectiveness cannot always be proven according to contemporary scientific analysis. They are usually regarded as mere cultural myths, such as the use of the tiger penis to increase virility in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). At the same time, the massive demand for wild animals in TCM poses a threat to endangered species. Nevertheless, TCM may offer other benefits beyond mainstream western medicine. So I was wondering if there is a way to resolve the conflict between health, culture, and environmental conservation through a new interpretation of traditional Chinese medicine? 

Bringing non-western perspectives to speculative design scenarios, the Tiger Penis Project proposes the use of emerging biotechnologies to create artificial animal parts for Chinese medicine. Combining western and Chinese medicine and technologies, this new hybrid medicine could prevent the further destruction of both animals and traditional cultures, and provides more possibilities for the coexistence of human society and the natural environment.

Can you explain how your project relates to the story of this Embassy?

There is no clear boundary between food and medicine in TCM. Hence, the usage of endangered species as TCM ingredients seems to have a strong connection to the food issues of meat-eating. In the project, I try to use biotechnology to produce alternative ways of practising TCM which is also similar to the technologies of artificial meat. Therefore, I think it more or less reflects the theme of the Embassy of Food this year. The curators and I all thought that it’s interesting to see the possibilities of artificial TCM animal parts in the future supermarket. It not only echos to the topic of artificial meat, but also bring the new interpretation of non-Western philosophy of eating into the mainstream food market.

Why did you decide to deal with projects around this theme?

Tiger Penis Project is my first project which is strongly related to traditional Chinese medicine. The inspiration goes back to a few years ago, I saw some international media blaming the Chinese-speaking community for killing tigers for the practice of TCM. Even though I understand that protecting endangered species is very important for environmental conservation, I also believe in Chinese medicine contains certain cultural values which differ from mainstream Western medicine. Therefore, I was thinking about how to create a win-win system for both protecting endangered tigers and preserving the perishing Asian medical heritage. So that was the starting point of the Tiger Penis Project, and also a trigger to bring me to keep exploring the new interpretation of TCM via the interdisciplinary research between art/design and science/technology.

Actually, before the Tiger Penis Project, I was trained by the Western medical system. So I totally did not believe in TCM before working on these TCM-related projects. However, after collaborating with several TCM doctors and producing some TCM projects such as Tiger Penis Project, Tarot of Pulse and Millennium Ginseng Project I did discover some kind of cultural value hidden in this medical system. But from my perspective, it should not be a black and white binary question while we are facing how to decide which medicine we should believe in. For me, it is more about how to find a balance between mainstream Western medicine and other alternative medical practices from the rest of the world. Even though there are so many endless debates and controversial issues in the conflict of Western medicine and TCM, I still think dealing with this conflict by creative methodology could be one of the best ways. I think it could provide a new way of thinking and doing to dig into these complex cultural issues.

What kind of design/project would you like to realise in the future and why?

Recently I am specifically researching two directions. One is about interspecies future, and the other is about the relationship between medicine and the human body. So some of my upcoming projects are about the dystopian future in which medicine could be used for manipulating the human body. I hope the extreme speculations can raise people’s awareness of the existing patriarchal system of medicine. Added to that, the other projects will be focusing on how humans can find new ways to live with other non-human species in the environment. I attempt to construct several interspecies future scenarios to imagine the new possibilities of co-existing on this planet in a sustainable way in order to face the fast-changing climate and environment.

Kuan-Yi Ku

How do you think your design can make an impact?

Many of the emerging biomedicine contains ethical dilemmas and social controversies. Sometimes the general public and scientists & medical doctors could not be on the same page regarding the research directions of new biotechnology. As a designer and a medical professional at the same time, I believe that it is one of the best ways to use design as a cultural probe to investigate how people react to future biomedicine. Therefore, most of my design practice does contain the quality of interdisciplinary research which can not only benefit to creative industry but also has the potential to bring positive feedbacks to medicine itself as well. Combing design methodology and medical science in my projects can definitely make a huge impact on exploring the unknown things in the in-between of design and science.

Can you name another interesting designer who works on the same topic, and what makes his/her projects so great?

I would like to introduce Paul Gong who is also a speculative designer and his practices focus on the topic of food, the human body and medicine. His award-winning project The Appendix Human is about exploring the fictional functionality of vestigial organs in the future and his Human Hyena got lots of media attention because he was speculating an interesting possible future that humans might be able to consume and digest rotten food like the scavenger hyena in order to deal with the food shortage issues. We share lots of similar research interests, so actually, we are collaborating with a brand new project called Free the Male Nipple which is partially funded by Stimuleringsfonds this year. This project is derived from our shared interests and will create a future surgery to remove the male nipple as a kind of radical practice of feminism. The provocative design will be used to reflect the existing issues of gender inequality. We are also working with a real surgeon to co-build up the fictional medicine by creating a series of objects, images, and lecture-performances. It will be presented firstly at the end of this year in Digital Art Center, Taipei. We also plan to show it in the Netherlands in the future.

If you could choose one person to work with (a designer, politician, artist, scientist, organisation, anyone), who would you choose and why?

I don’t have a specific person that I want to work with. But I do feel eager to collaborate with a diverse group of scientists and medical doctors from all different backgrounds. Because I am researching how we use design and art to work with professionals in the science and medical community. I hope I can develop a specific transdisciplinary research method that can benefit both sides. Therefore, I need to collaborate with different science professionals. After the development, I am ambitious to introduce my research outcome to other creative people who are also interested in the interdisciplinary practice between design and medicine. I hope my experiences could be the references and examples for young designers who want to go for this trajectory as well.

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