It Starts With a Question
Are These Really the Same?
The chemically produced purple dye is not the same with Tyrian purple,
Because they do not share the same composition.
However, when we can create
The exact same purple substance from E.coli—
Can we call that Tyrian purple?
“Tyrian”, is not only the name for Tyrian purple, but also nods at the humanistic value people added to the substance. However, despite the substance being valuable, it does not function as an amazing garment dye. In fact, it even stinks because it’s a Murex mucous gland. To a large extend, it’s popularity among the nobles in the past was due to its expensive cost of production.
We realized that Tyrian purple can be compared to diamonds. They are both admired because of the value and meaning that humans assigned them, instead of its own functionality. Therefore, when we use synthetic biology to make Tyrian purple more available, are we also demolishing its value?
Then this became our reflection on synthetic biology.
We all believe that synthetic biology can change the world and even create life. It is true that synthetic biology has brought benefits for mankind: the mass production of artemisinin can help the lives of tens of millions of people, and the synthetic production of insulin has been used to cure millions of diabetic patients. On the other hand, the rapid development of synthetic biological technology also brings ethical and safety concerns: huge controversy caused by gene-edited babies, artificial life causing huge challenges to natural evolution, etc.
We realized that nowadays, people consider “natural” and “handmade” things as “high quality,” and naturally consider synthetic things as shabby imitation, despite the fact that synthetic products may optimize many parts of the original product.
Then it turns into a project.
The historical background and humanistic value of Tyrian purple makes it the perfect medium for science, art, and humanity. We realized the potential of observing and manipulating synthetic Tyrian purple by a completely different standard, such as art. We believe this kind of interdisciplinary innovation can make our project, as well as the subject of synthetic biology, more understandable and interesting for a wider audience.
The 3D model we created as the vision for our exhibition
Our exhibition can be divided into three sections, each containing a sub-theme. They are:
• Purple knitting series: Cheapness vs. Nobleness
• Purple smoke bubble series: Questioning existence
• Purple Bathroom series: Evaluating consciousness
Purple Knitting Series
Contains two weaving works composed of cotton rope dyed purple and iron wire
This series of artworks shows how the majesty and dignity represented by purple has been disenchanted with the advancement of science and the development of social productivity. We bent iron into a 3D shape of a Murex and several cloth hangers. Then, we dyed the thread by hand so that it can show the gradual changes in purple shades.
After that, we braided the threads into thicker ropes to mimic the rough woolen cloth worn by the peasants of Ancient Rome, and then tangled them around the iron structures of Murex and cloth hangers.
We wanted to show the influence of technological advancement on people’s daily lives by putting large amounts of purple dye onto threads of rough texture, showing the contrast between the privileged and the ordinary.
By making the threads look very rough and cluttered, the viewers would first get an impression of cheapness, which creates strong contrast with purple’s historical value for being noble and expensive.
Message: From the perspective of this piece, we cannot call Synthetic Tyrian purple Tyrian purple because it is no longer inaccessible, thereby losing its humanistic value for displaying its owner’s social status.
Purple Smoke Bubble:
The work consists of a smoke machine and a bubble machine.
This series of artwork is meant to show our imagination of the life of the nobles. The purple light here symbolizes the luxurious lifestyle of royalty. They were willing to kill 12000 Murex just for 1.4 grams of dye for the mere purpose of showing off their social status. Just like the bubbles, the extravagant life of the nobles is beautiful. However, just like the bubbles, though it inflates and inflates, when it gets big enough – it collapses.
In the history, emperors and dynasties change and change, every time there was revolution, and a new leader came into charge, most of them will tries their best to eliminate the influence of the previous leader, such as changing to belief system, using a new ideology, etc, preventing them to make a comeback.
When the smokes fade out, there are no signs of the bubbles have existed. However, the viewer still feels as if there are traces of purple inside the room.
Message: from the perspective of this piece, we cannot decide whether we should call the Synthetic Tyrian purple Tyrian purple. It’s true that the time when Tyrian purple were used as a class distinguishment has gone. However, that time periods still live-in people’s mind of imagination and memory. Is true that purple has lost its function. However, is its meaning also lost?
Purple Bathroom Series
Including toilet fountain, faucet, urinal, plumbing works
In this series, we constructed a fountain inside a toilet so that it spills purple water out of it. One purpose for this series is to show our project in a humorous way. Escherichia coli is often associated with feces, because they are found in human guts, whereas purple, especially in the ancient times, is often found in the most sacrosanct places. But now, through synthetic biology, bacteria that was associated with our excretion can now produce noble purple!
There is also a deeper approach behind this artwork. When we look at purple today, we still feel its sense of nobility and luxurious. Designers still uses this meaning of purple to convey their message.
This shows the humanistic value people added to Tyrian purple still lingers in our conscious even when purple itself ceased to fulfill a function of dividing social classes for a long time. Toilet is a private place, when we are just sitting on it, thinking about nothing, allowing our thought to flow everywhere, we thought our thought are free, and independent, but in reality, all the conscious that makes you think of that thought came from the past, or the society you live in.
Message: from this piece, we can call the Synthetic Tyrian purple Tyrian purple. Instead of saying the difference between these two are little, these two colors has never actually separated. It’s true that in the value and meaning of Tyrian purple is given by people, but when the given meaning became direct association with the color, people to a certain extend still follows their conscious. We are always influenced by the past and the surroundings.
After a long round of discussion,
we are still puzzled.
On a chemical level,Tyrian purple and synthetic Tyrian purple are the same, because they share the same chemical composition — 6BrlG.
On a symbolic level, Tyrian purple was regarded as a symbol of power and wealth in ancient history.
Nevertheless, after modern industrialization and liberation, Tyrian purple no longer posses such meanings.
It is interesting to notice that the mass majority still unconsciously attaches the words "nobility" and "purple" in their mind.
Thus, we conclude that
historical memory does shape people's perceptions.
Going back to the question we started,
“Is tyrian purple and other purple really the same?"
Perhaps the answer remains open-ended.
1. Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna
2. Wool fibers dyed pink-purple hue (photo by Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)3. Afsun Qureshi. “David Koma Fall 2014 Ready-To-Wear Collection.” Vogue, Vogue, 17 Feb. 2014, www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/fall-2014-ready-to-wear/david-koma. Accessed 19 Oct. 2021.