words Anna Bates“I want to see a pigeon poo soap,” says Tuur Van Balen. “Well, I think I want to see that happen.” This odd statement isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. The London-based designer is working with biotechnologist James Chappell to design bacteria that breaks down dirt. The idea is that after eating it, pigeons will defecate a “biological soap” and start cleaning the city.
“I want to add new functionality to what are seen by many as flying rats,” says the recent Royal College of Art design interactions graduate. But using pigeons is fitting for another reason. “Their ancestors were designed to look pretty, deliver post, spy, tumble or race – you could argue pigeons are already a product of biotechnology.”
To design the apparatus necessary for the task, Van Balen drew on the culture of pigeon racing and keeping. “I’ve been hanging out a lot with pigeon fanciers,” he says. “They know how to pick the right pigeon for the right thing just by looking at them.”
Van Balen designed a wooden sorting depot that attaches to windows. In theory, pigeons arrive on a landing platform and enter through a door set at a 45 degree angle, so once they’re in it’s hard for them to escape. The pigeons are sorted according to type, and given different foods to make them defecate different soaps (Van Balen has just finished testing a formula that is great for cleaning dirt from car windscreens). After the snack, the pigeons are set free through several tunnels to spread them over the city.
“We’ve designed the DNA codes, built the bacteria – it all works. And it would be very feasible to take this out of the lab and feed it to pigeons,” says Van Balen. “But really I want to make people scratch their heads. I’m interested in that ethical grey zone where we find ourselves. People say ‘you can’t do this’, but then they find out what we’re already doing in biotechnology and to pigeons.”
“Clearly I don’t propose this as a real product,” adds the designer. But he sees too much potential in the idea to just drop it. “I’m going to pursue it – and if I find a way that’s ethically right, I’ll push it.”
The Pigeon D’Or project was shown as part of the Further Instructions exhibition during the London Design Festival in September.