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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The European Union defines "Invasive Alien Species" as those that thrive outside their natural distribution area and threaten biological diversity. One of the most dramatic examples of it is the one of the descendants of an original cargo of 24 rabbits that were shipped from Europe to Australia in 1859 for the pleasure of a man missing the joys of rabbit hunting. Within ten years of their introduction, they had become so prevalent that two million of them could be shot or trapped each year without any effect on the population being noticed. European rabbits have no natural predators in Australia and their impact on the ecology is devastating. The hunting prey quickly became nothing more than pest that has to be eradicated by all means. The poor creatures are vilified to the point that the Easter bunny has been replaced by the Easter Bilby.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Theatre maker and visual artist Kris Verdonck selected terrestrial plants, crustraceans, insects, fish, amphibians, birds and other organisms in the list of IAS that live in Belgium. Then he put them all together in one big luminous garden on the first floor of the contemporary art space Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

The result is an artificial jungle of bamboo, parrots, bullfrogs, Japanese knot weeds, parrots and little trees carrying blue berries. Before entering, however, you are invited to wear white rubber boots, a pair of gloves, and a lab coat. As if you were about to enter a contaminated space? Or maybe it's the space that shouldn't be contaminated by you? After all, men are ultimately, the ones responsible for any ecological damage caused by non native species. They are the ones who introduced them into the new habitat, intentionally or by accident (when exiting Z33 with seeds that would further invade the local fauna for example.) What is sure is that the pristine antechamber in all its whiteness and sanitariness offers a striking contrast to the garden, all messy and multicolored. No one could have orchestrated the effect better than a theater maker like Verdonck.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Once you're inside, it's easy to forget that these are 'invasive alien species.' Take the green parakeets. In 1975, they were only roughly 50 of them when the manager of an amusement park decided to release them in the wild. Thousands of them can now be found in Brussels parks and suburbs. They are seen as a threat to native species because they have the potential to outcompete them for nest sites as they begin nesting several weeks before most species. American bullfrogs --carriers of infectious disease and predators of native of molluscs, fishes and young water birds-- are seen as such a threat to biological diversity that their eradication was strongly recommended by the Council of Europe.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Verdonck's garden opened in May and looked like a little piece of Eden. All lush flowers, green parrots, colourful plants, cheerful amphibians and mysterious moustachioed fish. When i visited the show a week ago, the place was still jaw-dropping but in a rather post-apocalyptic way. It felt a bit desolate. Good care was taken of the fauna and flora but the flowers were perishing, the parakeets had to be taken away because they were wolfing on any flower or fruit they could get their beaks on, tadpoles were vanishing, etc.

Here's a photo i took, that should give you an idea:
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The sad outcome of the experiment was not planned but it certainly provides us with a lesson. This indoor garden explores alienation, men's relentless interference with nature. However, as the catalogue of the exhibition states, "EXOTE's aim is not to position itself within the scientific debate on biological invasions, but to be a metaphor to reflect on our interaction with the environment in which we live."

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

EXOTE is part of the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1, on view at Z33 House for Contemporary Art until August 21, 2011.

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The competition for Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) invites artists and designers to team up with the Netherlands most prestigious Genomics Centres and produce new artworks in the field of sustainability, food, health, bio-informatics, agriculture, and safety. So far the competition was only open to people living, studying or working in The Netherlands.

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Jalila Essaidi, 2.6 g 329 m/s (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Maurizio Montalti, System Synthetics (image Maurizio Montalti)

But the good news is that the first edition was so successful that The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society and Genomics and Waag Society have decided to open up their second call for application to artists and designers from any country. Three projects will be selected and awarded € 25.000 for the realization of the final piece. The only condition is for you to have graduated in the past five years. Application form and other info, this way please!

A few weeks ago, i was in The Netherlands to see the result of the first competition. You might remember that i had interviewed the 3 winning artists/designers just as they were about to start developing their projects (The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics) so i was curious to see whether the final pieces lived up to their (and my!) expectations. The show is up until January 8th at Naturalis, the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity which is located in Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (detail)

The best surprise for me was definitely the Microscopic Opera, developed by Matthijs Munnik in collaboration with Richard de Boer from the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this installation, the fluid movements of the humble lab worms C.elegans are turned into sounds and images. This tiny worm is used routinely as a model organism in research laboratories around the world. Its 'participation' to the artwork is particularly relevant to genomics since C.elegans is the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (de_buurman has much better images)

A software tracks and converts the movements of the worms into various sounds that range from abstract opera singing to dynamic soundtrack of background sounds. The public can follow the activity of the creatures on a series of screens, they display the images magnified by the microscopes installed above the petri dishes containing each from 100 to 1000 worms.

Microscopic Opera could have been yet another 'new media art' installation controlled by a living being but, somehow, the modesty of the performers, the pleasant sounds they generate and the control and dignity they gain in the process made for a surprisingly moving experience.

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Bulletproof skin stopping the bullet (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Bulletproof skin being pierced (image Jalila Essaidi)

The project that got most headlines in newspapers and blogs is 2.6g 329m/s, developed by Jalila Essaidi with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. The objective of her project was to create a a bulletproof human skin, the kind DARPA would pay fortunes to get their hands on. Except that the project is first and foremost the trigger for a reflection about the many social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

The rather unappealing result is a hybrid between spider's silk produced by transgenic silkworm and human skin cells:

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In an interview with Neva Lukic, the artist explained why her project explores the concept, relativity and borderlines of safety: Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father's hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe... The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn't pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.

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Ballistic gel, used to simulate the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue (image Jalila Essaidi)

Jalila has recently posted on her blog, the extract of Sam Gaty & George Costakis' upcoming A Documentary Film about Synthetic Biology. The short video below gives a quick overview of the work being done in a farm in Laramie, WY whereby spider silk is being spun from goat milk.

The third project is System Synthetics, by designer Maurizio Montalti in cooperation with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The ambitious work attempts to study the possibilities of production of the bio fuel out of the degradation process of the plastic waste using two fungal organisms. A first type of fungi would break down plastic waste, a yeast would then take over and produce bio-ethanol out of it.

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Scanning Electron Micrographs (SEM), showing the interaction between fungus, yeast and plastic material

The final installation doesn't showcase the successful outcome of the project (the whole process would take years to complete) but it documents the intention, the experiments and points to the ecological burden that plastic imposes on our planet. There is a series of objects in a window that deconstruct the process from the moment plastic is broken down by men into smaller particles to phase when plastic waste would finally be transformed in an alternative energy source.

You might get a better idea of the whole project by watching this film:

The three works are on show at Naturalis, Leiden until January 8th 2012. The center has also uploaded videos that present the winning projects.

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Inside the Naturalis

Previously: The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

The Casino de Luxembourg has, once again, put up an show worth a trip to the capital of the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je raises questions about the blurring of identity in contemporary society. I'll review the whole exhibition later on this week but in the meantime i'd like to single out a work i found particularly striking.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Vue d'installation. Photo: Studio Rémi Villaggi, Metz pour Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain

In February of this year, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) were at galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana to perform Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me), a bold self-experiment that aimed to blur the boundaries between species.

The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011 (image)

In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.

Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

After the transfusion, Laval-Jeantet, perched on stilts, performed a communication ritual with a horse before her hybrid blood was extracted and freeze-dried.

Video documenting the performance:

As a radical experiment whose long-term effects cannot be calculated, Que le cheval vive en moi questions the anthropocentric attitude inherent to our technological understanding. Instead of trying to attain "homeostasis," a state of physiological balance, with this performance, the artists sought to initiate a process of "synthetic transi-stasis," in which the only constant is continual transformation and adaptation. The performance represents a continuation of the centaur myth, that human-horse hybrid which, as "animal in human," symbolizes the antithesis of the rider, who as human dominates the animal.

The work was awarded the Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Electronica 2011.
Previously: Interview with Art Orienté objet.

Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je remains open at the Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain through September 11, 2011.

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Every year, the FILE festival invites artists and other people who have a hands-on approach to new media art to share their views, works and ideas with the audience during a 4 afternoon long symposium. One of the most fascinating talks for me this year was the one that Victoria Messi, author of the fantastic blog El Pez Eléctrico, gave about media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.'

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Vicky Messi at the FILE symposium

Titled Anti Anti Utopia: Arte Eletrônica na América Latina / Anti Anti Utopia: Electronic Art in Latin America, the presentation introduced us to four projects by media artists who believe that art still has the power to transform society. I was planning to write a long post that contained her whole presentation but i thought it would be more fruitful to highlight the projects one by one. First of all because each of them is so clever, quirky and fascinating that it should have its own space. Secondly because i've just started The Leopard and as much as i'd like this Jo Nesbø gem to last as long as possible i can't stay away from the book more than it is strictly necessary for my mental well-being.

The first project Vicky Messa mentioned is Nanodrizas, a project that Mexican artist Arcángel Constantini has been working on since 2006.

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Shaped like small flying saucers, the Nanodrizas are floating autonomous robots forming a network of wireless sensors, which attempt to interact with biological elements. The robotic prototypes measure, in real time, the environmental conditions (temperature, pH scale, level of humidity, turbidity, etc.) of polluted water surfaces. The data collected is then transmitted via wireless communications for interpretation and analysis. Once to the level and nature of pollution has been identified, the nanodrizas directly intervene by emitting synthesized sound and releasing bacterial and enzymatic remedies in the eco-system that, ultimately, should regulate the quality of the water.

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Prototypes of the nanodrizas have been deployed in heavily polluted locations. In particular, in the river going through the city of Puebla in Mexico. Puebla hosts "La Constancia", an ex textile factory which used to be one of the most modern factories in Latin America. La Constancia relied heavily on water to function: water was used to power its turbines and water was where waste was then dispersed. As a consequence, the river is now suffering from high levels of pollution. The mission of the robots is therefore to intervene directly and revert the effect of the pollution in the water.

The Nanodrizas benefit from relatively sophisticated technologies but were made using discarded materials such as children's toys.

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First prototype, 2006

The work thus moves beyond other environmental tactical media interventions by making an attempt to be actively therapeutic. The work will also functions to alert and sensitise people to the situations via, in the first location, the sound emissions of the Nanodrizas and second via displays in exhibition centers and online.

The project thus exemplifies an admirably holisitic kind of art practice which is simultaneously technologically well informed and technologically inventive, while being engaged with complex social histories and activist with respect to fundamental problems of our time.

Check out this interview that El Pez Eléctrico had with Constantini about the Nanodrizas fleet. I'd recommend watching it even if you don't understand spanish because you will not only see the nanodrizas in action but you will also be able to listen to the artist's melodious Mexican accent.

Related: Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza.

FILE, the Electronic Language International Festival remains open through August 21, 2011, at the FIESP Cultural Center - Ruth Cardoso, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Entrance is free.

The dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability has become true. Everyone is now able to produce goods, to communicate with anyone without being charged or tracked and to fulfill their basic needs without forgoing modern conveniences.

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Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

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Model of Cruiser Charisma as exhibited at RCA

Cruiser Charisma intertwines extrapolations about the latest (and upcoming) advances in technologies with a series of research trips that designer Jonas Loh made into intentional communities, groups of people who attempt to establish their own society on a micro-scale. He visited Earthaven which is ruled by community consensus and divided in small villages, went to see what remained of the ethics and ideals of The Farm and even made a trip to Berlin, Ohio, to get to know the Amish lifestyle built around religious beliefs and resistance to modernity.

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Amish doll are faceless

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Caravan at Earthaven Community

The project also professes faith into D.I.Y. and open source movement which could one day take technologies that are currently out of you and i -such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering, bio-printing and new form of production methods- out of the hands of venture capitalists and politicians and into everybody else's backyard.

The outcome of the project is utopian, yet credible: a caravan which will run on advanced biofuels, whose inhabitants will be able to produce all kinds of goods and organic materials thanks to a 3D printing production unit, eat synthetic protein rich meat that will be grown through a new generation of plants, recycle their poo to produce energy and experiment with new ways of community living.

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Useful Synthetic Plant Garden & Production Facility

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Conveyor belt, part of the production unit

Interestingly residents would communicate over long distance using the Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moon bounce, a radio communications technique developed after World War II. The system relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection from the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. The residents of the caravan selected this form of long-distance communication because it is not yet privatized and because their personal data doesn't get tracked.

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Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

The project explores the possibility to reach a total state of self-sufficiency and with it a different social, political and economical system.

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Amish One-Room School

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Earthaven Community

All images courtesy of Jonas Loh.
Another project by Jonas Loh (together with Steffen Fielder): Known Unknowns.

Cruiser Charisma is a project developed at the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London.

A few weeks ago, i was intrigued by the description of a work presented at the grow_ability exhibition in RIXC Gallery in Riga, Latvia. The art show explored sustainability in relation to our planet's ecology from a "food as energy" perspective.

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

One of the three works on show was Erik Sjödin's Super Meal which investigates whether an aquatic plant called Azolla could become a key ingredient of the fast food joints of the future. Azolla is cheap and easy to cultivate, it grows super fast and is rich in nutrients. Yet the possibility that this fern could become a staple of our meals has received very little interest so far. Recent research, however, are considering the potential of azolla for space agriculture, in particular in the event of a colonization of planet Mars.

Interestingly, azolla is believed to have had a significant role in reversing the greenhouse effect in the middle Eocene period, some 49 million years ago. The fern colonized the region around what was then a hot, tropical Arctic Ocean. Because of its outstanding nitrogen and carbon fixing capabilities, azolla caused the atmospheric carbon dioxide content to drop from 3500 ppm (parts per million) to just 650 ppm, eventually turning the Arctic Ocean into its present icehouse state. This biogeological event is known as the Azolla event.

Sjödin experimented with farmers, chefs and scientists to experiment with azolla in the kitchen but also to reflect on how our food is being produced today and how it can be produced in the future.

So far the artist has presented his Azolla cultivations and experimentations at Färgfabrikensin Stockholm, at Kalmar konstmuseum, RIXC Gallery in Riga, at Kultivator in rural village Dyestad, on the island Öland (Sweden) and of course on his own balcony in Stockholm.

If you find yourself in Nordic countries in the coming months, check out the project at Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, Norway and at Salo Art Museum, Finland, in Autumn.

If you can't make it to Norway or Finland, here's a short interview with Erik about Super Meal:

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

I'm interested in the way you try to engage the public into your research about azolla. You have already exhibited this project in several art spaces. How does the azolla project take shape? Do you change strategy each time you exhibit it? cooking at Färgfabriken for example and doing something else in Riga?

What I end up doing is shaped a lot by the circumstances. At Färgfabriken in Stockholm I exhibited in the summer and they had a courtyard so it was possible to grow azolla outside. RIXC's exhibition in Riga was too early in the spring for it to be possible to grow azolla outside and the room I exhibited in didn't have any windows so I had to grow the azolla under artificial lights. I also try to find people to collaborate with around the exhibitions. At Färgfabriken I got the chef at Färgfabriken's café to experiment with azolla cooking with me. When I exhibit in Finland in September I will collaborate with a local gardener who will be growing azolla which we will cook on the opening weekend. I exhibit Super Meal as a work in progress because I think that an ongoing process can be more interesting and engaging than the conclusion. The project has always been more about the process than the result, but it's not that I don't care about the result. I'm hoping to arrive at something, but the result is the outcome of the process and in that sense the process is everything. I guess that finding new ways of working, or living if you want, is very much what the project is about for me.

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

You are going to exhibit Super Meal again in end of May / June at Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger. What will the work look like exactly in Stavanger? Will you be cooking, growing azolla?

I'll exhibit photo documentation of the project and I'll be making an installation inside the gallery where I'll be growing azolla. There will also be a reading corner where a draft of the Azolla Cookbook and Cultivation Manual I'm working on will be available along with some literature that relates to the project. Two texts that I'll include are Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address by John Todd from the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) and the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour's text An attempt at a "Compositionist Manifesto". The NAI was a research center that did
pioneering research into agriculture, aquaculture and architecture in the 70's and
80's. In 1976 they experimented with azolla as a mulch for lettuce. The results of
these experiments were published in the 1977 issue of their journal, the same issue
in which Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address was published. Already in the 70's the NAI were doing and thinking about much of what is being talked about as novelties today. In Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address, John Todd talks about exploring a "new synthesis"; how "biological consciousness would fundamentally alter our sense of what human communities could be" and how "in the adaptive model of nature lie design ideas that will enable humans to create societies and cultures as beautiful and as significant as any that have thus far existed".

Bruno Latour takes interest in the so called nature / culture dichotomy and argues
that it has become untenable. In An attempt at a "Compositionist Manifesto" (published in 2010) he talks about how "everything happens as if the human race were on the move again, expelled from one utopia, that of economics, and in search for another, that of ecology" and that perhaps it's time to "innovate as ever before, but with precaution" if we are to build a livable and breathable "home".

This is what I know will happen in Stavanger. I'm also trying to involve the Norwegian Gastronomic Institute in Stavanger in the project. I'm hoping that we can make a larger outdoor azolla cultivation somewhere and experiment with azolla cooking together but nothing is set yet. Throughout the summer I will also be working with Oloph Fritzén, farmer at Hästa gård, a 180 hectare urban farm in Stockholm. We'll try to make some kind of azolla installation on the farm and grow azolla to use as mulch and as fodder for the farms animals. In September I'll exhibit Super Meal at the Halikonlahti Green Art Trilogy in Finland. For that exhibition I'm collaborating with Tiia Pau, a gardener who will be growing azolla in Salo during the Summer. During the opening weekend of the exhibition I'll be facilitating an azolla kitchen where people can drop in and experiment with azolla cooking.

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

Azolla has been used for biological fertilizer and as animal fodder. At some point in the booklet, you call it 'not super tasty' and you even add further on "To sum up you eat azolla on your own risk. It might be healthy and it might not." That was quite a warning! So what is your aim with the Super Meal project? To convince people that it's a valuable food resource? Or rather to enter in a broader discussion about the future of food and food production for example?

I'm trying to find out if there is any real potential in azolla as a food for humans but I haven't reached any conclusions yet and I want that to be clear. As far as I know no studies have been carried out on the effects on humans of azolla consumption so no one really knows weather it's healthy or not. But I will rewrite that sentence before the booklet is published. I don't want to overemphasize the risks either. Apart from potentially being a new foodstuff azolla has many applications, as biological fertilizer, animal fodder and for biofuels for example. I want to disseminate this information so that people can find appropriate uses for azolla but I don't want to "sell" azolla or give any illusions that it's a panacea.

I'm interested in how we produce our food today and could be producing it in the future and I try to get some insight into this by looking at how azolla can be used in agriculture. When I started to work with Super Meal I knew very little about agriculture. Now I know enough to be convinced that the industrial agriculture we have to day is a dead end and that we ought to move towards an agriculture based on a diversity of species working together in stead of ever larger monocultures dependent on fossil fuel driven machines, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The way I see it this isn't a matter of going back to a pre-modern agriculture but of putting together both old and new knowledge of how the world functions and creating something that we've never had before. Azolla has been used as an organic fertilizer in rice paddies for thousands of years in parts of China, but it isn't until recently that this practice has started to spread to other parts of the world.

Experiments with azolla in rice cultivation has for example just started in Italy where rice producers have problems with pollution and depleting soils. Using azolla as an organic fertilizer in rice paddies is great, but when it becomes really interesting is when even more species are introduced in the paddy. A farmer in Japan, where azolla commonly is regarded as a rice paddy weed, has recently shown that if rice is co-cultured with azolla, fish and ducks in the same paddy you can get greater rice yields than with conventional rice farming while at the same time getting fish, duck meat and eggs. I think that systems like these are really promising and that what we need to do is to develop an agriculture with both a a great diversity of systems and great diversity within the systems themselves.

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

How does the public react to your project?

Most people I've met are really curious and enthusiastic about the project. It's fun to
look at, touch and eat a plant you haven't heard of before. Especially one as odd as azolla, a floating fern that lives in symbiosis with an algae and grows like crazy. I also think that a lot of people are inspired by the project because it's an amateur pursuit and because it's an attempt to look at how we can improve things. The only negative reaction I've received was when I presented the project at a permaculture course. I mentioned that scientific studies have shown that cow's milk productions can be increased and that chickens gain weight if they are given azolla as a supplemental fodder. This prompted some strong negative reactions from a woman who associated this with pushing animals too far and treating them as biological production units rather than conscious beings. There was also a discussion around the appropriateness of introducing azolla in agriculture in Sweden where it isn't an indigenous species. If azolla would be introduced in the wrong environment it could become a problem. There are already examples of this having happened in Iran for example. However, I've found a Swedish garden enthusiast who has been growing azolla in a pond in Stockholm for the past ten years without it ever surviving the winter so I don't think we need to worry about it spreading uncontrollably at these latitudes. These are relevant concerns though.

I'm interested in our notions of what is "natural", how these notions are connected to language and aesthetics and how they are tied to how we relate to the past, the present and the future. I think we need to look beyond appearances at how things actually function and consider both new and old practices.

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

The nickname of azolla is super plant. How come i read all those health magazines full of 'super food' articles and i've never heard about azolla? Could it become the new tofu one day?

I don't know why the health food industry hasn't picked up on azolla yet. My guess is that they just haven't heard of it, though it seems strange. I don't think it would be difficult to market azolla as a health supplement, like spirulina, and make a profit from it. I've been contacted by people who have been interested in growing azolla as health food and I have been asked if I have intentions of doing this myself, which I don't.

Tofu and in particular Quorn are interesting foodstuffs. Many people don't know what they are made of or how they are made but they still eat them. Quorn is also interesting because it's a newly invented foodstuff. In the 60's it was predicted that by the 80's there would be a global famine and shortage of protein-rich foods. Quorn is the result of research that was done in response to this. The fungus that Quorn is made from was discovered in 1967. After it had been evaluated for ten years the company that makes Quorn got permission to sell it for human consumption in the 80's. The global famine never happened but Quorn ended up being a great vegetarian substitute to meat. I don't find it unlikely that azolla could be turned into a foodstuff like Quorn or tofu with the right processing, but a lot more research has to be done.

In the introduction of your booklet 'Super Meal' you thank Masamichi Yamashita at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in because his work, you write, has inspired this project. What did JAXA make with azolla? Did they manage to successfully include it in a diet? What was in it in JAXA research exactly that triggered your idea to work on a project about azolla?

I was impressed that by designing systems similar to the rice-fish-azolla-duck system I mentioned earlier, and including azolla in a human diet, it would theoretically be possible to grow all the food a human needs in an area of 200 square meters. That's less than a hundredth of the area the average Americans food production occupies today. This made me curious of what azolla tasted like and since I couldn't find any azolla recipes or satisfying accounts of what azolla tasted like anywhere I decided to try to grow it and cook it myself. For many people space and the future are synonymous so I thought it would be interesting to look into how we produce our food today and could be producing it in the future using space agriculture research as a starting point. I think a lot of valuable knowledge can come out from research on space colonization but at the same time I find our fascination with it kind of peculiar. I recently watched Werner Herzogs' The Wild Blue Yonder where a researcher talks enthusiastically about how in the future we'll be living and working on asteroids and going to Earth on vacation. Why would we want to do that? Living on an asteroid and eating azolla doesn't sound that appealing to me. I'd rather see that we try to find ways of co-existing with the diversity of species that we still have left here on Earth so we can continue to have varied food.

Thanks Erik!

More images of the Super Meal project.

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