After Agri is a collaborative investigation between Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton. Their collaboration looks at the future evolutions of our food systems, asking What new cultural revolution will replace agriculture? How will our species and civilisation be transformed?
I met Michiko and Michael ages ago, when they were among the first students graduating from the course of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. I liked these two a lot at the time so when i found out in an exhibition guide that had teamed up to form After Agri, i thought i needed to have a close look at their website. It's still early days for After Agri but their portfolio is as provocative and ingenious as i had expected.
Taking into account the latest advances in synthetic biology, geo-engineering, nutrigenomics and other areas of scientific research but also shifts in cultural taboos, issues of climate change and overpopulation, their latest projects include an exhibition exploring two possible future food cultures: Algaculture which proposed a greater symbiosis between algae and the human body and the Republic of Salivation, a dark scenario that sees Governments enforcing restricted food policies where the type of food a citizen receives responds to the emotional, intellectual and physical demands of their job.
More recently, Michiko and Michael were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with an 'Algae Opera' performance that demonstrated in the most spectacular how singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source.
The Feast After Agri proposes new food cultures to revolutionize the way we feed ourselves. For the exhibition 'Food Forward' which took place at Stroom a few months ago, you explored two of the seven future food cultures from The Feast After Agri in greater depth: Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation. What are the other 5 future food culture? Could you describe them briefly and tell us which science and technology research has inspired them?
The Feast After Agri project searches for actions, research and experiments that might change the way we produce food and shape our world. Whilst some projects within After Agri propose new foods, we are fascinated by ways to redefine food altogether. We look for signposts to the changes in our behavior that might have a similar magnitude to our historic leap from a hunter-gatherer to an agriculture existence 10,000 years ago. And subsequently how new food and body-fuelling cultures will change our world and our human evolution.
Besides Algaculture and the Republic of Salivation, the Feast After Agri currently proposes five food cultures that respond to a variety of sources. For instance the Symbiotic Bacterial Nation creates a food culture shaped by synthetic biology.
The Subterranean Troglodytes carve out a new niche underground to seek refuge from the spreading desert and UV radiation baked surface of our planet.
Whereas Bovineopolis reflects what Carolyn Steel writes about in her book, Hungry City that "Cities have always moulded nature in their image". Bovineopolis, takes a sideways look at the reality of in-vitro meat production. Here Fetal Bovine serum, an extract from a calf fetus, used in cell culturing is the city's re-rendering of beef. These and the other proposals continue to be developed and will be worked-up to full projects in the future.
I also had a look at your map of the Feast After Agri and it seems that the various food cultures are distributed geographically? Which criteria makes you decide which food culture would be implemented in which part of the world?
The map explores how new geographical boundaries and geo-engineering projects may be re-drawn on top of existing territories according to new food cultures. Instead of a standardized food culture across the globe, the Feast After Agri map charts the diversification in how we respond and evolve to our food and body-fuelling methods.
This map will change and be reconfigured as we add more food cultures and chart the changing climate and geographical composition over time.
In your future food scenarios, do you also see differences in social classes with, for example, privileged people being able to carry on eating as we know it now?
The role between social class systems and diet is a very strong feature in most of the scenarios but particularly the Republic of Salivation. Here the design of diet is used by the Government to enable a citizen workforce to deliver their role in society. For instance, manual workers are given a provision of food that is high in modified starch - to enable the body to run for longer on the least food. Whereas the intellectuals of the country are fed scarcer food like fish, rich in omega 3 fatty acids and fresh fruit, to enrich brain function.
The scenario not only projects into the future but also reflects on the past. In developing the Republic of Salivation we were particularly interested in how food was re-evaluated as fuel for the work-force body in the Victorian workhouses.
I'm curious about the The Algae Opera that took place last month at the V&A. Somehow, you managed to convince a mezzo-soprano to be 'transformed with biotechnology to form a unique relationship with algae.' What do you mean by "transformed"?
The role of transformation in The Algae Opera is a physical and cultural one. We identified the opera singer as the perfect body morphology for the production of algae. The singer's large lung capacity was perfect to exhale the maximum CO2 to feed the algae. To facilitate the process further, the singer, Louise Ashcroft, worked with composer, Gameshow Outpatient, to re-design her singing technique.
The opera aspect of the piece was a second crucial component as we wanted to explore some exciting new research like that carried out by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford called sonic food enhancement. Gameshow Outpatient and Louise re-designed many conventional operatic techniques. Gameshow Outpatient's Matt Roger described the process as:
"We wanted to create a vocal ritual overtly focused on breath as much as singing, since breath is a fundamental connection between singer and algae, with breath control a technical fundament of singing itself. With this in mind we revisited traditional singing techniques to make explicit the role of breath and breath control in them, the impact on tone colour and stamina for example, seeking to explore 'fragility' as much as 'strength'. We wanted the piece to represent an imaginary 'folk' music, born of a Human/Algae symbiote culture where breath itself is the revered symbol of existence."
Louise's role as a singer was also re-examined and she reflects on the process:
"I have to make a significant shift in the use of breath. The algae mask captures CO2 to grow the algae and requires a non-reflexive breath cycle to maximise CO2 output. This means the singer needs to take the breath cycle to the point of collapse. In today's opera tradition, this type of breath cycle is considered inefficient and undesirable due to the issues surrounding sustainability and aesthetic. However, in The Algae Opera, a breath cycle based on a point of collapse is considered efficient and ultimately desirable, for it produces more algae.
In terms of the sonic enhancement of the algae, our relationship to pitch, tone and vocal colour also changes. Tone and colour in the algae framework is no longer linked just to text and texture, but also to flavour. What this means for me as a trained singer, is that I have to re-think technique, the purpose of the voice and explore a new vocal aesthetic to ensure that an algae sound creates food to feed you and me."
As shown in the diagram, the algae suit/mask works by pumping CO2 from the singer to the algae in the tanks. With a little fertilizer the algae feed and grow. Over a couple of performances the algae population is sufficient enough to harvest. In the opera piece, a chef strains the algae and uses it to make a sushi-like meal that is fed to the audience. The two acts of the opera are composed to consist of sound pitches to enhance the audience's taste of bitterness and sweetness as they eat. As such, they consume the performer's talent and taste her song.
Algaculture is fairly seducing but the Republic of Salivation is downright revolting (or maybe it's just me). What reaction do you expect people to have when they discover the food cultures you're bringing forward?
We're not afraid to investigate the good, bad and ugly future of food cultures. We can't escape the fact that we will have to change our food production methods. Already there's a food crisis and our human population maintains its growth. And hungry people make for a future of panic, civil unrest, conflict and death. However, we still have the luxury now to think, explore, play and try alternative choices.
We are not only interested in the future food itself - we are fascinated in the largest systems that our food systems shape. The scientific research area of nutrigenomics reveals that we literally are what we eat. Our food guides our human evolution.
Also, we want to highlight the ecology of food systems. Therefore After Agri aims to discover how future food cultures will shape our physical world from town planning, landscapes and our global climate. We want to offer a glimpse into how developments in food technology will guide how we live together in societies, inform our political systems and give us new national identities. The projects also aim to consider how our future body-fuelling cultures will change our relationship with the planet's biodiversity and may allow us to populate new ecological niches.
Although these are potential futures, we are not saying these will actually be the future. We hope they act as a mirror onto ourselves to consider the ecological web our food cultures impact on and the sacrifices we will be required to make in subsequent human generations.
Are there any ongoing research in future way of feeding the population that you actually find exciting and would love to try out?
The full integration of algae into the body to make us semi-photosynthetic that features in the Algaculture project is something we would love to try. It's the most extreme transformation of the body we've explored so far and it has the most sacrifices to our current way of life and dietary traditions. Despite these challenges, we would love to feel what it's like to feed from the sun via the algae.
Also we are excited by the research of Alan Horsager, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California. His research implants algae genes in the eyes of blind mice to regain a basic sight perception. In the development of the project we have briefly explored the potential of our bodies gaining a new bodily sensory perception through the light sensitivity of the algae when they are fully integrated, as an interesting by-product of a new dietary lifestyle.
You just published After... The Birth Issue. Can you talk to us about the publication? What do we find inside? Is this the first one of a longer series of books related to a specific topic?
After... is a quarterly journal. Online it can be found at www.afterafter.co.uk. It features work that investigates, experiments and inspires new ways to see our world. It is a way to explore how all of us fit into our shifting and fascinating future.
The journal adopts free-thinking discovery to enhance our understanding of ourselves. We don't want to wait for the future to happen to us. Instead, After... is a place for like-minded people who want to be a part of creating that future.
Inside can be found focused, reflective documentaries, proposals and prototypes for alternative futures. It's a bit of a marriage of East meets West with influences from Michiko's Japanese and Michael's UK backgrounds.
Please let us know if you would like to receive our journal directly or be part of future editions.
Any upcoming project you'd like to share with us?
We are working on the autumn After... issue. We are currently working on two commissions that will launch in October and November. Also we are building ideas and work for a solo exhibition next year called Isoculture. Please check our website for further updates and launch news.
Thanks Michiko and Michael!
The most unusual objects are lost on the London tube: breast implants, human skulls, false teeth and braces, a jar of bull sperm, stuffed puffer fish, etc. And every year, a surprisingly high number of artworks are left on the underground trains. Charlotte Jarvis recently lost an apple 'contaminated' with synthetic DNA encoding for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The artist contacted Transport for London but they never found it. If ever you've picked up and eaten it, there's no need to be worried, the fruit is neither harmful to your health nor illegal.
The apple was part of Blighted by Kenning, a bioart piece Jarvis developed in close collaboration with The Netherlands Proteomics Centre (NPC), a research center located in Utrecht that studies proteome, the 'set of proteins expressed by a genome, cell, tissue or organism'.
"We bio-engineered a bacteria so that its DNA encodes for the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Charlotte explains. "We then extracted the DNA and sprayed it onto the surface of the apples."
Some of the fruits were then sent to genomics laboratories around the world for participating scientists to sequence the DNA, find the message hidden within and send back a translation.
The apples are currently exhibited in a former dairy converted into an art space called The Big Shed in Suffolk. The gallery is now filled with a small orchard but only one of the apples hanging on the one of the trees has been 'contaminated'. The show also includes a billboard visualising The Declaration of Human Rights expressed as a protein, films of the NPC scientists talking about their work and eating the fruit, the documents that institutes have sent to the artist and the NPC after sequencing the apples but one of the most fascinating part is the wall covered with a wall of correspondence detailing the process of making the project.
Charlotte uploaded some of the letters online. The exchange might be of interest to artists, curators, reporters wanting to work with life sciences: the legal restrictions in developing or simply exhibiting 'bioart' works, the misunderstanding and challenges encountered from the very moment the project was first articulated, etc.
Video interview with some of the NPC researchers:
12m by 3m billboard showing visualisations of The Declaration of Human Rights expressed as a protein:
One the opening night, Charlotte Jarvis ate one of the 'forbidden fruits':
The exhibition Blighted by Kenning, curated by Clemency Cooke, runs until the 26th of August at The Big Shed in Stanny House Farm, High Street, Iken, Suffolk. The project will be exhibited at various locations in the Netherlands later this year.
I finally went to the Wellcome Collection to see Superhuman - An exhibition exploring human enhancement.
Glasses, lipstick, false teeth, the contraceptive pill and even your mobile phone - we take for granted how commonplace human enhancements are. Current scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health.
Superhuman takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be. Items on display range from an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to a packet of Viagra, alongside contributions from artists such as Matthew Barney and scientists, ethicists and commentators working at the cutting edge of this most exciting, and feared, area of modern science.
Yes! Superhuman is all of the above and much more. In fact, the exhibition gives visitors a lot to chew on. In no particular order, Super human discusses: The definition of enhancement (is the smart phone an enhancement of our body and brain?) Missing body parts that get replaced -even if their function is forever lost- in an attempt to 'normalize' a body. Man and Machine and the perspective of becoming cyborgs. The Superheroes that anticipate transhumanism. A future of humanity timeline. And of course a focus on Sport.
It's not all RoboCop and Spider-Man though. The exhibition opens on a warning: a statue of Icarus that reminds us that every attempt to improve our bodies and brains comes with its own set of pitfalls and ethical questions. High heel shoes elevate us but too high, they make walking a challenge. Tom Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon after having been doped with strychnine mixed with brandy (performance-enhancing drugs were allowed at the beginning of the 20th century.) He collapsed on the line.
Prosthetic limbs are a particularly striking case of the perils and advantages of enhancements.
Aimee Mullins, the double-amputee model and Paralympian, sees her condition as an opportunity. With each new set of legs comes new powers, new function and a new identity.
More questions arise if we look beyond the case of Pistorius: Will the distinction between Olympics and Paralympics be erased one day? Or will prosthetics become so advanced that they will be seen as an advantage over the 'natural' body?
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the prosthetic limbs whose sole function was cosmetic. They provided no relief nor aid. Such were the prostheses designed for the "Thalidomide babies", these artificial limbs were so bulky and unhelpful that many children eventually abandoned them.
Thalidomide was a sedative drug given to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. It was sold from 1957 until 1961, when it was withdrawn after being found that the drug interfered with the development of a baby's limbs. During that short period, 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide use.
The government funded the design of prostheses for children affected by thalidomide in order to make them look 'normal'. The experimental arm and leg prostheses had to be custom-made but they were clunky and uncomfortable. They replicated the aspect of the limb but were not able to reproduce its function. Many children refused to wear them.
Both Mullins' experience as well as the history of the Thalidomide babies makes us realize that the role of prostheses nowadays is not so much to give a sense of 'normality' (at the detriment sometimes of the wearer's comfort) but to accommodate a difference and allow the wearer to embrace a new identity.
Speaking of prosthetic limbs. I found these images of elegant women showing their wooden leg but not their face extremely moving. The legs were crafted by James Gillingham (1839-1924), a shoemaker based in Chard, Somerset. Gillingham first started making artificial limbs after a local man lost an arm firing a cannon for a celebratory salute in 1863.
One of the most pertinent points developed in the exhibition is the shift in perception: what was regarded as exceptional is now ordinary. IVF treatment which made the covers of newspapers not so long ago is now a relatively routine procedure (in 2009, 12 714 babies were born in the UK through IVF.) False teeth and contraceptive pills are now so common we don't see them as enhancements anymore.
Would someone from the 19th century regard us as superhuman? What will the 'normal' people of tomorrow be like? Look like? What will they be able to do better and faster than us?
Quick round-up of the stories, images and ideas i discovered in the exhibition:
The set of teeth above were known as Waterloo Teeth. Replacement teeth were traditionally made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus or elephant). However such teeth deteriorated faster than real teeth. The best set of dentures in the early 19th century were made with real human teeth set on an ivory base. Some of these teeth were scavenged from dead soldiers on battlefields.
The Whizzinator kit was originally marketed as a way to fraudulently defeat drug tests. The kit comes with dried urine and syringe, heater packs (to keep the urine at body temperature) and a false penis (available in several skin tones). The manufacturers were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the US government; the device is now sold as a sex toy. Should you be interested...
Artist Donald Rodney was born with sickle-cell anaemia, a debilitating disease of the blood. Psalms is a wheelchair programmed to explore the floor space of the gallery and symbolises the presence of the artist when he was too sick to attend the opening of his own exhibitions.
Legend has it that Charles Atlas used to be mocked for being skinny. He went on to change his body and develop a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program that, allegedly, enabled weaklings to turn themselves into fit, strong men. He advertised his method in comic books from the 1940s and the campaign is regarded as one of the most longest-lasting ad campaigns of all time.
The image above shows one page of a correspondence course sent out in early 1939 giving instructions in how "in just 7 days YOU can have a body like mine" by using his Dynamic Tension program. The leaflet includes numerous photographs of Charles Atlas posing in leopardskin trunks and flexing his muscles.
For Routine, the artist Francesca Steele transformed her physique over a year through adoption of bodybuilding training and diet.
This artificial toe is one of only a few examples found on or buried with Egyptian mummies. It was initially thought to complete the body after death, essential for successfully passing over to the afterlife. However, signs of wear and repair suggest it may also have been used in life. Tests using a replica found it was possible for a volunteer who had lost their right big toe to walk successfully while wearing it, with the toe itself withstanding the pressure of use.
Many comic-book heroes seem to anticipate 'transhumanism' - the application of technology to humans to enhance their abilities. Iron Man is a cyborg who will die without his artificial heart and whose power comes from his high-tech suit. Spider-Man's special abilities come from his artificially altered biology. And life imitates art: scientists are now developing powered exoskeleton suits to allow paraplegics to walk, while spider silk is providing the basis for new biomaterials used to repair knee cartilage.
Yves Gellie toured the scientific research laboratories dedicated to the development of humanoid robots.
Also in the exhibition: The Immortal, life-support machines keeping each other alive. The machines are turned on daily but only for one hour (from 12.30 to 1.30 if i remember correctly.)
Evening Standard has photos of the opening.
Superhuman is at the Wellcome Collection until October 16, 2012.
Question of the month: How often has that ugly toaster appeared on my homepage?
This week i'm talking to speculative designer Thomas Thwaites. We will discuss that toaster of course but we also look at some of his other projects. In particular, Unlikely Objects: Products of a Counterfactual History of Science, a work that explore what our scientific knowledge would have been like had the Darwinian revolution never happened.
The radio show is broadcast today Monday 9nd July at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!
One of the most curious, amusing and thought-provoking projects of the Design Interactions graduation show this year asks questions that range from 'What is more important in making us who we are: our genes or the experiences we go through in life?' to Can a mouse be Elvis? and Does buying a pre-owned item gives one the legal right to another individual's genetic data?
The first online stop is Ebay where the designer bought a hair from Elvis Presley for $22. He sent it to a gene sequencing lab that advertise its services online. The scientists working at the lab are able to identify different behavioural traits (such as sociability, athletic performance, obesity or addiction) from one speck of hair. Koby then sent the data collected about the genes to another lab which is able to produce transgenic mice clones with parallel traits. The result is a mouse that is a genetically cloned model of Elvis.
In parallel to the works performed by these laboratories, Koby has been studying the scientific mouse model environments that have been used on lab mice over the past 100 years. The cages have been designed to study and manipulate psychological aspects of mice.
Koby then made his own cages. But his were intended to reconstruct some of the most influential moments in the life of Elvis. Each of these cages offers a specific environment that is designed to influence the psychology of the mouse and make it closer to Elvis'.
Some of the main themes that the designer identified as being influential in making Elvis are: his close relationship with his mother (and so the mouse is given a mouse companion), being the victim of bullying when he was a child (in this cage, the mouse is submitted to external stimuli that frightens it), the discovery of his talents, becoming a star (features a distorted mirror that makes the mouse appear bigger), the Graceland period (in every place the mouse pokes nose, it gets a positive reaction in the shape of food or toys and keeps filling the cage to the point making it anxious), the army, the death of mum, the divorce from Priscilla are events that are represented by a cage that functions as an isolation chamber. The last cage embodies the last three years of the life of Elvis, when he worked himself to death, that period is represented by a little treadmill at the top of the cages. The mouse would run, run, run and eventually fall down.
Koby didn't push the project to the point of having a genetically engineered mouse go though all these cages, that would have been far too cruel for the animal but his project do make us wonder if one day it will be possible to enter a new kind of pet shop and ask for a dog, a fish or a cat that no only has the same genetic traits as a pop icon or a historical figure but also behaves like them.
I had many questions for Koby when i met him at the show, here are the two that i later submitted him via email:
Hi Koby! Did you think of the ethical aspects of manipulating a mouse through this series of experiences that reflect the life of a celebrity? Or more generally of having one day the possibility of 'creating' a dog through a series of experiences so that it will behave like Madonna or Lady Di?
I think that the distance between producing purebred animals like dogs and cats and a "Elvis mouse" is unfortunately not to far. In approximately 70 years of experiment - Dmitry K. Belyaev showed how we, by selection, made a domestic dog out of an aggressive wild fox. I think that the only different with making genetically modified pets to fill some human needs (loneliness, compassion, social class etc. or pure entertainment ) is the time it takes.
Of course to my perception both are distorted and equally unethical, but what is more interesting to me is that by creating something like a "Madonna dog" we might develop bigger problems. In a society that imitate it's celebrity models, having your own living model of Madonna might start blur the borders between the two. Madonna as a model vs. Madonna's model. And this is, for me, the most important ethical question that seats in the heart of this project: Do we become our models or do we make them to become ourselves?.
To develop your project, you contacted several scientific advisers. How did they react to your idea of making an Elvis mouse through genetic manipulation and a series of experiences that mirror the most significant moments of the life of Elvis?
All the scientists I was in touch with made a clear distinction between the scientific aspects of the project and the philosophical and entertaining qualities of it. For scientists, making an Elvis Presley mouse model is just a way to play or communicate some possibilities or processes but it has nothing to do with fixing a "serious" human problem. Some looked at the Elvis model and were amazed to see models that they have been working with, making them re-think and wonder for a short second...
The project takes advantage of different uncertainties to produce what seem to be a "fact", so all the answers were left open. In terms of the legal aspect of owning a DNA they didn't want to take any chance - In a lab you cannot use human DNA without his agreement. But as a lawful owner of one of Elvis Presley's hairs I would argue that I should make this decision. As for the Nature Nurture issue, It is an endless loop of debates that no one can give a clear and satisfying answer. For example, one of the scientists I worked with told me of a talk she had with a tennis instructor after our experiment showed that "Patient X" didn't have the ability to be an athlete (ACTN3 gene). The Tennis instructor insisted that anyone can be a great athlete if they'll make the effort, and she, looking at the molecular side of it said that he can try but the physiology would allow it. The work is a reflection of this never ending battle between genetic, epigenetic, psychology and circumstances.
And because i believe that no one will ever be as cool as Elvis...
For this episode, i went to Battersea to interview the new graduates of RCA's Design Interactions. The department has 16 graduates this year. Each graduate is showing 1, 2 or even 3 works in the exhibition. I selected only a handful of them which i introduce briefly before letting the graduates give more details about their project.
In order of appearance: Koby Barhad will talk gene sequencing and Elvis Presley (more about that project in the coming days), Rapahel Kim is still working with rotifers but this time he designed a farm for them, Ai Hasegawa talks about the next frontier for Japanese love hotels and Angela Bracco who is from Design Products (platform 13) is of course answering my questions about If You Can Smell It It Has Mass.
The radio show broadcasts today Monday 25 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!