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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.

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Algaculture

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The Republic of Salivation

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.

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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.

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The Republic of Salivation: Dinner table, showing the process of eating Starch blocks provided by the government

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The Republic of Salivation: Dinner table, showing the process of eating Starch blocks provided by the government

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.

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The Algae Opera, 2012. Part of the Digital Design Weekend at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

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"?
And can you describe the suit/mask she is wearing as well as the algae tank? How does it work exactly?

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."

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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.

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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.

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The human placenta. The image illustrates a story on foods from human origin in the journal "After..."

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!

Previously: Extreme Green Guerrillas by Michiko Nitta and Future Farm by Michael Burton.

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As announced previously, i've started a programme about art and science for ResonanceFM. The third episode is broadcast today Monday 4 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 will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)

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Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011

Howard Boland is in the studio today. The artist and mathematician co-founded C-LAB, an interdisciplinary art platform that explores the meaning and idiosyncrasies of the organic and the synthetic life.

7 years ago, I interviewed them about cacti that grow human hair and interstellar plant species. The radio programme catches up with their current interests, mostly magnetic nanoparticles and bacteria that might or might not smell like bananas.

The first episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the radio show about art & science/technology i'm recording for Resonance FM is broadcast today Monday 21 May 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 there will be podcasts.

This week i'm talking with the lovely and lively Anna Dumitriu, visual artist and respected founder and director of The Institute of Unnecessary Research. She explains how she finds herself locked inside university laboratories to collaborate with scientists on major projects. We're talking about bacteria and how the problem is not that they exist but that they keep talking to each other, we're talking panda blood transfusion ahead of the Paris edition of Trust Me, I'm an Artist and there's even a mention of the robot that steals your face.

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Anna has a show opening this Wednesday at The Barn Gallery in Oxford. Normal Flora: Bioart Responses to Modernising Medical Microbiology blurs the boundaries between art, textile crafts, and science. It uses a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, projections and textiles. I'll be going on Wednesday, expect blurry images on my flickr stream.

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Yesterday i was in Manchester for the FutureEverything festival. Mostly to see the art exhibition. The festival is up until Saturday but the exhibition remains open until June 10. It's a good show. Small but smart and with a sharp focus on artistic and political potential of new participatory technologies. I'll come back to it over the weekend.

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Right now i wanted to have a look at Ollie Palmer's Ant Ballet.

Because of their decentralized organization (swarm intelligence), ants are a good model for the kind of participatory projects the exhibition is exploring this year. In the designer's work however, the behaviour and navigation of the insects are manipulated for artistic purposes. Palmer has spent 2 years observing the Argentine ant, aka Linepithema humile to build the Ant Ballet Machine, a system that enables him to direct ants and make them move in a choreographed fashion.

Using synthesised pheromones and computer vision system, a robotic arm sprays out pheromone powder trails that cause the ants to follow artificial trails in preference to the route they would normally take in search of food.


Ant Ballet

The project is separated into four phases referencing the 1974 scifi movie Phase IV. In the film, scientists are puzzled by the complex designs that ants have started building in the desert. The ant colony have in fact undergone rapid evolution as a result of a mysterious cosmic event.

Phase I of the Ant Ballet (2010-2012) is the one documented at the FutureEverything exhibition, it covers thorough research into ants and control systems, synthesis of ant pheromones and testing of systems with live ants in Barcelona. Phases II-IV (2012-2015) will develop further technologies, chemicals and mechanisms. In 2013 the first public ant ballet performance will be presented at Pestival Sao Paolo.

The designer has tested the system in Barcelona because the UK regards the Argentine ant as highly invasive species (which they are) and wouldn't allow him to bring live ones with him. So what you can see in Manchester are computer-simulated ants laying pheromone trails on a round table, only to be disrupted by the robotic arm spraying synthetic pheromones.

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Views in the exhibition space

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Check out the documentation of the Ant Ballet at the 1830 warehouse, the world's first railway warehouse, part of the MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), Liverpool Rd, Manchester. Entrance to FutureEverybody art exhibition is free. The show remains open until 10 June 2012.
The project is also on view at Pestival @ ZSL London Zoo, until June 2012.

32nasa0.jpgYou might remember that over 8 months ago i spent 7 days in Pittsburgh for a A/S/T Book Sprint. Together with curator Andrea Grover, art and science writer and pop star Claire L. Evans and architect and designer Pablo Garcia, i spent a whole week locked inside the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University discussing and writing about the intersection of art/science/technology with explorations into maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design.

Andrea also had the bright idea to involve graphic designers Jessica Young, and Luke Bulman from Thumb in the whole production process. Each evening we would gather around their computer screens and watch how these two talented designers had given shape to our ideas and texts.

The book is finally out! It's called New Art/Science Affinities and you can either buy it on Lulu or download the PDF for free.

Don't expect to read the ultimate compendium of all things art and science (it was written in only 7 days by 4 people after all), it would be more appropriate to see it as a subjective snapshot of what the art&science community is up to right now (or rather 8 months ago). What i can say with certainty is that the book is the result of one of the most exciting moments of my blogger life. So thank you Andrea for inviting us to book sprint, to Golan Levin for hosting us at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, to Astria Suparak from the Miller Gallery for her continuous support. And a huge thank you to all the artists we've contacted at the very last moment with an urgent request to send us photos or to talk with us on skype.

Views inside the book:

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Image Studio for Creative Inquiry

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Jessica and Andrea. Image Studio for Creative Inquiry

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Claire Image Studio for Creative Inquiry

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Pablo and I. Image Studio for Creative Inquiry

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At the Waffle Shop

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The very last day in Pittsburgh was a real snow party

I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.

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Photo by Katherine Cuningham, during the graduation preview show at Hoop Gallery in Den Haag, May 2011

Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.

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Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'

If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?

Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?

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Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?

The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).

Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:

Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.

You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?

At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.

I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.

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You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?

While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.

Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?

Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.

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Estúdio Móvel Experimental. RJ - Brasil, 2009. Photo by Silvia Leal

What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?

I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.

Thanks Ivan!

This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
Also at ArtBots: The Noisolation Headphones.

If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.

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