On Saturday i made yet another trip to the Z33 center Hasselt. This time to see Alter Nature, an exhibition as fascinating as it is cruel to trees. Here's a quick and lazy peek at the show, while i'm slaving on a lengthy report.

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Michael Sailstorfer, Raketenbaum, 2008, ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Raketenbaum is a performance and a diptych showing how Michael Sailstorfer had a fruit tree catapulted into the air by compressed-air cylinders attached to its root balls.

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Michael Sailstorfer, Raketenbaum, 2008, ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

By displacing nature quite literally, Raketenbaum offers a playful introduction to an exhibition which focuses on the different ways people have displaced, manipulated or designed nature.

Alter Nature: We Can remains open until March 13 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

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System Synthetics is the third winning project of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (see also 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and The Microscopic Opera.) The first edition of competition, launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.

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Designer Maurizio Montalti is teaming up with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation to work on an alternative to fossil fuels. He aims to build a transparent bioreactor that will allow the public to see how one fungus breaks down plastic and the other fungus makes bio-ethanol out of it.

Hi Maurizio! This is not the first time that you are working with fungi. Can you tell us a few words about your previous project, Continuous Bodies? I am particularly interested to hear more about The Ephemeral Icon. Is the Bio Cover 'tool-product" you present in this project functioning already?

Exactly, you're right. My fascination for these astonishing organisms already started before, and culminated in one of my last works, titled Continuous Bodies; in that investigation I've been looking at physical decay and physical death as natural processes, without which there could be no new life. The project originated as a reaction to the prevalent attitude of denial which usually characterizes people when it comes to be confronted with the loss of a beloved. In order to try and change this attitude I placed my focus towards a better understanding of the realm of fungi and at their fundamental importance in the environment with regard to decomposition and transformation of both organic and inorganic substrates and the resultant cycling of elements; this offered me the opportunity to try and re-qualify the general perception of the public in relation to these organism, usually associated with feelings of disgust and repulsion.

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Continuous Bodies, cycles of decomposition triggering a symbiotic partnership between humans and fungi, 2010

Envisioning alternative possibilities, while questioning different attitudes related to modern human culture and "development" allowed me to highlight some of the potential extended benefits that fungi could provide us. By getting more and more familiar with this organisms, directly experimenting with them and widely diving into the scientific literature, I got in touch with the ability of a specific fungus (Phanerochaete chrysosporium) in literally feeding on every kind of plastic, even the toughest ones (e.g. polycarbonate, phenolic resins and so on...); this created the basis for the development of the second part of 'Continuous Bodies', titled The Ephemeral Icon.

The main drive, concerning this part, has been the possibility of neutralizing synthetic materials that do not naturally decompose and that are found to provoke unhealthy, risky consequences for both the human being and for the entire ecosystem.

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Bio-cover, 2010

Merging this finding with a vision allowed me to create a social narrative to help us questioning our "throw away" culture, while exploiting, in a beneficial way, the resources that this social behaviour created. In order to translate my overall research and address issues related to disposability, plastic toxicity, and the possibility of having fungi being able to "kill" this immortal materials, i focused my attention on a globally well-known iconic object: the plastic monobloc chair. I use this chair as a statement about the life-cycles of consumer products in comparison with the immortality of the materials, most of the consumer products are made of. Highlighting the complementarity of life and death as a whole, with my design, the Bio-Cover, i play with the idea of infusing life in a dead everlasting material, in order to trigger a process of final dissolution. At this time, the duration of this process is quite long (but still good if compared to millennia) and takes place in standard lab conditions (sterile environment and specific set of parameters in relation to temperature, humidity and so on.); this because this finding is still very young and in need of further explorations regarding the optimal conditions in which the process would develop more efficiently in the 'real world'.

Nevertheless, by performing different tests with the fungus on plastic material, one of them ended up being luckily successful, as I've been able to achieve the complete degradation of plastic samples (acrylic rings) in less than ten months.

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Plastic degradation experiment - before

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Fungus eating plastic - Middle process

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Plastic degradation experiment - after

How much does the research you made for Continuous Bodies inform System Synthetics? Do you see this new project as a natural extension of CB? Do you feel you are ready to tackle your new ambitious project based on what you've learnt with CB? Or do you have to start almost from scratch because the fungus you are going to use in the new project is entirely different from the ones you worked with in the past?

You could say 'System Synthetics' comes as a direct continuation to my previous work; but i would rather say it's an 'evolution' of it. However it looks at something different; if, on a side, it still tries to develop a practical research to show the important contribute that micro-organisms do have in our existence, on the other side it raises new questions and aspires to promote a discussion about a man-made evolution of life.

The possibility of improving the performance of a natural organism (in this case a fungus) to face the consequences of the human indiscriminate action on our ecosystem, is a valid enough reason to give a start to this new potential vast territory of research; i strongly believe, in fact, that we humans, should start recognizing how important it is to team up with other species and organisms and establish with them a symbiotic relationship.

Moreover at the core of my project lies the (unusual) idea of combining the abilities of two
organisms which belong to the same kingdom: one fungus (Phanerochaete chrysosporium) and one yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), so to create an intimate man-made endo-symbiosis between two fungi in which the capacities to degrade plastics and to produce bio-ethanol are intertwined.

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The previous experience in the lab is for sure an important advantage to me, to tackle this new ambitious project; this because I already had the possibility to get familiar with different micro-biological techniques in the study of fungal behaviour and to directly test my hypothesis with a "hands-on" approach. However there's much more to learn and that's what makes this whole project so exciting.

The fungus I'm going to use is the same I've been previously working with, but for instance I never worked before with yeasts (if not for making pizza dough...!) and also, some of the techniques and methodologies that I will adopt in this new process will be for me a totally new discovery and a possibility of gaining new knowledge.

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Fungus - yeast, symbiosis sketch

The press release states that your project aims to develop a "publicly accessible transparent bioreactor". does this formula means that the technology to do it will be available for the broad public to replicate the process and produce fuel at home?

Not really, but hopefully in a not-so-distant future, yes.

I say this because the path I'm starting with this project could be a long one. In these next five months I will create a design of the architecture of the symbiosis of Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This design will be integrated with a tailor-made bioreactor, resulting in a set-up that efficiently would convert plastic into bio-ethanol. The implementation of the design of the new symbiotic life-form could probably take many years of research. I will contribute to this process by defining the conditions under which Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae can co-exist. Moreover I will label the partners with fluorescent proteins, in order to make the interaction between the two organisms clearly visible to the public.

The bio-reactor will be built from transparent materials, allowing the viewer to monitor the complete process. For instance, within the bioreactor the new life-form will be visible.

The viewer will witness that the machine operates autonomously, using part of the produced bio-ethanol as source of energy and having as only input the plastic waste. A process film, documenting all the main relevant experiments in the labs, together with visual materials, will complete the exhibition.

The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started working on System Synthetics? How is the collaboration with Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?

Yes, absolutely. I already started working on my project, mainly by preparing the first cultures of the two selected organisms and organizing the different phases and experiments of these next months; this together with the Kluyver Centre. Of course the whole planning could get re-shaped in the course of the next months, according to the results that I will achieve during the process.

Also I had the possibility of being given a personal working space within the lab, as I'll be present in there most of the time, not only for documentation purposes; i'll be directly responsible for performing the whole experimental part, with the assistance of a small team, which will naturally give me the needed operational instructions for the achievement of a successful outcome.

The process will develop, in any case, on the base of a regular consultation with the leader of the 'Filamentous Fungi' group at the Kluyver Centre, Prof. Han Wosten, with which I feel I already established a strong symbiotic
relationship. Looking forward to taking the next steps...

Thanks Maurizio!

All images courtesy: the designer.

A couple of weeks ago the French branch of The Council met at the Maison des Métallos in Paris to discuss about the challenges and promises of 'the internet of things.' There were presentations by artists, hackers, designers, researchers and also by various people in suits. The highlight of the event for me (and for many other people i'm sure) was a presentation by Jean-Baptiste Labrune on DIY Transducers.

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Piezo Flower. Image by JB Labrune

Currently working for Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, Dr Jean-Baptiste Labrune has recently traveled back to Paris after a couple of years spent as a postdoctoral researcher in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Medialab. The Council was not our first encounter, I had met the French computer scientist before at interaction design workshops, media art conferences, dorkbot meetings and in other events where hackers, artists, designers and engineers might want to hang out and discuss.

His presentation gave a provocative (and much welcome) twist to the discussion about 'the internet of things.' Labrune's talk revolved around the idea of developing organic circuits and, more broadly, about an internet of thing which might one day be made of materials that grow, evolve, decay and die just like us.

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Jean-Baptiste Labrune at The Council. Image by Pierre Metivier

Labrune manages to be very witty, very geek and very funny at the same time. The chaotic notes i took during his presentation are, alas!, unable to reproduce his style and ideas so I thought it would be best if i'd have him speak in a super short interview about his work:

One of the projects you developed while researching at MIT was a reflection on electronic components that wouldn't be made of plastic nor metal but of natural materials? Can you tell us about the outcome of that research? What did your prototypes look like?

Because of their homogeneous hence controllable nature, many modern objects are made using the same materials, like plastic for example. Fabrication line-ups engineers like to control i.e. predict in advance the rate of failure and in a way eliminate error from the production process of high-end artefacts. Because I think that our capacity to repurpose unpredictability into meaning is what makes us human by opposition to machine, I was exploring in this project how using less controllable process and materials might lead to different results than traditional techniques for electronics like PCB for instance. Among the prototypes, I try to develop simple circuits with simple functions to more complex ones with microcontrollers or microchip programmers. I was also interested in creating unstable sensors and actuators made out of wood for instance where regular components would be only press-fit and connected to the circuit trace by dry-paint and not solder joints, allowing young children to create simple electromechanical artefacts without soldering irons or chemical etchant.

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Four Copper Preg LaserCut Boards. The one in the down right is wood, other are PMMA (acrylic). Image JB Labrune

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Liquid copper. Image JB Labrune

You employed a rather unusual material, some kind of liquid copper? Can you explain it its role in your prototype?

Some of my colleagues and friends (Leah Buechley, Hannah Perner-Wilson, Nadya Peek) are the best in collecting nice stuff that conduct electricity like all kind of liquid suspensions, animal exoskeletons or felted particles... I realised different prototypes of circuits boards using liquid copper since with silver, this metal is a very good conductor of electricity, which we like in general (except if you want to make resistive sensors). The particular one used in the project you mentioned is the moderately cheap CuPro-CoteTM paint from LessEMF, a website specialised in anti-abduction garments, well known from electronic textile folks since it proposes all kind of nice conductive fabric based on copper or silver with beautiful and strange names like Flectron or Zelt. Because it is almost entirely composed of copper, this paint is in principle not dangerous for health since copper can even be moderately ingerated (in principle :). Leah Buechley and her research group frequently use it to make paper electronics by directly painting circuits on paper with such paints. My idea was to use a fast CNC machine (like a laser cutter for example) to quickly draft electronic objects since this kind of machines are precise and good at repetitive tasks, and then let a human finish them since they are usually very good at the inverse, therefore creating an interesting tension between repeatability and originality. The boards were made out of different materials with various hydrophobic or hydrophilic surfaces (PMMA, Wood, BioComposites) inviting the liquid copper to go into machine cut channels according to precise paths. The precision of the CNC machines I used allowed to create rather compact circuits at SOIC or even QFN pitch (which corresponds to most of artistic grade electronic components) but also, and interestingly enough to develop precise high frequency antennas or very precise solenoids (electromagnets) by simple depositions, which led me for example to create monolithic speakers from wood and copper in a following project.

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Simple implementation of the FabISP made by David A. Mellis in a HTMAA class. Image JB Labrune

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Wooden PCB. Image JB Labrune

Was your project motivated by a strong sense of ecology and respect for nature?

Well, I am not sure it was motivated by nature or ecology in the greenwashing sense, but more in the idea of situatedness (à la Lucy Suchman), or as Von Huexküll puts it in the beginning of the last century, in terms of non-forgetting the idea of Umwelt, where an object is as defined by everything it is not than by its internal or intrinsic components. Let say that I was motivated by these ideas and also by the desire of a playful drift from the ubiquitous idea of cybernetics, theory of governance and control (kybernetika, the art of steering), minimising the presence of predictive control (feedforward, feedback, negative-feedback) by systems or their operators, while, like in poetic cybernetics, celebrating human abilities to appreciate scale-invariance, navigate through intricate recursive assemblages and adapt to ad-infinitum changes. A second perspective is the ability to create processes or machines that intervene into natural environment but then withdraw themselves to let their artificiality being re-conquered by living entities, controlled by extra-human rules. I am thinking here for example of the works of land art researchers and artists like Philip Beesley for instance who comes to forests on deserted islands with many students, knit their roots and then go for many years to finally come back and see how nature interpreted their interpretations.

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Cardboard Hello. Image JB Labrune

How do you think users will relate to tech components that are going to 'grow old' and 'die'? Do you feel they will care for them more? Develop an altogether different relationship to technology?

One of the outcome of this quick investigation of electronic devices made out of wood for instance is the idea that if we would make circuits on living entities, they would perform differently according to the environment or the homeostatic state of the substrate. This will lead to situations where regular objects that usually are our slaves and perform their function in a controlled and predictable manner would then resist to us, fail to obey to our desires or the anticipated ones designed by technological designers. This resistance might anthropomorphise them and maybe create a feeling of empathy due to the then finite nature of the object relation, that might stop if not nurtured or a least manifested and preserved. Anthropologues and thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour or Michel Serres frequently remind us of the political nature of nature. In the electric or electronic field, luxuriant and drifting definitions of nature are often replaced by an efficient determinist ballistic culture. What if technology to come would integrate natural substrates? Would it transform human sophisticated illusion of control and wishes to tell the future as a serious fiction? Maybe it will actually be the limits of technology that will invite users, as humans, to re-question their relationship with modern environments, especially when most of them are now created by other humans.

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Solenoid test (50 spires) is to show whether laser engraving can create precise circuits to make magnetic coil, inductors and even pretty high frequency antenna (for RFID, Radio, etc.) Image JB Labrune

Merci Jean-Baptiste!

More: Slideshare of DIY Transducers, flickr set on Lasercutting, and Orgatronics.

Related: Interactivos? Garage Science: the Fruit Computer Laboratory.

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A year ago, Dr Lisa Page and Dr Louise Howard from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London published a report in which they expressed their concerns about the potential (and much undiscussed) mental health consequences of climate change. The negative impacts on mental health range from anxiety resulting from emerging infectious disease outbreaks to post-traumatic stress disorder following natural disasters.

Dr Page and Dr Howard's paper inspired Symbiotic Households, one of the projects selected for Demain, c'est aujourd'hui #3 (Tomorrow is Today), an exhibition on prospective design which was part of International Design Biennial in Saint Étienne, France.

Elliott P. Montgomery's project attempts to identify and visualize the new needs -mental or not- that arise as a result of climate changes. Symbiotic Households is set in a not so distant future where the new needs of the inhabitants are met through symbiotic relationships with modified organisms: flavor-augmented insects that substitute prohibitively expensive imported food, color-changing butterflies that warn the family of hazardous outdoor conditions (heat, ozone and UV), blackout preparedness through symbiosis with bio luminescent ants, etc. And then there is the prototype exhibited earlier this month in Saint-Etienne: the Vector Hatchery, a future domestic product that could offer a low cost way to regulate mood.

The hatchery is designed to house mosquito colonies modified to biologically manufacture mood stabilizers. Mosquitoes deliver modified saliva through a permeable mesh. The keeper is left with spots which might serve as sensory reminders that the unconventional therapy has been administered.

I asked designer Elliott P. Montgomery to give us more details about the hatchery:

Did you consider the unpopularity of mosquitoes when you designed the hatchery? Wouldn't they repel people? After all, mosquitoes are also associated with infectious diseases that affect millions of people each year.

The mosquito is essentially a provocative device. The Symbiotic Households series was meant to investigate the impacts of a transforming climate. These days, people are bombarded with the ubiquitous dialogue focused on melting polar ice and sea-level rise... but in actuality, climatologists expect that rising waters will only affect a small percentage of the global population. I wanted to explore potential implications that might affect the desensitized masses (especially in post-industrial nations) right inside our homes.

The first proposal, the Vector Hatchery, came about after discovering a fascinating study on the possible mental health implications of changing climates. Two King's College researchers published a paper in which they hypothesized that rising natural disaster frequency could yield increases in mental depression rates. I spoke with Dr. Page about the details of the report, and was inspired to create a response that was equally as unsettling as their hypothesis. Imagine the shiver down your spine at the sound of a mosquito's wings - that's the feeling I was after.

Why the modified mosquito? What better way to deal with a future need than with a future technology? Genetic manipulation is currently in its infancy, but already offers the ability to combine traits of various organisms. According to synthetic biologists, it really might be possible to create these types of insects in the not-so-distant future.

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Flavor-augmented insects provide food supplementation as food shipment becomes prohibitively expensive

Vector hatchery is part of a series of proposals that intend to help people face the daily life consequences of climate change. One of them, the flavor-augmented insects, stands out from the other proposals because it is totally believable. In fact, the text explaining your project at the Saint-Etienne exhibition defined Vector Hatchery as 'a future domestic product intended to offer a low cost but dubious method of coping with widespread mental health problems." Why did you design a 'dubious' answer to the problem?

An earnest 'answer' to such difficult problems would be naive. By offering a problematic answer, I want to encourage viewers to question the entire scenario and thereby take part in the discussion.

Yes, the flavor-augmented insects are very believable, but the others are really not too far out either. Scientists have already made green fluorescent rabbits and banana scented e-coli. These other proposals are closer than some people imagine.

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Why would people chose to breed mosquitoes over popping a couple of happy pills in the morning? Is it even safe to be bitten by a genetically modified mosquito?

Within the fictitious scenario, a colony of self-replicating drug manufacturers makes an elegant choice. Breeding mosquitoes requires minimal energy and expenditures. Also, mosquitoes have the natural ability to inject saliva into the human bloodstream, a more efficient way to take medication. Throw in a few flowers for daily feeding (mosquitoes consume nectar for most of their lives) and pools of water for laying larvae and the mosquito colony is ready to go. Containing the colony within the hatchery would hypothetically prevent it from transmitting diseases. But is it really safe? I doubt the FDA would approve it.

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Modified slugs provide variable home insulation for drastically fluctuating seasonal weather

The video accompanying your project depicts a spine-chilling future made of power cuts, mental depression, hazardous outdoor conditions, etc. Do you really think it's going to be that bad?

Absolutely not. This project over-dramatizes future problems as an experiment in provocation. The jury is still out on whether this is an effective strategy. Since developing this project, I've spoken with many energy experts about the difficulties we face as a global community. These experts resoundingly believe that with strong financial support and the brightest minds focusing on progressive energy research, the future will be different but bright. I agree with them

Thanks Elliott!

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View of the explosion outside Nelly Ben Hayoun's apartment. Credit photo Nick Ballon

Should you be interested in accommodating a small volcano in your living room, designer Nelly Ben Hayoun has one ready to cover your interior with dust and erupt gloop on your carpet. While the first prototype is still a fairly modest and manageable size, The Other Volcano aims to build a series of semi-domesticated volcanoes that would almost reach the ceiling and provide you with all the discomfort you can expect from this new breed of geological pet. The mini volcano would be housed for a couple of weeks in the living spaces of volunteers, long enough to generate a love-hate relationship between them and a 'sleeping giant' that promises domestic explosions and a range of visual effects that the owner of Xanadu himself would envy.

The designer, who benefited from the scientific expertise of Dr Carina Fearnley and the pyrotechnic skills of Austin Houldsworth writes:

With The Other Volcano I will try to question the domestication of nature for entertainment purposes.

How would you deal with a live volcano in the middle of your living room? Would you try to destroy it? Would you just disconnect it from the mains? Would you be more popular because you share your life with a volcano? Would you invite people to see it, and switch it on at the end of the meal to create a 'surprising' effect? How will you feel when you will
climb on top of it?

The Other Volcano relates very much to my preoccupation with the juxtaposition of the epic with banal details, the extreme with domestic.

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Photo Nick Ballon, retouched by Christoph Bolton

The Other Volcano is currently gracing (if not endangering) the window of the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, London. I wanted to ask Nelly a few questions before The Other Volcano moves to a more homely location:

You worked with the volcanologist Dr Carina Fearnley (Lecturer in Environmental Hazards at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University) on the Volcano project. Can you tell us how this collaboration started?  And was she mostly a source of information or did her opinions modified in any way the original vision you had of the volcano?


Before meeting up with Dr Carina Fearnley, I think I have scared a few volcanologists! It all seems to be part of the process of my projects.

Before for the Soyuz chair, I managed to terrify some astronauts when I jumped on them after their lecture, with my 'Cosmic Drive Rocket' jacket, to ask them to be part of the project. Even worse was when I wanted to generate dark energy in my kitchen sink or when I decided to do a neutrino observatory in my bathroom!

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Valerie and the microwave gun - Did i Generate Dark Energy in my kitchen sink. Photo by Noemie Goudal

Only the bravest scientists usually answer me. So I usually expect sparklers and creative explosions from our meetings.
By the way, the new project will be about dinosaurs, any takers? Please do contact me!

Dr Carina Fearnley is a very dynamic volcanologist. I was so amazed by her energy when I met her the first time. She has been to a number of dangerous volcanoes such as Long Valley Caldera, USA, Mt Vesuvius, Italy, and Mt Unzen, Japan, this forces admiration. But this wasn't all, Carina is angry, Carina is a revolutionary in her field. She was finishing her PhD at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, Earth Sciences department at UCL, when we met up. Her research explored the issues related to standardising volcano early warnings systems, and how to understand and better manage uncertainty, risk and complexity in volcanic crises. She is mixing up mediums such as sociology, and anthropology to interpret data using a bottom-up approach. This has not been very well perceived everywhere! Many scientists don't consider sociology to be a science and have difficulties to accept it as part of a scientific research.

I think our 'hot blooded' mix started from there.

She really influenced my thinking, as a designer, I now wonder what we have done in terms of a revolution? Paintings went over period of intense friction and conflict, with photography, BUT what about design?

I think this is one of the areas that the project tries to question.
'This is not about making technology 'sexy' anymore' like Dunne and Raby would say. So what is design about?
Industrial revolution is too much of an engineered revolution to be a design one, so what and where is going to be the scene for us to Act? I think this open lots of creative perspective and possible conflicts. We have a MASSIVE challenge there! Let's take it!

So far I have explored in my previous projects and in Home chaos. The Other Volcano is still part of this context, it is for your living room. Now I wonder how much we can extend this? We shall see in the future projects...!

I contacted Dr Carina Fearnley with a fair idea of what I wanted to do already. I planned doing the project since December 2009! The project outline was there: in short: 
"In order to make myself recognized by the Other, I must risk my own life" said Sartre. The Other Volcano imagines a love-hate 
relationship, a 'sleeping giant' in the corner of your domestic environment, with the power to provoke excitement with its rumblings,
and also perhaps fear" which Carina answered by telling me: "I think you raise some interesting and powerful questions about peoples perceptions on the forces of nature, especially for volcanoes that can not only be beautiful and gentle like that seen Hawaii, but explosive and deadly like Mt St Helens. Volcanoes are fascinating because they provide life, yet also take it ruthlessly."

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Home Chaos workshop in MAdlab. Carina Fearnley explaining eruption. Photo by Hwa Young Jung

Dr Carina Fearnley, made the experience tangible and much more precise, The other volcano is one of the type of the Mount St Helens and its ceramique (It is made of ceramic by the way, did you notice?) white aspect is borrowed to the most unique white volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, The white Volcano- altitude 2886 meters (9524 feet), is a unique and extremely fascinating volcano that towers above the East African Rift Valley in Northern Tanzania, just south of Lake Natron.  It is the only volcano in the world that sometimes erupts natrocarbonatite lava, a highly fluid lava that contains almost no silicone. Contact with moisture rapidly turns natrocarbonatite lava white because of chemical reactions that occur when the lava absorbs water.  

Mount St Helens is an active strato-volcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. This volcano is well known for its ash explosions and pyroclastic flows.

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Home Chaos workshop in MAdlab, one of the participants' work. Photo by Hwa Young Jung

I now collaborate with Carina on workshops such as the Home Chaos workshop at Madlab where participants were asked to rethink their domestic environment in a more 'explosive' manner.

Alongside working with Dr Carina Fearnley and learning more on the variety of explosive systems of volcanoes as well as warning systems, I worked with Austin Houldsworth, a designer himself, he knows a lot about making explosions! Maybe I should say 'pyrotechnics'! This probably sounds safer!
This is how the first version of the other volcano came together.

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Austin Houldsworth installing the explosive system of the volcano. Photo Nick Ballon


Do you think it is going to be easy to find volunteers who would accommodate your volcano in their house?  


Well surprisingly, yes! After The Other volcano has been exhibited for the London Design Week along with projects from my studio mates in our little but dynamic Sunbury Workshops. I had offers from New Scientist to host it in their London offices and from many people around the world.

Unfortunately, this first version is rather....how can I say that....hmmm....unsafe....! When erupting we still didn't fully control the explosion and it has a tendency to seriously burn the carpet more than creating dust. Austin Houldsworth knows more than I do on this, we recently added some magnesium to have more 'flakes' and dust appearing during the explosion.

The other volcano then moved to Dunne and Raby, Voss Street studio, where it stayed for a few weeks before setting itself up in the Wellcome Trust windows.
As Fiona Raby told me "The other Volcano was surprisingly quiet!" This was lucky!

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The Other Volcano at Dunne and Raby. Credit photo Raby and Dunne

I think that once we have it to a stage where it can actually be plugged in your living room with a socket, we will need to 'prepare' the participants to receive it, and here we will need volcanologists such as Dr Carina Fearnley to learn you what are the warning systems. Because you might want the thrill of the explosion but you might not want to change your furniture all the time, so 'The other Volcano' needs enough attention and interest as its effect can be destructive.

Having the volunteers to host it would help to figure answers on How would you deal with a live volcano in the middle of your living room? Would you ignore it? Would you wrap it up? Would you try to destroy it? Would you just disconnect it from the mains?
Would you be more popular because you share your life with a volcano?
Would you invite people to see it, and switch it on at the end of the
meal to create a 'surprising' effect?  How will you feel when you will
climb on top of it? Can you become a hero of modern mythology while in
your living room?

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Blowing the volcano smoke away. Photo Nick Ballon


You did have an explosion of the volcano in your own living room, right? Can you tell us how it went and the consequences of this domestic exploding show?


Yes, we actually did the picture in my living room. This is another story in itself...

First I have flatmates, and even if they are very supportive of my work, it has been a serious decision taken all together. At that stage Austin Houldsworth and I didn't know if this will create 'smoke damage 'or not.... Then my landlord's office is actually a floor below my flat... truly a nightmare! The other being that the volcano will burn the floor and end up in my landlord office after creating a massive smoky hole on his ceiling!

He isn't usually there but I didn't know if he was going to turn up the day of the photoshoot or not...

Before this I installed this beautiful velvet carpet on the top on the wood floor and I was hoping that 'the other volcano' would not burn the house down.

Following this a very surrealist phone conversation happened with my local firemen, I told them that on that specific day I will be using 'a smoke machine' in my flat (I wasn't going to tell them that I was having a volcano erupting in my living room, of course!). They told me that they can't stop the calls coming in and if someone calls them they will be there with us... and the volcano.....

So this all was rather stressful ...

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Blowing the volcano smoke away. Photo Nick Ballon

Finally everything went according to plan- see pictures of the making off taken by the photographer Nick Ballon.
Again Nick Ballon will tell you how thrilling and smoky it was. I have been working with Nick for nearly 2 years and it seems that I keep creating more and more extreme experiences for him to record! This one was a real challenge, and he went for it!

It is a miracle that we are all still here to tell the story. This photoshoot asked nearly 1 month of preparation.

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Marks on the carpet. Photo Nick Ballon

The day after the photoshoot, I was taking to plane.... To Tel Aviv, where I was doing a Petcha Kutcha's talk.... As you can imagine... my shoes were full of 'pyrotechnic' powder... The rest is a long story!

What all of this tells is that Design is also about taking risks, the process of making it, is often thrilling in its own rights.


What was the inspiration for The Other Volcano? If I remember well you were interested in volcanoes well before anyone had ever heard of infamous Eyjafjallajokull.

True! I wrote 'The Other Volcano' project in December 2009 initially to do a residency in Eyebeam. I was at that time exited by the idea of having a 9 meters high ceramic volcano in New York for people to climb on the top and have a swim in the lava.
Before that, I did the project Super K Sonic Boooum, this dramatically changes the scale of my project. I realized that even if a project seems seriously unrealistic, there is always ways to make it happens.
As you can imagine in the case of the Other Volcano, I opted for the most unrealistic experience. You and me in a living room with mount St Helen's!

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Nelly Ben Hayoun in Super K Sonic Boooum Gold 2. Credit photo: Chris Foster

What more and more interest me is the way we can use design to confront ourselves with reality, and how actually the experience of it can explore areas of fantasy and science fiction.

I love Maywa Denki for this reason; his all company philosophy is based on Nonsense.
Well, when you look into our reality a lot of elements are part of this 'infra-ordinary'. He explained it to me that way, what follows is a view on life that I think would have inspired Darwin if he was still with us: " Life has nonsense spirit. Think about the fish and how some of them decided to climb up trees, this was nonsense! But some of them challenged it, they knew they will die because they had no legs but they went for it".

The Other Volcano is part of this questioning, what can we do to generate that human challenge?
This is a question treated by Sartre, in the book "les Autres" which translates "The Others", which is the main inspiration of the project. How can we live with someone that we hate and that we need at the same time?
You will find that most of my projects get their inspiration for literature, Balzac and the Human Comedy, is another of the influence. Mythology by Roland Barthes too and especially with this project which tries to explore modern mythology such as living with nature.

When the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull happened, I was still in the process to get funding for the project, which is an other type of reality for designers and artists ( it sometimes take a full year to get it!). It was terrible by its effects and also, because the project if he ever got funded after that, would have been presented in response to the actuality. Which wasn't the case at all.
So I had to wait that Eyjafjallajokull calmed down and its eruption fade away in people's mind to do 'The Other Volcano'.

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Photo credit: Nick Ballon

Your presentation text explains that The Other Volcano questions the domestication of nature for entertainment purposes. Do you have examples that show this domestication is already happening? 

Well, Cities are a form of domestication of nature. We use nature in billions of way to sustain practically our human's activities. Now what the project actually questions more precisely is how concept such as 'entertainment' and 'thrill', which are part of our human culture can be explored using nature.
Brendan Walker in The Taxonomy of Thrill and Thrilling Designs gave us the formula of thrill (yes yes! there is an equation for it), I wanted to explore how nature can influence this formula.

Now I guess the logical future step would be to explore what actually is/make our culture? And at the very moment my messy head is telling me that to give an answer, I should learn more on dinosaurs, minerals and .... Shakespeare!

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Making off the other volcano. Photo credit Nick Ballon

Merci Nelly!

The Other Volcano is part of the 'What If...?' window exhibition at the Wellcome Collection headquarters on Euston Road, London. Curated by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the window features several design works that attempt to inspire debate about the human consequences of different technological futures by asking 'What If...?'
Also on show in the window: Police bees.

Just back from Venice after a visit of what was my fourth and definitely not favourite Architecture Biennale. Mind you, I'm in a minority here, most of the reviews i read so far were very enthusiastic.

I still have to go through the hundreds of pictures i made, the catalogs, leaflets i grabbed and notes i scribbled. Before i come back to you with a fleshier report, here's a quick and easy post about Cloudscapes, one of the most talked about works presented inside the Corderie, a 319 metres long space once used to make ropes and cables for the Italian navy and now hosting a part of the main exhibition.

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Architect Tetsuo Kondo has teamed up with German climate engineering firm Transsolar to fill a closed space inside the Corderie with clouds. Clouds, after all, are part of our architecture: they frame outdoor space and filter natural light.

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

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Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2010. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Visitors can experience the cloud from below, within, and above as they climb up 4.3 meter high helical ramp erected in the center of the room. The cloud is based on the physical phenomenon of saturated air, condensation droplets floating in the space and condensation seeds. The atmospheres above and below the cloud have different qualities of light, temperature, and humidity, separating the spaces by a filter effect. The cloud can be touched, and it can be felt as different microclimatic conditions coincide.

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The cloud is created through climate engineering. Three layers of air are pumped into the room: cool dry air at the bottom that keeps the cloud floating, hot humid air in the middle to fashion a dense fog and hot dry air at the top.

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More information in this short interview of founder of Transsolar Matthias Schuler and silent Tetsuo Kondo by Hans Ulrich Obrist:


Matthias Schuler and Tetsuo Kondo interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010

And here's a video of the cloud experience with comments from Matthias Schuler in german:

See also Diller and Scofidio's Blur Building for the 2002 Swiss Expo.

The Venice Architecture Biennale continues until 21 November, 2010.

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