I've been following the project The Incredible Shrinking Man for a few months now. Time has done little to diminish my bafflement in front of a speculative design research that looks into the possibilities and consequences of downsizing the human species to 50 centimeters. Yet, i thought that the project deserved some serious consideration. First of all because its initiator, Arne Hendriks, isn't known as a prankster (i think?!) I met him a few years ago when he was working as curator at Mediamatic in Amsterdam. He then became the creative producer at the awesome and now defunct Platform21.
Then there's the fact that reducing the size of people does make sense. As men grow higher and bigger as it is the case in modern society, they require more energy, more food and more space. And we've all read about the toll it takes on our planet.
Arne isn't improvising his research either, he looked into art, biology, history, genetics, psychology and got in touch with experts from various disciplines. One of the researchers he's working with, Donald Platt, has been studying the effects that a smaller body would have on brain capacity. In Arne's scenario indeed, the brain that would have to fit a head size of only 6 x 4,5 centimeters tall. The scientist writes that "An important factor in maintaining viability is shrinking cell size not cell number. This, I believe, can help to maintain functionality for organs such as lungs and the brain at very small size. Research work has also shown an imprinted gene pathway that may define an organism size from the time it is an embryo. This pathway may be able to be modulated by zinc finger protein modification combined with RNAi techniques. I think a multiple gene pathway approach will be most successful."
Platt works for the Florida Institute of Space Technology and is heading a research to shrink animals and perhaps people as part of a program to go to Mars. As Arne wrote me:
It's not science fiction, it's real research. Just imagine the advantages of smaller astronauts. They need less food, less water and oxygen, they're lighter and produce so much less waste. They're even better equipped to deal with the situation in space. The radiation levels in space effect them less, as does the change in gravity levels. If The Incredible Shrinking Man is able to connect the desire for space travel, with the desire for smallness it's another step towards a smaller mankind.
Arne is currently showing part of his investigation on The Incredible Shrinking Man in Amsterdam as part of the Transnatural exhibition. He collaborated with chef Martijn Jansen on a restaurant/kitchen dedicated to understanding the future diet of The Incredible Shrinking Man (One chicken will feed 100 people and 1 coffee bean will make you a coffee).
Now let's hear what Arne Hendriks has to say:
Arne, if i remember well you're a tall Dutch guy so why this interest in small people?
I'm 1,95m, almost 4 times the projected height of The Incredible Shrinking Man and about 50 times the weight. The average Incredible Shrinking Man would probably weigh only 1,7 kg. Because of the laws of scaling your weight drops very quickly if you are less tall. My fascination for the prospect of a smaller human species has different origins. One is the intelligence of evolution, another the mysteries of anthropology. Some are rooted in popular culture, films like Dr. Cyclops and the Incredible Shrinking Man, or books like Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland. I also used to have lots of bonsai trees when I was a teenager. Although at some point I gave them back to the forrest.
The Incredible Shrinking Man enables me to approach two issues that effect our immediate future, genetics and the environment. How will the earth deal with the challenge of having to support 7 billion and more people? How will WE, the inhabitants of this planet, deal with it?
The research for The Incredible Shrinking Man involves the opening a fully functional research restaurant and kitchen. It will cater for 'regular' sized customers as well as for the 50 centimeter sized customer of the future. Its main focus however is to investigate our future relationship with ingredients, explore changed cooking techniques, measure its tiny energy needs and experience how little trash we'll make. I've invited a professional chef, Martijn Jansen, to conduct this investigation. We have already established that you would only need one coffee bean for an espresso and one chicken could feed up to a hundred people. To better understand what that means we're planning to roast an entire ostrich carcass as if it were a chicken. If we are to become 50 centimeters tall we'll only need 60 to 70 calories a day, the number of calories in a small apple.
Over the next month during the Transnatural exhibition I'll be mapping shrink culture by researching diverse fields as history, entertainment, science, sexuality, food and art. Around the central restaurant unit we're presenting outcomes of this research as well as stage fabricated docufragments to create a vision of the future. There is a family farm inside a tv-cabinet representing the repurposing of space. In it we're growing cherry tomatoes and mini-courgettes. We realized that mini-vegetables are the culinary equivalent of dwarf-throwing, meaning there is a clear and multidisciplinary connection between smallness and entertainment. We've also created the possibility to psychologically experience what it is like to be 50 centimeters and made several 50 cm research puppets available to the public. Unfortunately the Ames Room didn't survive the budget talks.
In preparation for Transnatural we organized workshops to find the questions we should be asking. Some of them are rather playful, others more serious. Will shrinking man be able to fly? How will he experience time? Are the Dwarfs of Sindh evolution's answer to population growth? What about brain size and our intelligence? Men were equally concerned about the size of another organ as well. A typical case of Koro Syndrome if you ask me.
Shrinking man does not just imply a physiological transformation, it also implies an important cultural shift. How could you convince a society which value height to consider shrinkage?
That's the crucial question. More than anything this research is about mapping out alternatives to our obsession with being tall. I haven't really found an answer yet but I did find many interesting signs of the desire for being small, or making others small. This ranges from very active communities of shrinkers in games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, to obsessed miniature collectors and the rather interesting sexual desire for tiny men and women called microphilia. If we somehow manage to abstract these desires and reintroduce them into society perhaps our paradigms will change. That, and a good explanation of the harm our too big size is causing the planet and ourselves.
Your blog arguments quite convincingly the reasons why humans should get smaller and smaller. but what would it bring me as an individual? What if i don't care about the good of the planet, the welfare of whales? Is there any reason why a vain, ego-centric individual like me would want to be small?
Perhaps Guy Keulemans said it best in response to the blog. I quote:" "the idea of a 50cm puppet exploring tiny urban space is interesting, simply because we are running out of regular sized spaces to explore. The great age of pioneers discovering new continents and lost worlds is long gone, but a remote controlled puppet could crawl and climb into the lost spaces of our cities; air conditioning vents, electrical tunnels, maintenance shafts... who knows what they might discover? Might the puppets even be small enough to bypass motion sensor alarms, or other devices designed to keep people out of restricted space?" What if this was not a puppet but you?
How do people react to your idea?
I'm actually quite surprised by the nature of the response. It's mostly very constructive and inquisitive. For me that's the best possible outcome since I'm more interested in dialogue than provocation. I structured the project like a public research so I can immediate the public's feedback and make it part of the investigation. There a little bit of every visitor spread over the walls of the exhibition space or infused into the website.
Our next project is titled "7 BILLION" because after the summer of 2011 that's how many people will live on Earth. It's a great time to come up with creative and original scenarios to deal with this fact. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to do an open call for projects? The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of them.
All images courtesy Arne Hendriks.
We've been talking interdisciplinary collaboration, data-visualisation and sustainability for two intense days at the Making Visible The Invisible conference in Huddersfield at the University of Huddersfield, School of Art, Design and Architecture. Organized by Michael Hohl, Making Visible The Invisible was a conversational conference that didn't suffer any paper presentation. Instead, we met in small groups to discuss a series of topics then reported back in a common sessions. The process was nevertheless interrupted by keynote presentations. One of the most engaging was the one that Andrea Polli gave on the first evening of the conference.
Andrea Polli is a digital media artist living in New Mexico. Her work with science, technology, and media has been presented in exhibitions and performances internationally. She currently works in collaboration with atmospheric scientists to develop systems that provide an understanding of storm and climate through sound. Her agenda is chock full of residencies and participation to exhibitions all over the world. I'm glad that she's going to have a solo show here in Turin at the Parco Arte Vivente on October 28-Jan 8, 2011.
Her talk in Huddersfield, titled, "Who Owns The Air? Emissions Trading and Contemporary Media Art", mixed presentation of her personal work, contemporary projects by other artists that attempt to address the politics of air as well as information and thoughts on the climate change crisis.
The accelerating crisis in climate change and the realization that humans are the primary cause of this change has raised questions about ownership and responsibility. Who "owns" the climate change crisis and who is responsible for mitigating and reversing it if possible? One overwhelming response by governments on an international level has been to propose a market solution, in essence, to sell the atmosphere. Is the commercial marketplace the only answer? How can art, technology and media offer alternative cultural practices and open new forms of understanding the air?
The largest market-based approach to control greenhouse gases is the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. Launched in 2005 as part of the EU climate policy, the scheme requires large emitters of carbon dioxide to report their CO2 emissions, and return an equivalent amount of emission allowances to the government.
Where does the idea of a market-driven solution to the problem of air pollution come from? The attention to the concept of ownership has gained momentum in the 20th century with the publication of The Tragedy of the Commons, an essay written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. Someone in the audience informed us that Hardin retracted the article when he realized that corporation used his essay as a justification to privatize everything they wanted to gain profit from.
Part of the model for the EU carbon trading scheme is the US cap-and-trade in sulfur dioxide, a market-based initiative launched to reduce overall atmospheric levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain. The program primarily targets coal-burning power plants, allowing them to buy and sell emission permits (called "allowances") according to individual needs and costs. It was successful because it was low-cost and easy to implement.
Other models that could be applied to carbon dioxide:
Artists might be partly responsible for this acceptance of air as a commodity.
From 1957 to 1962, Yves Klein imagined the Architecture of Air. My walls of fire, my walls of water, like the roofs of air, are materials for the construction of a new architecture. With these three classical elements, fire, air, and water, the city of tomorrow will be constructed, flexible at last, spiritual and immaterial. (Yves Klein, conférence de la Sorbonne.)
The late '60s also saw a dematerialization of art. Take the Inert Gas Series for example. On March 1969, Robert Barry released a litre of krypton into the atmosphere, in Beverly Hills. Over the following days, he released xenon in the mountains, argon on the beach and helium in the desert. All we have left of this artwork are a series of pictures that don't show much.
For his work Condensation Cube, Hans Haacke used a biological system to create a work that depends entirely on the fluctuations in room temperature. The artist placed a small amount of water inside a sealed Perspex box. As the cube warms up, the water condenses on the inside walls. It then runs down to collect on the bottom, and the whole process is repeated again and again.
"When art becomes ideas ideas become commodities."
40 years later, Tue Greenfort paid homage to Haacke's Condensation Cube with BONAQUA Condensation Cube. By filling the cube with bottled mineral water from the Bonaqua label, Greenfort points to the global trading of a limited resource. The company is said to have destroyed local agriculture in 2004 by privatizing parts of India's water resources. In Plachimada, Kerala, Coca-Cola extracted 1.5 million liters of deep well water, which they bottled and sold under the names Dasani and BonAqua. The groundwater was severely depleted, affecting thousands of communities with water shortages and destroying agricultural activity. The remaining water became so contaminated with high chloride and bacteria levels that the local population suffered from a series of health problems and the area was affected by environmental damage (via).
Artists have adopted several strategies to address the politics of air:
Strategy 1 - Public Commissions and Activism
A. Laurie Palmer's Oxygen Bar is a mobile breathing machine, offering free oxygen produced by the photosynthetic work of green plants (from Hays Woods.) Pushed around the streets of Pittsburgh, the bar attempted to reproduce in miniature the beneficial cleansing and refreshing effects of city green spaces on the air we breathe.
She added her own work Cloud Car to the list. Cloud Car visualizes in a spectacular way the emissions of your vehicle. A car fitted with special effects equipment is left in the street to produce a cloud of mist, enveloping car, rider and passersby. Guides stationed near the car, distribute fact sheets related to air quality issues and encouraging people to discuss the environment, automobiles and traffic in the city.
Another of her project, Breather, wraps up a car inside a plastic bag to illustrate the problem of air pollution in New Delhi India, where one person dies every hour from breathing complications. The quality of the air is so bad that walking in some areas of the city is the equivalent for your health to smoking 15 cigarettes in a day. In this work, a car is encased in a plastic bubble that inflates and deflates at a rate similar to human breathing. The car used is one of the most widely owned in India. That model has now been discontinued because of the excessive amount of pollution it generates.
Strategy 2 - Working with agencies to communicate data about air quality
Among the examples that Polli mentioned is Public Smog by Amy Balkin. The artist bought and withheld carbon gas emission credits from international trading markets in order to create a temporary clean-air park in the atmosphere that fluctuates in location and scale. The park opened above the region where offsets are purchased and withheld from use. The project involved also an attempt to submit the Earth's atmosphere for inscription on UNESCO 's World Heritage List.
Ben Engebreth's Personal Kyoto allows New York ConEd customers to track their residential or commercial electric usage and work towards the goal of decreasing that usage. The project points the finger at George W. Bush who backed out of the Kyoto treaty as soon as he became President.
During a residency in Taipei, Polli collaborated with Dr. Chung-Ming Liu to develop Airlight Taipei, a networked real-time sound and visual installation using data from an EPA air-quality monitoring station in central Taipei indicating various air pollutant levels.
For Parks on Trucks: Project for the City of Aachen artist Eve Andree Laramee worked with bio-geographer Duane Griffin to plant parks on three Mercedes-Benz flat-bed trucks that circulated through Aachen, Germany.
A first truck was planted with a topiary garden as a reference to "artificial nature". The second one hosted medicinal and poisonous plants. The third truck, planted with a small crop of corn, polluted the environment and cleaned the air at the same rate by equating carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by the corn plants with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as exhaust as the truck moves around the city. The experiment lasted three months. During that period of time, the truck covered only a distance of one third of a kilometer. The project raised several issues, one of them was corporate "greenwashing", where companies such as Mercedes-Benz use nature images in their advertising strategies.
Cloud Prototype No. 1, by Iñigo Manglano-Ovall, freezes a thunderstorm that erupted over Missouri and then progressed into southern Illinois. The storm was captured as 3D data by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Strategy 4 - Community Science
Preemptive Media's portable AIR (Area's Immediate Reading) kits allow citizens to measure and record exposure to pollutants in the area where they live such as carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen dioxide, lead and noise.
Hello Weather!, another of Andrea Polli and Chuck Varga's projects, builds on the phenomenon of Personal Weather Stations in which enthusiasts combine DIY technology with organized web forums for collecting and analyzing data. The project invites artists and others to engage with the real-time data and other information available here in a variety of formats.
Five wireless, solar powered Professional Weather stations are currently in operation: two in New York City, one in Los Angeles, one in Zurich and one in New Delhi.
More recently, Andrea Polli was invited to create a public piece for San Jose. Particle Falls visualizes Particulate Matter 2.5, subdivisions of solid matter suspended in the air we breathe. They are so tiny that they have been detected only recently. PM pollution is estimated to cause 22,000-52,000 deaths per year in the United States (from 2000) and 200,000 deaths per year in Europe. The number of people that airborne particulate pollution kills each year has tripled in California.
Particulate pollution might be invisible to us but it can be measured by laser light scattering. One of those lasers was given to the artists. Particle Falls used a nephelometer to measure particulate matter (in particular the smallest particle, PM2.5) in the air and translated this information into the image of a "waterfall" that is projected on an eight story building. The data collected at this artwork installation demonstrates air quality in downtown San Jose and is also available on the web.
Strategy 5 - Structures allowing artists to work alongside scientists
More information about Polli's experience in Antarctica in Ground Truth Antarctica, a documentary that follows weather and climate observation at the South Pole, McMurdo Station and field sites in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and asks why people go to remote, uncomfortable and often hazardous locations, doing what is known as 'ground truthing.'
Andrea Polli has a book coming soon, Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change and the Pole.
Image on the homepage by Andrea Polli.
(Re)Designing Nature - Current Concepts for Shaping Nature in Art and Landscape Architecture, edited by Susanne Witzgall, Florian Matzner, Iris Meder, Künstlerhaus Wien (available on Amazon USAand (Re)Designing Nature: Current Concepts for Shaping Nature in Art and Landscape Architecture: Aktuelle Formen der Naturgestaltung in der Bildenden Kunst und Landschaftsarchitektur.)
Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: (Re)Designing Nature features innovative design concepts for nature in an urban context. The publication inspires readers to contemplate our current relationship to nature, and animate present-day debates about socially correct, ecologically sustainable, and aesthetically contemporary environmental design. Changes in nature and their ecological consequences have taken on acute dimensions these days. Rapidly growing mega-cities, for one, and shrinking cities, for another, call for new ideas and models for dealing with urban nature. Artists and landscape architects present concepts for the alternative use of vacant city lots and old industrial areas, design parasitical gardens in the middle of the city, or utopian visions for a future symbiotic networking of culture and nature.
Before i start my enthusiastic review of the book i need to get one thing out my chest: "What were the designers thinking?" The book is written in both german and english. Alles ist gut if you speak german: you get a clear black font. However, if you only understand english then prepare your reading glasses or your magnifier because the pale green font used for the english version of the text is a pain to decipher.
Now let's proceed...
(re)designing nature is the catalogue of a show that closed a few weeks ago at the Künstlerhaus, Vienna. Last year and the year before i kept complaining of the many, far too many, art exhibitions i had seen around Europe that dealt with art and design tactics that engage with climate change, new models of sustainability and more generally our relationship with nature. The artworks selected were not at fault. What irked me with many of these shows is that they felt like they were organized too fast, because suddenly the words 'ecology' and 'sustainability' were splashed across the front page of magazines, because that's what got the attention of the public or maybe just money from the sponsors. Artworks and artists traveled by planes, lush catalogues were printed, fancy opening parties were thrown. I'm sure the Vienna show had its fair share of parties and flying around but the tone of the essays, and the selection of works in (Re)Designing Nature have a more mature, reflected aura. The Vienna exhibition opened months after the others had closed but instead of looking like the slow learner, the show appears to be the only one in the class that has taken enough time to reflect on the issues at stake and see through the hype. Actually, the curators did such a thorough, serious job that several of the works in the catalogue lack in instant appeal. They don't even photograph well. But if you go beyond that first disappointment (because i was disappointed at first, used that i am to open a volume on amazing photos and graphics) you realize that the projects make sense. Some of them are utopian without ever falling into the trendy trap, others relate successful experiences, others are simply clever enough to make you ask yourself the right questions.
According to curators Iris Meder, Susanne Witzgall and Florian Matzner, contemporary landscape planners, artists and architects are adopting 3 different strategies to engage with nature in problematic urban areas. A first one looks for ways to protect what nature is already existing in urban center or to convert post-industrial areas into gardens. A second approach provides the frameworks, and the tools for agricultural and participatory projects. The last one explores parasitic structures and symbionts.
A few projects featured in the book and exhibition:
Detroit used to be the automobile capital of the world. Since the early sixties, however, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, General Motors have been moving their production plants either to the south of the USA or to Central or South America. Hit by the more recent economic downturn, Detroit saw its residential lot vacancy rise to 27.8% in 2009, up from 10.3% in 2000. About 3,000 empty residential structures were torn down in 2010.
Attempts at self-organized community projects using the empty surface of the inner city for agriculture and horticulture emerged in the early '00s. People would either buy land or just occupy it, turning a former industrial city into urban villages. In 2003-2004, Ingo Vetter's Detroit Industries - Urban Agriculture documented the gardens growing food right in the middle of the decaying city. Grassroot, community-led urban agriculture has now been officially identified as a valuable part of the city's transformation.
N55's City Farming Plant Modules enable city dwellers to grow plants in the streets, directly onto the pavement. The flexible plant modules are watered by hoses connected to drain pipes on buildings or to any other water source. Rainwater penetrate the fibre cloth, which will retain moisture while allowing excess water to escape.
Swiss architecture studio Hager Landschaftsarchitektur ingeniously turned an abandoned gas station dating back to the 1950s in Berlin's Schöneberg district into an enclosed city garden.
Observatorium piled up Styrofoam parking lot strips to a huge heap in the entrance room of the exhibition. The installation "Into the desert" points to motorized traffic as being an essential landscape element.
Architect and author Paul Shepheard
A simple blue and gold mattress is embroidered with graffiti saying "monolithic super-lanscape", "controlled consumption" or "zoning". CCTV cameras mark one of its corners, they seem to monitor the surrounded area. Weeds grow into concrete bowls. A mirror hangs above the scene. Platz/Square recalls the soulless design of many urban 'green' spaces, as well as the gradual loss of open public space in the city, due to privatization and the attempt to maximize profits.
Reiner Maria Matysik's 'post-revolutionary forms of life' are models of synthetic organisms elaborated in labs. A mix of plants, animals, mushrooms, bacteria, viruses and prokaryotes they can walk, roll, jump, crawl. Some emit electrical field, others ultrasonic sounds. Resistant and highly adaptable, they don't fear global warming nor the collapse of human civilization.
Vincent Callebaut's Hydrogenase (warning, the music on the project page might have you deeply embarrassed if people are around you right now) proposes a concept of emission-free habitable airships powered by seaweed. Callebaut claims that the energy obtained by farmed algae would be superior to any current biodiesel or bioethanol production.
The vessel would be used as flying hospitals or to provide food or even disaster relief to areas that cannot be accessed by road or that do not have an airport nearby. The vertical structure of the Hydrogenase doesn't indeed require a runway to take off or land.
Landscape architect Khondaker Hasibul Kabir lives in the largest slum of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the "world's fastest-growing megacity." Many of the inhabitants of the slum are illegal immigrants from various parts of the country. He involved both the immigrants and his students at the BRCA University in a series of self-help projects that involved the creation of gardens, the building of a bamboo platform over the river, the erection of a library, the planting of resistant plants that even flourish on contaminated soil.
Views inside the book:
Previously: The flying tree.
The exhibition Alter Nature: We Can, currently on view at Z33 in Hasselt, focuses on artists and designer's visions on the ways humankind has displaced, manipulated or designed nature and how this affects and modifies our concept of 'nature'. Some of the exhibited artworks embrace with enthusiasm this deracination and manipulation of what we call 'nature', others have a more critical take on it. Some rely on basic and quirky ploys, others call on the most scientifically advanced means.
A striking and simple introduction to the exhibition could be Driessens & Verstappen's Morphotheque. The dozens of artificial carrots of the most unusual shape are based on natural carrots that were rejected in distribution centres for not presenting the 'proper' size and shape of a carrot. The works reminds us that it was only a year and a half ago that European Commission abolished its ridiculous ban on 'imperfect' fruit and vegetables.
Morphotheque also refers to the fact that the now almost ubiquitous orange colour of carrots was a political choice. The Netherlands made it particularly popular in the 17th century as an emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence. White, yellow, red, and purple carrots have long existed but they are now raised primarily as novelty crops.
The House of Orange was also at the heart of the Transgenic Orange Pheasant project. Adam Zaretsky wrote to His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander to propose him the creation of a "Royal Dutch Transgenic Breeding Facility" were orange pheasants would be bred and offered for the royal hunt. The exhibition features images of transgenic pheasants, an impressive genegun, the letter to Prince Willem-Alexander and two videos detailing the project. The manipulation of the colour of carrots doesn't raise an eyebrow but the creation of a pheasant of the same hue triggers more doubts and questions: how far can one go in the creation of a 'royal aesthetic'?
More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.
In Common Flowers, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. Suntory Flowers genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. It was the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that was intended purely for aesthetic consumption.
BCL bought the blue flower and using do-it-yourself biotech, cloned it in their kitchen. They later released their cloned flowers into nature along with an how-to-clone manual on their website in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright in the realm of nature.
As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.
Makoto Azuma' s Shiki 1 features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.
In 'Frozen Bonsai', a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies - but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.
Have a look at this video interview with Makoto Azuma about 'Shiki 1' and 'Frozen Bonsai':
Le Paradoxe de Robinson is a palm tree installed on a trailer. Once you're on the first floor of the exhibition space, you can see its branches swinging in the wind. A tropical tree lost in the Belgian grey Winter.
Tue Greenfort 's big "Wardian Case" protects 50 orchids. Wardian Cases were small greenhouses developed in the 19th century by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect his plants from London air which consisted heavily of coal smoke and sulphuric acid. Wardian Cases not only made it possible for city dwellers of the time to keep expensive orchids and ferns in their home, they also prompted the commercialization of exotic plants: vulnerable plants could now survive the boat journey because they were protected by Wardian Cases. The invention has even been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of agricultural goods, they allowed tea plants to be smuggled out of Shanghai and seedlings of the rubber tree to be shipped from Brazil to new British territories. Wardian Case were a means to - literally - displace nature.
Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
All images courtesy: the designer.