Cost is still a major limiting factor for low-carbon energy technologies. What if consumers were able to fund these technologies just by trying out some new and exciting entertainment experiences? The Energy Pilots, the project that Elliott P. Montgomery is presenting right now at the graduation show of Design Interactions at RCA (god, i really need to write about other schools once in a while), is a research program that develops hypothetical business models by borrowing proven techniques from other sectors, and adapting them to fit the financial challenges of specific low-carbon technologies.

The introduction video below explains the premise of the research initiative:

The research has been presented -as much as performed- at the Sparks Energy Symposium and at the Responsible Business Conference in 2011, catalysing a discussion around the future of energy business and the associated implications. The next presentation of the project is going to be decidedly corporate as Montgomery will be submitting his ideas to Shell. The designer's speculative devices are also demonstrated in public spaces to raise a discussion about the viability and social implications of these theoretical strategies. Some of them are purely provocative. Others, in particular the Extreme Tourism Model, are rather seductive.

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Research devices in use

While Richard Branson plans to send passengers above the atmosphere, Montgomery's Extreme Tourism Model follows Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by offering thrill-seekers the possibility to travel deep into the crust of the Earth and witness its geological wonders.

The deepest hole in the Earth so far is the TauTona Mine, near Johannesburg. The gold mine reaches some 3.9 km (2.4 mi) underground. The Extreme Tourism Model will travel 5 kilometers underground. The cost of a ticket to 'the center of the Earth" would be slightly less elevated than the one for a trip aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip and will fund enhanced geothermal systems.

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A second proposal, the Thrill Attraction Model would enable a solar energy company to attract customers by offering them a chance to win a prize each time the customer pays their energy bill. At the bottom of the customer's bill would be a unique number. Within each billing cycle, one winning number would be selected, and the corresponding customer would win the jackpot.

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The thrill of winning money would be an incentive, helping consumers overcome their natural aversion to a higher priced energy service. If we aren't always dependably altruistic, maybe simple cash would bring us to make greener choices.

A key part of the Thrill Attraction Model, the Solar Lottery Ball Tumbler device would be used to hold test lotteries, in public spaces, as a way to study the model, to see whether people would be interested, but also to discuss the ethics of this possibly manipulative technique.

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A representative device - the Solar Lottery Ball Tumbler - is used to discuss the Thrill Attraction Model in the public domain

Much more appealing to corporations, the Advertising Capital Model aims to generate additional revenue by advertising using the energy infrastructure. 100m high wind turbines outfitted with smoke printing nozzles would spell out advertisement messages into the sky. The fees for these advertisements would help to finance additional wind farm construction.

This is what it would look like in theory:

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And this is the state of the system right now:

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A rough 4.5m tall prototype of the Advertising Capital Model is demonstrated and studied in public spaces

Finally, the Alternate Service Model is a solar updraft tower tailored to the needs of a company developing a new solar technology.

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The Updraft Replicator used to test drive the Alternate Service Model

The tower would allow people to launch objects into the sky using the vertical gust from the plant. An Updraft Replicator is used to study this model. So far, people interrogated about this new entertainment service have expressed the desire to send seeds or the ashes of their pets up in the clouds.

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Presentation at the Sparks Energy Symposium

Check out The Energy Pilots at the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition until 3 July 2011 on Kensington Gore.

For other smoke systems: Smoke and Hot Air by Ali Momeni and Robin Mandel. See also SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production)'s machine that blows miniature artificial house shaped clouds.

Sponsored by:





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Back to Berlin where a few weeks ago i was visiting the DMY design festival. As i explained the other day, the most exciting part of the exhibition was the MakerLab where visitors could discover, discuss and handle new technologies, materials, tools, open-source ideas and concepts. In the middle of this happy creative feast, a group of smiling girls were introducing visitors to the joys of mushroom cultivation. All 'in the comfort of their own home.'

Titled fungutopia, their work is an installation, a workshop, a prototype and a community-project.

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

In installation mode, Fungutopia demonstrates that mushrooms can be used as open source medicine, food, fertilizer and soil-recovery-method. Fungutopia is also a series of hands-on workshops that teach participants how to easily cultivate mushrooms in cities, even indoor.

The project is also accompanied by the DIY MUSHroom grow kit that combines Open Source Electronics with Biology to grow even more rare medicinal species year round indoor.

Finally, fungutopia is a community-project that attempts to bring together people for urban fungiculture and share knowledge and experience.

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

Laura Popplow, the creator of Fungutopia, was kind enough to answer my questions:

How did you get interested in fungi and rare medicinal species of fungi?

Fungutopia is my master thesis at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne (in the department of hybrid space) but already started more than a year ago and will hopefully go on. I started being interested in mushrooms in general and some medical mushrooms especially because i was searching for some natural method to remediate soil of old industrial areas and because my father, who is working with cancer-patients told me about some special fungi that were very promising in cancer therapy some years ago. This came first together in the work FUNGIFICTION with Tine Tillmann.

I collaborate on the topics of medical fungis with Tine Tillmann since 2010 when we worked together on an installation about fungi as remediators of contaminated soil in the ruhr area for the ISEA2010 in Dortmund. Our collaboration there was named FUNGIFICTION and consisted of a video and a kind of science/shop/showroom installation that told the story of the RUHR REISHI, a fungus, that was left on the grounds of an old coal plant in Dortmund that was deconstructed for two years by Chinese workers. These workers left spores of the reishi, one of the most powerful medical mushrooms known especially in the Chinese traditional medicine. These reishi mushrooms not only remediated the contaminated coke plant soil, but also developed some extra-powers on this special soils. That's why a new mushroom research center was founded on the grounds of the old coke plant area by our collaborators from the Mushroom Research Center Austria to research and find out about this surprising phenomena, that was the start of a mushroom revolution in the Ruhr area, that changed not only the quality of the soils in the old heavy industry area but also was the starting point of a social change, bringing new medical, ecological and economical wealth to the people. The biggest part of this story is actually true, it's just some facts that we enhanced and dreamed a little further.

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Fungutopia at Pixelache 2001

The collaboration with Tine Tillmann grew further when we exhibited a new work-in-progress of the idea of FUNGIFICTION at the Pixelache Festival in Helsinki this March. There, we developed the idea of creating mushroom cultivation methods on old military grounds like Soumenlinna island, where the exhibition took place. in Pixelache I also exhibited a first type of modell of a MUSHroom, a growing habitat for medical mushrooms. from the starting point of a mixture of fiction and reality i took more the direction of realising the utopia (at least in small parts) whereas Tine is working even more in the direction of (science-)fiction and utopia. Both approaches are working together on the idea how mushrooms can possibly save the world.

The fungutopia station is my practical approach to get people involved in mushroom cultivation and their abilities to recycle, clean, heal and even grow material. The installation for DMY was developed together with Kyra Porada, an exhibition designer and good friend of mine. Fungutopia is part of her master thesis at the FH Düsseldorf in exhibition design.

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

When i saw the fungutopia station at DMY Berlin, i was particularly surprised by the type of mushrooms you were cultivating. They are most unusual to me. Could you explain me which kind of mushrooms you cultivate and why?

The mushroom you mention is most likely known as reishi, lingh zhi or in latin ganoderma lucidum. It's the holy mushroom in Asia, where its medical powers are known already for thousands of years. it is used in the traditional Chinese medicine against a wide range of health problems and serious diseases: its powers especially in cancer therapy have been proofed also by Western medical studies. Apart from being the most potent medical fungus, it can develop an extraordinary shape, material and colour. That was what attracted me in the first place. When i first saw some rheishi mushrooms grown in shapes you would never expect to be a mushroom I thought this is what you can really call a kind of "natural art". Visitors tend to think it's an artificially made sculpture.

Plus: you can influence the fungus in its shape with the amount of CO2 during its growth. The more people around the room where it grows, the more coral-like it gets.

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

The text describing Fungutopia presents "mushroom culivation as a way to make the world a better place." That's ambitious. How can home mushroom cultivation achieve that?

There are several ways mushrooms are already helping to keep the world balanced. Mushrooms are basically the recycling system of nature. As they are an own species, they are able to "digest" which means that they transform and split up molecules. That's how they remediate soil or can also help to filter water. The mycelium, the essential part of the mushroom, mostly hidden in the ground is a rhizomatic network that mostly lives in symbiosis with plants. Some mushrooms such as the mycorrhizia mushrooms don't even form fruiting bodies but are working as natural fertilizers that enlarge with their rhizomatic structure the roots of the plants to get water and nutrients for them from the ground. 80-90% of all plants are living from this symbiosis. Paul Stamets, a famous mushroom cultivator describes different methods how mushrooms can save the world: as medicine, water filters, soil-remediators and even natural pesticides.

In my opinion mushrooms should be cultivated more widely in cities, because they have two characteristics that make them an ideal partner of urban agriculture: they don't need much space and ground and they don't need much light. Plus, they could help to clean city-soil and work as natural fertilizers for plants grown in urban agriculture.

Last but nor least: the mycelium can even produce material that could be used as isolating material in buildings. That's what ecovative design is already doing on an industrial scale. You can grow your own forms from mushrooms- amazing isn't it?

i believe that mushrooms could be able to help us in much more problems, we just don't know enough about them - and we are too afraid of them. To some people they are like aliens.

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MUSHroom

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MUSHroom

Could you describe me the prototype MUSHroom? What is it made of? How big is it? Are you supposed to leave it on a balcony or inside the house?

The prototype of MUSHroom is a small greenhouse with the possibility to control temperature and humidity through an arduino controller, which makes it possible to grow different mushrooms indoor. It is about 50cm X 50cm X 50cm made out of triangles and squares that form an cuboctahedron, one of the archimedean forms that were considered by Buckminster Fuller as a form of vector equilibrum. I hope to build it in the near future from plates made from bio-plastics. But so far it is made from glass or plexiglass. It's still in its first stage of development. The idea is to develop it further as a kind of open source project with the help of the mushroomcultivator community that is also quite active online and to develop some kind of modular kit. A role model for this is the windowfarms project and its distribution model.

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

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Picture by Martin Schlecht

How much time/commitment/care does it involve to cultivate these fairly rare mushrooms?

You don't need so much time, when you just start with a prepared substrate that you can order online in sealed plastic bags with an air filter. You will just need to take care when the fruiting bodies appear and you cut the bag to make them grow better. Then they need humidity and some of them need higher temperatures, but that depends on the species. Some of them also grow in our Western Europe climate conditions.

if you want to start your own mushroom cultivation from spores or mycelium, then you will need time to experiment and build some kind of mini laboratory with clean working conditions. But it's still possible - lots of people are developing methods to cultivate mushrooms at home in small scale solutions as a kind of hobby. They are also the people I want to get together with the online platform grow.fungutopia.org to work on further solutions for mushrooms cultivation in cities as a kind of community project like guerrilla gardening. People should get together to build small mushrooms laboratories to deliver substrates that enable people to easily grow fresh mushrooms in their neighbour community.

Thanks Laura!

Previously: Temporary photoElectric Digestopians (Fusing Cooking and Solar Tech with Design).

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Worklab 'Temporary photoElectric Digestopians' [TpED #6] At DMY Design Festival Berlin Berlin [Ger], part of 'MakerLab Finland' (Pixelache), June 2,3; 2011

As i mentioned the other day, the most exciting part of DMY, the International Design Festival Berlin was the MakeLabs, an arena for experimenting with new technologies, materials, communication tools, open-source ideas and for exchanging concepts.

That's where i met Bartaku aka Bart Vandeput from FoAM, a Brussels-based research group and laboratory for speculative culture. Bart was leading the Temporary photoElectric Digestopians (Fusing Cooking and Solar Tech with Design) lab which invited participants to discover the relation between light, food, body and electric energy and then work with edible materials to create 'e-tapas' that were to be ta(e)sted on the heliotropic tongue.

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Preparation of the workshop at DMY

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Preparation of the workshop at DMY

The TpED worklab series is a node of Bart's ongoing research "PhoEf: The Undisclosed Poésis of the Photovoltaic Effect." The project fuses arts, science and technology and looks into the micro and macro realms of Photovoltaics: the conversion of light energy into electrical energy.

Extract from a brief conversation with Bart follows...

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Worklab 'Temporary photoElectric Digestopians' [TpED #6] At DMY Design Festival Berlin, part of 'MakerLab Finland' (Pixelache)

Hi Bart! You recently lead a workshop called "Temporary photoElectric Digestopians (Fusing Cooking and Solar Tech with Design)" at DMY, the International Design Festival in Berlin. You invited participants to experiment with photovoltaics and food and cook 'e-tapas'. Can you explain us how the workshop unfolds? What are you and the participants doing and what is the outcome of the workshop?

The name of these series is TpED Worklabs. I prefer lab since this word expresses -more than workshop- the focus on experimentation, 'guided improvisation', the close link with old and new science, the use of less known materials and the way they are used, like f.i agar agar, an algae based gelatine that is used as a transparent top layer for a TpED.

The TpED Worklabs follow a fixed pattern, starting off with a short auto-presentation of the temporary collaborators, the explanation of the lab content, context and proceedings.
Then, matter, tools and method are introduced after which -in group or individually- recipes are composed, reflecting consideration of taste, aesthetics (form, pattern, color, texture), smell and functionality (photoelectrochemical principles). Then, the experimenting starts, leading towards the creation of a TpED. It is then tested on the tongue, in a heliotropic movement, seeking the point with the highest concentration of light: hence pointing the tongue towards the sun or a classic light bulb. The red and black leads of the multimeter are held -by another temp. collaborator- against the edible silver cathode and anode, checking for electrical energy flow. Pictures are taken, and the taste and test-person is asked what he/she observes, something like 'a tickle on the tongue'.

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CSM Future Textiles_TpED. Detail of connecting one Temporary photoElectric Digestopian to the gold-circuitry of the TpED-panel

In case the lab runs more than a day, more elaborate and complex iterations emerge. F.i. at the TpED Worklab #3 at Textile Futures Deptmnt. of Central Saint Martins College for Art & Design in London, 90 TpED's were laid out on marzipan, interconnected with gold leaf, based on the design of a classic crystalline silicon solar panel.

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Co-creation Worklab_2 "Temporary photoElectric Digestopians" at Burning Ice, Changing Tents, Brussels, Jan. 22, 2011

What does solar technology brings to the cooking and tasting experience?

It makes it possible to express/comment on the connection between light energy, food energy (power plants) and body energy; the relation between kJoules and Watts.

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TpED_2_e-sushi. Produced by participant of PhoEf's WorkLab at the Tactile Research Lab, ArtScience Interfaculty, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, The Hague

The workshop is part of a broader research called "PhoEf: The Undisclosed Poésis of the Photovoltaic Effect." How did you get interested in studying and experimenting with the Photovoltaic Effect?

I used to start a PhoEf-talk by saying that 'two observations presumably lead to PhoEF:
the first one in 2006 in Kinshasa (DRCongo) where people were electrocuted whilst wading home in the flooded city during downpours. In an attempt to have access to electricity people connect wires to the main grid, that are pending on the ground, hence creating electrocution fields during floodings... An image that brings back 'Edison's Topsy' the elephant.

The second one was at a Solar Fair in Germany, where -amongst the sun tanned promo-boys'n girls in big shiny stands, I came accross a Chinese vendor of solar cell water pumps. There I saw how shade can be a controller of aesthetics, patterns, rather then being an enemy (as it is for users of solar sys).'

It is more thoroughly explained here: PDF.

Where does that research extends beyond culinary experiments? Your bio refers to "micro-interventions." Can you explain us what these micro-interventions involve?

Maybe an example is at place here. In 2009/10 I was invited by artist collective Desire Machine Collective to do a residency 'on' the Periferry, on the Brahmaputra river in Guwahati, North-East India. This icon of the petrol society floating on the mighty and powerful Brahmaputra seemed for me the perfect context, offering huge contrast with the micro-energies I am mostly dealing with.

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A Slow Flow, North view

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A Slow Flow. The precise cutting of the bamboo by craftsmen of the "cane and bamboo technology center" in Guwahati

The process emerged into a work that tried to comment on the relation between the city and its energy flows, interweaving past, present and possible futures. Therefore the work - made with the help of Kiran Ganghadaran- consisted of a perfect mathematical bamboo spiral -designed to host power plants (suitable for solar cells) and to filter water, sun/shade controlled audio, a short video showing of a heliotropic ear cleaning session- and copper pots that bring the purified water back to the Brahmaputra. The spiral is mounted on top of the captain's hut, the tiniest available surface but also the most visible one, that is moving according to the dry and wet season towards (above) and away from the river boulevard...
Some photos.

Thanks Bart!

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PhoEf's T(emporary)p(hoto)E(lectric)D(igestopian)-WorkLab at the Tactile Research Lab, ArtScience Interfaculty, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, The Hague

All images courtesy of Bartaku.

Previously: DMY - International Design Festival Berlin.

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

How does the public react to your project?

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

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

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Image courtesy of Erik Sjödin

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Erik!

More images of the Super Meal project.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

In October 2005, a mysterious, maple syrup-like smell was floating over the streets of New York. The odour vanished as inexplicably as it had appeared and came back a few years later. In 2009, an inquiry revealed that the smell probably came from a New Jersey fragrance processing factory.

Almost every product in US supermarkets have some kind of flavor or fragrance added. Many of those come from New Jersey fragrance and flavor plants. In fact, the Meadowlands of Northern New Jersey have one of the highest concentrations of artificial flavoring factories in the world.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

Artist Jon Cohrs, wilderness guide Ryan Van Luit and camera-woman Elisa Giardina Papa traveled by canoe down the Hackensack River, visiting various artificial flavoring factories of New Jersey, planting their tents along the way and cooking with Doritos, Tofurkey and other products that contain artificial flavors "in an attempt to bridge our understanding of the natural and artificial."

The second part of The Spice Trade Expedition will be a vérité film that explores the shifting definition of what is "natural".


Footage The Spice Trade Expedition

Curious blogger that i am, I contacted Jon Cohrs to ask him about The Spice Trade Expedition and some of his other projects. When he's not camping and canoeing in New Jersey, Jon is working on creating high-end salt containing antidepressants from local water, writing a book on urban wilderness, teaching at at Parson, The New School for Design and researching sonic weapons with Audint. Finally, there's one work most of you are probably familiar with: his Urban Prospector, a DIY, cheapo oil-sniffing tool.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

Hi Jon! The ultimate goal of Spice Trade is to produce a documentary. How far are you in the filming/editing process?

The ultimate goal of the trip is to experience the landscape from the perspective of an exploration; to travel by canoe, camp out on the landscape, live in it for a many days, and experience what it really is like. The documentary explores questions the trip raised, and how the landscape mirrors our experience with food. In addition, we are interviewing people we met along the way, local experts, and others related to artificial flavoring. We will be working on a short edit this spring and then applying to grants to raise additional money to do a full edit in the fall.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

In the trailer of the documentary you explain that all along the expedition you will be eating food that has been locally and artificially flavoured. How did the experiment go? Did you suffer from any side-effect? Did you expect to get dreadful results similar to the ones experienced by Morgan Spurlock, the Director of Supersize Me?

Eating artificial foods wasn't a big part of the trip. The emphasis of the project is really on the environment and how it relates to the surrounding industry, particularly through food and the aspect of flavor. What I find particularly fascinating is that the landscape parallels the food that is generated there; both confuse our senses about whats real and what is artificial.

As follow up to our initial trip, we took 10 more people out for a 2 day trip just after Thanksgiving. Everyone camped out and we cooked a mixture of local foods, including Goya and other New Jersey processed products, and we ate a combination of processed foods and natural foods. It was set up like a Thanksgiving feast out on top of an abandoned dump overlooking the Hackensack River, with a great view of the Manhattan skyline behind us. We all huddled around a warm fire and cooked our various dishes from which all sorts of discussions grew out of the bizarre environment we were camped out in, and foods we were eating.

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Based on your discoveries about artificial flavours, do you have any piece(s) of advice for us? Flavours to avoid at all cost for some reason? Or flavours that we might want to try? Did your findings change the way you look at food and labels?

There is no real advice I can give except that the environments we tend to avoid can be some of the more exciting ones to explore, but that's old news. With regards to flavors, it's a really complex issue, but one thing is clear: no one has a clue what those ingredients and flavors mean. We've talked to several flavoring companies but we haven't gotten any clear answers or explanations. More to come on that soon.


Interview with Dr. Sandra Sherman, Spice Historian, Fordham IP Institute

By the way, did you start this research with the objective of denouncing the evil of artificial flavouring? Or did you have a more neutral approach?

The approach to the subject matter is a decidedly neutral. There is no way of understanding what is in the flavorings or in most processed foods by simply looking at the labels, so it seemed appropriate to begin exploring and researching this by canoe, since many of the companies are concentrated in a post-industrial area that feels both very natural yet clearly artificial.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

Did you discover why there is such a concentration of artificial flavour factories in the meadowlands of New Jersey?

We asked several people about this but there is no clear answer. One theory may be simply the relative proximity to NYC, a historic trading haven for spices and foods. Another theory is that it grew out of the large chemical industry in northern New Jersey that has existed for years.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

How open where the companies you interviewed to answer your questions?

They were not at all interested. They are notoriously tight-lipped about their recipes and concoctions for various flavors. But in our case we were more interested in talking with their PR representatives about what it means to confuse the senses the disconnect it represents. But surprisingly few flavor companies have PR representatives because they only deal with wholesalers or custom orders from food manufactures so there's no need nor interest in talking with the public. This has been our biggest hurtle; not only are they very secretive, they simply don't know what to do when some one approaches them with questions. We've spoken with several researchers who are well informed on the industry but the golden egg has eluded us so far. But we have a few more tricks up our sleeve, and will no doubt have the conversions we're interested in, it just may take time.

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You participated to Zero1 with Alviso's Medicinal All-Salt, a hand-harvest salt enriched with pharmaceuticals found in natural water systems. Did you try and have people actually buy/consume the salt? How did the public react to it?

Alviso's Medicinal All-Salt was a collaboration with Morgan Levy from UC Berkeley. Most of the U.S. water supply has various pharmaceuticals in them, from both from humans and livestock. We wanted to harvest them and create a perfect aggregate of what America is taking to heal itself and then turn around and sell it in cure-all salty solution. We sold the salt at the festival, online, and at an organic foods street fair. The public reaction in San Jose was good but obviously it's a very open and left-leaning audience. The more interesting responses happened online where we were able to reach a larger non-traditional audience through various blogs. Its important to reach this online audience because that's were one can challenge peoples assumptions and break through the noise.

I'd like to come back to an 'older' project of yours, the Urban Prospector. The project has been shown at several high profile art festivals but i also read that you were hoping to reach out to other audiences. Can you explain us how you imagine that the UP could be used in neigbourhoods and communities?

The urban prospector is tool designed to explore various types of the toxic compounds in ones neighborhood. It was released as a kit, and instruction set with simple steps so anyone could buy an old metal detector and build their own oil prospecting tool. It has real practical use in creating a tangible understanding of the chemicals, particularly hydrocarbons, found in our neighborhoods. It was designed to address the fifty year old oil spill in Greenpoint, NY. Traditionally our only exposure to this information is through abstract maps that don't convey the physicality or immediacy of the exposure and damage. I think this abstraction through data-visualization can quickly confuse viewers and locals because the data cannot be viewed beyond a conceptual realm. To wander through your backyard and neighborhood with a tool creates a connection with the environment and its current state not possible through news and data.

Another important aspect is to engage people to explore their neighborhoods through a playful narrative around the idea of prospecting and getting rich, while simultaneously suggesting greed as a powerful motivator for corporate involvement in cleanup. For me, its important to address serious issues with a degree of humor, so that the issue doesn't become overwhelming leaving the people feeling powerless.

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Photo by Gaby Steiner

And more importantly did the Urban Prospector make you rich?

Yeah, I no longer drink drip coffee. I've moved up to espresso.

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Photo credit: Elisa Giardina Papa

Any upcoming project you'd want to share with us?

The Spice Trade film project will be in production for at-least another 9 months or more. In the meantime I will be launching another version of my analog TV stations in Montreal for the Canadian digital transition. We're updating the code, and have revised the web-scraper, and releasing it on git.hub. The website is OMGimon.tv and will begin broadcasting live again the first week of May.

At the end of May I have a show with a collaboration called Audint, together with Toby Hayes, Steve Goodman - author of "Sonic Warfare" (MIT Press), and myself, at Art in General that will explore the impact of sonic weapons and their use. In addition, we hope to reverse engineer a infrasonic speaker and explore its impact. In June, we will also be organize a conference with scientists, industry representatives, artists + musicians, and military representatives to discuss the use of sound as a weapon, which will (tentatively) held at Eyebeam.

Thanks Jon!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Still from the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

See the project at the Transnatural exhibition at TrouwAmsterdam, Amsteerdam, until April 1, 2011.

All images courtesy Arne Hendriks.

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