The project explores the possibility to build a 90-meter, zero-emission, airship that will never need to land to get its fuel, creating hydrogen from the elements it encounters and briefly anchoring when it needs to replenish its energy in a renewable way. Aeromodeller2 might not be the most efficient nor the fastest airship but it certainly leaves more space to imagination, dream and aspiration than anything Boeing or NASA can come up with.
A thousand airbuses jumping back and forth over the ocean twenty-four-seven. Fly, land, replace crew and passengers and take off again.
One thousand hyperactive passenger jets, and one airship that needs to rest when its energy level is low.
The most surprising part of the project is that Lieven, just like its airship, works at his own pace. It might take him one year, ten or even more to complete his project. That's not really the point for him. What matters is the experimental process, the constant testings, the unhurried journey made of improvements, adjustments and exploration.
The text that describes Aeromodeller2 explains that "The project was born as a manifesto for a designer-driven innovation, as opposed to one driven by a marketing department." What are the advantages of a designer-driven over a marketing-led approach?
The school where I studied industrial design was at that time very much pushing its students towards industry. If you wanted to design a good backpack, you did focus group studies and market research and asked the people what they wanted. This is a perfectly valid thing to do, and a fittingly humble approach to design. I never liked it. My background was in architecture. My heroes were, and still are, people like Le Corbusier and Buckminster. I like the arrogant, aristocratic designers who say: "I've studied this problem. This is the right solution and we should build this."
There are fields, like ergonomics, where user feedback is invaluable, but if you're asking a hundred people if solar panels are better than wind power, it is an illusion to think the average answer will be better than that of one expert who studied the issue. If you base your designs on the amount of people that will buy it and their opinions, you will always follow. I value visionary designers who lead. Designers who say: "I'm not making what you want, I'm making what you need. Take it".
My government, like most, is trying to promote innovation. They're doing this by financing R&D-projects, but those are all evaluated on the basis of their business plans. Explain how long it will take to make, who you will sell it to and to how many at what price, and you'll get considered for funding. This approach gives you a lot of small, sensible innovations. It leads to new Tupperware. It won't give you moon rockets. It won't give you iPods, only a lot of iPod add-ons. It won't give you high-speed reclining bikes, jet packs or stair-climbing wheelchairs. You need a different kind of inventor for that, you need the stubborn idiots tinkering away a shed somewhere. You need people that are passionate about what they do and don't give a rats what anyone else thinks. The Wright brothers never did a market study on the economical potential of non-stop transatlantic flights. They just thought flying would be the best thing ever. And it's that passion that made them persevere when others gave up.
For me the Wright brothers were artists. They were at the cutting edge of their field and followed their hearts, put their soul into what they made. To me, asking what they did is engineering or art, is like asking if Bach's church music is art or a functional piece of music.
Also i note that you mention 'design' but could you replace the word in the sentence with art as in "art-driven innovation"? Would it impact what you try to convey with your work?
I wouldn't use the word 'art-driven', it makes me think of bringing an artist into a foreign field or industry, to apply his/her ideas and visions as an innovation consultant or an added layer to this industry, This has been tried, and I don't think it's a very useful idea.
Artists are much more comfortable with showing experiments and failure than engineers are. Art has this culture of presenting a process, a work-in-progress. "It isn't as good as I want it yet, but this is what I'm trying to do..." A painter, labouring for 20 years towards his perfect work. The idea also that your drawing takes shape as you work on it, as opposed to executing a finalized design. The idea of starting something you don't know you'll be able to finish, being ok with uncertainty. I think there is a lot of strength in those ways of working, if what you want is perseverance rather than a deadline.
Surely this must influence the way you draw up the budget necessary for the development of the project?
A traditional industrial R&D-process has a budget up front and a deadline looming at the end. You work behind closed doors and are supposed to present the finished result within time and budget. In this structure a lot of projects fail, not because you can't make them work, but because you can't make them work on time. Or they don't even get started as you can't find all the financing up front.
If I finance a project like mine against a deadline, I'm setting myself up for failure. My most precious resource is my time, as it is very hard to predict how much time we'll need to solve unexpected problems. What I'm trying to do, by showing my experiments, by talking about a work-in-progress and explaining what I'm testing, is to put together a methodology that is less dependent on a deadline and more on slower, more sturdy growth.
I believe that if you're prepared to fail in public, to show your dumb mistakes and what you've learned from them, you can grow stronger from this, and at the same time tell a more realistic, less macho, more honest story of invention.
The reason i wanted to bring art on the table is that, unsurprisingly, i immediately thought Panamarenko when i saw your work and read its name. You also referred to Gaudi's old models and Frei Otto's soap bubble experiments in our previous email exchange so i guess your influences must reach much further than i expected. Can you tell us something about them and, more generally, what brought you to this ambitious project?
If you stop drawing by hand, and only use a computer, you stand to lose something. A pencil is a particular interface, you think with a pencil. You don't think up a drawing up front, it gets created in an interplay between your hand and your head. I think most people would agree that there are aspects to a simple pencil in a well-trained hand that a computer can't replace. I think the same holds true in building and testing stuff, in the physical experiment. Gaudi made the highest church in the world not using reinforced concrete. And he did this by building his upside-down models, using ropes under tension so find the correct shapes for the stone arcs under compression.
Frei Otto is the architect who designed the 1972 Munich Olympic stadium, using light-weight tent structures. At that scale, your tents are not simple canvas sheets. The sails have to be cut to follow the curve of the main cables so they don't flop. These sails are a particular double-curved surface. He researched those by building small wire-frame models of his cables and poles, and dipping these in a soap solution. You then get these fragile, beautiful models with soap surfaces where the textile should go. It turns out the shape the soap surfaces assume is the minimum surface you want for that tent. You can measure those shapes and reproduce them for your large tent structures. There's a picture in his 'Seifenblasen' book showing he experimented with instantly freezing those soap bubbles, it looks absolutely amazing.
Today you can do all that with computer simulations, and evaluating a structure will be faster and more flexible. But what interests me is the use of these physical simulations as a design tool. As with that pencil, I think something gets lost when engineers stop tinkering about. I would be the last to deny computers have created fantastic new possibilities, I've worked with them professionally for years. But for me, to develop a feeling for how a tensegrity structure will deform, nothing works as well as a hot-glued sticks-and-rope model, a physical model I can touch and push against.
For the airship I wanted to study how you could create shapes by partially filling balloons, instead of using pressurized cigar shapes. The shape would be generated by the lift force of the gas, wanting to go up, as opposed to the pressure in a spheroid balloon, pushing the walls out. Now, it's quite hard to do this with gas in a table-top-sized model. In small volumes the forces become too tiny to be practical. So what I did was, I turned my airship model upside-down, and filled it with water. The weight of the water acts as a simulant for the buoyancy of the lift gas. This gave me shapes to play with. It allowed me to test how different balloons could interact and slide over each other. I could try out different cut-patterns for the containing bags, see how they can fold open and contract, how their shapes change as they're filled to a different degree.
I believe building physical models keep you solidly grounded in reality. It's too easy to draw stuff on a computer that simply can't be built. And in doing experiments, you can try out stuff that you don't understand. You can be surprised by a result, and afterwards discuss it and learn what was going on. A computer can't replace that. You can do a wind tunnel simulation on a desktop pc, only you need to understand all the variables you put into the computer. Otherwise what comes out will be garbage. But anyone can put his hand out of the window of a driving car and feel the wind pushing on it.
That's where I want to link back to Panamarenko. What he did in a unique way, what I love in his work, is the way he showed experiments, condensed to a single idea. The essence of experimenting is curiosity, 'Let's try this and see what it does' and this is what he captured in his best works. Experiments are about failing and learning from these failures, and that is a story engineers are remarkable bad at communicating. The essence of technology is in research, is the experiment, is the process, not the final waxed car.
Has Panamarenko ever seen and reacted to your work?
I sent Panamarenko an invitation to my first exhibition, where I published the work. The expo was in Antwerp, his home town, and I was showing a houseboat airship in an arts centre. I never got a reply, but I suppose he has better things to do. He had already retired then. He was the elephant in the room anyway. I felt I had to deal with that up front, and called the expo 'aeromodeller2'. As you know 'aeromodeller' was the name he gave to his airship. It was a bit a provocation, but mainly I wanted to affirm my love for his old work. I knew I didn't want to get the headline 'Antwerp architect designs airship that DOES work' I didn't create my project as a critique on his work and I didn't want it interpreted that way. If you baptise your boat the 'Kontiki 2', everyone knows you like Thor Heyerdahl. Panamarenko's hands-on prototyping was an inspiration, in a context where hundreds of crazy airship concepts never got off the paper.
In science, when you create something new, you mention your sources, you mention the people whose work you're building on. Not doing so is dishonest and this is what felt right to me. After the expo, the name stuck to the project, so I kept it. And here's an interesting thing: if I talk to scientists and engineers about this, everyone agrees it makes sense and it's a good name. If artists ask me about it, almost every single one of them tells me I should never mention Panamarenko, dump the name altogether and 'stand on my own two feet'.
I'm a bit a stranger here myself, I'm not an artist by training, I'm not sure where I belong, but there is definitely a cultural difference between science and art in referencing your sources. There are days I wished I had chosen a different label, and I've been called 'Panamarenko rip-off' on several occasions, but never by anyone who took more than 2 minutes to look at my work. If I hadn't had the solid confidence that my work stands on its own, I would never have dared give it this name.
Now i think i'd need more details about the technology behind Aeromodeller2. The vehicle 'regenerates its fuel, creating hydrogen from wind power and the rain on its skin." Why isn't it powered by the sun like so many flying prototype i read about then?
In order to answer that I have to tell you about hydrogen gas first. We've stopped using it in airships over 70 years ago. It is lighter than air, but also flammable. Today though, a number of people are reconsidering this, as we're using the same gas as a clean fuel in cars. It's harder to use than batteries, and less efficient, but the cars exist and we can use them safely.
The reason people keep trying to make it work, is because the principle behind it is very beautiful. You start off with water, you put an electric current through it and you will split the H20 into H2 and 02. O2 is oxygen, you let that part go, H2 is hydrogen. Hydrogen is a flammable gas with the unique property that when you burn it, it turns back into water. If you use it as a fuel, what comes out of the exhaust is clean water.
Now I'm arguing the problem with those hydrogen cars is that you're misusing this principle. The cars only consume the hydrogen. This means they need hydrogen refueling stations, which don't exist. It also means that they miss the essence of this idea, namely that it is a reversible, cyclic system. If you put hydrogen in a car, you're saying to the world that hydrogen is a clean fuel, it is a replacement for gasoline. And it is not. You have to make it first. If the electricity for creating the hydrogen is generated by a coal-firing plant, it is not clean energy at all! Hydrogen is not a fuel; it's a fantastic, light-weight battery. It is not an energy source, it is an energy carrier.
What I'm proposing is a vehicle that can generate its own hydrogen, store it and later use it as fuel for propulsion. That would result in an airship that is both a lot more autonomous, wouldn't need refueling stations, and could fully demonstrate the beauty of this water-to-hydrogen-to-water reaction. You would have a true zero-emission zeppelin, with the autonomy of a sailing ship.
The basic principle is that I equip my airship with 2 large propellers. It can fly with those, using hydrogen as fuel. When it runs low on hydrogen, it does not land to refuel. Instead it anchors at a cable, like a kite. The propellers now start working as wind generators. They create electricity. You get water from captured rain or a lake. Electricity and water gives you hydrogen. You have the ship recharging for one or two days, and then you lift anchor and fly on.
Now, you could implement the same idea using light-weight, high-efficiency solar panels and have a continuous system. You wouldn't need to stop. This kind of design does exist as concept drawings from several companies, but they're extremely expensive to build and won't get realized, not with the present state-of-the-art. They only exist as computer renderings, not as prototypes. The largest solar-powered airship is a French student project that's just big enough to carry one man. I wasn't interested in making pretty design drawings. I wanted to take this elegant idea of a hydrogen-based energy cycle, and implement it in a design at a scale and cost level that it could actually be built. I wanted to take this blue-sky, radical concept and develop it in the most down-to-earth, practical way possible. Because of this, the shape of my airship is designed to be built from smaller parts on ground level, like a tent structure, and the wind rotors originally were put on there because, unlike solar panels, they're perfectly affordable and much more low-tech.
But in placing those wind generators on the concept, it grew into something else. I now had a machine that had to rest in order to regenerate. I had designed a zero-emission machine that, in order to renew its consumed energy, had to go to sleep. It grew into this biomimicry model, of a machine dealing with energy in the same way as a living being, a machine that at the end of the day has to pay the price for the energy it used up. I think that's a very powerful idea, telling a story about energy as a finite resource instead of an unlimited supply, and I think this version is better than the solar-powered one.
How long have you been working on the model and how much work is left before you think that you've achieved what you were dreaming of?
I never finished those studies in industrial design, as I left to start a company with two friends. So I never did a thesis project as a designer. In the years that followed this airship idea slowly took shape. It got under my skin and I kept going back to it. It established itself as something I saw as my master thesis, as something I could use to take a position on what I kind of designer I wanted to be, and I worked on the concept verification in my free time. It's hard to point at a specific origin, as it isn't as much one concept, but a puzzle of ideas that over time fit together into something that was more than the sum of its parts. In 2007 I did a series of combustion tests on 10m³ hydrogen balloons to see if you could develop a balloon system to use hydrogen safely. I realized nobody had actually done those kind of experiments in a serious way, as the idea was completely marginalized by the old Hindenburg disaster. In 2009 I got to the point where I believed I could convincingly argue this concept was feasible, so I published it in a solo exhibition in order to do so. This led to the opportunity to show the work in other exhibitions, and to build the remote-controlled 9-meter-model at the Verbeke Foundation, and the project has been my main focus since.
People keep asking me how long it will take me to build the full-scale airship. I have a couple of timelines written out, including one where I have all the funding I could wish for. So I used to give an answer, with a definite timing and budget, then tried to explain that it's more complicated than that. That the whole point was deciding what you do when you don't have all the money you wish for and you need to manage your resources. Be small. Cut the big project in little pieces and realize one piece at a time, but get it off the paper somehow. That when you want to build something radically new, any deadline is a guesstimate and your time is your most precious resource and you should protect it by developing methodologies that focus on endurance instead of on a deadline. Show your work-in-progress, instead of building behind closed doors. Show an R&D-process instead of an end result and grow slowly...
I recently realized I can give a simple, one-sentence answer. And it is: "As long as it takes..." Like a painting, it will be finished when it's darn well good enough. I'm chasing an idea I'm passionate about and think is worthwhile working on. If it takes 10 years to get it done, then it takes 10 years. That's how it is.
Finally, i was interested in the scenario behind Aeromodeller2. Would people live on it, use it as a refuge in case of natural or man-caused disasters or would it be rather a vehicle for travels? Or would it simply be a passing blimp?
Now you're asking me the industrial-engineering question; where is it good for? What's the application? Who will you sell it to? But what if I'm not building the fastest, the most efficient or even the cheapest solution? What if I'm building the most elegant, most beautiful solution to a problem?
What if I'm building a working airship, not for any particular use, but to tell a story? A machine that needs to sleep, that deals with energy like a living being. A story about a more responsible, more organic way of using energy. A story about an old, clean technology that's too slow to actually be used in transport, just like sailing ships are ancient and outdated.
If I want to do that, where does it belong? Where do I belong?
I don't want to define an application for it, because then I'm trapped again in this industrial-engineering logic of developing a product against a business plan deadline.
Let's build it, not for a specific market, but because it's beautiful.
Let's build it because it has the right story to tell.
I'm not interested in wild utopian visions where hundreds of these nomad ships are wandering over the globe, I'm interested in a pragmatic approach to get the first one built. An experimental ship will be limited in where it is allowed to fly. It won't be super big, but large enough to carry a thousand kilos of supplies, a warm coat and a bed (yes, in the end I'm still an architect, this would be the ultimate tree house). Like an experimental airplane, it won't be allowed to fly over any densely populated areas. And if you want to come on board for dinner, I'll have to make you sign a waiver. But even if I'm only allowed to travel over international waters, there are a whole lot of interesting places we could visit...
This Summer the 9-meter-model of Aeromodeller2 is participating to the exhibition Machines improbables, on view at the Musée Ianchelevici. The show is part of the ARTour Biennale in La Louvière, Belgium and runs through August 28, 2011.
Every year, the FILE festival invites artists and other people who have a hands-on approach to new media art to share their views, works and ideas with the audience during a 4 afternoon long symposium. One of the most fascinating talks for me this year was the one that Victoria Messi, author of the fantastic blog El Pez Eléctrico, gave about media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.'
Titled Anti Anti Utopia: Arte Eletrônica na América Latina / Anti Anti Utopia: Electronic Art in Latin America, the presentation introduced us to four projects by media artists who believe that art still has the power to transform society. I was planning to write a long post that contained her whole presentation but i thought it would be more fruitful to highlight the projects one by one. First of all because each of them is so clever, quirky and fascinating that it should have its own space. Secondly because i've just started The Leopard and as much as i'd like this Jo Nesbø gem to last as long as possible i can't stay away from the book more than it is strictly necessary for my mental well-being.
Shaped like small flying saucers, the Nanodrizas are floating autonomous robots forming a network of wireless sensors, which attempt to interact with biological elements. The robotic prototypes measure, in real time, the environmental conditions (temperature, pH scale, level of humidity, turbidity, etc.) of polluted water surfaces. The data collected is then transmitted via wireless communications for interpretation and analysis. Once to the level and nature of pollution has been identified, the nanodrizas directly intervene by emitting synthesized sound and releasing bacterial and enzymatic remedies in the eco-system that, ultimately, should regulate the quality of the water.
Prototypes of the nanodrizas have been deployed in heavily polluted locations. In particular, in the river going through the city of Puebla in Mexico. Puebla hosts "La Constancia", an ex textile factory which used to be one of the most modern factories in Latin America. La Constancia relied heavily on water to function: water was used to power its turbines and water was where waste was then dispersed. As a consequence, the river is now suffering from high levels of pollution. The mission of the robots is therefore to intervene directly and revert the effect of the pollution in the water.
The Nanodrizas benefit from relatively sophisticated technologies but were made using discarded materials such as children's toys.
The work thus moves beyond other environmental tactical media interventions by making an attempt to be actively therapeutic. The work will also functions to alert and sensitise people to the situations via, in the first location, the sound emissions of the Nanodrizas and second via displays in exhibition centers and online.
The project thus exemplifies an admirably holisitic kind of art practice which is simultaneously technologically well informed and technologically inventive, while being engaged with complex social histories and activist with respect to fundamental problems of our time.
Check out this interview that El Pez Eléctrico had with Constantini about the Nanodrizas fleet. I'd recommend watching it even if you don't understand spanish because you will not only see the nanodrizas in action but you will also be able to listen to the artist's melodious Mexican accent.
Related: Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza.
FILE, the Electronic Language International Festival remains open through August 21, 2011, at the FIESP Cultural Center - Ruth Cardoso, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Entrance is free.
The dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability has become true. Everyone is now able to produce goods, to communicate with anyone without being charged or tracked and to fulfill their basic needs without forgoing modern conveniences.
Cruiser Charisma intertwines extrapolations about the latest (and upcoming) advances in technologies with a series of research trips that designer Jonas Loh made into intentional communities, groups of people who attempt to establish their own society on a micro-scale. He visited Earthaven which is ruled by community consensus and divided in small villages, went to see what remained of the ethics and ideals of The Farm and even made a trip to Berlin, Ohio, to get to know the Amish lifestyle built around religious beliefs and resistance to modernity.
The project also professes faith into D.I.Y. and open source movement which could one day take technologies that are currently out of you and i -such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering, bio-printing and new form of production methods- out of the hands of venture capitalists and politicians and into everybody else's backyard.
The outcome of the project is utopian, yet credible: a caravan which will run on advanced biofuels, whose inhabitants will be able to produce all kinds of goods and organic materials thanks to a 3D printing production unit, eat synthetic protein rich meat that will be grown through a new generation of plants, recycle their poo to produce energy and experiment with new ways of community living.
Interestingly residents would communicate over long distance using the Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moon bounce, a radio communications technique developed after World War II. The system relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection from the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. The residents of the caravan selected this form of long-distance communication because it is not yet privatized and because their personal data doesn't get tracked.
The project explores the possibility to reach a total state of self-sufficiency and with it a different social, political and economical system.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And this is the state of the system right now:
Finally, the Alternate Service Model is a solar updraft tower tailored to the needs of a company developing a new solar technology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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...
All images courtesy of Bartaku.
Previously: DMY - International Design Festival Berlin.