The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.
Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.
An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.
Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.
The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.
I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?
The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?
Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.
Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.
We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?
For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.
But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?
How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?
The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.
BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.
BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.
Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.
Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.
Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.
Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.
Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.
I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?
There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?
This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.
We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.
The date of the Scottish Independence Referendum is near. On 18 September 2014, people will be able to say whether or not they want Scotland to be an independent country.
A New Scottish Enlightenment, Mohammed J. Ali's Design Interactions graduation project, goes back to 1979 (the year of the Scottish devolution referendum which invited citizens to vote in support for a devolved deliberative assembly) to imagine what could have happened if the Scottish Independence Referendum had actually taken place 35 years ago and people had voted in favour of it.
Ali's counterfactual speculation proposes that the positive outcome for the referendum leads to the creation of the New Scottish Government. Scotland is a place known for its inventiveness and the independence invigorates the nation's creative spirit. A key policy of the government is to help citizen achieve personal energy independence, paving the way for a future liberated from the reliance of fossil fuels. The measure sees the prototyping of DIY energy generating machines, the re-purposing of abandoned coal mines, and even the discovery of the first self-sustaining fusion reaction. Furthermore, the success of the energy policy leads to the creation of alternative economic paradigms where different forms of exchange and economy are created based on distribution and sharing of energy.
The work A New Scottish Enlightenment describe the outcomes of some of the key pieces of legislation either on an individual, community or global level.
A few questions to Mohammed J. Ali:
Hi Mohammed! The events you chart make our own present look extremely backwards. Why is your project located in counterfactual speculation rather than directly in an unspecified future?
One of the reasons I wanted to examine a counterfactual Scotland, was because on 18th September this year, there is a referendum for independence. There was a similar referendum in 1979 for a devolved government. Then, despite a Yes result of almost 52%, Scotland didn't eventually become independent. An addition to the Scotland Act 1978 stipulated that 40% of the entire voting public had to vote in favour. If that had actually happened, Scotland could have become an independent country. It's a bit more complicated, with a bit more politics than this but it all adds a layer of reality which would have been lost if I'd positioned it in another time/place.
In a twist to the real events, I propose Scotland actually becomes independent in 1979. We can then begin to imagine what might have happened given what we know has happened since then. An alternative Scotland is a way of perhaps holding a mirror to what could potentially happen after September 18th this year. The world might suddenly start to become a very different place.
I also wanted to look at what might happen to a modern, developed country which becomes independent, a unique event in modern times. The legislative, social and economic models of its former political partner/leader are replaced by those more sympathetic to the ideals of the new state. Scotland has historically been socialist, certainly left leaning; the map often turning red (the colour of the Labour Party) during general elections.
Perhaps one of the reasons why our current reality might look backwards in comparison to that in the counterfactual is because I imagined a country emboldened by independence and willing to try more extraordinary measures to bring individual independence to its people. I wanted to take advantage of the boom in research into alternative energy technologies which was happening during the seventies and early eighties resulting from an over-dependence on oil, coal and gas reserves mainly held by a minority of overseas nations.
The reality is that in the eighties, global research funding into renewable energy technologies was cut, as a result of the steady drop in the price of oil and its increased availability. I wanted to conceive a progressive nation where there was a realisation that energy was always a key component in humanity's evolution and that the current sources of energy were simply a staging post in the progress towards the next (hopefully better) one.
The Acts of Parliament of the New Scottish Government were simply tools to enable this to happen - think of Jimmy Carters National Energy Act 1978 and the later Energy Policy Acts in the US. The Legislative Acts in the speculation "A New Scottish Enlightenment" have some basis in the real world, from where they could be drafted into the speculation.
Important technological events such as the introduction of Napster in the late 90s meant that I could draw on peer-to-peer file sharing as a means of creating an analogue in New Scotland where surplus energy could be transmitted across a conjoined energy and information network.
The key was the creation of a country with the potential to be a blank canvas onto which I could paint a picture describing potential futures. In this respect Scotland was the perfect example. We don't know its future, but we can examine its past and describe the potentials of what might have been.
Energy is a highly lucrative business. Why would a state (and the corporations that are closely linked to any government) have any interest in leaving it into the hands of the people?
The UK energy production and distribution sector were centrally controlled until the privatisation of the electricity and gas markets from the mid-80s. Historical precedents suggest that this new state could also have created a nationalised oil infrastructure similar to Iran's in 1951, which happened despite fierce British opposition, or Iraq's in 1972 to name but two. However, New Scotland continues to receive revenue in the form of taxation from oil production which it accumulates into a Sovereign Wealth Fund. This is used to ultimately make the people of New Scotland independent, in energy terms, through the creation of their personal energy infrastructures.
In your scenario, the New Scottish Government's first act is to create a sovereign wealth fund with the proceeds of North Sea Oil. What is this fund exactly?
Sovereign Wealth Funds are often the accumulated capital received from the tax receipts of oil production. They are usually invested in a portfolio of real or financial assets to enable them to grow. New Scotland as a result of independence would inherit the oil reserves within its national coastal boundary. It follows a Norwegian model by creating a fund to enable future projects or to be used in times of need.
The New Scottish Government decides to begin investment in energy infrastructures from 1985, which coincides with the period in which actual receipts from oil revenues were at their greatest.
Could you explain the various 'inventions' you were showing at the RCA exhibition?
The first 'invention' is the creation of a home workshop inventor. Its basis is the Salter Duck developed in the 70s and early 80s by the scientist, Stephen Salter, at Edinburgh University. It takes the form of an energy harvesting wave machine. The picture shows the inventor in his workshop, working on the device. He received funding through the Public Energy Act 1985 from the Sovereign Wealth Fund. This Act was a means of creating the start of a personal energy infrastructure for the people of New Scotland. In our contemporary real world we see this more and more: the installation of solar panels, geothermal heat pumps and windmills. The Act was also a way for creative invention to take place following the repeal of energy intellectual property rights the year before.
By the year 2000, the New Scottish Government wants to halt conventional nuclear energy production. It also launches the "Third Millennium Prize". This is analogous to the Longitude Prize of the Eighteenth Century, where the government of the day tried to resolve one of the crucial impediments to progress of the time, the ability to travel across the oceans safely and directly. I also had in mind John F Kennedy's address at Rice University in Houston, Texas where he spoke passionately to the American people about the need to succeed in sending the first men to the moon. These were projects of national importance or pride.
In New Scotland, there is decreasing dependence on nuclear energy following the implementation of other energy creation/transformation methods. However, much of the rest of the world still needs access to substantial, sustainable and uninterrupted energy sources.
The 'fusion reactor' is the culmination of research started in 2000, when New Scotland becomes the global hub for fusion research. This is backed by the Sovereign Wealth Fund, of course, enabling the research to flourish. Ultimately, as is often the case, a serendipitous scientific discovery creates a breakthrough illustrated by the fusion reactor pictured. In this instance research is encouraged by a hothouse environment not unlike Silicon Valley, but where intellectual property is no longer a barrier.
Government funded mega projects are not new. We've had many countries collaborate on a number of different fusion projects, and the European Space Agency, the ISS, CERN, NASA are all centrally funded by combined or single governments.
In 1992, people realized that they could use the existing mine works, abandoned in the 60s, to generate geothermal heat in order to heat the town and provide the resources required to create new industry. How would that work? How can an abandoned mine provide energy?
I wanted to look at different scales, from the personal (Public Energy Act 1985), to the global (Third Millennium Prize 2000). The Community Energy Act 1992 made possible the implementation of intermediate sized, community wide energy infrastructures. What could happen if communities with a shared past, interest or skills were encouraged to work together?
Lochgelly is a former mining town in Fife, in Eastern Scotland. When coal mining stopped in the 60s, the town and its citizens were largely forgotten. Overlooked and existing infrastructures were important. How could we repurpose what we had already created? I wanted to explore the use of geothermal heat within the old infrastructure of the coal mines.
Geothermal heat pumps work on the same principle as our refrigerators, but in reverse. They take advantage of the constant temperature of the earth from 6m to over 100m below the surface. Cold water is pumped down and returned to the surface to have the geothermal heat extracted. Geothermal power can is an excellent source of hot water, which could in turn open the town to the possibilities of different types of industry. Food processing or the hotel trade for example both require huge amounts of hot water which the mines could produce in abundance. The possibility for extracting energy from other infrastructures also exists. True geothermal energy could be extracted from abandoned oil wells which regularly bore several kilometres through the earth. Perhaps disused fishing fleets could be retrofitted with wave energy devices allowing them to become floating electricity generators.
This element was also examining the relationship we have to energy in another way. We are so used to having electricity come to us from distant power stations, why not create infrastructures where people go to the sources of energy. It then opens a new set of questions: are cities abandoned and the countryside re-inhabited? Collaborations with architects and vehicle designers come to mind.
I was very surprised by the Energy Intellectual Property Rights Act 1985 which would remove intellectual property rights for energy technologies. This is obviously very seducing but i don't see many signs nowadays of intellectual property rights being lifted. Why would it have been different in 1985?
You're quite right. This is a surprising step for a fledgling country. I didn't want to make this project a whole series of spectacular implausible revolutionary actions. That would have made the counterfactual story lose any element of believability, but this is bold move with perhaps just enough basis in fact to push the scenario forward.
The formation of free and open software pioneer, Richard Stallman's real life GNU Project in 1983 is a development that bleeds into the timeline of the New Scottish Government. They realise that independence from corporate control can encourage the development of technologies much faster than when they're chained to copyrights and patents. Open collaboration is the key.
The background was the concept of a shared human destiny found within alternative publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog or Mother Earth News. Stores such as Real Foods in Broughton Street in Edinburgh, were established in the mid-70s and promoted open, environmentally sustainable living which go hand-in-hand with the beliefs of organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Many believe that ideas are the property of humanity and they belong in the public realm, Sir John Sulston versus Craig Venter on DNA sequencing and exploitation, for example. Even Plato and Aristotle held differing views on the nature of property and ownership. A government whose major concern is the development of sustainable energy and energy independence would be more likely to also see the benefit of a greater distribution of knowledge. The New Scottish Government realise the importance of this wider, generational thinking and pushed through the implementation of this Act.
I had planned to have the Energy Intellectual Property Rights Act occur much later in the timeline, to reflect a wider public debate, but as it's so critical to the development and ethos of sharing, it had to happen as soon as possible after the creation of New Scotland.
Today, intellectual property rights are contingent on the creation of profit and the promotion of capitalism. This means keys technologies can be tied up for years making further developments take even longer.
Are you planning to push the project any further?
The next step is to take the project to V2 Test_Lab in Rotterdam. It has also been picked as a finalist in the RCA Sustain Awards during London Design Festival 2014, which coincides with Scotland's' Independence Referendum on September 18th.
I'd like to expand on the economic concerns, the creation of sharing economies within an energy and information peer-to-peer distribution structure and the energy currencies it creates. What happens to conventional economics when rather than trying to store the energy you've created, which is difficult at the best of times, you give it away? A different system of values start to play out. Economy changes from our obsession with the accumulation of resources, to one where we share. How do corporations function after 2021 when the Watt starts becoming an established global currency?
The expansion of the timeline is important too, but without making it didactic; there needs to be room for interpretation and discussion. I'd like to leave the prospects of Torness nuclear power station or the different relationship between a wealthy New Scotland and perhaps a weaker less influential England, up to the imagination of other peoples. Would the remains of the Union start adopting the measures pioneered north of the border? All sorts of other questions remain to be explored. How is the new nation affected by migration or by new or old alliances?
Much of this work allies with Frederic Jameson's paraphrasing of Slavoj Zizek, "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". This project is really about provoking thinking, about how we can foster alternative political systems which have a truly long term, globally inclusive philosophy. How do we create less damaging economic environments which fit better within our ecosystem, and how to give more exposure to one of the fundamental relationships that makes us human: energy, economics and politics?
It took me ages to go through all the photos and bits of info scribbled all over flyers and scraps of papers but here's finally a few notes about the Fotofestiwal which closed in Łódź a couple of weeks ago
When it was first launched in 2001, the Fotofestiwal was the first independent photography event of its kind in Poland. I had never visited the festival before but the program looked good: young talents, Eastern European artists whose work was new to me and a few blockbusters which, this year, included Roger Ballen's portraits of marginalized people in absurd settings and Volker Hinz's quirky portraits of fashion stars and celebrities of the 20th century. Predictable blogger that i am, i only had eyes for the new names and the socially-engaged exhibitions. So that's what this report from the festival is going to focus on. That and the city.
I really really enjoyed Łódź. I discovered the city by following the parcours of exhibitions and by getting lost on my way from one abandoned courtyard to a world famous National School of Film, from a street art mural to all kind of ex-industrial buildings spectacularly converted into art centers or shopping malls.
But let's get back to the exhibitions.
Evgenia Arbugaeva grew up in Tiksi, the most northerly settlement with a population of (barely) over 5,000. She came back to her home town 20 years after having left to live abroad. She photographed the Tiksi of her childhood memories. Her other objective was to capture a town "in the middle of nowhere," before it disappears.
She explained in an interview with Leica camera blog: Under the USSR, Tiksi was to be an important seaport on the Northern Sea Route. In those times the government put a lot of energy into development of the Arctic regions building military bases, meteorological stations, towns, etc. After the fall of the USSR all these projects went into decline, people left and ships stayed, rusting in seawater. It's scary to see those monuments to what was once a big dream of the great North.
Ciril Jazbec, Waiting to move documents life on an island no wider than 400 meters and 5 kilometers in length, in Alaska. The island is threatened by the effects of climate change: erosion, storms and inclement weather, as well as by the thawing of permafrost. Al Gore referred to its inhabitants, a modern Inupiaq Eskimo community called Shishmaref, as the first climate refugees.
The most exciting exhibition for me however was the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal, a competition for young artists with 'cohesive ideas' and 'brave visions.' I already blogged my two favourite: A guide to life forms altered by the human species and Norilsk, daily life inside an environmental disaster.
David Takashi Favrod is the son of a Japanese mother and a Swiss father. When he was 6 months old, he moved from Japan to Switzerland where he was mainly brought up by his mother who taught him her culture. When he was 18, he asked for double nationality at the Japanese embassy, but they refused.
It is from this feeling of rejection and also from a desire to prove that I am as Japanese as I am Swiss that this work was created. "Gaijin" is a fictional recital, a tool for my quest for identity, where auto-portraits imply an intimate and solitary relationship that I have with myself.
The aim of this work is to create "my own Japan", in Switzerland, from memories of my journeys when I was small, my mother's stories, popular and traditional culture and my grandparents war recitals.
From 2010 to 2013, Antoine Bruy hitchhiked throughout Europe to meet men and women who chose to abandon their urban lifestyle and adopt self-sufficient life styles.
Kirill Golovchenko in photographed the people who spend their summers selling fruit and vegetables on the roadsides in Ukraine. When night comes, many of them retire in tents, trailers, or makeshift shacks erected 10 meters away from the road. Many come from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and mix with the locals in a microcosm made of people who want to make money to simply get along or save up and improve their living conditions in their respective homelands where most return for the winter months.
And now for an awful amount of photos:
Screened at the festival:
Lots and lots of big spaces that look abandoned:
Data Cuisine goes against everything i've learnt as a child: Don't play with food! Don't mix meals with political discussions! In these workshops, participants experiment with the representation of data using culinary means. I suspect they are even allowed to put their elbows on the table.
The workshop invites participants to translate local data into culinary creations, turning arid numbers into sensually 'experienceable' matter.
Participants chose their topics, investigate related data, shop for comestible ingredients and under the guidance of chefs, they learn how to create dishes that will not only be delicious but also act as entry points to discussions about local issues that range from emigration to criminality, suicide rate, unemployment, sexuality or science funding.
Hi Susanne and Moritz! Seen from the outside, the idea is somewhat simple: just take some data and assemble them on a plate instead of a graph, use culinary ingredients instead of lines and block of colours. Yet, i suspect the process must be more complex than that. What are the challenges participants encounter when trying to turn numbers into dishes?
SJ: It might sound simple, but cooking and data visualisation or representation are two very different disciplines. Food is sensual, tangible, ephemeral, emotional and social. Data is not like this at all. This dialectics is the starting point of the Data Cuisine workshop and for someone who has never done it, it is already a challenge to think both together and to play with the various qualities of food such as its cultural connotations, colour, taste, shape, nutrition and the range of techniques to prepare food such as melting, freezing, boiling, baking, foaming...Not to speak of the various ways one can present and consume food.
Actually there are so many possibilities to explore on both ends, the data and the food, that most participants end-up with something relatively simple, because they are overwhelmed by the complexity. A translation of data into a visual edible diagram is relatively easy, but that's not what we are striking for, but for creations that work and communicate on both levels, visually and as regards taste.
One of the questions the workshop asks is "Have you ever tried to imagine how a fish soup tastes whose recipe is based on publicly available local fishing data?"
So does data affect taste and how? For example, do you have to make concession and be a bit less respectful of data to ensure that a dish is delicious?
MS: Generally, when it comes to tasting precise quantities and differences, of course, our taste organs are more limited than our visual system. It is simply much harder to determine what is "twice as sweet" as opposed to as twice as long line in a graphic. Then again, taste is a much more emotional and temporally complex experience that just looking at a dot on a screen. So, the mechanisms to encode information might be more fuzzy, but potentially much deeper.
Depending on the theme, there could also be a case to be made for dishes that don't taste all that well (like, e.g., the noise visualization through salt).
In the end, our goal is to create eating experiences that teach you something about the data, and taste is one dimension you can vary, but there is also temperature, texture, amounts, the plating, all the cultural connotations different dishes and ingredients have ... all this plays together in creating a successful dish. Here, precision of data readability is not of primary concern, but rather, the overall personal experience, and the dishes' concept.
Can any data be turned into something edible? Or did participants find themselves in front of data that when cooked together could only lead to unpleasant flavors?
SJ: We ask the participants to work with local data, ideally open data, and the experience from the two workshops shows that most people tend to pick data that reveal social and economic problems. This is not really surprising as we encourage people to pick a topic that they feel close to, that motivates them to work on, and to turn it into some kind of food experience. Creating a dish that tastes terrible is sometimes the best way to communicate a negative development or a problematic situation. Good examples for this are the 'Suicide Cocktail' that looks at the relation of alcohol consumption and suicide rates in Finland and 'Unemployed Pan con Tomate!' that visualises the drastic increase of unemployment among young people. We tell participants that they should decide early on, if they want to be that radical or if they want to try something that is more subtle and comparably more difficult to produce.
You work with chefs in each of these workshops. How do they intervene? What exactly is their role in each workshop?
SJ: The chefs are very important, when it comes to creating the dishes. In most cases, a 'data' dish is created by either remixing, altering or re-interpreting existing recipes. The group of participants is usually very heterogeneous and have different professional backgrounds. However, they all have an interest in cooking or at least in doing something with food, but some are knowledgeable than others. The chefs bring the real cooking expertise to the table. Usually our participants quickly develop ideas what they want to do and which dishes they want to create, and then it's the chef who -- with his or her experience and creativity -- pushes them to open up their mind, to try something new and unusual, such as trying out other techniques or ingredients. When we are in the kitchen, the chef is in high demand, not only for the preparation of dishes, but also for their final presentation on the plate.
So far you've organized 2 Data Cuisine workshops. One in Helsinki and one in Barcelona. These are two very different kind of countries in terms of cuisine. Do you feel that participants approached the idea of mixing data and food differently? Because i somehow feel that a lot of personal culture and subjectivity enters into account when dealing with food.
SJ: In Helsinki less of the dishes were local, maybe also due the fact that a lot of Helsinki workshop participants were either immigrants or just visiting. I remember that Moritz and I were wondering what constitutes Finnish cuisine before we had our first meeting with Antti Nurka, the Finnish chef. And it was particularly interesting to see how the shortage of vegetables that grow in Finland and the variety of local mushrooms, berries and fish influence the Finnish menu. But other than that I couldn't discover much differences in the general approach of the participants, maybe because the people who join the workshop are usually food-aficionados.
I think what i like about this workshop is that it breaks a taboo for me. I grew up being told that you don't mix politics and food, that you can't talk about sensitive or potentially divisive topics while having a meal. Yet, many of the projects were directly related to politics and social issues. Besides, one of the objectives of the workshops is precisely to merge food with data in order to "gain unexpected insights into both media and learn about their inner constructions and relations". So what have you learn so far about these constructions and relations?
MS: From a data visualization point of view, I found it really interesting to watch how deeply people meditate on very simple data points, when they think about turning them into food experiences. In a way, this is a very needed counterpoint to the current trend of consuming lots of data in a very quick and superficial way. As Jer Thorp said, "we are so used to flying at 10,000 feet that we forget what it is like to be on the ground" and both the preparation and consumption of the data dishes providesa very earthy, grounded way to connect with statistical information and the human stories behind the numbers.
From a food point of view, knowing how expressive food is as a medium, it is surprising to me by now, how little the intellectual side is stimulated in high-end cuisine. It is surely nice to just enjoy interesting tastes in good company, but it can also be quite enriching if there is a whole extra conceptual and intellectual dimension to the dining experience. I think this side has been quite neglected in the history of cuisine and we are hoping to provoke a few reactions in -- and hopefully some inspiration to -- the traditional cooking scene.
What's next for Data Cuisine?
MS: We aim for a few more editions of the workshop, in order to understand the local differences better and continue to explore the medium. We might also vary the format in the future - one format we were considering is a high-end "data dinner", which would put less emphasis on the collaborative workshop process, but more the final outcome and dining experience. And I would like to learn more about the science of cooking and the technological advances in the area - this field is buzzing right now!
Thanks Susanne and Moritz!
All images courtesy of Data Cuisine. More photos.
Peter Cusack is a field recordist, musician and researcher who has traveled to areas of major environmental devastation, nuclear sites, big landfill dumps, edges of military zones and other potentially dangerous places. He has been to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the Caspian Oil Fields in Azerbaijan; 'London Gateway' the new port on the River Thames where massive dredging severely damages the underwater environment; the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, which is now being partially restored after virtually disappearing due to catastrophic water misuse.
While most of these locations have been extensively discussed in articles and documented in images, we don't know what a day in any of these places sounds like. With his field recordings, however, Cusack gives us an idea of what a radiometer with a cuckoo in the background in Pripyat sounds like. Or what it is like to hear the wind whistling by the Sizewell nuclear power stations. These recording belong to a practice that the artist calls sonic journalism. The discipline is an audio complement and companion to images and language. Using field recordings and careful listening, sonic journalism provides valuable insights into the atmosphere of a particular site.
Hi Peter! The public is now used to seeing images of dangerous places. Focusing on sound recordings from these same places, however, is less banal. What can sound communicate that an image cannot convey?
Field recordings are very good at communicating the atmosphere of places. They also give a good sense of space (distance, position, how things are moving) and timing of any events happening. I think this is important because it gives a sense of what it might be like to actually be there and allows you to think about what you might feel, or how you might react if present. I don't really agree that images are more banal (some recordings are also). It depends on the image. For me a better impression is given when images, sounds and language are working together. Most reportage uses images and language but not the sounds, which means we are usually missing the aural information. This is a pity because it can be very informative and expressive.
Some of the sounds you collected are seducing and fascinating. The ones you recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are particularly charming, even the Cuckoo and radiometer has some poetry in it. So how do you suggest the sense of danger to the listener?
Yes, sometimes they are a complete contrast to a sense of danger. However they are part of the the larger whole. Most dangerous places are very complex. For me it's important to suggest the complexity and the contradictions that are present. That way one gets a more complete picture, e.g it may seem a contradiction that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now a wonderful nature reserve. That is definitely to be contrasted with state of human health there.
Is it easier to get access to these locations as a sound artist than as a photographer? I imagine that people in charge of a military site or a particularly environment-damaging oil field will be wary of a photographer but might underestimate the strength of a sound recording. Do you find that you face the same resistance and restriction when you record ambient sound than when you take photos?
The only place where i had access to a place where photographers cannot not go was the Jaguar car factory in Liverpool, where they are paranoid about industrial espionage from rival car manufacturers. At Chernobyl they give anyone access if you can pay the entry fees.
In places where you don't get permission it depends on how obvious you are. Large microphones are as visible as large cameras. I often use small equipment which is not easy to see. However, it's true that security guards don't know about recording equipment compared to cameras.
The UK now is very security conscious. I've been stopped at places for recording and for just standing in the wrong place not recording or photographing.
The first recordings of the series dedicated to the oil industry were made in 2004 at the Bibi Heybat oil field, in Azerbaijan. Why did you start there? Was it a conscious decision to start in that location or did you find yourself there for another reason and the idea emerged then to start a new body of work?
i was in Azerbaijan for a holiday. i did not know the oil fields were there, so it was a very lucky accident from which the project grew.
You see Sounds from Dangerous Places as a form of 'Sonic Journalism'. Yet, you are a sound artist, so what makes your work an artwork rather than merely a 'sound reportage'?
My interest is to document places as best i can (audio recording, photography plus any other kind of material or research) so that anyone listening/reading can get an idea of the place itself and the relevant issues. this material gets used for a variety of purposes - sound art, cds, radio, education, talks, installations. whether it is art, documentary or journalism is not so important to me.
Are there dangerous places you wish you could go to or sounds you wish you could capture, only they are out of reach for some reason?
Yes, many. most military areas are completely impossible to get into. So are a lots of industrial sites, nuclear power stations, etc. Sometimes official tours are organised but usually these are useless for recording, which takes time to do properly without other people talking or getting in the way all the time. However it's sometimes possible to make interesting and valuable recordings from outside the fences.
Other places are really, and personally, dangerous like war zones. My project concentrates on environmentally dangerous place. War zones are not part of this and i've no wish to get killed.
After this exploration of the energy industry, you are planning to explore global water issues. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? Your website states that the work will include the dam projects in Turkey. Why do these dams strike you as representative of the global water problems? Where else will the project take you?
The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. the aral sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. today it has almost dried up because the water flowing into it is diverted into major irrigation schemes far up stream. The disappearance of the sea has been disastrous for the local climate and huge fishing industry that once supplied the Soviet Union with 25% of its fresh water fish.
The Kazakhs are now trying to restore a small part of the sea with support from the world bank. This has been quite successful and the fishing industry has re-started bring the economy back to some of the fishing villages. the wildlife has returned and so has the climate. I have travelled there twice so far - very interesting.