Category Archives: bio

Semina Aeternitatis: can you inscribe human nostalgia onto foreign DNA?

We, humans and connected objects alike, are producing data so rapidly that storage infrastructures can’t keep up and that some engineers are now looking at the potentials of nature’s most ancient way of preserving information: DNA. DNA digital data storage, the process of encoding and decoding binary data to and from synthesized DNA strands, holds the promise of putting huge amounts of information into tiny molecules. One can see the appeal: DNA is fairly easy to replicate, stable over millennia, far less resource-hungry (or so it seems) than traditional data centers and the technique of storage is getting increasingly cheaper.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Artist Margherita Pevere has also been experimenting with DNA storage. Her motivations, however, are less utilitarian and more poetical. But they are no less thought-provoking and exciting. One of her ongoing research projects, Semina Aeternitatis, uses DNA storage technique to archive a woman’s intimate experience from her youth into foreign life. Throughout the whole developing and exhibiting process, the artwork explores a series of questions related to wider issues of life, anthropocentrism and ecological crisis:

Can a living body carry the nostalgia of another living body? If you inscribe a human being’s childhood memory onto foreign DNA, will the resulting hybrid body help us understand the increasingly strained relationships between humans and the world they are only a small part of? Will the experiment give us a different, perhaps more compassionate, perspective on other forms of life, big or small, and on the ecological threats they are exposed to?

Pevere collaborated with bioscientist Mirela Alistar and the IEGT (the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research at University Rostock in Germany) to convert into genetic code a childhood memory of a woman who chose to remain anonymous. The genetic code was further synthesized into a plasmid which was then inserted into bacterial cells. The bacteria thus store the woman’s transient memory in their own bacterial body. Colonies of bacteria were then grown and cultured to create a large biofilm which, even after it had been sterilized, retains that childhood memory.

What drew me to the project is not just its ambition of keeping a personal recollection into DNA for a seemingly infinite amount of time, it’s also the aspect of the biofilm. With its flesh tones, wet and viscous surface, it evokes skin and other body matter. It’s disturbing, strangely enticing and makes it impossible to reduce the project to a purely artistic speculation.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Margherita Pevere is an artist and researcher whose practice combines scientific protocols and DIY inquiry with aesthetics and a rigorous questioning of the methods and materials she engages with. Semina Aeternitatis is part of her practice-based PhD research at Aalto University, Helsinki. The reason why i asked her to talk to us about her project is that it is part of Experiment Zukunft. This very interesting-looking exhibition, curated by Susanne Jaschko, brings artists, scientists, students and citizens together to imagine probable, possible and fictional futures.

Margherita was kind enough to find a moment to answer my many questions about the work:

Hi Margherita! You started the project Semina Aeternitatis in 2015. Is it an entirely new version you are showing at Experiment Zukunft? How does it build upon or simply differ from the earlier version?

The project has had a long process and the art piece exhibited in Experiment Zukunft evolved from the initial idea. The project started in 2015 with a performances series where I interviewed strangers about the memories they would like to preserve for eternity, with the aim to store such memories on bacterial DNA. The initial idea was to make a series of visual works made of microbial biofilm, but during the process the need for a different embodiment emerged. Hybridity is crucial in my practice and it is interwoven with a visceral fascination for anatomy and biological matter. I wanted to create a hybrid creature that could entwine human memories with bacterial inheritance. The piece called for more liveliness and performativity.

For Experiment Zukunft, I interviewed a lady from Rostock who shared with me a crucial childhood episode which had to do with a horse – I will tell you more about this later. The horse unexpectedly links the woman’s experience with my own. I collaborated with Dr. Mirela Alistar and the Institute of Experimental Gene Therapy and Cancer Research (IEGT). Dr Alistar developed an algorithm to translate the story of the lady’s memory into a DNA sequence. The latter was manufactured as a plasmid, a circular DNA molecule. At IEGT laboratory, we run all protocols to eventually introduce the plasmid by electroporation into the cells of biofilm-producing Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria. The bacteria is now carrying the memory story in their body.

Other artists have worked with DNA as a storage medium, think of the pioneering Microvenus by Joe Davis, or the recent Mezzanine release by Massive Attack. Semina Aeternitatis tackles the friction that arises from our understanding of DNA as a stable molecule, the potential to use this feature for long-term data storage, and the inherent process of becoming we – organic as well inorganic entities – are part of. On the one hand, there is an interplay of timescales I find artistically fertile. On the other hand, such friction may reveal politics and poetics of biological matter in post-human times.


K. rhaeticus microscopy, picture Dr. Alf Spitschak


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

I remember hearing Prof Nick Goldman talking about his pioneering work on DNA data storage a few years ago. At the time, the experiment was very costly and looked a bit outlandish. How affordable would DNA data storage be nowadays? As far you know, is this a form of data storage we could consider since the way we store our data nowadays is so energy-hungry?

DNA data storage is still considered a promising technology, although it is far from being error-free and recent research focuses on making it more reliable. However, I would point at an inherent contradiction I see in the narrative of many technologies that are considered “environmentally promising”.

Let’s agree DNA data storage will be more compact and efficient than hard drives. However, it does still require digital interface and the production of DNA still has to be optimised from an environmental point of view. My point here is that it can be more efficient, but it does not affect the system. We live in a system that is data based, where someone sells a huge lie called “the cloud” to someone who buys it, but the aspect I find most concerning is that such system is based on accumulation – one of the pillars of capitalism since its inception – and relies on fossil fuels.

Let’s assume technological development can help shrink our environmental footprint, but until the mantra of more consumption and production are valid without taking into consideration how process the fall-out … There’s a long way to go. Industry is currently about to launch foldable smart-phones, but there is still no solution to the immense dilemma of electrowaste. To be honest, and I am aware this might sound controversial, I wish there were dumps in every city, so people could see with their very eyes what technological materiality is about. I wish people could see black rivers in the parks, smell burning plastic and rotting metals, and relate this to the shiny surface of new laptops. Would that change anything?

To go back to your question, I can be fascinated by the storage and computing potential of molecules, but I think a more radical action is needed towards the environmental footprint of current technology.

I’m interested in the title of the project Semina Aeternitatis, which “is inspired by the human longing for eternity and the desire to permanently preserve memories and information.” In Latin, the title means “Seeds of eternity”. Which made me think about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and how it also carried this mission of eternal preservation. The project however seems to be threatened by climate change. Do you feel that this gives a new dimension to the work? At least to the way it can be interpreted since our ambitions of achieving eternity seem less and less credible and valid in these unstable times?

You to raise a relevant point here. I should mention first that I have been studying how humans impact the biosphere, including climate change, for 15 years. This has influenced both my own Weltanschauung as well as my work. We also should not forget that climate change has been out there for almost three decades, although its soaring urgency reached the news only in recent times. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 at what used to be considered a very stable spot, but, only a decade later, unforeseen permafrost melting challenges its stability.
Semina Aeternitaits means both “seeds of eternitiy” and “people of eternity”. This ambiguity addresses both the desire for permanence as well as anthropocentrism of Western culture: I was interested in understanding what link there may be between anthropocentrism, the Christian promise of afterlife, and the process of becoming. In the early phase of the research I considered different manifestations of the desire for permanence. I had long conversation with conservators of audio-visual media, contemporary artworks and ancient documents. I also explored the different approach between myself, a frank atheist, and some dear friends who have faith. Another phenomena I looked at is how Europe is still elaborating the inheritance of the 20th Century and the Holocaust, which came with the promise “Nie wieder!” (ENG: Never again!). Today, the founding values of the society built upon such promise are collapsing before our very eyes.

Again, there is an interplay of temporalities here. We can perceive better if we move away from our everyday temporality, whose fast pace is set by being ever-connected. Climate change introduces an event horizon in such interplay of temporalities, it somehow fractures it.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

Could you tell us about your collaboration with Dr. Mirela Alistar? And did her own background and perspective influence or illuminate the final work and its development in any way?

I met Dr Alistar through the Berlin biohacking scene a few years ago and we have been in touch since then. Next to her academic research in computer science and microfluidics, she cultivates a vivid interest for biological systems and art and is one of the founder of the first citizen lab in Berlin, Top Lab. We have been discussing the project together since a couple of years and she officially joined it in 2018.

Her contribution has been multifaceted and deep. She did not only develop the algorithm to convert the text into DNA sequence, but we also shared important parts of the research and had real fun during the hands-on part in the laboratory. Dr Alistar has an extraordinary mind and is immensely curious, which triggers my imagination. But I think she also helped me find the right thread when I was feeling lost. I really look forward towards what will come out from her laboratory at CU Boulder, where she is starting her professorship next fall.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

If the online translating service and I understood correctly the description of the work, the childhood memory of a Rostock woman was stored into a DNA sequence. It was then inserted into the cells of a bacterial strain. The bacteria, which carried the memory, were then cultivated to produce a large piece of cellulose film. This cellulose film looks quite lively and disturbingly organic. Aesthetically, it is miles away from the cold, clean and hygienic aesthetics of the data center that store our digital communication. Could you explain us why you decided to work with this cellulose (you could have stored the information inside a test tube for example)? Does it evolve, change over time?

You both understood correctly. Once we obtained the “memory” plasmid, we ran a series of procedures to combine it with the proper plasmid backbone for the target bacteria K. rhaeticus. We used consolidated scientific protocols, for each step one has to insert the desired molecule into E. coli, grow overnight to amplify it, extract it, run chemical reactions to combine the molecules in the desired way, and so on. Researchers at IEGT laboratory helped us a lot in this process. Eventually, we introduced the plasmid by electroporation into K. rhaeticus bacteria and cultivated the latter to obtain microbial cellulose. The scientific laboratory is a highly controlled environment, where bacteria are mostly perceived as tools and not as living entities.

The ambiguous biotech body of the chimeric creature diverges from the aesthetics usually associated with bioinformatics as to spur the reflection on politics of body and nature. Biological matter is inherently leaky and unstable. There is an inherent ambiguity in the materiality of microbial cellulose. Its resemblance to flesh may trigger abjection, or, conversely, uncanny intimacy. The biofilm in the exhibition has been sterilized and will retain its wet materiality through a controlled environment in the diorama, although it may change over time.

Now that you make me think about it, I also have made back-up tubes containing the molecule for IEGT and Biofilia Laboratory at Aalto University (where I am PhD candidate): such vials are in cold, clean, hygienic environment for archival purposes. But the audience will probably never see them.

Could you also tell us a few words about the lady whose memory will be preserved in this piece of cellulose? Why was it important for you to focus on nostalgic memories?

Thanks to the research of curator Susanne Jaschko, I could interviewed a lady who, in a unique way, positively influenced the life of many people in the region. She asked not to release her identity, so I can’t tell you more details about her. What I can tell you is that she is now in her eighties and is a wonderfully passionate, bright, and determined person. She was eager to understand the process in Semina Aeternitatis and was enthusiastic about the exhibition. I was struck by her strength and charme. I wish can be a bit like her when I grow older!

The lady’s childhood memory, which survives in Semina Aeternitatis, goes back to a formative experience. As a five-year-old, the lady was sent home from the field for the first time unaccompanied and on a workhorse. After the first shock, the horse’s reliability, stamina and equanimity became a life lesson that made her the strong person today: “Trot (through life) like a mare”. The lady paid big attention to pick a memory that was not transformed by further reworking, a sort of primal memory, and it was the first time she shared such episode with someone. She narrated it with beautifully chosen words and vivid awareness of how her experience as a girl entangled with the context and her adult life. It’s a great narrative fabric.

As I mentioned earlier, the lady’s memory somehow overlaps with my own individual experience. I grew up in a semi-rural context, so I am familiar with the one she describes. However, the horse is the strongest link. My horses were companions and not work animals, which makes a difference. But I know so well the moment where you learn to trust the animal, the way the animal knows its surrounding and the way it goes its own way no matter what. However, as any relationship, transpecies relationships may also involve trauma. On my left check there is a scar from one of my horses, who involuntarily kicked me in the face. I knew him well and it was an accident, but I had to be determined to overcome fear. I am attracted to scars and this particular one is now part my individual landscape. While preparing the horse skull for the exhibition, I realized that the delicate frontal crests on the skull have the same curve as the scar on my cheek.

Going back to your question, Semina Aeternitatis is about temporalities, materiality, and erosion. Individual memories’ nostalgic lure counters techno-feticism and their evanescence connects different temporalities trough a sense of longing, they manifest desire and vulnerability. They create a space for encounter.


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Fritz Beise


Margherita Pevere, Semina Aeternitatis, 2015-2019. Photo by Margherita Pevere

What can people see in Rostock. How are you showing and communicating the project there?

Semina Aeternitatis is an artistic research project and the exhibited art piece is a final manifestation of an articulated research process. It was important to give access to the complexity behind it.

The art piece features a diorama hosting a chimeric creature whose bodily elements grow onto each other in a very organic way. In the diorama, a controlled environment keeps the biofilm moist and creates a feeling of liveliness, while condensation gives a sense of processuality
Next to it, a 3m long table displays research materials including excerpts from laboratory journal, working notes, pictures, drawings, to provide the audience with insights into the artistic and scientific research process.

On April 30th I will join artists Sascha Pohflepp und Antye Guenther and scientists from the Rostock University for a panel with the title “Hybrider Mensch” (Hybrid human).

Thanks Margherita!

You’ve got until 5 May 2019 to see Semina Aeternitatis at Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany. The works is part of Experiment Zukunft, a show curated by Susanne Jaschko.

Alma Heikkilä opens up our eyes to the invisible worlds we depend upon

We might not be as human as it seems. Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and other microscopic organisms that colonize both the inside and outside of our bodies and form the human microbiota.

Even though we are not conscious of it, this microbial material affects our mental and physical well-being in ways science has only just started exploring. The microorganisms facilitate digestion, regulate the immune system, protect us against disease and manufacture vitamins. We live in such inter-dependency with our microbiome that some talk about holobionts, making us an assemblage of a host plus the resident microbes that inhabit it.


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä, Warm and moist | decaying wood (detail.) Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

Artist Alma Heikkilä wants us to open up our eyes to a world without which our world wouldn’t exist. It’s not just about the microbiome. She finds these imperceptible worlds everywhere. Where we only see a decaying log of wood, she sees a hot spot for insects and fungi. Where we see dirt and soil under our feet, she senses a vast universe of creatures that communicate and keep the underground and the overground alive. We know we breathe oxygen in, she knows we inhale also other gases, airborne bacteria, fungi as well as all kinds of pollutants.

Heikkilä wants us to become more sensitive to all the micro-organisms we overlook, either because microbiological elements are difficult to experience with our sole human senses or because Western culture has made us too individualist to give much consideration to species other than our own. Beyond these microscopic creatures, her work also touches upon other subjects that lie beyond human sensory perception, not as a result of their tininess but because they out-size us. They are massively distributed in time and space and are what environmental philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects“. Global warming is the most famous of these hyperobjects. Just like microorganisms, they exceed our human apprehension but we can’t keep on ignoring the powerful interdependence between them and us.


Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world, 2017. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world (detail), 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Heikkilä uses painting to address the necessity to acknowledge the importance of nonhuman life and our symbiotic relationship to it. The difference of scale between the ultra-small organisms and the hyperobjects she investigates is reflected in the composition of the paintings. The size of her works is overwhelming and forces you to take a step back but their visual details and material qualities draw you closer.

Her concern for these invisible forms of life is reflected in the critical examination of her own artistic practice. Heikkilä carefully assesses the impact the materials she wants to use might have on ecosystems, for example. She shuns planes and travels with ‘slow’ transportation only. She even bought 11 hectares of forest, not to use as a resource for her own work but to ensure that it continues being a habitat for biodiversity and acts as a carbon sink for any strain her activities has on ecosystems. Directly or indirectly. This might seem charming to many but her efforts put to shame all the artists, curators and reporters who explore the topic of the anthropocene with much gravitas but don’t think twice before taking a taxi or a plane instead of perfectly convenient public transport systems. It’s going to be interesting to see how working processes like hers will influence the way the art world operates.

The artist has just opened a show at Kiasma in Helsinki that defies anthropocentrism and gives visibility to the various processes of multispecies companionship. Each of her painting installation is like a microcosm of entities that coexist, combine and interact.

Another fascinating element of the exhibition is the way it challenges museum conventions. Heikkilä urged curator Satu Oksanen to consider opening up the usually carefully-controlled exhibition space to a natural element: light. Natural light now floods the space, coming from a sky light and a large window. Light is thus another participant to the show. Depending on the time of your visit in Kiasma, your eyes will have to adjust more or less to its intensity (artificial lights will be turned on if it ever gets too dark to experience the exhibition though.)


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä is the second recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin, a project that aims to provide international exposure for one selected Finnish artist. The project is funded by the Alfred Kordelin Foundation which supports the sciences, literature, the arts and public education in the country with grants and awards. Helsinki-based Maija Luutonen was the first recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin.

Through this commission, Heikkilä receives the support of the Kiasma staff, has been commissioned new works and has gained visibility but she also got a chance to collaborate with Elina Minn. The dramaturge will invite the public to join workshops that explore cellular consciousness inside Heikkilä’s show at Kiasma. Titled Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy, the one-hour sessions are ‘undoing’ practices that enable participants to focus on experiencing the world inside their body.


Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living (detail). Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery


Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living. Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

I didn’t know the work of artist and activist Heikkilä before visiting her show in Helsinki. But i did know about Mustarinda, the collective of artists and researchers she co-founded a few years ago. The goal of Mustarinda is to combine scientific knowledge and experiential artistic activity in order to lay out a path towards a post-fossil culture. Check out their residency calls if you’re interested in their work and fancy spending time in an isolated house with a lovely garden at edge of the Paljakka Nature Reserve in Finland.

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin was curated by Satu Oksanen. The exhibition remains open at Kiasma in Helsinki until 28 July 2019.
Check out this page for information about Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy with Elina Minn. /blockquote>

Making cheese from the black mould on your wall

Stachybotrys chartarum, aka black mould, is one of the nastiest guests you can find in your home. The microfungus grows inside damp buildings and produces toxic spores. Its presence in your home can affect your health and expose you to greater risks of suffering from respiratory problems, allergies or even immune system disorders.

The problem seems to be particularly common in London rented accommodations. Landlords are either too stingy or too sloppy to take the necessary measures to limit the moisture in the air. When they are not just plain greedy and let the flats deliberately rot so that tenants will move out and the property owner can renovate the building and turn it into lucrative Airbnb accommodations.


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Avril Corroon, a young artist currently pursuing a Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University, decided to give a pungent visibility to the problem of rogue landlords and poor living conditions in rented accommodation. She did so by making artisan cheeses using bacteria cultures collected directly from the mould growing in London housing. I wouldn’t eat the cheeses she makes but they look surprisingly convincing!

The project is called Spoiled Spores (at the moment.) Corroon’s social critique might be insalubrious but it is also one of those rare projects that manage to talk about gentrification and class divide with humour.

I got in touch with Avril and asked her to tell us more about her range of “sick building” cheeses:


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

Hi Avril! I’ve never made cheese in my life. You made yours using bacteria cultures collected from the mould growing in London housing. How did you discover the existence of these bacteria and their suitability to make cheese?  



Neither had I before this. To make blue cheese you add penicillium roqueforti to your milk and rennet, so I wondered what would happen if I swapped the ‘good mould’ for ‘bad’ mould and if it’d make a black mouldy cheese? Or what a Camberwell Camembert would look like from damp mould grown in a flat in Camberwell in London?

I had no idea if the cheese would come out looking and smelling like cheese or if the new mould would cause it to fall apart. It turns out that it does look and smell like cheese but as for taste I don’t know, it’s definitely not fit for consumption.



I’ve been doing call outs online and using word of mouth to find people living with mould and then visiting to take samples to make an individual cheese.
 Another element to the project is filming the homes where the moulds come from and interviewing the participants about their lives and any health problems they might have living around black mould. Some of them said they had mild respiratory issues and many said they constantly have to ask the landlord to come and sort it after the mould reappears after cleaning and repainting.


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019



Of course, what i found most interesting about the project is that it is, if i understood correctly, a comment on the poor living conditions in rented accommodation. Could you elaborate on that?  

I had a lot of black mould growing in my last accommodation in Dublin and know many people living in damp housing managed by neglectful landlords. I wanted to make something that juxtaposed the mould, as a sign of neglected living conditions in rental property, with an artisan product like cheese, as a possible marker of gentrification.

Developers and city planners focus on areas, intentionally allowing them to become run down before pumping investment into recreating a new narrative of the area, as somewhere more attractive for middle and upper classes making it difficult for the community to sustain living there.

I hope that the work gives a sense of how interlinked and calculated disinvestment and investment is as a system and also gives the finger to private landlords for charging extortionate rental prices for poorly maintained flats and houses.

At the moment I’m being evicted from my rental accommodation in Elephant and Castle in South East London as developers are going to build luxury apartments. That whole area is under new urban development. Property developers Delancey have been given the go ahead by the council to take down the famous 75 year old Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre to make a ‘town centre’, but it’s already a centre for the traders and large multicultural community who go there. Up The Elephant campaigners are bidding to pose a legal challenge to drop the scheme, which is great.


I’m critical of how art institutions play a role in gentrification and want the work to address this too. In the work, I’m taking mould from people in bad living conditions and creating a high-end commodity out of this suffering as cheese, but then by giving it the status of art it then becomes a super commodity in the art gallery. I’m very interested in how the work touches these seemingly separate economies and how it can implicate a wider system than just the individual landlord. The cheese stink in the gallery and you can’t get away from the smell. It’s making an accusation there to question how art institutions function in the creation of inequalities, disinvestment and gentrification in areas.



Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

The photo of the bedroom the mould came from doesn’t suggest “yummy! appetizing!” to me. How ready are people (and you!) to taste the cheese? Is it allowed to actually have people consume them or is there some Health and Safety issue that would prevent you from organising tasting sessions?  

At first some people have really wanted to try it before seeing the video footage of how they’re made. I have artisan style labels for each corresponding cheese, which includes on it the first name of the person who lives with the mould, the type of accommodation, and annual rent and location details in the ingredient list. It’s easy to not read the label in full, as much as we don’t read the ingredients on most packaging, so the cheese still retains a sort of sinister element to it. Authentic artisan cheeses that are expensive, strong smelling, especially the blue cheeses, don’t really seem like they should be edible anyway, but we’ve been assured that they are. If no one had told you that you can eat cheese with blue mould veined through out it, you wouldn’t put that in your mouth would you?

I like toeing between the lines of disgust my cheese looks no more suspicious than normal cheese, like a savory present waiting for the landlord.



Excerpt of Fresh Paint on The Walls, full duration 9min, 2016

How does the work fit into your own practice? Does it build upon some of your previous works? I’m thinking about Fresh Paint on the Walls which looks at the difficulty of living in the neoliberal city through the antics of an awful landlord who licks beige walls and covers his face in paint.


I make work, which uses my own surroundings or living and working conditions as a starting point and then re-present them in an exaggerated manner with a satirical narrative in video or through interventionist actions in live performance.

In Fresh Paint on The Walls, the archetype of the monstrous Landlord is obsessed with ingesting magnolia coloured paint, resulting in megalomaniac behavior and terrible spatial judgment, which causes him to charge extortionate rates for small rooms. The cheese work feels like a continuation from this work and shares some similar imagery such as eating from interior walls.



In some of my previous work, I outline a story with voice over narration, the cheese is more suggestive of a narrative instead. While I was making one of them I was reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Witches where all the witches have an AGM and plan a grand opening of sweet shops where they’ll poison all the children and turn them into mice. Except here, maybe it’s all the landlords who come to stuff their faces instead.


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores (installation view), 2019


Avril Corroon, Spoiled Spores, 2019

What’s next for the cheese? Was it a one off or are you planning to reproduce the cheese experiment in other settings?

At the moment I’m working on this project along with others towards my degree show for my masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University. I’m making new cheeses, visiting homes, taking mould samples and filming homes from new people that I come into contact with.

I’d love to take the project further and travel with it to make further renditions that are area specific to where it’s exhibited, so that each place and the specificities to that local are examined. I’m also getting in touch with food labs to get an analysis of the cheese sample and its toxins.

Getting other expertise in to expand the work could produce interesting results, like getting a cheesemonger and a real estate agent together to assess the value of a mouldy house or one of my cheeses. I think there’s a lot of ways I can develop the work further.


Thanks Avril!

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded, by writer, filmmaker and architect Madeline Schwartzman.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Black Dog Press writes: See Yourself X focuses on the fundamental domain of our perception—the human head. The publication presents an array of conceptual and constructed ideas of how we might physically extend the head, the mind, the brain or our consciousness into space. What is the future of the human head? What will happen to our sensory apparatus in 50 years, when the mechanisms for how we communicate and sense our surroundings become obsolete, prompted by the advancement of sensors that will enable brain-to-brain communication? Everyone with a head should be interested in this book.

See Yourself X had inauspicious origins. In March 2012, while she was on the way to a talk for See Yourself Sensing, Schwartzman’s aeroplane crashed into a bus. As it landed in Detroit, the wing of the Delta MD-80 knocked over a shuttle bus at over 120 miles per hour. Luckily, no one was hurt. But it did spark an investigation: do pilots feel the width of their wings? If so, this would mean that the human head could effectively become 150 feet wide. This was the catalyst for See Yourself X: to look across art practices and contemporary culture, at all ways of extending the head into space, and to move headlong into the future.


Joanne Petit-Frère, Redressing the Crown series


Shai Langen, Liquid Body, 2014

See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded is the second volume of a series that looks at human perception and the sensory apparatus. The first one, See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception, looked at fifty years of futuristic proposals for the body and the senses. It was published in 2011 but is still as seducing and pertinent as ever. The new book, See Yourself X, focuses in on the human head.

Drawing on current works of fashion, design and science and looking back at ideas and artifacts from the past, the publication sets to explore how our heads, faces and brains can allow us to extend ourselves physically into space.

Some of the projects selected seem far-fetched and whimsical. Some are slightly sinister, others are poetical or just playful. Although their creators don’t necessarily have the ambition to predict the future, the works selected in the book often trigger sparks inside our minds, push back the limits of what we think is possible and thus suggest what might happen 10, 20, even 50 years from now.


Studio Peripetie, Pugh-atory, Chimney sweeper, 2009


Matthias Darly, Ridiculous Taste, or the Ladies Absurdity, C.1776

In her essays and descriptions, Madeline Schwartzman makes spectacular images of design, art and fashion enter into an inspiring dialogue with the latest advances in neurology, robotics, psychology or nanotechnology. There is plenty of speculation at work, of course but without speculation, there would only be very little science and very uninspiring art.


Chrystl Rijkeboer, Twins Brown, 2007


Trick photograph of man with two heads, 1901

I just finished reading See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded. It’s been an energizing journey that took me from hair extensions to phrenology; from sophisticated algorithms for face detection to cyborg antenna; from knitted heads to The Thatcher illusion and from human hybridized with plant or machine to sensitive e-skin.

Quick selection of works i discovered in the book:


Lauren Kalman, But if the Crime is Beautiful… Hood, 2014


Silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, allegedly worn by a nineteenth- century woman who had lost her own to syphilis. Hunterian Museum at the Royal college of Surgeons


Rebecca Drolen, Drainage (from the series Hair Pieces), 2011


Sterling Crispin, Data-Mask, 2013-2015

Sterling Crispin reverse-engineered facial recognition algorithms to create 3-D printed masks and photographs, revealing the way in which the machines might visually “understand” our faces.


Portrait parle class, France. From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), 1910 to 1915


Fantich & Young, Apex Predator Female, 2014


Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2010-ongoing


Bertjan Pot, Masks, 2018


Katharine Dowson, Brain Bricks, 2005

Brain Bricks are life-size representations of Katharine Dowson’s own brain.


Jennifer B. Thoreson, Cancer, from the series Testament, 2014


Kahn & Selesnick, The Face Behind the Face, 2014

Previously: See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception.

Can blood ever be a material like any other?

Some 500 million animals are slaughtered every year for consumption in the Netherlands. The figures are even more horrifying if you look at the number of animals slaughtered for food every second. But while parts of these animals end up on your plate, they also generate a lot of ‘waste material’. Only 30 percent of the cow blood for example will be dried and used in fertilizers. The remaining 70 percent will be sterilised and discharged into the sewer system.


Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing


Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Designer Basse Stittgen transforms these leftover of the meat industry into a dark, organic and versatile bioplastic. He uses the discarded body fluid as a biomaterial that he dries, heat-presses and then turns into a protein-based biopolymer from which he crafts small objects. Various pieces of dinnerware are direct reminders of the consumption of animals. Small egg holders that can be stacked into a totem that evokes the mystical sides of blood. A jewellery box invites us to question the value of blood, and perhaps also the value of animals after their death. The designer even created a record playing the heartbeat of a pig.


Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Most of us will have some kind of visceral reaction to the project. Smooth consumer goods made of solid blood feel a bit revolting and upsetting. The use of blood to create domestic goods forces us to confront the symbolic as well as the material dimension of a liquid we associate with both life and death. Furthermore, these Blood Related objects highlight the contradictions at the core of our relationship to animals. In theory, we all love animals. But not enough to stop buying the products of their exploitation. We know we need slaughterhouses but we prefer them to function far away from our sight and thoughts. Facilities where animals are butchered used to be located in urban centers but are now located outside city limits for “environmental and hygiene” concerns. The building of the ex-slaughterhouses have since been cleaned up to house swanky cultural centers.

The most interesting question this project asks is thus: Can this biomaterial ever become ‘just an object’, without any further associations?

Basse Stittgen‘s objects made with blood are currently part of ReShape. Mutating Systems, Bodies and Perspectives, an exhibition at MU in Eindhoven that explores theme of mutation and transformation. I took the show as an excuse to get in touch with the designer and ask him a few question about a project i found both curious and disturbing:

Hi Basse! How did you get the idea to create this rather surprising material? Is there in it any political or ethical comment on the meat industry? Or is it a more pragmatic solution to reduce industrial waste?

The project started as a broad research into bio materials and their history, at one moment I came across a french bio material created in 1855 called bois durci – it consisted of 80% sawdust and 20% oxblood. The possibility to make a solid material from blood sparked my fascination and I started doing first experiments.

There is no intention of a direct political comment on the meat industry, the objects are supposed to physicalize an invisible waste and connect the consumer again to the production of meat and asks to be aware of where meat comes from and what that takes. The project is not meant to be developed into an industrial scale waste reduction solution, especially because industrial slaughterhouse have facilities to collect and process the cow blood into for example fertilizer, which also means not all blood is waste, but all of it is invisible.


Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

From what i know, it is now very difficult to have contact with slaughterhouses and be granted an authorisation to visit their premises? How did you manage to source the blood? And how was your own experience of dealing with that industry?

It is indeed very difficult to find access to slaughterhouses since they are quite suspicious towards the motives of outsiders that want to gain access and on the other hand many of the ones I contacted saw no value in my research. It is about finding the right person to work with and now since over a year I’m working with one slaughterman that lets me collect the blood which for him is waste he pays for to have it picked up usually.

I remember the first time going to the slaughterhouse I was afraid of what I might see, especially since all the footage and news from slaughterhouses painted a very dark picture in my head. The moment I could talk to the slaughterman in person a lot of that fear and prejudice disappeared, which doesn’t change that the killing of a cow was one of the most violent images I experienced in my life.

While doing some online research to prepare this interview i found this page that describes the properties of the material. Where there characteristic of the materials that you found surprising, that you were not expecting?

And is it possible just by smelling or touching it to guess the origin of this biomaterial?

On first glance the material resembles bakelite, the surface is very hard and smooth due to the pressure and due to the heat the objects are completely black. During the process of creating them, especially drying the blood you can smell the origin, once the blood is dry it becomes odourless which makes it almost impossible to guess its origin. What surprised me most is the simplicity of the process


Basse Stittgen, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Could you tell us about the transformation process? How did you get from ‘industrial waste product’ to this set of objects?

All the objects relate to certain aspects of my research around blood. For the show at MU I decided to create a tiled table filled with dining ware made from blood. The setting calls in mind a slaughterhouse and the objects are directly linked to the consumption of animals.
For me to understand the meaning of the material and see the transformation process it is necessary to go one step before the industrial waste product. The first and more drastic transformation goes from blood as the ‘substance of life’ to ‘industrial waste product’ and only then into the blood objects. I try to embody this transformation for example in the record from blood which plays the hearbeat of a cow.


Basse Stittgen in collaboration with Anais Borie, Blood Related, 2017-ongoing


Basse Stittgen in collaboration with Anais Borie , Blood Related, 2017-ongoing

Together with Anais Borie you created a set of alchemistic drawings that echo the mystical dimension of blood. Could you tell us the role that blood played in alchemy?

While blood has its real attributes and composition of different proteins glucose and hormones that are all measurable and can refer to the visible, it has another layer which is its metaphorical meaning, the meaning humans give it based on nothing but belief and fantasy, the invisible. It is the interplay of those two sides is what makes it such a fascinating material to work with. By creating this visual layer based on alchemistic drawings I wanted to play on the irrationality connect to blood.

Has the project altered in any way your relationship to animal products?

I’m still eating meat, but the project made me more aware and choose much more carefully when and how I do so, I think for consumers its very easy and convenient to look the other way when it comes to the process of how things are made. Especially in the slaughter industry, one of the biggest in the world, yet one of the most invisible simultaneously.

Thanks Basse!

Basse Stittgen’s work is part of the exhibition ReShape. Mutating Systems, Bodies and Perspectives at MU in Eindhoven until 10 March 2019.

Related stories: Vampires, crucifixion and transfusion. BLOOD is not for the faint-hearted, Bodily Matters: Human Biomatter in Art (part 1. The blood session), “Dangerous Art”: the latest issue of the (free) Experimental Emerging Art Magazine, The Meat Licence Proposal, interview with John O’Shea, etc.

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, by Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller and Gerd Wessolek.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher CRC Press describes the book: Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is an investigation of the cultural meanings, representations, and values of soil in a time of planetary change. The book offers critical reflections on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, including land take, groundwater pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss. At the same time, the book celebrates diverse forms of resilience in the face of such challenges, beginning with its title as a way of honoring locally controlled food production methods championed by “field to plate” movements worldwide. By focusing on concepts of soil functionality, the book weaves together different disciplinary perspectives in a collection of dialogue texts between artists and scientists, interviews by the editors and invited curators, essays and poems by earth scientists and humanities scholars, soil recipes, maps, and DIY experiments.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Ambrosia Lake Disposal Cell, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012


Debra Solomon and Jaromil, Entropical, 2015

Very few of us realize the importance of soil and the deep connection we share with it. Our food system rely on the health of soils. Our dwellings, our modern infrastructures of communication and transports depend on the support of soils. Soil again is the place we open up when we need to extract minerals and other sources of energy and construction material. We need soil to absorb carbon, filter water and ensure the wellbeing of our ecosystems. It’s there, underneath our feet. Yet, we barely acknowledge its existence.

Over time and with the help of globalization, concrete and modern life, we’ve become so alienated from soil that we’ve allowed it to deteriorate. Soil degradation is so severe that, some scientists predict, topsoil will have disappeared by 2070. All of it.

The ambition of the editors and contributors of the book Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is to help society reconnect with soil. The chapters are either essays that explore some of the cultural articulations of soil or incredibly informative conversations between artists, activists and scientists who share their thoughts about the material properties, cultural histories, environmental functions and existential threats of soil.

Field to Palette is an amazing publication. Its almost 700 pages are packed with photos, surprising information and moving encounters. I wish i had the time to talk about everything i’ve learnt in the book. The unexpectedly sophisticated sensory abilities of nematodes or the method to turn plastic-free baby diapers into planters and nutrients for trees, for example. Since one of the greatest achievements of the book is the way it demonstrates the important role that artists can play in raising discussions with the public and in participating to the solution to the many challenges soil faces today, i’ll dedicate the rest of my review of the book to just a few of the artworks and stories i discovered in Field to Palette.


Franziska & Lois Weinberger, Laubreise at the Austrian Pavilion in Venice, 2009


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982

The book is articulated around six functions, six entry points to help us appreciate soil. The first Function of soil is Sustenance. Soil provides us with food, biomass and all forms of nourishment. The intro to the section informs us that 99% of human nourishment comes from 3% of available land. And that, sadly, about a third of that available land is compromised because of chemical pollution, erosion, salinization, etc.

The section starts with the best advocate soil could dream of: Agnes Denes, the artist behind the iconic and spectacularly thought-provoking Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The artist dialogues with the president of the International Union of Soil Sciences, Rattan Lal, about the close connections that could be weaved between conventional agriculture and urban agriculture.


Tattfoo Tan, S.O.S. Mobile Classroom at Farm City Fair, Brooklyn, New York, 2010

Philosopher and curator Sue Spaid writes about 4 artists-farmers whose “artisan soil” practices establish clear links between the health of our soil and the health of our food and of the environment. Their resolution to show their soil as art is an open invitation to cultural institutions to value soil on par with more ‘traditional’ types of museum treasures.

I was particularly moved by artist Maria Michails‘s comment on “energy landscapes” which she sees as a growing tendency to turn good farming lands usually dedicated to growing crops into surfaces that will produce energy through the plantation of plants for biofuel or the installation of solar panel or wind turbine farms.

Parto Teherani-Krônner and Rozanne Swentzell call for more attention to feminist and indigenous perspectives in soil protection debates. They believe that we should rehabilitate the term ‘meal’ because it has a more holistic dimension than ‘food’. A true meal culture has the potential to counter the effects of globalization and regain respect for food traditions, soil and the animals we eat.

The second function of soil is to be a Repository, a source of energy, raw materials, pigments but also poetry.

In that section, Peter Ward offers a guide for collecting and working with earth pigments. I also enjoyed artist Dave Griffiths, science communication lecturer Sam Illingworth and illustrator Matt Girling‘s look at the technocultural archiving of nuclear waste and at the necessity to communicate to far future beings about ancient hazards buried deep below their feet.


Margaret Boozer, Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations, 2012

Margaret Boozer‘s installation Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations features soil samples from all 5 boroughs in New York, extracted over the span of 15 years by Dr. Richard K. Shaw and his team for the New York City Reconnaissance Soil Survey. The work is particularly relevant in urban contexts where most inhabitants might not give any consideration to the soil underneath the concrete.

Soil health and plant nutrition researcher Taru Sandén and artist Terike Haapoja talk about the difference between organic and inorganic carbon and made me want to have a go at the Tea Bag Index, a citizen science method to gather data on decomposition and carbon stabilization.

Function 3 explores soil as an Interface, a site of environmental interaction, filtration and transformation. It’s a dark chapter with toxic infiltration, river bank erosion, climate change-related flooding, industrial runoff, etc. It is also one in which you take the measure of the superhero power of plants that are capable of drawing out toxins from soil, protecting it from the erosive impact of rain and wind and preventing slopes from slipping into waterways.


Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Mel Chin, a pioneer in phytoremediation, demonstrated plant potency in several of his works. Talking with curators Patricia Watts and Amy Lipton (the co-founders of ecoartspace), he recounted the story of Revival Field. In the early 1990s, the artist collaborated with research agronomist Rufus Chaney to prove that hyperaccumulator plants can cleanse soil of toxic metals like cadmium and zinc. The work, which confirmed what had so far only been a scientific hypothesis, continues at a contaminated Superfund site, Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minn.

In a discussion between artist Aviva Rahmani and professor of soil science Ray Weil about their respective approaches to restoration work to degraded systems, Weil explained how he used mega daikon radishes to help wean agribusiness farmers from the use of heavy fertilizers.


Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000

Environmental scientist Farrah Fatemi and curator Laura Fatemi selected four artists from the exhibition Rooted in Soil to illustrate how old energy can be harnessed into new growth. One of these artists is Sally Mann whose disturbing photos of decomposing corpses in a body farm remind us of our visceral connection to earth.

Function 4 looks at the soil as Home, a biological hotspot, a gene pool, a habitat for bacteria, fungi and all sorts of organisms. That’s where i learnt that more than a quarter of the planet’s known species live in the soil. The life underneath our feet might be invisible but it is dynamic and responsible for almost all lives above the ground.

The chapter shows how fiels as diverse as biohacking, Afrofuturism and postcapitalistic sculptures can reveal the activity and even ‘hidden narratives’ of soil. I have a text in that section. Although ‘text’ is a big word since it’s Amy Franceschini who does all the hard work in the interview i had with her about seeds and genetic biodiversity.


Suzanne Anker, Astroculture (Eternal Return), 2015

Interviewed by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, the cofounders of Art Laboratory Berlin, Suzanne Anker made some fascinating comments on the toxicity in the soil since Industrial Revolution and on extraterrestrial farming.

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi Trailer, 2010

Professor of geology and environmental engineering, Peter K. Haff and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu have an engaging exchange about the importance of using speculative narratives when technology is accelerating but human processes are not.

Function number 5, Heritage, sees soil as an embodiment of cultural memory, identity and spirit. Soil adopts the crucial but difficult to assess function of providing us with aesthetic pleasure, recreational enjoyment, cognitive development and spiritual enlightenment.


Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists), 2017

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger calls for a re-indigenization of Western thought and argues that the best way to protect the soil and in particular its cultural heritage is to share it.


Ruttikorn Vuttikorn and Myriel Milicevic, Stories from the Hills: Tales of the Lowland

Play activist Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, artist and interaction designer Myriel Milicevic and specialist of indigenous studies in Thailand Prasert Trakansuphakon give an enlightening perspective on how indigenous people’s life on the high hills of Northern Thailand can inform the urban ways of communal living of the “Lowlanders”. The best quote in their contribution to the book is by a village leader who turned down an offer from the U.S. to export 25.000 jars per year of their local honey. “Nature is not a manufacturer,” he explained.

Function 6 explores soil as a Stabilizer, a platform that enables the construction of structures, infrastructures and socioeconomic systems. Our buildings, underground and overground transport systems, sewers, communication networks and other modern infrastructures would not exist without the space and stability that soil offers for their construction.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Uranium disposal cells in Mexican Hat, Utah, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012

The research and education organization Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) talk about Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, a 2012 exhibition that explored the extent of uranium disposal cells in the US and the kind of unintended “land art” objects the infrastructures left in the landscape.


Lara Almarcegui, The Rubble Mountain, Sint-Truiden, 2005

Lara Almarcegui works with anthropogenic soil substrates, rubble, stones, sand, landfill soil and other waste construction materials to make us think of the true -underground- origin of a building.

Ellie Irons in collaboration with professor of environmental biology Jean Louis Morel speculate on a Soil Assembly and Dissemination Authority (SADA), an hypothetical and future city agency responsible for research, production, distribution and outreach related to an essential (and no longer naturally available) resource: soil.

Related stories: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1) and (part 2), The scars left by electronic culture on indigenous lands, Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons, Interview with Cecilia Jonsson, the artist who extracts iron from invasive weeds, Dust Blooms. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?, Experiments in sound, soil and microbial fuel cells, No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds, Perpetual Uncertainty. Inhabiting the atomic age, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet, The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini, etc. I didn’t realize i had written so many articles related to soil.

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, by Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller and Gerd Wessolek.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher CRC Press describes the book: Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is an investigation of the cultural meanings, representations, and values of soil in a time of planetary change. The book offers critical reflections on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, including land take, groundwater pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss. At the same time, the book celebrates diverse forms of resilience in the face of such challenges, beginning with its title as a way of honoring locally controlled food production methods championed by “field to plate” movements worldwide. By focusing on concepts of soil functionality, the book weaves together different disciplinary perspectives in a collection of dialogue texts between artists and scientists, interviews by the editors and invited curators, essays and poems by earth scientists and humanities scholars, soil recipes, maps, and DIY experiments.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Ambrosia Lake Disposal Cell, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012


Debra Solomon and Jaromil, Entropical, 2015

Very few of us realize the importance of soil and the deep connection we share with it. Our food system rely on the health of soils. Our dwellings, our modern infrastructures of communication and transports depend on the support of soils. Soil again is the place we open up when we need to extract minerals and other sources of energy and construction material. We need soil to absorb carbon, filter water and ensure the wellbeing of our ecosystems. It’s there, underneath our feet. Yet, we barely acknowledge its existence.

Over time and with the help of globalization, concrete and modern life, we’ve become so alienated from soil that we’ve allowed it to deteriorate. Soil degradation is so severe that, some scientists predict, topsoil will have disappeared by 2070. All of it.

The ambition of the editors and contributors of the book Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is to help society reconnect with soil. The chapters are either essays that explore some of the cultural articulations of soil or incredibly informative conversations between artists, activists and scientists who share their thoughts about the material properties, cultural histories, environmental functions and existential threats of soil.

Field to Palette is an amazing publication. Its almost 700 pages are packed with photos, surprising information and moving encounters. I wish i had the time to talk about everything i’ve learnt in the book. The unexpectedly sophisticated sensory abilities of nematodes or the method to turn plastic-free baby diapers into planters and nutrients for trees, for example. Since one of the greatest achievements of the book is the way it demonstrates the important role that artists can play in raising discussions with the public and in participating to the solution to the many challenges soil faces today, i’ll dedicate the rest of my review of the book to just a few of the artworks and stories i discovered in Field to Palette.


Franziska & Lois Weinberger, Laubreise at the Austrian Pavilion in Venice, 2009


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982

The book is articulated around six functions, six entry points to help us appreciate soil. The first Function of soil is Sustenance. Soil provides us with food, biomass and all forms of nourishment. The intro to the section informs us that 99% of human nourishment comes from 3% of available land. And that, sadly, about a third of that available land is compromised because of chemical pollution, erosion, salinization, etc.

The section starts with the best advocate soil could dream of: Agnes Denes, the artist behind the iconic and spectacularly thought-provoking Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The artist dialogues with the president of the International Union of Soil Sciences, Rattan Lal, about the close connections that could be weaved between conventional agriculture and urban agriculture.


Tattfoo Tan, S.O.S. Mobile Classroom at Farm City Fair, Brooklyn, New York, 2010

Philosopher and curator Sue Spaid writes about 4 artists-farmers whose “artisan soil” practices establish clear links between the health of our soil and the health of our food and of the environment. Their resolution to show their soil as art is an open invitation to cultural institutions to value soil on par with more ‘traditional’ types of museum treasures.

I was particularly moved by artist Maria Michails‘s comment on “energy landscapes” which she sees as a growing tendency to turn good farming lands usually dedicated to growing crops into surfaces that will produce energy through the plantation of plants for biofuel or the installation of solar panel or wind turbine farms.

Parto Teherani-Krônner and Rozanne Swentzell call for more attention to feminist and indigenous perspectives in soil protection debates. They believe that we should rehabilitate the term ‘meal’ because it has a more holistic dimension than ‘food’. A true meal culture has the potential to counter the effects of globalization and regain respect for food traditions, soil and the animals we eat.

The second function of soil is to be a Repository, a source of energy, raw materials, pigments but also poetry.

In that section, Peter Ward offers a guide for collecting and working with earth pigments. I also enjoyed artist Dave Griffiths, science communication lecturer Sam Illingworth and illustrator Matt Girling‘s look at the technocultural archiving of nuclear waste and at the necessity to communicate to far future beings about ancient hazards buried deep below their feet.


Margaret Boozer, Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations, 2012

Margaret Boozer‘s installation Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations features soil samples from all 5 boroughs in New York, extracted over the span of 15 years by Dr. Richard K. Shaw and his team for the New York City Reconnaissance Soil Survey. The work is particularly relevant in urban contexts where most inhabitants might not give any consideration to the soil underneath the concrete.

Soil health and plant nutrition researcher Taru Sandén and artist Terike Haapoja talk about the difference between organic and inorganic carbon and made me want to have a go at the Tea Bag Index, a citizen science method to gather data on decomposition and carbon stabilization.

Function 3 explores soil as an Interface, a site of environmental interaction, filtration and transformation. It’s a dark chapter with toxic infiltration, river bank erosion, climate change-related flooding, industrial runoff, etc. It is also one in which you take the measure of the superhero power of plants that are capable of drawing out toxins from soil, protecting it from the erosive impact of rain and wind and preventing slopes from slipping into waterways.


Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Mel Chin, a pioneer in phytoremediation, demonstrated plant potency in several of his works. Talking with curators Patricia Watts and Amy Lipton (the co-founders of ecoartspace), he recounted the story of Revival Field. In the early 1990s, the artist collaborated with research agronomist Rufus Chaney to prove that hyperaccumulator plants can cleanse soil of toxic metals like cadmium and zinc. The work, which confirmed what had so far only been a scientific hypothesis, continues at a contaminated Superfund site, Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minn.

In a discussion between artist Aviva Rahmani and professor of soil science Ray Weil about their respective approaches to restoration work to degraded systems, Weil explained how he used mega daikon radishes to help wean agribusiness farmers from the use of heavy fertilizers.


Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000

Environmental scientist Farrah Fatemi and curator Laura Fatemi selected four artists from the exhibition Rooted in Soil to illustrate how old energy can be harnessed into new growth. One of these artists is Sally Mann whose disturbing photos of decomposing corpses in a body farm remind us of our visceral connection to earth.

Function 4 looks at the soil as Home, a biological hotspot, a gene pool, a habitat for bacteria, fungi and all sorts of organisms. That’s where i learnt that more than a quarter of the planet’s known species live in the soil. The life underneath our feet might be invisible but it is dynamic and responsible for almost all lives above the ground.

The chapter shows how fiels as diverse as biohacking, Afrofuturism and postcapitalistic sculptures can reveal the activity and even ‘hidden narratives’ of soil. I have a text in that section. Although ‘text’ is a big word since it’s Amy Franceschini who does all the hard work in the interview i had with her about seeds and genetic biodiversity.


Suzanne Anker, Astroculture (Eternal Return), 2015

Interviewed by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, the cofounders of Art Laboratory Berlin, Suzanne Anker made some fascinating comments on the toxicity in the soil since Industrial Revolution and on extraterrestrial farming.

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi Trailer, 2010

Professor of geology and environmental engineering, Peter K. Haff and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu have an engaging exchange about the importance of using speculative narratives when technology is accelerating but human processes are not.

Function number 5, Heritage, sees soil as an embodiment of cultural memory, identity and spirit. Soil adopts the crucial but difficult to assess function of providing us with aesthetic pleasure, recreational enjoyment, cognitive development and spiritual enlightenment.


Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists), 2017

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger calls for a re-indigenization of Western thought and argues that the best way to protect the soil and in particular its cultural heritage is to share it.


Ruttikorn Vuttikorn and Myriel Milicevic, Stories from the Hills: Tales of the Lowland

Play activist Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, artist and interaction designer Myriel Milicevic and specialist of indigenous studies in Thailand Prasert Trakansuphakon give an enlightening perspective on how indigenous people’s life on the high hills of Northern Thailand can inform the urban ways of communal living of the “Lowlanders”. The best quote in their contribution to the book is by a village leader who turned down an offer from the U.S. to export 25.000 jars per year of their local honey. “Nature is not a manufacturer,” he explained.

Function 6 explores soil as a Stabilizer, a platform that enables the construction of structures, infrastructures and socioeconomic systems. Our buildings, underground and overground transport systems, sewers, communication networks and other modern infrastructures would not exist without the space and stability that soil offers for their construction.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Uranium disposal cells in Mexican Hat, Utah, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012

The research and education organization Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) talk about Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, a 2012 exhibition that explored the extent of uranium disposal cells in the US and the kind of unintended “land art” objects the infrastructures left in the landscape.


Lara Almarcegui, The Rubble Mountain, Sint-Truiden, 2005

Lara Almarcegui works with anthropogenic soil substrates, rubble, stones, sand, landfill soil and other waste construction materials to make us think of the true -underground- origin of a building.

Ellie Irons in collaboration with professor of environmental biology Jean Louis Morel speculate on a Soil Assembly and Dissemination Authority (SADA), an hypothetical and future city agency responsible for research, production, distribution and outreach related to an essential (and no longer naturally available) resource: soil.

Related stories: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1) and (part 2), The scars left by electronic culture on indigenous lands, Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons, Interview with Cecilia Jonsson, the artist who extracts iron from invasive weeds, Dust Blooms. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?, Experiments in sound, soil and microbial fuel cells, No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds, Perpetual Uncertainty. Inhabiting the atomic age, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet, The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini, etc. I didn’t realize i had written so many articles related to soil.

RIBOCA review: A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene

In 2006, Alexei Yurchak published Everything was forever until it was no more. The beautifully-titled book examined the political, social and cultural conditions that lead to the collapse of the Soviet state. The anthropologist argued that everyone knew the system was failing, but because no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens maintained the charade of a functioning society.


Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015


Katrīna Neiburga, Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017

Everything was forever until it was no more is also the title of the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago. I didn’t know about the biennial until i found myself in the Latvian capital for the always excellent RIXC Art and Science Festival (there’s still time to send your proposals for the upcoming edition of the conference and exhibition.) There were leaflets advertising the biennial at the hotel, i picked up one to read during my last breakfast in town and almost dropped my tea mug over another guest when i read that Katerina Gregos was the curator of the event. Gregos is an art historian and, to my eyes, the most perceptive and politically-minded curator we have in Europe.

Under her guidance, RIBOCA investigated the phenomenon of change – how it may seem inevitable (especially in these relentlessly accelerating times) and yet manages to take us by surprise. The works and artists Gregos selected investigated capitalism, technological revolutions, migration, Europe’s existential crisis, post-Soviet history in the Baltic states and our foolish destruction of the environment. I had only 3 hours to visit the biennial and could only run through two of the exhibition venues before i had to leave for the airport. These were probably the most exciting 3 hours i spent in 2018.

I’ll try and give an overview of what i saw at the biennial over a couple of blog posts. Today’s story is looking specifically at the works that make the Anthropocene disturbingly palpable. As befits an event that aimed to engage with the space of the city of Riga, many of the artworks that delved into our uncertain future on this planet were housed inside an abandoned biology faculty. Invading disused buildings is one of the tropes of contemporary art exhibitions but the ploy worked liked a charm as art pieces that examined the many paths to the demise of humanity cohabited with a once grandiose entrance, musty corridors and desolate labs.

Here are some of the RIBOCA works that embodied in the most distressing way the many threats and dimensions of the Anthropocene:


Jacob Kirkegaard, MELT, 2016

Jacob Kirkegaard traveled to Greenland in 2013 and 2015 to record different stages of ice melting.

The ice sheet in Greenland contain about 8% of the Earth’s fresh water. Particularly vulnerable to climate change, the ice is melting at an accelerating rate not seen for more than 350 years.

The alarming phenomenon is causing a rise in the sea level, which directly threatens populations who live in or near coastal areas. It causes other secondary effects, such as changes in the global ocean circulation patterns and in the patterns of rainfall.

Kirkegaard’s MELT sound installation features recordings of different stages of ice melting, moving from violent sounds of ice caps grinding against each other, to trickling sequences and flows of water. MELT traces how water moves through different aggregate phases, from solid to liquid, changing the combination of molecules. You can get an idea of what it sounds like in this video interview with the artist.

MELT dramatizes and makes perceptible a phenomenon that affects each of us but that remains too often distant and abstract.


IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi, A World in Waiting (78°14’08.4″N 15°29’28.7″E), 2017. Former Biological Faculty. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi’s millefleurs tapestry (a pattern of thousands of flowers) is another work that reminds us, in a visually seducing yet disquieting manner, that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet.

The tapestry transports us into a dark future, when sea levels have risen and the human race is long gone, but the consequences of its past actions are everywhere. The scene is set at the current location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (the coordinates of which are in the title of the work.) The seeds that had been sent from around the world in the early 21st Century have sprouted in the warmer climate of the future. Svalbard is no longer covered with glaciers and frozen tundra but with lush meadows.

The carpet itself will not escape degradation. In the future, it might rot. The artists consulted with climate scientists and the people responsible for the seed program to identify the plants that would be viable in 2,000 years time. Some of the seeds of these plants have then been woven into the fabric of the tapestry, literally waiting for their time to sprout.

“Culture and nature are completely intertwined and even if humans disappear, nature will still be shaped by man, by humans, for millennia to come”, the artists told TL mag. “In a way, the Svalbard Seed Vault is a strong symbol of that. But what happens when those seeds start to have their own lives? Which kind of flora would be dominant from Svalbard in 2,000 years?”


Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013


Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013

Michael Sailstorfer demonstrated in the most poetic way the absurdity of using technology and human efforts to counter a natural processes.

In October 2012, the artist selected a lone tree alongside a dyke of the Rhine, in the Ruhr area, one of the most heavily industrial regions of Europe. Once the first leaves began to fall in early autumn, he and his team collected them, preserved them, painted them and then re-attached them to the tree using a fine wire and a mechanical cherry-picker. This painstaking task continued until mid-November, by which time the tree had shed all of its foliage and the leaves had all been reattached.

The entire operation was documented on film. The footage of Anti-Herbst (Anti-Autumn) was then edited to exclude images containing people or machinery. The artificial transformation would look normal unless other trees in the background didn’t reveal that something is odd in the landscape.

“The goal of the project was to reverse a natural process simply by using human power or effort; to use human labour to artificially revert the tree to the way it looked four weeks earlier – green, in summer,” the artist told Frieze. “In the Ruhr area, it’s really hard to say what’s nature and what’s artificial. Of course, today anyone can walk outside of a city and enter a forest, but even there nothing is truly ‘natural’.”

At the end of the project, the team spent 3 days taking down all the leaves again.


Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017


Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017

Katarzyna Przezwanska works in Warsaw. A few hundred million years ago, that area of Poland was located closer to the equator and covered by a lush tropical forest and inhabited by dinosaurs and other animals.

The artist collaborated with scientists and geologists to create a model of today’s Warsaw terrain from 200 million years ago.

After the mass extinction that ended the Triassic geologic period depicted in her model, life recovered during the Jurassic and the Earth became repopulated with the most diverse range of organisms that ever existed. These organisms then died and gave way to the mineral resources that can now be unearthed in the area: lignite and natural gas, and a major offshore oilfield in the Baltic Sea; large reserves of sulphur and other mineral resources include bauxite, barite, gypsum, limestone and silver; and rich deposits of salt. In so far as present-day Poland is rooted in its mineral economy, these resources are what remain of prehistoric ‘Polishness’.

Her hand-made diorama puts our short-sighted view on everything from energy to politics into the challenging perspective of deep time. It’s this tendency to disregard the long-term consequences of our decisions that have led us to cause tragic and unstoppable damages to the environment.


Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins


Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

After the Triassic and the Jurassic came the Cretaceous period. Julian Charrière placed a plant known to have existed during the Cretaceous period inside a hermetically sealed, glass vitrine. The plant has been shock-frozen at –196˚ centigrade by being dipped in liquid nitrogen and then kept refrigerated at –20˚C. As long as this plant from 65 million years ago is kept in this artificial environment and cared for by humans, its appearance will be protected from the forces of entropy and decay, serving as a bridge between distant past and uncertain future. The “living fossil” hovers between life and death, distant past and future. Its fragility echoes our reliance on non-sustainable resources and our arrogant attempts to dominate the environment, at the cost of disturbing its natural order.

Jani Ruscica, Ring Tone (en plein air), 2018

Jani Ruscica fleshed out the direct and unplanned effect of technology on other living species. His video Ring Tone (en plein air) depicts a digital recreation of a lyrebird. This Australian bird is famous for its capacity to render with great fidelity the songs of other birds but also noises made by animals such as koalas and dingoes. In fact, the lyrebird’s ability to imitate almost any sound, including man-made mechanical sounds, has made it quite popular on youtube.

Ruscica created a CGI animation that combines field recordings and special effects. In order to recreate the bird in CGI, the artist studied YouTube and nature documentary clips of lyrebirds. As with many bird species, the movements of the lyrebird can be quite robotic, somewhat unnatural almost, and the CGI, being a digital recreation of the species, only reinforces this feeling.

Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018


Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Oswaldo Maciá’s The Opera of Cross-pollination is an immersive installation that echoes Silent Spring, an environmental science book written by Rachel Carson in 1962 about the catastrophic environmental impact of pesticides.

The Opera of Cross-pollination bombards your senses with intense colour, subtle audio and defused aroma to remind us that the ecological drama unfolds in ways that often escape our senses.


Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016


Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016


Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016. Installation view at RIBOCA. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

The scenes in Julian Rosefeldt‘s In the Land of Drought feature scientists in white lab suits investigating the bleak remnants of civilization in an undefined, post-humanity future.

Shot using a drone in an abandoned film sets close to the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, the images give the viewer a feeling of alienation but at the same time, a sense of thrill, enigma and suspense.


Jevgeni Zolotko, The Sacrifice, 2018 (installation view). Photo Andrejs Strokins

I didn’t see Jevgeni Zolotko‘s The Sacrifice but since we are so intent on treating sentient beings as disposable objects, i feel like i need to mention the work. The artist installed a gray trailer outside the Art center Zuzeum. The trailer, normally used for carrying livestock, evokes the ones in which Latvians were transported to Siberia during mass deportations under Stalin. Disturbing banging noises can be heard as you go near the trailer, but it is unclear whether animals or humans are trapped inside. The ambiguity evokes the cruelty with which humans treat anyone they regard as “Other”, whether this other is another animal species or human being who has different beliefs or ethnic background.

Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015

“I’m not going to make it. I’m a loser. Not good enough. I’m cold. Exhausted. Thirty-three years old, fucked by life.” These are the first words of Mindy, the protagonist in Sven Johne’s video A Sense of Warmth. Mindy, who remains unseen throughout the video, recounts her alleged escape from the digital working environment and her new life on a deserted island. A Sense of Warmth catapults the viewer into a paradise, a life without exploitation, war, ecological destruction; in short, a life without capitalism.

A Virus Walks into a Bar. Or how art and science can infect each other


John Walter, A Virus Walks into a Bar, 2018. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester


John Walter, Hung Drawn and Circumcised. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

Over the course of a 3 year Wellcome funding, Walter has embedded himself inside the Towers Lab at University College London. The research center, headed by Prof Greg Towers, studies the molecular details of host virus interactions, focusing particularly on HIV-1, the cause of AIDS, and its relationship with the innate immune system.

The artist attended lab meetings, took note of the scientific jargon, asked awkward questions and learnt more about the research done at the lab. At the heart of his collaboration with the scientists is a study of the HIV capsid. The CAPSID is a protein shell that surrounds the virus (including HIV) and enables its transmission. CAPSID is a rather sneaky bastard. It protects the virus’s DNA from being seen and acts as an invisibility cloak.


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

John Walter, A Virus Walks Into A Bar (trailer), 2018. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester

You can see the deftness of the virus in action in A Virus Walks into a Bar. The short film (a new HOME Artist Film commission) uses the bar motif of British soap operas to depict how the HIV virus infects human cells.

The bar is the immune system. It is guarded by bouncers who refuse to let the virus in when he turns up in his big yellow zorb ball. They know he means trouble. Other customers are not so cautious. The new guy looks so harmless and chummy they let him buy them beers. Once inside, our CAPSID character fends off more resistance from other customers (who play the role of proteins and cytoplasm) and slowly makes his way to the counter where the barmaid is standing (she personifies the nucleus of the human cell.) From there all hell breaks loose….

John Walter‘s talent in expressing complex scientific ideas in an engaging and eccentric way is on show this Winter at HOME in Manchester.

John Walter: CAPSID mixes animation, paintings, textile craft, humour, pop culture and more to investigate the complexities of virology and the spread of deadly infection but also scientific language and protocols.

The result of his research is informative without ever being didactic nor illustrative. It is relentlessly bombastic, witty, seductive. And yet, it remains anchored in rigorous science.

I was lucky enough to attend the guided tour of the show with John Walter and structural virologist Professor Greg Towers. Anyone doubting the benefits of a close art and science relationship should have seen these two explaining the exhibition. Walter spent most of his time detailing the scientific bits while Towers was busy describing his own take on the artistic merits of the works. I don’t think the role reversal had been planned but it demonstrated how much two worlds that are academically and culturally presented as separate can gain from closer connections and exchanges.

Towers described how the artist’s sometimes surprising questions have led his team to question their own lines of investigation and open up new ones. Beyond the lab, the artist also discussed with undergraduate students, got involved in the lab’s science outreach programs and challenged scientific minds to think more reflexively about their own research.

The challenging process went two ways though as Walter used scientific imagery, codes and jargon as a source material to innovate and expand his own artistic practice.


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

Just like the virus contaminates the healthy cell, the world of science contaminated the world of art and vice versa. This contagion is further reflected in the whole exhibition space where prints cover the floor, stickers are glued on the windows to allow passers-by to get a sense and a curiosity for what is inside the gallery, wallpaper seems to interact with paintings and videos, etc. Immersed in this overwhelming assault on the senses, the visitor is led to question his or her own role in the exhibition.


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

Walter’s inventive ability to find new ways of expressing how viruses behave is truly impressive. For example, he experimented with patterned metal screens to signify the “uncoating” moment when the CAPSID releases viral acid into its host. He also produced 5 metres wide paintings in which Jamiroquai, the AGIP logo, the La Vache Qui Rit cow and other iconic characters of pop/corporate culture evoke the co-factors (particles that facilitate the capsid’s access to the nuclear pore.) There’s so much to discover in the exhibition…


John Walter, Innate Sensing Mechanism (detail), CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, Innate Sensing Mechanism, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

I was particularly fascinated by the series of Innate Sensing Mechanism paintings.

Garish objects such as plush toys and silicon foreskin (that’s when i learnt that there’s a market for circumcised men want their foreskin back) are glued on the compositions using pink adhesive foam. They stand for the defense mechanism by which a cell can detect foreign genetic material and kill it. Walter used a silicon gun to make sure that the invasive materials could not be rejected. The strength of these paintings (and of the other works in the exhibition) is that they stand on their own two feet, you don’t need to be aware of the scientific background to enjoy these mesmerizingly outlandish collages.

John Walter: CAPSID is playful, absurd, smart, poetical and often very moving. More importantly, it reminded me of the need to constantly refresh and stimulate public conversation around HIV. AIDS is still very much a crisis in some areas of the world. According to a research by UNAIDS, 37 million people are living with HIV, the highest number ever, yet a quarter do not know that they have the virus. Last year only, almost one million people died because of it.


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

And of course i need to go back to A Virus Walks Into A Bar and mention the onesies! The actors in the film are dressed in costumes hand-customised by the artist. There are 30 of them. Some directly echo Walter’s paintings. Others are covered in embroidery, patches, mini pompoms and buttons that seem to colonize and infect the garment. I loved how the silly onesies (no one will ever convince me they are not a bit silly) contrast with the white lab coats worn by scientists when they are interviewed on tv about their work.

More images from the exhibition:


John Walter, Cytoplasm. Part of the exhibition John Walter: CAPSID at HOME in Manchester


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter


John Walter, CAPSID at HOME in Manchester. Installation photo by Lee Baxter

If you’re curious about the exhibition, i’d highly recommend this audio tour of the show with the artist.

John Walter: CAPSID is at HOME in Manchester until Sunday 6 Jan 2019.

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

Extremophiles are organisms that can withstand such unforgiving conditions that they’ve survived every mass extinction on earth and are expected to be the first sort of extraterrestrial life space explorers might discover one day.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Geothermal hotspring, Iceland 2016. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

What designer and artist Xandra van der Eijk found fascinating about these tiny and simple organisms is not just their remarkable sturdiness but the fact that they modify their colour when their environment change.

In her research project Genesis, the designer studied their color properties. First she traveled to Iceland and France where she sampled fluids from volcanic hot springs and high saline ponds and isolated strains that produce pigments. She then collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen, to understand and eventually influence the pigment production of the microbes, inducing color change over time. “With Genesis, Xandra is hacking the origin of life, ultimately questioning who is in control.”

I discovered the work of van der Eijk a few months ago when she exhibited As Above, So Below at the Artefact festival in Leuven, Belgium. The research project explored the possibility to “crowdmine” stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals.

I caught up with the designer and artist to talk about space mining without going to space and about controlling or being controlled by microorganisms. If you’re curious about her experiments with colour-changing extremophiles, check out her installation at the Science Gallery in Dublin where it is part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate our future on a planet exposed to increasingly unstable environmental conditions. In the meantime, here’s what our little Q&A looked like:


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions.

Hi Xandra! For Genesis, you took samples from volcanic hot springs. They contained extremophiles, ancient micro-organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and also produce pigments. I found it fascinating that these tiny creatures produce pigments. Could you tell us about the kind of pigment they produce and how they make it?

I think ‘how’ they make it is a big mystery still, but these specific organisms have developed the production of pigments as a sort of defense mechanism to sunlight. The UV can get really intense, and the pigments are like sunscreen to them!

Why did you want to manipulate the color of these microbes?

First I wanted to show their mere existence and tell their story to the public. The organisms are so small, they can only be seen under the microscope. The fact that they produce color brought me to the idea that their existence would become visible through cultivating large numbers. In my projects I research the interrelation between the subject and myself, myself being a standing for human kind. I found an organism that would change color depending on specific circumstances, and I was curious if I could manipulate this metamorphosis.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

And how did you change their colour? Could you describe the work process and explain the kind of techniques and technology you used to do so?

I have no biology background, so I sought help to understand the ways of the extremophiles and well, microbiology in general. I found it at WAAG Society, where a bunch of great people were willing to show me the ropes. Together with Federico Muffatto I set up a series of experiments trying to isolate and cultivate certain species. And later on with Arnold Driessen of Groningen University I set out another series of experiments figuring out the exact parameters needed for color change. Different organisms produce pigments reacting to different parameters, so it’s hard to give one conclusive answer. But in general, the extremophiles have an ideal environment for growth, and when something in this environment changes, they may react in color change. Think about changes in water temperature, UV intensity or salinity.

Do you think that since they are able to survive or even thrive under extreme conditions, extremophiles could teach humans a thing or two about surviving in increasingly unfavourable environments?

Maybe! For now I am mostly admiring these tiny organisms that can do something we can’t. But who knows what we can learn and adapt from them by studying their behavior. I think it is a very interesting and promising field of research.

For this work, you collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen. Could you tell us about this collaboration and in particular how his feedback guided your own work?

And conversely, what you think he might have maybe gained from your artistic perspective on molecular biology? (i can rephrase that one if you think it’s a bit clumsy or too narrow a question)

My experience with Arnold so far has been very positive. There is a very open attitude in the overall collaboration from both sides. The reason why we collaborate is because he leads a research group focused on extremophiles, so we have a strong mutual interest. It has been truly great to find someone so knowledgeable about the subject, it gives my research a clear outline of what is possible and what isn’t, and what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s too early to say anything about what the project might mean for his own research, but I am lucky that Arnold sees the added value of art in general. He is even somewhat of an artist himself, he takes amazing wildlife photographs!

Why did you call the work “Genesis”? How does the work relate to the Biblical description of the origin of the earth?

It is called that way because we believe extremophiles to be one of the earliest lifeforms on earth, perhaps even the very first — maybe they even traveled here as aliens from outer space. The piece is about who is in control: human or microbe. In that sense I like the biblical reference. In many ways these extremophiles are superior to us. And it’s no secret that microbes control our decision making process…


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

I’m still hoping i can catch the exhibition Life at the Edges at the Science Gallery in Dublin but so far i haven’t found the time to travel and visit it. How do you exhibit the work there? What does the installation look like and how does it communicate its meaning?

The exhibition shows the very first step towards a more developed artwork. Working with living material in an exhibition environment is really hard, especially if you are not looking for a lab-setup. I wanted to recreate the manmade landscape of the salt harvesting area’s where I took samples from, as it is a beautiful and rare example of how man and nature can work together and both profit from it. It is one of the eldest manmade landscapes in history, and the process hasn’t changed much over time. Basically we still harvest salt like the Romans did — creating a large biodiversity in the pools. At the Science Gallery I show a grid of nine square glass containers, all with partly filled with the same extremophiles, but in different circumstances. After setting the parameters, the containers are left alone and the organisms show their response towards the parameters in colors and patterns.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

I’d like also to ask you something about another of your work As Above, So Below. I love that one. It’s both charming and very smart. The work is a research into crowdmining stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals. For the work, you collaborated with Kirstie van Noort to harvest stardust from the urban environment. How did you identify and collect stardust? How difficult is it to then extract the micrometeorite particles?

It is actually an urban myth, collecting stardust on the streets and from the roofs. The first amateur scientist who really proved their existence was Jon Larsen, and he has fought hard and long for the recognition of their existence. We were inspired by his work and took the idea one step further: what if we would collectively take the effort to collect stardust — what kind of materials would we find and could they form a new resource of precious metals? We took to the roof and the streets, collected a lot of dirt basically, and dried it out. From the dust we sorted small spherical particles and examined them under the microscope. We do not claim we found any, although the project shows a selection of specimens that might be, and one we are quite sure of. But we still need to find a university who would be willing to collaborate with us and find out about what we found. In the end, I guess we were most surprised by how much you can find in your own backyard, whether it’s from outer space or not.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

Could this practice become, over time, a viable alternative to traditional raw materials dug up from the earth at great ecological costs or mined in space?

I don’t see it as a replacement for large deposits of earths metals and minerals, rather as a possible resource for small quantities of precious metals, and perhaps even of materials that we don’t know yet. Who knows what role they could play in our technology, where sometimes only very small quantities are needed due to very specific characteristics of a metal or mineral.

What is next for you? Any upcoming event, fields of research or project you would like to share with us?

I presented a whole new research into chemical dumping called Future Remnants in April, which I am still working on and presenting a lot. It’s been nominated for the New Material Award. I am already working on something new that will be presented at Dutch Invertuals in October and of course I will continue my research with Groningen University. Many other nice things ahead, it’s a crazy rollercoaster of a life that I am enjoying a lot!

Thanks Xandra!

Genesis is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin.

Also part of the show: Drosophila Titanus by Andy Gracie.