Category Archives: fake

Making It Up: Photographic Fictions

Making It Up: Photographic Fictions, edited by Marta Weiss, Curator of Photographs, Word & Image Department, Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

On amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Thames & Hudson describes the book: Presenting work from the earliest through to the most contemporary of photographers, Making It Up: Photographic Fictions challenges the idea that ‘the camera never lies’. With over 130 photographs supported by extended commentaries and an introduction, the book illustrates that, though we often recognize the staged, constructed or the tableau as a feature of contemporary art photography, this way of working is almost as old as the practice itself. Remarkable in themselves, these photographic fictions, whether created by such early practitioners as Lewis Carroll or Roger Fenton, internationally renowned artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, or contemporary figures such as Hannah Starkey and Bridget Smith, find new and intriguing relevance in our so-called ‘post-truth’ age.

William Wegman, Dressed for Ball, 1988

The photographic medium has been used to fabricate fictions and fables almost ever since it was invented. Spontaneity, after all, wasn’t compatible with the long exposure times that early photography demanded. It was tempting to use the new medium not just to document reality but also to carefully orchestrate scenes and even narratives.

Some 19th Century photographers composed made-up tales as a social activity, little tableaux were then playfully staged to reproduce moments from history, to shape family stories or to fulfill the fantasies of an elite that dreamt of living a “simple”, working-class life for an afternoon. Other early photographers elaborated theatrical narratives in a bid to convince critics and other viewers that photography was an art form as respectable as painting.

Gohar Dashti, Iran, Untitled, 2014

Today’s photographic tools allow for unplanned and instinctive snapshots. Yet, carefully choreographed tales haven’t lost any of their appeal. Story-telling nowadays comes with other aspirations though. Some artists use fiction to critically reflect on their medium of choice or to comment on current social and political conditions.

I grabbed Making It Up: Photographic Fictions because i had visited and enjoyed an exhibition of the same name a few years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The book is not really a catalogue of the show but a publication that expands on it, with more details, more examples and more space to reflect on the use of photography to compose stories. All the photos in the book are drawn from the permanent collection at the V&A. Instead of presenting the images in chronological order, curator Marta Weiss plays with themes and aesthetics and makes early photography converse with works by contemporary artists.

I found the book as eye-opening, entertaining and fascinating as the exhibition. Here’s some of my favourite photos and stories from the publication:

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting, 1972

Duane Michals’s sequences of photographs suggests a narrative. Two men in suits pass in an alleyway, exchange a glance and walk on. Nothing else happens but the encounter seems loaded with significance and perhaps danger. It’s one of the first works in which Michals addressed what it is to be gay in a homophobic world.

Henry Peach Robinson, The Story of Ridinghood, 1858. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When Henry Peach Robinson exhibited his series that reconstructs key moments of the Little Red Riding Hood in 1858, some critics found it charming. Others, however, believed that fictitious photographs like these were an inappropriate use of a medium perceived as realistic and truthful.

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

Robinson was also an early proponent of the photomontage. Fading Away combines five separate negatives to produce the intimate scene of a grieving family gathered around a young woman dying of tuberculosis.

Although the scene was imaginary, some viewers felt that it was too painful to be tastefully rendered by a medium as ‘literal’ as photography. The controversy, however, made Robinson famous in England where he was one of the leaders of pictorialism, a movement which promoted photography as an art form rather than a mere visual record of reality.

Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997

Woman Reading Possession Order, is part of a series of work Tom Hunter made of a group of people experiencing housing problems in his neighbourhood of Hackney in London. The composition, light and colours echo Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657, giving composure and dignity to the main protagonist.

Richard Polak, The Artist and His Model, 1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Dutch photographer Richard Polak built sets that reproduced the domestic interiors seen in the paintings of 17th century painters Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen. He then photographed actors dressed in attires typical of that time.

Yinka Shonibare CBE, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 11.00 hours, 1998

Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy series depicts a day in the life of a fictional dandy, from his late morning rise, to his afternoon business and social activities, to an orgy at 3 a.m. The photographs resonate with William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1735), which chronicled the squandering of the prodigal son of a rich merchant. Devoid of the moralizing message of Hogarth’s paintings, Shonibare’s work inverts the stereotypical roles of the time: the dandy is a black gentleman (a role played by Shonibare), his entourage is white.

The work seems to echo Shonibare’s own experience as an outsider who uses his flamboyance, wit and style to penetrate levels of society which would otherwise be closed to him.

The photographs required an elaborate production. Shonibare employed professional actors, a make-up artist, a stylist, a photographer and the director of BBC costume dramas for a shoot ‘on location’ at a stately home.

Tess Hurrell, Chaology no. 1, 2006

Tess Hurrell recreates in her studio atomic bomb blasts, space shuttle disasters and other explosions. She sculpts the scenes using cotton wool, talcum powder and string and then captures them on film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Glamour Studio depicts an empty stage set used in the porn industry. The photo is part of a series that catalogues architectures of desire.

James Elliott, Mary, Queen of Scots. A Prisoner, c. 1860. © Victoria and Albert Museum

As in today’s period dramas, the sets, props and costumes used to imagine and stage this scene would have transported viewers to another time. The tableau was seen in three dimensions through a stereoscope (the Oculus Rift of Victorian times!), making the experience even more immersive.

Inside the book:

Previously: Making It Up: Photographic Fictions.

Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas

Phantom islands belong to history and myths at the same time. For centuries sometimes, geographers believed in the existence of a number of bogus small pieces of land in the middle of the ocean. They described their inhabitants, narrated their discovery and mapped their position until, eventually, these islands were proven not to exist. Some of these islands were purely fictitious, often invented by individuals in search of glory. Others emerged because of geographical errors, optical illusions or confusion with other natural entities such as icebergs, fog banks or large pumice rafts. But even the most fanciful of these islands left their marks on sailors’ imaginations, inspiring legends and counterfactual histories.

Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018

Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018

Map of Scandinavia from Abraham Ortelius’ atlas Theatre of the World, Antwerp, 1570

Andrew Pecker explores some of these islands in Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, an interactive map that charts the music and environmental sounds of mythical islands from around the globe.

The artist gave an acoustic presence to pieces of lands that never were. As you drift from one area of the world to another, the compositions change and evoke sounds that might or might not be entirely artificial. The result of the multimedia work is strangely seducing and intriguing. It blends 21st century technology with the fantasies of explorers from the age of maritime discoveries and conquests.

The multimedia artwork was commissioned by the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris for Fourth Worlds – Imaginary Ethnography in Experimental Music and Sound, an online exhibition that brings together sound artists, musicians and theorists who speculate and reflect on the discourse of “otherness” that often arise from the ethnographic (and colonial) urge of circumscribing cultures as separate and geographically localized entities.

I got in touch with the composer and performer for a quick Q&A:

Hi Andrew! I found it very interesting that, on the website of the work, many of the texts that describe the historical phantom islands contain a lot of visual elements. One of them has a “column rising in the middle”, another is inhabited by islanders with their cheekbones perforated, another by giant man-eating ants, etc. And of course many attempts to find and map properly these islands end up with a ‘no sighting’ conclusion. So what made you want to give a sonic presence to these islands? And, more generally, why this focus on historical phantom islands?

Yes, it’s funny that the two actions (their sighting and their inscription on maps) that are responsible for these non-existent places having existed in a certain sense are both visual. Because I work with sound, and more specifically because I’m interested in composing music that evokes or constructs plausible (yet unreal) places by synthetic means, it seemed obvious to pursue my fascination with the phenomena of phantom islands by giving them an audible dimension.

Initially, I learned about phantom islands from my partner, an ethnographer who taught on the topic in several art education projects. I was (and remain) fascinated by the fact that these phantom islands are not fictions in the conventional sense. Event though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous seafarers seeking to make a name for themselves (or just earn further commissions), most phantom islands were unintentional fictions – the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking. And yet, these islands were in included on nautical charts and world maps, sometimes for hundreds of years. For the cartographers who drew them and the seafarers and laymen who studied them, they were as real as any other feature on the map and had real consequences for the people who searched for them, and frequently for the real people and places that were found instead. For example Davis Land, an island which was claimed to have been discovered by the pirate Edward Davis in 1687 off the west coast of South America. The Dutch West India Company dispatched three ships to the area in 1721 and though unable to find Davis Land, they stumble upon the previously unknown Easter Island. Their visit results in the death of about a dozen islanders and the wounding of many others.

And so, although non-real, these places remain irreducible artefacts of the early modern age. Something like hallucinations brought on by the high fever of European expansionism and colonialist ambitions.

Andrew Pecker, Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, 2018

Map of imaginary island of Frisland on the Arctic by Gerardus Mercator. First print 1595, this edition 1623 ‘s arctic map

How do you associate a historical phantom island with a particular sound? What guided the sound making process? The supposed location of the island? its history? its name?

It was mostly a process of matching musical fragments and sketches I had recorded over the last couple of years to the various islands according to what information I had about them and their location. I was interested in building up a network of related, sometimes overlapping, sound-worlds such that one would have the impression that the sounds of islands near one another share similar features and that the farther one travels from any given starting point on the map, the more dissimilar the sounds become. In effect, I wanted to add a parallel sound dimension of connections between the phantom islands that would mirror their own plausible yet impossible existence.

The crucial factor here is that these (non)places are presented and described within the context of the familiar map of our real world. That means that the listener’s/visitor’s prior familiarity (however vague it may be) with music from various parts of the world, as well as the one’s historical, geographic, and anthropological knowledge and/or assumptions comes into play in the imagination process. This quasi-collaboration between sound materials, text and listeners’ prior knowledge/beliefs (which always takes place anyway) is what I was trying to actively shape.

And where do these sounds come from since you couldn’t do any field recordings?

As mentioned above, what I’m interested in is composing music that evokes or constructs plausible places by synthetic means.

That is, I use electronic instruments to produce music with sounds that can be taken for insects, bird calls, wind, waves and other “natural” sound phenomenon as well as with elements that are reminiscent of ethnographic recordings (albeit of no particular culture). The sweet spot for me is when a piece I have made can be simultaneously heard as both a field recording and as completely composed, synthetic construct. There’s a nice correlation there with the existence / non-existence of the phantom islands themselves.

The Phantom Islands atlas was commissioned in the framework of Fourth Worlds – Imaginary Ethnography in Experimental Music and Sound, an online exhibition by Jeu de Paume that aims to question the discourse of “otherness” through speculation. Some of the questions that the show wants to address include “How does the( modern technology of field recording perpetuate a Eurocentric perspective of culture? Can sonic speculation destabilize cultural essentialisms or stimulate critical counter-memories?”

How did you approached this topic? How is this type question reflected in the sonic atlas?

In music, the idea of “otherness” comes into play when western music makes use of non-western elements – these can be sounds and instruments, but also rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structures. In popular forms, this was / is most often a matter of ornamentation whereby conventional musical statements are enriched with borrowed flavorings of exotic instruments.

This is what is generally called musical “exotica”, whereby the specificity of references made to non-western musics (and by extension, to the “other” to whom they belong) range between documentarian/ethnomusicological motivations of recreating maximal authenticity on the one hand to outright fabrications that originate entirely in the composer’s imagination.

There is of course lots of ground in between these two extremes where fantasy, musical practice and theory, and articulation mix in interesting ways. So it was against this backdrop that Phantom Islands was conceived. In essence, the project’s aim is to methodically exoticize non-existent places in order to make visible the process of exoticization itself. Trying to make productive the cognitive dissonance of obviously fictitious places (fictitious yet plausible enough to have been considered real at one time) the objects of an imaginary ethnography lets us hopefully see and hear how all exoticas are fictions.

Andrew Pekler, Tristes Tropiques performance in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Pavlo Shevchuk

Andrew Pekler, Tristes Tropiques performance in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Pavlo Shevchuk

One of your previous albums, Tristes Tropiques, is an album of “synthetic exotica, pseudo-ethnographic music and unreal field recordings”. I just read an interview with you in which you explain that a visual and spacial element is added to your performances of TT. For it, you used footage of various tropical flora Thailand. Are you planning to also perform Phantom Islands? And which images would you use then since the locations and existence of the islands has not been proved?

I’m kind of drawn to the “purity” of the idea of the project existing as a website only. At the same time, performing Phantom Islands could be an opportunity to try out some new (to me) formats. At the moment I am thinking about putting together something like a lecture-performance or a live radio play with some of the information on the islands read aloud and interspersed with musical improvisation based on the sounds I used for the website.

Thanks Andrew!

Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas was commissioned for the exhibition Fourth Worlds: Imaginary Ethnography in Music and Sound. Concept, sound and text by Andrew Pekler. Design and development by Flavio Gortana. Research by Kiwi Menrath. Produced with the Support of Jeu de Paume and DICRéAM, CNC.

When is fake ‘even better than the real thing’?

DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Matt Kenyon, Giant Pool of Money, 2016. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin, invites us to leave behind our prejudices when considering the simulated, the artificial and the fictitious.

“Fake” is a word that pops up ad nauseam in social, political and economic contexts. It is often associated with low quality goods, forged artworks, earnings of dubious origins, polite orgasms, Trump bombastic ‘rhetoric’ (or rather lack thereof), etc.

The curators of the exhibition, however, challenge us to spend time examining the multiple facets of the fake and to reconsider any assumption we might have about it:

From fake meat to fake emotions, if faking it gets the job done, who cares? In both the natural world and human society, faking, mimicking and copying can be a reliable strategy for success. When the focus is on how things appear, a fake may be just as valuable as the real thing. But what about replicating taste, emotions, chemical signatures, facts and trademarks? Have patents, politics, and art given copying a bad name? From biomimicry to forged documents, from scandals to substitutes, Fake asks when authenticity is essential, when copying is cool, and what the boundary is between a fakery faux-pas and a really fantastic Fake.

FAKE is your typical Science Gallery Dublin exhibition. It puzzles, informs, puts you out of your comfort zone at least once and it entertains you in the process.

Many of the dimensions of the fake are analysed and discussed in the show but the one that ended up staying with me after i had left Dublin looked at the ruses and strategies deployed by animals and plants to deceive each other. In the video recording of a joint talk they gave at the Science Gallery in March, Fiona Newell and Nicola Marples bring to light some of the sneaky tricks used by plants as well as human and non-human animals:

Fiona Newell, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Nicola Marples, Professor in Zoology, Trinity College Dublin talking about deception in the natural world

The presentation is absolutely fascinating. The superstar among all those creatures of treachery is not the human being but the mimic octopus, a species of octopus capable of impersonating other local species:

Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

Let’s remain in the company of cephalopods and dive into the exhibition itself:

Ryuta Nakajima, Cuttle 61

Like other cephalopods, cuttlefish are masters of shape and shade shifting when they need to camouflage themselves in the background. Ryuta Nakajima attempted to push the cognitive and interpretive system of cuttlefish camouflage patterns to their limits by decorating aquaria with computer-generated images of famous visual artworks. His installations shows how the creatures responded to art reproductions. The conclusion of the artistic experiment is probably that the cuttlefish didn’t see the artworks as worthy of any mimicking effort.

Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018

Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Robotic Frog Attracting Potential Mate. In the video a female tungara frog approaches a robofrog inflating its vocal sac. The female can also hear recorded mating calls playing

Ecologists can also deploy deceptive strategies when studying animal species.

Science collaborators Ryan Taylor and Michael Ryan were studying the túngara frogs in Panama and they wanted to understand the connections between multimodal signaling (using more than one sensory cue) and mate selection. Behaviourist Barrett Klein built ‘faux frogs’ (a.k.a. ‘robofrogs’) to assist them in their cheeky field studies. As the video above demonstrates, the artificial amphibians successfully fooled real female túngara frogs. When choosing a potential mate, these ladies listen to the sounds of the male calls but they are also sensitive to the sight of the male frogs inflating their vocal sacs.

Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017

Heather Beardsley’s collection of decidedly odd creatures proposes that we stop and reflect on the contrasting frameworks of museums and art galleries.

Museums use display conventions developed over time to communicate knowledge to a non-expert audience. These conventions convey the importance of the objects, but do not invite critical thinking. Contemporary art galleries, on the other hand, challenge viewers to think critically about the artifacts and decide whether or not they have any intrinsic value.

Beardsley lined up a series of animal specimens inside antique jars in a museum display. Some are hand-made reproductions of real animals. The others are actual biological creratures.

By installing these specimens together, the artist encourages viewers to question the hierarchical system they are used to and think more critically about museum displays.

Patricia Pisanelli, Stretching Cheese, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Patricia Pisanelli‘s wall of square slices of processed cheese makes us question the border between fake and authentic. How much fake are you allowed to use in a food product for it to remain authentic? In the case of cheese, the answer is 51%.

Slices of processed cheese are made from cheese (and sometimes other dairy by-product ingredients), emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, salt, food colouring, whey or sugar. If the product contains at least 51% cheese, it can be called cheese food. Less than 51% and the slices have to be labelled as “cheese product.”

Because there are so many processes and ingredients that enter into the production of these slices, they end up presenting different flavors, colors and textures. The artist chose slices from different brands. The assemblage is changing gradually over time. The colour of some of the slices is slowly fading under the light. Stains appear on others. Some seem to dry up inside their flimsy plastic wrapping. Others remain defiantly immutable.

James Shaw, Modular Mechanics Hairy Armchair, 2017

James Shaw‘s armchair is a bit maddening. It’s made from both natural and synthetic materials: ash timber, plastic timber, brass, real sheepskin and faux fur. I inspected it with great care and i was unable to distinguish what was organic and what was imitating the organic. Which sums up the reality around us: it’s made of real and fake. They are so intermingled, so good at imitating each other that we struggle to separate one from the other.

Finn Mullan, True & False, 2017—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Although it doesn’t deal at all with the organic, i need to mention Finn Mullan‘s Bastardville font because it addressed in a very literal and smart way the kind of mental association recent events have caused us to make when we hear the word “Fake.”

The font was inspired by a study that U.S. documentary film director Errol Morris made back in 2013. The research attempted to find out what typeface is considered to be the most believable, the most likely to convince us that a sentence is true. It turned out that Baskerville was considered the most reliable.

Broken down until it becomes barely legible, the Baskerville gradually turns into Bastardville. The battered typeface echoes the truth eroded in the post-truth era. In the Post-Truth age, no typeface, not even the most convincing one, can save the truth from corrosion and decay.

And if you’re curious about how typefaces can shape perception, you might enjoy this episode of Word of Mouth.

More works and installation views from FAKE:

Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present

Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Janez Janša Bottles, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Isaac Monté & Toby Kiers, The Art of Deception, 2015. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Unknown, Fake Fake Alien Autopsy Head, 1996. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Also part of the exhibition: Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’ and The Phylogenetic Atelier: Would your wear clothes made of the skin of de-extinct species?

The exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? remains open at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.

Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’

Animals that fake their appearance to blend in their surrounding and attract their prey, people who fake a delirious state of bliss on social media, girls who prefer fake fur (or ‘fantasy fur’ as Lagerfeld called it) to the real one, etc. Sometimes the fake is just a little bit more desirable than the real. And if you’re worried about animal welfare, broken food systems and the future of our planet, then fake meat, and in particular lab-grown meat, looks like the saviour humanity was waiting for. It will be cruelty free, greenhouse gases free and guilt free. At least that’s the promise.

Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Technological solutions like lab-grown meat come with ethical, ecological and economic costs that receive far less coverage in the press than the cheerful myths and fictions heralded by the proponents of the technology. As previous works by The Tissue Culture & Art Project have demonstrated time and again (from Disembodied Cuisine which pioneered the lab-grown meat practice to Stir Fly, a bioreactor designed to culture and farm in vitro insect meat at home), one of the most contentious aspects of tissue engineering is its use of fetal bovine serum as a nutrient for the cells. Harvested from unborn calves, usually by drawing the blood directly from the heart of the fetus after the pregnant mother is slaughtered, FBS enables the cells to grow and multiply into meat for our consumption.

There are plant-based alternatives to the FBS of course but their content and formulation is wrapped in IP claims, NDAs and secrecy. And if there’s one thing our food systems need almost as much as the eradication of cruel practices, it’s transparency. This fake meat lack of transparency is reflected in the language adopted by the industry: they talk of “clean meat” and of “cellular agriculture”, for example.

Besides, growing cells in this way is also grossly inefficient. It requires considerable amount of resources and engineering on several levels: replicating the experience of eating meat is not just a question of aspect and taste, it also involves the reproduction of the meat texture, elasticity, smell, etc.

Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

Vapour Meat, by Devon Ward and Oron Catts tries to unpack the growing uneasiness with meat and the murkiness that surrounds its artificial duplicates. The work pushes the discourse around lab-grown meat to its most extreme limits by imagining a device that would enable meat lovers to vape the essence of lab-grown meat.

Vapour Meat casts a critical and sarcastic eye at an industry typified by eco-opportunism and a love for the techno fix (why stop eating meat and consume plant-based proteins when you can throw a bit of science on a problem?) Ward and Catts see lab-grown meat as a kind of vapourware, a term used in the computer industry to design a computer hardware or software product that is announced to the general public but is never actually manufactured nor officially cancelled. Which is pretty much what is happening with in-vitro meat, a technology that has been described as ‘just around the corner’ for years. Yet, it remains unclear how the technology will be scaled up beyond prototypes or how it will comply with appropriate safety standards and relevant regulations across nations.

Vapour Meat is an example of what Catts and Ionat Zurr call a work of contestable design. Instead of evoking the desirable objects and scenarios typical of speculative design, contestable design submits to public scrutiny scenarios that underscore future problematic uses of a technological or scientific process.

FAKE: Faux or no? at Science Gallery Dublin

Vapour Meat uses this scenario to posit a future in which we reach for the fake and the technological in lieu of the real. As such, it’s one of the most interesting and curious works you can see at FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at the Dublin Science Gallery that asks if life is better when we embrace the artificial.

I’ll come back with a long and proper review of the show later on. In the meantime, i got in touch with Devon Ward to learn more about Vapour Meat:

Hi Devon! What’s in the vapour that makes it smell like meat? How did you develop this artificial smell?

The vapour is composed of a mixture of different essential oils, infused oils and spices. I used my home cooking as the starting point to develop the smell. Many of the elements are based on spices I use when cooking. Without giving too much away, the vapour liquid contains infused oils that include flavours like smoked paprika and cumin. There are also small amounts of essential oils including sandalwood and basil, which aim at a mixture of smoky and sweet.

Devon Ward and Oron Catts, Vapour Meat [HP0.3.1]alpha, 2018. Exhibition view. Image courtesy of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

On the one hand, the work might also be seen as a demonstration of the absurdity and excesses of the whole synthetic and lab grown meat industry that requires so much efforts, technology and artifices in order to produce proteins that could be found elsewhere, in a ‘natural’ state. So how does a work like Vapour Meat position itself within the fake meat issue?

You’re right, Vapour Meat isn’t too far from what companies may soon be producing. We may see ‘clean’ meat products that adopt sophisticated food presentation techniques to sell in vitro meat to a niche market. I wouldn’t be surprised if these companies create products inspired by Rene Redzepi or David Chang. For instance, labs may start serving ‘clean’ rabbit caviar on a bed of locally sourced arugula topped with owl mousse and a GFP-infused salt. And if a waiter served it, I can almost hear them saying something like, “this dish is a taste of our current cultural moment. It gives you the flavour of our biotech terroir, something lab-crafted and home-grown, at the same time. It’s a lab-to-table experience…” We may even see products that reference Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook. Someone might make a dish based on his Chickenfiat, a dish made of chicken and ball-bearings. The ‘Clean’ Chickenfiat recipe might call for in vitro chicken cells grown over the surface of steel ball-bearings served in a Martini glass while you sit in the cockpit of a VR flight simulator with LCD windows that display an orbit around Jupiter. All of this is to say that we may see elaborate spectacles being employed in order to sell ‘clean’ meat. The ‘clean’ meat industry wants to replace farm-grown meat with lab-grown meat, but it may just end up creating high-end products that only a few people can afford. The individuals pushing these grand visions seem to really gravitate toward highly technical fixes. This idea was dealt with by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr in works like Disembodied Cuisine and Victimless Leather. And, Oron wrote an article for The Conversation last year that tries to unpack the hype-cycle around the lab-grown meat.

Vapour Meat definitely builds off of these ideas. The way I see it, Vapour Meat is a critical piece that satirises the recent cultural developments around lab-grown meat. It attempts to draw parallels between the ails of start-up cultures and the ‘clean’ meat industry.

The name Vapour Meat was inspired by the term vapourware, which describes software that is heavily hyped in order to draw interest and investors, but which never delivers on its promises. In other words, vapourware is something that deals with marketing, speculation, ideal and utopia. The term seemed utterly relevant, so Oron and I developed Vapour Meat to explore the overlaps between vapourware and ‘clean’ meat. We created an absurd product that literally produces nothing but vapour, but attempts to convey the ‘essence of meat’ through smell and small quantities of desiccated mouse muscle fibres (C2C12s). The work seemed to critically engage with the big promises of the ‘clean’ meat industry—namely that it will replace animal farming and dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions. Could ‘clean’ meat theoretically solve major issues around animal farming? Sure, but I have trouble seeing ‘clean’ meat live up to its grand ideals. There may be a place for in vitro meat in the future, but it may just be another signifier of status, power and wealth. ‘Clean’ meat may just be a form of conspicuous consumption.

And why does the title also feature “HP0.3.1 Alpha”? What does this correspond to?

“HP0.3.1 alpha” comes from software development nomenclature, which includes a code name, version number, and development stage. It’s a bit of an Easter egg for anyone working with software. In general, because we wanted to explore the overlaps between software start-up culture and biotech start-up culture, the nomenclature was another way to communicate that connection.

The “HP” stands for homeopathic. We were unable to include in vitro meat cells in the liquid reservoir for health and safety reasons, so this reality became the code name for our project. The “0.3.1” is due to the fact that work at the Science Gallery Dublin is actually the third version. Vapour Meat was in development for a year and previous versions involved other artists, so we thought this was a fitting way to acknowledge their involvement. We labelled this version of the work “alpha” due to the fact that it’s still being developed further. Also “alpha” is used to designate “white-box testing,” which was appropriate for a gallery exhibition.

Thanks Devon!

The exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? remains open at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.