“Fabricated Foods” and “Fishbowl”

These works by Thomas Blanchard were exhibited as the Como Como exhibition at the Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe in 2006. (Como Como is a play on words, translating from Latin to “how I eat”).

These photographs are very darkly surreal in nature, employing the techniques of juxtaposition and decontextualization to make the ordinary appear alien. The combination of eggs, chicken’s feet and a glass fishbowl for example bring together the domesticating glass, the familiar food of the egg, and the grotesque reminder of the original animal. The resultant photographs are uncanny, with an initial sense of familiarity quickly overruled by discomfort. The modern food here takes on a very disturbing character, one that demands a reexamination of what is considered normal, or perhaps more accurately, not considered at all, when it comes to food consumption. On a conceptual level, Surrealist goals of undermining social structure and convention and allowing repressed thoughts to rise to the surface are very much present.  The exhibition page describes Blanchard’s work as follows:

Thomas Blanchard hails from Rochester, New York, but lives and works in Toronto. He holds degrees in fine arts, photography, geology and political science. His photographs have been shown in Canada and the United States. Reflecting his social and political interests, Blanchard’s practice is characterized by commentary, irony and investigation. At he is showing Fabricated Food, a series of photographs of tabletop installations made with edibles. The pictures are accompanied by information on the impact of globalizing the agribusiness, the environmental repercussions of industrial farming and health problems caused by additives such as the sweeteners and artificial colours that pervade the North American diet. In addressing health and environmental concerns, the artist seeks to raises the veil on the North American food industry. He is also exhibiting pictures from the series Fishbowl, which tackles issues including industrial livestock farming.

It is interesting to note that the photographs were not exhibited as stand-alone works: even as alternative modes of communication, the addition of traditional information was considered necessary to effectively convey the ideas present. The information given not only suggests the inadequacy of the images alone, but also narrows the possible readings of the work to a prescribed discourse- effective in the sense of sparking the desired conversation, but limiting the perceived complexity of the topic.

The food industry is presented as (negatively) impacting the environment, health, and global business, and raising ethical concerns like animal rights. Animals, plants and synthetic products appear comparable, pointing to how detached finished food products have become from their diverse sources. Problems, repercussions and impact make for a very imbalanced scale that wipes out the motivations behind industry changes: exposing the horror only. With this one-sidedness, it is difficult to imagine alternative models or specific areas with potential for positive change. This work deals with what is, but does not seek a solution or even an underlying problem.  Issues are placed with the industry side of the system, while targeting an audience of primarily consumers- a call to outrage and consciousness rather than personal responsibility or action.

As a call to outrage, however, this is a viscerally effective work. If one looks at an image that represents the state of modern food and feels an instinctual twinge of disgust, it becomes impossible not to interrogate why those feelings don’t normally arise when looking at food and whether they are a more logical response to normalized conditions. The images evoke a disturbed gut reaction, and the factual accompaniment provokes a reflection onto the modern experience of food.

Advertisements

Kitchen Semiotics

I was fortunate to attend a screening at school of Randy Lee Cutler’s video artwork entitled “Kitchen Semiotics,” which was in fact one of the pieces that inspired my interest in this project. Unfortunately, it is not available online, so most of the information here is filtered through my personal experience.

4257_KS_tomato_WEB

Cutler’s piece references and updates the well-known feminist performance art video “Semiotics of the Kitchen” by Martha Rosler, in which Rosler critiques gender roles by juxtaposing domestic objects with violent motions. The visual staging mimics a cooking show, with ingredients prepared and neatly in place and the artist facing the audience from the center of the screen.

The Video Out distribution page summarizes “Kitchen Semiotics” as

This durational performance video is staged in the artist’s kitchen where she proceeds through the alphabet consuming a food and drink for each letter. As Cutler samples her provisions, a voice over offers political or cultural information that sheds light on global food trends. Inspired by Martha Rosler’s 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen, this work encourages a critical consciousness of consumption.

Much like Michael Pollan’s experiment, Cutler is here grappling with the public lack of criticality when it comes to the source of their food. The call to critical consciousness borrows a phrase from Paulo Freire’s post-Marxist theory, which in turn is inspired by Marxist class consciousness.

Freire’s thoughts on modernity and critical consciousness include:

Certainly we could not rely on the mere process of technological modernization to lead us from a naive to a critical consciousness. Indeed, an analysis of highly technological societies usually reveals the “domestication” of man’s critical faculties by a situation in which he has only the illusion of choice. Excluded from the sphere of decisions being made by fewer and fewer people, man in maneuvered by the mass media to the point where he believes nothing he has not heard on the radio, seen on television, or read in the newspapers (30-31).

Returning to the apt phrase “critical consciousness of consumption,” this positions Cutler’s work as a call to action against the narrowed expert system that arises in technologically advanced societies. As in “World Risk Society,” the issue arises that explosions in available data lead to complexity beyond comprehension, which in turn trickles into a limited number of expert voices offering apparent agency in information gathering.

Cutler is directly confronting the limitations of the current media, and searching for an alternative voice, addressing the contemporary food system as one complex system amidst a complex world.

The alphabet format is effective because its tiny scattered chunks of information help build an image of a larger system by plain omission: there is no question but that Cutler leaves a wealth of information unsaid, no masquerade as a complete source. Different information is presented: Cutler mentions nutritional facts, agricultural locations, ethical trading questions, environmental impacts, future use speculation, word origins, and flavours all in same format, with no hierarchy or separation of info. This builds on complexity, suggesting depth in layers of the culinary topic as well as breadth of data.

Diverse foods make an appearance, including vitamin supplements, jellyfish, seaweed, grapes, avocado, and velveeta- at least until it is unceremoniously thrown offscreen. The combination of so many different foods in the same place at the same moment is a marvel of globalization. 

 

The tone and tactics in general rely on the authoritative monotone voice of the narrator and the citation of numerous statistics to lend a scientific credibility to the information. These facts lean heavily toward the negative end of the spectrum, presenting the modern food industry as a collection of issues to be grappled with. The Velveeta example- being thrown offscreen in place of any verbal exposition- clearly demonstrates a rejection of technological products. Chemical pesticides and genetic modification are raised as points of concern alongside the economic disparity between consumers and farmers of an imported product like quinoa or cocoa.

The setting of the piece defines its call to action: change begins with what items make it into a person’s kitchen. It is a personal message calling for criticality in buying choices, and importantly not limiting decision making to the input of a nutritional label but thinking about food products in a more complex and global light.

 

 

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Google books link (my source: VPL ebook)

To preface this source, it does not declare itself within the art or design field, but rather as a book that includes a recounting of a first-person experiment. Author Michael Pollan challenged himself to create a meal using only ingredients he gathered himself, investigating whether such a thing was conceivable in the modern world, and wrote about his experiences. To my eyes, this is the documentation of an experimental art project akin to Thomas Thwaite’s toaster project, attempting to reconstruct an item now made impossibly complex by modern systems. Also, the first-person diary perspective certainly sheds new light on the food system, navigating through the eyes of an untrained individual and his personal journey rather than the usual detached set of facts or findings. As a result of the book format, however, I am unable to replicate the source in full and have therefore selected some of the more relevant passages to looking at this work through an experimental, socially engaged art lens, taking some liberties in rearranging information by necessity.

So for an introduction on the context that has been removed, Pollan’s personal experiment constitutes the final chapter of his book. Previous chapters explore the prevalence of corn in the modern market and how that came to be, the life of a cow in the meat industry, and similar pursuits. Throughout is woven a combination of research and personal experience, with a storyteller’s attention to the expressive written word. Narrative also provides the structure for how the information is presented, which I have scrambled here, condensing together passages originally pages apart. With this in mind…

There was one more meal I wanted to make, and that was the meal at the end of the shortest food chain of all. What I had in mind was a dinner prepared entirely from ingredients I had hunted, gathered, and grown myself.

A “shortest food chain of all” provides an interesting framework for looking at eating in industrialized society as being positioned at the end of an enormous food chain- chain suggesting the larger overarching system of food if not its overlapping and intersecting nonlinear qualities , and containing eating within a purely biological sphere.

  1. Everything on the menu must have been hunted, gathered, or grown by me.
  2. The menu should feature at least one representative of each edible kingdom: animal, vegetable, and fungus, as well as an edible mineral (the salt).
  3. Everything served must be in season and fresh. The meal would reflect not only the places that supplied its ingredients, but a particular moment in time.
  4. No money may be spent on the meal, though already purchased items in the pantry could be deployed as needed.
  5. The guest list is limited to those people who helped me in my foraging and their significant others. There would be ten of us in all.
  6. I would cook the meal myself.

This list sets out clear priorities as to what is required in order to break free from the industrialized process and also what is logically feasible- the importance of gathering ingredients first hand balanced with the concession to use existing pantry items.Similarly, Pollan prioritizes his own individual efforts, strictly limiting the scope to a one-man job, but concedes he will need help from experienced others.

The second item of the list particularly subscribes to a devoutly omnivorous model of human eating, as well as a built-in assurance of not cutting corners by simply eating a garden salad or something common.

The third item is important in that it indicates Pollan is trying to capture a contemporary moment and not a historical one: an older style of food gathering but fully situated in today’s world. (This is unlike many similar works such as by Raul Ortega Ayala, who staged a reenactment of The Last Supper) This allows Pollan a degree of accuracy with engaging in the complex system of food today, embracing modern world factors despite the hunter/gatherer connotation of a return to an earlier evolutionary moment.

Foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99 percent of its time on earth; this is precisely the food chain natural selection designed us for.

There is a prioritization here of natural selection that implies the superiority of traditional eating methods by virtue of their having worked for a long time. One could add that human development greatly outpaces natural selection, and that evolution is too slow to best equip us for a technologically advanced environment. In Mariah Wright’s rice scenario for example, relying on natural selection alone does not equip humans to deal with their rapidly changing surroundings. Natural selection may have designed us for one thing, but that does not imply its design should reign supreme.

Agriculture brought humans a great many blessings, but it also brought infectious disease (from living in close quarters with one another and our animals) and malnutrition (from eating too much of the same thing when crops were good, and not enough of anything when they weren’t). Anthropologists estimate that typical hunter-gatherers worked at feeding themselves no more than seventeen hours a week, and we were far more robust and long-lived than agriculturists, who have only in the last century or two regained the physical stature and longevity of their Paleolithic ancestors.

From this passage, the contemporary revolution of the food industry can be traced as far back as the original ancient practice of farming, disrupting the common and falsely stable concept of a recent ‘then vs now’- considering very recent technology only as unnatural, and locating the ‘natural’ state just before the industrial revolution.

Why go to all this trouble? It’s not as though the forager food chain represents a viable way for us to eat at this point in history; it doesn’t. For one thing, there is not enough game left to feed us all, and probably not enough wild plants and mushrooms either.

So even if we wanted to go back to hunting and gathering wild species, it’s not an option: There are far too many of us and not nearly enough of them. Fishing is the last economically important hunter-gatherer food chain, though even this foraging economy is rapidly giving way to aquaculture, for the same reasons hunting wild game succumbed to raising livestock. It is depressing though not at all difficult to imagine our grandchildren living in a world in which fishing for a living is history.

This passage marks the current moment with melancholy nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, drawing on emotional resonance even as it lays out pragmatic facts of a food system tied to overpopulation and scarcity of resources. In this view the contemporary moment exists through an irretrievable sacrifice, an obscured sacrifice this art project seeks to bring back into the spot light.

My wager in undertaking this experiment is that hunting and gathering (and growing) a meal would perforce teach me things about the ecology and ethics of eating that I could not get in a supermarket or fast-food chain or even on a farm. Some very basic things: about the ties between us and the species (and natural systems) we depend upon; about how we decide what in nature is good to eat and what is not; and about how the human body fits into the food chain, not only as an eater but as a hunter and, yes, a killer of other creatures. For one of the things I was hoping to accomplish by rejoining, however briefly, this shortest and oldest of food chains was to take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals I eat. Otherwise, I felt, I really shouldn’t be eating them.

Michael Pollan here demonstrates an interest in first-hand experimental knowledge-gathering that recognizes the mediating effects of locations such as stores and farms and strives instead for a more direct encounter with the natural world. The goal appears to be a closer connection to and responsibility for a consumed product, mirroring Marxist concerns of modernism as the alienation of labour.¹ To rejoin an old food chain is an entry point into re-evaluating the present moment, tinged with but not overwhelmed by nostalgia.

The use of the term “basic” offers in one sense simplification, but on the other hand the proposal that such basic things require a lengthy project to investigate suggests that in the modern food society, even the smallest of concepts have countless threads and implications to follow up.

The hunter, at least as I imagined him, is alone in the woods with his conscience. And this, I suppose, points to what I was really after in taking up hunting and gathering: to see what it’d be like to prepare and eat a meal in full consciousness of what was involved… and recover the fundamental biological realities that the complexities of modern industrialized eating keep from our view.

Again, reversion to older practices constitutes a recovery of a natural essence lost to modernism- in this case fundamental biological realities. In this passage, the complexity and opacity of the system is made plain.The hunter appears as a romanticized loner figure much like a classic Western hero, granted self-awareness in contrast to the thoughtless modern citizen so far removed from the sources of their meals.

The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat. That’s not because slaughter is necessarily inhumane, but because most of us would simply rather not be reminded of exactly what meat is or what it takes to bring it to our plates.

Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream… For the most part our culture has been telling us for millenia that animals were both good to eat and good to think².

The modern state of the meat industry relies on ignorance, willful or not, which is here not entirely a moral question of inhumanity but also of simply avoiding distaste in people unused to engaging with the animal aspects of their meat. Vegetarianism is a choice accessed through increased knowledge and awareness, prime capital in today’s knowledge society. This new information must overcome a culture based on a now outdated relationship to meat production.This paints a picture where food culture lags behind food technology, and discomfort arises from the realization of this gap.

Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packages to look as little like parts of animals as possible. (When was the last time you saw a butcher at work?) The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there’s no reality check on the sentiment or the brutality.

This truly invites people to question how they eat and what facts they ignore during their decision-making processes. It is not a direct call to action but rather the presentation of ideas that would naturally prompt one, maintaining an informational and not preachy tone.The modern detachment of people from meat animals is cited as industrialized farming’s saving grace, resting blame with an event rather than a specific group, allowing for a suitably complex interpretation of cause and effect.

To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: Animals are treated as machines- “production units”- incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.

The perils of the modern industrial food industry can perhaps then be linked to outdated processes rather than innovative ones, with a highlight on how social attitudes and beliefs shape economic processes but adaptation is not instantaneous.

In a short section recounting the events of his hunting trip, Michael Pollan lapses into visceral, philosophical descriptions before the book abruptly switches tone with the implied passage of time and self-reflection:

Wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That’s embarrassing. I’m actually writing about the hunter’s “instinct,” suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial union between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I could never stomach the straight-faced revelling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground– a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect… In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have.

The inclusion of Pollan’s previous, disavowed writing showcases this artwork’s commitment to portraying an unfolding and imperfect sequence of events, allowing failure and change instead of editing towards a simplified and non-contradictory voice. This highlights how this work can be considered in the framework of strategic design- following the scientific experimental model to some degree but with a willingness to fail, adapt, and refuse a neat ending³. Set against his discussion of the inhumanity of the meat industry, the reveal that he enjoyed his hunting trip helps to tease out the complexity of this issue, and the massive impact that contextualized points of view can have. To see the before and after, one cannot help but consider that judging an experience from outside it is an inadequate measure, and that ethical stances are highly subject to environment factors. The honest, self-aware acknowledgement of his changing thoughts connect with attitudes the reader likely holds, directly challenging them to consider the stability of their beliefs.

As the rules suggest, the meal was a conceit- an ambitious, possibly foolhardy, and, I hoped, edible conceit. My aim in attempting it, as should be obvious, was not to propose hunting and gathering and growing one’s own food as an answer to any question larger than the modest ones I started with: Would it be possible to prepare such a meal, and would I learn anything of value- about the nature or culture of human eating- by doing so? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anyone else should try this at home, or that a return to finding and producing our own food is a practical solution to any of our culture’s dilemmas surrounding eating and agriculture. No, little if anything about this meal was what anyone would call “realistic.” And yet no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.

By clearly marking the questions his experiment was engaging with, Pollan resists a reading of his results using broad generalizations, hinting that he has only dealt with one small piece of an enormously complex system. Possibility and learning are the only two concerns, and the questions are open-ended. Pollan in a sense works with a notion of activity rather than agency as described by Scott Lash°, surrendering some traditional authorial control with a willingness to negotiate his experiment’s terms in the longer run. This also relates to the passage below detailing Pollan’s failure to achieve each point on his numbered list, making it less a set contract and more of an open starting point to be haggled as circumstances revealed themselves.

To call his bizarre meal ‘real’ indicates yet again the prevailing notion that realness and naturalness and a reversion to older practices constitutes something more than the diminished modern technologically advanced state.

Unfortunately this salt, which was a bit greasy to the touch, tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag, and required a chaser of mouthwash to clear from my tongue. I expect this was a case where the human disgust reflex probably saved lives. No doubt professional salt gatherers have sophisticated purification techniques, but I had no clue what these might be. So I abandoned plans to cook with and serve my own salt, and counted myself lucky not to have contracted hepatitis.

The admission of amateur inadequacy here enhances the notion of food gathering as more complex than first appearances might suggest.

I prized, too, the almost perfect transparency of this meal, the brevity and simplicity of the food chain that linked it to the wider world. Scarcely an ingredient in it had ever worn a label or bar code or price tag, and yet I knew almost everything there was to know about its provenance and its price. I knew and could picture the very oaks and pines that had nourished the pigs and the mushrooms that were nourishing us. And I knew the true cost of this food, the precise sacrifice of time and energy and life it had entailed. Some of that sacrifice had proven expensive to me, emotionally speaking, yet it was cheering to realize just how little this preindustrial and mostly preagricultural meal had diminished the world.

Except he’s not accounting for manufacturing the gun to hunt, the evolution of the cherry tree, the gas consumed in driving, the energy consumed powering house, the changed habitat of his prey, or any number of complex systems outside the simple interaction between him and his ingredients. To say ‘preindustrial’ is misleading, because social realities are always present, exerting influence on one’s actions. On one level there is the suggested inclusion of the climate change system, but to break food into the binary of industrial or not is an enormous simplification.

It’s impossible to prepare and eat a meal quite so physically, intellectually, and emotionally costly without thinking about the incalculably large debts we incur when we eat industrially- which is to say, when we eat without a thought to what we’re doing. To compare my transcendently slow meal to the fast-food meal I “served” my family at that McDonald’s in Marin, the one that set me back fourteen bucks for the three of us and was consumed in ten minutes at sixty-five miles per hour, is to marvel at the multiplicity of a world that could produce two such different methods of accomplishing the same thing: feeding ourselves, I mean.

As he begins to conclude his thoughts, Pollan summarizes his view on the contemporary state of food society- on that is incalculably complex and that we no longer face responsibility for.

He acknowledges the vast worlds of difference between fast and slow food, realizing the degrees of thought present in the consumer for each situation, but does not oversimplify in terms of one’s superiority.

The two meals stand at the far extreme ends of the spectrum of human eating- of the different ways we have to engage the world that sustains us. The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of the one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.

In essence, the modernization of the food industry can be described as incurring hidden costs, as the complexity of the system spirals out of possible coherent comprehension. Ingenuity and the increasing range of available products coincide with the inability to deeply connect with or understand food. The individual scope of this experimental endeavor refocuses the issue on a personal level, at its core calling readers to resist the ease of industry and really think about what they eat every day with a critical eye.

¹Marxist alienation of labour: the process of modernism by which people are increasingly unaware of their own world, for example a factory worker’s relation to a product versus a craftsman. In this case it is the consumer rather than the worker who is alienated, but the same principles apply: physical, emotional, and mental distance from the object.
² elsewhere in his book, Pollan describes this with good to eat meaning good for biological health, and good to think as a mentally justifiable decision in terms of ethics, taste, social culture, etc.
³from Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary”, which describes a type of good failure that allows a system to learn.
°from “Agency and Architecure: How to be Critical”, where Lash undermines the concept of individualistic, goal-driven agency as the only way to approach actions addressing a problem. His definition of activity revolves around Eastern thought, and the model of “you analyse the situation, and see what arises from it (8) “

Crop Constructs

Mariah Wright’s Website: Link

WGSN Article: Link

“Crop Constructs” is a speculative design project exploring the scientific and social possibilities of genetically modified food, by designer, researcher and trend forecaster Mariah Wright.

In the not too distant future a majority of the foods we eat will be genetically modified. In many countries, crop plants including wheat, corn, and soy have long been grown from genetically modified (GM) seeds. The growth in these patented organisms has ignited a global debate over the impact of GM technology on food safety and on social justice, public health, and environmental sustainability.

Many scientists point to the urgency of developing plants and animals that can feed the surging human population and survive the effects of climate change. Now they are asking, when, not if, genetically modified (GM) foods will become normalized.

Wright positions herself as a “trend forecaster” who works with a “future-focused design strategy,” and as such supports her work with the persona of an insider, sharing her vision of the future with the world with confident certainty. This page is on her own website, so the self-promotion motivational leaves no room for doubts or nuances- which may of course appear in the project’s original form.

In the spirit of this, Wright’s presentation of technologically advanced food production is unambiguously positive, giving a nod to debate but presenting the rise of GM food as the inevitable forward march of progress. By describing the growing process from seeds and as a long-held practice, she aligns the food with traditional agriculture and de-emphasizes the lab aspects that skeptics focus on.

The debate remains open and its complexity apparent, but Wright’s position is definite and closed. Genetic modification becomes an excitingly urgent utopian construct akin to the optimism of 1960s science fiction- even under the threat of enmeshed issues like climate change and public health- with endless possibilities and the chance for renewal. 

Crop Constructs explores the role rapidly evolving GM food crops may play in our future societies. By constructing future scenarios of ten of the world’s most important plants such as coffee, soy, wheat and rice, I examine genetic modification as technology set to redefine our engagement with the natural world.

Tellingly, natural and technological are not opposed but rather in negotiation with one another, dispelling the presumed argument of genetic modification as ‘unnatural.’

Scenarios

(Breadfruit) Fruited Rubber

The pursuit to replace crude oil has incited one of the most aggressive agricultural expansions in history. From soya to palm oil, sugarcane to corn, the global appetite for fossil fuel alternatives appears insatiable.

In this scenario, breadfruit, traditionally cultivated south of the equator for its starchy flesh, is modified by European biologists to become the first domestic plant capable of industrial scale latex production with the potential to end the continent’s dependence on South American rubber trees.

Why European? Perhaps the Colonial myth of the Western society bringing enlightenment to colonized territories endures, positioning the industrialized food industry as an immutably First-World, Western product. The phrasing of the WGSN article on the project underlines the national economic drives behind this hypothetical innovation.

Creating a national industry for rubber production, the plant will be designed to end the country’s dependence on South American imports.

 Such a nationalistic, pragmatic goal defies the world-saving design stereotype and adds believability, but in doing so perhaps rehashes regressive ideologies.

Latex_Full_2500_cIn this scenario, food, biological modification and industrial materials intermix comfortably, embracing their increasing convergence. The accompanying photograph of a synthetic, plastic plant underlines this lack of separation between edible item and industrial product. Rosy pink and black leave the tone ambiguous, much like the pop art it represents- the viewer must decide how they feel given space for both acceptance and revulsion.

(Rice) Toxic Territories

The recent surge in CO2 levels have not only enabled plants to grow faster but have caused some to produce excess levels of natural insecticides such as cyanide.

This scenario envisions a new level of food system transparency aimed to reassure potential food buyers of a product’s safety.

This is an interesting, slightly defensive reversal of current consumer concerns over the safety of genetic modification, perhaps a deliberate entry point into the common debate.

 Rice, which is prone to high levels of cadmium, arsenic and lead absorption is altered with color expressing genes to visualize its toxicity levels.

leaves will gradate from lime green to hot red and pink when toxicity is present.

Genetic modification is often criticized as unnatural, as a meddling in what should be left alone. In this narrative, natural evolution is the enemy and biotech intervention is the hero. It evokes climate change, raising an interrogation of the concept of food’s pure ‘natural state’ in an inevitably unnatural world- the alarming red colour does not appear if the planet’s toxicity levels are normal, resituating the invasive science element from plant to Earth. There is no possibility of going back to the idealized, pre-technology past, so how does one decide whether autonomous nature can reasonably maintain its idealized status?

Rice_Full-2_2500_c.jpg

(Coffee) Private Stock

Coffee is only second to oil as the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world. As climate change increasingly restricts the crop’s yield, genetic modification could afford companies the reassurance of a biologically branded product.

In this scenario, the coffee plant has undergone a renaissance, becoming an entirely designed biological commodity trademarked at every level, from the thickness of its flesh, to its distinctive taste profile.

The coffee plant will be developed to grow spherical pods that can only be harvested by its owner’s patented machines.

MariahWrightWebsite_coffee.jpgThis presents an unusual economic angle that addresses the luxury aspect of the food industry, expanding the discussion beyond the food-as-sustenance model and grounding discussion in a capitalist climate. Trademarking is presented as good for companies, but how would others be affected by this development? While these kinds of questions are excellent for opening dialogue and thinking, I would argue the project itself does not especially invite them through its closed scenarios and pre-packaged solutions.

Carnivorous wheat (emerging in North Dakota in 2040) will be developed, according to Wright’s design fiction, as an alternative to conventional pest control. The wheat will be able to detect insects on its surface, exude a sticky substance to trap the pest, and then absorb its nutrients.

California in 2050, meanwhile, will modify strawberry plants to grow their own protective packaging – cutting down on the chance of damage during transit.

These scenarios do not appear on Wright’s website. Both envision a streamlining of the production process, maximizing agricultural yield or the number of viable fruits.  As speculative design work, these concepts broaden GM food capabilities, but do not really engage with the conditions of the future that prompted or unlocked these scientific developments.

The wheat is perhaps more interesting for its engagement with the issue of pesticides, which are often lumped into the same category of GMOs for being unnatural chemicals that incite health scares. For this scenario, the modernization of the food industry offers the promise of increasing improvement, as newer techniques deal with the issues of the old until fears of food technology no longer have obvious risks to latch onto.

strawberries.jpg

This tidy set of scenarios follows a pattern: a speculative future possibility extrapolated from present conditions, for which a hypothetical genetically modified plant presents a neat solution. In isolation, each scenario reduces the complexities of the food industry to a small, linear cause and effect model, focused on the production, consumption or distribution of food. In context however, the project as a whole suggests new ways of envisioning genetic modification as driven by social conditions and sensitive to consumer demands, an infinite resource of technology to be used in innumerable possible ways. One strength of the project is the range of possible social effects explored, from altruistically positive to dubiously corporate-driven. The scenarios don’t ask you to imagine a better world, but to imagine another world, and prompt the GMO debate beyond the present moment:

Although Wright’s project is speculative and set far enough in the future to encourage open discussion, the ideas within it explore very present-day hopes and fears. Some of them are appealing, some of them are quite terrifying, but none of them is impossible.

This project does explore an in-world, socially affected model of experimentation, but falls short of the epistemic due to its freeze-frame confines. Time is compressed into discrete events, with no imagination of technologies developing while shaped by environment factors. The breadfruit is modified by a single group of biologists, the rice is altered in response to a single CO2 surge, and the coffee “has undergone” rather than undergoes changes. Further, future conditions are all extrapolated from the present rather than imagined suggestions of unknown unknowns, giving a false sense that the future is predictable and the food industry can work with that. Innovation takes on a magical, button-pressing simple quality with no consequences, compromises or unforeseen side effects- even when the designed aims of the plant’s capabilities are questionable- that ultimately weakens the discussion’s ability to provoke ideas relevant to food innovation taking place in the real, imperfect world.