In search of symbiosis: the speculative design of Fara Peluso
Published 16 February 2021 by Maya Minder
Artist and designer Fara Peluso speaks about deterioration, decomposition, symbiosis and running out of time. A novel approach to speculative design thinking.
The Berlin-based artist and designer Fara Peluso has became known for her explorative and speculative work with algae, adopting new approaches that connect biotechnology with research in sustainable resources. She collaborates with scientists in these fields to design hybrid artifacts, combining innovative techniques with novel esthetics to create philosophical thinking outside the box.
Cyanobacteria and microalgae are regularly found in water bodies, desert crusts, or even in photosymbiosis with other animals. They can live in a wide range of environmental conditions, in extreme low and high temperatures, high-light intensity, ph and salinity. They are capable of photosynthesis, using solar energy to produce organic compounds. Due to their rapid growth, they are often exploited by the biotechnology industry for cosmetics, nutrition or as novel material compounds. However, the use of microalgae and cyanobacteria can also be a suitable fuel alternative in ongoing anthropocentric discussions about the climate crisis. Algae may soon become one of the Earth’s most important renewable fuel crops, as a largely accessible biomass.
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I first met Fara Peluso during the Club Transmediale Berlin (CTM) festival, where she was giving a workshop on home-growing cultures of chlorella microalgae. The workshop contained a home kit to make your own chlorella food supplement and take it further with self-experiments. During the fully booked workshop, I was introduced to the diverse field of eukaryotic microalgae and cyanobacteria, as well as their various benefits to the environment. As one of the CTM highlights, she was hosted at the prestigious State Studio space, alongside exhibited art and science projects and the CTM’s music hacklab. Peluso presented her newly developed piece Living Canvas, as well as her collaboration with scientists from the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin) to create hybrid artworks that incorporate functional design, art and biotechnology. Living Canvas is a canvas made of living cyanobacteria integrated into a biofilm that can provide fresh oxygen in an indoor space. It was actually possible to sense the humidity and fresh oxygen coming out of the piece, which drew a lot of attention.
Peluso also challenges the ideas of human interaction and responsibility in regard to environmental issues. Her approach is related to theories of symbiosis and synergy, as expressed by post-Darwinian philosophers such as Lynn Margulis and Buckminster Fuller, as opposed to the neo-Darwinist ideas of pure natural selection by evolution. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Lynn Margulis struggled to make her ideas accepted by the mainstream of scientific discourse. Together with James Lovelock, she founded the Gaia Theory, an Earth system science that has often been criticized.
Mind the Fungi
Within this symbiotic design thinking, Peluso was invited for a two-year residency at the Art Laboratory Berlin within the “Mind the Fungi” program directed by Christian de Lutz and Regine Rapp. There Peluso was able to collaborate with the Institute of Microbiology at TU Berlin. Researching symbiotic species in nature and co-existence led her to work within the intertwined pathways of mycelia, algae and cyanobacteria. For her, those living entities are a breeding ground for speculative thoughts and ideation as novel approaches in design-thinking. She gained access to the insights of high-level biotechnological applied processes to create new materials. From there, she could freely explore the boundaries between cognitive and methodological approaches to art, science and design. All this resulted in the works she created for the “Mind the Fungi” exhibition at the Futurium—an art-science-technology museum newly opened in Berlin in 2019.
Fara Peluso and Theresa Schubert presented their research and results of this two-year residency and exchange, and translated them into interactive and immersive artworks for children and adults. The notion of co-existence is also part of Peluso’s research on materials, as she presented her work in bioplastic and biodegradable materials that combine algae and mycelia into novel biomaterials. In her search for renewable and sustainable design solutions, Peluso’s work is directly informed by synergy, symbiosis and functionality, including her research into biomaterials during her TU Berlin exchange. In ‘Zweisamkeit’, she juxtaposes two landscape topographies, one made up of oak wood and the other imitating the topographic landscape formed by this new material (algae and fungi). The installation creates a mirror between two natural materials—one occurring naturally and the other produced by high-standard biotechnology and molecular science.
Feral Labs residency
In September 2020, Peluso and musician/composer Bernhard Hollinger participated in Schmiede festival in Hallein, Austria, as part of their Feral Labs artist-in-residency. Peluso’s always symbiotic thinking approached this teamwork, first by working in a playful and experimental way, translating her acquired knowledge and practices to create novel biomaterials and produce a vinyl record with recorded soundscapes of manufacturing the material itself. She also became the source of the sound, as Hollinger recorded her gestures and tools inside the biolab while she tested various materials such as diatoms, cellulose and agar agar, to produce the data storage medium itself. Hollinger rearranged the sound samples into soundscapes and recordings. They expect that by playing the vinyl, the sound will be distorted through the very nature of the biomaterial. Meanwhile, the material will deterioriate as the sound is played.
Peluso and Hollinger are both interested in exploring how they can combine their respective work to shape a new speculative object that narrates future possible scenarios incorporating elements from both past and future. Vinyl was originally created from a natural material, shellac, and eventually came to be produced in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which today is the third most-used plastic polymer in the world. About 40 million tons of PVC are produced each year, and due to its material properties of hardness and flexibility, is most often used to build pipelines for sewage, water drainage and cable wires, creating a vast underground network of plastic. Vinyl records have been used for analogue sound storage for more than 150 years, compared to CDs, which have only been around for a few decades. Vinyl was the primary medium for music reproduction throughout the 20th century and was even sent into outer space in the form of a phonographic record pressed in gold. This classic invention stands on the verge of a transition from the mechanical analogue to an age of immaterial digital data storage.
The vinyl record made by Peluso and Hollinger will be transferred back into a natural material made according to the most recent molecular and biotechnological research standards. What will be materialized is a decomposable and sustainable novel biomaterial that mimics nature using high technology. It creates a tiny feedback loop on a meta-level: while the material’s deterioration evokes the passage of time and decomposition, the vinyl juxtaposes the two layers of past and future through the continuing thread of sound.
More information about Fara Peluso