Vanessa Lorenzo Toquero – Inhabiting the Toxic Jungle

From cyborg moss to bacterial super powers

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Formally trained as an industrial design engineer, I am currently a hybrid independent designer and researcher at Hybridoa and part of the biohacking community where I experiment with techniques to integrate the nonhuman it into my design practice, as an ethical and political obligation for thinking in the more-than-human worlds of technosciences and naturecultures.

I’m going to talk about my vision of inhabiting the Anthropocene. We talked a lot about the Anthropocene today but, for those who arrived a bit late, is a geological era that it is, to condense it in a phrase, about the mess we have done to our planet. Like in Nausicaa, in the Valley of the wind, we have now to deal with new ecologies of relations, ecosystems and toxic jungles. This requires new stuff to inhabit that jungle. New sort of objects, hybrid objects:

In We Have Never Been Modern1 Bruno Latour argues that “modernity” was never any more than an ideology that affected how we classified and sorted things. He explains that this modern dualism, witnesses the proliferation of quasi-objects or hybrids, such as gene technologies, thinking machines and ozone layers, that totally violate their own categories. Additionally, they have become so omnipresent that we can no longer deny their existence. From this argument, I assume that this quasi – objects or hybrid objects are meant to be approached with hybrid practices from a wider cultural context. As Dann Friedman said in his book Radical Modernism, designers should avoid a hyper-specialisation and see their work as a larger aspect of a cultural whole.

Today I propose 2 hybrid objects which I developed lately: the “Mossphone and the “Camera Obscura (& the Artefacts of the Invisible). The first one includes cyber-moss, the second one bacterial “superpowers”. Both work as an extension of our senses, a sort of interspecies collaboration in order to sense, perceive and express what all this Anthropocene is all about.

Most interactions between humans and the Earth are mediated through technological objects, often influenced by a dualism that separates nature from culture, human, non-human, thing nothing; They filter out a wide range of data streamed from events that cut across spheres: the biosphere, the lithosphere, the semiosphere, techno-sphere. This partial approach haunts our perception and requires new modes of abstraction. How to think the object then?

We need to flatten the hierarchical ontology between humans and non-humans (animals, machines and objects). We should include the other, with its otherness, into media systems with particular rhythms, codes, politics and capacities that would lead to more inclusive stories with an holistic approach; tools for more-than-human narratives. When an intervening instrument (aka media) integrates the non-human people, it emphasises their role to produce knowledge. We realize their agency, as Jane Bennet in her book Vibrant Matter describes as “the thing power”:

“not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power but Thing Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.”2

Suddenly things have political weight, sensing capabilities and memory to project us far beyond the Anthropocene.

How to design without human scales / beyond human standards of aesthetics? In the beginning of the summer I headed towards the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station located within the arctic circle. A huge environmental data farm and scientific “Big Brother” with an eye on the outer space, very sensitive to environmental changes. It is full of different critters streaming out data from the heights of Saana, down the fells upon the glassy lake of Kilpisjärvi. Critters, sensors and algorithms are stitched together in a sort of bionic layer that connects technology, nature, and people… and there is a lot of moss as well.

Could moss sense the Anthropocene? Mosses are tiny organisms with slow temporalities of growth which can decipher the secrets of life on Earth. They pioneer the land when glaciers step back, preparing the land to be refilled by a rich biodiversity. They act as a nexus between worlds: inhabiting extreme environments, water streams and skyscrapers hosting microbial life-forms that are proved to resist in the outer space. Because they lack a root system they are fed by everything carried by the wind including pollutants. Since the 60s, they have been used as biomonitors of atmospheric deposition of heavy metals in the Nordic Countries.

Combined with a satellite they serve to map their behaviour after an ecological threat. Equally, since 2008, they are used to monitor air quality in the facades of european cities. Could moss sound out those changes? When we first touch a Mossphone (moss with a cybernetic add-on), we experience a pleasant feeling of joy. Dipping our fingers into this humid pool of life, we enter part of our existence into an old queendom of resistance. Our body interacts physically and emotionally with an entity that silently keep track of this human mess.

A metal thread would be carefully sewn into, creating a resisting body, a resistor that changes depending on density, humidity and toxic particles trapped by the mini branches of the moss. When we caress it, the cyber moss vary its capacitance, altering the flow of electrons within the wires travelling towards the computer.

The algorithm will use this data to modulate a characteristic noise of the area. This media ecology enables a dialogue that would be performed differently at every location: Moss under the polar caps of Siberia, the mossy couch of Iceland, your local moss companion, moss in the immediacies of the nuclear reactor of Fukushima.

Environmental changes are often invisible. Some are trapped in complex data in scientific reports that nobody really understand. Some others are communicated below the radar of our cognition. The unseen remains unknown. Therefore we need tools to unveil it, to map it. As the hilarious Doctor Jacoby from Twin Peaks claims: “We cannot see it without a cosmic flashlight, but guess what, I’ve got one”.

“So, what’s on your mind tonight? You know I’m going to tell you what’s on mine. We’re sinking down into the mud. And the fucks are at it again! The same vast, global corporate conspiracy, different day! You can’t see it without a cosmic flashlight. Guess what? I’ve got one. Oh yeah. And its beam, it penetrates the igneous rock of ignorance. And there they are, exposed. Wriggling, squirming, crawling on their bellies like foul maggots. Frantically racing back to the cover of darkness that they so crave! We’re coming for you. Yeah, we’re coming for you! »3

Camera Obscura & the artefacts of the invisible is a DIY, biohacked, open source tool to make visible the invisible pollution. By merging electronic media with toxic artefacts, this interactive installation uses bacteria as non-human narrators of an ecological shift. I use non-human here, meaning that we humans failed telling liable stories about some of our damaged ecosystems. By shifting the narrator, we tell stories that are unspoken at a social or political level. We discharge a shirking society to speak up, confront the fact and to seek for alternative futures.

Based at the riverside of Lonza at the end of the 20th century and moved to in Visp since the beginning of the 21th century, the now global industrial giant had dumped between 50 and 60 tonnes of mercury along the Turtig canal between 1930 and 1976. The polluted sediments were then dispersed in the region. Mercury, as a good escapist, it changes its form quickly, it slips away and melts so it remains invisible. It is only seen when it makes a glitch in nature, a systemic flaw, a disease.

How to reveal the invisible around us? Biotechnology and biohacking could help here. In collaboration with Biodesign for the Real World and the community of Hackuarium, we sampled and analysed the soil and water in the area. We also learned how our gut bacteria could be given an extrasensorial superpower to detect the invisible. The “augmented” bacteria (or genetically modified) with a fluorescent protein eGFP that acts as an indicator of mercury, a highly neurotoxic and endocrine disruptor for all the people, humans and nonhumans.

What happens when the super E. Coli and the toxic artefact meet? Non of both are supposed to be there, or meant to cope with each other, so they produce a sort of sublime blink. Like in a camera obscura, a representation of what is happening outside can be seen by the public through a hole. The “Super Coli” will turn fluorescent in presence of different amounts of toxic matter, visualizing memories of the village from different periods. Bacteria are the storyteller.

Then, the camera turns the fluorescence into bits of black drops, that travel along the tentacular tubes injecting a proportional amount of black ink in a jar of freshwater. The more people come and see what happens inside the Camera Obscura, the more evident the traces of progress become.

Within the framework of the exhibition La Sémiosphère du Commun and together with Raphaëlle Mueller, we took this speculation further. We exposed two case studies, the one I told you before in Switzerland and another one from Tulcea in Romania. Both similar sorts of toxic jungles. Alienated landscapes that we approached by collaborating with different artists / researchers / scientists / citizen scientist. We realized that we not only need to research on the toxic materiality of the Anthropocene but also experience it. Reverse it, hack it.

By appropriating scientific protocols and developing our own DIY Open Source tools we also empower ourselves as citizens and explore the role of the artist / researcher as a social, collaborative, and political agent. Our strategy to inhabit the Anthropocene is to embrace our multiplicity and transdisciplinarity as citizen scientist artist and researchers so we can move forward as fast as possible from it; to create our own tools to allow other realities to exist, the ones in which we cohabitate with: alienated bodies, organisms, cyborgs and hybrid critters. Like Nausicaa, we embrace the toxic jungle and we create tools to inhabit it. To resist. To collaborate. To survive in the capitalist ruins.

I am very thankful to all the people that made this happen and contributed to explore this path of speculating with hybrid media and new forms of collaboration / communication with the non human. Sachiko and Robin from Biodesign for the Real World, Michael Pereira for lifting the tedious task of data processing, Daniel Zea for sounding it out, Rachel Aronoff and the whole community of Hackuarium, Mark Wettstein from the Makerspace in Renens, Anna Barseghian from Utopiana, Hackteria community, also the E. Coli from our gut, the fluorescent protein eGFP and also why not, the toxic artefacts and the moss.

Notes

  1. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993).
  2. Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
  3. Dr. Jacoby, Twin Peaks, Season 3, chapter 05