Exhibitions Explore The Notions Around ‘Life’ And ‘Matter’



'Life' and 'matter' are concepts very much shaped by technologies as they let us intervene and codify ecosystems around us. Here we explore six exhibitions that are leading conversations about the growing fascination for these technologies that are able to create life artificially and reduce the environmental footprint associated with manufacturing. A multidisciplinary, ambitious agenda.


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Programmes supporting innovation in bio design hail from every corner, encouraging emerging designers and artists to integrate biology and science in their toolbox. A simple definition of bio design is the engineering of living organisms to grow materials, blurring the boundaries between organic and artificial. This allows crafting more sustainably alternatives to traditional materials, replacing naturally-sourced materials for factory-grown ones, which is imperative as we face shortage of resources against a rampant consumption pace rooted deeply in late capitalism. And although bio design sounds quite a technical and far-fetched term—and in a way abstract too—its developments have been present for already a while, think of vegan leathers materialised in the marathon of brands releasing new editions of mycelium-based shoes and handbags everyday, such as Adidas and more recently Hermès, not to mention the new consortium of indie brands mastering the art of functional sustainability. 

But what happens behind the achievement of these products is a new world that germinates at the axis of technology, biology and design—a multidisciplinary pool of concepts that belong in different fields of expertise. As the market of material substitutes in fashion and design increases, the path towards a bioengineered future is paved, devising more applications, fuelling hopes for a greener future. The fascination for bio-manufacturing and cross-pollination is certainly palpable for it has become a recurrent theme of recent exhibitions aimed to explore the potential of taking control over life cycles. On the one hand, these exhibitions disclose how design is reimagining human survival and how we begin to reframe the meaning of ‘life’ and ‘matter’ within the scope of modernity, reinventing the boundaries between organic and artificial life. On the other hand, they reflect the need to heal our relation to nature by interweaving humans with nature into an everyday symbiotic process. A pilgrimage to the so-called ‘back to nature’, whatever the journey entails. 


So how are exhibitions framing the new cooperation between humans and nature? In a different post we have discussed instances of biotechnology in fashion and design. Here we discuss how six exhibitions, from oldest to newest, are igniting conversations around the use and application of bio technologies in the past two years, unveiling hopes and anxieties in the race to achieve sustainable systems and innovative design. Iconic centres for contemporary art such as Centre du Pompidou, Triennale di Milano, Serpentine Galleries, CentroCentro and Biennale di Venezia, and newer institutions affiliated to sustainability, such as Fashion for Good, are leading the conversation.

La Fabrique du Vivant (Designing the Living) held at beginning of 2019, is the third and latest exhibition of the annual programme Mutations / Creations launched by Centre du Pompidou in 2017. La Fabrique du Vivant explored the application of micro-organisms in architecture and design, more specially, the fine line between artistic and artificial creation. This edition was graced by Dutch designer Eric Klarenbeek and Brazilian artist Erika Verzutti whose works, The Mycelium Chair and a set of organic sculptures, respectively, were on display. Klarenbeek’s chair, part of The Mycelium Project, combined 3D and living mycelium which result is proof for the freedom and accuracy to design with these technologies at a negative carbon footprint. Verzutti’s sculptures, in a solo exhibition, displayed abstract embodiments of animals and fruits resonating with the technologies able to imitate natural processes. Mutations / Creations delves into the meaning—and even more the boundaries—of living organisms in an attempt to harness their natural properties for human applications. During Code The World, the second edition of Mutations / Creations, designer Alexandra Ginsberg and micro-biology expert Christina Agapakis presented  Resurrecting the Sublime for the first time. The installation was an immersive olfactory station that recreated scents of extinct flowers.

Centre du Pompidou has transformed some of its spaces into a laboratory for artistic and technological experimentation and what we have witnessed in their three editions is a more abstract and experimental insight into the world of bioengineering. Highly-influential art centres, such as Pompidou, are pushing to the forefront conversations around bio-technologies and their capacity to transform the complexity of urban spaces into efficient, environmentally-friendly models of manufacturing. Imagining a future closer to nature, in our own terms, has become the muse of explorative projects materialised in voyeuristic devices that summon contemporary fantasies. The Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, has travelled from Triennale di Milano to MoMa in New York, presenting 45 works that bind past, present and future. With a tone that distils nostalgia, design and science anticipate the loss of biodiversity and create strategies to help humans repair the relationship to the environment they share with other species. A journey that considers programmes for coral reef restoration and preservation of plants through restorative design.


A different approach to ‘Life’ is seen in Back To Earth, a multi-year interdisciplinary programme at the Serpentine Galleries. The participants of the programme are some of the most influencing personalities from different fields, including fashion activist Vivienne Westwood, ambience music pioneer Brian Eno, installation artist Olafur Eliasson, avant-garde Yoko Ono, to mention few, known for stirring public concerns about the environment. Back To Earth thinks of ecology as an intrinsic element bind to our everyday life and it aims to catalyse change by presenting interconnected research in different formats—podcasts, campaigns, installations, films—such as Westwood’s campaign SWITCH. The programme emerges out of the Serpentine’s long-standing engagement with the topics of extinction and the disappearance of species, and while it scrutinises our relation to materials and environments through innovative design, it also serves as a platform to lead collective action towards debunking archaic systems and institutions that foster environmental and social degradation.

While Back To Earth contributes to the conversation by enabling action through more traditional forms of communication and art, prompting the audience to take a step back and question both novelties and personal beliefs, Materia Gris offers an insight into materials that have been developed so far, which let us see its applications in design. Materia Gris was held in the intercultural space CentroCentro in Madrid until earlier this month. The exhibition compiled the work of architects, artists, biologists, engineers and botanists who crafted products using leathers made of algae, apple waste, corn, kombucha, mushroom, coffee, insects, among others. In a way, Materia Gris did not only present a wide variety of ready-made products based on biomaterials, but it also addressed the challenges in scaling them to eliminate unsustainable materials. The exhibition was epitomised in the “Materials Narratives (by Elisava): from experimentation to market,” an archive of materials generated by the platform Elisava Materials Narratives. Materia Gris has extensively illustrated how designers are in a critical apogee of shifting to a new material era and redirecting the use of resources.

Following suit, the Amsterdam-based hub for sustainability Fashion for Good has just launched GROW, a programme led by six talents who are experimenting with biomaterials and the discourse around them. The talents have been chosen by the jury formed by designers Iris Van Herpen and Daan Roosegaarde, BOTTER and Nina Ricci’s creative directors Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh, and Vogue Netherlands’ editor in chief Rinke Tjepkema. The jury, along other mentors, will guide the participants in their explorative journey. The final results—a mix between products and written essays—next to Dutch proud Iris Van Herpen’s silk-like dress made of Orange Fibre, will be exhibited at the Fashion for Good museum in October. The focus of GROW is the one to link the fashion industry to elements and processes found in nature, which are currently undermined by late capitalism, and littered by fast fashion. In doing so, it plans to exhibit fashion garments using textiles based on cork, corn, coconut, banana and orange peels—a different application from Materia Gris, in which organic fibres have been applied in interior design.


Different from the exhibitions stated above, Bit.Bio.Bot takes a stance in showcasing a type of architecture that integrates microbiology and advocates for human health. London-based EcoLogicStudio, the designers of the exhibition, offer an insight into how city dwellers could harvest algae to purify the air, decrease the levels of carbon dioxide, and gain a sustainable food source. The different applications of algae are curated in three units: walls covered with algae show how they can act as air purifiers; vertical gardens cultivate algae-based nutritious food supplement—spirulina and chlorella; and a third pillar displays harvests of fresh algae that can be consumed right away. Likewise, EcoLogicStudio takes the occasion to present their latest product, the BioBombola, a DIY edible algae kit that can be grown at home and in urban facilities which, according to the creators, one kit can produce enough protein for a family of four, and it can absorb as much carbon dioxide as three large mature trees. In that way, Bit.Bio.Bot suggests that microorganisms can be adopted for both commercial and domestic usage. The exhibition is currently on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale until November 11th. In a different post we feature the work of Violaine Buet, an artist that crafts textiles with algae.


“Cities are evolving into intelligent super-organisms and shall become capable of searching for opportunities of co-evolution within the urban sphere, both for their human and non-human citizens." Claudia Pasquero, co-founder of EcoLogicStudio.


These centres are showing trans and multidisciplinary work. They are at the front of communicating experimentation and research between all artistic expressions. Such exhibitions are not only bringing new hybrid forms of art, interwoven by science and technology, but they are also framing the way we look at and understand the potential that nonhuman living organisms play in climate change. These exhibitions are reimagining the future in terms of bioengineer, by turning such abstract concepts into palpable experiences that can be understood and endorsed by wider audiences.

As Claudia Pasquero, from EcoLogicStudio indicates, we are in an explorative phase in which we are prompted to use ecosystems to foster new agencies within those ecosystems. Worldwide cultural institutions are opening spaces in which art, innovation and science dialogue, presenting co-evolutionary opportunities for human and nonhuman organisms live together. So while innovations in materials occur and we shift towards a new era based on bio-manufacturing, cultural centres are key to circulate these innovations, igniting debates and nonetheless, aligning popular ideologies.



 +  Words: Alejandra Espinosa, Luxiders Magazine Editor

Liberal Arts graduate | Berlin-based writer

Connect with her through alejandraespinosa.site