Your project during The Politics of Food is looking at the ‘useless and the invisible’, what is it about the byproducts of society that interests you so much?
I’m interested in material production processes, but only insofar as they reflect our culture; why do we choose to use certain materials or energy resources and ignore other ones? How do societies organise their systems around their resources? When it comes to food we will have to radically change our system and our culture and this starts by inventing processes to use the waste. I would rather use the word ‘un-used’ than ‘use-less’. Everything can be transformed. But of course it is easier and more profitable to organise the market around a very limited amount of resources – we can see this with the choices of grains and the monocultures promoted by industrial agriculture.
What problems and issues have you faced trying to use un-used resources?
I recently co-curated an exhibition of design processes transforming waste into products in Iceland. We titled the show Spiritualism, Craft and Waste. Beyond creating value and improving the environment we are trying to find beauty and meaning in waste. It is essential to tackle hidden hierarchies in material culture and aesthetics. This is the same issue that Robert Smithson was addressing when he was exhibiting tar pits or piles of stones; what materials are worth working with and thinking about today? Shouldn’t something made out of waste plastic be more expensive than something made out of marble? Waste is also becoming one with what we called ‘nature’; what has been burried or shipped to less regulated countries is forming new territories the form of floating islands taking over the seas, toxic elements sedimenting in the soil, even stones, and animals carrying radioactivity. We are like 19th century botanists discovering this new jungle. But it all contains the potential for transformation. For example one of my favourite projects in Iceland is a small factory transforming waste food into energy.
For this residency you’ve been growing dandelions on the roof of Delfina Foundation, why did you choose this plant?
The rooftop dandelion garden I created at Delfina is part of the Dandelion Full-Use project where I am trying to extract all the possible products which can be made from dandelion; food, syrup, pulp, but also champagne and rubber and many many more. By limiting myself to using one single resource, in an almost spiritual ascetic practice, I found a huge variety of possibilities. Further, each time I exhibit the work I get more ideas and recipes: in every country, people are transforming dandelions in their own way. So the project is actually impossible because there is no end to human invention and I will never exhaust all the possibilities. Attempting to make ‘full-use’ of one resource also suggest that we can read our environment in a different way, overcome our ‘plant blindness’ and create endless variety within one single species.
You’ve lived in a number of cities, Paris, London, Berlin, now Reykjavik, but currently in residence in London. How have you found the food cultures in each city?
I will only talk about Iceland, as it is where I am living now. The Icelandic food culture is undergoing a revolution. After decades of relying mostly on imported food there is a very recent effort in the direction of locality; a new interest for farmers markets, a sourdough craze and some local shops selling organic products. However the crucial point, is whether these local food products will be affordable to a majority of Icelanders or become the new luxury food as in many European cities. I created a platform to reflect on food systems in Iceland and as part of this I am getting involved in this current debate.
While you’re here you’re also leading a workshop on mapping growing environments, how do you think this will help city-dwellers?
After visiting several allotments, I found out that they were affected by invisible factors; contaminated soil, potential of floods, rapid changes in temperature and humidity. This echoed with the recent scandals regarding reports on air and soil qualities not being made public. Maybe we should look at ‘official’ maps and environmental reports with a touch of suspicion these days. My premise is that allotment growers could self-organise and make their own tools to monitor these basic elements like soil, water, and air. Urban gardens are precisely the sites, where we can be directly in touch with the invisible elements. For me the most interesting question is what type of knowledge and technology is ‘appropriate’; there are emerging technologies like sensors, but there are also alternative bodies of knowledge like bio-dynamics, which can all allow us to ‘read’ the environment ourselves.
Have you found your research complemented by the work of any of the artists currently in residence or found while in London?
The residency at Delfina Foundation has been a very rich time for exchanging ideas and recipes with a very diverse group. The most precious thing is to be able to share our working process with others day in day out, with the doubts and the discoveries. I am looking forward to continue these discussions in a longer term.
Also, I was very lucky to find the entire collection of the Whole Earth Review in a second hand bookstore. Thirty magazines for three pounds! These ecological magazines from the 70’s and 80’s are amazing. I love that they have radically critical views but they also offer alternative solutions – and the visuals are out of this world. My favourite article so far is entitled ‘Looking For The Simple Life’. Isn’t that a great title?