day two of Biochymickal Arts 2013
I'd like to begin by explaining the title of this workshop. We had several people comment that we have misspelled the name: it's not spelled with a “Y” and it isn't spelled with “ck”. Well, we intentionally used the Y and the ck, as they have been used in the early scientific texts, in the time when chymistry was a transition between alchemy and chemistry, a time when magic an mysticism were a part of how people (including scientists) explained the world. The edges between sciences, crafts, philosophy and spirituality were still very fuzzy. This was also a time of changing rituals, a time of demystification. While alchymickal crafts focused on communing with the powers of nature, chymistry and later chemistry began adopting the scientific technique: empirical, evidence based, reproducible experiments. Today we are in need of a different kind of demystification: of closed, proprietary systems, making them more open and accessible, at least for questioning, if not tinkering by those subscribing to principles of DIY and maker cultures. Furthermore, there is a need for a re-integration of rituals: arcane lab technique, with the more wide-spread gestures used in the kitchen for example. Perhaps even more importantly we need to find new metaphors that can work across disciplines and help us understand our topic of inquiry. Especially when working with living systems, perhaps it is time to move away from mechanistic models based on clocks, steam machines or computers, and towards biomimetic or biomorphic metaphors, or those used in cooking and fermentation; an example could be the metaphor of “growth” as applied to capitalism: is it a linear, cancerous, unstoppable growth, or is it more something like a spiral growth that happens in fermentation, where death and decay are built into the system to produce something very tasty at the end?
The second word in the title is “Arts”. Around the time when chymistry was around, arts were deeply involved in science, crafts and society. “Craftsmanship” was an integral part of every artist's training and apprenticeship: becoming intimately acquainted with the tools and techniques of one's art practice. When we speak of bio-artists today, or synthetic biologists, it is clear that we are only at the beginning of an evolving craftsmanship and a relationship with tools that used to be the exclusive domain of scientists. Secondly, the truly meaningful art is always about the wider world, it is more than just the craft or the technique. It makes us stop and think, or even just take time to observe, take some distance from the whirlwind of facts, news, requests, tweets, papers, events, technologies, and other phenomena we're faced with on a daily basis. Making and/or experiencing art is a humus for growing (new) cultures. Furthermore, in the words of Daisy Ginsberg, art can help science and technology ask better questions, rather than finding great solutions to wrong problems.
Terminology clarified, let's look at the flow of the day. In the morning, we'll look at the wider context, the background and stories of fermentation and biohacking. We'll be “learning about”, from Maria, Brian and Meredith. In the afternoon, we'll have a 4 hour Open Space workshop, with a variety of hands-on sessions to “learn by doing”. As you might all know, in Open Space you are the ones who propose the sessions. We have prepared a couple to make sure that the basics are covered, but for the rest it's up to you. In Open Space there is one “law”: The law of the two feet: you have feet, so use them: move from one session to another if you feel that you're not learning or contributing. There will be plenty of opportunities for sharing what happened, so you don't have to worry that you'll miss anything. If you need technical assistance, ask Rasa (Kitchen), Nik (Wetlab), Maja (any other spaces). If it all becomes a bit much, feel free to retreat to the library, we have a set of great books related to our subjects. We hope you'll have a chance to use them. One thing we do ask of you is to document, document, document your process and results as you go. Please keep track of what you're doing - something akin to lab-notes or recipes: what are you trying to do, how are you doing it, what are the results… Please write, take photos or videos… and put them online on the Libarynth: http://lib.fo.am/biochymickal_arts_2013.
Finally, I'd like to underline Rasa's fermentation methodology that might become our motto for this workshop: “Try but don't die!”
keep notes, take photos, put stuff on the libarynth
We talked and experienced the language of embodied gestures, that make up any craft and are a part of a vast ocean of tacit knowledge that threatens to be forgotten or misinterpreted, when it crosses into another culture. We've seen how an easy instruction to prepare slides to look at fermented vegetables under the microscope becomes a messy and fiddly task when we don't have the experience in our fingers, and when we use the tools that aren't quite appropriate… Or learning about the particular gestures used to streak bacterial colonies, or the magic of picking herbs before dawn, or stirring milk for yoghurt, not to mention the codes and gestures of the hidden fermentation networks in Japan, so similar to the secret handshakes of some of the European occult brotherhoods.
It became apparent just how much different terminology we can use to describe the same thing (e.g. to describe bacterial cultures added to a new fermentation: trigger, starter, mother; the brewers in Lithuania not using the term “brewing” to describe what they're doing…). The differences between disciplines, but also across time - Maria talked about how the Japanese craftsmen described their process in such poetic ways that it sounded more like a myth than a process. Or the scientific terminology used by Meredith to describe the “metacyc” pathway. While the language is internally consistent, it is easily misunderstood or even incomprehensible outside of the culture that produced it.
We talked about many forms of culture yesterday. From crossing continents to learn different fermentation techniques in Japan and obtaining Jewish bacterial cultures in NYC, to learning about and observing bacterial cultures grow on nutrient media, or inoculating petri-dishes with cultures from vegetable and milk fermentations.
We also spoke a lot about the relationships between culture and the environment. In human cultures, the diversity of environmental conditions of people's habitats influences the techniques and the tastes of fermented goods. Also, Maria mentioned that the relationship between the health of the environment has a direct link to the taste of fermented goods. In terms of bacterial cultures, we talked about fermentation as a dynamic process of succession of bacterial cultures who manipulated their environment to suit themselves, creating a monoculture and proliferating so much to literally sour the environment for them selves and die off (we humans should be able to learn something from this!!), at the same time, they prepared the environmental conditions to be perfectly suited to other, acid loving cultures - as we have seen when we measured the Ph levels and found that even the youngest ferments were in the acidic range.
Meredith described fermentation as a metabolic process, that as with other cooking processes eliminates bacteria that eat us, and proliferates bacteria that help us eat. Maria talked about fermentation being used for preservation, but also for intensification of flavour (or production of alcohol) - both of which can help us digest substances that would either be rotten or bland if eaten in high enough quantities and for a long time (the whole winter). Meredith talked about the metabolic pathway of vitamin C and asked whether we can engineer gut flora to produce vitamic C in our body and help us survive in harsh situations. Could we introduce them in our gut through an appealing medium such as yoghurt, rather than a disgusting mush of E.Coli? We ended with a lot of open questions, including when is the concentration of vitamin C highest in a fermentation process?
When thinking about the day, one word kept popping up: essence. From eating the tiniest pieces of the precious funazushi, to the Sisyphus' task of attempting to slice minuscule pieces of decomposing vegetables to make microscope slides, to tasting one clove of garlic fermented in tamari between 10 people, or Riita's three ingredient buckwheat bread. The all pointed to the frugality, gentleness and intensity in both fermentation and DIY bio. And of course, code or recipe as the essence, or source of much complexity in both food and software. We talked about the ancestral codes of fermentation wrapped in myth and rituals. The cultural decoding of funazushi as Parmesan in Italy and Roquefort in France. Learning how to follow and how to let go of recipes from Japan, Korea and Europe. The low-tech hacks of lab equipment, like Nik's inoculation loop made out of a paper-clip and a cork from a wine bottle. A lot of our work seemed to turn around learning how improvise.
brian degger, meredith l. patterson & general discussion
Very simple bread recipes (with yoghurt/jam): http://kasviksenabelgiassa.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/buckwheat-flatbread/
continued at biochymickal_arts_20130915