I caught up with Lionel early this January to have a short talk about his experience of working at FoAM on the PARN project. Lionel graduated at VUB Brussels with a master’s thesis in quantum chemistry. Since 2011 he has been involved with the Brussels-based collective Rotor, investigating waste flows generated by building and demolition activities.
Lionel discovered FoAM at the beginning of last year quite by accident, and was at first interested in initiating a volunteer project looking at microorganisms and communication. He was excited at the opportunity to do science and research outside the customary academic context, and imagined setting up a small corner lab in FoAM where he could pursue a number of DIY experiments in microbiology. Since it was evident that his research interests coincided with certain dimensions of FoAM’s PARN initiative, it was proposed that he continue his work under the umbrella of this project, and he started collaborating with FoAM in this capacity in August 2011. At first he was daunted by the project’s scope and direction – it seemed so huge and future-oriented, there was nothing tangible to grasp as a reference point, and he’d never heard of things like ARGs. It was very far from the “scientific cocoon” of university, on the one hand, and his work at Rotor, focused on real-world social and environmental issues, on the other. “It was very strange, but I accepted this strangeness,” Lionel says. “If I focused on my role, maybe the rest was blurry but could be connected later. This is a strange job – let’s do it!”
His time would be divided equally between a literature survey and a hands-on experiment. In the beginning he was very enthusiastic about both of these activities: FoAM offered a venue in which he could further his scientific interests at the same time as share them with people from other backgrounds, and he found the opportunity to discuss science with non-scientists to be particularly rewarding. And there was the “emotional attraction” of FoAM – the space, people and projects: it was exotic because no one spoke French – and incidentally, gave him some exposure to the artistic and cultural worlds of the Flemish side of Brussels.
However, as time went on, his enthusiasm began to falter. The momentum of his activities appeared to lose tempo, and by November he was openly speaking of handing over the research to someone else who might be better suited to the task. What contributed to this loss of tempo?
Of course there were all the usual travails. After the first steps, everything started to take much more time than expected, and it became clear to Lionel that he would be hard-pressed to fit his activities into the timeframe allotted for his work. Due to travel, and then to interruptions of his weekly meetings with the PARN coordinators, his rhythm started to break up. But more importantly, over the course of the year he began to realise that he found it very difficult to work in isolation. He felt there was always an ideal of collaborative teamwork at FoAM – that he was always being urged to collaborate – but in practice this didn’t actually happen. Further, had hoped there would be more of an element of the “think tank” at FoAM, but felt that he couldn’t find it.
I was interested to hear if there was something specific to the PARN project itself that contributed to his loss of momentum – perhaps its overwhelming scale or diffuseness, or maybe its peculiar blend of science, pseudoscience, and speculation? And indeed, Lionel mentions that a large part of his research on PARN involved asking questions that were not immediately self-evident to him: “What is this project? And why?” Asking these questions became a research project in its own right, leading to interesting discoveries. While discussions with Nik and Maja were rewarding and helped form a picture of the imaginary of human-plant relations that formed the core of the project, they did not directly answer the question of what the project was really about – Lionel had to discover this by himself. Also, a meeting with American science fiction writer, journalist and technologist Meredith Patterson was a “great moment” which strengthened his awareness of the DIY world and the rationales for “doing biology in the kitchen.”
Lionel reflected that it was something of a culture shock coming to a milieu like FoAM from a French-influenced intellectual background. He is consciously a product of this intellectual tradition – which is rightly renowned for its culture of sharp analysis and critique – and felt that FoAM was not really a place for this type of approach. Though inspirational in the sense of being freeing, he missed the process of dialectical and critical thinking that is perhaps more a characteristic of academe than an organisation like FoAM. This felt lack of critical culture was both a problem and a stimulant. For example, while he simply couldn’t stomach the writing of Terrence McKenna, reading “Plan/Plant/Planet” – seminal to the imaginary of the PARN project – perhaps helped him better understand FoAM’s vision of PARN, and in the process made him reflect and refine his own position more exactly. Yet it also raised nagging concerns about the seriousness of his work – something which was never entirely resolved for him. It felt that there was no true recognition for what he was doing beyond the FoAM network: how could he explain his research to friends, family and university colleagues? He became aware that he was quite dependent on this kind of approbation from the “outside world.”
Even so, he came to appreciate that the context and parameters were different at FoAM. For example, with something like DIY biology, the emphasis is less on original research and more on actually being able to do science in your kitchen with the ready-made tools at hand. This realisation was cemented particularly during the Radio Mycelium workshop, where the difference between research in a scientific laboratory and DIY research was strikingly apparent.
While Lionel’s involvement in the PARN project may have reached the end of its productive lifespan, it has indirectly led to renewed growth. While working at FoAM he was forwarded a call for proposals for the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics award. All it took then was a bit of preparation, a speed dating session between research centres and artists, and a hour’s discussion in a busy train station – and he’ll be off to Leiden this February for six months with Living Paint.
And what next after this project? Lionel hopes to spend three months in Russia. Where else?