How can we engage with and rewrite the narratives of our future, by looking at climate change, the human impact on ecosystems, and biotechnology? For the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Planetary Glitch« curated by Mary Maggic, the artist Tiare Ribeaux proposed the project titled Bioplastics Cookbook for Ritual Healing from Petrochemical Landscapes, in which Ribeaux examines life and rapidly changing environments as a complex system with the tools of biotechnology. Coming from an art and science background, Ribeaux fabricates an alternative present/near future – creating bioplastics, sharing those recipes, for creating speculative environments of remediation and hybrid indoor and outdoor laboratories, and healing the earth. She asks: »how can we move toward more intentional multispecies and symbiotic futures?«
Schlosspost: Bioplastics Cookbook for Ritual Healing from Petrochemical Landscapes, the project you are working on for the web residencies, is part of larger artistic research on bioplastics and cyanobacteria, in which you use the tools of biotechnology to look deeply into life as complex systems on micro and macro scales of a rapidly changing environment. Where did this interest come from, and what can we understand as »bioart«?
Tiare Ribeaux: I’ve been interested in using the tools of biotechnology to engage with deeper narratives, in this case, looking at climate change, the ecosystem’s human impact, and how we can move toward more intentional multispecies and symbiotic futures. I’ve worked as an artist for more than a decade, but I also worked for a stint in biotechnology, super-growing algae to convert to biodiesel in Hawai’i (where I am from), and as research intern studying harmful algal blooms off the coast of Puget Sound. I was always interested in combining my background in both art and biology, and during a recent artist fellowship in Ukraine, I was drawn again to the landscape of algal blooms, this time in the Dnipro River, where there is a proliferation of algal blooms of cyanobacteria that create »toxic« environments. In my research, I found that inland algal blooms are caused primarily by human development and pollution – we are the toxic components – and we need to recognize these entanglements. During my fellowship I collaborated with the Krolikowski Art duo, where we began to use visual storytelling to place myself into the polluted landscape as a scientist in an alternative present/near future, creating speculative environments of remediation and hybrid outdoor laboratories. We also took microscopy imagery and video of microorganisms that lived in the water among the cyanobacteria. I’ve incorporated this footage into a larger project and short film that has grown out of this theme called Cyanovisions. This project moves beyond correlations of natural and sterile engineered forms and imagines the human body and the cyanobacteria merging membranes, genes, and metabolisms.
I think bioart is the most exciting space to be creating work in the contemporary art world today. Bioart uses living organisms or once living organisms as material for art making, or in collaboration with other organisms, and sometimes involves the tools of biotechnology, transgenics, and genetic engineering – to prod into, critique, and speculate on these technologies – and the bioethics, societal, and cultural repercussions of these technologies. I think Kirksey and Helmreich summed it up well: »If Foucault understood biopolitics as the disciplinary forms for the optimization, coercion, and control of biology, then bioart organizes itself around them to divert, derail, or expose those domination regimes and life management systems.«
Schlosspost: Can you observe a special interest in bioart and biotechnology within the East Bay art community that you are part of?
TR: A lot of biotech companies and startups are in the Bay Area, such as Genentech and 23andMe. CRISPR, the revolutionary gene editing mechanism that naturally exists within bacteria, was discovered by Jennifer Doudna and her team in Berkeley; and there is the ODIN, the first company to sell DIY CRISPR kits online, based out of Oakland. There is also a biohacking space called Counter Culture Labs. I am a part of that community and lead an art-science program. Because this biotechnological landscape makes up a large part of the Bay Area, I feel it is an important and necessary topic to create work around and critique it through the lens of art. The Bay Area has been home to a lot of experimentation and cross-pollination within arts and technology, so it feels natural to be working within this space here; it is prime ground to explore these bigger themes and issues. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of bioartists in the Bay Area, but there is a growing scene emerging within this multilayered landscape.
»Yes, it is a mutant world, Gaia is a hot mess, and we are a part of Gaia so we are existing deep within that. But the only way to be alive during this time is to live ecstatically. For me, that involves making art about entangled ecologies, learning from other organisms, and sometimes rolling in the dirt and putting bioplastics on my body.«
Schlosspost: The online DIY recipe and storybook aims to refigure materials and methods for radically remaking the historically dominant petrochemically derived plastic materials that we use in our everyday lives. Where did this idea start and why did you choose the format of a cookbook to address this topic?
TR: I was inspired by a few different cookbooks, especially the Additivist Cookbook, which looks into 3D printing and other technologies (or »reverse-engineering these technologies«) as a tactic to subvert and refigure petrochemical plastics and other systemic social and cultural issues through curated projects involving material activisms, speculative imaginings, critical texts, and more.
In a similar spirit, I wanted to create a cookbook of recipes for new materials, especially alternatives to petrochemical plastics, and interweave stories and research; and in the spirit of both the Additivist and Anarchist cookbook, include ecophilosophical approaches to making, and a manifesto (still in the works). I think in the spirit of DIY culture, radical accessibility and punk ethos – the zine has become a website – as it is accessible by all, so a cookbook as a website with open-source protocols with multispecies science, with fact and fiction, seemed like the perfect fit.
Schlosspost: Bioplastics stand in the center of the project – what is the characteristic of this new materiality and in what way could it shift/refigure our current material relationships?
TR: The materials of bioplastics is one we can engage with directly by reclaiming the processes of making in the kitchen – it’s very accessible, anyone could source the ingredients from anywhere. You get your hands a bit slimy as you mix and cook and pour the ingredients, watching as they transmute from solid to liquid to solid again. Bioplastics also are not static – they have a constantly changing materiality, once poured and set – they shrink, sometimes warp or crack, and change color over time. They take on a life of their own that we form a kinship with in the process of making. My bioplastics have become precious to me as I made them with my hands, and have been involved in the process – a much different relationship than that of petrochemical plastic bought or consumed for a one-time use, created cheaply in a factory without care. Also bioplastics can be cooked back down, remolded, reshaped, so there are transmutative qualities of the material you can engage with – to keep the material »alive« Or you could compost them.
Schlosspost: The book will also interweave stories and images about mythologies, about humans and nonhumans, and other multispecies entanglements. Can you explain us the concept of storytelling and the visual narrative within the cookbook?
TR: I learned a lot of recipes on how to create bioplastics primarily online, but what I felt was missing from all of them was a deeper narrative that examined the complex landscapes of plastics – where they come from originally, how the environment, soil/earth, and other species are affected by plastic and plastic microparticles in the world. From this place, I wanted to create a more multilayered series that interweaves both protocols and storytelling, as I feel that the only way to move forward in healing the earth is to recognize our entanglements with both the materiality of earth and how we are constantly engaged with it and other species.
Schlosspost: Could you explain how, food, bioplastics, the planet and multispecies are connected as elements in the Bioplastics Cookbook for Ritual Healing from Petrochemical Landscapes and how it engages with the threshold of science fact and science fiction?
TR: In the online Cookbook, you are offered a series of portals/pages you can click into, a series of »chapters.« Here you will find recipes to different food or animal based bioplastics outlining information about what kind of biopolymers they are and how their intermolecular bonds break down. Other chapters involve different species such as wax worms and Ideonella sakaiensis bacteria that break down PET plastics. So there is actual scientific and factual knowledge in some of the chapters. Other chapters go into a more speculative realm (or both scientific and speculative) where for instance, it discusses how Giant Larvaceans filter microplastics from the deep sea and asks how we can be inspired to design our clothing and architectures differently, based on these mucus structures that the Larvaceans build. Another chapter looks at Plastiglomerate and parallels with the Hawaiian goddess Pele – and imagines how there can be spirituality within the new techno-geological layer of earth entangled with more ancient spiritualities and mythologies. I want people to explore both forms of making and storytelling that go beyond the kitchen/laboratory and extend into new realms of existing in the world – hybrid forms; part plant and animal – in our built structures and on (or in) our bodies. I’m interested in storytelling that allows for a becoming; with our environment, as we make materials that live in it, that are potentially alive and inspired by other living creatures.
Schlosspost: The project aims to create a space for ritual healing, while transforming the poisoning of earth into material rituals for rebirth and renewal. Could you elaborate on the notion of »ritual healing«?
TR: I think of the process of heating, cooking, and cooling the bioplastics as part of a ritual. We are engaged in the process of their creation and in doing so, are in doing so are creating rituals of active making; ritual material activisms. Creating with intention is important.
During the bioplastics workshops I’ve taught, I ask participants to think of prompts before going through the process of cooking, and writing down tactics and statements that can be placed into the bioplastic after poured, either physically or energetically. They could include:
- A statement or wish, such as »I need to lose my addiction to plastic products.«
- Tactics for healing the earth; real or speculative forms of bioremediation (ex: oyster mushrooms grown over crude oil spills to break down the hydrocarbon chains)
- Ways to collaborate with other species
- Designs inspired by other species, an illustration
- New processes (speculative or real) to replace extraction (for example, biomining)
- Imagining: What materials would you like to see exist in the world that don’t exist yet?
- What materials should no longer exist? What needs to be destroyed? What needs to be rebuilt? With what materials and whose hands?
Thinking about these prompts and cooking/making with intent creates a space for ritual healing from petrochemical plastic and associated extractive processes – reclaiming these processes of making.
»There doesn’t always need to be a nature versus technology divide. What hybrid forms can we evolve into, and become-with, including with our technologies?«
Schlosspost: How does the project refer to current discussions about climate change, experiments in gene editing, and future permutations of existence on our planet? And what role does the climate change debate play within the context of your research and this project?
TR: This project is inherently environmental and related to climate change, as the creation of petrochemically based materials create massive amounts of methane and CO2 that destroy our atmosphere. Therefore, creating materials out of biopolymers significantly reduces the pollutants that go into our atmosphere. Also, all of the materials our compostable – unlike polyethylene and polypropylene-based materials.
As far as research is concerned, this project involves looking for methods of multispecies collaboration for bioremediation to someday incorporate into our built environment through speculative imagining and storytelling. This could potentially use gene-editing and other tools of biotechnology to create enhanced organisms, materials, structures or even human bodies for remediation and/or for a changing climate – to filter pollution, to block against radiation, and to withstand major climate events – these are all themes I am thinking of all of the time in my work, and hope to incorporate into some of the chapters of this cookbook. I think of the cookbook itself as a living organism that will grow and expand over time.
Schlosspost: The Cookbook follows the principles of open knowledge, open access, and radical inclusivity. These concepts are crucial for an open society and to avoid monopolization of resources. In what way do you refer to this context?
TR: The mission of this project is, as I mentioned, from a strong DIY making ethos which includes the radical open sourcing of methods, processes, and protocols. It’s important to me that the materials are affordable and accessible (as well as the processes), so that anyone, anywhere in the world could create bioplastics – as a tactic to slowly start to make horizontal the systemic methods and patents of the technoextractive world that dominates our bodies and pollutes our oceans.
I’m definitely inspired by Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous, which imagines using the tools of biotechnology to reverse engineer patented pharmecuticals – and open-sourcing those protocols or making them more available, as well as for augmenting the body and other hybrid genetic beings in her book – I highly recommend that book and you can find echoes of it in this work.
Schlosspost: You are interested in our relationships to technology and how technology affects us as humans, and is changing the landscape of both our physical and digital lives. How can we use technology to envision alternate realities and futures?
TR: I feel as though there are a lot of dystopian projects and science fiction that look at technology and how it will increasingly affect our lives and the environment in negative ways in the future. Take for example Black Mirror. I feel we are already practically living out some of these stories and we need to envision other alternatives. Personally, I want to offer people a White Mirror or a Rainbow Mirror to look into: alternative futures that use technology, perhaps ancient technologies embedded in bacteria like what CRISPR gene editing technology is based upon, to imagine more diverse, inclusive, radically symbiotic futures.
There doesn’t always need to be a nature versus technology divide. What hybrid forms can we evolve into, and become-with, including with our technologies? For example, my project Cyanovisions imagines alternative narratives to the dominance over nature that cyborgian hybrid immortality offers, and posits potentials for biological hybridity and scientific spiritualities that recognize the inextricable relationship of human lifespans to those of other organisms – by merging the human body and cyanobacteria using the tools of biotechnology. I’m still in the process of filming the video/short film component of this project, but it has many permutations of existence.
Schlosspost: Referring to the context of the call, in which curator Mary Maggic states: »We live in an alien landscape, one that we no longer know.« How does your project refigure new myths, new disobediences, new commons, besides patriarchal, hegemonic, and turbo-capitalist forces?
»I feel as though there are a lot of dystopian projects and science fiction that look at technology and how it will increasingly affect our lives and the environment in negative ways in the future. Take for example Black Mirror. I feel we are already practically living out some of these stories and we need to envision other alternatives.«
TR: I think I have answered this in a few different ways. But to add to previous statements, this project aims to create new material rituals and mythologies, in collaboration with other humans that have been sharing recipes with me, using recipes I make public, and building upon the recipes and stories in this book – to refigure our material relationships and eco-techno-philosophies, ultimately imagining new ways of existing in the world in collaboration with other species and with a deep cognizance of the environments we inhabit and ecologies we affect with our bodies, technologies, and built structures. Perhaps we are making our own tools and materials collaboratively again instead of having them made in factories overseas; we can in fact reclaim some these processes.
I would like to imagine that one day every item we use or technological device can have the potential to break down – there is already planned obsolescence designed into our laptops and smartphones – why not design into them a biological clock, so they can break down and compost after five years? Bacteria have been growing alongside minerals for billions of years – let’s design infrastructures where bacteria can do the biomining of technology minerals, and then later, decompose our technology. It will happen over geological time anyway (smiles). I think we are sometimes too concerned with what is possible in a human lifespan. Over geological time, our technologies will ultimately be composted. So I am not too worried.
Yes, it is a mutant world, Gaia is a hot mess, and we are a part of Gaia so we are existing deep within that. But the only way to be alive during this time is to live ecstatically. For me, that involves making art about entangled ecologies, learning from other organisms, and sometimes rolling in the dirt and putting bioplastics on my body. Life, our bodies, and existence is a miracle! How can we play and disrupt and thrive in the chaos of it all, remembering the miracle of biological life? That is the real question that you must answer with what you make and how you exist every day. :)
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi