The Alchemist Husband
Purpose of the project
THE ALCHEMIST HUSBAND offers the public an opportunity to contemplate and question their relationship with food through an interactive and immersive installation depicting the growth of wheat plants. They will consider their symbiotic role with the food that we grow by actively engaging in the process of wheat's evolution via selective breading and modern gene editing.
The public will also experience the history and future of our relationship with wheat through interactive sounds that take viewers to the historic farms of China, the modern-day fields of the Canadian prairies, and urban farms of the future.
Interactive project description
I intend to place the viewer/user in the role of the "alchemist husband”—a modern genetic scientist who cares for plants. It is the user who can determine how to care for and/or alter the plants that they engage with through their position within the room. If they move towards a representation of a plant, it will alter that plant from a historic perennial to present day (selectively bred) annual. If they move closer still, the plant will change from an annual to a scientifically edited perennial: a plant that yields a large volume of grain, and also possesses a huge root mass.
As the user moves through the space corresponding changes in sound and light will also occur. The historic plant will be accompanied by environmental sounds heard on farms in China circa 9,000BC (where and when wheat farming began). The present day wheat plant will be paired with the sounds of modern farm fields in Lethbridge Alberta, and the viewers shadow will begin to resolve on the surface of the plant. Subtle sounds from the near future will be linked with the scientifically edited perennial, and the viewer’s shadow will be markedly clear against the surface of the plant. To acknowledge the risks inherent in engaging in “alchemy” with the plant, the user can occasionally trigger the plant to die instead of transforming it into a successfully edited plant. They have no control over which outcome takes place.
Physical project description
There will be five plants whose growth is animated from seed to mature plant. The animation will play out on a collection of split-flap displays. All plants will slowly cycle through the historic (perennial) plant animation until a user approaches one, at which point that plant, and that plant only will alter to the present day plant. Each plant has two lights and two speakers associated with it and only it. Therefore, as a user approaches one plant, the lights and sound track for only that plant will change. Multiple users can trigger multiple plants to change animations light and sounds.
Science behind the project’s content
Over the last millennia we have bread wheat to yield a much higher volume of grain. A side effect of this change has been a shortened plant life span, in addition to a suite of other changes, including a drastic reduction in root length and mass.
Thus far, the changes we have made to the plant have been derived entirely from selective breeding. However, we are on the brink of being able to manipulate a plant’s growth by directly editing it’s biological instructions. No longer would we be nudging the plant to change over thousands and thousands of years, but rather clipping undesirable portions of DNA out, and replacing them with desired sequences in a matter of hours.
The irony is that one of the most desirable attributes that scientist want to add, would actually be a re-integration of historical traits—namely restoring the root mass and length to it’s previous heft. In doing so we would reap a suit of economic and environmental benefits.
All data for the piece has been captured by scientists from the Lethbridge Agricultural Research Centre and has been shared with the artist for use in this project.
Philosophy & inspiration behind the project
I was invited to speak with scientists at the Lethbridge Argricultural Research Centre, and to have access to their research data. At the time, I was struck by humanity’s historical relationship with the physical world, both in terms of science and agriculture. For over 10,000 years we’ve engaged in agricultural husbandry: the cultivation and production of edible crops. The notion of husbandry evokes a sense of care taking and nurturing, protection, and guidance through growth.
As the researchers described the DNA editing process I also couldn’t help but think of 16th century alchemists—scientists who were trying to figure out how to change metals like silver into gold by changing their atomic makeup. Though we never managed to accomplish this, we can now fundamentally change the genetic makeup of living things—a remarkably similar and possibly even more awe inspiring feat.