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.

 

Physical project description

In a large, relatively dark room, there will be five representations of wheat plants whose growth is animated, in a flipbook-like manner, from seed to mature plant. The animations will play out on a collection of mechanical split-flap displays, all of which will be installed on the far wall. All plants will slowly cycle through a representation of a historic wheat plant animation—a plant which possess an enormous root body, and a small amount of grain. The room will be filled with sounds heard on farms in China circa 9,000BC (where and when wheat farming began). Spot lights will softly light the animations.

The piece is interactive and the animations, sounds, and lights can be changed by a single or multiple users. Each plant has two lights and two speakers associated with it and only it.

 

Interactive project description

I intend to place the user in the role of the “alchemist husband”. It is she who can determine how to care for and/or alter the plants that she engages with through her position within the room. If she moves towards a representation of a plant, it will alter that plant animation from an historic perennial to present day annual: a plant that has been selectively bred to yield a large volume of grain. If she moves closer still, the plant will change from an annual to a scientifically edited perennial: a plant that yields a large volume of grain, but also possesses a huge root mass.

As the user moves through the space corresponding changes in sound and light will also occur. The present day wheat plant will be paired with a soundscape of modern farm fields in Lethbridge Alberta. At this stage, the viewer’s shadow will also begin to resolve on the surface of the plant—hinting at their affect on and relationship with the plant. Subtle sounds from the near future will be linked with the third animation (a 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. The user has no control over which outcome takes place.

Multiple users can trigger multiple plants to change animations light and sounds.

 

Connecting with the audience

There are multiple points of entry for the work, from sound to light, from image to movement, from observation to interaction. The work is playful, and intuitive—audiences will be able to quickly gain an understanding of how their proximity to the plants affects the plant’s growth and associated changes in light and sound.

The piece itself has manifold interpretations prompting debate and dialogue about the philosophies of food production and our relationship with the plants that we grow. The work is open ended, and non-partisan, while offering cues for individuals to form their own opinions on the morals, ethics, and pragmatism of the work that the scientists are performing.

 

How I became involved in the project

After learning of my past works and my interest in documenting and interpreting scientific data, Leanne Elias invited me to visit the Lethbridge Agricultural Research Centre in Lethbridge, AB, a centre which is normally closed to the public. While there I spent the day with Jamie Larson, who is researching the genes of wheat plants to determine which portion of the DNA is responsible for the life span of the plant (producing a perennial plant that lives several years, or an annual which lives only one).

 

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 (from multiple years to a single year), 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. Scientist hope want to re-integrate the historical root mass and length to the present day plant.

 

Philosophy behind the project

While working with Jamie and hearing him describe his research, I was struck by humanity’s historic 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. And as he described the DNA editing process I 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 powerful feat—but to what effect?