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Biotech Art Garden: Is This How We’ll Grow Oregano on Mars?

Angelo Vermeulen has collaborated on the Biomodd project, exploring how to combine computers, plant life, people into increasingly complex systems.

It’s late on a Thursday evening, and we’ve just emerged, bleary-eyed, from an hour-long subway ride to the heart of Corona, Queens. The occasion: the New York Hall of Science’s first contemporary art exhibition, “ReGeneration”—a sprawling survey of ten artists loosely connected by their explorations of “cultural sustainability.” Many of the works on display blurred the lines between art and science, and most oriented towards “usefulness” more than formal aesthetics.

New media curator Steve Dietz, who organized the show, explained this theme, saying “I think the interest in bio-tech is as much about an interest in “big issues” around sustainability—food, climate change, the economic systems, social justice, agency—as it is about the undeniable desire to hack the increasingly powerful tools and means we have to adapt “nature.”

We're here to check out one particular installation—Biomodd 4, a project by Belgian artist Angelo Vermeulen that manages to combine sculpture, gaming culture, horticulture, and community building into a single, sprawling artwork of biotechnology. It’s a complex, sometimes confusing project, but what we're most interested in is how Vermeulen’s art points to how we could one day be able to grow sustainable ecosystems in outer space that thrive with the aid of computers. Which is great, because when we move to a Mars colony, there’s no way we're surviving without kale.

Overhead view of the “ReGeneration” exhibition.

After a brief stop at the cheese plate, we make our way over to where Vermeulen is surrounded by dozens of admirers. Over the last five years—and across six countries—Vermeulen has been collaborating with artists, scientists, and horticulturists on this Biomodd project, which explores how to combine computers, plant life, and people into increasingly complex and interactive systems. This particular iteration is his fourth, and many of his former collaborators have come to check it out, cooing over new additions and reminiscing about previous versions.

What Biomodd looks like from a distance.

Waste computer parts were taken apart by kids from the neighborhood; Angelo conducted classes on taking apart e-waste as the community-building aspect of Biomodd.

We quickly realize that Vermeulen is one of those people who can drum up enthusiasm about his project from everyone, which is probably the main reason why he’s the ideal leader of such a multi-faceted, constantly evolving project. First, he shows me the section of Biomodd set up in the museum’s main exhibition hall—which is built like a nuclear fallout shelter from the 60s, with thick, sloping concrete walls. “This presented a big challenge,” Vermeulen tells me, “because we didn’t have daylight to help the plants grow.” But the difficult setting also proved perfect: limited resources, lack of sunlight, and radiation-proof dwellings are the closest thing to living in a space colony.

The Biomodd tower.

The centerpiece of Biomodd is a tower made of recycled wood, which encloses a variety of growing vegetables. The plants help to cool the computers that surround the tower, and in turn, they thrive in the computers’ waste heat. “I’m not interested in trash art,” Vermeulen explains, “I’m interested in finding ways to recycle electronic waste.” Then he excitedly opens the tower’s glass door and proudly proclaims, “There’s wheatgrass, oregano, basil, and tomatoes in there!” sounding for a moment like my hippie friend from college who grew a quasi-forest of vegetables on his windowsill.

Vermeulen pointing out the vegetables growing.

With their co-dependent existence of heating and cooling, both the plants and computers form an efficient, mutually beneficial system. But that’s just half of it. A separate row of vegetables grows by the windows at the front of the museum. These plants thrive with the aid of LED lights, and are outfitted with light, humidity, and? temperature sensors—which connect back to the computer system through a LAN.

Vermeulen checking out the LED lights.

Here’s where Biomodd gets a little trippy: as a gamer (and Silent Hill nerd), Vermeulen has installed a multi-person video game that users can play, thereby adding a social element to the project. People grow a virtual organism in the game by feeding it resources, sort of like an advanced version of those Tamagochi games from the 90s. These resources are actually triggered by the sensors embedded amongst the plants—so basically, the game triggers and responds to the biological life around it. Additionally, playing the game deploys robotic caretakers to water, feed, and trim the plants when needed.

An ultrasonic humidifier waters down the plants growing in a window.

Vermeulen calls this “entangled reality” where the virtual and real are intertwined, and mutually reliant. It’s a new type of multiplayer game world, for sure, with a back-and-forth communication between plants and computers. This feedback loop allows biological life and technology to exist co-dependently, instead of clashing against each other—the way nature and machines are usually thought of.

Vermeulen hanging out with former Biomodd collaborators.

For his efforts to incorporate ecology with art, Vermeulen was inducted as a TED fellow recently, and you can view his TED talk here. We ask him what his plans are for when the exhibition ends. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that he’s bound to work with NASA food engineers on a Mars mission simulation.

Could we be playing computer games in outer space to help run ecosystems that will keep us fed and, well, alive? Vermeulen thinks it’s a possibility, and on behalf of thousands of gamers and Redditors out there, we hope he’s right.

“ReGeneration” at NYSCI runs through January 13th.

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