Can mushrooms be high-tech? What’s inspiring about cabbage? Mediamatic, a creative think tank based in Amsterdam, looks at food through the lens of art to come up with innovative and even surprising ideas around sustainability. Some of Mediamatic’s recent initiatives include cultivating fungus to make plant-based building materials and edible crockery, as well as putting on readings, performances and educational workshops with food that might have otherwise gone to waste.

Going beyond the usual agricultural or industrial approaches is part of Mediamatic’s unique take on issues in the food system. “In the arts you have an audience that is driven by curiosity and new ideas. That makes it rewarding to play and discover,” says Willem Velthoven, one of the founders of Mediamatic. Velthoven has been closely involved in the move to include food and sustainability issues in Mediamatic’s broader mission of exploring the intersections of nature, bio-technology and art. “Our role is to come up with new concepts, test and then release them so that others can continue developing them,” explains Velthoven.

Mediamatic was mostly focused on media and communication when it was founded in 1983. But since its initial food-related project at the end of 2006, it has been showcasing novel approaches to everything from food waste to urban farming. Its first project to involve agriculture was called Night Garden. As a collection of several interactive art pieces, visitors were invited to solder their own robotic insects and to generate a virtual-reality garden by touching real plants, among other things. The show also included a prototype restaurant called “Grow yer own dang food”, where diners were told to do just that (mostly based on sprouts and microgreens). Night Garden highlighted two contradictory aspects of today’s food system. On the one hand, it made something as ‘natural’ as a garden into an artificial experience. Yet, it also illustrated how advances in technology can connect people to new and more sustainable ways of producing food, by making visitors get hands-on with the plants, insects and dishes in the exhibition. Bringing together paradoxes exemplifies Mediamatic’s approach. In the words of their own mission statement, “We challenge the senses and tackle perceptions regarding food, waste and unconventional materials such as piss, bacteria and fungi.”

Making mountains out of mycelium

Food waste, unconventional materials and sensory challenges all come together in several projects at Mediamatic aimed at cultivating micro-materials with fungi. In one ongoing initiative that started in 2016, the barley grain used to make beer is upcycled into the growing material for mycelium fungus. With its long, branching filaments, mycelium turns the waste grain into a lightweight and strong bio-material that has excellent insulation properties. Myco-insulation panels made in this way were installed in one of the buildings on Mediamatic’s own campus. The same material also holds promise as a potential substitute for fibreboard, the Styrofoam used in packaging consumer products as well as the housing used in audio speakers.

From an environmental impact and sustainability perspective, mycelium-based materials are nothing but a win-win. They turn various forms of food waste into something new and useful, without generating any toxic by-products. They break down as easily as any other vegetable. But the fact that materials made from mycelium smell like mushrooms is one of the issues standing in the way of mainstream consumer acceptance. Artists and scientists working in Mediamatic’s olfactory research programme are currently investigating ways of making mycelium panels – as well as other biomaterials – smell less like something to cook with and more like something to build with.

A different set of sensory challenges surrounds another mycelium-based micromaterial: tempeh. Yes, tempeh. Vegetarians may be accustomed to think of it as merely an Indonesian cousin to tofu, but in fact the tempeh fungus can grow on any kind of beans, not just soya. Researchers at Mediamatic are growing it on green lentils and lupini beans in bowl-shaped moulds, in order to produce a prototype range of edible crockery.

These plates and bowls don’t smell “mushroomy” in the same way as the myco-insulation wall panels, but they do have a flavour. “The goal now is to get better taste so that it enhances the food that is put into it,” explains Velthoven. Another issue is that the current version of the tempeh-based bowls is a bit on the thick side. As crockery, it is closer to a hobbyist’s ceramic vessel than a piece of fine china. “We are aiming to play with other shapes and improve the process, so we can set it free and see what others do with it,” Velthoven adds.

Sourcing ideas, seeding inspiration

As a clearinghouse of ideas, Mediamatic brings in artists and subject-matter experts for special research projects and also distributes its know-how through regular workshops and events. Beginner-level classes such as “Make your own kimchi”, “Grow your own fungus” or “Learn to build aquaponics” make up the bulk of the workshop roster and are aimed at laypeople who are curious but might not know how to get started. “Before you get into innovative applications of things, we’ve found it’s more inspiring to start with the basics,” says Velthoven.

Being approachable is one of the qualities that sets Mediamatic apart from other think-tanks or policy organisations. It has on-going exchanges with educational institutions such as the University of Amsterdam and the Design Academy Eindhoven, as well as with other arts organisations in Holland and abroad. Even its location stands out. Visible from the tracks of Amsterdam’s Central Station, its current campus at the Biotoop Dijkspark includes a greenhouse, several laboratories, a co-working space and a restaurant.

Rocket stove

Its restaurant, Eten, functions both as a regular café – albeit one with particularly nice views of the Amsterdam harbour – as well as a gallery space for art pieces that Mediamatic has commissioned in the past. These include the Rocket Stove, an ultra-efficient heating mechanism made out of old beer kegs and an assortment of other scrap materials with a decidedly ‘steampunk’ look, as well as a living installation of plants and plates called Hard Water. For the 2017-18 winter programme, visual artist Arne Hendriks made a series of drawings and paintings on the theme of abundance and excess on the walls and windows of Eten. These meditations included statements such as, “Abundance is not a supply thing, it’s a demand thing”; “How does zero economic value taste?”; “Affluence not affluenza”, and “Do you speak cabbage?”

Cabbage stacks

Communicating with cabbage wasn’t just a theoretical question. When a bumper crop of white cabbage threatened to rot in a local farmer’s field last autumn, Mediamatic saw it as an opportunity. “We said, let’s celebrate the harvest: have parties, do something special,” says Velthoven. One performance artist read Tolstoy to some of the 20,000 tonnes of white cabbage which Mediamatic took on with the “Kool Kabbage” project. During another performance, a dancer improvised steps to the sound of cabbage being crushed. Over the months of December – March, there were half a dozen kimchi-making workshops, plus one on a primordial method for producing sauerkraut.

And of course, cabbage took a prominent role on Eten’s menu: there was cabbage hummus, cabbage croquettes and cabbage wraps, along with several kinds of cabbage soup. Finally, a four-day series of Abundance Dinners in February turned all that cabbage into an event in its own right.

Future projects

The Abundance Dinners were part of an on-going event series at Mediamatic called Neo-Futurist Dinners, devoted to imagining new ways of combining food, art and science. Past dinners experimented with everything from endorphin triggers to the colour palette. The next Dinner, ‘Dimension Air’, slated for May 2018, aims to explore time and space as additional parameters of the dining experience.

On the less public side of Mediamatic’s work, Velthoven’s plan is to expand the olfactory research programme: “It’s about how artists and designers can work with bio-materials to make them more appealing to a mainstream audience.”

Regardless of the shape, size – or fragrance! – that Mediamatic comes up with for these materials, in the end, , it’s certain to provide food for thought.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news