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Article Green tech

A playground for art and science


Words by Sophie Wright

Photos by Marie Wanders

To get closer is to have the opportunity to understand better. With more and more people growing unsatisfied with the opacity of industrial food production, the desire to reclaim our relationship to food has become a matter of paramount importance – one that the Mediamatic Biotoop has been exploring through a lively and unexpected programme of projects, workshops and lectures. A ‘cultural bio-art lab’ with an open-door policy that welcomes public participation, the Biotoop is a bustling hub for collaboration across the domains of art, technology, design and sustainability with a focus on the emerging field of Life-Sciences and Bio-Design.
Photo via mediamatic.net

Nestled behind a highway to the east of Amsterdam’s Central Station is the Dijkspark, where the latest waterfront incarnation of Mediamatic, the Mediamatic Biotoop, is located. This cluster of buildings has been home to the shape-shifting Dutch arts centre devoted to new developments in society since January 2015. Built on a willingness to take risks and experiment, founder Willem Velthoven says Mediamatic’s transition from electronic media in 1983 into sustainability happened organically. This began in 2006, when the centre put on a show called ‘Night Garden’, an indoor garden where new technology, next nature, contemporary art formed an ‘interactive bio-technical habitat’. Alongside several food-based projects, including an expired food dinner club (‘Over Datum Eetclub’) and a small-scale experiment in Aquaponics farming, the theme popped up again and again.

“Concerns and curiosities about sustainability were growing but also biology was becoming a very interesting area,” he says. “There are a lot of people rediscovering this sort of craftsy, personal involvement with food production and preparation. More and more people in society are disappointed with industrial food production, feel alienated by the stuff they have to eat, and are getting concerned about sustainability. If you want to do something about it, you have to get closer.” Offering a closer look at how we perceive and engage with food and nature soon became an important part of Mediamatic’s programme, often in unusual and innovative ways.

“It’s really allowing projects to happen and having a space with that kind of openness is very important,” he adds. The gradual move out of the various former office spaces they inhabited in the city centre, first into an industrial space in Oostenburg then into their current home on Dijkspark, has provided them with a space that fits their ambitions. An international meeting point where the boundaries of art, design and science dissolve, the different spaces at the Biotoop offer plenty of opportunities for playing with new (and often living) materials – and creating a circular and sustainable environment in the process.

Art is not there to provide solutions: it reflects, and imagines, and encourages, and challenges but doesn’t solve

The restaurant sits next to the greenhouse, where the Aquaponics farm started in 2012, and is used to grow vegetables, herbs (and sometimes even fish) for the kitchen. Then there is a Bio Clean Lab, a space for experimenting with biological growing processes, a restored barn for lectures and events, some co-working office space and lots of nooks and crannies for installations and art projects.

Take the Pis’Project, which looks at urine as a useful material. Visitors to the Biotoop are invited to relieve themselves into one of the five urinals installed on façade of the building. The urine is then collected and used as a fertiliser to grow bio-diverse plants in the Dijkspark, which also connects to using fish urine in the Aquaponics system. Or the Myco Design Lab, where a group is exploring the design possibilities of mycelium – the root system of mushrooms – as an environmentally sustainable alternative to plastic. The design is being put to the test as insulation material for the barn where the talks are held – using mycelium cultivated during another Mediamatic onsite project, the Myco Insulation Beer Brewery.

Nurturing the freedom to experiment is central to the programme developed at the Biotoop, as opposed to searching for solutions to specific problems. “I don’t think we provide solutions because we are an art centre. Art is not there to provide solutions: it reflects, and imagines, and encourages, and challenges but doesn’t solve,” Velthoven explains. “Maybe art is better for defining problems rather than solutions, articulating interesting questions or combining different issues into a new space where thinking can carry further.”

Willem Velthoven

While many of the projects allow makers to experiment and connect with people in their field and beyond, each programme line is equally geared to getting the public involved. “We think it’s essential to have a very basic hands-on level of access,” Velthoven says. “We aren’t a high art platform that shows masterpieces to big audiences; we are very much a platform for makers where we want to inspire, involve, teach and help each other. So that practical involvement level is important. The audience you attract with these kinds of activities is also a curious audience. They don’t want to be passively entertained – they want to try.”

Experimenting with oyster mushrooms

From a simple guide to growing your own oyster mushrooms to workshops on how to build a living-room scale aquaponics system, each practical event offers visitors a chance to connect with the Mediamatic network and get involved in wider discussions. “The people that teach you and the context in which you are picking up this knowledge takes the process further – you’re in a lab where we are also making self-growing materials, optimising ways of growing mushrooms using industrial processes like in beer-brewing. So you see all these other things,” Velthoven explains. “You get a conversation that goes far beyond the simple skills you pick up in a day’s workshop.” The discussion continues online. The Mediamatic website is a wealth of resources and detailed information about the progress of each project.

“Things are coming together in all kinds of ways, through having an open programme where there is space and the ability to support in a sometimes improvised and messy way,” Velthoven says. Predicting where Mediamatic will go next is as difficult as predicting the future of our society, the two are so interlinked. “We don’t have a defined future. I think connecting people to food, food production and food experience will grow in importance. I think health will also become a more key theme.”