With boldly painted walls of blue and red, the Esther Klein Gallery – temporarily transformed – feels like an anachronistic travel agency. A robotic plush macaw is perched on a silver palm tree, greeting visitors as they enter. Meanwhile, tastefully framed travel posters advertise popsicles. The graphics appear vintage, but the text promotes Frutas Robóticos de Calidad - quality robotic fruits. Nearby, a compact and stylish kinetic bioreactor –capable of designing genetically modified organisms– is on display.
The uncanny scene is orchestrated by interdisciplinary artist, Orkan Telhan. Entitled Fruits of Matadero, his project connects two distant cities while firmly locating us in this current moment of environmental crisis. Simultaneously exhibiting in Philadelphia and Matadero in Madrid, Telhan is among a group of international artists invited to envision creative strategies for global warming. Commissioned by the Mutant Institute of Environmental Narratives, the project is specifically designed for Matadero as a site. Matadero is now a contemporary arts center, but it was built in the 1920s as a slaughterhouse and livestock market; its large open-air plaza is paved and unshaded. Geographically, Matadero is situated in an urban ‘heat island,’ in which temperatures are markedly warmer than surrounding suburbs. Orkan Telhan was one of the “eco-visionaries” tasked by the commission to “rethink the role of public space in relation to climate change.”
The exhibition at EKG may be 4000 miles across the Atlantic from Matadero, but the excessive heat warnings of July connect the two shows, underscoring the global nature of the crisis. Orkan Telhan, who teaches Biodesign at University of Pennsylvania, is literally bringing the point home. Subverting the escapist visual vocabulary of tourism to voice environmental concerns, Telhan also addresses political and social climate shifts, referencing contemporary labor issues implicit in the growing and harvesting of fruit. His vision includes microbially-augmented fruit, delivered by robotic parrots, enjoyed under an oasis of artificial palm trees. The accompanying text reinforces a sense of collective fantasy:
“When it is hot in July, we gather under the canopy, eat our popsicles and think about the Paris Agreement,” will say one young climate advocate, enjoying their “red” popsicle.”
Prototype popsicles are on display, locked in a freezer on a pedestal. By next summer, these microbial fruits will be created using the kinetic bioreactor designed by Biorealize Inc, a company run by Orkan Telhan and Karen Hogan. Containing probiotic globules grown from fermented microorganisms, the frozen treats will be available in three colors, each abstracted flavor corresponding to pledge made in the Paris Accord. Printed on the stick will be an “actionable item” that will help us adapt to climate change.
In this way, the exhibition sells us on a possible destination – a creative re-routing of our environmental trajectory. We could get there, if we made it a priority, if we planned and used our resources wisely. The technology exists – it is just expensive in this initial phase of development. Much like the goal of zero emissions, Orkan Telhan’s solutions are beyond reach at the moment but on the horizon. In 2020, Fruits of Matadero will unfold in neighborhoods around Madrid, and –here and now– in Philadelphia, we can see proof of concept. The proposed microbial fruits and ecological activism they promote are not ideals for the elite; they are designed to be affordable once production begins. Until then, the Fruits of Matadero will remain untasted, but the artist has placed them within our ideological grasp.
Artist’s Addendum by Orkan Telhan (August 2019):
I am very grateful to see the diversity of responses and interpretations Fruits of Matadero generated since its inception in April 2019. These responses not only enrich but also diversify its intended outcomes. Here, I would like to use the opportunity to bring some clarification to some of the comments raised at the opening of the exhibition at Esther Klein Gallery and to Cindy Stockton’s review featured before.
Fruits of Matadero is a public commission. It is conceived around a specific brief. I am asked to design a shading system to mitigate the urban heat waves experienced at Matadero Cultural Center in Madrid. The cause of these heatwaves is partially architectural and related to the design of the compound—which was formerly used as a slaughterhouse. There are not enough trees or vegetation that can cool the public places. The cause is also partially due to the changing nature of the climate in Spain due to the global increase in CO2 emissions. The average temperature is rising in the city every year.
When I was invited to submit a proposal for this commission, I was asked not only to make a concrete proposition for the mentioned problems, but also offer an artistic response to the bigger issues shaping the social and environmental realities of our times. I am one of the five designers or design teams commissioned for the same challenge and Fruits of Matadero—with its popsicles, microbial fruits, robotic parrot, artificial palm trees, and urban oasis—is part of a complex proposal. At its core, the project explores our individual responsibilities towards the climate crisis in a creative way. While we eat these colorful popsicles, can we learn about what else can be done to survive in an environmentally-challenged planet?
The project is currently in progress. The exhibition in Spain and Philadelphia primarily intend to communicate the broader ideas behind microbial fruit production, ways to cool the body, and building public incubators (similar to community gardens) that can ferment us food—a concept that has no precedent yet. The research is continuing as I am developing the technical framework to implement everything in Madrid by 2020 or 2021.
When the project will be completed, the popsicles will actually make people sweat and physiologically cool down due to their microbial ingredients. Like other kinds of ice-cream or frozen fruit products, they will be quite cheap to produce. Their consumers will be able to rest under the artificial palm trees and enjoy an alternative shading experience. But even all of these elements perfectly work, the project will only achieve its objectives if more people become aware of their individual responsibilities towards the climate. This is not an ambitious call for ecological activism, but rather a call for learning facts and changing behavior. For instance, instead of consuming fruits as ordinary as bananas or apples, we can get better at asking where they come from and at what sacrifices? Who can afford the non-GMO pesticide free fruits and who gets to eat the “undesired” ones due to their lower price. Relying on the microbial production of “fruits” may sound like science fiction today, but given the environmental and human cost of fruit production at green houses, later generations may see it as their only viable solution to eat healthy and cheap produce.
Since I started to exhibit the project in Spain and in Philadelphia, many people asked me when they can taste the popsicles? Can we have them at the opening? Will they be difficult to make? Will they be expensive? And so on. Each time I encounter these questions, I try to explain that the project is in progress and I use every presentation opportunity to discuss with my audience to advance my ideas and come up with better recipes for the popsicles. My hope is that when the day finally comes and we are ready to consume the popsicles under the shade, we will feel more informed and more empowered about what can we do about the future of our planet.