bioart blog

Orkan Telhan on "the Design of Bewitchment"

July19, 2018

By Mina Zarfsaz


As we are settling in with our third resident, Deirdre Murphy, at Integral Molecular we are also taking a moment to follow up with our first artist resident, Orkan Telhan. Orkan’s background in synthetic biology and more specifically in the science of tasting and human tongue was the cornerstone of his research at Integral Molecular in 2017.

But since, the direction of his work has expanded into new paradigms. In addition to his interest in the taste of food, and visualizing the visible and invisible chemical reactions in the tongue, he has been studying the origin of food, its history and design specifically in “bewitchment” and its socio-political contexts. 


“Number of historians attribute the origins of bewitchment across different geographies to a biochemical phenomenon called “ergotism,” which is caused by consuming food that contains alkaloids produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. When the fungus infects grains, mainly rye, the products made out of their flour become a source of poisoning that causes mental effects such as mania, psychosis in addition to spasms and seizures.


Known for its effects since 9th century, Claviceps purpurea has also been used in the production of other psycho-stimulants such as lysergic acid, the precursor of lysergic acid diethylamide, popularly known as LSD.


To contribute to the historical discourse on the biochemical origins of bewitchment, we explored the potential of invitro culturing of Claviceps purpurea as well as growing infected grains to design a series of novel bewitchment conditions. We created a series of bread artifacts that is intended to interrogate the biochemical within a contemporary socio-political context to pose questions about the design of bewitchment (in gender and class) shaped by land, landscape, and microbial biopolitics. We are interested in sharing the design process and discuss the artifacts within a broader critical and speculative context that addresses biological design not only as the design of organisms and their products but also as the design of a bio-historiography that can frame past and its politics.


My project is a bit like a biohistoriography. So I try to track down a historical and socio-political phenomena from the perspective of an organism.


I am still fundamentally interested in questioning the role of taste perception in establishing social and cultural norms (and taboos). I will not explore the taste of bewitchment in a literal sense, but work towards identifying/quantifying/measuring the different aspects of the taste of bread that is grown with Claviceps purpurea. Consuming the the bread with the organism is harmful to the body. But people (in a certain social class) had to consume it in the middle ages because they no other access to healthy rye. So, through the taste of the bread, I will try to foreground more complex issues."


He says, “I am interested in bread since the Arab Spring. The extreme inflation on the bread prices were one of the main reasons of the uprisings in Tunisia. While it is a very fundamental food for almost every culture, there are a lot of countries importing grains to be able to make bread. And, climate change is making it worse."


Orkan will share the culmination of his progress in Spring 2019 at the Ester Klein Gallery. “I am currently growing some rye (the plant itself) and sourcing Claviceps purpurea so I can grow them in liquid culture. The organism is not legally obtainable so I am using my academic networks,” he says.


Orkan is showcasing the first iteration of this work at the Monster conference in Western Australia in October 2018.


Additionally, later in Fall 2019, Orkan is part of a curatorial team for an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looking at projects that are at the intersection of cellular agriculture and biodesign. Stay Tuned for more updates!