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August 13, 2019 | By Cindy Stockton Moore
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.