Designing Decay: Calculus of an Infinite Rot at the Rhubarb Festival, Toronto
Andrea Shin Ling, a former architect, thinks that rather than fighting against decay, designers should embrace it.
Designing for the circular economy is one thing, says artist and researcher Andrea Ling. But how do you deconstruct a product like a window, set in a vinyl frame and contaminated with sealants and glues? And what about that more pernicious reality: that all materials ultimately break, degrade, and decay?
Ling, a former architect, thinks that rather than fighting against decay, designers should embrace it. Her own work experiments at the intersection of living and dying organisms: work at MIT’s Media Lab, shown in 2020 at MOMA and in 2021 at SFMOMA, involved robotically fabricating natural artifacts from the molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons, and our own bones. A residency at Gingko Bioworks resulted in a series of artifacts designed for decay—”garbage that retains some sort of functionality or desirability as it degrades within our lifespans and in our homes,” as she puts it.
In the installation Calculus of an Infinite Rot, Part 1, created for this year’s Rhubarb Festival in Toronto, Ling selected 35 tree stumps and had them shaped in various ways to host fungal and bacterial cultures. Some were left virtually untouched; other CNC-cut at the Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape, and Design into bulbous, volcano-like sculptures. Others were shaped with a chainsaw into tall, totemic objects reminiscent of Brancusi sculptures.
Months before the festival, Ling and Rhubarb Festival director Clayton Lee set up a makeshift greenhouse behind the stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre to prepare the stumps. Borrowing equipment from the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine research labs, they soaked the stumps in water, and inoculated them with a variety of fungi and bacteria—from pleurotus ostreatus, which produces a carnivorous blue oyster mushroom capable of digesting animals, to streptomyces griseus, the source of the antibiotic streptomycin.
The resulting sculptures became the backdrop for a series of performances in February, as restrictions started to lift following the omicron wave of the pandemic. Artist Jesús Hilario-Reyes carefully walked on stilts through the installation; Louise Liliefeldt lay prone on the central tree stump. In a collaboration between artists claude wittmann and Serena McCarroll, the sculptures were the only visible presence on the stage: wittmann and McCarroll dialed in from the adjacent room, holding a conversation on the housing crisis. They noted how the tree stumps were treated better than most people living on social assistance: the stumps had food, water, shelter, people to care for them.
When I visited, the stumps were a quiet, majestic presence in their own right. Spotlighted in the dark theatre, they were smeared with different colours and textures: the fuzzy white of mycelium networks, the green of a trichoderma viride mold used in agriculture as a natural fungicide, a darker green mystery mold that arose from a stump contaminated during the fungal growth process. A musty, wet rain smell hung in the air—both Ling and Lee had hoped the installation would have an even stronger, funkier olfactory presence. The sculptures hung between life and death, destined to degrade, but made beautiful in that process.
Ling’s current work is circling back to architecture proper: she is currently completing her PhD in the Digital Building Technologies Lab at ETH Zurich, developing a method of inoculating a concrete-like surfacing material with algae. If the algae can be kept alive, it can continuously sequester carbon.
“In 10 or 15 years, when we’ve reached our carbon limit, what will architects do?” muses Ling. She reflects on the Shinto shrines of Japan, which are ritually rebuilt every 20 years, with trees planted in advance for that purpose. Designing in a way that mingles living organisms with inert materials, and that accepts—and even values—degradation, will surely have a place in our future.
Artist Andrea Shin Ling
Curator Clayton Lee
Fabricators Leah Ataide + Nicholas Hoban
Technical support Betty Poon + Anna Gregorczyk + Olga Chomiak + Natasha Christie-Holmes (Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto)
Special thanks to Toronto Tree Removal + Ataide Family Farm + FADO Performance Art Centre + Jehoshua Sharma