Burtonnitta: Searching for new connections between the humans and the world

Burtonnitta is a London based art-design studio melting up the vivid minds of the desi-gners Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton to investigate the future of the human species from a transdisciplinary perspective. The latest post on their Instagram feed is about the Sphagnum moss – a plant which has been used for years in healing from injuries due to its great capacity to retain liquids and convert the negatively charged nutrient ions into positi-vely charged ones. The kind of interest they have in the characteristics of these plants is the one of the critical designers, intended to get inspired by nature to speculate around a possible co-evolution achieved by the means of technology.

In this perspective since 2010 Burtonnitta are blurring the boundaries between science, technology and art, working on the structure and physiology of the human body with a pro-blem solving, game-changer approach, which would be very helpful in facing the Anthro-pocene and climate change. Their vision could be summed up in a question: what if in-stead of designing a solution to a specific problem, we completely re-design the system at the basis of it? Given that we need to find a new symbiosis with the planet, what if instead of trying to change nature, humans will start to think about how to change themselves?

Most of Burtonnitta’s research revolves around the food, its production methods and the redesign of the human architecture. Their first projects Algaculture and The Algae Opera explore alternative ways to fuel the body. Here the duo looks at the algae to give an idea of what change we could have to embrace to overcome the crisis: dwelling on Debora MacKenzie and Michael Le Page studies on plantimals – namely creatures which are a hy-brid between an animal and a plant – Michiko and Michael suggest that algae could teach our body how to get food from light as a photosynthetic being. The Republic of Salivations focuses on politics assuming a future where food will be rationed and personalized, while New Organs of Creation proposes the creation of a lab-grown larynx to enhance human vocal capacity and question its consequently beneficial effects on the cells.

I reached out to Michiko and Michael to know more about their practice, speculate around the future of humankind and asking ourselves: if we change our body, would our mind also change?

Near Future Algae Symbiosis Suit – Prototype, Algaculture, 2010
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta)
All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

Many of your works build on interdisciplinary studies – Algaculture with plantimals research, The Algae Opera with sonic food enhancement and nutrigenomics, and New Organs turning a lab-designed larynx in an exhibition item…What is science for you? And how could it interact with art and design in a fruitful way?

Burtonnitta: At Burton Nitta we lead a transdisciplinary practice and we feel exciting opportunities exist through the collaborations we form. These collaborations help us escape limitations and to work across the boundaries between disciplines. This puts an emphasis on the relation-ships we build with others and nurtures ecologies of curiosity. Although we often work with areas of science, we also involve an array of experts or people with diverse areas of inter-est.

For both Michiko and Michael, there was a decision in our careers to choose between pur-suing science or the arts. Our creative practice enables us to involve both areas; to ex-plore questions, and make discoveries. From these discoveries we can chart new trajecto-ries into the future.

Our works span a range of processes and collaborations. Most pieces approach the ques-tions: ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who or what might we be in the future?’. Science is one im-portant source of inspiration that reveals altered visions of ourselves and who we might become.

Works aim to construct world-views and transformations of what could be. Although we of-ten speculate into future contexts, the concepts we explore probe the ‘now’ and the current pressures, dreams and desires. By prompting the question ‘what could be’ we might invite audiences to time-travel or journey to parallel universes through the work. As such, we of-fer a reflective space to explore views, perceptions and relationships with the current time/place. We are fascinated with what we call, the mingling and messiness of human be-ings and the process of cultural formation. Within this messiness, our works aim to explore the interlocking spheres of influence, behaviour, rituals, beliefs that shape our world, that may originate from rational fact or myth, belief or the less tangible.

Ultimately works aim to form emotional connections. Sometimes the scientific interruptions extrapolate into the unintentional uses of the technology inventions, to offer new connec-tions with ourselves and the wider world.

The Algae Opera, 2012
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta) with:
Gameshow Outpatient: Composer, Louise Ashcroft: Mezzo-Soprano, Samuel Lewis: Actor.
All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

Algaculture and The Algae Opera look at plantimals to turn the human body into a semi-photosynthetic being. Could you explain what these projects are about and what you found more challenging while working on them?

Burtonnitta: Our first collaboration together was a project called Algaculture. We made it in response to the question: how can we feed a global population on an overcrowded and overpopulated planet? When we faced this question, it was important for us to change the question from “what will we eat?“ to “how can we fuel our body differently?”

The sea slug called Elysia chloretica, which invites algae into its body through its diet, hugely inspires us. In return for giving the algae a safe home inside its body, the slug be-comes semi-photosynthetic, gaining energy from sunlight, like a plant. Other larger organ-isms such as salamanders also form this relationship with algae.

We created an Algae Symbiosis Suit to enable a similar close relationship with algae to ex-plore the potential of human futures. The creation of the suit raised the following ques-tions: “what is the potential of extending the ecology of the human body as a symbiotic be-ing?”, “As we add more relationships within this network, who or what do we become?”, “As human, what level of transformation are we willing to make?”, “what external pressures may accelerate our tolerance for adaptation?”, “what happens to the wider world as we change?”.

In the development of the Algaculture project our second piece, called The Algae Opera, creates a scenario where an opera singer is transformed with biotechnology to form a unique relationship with algae. The algae feed on the carbon dioxide in the singer’s breath. Like Algaculture, the singer’s algae can also be eaten. But alongside listening to her mu-sic, the audience can also taste her song. To increase the growth of the algae, the body of the singer is trained to use her extraordinarily large lung capacity to produce the highest

quality algae-product. The composition of the song and the singer’s vocal technique are redesigned specifically to produce algae and enrich its taste. To do this, the composer and singer use the science of sonic enhancement of food where different sounds make food taste either bitter or sweet. This is based on the research of Professor Charles Spence. So in the age of biotechnology not only can the audience listen to her talent but they can also savour her unique blend of algae that is enriched by her song.

In a further future projection of the project, we imagined human life when the algae is inte-grated into our bodies in specially engineered organs. As such, our daily reality is trans-formed, alongside how we design our homes, cities, behaviour, senses and interactions with the environment.

With these projects, we are proposing to transform ourselves to survive in changing envi-ronments (to meet a future of food shortages), but in return, we are asking ourselves to sacrifice some of our traditional human rituals and ways of life. We offer the question to the audience: how far are we willing to change to survive in extreme environments of our mak-ing through climate change?

Republic of Salivation, 2011
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta)
All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

Algae is a material that is being explored by many designers at the moment: what humans can learn from this species?

Burtonnitta: Algae is a fascinating photosynthetic organism. It spans small single-celled forms to multi-cellular forms as found in the great kelp forests found in Japan. When given the optimum conditions, it is fast growing and can be grown in bioreactors in the domestic setting. It has the potential to capture carbon from the atmosphere, as it is being used in industry to ab-sorb CO2 from factory fumes. As a food source – edible algae is nutritious and requires lit-tle maintenance.

A range of animals that have formed a symbiotic relationship with algae inspire us. The mutual relationship they create allow them to adapt to otherwise limiting factors around en-ergy consumption. Algae is also a truly adaptable organism and can live in inhospitable lo-cations, for example, we find algae in lichen in a partnership with fungi. As humans face uncertain futures and are asked to adapt to changing environments, algae seems a perfect companion for us in this change.

Projects as Republic of Salivation, Lunar Potato, or Landscape Within, to name but a few – show that food is political. What value do you place on food and why is it so central to your research?

Our human relationship with food reveals fascinating insights into what it is to be human. It is both emotional and functional as a basic requirement to power us and our world. It can also be a seen as a driving influence on how we design the planet to meet our dietary needs. What we eat reveals so much about who we are and who we want to be.

For us, we are curious about what was happening 10,000 years ago at the birth of Agricul-ture. In this deep time perspective, when our human ancestors transitioned from being hunter gatherers to farmers, we began the human preoccupation to prepare for the future. In storing and setting crop seeds, these early agriculturalists were embedding their fears of potential scarcity and desire to control the environment through the medium of food. Fast forward to the current day, and agriculture has made us a highly successful species with a vast population. It has come at the detriment of planetary resources. We once again look

to our fears and desires for the future survival of our species and ask what food cultures are next?

Landscape Within is a challenge to the idea that diets based on our evolutionary past are still relevant in the future – when our world has moved on. As suggested by environmental epidemiology research, contamination and waste have changed some aspects of the food chain, which circulates on a global scale. The piece positions we face a choice of how our food systems and dietary behaviour now develop to meet this world of our making. We are fascinated by how the microbiome and the concept of the ‘human super-organism’, can create adaptations to live in contaminated and toxic environments where food is grown. In response, we worked with synthetic biologists to engineer bacteria to extract heavy metal contamination from our food. We created an external digestive system to connect these bacteria with our own gut system to enhance the existing gut flora.

The External Digestive System from Landscape Within, 2016
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta) with:
University of Edinburgh, Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology: Dr. Louise Horsfall, Dr. Michael
Capeness, Dr. Virginia Echavarri-Bravo, Dr. Matthew Edmundson.
Dr. Susan Hodgson, Environmental Epidemiology and Exposure Assessment, School of Public
Health, Imperial College London.
Supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award
Copyrights: All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

Biotechnology and synthetic biology have been, and often still are, feared as harm-ful and damaging, subservient to the logic of hyper-production and industrial ex-ploitation (see GMO cultures etc.). In the run-up to the climate change and echologi-cal catastrophe, the same technologies could offer alternatives to intensive live-stock farming and scarcity of resources, and therefore a solution to save our spe-cies and the planet; in which of these two boxes would you place them?

Burtonnitta: Tools such as biotech and synthetic biology are interesting starting points to open-up questions about human motive, rather than the tools themselves. We often probe the use of emerging technology to question ‘who we are as human beings’ and through contrasting applications of these tools inspire alternative versions of ourselves and subsequent fu-tures. So perhaps instead of using these technologies to make yet further alterations to the environment to fit with our human desires, we question how can they update the human animal to limit our impact. After all, we have already pushed the environment and other species beyond sustainable limits – perhaps it’s time we radically change ourselves? Per-haps we haven’t developed enough to thrive in the best way.

Through our work we feel these inspirational technologies should be shared and the wider public should be invited to engage in how and if these technologies should be used. So that we all have a choice and input into our future. Also, we feel more diverse voices that contribute to discussions about the future will ultimately benefit us all.

Most of your work questions food insecurity and nutrition but the most fascinating thing is that instead of focusing on alternative food sources you are actually recon-figuring the way we eat. What is your concept of “evolution” and what role will food play in this process?

Burtonnitta: Within our work, evolution can be seen as a continual process of adaptation and transfor-mation. On a basic level, food sustains us and embeds us to a global ecosystem. We like to see this as our behaviour in the world is eventually internalised into the body through food. You really are what you eat.

Our work doesn’t present solutions, but speculates how technology will ultimately update systems such as agriculture. The pieces reflect on the human animal and the external pressures that shape how technology might be used. The resulting world-views that we speculate in response to these technological disruptions act to remind us that actions and choices have consequences, often unseen or interconnected with other agents of change. When a technology and biological interaction is created, we proposition: we exist within a

complicated and connected world, with far-reaching implications on who we are, how we think, which inadvertently sends us on paths into unknown worlds. By understanding who we are as a human animal, we ask: can we evolve to future worlds and experience other ways of being?

Food Fictions, 2017
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta) with:
Dr Christine Barnes: Teaching Fellow, Department of Geography, King’s College London, Gemma
Layton: Host of Food Fictions dining experience: Actor/ moderator, Stellar’s sea cow explained
by Dr. Chris Manias: Lecturer in the History of Science & Technology, King’s College London,
Ondrej Matej: Nutritionist, Personal Trainer and Aikido instructor, Creator of Omni superfood.
Supported by Arts in Society, King’s College London and Somerset House Studios
Copyrights: All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

In his 2018 essay, the Italian philosopher Roberto Marchesini theorizes a new model for the posthuman by proposing an eco-ontology in which the human being is no longer identified simply as a decentralized unity, but rather as a relationship with the rest of the living and non-living matter. Looking at your work it seems that you approach design and art precisely from this perspective, am I correct?

Burtonnitta: Yes – we think you’re correct. We don’t know the work of Roberto Marchesini, and look for-ward to taking a look. One of our heroes is Lynn Margulis – who was an inspirational evolu-tionary biologist and proponent of symbiosis.

Whether our future is an interplanetary existence or just a post-Anthropocene, will the only way for us to survive be to reconfigure our biology? Does the continuous need for technoscientific developments make humans incomplete beings?

Burtonnitta: We consider humans to be continually evolving. Instead of seeing us as incomplete, we approach this as a constant process of adaptation and transformation. Previous states of our humanness were fit for that time. As we see with the extinction of other species, if we cannot change to shifting pressures, we will cease to exist. With the pressures we see dur-ing the Anthropocene, new abilities through the tools we create and changes in perception to accept and see ourselves differently, will help enable our survival.

You have published a quarterly magazine and recently an ebook, Alter You: what is the idea and the purpose of your editorial activity?

Burtonnitta: We create publications to develop and share ongoing enquiries and projects. The publica-tions help us reflect on our thoughts, research and work-in-progress. These usually de-velop into bigger collaborative projects.

Our editorial activity is also a way for us to share our work, methods, processes and ideas with a wider audience. We can reach people beyond our spheres of immediate interac-tions. The publications act to invite other people to connect with us.

We are also on Patreon where we share content and use as a test-bed to try-out ideas and invite feedback from our members. Our involvement on the membership platform is still at a very early stage, and we love the interactions with our members it enables.

The Reality Coach, 2020
By Burton Nitta (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta)
Copyrights: All rights reserved © Burton Nitta

Your very last work, The Reality Coach cards, is (quoting from your website) “a tool to inspire and guide thoughts to enable change” and it shows how mind capability of imagining different futures is pivotal for you. How can fiction be useful to the pre-sent?

Burtonnitta: The Reality Coach cards were the outcome of the initial COVID-19 lockdown. We built the tool as an outcome of a project called Altered Ways of Being. This is a project created in response to our involvement with a consortium of researchers called OktoLabs. This group of researchers studied the octopus as an amazingly intelligent animal with mind-blowing abilities. The octopus reveals tantalising future possibilities for human development. The

work we created in response focused on pushing our perceptions of reality to reveal the limitations of human senses and abilities. The Reality Coach creates tools, prompts and inspiration to push and pull what the potential of reality can be. From this vantage point we find a fascination in the play between the human mind (inner reality) and human world building capacity (outer reality). We ask: If we can be the best we can be, can we meet global challenges of climate change and mass extinction? How might we work on our-selves and minds, to make positive changes in our future trajectories?

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Federica Fontana

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