The art of sustainability

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What better way to spend your bank holiday Monday than learn about a type of cheese made from the bacteria in Professor Green’s bellybutton? This week, my sister and I made our way to Knightsbridge to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum for a day of education, inspiration and a hint of caseiculture. We started at the Dior exhibition which was, truthfully, remarkable and then made our way to the less imposing but equally impressive showcase of daisy laden fashion from Mary Quant. For our final jaunt we travelled to the other side of the museum to ‘Food: Bigger than the Plate’ where I was especially looking forward to seeing a lump of cheese made from Heston Blumenthal pubic hair bacteria and that had then been carved into a bust of his head.

It wasn’t what I expected. The exhibition was separated by white sheets hanging from the ceiling, stark lighting and white walls and floors. If it wasn’t for the sporadic flashes of flower and fruit covered wallpaper, we could have been in a science lab. The moment we walked in, we were confronted by a video of clips demonstrating the different ways food was produced, handled and distributed across the planet. I soon realised that, rather than going around marvelling at different ways food could be made into art, the exhibition was going to be an educational process bringing together politics, social pressures and innovative ways of sustainably producing goods. There were a number of things that stood out for me. Firstly, the fact that it was possibly to create a huge exhibition solely based on sustainable production of food and goods meant two things. One, that people were paying attention to our dire climate change situation and two, that there were already many things being done to combat our throw away culture.

The second thing that I realised is that what we eat is one of the most important decisions we make, and we make it more than once a day, every day. Not only do we depend on food to survive, it also gives us immense pleasure, nostalgia and feeds our emotions. Some of the biggest challenges we face as a global community develop from what we eat and the way we choose to produce, distribute and consume our food. As many of us are reluctant to find out where our food comes from, the distance between fork and field becomes wider than ever and therefore we feel increasingly detached from the magical process of growth and nutrition. When it comes to the population of the planet, we are entering into unprecedented territory. As technology develops and societies transform at a rapid rate, we can make the most of the position we are now in to determine what the rest of human existence looks like; this exhibition demonstrated a number of ways innovative ideas are shaping our food future

In Hong Kong, one of the least affordable places to live in the world, there is a collection of farmers, artists and designers who grow and produce food on rooftops around the city. Not only does this provide sustainable nutrition, but it also encourages people to explore farming activities that are based on mutual support. By sharing harvests and practising self-sustainable food production, this project helps those involved to understand the importance of what we eat, the land we inhabit and the relationships we have among the community. 

In a technologically developing world, it would seem almost infantile not to attempt to use technology to solve our sustainability crisis. The Personal Food Computer project takes farming out of the fields and experiments with other methods that encourage food growth. This computer, which looked like a glass shoe box illuminated by fluorescent lights containing three basil plants and accompanied by an IPad, uses ‘robotic systems to adjust and monitor climate, energy and plant growth inside a specialised growing chamber’. Within the chamber, it is possible to determine the climatic conditions and, by changing the water, temperature and soil nutrients, one can understand the optimum environment for the growth of that particular plant. Now, as I left behind any scientific education in 2010, I will not pretend to understand the scientific method behind this project. However, I do understand that this computer system will encourage agricultural research into how we can maintain the production, flavor and nutrition of food in a more sustainable manner.

At the end of the exhibition I was exhausted. My eyes hurt from the bright lights and white walls and my brain hurt from information overload. I didn’t see a Heston Blumenthal made of pube cheese, but I did learn that on a one day journey from a tree in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland, a single banana travels 8800 km, crosses multiple national borders and passes through 33 pairs of hands. It’s safe to say that from now on I will be buying local produce, supporting my community and growing anything I possibly can before I eat another exhausted banana.

art artists bacteria banana bellybutton blumenthal caseiculture challenge change cheese climate computer consumer culture decision designers developing dior earth education educational emotion exhibition experiments farmers field food fork fruit global growth handled harvest heston heston blumenthal human important innovative knightsbridge la mary quant museum nutrition planet plant pressures produced production professor green project pubic hair quant relationships science self-sustainable social sustainability sustainable technology V&A vanda victoria and albert wallpaper world

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