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Could Mushrooms Hush Rooms?

From ad hoc laser bike lanes to a potential technological (hyper)reality in your head, a variety of ideas and disciplines are currently on display in Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design. Fostering experimentation across a range of practices, these fluid exchanges between artistic and scientific communities not only generate ideas about what the future holds, but also motivate reflection on current conventions in an otherwise unearthly light. Plant Facts Plant Fiction and Growth Assembly are two such works in this new exhibition that offer similar but distinct prospects for imbuing plant life with human design.

The Troika Design Group contemplates the future of synthetic biology in Plant Facts Plant Fiction. Shown in intricate photographic detail, designer plants serve as individual case studies that advance such questions as “Could mushrooms hush rooms?” and “Can we cultivate computers?” These hybridizations relate a divine optimism about the future functionality of cross-disciplinary design. Gold Weed (Brassica aurea) processes metal in landfills and Selfeater (Agave autovora), seen above, breaks down its own cellulose for the fermentation of ethanol.

Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Growth Assembly applies similar notions regarding plant life and synthetic biology to the economics of assembly production. By collaborating with illustrator Sion Ap Tomas, Growth Assembly grounds the fantastical notion of growing products inside of plants in the historical realm of botanical illustrations. Engineered morphogenesis becomes something you might find in an old Sears & Roebuck catalog. Far from projecting an inevitable scenario, these conceptual plant species encourage us to think about the future we endeavor to create together. Pohflepp and Ginsberg, for example, imagine shops evolving into factory farms where licensed products are grown where sold and the postal service delivers lightweight seed-packets for domestic manufacturing.

Whether wittingly or not, these exercises in design update a rare and neglected practice of taxonomizing outlandish flora and fauna. The Voynich Manuscript, thought to date back to the 15th century, is like an encyclopedia to a different world, full of strange diagrams and written in a cryptic language that has baffled codebreakers since its discovery in 1912. Similarly, though less mysterious in origin, Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini explores the biological and social functions of a menagerie of bizarre plants and creatures in his Codex Seraphinianus, published in 1981 and seen above. Though Growth Assembly and Plant Facts Plant Fiction are drawn from rigorous work across disciplines, I still found striking parallels to these seemingly less scientific explorations of fantasy floristics. Each of these evocative works creates open-ended questions about the quality of life on our planet by illuminating the inner workings of a parallel world.

The Troika Design Group. Plant Facts and Plant Fiction, 2010. The Art Institute of Chicago, funds provided by the Architecture & Design Society.

Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Illustration by Sion Ap Tomos. Growth Assembly, 2009. Courtesy of Sascha Pohflepp and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Objs. 206751-58.

Luigi Serafini. Codex Seraphinianus, 1981.