In Addition to Permission: Electric Lifesaver Dino Blood II  (2017)
A collaborative bio-art installation by Sarah Max Beck and Robert C. Beck

Water, plants, aquatic organisms, urine, salvaged lumber, hand-blown glass, post-consumer plastics, pvc, electronics and steel

9’ x 4’ x 8’

555 Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts

Through our work, we explore the question of how humans can best become probiotics for this organism we call a planet and change our current relationship as pathogens, and how good stewardship of resources can save us as a species. This installation filters human urine through a recirculating water system and is growing food and medicine on-site in the gallery. It could be viewed as commentary on the necessity of providing for our needs as a species in a holistic way; the more consideration we have for other species and food systems, and the more room on the planet we make for biodiversity, the more stable and productive the entire system becomes.

It’s late Friday evening. Clinks and chatty sounds of parties from around the streets of South Boston echo into the after-hours stillness of the gallery where we prepare our new installation to receive living organic material. Five gallon buckets glint with tiny schools of small freshwater fish, shrimp, crayfish, snails (and somewhere in there a frog) while the hiss of compressed air and the gurgling sound of water call back out from the room. Louder than that though, the arguably garish royal-violet-pink hue of the radiant LED grow lamps flood the gallery walls. Berries, blossoms and verdant fronds bob in light reminiscent of an impending rave party, and this odd spectrum- one that any strawberry plant would love to make fruit under- spills out the door and washes down the sidewalk out front.

Everything is going well as we begin testing the water added earlier in the day from Boston’s finest (carbon-filtered) tap water. The alkalinity and pH are a perfect match for the living bio-filtration media we transported from our studio in Brooklyn. Valve #1: check, valve #2: check, valve #3: check, phew! Let’s crack open that bubbly! We officially have reason to celebrate after successfully assembling well over several hundred parts in just a few hours with only a few tiny drops of water spilled.

With the system’s valves and controls tested and adjusted, we’re ready to fill the hand blown glass vessels and recycled plastic containers. We add the cultured bio-filtration media and -what we fondly refer to as collage material- the collection of aquatic and terrestrial edible and medicinal plants. Carefully curated, this living material becomes housing and habitat for our aquatic creature collaborators. A community forms, which includes soil-based micro and macro organisms, where members are able to foster one another in a positive feedback loop.

After celebrating all this progress with that bubbly, we are ready to add the final piece into this puzzle: the urine.

As it turns out, our bodies are walking nitrogen and nutrient salt factories. We’re talking the same stuff that makes up mined, commercially available fertilizers which must be diluted before use on plants, and the same goes for urine. 1 part freshly “harvested” urine to 9 parts water is a safe and effective fertilizer application.

Human-centric ecosystems are not a new concept. They are as old as human settlements really, but in our more recent history, they have become so human-centric that planetary biodiversity has been reduced to an apocalyptic state. A seemingly slow apocalypse that, in the grand scheme of the timeline of life on Earth, isn’t actually slow at all.

We propose that our current trajectory as a species on the near-future timeline of Earth is easily traced out in front of us if one references the effects of a bacterial infection or parasitic infestation in any host organism: the host’s immune system is triggered and a number of defenses are put into action to cleanse the organism and bring things back to balance. If we risk speaking in hippie metaphor -only to realize there is no metaphor- to say the forests and oceans are the lungs of this planet; the soil is the skin and the digestive system, detoxing and protecting and culturing a healthy biome. Wetlands are the liver, the kidneys. One could argue that Earth is running a fever and we are the bugs it is trying to eradicate.

Our hypothesis is that something as simple as protecting and building the soil is enough to change that trajectory. We are discovering through this work that if something as simple as compost was allowed to do its thing, it could remediate all toxins within the greater biome. About that apocalypse; what if enough humans partnered with the planet’s existing “immune system” in a way that carried the rest of them along as well and, what if probiotics have a conscious choice to, in essence, culture themselves? Art and culture have gone hand-in-hand as long as human-centric ecosystems, really. Our collective daily choices must simply tip the balance between mimicking probiotics as opposed to parasites.


Sarah Max Beck and Robert C. Beck