The video Mush Rooms was originally released as part of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial, organised by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and curated by Mariana Pestana, under the title of Empathy Revisited: Designs for More Than One.
To be contemporary might just mean to re-learn how to dwell in instability, in uncertainty. Now that the notion of progress (or capitalist modernism) seems to be quite fragile and finally questionable, whatever was a solid given or truth is in its way to evaporation. The viral crisis that the world population is going through confirms the volatility of a stable world as we have understood up to this day. The same crisis has called for or reminded us the importance of a political attitude towards newly perceived paradigms. Politics needs to enter, through new tools and new understandings, in many aspects of our everyday life. BUREAU’s attempt with this project is a small contribution to that positioning through a design piece, a world that’s indirectly inspired by Donna Haraway’s String Figures (and other SF’s) and Bruno Latour’s Gaia world (after Lovelock and Margulis), but will constitute a work on its own, with its own internal logic and character.
The work is a filmed performance of a meal preparation, responding, freely, to the format of the cooking show. It is a cooking performance by chef Walter El Nagar in front of a small public. Accompanied by a live musical experimentation by Filipe Felizardo, chef Walter performed cooking to work in and around decomposition and fermentation. The main ingredients and general framework for the performance directly derive from Anna Tsing’s book Mushrooms at The End of the World.
“Mush Rooms” by BUREAU with Chef Walter El Nagar and Filipe Felizardo. Views of the installation and performance (5th Istanbul Design Biennial, maat, Lisbon, 17/07/2020). Courtesy of EDP Foundation, Lisbon. Photos: By.
Interview with Mariana Pestana and Daniel Zamarbide
Conducted by Leonor Carrilho at maat Mode’s media room, in July 2020
maat / Leonor Carrilho
Hi Mariana. Can you briefly introduce the main topics of the 2020 Istanbul Biennial and tell us what you would like to explore/propose/reflect on in this programme?
Thank you for hosting us at maat! The title of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial is “Empathy Revisited: Designs for more than one”. It will take place from 15 October onwards and, in a sense, it has begun today, here at maat. So, it’s a biennial that is extended in time.
We want to explore how design plays a role in setting up relations and emotional connections between ourselves and our environment. You can expect to see three main lines of programming: one is a digital programme – the Critical Cooking Show. What you saw here today [July 17, 2020] is the beginning of one of them. This is a programme that explores food in an expanded sense, as a form of design, not only in terms of the food itself on the plate but also the design of landscapes and territories. The second line of programming is the Library of Land and Sea, an archive-like space in Istanbul where visitors can book a table, and that will host a number of research projects about the Mediterranean. These projects explore the geopolitical dimensions of what we could call “foodscapes”, the places where our food comes from and its impacts. And, finally, there’ll be a series of permanent interventions in the city of Istanbul titled New Civic Rituals. These include public furniture, gardens, playgrounds and new kinds of architectures that produce encounters between humans, but also with birds, stars, cats, microbial cultures even. They produce new protocols for an expanded, more-than-human model of citizenship.
What is this cooking project about? How did BUREAU get invited to participate? And, of course, why Lisbon and why maat?
The Critical Cooking Show is a series of episodes that will be broadcast every week, and these episodes explore food in its widest sense. I’m very interested in food today, because food is perhaps the most direct way for us to tackle the climate crisis in which we are living, and that is because we know that we must make a radical change to our diets in order to keep the global average temperature at a level that is safe for human survival. But also, food has this incredible capacity to generate discourse, because everyone has an opinion about food, everyone knows what they like and don’t like. So, it’s a really interesting way to begin a civic debate: how our food choices change us but also change the environment in which we live. The Critical Cooking Show is a programme that will host some of the most intelligent, exciting designers that are expanding our understanding of food and the impact it is having on the world today. The invitation to BUREAU came after we did an open call. For this edition of the biennial, we wanted to open the conversation and to receive contributions from different designers and studios. So, BUREAU initially approached us through the open call and then we began a dialogue which developed into what it is today. We’re incredibly happy that we began that conversation and that today we can celebrate this beginning here in Lisbon.
A large cooking table was the stage of the performance, specifically designed to constitute a landscape of living and inert materia of all kinds. The table, and thus the landscape oscillates between living, growing, decomposition and composition and our relation, as human spectators, to this otherness that we observe, contemplate and integrate into our body as a symbiotic act. Walter uses fermentation and mushrooms as essential ingredients of his chemistry. The idea that the matsutake mushrooms grow out of humanely destroyed or abandoned environments is central to the cooking.
Hi, Daniel! Could you explain what the Mush Rooms project consists of and why you invited Chef Walter El Nagar specifically and Filipe Felizardo?
Sure. It’s been a very quick series of events and a very quick and intense journey. Because, yes, we started with another project which would have been very interesting, and which we may do some day, about another political moment in the history of design. That was the Kitchen Debate, which was a discussion between Nixon and Khrushchev, which is where the discussion started. Then, of course, there was the Covid situation, and the whole format changed, or evolved, with the Istanbul biennial. I was a bit behind with my book-reading, but at the time I was reading this book by Anna Tsing, which is called The Mushroom at the End of the World. It’s a very poetic criticism of capitalism but a very positive one, in the sense that she develops a series of stories about food itself, about mushrooms, specific mushrooms… It’s a long story, it’s going to take a while… These specific mushrooms are matsutakes, which are originally from Japan, and have the capacity to grow in environments destroyed by humans. So, these are the mushrooms that grew after Hiroshima and after Chernobyl. They work collaboratively with the roots of trees, pine trees mainly, whereby when the soil on the land is very poor, they help the roots to nourish themselves and vice-versa, with the roots of the trees helping the mushrooms to grow. In the book, this is accompanied by another story, which is extremely interesting and poetic as well, and tough at times. It’s about this community of people that live in the forest in Oregon… The whole story happens in the forest, a forest that has been abandoned somehow, because the production was not efficient enough to provide enough wood – for firewood for the American economy. So it was abandoned in the 1960s and was then populated by a new group of people, the kind of people you see living at the margins of US society in the desert or a forest like this, for instance. So there is a great variety of marginal communities and, in this case, a lot of Asians, because they realised that they could cultivate or forage for matsutake mushrooms, which they regard as very precious. So, there’s a whole parallel economy going on. They harvest all these mushrooms and send them to Japan, where they are sold at very high prices. So that’s the background!
I’ve been very influenced by many things lately, but there’s a whole series of readings as well which are all parallel. Anna Tsing, a colleague of Donna Haraway, who is also a very influential person, and Bruno Latour, of course, and, even if it’s not exactly the same line of thinking, Peter Sloterdijk. So, there’s a whole series of connectivities that I’m very interested in, and in this design, we wanted to reflect on that, as there was this kind of political feeling about the whole Istanbul Design Biennial… I mean, not only a feeling, it was quite explicitly set out in the brief… But I wanted to tackle it with a poetic entry.
In this case, the collaboration with Walter El Nagar and Filipe Felizardo was very natural, in the sense that we… I don’t know who said it the other day, I think it was Walter… that we are all sort of like parasites; we have a parasitic approach towards our disciplines or fields. You know, Filipe doesn’t call himself a musician, he calls himself an artist; he sees music and the activity as one. Walter has a very critical point of view towards cooking and the cooking world. Of course, he’s a chef, so he has this exigency and the demanding of a pro, but at the same time has a very critical point of view. He has a subtitle a little bit like yours for the biennial: “Cooking for everyone.” He wants to do the best cooking, but for everyone. Right now, he’s launching a social project in Geneva to feed people who cannot even afford to eat – never mind “good” food, just normal food. And for a long time, I’ve had a critical and peripheral approach to architecture, as I’m trained as an architect… So, all these things together made for an interesting conversation. Once we started working together, things kind of popped up. Just to give a few simple examples, I wrote a short text, with a few thoughts about the subject, which I passed on to Walter, to which he said: “Ok, we have to work on fermentation; we have to work on moulds.” So, we had this idea and then, ok, fermentation needs an enclosed space, so we thought about a tent, a very simple tent that now exists that also works as a screen, because the finality is to make a short movie… Well, 30 minutes is not so short, but anyway… There were all these things together. And when I first contacted Filipe, we started to talk, and I listened to his music… Actually, he has a whole series of pieces that are called… I don’t want to get the name wrong… But basically, it’s a conference for a stone.
So basically, the set-up involved all this crossing of lines… And it takes me back again to Donna Haraway’s stringline theory, whereby you go with the flow, you look at how things happen and how stories connect. And that’s how the project evolved in the form that you have seen today.
I really believe that as an architect and as a designer, we don’t only work for people, we work for – it might sound very pretentious, but it’s actually the opposite – we work for the world.
There’s no difference between birds and worms and people, so I think we have to be a lot more multispecific.
There is also, just to come back to one of the things you said previously, Mariana… I really believe that as an architect and as a designer, we don’t only work for people, we work for – it might sound very pretentious, but it’s actually the opposite – we work for the world. There’s no difference between birds and worms and people, so I think we have to be a lot more multispecific. One of the first intuitive moments that I had in my life… I’m a big fan of cinema and one of my favourite cinema directors is David Cronenberg, whose take on parasitising has always appealed to me. Actually, at one point, in one of his movies called Existenz , there is this moment when a gamer has to plug himself in with this very umbilical, motherlike cord, and the guy is panicking. He says: “How are you going to inject this external world into my body?”. And the other one, the game master, whose name is Allegra Geller, looks at him and opens her mouth. So, she is basically saying: “We are connected. Whatever is here is actually entering my body all the time.” I love this idea and I think that what we did today is a little bit part of that, the way in which things evolve in music, architecture, design and food, and they get into our body and then maybe they come out… Whatever. There are all these connections that I really enjoy.
And one thing I want to say as well is that Filipe had an amazing reaction. He hadn’t read the book by Anna Tsing, and when I contacted him, I told him: “You know, what I would love to do is if we could echo the whole idea of smell.” Because in Anna Tsing’s book, smell appears over and over again, because these mushrooms are really smelly. And I told him: “In the film, we can’t smell, but sound can be there, so maybe you can turn yourself into a smell.” He loved this idea and tried to work on it. I don’t know if it’s very clear, there’s many things… But anyway…
During 30 minutes, Filipe Felizardo developed a performance from his series “A Conference of Stones” in the company of a mineral public. As he has stated himself, he attempted to “become a smell” through his soundscapes.
And what was it like to create a performance in a museum like this where the space has already been so extensively modified by SO – IL?
It is difficult and complex to work in a set-up that has been specifically built for the space. It has a heavy presence, both geometrically I’d say and aesthetically. But it’s okay, it’s also a context. That may come from my architect’s point of view. You always have context, so you must work with it, you can’t try to pretend that it isn’t there. That’s also why our design was extremely simple. One of the things that I really loved, and the people from my office will tell you, is the tube, the pink tube. It was my favourite design element. We spent a lot of time… I won’t get into details because it would be very long. The whole idea was for it to be extremely simple. And then of course to close this very basic tent, which for us was also an echo of the forest people and this DIY culture, a mix of DIY with very precise stuff. But also it was in response to the mesh that is everywhere. We didn’t want to compete with that, and we looked for effects that were not so far from what SO – IL had done. There was this whole idea of transparency, translucence and disappearance as well. So using this very cheap construction plastic there was also the idea of doing something else that was less proper, less nice but that could open a dialogue in another way. And you can really see that it has a different temporal quality. The SO – IL intervention is still temporary, still ephemeral, but it corresponds to another kind of temporary construction.
Today, we think about empathy as our capacity to understand other people’s expressions and feelings, but historically it had another meaning that needs to be brought back into the discussion: thinking about feelings, affections and relations. This performance could be exactly that, an approach to an old meaning of empathy, a reflection of the true substance of our body and how the connections that we create can take us to a different level of existence.
What can we say?
I think it would be good to discuss this [idea of] how we can connect and to rethink empathy and this level of feelings or affections. And how we can relate it to the main theme of the biennial, which is about an empathy that connects stones, birds and people.
That strikes me as maybe our biggest problem, the fact that we have somehow detached ourselves from nature. Statistics and numbers don’t work with us anymore, we’ve become numb.
I think it was really interesting to hear what you said, Daniel, both about how you offered a poetic response to what you saw foremost as a political statement, but also how you connect ideas around string connections and affect to the very modes of production of the work, resorting to friendship. When I first decided to start working in this area of empathy, I think what I was interested in was the report about soil by the IPCC that came out last year. For me, what was most impactful was that it showed that the places that were governed by indigenous communities or very small local populations had safeguarded biodiversity to a much greater extent – much more diversity of species, of course, and much more care and preservation of habitats. And I thought it was interesting because in those small contexts, often the relationship with nature is an affective one, to do with religion sometimes, but also to do with cultural practices. And that strikes me as maybe our biggest problem is a cultural problem, the fact that we have somehow detached ourselves from nature. Statistics and numbers don’t work with us anymore, we’ve become numb. And so perhaps the development of a more affective relationship through practice is an interesting way to go about it.
Yeah, I do believe it has been… And for me, these past years have been a revelation in that sense. Once again, I come from an architectural background, which historically is a very deterministic practice and culture. Especially after modernism, let’s say, after the 30s, architecture became a highway which lacked a lot of subtlety in many ways. I’m exaggerating and generalising a little bit, but when we talk about women, when we talk about multispecificity, then architecture kind of melts down because there are a lot of things that have not been considered for a long time. And in that sense, I was… I was talking about a revelation. It comes a little bit from reading, I have to say, which relates to how I work perhaps, and all those authors that I spoke about previously – Latour, Haraway and Sloterdijk, all these great thinkers. It was a revelation in the sense that you start looking around yourself with another perspective and different eyes. And I guess that’s how my practice also radically changed in 2012 and I started being interested in whatever design can be. And I don’t mind using the word “design” for my practice, which in some countries… It’s very natural in the Anglo-Saxon world but less so in the French-speaking world. If you say that you’re an architect and a designer, architects look at you a bit like that… frequently. I discovered David Holmgren, the “father” of permaculture, through the Sébastien Marot exhibition. He studied at design school, and he says that permaculture is the practice of design. This is recognition that at this stage of the evolution of humanity, everything is about design. Of course, agriculture is about design and permaculture is about design, so you cannot afford to neglect things, in whichever way. Taking care of things is also a matter of anticipating them, which does not mean acting on them in an aggressive way, as a traditional architect would do, but just dialoguing with the wider audience.
But inevitably you’re always implicating all those other agents. Voluntarily or not. From the extraction of materials… I mean, we know that architecture is one of the most polluting activities and, of course, every design has an impact that goes way beyond its immediate building. But I think what’s new is that after such recognition there’s a desire to work in a more conscious way. I think that in the last years the practices of architecture and design have been concerned with mapping out the impact of their own creations and consequences, these are forensic and investigative practices that are self-critical and investigate impact. And now we are at the stage where there is a series of practices, like yours, that are bringing that understanding of ecology into built or designed projects, which is really exciting. It’s also fascinating to see that there is a contemporary group of thinkers and writers – including the ones you mentioned – that are being devoured by a younger generation. This year I was an external examiner in a couple of universities and it was so interesting to see that this is what the new generation is reading. If you think about when we went to college, we were reading very different things, so I’m quite hopeful about what this will produce as well.
I think the good thing about these new practices… I’m not so new, because I’m getting old, but anyway…
It’s about the practice, a new form of practice that is consciously catering not just for the human client but for the many constituents – be them other species, landscapes, mineral bodies – inevitably impacted by design. This is the idea that I tried to capture with the biennial subtitle “designs for more than one”. It’s not a “new generation” type of biennial. We’re… inclusive when it comes to age (laughs), but it’s about capturing a movement, a change of paradigm in the field of design.
What I find interesting in these types of practices, I hope like mine, is that you have to reconsider the way you work completely, from the financial side too. Because, of course, architectural offices are where the money is, so you have to create an office… We all know how the evolution of an architectural office goes: at some point, you win a competition, then you have a bit of money and take on some people, usually your friends, or interns, and then you grow (best case scenario), you grow a little bit, and then you find yourself constructing buildings. These other practices, like mine, must find other ways of earning a living, because money doesn’t come from the things we love to do, like this. So, you should do things differently. And I think that is also very positive. Of course, I learn a lot from my friends who are artists, or the people who work in theatre. Even great artists must find parallel sources of income. There are artists who are only interested in selling and who are in the art market. But even then, the financial side is also very different. I think it is also very important in architectural culture to evolve the structures of doing architecture in a different way.
And that brings us back to matsutake again!
The performance culminated in a real meal where parts of the landscape were able to be eaten. The film will navigate between landscape contemplative images and the cooking and music performative act.
Yeah, exactly, it is a parallel economy. You have to find different ways to do your research. Of course, in many cases, it has to do with universities and schools, but I think there are many of them. Maybe not as many in Switzerland or in Portugal, as we were discussing before, but I know there are a lot in Spain, England, of course, and Germany. There are people everywhere practising architecture in different ways. I think that when people provoke me by saying that pieces like this are not architecture, I think: “Why wouldn’t it be?”. I don’t want to consider myself anything but an architect… I wouldn’t call myself an artist, of course not, because I think we have different mindsets, a different education. And, for me, all of this is also about building, and detailing, and construction, just on another scale and with another timeframe. And it’s also about telling stories…
And it’s an encounter, right? I think what’s really interesting here is that there’s this encounter at the microscopic level that we were just hearing about – these moulds, lactose and bacteria that have been working away there for the last two days. But there’s also an encounter between you and the team that formed around the project, and then, also today, with everyone tasting it. I don’t find the “is it architecture” discussion very productive, in architecture we’re obsessed with this… disciplinary cataloguing. It’s a terrible 19th-century baggage.
Yeah, of course. And I always refer to the… When I was teaching at HEAD, which is an art and design school in Geneva – I put a lot of emphasis on the idea of decorative [art]. I said that decorative [art] was good. It’s a discipline that has not been investigated for a long time because our profession is very [chauvinistic] and decorative [art] was associated with a feminine practice, so of course it was regarded as superficial and unimportant. I always referred to its pre-modernist beginnings, when it was growing – at the start of the 20th century and end of the 19th… I always liked to mention William Morris and the fact that his main work was actually designing wallpaper, which was a political act, because he was a socialist. He was one of the leading figures within the Arts and Crafts movement at that point. It evolved into the Werkbund… everything... and the first stage of Bauhaus. And there he was creating wallpaper with little birds on it!
Yes, exactly, but he was designing at his own scale. There’s this wonderful house that he built…
The Red House.
The Red House. You can really see there that he was actively experimenting with his own house. And I think that the scale… not the domestic scale but the scale of your body is possibly where you can best innovate, I’m not sure. But I think this is something to do with the kinds of practices that we’re talking about, where there’s a certain control over the size of the experiment. Interestingly, some experimental practices today, like Assemble, have been deeply influenced by William Morris and all that context. Even though they’ve been around and been very successful for a number of years, they’re not following a standard pattern of growth, and also are not building at a massive scale.
Definitely, yeah. Another interesting thing about Assemble, and it’s something that is happening a little bit in some parts of the world as well, is that some architects are also becoming builders, which is a very interesting. Like them, they have a full workshop and everything. This is something we’re starting to see a little. Those influenced by Patrick Bouchain, in France, are getting involved in building and trying to dialogue more closely. This is also a scale thing. If you’re building yourself, there is so much you can do!
And doing it with your own materials as well, by creating your own materials. All of a sudden… In some cases, making your own materials is the only option you have to liberate yourself from the industrial processes of architecture. And if you make your own…
Tiles, bricks, waxes, all kinds of materials. And I think that’s emerging very strongly as well, and I think it has to do with cutting ties with this pre-formatted model.
We’ve been doing something in the EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne] with the first-year students that we call “Houses”. I co-direct the laboratory that takes care of the first-year programme, and we started doing something that we consider kind of political, because we have 250 students coming in every year. About five years ago, we built a small structure with some of them. Usually, in the summer, we go on a retreat somewhere and we reflect on the following year’s programme. And somebody from the team said: “Why don’t we build a house?” To which we said: “Okay, let’s do it.” And we got it up and running… Now we’re changing it to “Gardens”, actually, but it’s a clear echo. This programme involves building very big structures with the students that we call “houses”. We built one on the Lausanne campus, one in Zurich, one in the new museum in Brussels and one last year in Evian, in France. This year, of course, we didn’t build anything. But the interesting thing is that you create a dynamic with these first-year students in which basically over the last month of the year, a little bit longer, the studios are turned into a huge workshop where we pre-fabricate everything and then we take it on-site and we do all the logistics. Everything is built by the students with very few tools. Sometimes it’s actually with handsaws and stuff like that. But the political act is that they get so involved, with our help, that suddenly in their free time they make themselves a chair. Or, at one point, they had to build a drawing board, so five or six of them… Once you get into the rhythm, you have the material, you have the tools, you have the right dynamics, and you cut the materials up and build a drawing board. You can imagine what that means. Sometimes I tell them: “Can you believe that you’re actually destroying Ikea by doing this? You’re confronting one attitude with another, and if you continue to do that, it can become very dangerous.” Of course, this is hypothetical, as it is within a very institutionalised context, but nevertheless I think the attitude is very interesting. By creating a community of people that connect with things and with context, then things can happen in a very ambitious way. You can build these small utopias that become real.
Definitely. And then architects can also decide or think about what is needed, right? I think that just saying “I’m building a chair because I need one” is a very political act. It is a recognition that the chair is needed in the first place. A chair is probably never really needed, but… being involved with programme and definition of needs and whose needs…that’s really empowering as a critical tool.
"Mush Rooms", 2020
Project: BUREAU – Daniel Zamarbide
Location: maat, Lisbon, Portugal
Context: 5th Istanbul Biennial – IKSV Design Biennial: Critical Cooking Show
Set design: BUREAU (Daniel Zamarbide)
Film direction: BUREAU (Galliane Zamarbide, Daniel Zamarbide)
Development and coordination: BUREAU (Jolan Haidinger)
Cooking: Chef Walter El Nagar with Kevin Peter
Live music: Filipe Felizardo
Set design production: maat (Francisco Soares)
Film production and editing: By
Cameras: Alexandre Cortez
Editing: Tiago Duarte
Materials: metal, plastic sheets, led stripes, marble, mushrooms
Area: 20 sqm
Completion date: July,-2020
Co-production: EDP Foundation and maat | Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology; IKSV Design Biennial
Istanbul biennial curated by Mariana Pestana
maat directed by Beatrice Leanza
"Mush Rooms" is an attempt to acknowledge that we are multi-specifically connected, that our body is less solid than we think, that the air that we breathe is less unsubstantial than what we believe. And that we really exist by dwelling within these multiple states.
In terms of architecture and design, the performance addresses indirectly the notion of reproduction and scale: how we work with models and miniatures to “represent” imagined worlds, how solid these representations are and how they can be part of our living experience as much as static representations of something to become. Somehow the installation can be also considered as a living 1:1 model.
Mush Rooms was presented at maat, Lisbon, on July 17, 2020, in the context of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial: Empathy Revisited – Designs for more than one, curated by Mariana Pestana with Sumitra Upham and Billie Muraben. This work was supported by EDP Foundation and maat | Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology.
Critical Cooking Show is a digital programme of films, lectures and performances that reimagine the kitchen as a space central to design thinking and production, screened as part of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial.
BUREAU is an architecture studio, furniture series, and editorial project by Daniel Zamarbide, Carine Pimenta and Galliane Zamarbide. They are based between Geneva and Lisbon.
Walter el Nagar is a chef known for dynamic and evolving menus, pop-up restaurant series, and his restaurant “le cinquième jour,” where experimental free meals are served on Saturdays to those in need. Active in gastronomy and social inclusion, he founded Fondazione Mater in 2020.
Filipe Felizardo is a Lisbon-based musician and visual artist; his work spans composing for solo electric guitar, writing and drawing, and installation and land-art works. He has previously released albums on Clean Feed and three:four.