Sometime ago a small mechanism attached to the wall of a museum space caught my attention. It consisted of three mini vans and a petri dish that was said to contain the Cryptococcus neoformans: a fungus found in the ruins of the nuclear power plants in Chernobyl. Not only is this fungus able to survive under high levels of radiation, but it is also believed to live on radioactivity. This information made me wonder: could this strange clumsy mechanism be a first step to solving the problem of nuclear waste? Or, is it dangerous to take an artwork this seriously?
For Fernando Cremades, the artist and architect behind the work, the cryptococcus neoformans is an obsession. In the Touched by Art lecture series, he explained this work and related projects. Over the past five years he has collaborated with researchers and set up several small projects in order to further investigate the topic of the fungus. He studied how the fungus works, learned how to measure levels of radiation and developed prototypes in order to test his findings.
One example is a small device that has been measuring for three months levels of radiation in a gallery. Why in a gallery? Well, radiation can be found everywhere, Cremades explained. Small amounts can be found in our bodies, the spaces which we inhabit and therefore also in galleries. It only becomes a problem when large amounts accumulate. And by the way, did you know rats are more resistant to high levels of radiation in comparison to human beings? Yet, there seems to be another reason for placing the prototype in a gallery which has to do with something completely different: funding.
When introducing his work, Cremades explicitly emphasized that his research is made possible by prize money and grants from the architecture and art world. The funding can on the one hand simply be seen as a means to realize his quest of investigating different applications of the fungus. Yet, on the other hand, it also sets the rules of the game. In contrast to academic research, Cremades is able to go beyond the possible and enter the speculative world of fiction.
In the (beautiful!) design drawings he showed this is quite clear: some sort of organic astronaut clothing and hobbit-like houses should make highly polluted places liveable for human beings again. The designs for the clothing and houses are a result of studying both the current technology used by workers in Chernobyl and advancing the applications of the fungus or similar organic processes.
The question is, however, how much fantasy there is in the over all quest of Cremades’ work. If it is up to him, all projects gradually lead to a large experiment in which the applicability of the fungus is tested. The idea is to make drones spread the spores of the fungus over radioactive territory, after which the values of radiation are measured. If the fungus happens to reduce radioactive waste, the small mechanism I described in the opening really hinted at better future. It is this horizon of the possible that makes Cremades’ work laden with hope. With his art he brightens the pessimistic discourse on the ecological crisis with the joy of inventing.
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Visit Fernando Cremades’ website for more information about his work!