Harvesting Energy from wastewater, algae and fermenting microbes. – by Maya Minder, Miranda Moss, Helen Pritchard & Ralf Schreiber
For the the invitation to participate at the ESCH22 European Capital the artists Maya Minder and Miranda Moss were invited to conduct a queer feminist eco-science workshop on Energy Harvesting with DIY methods. Let’s dig into the magically hidden paths of electricity and how to create “free energy” from scratch. Free energy not by the concept of free sunshine, but by digging into the ubiquitous universe of the most successful living species on planet Earth, Bacteria and fungi!
Microbes live in our intestines, in our cavities, in our wastewater, water ponds, soil, inside wood, between our toes, in the bark of a tree, in poop, in short – everywhere. They are the oldest species on planet Earth and will succeed us after our extinction. They generated life and evolution for billions of years, so why not dare to look more closely in bioremediation and biomimicry and how we can benefit from them.
The workshops investigate DIY energy generation, electronic art, citizen science, eco-materials and biopolitics, by making a Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) from the most common materials we can find in our kitchen and toolboxes and power them by our own sociopolitically-loaded urine, delicious tangy ferments and collected pond waters from surrounding urban places. The main heroines are their loaded microorganisms herein.¹ The electro-microbial activity is then sonified using a DIY synthesizer, using a design by the low-power sound and kinetic artist Ralf Schreiber.²
Maya Minder: “Electricity was always the most difficult subject in school, so complicated to grasp its physics. For as far as I understand the socket in our walls provides us with a ponderously free running electricity, never asking myself where it comes from and to whom it belongs. Especially as a woman I was told, dare you not to touch the socket. It is dangerous, it can kill you and please don’t try to understand why. Now, grown up I signed up to invest by local power supplier to a contract of 100% sustainable energy. Never asking further questions of how our electricity actually is made. Coming out of the socket electricity stays electricity, right? All coming from the same grid system, right? In the EU the average of our energy is made of 35% petrol based resources, 30% electricity and about 15% renewable energy. Electrical suppliers are governmentally regulated in most countries in the world. Every country has a specific orientation of how electricity is generated. But if a potato can fuel a LED by simple chemical tricks, and my ferments just bubble happily ever after, why not start to think of a regenerative system to re-imagine our supplier systems? Who or what is fueling our tablets, phones and computers and how much we are willing to restrain ourselves from those gadgets and the ideas of ponderously free floating energy. Staring back to the modest appearance of our three eyed sockets in the wall and asking all those questions I suddenly feel the desire to plug my finger into it! Warning !! (Do not try to do this at home, this is a rhetoric metaphor).”
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In a techno-economic climate where „power“ often equals power, this project asks if energy democratization, as well as as using regenerative engineering approaches could allow us to reimagine the electric, and the complex way these top-down infrastructures relate to ourselves and to our natural world and environment.
Miranda Moss: “I wanted to see if I could make my own electricity from scratch. Not just any electricity, but “regenerative” electricity, where Regenerative Design could be understood as not only striving to be sustainable or renewable -which I would argue is an insufficient strategy in tackling the damage already inflicted on socio-ecological systems – but aiming to enhance or improve environmental and social conditions. How could this be possible in a field that is based on rampant resource extraction and waste, and sprouted from a colonial-powered industrial revolution? Is this just how electricity – which most people including myself don’t really understand – works? So I set out to see if it would be possible for myself, with no formal training in science or engineering, to fabricate my own biofuel cells from scratch, relying entirely on natural and non-specialised materials and equipment, along with scrapped found objects and e-waste. Translating cutting-edge energy harvesting research into demystified, DIY forms. This art-science research project was propelled by a fascination originally with urine-powered Microbial Fuel Cells as they not only have the ability to produce (small, unstable amounts of) electricity, but are also able to treat wastewater by killing dangerous pathogens, as well as recovering valuable nutrients (that we get from plants and then just flush away), it can be used as fertilizer and thus help improving soil health. Sounds pretty regenerative to me.”³
Maya Minder: “As Miranda tells us, the discussion about energy or power is so often a question of power structures, running between privatization of state companies, national and international contracts, it still is a gross topic that hides behind many curtains (not only the iron one). The current crisis in energy might alert us in Europe to sensitize more, while shortages of energy and black outs have always been present and a pressing issue of the Global South sharing the imbalances of over-invested capitalized infrastructure in power systems . To realize that all the energy that we harvest is dangerous for our environment, we might as well investigate our time into a change of systems. Who or what is fueling our tablets, phones and computers and how much we are willing to restrain ourselves with those gadgets and the ideas of ponderously free floating energy.”
Helen Pritchard: “Regenerative practice and design⁴ carefully grounds itself in the context it is working within, acknowledging and working through the multiple historical trajectories that have led to a situation in which something is seen as in need of regeneration. A regenerative practice is therefore just as much one of restoration, remediation and careful listening to what is already present in the issue as it has come to be. Regenerative practice works with complex deep arrangements of the everyday. It is a practice of making or recovering knowledge within oppressive systems, and how this knowledge can fortify us and our communities.”
Working with these states of matter, the question of sensitizing ourselves is also to be able to participate in technology and in decision making for policy building, in a field which has been designed to be un-intervenable by these large-scale invisible structures and grid systems. Things that need close attention should also be decided collectively – how can we integrate and enable ourselves through technology, and work across communities?
Krautsource Energy with its DIY-approach and queer feminism is a practice to open up discussion and including people to participate in solidarity with the many modernities that our global spheres is made of. It is in line with ideas of regenerative practices, where maintaining or sustaining is usurped by the drive to improve or enhance the environment. The electricity-producing MFCs have the multi-function of simultaneous wastewater treatment and nutrient recovery which can help to restore soil health. Exploring bio-materials, eco-electronics and rethinking how we think about waste providing hands-on, yet playful, energetic agency to the participants, the workshops culminate in collaborative, co-created sound installations.⁵
With the fuel cells we make together in the workshop we can power signals using a small sound circuit, an LED, or the chip of a small computer – it can make us wonder – what else can we, and could we, power with such low and sustainable energy? What other types of wild energy are out there and how can we (re/un)design consumer electronics to run off of them, in pursuit of radically regenerative techno-futures?
„Cooking thus transforms us“, is a framework Maya Minder weaves like strings through her work. Cooking serves her to reveal the metaphor of the human transformation of raw nature into cooked culture and she combines it to the evolutionary ideas of a symbiotic coexistence between plants, animals and humans. She creates entanglements between human commodities and animism of nature. A table of diversity, not yet digested. Following the Biohacker, Maker and Thirdspace movement she uses grassroots ideas, safe zones and citizen science into her field to enable collective storytelling.
Miranda Moss is an artist, outsider engineer, ecogeek and rogue educator from Cape Town, South Africa. Her transdisciplinary practice, which focusses on the problematics and hopeful possibilities of technology from a socio-ecological and anticolonial feminist perspective, has seen her exhibit, teach and perform research across the globe in various art, science, community, academic, public and hacker spaces. After completing a Masters degree in sustainable design, focussing on microbial fuel cells in conjunction with the politics of municipal water, electrical and sanitation grids in her home country, she is now working as part of a research project “Regenerative Energy Communities; artistic and collective energy experiments for resilient agriculture”, alongside Helen Pritchard, Daniel Gustafsson and Eric Snodgrass, and is funded by the Swedish Energy Agency’s Program for Energy, People and Society.
Helen Pritchard is Professor and Head of research at IXDM at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design. Helen’s work considers the impacts of computation on social and environmental justice and how these impacts configure the possibilities for life—or who gets to have a life—in intimate and significant ways. As a practitioner she works together with others to make propositions and designs for computing otherwise–developing methods to uphold a politics of queer survival and environmental practice.
Ralf Schreiber studied sculpture art at the Art Academy Münster and media art at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. He works with electronics, with motors, microphones and tiny loudspeakers. This creates kinetic sound and light installations as well as electronic music. His works have a playful and experimental approach. It’s about minimal robotics, about random processes and self-sustaining systems. Small solar cells are often used for the power supply, with which he explores low-energy conversion processes from light to movement and sound. The output of his installations is usually minimal, meaning the sounds are very quiet, the movements sometimes on the edge of perception. In addition, he is involved in art and technology exchange and regularly offers workshops with circuit concepts and schematics of his works.
Hackteria and the zine – opensource
- a link to microbes + health (body and planet)
DIY BIO-ELECTROCHEMICAL ART
with anaerobic microbes + low power electronics
Returning to our imaginations when it comes to energy generation, electrical technologies, waste, and the power dynamics which permeate these narratives, is at the core of this ongoing project. Uncovering wild electricity – in this workshop in the form of Microbial Fuel Cells made from non-specialist and environmentally friendly materials – and seeing what and how we can power things with them.
Making our own electricity from scratch, the workshop aims to empower end users of electricity, while questioning the mainstream narratives of production, storage, transmission and consumption of this incredible force.
Working within the magical world of microbes, we can gain a deeper respect for these vital organisms, while investigating how electronics can work with such low power.
Aiming to demystify these disciplines, this workshop highlights aspects regarding DIY biotechnology, symbiosis, climate emergency, human-microbe relations, and the problematics in the history of the development of electricity and electronics.
The workshop will see participants investigating DIY energy generation, electronic art, citizen science, eco-materials and biopolitics, by making a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) from commonplace materials, which is powered by our own sociopolitically-loaded urine and the microorganisms herein. The electro-microbial activity is then sonified using a piss-powered DIY synthesizer, using a design by the low-power sound and kinetic artist Ralf Schreiber.
In line with ideas of regenerative practices, where maintaining or sustaining is usurped by the drive to improve or enhance the environment, the electricity-producing MFCs have the multi-function of simultaneous wastewater treatment and nutrient recovery which can help to restore soil health.
Regenerative Design: https://www.arup.com/perspectives/regenerative-design
Exploring bio-materials, eco-electronics and rethinking how we think about waste,The project aims to demystify electronics and foster a culture of radical sustainability and awareness relating to energy generation and usage. Providing hands-on, yet playful, energetic agency to the participants, the workshop will culminate in a collaborative, co-created sound installation.
Since we can power signals using a small sound circuit – or an LED – it can make us wonder – what else can we, and could we, power with such low and sustainable energy? What other types of wild energy are out there and how can we (re/un)design consumer electronics to run off of them, in pursuit of radically regenerative techno-futures?