Maple Syrup Art: Nature as Inspiration

Jason Arkell-Boles // Columnist

In the age of climate change, feeling terrified for the future is the new norm. Forests burning down, cities flooding, even the sudden mothpocalypse in Vancouver—hopelessness seems to be the trend of the year. However, unreported by social media and the news, new technologies are being produced faster than ever, technologies that can totally redesign the world. Instead of cities living beside nature, cities could become a part of nature. A few weeks ago I watched an episode of the docuseries Abstract: The Art of Design that featured Neri Oxman, a bio-architect and professor at the MIT Media Lab. This lab is a glimpse into the most exciting future none of us thought would exist. A future that’s one with nature. A future that’s plastic-less, pollution-less and maybe even harmless.

The MIT Media Lab represents the perfect intersection of science, engineering, design, art, and nature. With a diverse team of artists and scientists, the lab is venturing into the unexplored field of bio-design: the design of objects inspired by nature. One example, Mushtari, is a 3D-Printed article of clothing filled with synthetic microorganisms that transforms sunlight into consumable sucrose. Another is Aguahoja, an art project that proposes a new, growable, biodegradable material that could someday be a replacement for plastic. 

It blew my mind that neuroscience and biology are at the point where humans can grow structures. As Neri Oxman explains in the docuseries, humans are moving from nature-inspired design to design-inspired nature. I couldn’t believe people weren’t talking about this more. Immediately after watching the episode, I began research into bio-design firms within Canada. To both my surprise and disappointment, there isn’t a lot of bio-design present outside of the MIT Media Lab. 

Throughout Canadian art history, nature has been the muse of several great artists such as Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. While nature has always played a vital role in inspiring the works of Canadian painters, the desire to save and preserve the environment has become a new inspiration for artists. Take musician Grimes’ latest album Anthropocene, Margaret Atwood’s novel MaddAddam, or Brett Story’s documentary The Hottest August. Each project with its own perspective delves into issues of climate change, either based in reality, fiction, or avant-garde fantasy. 

In my own films, themes of climate change make it into every script. Even so, an issue for myself and many up-and coming-artists is feeling like we’re unable to incite real, physical change with the art we make. With clouds of wildfire smoke filling the skies, it’s hard for anyone to feel optimistic. In a world so uncontrollable and volatile, artists attempt protests, political works, films—but a true and radical change in society never occurs, leaving many hopeless.

If nature has historically been so important to the artists of Canada, why hasn’t bio-design—a beautiful collaboration of nature and art—been explored here? If humans, in theory, have the means to build inexpensive, organic—essentially utopian—structures and buildings, why haven’t we? I think the answer is a lack of communication between scientists, artists, designers, engineers, and in fact, all academic fields within Canada.

So if artists aren’t able to journey into bio-architecture, then what has the science department been doing in this regard? The answer: actually a lot. With programs like the Bachelors of Environmental Design and the BioProducts institute popping up at UBC, innovations are happening left and right. This past summer, using locally sourced wood fibers as the core material, the BioProducts Institute recently developed potentially the world’s first biodegradable N95 mask in the heat of a pandemic. But this is an art column, so, where can artists fit into this equation? The answer, I believe, is that artists should be a part of the equation, from start to finish. 

My roommate Naomi is one of many design thinkers in the graphics-based IDEA program at Capilano University. In their final year, IDEA has all of its students submit a ‘capstone project,’ which is an opportunity for each student to find a social, political, or environmental issue and solve it through design. This can come in the form of books, apps, ad campaigns, and websites. Naomi is trying to solve the issue of nursing shortages, by inspiring more men to pursue nursing careers. 

What these students do is impressive, but it’s hard not to think about what all these artists and designers could do if they were to collaborate with scientists, engineers, architects, and even neuro-surgeons. What if artists in all disciplines didn’t limit themselves to traditional art forms, what if they could begin to create art inspired by nature, by growing art pieces? And on the other end of the spectrum, what if scientists and engineers didn’t have to limit themselves to strictly practical applications of their studies? 

The freedom to explore artistic modes of thought can create beautiful objects that communicate artistically with the human body, similar to Mushtari. Through a collaboration of science, engineering, designers, and artists, the potential for projects using just local wood fibers is huge. If artists embrace the nature around them and start hanging out with scientists, engineers and architects, maybe they could truly change the world now, when we need it most. 

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