When Aroussiak Gabrielian, an assistant professor at USC Architecture, was pregnant with her daughter, she was amazed at her body’s ability to produce and deliver the exact nutrients her child needed. At the same time, she was immersed in literature relating to her doctorate about “post-humanity,” or the way humans can be more than human in the future. As a landscape architect concerned with how to use design to address climate change, all this got her thinking about if humans could use our bodies to feed more than just infants. What if we could grow our food right on our backs? What if we could wear a landscape that, along with benefiting ourselves, served as an ecosystem for plants, animals, and insects?
That’s the concept behind Gabrielian’s Posthuman Habitats, a speculative design project now on view in Beijing as part of Human (un)limited, a joint exhibition by Hyundai Motorstudio and Ars Electronica. Made from moisture retention felt in which seeds are embedded, the project is essentially a wearable garden vest that grows crops nourished by bodily waste, that also serves as a habitat for some small creatures.
“On the global level, it’s addressing issues of human food security, but really . . . it tries to imagine possible futures for living more cooperatively with the nonhuman world, because the organisms, microorganisms, the predators and pollinators are all creatures that not only help but are integral to the growing of our food,” Gabrielian says. Soil depletion, droughts, and flooding could threaten our food production, and to best survive in that future, she says, we need to move away from designing things that only serve humans, instead thinking of ways to be more collaborative and ethical with our surroundings.
A prototype of this wearable garden yielded 20 pounds of crops over only a few weeks. It grew 40 different types of vegetables, including cabbage, arugula, broccoli rabe, kale, peanuts, peas, mushrooms, strawberries, and herbs like sage, rosemary, and lemon thyme. The majority of the crops were microgreens, which contain up to 40 times the amount of nutrients as their “macro” counterparts and were able to be seeded directly into the fabric. The other vegetables could be planted within the cloak using soil pockets.
These prototypes were displayed on mannequins and given nutrients and water, and put under a grow light. The speculative design also includes a system that would use the wearer’s sweat and urine (filtered using osmosis), as well as the waste from creatures who occupy the cloak, as nutrient sources.
Gabrielian herself wore one of these wearable gardens when her project was exhibited at the American Academy of Rome. It’s an interesting experience, she says; “It’s warm but it’s also moist. It’s heavy. It really puts you into very haptic contact with [the] live matter of landscape.” This kind of close contact could get people more personally invested, she hopes, not just in where their food comes from but also in the ways we’ll navigate our uncertain future.
This project is an apt fit for the Human (un)limited exhibition, which explores the limits of humanity, and the position of humans in our environmental future. “The hope is to awaken [people] from the kind of passive position they’ve taken on climate issues, to realize what extremes humanity might have to go to to survive,” Gabrielian says. “It’s not trying to solve the food problem or the soil problem, but bring the issues around the environmental crisis into the palpable scale of the body.” She’s noticed through previous work that the scale of climate change is often either too large (planetary) or too small (molecular); by putting the weight of our food production right on our backs, and the ecosystem of decomposers like worms and pollinators such as bees up close to our faces, we understand the issue on a more personal level.
Also at play is the fact that humans are pretty selfish. “Because the cloaks would be safeguarding our own survival, we’re kind of forced to take care of the plant life and the animal life that would be necessary to get our crops to grow,” Gabrielian says. “It’s taking that selfish attitude and putting it to use.”
The next steps are to quantify its health impacts and its carbon-offset capabilities. She’s hoping to develop it further with an automated system, so the vest could ask for water, sunlight, or nutrients when the plants need them. When our soil is degraded and we have to return to a migratory lifestyle to flee floods and other climate impacts, Gabrelian sees the vest as a potential solution. “What kind of a society would we create, what kind of new rituals would we invent, if this is the way in which we grew our food?” she says.