Théo Lepage-Richer

Fab Academy / Digital Fabrication 2015

The Organic Balance

Over the course of my Master’s, I became strongly interested in the application of critical theory and cultural studies to the study of biotechnology and its associated discourses. As I tend to remain skeptical of this field’s promises – with its disciplinary roots anchored in some cross-hatching between physics/engineering and cybernetics – I decided to imagine for my final project something that would be from the start nothing but an attempt at a failed experiment playfully building upon its most morbid aspects. Away from technics using life as a metaphor, it is life as energy and matter that I want to exploit as my point of departure – quite literally.

As I see it now, the object I would try to build during the term could be referred to as a “life quantifier”. Composed of two pieces – a home-made microbial fuel cell alimenting in energy a digital balance and display (sketched below) – the sole aim of this machine would be to measure the difference in weight between the microbial fuel cell with some freshly added organic matter (flies, a mouse, &c.) and its weight after this same organic matter has been processed. The difference between the two – however small it will probably be – could then be called the ‘weight of life’. The machine therefore stages an interesting paradox that is fundamental to the question of the technicization of life – life as being ‘created’, quantified at the site of its technicization, yet destroyed at the same time by this very process.

It is clear that this whole endeavor has no pretention outside being a speculative design project. The timespan necessary to process a sufficiently big amount of organic matter to activate the machine will probably be so long that witnessing a full ‘cycle’ would be impossible for the evaluation committee of Fab Academy. Yet, I am confident that this project encompasses enough of the curriculum’s means of digital fabrication and embodies a broad enough range of technical challenges – from integrating the regular lack of power to the machine’s very protocol to doing the necessary researches in basic, DIY microbial fuel cell methods – that it will live up to the program’s criteria.

To conclude, I need to acknowledge what inspired this project. From a more conceptual perspective, I have been interested for quite a while now in Jean-Luc Nancy’s radical, Benjaminian stance that there is no life outside its technicization, but it is actually the interaction design duo Auger/Loizeau’s Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots (see below) – a bunch of domestic devices capturing and processing flies to produce their energy – that oriented me towards an engagement with microbial fuel cell technologies and their quantification of life through its destruction. That being said, it is while rethinking about this scene from Blue in the Face - a scene referring to Sir Walter Raleigh and his bet with the Queen that he could weight smoke - that I had my eureka moment:

Inspiration - Digital Fabrication 2015 from Theo L. Richer on Vimeo.

Here are few resources that I have already reviewed for the fabrication of my own microbial fuel cell, but further notes will be added below as my researches will continue:

Your Name

  • Week: 01
  • Subject: Project Management
  • Type: Speculative Design
  • Objective: Elaborate the basics of a potential final project

Project 01a
This first (very elementary) draft shows the shape that the result of this project would take if I end up opting for the most basic, "mud-based" kind of microbial fuel cell. These cells are indeed very matter-consuming , but they are also the easiest to build, so I decided to make my first draft based on them. That being said, if granted access to more specialized materials or insights from specialists in the field, I could aspire to build a slimmer, more elegant version, such as a enzymatic biofuel cell that for instance could aliment an arduino for days with a single fly.
Project 01b
Flypaper robotic clock is one of Auger/Loizeau's Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots. It uses flypaper to catch flies and 'scrap' the captured insects into its microbial fuel cell placed underneath. The energy generated is used to activate a LCD clock, as well as the motor turning the rollers.