Digestion - Rachel Armstrong and Rolf Hughes - I, Holobiont

I, Holobiont

Rachel Armstrong and Rolf Hughes

Rachel Armstrong, Blind Appendix, 2022.

September 2022

How It All Began

Scene: Sales office at I, HOLOBIONT. Telesales worker speaking.

“Yes, Madam. Embryologically-speaking, your living home is grown from a primitive architectural streak which is cultured by hand in our studio using the stem cells that you provide. It’s all done according to a microbial intelligence-generated contract. Of course, ask away! Yes! It’s technically a ‘creature’ according to the definitions in the 2041 Artificial Embryology Bill. It’s also categorized as a co-inhabitant, so obviously you’ll need to declare it in your census. That’s right! You get to say exactly what kind of creature you want. The design process is based on the principle of co-existence that underwrites the formation of biofilms. Let me explain that. Layer-by-layer, we select different types of inductive tissue that produce many important signaling molecules to match them with specific household functions. These are outlined for your perusal in our initial circular home analysis catalogue. Once the primitive streak reaches a basic maturity, and we verify the potential delivery of your household tasks, we introduce its soft microbial body into an attractive ceramic framework within your home. The bespoke range of designs on offer are commissioned from some of the world’s leading ceramicists. Within these ceramic artworks, you will culture and train your microbial companion to maturity. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it! It becomes second nature after a while! Each embryonic co-habitant grows—think of mollusks inside shells! In time, you’ll see bone-like extrusions emerging from the ceramic scaffolding, which will then organize and attach themselves to form a direct material link between their soft bodies within and your domestic structure. A flowering microbial co-habitant is quite lovely to behold! It’s like watching your houseplants climb a training scaffold at an accelerated pace! The fully-formed vital system is grown as primordial architectural streak and human work symbiotically, each supporting the other. No two co-habiting symbionts are ever the same. They steadily grow in complexity and ability as you train them. Indeed, you even share the same resources and forge memories together! Imagine that! You’ll have fun trying to keep up with all the little characters as your creature self-propagates within the ceramic framework! Over time, your co-habiting symbiotic community makes constant adjustments to their composition, all done in keeping with your household contract. It’s written into their program. Organizing themselves around your activities of daily living, they instinctively fine-tune their relationship with you through the assimilation of microbial cultures, soft robots, and synthetic organisms to complete your ‘living home.’ Steadily transitioning towards an even more complex, collective identity known as a holobiont, in which you get to play an important part, this rich symbiotic community become integrated into a unique lifeworld, gradually acquiring specialist functions, or ‘organs’ that play an integral role in making up your maturing living home. Yes, everyone names them. Pet names, mainly, but some use the name of a past partner, which always strikes me as a little kooky or spooky! But not to worry, we leave nothing to chance. To guarantee a positive relationship, our offer involves a unique prayer that accelerates consummation between microbe and human. This will be written specifically for you and your desired ‘living home.’ It can be maintained by reciting a short metabolic ritual. No need! Our in-house professional artists will choreograph and stage the whole thing for you. Yes, a one-stop shop indeed! Oh, most opt for direct debit—set it and forget it, I say.”

Edith’s Prayer

Edith flushes.

“Thanks, Eurydice. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Settling on one of a series of organs wrapped up in various layers of natural building materials, surfaces, and fabrics comprising the home’s interior, Edith tries, once again, to imagine Eurydice in her totality.

Most of the digitally enhanced, synthetic muscle that comprises her functional tube is hidden behind a veneer of painted ceramics with butterflies, birds, and flowers in the style of an eighteenth-century hand. In various places the active membranes are exposed. Stippled with moisture, the apertures offer a glimpse of the different ecologies, microbial communities and “micro-worlds” within the ceramic framework—the flesh that gives life to her organs.

Her hot breath leaks into the cool air from her listening membranes, which are knitted from protein fibers. They capture ambient vibrations. They also allow the co-habitant to sweat. On certain days, Eurydice’s innards can get hot and even explode. Luckily, the listening membranes blow first.

Unable to tell whether the co-habitant is breathing, or snoring, Edith bends closer.

“What did you say?” she draws close until she feels a bead of water form on her ear. “Goodness, your breath stinks like a dragon today! I’d best improve my diet!”

Plucking a handful of blueberries from the functional soils, produced by the co-habitant from domestic waste, Edith scatters them onto her homegrown oats. She tops them off with a heaping spoonful of probiotic royal jelly containing the exact nutritional requirements to cure bad breath. Made by worker honeybees from the hive that lives under the ceramic outgrowth encasing the kitchen window frame, the milky secretion typically contains 70% water, 15% proteins, 10% sugar, 3% fats, and 2% vitamins, salts, and amino acids. She licks the spoon clean, enjoying the new taste.

Although there are no fossil fuel-guzzling burners or boilers in the house, it is never silent. Something is always busily buzzing, or loudly metabolizing away behind the walls, performing the work of life.

“I thank you, Eurydice, for your daily organic generosity. Without you, we would still be consuming the dark side of nature.”

Settling down to work, she pulls up the plans of her latest project from the sleeping quantum LED screen. Eurydice’s eyes open through pinpoint punctures in the mosaic ceramic walls, their thick, gelatinous lenses glimmer as they drink in the nutritious light, channeling photons into the dark metabolisms to power the base of the ecological household.

“I thank you, Eurydice for your bioelectricity. Without you, our energy consumption would still exceed the carrying capacity of our planet.”

It is bright outside. The co-habitant’s warmth makes Edith sleepy. With her black veil trim hat, she takes her customary walk around the few public constructions in the landscape that are still, following some historical whim, called “town.”

“I thank you, Eurydice for taking care of my home. Without you, we would still be chained to endless domestic chores.” She blows Eurydice a kiss, then closes the front door.

Venturing into the farmer’s market section of a retrofitted post-industrial site, Edith looks for provisions that Eurydice can’t make at home—eggs, seafood, chocolate, macarons, and different kinds of B vitamin shots, which she calls “potions.” The co-habitant is slow to make certain things. Mostly, however, she can metabolize almost everything she is fed—excrements, grey water, kitchen detritus, and recently, even a comprehensive range of plastics, a new property that the household acquired from taking part in an experimental microbial seeding program. While it is unclear exactly which organ is taking care of this extra metabolic task, the harvested carbon will inevitably end up in the kitchen garden wall, perhaps in the herb section.

Eurydice seems to be staring blankly at her, even at this distance.

“I thank you, co-habitant for your generosity—” she stops, wondering whether sourcing provisions from nature might be considered a betrayal of Eurydice.

The afternoon passes quicky. Seemingly endless correspondence with her workplace—which is little more than an artificial intelligence hub powered by household waste—family conversations, and donating some of Eurydice’s excess goods to the local care unit for refugees means that the day speeds past until it is time for dinner, shower, and bed, in rapid order.

“I thank you, Eurydice for being my constant companion. Without you, I would feel alone.”

Rachel Armstrong, Turbulent Stomach, 2022.

Ten Perspectives on Eurydice

1. Greedy Mouth

The highlight of Eurydice’s day is the celebration of Edith’s ablutions. She stirs several hours before the morning rituals as her Greedy Mouth eagerly awaits the appearance of a piquant fecal bolus. Savoring it within her chitin-crusted cavity she tries not to swallow, but the persistent, interdigitating movements of muscle-actuated carbon fiber bristles scratch at her throat. Reluctantly, she coughs, and expels the organic matter down the U-bend into the Turbulent Stomach.

2. Turbulent Stomach

The bolus speeds past colonies of nine-legged mites, which use their false “leg” formed from a hook that juts out from the integument to anchor themselves to Eurydice’s muscular wall during peristalsis, like tiny colonies of bats. Ravenously they tear apart passing organic clumps, which are swept by gravity down into the first organ, the “crop.” Within this muscular protrusion of Eurydice’s gut, mechanical actions grind plastic particles to sand and fold the organic matter into a sludge. Seeping through the gaps in the plastic silt, the soup of transforming molecules reaches the Turbulent Stomach. Within this metabolic cauldron bubbles slowly rise and pop like gum, thick skins condense at the surface, and worm-like bodies impatiently reach into the recesses of the organ beyond.

To minimize reflux in the stomach, a school of robotic fish powered by the client’s human heart cells swim constantly in one direction, maintaining an indefinite rhythmic beat that matches the inhabitant’s own biorhythms. Based on a zebrafish template, these cardiac chimeras are built from paper, plastic, gelatin, and two strips of living heart muscle cells that run either side of the robot’s body. When the muscle cells on one side contract, the tail moves in that direction, propelling the fish through the slurry. Once that cycle starts, the cardiac chimeras continue swimming and will do so indefinitely unless they run out of food.

Atop this cavity lurk nests of spiders, which await the emergence of those adult caddisflies from larvae that have escaped the conflagratory events in the region of the Anal Valve, and the counter follow of the cardiac chimeras. Triggered by an environmental event, their emergence occurs when the temperature of the broth cools to 13.3 degrees Celsius, with scores of adults suddenly taking flight. While only a few females survive the ensuing feeding frenzy to lay their eggs in the nutritious broth, it is enough to seed the next generation of larvae for the proper functioning of the Dumpickers Organ.

3. Biofilmoid

Since the mixing of processed and unprocessed caustic gastric juices provokes fluid dynamic disturbances that cause chemical damage to the Turbulent Stomach, the gastric opening is protected from the worst reflux by a semiconductive bioplastic mesh that promotes the settlement of vibrating bacteria and forms a biofilm bridge. Doubling up as an anode for the home’s metabolism, the Biofilmoid acts as a filter for the passage of cleaned water while holding back organic sludge that has been poorly broken down.

Beyond its metabolic function, the Biofilmoid forms a participatory valve-like system from colonial outgrowths of the biofilm which form physiologically distinct polyps that regulate the direction and character of digestive flow. Nectophores work together to generate counter currents against oceanic reflux, while other polyps with contractile tentacles coil around large particles that have escaped from the crop and squeeze them to pulp, and sugar-consuming secretory filaments pump acids into the oceanic bowel to optimize its pH which aids the conditions and direction of digestion.

4. Organ Of Hell

Condensing electrons derived from the sum of all metabolisms regulated through the Biofilmoid, the Organ of Hell is a temperamental chamber lined with activated charcoal. Absorbing potentially explosive gases that build up under pressure within this non-elastic space, it demands a constant sugar supply to supplement its voracious activity. Consequently, Eurydice is always hungry, and to regulate her appetite she must rapidly deposit her rich electron capacity into a series of capacitor arrays that are regulated by a combination of microbial and artificial intelligences, which govern bioelectricity usage within the entire household.

5. Oceanic Bowel

Sensitive to changes in gravitational forces, the Oceanic Bowel receives unmetabolized sludge from the Organ of Hell and is influenced by the phases of the moon, therefore behaving tidally. A thirsty place, it stores water for the functions of life. Functioning as the cathode, the oceanic bowel accumulates electrons that it uses to transform a range of organic compounds into simpler molecules assisted by active substances that have been secreted into its territories by the Biofilmoid: amino acids, albumins, globulins, gliadins, fibrous protein, hormones, growth factors, DNA-binding proteins, immune system proteins, chaperone proteins, amylase, maltase, lactase, lipase, proteases, sucrase, keratinases, xylanase, laccase, ligninase, cellulase, artificially produced proteins, glycoproteins, lipoproteins, and complexes with multiple components like nucleosomes. Full to the brim with potent fluids, the inconstant shoreline of the oceanic bowel is a site for contingent liquid relationships that are forged by microbial enrichments of bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses, and protozoa that are spatially programmed along its surfaces to house nomadic metabolic domains. Sometimes, these territories operate through weak forces that flutter like a blush of light haze or hesitate like a puddle. At other times, constituent actors move faster than anyone can imagine, commanding entire clouds of potent chemistry dense enough to suck up the rays of the sun and extrude the intimate night into the heart of the home.

6. Soil Condenser leading to the Kitchen Garden Wall

Beyond the oceanic bowel’s tidal actions, the folded landscapes of the Soil Condenser make possible a plethora of metabolic assimilations. These open, molecular factories are synthetic soils, composed from designed admixtures, assemblages and layers of natural clays, gastric spider silk, cellulose nanofibers, self-healing gels, chitin/fibroin composites (shrilk), carbon concrete, and aerogels. Their textured surfaces provide sensuous landscapes, which are mined by the microbiomes composed mostly of fungi, bacteria, oomycetes, and archaea, which moderate the sometimes-intemperate exchanges between plant roots emanating from the Kitchen Garden Wall to enable an overall sociability. Spindly root hairs from carrots, green onions, chives, parsley, cilantro, oregano, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, hot peppers, spinach, kale, arugula, microgreens, potatoes, radishes, and tomatoes jostle for their preferred nutrients. Trading energy-rich molecules like sugars for valuable metabolites like antibiotics and vitamins necessary for plant growth, each microbiome forms a unique transactional system and molecular highway that returns matter in useful forms to the household.

The matter that remains is sorted, ordered, and processed within an irrigation system by spongy, aerogel-impregnated soils that absorb large volumes of water via entanglements of natural and artificial transpiration systems. Specific fractions of digested organic matter are separated into nutrient schemes through active contractions of salt-crusted gelatinous membranes that roll and fold in the presence of desired compounds to form temporary delivery channels. Here too, pathogenic microbes are detected through the coordinated action of different kinds or immune responses. This enables Eurydice to suppress disease and enhance plant growth by structurally modifying roots to produce elaborate patterns, culminating in the overall nutritional benefit and pleasure of the household.

7. Blind Appendix

Nutrients that are left over or have escaped from the formal spaces of metabolic assimilation in the soil condenser may be caught in the scavenging space of the Blind Appendix, the preferred habitat of tiny opalescent squid. In search of plastiglomerates, glass, metals, pebbles, concrete, cavity wall insulation, electronic circuity, explosives, and gold ingots, microsquids swarm in the thousands, transforming this seemingly indigestible matter into highly aromatic, waxy, flammable, jet-black, complex pellets. Recognized as a form of ambergris, each squid pellet typically contains many hundreds of microsquid beaks and can be used in the production of perfumes, dyes, aphrodisiacs, airborne disease-deterrents, epilepsy treatments, hair loss treatments, and musk. Highly aggressive, squid tempers are particularly volatile at feeding time when they may turn cannibal, or even ravage Eurydice’s gut wall. To minimize the risk of this malignant behavior, she periodically secretes hormones that distract the squid from eating by stimulating mating aggregations, leading the entire population of cephalopods to collectively build a huge egg cluster at the center of this fertility festival, often extending beyond the Dumpickers Organ and reaching as far down as the Anal Valve.

8. Dumpickers Organ

While ravenous, microsquids are both fussy and careless, leaving left-over fragments that pass from the appendix to populations of artisan caddis fly larvae that gather up all left-over materials and incorporate them into their shells. Odd items including beads, cutlery, gravel, swords, jewelry, broken glass, ceramics, bathroom tiles, and scrap metal often reach the inaccessible space of the Dumpickers Organ by unconventional means, via trash cans, or vacuum dumps from cyclonic cleaners. Responding creatively and collectively to piles of found materials, artisan caddisfly larvae that started their lives in the Turbulent Stomach as eggs deposited above the gastric fluids on folds of stomach wall in four- to six-centimeter-long masses of jelly, then dropped down on hatching to find their way downstream through the various intestinal territories to settle in the Dumpickers Organ, produce upcycled sculptures and precious objects that can be later exchanged within the broader human community for goods that the household community cannot make, or, are gifted as presents.

9. Anal Valve

The passage of goods from the Greedy Mouth to Anal Valve takes about a week. Most depositions are rabbity pellets with intricate structural patterns such as spiral or annular markings and released under high internal barometric pressure. Many of these droppings are edible.

The anal region is also a dangerous place. Escaping gaseous emissions produced higher up in Eurydice’s gut pass freely through the Anal Valve. At those times when the negative energy arising from microsquid aggressions escalates, highly flammable organic gases like methane and ethylene may spontaneously combust. Artisan nymphs that are always on the lookout for these escalations can escape the lethal, fiery discharges by suddenly migrating upwards, en masse, towards the gastric region, where they complete their lifecycle, leaving weighty material chimeras behind as they move against the intestinal flow and provoking surges of reflux. Sometimes these sculptural residues get stuck in the valve, requiring Edith’s manual assistance. Once retrieved, the strangest forms are archived as unique artworks that provide a material account of Eurydice’s unique metabolic life.

10. Unquiet Sleep

As night falls, the paucity of photons quietens the passage of organic pastes through Eurydice’s system. Reduced tension in the system causes the Anal Valve to hang wide open, where under the cover of darkness, digestion continues at a more relaxed yet creative pace: chitinaceous insect integuments are split open, squid beaks soften, and clouds of spider silk are coiled into knots by oceanic bowel current. Technically, Eurydice’s Unquiet Sleep is a time for recharging her creative impulses with the “living home’s” dreams.

Something Else

Scene: Sales office at FAV CAVES. Elderly sales worker is on the phone after hours.

“There is something else we have on our books, darling, but I don’t often mention it. It’s not an underground home, I’m afraid. It’s quite unusual, or, let’s say, it’s a distinctive property. A period piece. Fifty years ago we sold quite a few of these units. They were all the rage at the time for overground living. Yes, my dear, before the Toxic Cloud. We sometimes get requests from architecture teachers and students to photograph it. This one has been on the market for years, I don’t mind telling you. You could make an offer, sweetheart. I used to pass it on my way to work, but started avoiding it after the rumors started. Quite ridiculous, really! Some say the owner was actually eaten by the house. Heavens! Others say she walked out and never came back after she fell out with the co-habitant. One rather vicious rumor claims that her metabolism turned poisonous after buying some sort of herbal ‘potion’ from an old woman at the market. If that was true, then I’d rather expect the holobiont to act in its own self-defense and neutralize the harmful effects of any unusual matter. But you know, my dear, customs are a strange thing. I, for one, could never turn down an old woman asking for a roof over her head. Even if it did mean that she could switch places with me and become the main co-inhabitant. Anyhow, sweetheart, you’re looking for something unique. A challenge. Something to renovate, isn’t it? Regenerate. I’m looking at your stem cell profile and it indicates this property is actually a very good symbiotic match. And with the Clean Up Act scheduled to reach our region in the coming years, this could actually be a very good investment for you, dear! Who knows, we might all move overground again one day! I have a materialized version of the bio-print key in a drawer somewhere, if you are interested…”

Digestion is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the 2022 Tallinn Architecture Biennale, supported by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC), the Estonian Museum of Architecture, and Friendship Products.

Architecture, Nature & Ecology
Biology, Domesticity, Science Fiction, Human - Nonhuman Relations
Return to Digestion

Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the Department of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University.

Rolf Hughes is the Director of Artistic Research for the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) and Professor in the Epistemology of Design-led Research at the Department of Architecture, KU Leuven.


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