13 March 2015
John Cage would have liked Maurizio Montalti’s work. The two have in common a passion for mushrooms, free thinking and the capacity to look at reality and imagine an alternative. In 1959 Cage used his mycological expertise to win Mike Bongiorno’s game show Lascia or Raddoppia? on Italian TV. Montalti prefers to work with fungi to make objects (which, put like that, sounds almost more surreal than Cage’s television performance). Trained in engineering management, but with a speculative bent that makes him a sort of hybrid between the scientist and the artist, Montalti founded Officina Corpuscoli in Amsterdam in 2010: a studio-laboratory where test tubes can be found alongside pencils and sheets of drawing paper. Last year, in the exhibition The Future of Plastic, curated by Marco Petroni for the Fondazione PLART in Naples, he put the results of several years of constantly evolving work on display: objects made out of a material generated by fungi fed on organic waste and synthetic products. A different mode of creation that replaces the industrial paradigm of production with the organic one of cultivation. Perhaps the dawn of an alternative means of making the tools we need for our day-to-day survival. But also a process in which, as Petroni argues, “the mycelium becomes an emblematic image of the interconnection between spheres of knowledge and new practical possibilities.” We met Maurizio Montalti and asked him to explain the nature of this research and how it developed.
You’re an engineer working in the world of design. What training did you receive?
At the outset I had interests of an artistic kind, so I was inclined toward the Department of Arts, Music and Performing Arts at Bologna University or the Academy of Fine Arts. Then, for a series of personal reasons, I chose to study engineering management. At the same time, however, I was able to cultivate my passion for design, teaching myself the history of the discipline and trying to make some small things.
Where did the idea of moving to the Netherlands come from?
In the beginning, it was more of a dream than an idea. Right after graduation, at the age of 27, I went to London, where I was like a fish out of water: with my Italian training, focused entirely on theory, I was not accustomed to tackling the practical aspect of some of the work. I did a lot of jobs and in the meantime I had the opportunity to visit several design schools in Northern Europe. I recall atmospheres filled with tension, extremely chaotic and contradictory environments, but really electrifying. I made a number of applications for admission and was accepted at Eindhoven and Stockholm, and at the same time I won a scholarship for a master’s course in Turin. At that point, I chose to go to Holland.
And what did you find there?
An international dimension that was completely new for me. But it was undoubtedly a strength: I studied in an open, highly collaborative group that became a family for me right from the start. And in the end this is the aspect that has stayed the longest with me, perhaps even more than the teaching: the sense of teamwork, of the sharing of different cultures and aptitudes.
How did you get from there to fungi?
While I was choosing a subject of research for my thesis, I found myself thinking about an experience that had left a deep mark on my personal life, the death of a close friend. I realized I had a very particular view of death. Let me explain: at the cultural level, especially in the Western world, the deceased is treated as if he were still alive. We deny his death by filling his body with chemical substances that block its decomposition, he is dressed as if he were going to the theater, he is made up and placed in a coffin in which attention is paid to the smallest detail, and which is full of nonperishable materials. So I started to think about the fact that for me, on the contrary, death is a natural passage, a stage in a cycle that should not be interrupted by introducing materials that don’t break down into the environment or by wasting energy and producing dioxin, as in cremation. The way I see things, the person is not necessarily identified with the body, and so the death of the body, if accepted, falls within a cyclical perspective. I came to the conclusion that if the entire natural world of which we are part is continually evolving, perhaps it makes sense to reflect on the decomposition of the human body and its transformation. So the work with fungi didn’t come out of a desire to make use of these microorganisms, but out of the need to analyze the cycles of decomposition of natural materials.
A decidedly unusual subject for a thesis in design. I imagine it wasn’t easy to get approval for research based on these premises.
It wasn’t at all easy, but it was a project that allowed me to apply my fascination with microbiology to the work on my thesis and thus to design. I have always been curious about everything that is alive, and fungi were the first focuses of this interest, precisely because they are the great agents of natural transformation, recyclers par excellence. Without fungi we would be buried in garbage and unprocessed waste, while forests would be a boundless mass of nonrenewable remains. In addition, these fantastic microorganisms don’t just feed on dead organic matter, but are able to redistribute its components to generate new life.
So rather than to designers, you ought to have been talking to scientists.
Approaching the scientific world has been one of the most complex aspects of this research. I had to hone my language in a sphere different from my own. Six years ago the idea of crossing boundaries between different fields and areas of knowledge was not at all obvious. Initially I knocked at a lot of doors and got a lot of negative answers, along with the occasional insult! After repeatedly running up against this enormous distrust, I met Professor Han Wösten of the University of Utrecht, who was fascinated by my ideas and gave me practically carte blanche, throwing wide the doors of his laboratory. And so for the first time I was able to use sophisticated apparatus, have the assistance of qualified staff and work in sterile environments (a fundamental condition for the study of monocultures of microorganisms).
And how did you manage to transfer the results of this experimentation to plastic materials?
I started out from a scientific article presenting the study carried out by an American researcher of Phanerochaete chrysosporium, a fungus that is able to attack and degrade plastic, even the most persistent and toxic kinds like the polycarbonates. The fact is that for budgetary reasons my first prototypes were often made of plastic. But this produced a contradiction. So my critical judgment led me to look for an approach that would avoid introducing unnecessary materials and products into the environment.
Do you think designers have ethical responsibilities?
Yes, I think it’s fundamental to recognize your own responsibility and the impact of what you’re doing. The problem arises in particular when you’re working for industry and obliged to churn out many designs a year. In that case, you’re involved in a mechanism in which there is no longer any concern about the entire life cycle of things.
Some positions, while analytically and ethically correct, verge on utopia. I’m thinking of the theories on sustainable degrowth.
In the society in which we live some positions appear utopian, you are right, but this doesn’t stop me from pursuing certain ideas. In this sense, I am a utopian. And an idealist too. I don’t believe that we can hide behind the fact that the responsibility in the end is always someone else’s. I think the designer has to assume the responsibility of pointing out the limits of industry and its current modes of production.
So your research is a sort of denunciation of the current paradigm.
Definitely: a denunciation of the world of designers and industry. I think something is changing. Yet there is great resistance to taking up practices that require long periods of research. Research like mine invites industry to accept the challenge of change. It’s too easy to rely exclusively on short-term profits. Especially when they are considered to take priority over the social or environmental impact.
What is the new model you’re proposing?
It’s a matter of bringing an ancient practice like that of agriculture into the present, updating and expanding it. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with large mycological businesses, for the moment with the aim of creating very simple objects like bowls and vases. But if you look at the numbers of these food companies, you realize that the system is already ripe for stepping up. With a few simple modifications of a strategic nature, working not just on the development of new materials but also on their characteristics, it’s not so hard to imagine a new system of production. In the end, it’s not so utopian at all.
How does it work?
One possibility is to utilize the mycelium of the mushroom, in other words not the part above ground, but the microorganism, the subterranean root from which it all comes. This web of microfilaments is the intelligence network of the fungus, which some even regard as the natural glue of the planet Earth. It has been compared to a sort of natural internet, as it is a sprawling network that distributes information and is capable of finding nutrients deep down. The mycelium can be used as an adhesive, in practice as a resin, that binds together waste from farming or other processes of production, linked both to the food industry and manufacturing. This biomass contains the sugars on which fungi feed: they are saprophytes, which means they live on the dead parts of another living creature. For example, in nature fungi grow on the bark of trees and feed on cellulose, but to reach this they have to get through the surface layer of lignin, a substance that is very hard to break down, and whose composition is very similar to that of certain plastics. So it is possible to use types of solid and organic substrate that are rich in cellulose, mixing them with suitably treated spores of the fungus, so that the fungus grows on the substrate and feeds on it. In doing so, the fungus transforms the substrate, turning it into something different.
Whence your project on the plastic chair converted from an inorganic material into an organic product. When it came to creating the bowls and vases you presented at the PLART last year, was it the fungus itself that generated the forms?
No, I worked with plastic molds, assisting the growth of the fungus, as if I were a choreographer and it the dancer.
So to create an alternative to plastic you have to use plastic?
It may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s necessary to make use of existing plastic to carry out the process at the root of the bulk transformation. Which clearly shows that sustainability, of which so many speak as if it were the Holy Grail, in reality does not exist.
In what sense?
Sustainability is an objective to aim for, but at the moment there are no completely sustainable companies. Sustainability is a great marketing tool. We are not yet able to conceive a process of production that is perfectly neutral in terms of its environmental impact. It suffices to think that every manufacturing activity utilizes materials or machinery that cannot at present be created in a sustainable way. Having said this, the plastics made by fungi have a far lower impact than the ones that use substances made from nonrenewable fossil sources.
It seems to be the pioneering phase of a new world. Tell us how this alternative could become practicable in reality.
The point is to fill the gap that exists between experimental design, too often relegated to a niche, and its use on the part of society. At the moment I’m exploring the possibility of finding industrial partners, even very big companies, but which obviously have to be treated with great caution since for them profit comes before ethics or cultural change. The next step is to bring a product of very wide circulation onto the market: an almost invisible product, that will reach the individual as an effect of his own consumption. The goal is to utilize a specific design to show it is possible to realize a model that is sound and advantageous from the economic point of view as well as from that of the environment. In essence it is a question of convincing manufacturers and consumers on the basis of facts and figures rather than with a good story.
I imagine that there are two problematic aspects in the eyes of a manufacturer-entrepreneur: the time factor, which is long when you’re cultivating things, and unpredictability. How do you respond to these two objections?
Nature is by definition imperfect, but in reality everything that is based on indoor cultivation can be kept fully under control. The fungi are grown on substrates, in sheds that reproduce optimal conditions of temperature and humidity for their proliferation. Understanding natural cycles in depth means being able to manage them. And so nature “steered” in the right way can be utilized—as it has been since ancient times in agriculture.
So cultivation versus production, or nature as opposed to machine. Unlike nature, however, the machine eliminates flaws and surprises, guaranteeing perfection and certainty instead. In short, what possibility is there of controlling this system?
In reality, I still have a preference for imperfection. But in order to transfer this research onto an industrial level control is fundamental. On the other hand we are faced with a new paradigm in which it is necessary to be able to analyze and control processes. Protocols have extremely precise times and modalities, so all you have to do is get them running properly in order to have a continuous cycle of production whose result is guaranteed.
You started out with a discourse that had spiritual and ethical undertones, but now what comes to my mind is Frankenstein. Nature shut in a cage sometimes rebels.
I’ll answer with a question: is there anything that we don’t want to control or that we haven’t tried to control? Living in the Netherlands, I have often reflected on these matters, for the very birth of that country is linked to the control of nature. In reality, we are always striving to control nature, but we never succeed in doing it completely. This is a historical fact. The challenge is not just controlling the times and modes of cultivation, but also making sure that the fungus behaves as if molds were present and thus ends up producing specific forms. One of the most interesting prospects is precisely this: providing the fungus with information on how to develop and in what form to reproduce.
So it turns into a sort of natural 3D printer where you, the designer, supply the information on the basis of which the form is created.
Yes, the only difference is the speed of printing. But if everything were to be done in a cycle this would no longer be a problem. And then the time it takes is changing too: when I started my experiments it took me more or less a month to get results; now a week can be enough and my most recent creations have grown in about four days. It is a matter of grasping the problem, of mutual understanding (between man and fungus) and practice.
And what do you think of today’s 3D printers?
Three-D printing is still a contradictory technology: it is absurd to create replicas of real objects that often turn out less beautiful and less efficient than the originals. This said, 3D printing is a technology that is already a reality and will undoubtedly have a future. The next step will probably be the use of new raw materials for new applications. Think of the Canal House built in Amsterdam by DUS Architects: tangible proof that it is possible to print in three-dimensions on a large scale. Fantastic! But then, all things considered, the result is fairly ugly and probably not very pleasant to live in. From this point of view, I find the WASP project, which uses 3D printing to make low-cost clay houses, much more convincing. It seems to me a more reasonable way of utilizing the same technology, exploiting a natural resource like clay, widely available in countries that have difficulty managing a construction site.
And what do you think of the fact that this will allow everyone to play at being a designer?
I think that the fact that a means of production is being democratized is absolutely positive. And it remains the case that for many kinds of product we will go on making use of specific technical expertise: it’s not true that anyone will be able to make anything.