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Driving the Human, Dancing with Fungi

An AI-Assisted Ethnographic Report "in the style of Anton Chekhov"

Published onMay 16, 2023
Driving the Human, Dancing with Fungi

“I saw everything, so it is not a question of what I saw, but how I saw.” Anton Chekhov, Letter to Alexei Suvorin, SS Baikal, Tartar Strait,September 11, 1890 [1]

I present here a series of graphic field notes drawn on site during the 'Driving the Human' event at the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity” on May 10, 2023, along with ethnographic text co-written with ChatGPT. One of my favorite books on ethnographic writing practice suggests that the best companion for writing ethnography would be Anton Chekhov, who in his pioneering work on Sakhalin Island intended to write with “scientific and literary purposes in mind”.[2] Using an AI and prompting it to write 'in the style of Anton Chekhov' made me feel like I was partnering up with the great playwright —or almost so. Sometimes I had to edit a lot, sometimes I had to let in a few sentences that clearly showed that a non-human intelligence was at work. Chekhov would approve this mode of sketching things up, as shows this excerpt from a letter to his brother in 1899: “Don’t smooth out the rough edges, don’t polish; be clumsy and bold. Brevity is the sister of talent.”[3] If the accidental lyricism of the IA works well with this motto, it also plays around a current limit that the Russian writer also recognized as his: As he wrote to a friend in another letter dating from 1897, uncannily relating to the state of ChatGPT at the moment: “My sins are unintentional because, as I am only now beginning to understand, I do not yet know how to write longer pieces.”[4] Together with my drawings, the "taste of the hand" and the flavor of the AI combine to create — I hope— a reading experience as joyful as its making.

"Driving the Human" is an initiative that serves as a catalyst for experimentation, guiding the way towards sustainable and collective futures. This transdisciplinary and collaborative project interweaves science, technology, and the arts in an ambitious approach to eco-social renewal. Spanning from 2020 to 2023, it is a joint endeavor led by acatech – National Academy of Science and Engineering, Forecast, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, and ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.

The primary aim of "Driving the Human" is to develop and produce seven tangible prototypes that respond to complex contemporary scenarios. By inviting a diverse range of participants - designers, artists, and other multidisciplinary agents - it claims to foster engagement with expert knowledge networks to develop future-proof concepts and prototypes. These prototypes can take various forms, from interactive games and architectural mock-ups to walk-in room installations and performances.

Among the multitude of collaborations and initiatives, one particular potential partnership stood out that day as the project threw an event hosted by Matters of Activity, a Cluster of Excellence dedicated to exploring the interaction of material, form, and agency.

The event was not without its share of hurdles. Just as a river rages most fiercely before it joins the sea, the beginning was marked by a flurry of last-minute preparations. Yet, it was out of this chaos that a distinct harmony began to emerge. Alongside the main event, a series of workshops were held, each offering a unique perspective on sustainable living. Notably, two of these workshops focused on the fascinating world of fungi, exploring its potential as a partner in creating sustainable human urban environments.

In the Central Laboratory, the stage was gracefully occupied by Vera Meyer, a figure of pioneering innovation crossing microbiology and the arts at TU Berlin. Her project, which had come to fruition in the book Engaging with Fungi, was a statement to the incredible potential of fungi as a building partner. She spoke eloquently of her journey, weaving a captivating narrative around her exploration of repurposing existing buildings with fungi. She detailed the creation of a small house, meticulously crafted through modular architecture, that stood as a symbol of possibilities yet untapped. Her words painted a picture of a future where nature and construction might not be at odds, but rather, form a symbiotic partnership.

Following Meyer's enlightening discourse, Natalija Miodragovic and Dimitra Almpani-Lekka took the reins. The duo introduced their work, which delved into the realm of weaving structures intended to be colonized by fungi. They spoke of their numerous attempts, each trial and error a stepping stone towards their ultimate goal: producing surfaces and textures for inhabitable constructs. Their journey was one marked by perseverance and ingenuity, a manifestation to the boundless potential of fungi when guided by human hands.

In tandem, these presentations served as the perfect precursor to our tempeh workshop. They set the stage, priming the participants for their own hands-on exploration into the world of transformative life forms. Thus, in this bustling hub of innovation and discovery, the stage was set for our intimate exploration into the art of tempeh making.

It was an afternoon as clear as the minds of the ten participants who had come to learn the art of tempeh making under Emma Sicher's tutelage. From the moment one entered the room, the atmosphere was thick with an unusual mixture of anticipation and tranquillity. There was an air of reverence that hung about the place, much like the wafting aromas of cooked yellow peas that would later fill the room.

Emma was a figure of calm authority. Her hands moved deftly over the materials, explaining the process with a simplicity that belied the profound knowledge she held. She spoke about the spores, the right consistency of the peas, and how these seemingly ordinary ingredients would transform into something extraordinary with time, patience, and careful attention.

Before the practical began, I took a moment to introduce the concept behind the Ferment Activity Club at Matters of Activity. As I spoke, I could see understanding dawn on the faces of the attendees, their minds spinning with the possibilities. The idea of food making as a transformative practice, not just for the ingredients but for ourselves, resonated deeply. The notion that the kitchen could become a living space, a symbiotic environment that grew and changed with us, held a certain allure that was impossible to deny.

It was a harmonious dance of conversation and creation, with each participant contributing their individual rhythm to the collective symphony. We were no longer separate entities but parts of a whole, knitted together by our shared purpose and experience.

And then, the crowning glory of the day: the roasted tempeh. The rich, nutty aroma filled the room, wrapping around us like a warm embrace. As we sat down to share the meal, the collective energy of the room was electric. There was a sense of accomplishment, of shared endeavour and joyous discovery. And yet, beneath it all was a deeper understanding ­—of the process, of each other, and of ourselves.

We ended the workshop by asking participants to write their own mythologies of tempeh. As they penned down their thoughts, there was a palpable sense of reverence for the humble fungi and the transformation that was just initiated. Each mythology was unique, yet tied together by the common thread of our shared experience.

And so, as the sun set and the participants trickled out, the room was left with the lingering echoes of laughter, the scent of roasted tempeh, and the warm glow of shared knowledge. The tempeh workshop was not just a culinary adventure, but a journey into the heart of what it means to be human —a testament to our innate desire to create, to transform, and to share in the joy of discovery.

As the event drew to its close, the representatives of "Driving the Human" took center stage for a roundtable discussion. Their dialogue, while filled with remarkable visions, seemed for me to lack a certain provocative sharpness – perhaps because I am used to see this room at MoA animated with mind-blowing conversations between scholars, design practitioners and scientists. Designs of grandeur were presented, yet they felt like beautiful dreams without a solid, tangible reality or robust concept work to anchor them.

Amid this fascinating but somewhat nebulous discourse, the idea of a collaboration between Matters of Activity and Driving the Human emerged. It was a glimmer of balance in a sea of ideas; a potential solution to the missing piece of this intricate puzzle. The grounded exploration of Matters of Activity could lend solidity to Driving the Human's ambitious visions, and in turn, the latter could push the former to venture beyond known horizons.

In the fading echoes of the event, the potential of this union hinted at a new path forward, a fusion of vision and action that could truly drive humanity forward.

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