SCOBY SPIN CYCLE by Mary Maggic is a post-anthropocentric performative art installation and absurd machine object that optimizes the industrial production of SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) made from a kombucha bioreactor that is kept in constant rotation by the physical and demanding labor of a human subject on a gym exercise machine. The project reflects on the role of technology in human and non-human relationships of resource extraction and exploitation, as well as human technological desires for fitness, perfection and optimization. Can feminist practices of care and kinship re-insert the necessary intimacy within multi-species relationships that have been largely and historically driven by capitalism?
Over 2,000 years old, Kombucha is the “wellness drink of the 21st century” made through a process of static alcoholic fermentation of tea and sugars, with the labour of this fermentation produced through a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). The SCOBY generated from this fermentation process is a form of biofilm or bacterial cellulose containing a wide range of human applications, from home-grown clothing material to water filtration in extreme environments (like Mars). Because of the growing capitalist interest in the scaled-up industrial production of bacterial cellulose, rudimentary prototypes of such machines designed to optimize the growth of SCOBY hundreds of times faster than static fermentation have recently come to the fore. For example, the University of Technology Malaysia recently published a manual on a “rotary disc bioreactor” where discs of bacterial cellulose can be harvested if kept at constant rotation inside a large container of kombucha. But what does it mean to accelerate traditional processes of slow care? Or to reduce non-human species to “harvest,” “extraction” and “capitalist resource”? How do neoliberal processes of industrialization and technological mediation erase the intimacy that is shared through multi-species care and cohabitation? And lastly, how do our current industrialized relationships with the non-human reflect our human desires for optimization, fitness and perfection?
Responding to SCOBY as a multi-symbiotic-companion-species and technological innovation as a reflection of human desire and futurity, I propose the SCOBY SPIN CYCLE (working title) a performative installation and absurd machine object that produces bacterial cellulose at an industrial scale, however, powered by the physical labour of a human subject on a gym exercise machine. The first prototype of this absurd machine will connect a gym exercise machine with a built-in ergometer to a car battery that will power a large-scale motorized rotary disc bioreactor at a constant speed of 7 rpm. The bioreactor will be fabricated out of clear acrylic Plexiglas and contain a series of perforated discs connected along a metal shaft. The bioreactor will have a small hatch that will allow the cycling human subject to drink the kombucha and hydrate themselves during an opening performance. The SCOBY SPIN CYCLE reverses the patriarchal relationship of “human creator” and “non-human subject” by literally putting the human on a constant cycle of labour and production. Inspired by feminist practices of care and labour, the project reflects on the necessity of re-inserting intimacy in machinic relations with the non-human as an ethical driver for more equitable ecological futures.