A Multispecies Banquet

Superflux specialises in designing the future. This interdisciplinary studio engineers objects and technologies that compel us to imagine possible outcomes and our own roles in creating (or preventing) them. Their 2021 exhibition Refuge for Resurgence at the Venice Architecture Biennale deviates from this script, invoking the symbolic language of food and communion by literally setting a table for interspecies dialogue in the wreckage of the Anthropocene, writes Alec Carver.

Jon Ardern & Anab Jain founded Superflux in 2009. Since then, the Anglo-Indian studio has concentrated on building immersive and interactive encounters with possible futures. Superflux uses speculative architecture, digital design and chemical engineering to create experiences and objects that transform the unknowable into something physical and sensory. These artefacts run the gamut from speculative and utopian to disturbingly dystopian and even hellish. One project designed swarms of synthetic bees to aid pollination.

“Superflux specialises in designing the future.” Set in London around 2050, their project Mitigation of Shock is a design experiment in living with climate change-induced food insecurity. Image courtesy of Superflux.

For another exhibition, Superflux developed an atomiser that dispenses a noxious whiff of how the atmosphere could smell in 2030. Could is the operative word here. Superflux’s point is that these are mere possibilities, not guaranteed outcomes. Their worlds are always presented as being one among many. They want to provoke us into rethinking our relationship to the future before it’s too late to change anything before one of these possibilities stabilises and becomes real. 

Mitigation of Shock “transports visitors to an apartment in the second half of the 21st century and allows them to experience how we might live in a world transformed by global warming”.

Refuge for Resurgence is a spiritual successor to Mitigation of Shock, a 2017 exhibition designed to confront the visitor with concrete evidence of future social disorder, economic fallout, and food scarcity. Mitigation of Shock follows the studio’s usual approach, displaying a London apartment of 2050 outfitted for homemade, computer-controlled indoor farming equipment.

Superflux’s Refuge for Resurgence at the Biennale Architettura, La Biennale Di Venezia 2021. Photo: Giorgio Lazzaro, courtesy of Superflux.

Refuge for Resurgence deals with similar themes, but represents a shift in mood and in method. The exhibition engages with symbols and metaphors rather than literally depicting the lifestyles and technologies of decades to come. Any resemblance to Black Mirror is lost; there are no speculative objects here, no artefacts from a world we could feasibly inhabit. Instead, Refuge for Resurgence presents a “multispecies banquet”, a ritual gathering of woman, man, insect, fungus and beast following the end of human dominion over the earth.  

A triptych by Sebastien Tiew illuminates the scene.” Photo: Giorgio Lazzaro, courtesy of Superflux.

The setting evokes images of world destruction and renewal that have populated human imaginations for millennia. A triptych by Sebastien Tiew illuminates the scene, setting us in a cityscape that is flooded and overrun by wild plants.

Refuge for Resurgence is a multispecies dining experience with animals, birds, plants and fungi. “The banquet attendees represent a cross-section of life on a resurgent Earth; inclusive of species that were once domesticated, or might have been considered ‘weeds’, ‘pests’ or ‘vermin’ under human domination, but are now reclaiming their rightful place in the ecological order.” Photo: Mark Cocksedge, courtesy of Superflux.

From a human perspective, nature’s reconquest first appears hostile. Humanity’s presence is not represented by far-off inventions but in shattered relics from our own time repurposed as utensils and table settings.

“The centrepiece of the installation is a four-metre-long table, hand-made in Didcot from the wood of a wild Surrey oak tree in collaboration with Gareth Huw Lewis of Classic Watercraft.” Photo: Mark Cocksedge, courtesy of Superflux.

The guests gather around a table hewn from a single great oak, alluding to the sturdy world trees at the centre of ancient cosmologies. A table is the means of survival, not an ark: Superflux renounces the leading role Abrahamic faiths give humanity. Rebuilding the ecological order will require equality and negotiation among peers. 

“Species-symbolic cutlery, hand-crafted from materials foraged from a former world […] and ceramic plates meticulously illustrated by illustrator Nicola Ferrao with mythopoetic scenes depicting the species protagonists and their narrative journeys, from destruction to resurgence.” Wasp place setting, photo: Mark Cocksedge, courtesy of Superflux.
Pigeon place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Cow place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Child place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Beaver place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Mushroom place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Man place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Rat place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Woman place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Snake place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Fox place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Raven place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge.
Wild Boar place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge
Wolf place setting, photo © Mark Cocksedge

Superflux’s symbolic language underscores the role of food not just as sustenance but as the bonding agent connecting every living being to every other living being. Just as hard data on food systems offer insight into ecology, economics, and politics, so too can the ritual elements, unconscious associations and physiology of eating be called upon to explain and inspire. Refuge for Resurgence is a particularly provocative specimen of this approach.

Superflux was founded by Anab Jain and Jon Ardern in 2009 to create worlds, stories, and tools that provoke and inspire us to engage with the precarity of our rapidly changing world. Their early work brought speculative design approaches to new audiences, working for the likes of Microsoft Research, Sony, Samsung and Nokia, and exhibiting work at MoMA New York, the National Museum of China, and the V&A in London. Over the years, the studio has gained critical acclaim for producing work that navigates the entangled wilderness of our technology, politics, culture, and environment to imagine new ways of seeing, being, and acting. 

Alec Carver is a US-American student living in Berlin. He’s been curious about food and how it gets to us for as long as he can remember and is overjoyed to assist The Common Table with research and copy editing – as well as some writing.

Refuge for Resurgence is on show at La Biennale di Venezia 2021 until November 22, 2021. All images courtesy of Superflux.

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