As one of the many who took to gardening during the quarantine season in New York, I also spent time indoors regularly fermenting kimchi when I felt homesick, bottling jars for friends when I could while escaping into fantasies of someday stewarding land in an unmapped acre with chosen family. Upon a late night Youtube surf I spiraled into a documentary on Korean natural farming techniques invented in the ’60s by Cho Han Kyu (also known as Master Cho), its uniqueness deriving from an emphasis on soil health and caring for the indigenous microbes of the land. Because the focus is on growing microbes before growing plants, life is further propagated inherent to the region in which the farming method is applied. One of the takeaways is creating your own fertilizer through FPJ (fermented plant juice) without use of manure, eliminating any transfer of potential pathogens and the need for chemical pesticides due to the plants’ health altering the attraction of insects. I learned that studies had shown these applications yield a more abundant range of crops while reducing labor and cost. Farming as fermenting, huh, I thought, as a picture of my friends and I pickling tree roots in ajumma visors conjured in my mind.
For that reason, when I heard about the artist Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s past indoor garden installation at Brooklyn’s DIY gallery Recess on microbial communities, fermentation and immigrant health, I had to reach out and share my enthusiasm. Throughout her work, Shin, also an innate lover of kimchi, explores the movement of living processes through fermentation, touching on the intersectional politics and complicated systems of relation within organic farming, microbes, food, as well as queer sociality.
Korean natural farming is one area she borrows inspiration from, namely JADAM, a school of techniques established by Youngsang Cho, son of the original Master Cho. When Shin arrived as a fellow at Glyndor Gallery this February, a contemporary exhibition space on a 28-acre estate in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, she told me one of the first things she did upon admiring Wave Hill’s landscape and beautiful gardens was investigate the history of the land. The more she researched, the more she discovered its buried history of extractive capitalism, indigenous genocide, and exploitative Black and child labor. Situated as an artist-in-residence on soil entangled with violence, it’s no surprise that this would become the main dialogue built around her current show, M for Membrane (2020). The installation, on view until October 18th, follows a single leaf mold microorganism in response to the material history and colonial landscape of the Palisades and the Hudson River Valley. The decay serves to portray the possibility of restoring indigenous land, generating billions of microbes while preserving the knowledge of native farmers.
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin: I was invited to Wave Hill as a winter workspace artist-in-residence and as a Van Lier fellow earlier this year. One of the first things I remember is entering Wave Hill and seeing the iconic cliff of the Palisades, an igneous, volcanic rock that erected 225 million years ago. Wave Hill as an institution is established around the history of this rock, which is to say the violent history of expropriative capitalism and exhaustion of resources. Tracing how the estate is foraged from the aftermath of indigenous genocide, slavery, settler colonialism, and material extraction, I wanted to reject the traditional material language of legacy-building and object-oriented mastery. But as an artist, how can I create a body of work that forgoes material practices of accumulation? How do I radically develop a language of ephemerality; what would that even look like?
On site, I gravitated towards the area that the institution rarely celebrates: the woodland forest behind the pristine, manicured garden beds. Contrary to the ornamental gardens of Wave Hill that seek to master and taxonomize the natural world, the woodland forest simply hosts a network of trees, plants, leaf litter, and fungi. I wanted to cultivate the living, indigenous life that exists alongside us and in doing so, simply facilitate these dense relationalities. Inspired by historical research and DIY farming practices like JADAM, I developed a body of work titled M for Membrane. The indoor and outdoor multi-media installation focuses around the life cycle and the porous membranes of indigenous leaf mold. Indigenous leaf mold simply means undisturbed leaf litter piles that decompose over time and leak billions of microbes to nearby ecological partners. In essence, that’s what I tried to do in the show: regenerate what I consume, recycle what is lost, replenish what is scarce. I foraged leaf litter from the woodland forest, fed the mold a rich diet of starch like rice and potatoes, and returned all extracted materials back to the woodland forest as fermented, nutrient-rich fertilizer.
VL: Can you elaborate on how you relate to JADAM farming practices within your work?
TJS: I’ve been thinking about indigenous farming practices, specifically Korean natural farmers like JADAM who have been talking about partnership-based processes with the land. They have been teaching us how to cultivate the indigenous microbial diversity of the soil and in the process, attend to the health and fertility of plants’ fungal relationships and other ecological bioturbators. Specifically, the founder of JADAM, Youngsang Cho talks about how selecting a few good versus bad organisms is inevitably linked to commercialization like the industrial development of pesticides and herbicides that colonize the soil, leak toxins, and push farmers in debt. Instead, he explains how cultivating a symbiotic relationship with the soil is to culture all species in this terrestrial life. As an artist, I imagine what it would look like to witness and embody this vibrancy. How can I listen nearby as a facilitator rather than co-opting the role of the master of the land and deciding which species gets to live or die? In many ways, the practices and theory of indigenous farming reflect the biopolitics of our everyday life: whose (racialized) lives we deem as worth optimizing, multiplying, sustaining, or regulating.
VL: This show seems to echo your previous one, Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feelings (2020), and you focus a lot of your work around living processes through decay. What draws you to this scope?
TJS: As a loose framework, I’ve been interested in how living processes like fermentation echo histories of colonialism and conquest. Earlier this year, I installed a project, Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feelings, as an artist-in-residence at Recess. I read a scientific study published in the journal Cell that showed immigrants go through a process of gut colonization and gut loss immediately after arriving in the U.S., which makes them incredibly vulnerable to developing metabolic diseases. Personally, as an immigrant myself, I relate to this experience. As a response, I transformed the project space into an immersive DIY garden and brewery where I harvested micro-greens and fermented lactic acid bacteria (LAB). When consumed, LAB can fortify the gastric lining, improving metabolization and immunity. It is also an organic fertilizer that inoculates beneficial microbes into the soil, a tradition used in JADAM. The project had a natural life cycle: there was life growing vegetables and harvesting ferments and eventual decay foraging the garden and consuming the probiotic tea. There were moments when all subjects in the space, plants and humans, converged with the bacteria, queering, healing, and fortifying together as microbial symbionts.
In 2018, I installed Universal Skin Salvation at the Knockdown Center. For the show, I homebrewed LAB but here, the application was different: I added the bacteria to my custom line of cosmetic products. In the show, I explored how LAB, a vibrant, queer, and animate agent that fortified the gut, became a whitening substrate. LAB is a popular alpha-hydroxy acid in beauty products to brighten the skin, echoing what Franz Fanon termed “lactification”—the desire to whiten a race. If the term plasticity first emerged from stem research and the neurosciences to refer broadly to bodily tissues being easily shaped or molded, the Korean woman is similarly celebrated for her plasticization. Her body is used as a substrate to bolster ideas of racial fetishism, model minority, and American exceptionalism in the context of the Korean War in America. This critical lens of “plasticity” permeates throughout my current show at Wave Hill, M for Membrane. On indigenous land, we classify the commons and the natural world as resources for capitalist expropriation, to be shaped, molded, collected, and privatized into isolated units. We celebrate the plasticity of these objects without endowing them with agency. And of course, this history has everything to do with biopolitical struggles over resources of life, as well as which living organisms count as “human” to begin with, and which do not.
VL: That’s beautiful. I’m in the middle of one chapter in The Mushroom at the End of the World that talks about the procurement system, how capitalists exploit ecologies by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities, co-opting living things for the concentration of wealth. The message of your work really resonates with that.
TJS: I love that you thought of that passage. This reminds me of big biotech industries that manufacture and harvest huge amounts of mushrooms and mycorrhiza to make packing material, biodegradable chairs, etc. However, I’m very skeptical of this. For example, Ecovative Design, a Green Island, New York-based firm that develops structural materials out of fungi, received up to $9.1 million from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to explore mycelium housing for soldiers. The company defends that this funding will help them explore housing plans for people during the climate crisis. I have so many problems with the biotech industry for this reason: it has never been about the scarcity of materials or lack of technology but the uneven administration of life based on which population the State wants to protect.
VL: I want to ask you more about the radicalism and Marxist theories behind JADAM farming. I’m also wondering how you came to choosing potato, sea salt, sugar, and rice starch to feed the microorganism.
TJS: JADAM talks about something quite radical and Marxist in that they claim no one owns the soil. Like the human body, there is no discrete boundary in the soil. As farmers, as citizens, as human beings, we need to cultivate and steward the land and all the microbial actants involved. JADAM has open sourced what they call “ultra-low-cost” agriculture for every urban, rural, and working farmer. They explain how to make fertilizer with any crop you cultivate: strawberries, mugwort, rice, so that every excess becomes abundant. When cultivating leaf litter, JADAM explains how mold loves to feed on heavy starches like sweet potatoes and rice. Bacteria need to eat too! They need energy too! Similar to the agar petri dish used in antiseptic scientific labs, rice and potatoes are natural substrates that the hungry bacteria in the soil can grow on. But here, you don’t control which bacteria you cultivate or inhibit; the soil in its fullest expression reveals itself onto the starch material as a medium. It’s another membrane, another life it takes on. And the result is stunning. You see so many different colors and fuzz on the starch, it’s alchemic. Of course, I love this process not only because it’s DIY and affordable, but also because there’s a certain smell to this process that reminds me of home. It smells lovely, like soy sauce, doenjang, and makgeolli. It’s incredibly intimate to care for the mold.
VL: I love that you use mold as protest against weaponized whiteness/purity. Bacteria life being “foreign Other” in our era of Big Pharma.
TJS: Yes, mold is such an ugly and unwanted thing. But it’s so beautiful and necessary. We are mold ourselves! Lynn Margulis who was an evolutionary feminist scientist talks about how the human body is literally a multispecies composite; we evolved from basically three different organisms, eukaryotes, bacteria and archaea. These are the fundamental symbiotic partners of coevolution. Although we have always been “inhabited”, ideas of purity and contamination are irrevocably linked towards racialized fears of miscegenation, immigration, disability, and the Other. Only recently, the United States lifted a ban in 2010 that banned people with AIDS and HIV from gaining citizenship. This is to say our very notion of immunity, citizenship, and national borders are defined by ideas of purity and which bodies are considered “sick” and “infected” that infringe on the borders of the State and Nation.
VL: How do you come to see queer intersectionality within your work around ecology?
TJS: I think the more I self-learn and read about biology, the more I fundamentally believe we are all queer. We are incredibly porous, boundless, ungovernable. As I’ve mentioned, Lynn Margulis explains that eukaryotic cells originated through the merger and symbiosis of prokaryotic cells. This means that the human body is one of multi species assemblage, made possible through bacterial symbiosis and horizontal gene transfer. This is contrary to Darwinian theories of vertical inheritance, heterosexual reproduction, and competition of the fittest as the driving force of evolution. It is through these violent processes that identify, classify, and denominate us that disorient us into thinking there is this semblance of biological determinacy. But in reality, we are nearby the Other at all times: our immune system and our gastrointestinal tract are created by microbial symbionts. I try to read a lot of quantum and biology feminists who speak about this and I find a lot of inspiration. In many ways, it’s humbling to know that we are not individuals. Maybe we can access this somatic place that our gut feelings have been telling us all along.
VL: What are some of the community work you’ve been involved in to try and educate yourself/others on land processes outside of your shows?
TJS: I have been trying to dedicate a lot of my time volunteering, one at the LES Ecology Center, specifically the compost site. Ever since COVID-19, New York City has banned organic pick up waste until 2021. This budget, needless to say, was considered nonessential. I have been on-site to do menial labor, making compost, and processing food waste, which means ripping up old, rotting garbage bags and cleaning garbage bins. The compost site is a place where waste becomes transformed into nutrient rich humus. Working directly with the soil and organic food waste have been immensely pleasurable. Unfortunately, LES Ecology Center is facing problems with the city and will be kicked out of the East River Park due to the renovation plans. The community has been fighting this for a while and I hope more people oppose the city against its racist development. The land is so irrevocably tied towards power and struggle.