In the waters off the east coast of the United States, there is a small sea slug called the eastern emerald elysia that feeds by sucking photosynthetic chloroplasts from a tubular species of algae, the same way you might suck out the sugar water from a Nik-L-Nip. This weird little gastropod is the inspiration for Algaculture, a wearable (and functional) symbiosis suit designed by artists Michael Burton and Michiki Nitta that imagines a future in which humans will have to sustain themselves symbiotically with colonies of algae they wear as clothing.
Something of a cross between an H.R. Giger facehugger and the still suits from Dune, the Algaculture is made up of two parts. One is a series of tubes placed in front of the mouth, a kind of algae-based beer helmet that lets the wearer suckle on a diet of eukaryotes all day long. The tubes are joined to a suit, which hosts an algae colony that replenishes itself by photosynthesis. Run out of algae? Just sit in the sun to replenish your store.
The Algaculture suit debuted last year at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was worn by Louise Ashcroft, a singer performing in a mini-opera called The Algae Opera. When Ashcroft sang, she would blow carbon dioxide into the tubes, which would feed the algae; she could then feed on the algae to refresh herself.
At the time, the suit wasn’t yet fully functional, but the idea was that the pitch and volume of Ashcroft’s notes would actually influence the taste of the algae she was consuming, making it more bitter or sweet. After a performance, this algae could then be shared with the audience: "In the age of biotechnology, not only can the audience listen to her talent but they can also savor her unique blend of algae," the Algae Opera's press kit surreally notes. Gross.
Or is it? Algae have long been used as a food source. There are almost two dozen different forms of algae regularly eaten in homes in Japan: If you’ve ever had seaweed-wrapped maki at a sushi joint, you’ve eaten algae. In fact, since 1962, edible algae have been repeatedly proposed as a potential "superfood" to solve the problem of world hunger.
According to Burton and Nitta, an artist and designer duo based in London, the Algaculture is part of a larger body of work called After Agri.
"After Agri reflects the rich tapestry of how food has shaped human evolution, cultures and environments," Burton Nitta tells Co.Design. "The project draws on varied areas of science, from nutrigenomics to geophysics, to give an insight into how the body and city has naturally developed to our most basic and primal need—to eat and survive."
In Burton Nitta’s vision of the future, synthetic biology and nanotechnology will be leveraged to allow humans to live more symbiotically with nature. The Algaculture is just one system that could be adapted to allow humans to live more sustainably, if they don’t throw up all over themselves first.
You can find out more information about Algaculture on Burton Nitta’s website.