Portrait of IRENE AGRIVINA. All images courtesy NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore.
Portrait of IRENE AGRIVINA. All images courtesy NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore.

Interspecies Matchmaking

Irene Agrivina

Also available in:  Chinese

Born in Yogyakarta in 1976, Irene Agrivina experienced firsthand the seismic social and political shifts that unfolded across Indonesia following the end of Suharto’s 31-year autocratic rule in 1998. Among the Reformasi period’s most significant changes was the easing of restrictions on freedom of speech, which coincided with the development of the internet. The unbridled flow of information expanded the worlds of many Indonesians and allowed them to access a wide range of knowledge. This had a tremendous impact on Agrivina, who developed broad interests, including in science, experimental music, and media arts. 

Agrivina’s careers as an open-source activist, media artist, educator, and technologist began after she graduated from the graphic design department of the Indonesian Art Institute, Yogyakarta, in 1999. That year, together with her friends Venzha, Sujud Dartanto, Istasius, and Tommy Surya, she formed a collective called the House of Natural Fiber (HONF). Though the group did not initially have a fixed mission, its members were united by their interests in working at the intersection of art, science, and technology, and were deeply inspired by the Renaissance period, when intellectuals were eager for innovations across the three overlapped fields. 

HONF’s early works include projection-mapping installations, live-generated videos, and experimental music—art forms that were still foreign to Yogyakarta’s contemporary art scene at the time. These projects, driven by new technologies rather than concepts, were presented at small parties and gigs. As HONF’s practice gained exposure at seminars, discussions, and workshops on contemporary media arts in the 2000s, the collective grew to encompass more members, including electrical engineering and medical students. As a result, its multimedia and interdisciplinary collaborations became more abundant and diverse. Simultaneously, HONF was refining its core focus. The social, cultural, and environmental changes of the time gave the group purpose: to find solutions for urgent societal issues and facilitate the creation of knowledge through artistic practice. 

The installation Intelligent Bacteria (2010) is an example of how HONF collaboratively applied technological and artistic innovations toward projects that are functional, applicable, and accessible to the public. Created with the microbiology department of Gajah Mada University, the work was prompted by the year-on-year increase in the number of alcohol poisoning fatalities in Indonesia. This phenomenon is caused by the high price of liquor in the country, which locals bypass by brewing their own moonshine. A sound recording of Saccharomyces cerevisiae bacteria bubbling during fermentation accompanies the series of interconnected tubes and gauges—open-source technology that models a safe way to produce low-cost alcohol from native fruits. HONF’s advocacy for the invention of replicable DIY solutions also led to the Education Focus Program, managed by Agrivina, which encompasses workshops, media arts festivals, and fabrication facilities. 

Around 2011, however, Agrivina’s interests in microbiology led her to develop works independent of HONF, as her colleagues there were increasingly invested in other experiments in space science and digital fabrication. She explained that she felt compelled to further her own investigation of microorganisms partly because of her hobby of cooking, but more importantly because she believes that these entities—crucial for all forms of life on earth—are overlooked. She considers bacteria, for example, as not only mediums or tools but also as collaborators or even artworks in themselves. 

In 2019, Agrivina’s experiments with microorganisms culminated in the work Tajin, which comprises underwear that protects female bodies from the harmful pollutants that are commonly found in mass-produced clothing. To create the undergarments, she used open-source software and hardware to process air tajin (residual water from the rice cooking process) into cellulose and then added bacteria such as Acetobacter xylinum as well as strains that naturally exist around female genitalia.

Agrivina similarly intersected the worlds of bioengineering and textiles as part of XXLab, which she formed in 2013 with her colleagues Ratna Djuwita, Eka Jayani Ayuningtias, Asa Rahmana, and Atinna Rizqiana, after they met at an introduction to electronics, open-source software, and hardware workshop. According to Agrivina, the all-female XXLab (named after the female chromosome) is a spin-off collective of HONF, which she jokingly referred to as a “boys club,” and has the same focus on artistic and biochemical experiments. 

One of XXLab’s inaugural projects is SOYA C (O) U (L) TURE (2013– ), which responded to the untreated toxic waste from several tofu home-factories in Yogyakarta. SOYA C (O) U (L) TURE depends on Acetobacter xylinum, a type of bacteria that converts the glucose from tofu waste into sheets of cellulose fibers called Nata de Soya. This edible cellulose works as an animal leather substitute for low-cost clothing. The project won the 2015 [the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant presented by Ars Electronica. Praising the work, the jury stated: “The interdisciplinary, collaborative, sustainable, and creative aspects of this project meet all the criteria for a successful and promising social innovation model and the XXLab women will certainly inspire many others.”

Most recently, Agrivina has turned her attention to the potentials of codependent relationships between different organisms. For A Perfect Marriage (2019), she brought together Azolla water fern plants with the bacteria Anabaena. The two feed off each other in processes that generate excess energy, which can be harnessed and channeled toward other applications. These reactions are facilitated by a contraption that includes a bioreactor and water-purification mechanism. Agrivina set up the equipment such that it recalls the shrine of Dewi Sri, a Southeast Asian mythological goddess symbolizing fertility and abundance. Apart from its use within human life as a house-scale power plant and water purifier prototype, A Perfect Marriage represents how the relationships between varied forms of life can allow all to thrive.

Agrivina’s presentation at the 2020 Taipei Biennial, Ramu (Concoction) (2020), is part of an ongoing project called Grow Kitchen: 5 Kingdoms of Life (2013– ), which was first developed during HONF’s 2013 residency at Bel Ordinaire in Pau, France. While trialing different methods for manipulating microorganisms, Agrivina was inspired by the Javanese female concocters of jamu (traditional herbal medicine). These women utilize indigenous methods and sustainable materials from all five kingdoms of living organisms to address patients’ health issues. They have also developed techniques for storing and preserving food to ensure that communities can access nutritious meals in difficult times like droughts. Agrivina began to appropriate the bioengineering processes of these jamu-makers with the understanding that we can find simple solutions to life that exist in nature. Various experiments—including tests for the cultivation of bacteria and fungi—rooted in this traditional knowledge are presented in the interactive, laboratory-like installation Ramu (Concoction)

Agrivina believes that there are still many engineering possibilities that are yet to be discovered. But to get there, the boundaries between art, science, and technology will need to be dissolved. Most importantly, to pursue further knowledge, we must rethink our conviction that humans are superior to other living beings.

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