Next Generation: Pei-Ying Lin is cooking with viruses

Britta de Vries
May 30th 2020

This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Want to see your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.

Have you ever thought about eating a virus? Chances are, you’ve already eaten something that has a virus as an active ingredient embedded in it, but we’ll get to that in a minute. 

There are actually many things that we can do with a virus. Humans and viruses depend on the existence of each other. Now, new discoveries of beneficial viruses are starting to reveal, some are even crucial for our survival. However, most often viruses are still surrounded by their negative connotations.

Artist and designer Pei-Ying Lin's latest project Virophilia offers a fresh perspective to see viruses differently, especially those that cause infectious diseases. The project investigates the possibilities of human-virus encounters in the realm of culture through different facilitation of events, performances, and materiality to build up new discourse and sensible understandings.

Her research eventually resulted in the cookbook Virophilia, a cookbook written for the 22nd century human beings in consideration for incorporating the positive usage of viruses into our daily life. We had a talk with Lin to see how her research and recipes were created and what the current pandemic could mean for her work. 

Virophilia Installation at Quasi-Nature exhibition, ShanghART, Beijing (Virophilia, 2019)

Viruses by themself are not negative. We are 10% Human and 90% Bacterial. Yet throughout the years virusesses have become connotated with despair from historical events such as the plague which has caused mass extinction. Your work appears to re-incorporate the positive usage of viruses into our daily life. How do you envision this?

It’s been a trend in recent years that people started to ponder on the idea of how human beings could shift the anthropocentric perspective to biological others, especially in areas like social science, contemporary art, and health. For example, the work of Donna Haraway, and the research of One Health. Of course, the current pandemic of COVID-19 has caused major disruption in the world in all aspects that we couldn’t have imagined. 

It is not surprising that we thought viruses only have negative connotations at this very moment. But it is important to not forget that we are also using the bacteriophage-based CRISPR technology. So, in general we are starting to see the positive sides of the viruses.

In my latest project Virophilia, I aim to push the human-virus relationship to another level. The project started two years before COVID-19, which was a time most of the population on Earth had forgotten about the seriousness of a pandemic because we were lucky enough. 

I aim to push the human-virus relationship to another level.

What I have envisioned is established throughout the pure curiosity that we as human beings will try to make use of what we find beneficial of the viruses in daily life. Not for saving the world, not for curing the diseases, not for manufacturing, but for pleasure and for extending sensorial experiences. What it needs is simply a shift of perspective, just like what we did with bacteria in recent years—we began to talk about probiotics, there was hype around yoghurt namely the aim for eating bacteria that are still active in order to inoculate ourselves with the ‘good bacteria’. 

It will be sooner or later that we will start to think of the probiotics in viral forms. I tried to envision the shift happening in a more subtle way: through different kinds of cuisines appearing at different times, like a movement.

Cookbook for the Virophilia-ists in the 22nd Century. (Virophilia, 2020)

Humans like to think of themselves as the dominant force of life on the planet, but the current pandemic shows us we will always be dependent on non human agents which can impact our bodies and society.  What can we learn from nonhuman perspectives? And how may we collaborate?

We can never forget that we as biological beings are always a part of an ecosystem. Of course, some people think that considering the technologies and infrastructures we have made, we are already quite separate from nature and hence not quite much a part of the ecosystem. 

However, if we look at technologies, infrastructures, culture, and everything we created as artifacts created by the larger ecosystem where we are a part of—especially now that we have come to the age of biotechnology—we are still intertwined deeply with nature and we are a part of this precise ecosystem. And that is also why a small virus can shake up our world. 

The more versatile we are, the more intertwined the network we have created with the biological others becomes and the more likely we can withstand disruptions. Such as a virus.

Now, if we are still in an ecosystem, it is very crucial to develop versatile strategies for living and survival. Therefore it is important to see from the nonhuman perspective because this provides us the possibility to see the survival strategy and resilience of the others. The more versatile we are, the more intertwined the network we have created with the biological others becomes and the more likely we can withstand disruptions. Such as a virus. 

So in a way, it is a process of exploring the possibility to make connections with other living beings. In my case I explore the potential ways to enjoy life together with viruses. And not to mention that viruses themselves, or say the virosphere, actually connects the whole biosphere at an even larger, and more interconnected scale. If we are looking for a master of building connections, then this is with no doubt the viruses. 

Cookbook for the Virophilia-ists in the 22nd Century. (Virophilia, 2020)

During your research in working with viruses, what has surprised you most? 

I can’t say that I was surprised by anything because I didn’t have a specific expectation of what I would discover. However, I was wowed by how much we have been benefiting from viral genes. For instance, the fact that our placenta exists thanks to the viral gene ERVW-1 which belongs to the Human Endogenous Retrovirus-W group. Another awe moment was learning the concept of ‘virosphere’ which is larger and older than the biosphere.

Dinner performance and workshop at Waag, Amsterdam. (Virophilia, 2019)

Are there any usages of traditional medicine or religious aspects involved in the preparations of these recipes?

Some. The starting point of the cookbook was grounded in my previous project, where I suggest that we can try to ‘tame’ the virus. I was looking for a way to recreate the physical discomfort induced by Norovirus, as a way to prepare the tamer’s mentality. It led me to look for Chinese medicine because it is very often in the herbal form and more food related. So yes, in the first chapter of the cookbook ‘Virus Simulations’ there are some that use herbal medicine as ingredients. The later recipes in the book are fully based on scientific research and not traditional medicine or religion. 

Tea for the tamers, which consists of 4 different chinese medicine that will induce vomiting and diarrhea. The tea is for tamers to drink as a way to actively engage themselves in the physicality of Norovirus symptoms, in order to be mentally prepared for the forth coming encounter with Noroviruses. (Tame is to Tame, 2016)

How would you explain your work (and the reasons driving it) to people unfamiliar with the field? 

I would say I’m doing thought experiments and pondering on the possibilities of how we can live with viruses and explore their different usages, and this through the form of a cookbook and food performances. They can see it as creating fiction: while viruses and humans are the characters in the fiction, I just want to see how these characters can play together.

The Norovirus Lamp is also designed based on the structure of actual Norovirus which demonstrate the quaternary protein structure of Norovirus capsids. (Tame is to Tame, 2016)

How do people react to the project? Does their perspective change after learning more about the project? How?

Most people enjoy the recipes and start to imagine how they taste. For those who have participated in the performances that took place during the research, and experienced the food along with stories, they enjoyed it and felt fascinated by the idea of viruses in food. 

Viruses are not minorities.

Most often people who encounter the project do have a drastic change in perspectives because it is a bit of shock in the beginning when knowing that they are eating viruses (through stories), but eventually they accept it because they have learned something about viruses that was no longer only through the media around diseases. Someone even came up to me after the performance and told me he thought we really should explore more of the beneficial sides of viruses. Sometimes it feels as if I’m doing a campaign to rectify the misunderstood virus ‘minorities’. Except for the fact that viruses are not minorities.

Tamer’s board game. The board game invites audience to role play with actual biological data of anonymous patients and their chosen tamer’s type. The game is designed for 2-6 people to play, which also function as a strategy simulation training for virus tamers. (Tame is to Tame, 2016)

What kind of daily food (like the stuff we buy in the supermarket) is embedded with viruses?

Tomatoes in the Netherlands are almost all inoculated with Pepino Mosaic Virus as a vaccine. Not sure about other plants. 

Table setup for dinner performance at Dansmakers, Amsterdam. (Virophilia, 2019)

Your cookbook is written to show the relationship human beings can have with viruses. How do you think this relationship has changed with regards to the coronavirus? Could we also cook with the coronavirus?

Good question. I think people will be more aware and will understand better how a virus is different from bacteria. However, this will depend on how long this crisis lasts. At a certain stage I think we will start to dislike it but perhaps no longer be afraid of it anymore. As for cooking the SARS-CoV-2… Perhaps now is not the time.

Dinner performance at Asian Film Festival, Eindhoven. (Virophilia, 2019)

Has your project eventually managed to answer your research question? Do you think people can see the connotation of viruses differently now, and if not, what do you think is still needed?

This is quite a difficult question for the moment. Before the corona crisis, people really enjoyed the cookbook performances. The performance sometimes took the form of a dinner, and sometimes it consisted of food tasting sessions. In both types of performances the audience were listening to the stories of the viruses in food while eating the food. 

The performance always ended with people wanting to know more about viruses and thinking that we could definitely try experiencing the viruses in different ways: vaccines as a dining experience, viruses especially cultivated for food, etc. So yes, for those I have contact with, it conveys well. Yet I do believe this experience is much needed for a larger audience. I hope telling my story through this interview helps.

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