Homo Photosyntheticus


In 1972, atmospheric scientist James Lovelock undertook a scientific expedition on the Shackleton to the planetary oceans to measure the various levels of the abundant dimethyl sulfide (DMS), an oceanic sulfur gas known for its climate-cooling effect by decreasing the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. The degradation of DMS in the atmosphere condenses water vapor, leading to the formation of clouds. Lovelock was mostly interested in the fact that the organic sulfur mostly emitted by oceans sprays was coming from its precursor Dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), a compound found in phytoplankton and algae, and was thus able to reveal the climate feedback loop correlating DMS production by marine phytoplankton with cloud reflection of sunlight. This observation led him to publish, that same year, the first article on the Gaia hypothesis, “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere”1. It is furthermore estimated that 50–80% of the Earth’s oxygen production comes from the ocean – from oceanic plankton, algae and some bacteria capable of photosynthesis. One species in particular, the cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus, which is the smallest photosynthetic organism of Earth, alone produces 20% of the oxygen in the whole of our biosphere. This percentage is higher than all terrestrial tropical forests combined and both examples are illustrating the extent to which phytoplankton and algae are important for the balance of the biosphere. But with the increase in green tides, harmful algal blooms and sargassum seas, algae and cyanobacteria have gained a bad reputation, even though these proliferations are caused by climate change, ocean acidification and global warming, chemical and nutrients discharges from deforestation, the petrochemical industries, industrial livestock farming and other anthropogenic causes.

The urgency of the environmental crisis demands societal change – reducing the collective carbon footprint, embracing sustainable energies, food alternatives and new ways of living.

Yet, from carbon sinks to alternative food and feed, algae can play a crucial role in the ecological transition. They can be used as biofuels, biomaterials, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Their nutritional role is recognized, rich in proteins, minerals, fatty acids and vitamins. Cyanobacteria known as spirulina and the micro-algae chlorella are promising food alternatives, and the food cultures of northeast Asia did not wait for the environmental crises of the 20th century to embrace macro-algae such as kombu, wakame and porphyra (nori) in their diets. The umami flavor of kombu seaweed was discovered in the early 20th century. Control of the lifecycle of nori seaweed by the British scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker[2] after World War Two gave a new start to the nori Japanese fishermen in need of resilience. A more recent scientific study conducted at the Roscoff Biological Station in the French department of Finistère(3] even described how the microbiota of the Japanese has undergone evolutionary lateral gene transfer to better digest nori. Now, in the 21st century, global food cultures are slowly beginning to incorporate macro-algae such as kombu, wakame and nori into their diets, but how might we consume more algae around our tables?

In marine life, many species (the sea slug Elysia Chlorotica, zebrafish, Costasiella Kuroshimae or leaf sheep, etc.) have even successfully incorporated microalgae into their tissue over the course of their evolution in order to benefit from their photosynthesis. The evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis is often mentioning Symsagittifera roscoffensis, the Roscoff marine worm from Brittany, a wholly photosymbiotic species that ingests but does not digest its symbiotic micro-algae, keeping it in its tissue and surviving entirely through its photosynthesis. In Microcosmos, Margulis and Dorion Sagan speculate on this animal-algae, expanding reflection toward a future “Homo Photosyntheticus” of the human species, a future in our evolution in which humans would become fully phototrophic, a human-plant with no need to feed[4]. These marine photosymbioses have inspired medical and biomedical research. Many research teams are trying to take advantage of this photosymbiotic logic to integrate micro-algae on or in damaged human tissue for regeneration through their photosynthesis[5]. The speculations of Margulis and Sagan have also inspired speculative bio-artists and science fiction writers. From Quimera Rosa to Špela Petrič and Robertina Šebjanič, from Ursula Le Guin to Kim Stanley Robinson[6], it is a future “Homo Photosyntheticus” that seems to be inspiring humankind, both at metaphorical and practical levels.

So how to draw inspiration from this speculative shift to a “Homo Photosyntheticus”? Margulis and Sagan envisioned it as enabling humans to become multi-planetary. The European Space Agency’s MELISSA (Multi-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) program[7] is considering circular systems for life on other planets, imagining the cultivation of spirulina as an alternative food and oxygen source. The Multicellular Marine Models aboratory at the Roscoff Biological Station[8] is planning to study the Roscoff worm in space to better understand its photosymbiotic life cycle and its tissue regeneration capacities. Why? Perhaps because we still only know far too little about the oceans, the planetary holobionts and the life of algae, these protists that are “queering” conventional taxonomy. Is the objective to go from the ocean floor to outer space and back to Earth, the ocean planet? To finally leave the Anthropocene and enter this Chthulucene[9] that the philosopher and zoologist Donna Haraway is calling for?

These few words summarize the artistic research topics we have been exploring and expanding upon since 2021 in various forms: writing, videos, workshops, conferences, installations, art objects and performances. They are also nourishing a creative documentary now being made. This research through writings and videos lead to: interviews with artists Špela Petrič and Robertina Šebjanič, art collective Quimera Rosa, scientists from the European Space Agency’s MELISSA program, and professor Hideo Iwasaki, director of the metaPhorest bioaesthetics research platform at the University of Waseda in Tokyo, as well as a film journal on the memorial to Kathleen Drew-Baker in Kumamoto, on Kyushu island, Japan.

[1] J. E. Lovelock, “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere”, P. Westbroek & E. W. deJong (eds.), Biomineralization and Biological Metal Accumulation, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983, pp.15-25. Online at: http://www.jameslovelock.org/gaia-as-seen-through-the-atmosphere/
[2] Drew, Kathleen M. “Conchocelis-phase in the life-history of Porphyra umbilicalis (L.) Kütz”. Nature. Vol. 164, 4174 (1949): 748–749. Online at: https://www.nature.com/articles/164748a0
[3] Hehemann, Jan-Hendrik et al. “Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota.” Nature vol. 464,7290 (2010): 908-12. Online at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature08937
[4] Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos. Summit Books, 1986
[5] Chávez, Myra N et al. “Photosymbiosis for Biomedical Applications.” Frontiers in bioengineering and biotechnology vol. 8 577204. Oct. 6, 2020
[6] Kim Stanley Robinson, Oral Argument: A Short Story, 2015. Online at: https://www.kimstanleyrobinson.info/content/oral-argument-short-story
[7] https://www.melissafoundation.org/
[8] https://www.sb-roscoff.fr/fr/equipe-modeles-marins-multicellulaires
[9] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, 2016.

Ewen Chardronnet & Maya Minder

The Homo Photosyntheticus project has been build up by the many previous contributions of artists, scientists, facilitators and curators from around the world: Maya Minder (CH), Špela Petrič (SI), Robertina Šebjanič (SI), Cedric Carles & Atelier21.org (FR), Bureau d’études (FR), Miha Turšič (SI), Jean-Philippe Blanchard (FR), Carole Thibaud (FR), Sandra Bühler (CH), Vincent Pouplard (FR), Oliver Morvan (FR), PostGravityArt (SI), Nicolas Floc’h (FR), Miha Godec (SI), Elvin Flamingo (PL), Disnovation (FR/PL), Pauline Briand (FR), Francois Robin (FR), Xavier Bailly (FR), Gaëlle Correc (FR), Julien Bellanger (FR), PING (FR), Natasa Petresin (SI/FR), Philippe Potin (FR), Dominik Refardt (CH), Mira Chavez (MX), Francesc Gòdia (ES), Christophe Lasseur (FR), Sandra Ortega Ugalde (ES), Quentin Aurat (FR), Isabelle Carlier (FR), Ryu Oyama (JP), Cherise Fong (US), Hideo Iwasaki (JP)
And has been supported by various grants, Art Explora Foundation, Carasso Foundation, Pro Helvetia, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC-DICréaM), Diffusing Digital Art (DDA Contemporary Art), Antre-Peaux, Région Centre-Val-de-Loire, Jeu de Paume, the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

UMI NO YA – Uto Monogatari

Ewen Chardronnet, Maya Minder – video 14’30

In southern Japan, at the base of the Uto peninsula, inside Sumiyoshi park, near the shrine, there is a monument. The face of the monument is the profile of a bespectacled middle-aged woman wearing a button-down shirt, her gaze tilted slightly upward and into the distance, as if watching over the sea. Below the portrait is inscribed IN MEMORY OF MADAME KATHLEEN MARY DREW, D. Sc. – a British phycologist who died in 1957 at the age of 56, having never set foot in Japan.

From this spot, you can see all the way around the Ariake Sea off the western coast of Kyushu, from Kumamoto to Fukuoka to Saga to Nagasaki. From late October to March, you might also see colorful nets floating by the seaside, or tall poles planted on the shore. This is the harvest season of nori, Japan’s native seaweed.

Nori has been cultivated around the Kikugawa river in Kumamoto since the 19th century Meiji period, when the annual harvest was routinely subject to the whims of nature. The situation was particularly dire after World War II, when food was scarce, and Japanese scientists struggled to comprehend the full life cycle of nori in order to cultivate it more reliably.

Meanwhile in Manchester, Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker was meticulously studying European species of red algae, such as Laver. In 1949, she serendipitously discovered that algae filaments nested in seashells during the summer were in fact the same species of algae that matured into the edible seaweed that was regularly harvested in autumn. What if the life cycle of Japanese nori was similar to that of Welsh laver?

Such was the theme of a heated exchange of letters over several years regarding Porphyra (Conchocelis), nori seedlings and oyster shells with Japanese marine botanist Segawa Sokichi. The researcher relayed Drew’s findings to his colleague Fusao Ota in Kumamoto, who finally disseminated the technique among local nori farmers. Within a few years, Ariake Sea nori production significantly rebounded, heralding an industry that would reach its peak in the following decades. The year was 1957.

Since 1963, the monument in Sumiyoshi park commemorates Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker, who first discovered the missing piece of the nori life cycle. In the region, where nori spores are carefully seeded in oyster shells each summer, she is recognized as the birth mother – umi no oya (生みの親) – of nori aquaculture. Every year on April 14, her contribution is celebrated with a dedicated festival, while a Shinto ceremony honors the British phycologist as a deity. It’s no wonder some interpret her legendary status as umi no oya (海の親) – Mother of the [Ariake] Sea.

Today, the living memory of this historical series of events is Professor Ota’s assistant and heir, 85-year-old nori researcher Fumiichi Yamamoto. He still works in a makeshift warehouse laboratory just down the road from Sumiyoshi park in Uto, spending eight hours a day looking into a microscope, analyzing the current health of cultivated nori seedlings. The story of the Drew monument is also his story.


ART2M / Makery | Jeu de Paume | Antre Peaux | Région Centre Val-de-Loire

Union Européenne