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GhostFood: a Taste of Your Foodie Future

Artists Miriam Simun + Miriam Songster have teamed up to bring a taste of the future to the streets with GhostFood: a food truck dishing out a menu centered on three familiar foods facing extinction—cod, chocolate, and peanut. This participatory performance piece, commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY, is designed to promote a dialogue around climate change by imagining how we may come to eat in the not-so-distant future when our favorite foods are in scarcity.

GhostFoodLogo

When we eat, what we are actually “tasting” is the synthesis of taste, smell, and texture—a fusion that collectively creates the food’s flavor. Drawing from this basic physiology, Simun + Songster have designed a 3D-printed headset that dispenses specially manufactured fragrances that—when combined with an edible textural analog—conjure up a taste + flavor reminiscent of these endangered dishes. So as you munch on flaky cod-substitute, your nose is fed the fragrance of the fish. On fashioning this future dining experience, Simun says:

We are creating this experience where you’re eating these foods, but you have to wear this special device and you’re not eating very much. It’s this interesting thing—an instant nostalgia for what you have right now. Because we welcome people into this near-future experience where this is the way you eat peanut butter or this is the way you eat cod and this is the only way it’s available.

With prices on the rise, foods that were once cheap mealtime staples are experiencing the economic effects of scarcity. But behind the ever-increasing price tags lie real-life species that are under ecological threat as their habitats have turned hostile. The GhostFood menu draws from at-risk species across three ecosystems: ocean, grasslands + rainforest.

ghost-foods-1

Overfishing aside, our climate-changed oceans have created uncomfortably warm waters for cod—nearing the top of cod’s livable temperature range—while changing currents have led to depletion of their nutrient-rich food sources. Up on land, seasonal changes in rain + temperature patterns have created prime conditions for toxic molds to flourish on our favorite crops, including corn, wheat, and peanuts. And with rainforests bearing the burden of deforestation, drought, and rising temperatures, the world’s cocoa supply is also at risk as cocoa trees are unable to beat the heat, not to mention the rise in disease and pests due to devastating disturbances in ecological order.

By creating this fundamentally different // highly ritualized dining experience, GhostFood innovatively takes these species off the supermarket shelves, challenging tasters to place each food in its ecological context. As Songster explains:

Certainly there’s an intention for this experience to have some emotional resonance—and hopefully through that resonance people are able to think about the species from an emotional perspective. We’re giving people this very hands-on, me-centered experience of eating and smelling—because it doesn’t get more personal and self-involved than actually eating. And yet we’re also hoping that the emotional impact of the experience will allow people to step back and actually think about the species as not just food.

The quasi-apocalyptic aside, these foods were carefully curated based also on their place in the North American diet—each dish made all the more poignant + pungent by its familiarity. Interestingly, the fragrances of these dishes are fed directly to your nose, appealing to your olfactory sensibilities, which are intimately tied to memory. The region of the brain responsible for sensing scent—the olfactory bulb—is actually a member of the brain’s limbic system, which plays an important role in long-term memory + emotional life. Songster adds:

There’s a historical memory in the experiences of eating these foods, which makes them more meaningful for people. But it also creates a little bit of friction between what you’re eating now and what you remember eating. We’re mimicking these foods, but we’re not necessarily trying to create an exact replica. We know that there is going to be a gap there and that gap is part of what this opening is about—to ask, “What is it like to eat this way?” And to think to yourself that it’s sort of the same, but it isn’t really the same—there’s something both exciting about it being different, and also maybe sad about it being different.

But beyond the emotional, this familiarity supplies a necessary frame of reference for this out-of-the-ordinary culinary experience—a gastronomical anchor to our present-day // everyday reality. By simultaneously imparting excitement for possible foodie futures to come, while providing a taste [or lack thereof] of what diners stand to lose, the GhostFood experience distills the conflict that comes with progress. “Augmenting reality and simulating things is a popular way to go in terms of technology today,” Simun notes. “So all of that came together into this device that would use our olfactory sense to compensate for the species that we are losing due to other decisions that we make.”

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: "There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect's way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?"

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: “There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect’s way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?”

 

Given the basic physiology of flavor perception, creating effective food + flavor combinations posed an interesting challenge. Early in the project, Simun + Songster consulted with scent experts at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center, later teaming up with flavor + fragrance company Takasago to engineer the GhostFood aromas evoking the flavors of these phantom dishes. Songster laughs, “When we went to meet them they had some of their bigger perfume brands on display—for example, Victoria’s Secret. Meanwhile, we’re asking them to do the smell of fish!” Creating the GhostFood flavors posed an interesting challenge for the group based on the physiology of flavor perception.

An inevitable consequence of any simulation is its imperfection—its ability to only approximate and not replicate the real thing. And, to me, that is the real beauty of GhostFood’s design. Food fragrance is typically perceived both through the back of the mouth—retronasally—and directly through the nostrils—orthonasally. In fact, certain odor molecules—including chocolate—activate different parts of the brain depending on whether they are delivered through the mouth or through the nose. However, the GhostFood device only feeds scent through the orthonasal route, creating an interesting neurological // physiological experiment, while viscerally highlighting that GhostFood is indeed a simulation of a well-known + well-loved epicurean experience and not the real deal as we know it now.

Perhaps most exciting of all is GhostFood’s unique take on the edible future that goes beyond our favorite sci-fi forecasts for the future—those bare-bones // on-the-run pastes + pellets. Instead, Simun + Songster creatively re-imagine the future of not only our food, but also our culture, highlighting how the innovations of a very tangible future stand to re-invent the rituals of hearth + home. Simun shares:

In a way it is sci-fi because we’re using 3D-printed technology and we’re using signs and the language of the future. But in other ways we’re doing the polar opposite: we’re making eating even more complicated and even more sensorial and even more multi-faceted than all these other dominant visions of what food is in the future—where it’s just a pellet or a paste or an injection and you’ll never need to eat again—which only look at the role of food in human life in a very singular, small way.

For a firsthand taste of the future, find GhostFood in a street-parked food truck near you! On what to expect, Simun slyly mentions: “We have GhostFood staff that we’ve hired to run the truck… our food is unique so our staff is trained in a special way too. Just as we imagine eating to be different in this GhostFood future, we imagine service to be different also.”

ghostfood-trailersketch

GhostFood makes its premiere at Pop Up Place for DesignPhiladelphia 2013’s benefit launch party // October 9th 6-9 pm. And be sure to catch the truck as it hits the streets for Marfa Dialogues/NY: October 11th 6-10 pm, October 12th 12-6 pm, and October 13th 11-4 pm @ Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ // October 15th 6-8 pm @ Robert Rauschenberg Project Space, New York, NY.

Out on a Limb

B.B. King + “Lucille.” Eric Clapton + “Blackie.” The bond between musician and instrument is sacred.1 If “music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life” [Beethoven], then musical instruments are the mediator of that mediator. The vehicle through which the spiritual can be heard. But in order to fluently and fluidly communicate this inner state, all technical details—the fingering of a note, the plucking of a string—must become as second nature as the most mundane everyday task. done without a moment’s thought. So all that is left is a deep and intense focus on musicality.

astor + pollux. illustration by shawn feeney.

Musicians often describe their instruments as an extension of themselves. To be great, you must become one with your instrument. incredibly, this oneness can actually be achieved because our brain can actually come to see a musical instrument as a physical extension of the body!!

To pilot our bodies through the motions required for everyday tasks, the brain builds an organized model of the body—the body schema. To devise this internal schematic, the brain dynamically integrates tactile and visual information from our sensory receptors with the body’s innate sense of its position in space [a la proprioception]. These sensory syntheses allow us to judge distances, manipulate objects, and approach those around us. To move through and interact with the world.

Amazingly, our brains can even incorporate inanimate objects—particularly tools—into this mental plan.2 These tools essentially become internalized as temporary extensions of the body’s consciousness, though it is important to note that they never become incorporated into the body schema; the loss of a tool is never felt in the same way as the loss of a limb.

jawharp

jawharp. illustration by shawn feeney

The musical instrument is just like any other tool, except that instead of being used to carry out some traditionally practical task, it is used as a device for expression. And so, like any other tool, it too becomes integrated into the body schema upon use—a natural [and literal] extension of the expressive self.3

Of course, the sort of re-organization required to extend the body schema to the musician’s instrument takes time. [remember, practice makes perfect.] The average person requires more training with an instrument than she would with, say, a fork or a hammer. Still, there do exist those rare prodigies—the Mozarts and Yo Yo Mas—for whom musicality comes naturally. Though I am by no means an expert in neurophysiology or music performance theory, here are two possible explanations i’ll put out there as a fun thought experiment:

one: Perhaps for these few, their body modeling is more plastic. Instead of treating the instrument as a bodily extension only after intensive training, their brains may be more readily and rapidly accepting of the instrument into the body schema.

The violin came naturally, and it really fit me. When I picked it up [and placed it under my chin], it looked like it had grown there. It just fit. ∇Δ Miriam Burns

two: There is still the possibility that the prodigy’s brain sees her instrument as a sort of extra limb. The vast majority of amputees feel bodily sensations in their phantom limbs. These sensations actually allow amputees to successfully incorporate prostheses into their body schema because their minds have not fully registered the loss. Then, perhaps a non-corporeal entity like an instrument could become instantly incorporated into the body schema. Rather than acting as a mere bodily extension, the instrument may be filling a void in the prodigy’s body schema, behaving just as a prosthesis would for an amputee.

This last hypothesis is admittedly more far-fetched. However, considering how little we actually understand the brain, particularly the unconscious brain, not much is out of the realm of possibility: “The brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe… the brain boggles the mind” [James Watson].

The Sixth Sense

martha graham.

As a failed child ballerina//tap dancer//gymnast, I’ve always been more than a little amazed by [and a tad jealous of] those who possess both the coordination and the grace to dance their way to the stage. Quite frankly, the feats dancers perform are nothing short of miraculous to me. These are people who have mastered the art of sensing where each and every inch of their bodies are at any given moment in lyrical time. A musician relies on her aural sensibilities when composing a piece of music. A chef relies on the integration of smell and taste when crafting the most flavorful of dishes. A dancer, on the other hand, must rely on a little-acknowledged but ever-present sixth sense: proprioception.

Proprioception is “the inner sense by which the body is aware of itself” [Oliver Sacks]. The body sense. As we proprioceive, our brain is coordinating several raw inputs, such as the body’s position with respect to gravity [the inner ear fluid], the stretch of a particular muscle [stretch receptors], and the angle at which a given joint is open [joint receptors]. The brain integrates all these complex inputs to determine where our bodies are in three-dimensional space at any instant.

twyla tharp.

This body sense is what allows us to shut our eyes and still account for the orientation of all our limbs at once without a moment’s thought. It is literally why we feel embodied. However, perhaps because we feel entitled to our own embodiment, we often take proprioception for granted, even more so than our other senses. and yet, without it, we would have to consciously train our eyes on each and every movement to judge distances. to calculate trajectories. To pain-stakingly keep track of where we are and where we’re going. [For more, see the strange case of Ian Waterman.]

Most of us seldom use our powers of proprioception consciously because we only ever ask our bodies to do the routine: one foot in front of the other//now walk, fingers to the itch//now scratch, hand to the mouth//now eat. we perform these tasks with an innate sense of effortlessness because we’ve been doing them forever. We only proprioceive consciously while we are actively learning a new movement or fine-tuning a motion we already know, drawing our awareness to it.

pina bausch.

Virtuosos of proprioception, dancers necessarily have a heightened and very much conscious sense of body: “A dancer must listen to his body and pay homage to it. behind the movement lies this terrible, driving passion, this necessity” [Martha Graham]. Of course, by virtue of their intensive training, the dancer’s repertoire of motion is far more extensive than the average individual. Their muscle memory is jam-packed with moves that are almost incomprehensible to my own body. Nevertheless, the art in dance only comes with the dancer’s ability to unite the conscious mind with the body. Intentionally fine-tuning the most minute movements. Exhibiting exquisite command over even the tiniest of muscles.

Some of the greatest dancers claim that they were born to dance. Martha Graham once said: “People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life.” Perhaps for these elite few, the proprioceptual mind-body union comes through pure intuition—a natural sense of knowing where the body should be at any given moment, simultaneously envisioning and creating the lines of the body. Just as one person may have a higher visual acuity or super hearing capabilities, the natural-born dancer could have greater proprioceptual capacity. A heightened awareness of the body’s orientation and coordination in space infused with an aesthetic sensibility. An innate understanding of how to move with artful purpose.

Smell Check

My name is Maryam and I’m a congenital anosmic. I was born this way. A rare mutant with a lifelong inability to smell.

Anosmia literally means ‘without smell’. While I most certainly do have a nose [my grandmother would even say it’s impressively large], it is incapable of telling my brain that it’s sensing anything. When the typical person smells, what their nose is detecting is actually a series of tiny odor molecules in the air. Different odor molecules have a characteristic shape, which is recognized by the nose’s odorant receptors in our olfactory neurons. on recognition, these receptors bind the odor, which initiates a series of changes in the neuron. This neuron then *fires* a chemical message, setting off a chain of events—a signaling cascade—that relays the presence of a particular smell up to the brain.

The average person can bind and distinguish up to 10,000 different odor molecules. [Which is a whole heck of a lot considering humans have a relatively poor sense of smell!] I, on the other hand, have a genetic mutation—a typo in my olfactory neurons’ assembly instructions—that leaves me unable to detect a single scent. While it’s likely that my nose’s odorant receptors can still recognize and bind odors*, this smelly message gets lost because some link in the signaling chain to my brain is defunct.

Unfortunate as that may sound, as a  new yorker, I must say that I’d consider my deficiency more of a blessing than a curse. I shrug obliviously as my friends complain that a Bushwick street corner smells like pee. I don’t faint when Sparky the Dog passes gas in a closely quartered Lower East Side apartment. I even get the last seat on the train that no one wants just because it’s next to some [allegedly] super smelly person.

Of course, there are down sides too. For instance, one night, some friends and I were riding the subway home from dinner. The train that came was beyond crowded except for one car. I marched into that car, happy as a clam to find a seat—nay, a whole bench!—for myself. That is, until my friends followed me in and started choking on the stench. At first I panicked, thinking the smell was me [my friends are constantly assuring me that their p-u’s are never for me]. But then I saw the lone man in the car throwing up in his jacket. If not for my friends’ good scents, I would have unknowingly lounged in the smell of vomit for the next 20 minutes.

smelly-armpits

The biggest down side, however, is that my nose is deaf to the inaudible // invisibile // intangible language of odors. Animals silently communicate with one another through the smells they give off, and humans are no exception. Our brains have the capacity to translate olfactory stimuli into a behavioral response. We transmit emotion through scent—the stink of fear is contagious. We recognize our kin through their signature smell—infants sleep better with just the scent of their mothers nearby. And, most famously, we choose our mates by their fragrance. In a blind study, ovulating women preferred the scent of more symmetrical men based only on the way their slept-in T-shirts smelled. On the flip side, researchers have found that men tip strippers better while the strippers are ovulating!

Anosmics like myself are thought to be indifferent to these behavior-inducing odors. We’ve been accused of being more socially awkward and less confident than the average smelling human because we cannot pick up on these intangible olfactory cues. Reduced scent perception has even been implicated as a marker for psychopathy! As a non-smelling, well-functioning [albeit super nerdy] individual, I wonder if that’s truly the case. If a blind // deaf person makes up for the loss of one sense by heightening the others, who is to say that my other senses aren’t compensating in a similar way? That perhaps ansomics make up for what we can’t smell by being hypersensitive to a person’s tonal inflections or slight changes in facial + body language?

I doubt we’re all that inscentsitve… we just have a different way of smelling the world. Perhaps there is even a way to reveal the hidden world of scent to the unsmelling. A deaf person can ‘hear’ music by feeling its rhythms and melodies. Scientists have found ways to enable a blind person to ‘see’ by translating images into sound waves. Perhaps, then, there is still hope for the inscentient. A way to manipulate the anosmic’s brain—mimicking a smell to evoke a response—to give us a whiff how smell looks // feels // tastes // sounds.

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The Scent of Light. Shanghai’s super nature design attempts to evoke scent using ethereal light design.

* Humans have 900+ genes coding for smell receptors, so it’s highly unlikely that every one of these genes is defective in me.