December 12, 2015
Dr. Koert van Mensvoort is a dutch artist and philosopher best known for his work on the philosophical concept of Next Nature, which revolves around the idea that our technological environment has become so complex, omnipresent and autonomous that it is best perceived as a nature of its own. It is his aim to better understand our co-evolutionary relationship with technology and help set out a track towards a future that is rewarding for both humankind and the planet at large.
Interview with Koert van Mensvoort.
Meat the future.
- What three values form the heart of your project ‘The In Vitro Meat cookbook’?
All my projects relate to the ever evolving relationship between nature and technology. They are not opposites as some might argue, they merge and progress our old notions of nature, transforming into Next Nature, wild and unpredictable as ever. Next Nature is what defines the scope of my projects. When I first heard about the idea of in vitro meat I could feel it was a loaded subject; artificial meat is seen as a solution for saving our planet, promising a sustainable and animal friendly alternative. There’s this interesting tension between engineered meat and meat from livestock – growing cells in a lab setting is something completely different. This tension really triggered my fascination. I soon realised that IV meat researchers focus mainly on technology – they are only looking to recreate what we already have, not paying attention to the new possibilities that come with it, both culinary and culturally. I like to compare it to the first cars, being horseless carriages. Something was definitely missing in the conversation around IV meat and that’s where I saw a role for myself as an artist/designer. There is so much to discuss; What are the possibilities of IV meat, in theory and fantasy? Which dreams or nightmares do we envision? What does this development mean for us as a society?
I want to challenge the divide between artificial and natural and hand people tools to think about this in different ways. I am like a radar, scanning the environment, plotting out possibilities that technology has to offer us without being too judgemental. By making it visual I make a subject tangible and accessible.
There’s a lot of problems arising from the way we produce meat at the moment, yet in the western world we think about meat as something that is just there and should be there as well, because we can financially afford it. I have no intention of stigmatising the meat industry, but I want to dive into that ambivalence – how do we relate to meat? How do we feel about that? This fascinates me on a product level as well. Take the bitterbal as an example, a typical dutch snack, people just take it for granted. But when you really think about what it actually is, the ingredients, the way it is prepared, it is such a strange thing, our cultural context gives it it’s meaning.
People are not likely to embrace change, which makes sense, but I like to stimulate people to re-evaluate their ‘normal’ and make them aware of their own cultural habits. This way we can keep an open dialogue about where we want to be heading as a society.
My projects are often considered strange, I want to challenge the norm. I am by no means a preacher telling people how the world works, I look at myself as a catalyst, stimulating people to reconsider their normal. I offer them a toolkit, envisioning possible futures, to invite them to be more open towards the future and change. That merge between tech and nature is at the heart of all projects, there is no division, we are simply moving towards a Next Nature.
Core Values for this project and the Next Nature philosophy in general are Curiosity, Exploration and New Perspectives.
- What is your all-time favourite vegetable? Why?
Definitely aubergine. It is such a fascinating vegetable, especially in this context. It’s structure is so incredibly meaty I kind of consider it to be a nature’s own meat substitute, copying the qualities of meat in a plant.
- How would you define the industry that you work in? What developments do you see for the future of this industry?
My profession is not clearly defined and I switch between different roles; I am a philosopher, designer and artist moving through different fields and industries. I don’t really need a designated profession. For the future I see two different things happening; on the one hand more room for highly specialised people and craftsmanship. At the same time I see room for interdisciplinary people who can function as connectors. In working this way, it is important to have enough discipline specific credibility so people from different disciplines are willing to work with you.
I am at the same time also a specialist in the Next Nature philosophy. Yes, I work in different disciplines and sectors but all connected by this particular vision. To take the cookbook as an example, a cookbook can come in many forms but in my case I already knew what kind of cookbook it would be because this is defined by my vision.
- What is your most memorable meal or dining experience? What made it special for you?
There’s this one memory that popped up straight away – it is not so much a meal but a food related experience that I remember very well. When I was a young teenager I went on a survival camp, where we were pretty much artificially put in a situation where we had to survive with minimal means (and a can of soup). Here I experienced how even after a couple of days your taste and food standards really start to change. When we got back to the normal world we walked into a supermarket and were so overwhelmed by the availability that we bought heaps of sweets, soda, chips and other crap. We completely stuffed ourselves till we were sick, literally, because our stomachs couldn’t handle it. This shows how relative our desires are, what you have access to also determines your needs. We are so used to having food available for us at all times, we’ve become blasé about it. Abundance is the norm, while enjoyment and taste are adjustable.
- Do you have any grand plans at the moment? Do you have a food related dream project?
I think this is my dream project. It is still in progress, the cookbook was followed by Bistro in Vitro, a fictional restaurant. The project is gradually becoming more interactive. For the book we interviewed chefs, the next step is to get out on the street with an In Vitro meat ice truck, serving bacon and meat fruit ice creams, polar bear ice blocks, all different meat references to bring the conversation to the people. With more interaction we will be able to map out the possible impact, collect statements and put them in a time capsule which will be opened in 2028 – this is the year where the restaurant is situated. We already have 1000+ reservations. By then we can see what happened and relate back to people’s ideas from the past. This project is not about predicting the future, it is about discovering the spectrum of possibilities and peoples visions.
Interview by Sprout.
Photography by Bistro in Vitro.