Sensing towards subversion ∞

Yasaman Sheri invites you to walk, ferment, notice, and question—all as a way to feel more embodied in the living world.

As a species, humans have come to rely on our vision far more than our other senses. And these days, when screen-based activities seem to take up more and more of our time, it’s like we’re using our eyes to take in information, but not to truly see. I wonder: What are we missing?

“As we look beyond the eye we discover that living beings—be they humans, flora, fauna, or microbes—can sense in many forms.” This quote is from the Synthetic Ecologies Lab’s “Microbial Lore” Compendium, a digital archive compiling fermentation-focused research and references from a transdisciplinary team of scientists, cultural producers, writers, chefs, artists, and researchers. As a whole, it takes inspiration from microbes as miraculous little sensorial agents, and as beings that might compel us to engage with the world more voraciously and thoroughly.

Yasaman Sheri is the Principal Investigator and leader of the Synthetic Ecologies Lab at Serpentine. She’s also the Compendium project’s instigator, and someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the act of sensing across species, interfaces, and timescales. In her role at Serpentine, she leads classes and workshops that frame and reframe ecology through culture, society and technology, and that investigate the creative sides of life sciences. (You can read more about her here, watch her TED talk here, and check out her Instagram here.)

As an emerging theme of this newsletter, I truly feel that now is the time to get more comfy with ourselves as smelling, breathing, feeling, interconnected, slowly decomposing yet still-growing beings. That’s why I was thrilled to speak with Yasaman about what might be possible when we quite literally come to our senses, taking some time out of our busy lives to walk, care for other life forms, and get to know our microbial friends. We also discuss the secret sides of the internet, a phenomenon called “email apnea,” and the mismatched timescales of late-stage capitalism. I hope you enjoy!

~ Willa

To start, can you share some of the connective threads that tie your practice together?

I work across mediums and draw inspiration from many disciplines, with a focus on the core question, What are different models for sensing the living world? While my background and skills are rooted in design, I have a curiosity-driven practice that explores interconnection.

I keep coming back to this idea that the way we’re looking at the world might be the problem, and all these systems at play are just one giant manifestation of that.

^ Yasaman photographed by Aaron Alan Mitchell

So much of your practice involves ~sensing~ as a strategy for reconfiguring our relationship with other living things. Can you share more about that?

When we lean into our senses, we can reduce our abstracted conceptions of the world into experiences that are much more embodied. This can profoundly alter the way we see the world.

Sensing is simply a way of unraveling our preconceptions and reorienting ourselves to what we’re actually experiencing. By watching, listening, touching, and noticing, there are so many systems we can subvert. Sensing enables us to question what we feel most familiar with. It opens up the door for new impressions, and new ways of thinking and being.

In computing, specifically with the advent of machine sensing, we talk about “inputs” and “outputs.” What are the stimuli? What does the machine sense, and what is the outcome of that? In my work with biology I’ve learned that our biological sensors work in a similar way. There’s a molecule, and there’s a protein that senses it—then something happens. While this interaction takes place on a very small scale, it’s part of a larger system of complex interactions that can affect us on a much larger scale.

In Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says No, he talks about how the systems we create become a big part of our own sensing bodies, affecting our ability to process stress, illness, and collective intelligence. I’m particularly drawn to the ideas where our intimate and collective experiences are deeply intertwined—both from a human perspective, but also from an ecological perspective. From macro to micro, we are interconnected. That’s why we need to be more mindful when it comes to the sensory experiences we build, uphold, and share collectively.

Can you share a specific example of “sensing” something as a way to expand your perspective?

When I lived in Copenhagen, I learned that in elementary schools every child has a “yeast pet,” because bread making and fermentation is such an important part of Danish culture. They’ll learn to put it in the windowsill to help it stay warm, to feed it as a daily practice, and just to generally take care of it together, like a communal Tamagotchi. I love that relationship, especially for young children. They keep coming back to it each day, like, “What’s new with my yeast buddy? How is it changing over time based on how I interact with it?” This kind of engaged noticing makes for a very different way of experiencing your day-to-day activity, as you interact with, and care for, another living organism’s temporality. 

Why do you think we’ve gotten worse at activating our senses? Do you think this inability to fully “sense” the world has led us to disengage from it?

We live in a hyper-capitalist world. There’s an economic imperative to design objects and experiences that appeal to people at a mass scale by manipulating our psychology. As its name suggests, industrial design originally came out of industrialization, a process of designing products that could be manufactured by mass production. Over time, and especially as this way of mass-producing products has moved into the digital realm, it has escalated to an even faster timescale. Our online experiences embody a kind of digital design obsolescence, where we’re conditioned to never feel satisfied, and to always crave a new interaction. This new world of dopamine-rush engagement systematically hijacks and saturates our senses, detaching us from our physically felt, embodied realities.

The economic systems of advertising and social media—which design plays a huge role in—are almost entirely visual in nature. If you think about your phone, or the screens on your computer, or even the objects in your home or workplace, the visual sensory element is overpowering. But if you cut the visual and think about the other ways of sensing, your whole experience will completely change—and with it, your experience of time.

I actually started my practice by working with the visually impaired, designing tools for learning braille. I found that communities who sense differently tend to adopt different modes of sensory interaction with everyday activities. My favorite example of this is when the folks I was working with talked about playing soccer together by wrapping the ball in a plastic bag, so that it made a noise when kicked. This enabled them to locate the ball using spatial sound instead of sight.

By finding different ways to sense, we can experience a very different timescale and sensory attunement to the world.

What is your personal relationship with social media? You have such an evolved perspective on interfaces and design and the psychological impact of these things, so I’m curious if that has changed the way you use social platforms. Or, do you feel just as much at the mercy of it as the rest of us?

I’m also totally at its mercy. [Laughs] But when I find myself spending too much time on social platforms, I try to stop the scroll and go for a stroll.

The way that we are engaging with digital spaces overall feels very stuck in the same way that capitalism is stuck. I often talk about “email apnea,” a phenomenon where people tend to hold their breath while checking their email. We don’t always realize it, but digital interactions have such a deep effect on our nervous and chemical systems. However, we can shift these kinds of experiences by simply stepping away from them.

While I’m wary of how social media affects us and our senses, I also believe that the internet is a very beautiful and transformative place. Like a city, it has spaces of tension and more “underground” areas, which I like. It feels like a kind of living creature that we’re co-creating—and there are both beautiful and ugly parts of this collective experience of accumulating knowledge and looking back at it together.

This is why I continue to work in digital spaces: Because I believe there is a different way of creating a relationship with computing. I’ll always come back online because my friends are there, and my community is there. But also, knowledge is there. Some of my favorite online destinations are encyclopedias and libraries. 

Two things just came up for me. One is the “wood wide web,” which describes the way that mycelial networks both take energy from trees while also giving them nutrients and other kinds of support. In that way, the network is both parasitic and beneficial to the trees—which feels like a good metaphor for the internet. 

100%. I love it when companies try to control the internet, and it doesn’t work. That’s the beauty of such a messy, interconnected, organically evolving system. With the internet, there are always ways of finding an “out,” metaphorically speaking—like a hidden city, or a back alley, a queer club, or a weird, in-between space where secrets can be exchanged. Those kinds of digital spaces are precious and allow for diversity of culture and subculture.

When Elon Musk ruins Twitter and then everyone leaves, that’s when we realize our own chaotic, emergent power. I wish we would all lean into that more.

Yeah, it feels like the yeast seeping beyond the glass.

The other thing that came up for me is—the wonderful platform that we all adore. It feels a lot like a hidden city to me, where all us citizens are collecting and sharing our weirdly specific research projects. Relatedly, you’ve initiated a cool collaboration with for your Synthetic Ecologies Compendium. Can you share what that project is about, and maybe start by defining what the Synthetic Ecologies Lab is?

Synthetic Ecologies is a lab that I started as part of Serpentine R&D. As for the name, the word “ecology” actually means “study of home,” which I find really beautiful. The “synthetic” part is a juxtaposition to the idea of ecology, as overall I am weaving together a practice of study around science, technology, society, and artistic inquiry—all rooted within the climate and our shared living space, planet Earth.

As a project housed within the Lab, the Synthetic Ecologies Compendium is a free, public archive of collections of knowledge. It’s one of our first projects, and it aims to help anyone engage with life sciences from a diversity of perspectives., which serves as the Compendium’s backend, is a great example of a hidden online city, and I feel very aligned with the platform’s founder, Charles Broskowski, who is part of the project.’s motto is very similar to Ted Nelson’s motto for the internet: “Everything is intertwingled.” In that same way, and coming back to my love for digital research libraries, I wanted to create a tool that could collect shared cultural and scientific references around contemporary topics. 

We also wanted to make the compendium periodical and seasonal, like a magazine, but also like Earth’s changing cycles. We started with the inaugural season of “Microbial Lore.” This topic appealed to us because while fermentation can be seen as an ancestral technology, it’s also used as a methodology in advanced science. High-tech biotechnology companies are utilizing fermentation in labs while people are using it in their home kitchens. Food is also a very accessible way of learning about living things, because it’s so universal: everyone eats. There’s a really nice thread there around accessibility, and around microbes as this sort of universal agent of growth.

To curate the Microbial Lore compendium, we brought in a group of thought leaders from very different backgrounds to collectively build our index of knowledge. We appointed chef and cultural producer Angel Dimayuga to help us form what we call a guild made up of diverse disciplinary practices: Fermentation Scientist Namita Patel from Francis Crick Institute, Flavor Historian Nadia Berenstein, Lucy Chinen of non-food, and Material Translator Seetal Solanki, to name a few.

Together, we collected content ranging from memes to white papers, mythologies to oral histories. Now it’s all able to sit together in this entangled, interconnected way. Later, we created a public tool so anyone can make a mini compendium by following their own thread of curiosity. So while each curated list won’t contain everything about the topic, it will be a lens through a particular person’s way of thinking. In this way we were very intentional with our perspective that archives are never complete.

Mindy Sue, who has many thoughts on archives and indexes (and who is also a dear friend), did the design of the compendium website, and Somnath Bhatt did the illustrations. With Som’s art, I wanted us to think about science like a tapestry, and like a form of new ancestral nature. I also commissioned a custom microbial typeface for the compendium called “Century Synthetic,” by Brian Huddleston, who works for the Walker Art Center. The font grows and deteriorates over time, just like a microbe might.

I love that the first season of the compendium is focused on fermentation, a practice you seem to be quite invested in.

I invite everyone to think about their everyday gestures in a different way. Instead of scrolling—a gesture of mindless, endless consumption—try drawing or fermenting. We are all so heavily invested in systems that need to be challenged, and that challenge can begin from an everyday practice of sensing. You could wake up every morning and say, “I have a yeast pet to feed,” just like those children in the Danish classroom. Caring for another living being, and learning to understand its needs, really does reorient you.

Overall, fermenting is a beautiful experience, but it can also be a tough experience if you’re not taking care of things. [Laughs] 

I’ve had both experiences myself… the horrific story is one for another day, but it involves larvae. [Laughs]

I think it’s good for people to experience the unwanted parts of living fermentation—whether there’s a really bad stench or a strange mold that’s not good for consumption. It teaches us to build a relationship that is symbiotic, but also respectful. It’s all part of the interaction: You have to care for your microbes, you have to build a relationship with them, and you have to learn to understand the process.

There’s something about the stench of a weird funky living thing that you’ve invited into your home, which is so different from the very sterile, idealized “perfect home.” In that somewhat unattainable version of reality, the one Instagram tries to sell us, everything is clean and perfectly put away, and there’s no rotting fermented vegetables leaking brown goo into your refrigerator’s cheese drawer. But maybe the true aspirational refrigerator situation is one full of explosive, over-fermented sauerkraut. [Laughs]

The process of fermenting doesn’t have to be foul. We often think that microbes are “bad” or “dirty.” But I like to think of it as more of a materials-focused discourse: glass vs. clay, or sterile vs. porous.

Coming back to design, the materials that we’re often using for mass-production and in science are “materials of control,” in that they align with the human psychopathology of taking control over other living things. The way we see the living world manifests in the objects and interactions we create, and currently, we seem to collectively view it as a hierarchy where we’re at the top, and everything else is below us. But that’s just not how things work.

All life forms require change. Naturally porous materials like wood and clay change over time as microbial life forms affect them. Because of this, we start to expect the relational experience of dealing with those materials to be one of care. I also like to think of the idea of drawing. Can microbes draw? These organisms record their history within porous materials. Wood can hold microbes that can come alive upon interacting with water. This is something I often speak with Angel about—how the vessels that we hold food in shape our relationship to it. I also like to think beyond food, to the utensils of everyday life. As organic processes are celebrated and we allow them to slowly unfold, it opens the door for us to think: “Maybe materials can move beyond sterility, and objects can deteriorate over time.”

This is making me think about the rampant Airbnb-ified aesthetic, where everything is supposed to look unique and crafty, but is actually fully synthetic. It’s like a faux-wood dining table with a plastic vase that’s molded and painted to look like clay. I’ve come to really despise this aesthetic; it feels like such a dumbly literal manifestation of how late-stage capitalism is ruining the natural world.

We have a timescale problem. Fashion is a good example of this: garments are created with materials that far outlast the timespan of the social trend. You’ll feel like, “I’m done with this. I’ve evolved.” And yet most fast-fashion brands produce garments that are so synthetic, they’ll never break down. 

On the one hand, we have these materials that exist forever, and on the other hand, we have digital experiences that are mere microseconds long. It all feels entirely mismatched, and we need to do some serious questioning. By reorienting our senses—whether by taking a walk, painting, or spending time in the kitchen fermenting— we slow down. And with time, our perspectives shift.

^ All images are from Yasaman, and feature sights from her sensing walks, and from her classroom.

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