The Transformative Art of Fermentation

Graphic from Adobe Stock/dikobrazik

For visual artist and food fermentation experimentalist S.E. Nash, the art of fermentation is just that: art. Nash’s concepts, creations, installations, and mediums all engage microbiota in intellectual, political, and personal ways. His installations are places of learning that are full of play, change, growth, and transformation. The question is, who’s performing? Is it the created works, the artist, or both? And considering that about 50 percent of the human body is composed of microorganisms (living, unicellular commandos in a perpetual network of information exchange), it’s not unreasonable to wonder if microbes are also co-creating and performing his works — a thought that I think Nash would like.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nash in his home studio before venturing into Kansas City, Missouri, together for a lunch featuring a bit of microbe-infused fare. I learned a lot about this inquisitive transgender artist, his work, and his muse: the human biome.

“Lactobacillus Amongus” photo by Logan Acton

Generative Energy and Communication

As it turns out, both microbes and artist are performing in Nash’s works, right along with the viewers. Nash creates sculptures that house transparent fermentation vessels filled with fermenting grains or vegetables. These vessels are visible to viewers, who are encouraged to engage with them by opening them, smelling them, and, in some cases, feeding them. “The sculptures create a space to reflect on our symbiotic relationship with microbes and the ancient ingenuity they bring to the table,” Nash says. This reflection is brought to fruition in his installations, which often culminate in community food preparation and shared meals.

“Turnip Costumes” photo by Kenny Johnson for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

Nash first became enamored with fermentation while living in New York City, astonished that a bit of flour and water could unleash a wild world of growth in the center of urban civility. That little starter connected Nash to a network of people and microbes in New York, and then to a three-week residency with Sandor Ellix Katz in an intentional community in Tennessee. This residency inspired Nash to explore his widening sense of creativity within the context of community and fermentation aided by the cohesion and diversity of the microbial world. Nash’s personal and professional experiences began to reflect the fermentation experiments in his kitchen, studio, and neighborhood, leading to the inquisitive works he creates today.

Nash’s art questions an object-oriented ontology by sparking such questions as, “What do the sculptures have to say about the ferments, and what do the ferments have to say about the sculptures?” The installations Nash creates bring art objects, living foods, and people into new and interesting relationships. For example, for one of his installations, Nash carved turnips into flowers, placed each in brine as part of a table centerpiece, and then invited diners to decide whether the centerpieces were decorations or meant for eating. In another installation, Nash sought out home and professional bakers to share their sourdough starters for “Lactobacillus Amongus,” a 2017 solo show for PLUG Projects in Kansas City. At the conclusion of the exhibit, the participants used their starters to bake a variety of sourdough products for a potluck. Throughout these exhibits — and hopefully beyond them — people, microbes, art, and community were all interacting with one another. 

“Lactobacillus Amongus” photo by Logan Acton

To eat from a ferment housed inside a sculpture provides an opportunity “to become open to the presence of the microbial world, to observe and consider the imaginative potential of what microbes do, and question what’s living and what isn’t,” Nash says. At play in Nash’s works are sensibilities about changing values; the blurring of multiple binary perceptions, such as art and life, art and non-art, inside and outside, and micro and macro; and the potential for art-making processes to help humans more fully experience our multicellular reality.

Recent estimates suggest that the number of microorganisms in human bodies is roughly equal to the number of human cells. While some of these microorganisms are pathogenic, most play a positive role and are vital to our general health. They live harmoniously with us, taking up only a tiny percentage of our total body mass because of their size. This reality, as Nash explains it, is driven by the generative energy of microbes, which not only transform food and drink into tasty sustenance for us, but also transmute perturbations from outside our bodies into internal responses within our immune systems, responses that influence our emotions and health with invisible force.

“They/Them/Their” photo by Jason Tomme 

Microbes are creative and collaborative in their behavior. Nash allows microbes to model a process for art-making, and they reveal the potential for multiple modes of transformation. Microbial behavior may model, for example, an escape from gender binaries, or at least the coded language that supports them, and possibly a way out of our current hierarchical and anthropocentric lifestyles.

Microbes create, share, transform, and often improve the environments and life forms that host them, and much of Nash’s work intentionally reveals the field marks of microbiota. These manifest themselves as the bubbles in a bread starter or the floating SCOBY in kombucha. Over time, gallerygoers become social and creative collaborators, and determine the kind of experience they want, its duration, and the meaning of their total engagement.

Nash explains that his kitchen practice is as valuable as his studio practice, and his works therefore engage people experientially with two-way exchanges rather than a one-way demonstration. The result is, like fermentation, a transformation. By taking fermentation, a process historically relegated to the kitchen as women’s work, and valuing it as a social practice and an art process, the artist highlights the hierarchical division of gender-specific work. Such disruption “teases out the social function of making processes,” Nash says.

“They/Them/Their” photo by Jason Tomme 

Muse and Plurality

In our conversation, Nash mused that if we modeled our own behaviors after the bacteria we host, we might become more socially fluid. We could become individuals, communicating in order to give and take precisely what’s needed to keep the whole of the community well, adapted, and flexible. If achieved, the fluid nature of our behaviors might give us massive powers of transformation, because whenever one of us changed, the community would respond en masse, like a bacteria colony. But is it possible? When you consider that the human microbiome possesses millions of genes compared with an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 in the human genome, we are indeed multicellular, if not multi-specied. In fact, each of us is a they, a plurality. Nash’s 2016 show, “They/Them/Their” (Black Ball Projects), focused on the phenomenon of symbiosis and the ingenuity of microbial behaviors, such as quorum sensing (a form of cell communication), that invisibly make decisions for us, within us, and without our awareness, begging the question of what changes could occur at the societal level if we modeled our behavior after bacteria.   

Nash wonders if quorum sensing could model an escape from the coded language of our current gender binary. Quorum sensing may be an abstract intellectual concept to most people, because of the microscopic obscurity of microbe behavior, but the concept is reflected in the human macrocosm as community building and community sharing. Technically, quorum sensing describes how cells regulate gene expression based on fluctuations in the colony and its health. While each single cell can produce a signal that alerts the whole colony to express, or not express, particular genes, each cell can also provide its neighbor with the DNA it lacks to help it adapt and maintain the colony’s desired stasis. If our human capacity for creativity, compassion, and intelligence were driven by something akin to quorum sensing, socially constructed tropes and binaries would be unnecessary; fluidity and multiplicity would replace singular, opposing identifiers.

“They/Them/Their” photo by Jason Tomme 

‘Garden Variety Soda Fountain’

I witnessed an interesting community-building exercise at a Mother Earth News Fair, in which a presenter who demonstrated how to make kombucha spontaneously ended the program by having participants gather, hold hands, and share their microbes. This was meant to activate an experience for participants, one that might open their imaginations and help them envision the unseen microbial world.

Nash developed “Garden Variety Soda Fountain” (2017) with the loose intention of creating networks similar to microbial connections. In this instance, he focused on the intersection of gardening, fermenting, art-making, and socializing. The project was produced with a 2017 Research and Development Rocket Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art with funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

For the project, Nash first met with the Rosedale Development Association, Kansas City Community Gardens, The Giving Grove, and Seed Savers KC, which became a foundational network that provided information on what to grow, how to grow, and where to find fruits and vegetables locally. The project’s impetus was to create “transformational flavors from local garden ingredients,” Nash says. The result was a mobile, contemporary soda fountain that served up fermented elixirs on a hot August afternoon in 2018. For those gathered at Early Street Garden in Rosedale, Kansas City, the bright-pink soda fountain with relief sculptures of fruits and vegetables dished up the perfect conditions for learning, growth, and transformation. Nash describes the fountain as serving “medicine in the form of naturally fermented probiotic drinks, sunshine, garden greenery, and conversation” set in motion as a tribute to “those who share a passion for creativity from seed to soda.” The event was inclusive and open to curious arrivals throughout the day. At this first tasting event, participants could drink sour cherry kombucha, blackberry Jun, pickle kefir, basil kefir, and pineapple jalapeño kombucha, surrounded by many of the ingredients in the garden.

“Lactobacillus Amongus” photo by Logan Acton

Antidotes and the Anthropocene

Fermentation is an old technique made new, revered for its surprising flavors and complementary medicinal benefits. Paying attention to, and focusing attention on, microbiota serves creative and curative purposes in Nash’s work, and his concepts live in the work as experience. Nash puts into play communal sharing that includes, as “Garden Variety Soda Fountain” established, the interdependence of living worlds and a potential model for new ways of being. Nash’s art gifts participants with tangible evidence of the microbiome at work in the hopes of nurturing new kinds of awareness.

When educational philosopher Maxine Greene attempted to define art, she acknowledged that we may not really need a definition. Instead, she suggested, “What we need is a recognition of the ways in which encounters with [art] open up new experiential possibilities — or might open them up if we become informed enough and aware enough to notice what there is to be noticed, to attend in such a fashion that art forms actually come alive.” We need art that provides new experiential possibilities that engender greater critical thinking and feeling, and what better way to do this than through fermentation art? Nash’s works are alive, and they taste good; they bring the familiar into the strange, and the strange into the familiar, for closer consideration.

Jean Denney is a Group Editor for Ogden Publications with a former life as a dancer, academic, and arts advocate. She’s a Certified Movement Analyst and researches how movement is a tool for the transmission of cultural and historical knowledge.


Published on Jul 26, 2019


Inspiration for edible alchemy.