Designing Decay: Calculus of an Infinite Rot at the Rhubarb Festival, Toronto


Gabriel Li

Gabriel Li

By Elsa Lam

Designing for the circular economy is one thing, says artist and researcher Andrea Ling. But how do you deconstruct a product like a window, set in a vinyl frame and contaminated with sealants and glues? And what about that more pernicious reality: that all materials ultimately break, degrade, and decay?

Ling, a former architect, thinks that rather than fighting against decay, designers should embrace it. Her own work experiments at the intersection of living and dying organisms: work at MIT’s Media Lab, shown in 2020 at MOMA and in 2021 at SFMOMA, involved robotically fabricating natural artifacts from the molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons, and our own bones. A residency at Gingko Bioworks resulted in a series of artifacts designed for decay—”garbage that retains some sort of functionality or desirability as it degrades within our lifespans and in our homes,” as she puts it.

In the installation Calculus of an Infinite Rot, Part 1, created for this year’s Rhubarb Festival in Toronto, Ling selected 35 tree stumps and had them shaped in various ways to host fungal and bacterial cultures. Some were left virtually untouched; other CNC-cut at the Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape, and Design into bulbous, volcano-like sculptures. Others were shaped with a chainsaw into tall, totemic objects reminiscent of Brancusi sculptures.

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