College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Telling the soybean’s story

For years, the soybean has been at the center of Shannon McMullen and Fabian Winkler’s artwork exploring the intersection between agriculture and technology.

In their recent exhibition at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), McMullen and Winkler – co-directors of electronic and time-based art in the Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance – again used the versatile legume to examine economic, environmental, political, and agricultural questions that society must answer as it endeavors to feed a growing population.

“We tried to pose some questions about possible futures, focusing on the year 2050. That’s always the marker where people say that based on our current agricultural needs and climate change predictions, we can’t feed the world anymore,” Winkler said. “And so we found provocative ways to address some of these issues revolving around one very specific agricultural crop.”

McMullen and Winkler’s project, Algorithmic Gardening, was not a film, but instead a multimedia installation. It was among more than 30 exhibits in the IDFA DocLab expo themed “Humanoid Cookbook” that featured interactive installations, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and culinary experiences that contemplated the crossover between humanity and technology.

“This idea of not human but humanoid allows us to think about food and technology, or in our case nature and technology, agriculture and technology,” McMullen said. “All the projects in that space somehow had a connection to food and technology.”

Algorithmic Gardening was actually a collection of previous works the Purdue artists created – all of which rely on technology to explain how the soybean travels from the garden to the dinner table.

“Soybots” – robotic mobile mini-gardens that contain soybeans – moved about the gallery space, programmed to search for sunny locations that would help the plant grow. Another mobile robot featured video of their project where a Taurus robot is programmed to weed a small garden. Finally, there was a culinary experience, where a robotic conveyor belt delivered special soy snacks to gallery visitors.

“People could connect to the work on many different levels,” Winkler said. “In a physical way, they could interact with the robots that were moving around in the gallery space and experience it that way. They could taste the soybeans that were ingredients in the appetizers that we served in the gallery, so there was this kind of culinary, or taste-sensory connection. And then there was the visual connection through the actual robots that we showed as part of the projection in the gallery.”

McMullen and Winkler also gave a gallery talk related to their installation, which they found helpful in their effort to connect with the audience. The conversation allowed them to verbalize the questions that Algorithmic Gardening was designed to ask, giving visitors an opportunity to consider their points and develop their own answers.

“In the past, we’ve had events related to this project and realized that those actually make a huge difference in terms of having a chance to interact with viewers and understand their perspectives on food security, industrial agriculture, and the future of farming,” McMullen said.

The expo also provided an opportunity to gain valuable feedback on their work, as well as perspective on the soybean’s place in European agriculture. It is of course one of the most prominent crops in Indiana, but it is also a primary agricultural import in the Netherlands, where the film festival took place.

The insights they gained about their work in Amsterdam will aid McMullen and Winkler as their tech-based project evolves, as did the opportunity to relay their message in a new way.

“We were really excited to participate,” McMullen said. “Even though it’s not a documentary project in the traditional sense, the DocLab pushed us to think about Algorithmic Gardening in a documentary context.”