Nil by Mouth: Food, Farming, Science and Sustainability

Food brings the debate about sustainable production and consumption into people’s lives in the most immediate of ways. Can artists and art help people to engage with these issues in a more meaningful fashion?

Many of us are currently under-informed about the issues driving the need for rebalancing the economic, environmental and social aspects of development. Nil by Mouth considers these issues by placing creative practitioners with different communities involved in sustainable food production and asking them to explore the economics of distributed, small or mid- scale operations and the environmental impacts on biodiversity and atmospheric pollution emanating from this scale and type of land use.

4 artists/artists’s practices have just completed the first of two periods of residency with Whitmuir Organic in the Scottish Borders, Scotland’s first community owned farm; Pitgaveny a 2000 acre mixed estate in Elgin; Croft Garden Cottage, a traditional croft on South Uist and Old Craigie Road Allotment, a community allot-ment in Dundee.

Prior to each period of residency the artists meet in open discussion with scientists working on the Food, Land and People and Environmental Change programmes within Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (SRP) []. First and foremost this provides an opportunity for knowledge exchange. It has also created a vibrant network of inter-disciplinary practitioners with a common interest in evaluating sustainable practice in food production.

Nil by Mouth is a Crichton Carbon Centre project [], funded by Creative Scotland [] and managed by Wide Open []. Dr. Charles Bestwick [] provides the point of contact with SRP. Further information is available from and


Nil by Mouth (2013-14) brought together artists, scientists and food producers initiated by Mike Bonaventura, Chief Executive of the Crichton Carbon Centre. The Crichton Carbon Centre’s focus is on sustainability and how to communicate to as many people as possible in as many ways as they want. Many of us are currently under-informed about the issues driving the need for rebalancing the economic, environmental and social aspects of development. Working with Wide Open as Producers, the environmental art charity, the Crichton Carbon Centre is exploring the role of art and artists in broadening public engagement with the sustainable development agenda.

Mike Bonaventura said,

Engaging people in the sustainable development agenda is vital if we are ever to redress the social, economic and environmental imbalances that currently exist in the world. Food is one way of doing so as it brings the debate about sustainable production and consumption into everyone’s life in the most immediate of ways. We hope that the timing of this event will help to highlight the UN adoption of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and new and binding post-Kyoto climate change commitments, both of which will take place in 2015. Auspiciously, 2015 is also the UN Year of Soils and the International Year of Light.

Sponsored by Joan McAlpine, the event at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood on 25 November 2014 is the culmination of a 15 month process.

The Nil by Mouth event enabled a wider invited audience to participate in the dialogue between artists and scientists whilst also experiencing the artworks that the artists have been developing in collaboration with key scientists from Scotland’s world-class research institutions.

Nil by Mouth has involved a group of artists selected through an open call in a series of workshops on Soil, Farming, Food and Nutrition with scientists from top research institutes with international reputations in these topics. The scientists are all part of the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (Food, Land & People Programme & Environmental Change Programme), working at the James Hutton Institute; the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen; and SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College. The artists also undertook residencies with food producing communities across Scotland (Lothians, Tayside, Moray and the Outer Hebrides).

Dr Charles Bestwick, Adviser to the Food Land & People Programme of Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme: said,

This process has enabled us to debate differences, challenge our own perceptions and develop an understanding between the perspectives of the individual scientists as well as with the artists. We have seen new research collaboration fostered through this process and we believe the partnership of science-art disciplines has been and will continue to be extremely valuable, suggesting new ways of doing knowledge exchange whilst raising questions about that process itself.

The artists have responded to the brief to engage with science and sustainability and investigate local food producing communities in different ways.

Artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman asked scientists at the James Hutton Institute and SRUC what they were most excited about in terms of future research into soil. Professor Lorna Dawson and her colleagues highlighted the possibilities of the microbial world. Further investigation led to the discovery of a piece of research that shows that exposure to the Mycobacterium Vaccae found in soil can act as an anti-depressant, reducing anxiety through the release of Seratonin in the brain. The result is the mock up of a speculative new business Soilari M.V. TherapiesTM. The interactive installation is designed to highlight the importance of soil, soil organisms and also starts to question our synergistic relationship with soil both now and into the future.

Professor Lorna Dawson of the James Hutton Institute said,

The whole process of interaction and cross disciplinary exchange has generated exciting new possibilities both for research ideas and in new ways of engagement.

Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman presented two pieces of work at the event, Soilari MV Therapies and The Museum of Future Food.  The leaflet for Soilari M.V. Therapies TM can be accessed here H&C Soilari.  The booklet for the Museum of Future Food can be accessed here H&C MFF Brochure.  You can find out more about Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman’s Imagining Natural Scotland New EIA for Natural Scotland here.

Poet Harry Giles performed a series of works he has produced in response to his residency on a large farm in Morayshire. These sound poems use the names of varieties of carrots or the names of streets in Elgin to evoke our connection to farms and farmland.  The farmform website contains both the visual form of the poems as well as audio of Harry Giles reading them.

As part of the Nil by Mouth programme, recent Edinburgh College of Art Graduate Hans K Clausen was in residence on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Clausen’s experience in the workshops with the scientists learning about food security and sustainability led him to explore South Uist from a different perspective. He discovered that many of the artists living on the island are also crofters and food producers. His contribution to the event at Scottish Parliament was 15 wheelbarrows of new work by these artists, including one from himself.  Clausen also produced a booklet documenting the work which can be accessed here HKC Catalogue FINAL version.

Professor Christine Watson of the SRUC said,

This has been a great opportunity to work with people who see life through a different lens. It has really made me think about the possibilities of using alternative methods of communication that are different from the everyday language of science! The ideas and collaborations stimulated by the project will far outlive the project itself.

The artist collective Center for Genomic Gastronomy presented the Loci Food Lab. It is a travelling food stand for prototyping, serving and debating a range of bioregional food futures in different cities around the world. The artists conducted site visits, interviewed researchers at the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, and engaged chefs from Edinburgh to assemble a menu with a diverse range of local ingredients, and a framework for debating values in the food system. Visitors to the LOCI food lab identify the attributes of the food system that are important to them, and are served a customized snack, created for them from a menu of local ingredients. Loci Food Lab has previously been presented in Portland Oregon in the US.

Dr Wendy Russell, Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, said,

I’d been looking at the works of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy before Nil by Mouth started because I was interested in the ways that artists can be provocative, particularly around my area of interest in food futures.

Chris Fremantle, Producer for Wide Open, said

The artists and scientists have been sparking off each other really effectively – there is a lot of mutual respect. The challenges we face, whether it’s in food security or climate change, need to be tackled by a range of different skills, and more importantly people need to understand why things like soil matter. Artists can be more provocative than scientists, and they can bring a unique and engaging perspective.


Nil by Mouth has been included by in the DIRT DIALOGUES programme at the World Congress of Soil Sciences in Korea in June.

Soil. It’s the stuff we use to grow our food, fiber and fuel, to filter our drinking water, and to support our homes, highways and histories. Soil functions are not only the focus of scientific inquiry but also subject matter for artistic expression and cultural discourse.
Read more…

What could a new relationship between the urban and the rural look like?  How could the urban be more rural?  What would a new work life balance look like?  Ralf Otterpohl is full university professor in the field of civil and environmental engineering. He is director of the Institute of Wastewater Management and Water Protection at TUHH, Hamburg University of Technology, Germany. The institute has a focus on high-tech recycling systems for water, nutrients and soil conditioners, mainly the Blackwater Loop System of Intaqua AG. Reuse systems on the low-cost end are Terra Preta Sanitation, ecological sanitation designed to produce highly fertile soils e.g. for reforestation. This is linked to energy production through pyrolysis in simple stoves or as high-tech heat, power and charcoal co-generation. Such systems are part of his latest research activity on rural development with a focus on local added value production including soil improvement for long term water and food security.

Kultivator’s event in 2010 brought together many artists and collectives who’s work engages with or involves agriculture – there’s an interesting list on the page with links.

Dinner´s ready! 9.4.–10.5.2014, (Helsinki, Finland)

a series of open lectures and a Cook show at Abattoir

avoin luentosarja ja kokkitapahtuma Teurastamolla

Dinner´s Ready is a series of open lectures dealing with the social, political, philosophical, and ethical issues tied to contemporary food production and consumption. The program culminates with the ArtMeatFlesh Cook Show, an event where artists, scientists and chefs shed light on some of the facts, fears and myths surrounding food issues. The lectures are in english.

The program is also an academic course for Aalto University students with arts, design, architecture, economics and engineering backgrounds. During the course the students will learn the basics of growing meat out of cells in the wet biology laboratory and study processed food with international artists in Biofilia –Base for Biological Arts in Otaniemi Campus, Finland. The workshops will be run by artists Oron Catts (AU), Zack Denfeld (USA) and Cat Kramer (NO), together with Biofilia lab manager Marika Hellman. Dinner´s Ready program is designed by curator Ulla Taipale and it is a collaboration with Kellohalli at Teurastamo (Abattoir), Helsinki.

Syömään! Ruoka on valmis! on yleisölle avoin luentosarja, jonka puitteissa käsitellään ja pohditaan ruoantuotannosta ja –kuluttamisesta kumpuavia sosiaalisia, poliittisia, filosofisia ja eettisiä kysymyksiä. Kokonaisuus huipentuu ArtMeatFlesh –kokkitapahtumaan, jossa taiteilijat, tutkijat ja keittiömestarit valaisevat faktoja, myyttejä ja pelkoja ravintomme proteiininlähteiden ja -koostumuksen taustalla – ja tekevät ruokaa. Luennot pidetään englanniksi.

Ohjelma on myös kurssi Aalto-yliopiston taiteen, suunnittelun, arkkitehtuurin, talouden ja tekniikan opiskelijoille, jonka aikana valmistetaan laboratoriolihaa ja tutkitaan teollista ruokaa kansainvälisten taiteilijoiden opastuksella Biofiliassa, biologisen taiteen laboratoriossa Otaniemessä. Työpajajoja vetävät taiteiljat Oron Catts (AU), Zack Denfeld (USA) ja Cat Kramer (NO) yhdessä Biofilian laboratoriomestarin Marika Hellmanin kanssa. Kokonaisuuden on suunnitellut kuraattori Ulla Taipale ja se toteutetaan yhteistyössä Kellohallin kanssa Teurastamolla.

Updated program can be consulted in:

Päivitetty ohjelma on saatavilla osoitteessa:

The brilliant Edinburgh International Science Festival this year incorporates GastroFest, a mini festival focused on Science and Food.  It’s supported by the Hutton Institute, the world leading research centre based in the North East of Scotland.  They have also been hosting and contributing to the workshop strand of Nil by Mouth.

There’s a Farmers’ Market with a science twist, an evening with ‘molecular cocktails’ (which at £25 per ticket we assume includes some real cocktails), there’s a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party which explores food and alternative experiences and a Gala Dinner.

More information here.

The British Animal Studies Network held a conference in Glasgow in November 2013 focused on the Farm and domesticated animals.  Papers, recordings, etc can be accessed here.

Thanks to Amara Geffen (and also a nice collection Pintrest) for highlighting the work of Douglas Gayeton and the Lexicon of Sustainability.

Tim Collins posted a link to this interview with Wendell Berry recommending it highly.

“With so many people living fast lives, the simple connections between them are sometimes lost, and it is those simple connections that eating designerMarije Vogelzang sought to celebrate at the recent Spier Secret Festival 2013 in the Cape winelands.”  Read more here.

The Go Slow Café is perhaps interesting, though there is a sense in which it’s aimed at a certain ‘set’.

Thanks to Deirdre Nelson for suggesting this article.


Where there's muck there's art, or, Many Hans make light work! (sorry) or maybe just, Hans at work on Croft Garden Cottage, Ardivachar, South Uist.

Where there’s muck there’s art, or, Many Hans make light work! (sorry) or maybe just, Hans at work on Croft Garden Cottage, Ardivachar, South Uist.

Hans K Clausen is currently in residence at Croft Garden Cottage at Ardivachar on South Uist


The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is currently in residence in Dundee and reports on their first visit to the Old Craigie Road Allotments.

The artists participating in Nil by Mouth: Food, Farming, Science and Sustainability, met at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, for an initial workshop with scientists working on the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme: Food, Land and People; Environmental Change.  The theme for the day was soil, from soil chemistry and structure, through to trade-offs in the environmental sustainability of food production and nutrition.  The day was characterised on all sides by generosity of spirit and shared interests.

Four artists/collaborations/collectives have been selected following the Opportunity advertised below.  We had a excellent response across all artforms and from both emerging and established artists.

The selected artists/collaborations/collectives are:

Hans Clausen

The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy

Harry Giles

Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman


The Crichton Carbon Centre and Wide Open, both based in Dumfries in the South West of Scotland, are working together to deliver the Nil by Mouth: Food, Farming, Science and Sustainability programme.  Wide Open, with its extensive expertise in working with artists, is collaborating with the Crichton Carbon Centre, in its capacity as a research and educational centre for environmental science and sustainability, to jointly curate this programme.

This programme, focused on bringing together artists and scientists, builds on the Crichton Carbon Centre’s existing project Do Not Resuscitate focused more generally on climate change and recently profiled as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland.