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Essential Journal

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Beautiful World Where Are You?

We chat to Mae-Ling Lokko about her architecture and technology transcending installation, Hack The Root, and preview our favourites from this year’s Liverpool Biennial

Essential Journal: Hi Mae-ling, introduce yourself and tell us about your installation…

Mae-ling Lokko: My name is Mae-ling Lokko and I’m an architectural technologist, which is this grey area between architecture and material technology. I’ve spent the last eight years upcycling waste from agriculture into building materials. For the Liverpool Biennial, I wanted to bring to the surface some of the amazing things happening in this field, a decentralized, hyper-localised way of growing building materials. So, in the process of the exhibition, we grew all the panels with six and seven year olds from Windsor Primary School. The other part was to go through every stage of the lifecycle [of a panel] in the gallery. That’s why we have the grow chambers, the popping, the harvesting, the drying out – all within close proximity, so people can understand and also challenge their biases against these natural materials.

How long does it take to grow one of these mycelium (mushroom) panels?
The whole point of this was to let everyone know that anybody can do this. That’s why we worked with six year olds and seven year olds. The materials grow depending on environmental context. In a factory where it’s controlled, we know the optimum temperature and humidity and they’ll grow in four days. Here, some grew in three, others in seven and that was testament to how they were packed, variables differed. Drying obviously, we couldn’t rely on the Liverpool sun … so we’re just going to dry them outside.

What’s your own background in this area? How did all of this come about?
It began eight years ago. I was doing my PhD at a really interesting academic alliance in New York. I was looking at trying to upcycle coconut husk waste. There’s a burgeoning coconut water industry, it’s all the rage, and the byproduct of it was this really massive husk. We discovered that the pith, the dust that holds the fibres together in the husk was a great bio-adhesive. So that started the journey.

Why do we not know about this?
We’ve always grown with natural fibres and bio-based materials. I think there’s been a huge shift that happened during the enlightenment era that privileged inert, predictable materials like metal and plastics and they’ve become the standard. Now it’s very difficult to talk about building with natural fibres.

Has the project also opened a debate on sustainability in art?
We don’t necessarily take a close look at the impact of a temporary exhibition on a much larger material lifecycle and I think there’s an opportunity to really consider that. I think for this project we wanted to focus on that.

What does the future hold for these materials? Why are they so interesting?
I think mycelium is really interesting as a binder, simply because of the fact that it doesn’t require energy and there’s not much emissions when producing the material. When you cut through these panels and look at the section, you can’t imagine the amount of energy it takes to press a plywood and this organism is doing all of this for us in 4 days and we’re not even doing a thing. We’re just watching it.

Words by Davey BRETT
Image Credits by Mae-ling Lokko, Hack The Root, 2018.  Installation view at RIBA  North, Liverpool Biennial 2018.  Photo:  Thierry Bal / Mae-ling Lokko,  Hack  The  Root  workshop with Squash Liverpool and Windsor Primary  School,  June 2018. Photo:  Brian Pilkington