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Permeable Exposure

Leonardo Bürgi

I am visiting different shoyu and miso producers for my artistic research during my residency period in Japan. For the weekend of the national holiday, I failed to arrange accommodation in a timely manner. And so it comes that I end up in a shared dormitory with five other people. Even though in my 20's I was always excited to meet new people and to just go with the flow of social encounters, for this time I have no interests whatsoever. I actually really enjoy time by myself and so I travel solely, visiting people who dedicate their whole life to the production of soya sauce, miso and kōji.

During the course of my visits I get asked many times with a mix of curiosity, surprise and even skepticism why I’m so interested in the subject. Specially because most can’t make a connection between food and fine arts. Besides the obvious language barrier I’m unable to give clear answers since in my perspective things are always intertwined so it would need a long conversation to get a glimpse of what it means to me. But to have some sort of guidance, I would say that I'm fascinated by the ancient practice of fermentation where the permeability of life itself is being considered, embraced and valued as opposed to a western culture of separation and severance. The culture of soya sauce making has been developed together with a fungal and microbial culture. So, there is no separation but a acknowledgement of the existence of the other. No sterilization and elimination of the microbial culture to start all over again, creating a fragile, unstable culture to be able to control, even though it means that a lot of effort has to be put into stabilizing the culture. Cedar wood is to this day used in traditional fermentation productions, because of its capability to store microbial culture but also because of its antiseptic and permeable characteristic.

This insight made me think of the philosophical stream of the New Phenomenology which to be honest, I never fully understood but which caught my attention because of the definition of Leib which is not related to the christian understanding of Leib as a physical limitation of the body but as a permeable aura of the self.

So, on the last night in the shared dorm room my neighbor had probably eaten a savory ramen with some extra garlic. In Japan you can eat Ramen, where they add a big amount of raw minced garlic on top. When I got back to the room, late night, the smell penetrated already the whole space of the room. The spicy smell of garlic being digested and consumed by the microbial culture inside his body crawled up my nostrils with every respiration. His and the digestive microbial presence spread into the whole space of the dorm room. I didn't sleep well, actually very bad, but somehow it amused me how his presence exceeded his limitation of the body but spread into every corner of the room. I was completely exposed and I had no chance to escape because of my own permeability.

I think it’s a rather odd anecdote to tell but in that very moment there was no way to escape the permeability of my and his Leib. We can close our eyes or we can use oropax to cover our ears but through our existential need of breathing we are vulnerable to olfactory exposure. Anything which intents to push back or eliminate our permeability seems to be a lost cause because we try to eradicate an essential core element of our vividness. Life itself is permeable and has no clear delimitation. It's the relationship between things which defines the fluid boundaries.

When we ferment, let’s say, we do a lacto acid fermentation in a salt brine to preserve daikon radish. We set a barrier of water to expulse aerobe microbes and we set an other barrier by using a high concentration of salt which creates a hostile environment for many organisms. Nevertheless this barrier stays permeable and it is needed to welcome the microbes which are beneficial to our fermentation process and which don’t harm our health. And therefore we cannot enclose the fermentation habitat because it would lack oxygen. At the same time, if we would leave it wide open we would invite far more pathogenic microbes. At the end it all comes down to the relationship that has to be held up. There is no exact script for a vivid culture. It has to be experienced.

The more experience I gain as an artist but also just as a human being, the more I get the impression that there are not that much coincidences between our artistic interests, our personal life and our emotional state. I was thinking a lot about my personal life in relation to my permeability towards my surrounding. How close do I let people get to me or where to find a balanced distance. So I’m amused but not surprised about myself, writing this text about the permeability of fermentation and the culinary. And this even applies to my artistic practice. I’ve been asked and questioned how my interest and research for fermentation, kōji and shoyu is connected to my art. I feel that there is an image and expectation applied to the artistic practice which is strongly idealized by an idea of congruency which is meant to allow us to differentiate, separate and categories practices. In these terms, the allowed space of confusion and ambiguity becomes liminal which in my opinon contradicts the spirit of art.