Space & Innovation

Climate Change Stats Are Churned Into Ice Cream

An art installation deconstructs climate models and biochemically translates them into a creamy concoction.

<p>Jonathon Keats</p>

It's safe to say that the scientific establishment didn't see this one coming.

On November 4, 2016, the day that the Paris Climate Agreement becomes legally binding, a special data-laced ice cream will go on sale to help make the threat of a warming planet intelligible to everyone - literally on a gut level.

The dessert comes from tinkerer and artist Jonathon Keats, a self-styled "experimental philosopher," who has formulated the ice cream by deconstructing actual climate models and charts from University of Toronto computer scientist Steve Easterbrook, and then biochemically translating the data into edible ingredients like sucrose and citric acid.

In a process Keats calls "data gastronification," the creamy concoction makes an end-run around your brain and gets read directly by your enteric nervous system. This is the network of neurons that controls the gastrointestinal tract, and is so sophisticated that scientists refer to it as the body's second brain.

This way, phenomena such as the permafrost cycle register not as abstract concepts but as flavors, textures and nutrients. After you eat the informational ice cream, you might get a gut feeling that climate change is an urgent crisis.

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"The human gut is a remarkably intelligent organ, second only to the brain in number of neurons," Keats said in an email exchange. "The enteric nervous system is also manifestly unlike our gray matter, as is suggested by talk about 'gut feelings.' By representing scientific models with digestible biochemicals instead of colored arrows, I plan to expose scientific phenomena to the alimentary canal, where they may be understood in terms that elude the brain."

If you get the sense that none of this is entirely serious, you're right. With Keats, it never is. Renown for interactive art projects like this - elaborate thought experiments designed to provoke people into thinking differently about complex topics - his work exists somewhere in the liminal realms between science, art and culture jamming.

Take, for instance, his recent installation of a millennium camera with a thousand-year-long exposure mechanism, designed to get people thinking about humanity's long-term impact on Earth as an organism. Then there was his quantum ATM machine, engineered to provide a different viewpoint on money, which after all doesn't really exist unless we all agree that it does. And don't forget about the photosynthetic restaurant, serving gourmet sunlight to plants.

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If you're hoping to try some of Keats' artisanal ice cream - branded as anthropocenic sorbet - start looking for flights to Berlin. His confection cart will be set up as an interactive art installation during the city's STATE festival, which runs November 4 and 5. The festival promotes interdisciplinary collaborations between artists and scientists, and there are plenty of deliciously strange things planned for this year's event. Smell dating, for instance.

As for Keats' gastronification technique, the artist said we may see different kinds of informational foods down the line, but for now frozen confections seem appropriate.

"I've chosen to serve the climate feedback loops in a specially made sorbet, since ice cream seems to be universally popular and is bound only to become more so as the planet warms. At a certain point, even Donald Trump will be unable to resist," Keats said.

Keats' work is fundamentally playful, but it's also cannily designed to get people thinking about our collective future in an age of information overload.

So is Keats himself hopeful about the future?

"I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic," he says. "But I believe that we need to work under the assumption that we're not doomed in order not to doom ourselves."