The Mechabolic


Cyborg Speculations in Machine Metabolism
a trash-to-fuel land speed racer slug
A large-scale installation exploring the bio-imitative nature of our
synthetic "metabolic machines", and their related hydrocarbon based fuels/foods

Jim Mason, Dann Davis, Chicken John

Main Collaborators and Sub-Project Leaders:
Dov Jelen, Kiko Almund, Jess Hobbs, Brandi Hugo
Peef Sadow, Darrel Licks, Peter Durand, Michael Christian, Bear Kaufmann

Project Management:
Babalou, Rachel


NOTE: The original Mechabolic site for reasons I don't understand was abandoned ( the site's domain registration was not renewed), bought, reused and then once again allowed to return to the open market where anyone could buy the domain again. As soon as it was available I snatched it up and started to rebuild as much of the original content as possible from its 2007 archived pages. This project should never be forgotten. It was ambitious, fantastic, enlightened; created by brilliant minds that were way out there.......Just reading some of their emails boggles my mind.

Sometimes I think the engineers and designers of the Mechabilic could a designed better removeable IVC filters than did the manufacturers of the Bard (Recovery, G2, G2 X, G2 Express, Eclipse, Meridian) or the Cook's Gunther Tulip and Celect filters. I just happened to have medical devices on my mind since I am dealing with an IVC filter injury lawyer who is representing my father in a class action lawsuit against Bard. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced a safety alert regarding retrievable IVC filters both in 2010 and 2014. I still don't understand why the surgeon chose a Bard retrievable IVC filter for my father if there were any questions about its safety. Complaints have been made since the early 2000's. One would think the design of these medical devices would have been corrected by now so there could be no possible complications, which is why in all my frustration, I made the snarky remark.

Anyway, getting back to the Mechabolic and this website... if you were there at Burning Man 2007, you know the Mechabolic was a fantastical, bio machine hybrid. Don't let its memory get blown away in the dust storm of abandoned domains.

Every time I put on my beat up hoodie which I wore at Burning Man, it takes me back to 2007. Unfortunately, I fear that this particular hoodie is going to be designated a rag by my girlfriend the next time it is washed. I've been looking for a replacement and finally have decided upon a hooded Batman sweat shirt at this new cool website I just discovered called MoonAtMidnight. I love their banner and home page content. It certainly is not your average e commerce site when it comes to attitude. The designs on the sweat shirts range from the classic Batman logo, to those featuring the Batman and Robin Team that takes the dynamic duo straight from the pages of DC Comics (I think this is my favorite), to the Batman v Superman sweatshirt featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman from the movie Dawn of Justice. Plus the site has t-shirts and, if you can believe it, even polo shirts with images on the back. Well enough about me.


The Mechabolic: Overview

The sculpture:

The Mechabolic project is a large-scale bio-imitative installation of hydrocarbon based fuel production, transformation and consumption. Our goal is to create a fantastical, bio-machine hybrid environment --a burlesque of the "synthetic metabolism" of machines-- recasting internal combustion engines and petroleum fuels as their parallel animal organs and plant generated carbohydrate foods.

As a physical sculpture, the Mechabolic will take the form of an exploded assembly of digestive and respiratory organs, laid out across the desert floor, and mashed up with their associated mechanical metabolic machines (i.e. internal combustion engines, refining gasifiers, anerobic digesters, liquefiers, process tanks, condensation towers, etc.). All features and functions will be rendered in the aesthetics of human anatomical illustration meets blown V-8 hot rod fetishism.

The Mechabolic will encase these hybrid bio-machine organs in a giant "dinosaur slug" trash scavenging creature- a creature which slithers across the desert in search of waste biomass trash to feed/fuel itself. All ingested trash will be converted to clean biomass foods/fuels using the simple technologies of gasification, anerobic digestion and Fischer Tropsch liquification. The Mechabolic will re-ingest the resulting foods/fuels to power its own locomotion as well as as a variety of high altitude fire effects.


The Mechabolic invites participants to walk through the innards of an exploded metabolic animal and contribute their waste paper, wood, coffee grounds and food compost to the fuel making effort. Participants can watch all fuel/food processing through transparent process tanks and plumbing, as well as handle the feed and fuels at various points in the "refining" process. All in all, a fun house walk-through journey of machine digestion and respiration --from mouth to anus, oil well to gas tank, trash dumpster to carburetor plenum-- with all the interstitial fun and mysteries of organic chemistry implied therein.

The Mechabolic creature will also function as an odd sort of biological "gas station" in the middle of the desert, collecting, processing and dispensing biomass fuels to power "woodgas" converted art cars. The proposed project includes a series of monthly workshops this spring and summer to convert vehicle engines and generators to "woodgas" operation. These "Power Exchange" workshops will teach the building of simplified downdraft gasifiers, as recently demonstrated at the Shipyard, which produce a synthetic "natural gas-like" fuel from any solid waste biomass- a gaseous fuel that will run in any gas or diesel engine.

As such, the Mechabolic intends to become a future vision of the ubiquitous "pump n' munch" road side gas station/diner. But in this iteration, a fuel/food stop where artcars congregate to fill up on coffee grounds, chipped wood and pelletized trash, while people stroll through fuel making biological organs, and lounge in a rather unlikely V-8 powered, fire spewing, carbon sequestering, lung shaped terrarium- filled with orchids, ferns, terra preta bio-char, and you.

The Mechabolic Hypothesis:

Our intention with the Mechabolic is recast combustion machines and their related petroleum fuels --the foundations of our industrial energy economy-- as somewhat of a veiled project of artificial life. Where usually a dry technical problem is seen, we want to suggest that what is really at issue here is the the "third leg" of the grand human engineering project of replicating ourselves.

Artificial life is usually reckoned as a problem with two basic challenges- one physical and one cognitive. Mechanical engineering has broadly been the replication and expansion of the capabilities of the physical body. Computer science and AI the replication and expansion of our perceptual and cognitive abilities. What usually goes unmentioned is the similarly bio-imitative energy systems we synthesize to power our synthetic creatures. This metabolic artificial life project is seldom called out as such, but it is the core endeavor in the history of heat engine development, as well as the many fuels that have been refined and fought over to power them.

The biological metabolism of life is symbiotic relationship between sun, plants, animals, and atmosphere, with all combined together in a virtuous circle of photosynthesis and oxidative respiration. Curiously, 90% of the human produced energy on the planet follows from a similar bio-imitative project of metabolic artificial life, using synthetically refined "solar energy" hydrocarbons and various forms of heat engines to respirate them. Our current problem follows largely from feeding our mechanical animals with foods/fuels derived from the prehistoric solar energy (petroleum products), and not their contemporary sun derived parallels (terrestrial biomass).

The evolution of our artificial life machines, and particularly synthetic metabolic systems, has now progressed to a point where they are no longer trivial participants in the larger biosphere and atmosphere. Though Gaia has really been a cyborg entity since the beginnings of wide spread human agriculture, the fundamental cyborg nature of Gaia can no longer be ignored. We are not likely to go backwards to a light food/fuel footprint. Rather, we are likely to go forward with more thoughtful forms of synthetic metabolism- ones which more reasonably collaborate with and positively contribute to a progressively cyborg earth/atmosphere system.

This bio-imitative nature of our industrial metabolic machines, as well their intimate participation in the macro-carbon cycle of biological life, we are terming the "Mechabolic Hypothesis". We hope that recasting the energy economy in the terms of biological metabolism will highlight its systemic nature, as well as the great flexibility available in nearly all parts of the system.


The Mechabolic Hypothesis: Cyborg Speculations in Machine Metabolism

(the mechabolic hypothesis started from a series of email exchanges in the fall and winter of 06. excerpts from the conversation are copied below.)


Sent: 9/21/06
From jim mason
To: xxxxxxx
Subject: a thesis?
. . . which begs a thesis i have been playing with for a couple months.
i think you might find it curious. here's the gist. the more i play with all the biomass based fuel things and their related combustion machines, the more i'm realizing all this as the third leg of the grand artificial life project of replicating ourselves: the other two being mechanical robotics and AI as digital machine intelligence/cognition.
this bio immitative metabolic project is seldom called out as such, but it is the core project of the history of development of heat
engines, and the various fuels that have been used to power them. all of which are ultimately solar radiation endothermically sprung into cabrohydrates/hydrocarbons, which are then unspring exothermically through oxidation back to heat and co2. which then is restructured back into biomass again through photosynthesis.
whether food or fuel, animals or engines, it is the same chemical process, partaking of the same inputs, exhaling the same exhausts.
fuel, machines and fire as the synthetic forms of food, body and respiration. hmmm . . . sounds like an up and coming burning man
theme, minus the green-meanie thing . . .
oddly, the early part of the history of immitating the animal respiration with mechanical heat engines was fed with mostly biomass
sources- from whale oil to veg oil to wood manufactured gaseous fuels to sweage digested methane. only very late in the project did
underground petro based stuff become viable and so densely sourced that all the rest was soon forgotten, and its bio immitative origins concealed. which oddly, is all that is reappearing currently as we have found various issues with petro sourced hydrocarbons and are working to reorient our machines of artifical respiration towards other sources of oxidation ready input.
so somewhere in all of this, the project to save the world seems to be some sort of artistic mashup of the man/machine metabolic/pyro soup with the general aesthetic and pleasures of 50/60s gearhead hotrod culture. and big fire art of course, fed with esoteric organic fuels.
biotech not as a medical idiom or project of physical flesh syn architecture, but as a play and creative engagement with the sensual
pleasures of mechanical metabolism, fire and noise, as manifested through the v-8 and its fuel/food preps.
all in all, this alt energy thing really shouldn't be a hippie ludditite green narrative of sin and renunciation of consumption, but rather a geek hack project of manipulating artificial life machines and their variable bio/syn fuels. a lego code hack of organic chemistry. ingesting municipal trash, tires, wood waste and agricultural debris to produce the usual heat to mechanical energy to electrical energy that has fueled most of the gig for the last century, but mostly invisibly, and without much concern for the larger cycles in which this energy exchange partakes.
i'm finding the positive artificial life play with the wild diversity of carbon transactions, reckoned through big machines and fire, to be vastly more interesting than any environmental narrative of guilt and sin i've yet to hear. that all this should be drag racing and opensource code hacking in the service of creative play, self-expression and general competitive customization, done in social ground up collaboration, rather that all that it is currently.
thus the all power network and a gasifier fueled edsel bonneville land speed record attempt and 1600gal of matthew barney vasoline powering a container camp squat art space in berkeley.
you see anything here?
do you think any of this has legs?



later restatement of the above i'm starting to see all this alt fuel thing as really an artificial
life endeavor. the third leg of the grand arc engineering project of replicating and elaborating the human animal. but a third leg we oddly never call out as such.
mechanical engineering has broadly been the replication and expansion of the physical body. artificial intelligence the replication and expansion of cognition. with both now together as robotics. seems that heat engines and their varied fuel preparations are the artifical
metabolic system that powers all this. without metabolism through oxidative respiration, there is no life. nor is there heat to
mechanical energy to electrical energy, which powers all industrial process. this oxidative metabolism is what powers all bio physical
and cognitive entities. but the synthetic forms of this metabolism are largely ignored as a major challenge of artificial life endeavors.
i'm starting to see power engineering as nothing other than the replication and expansion of the organic chemistry of life. all biomass based energy work is immitative of the natural transactions around carbon and hydrogen, ultimately fueled by solar radiation.
petroleum was an easy to way to ignore it and just input ready made products from ancient and dense underground sources (which were at one time solar energy packed and stored into the form of carbohydrates). sustainable biomass sources require engagement with contemporary carbon and solar transactions- whether through their forms of photosynthesis to carbohydrates to animal respiration, or through the gasifier/digestor preparations of hydrocarbons to combustion to mechanical energy to electrical energy.
somehow i think there is art here. but haven't quite figured it out yet. though i think it looks somehting like this . . .
here's a musing from the shipyard list today about such that i though you might enjoy.


from the shipyard list:
subject: scented fuels
date: today
continuing on the idea of "fuel is food" for the metabolic needs of our artifical life machines. injesting the same hydrocarbons/carbohydrates that we do, exhaling the same co2 and h2o as we do. all of which goes round and round in the fabulous organic chemistry of life. with solar radiation providing the power to endothermically restructure the C and H into better sprung forms, so we can "burn" it again, exhaling heat and co2 and h2o again. reminding us yet again that the world is on fire. and man and machine burn through largely the same respiratory process, through largely the same chemical transformations. (the gasifier being the stomach in all this. the v-8 being the lungs and blood.)
but as we don't treat our "energy needs" as a raw energy problem, but rather as the creative idiom of "cuisine" in all its forms, whereby we find sensual pleasure, sociality, relationship to land and distant cultures, etc etc, it seems that we should show our machines the same respect, and enjoy the pleasures of better fuels with them, instead of suffering with the junk we usually feed them. that as we power ourselves with pleasure, we should also power our machines with pleasure. we could all eat gruel and live. but who does? no one.
therefore it seems there is an opportunity in the biodiesel industry to sell scented fules. fuel alcohols as well. imagine that when you were buying your biodiesel, you had a choice of "indian", "thai", "italian", "sushi", etc. that you could choose the oil base of the fuel you were buying, and have to pay differently depending on what it was, and how pleasant it is to smell while you are driving. instead of different octane grades, you have choices of smell. with all the jokes and play that follows.
smell is one of the few direct sensory returns from fuel, other than ones in the imagination (which maybe are mostly of interest to me), so smell seems the place to differentiate them. the smell industry is giant. the car customization industry is giant.
as soon as there is opportunity for vanity and distinguishing oneself through customization, people will pay. and in doing so often pursue things of greater quality and creativity in the process. which is the critical turn we need to make with fuels. fuel should not be an invisible need fulfillment problem. a zero sum game of solving a problem so we can forget about it, only concerned with economic optimization. but rather relearning it as an expressive medium, whereby we can get past zero and into other areas of interest with it. pleasure, play, learning, humor, community, etc. and thereby release fuels from their raw btu/$ calculus, and open them into a realm where much more than btus are being transacted. when was the last time you saw food in the market costed by the calorie? i've never seen a food label that said, "these noodles are 10cal/cent." which is essentially how we label the food for our mechanical animals. it seems to me that the personal meaning and opportunities of fuel for our machines are as rich as food for ourselves- which long ago left the realm of raw starch and burned meat. but currently there is no where to buy such "otherwise" distinguished fuels. hmmm . . .


Sent: 12/20
From: Nesdon booth
Subject: Re: the mechabolic project

Maybe it will need to be scaled back, but I really think the idea of trying to make energy policy more comprehensible by modeling it as metabolism is truely inspired. I look at the way we cut our power consumption in the yard when the pEEfomatic was installed, and how that feedback of systems that we normally keep invisible is a powerful interpretive tool to understand and control them. And this project which models machine energy conversion as biologic metabolism anabolism and catabolism is jsut such a tool.

It is Gaia theory that I imagine in all this. Gaia gets a bit of a bum rap from the scientific community as it was so quickly taken up by the oobie dooers, and Lovelock hit the metaphor of one global cell a bit too hard. But his idea for Gaia came out of his work for the Viking Mars Landers. He worked on ways to distinguish between biological and geological chemical processes. It is interesting that the results from Viking are still ambiguous.

His central epiphany was the our atmosphere is extremely unstable chemically, and by all rights should have evolved to very stable atmosheres like mars and venus both have. But ice cores and other data all suggest that our atmosphere has been incredibly stable over a very long periods, in fact more stable than many of the important inputs, such as insolance, which vary in both short and long term trends would suggest. His inevitable and I think correct conclusion was that collectively, life on earth has coevolved with the soil and the atmosphere to form a homeostatic system whereby crucial compounds are maintained at optimum levels for the continuation of life. This is surprisingly analogous to what living things in fact do within their tissues. It does look very much like the global ecosystem functions in many ways like a single large organism.

He suggested a thought experiment he called Daisy World, whereby populations of daisies (good old asteraceas) with white and black indviuals might evolve to vary the proportion of white to black to compensate for the historic change in insolence (a star's output grows steadily over time, up to a point) by altering the albedo (more black and more heat is absorbed, more white and more heat is reflected) and thereby maintaining a constant pro-daisy local temperature.

In unfathomably complex ways we all collaborate (I think the soil bacteria and phytoplankton still have a little edge on us, but not for long) to make this world inhabitable. All of the engines we have built, we have built essentially as cyborgs, to augment our natual human functions. Since they are all conceived in this anthropomorphic process, and then must function within this lifelike global ecosystem, they are fairly literally part of the metabolic functions of Gaia.

That's why I think this Mech-A-Bolic thing is such a damned good idea. I'm not sure how to make it doable. I will certianly put my rhetorical shoulder against the Bmorg wheel and help however else I can.


Sent: 12/20/06
From: jim mason
Subject: the cyborg gaia idea
also remember, the system being suggested in all this is not really a single animal organism, but the larger marco-metabolism of solar energy and co2 through photosynthesis to carbohydrates to heat, motion and exhalation of co2 back into the atmosphere, so that solar radiation can start it again. a giant planetary system of power conversion, driven by the sun.
that is the larger metabolism of interest here. with our industrial machines and fuel preps, we are still rather fragmented in all this.
we have the respiration part down near perfect. but our carbohydrate/hydrocarbon preps are a complete mess, as in we take them
out of the ground, and don't deal with any contemporary photosynthesis.
and to the degree that we are trying to harvest solar to run this synthetic macro-metabolic machine, we are trying to use pv, which is
equally fragmenting of hte larger system. yes, pv is great, but it has little imaginative potential when trying to get our minds around
the larger system.
and in absolute terms, the more i read on this, the more i see that the biomass based inputs into our existing MASSIVE infrastructure of synthetic respiratory machines, is what is going to make the biggest dent in all this. not the silver bullet. but likely the most
important comonent that can change. well, that and nuclear. all projections for pv are not impressive. about 90% of current energyuse on the planet is petro based. yes, even hydro and nuclear is that small. all this petro fuel is burned in machines of synthetic respiration that can already use biofuels with very minor modifications.


From: jim mason
Subject: GMO
the more i listen to the energy debate, the more i hear two strains of cultural bias. one is "go back to nature", which all the associated ludditeism and wishes for a non-consumist, non-stuff based life, and the other is "go forward to artificial life", which is arguing the good of GMO, active hacking of the biosphere, and general techincal solutions.
nesdon's previous post about the corallary of the gaia hypothesis, that we are collaborators in the atmosphere, and it has evolved with
us. not just humans. but all life. all organic life is part of the larger biosphere organism.
it seems to me that humans, as fundamentally tool making creatures, have made synthetic metabolic machines of such size at this point that we have injected a new type of species into this biosphere. i don't think we can go back to a pre mechanized time. our machines are us.
and as we had the power to mess up the atmosphere through them, we also have the power to fix the problems with them. but NOT by returning it to how it was. but rather, by hacking to get to the desired end state.
i'm starting to called this the "mechabolic hypotheis". that global metabolism is now primarily a cyborg entity, as we need to more
thoughfully operate our machines of mechanical metabolism within it.
given thus, we should look around for greenhouse gas mitigating gestures. the one i'm seeing as the biggest lever is methane.
methane is like 4x or 5x the effect as co2. if we could reduce methane faster than we are adding problematic co2 from non contemporary sources, we could get to a statis we like better.
the biggest source of methane is all the rotting stuff on the planet, made worse by biodegrable consumer products, and worse of all, hippies composting things. all organic matter put into the ground in these manners, rots and produces large amounts of methane (ch4).
it would be vastly better if we collected up all the waste biomass and "burned" it through thoughtful gasification, mining its energy as it is returning back to the atmostphere as co2, all the while generating a high carbon ash that is a vastly better fertilizer than just organic mulch. this is the terra preta soils in the aztec amazon. charcoalized soils. also why things grow so well on volcanos in hawaii.
interestingly, such a char/ash out of gasifiers would allow us to use an already existing global infrasture for carbon sequestration. it is called agriculture.
redistribute the char/ash as fertilizer, burying it in the ground, where it is now out of the atmosphere.
there would be some balance in here where you are reutrning enough better char/ash as fertilizer to replenish the soil, while mining all of its energy that wouldl have otherwise been lost when it just rotted into the ground.
given all this, i believe i can make a sound argument that a systemic approach to gasification is a carbon NEGATIVE energy system. and one that produces heat, power, fuels and fertilizer in the process.
is this bullshit? i think this argument is correct.
can someone help me see where it is wrong?