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Trading Systems: Bio-Economic Fairy Tales

What happens when models of nonhuman ecological systems are used to identify and rethink the dysfunctional systems—“fairy tales”—that are currently troubling our social welfare, economy, and governance?

Trading Systems: Bio-economic Fairy Tales is an ongoing project exploring the notion of the anthropocene—a proposed epoch, or unit of geological time, in which human activity is significantly altering our planet’s geology and ecosystems. A series of peculiar “wetware biological circuits,” presented both as speculative diagrams and sculptural installations, moves between paper and physical space.

For instance, a simple diagram showing the relationship between labor, production, and the market is remapped through a plant soil ecological circuit. Seen through this lens, the leaves of a plant become “workers” that produce carbon, which is then traded by a variety of underground organic networks—plant roots and microorganisms—in the “market.” The idea draws from recent studies by microbiologists who are experimenting with ways to manipulate “market conditions” between microbes, examining the way they “exchange goods” or “allocate resources.”

But what does it mean to understand nonhuman systems in terms of human behavior? What does mapping a supply and demand model with a mycorrhizal fungal network reveal? Or, can we rethink trickle-down economics through the behavior of parasitic plants?

Taking the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as the focal point, the project asks: what might it look like if nonhuman forces could be put in the driver’s seat during reconstruction? Contained within these pseudo-technical diagrams and plastic terrarium installations is a hopeful vision, of the potential to create new models of world-making.

A special thanks to El Museo for making this exhibition possible and to Professor Kim Connolly for inviting me to Puerto Rico with the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic.


Dec 6, 2018  – June 2, 2019
Material Resources: Intersections of Art and the Environment, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME

Oct 5 – Oct 27, 2018
El Museo Gallery, Buffalo, NY (solo exhibition)

Feb 14 – 18, 2018
Intersections: Ammerman Center 16th Biennial Symposium on Arts & TechnologyConnecticut College, New London, CT


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“When Life Gives You Lemons”

“Speculating Aquaponic Paradise”

“Rolling in the Dough”

“Tuning Speculation”

“The Filthy Rich”

Exhibition at El Museo gallery, Buffalo, NY – view of “Tuning Speculation” diagram and model

ROTHENBERG_1_outside view

Interior shot with diagram and model of “Speculating Aquaponic Paradise”

Interior image of exhibition – please note the plastic orbs spin on the pedestals

Closeups of “Speculating Aquaponic Paradise” with live fish and plant

Closeup of “When Life Gives you Lemons” – a real working lemon battery

Closeup of “Rolling in the Dough” with actual bread mold

Closeup of “The Filthy Rich” with microbial battery charging iPhone and Puertopia cryptocurrency

View of “Tuning Speculation” model with foxhole radio and umbrella antenna

Photo credits: Nate Ely, Shasti O’Leary Soudant, Stephanie Rothenberg

8-minute Video Tour

Exhibition at El Museo, October 2018