Aphrodisiac in the Machine

In the near future, can a new species of oysters convert toxic water into an aphrodisiac and save the world?


Click for a special video installation!
February 18–May 1, 2020
New Media Artspace
Baruch College, New York, NY

“Aphrodisiac in the Machine” is a multimedia installation that explores the ethics and economics of bioengineering non-human life for human survival. The project takes the form of an environmental sci-fi narrative about a futuristic aquaculture farm. Merging fact and fiction, the story centers around the bioengineering of a new species of cyborg oysters that are able to convert toxic water into an aphrodisia-inducing fluid. The special fluid will be piped into municipal water sources and can also be accessed at public water dispensing stations like you find at the airport. A special hookah inspired station and a kitchen countertop unit are also being developed.

Playing on the libidinous myth of the oyster, a hermaphroditic organism, the project explores aphrodisia as a more sentient state of being and empowerment that moves beyond mere sexual connotations. It examines the contradictions of biotechnology and geo-engineering that can often adversely affect nonhuman life. It questions if creating more sentient and perceptible “humans” might be another path to consider.

The project extrapolates on a 2005 scientific study that investigated if oysters are really aphrodisiacs. The study made a buzz in online media ranging from Wired to Smithsonian but a definitive answer was never determined. It is known that oysters produce D-aspartate, an amino acid that affects hormone production in lab rats. The amino acid is also used widely in sports training for humans and has shown results.

The project also casts light on the oyster’s long history of domestication and its current role in ecosystem services, questioning the ethics and environmental consequences of utilizing “natural capital” as resources for extraction. Once a food source of the proletariat, the oyster evolved into a bourgeois delicacy that is now nearly extinct due to anthropogenic factors. Initiatives to repopulate go beyond its providing sustenance to the organism’s ability to filter massive amounts of polluted water (up to 50 gallons per day) and the use of “oyster-tecture” – leveraging the oyster’s habitat as a natural reef barrier against sea level rise.

In the project, the myth becomes a metaphorical wrench in the new global machine of sea farming as more sentient ways of being are unleashed into networks and infrastructures. Focusing on current environmental issues, the narrative moves between multiple perspectives and ways of knowing and being sentient as the story unfolds — the human, the libidinal, the oyster, the invisible living matter in the water and of the network. A non-human subaqueous system is explored comprised of not only the organic flesh and fluids of the oyster body but also the flows of data that circulate throughout.

The project takes the form of a media installation comprised of a multi-channel video and soft robotic sculpture of the cyborg oysters in a machine that dispenses the aphrodisia fluid as an elixir. The elixir is currently being bioengineered.

Upcoming exhibitions include Why Sentience? ISEA 2020 Montreal.

Project support:

“Aphrodisiac in the Machine” is supported through artist residencies at Z/KU Center for Art and Urbanism in Berlin and Xenoform Labs in San Francisco and a fellowship at the Roux Center for Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Future project support includes Sensorium Center for Digital Art and Technology at York University in Toronto and the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at the University at Buffalo, NY. 3D model animation created by Sputnik Animation in Portland, ME.


Video excerpt of cyborg oyster and aquaculture farm


Designing the cyborg oyster

3d model of cyborg oyster

Aquaculture farm

Prototype design for public sipping station

Prototype design for public water dispenser

Initial phase of soft robotic prototyping of the fluid dispenser at Xenoform Labs in San Francisco

Artist talk on the project in development as part of “Coalesce Disperse: Reports from the Lab”, Coalesce Center for Biological Art, University at Buffalo

Reference materials:

Aquaculture statistics

Map of oyster fishing from 1880’s. Oysters are now extinct off the coast of Germany and re-seeding efforts are underwayMarine wildlife, oyster beds on the sea floor near Ostend, vintage engraving

Marine wildlife, oyster beds on the sea floor near Ostend, vintage engraving

Dutch artist Jan Steen “Girl with Oysters”, 1658

The infamous Casanova (1725-1798) who claimed he ate 50 oysters for breakfast to enhance his libido.