Decay takes many forms, but in Guerilla Science’s recent experimental multisensory installation, Decadent Decay, audiences encountered disintegration and rot through culinary, artistic, and scientific experiences. The two-day pop-up banquet, which ran December 2nd to 3rd, was designed to challenge the preconceptions of decay, emphasizing the process’s allure and intrigue.
Held at the Bushwick co-working space Bathaus, audiences experienced chef Tessa Liebman's delicious fermented foods, heard from scientist and speaker Janna Levin about particle decay, and watched as paint covering elegant models cracked and broke during cocktail hour. They also got to see the organic sculpture Decay In a Box—a box of rotting food and flowers that Guerilla Science’s Sarah Barker created, which she filmed and livestreamed on YouTube during the weeks leading up to Decadent Decay.
Decay In a Box installation at ‘Decadent Decay’. Images by Marina McClure, courtesy of Guerilla Science
For decay in arts, Guerilla Science enlisted scenic artist James Fluhr to create an atmosphere that gave the space a sense of aristocratic decadence, but also one of decay. Materials hung from the walls and ceiling were distressed, while all of the tables were covered in wilting, dying flowers and candles in the process of melting. Old overhead projectors displayed artistic images reminiscent of bacteria and mold grown on film or photographs.
Musician Jeffrey Young performed a new piece, specifically composed for Decadent Decay, in which explored decay in sound. Three interactive artworks were also included in the event. Udit Mahajan’s Dreaming Specter drew on the decay of memory, while world-renowned tape storage expert John Koski staged a demonstration of digital decay and the decay of our data.
Detail on Decay in a Box. Screencap by the author
The other installation was Barker’s still life-esque Decay In a Box, now several weeks into its process of rotting inside a tightly-sealed aquarium. The work also included a timelapse video. Created over a period of 40 days with one photograph taken every 30 minutes, the result vividly depicts organic decay.
“The idea for Decay In a Box is as old as the Decadent Decay event itself,” says Barker. “I always planned to set something up and observe it decaying in the weeks leading up to the live events, as it would seem remiss to program a live event around decay without some physical element or example of decay within the event.”
“I thought fruits and flowers would be the most obvious candidates for noticeable decay on the timescale we had available, but our scenic artist collaborator Lucy Goodwin really notched up our thinking,” she adds. “Instead of a box of haphazard specimens, we instead had an elegantly designed scene, reminiscent of still-life paintings, but also with a literary connection (hence the books) to the imagined discarded dining table of Mrs. Haversham.”
Decay In a Box in advanced decay. Screencap via the author
Barker says that even the specific elements had artistic choices. She points to the lilies chosen for their traditional use as funeral flowers, and apples for their recurring mythical symbolism from Genesis to Snow White and beyond.
Scientist collaborators Craig Rouskey and Ami Knop also sent Guerilla Science regular updates on the science behind what was observable in the live-stream of Decay In a Box. Some of these thoughts were summarized as haikus, which Guerilla Science shared as animated GIFs on their social media accounts. Rouskey also advised Barker on which foods to include in the box, like thin-skinned fruits such berries that would likely totally decompose in the 40-day period.
A performer at Decadent Decay
“It really was fascinating watching the scene change over the days and weeks, noticing so many details in the different elements of the box, and the final timelapse is beautiful and captivating,” says Barker. “I think there is an inherent intrigue in decay, and I hope we’ve gone some way to capture a tiny slice of that in an engaging way.”
Scientific decay got some representation in Krista Jacobsen’s speech on cheesemaking, while Levin talked decay in the cosmos. Practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Mona Jain also explored the threat and fear of decay as the root of human anxiety.
“With regards to creative dining, each of our six courses was based around a different interpretation of decay, whether it be pickling, charring, fermenting or physically deconstructing,” Barker explains. “Our culinary partner, Tessa Liebman of Methods and Madness, went into painstaking detail to link each of her dishes to the theme.”
Fermented foods at ‘Decadent Decay’ pop-up banquet.
While Barker hopes that people enjoyed the event, with all of its food, art, and conversation, she would also like to think people found some beauty in decay. That audiences learned something in the process, and began to think differently about decay and explore, in more detail, a process that defines our existence.
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