Mae-ling Lokko: The Art of Upcycling

Posted on 28 June 2018 by Liverpool Biennial

Mae-ling Lokko, CASE Chale Wote Upcycling Pavilion, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Mae-ling Lokko, CASE Chale Wote Upcycling Pavilion, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

As it becomes more and more ingrained into our everyday lives, recycling is a concept nearly everyone is familiar with. But what about upcycling? Mae-ling Lokko, an architectural historian and building-material technologist, aims to make us all aware of the possibilities of the materials we usually define as waste. Using agrowaste-fed mycelium (mushrooms to you and me), she has been commissioned by Liverpool Biennial and RIBA North to create a large-scale installation called Hack the Root, which is being ‘grown’ in a series of public workshops. We talked to Mae-ling about where her interest in upcycling agricultural waste came from.

How would you describe what you do in one sentence?

My practice takes the world’s most underutilised resources, in terms of waste, and upcycles them.

Your work could be described as both art and architecture. How do you view that relationship?

It’s interesting because the problem with using waste is that people struggle to think that it could be valuable. So, the tools and methodologies that we have to adopt in order to change those perceptions have not necessarily stuck within the confides of architecture. I think by entering the art world and getting people to imagine these materials in a new way, it makes a big difference. The actual value of the materials never really comes to its full glory unless you think of it as art. We want to make these materials shine in terms of their properties, where they are from, and how they perform in their life after being just a fruit. So, do I consider myself an artist? I do.

Mae-ling Lokko, CASE Chale Wote Upcycling Pavilion, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Does collaboration play a part in that process?

My whole thinking has been about fostering academic-industrial collaborations and, for me, that has accelerated the development of these materials in lots of ways. It has taken something that was the size of a coin and made it into a full-scale panel and, to me, the value of the academic-industrial collaboration is essential. Also, I think collaborating with people of different disciplines has been important in my field of research. Our web of collaborators has ranged from schools of engineering and science to art, humanities and architecture, and that was very necessary. It became a multipronged initiative to find out how many different pathways we can walk down in order to redefine what we mean by upcycling. For example, a material can function a certain way mechanically, but does that give it value on the market? No. So, approaching it from very different ends and from different disciplines was really the strength behind how we were able to accelerate the development of some of the materials we have worked with so far.

Mae-ling Lokko, AMBIS Biomaterial Brick, 2016. Photo: Tanner Whitney

So you research other disciplines in order to inform your projects – what has this led to?

I spent a year working in an environmental engineering lab at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Initially, we were just looking at how to develop healthy building materials. That meant making sure they were passive, that they didn’t do any harm, and that they were not going to give off gas or other harmful stuff. But then we also realised that there was this vast opportunity to use the internal surface area of materials to actually clean air. Basically, our thinking was that the harmful stuff gets trapped or sequestered into this material. We started looking at activated carbon from coconut shells – specifically the husk – and it opened up a whole research area that made us think: can you replace soil with these coconut waste mediums and develop really efficient green walls? That turned out to be pretty successful, and there were a number of students that started working in that area of environmental engineering, so it became a trigger for further research.

Hack the Root workshop at Squash Liverpool, 2018

Was there an artwork connected to this process?

It was mostly research. I think the active performance of the materials is something that has been difficult to communicate in the art installations, and that is something that I am really looking to doing for my Liverpool Biennial 2018 commission – to show that these are breathable, living materials. Too often, we see things like that in a negative way because we like our stuff to be inert, predictable, or to not do anything; but I think there are a lot of positive attributes of seeing your materials doing the stuff they are supposed to do.

Modules for Hack the Root growing at RIBA North

See Mae-ling Lokko’s Hack the Root at RIBA North as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018: Beautiful world, where are you? from 14 July – 28 October.