In 2014, Raspet’s exhibition at San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman Gallery, titled “Residuals,” marked a cohesive presentation of many of the conceptual threads that have now come to define his work. Included as part of the exhibition was the installation Standard Recovery (GC/MS VOLATILES-WHOLE AIR: 37.784749°; -122.414129°), 2014, in which Raspet had the gallery’s walls coated with a “scratch-and-sniff” emulsion, the odor of which was a concentrated distillation of the gallery’s ambient air. To create the emulsion, Raspet set up a “SUMMA canister,” a vacuum of sorts that, over the course of a week, collected air from the gallery space. The air was then sent off to a laboratory where its molecular composition was analyzed and used as the blueprint for creating a liquid, which became the emulsion’s base. As Raspet described the installation in an interview at the time, “It’s almost like a background noise of the air space, but very intensified.” Other pieces in the exhibition included Hydrocarbon Reformulation (Reconstituted Crude Oil with 2-Point Resolution: Molecular Weight Average), 2014, which was comprised of five large glass vials affixed to the gallery wall that contained, as the name suggests, reconstituted forms of crude oil. Importantly, for Raspet, the use of technology and manufacturing is an extension of his desire to use materials and mediums in the same way that other artists are preoccupied, say, with paints, albeit in contradiction to what he views as an emphasis on the handmade. As he noted in that 2014 interview, “I react against something that’s too handmade…it’s an artificial, arbitrary position that society has placed on art, being this thing that’s quote-unquote creative, individual and unique.” For Raspet, what is more compelling is to take the “pre-existing reality of mass-scale manufacturing and have it as much as possible exist in the space of art.”
That interest in introducing mass-manufacturing into the sphere of art assumed an added dimension for Raspet in 2015, when he took a job as a flavor engineer for Rosa Labs. It was at that time that he began work on his first prototypes for “Technical Food” and “Technical Milk,” two synthetic food products. Raspet first “exhibited” the two supplements at New York’s Swiss Institute in 2015 and then again in 2016 at the city’s annual Frieze art fair for an installation with the gallery Société Berlin. Part exhibition, part trade show, Raspet’s installation at Frieze quite literally played with notions of the consumption of art. Raspet, along with several of his Rosa Lab coworkers, served samples of the concoctions—the taste of which was described by one art critic as “aggressively chemical, an implacable parade of Latex, burnt plastic, damp earth, and smoke”—along with prototypes of an algae-based paste that Raspet had been developing.
As Raspet notes, the impetus behind the works stemmed from multiple points of interest. On one level, “Technical Milk” and “Technical Food” underscored his desire to use processes of industrial manufacturing. As he notes, “I want to use…modes in the regular economy to make my work, as much as possible.” In that regard, Raspet aligns himself with the likes of Andy Warhol, who appropriated forms of commercial printing and production to create works that critiqued media-infused culture while also upending traditional notions about the authorship and production of art. For Raspet, the use of such modes of production highlights a desire to “question the division between art and the rest of the world,” a division that Raspet sees “fundamentally as an economic” one.
On another level, Raspet’s Soylent offshoots addressed what has become a hallmark of the artist’s work: The interrogation of our assumptions regarding what is “natural” and what is “artificial.” As Raspet noted in his interview with Moss, “In our present culture, many people believe that all things ‘natural’ are good and all ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ things are bad. In fact, the entire division between ‘natural” and ‘artificial’ is a construct.” Importantly, for Raspet, this argument extends beyond the critique of the differentiation of the two terms put forth by the likes of Frankfurt theorists such as Theodor Adorno, who saw the separation of the “natural” from the “man-made” as byproducts of Enlightenment thinking. For Raspet, it’s far more empirical: There is no differentiation, owing to the fact that both the “natural” and the “artificial” utilize the same basic fundamental molecular structures, albeit in differing combinations, that exist throughout the universe.
Yet, if one finds in Raspet’s outlook pause for concern about the importance of eating organic or all-natural, consider his 2016 startup, nonfood. Launched with his business partner Lucy Chinen, the Detroit-based company aims to produce food products from algae-derived ingredients on a mass scale, well beyond the elite territory of the art world. Among the company’s initial offerings is the “nonbar” and the upcoming “noncoco,” an algae-based alternative to chocolate, without the cocoa ingredients. If that sounds less than appetizing, Raspet is quick to point out that, with the use of algae-based products, nonfood aims to drastically reduce the carbon footprint related to standard food production: Agriculture is responsible for 15 percent of the world’s carbon-related emissions, of which cows generate half. With noncoco, he hopes to find an alternative to cocoa, an ingredient that is all too often harvested by exploited farmers in the global south.