As It Happens

This wearable vest grows a self-sustaining garden watered by your own urine

Aroussiak Gabrielian says she was inspired to create what is believed to be the world's first wearable farm after seeing what her body could provide for her newborn.

Designer Aroussiak Gabrielian says each cloak can grow up to 22 crops

Vistors at the American Academy in Rome try out some of the produce that was grown on the wearable garden vest. (Roma Altrosazio)

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Aroussiak Gabrielian says she was inspired to create what is believed to be the world's first wearable farm after seeing what her body could provide for her newborn.

The project, Posthuman Habitats, is a vest or cloak that grows plants and crops using fertilizer from insects and human waste. The vests are currently on display in Beijing as part of an exhibition called Human (un)limited. 

They are designed to provide sustenance for the wearer in a future world where climate change has degraded the soil and people are forced to flee floods and other climate impacts. 

Gabrielian, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Southern California and a landscape architect, spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about her project. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you describe for us what these wearable farms currently look like and how they're actually worn? 

The project uses technology that already exists in creating vertical gardens throughout the world, particularly the soilless system that was developed by the ... French botanist Patrick Blanc. 

It's a layer of moisture retention felt fabric onto which … the seeds are directly placed and watered until they germinate and then they're uncovered and it takes about two weeks for the base material, which is microgreens, to grow to a kind of full level before they're harvested. 

So the garments themselves are kind of a lush green and bright purple depending on what's grown.

Wearable farm cloaks on display at the American Academy in Rome. (Roma Altrosazio)

When you describe microgreens I always think of things like herbs, but what are we talking about?

We're talking about herbs. We're talking about cabbage, radish, sorrel, lettuces. We've experimented with strawberries and even peanuts and mushrooms. 

I think we grew about 22 different crops on each cloak.

And it's not just the plants that are the living creatures in these vests, right?

No it's not. The cloaks themselves, of course, didn't incorporate any of the pollinators.

But the idea is that if you were to wear these, and this was the way that you would grow your food, eventually maybe this would become a habitat for even bigger creatures ... especially the pollinators.

You may know that a third of our food is pollinator dependent, and they're slowly disappearing from this planet. So this was a way to kind of encourage them to maybe stick around longer.

What was the inspiration for creating these vests? 

This happened at a particular moment in my doctoral work where I was immersed in literature around the post-human. And this is the idea that, you know, human exceptionalism has been such a kind of dominant part of our lives.

This was also at the same time when I had just given birth to my daughter. 

Your body turns into a machine that starts to produce the exact nutrients that your child requires and the precise delivery system to get this food to the child. And so I was amazed at my own body for its ability to do this. 

I thought to tap into the bodily systems, such as the renal system and the digestive system, and to try to imagine, you know, in a future state where our soils are depleted and there's not enough access to water, how would we be producing the amount of crops necessary to feed our growing population?

So I thought, you know, there's the system that exists that grows decorative plants ... as vertical gardens throughout the world. Why not use this fabric-based system to grow food directly on our bodies and to kind of tap into those bodily systems? 

Aroussiak Gabrielian, left, testing out her wearable farm cloak. (Roma Altrosazio)

And when you talk about bodily systems ... you're actually talking about fertilizing with human waste. How is that achieved? 

I guess human waste could also be used, but the waste was coming from the smaller creatures and the pollinators and so forth. 

The idea is that your urine would be captured via catheter filtered through a process called forward osmosis — which is developed by NASA technology that currently exists that is used in space, and delivered to the crops as irrigation.

So this would be kind of …. an easy irrigation and water system to tap into.

What does it feel like? How much does it weigh? Does it smell? 

Yes it does. All of these things. 

I had a layer that was protecting me from the dampness, but you could still feel the dampness even within, because it has an insulating factor. So you're both warm inside, but it's also moist. It's a very uncanny feeling to be immersed in this. 

It's pretty heavy. It weighs 20 pounds because it's carrying 20 pounds of crops.

And it has an intense smell. The radishes and cabbage actually are quite potent when grown and it's directly under your nose. So it's quite a bizarre feeling to be cloaked in one of these.

Bean sprouts growing for the wearable garden vest. (Posthuman Habitats)

What kind of reaction have you gotten from people? 

The reactions have been really interesting because they are quite attractive as artifacts and so people are drawn to them. They're also at the body scale, so you can really imagine, you know, wearing one because they're displayed on mannequins. So there's this level of attraction.

And then once you realize how it's being powered, that it's using bodily system and bodily waste, then there's also this repulsion factor — and the insect once you see that insects crawling around.

It's a strange attraction-repulsion thing that happens with the visitors who have come across it. It certainly inspired a lot of interesting dialogue.

Well, you know it does almost sound like sort of a post-apocalyptic way of ensuring a food supply. But have you had people interested now in actually doing this? 

The work wasn't really produced to offer a solution.

The point was to get us to think about issues around the environmental crises at a palpable scale so that ... if we can feel these issues on our body, that might provoke us to do something about these issues instead of taking the passive role we've done so far in our history. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview with Aroussiak Gabrielian produced by Samantha Lui. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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