Sean Raspet once worked as a flavorist in the food industry, and he’ll tell you that artificial flavoring revolves around three key flavor profiles: strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. He’ll also point out that vanilla isn’t a flavor, but rather a bean (the taste is bitter). When we say “vanilla,” we’re really thinking about other vanilla food products. And if you want to get technical about it, the flavor of those food products—something we pick up through scent—is actually a phenolic aldehyde known as vanillin, an organic compound with the molecular formula C8H8O3. It’s this molecular space of possibility for scent that Raspet’s interested in, with clear aesthetic implications. As he says, “Rather than being limited to creating a copy of a copy of some idea of nature, a flavor can be constructed based on its own specific [molecular] qualities, and this opens up a wide range of possibilities within the flavor space.”
As an artist, Sean Raspet works primarily with molecular structure, the ways that the so-called basic building blocks of matter are organized. He sees molecules as intimately tied to circulation through the metabolism of living things, and his artistic materials as continual processes of matter and energy that never achieve a final form. As his projects take shape, chemical structures inevitably intersect with economic and social ones. Patents, formulas, scientific and industrial collaborations—all make their way into the work’s presentation. It is important to Raspet that his art, which more often than not takes a literally liquid form, circulates and gets metabolized both inside and outside of the art context, inside and outside the body.
Sean Raspet will present art and research involving three structures of matter, described in detail below.
In collaboration with Dr. Christoph Salzmann, University College London
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about a fictional polymorph of water called Ice-nine whose high melting point meant that if it ever came into contact with regular liquid water, the regular water would permanently crystallize, leading to widespread human death (humans are mostly water). Fortunately, Vonnegut’s Ice-nine doesn’t exist, but there are seventeen kinds of ice that have been observed under laboratory conditions.
At the forefront of ice science, or rather H2O science, is Dr. Christoph Salzmann, whose laboratory does what he calls “fundamental research” on liquids and crystalline structures. Salzmann likes seeing what a substance’s molecular bonds are capable of, and while there may be practical applications for those discoveries down the line, he’s not driven by what’s practical per se. With water, Salzmann is interested in the kinds of crystalline structures that arise among its hydrogen and oxygen atoms when they’re subjected to extreme pressure and temperature. For example, at typical freezing conditions (32° F, standard atmospheric pressure), H2O molecules form Ih, hexagonal ice, which geometrically has six-fold symmetry. Ih is standard-issue ice, the stuff of snowflakes and ice-cubes. Dr. Salzmann and his team aren’t interested in standard issue, though, and recently they applied 5,000 times more pressure to water than normal, and dropped the temperature to -4.27° F. This produced a much more complex structure with 4-, 5-, 6-, and 8-membered rings that formed a rectangular prism with a parallelogram as its base. It’s what scientists call Ice V.
Sean Raspet, in collaboration with Dr. Salzmann’s lab, is exhibiting a vial of water whose molecules have at one point in time taken on the structure of Ice V. While Ice V has a rich formal history, there is no accounting for those prior bonds in its current physical state, nor does the naked eye have access to the arrangement of its hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Dr. Salzmann’s laboratory has provided documents and diagrams authenticating the water’s material trajectory and past formal structures.
In collaboration with Dr. Shengping Zheng, Hunter College and Technology Commercialization Office, City University of New York
While you may never have heard of a terpenoid molecule, you’ve certainly ingested one. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and tomatoes all contain terpenoids. Eucalyptus gets its scent from terpenoids, as do menthol and cannabis. From a structural point of view, terpenoids are made up of five carbon building blocks. Functionally, they play a role in plant metabolism, interspecies communication, and making sure a plant’s enzymes work properly (among many other things).
In industrial production, terpenoids are made in factories through chemical processes, mostly for use in pharmaceuticals, industrial rubber, vitamins, and fragrances. While terpenoids can be extracted from flowers and lemons, crude oil is one of the most common feedstocks for making it synthetically. Most of crude oil’s molecular structures come from algae from millions of years ago, which is made, in part, of terpenoids.
Sean Raspet is in the process of developing a novel terpenoid molecule—one that is not known to have existed previously—with the lab of Dr. Shengping Zheng at Hunter College. For starting materials, Raspet and Zheng are looking mainly at citral and isoprene. Citral is used in the industrial synthesis of vitamins A and E, as well as in perfumes, cleaning products, and artificial flavors (mostly lemon-y ones).
In October 2017, BASF, the world’s largest supplier of citral, declared force majeure on certain citral and isoprenol-based aroma ingredients, as well as on vitamins A and E, after a fire forced the company to shut down a production facility at its Ludwigshafen headquarters. The citral shortage is expected to have wide-ranging effects over the coming year, from how perfumes and cleaning products smell, to the cost of vitamin-rich animal feedstock.
Coming from citral, Raspet and Zheng think their new molecule will lie somewhere between a fragrance and a pharmaceutical. It will likely have metabolic effects if ingested, and Raspet plans to model those with software. When the molecule is complete, Raspet will work with CUNY Technology Commercialization Office to write a provisional patent and then attempt to circulate the patented molecule through industrial means. As Raspet points out, “We live in a chemical mode of production. In many ways, artificial flavors are our culture’s pinnacle of achievement.”
In collaboration with Tarek Issaoui
Phosphorus is an element fundamental to life. It forms part of the chemical backbone for DNA in all living organisms and is essential for new tissue development in plants. It makes up approximately 1% of the mass of animals and plants.
While phosphorus is abundant throughout life on earth, it is a limited resource in more concentrated, mineral form. Phosphate rock reserves, as they’re called, are mined for use in fertilizer. Industrialized food production required industrially produced fertilizer, made from industrially mined phosphate rock in order to increase yields and feed a growing population on Earth.
Some analysts say that phosphate rock reserves are undervalued on the market. The price of phosphate tends to correlate to how difficult it is to extract, not how much reserve is left relative to what’s been taken. While it’s unlikely that phosphate will run out in the near future, it plays such an integral role in food production that any fluctuation in the price of the market could have noticeable consequences on food prices. The hardest hit food industries would be those with the greatest carbon footprints—beef and other animal products. Plant-based foods, and especially foods like algae, would be least affected by a rise in the price of phosphorus.
As an artist, Sean Raspet is interested in what structures materials, not only at the molecular level but also from a more macro-ecological outlook. The food chain, which is radically inefficient and ecologically unsound, is something that Raspet is exploring—and seeking to alter—through art. Working with one element in that chain, phosphorus, Raspet will be planning a long-term project that involves forming a company and making a physical reserve and financial entity related to phosphate resource reserves.