Mick Lorusso


Photography by Adela Windsor

To hear a conversation between Janeil Engelstad and Mick Lorusso on the MAP Radio Hour, please visit Creative Disturbance.


From a conversation with Janeil Engelstad in March 2011


The microbial fuel cell is a direct way of accessing the idea of alchemical transformation from something that we consider as waste into something that is energy. When I talk about energy in this project I do not mean the modernist idea of energy as something that makes a more productive workday or something that can extend the activities of the day into the night. I want to transcend, through this project, that all pervasive, capitalist idea of energy. There is a great opportunity to work with people in Mexico City and to talk to them about energy in relationship to the microbial fuel cells lighting the shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe. That right there begins to take the work out of the modernist understanding of energy, even though it is using that same system.


From a young age, I have been interested in science and energy. In junior high I was doing detoxification of heavy metals with yeast. So there has been, for a long time, collaboration with microorganisms in my work. Actually, it is something that we all are always doing (as our bodies digest food, etc.). I love it when it becomes more apparent - when the collaboration becomes a more conscious contract with projects that harness those microorganisms and ask them to do something for you. The work that I was doing a couple of years ago had to do with the exchange of energy through the vessel of fruit. In one project, I peeled oranges for people and then fed them the orange slices, asking them to imagine the energy that they are receiving as an idea or as a person in their life. I then asked them to write that idea on an orange peel. I gave the peels to the artist who inspired me to do the project for his compost bin. The idea of cyclical energy was very present in that piece as was the relationship between food, cosmic energy and bodily energy. It was the precursor for the Waste to Light project. 


The project really took form in a class that I was assisting at San Francisco Art Institute.  The main focus of the class was ecology and looking at the ways that artists could intervene in a meaningful way. As a part of the class we traveled to Mexico City and one of the things that we did was to look at an exhibition, called Residual, which was a project about artist interventions in the city. One of the artists, Tue Greenfort, built a lighthouse tower with a team of scientists. Installed on the esplanade at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, it lit up with the combustion of gases produced by the decomposition of organic waste. This project was a beacon for me to think about the larger repercussions of using this kind of model.


As a part of the class that I was assisting, I was encouraged to look for sites around the city that could be a focus of our research. I picked the Central del Abasto, the largest market in Mexico City. I had lived in Mexico City, on and off, for ten years before coming to San Francisco and I was interested in looking at an energy center for the city, where all of the energy of the outlining areas comes in. The market supplies all of the satellite markets in the city. When I visited the site I suspected that there would be numerous shrines of the Virgin of Guadalupe and I was right. It was obvious that the shrines are an essential part of maintaining the businesses. From there I started to think about developing a project that would sustain the market from the 500 tons of organic waste that it produces, from rotting fruits and vegetables, everyday.

In part, this project is an education campaign. It is a nomadic information forum that can happen throughout Mexico, in San Francisco, or potentially anywhere. The process of transforming the organic waste to energy could happen anywhere as well. Producing the first incarnation of the project at the large Central del Abasto sets the standard not only in Mexico, but also throughout Latin America. There is a strong network between the markets throughout the region. The Central de Abasto in Mexico City, for example, is very similar to the Central de Abasto in Bogotá, Columbia. So there is the potential to create a positive chain reaction. It’s exciting.