February 15, 2022
Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. Tenochtitlan, which was the capital of the Aztec empire founded in 1325, is now a metropolis of about 9.21 million people. While the city has been quick to install shared bicycles and is actively adopting technology and new approaches, it is also a city where culture remains strong. Scenes in Mexico City range from shopping in chaotic local markets to eating tacos on the street and from historic downtowns to areas lined with sophisticated cafes. It has been said that Mexico City cannot be described in a single word.
FabCafe Mexico City opened from inside Membrana Lab in February 2022.
We talked to the founders, Tania Aedo and Federico Hemmer, about their backgrounds, Membrana Laba, where FabCafe Mexico City was created, and what kind of activities they plan to carry out in the future.
Interview and writing by Natsumi Daizen
Photo by Víctor Benítez
Editing by Mariko Suzuki
Original Japanese to English Translation by Kelsie Stewart
─ Hola! Nice to meet you! First of all, could you tell us about yourselves?
Tania: I am a curator, artist and co-founder of Membrana Lab. In the past, I was the director of the LABORATORIO ARTE ALAMEDA (Alameda Art Lab) for 12 years, I have also worked on other multimedia centers that connect the realms of art, technology and science. Currently, I am coordinating interdisciplinary lectures on art and technology at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico).
Federico: I’m a biomedia artist, glassmaker and co-founder of Membrana Lab. I’m currently working on a project that intertwines art, materials and bioscience.
─ What do you do as leaders here at Membrana Lab?
Tania: I’ve been working for two years now, focusing on collaborating with various disciplines in art, science, and technology. By collaborating with artists, building and designing processes together, I hope to discover what disciplines are hidden in the process.
We also have a gallery at Membrana Lab because we believe that it is necessary to support the sustainability of art and the art ecosystem from a commercial perspective, just as humans seek to increase sustainability and survival.
Tania: At the gallery, the process of creating art is shared with the public. Questions and inquiring minds are generated from the participants, and interaction among them creates a cycle of sustainability for the art itself.
In order to generate interaction among participants, it is important to connect with the local community. Therefore, we decided to turn our attention to coffee, which is both a culture and an industry in Mexico. From the drying method, roasting, and extraction, to the scientific process, there is a culture related to coffee in Mexico that exists in everyday life.
Federico: Coffee then led to our interest FabCafe. Tania and I both love Japanese culture, and I even studied a little Japanese.
Our first encounter with FabCafe was when we went to Tokyo. I became very interested when I saw the scene where the necessary foundations for creating questions was created and linked together from the areas of culture and manufacturing, starting with cafe drinks. We can do a lot of experiments while incorporating knowledge from various fields alongside the culture of coffee and baristas. I strongly felt that we would like to incorporate this into our project as we move forward. I also really liked the fact that the FabCafe model is not solely commercially based, but focuses on the possibility of creating conversations, exchanges, and collaborations around a single table with a cup of coffee in hand.
─ I see that Membrana Lab also places importance on local and international contexts.
Tania: No matter if it’s local or international, I try to connect the micro things. By micro things, I mean artists, creators, scientists, local organizations, to global structures like corporations and governments. I’m also interested in linking local knowledge to international perspectives.
We’re also deeply interested in cultural exchange with Asia, and we’re really looking forward to expanding our connections with Asia through our collaboration with FabCafe.
─ Can you tell me more about your interest in Asian culture?
Federico: Yes, in the Australian project called SymbioticA, I had the opportunity to encounter the works of Asian artists. For instance, Soichiro Mihara, a Japanese artist who creates questions by taking the field of biomedia as a metaphor. I also became impressed by Chinese artist Lu Yang’s “Kimo Kawa Cancer Baby” which was inspired by Japanese animation. Their projects have inspired our collaborations here in Mexico City.
Tania: I’m also interested in device art that has originated in Japan. I’ve been fascinated by the way artists such as Machiko Kusahara, a curator and media art researcher, and Meiwa Denki use science and technology to express their art. I am also very interested in how this advanced technology and the culture still coexists today after having been handed down from generation to generation from our ancestors.
In general though, I really enjoy Japanese food, tea, and cafe culture. Out of all Japanese food, I really love …… ramen! (laughs).
─ The Spanish meaning of Membrana is “membrane”, what is the origin of your use of this word?
Federico: I had been conducting workshops under the name “Topología de las discusiones” since 2013. From inspirations derived from this workshop, we started Membrana Lab two years ago.
The “Topología de las discusiones” workshop was mainly for graduate students and researchers to see and discuss things that they don’t typically see in their day-to-day research. The theoretical environment in the lab and the real world are inexplicably different. A person doing mathematics is completely different from a person doing literature. I realized that the perspective of a non-researcher has something that the former two do not have, and that it has even greater value.
We created this concept of “Membrana” with the desire to carefully nurture each idea, thus creating a sense of everyone being connected and emerged as a “layer”. It’s like a membrane, and that’s how we came up with the name Membrana.
Tania: “Topología de discusiones” traced the thought process with the participants through discussion.
Think back to your childhood. At the family dinner table, at school, or at any other time, you may have experienced feelings of anger or doubt about various things or themes. From the original experience of those emotions, we go on to academic paths and build our careers. That’s the kind of dialogue we were having.
What topics we respond to or are interested in is different for each person. In the process of recognizing that it is one’s own path of learning, discoveries are made, leading to “disciplines” (or paths and manners to learning). By finding themes that you respond to from unexpected places and digging deeper, your expertise and new knowledge begins to intersect.
Artists may be thought of as creating works of art based on sensory images. However, when an artist encounters science, a hypothesis is born in the process of the artist creating the work. The scientist might say, “I thought we were the ones who specialize in using hypotheses to figure things out.” We love that game-like feeling of creating surprises and gaps!
Scientists exist to create theories. And it can be said that scientists may be forming the the foundational knowledge of all things.
But I believe we can, too. We can create small questions, such as “Why are leaves green?” and other small questions. In school, we are taught the reasons in textbooks. So perhaps there is no need to ask.
But in this space, I want to evoke a sense of generating questions in people. It’s a very exciting thing, and it can only be created by everyone working together.
I will give you another example. An artist is quietly working on a piece of art, but is unable to sublimate it into a form. Then some other unrelated person might come along and come up with an outlandish idea.
─ So what you are saying then is, from the abstract and visual nature of art, “questions” are born, and then hypotheses and theories can then be born.
Federico: If you look at the old descriptions of alchemy, people in the past consider it as a kind of “pseudo science”. In this sense, people began to believe that alchemical experiments were useless. However, after decades of time, we now know that these alchemic experiments were in actuality the first step towards molecular biology in Mexico.
Tania: There is a Mexican biologist named Alfonso Luis Herrera. In Mexico, he famously known for his creation of the botanical garden in Chapultepec Park. He was once nicknamed the “fake scientist” for his research because he advocated an alchemy called “Plasmogenia” (translation: protoplasmic theory). Later, when a book about “protocells” was published, his name was listed as the leading authority. I was thrilled by this story, because at that time, nobody knew about it. At the time, no one knew about protocells because the structure was still in its infancy, and there was a lot of debate, suspicion, and friction. Hearing this story was so exciting for me!
In Membrana Lab’s FabCafe, I would like to recreate the descriptions of alchemy from that time, and create questions from them.
─ Please tell us about your vision for FabCafe Mexico City.
Federico: Our mission is to create a connection between art, technology, and other knowledge and experiments, and to spread the attitude and way of learning in various ways. Our vision includes connecting the local and cultural context with the contemporary global context.
I hope that FabCafe will serve as a hub where creators can learn about “discipline” (as a way and manner of learning) and lead to further more diverse learning.
Tania: In an emergency situation, I often think about “what is the role of art” and “what is my role in art”. After experiencing the earthquake (in Mexico in 2017) and the coronavirus, I became deeply aware of the fact that we live in a world of connections. I wanted to raise awareness of the connections between cultures and people through the power of creativity, and that is what FabCafe aims to do. With “education” as the theme, I want to mix science and art and create a space where people can learn through fun experimentation.
─ In other words, FabCafe will be a place that offers solutions to emergencies and unforeseen situations?
Tania: In many places, solution thinking is already happening. Each of them exists independently, but I believe that from now on we will become one big community, which will help to keep the cultural ecosystem sustainable. I believe that the intersection of art, science and technology has a great potential to propose and verify something for the future.
In that respect, the location of this FabCafe is also important.
The San Jeronimo district in the Lomas Quebrada area, where Membrana Lab is located, is a long way from downtown Mexico City. However, it is located near the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and many other universities and schools. The area is also rich in nature. It is adjacent to a national park, a protected natural area, and has a river that connects to the Magdalena River, one of the two open-air rivers in Mexico City. It’s a very diverse urban environment with a lot of potential.
Federico: We are working to connect to the local context, and through Membrana Lab and FabCafe, we believe that solutions can be created by connecting local cultures, by promoting activities that can be mutually suggested, and by involving the whole community in developing existing activities. I believe that solutions will be created through this.
─ I see. By connecting with the local community, we can learn about the local context, and if we accumulate that knowledge, we can use it as data and create new solutions.
Tania: By mixing things that have never interacted before, we can create and shape projects together. It’s important to have an environment where projects can be created collaboratively, whether in times of emergency or in times of peace. Just like the FabCafes around the world are doing, we can connect people who create, people who design, people who create art, and scientists.
─ That’s also how chemical reactions are created, isn’t it?
Federico: When you collaborate with many different people, you realize that there are many different types of friction. We write down the process as a story together.
I think what we can do as a group is to continue to create questions in times of crisis and in times of peace. By getting the local context and continuing to ask questions, we can create new stories.
─ In that sense then, it could be said that the two of you are playing the role of storytellers.
Tania: Federico and I also express ourselves through text and language. Writing is a way of creating a different history and rewriting old ideas about the future. I’m interested in thinking about and experimenting with the relationship between text, programming languages, and other forms of writing. I am interested in thinking about and experimenting with the relationship between texts, programming languages, and other forms of writing, so that we ourselves can become the medium.
The “why” of each action emerges from the verbalized question. I imagine that this FabCafe will provide a space where people can think deeply about these questions from a new perspective.
This is something that schools used to do, but not anymore.
It is true that schools teach us many things. However, it is within the scope of the material, and the current focus is on “learning what we need to accomplish” and not on “learning about the knowledge we already have”.
Remember, the physics classes we took have been updated by research and now, we are not teaching the same things we learned back then. Learning is not what we think of as a “way or manner of learning”. Our approach is that through art, you can enter the path of learning from a different perspective. In the process of entering the path of learning, we create curiosity and questions.
─ I see. I’m really looking forward to experiencing that process! Finally, what kind of activities do you plan to do in the future?
Tania: I have an idea for a workshop that uses bacteria and fermentation. By observing the process of corrosion, digestion, and mixing, we can connect art and food in terms of entropy (irregularity and irreversibility).
Even if we think of coffee as the axis, coffee actually has many elements of science. I am looking forward to the many avenues of learning that will arise in the future, involving many different people.
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