Type of Work
Proposing fermentation as a more inclusive framework, Gut Talk views immigrant health holistically through physical, mental and cultural health perspectives.
With the Immigrant Microbiome Project, a University of Minnesota led by Dr. Pajau Vangay investigated the gut microbiomes of Hmong and Karen women in Thailand and the Twin Cities. The gut microbiome is shaped by our culture, our diets, and lifestyle, but once we move to somewhere new where these influences drastically change, the microbes become similar to those in the new place; diversity goes down leading to chronic illnesses.
Gut Talk is a public exhibition that is driven by stories of our gut microbes. The imagined space provides a room for reflecting and fermenting on migrants’ microbial identities.
The design was driven by the idea of embodying the exploration of how our culture, relationships, transnational experience of moving from one country to another influence our self perceptions and changing identities. It's a space for any type of migrant to come and find a sense of self through fermentation as an inclusive framework and celebrate diversity in our society.
Moving away from the melting pot concept that has traditionally been used to assimilate people, I propose fermentation as a new visual framework to encourage integration. The melting pot narrative often requires and forces people to melt away the undesirable aspects of non-dominant groups and culture. The salad bowl metaphor respects individuals’ distinctive ingredients, or identities.
Fermentation, finally, serves as a narrative that celebrates individuals’ distinct identities and the slow process of those identities evolving in a space that allows them to thrive appropriately. This safe space indicates the collective efforts to empathize and move away from colonial aspects of assimilation.
Just like the microorganisms in Kombucha that feed on sugar transform their microbes, a person feeds on cultural influences of old and new ways and becomes an authentic self rather than someone from a singular country or culture. As the fermentation jar creates a selective environment for the microbes to thrive, we need a safe community and system that allows people to establish ethnic and cultural identities.
The Design Process
While introducing fermentation as a new approach, framing the integration process through recipes that are familiar to one’s unique culture was an important piece in the design process. With each different culture, one has something to offer and also to learn about others’ building empathy during the integration.
This necessitated another element of collaboration - working with a fermentation expert who can help develop some recipes that blend ingredients from different origins to form new pickles, drinks or other fermented products. This way, one can have conceptual, “identity fermentation” as well as actual, integrated products that can be taken away and their recipes shared.
Moreover, to ensure it’s access and inclusiveness, the different languages should be available to make the project work for people at different stages of moving to a new place.
A lot of the activities of this experience design are derivatives of the previous co-creation workshop ‘Where are you local?’. By opening it up to the public and making it more accessible to many others, it has the potential to shift traditional approaches and generate new ideas.
Further collaborations include museums that focus on certain communities and create programming based on this proposal for their communities (such as the Museum of Chinese in America, El Museo del Barrio, Museum of Jewish Heritage). The project can also be adapted to cater to different age groups and for second generation, children of immigrants who were born in a new country but whose identity pulls from different backgrounds.