I stumbled upon Adrienn Újházi on Instagram a few days ago. I’ve never heard about her before nor was I aware that one could make alternative materials for clothes out of SCOBY. That thought blew my mind, completely. Many of you are probably wondering what in the world is SCOBY?
SCOBY is usually used in the production of beverages like kefir or kombucha, and it is actually short for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Although I am a passionate kombucha lover, SCOBY also interests me because you can make a material similar to vegan leather out of it.
Adrienn Újházi, a 24-year-old artist from Novi Sad, Serbia is very familiar with how to do that as she makes art pieces out of SCOBY. She shared the whole process with me as well as her thoughts on the future of this interesting biomaterial.
When did you decide to start using natural biodegradable materials in your work? What kind of materials have you used so far?
My interest in natural materials was always here. It started in my childhood and developed naturally with time through learning and experience. I think that nature holds a secret, and I’m trying to discover it through a game of aesthetics, researching organic and biomaterials. Most of my work is made of natural materials combined with digital tools. That means that I use minimal intervention to get to the product, to an art piece. We are bombed with unnecessary information in this colorful contemporary world, we are missing the raw, clean contact with something natural. My work is dominated by textures and natural colors of the materials I use and reframe in a different context. Mostly I used flour, straw, sand, wheat, and SCOBY.
Do you recall the moment when you realized you can make art with SCOBY? What did that look like?
I found out about it accidentally when I was researching unconventional art materials in painting. I dug deeper into research and practical work and came to an unexpected solution. My idea at first was to grow the material myself so I’ll be able to use it for different things later. The texture I got was similar to some experiments I did with flour and different other ingredients. I got a point where it became more elastic and it reminded me of faux leather. The moment I discovered SCOBY opened up a whole new field for research, I’m really happy about that.
What did your first process of making SCOBY look like? Were you excited? What did the result look like?
The first process was very exciting and I was also very nervous. Through my natural material research, I learned not to expect a lot because nature always does its own thing. I did the whole process of growing the SCOBY myself, it’s really simple. Sterilization is really important as well as adding just the right amount of ingredients to grow a SCOBY. Also, later you have to learn how to stop the material from further development.
I learned not to expect a lot because nature always does its own thing.
How do you make SCOBY today? Do you experiment more than before?
To grow a larger amount of SCOBY you need a big, clean room. I didn’t have that because I kept moving from one workspace to another. Now I grow it at home. When I make a SCOBY of desired thickness, I take it to my atelier to finish. To grow it you just need to be very patient and give it time so the culture could grow properly. That also dictates the pace of your experiment.
And what are you making out of it in the atelier?
In the beginning, I would take a small piece and incorporate it into my art pieces, they were miniatures presented through a series called Introduction to Biophilia. Those pieces were presented as a small experiment of notes about technological research. As I got deeper into it, I found new aesthetical solutions. I combined smaller pieces on larger formats in a lightbox. Those ambient works were gathered in a series called just Biophilia which represents a man’s connection with nature and other forms of life. The artificial light in those boxes highlights the texture of SCOBY even better. Using these tools I wanted to highlight human ability to manipulate nature. To make these large pieces you need a lot of time. While I wait for it to develop, I research on the internet, I discover new artists who do the same thing and share their visual journals online. I’m also putting extra work into discovering new abilities and the general capacity of SCOBY so that someday we might use it for different purposes in our daily lives.
Last year you posted about a hat you made of SCOBY. When and how did you learn that you can make garments and accessories out of SCOBY?
I always try to make a functional biodegradable object out of the material I grow. That’s why it was my choice to try and make a hat. It was also my answer to mass production in the fashion industry. This hat is a ready-made object primarily made of straw, a symbol of memento mori which reminds us to live in the moment and help each other. I made it when I grew a super thick SCOBY, I wrapped it up with layers of hemp and gauze that I used as connective tissue. The hat has six thick layers of SCOBY and it took me around two months to make it. My vision was to turn my favorite fashion piece into a biodegradable hat. I’m still researching that.
How hard is it to make SCOBY into something wearable? I read about how you can dye it with indigo, how to make it darker… there are a lot of options that allow you to still maintain a sustainable and biodegradable product.
Creating my art allows me to recognize new things about creativity, tolerance, and durability. Not having maximum control over my work is what I enjoy and that dictates my pace. Unexpected things can also happen like for example if your SCOBY gets moldy. Those are moments of dialog with the culture I grow that allow me to look for the best solution for a quality product. It can be dyed, best with natural pigments. However, I’m currently focused on its natural state and beauty that comes without other organic substances.
Not having maximum control over my work is what I enjoy.
Do you plan to keep making clothing and accessories with SCOBY?
I want to research it to the point where I can get the finished product faster and more efficiently, and for that, I need better growing conditions. I don’t have that right now but I will get there. As far as clothes are concerned, right now I just want to focus on accessories like hats. I feel like that’s a piece that can tell you about one’s personality and taste. I always pick a hat first and then build it with other pieces. When I started my research I was lucky enough to meet a biodesigner, Maja Halilović, who is a very kind person with good intentions. We are the only ones doing this in our region right now and have plans to spread our knowledge about new biodegradable materials.
How do people around you react when you tell them you make art with SCOBY? What do they say?
Every reaction is unique and positive which means a lot to me. Advice and support from the audience are precious to me and big motivation. That’s why I like to speak publicly about what I do. When I talk to someone about it I feel like it’s really important to show them the photos of SCOBY telling them also how I use it to make art. I saw a sparkle in most people’s eyes when I’d tell them about this. They tend to smile also. Aesthetically, I think this type of work is very refreshing and I also like the fact people learn something new through my work, something they can use in everyday life. It’s one of the reasons why I do this, there’s still so much to discover.
Goodwill and good time management give everyone a chance to make better decisions.
Generally, can the world that we live in today understand new materials? Or more precisely, are we ready to replace the cheap, often life-threatening, fabrics that we buy at high street stores?
Based on my current experience, I think people are quite open to accepting new materials that have their purpose and value for our future. The only problem is that most of us feel limited and trapped because of other resources that should eventually be reduced. Specifically, I’m talking about the mass production of clothing. There are alternative solutions like upcycling old garments, buying second hand, donating, recycling… Besides the food industry, the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters of our planet and that can be balanced with a new approach. Goodwill and good time management give everyone a chance to make better decisions and take smaller steps to bring change in their lives.
All photos are courtesy of Adrienn Újházi.