Cultivating Unseen Things

Culture, n.

1. The way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.

2.  Art, music, theatre, literature, etc.

3. Cells, tissues, organs, or organisms grown for scientific purposes, or the activity of breeding and keeping particular living things in order to get the substances they produce.

The air is full of unseen things. They float in the current from an open window, drift in eddies around a hand moved in lazy protest, appear occasionally, surprisingly, as tiny specks of light in a winter sunbeam. They settle on our skin, on our food, in our stomachs.


Many of these things are alive. Yeasts, moulds and bacteria bump into us, interact with us, at every moment. It’s a type of aliveness that doesn’t sit well with our usual conceptions; these living things lack the plant’s roots, the animal’s anatomy. In our day-to-day lives, they become visible to us only through their effects on other things.


Sourdough bread starts with the yeasts in the surrounding air that come to grow in the nutritious mixture of flour and warm water. Yogurt production uses a particular type of bacteria. Natural ciders are fermented by local airborne colonies.


These unseen things feast on sugars, multiply in the warmth, respire, excrete acids, materially change the substance of their feeding ground. A new culture is created.

Inês Neto dos Santos’ practice is concerned with culture in every sense of the word. In her kitchen-studio, she experiments with plants, recipes, light and heat to create edible art, cultures of bacteria and active yeasts. Kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles; names that evoke the crunch and complexity of their subjects.



Together, from small ceramic dishes made by a collaborator, we ate sourdough bread spread with fermented-cream butter, salty and seasoned cabbage leaves, tangy apple sauerkraut, and long strips of pickled cucumber that recalled the mysterious inhabitants of an underwater world. We sipped fermented tea flavoured with peach and olive leaf. In the corner of the room, a slippery disc of bacteria sat silently in a jar, inert.

Many of Neto dos Santos’ food-based works function as site-specific pieces, where the resulting fermentations are the product of the airborne particles that are particular to the location in question, drawing attention to the unseen forces that shape our food, our bodies and our everyday lives.



In this context, fermentation offers a powerful metaphor for collaboration and community; cultures bacterial, artistic, and social. The metaphor is expanded through the artist’s wider practice and modes of working. She often collaborates on projects, for example with artists who contribute the apparatus of eating to a culinary experience, or who create a tablescape to draw out themes and ideas. Furthermore, through the shared activity of eating, Neto dos Santos actively creates a community and a platform for communication.



The jars of fermented foods act as metaphorical microcosms of Neto dos Santos’ practice, as well as commenting more widely on the concepts of collaboration and the cultural ways in which a community comes together.

The sharing of food and drink is the basis of most of the rituals that define our society; the table is the locus of communion, tensions, and plays for power, reconciliations. By drawing attention to how and why we eat and drink together, Inês Neto dos Santos forces us to consider the reasons behind our rituals, as well as where our food comes from and the processes it has gone through, from plant to plate.



Neto dos Santos’ food practice is mostly plant-based, using many techniques that have been in existence for thousands of years. Her work subtly draws attention to more sustainable food practices, prolonging the seasons in which we can eat certain vegetables through preservation rather than refrigeration or international shipments, and processing food without the use of gas or electricity, introducing a sustainable and almost carbon-neutral mode of ‘cooking’.



Her practice is ecologically aware in its recognition of the interconnections between mass-agriculture, global supply chains, local bacteria and – eventually – the food we put on our plates. It’s a network of cause and effect that is masked by conglomerate shopping experiences, plastic packaging, and the increasingly uniform appearance of fruit and vegetables.

What Inês Neto dos Santos offers is an eating escapade that is partially localised to an extreme degree, and that encourages a spreading awareness of the ecological and sociological issues connected to food consumption.



This awareness can be prompted by something as simple as a visual connection (dairy served in a ceramic oyster shell), or perhaps a surprising taste or texture. We ended with olive oil sorbet. It was light and refreshing with a creamy feel to it. I wondered about the oil; it’s history; where it had come from; what culture(s) had produced it. A new mode of eating opened new questions.


Words by Anna Souter


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