Red Cabbages Sounding the Alarm

As we become more and more aware of the toxic properties of a lot of materials for artists – think paints, glues, solvents, and chemical developers – our interest in natural alternatives increases. We are familiar with the beautiful bright blue of the indigo plant and the deep red of the cochineal (lice). To celebrate World Food Day, I want to highlight food – a different source of natural material for artists. Many foods such as curcuma, berries, chamomile, onion (skins), beetroots and many others contain incredible natural pigments.

Selection of natural pigments at the Van Eyck.

However, potentially even more exciting is the ability of some foods to develop photographic film. When we use edible plants (for instance coffees, teas, berries) for the foundation of the emulsion that develops photographic film, we call the resulting print an “anthotype.” A transparent layer is added on top of the emulsion so the sun can do its work: the organic emulsion has a chemical reaction with the sunlight resulting in the bleaching of some areas. Slowly but surely (this process can take weeks) the destruction of the pigments by the sunlight reveals the print. The juice of red cabbage (combined with soda and vitamin C) also has the potential to develop photographic film. Belgian artist Kristof Vrancken has experimented a lot with this technique, playing around with the different parameters, including temperature and development time. Vrancken’s work often addresses directly or indirectly the “forgotten in-between spaces.” Some of the images depicted on the photographic film developed by red cabbage juice are post-industrial landscapes of Genk. Genk is the industrial center of the province of Limburg in the Netherlands, mostly known for mining and automobile manufacturing. These industries have left scars on the landscape and polluted the soil.

Red cabbages in Genk, Kristof Vrancken.

In order to get more insight into the extent of soil pollution in Genk, Vrancken went back to the cabbages: if the cabbages act as pH indicators, what other information might they reveal about the soil? He invited twelve Genk residents to plant a red cabbage in their garden in order to collaboratively explore the soil composition, and create an understanding of the impact soil may have on ecology and food production. After the harvesting four months later, the juice would be used as photographic emulsion, resulting in an image: the anthotype. These anthotypes depicted the portraits of the Genk residents who participated in the project and the landscapes in which they cultivated their cabbages. The portrait below of participant Noralie is an anthotype print made of red cabbage. The remains of the cabbages were consumed during a big dinner with all of the participants.

Portrait of Noralie, Kristof Vrancken.

Red cabbages started popping up across Genk. Growers and photography enthusiasts were curious to see how the soil in which the cabbage grew affected the anthotypes, and then scientists and academics also got involved. Their knowledge and expertise allowed for more research and a better understanding of which heavy metals and fine dust the cabbages were taking in from the soil. Mostly, the acidity and the composition of the soil  changed the color quality of the anthtotype. Generally speaking, when grown in pure soil, the prints turned more blue; in alkaline soil, they tended towards green and yellow; in neutral soils, the veered more purple; in acidic soil, they turned out more red.

Anthropocene elixir (photographic emulsion) made of sloeberry, elderberry, and juniper harvested from an industrial site.

The pH test showed the evident color differences in the final liquids – symbolic elixirs of the Anthropocene, demonstrating that red cabbage reacts to the pH-value and soil quality of the subsoil in which it grows. During the Food Art Film Festival at the Van Eyck in Maastricht, an arts festival on Food Futures, Kristof Vrancken combined his presentation with a toast where he invited the audience to drink this controversial Anthropocene elixir. He brought test tubes filled with the photographic emulsion of the juice of sloeberries, elderberries, and junipers that had been harvested on the deserted and polluted industrial site of Ford Genk. The image at the top of this article was made with the same emulsion that was consumed that afternoon. Tense rather than festive, everyone decided to drink the liquid, realizing it was probably not the healthiest thing, and confronting the fact that half of the time we have no idea what is in the stuff we eat and drink.

Anthropocene elixir (photographic emulsion) made of sloeberry, elderberry, and juniper harvested from an industrial site.

Kristof Vrancken’s project made visible what we usually cannot see: the soil that our fruits and vegetables inhabit and feed from significantly impacts the plants and ends up in our body. May World Food Day not only be a reminder to eat healthy food, but to care about the soils that it grows in.

This article is part of the Foodstuff series.


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.

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