Jessica Bromley Bartram: Exploring social issues through visual science fiction

One of the things I want to explore with this blog is the way that art informs science and science influences art. What better way to examine this interaction than to interview an artist. My first interview, with graphic designer Jessica Bromley Bartram, will be split into two posts. The first part focuses on the narrative and research behind her thesis project “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts“. 
I hope you enjoy!

Jessica Bromley Bartram is a freelance graphic designer, illustrator, animator, writer and three-dimensional artist based out of Toronto, ON. This October, she won the World Illustration Award (WIA) for Best Overall New Talent from the Association of Illustrators.  Her work is featured in the 2015 WIA exhibition until November 1st at Somerset House in London. 

Jessica graduated from the University of Guelph with a B.A. in English and History but after four years of working in the non-profit sector she realized that she wanted to become a graphic designer. She went back to school and graduated with her second B.A. from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) this past June. She won the Graphic Design Medal for her thesis entitled “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts”. I got a chance to talk with Jessica about this fascinating science-fiction project, her inspirations, and her future plans.

Dr. Ash: I was really glad I got a chance to see your exhibit at the OCAD Grad Ex. It was kind of funny because I found out that you were doing the show through your Instagram feed and I figured, I was in Toronto that day so I may as well check it out. It was really cool to hear that you won the Graphic Design Medal too. Could you go through the story behind “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts”?

Jessica Bromley Bartram: I’ve had a life-long fascination with dystopian sci-fi literature and one of my favourites is Brave New World. I particularly liked it because it doesn’t show the full picture. Initially when you enter the world of the book it doesn’t seem that bad. You can tell that things are kind of messed up, but it’s sort of like “Oh well, you know. They’ve got happy drugs and orgies and stuff so it’s not that bad.” But as the events of the book go on you realize that it’s terrible. That it’s this really messed up world. It’s unlike 1984 and a lot of dystopian things where right away it’s grey concrete, everything is terrible, everything is totalitarian government, and everything is being burned down and it’s the apocalypse. I prefer the narrative where it takes you a while to realize it’s a dystopia.

Cordycepts Logos

The seven logos of Cordycepts. Each is associated with the company’s various biotech products.

So, inspired by that kind of storyline I created Cordycepts as a biotech company that comes into being in 2035 and is officially incorporated five years later. It’s a biotech company whose mission is to ‘repair the world’. They want to fix what humans have done to nature, the destruction humans have wrought upon the natural world. And also to improve human life to make humans better residents of planet Earth and make them better at interacting with Earth.

But much like Brave New World, at first you’re like “Oh, they’re repairing pollution and helping people with health issues and stuff.” Then you look into it and realize that it’s actually super creepy and they are this totalitarian corporate entity. So I also created Cordycepts very much inspired by today’s creepiness of the corporate world. Of how capitalism makes companies into people and gives them the rights of people and allows them to do these creepy-terrible under-the-radar things.


A cross-section of a Coapet Organic Replicator

I created Cordycepts and Cordycepts creates these products. The first product they release is called the Coapet Organic Replicator. It looks like a giant caterpillar. The biggest one is about six feet long; this big gelatinous-looking caterpillar creature. It lives in your house and you feed it these little genetic-code pills and it creates and births food for you. That was inspired by Star Trek and a lot of sci-fi storylines that have some sort of food replicating device. But they’re all very technologically clean. They’re machines. The food sort of magically appears and you don’t have to think about where it comes from. It was also inspired by concerns with where your food comes from in today’s world. People, who can afford to be, are very concerned with where their food comes from and ‘organic’ and ‘local’. But that’s also very much a class issue. I wanted to play with both the idea of factory-farming and people trying to get away from that, and the idea of this product that was created to make food-sourcing better, while at the same time only being accessible to very rich people.

These people who can afford the Coapet, they know exactly where their food is coming from. It’s coming out of this weird organic replicating device. But only well-off people can afford it. From there, the second product is meant for people who cannot afford a Coapet. It’s called the Cy-Ex Taste System. It’s basically a replacement tongue. It’s a creature based off a parasite that actually exists. It’s this little isopod that replaces a fish’s tongue and lives as its tongue and parasitically eats the fish’s food and has its isopod babies in there. (It’s disgusting and amazing.) So this Cy-ex Taste System is based on that general creature. It is a genetically modified living creature that replaces your tongue and when you go to eat a piece of food, you put a little bit in your mouth and let the Cy-ex Taste System analyze it before you eat.


Anatomical diagram of the Cy-Ex Taste System fully integrated into the hosts circulatory and nervous system.

Display case of Coapet artefacts from "Rise and Fall of Cordycepts"

Coapet Organic Replicator display at OCAD Grad Ex. Top shelf: Dissected Coapet. Middle Shelf: My first Coapet, Coapet food birthing sacs. Bottom Shelf: Juvenile Coapet. All artefacts were handmade by Jessica.

So in the happy-corporate-mission-speak of Cordycepts, the Cy-ex Taste System will prevent you from ingesting food that is ‘unsafe’. With the existence of the Coapet, food that’s available in stores is even sketchier. Food regulations have totally gone to crap because all of the rich people can get their food from this device. (And you know rich people make the rules in the capitalist world.) The regulations just fall apart. You have no idea where the food came from or how it was made. So the Cy-ex Taste System tells you if food is safe to eat. But the catch is that it mostly only accepts Cordycepts branded food. Cordycepts has these factories that are full of their own mass producing Coapets that produce their food. And they have food from their labs that is ‘safe’.

The Cy-ex is very well supported by health insurance to encourage people to get it. But once you get it you have to buy Cordycepts branded food which is not as expensive as a Coapet but still takes a lot of money to buy. It’s a vicious cycle that is commenting on food availability in today’s world. I’m specifically looking at North America because that’s the context in which I work and live. But the idea of food deserts and people telling you to eat healthy when you can’t get healthy food because there’s literally not a grocery store within miles of you. It’s looking at issues like that through the lens of creepy tongue creatures.

Those are the two main products. Five years after the company officially starts, they develop this code called Virinatum. An organic version of ‘binary’ that they can just release into the ecosystem and it repairs the pollution. They start off in the oil sands of Alberta for their testing grounds. By 2040 the oil has been exhausted and the land is just destroyed. They release Virinatum into the ecosystem and it starts repairing all the damage. It presses the rewind button and reverts the land back. But the ‘nature’ that it ends up creating is too perfect. It’s like a theme-park version of itself.  They put this code into more and more ecosystems. By the time the company falls in 2065, they have put this code into all of the ecosystems and turned the world into a sort of theme park version of itself. They destroy the world by making it ‘too perfect’.


Promotional material for Virinatum.

Cordycepts collapses because people start figuring out what is going on.

Cordycepts 20th Aniversary Annual Report. The book was written, illustrated, and bound by Jessica Bromley Bartram.

The Charismatic founder of the company was based very much on Apple and Steve Jobs. You don’t initially realize how creepy the company is because the charismatic founder is all, “We’re making the world great!” The charismatic founder dies in 2060 and then scientists from the lab start defecting and a Wikileaks-like event happens. People start realizing what Cordycepts have been doing to humanity and the world. In the course of five years the company collapses.

The actual Cordycepts exhibit is being put on in 2074 about nine or ten years after the company falls. People like artists and defected scientists and people who were involved in Cordycepts and were instrumental in its collapse. These people all work together to put together an exhibit about the Cordycepts era which is why it’s called “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts” . They put this exhibit together with collected artifacts and writings from the Cordycepts era to try to reconcile themselves with what happened and to find a way to work in this changed world.

The Rise and Fall of Cordycepts

Jessica’s “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts” Exhibit at the 2015 OCAD Grad Ex is an exhibit from a future after Cordycepts.


The whole project is a bit science-heavy. How did you go about doing the research for this?

It was an interesting process. It was during a class. We had points where we had to talk to our classmates about the research we’d been doing and we had to cite things (for the most part make bibliographies). But it was an interesting process because it was all over the place.


Cordycepts Thought Box Organic Memory Storage System integrates into the nervous system of its host user

The Coapet Project is based on a project I did in third-year. It was for a class called Open Studio; a class about critical design and using design to think about the world in different ways. It was not a typical design class. I came up with this product which was a precursor to the Cordycepts products. It was a fungus that would clear your memories out, keep your brain clean. It was the same kind of criticality as the stuff I ended up making for “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts”.

The original name of the company came from the Cordyceps fungus. A lot of my ideas came from things I saw. Like watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, the Jungles episode with the whole bit about the Cordyceps fungus, and so I had that in my head. Well not literally in my head, because that would be bad. But I knew about that fungus and when I was thinking about a product that would critically look at something about human society I thought “Ooh, Cordyceps, that would be interesting about memory”. And I was listening to a Radiolab episode about memory and forgetting and it all just came together.

The research process for “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts” sort of worked the same way. I started researching parasites to expand the project. The Coapet is based on the relationship between caterpillars and parasitic wasps. They lay their eggs inside of caterpillars and the caterpillars don’t die. They’re living incubators for these wasp babies. But some wasps insert a genetic code along with the egg that controls the caterpillar and once the babies birth from their bodies and go into their cocoon, the caterpillar protects the cocoon. It literally stays there with the babies that are finishing their development in the cocoon and it [the caterpillar] protects the cocoon until it starts to die. Nature is amazing and horrible. There were a lot of things where I did research on parasites then came up with the products.

The Coapet Organic Replicator

Coapet Organic Replicator spread from the “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts” exhibit catalog.

Because it was an art project I didn’t do really intense research about genetics. That wasn’t necessary. I did enough reading to know RNA and DNA and the differences between basic genetic things. I didn’t need to know exactly how the code works, but it was really neat and I did a lot of jumping around. I’d read some stuff from books and watch some things and find stuff on Tumblr. (A lot of great museums post really great stuff on Tumblr.) It was a very jumbly process of bringing all these disparate inspirations together. And a lot of: getting something to a certain point and being like “Ooh, I need to look at this topic,” and going off and finding stuff about it. It was pretty internet-heavy research because it wasn’t real. It wasn’t like I needed the most reputable sources. I did use some science journals, but I did get some stuff off Wikipedia and Tumblr.

Tune in tomorrow for the second part of this interview where we delve into how science and natural history has inspired Jessica’s work along with her future plans for “Rise and Fall of Cordycepts”.

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