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In Conversation: Astro Tofu by Yinglun Mao

AstroTofu, by Yinglun Mao, is a design fiction project investigating a new notion of futurism, the 'Soilfuturism', through the lens of space exploration.

In recent years, there is much talk about space travel centered on rocket plans of billionaire tycoons, while the imagination of future cosmic exploration seems now to be driven only by capital and has become so monotonous.

AstroTofu aims to challenge this neocolonial notion by reclaiming and amplifying the Chinese philosophy, "the unity of the cosmos and humanity", addressed in Confucianism, Taoism, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with a unique narrative of space exploration.

Concept Video, 2022

Q: Could you tell us more about the notion of "Soilfuturism" that you came up with?

Yinglun: Influenced by Afrofuturists like Sun Ra who build Afrocentric futures based on the history and culture of Africa, I attempted to put forward a “futurism” from the Chinese philosophy. The name, “Soilfuturism”, is to separate it from the existing concept of “Sinofuturism” by Lawrence Lek which emphasizes the influence of accelerationism within Chinese technology development, and yet, it still only offers a western perspective.

In Chinese, the word "rural (乡土)" is written as "From the soil", reflecting the gratitude for the land rooted in our Chinese culture. My research interest in “Soilfuturism” start from the thriving “rural inventors” on Chinese social media, who reveal the strong creativity of Chinese ordinaries using rural techniques to build our everyday products. They show the possibility of an imaginary realm that emerges from the grassroots level, in which, technology, instead of being a tool to make profits or to exploit, interacts organically with everyday life and becomes a medium between people and the land.

And in the realm of space exploration, "Soilfuturism" is the unification of the cosmos and the moral through Chinese grassroots technical activities, in which humanity remains in a humble position in awe of the cosmos.

Q: Why did you choose Tofu as a medium?

Yinglun: Food is culture. Travelers in space will inevitably be nostalgic for the flavours of their homeland on earth. Tofu, as a common type of food that originated in the rural area of China, has become an integral part of the agricultural culture and even its consumption has turned into a virtue.

In this project, as soybeans have been grown as an experimental crop in orbit, for its sustainable and easy-making process, AstroTofu seeks to make a connection between cosmic exploration and earthly memories through tofu making.

Space 'Mill' & Soybean Growing System, 2022

Q: Could you tell us how this project challenges the notion of neo-colonialism?

Yinglun: The neo-colonialism vision of the future is mainly based on the current understanding of Modernity which is built on the exclusion of “primitive others” and the “Great Divide” between Nature and Culture, on the contrary, the “Soilfuturism” developed from the Chinese cosmology, embraces the unification of humanity, technology, and the cosmos.

In this project, different from many other fictional works in which belief systems have been ignored in outer space, I created a “space shrine” derived from the Chinese worship tradition, with it I aim to remind people of the humility and respect humanity shall have for the cosmos, challenge stereotypes by integrating Chinese cultures into fantasies of future space exploration.

Space Shrine, 2022


About Yinglun Mao

Born and raised in Beijing, Yinglun Mao is a designer and researcher currently based in London. He constantly works at the intersection of art, design, and technology, creating tangible objects as the medium of speculation, discursion, and provocation for social and technical changes. With an education background in industrial design, he also designs products and visuals.


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