Aquaponic Diorama

I don’t have a ‘green thumb’­. Keeping myself alive is challenging enough, let alone sustaining a bunch of plants. But I began to imagine that these two aspirations could become linked. What if I could support my own health with hyper-local, organically grown produce? Automation would save my plant friends suffering from my haphazard watering inclinations. Using simple, cheap, physical computing components (a soil moisture sensor, a microcontroller, and a pump), I built my first aquaponic system in my small Burlington apartment.

Amazing! but then… I had to move. Moving an active aquaponic system is not a trivial endeavor. Vermont winters are harsh, for one, so fish don‘t enjoy the relocation process. Furthermore, aquariums aren’t just filled with tap water: healthy tanks are diverse, symbiotic microcosms of bacteria, minerals, algae, and tiny helpful critters. To sustain my happy aquarium, I filled jar after jar with my precious, swampy water, and carried gallons of life, piecemeal, to their new home across town.

What if that eco-infrastructure had already been in place? Aquaponics, after all, are fundamentally the marriage of plumbing and electricity supporting life. New tenants have, in the 20th century, come to expect showers, ovens, refrigerators and toilets to come pre-installed in semipermanent urban housing. Increasingly, we see dishwashers in apartments, and laundry on-site. To imagine a sustainable food future: what if, in the 21st century, we came to expect aquaponic infrastructure in apartments? What if, instead of trucking kale across the country, we could call an eco-technician and hook up to the neighborhood aquaculture grid? Maybe we already share plant cuttings, kombucha mothers, or sourdough starters with our neighbors. We’re certainly sharing the lake and the trees and the air. What about our food system?

I’m not a city planner. I’m not an electrician, a plumber, a farmer, or a zoologist. But as an artist, I had this idea: I wanted to build a physicalization of my imaginary urban eco-topia. As a girl, I grew up playing with doll houses, and then simulation strategy games of cities and civilizations. As a design student, I learned the importance of iteration, of prototyping. Great ideas start small. So here is my aquaponic diorama: a small manifestation of an idea to shift towards a sustainable food future, starting with the tiniest of apartments.

So, over the winter of 2019-2020, I got to work prototyping. The idea was to build a self-sustaining ecosystem sculpture, with watering cycles automated by an Arduino connected to soil moisture sensors and an intermittent cycle liquid pump. I tested the conductivity ranges on the soil moisture sensors with varying substrates, water volumes, and drainage systems, and built tiny planter cups to hold the plants. Originally, I used marine/aquarium epoxy to attach the drainage tubes to the planters, but the seal didn’t hold up to the manipulation required to insert the cups into the diorama. I had to redo the seals with a more heavy-duty J-B Weld epoxy.

I played around with prototypes of the water flow and housing structures… and may have flooded my kitchen floor a few times.

I built a stand, and tiny houses to go on top. Because the entire sculpture had to be wheeled into a box truck, brought to the gallery, and moved into place, I decided to build the whole system on casters. Many thanks to the Generator maker space for the use of the laser cutter to create beautiful windows and flush walls for the tiny buildings.

The first thing to be installed at the gallery was the base and aquarium. I dosed the aquarium with beneficial bacteria, and ran the aquarium cycle for a week, using substrate and some water from my home aquarium to additionally give the starter ecosystem a bit of a boost.

Wiring up the whole system was a bit of a challenge, as it required housing all the electronics in a small, watertight box inside the ‘houses’, which consisted of three layers of boxes, and threading all the wires and tubing through small holes in the walls. At one point, a small pebble from the root system of one plant became lodged in the 1/4″ tubing, causing water to overflow the planter and soak the wooden structure. Many thanks to the BCA Gallery for their patience and paper towels through all this. I created small petri-dish specimens of some of my electronic components for the education team at the gallery, to share with curious students, and illustrated the process on the walls of the gallery by converting my sharpie doodles into vinyl-cut infographics.

The show opened at the end of February, a few days after the fish and plants joined their new home. The entire sculpture was illuminated with fairy lights and waterproof LED strips, and the pump ran on a cycle every 2-3 hours, depending on the moisture level in the plant substrate. An automatic vacation feeder was loaded every two weeks with food for the fish, and evaporated water was replaced on the same schedule.

But then….

Our show “Apocalypse Diet” was put to the test when Covid-19 closed the BCA Gallery a few weeks after the show opened. My Aquaponic Diorama was designed as a theoretical model of a self-sustaining communal apartment aquaponics system, but it became fully self-sustaining when the doors to the gallery closed even to staff. For four months, the Arduino kept running, pumping water from the fish tank to the plants based on the readout from a soil moisture sensor, and the water aeration system bubbled on. The plants continued to grow and their roots soon grew out of control, snaking down the irrigation tubes and filling the tiny pots to soak up all the nutrients they could. After I was told that in the interest of public health I would no longer be able to enter the building to re-load the fish feeder, the goldfish were all transferred home. However, one plecostomus (bottom feeder) eluded all efforts for recapture. They lived in the tank, eating algae and pooping fertilizer for the plants, until an unexpected heat wave in June. The tank had been heated to sustain it in the cold, but I hadn’t considered that the air conditioning would be turned off during a global pandemic so many months later. In memory of this brave fish soul, I’ve asked folks to consider doing some reading about small-scale aquaponics and indoor urban farming, or even try building your own aquaponic system at home. The goldfish and one pleco still live with me at my home in Colchester, where I’ve been working from home for 9 months now, since our offices at the University of Vermont closed in March due to the pandemic.

As I watched the snow fall from my new home office in March, I never imagined that I would be watching the snow fall again from my home office in November. I’ve been hiking a lot, and, before the new Governor’s orders, I’d been spending time outside with friends (even watching the national election on a projector in the backyard). My office setup has changed a few times; the fish have grown bigger; I buzzed off all my hair in August, and it has already regrown almost four inches. Time passes on, and I’m grateful for my plant-filled home, for food security, for my work (which keeps my mind occupied), for the beautiful landscapes of Vermont, and especially for my loved ones, including the several family members that I’ve lost this year, may they rest in peace.

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