Karma Wine

Karma Wine, 2012 | Interactive Installation

*This work were developed during a residency at KHOJ, New Delhi, India. In Context: Public. Art. Ecology – Food Edition I.


Background :

Science Vs Religion Vs Art : Send in the Clones 

There is always friction between art, science and religion. Scientists construct theories and then try and prove them to determine some kind of “absolute truth” but understanding the world on a purely scientific basis is perhaps the least interesting way of experiencing it. Even the “absolute” scientific proofs are often disproved and discredited later when times change and new technological “advances” are made. Religious leaders need to control the behaviour of their followers to ensure that the system of beliefs which supports that religion are strictly followed otherwise the whole construct would fall apart. Sustaining a religion is often very much about control. Artists can be more free to explore difficult concepts as they are not always bound by the need for absolute scientific proof or the need to follow the strictures of religious belief. They can simply experiment and create with their imaginations around any given situation and change their perspectives and those of others at will. It can be a much more dynamic approach.

An example of this is cloning. In the scientific world cloning is a straight forward biological process with often little ethical concern, in some religions (but not all) it is seen as man taking over the role of the divine in re-producing life. This installation is partly playing with the idea of cloning and the role of idols in religious ceremony. In the Hindu religion the gods and goddesses can each take many forms as a matter of course. The idol in the installation is a “clone” of the artist himself and in return for the correct “Prasaad” given as the spoken words of his name he will “come alive” and dispense some of the sacred ethanol (a product of scientific cloning) which he has made himself. It is up to you whether you drink it or not.


A “Prasaad” or “Offering” is intentionally given by the worshipper to the god / guru / leader and in exchange the worshipper fulfils their spiritual needs. In another way it’s like an investment for a good present time and after-life. In this installation, in return for a particular prasaad given by the worshipper to the guru, the worshipper will get a particular alcoholic beverage from the guru in exchange at a scheduled time.

Sustainability, How Much is Enough? 

When we talk about sustainability, we cannot avoid the factor of our mass consuming behaviour. To be fair, the question about sustainability is the same as it has always been: “know what we consume and consume enough”. For this installation the person who gives a prasaad has to consider the fairness of trading, by not consuming more than what they give. For example: One person gave away 1 Litre of Tamarind Juice, by doing so, he allowed to get 1 Litre of tamarind wine to be produced. So, in this case they have to control their consuming behaviour. An imbalance between the given and the taken is a sin.


Image by artist, represents “BALANCE” 

The Daughters of Fermentation

Fermentation is an energy producing process by microbes splitting sugar molecules in an anaerobic atmosphere – an atmosphere where no Oxygen (O2) is present. In this process, the microbes are Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (yeast). It Saccharomyces Cerevisiae converts Sugar into alcohol (Ethanol) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). CO2 gas is released in to the atmosphere, while the alcohol (Ethanol) remains in the container where the fermentation took place (Fermentor).

Something went wrong with one of the ancestors of the wine yeast – Saccharomyces Cerevisiae – some 80 million years ago. While dividing into two daughter cells, one of them received two copies of the genome while the other had none. The empty-handed cell did not survive. The surviving cell underwent a whole series of genetic changes, including a rewrite of its control circuitry. The yeast that became the present day wine yeast gained the abilities to make alcohol and shut down oxygen consuming respiration even when oxygen is plentiful. This metabolic change could have been detrimental to the mutated yeast, because the yeast could only use a small portion of the energy in sugar, but the mutation turned out to be crucial in its competition for resources with other jostling microbes. Alcohol is toxic and it killed the other competing microbial cells, so the new yeast cells won their monopoly over the available resources and space.

If we consider this thought to support the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest (which is considered against the laws of some religions) then it helps prove that the theory is correct. On the other hand if we believe that the divine created us all then the question is: why did the divine created these microbes, that changes sugar into alcohol?

Good Alcohol, Bad Alcohol. 

Many people die by fermenting and consuming the wrong type of alcohol – many investigations concluded that the consumed material contains methanol. Methanol is poisonous to people. How can methanol be produced by the fruit fermentation process? Is it really possible? Well, the answer is no. But why is it present and why does it kill people? Well, there are many aspects.

1. There are many rules to prevent people consuming too much alcohol which lead them to the unconsciousness state of mind. One of them is the religion. Well, not all religions forbid it, some allow it. Sometimes the religion is not effective enough to do the task, therefore some governments create other rules, one of which is the ultimate law of todays life – economy. The larger part of the cost of most alcohol offered for sale is taxation. For some people, they will go along with it, as long as they can consume it. For the people who cannot afford to pay for their needs, they start think how to hack it. Some will stop drinking, some will try and continue to find a way to get it in a affordable way. One of the ways is by brewing their own alcohol. With not enough knowledge and technology this idea can lead them to punish themselves. In many cases, they mix methanol with any kind of flavour to make it drinkable.

2. Human sensory input (nose, eye, tongue, skin, ear, or even a sixth sense) cannot distinguish the difference between ethanol and methanol – even the scientist who specializes in this area cannot easily distinguish it. Therefore, it’s sad when we don’t know what we consume, and put our lives at risk from time to time by doing so. Again, this is because of the lack of knowledge and technology.

Driven to Drink or Drink Driving? 

Nowadays, human energy consumption is being discussed in every country, and people are starting to think how to manage the energy resources, and invent new technology that allows us to use another source, simply called : renewable energy. There are many practices being done, from nuclear (cheaply made but expensive waste management), solar cell, micro-hydro, hydrogen fuel cell, gasoline, bio-gas, bioethanol, etc.

Bio-ethanol in this case, is just another type of alcohol, and the way they produce it, is similar to how alcoholic beverages are produced. It needs sugar, sugar needs to be fermented, the fermented material needs to be distilled until it gets to 97% of alcohol. In my opinion, there is a competition between the human physical / body consumption, and human technology-supported consumption and both of them are vital for the economic life in our society. To be fair we need to decide which option we take : stop drinking alcohol, and drive a hybrid (bio-ethanol driven) auto vehicle, or drink alcohol but no more driving, moreover no drink and drive. Fair enough!



Critic Notes from Ryan Bromley :

Julian Abraham – “Karma Wine”, interactive sculpture

“The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect.”19 (Proust, 2006 ed.)

Proust’s reference to the irretrievable things of the past sets a suitable stage for Abraham’s project, as his artwork gives form to things forgotten through the use of anachronistic objects. There is a sense of nostalgia in Abraham’s work which is often expressed using modern tools; his apt pseudonym, “Kapitän Biopunk”, acknowledges this tension as modern science and digital technology are applied to illustrate a neo-steampunk storyline from a time long past. Abraham explains that, science’s approach to “determine some kind of ‘absolute truth’…is perhaps the least interesting way of experiencing [life]”; similarly, “sustaining a religion is very much about control”; artists “can simply experiment and create with their imaginations around any given situation and change their perspectives and those of others at will”. The result of Abraham’s ideas in practice is an artistic process which is strongly intuitive (though elusive to the observer) and possesses an uncanny ability to attract critical content which then becomes the conceptual building materials of his mosaic artworks, where the whole becomes “greater than the sum of the parts”.

Abraham’s project promotes proper practice in the preparation of home-made wines while also utilising wine as a currency of transaction. Fermentation has been a theme in Abraham’s previous work, including his collaborative Intelligent Bacteria project, where the artwork was explained as a protest against the harsh regulatory measures of his Indonesian government towards home-made alcohol while also offering instruction on the proper method to ferment wine. Initially, Abraham intended to pursue a similar concept in his KHOJ project but he quickly reshaped his work to address the idea of wine as a medium of transaction in a ritualistic, material society. The reason for this change of course was that, while people would undoubtedly benefit from home-brewing instructions, the concept faced significant practical obstacles in the current context; not least of which was a recent alcohol-related decapitation nearby the residency workshops.

Abraham’s interactive sculpture, Karma Wine, presents a mannequin which was sculpted to bare his own likeness – the exhibition space was adorned as a shrine in which Abraham’s statue was presented as a deity. Embellished with coloured LED lights in its afro hair, the statue was wired to respond to voice stimuli which, upon answering a series of questions from “worshipers”, would become animated. Once activated the deity would remove its own head, lower it in front of its chest, and spout home-brewed tamarind wine from its mouth into a chalice crafted out of the foot of the mannequin before returning its head to its shoulders. The wine had been brewed from locally purchased tamarind in the weeks prior to the exhibition. The use of the idea of Karma was meant to imply that, if worshipers were to bring offerings of tamarind juice to the BioPunk “guru”, adding their juice to the shrine’s existing wine (by doing so, more wine would be produced), then a balanced system would be created and wine would always be returned in exchange for offerings; however, if this cycle was broken then the guru would quickly exhaust its wine supply, leaving the worshipers empty handed (or footed, in this case). Abraham’s concept is a nod to the prevalence of rituals in modern urban life, with the innuendo that perhaps the essence of our rituals are forgotten in the demystified context of a consumer-driven material society, where the consumption of pleasure is the sole pursuit.

Abraham manages to incorporate a complexity of issues which are not easily unravelled – creating the sharpest artistic focal point of the works on display in the exhibition. While being highly condensed, Karma Wine is also “open canvas” in the sense that such artworks “invite the spectator to a potentially infinite plurality of interpretations, that they are open in their meaning, that they do not impose on the spectator any specific ideology, or theory, or faith.” Abraham also infused his project with environmental factors from his stay in the residency; for example, the removal of the idols head before spewing out wine was inspired by the alcohol-induced decapitation of the local villager, while it also makes reference to the Hindu god Ganesha, whose head was removed and replaced with that of an elephant. The act of cloning himself as a deity makes reference to the challenging ethical debate in science where the power to clone is likened to the power of god; at the same time, without the natural process of cloning the fermentation of wine would not be possible. Additional references could easily be drawn to Dionysus/Bacchus, the consumption of bodily excretions such as mother’s milk, or the cannibalism represented in the Cake Baby of Bobby Baker’s, An Edible Family in a Mobile Home. While minor technical glitches in the automation of the sculpture made the voice interactions unusable by any other worshiper than Abraham himself, this irony only added to the aesthetic eccentricity of the work.