SOLANUS responds to a call to recontextualize Richmond, Virginia's historic Tobacco Row district—once the epicenter of nearly 60% of all tobacco manufacturing worldwide, and home to popular cigarette brands such as Marlboro and Lucky Strike. This once booming industry began to fade in the 1950s amid rising health concerns, and today tobacco's historic influence is kept hidden inside abandoned factories or obfuscated by sleek adaptive reuse apartments.
SOLANUS picks up the story of tobacco where Richmond left off, charting the plant's subsequent uptake by the newly budding biotech industry as an important model organism for genetics research. Boasting the title of first genetically modified plant (1982), tobacco plants are now used to produce a variety of pharmaceutical proteins, including a number of important vaccines and therapeutics. Using a technique called molecular farming, genes which code for a particular therapeutic protein are introduced to tobacco cells' genetic machinery, allowing the tobacco plant to produce important pharmaceuticals such as insulin directly in its tissues. These tissues can then be processed and extracted in order to deliver therapeutic proteins to people in need. As of 2018, tobacco-farmed pharmaceuticals include an anthrax vaccine, a malaria vaccine, various HIV antibodies, and ZMapp, the vaccine predominantly used to treat Ebola patients during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. In contrast to traditional egg-grown vaccines, which require costly cold-chain storage and transport, molecularly farmed vaccines can be stably stored in seeds and regenerated through successive cultivation.
SOLANUS takes advantage of this technological innovation, reintroducing tobacco to Richmond, but this time as a catalyst for a 21st century model of community health. In firm opposition of the profit-driven, exploitative nature of the modern pharmaceutical industry and the corrupt corporatocracy of companies like Monsanto, SOLANUS serves as a model for a cooperative, open-source biotech industry that prioritizes healthcare autonomy through both local and global health initiatives. Centered around a plant-based pharmaceutical production facility (equipped with a multi-story vertical farming operation), SOLANUS offers a variety of community resources including a clinic, library, public laboratories, and classrooms. Remaining cognizant of the skeptical public attitude and controversial nature of GMOs, SOLANUS abandons reactionary and often privileged romanticisms evangelizing strict "organic" or "all-natural" lifestyles, as well as alternative, corporate-driven narratives framing GMOs as an all-out utopian techno-fix. In the face of climate change, mass refugee migration, and global epidemic, SOLANUS asserts GMOs as a single but vital supplement to our already existing health and agricultural practices. Through its classrooms and public laboratories SOLANUS offers community classes in introductory biotechnology, genetics, and physiology; as well as classes in cooking, nutrition, gardening, and herbalism. The project's long-term goal is to cultivate the knowledge and collective culture required to foster a well-rounded community health practice that safely and critically incorporates genetically-engineered options.
Operating as both critique and strategic initial aggregator, the facilities are built on top of an existing CVS in Tobacco Row. The facilities consciously extend the monotonous rows of pharmaceutical supplements outward, upward, and into the soil. As part of SOLANUS' mission to serve as a 21st century model of holistic community health, the grounds of the facilities are devoted to demonstration fields exhibiting the mindful integration of genetically-engineered crops into existing local agricultural practices. Using USDA standards for genetically modified test plots, a collection of landscape strategies were developed and deployed to allow both food and vaccine crops to be safely grown within the same agricultural plot, including a semiotics of border plantings to convey the critical status of vaccine crops specifically. As further seed lines are developed and shared globally, this language of borders is meant to proliferate into a global network of cultural dialects, depending on the climate and geographic location of the communities in question. Through seed-based pharmaceutical innovation, SOLANUS works to engage with local farmers and caretakers worldwide, enabling communities to take control of their own preventative health by empowering them with the means of regeneration.