Ivanova / Autotrophic Economy

Autotrophic Economy An example economy echoed by the sun

Author: Pepa Ivanova, KU Leuven

Supervisor: Esther Venrooij, KU Leuven; Stefaan Poedts, KU Leuven

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Artefact

When we were little, we played grown-ups and shop mud with money - leaves of shrubs and trees, as if we realized their true value. (P.I.)
Money grows on trees. (folk wisdom)


This project relates to larger research on picturing the earth's light and the autopoietic of observational data of the sun juxtaposed with observations of the earth. Those comparisons lie at the core of my Ph.D. “An echo of the Sun” at KU Leuven/LUCA, School of Arts, Ghent. While working on the data archives and tools for mapping the light on the earth, I acknowledge how techno-centric my data sources are. The project maps how light emittance and distribution affect the earth’s ecosystems using a summarized model of all the light data on the earth.

The project I submit for CA2RE+Ljubljana instead of linking astrophysics to biology through light factors rethinks the economy in the living ecosystems. One of the first steps of the “Autotrophic Economy” was to establish the

“Bank of Plants', which was presented in a group bio-art exhibition in Sofia, Bulgaria in March 2021. Here is an excerpt of the bank description and policy:

The Sun is the ultimate currency. Bank of Plants is the furthermost central bank on Earth because its capital consists of the worldwide available resources. Plants are the primal energy producers capable of transforming nonorganic matters into sugars: sunlight, air, water, and minerals are transformed through photosynthesis in organic matter. The anthropocene is entirely fed and dependent on plants and bacteria. Dr Natasha Myers called this intertwined coexistence between plants and humans, a Planthroposcene.
Currently, The Bank promotes planthropocentric policy.
“Picturing Earth's Light” at Scopitone festival, Nantes, September 2021

Figure 1: “Picturing Earth's Light” at Scopitone festival, Nantes, September 2021

For example, plants benefit from humans' excess production of CO₂ and humans exist thanks to plants byproduct production of oxygen. Plants are the major food source, a fundamental ingredient in pharmaceuticals, care, and beauty products. They produce biomass to fuel ecosystems and human industries. The stability of the world’s economy thrives on the plants’ flourishing and dispersion.

In self-organized ecosystems, we care for, enrich and recover all elements involved in order to support a stable economy, not based on excess production and growth but on energy flow and sustainability.

Autotrophic Economy speculative draft

This project is a sort of speculative documentary about the largest and most important energy producers on the planet — the autotrophs. Unlike many other energy sources, autotrophs are essential for planetary processeses and ecological survival. Those living organisms are primary producers of organic matter and oxygen and are the most numerous living organisms on the earth. They feed the heterotrophic organisms who on other hand can’t absorb food from inorganic substances and rely on devouring others. Human survival is largely dependent on autotrophic organic energy producers.


Solar light feeds the earth, where a huge number of tiny creatures shape symbiotic ecosystems to produce organic matter. They see with proteins and grow in different shapes, sizes, and colours, reflecting light as they appear to other beings in many hues and shades. Those creatures are so numerous, that they can be found everywhere. They float in the water, rise from the soil, climb the rocks, and rest in our lunch boxes.

Light as currency

The light exchange happens in a subconscious territory, where everyone dances. It is a living place where biochemical processes facilitate the feast. In fact, it's a party of autotrophic beings intertwined and stretched towards the nourishing light or circling around the thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. The most healthy economy of autotrophs on earth contains the most diverse populations than those with homogeneous populations. The danger in the collapse of this economy are factors like the earth's climate, geological processes, and human activities.

The ultimate currency of the autotroph economy is the sun’s continues energy flux. Therefore this light currency fluctuate depending on the earths climate, albedo, anthropocentric activities and energy production and distribution.

Bank of Plants, installation view during Occurrences of Abundance bio-art exhibition at Sofia Arsenal-Museum of contemporary Art (SAMCA), Sofia 4-28 March, 2021

Figure 2: Bank of Plants, installation view during Occurrences of Abundance bio-art exhibition at Sofia Arsenal-Museum of contemporary Art (SAMCA), Sofia 4-28 March, 2021

Objectives in the process

Several objectives aim to translate this economic result in the process.

  • A speculative text on the autotrophic economy as an example for human-driven economies and how to learn from other superior ecosystems about the importance of diversity in our survival.
  • An installation with a video essay, dimensional objects in various materials, growing plants, light and sound
Authotropic economy at

Figure 3: Authotropic economy at "Tools for Things and Ideas" exhibition organized by Jerry Galle and Elias Heuninck iMAL – Center for digital culture and technology, Jan/Feb 2022 image@Paulius Sliaupa

Feedback and during CA2RE+, Ljubljana

The aim of my presentation during the conference was to receive a critique on the subject and test its value in the current urgencies. How do fellow researchers and proprofessionals consider the general concept and proposed objectives? It was a great experience because my peers and audience were very generous in the comments. Most agree that the presentation of such a speculative narrative must be of performative character, where the audience must be involved as well since the autotrophic economy presents equal importance to all the agents involved. In that sense — how to shape knowledge with inclusivity? And how to choreograph future presentations and stages of the project?

Being precise and more personal echoed in feedback as well. I personally aimed for a humble status, as an agent in this economy and not an inventor. To construct a precise structure of the economy might be crucial for understanding and translating the concept. Maybe as an artist, I don't share the same pressure of full responsibility and control embodied in the architectural realm.

An interesting point during the discussion was how I communicate with plants and how plants talk to me? What interface do we use to communicate? How do plants pay me for my service of presenting their bank and economy? Artist Marcus Coates was mentioned as an example of how to present an interspecies interface, in his case, with animals. I feel my project is closer to Slovenian artist Špela Petrič, who is an adviser and trustee in developing of this economy, and Sasa Spacial and her work on fungi and interspiecies relations. Philosophers Natasha Mayers and Donna Haraway, and sci-fi writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin witht heir work in interdependence and the importance of interspiecies understanding in ecological survival..

Thank you for the caring and the generous feedback and the trust.


Mayers, N, “on Growing the Plantroposcene, For the Wild online publication, October 2020 Dr. NATASHA MYERS on Growing the Planthroposcene — FOR THE WILD

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble. Duke University Press.

Butler, O. E (1989). Xenogenesis trilogy, Grand Central Publishing, USA