Category Archives: anthropocene

An interview with Swaantje Güntzel, the artist who throws plastic trash back into our faces

According to the World Bank‘s latest estimates, the world generates (and often poorly manages) 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, 12 percent of it being plastic. A third of that plastic finds its way into fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

Plastic debris now aggregates in gigantic floating landfills in oceans and endangers wildlife. Turtles ingest plastic bags and balloons, tiny fragments carpet the sea bed while chemical additives used in plastics even ends up in birds’ eggs in High Arctic. We’ve all read about this kind of stories, just as we’ve heard about the small gestures we should adopt to curb plastic waste. Yet, the growth of the plastic tide looks unstoppable.


Swaantje Güntzel, Hotel Pool, Intervention, 2016. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Portrait. Photo by Scheibe & Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, an artist with a background in Anthropology, has long been investigating our conflicted relationship with waste. Her work forces us to confront the dramatic consequences that trash pollution is having all over the world, from our city streets to the wildlife living at the other end of the world. Using aesthetics, provocation and humour, she lays bare the interdependence between our daily consumer choices, tepid reactions to environmental urgencies and fragile ecosystems.

Her strategies to spur us into action are many. She exhibits porcelains, photos, embroideries and sculptures inside galleries of course. But she also goes into the streets and infuriates passersby with her public performances. Some of her interventions involve the conspicuous “relocation” in touristic areas and fjords of trash dumped by absent-minded citizens. Others see her placing underneath public park benches sound devices playing a series of sounds generated by humans underwater, the kind of noises we never talk about but that nevertheless deeply disturbs wildlife swimming and living in the North and Baltic Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.


Swaantje Güntzel, Offshore (detail), 2015, sound intervention, ARTweek Aabenraa, Denmark, Rosegarden


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Many of her works involve collaborations. Often with artist Jan Philip Scheibe but also with activists, researchers or even employees in a recycling plant. She lent some of her ideas and talent to environmental organizations such as Ocean Now in order to create campaigns that show her own face (and even, in the last iteration of the campaign, the faces of famous German public figures) covered in microplastics collected on beaches across the world. She also regularly collaborates with scientists in order to ground her artworks in robust facts or get help gathering plastic toys trapped inside the digestive system of sea birds. Last year, she even spent a couple of weeks on the huge scrapyard near Stuttgart to understand the whole process that keeps raw materials inside a closed recycling loop.


Ocean Now is currently using Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for its In Your Face project, part of their campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products”. Photo by Helen Schroeter


Swaantje Güntzel, MIKROPLASTIK II, 2016. Photo: Henriette Pogoda

I discovered her practice through the artworks series that explores the plastic invasion of our daily lives and oceans but our online discussions also brought us to discuss excavator choreographies on scrapyards and how to stay sane when the world around you is sinking under piles of garbage.

Swaantje Guntzel & Jan Philip Scheibe, PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki Performance, 17 March 2016, Thessaloniki, Greece

Hi Swaantje! I was very moved by PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki when I first read about it. It makes visible, in the most shocking way, how careless we are in our daily life when it comes to plastic trash, even when we are in the proximity of the sea or of a park. And even though we’re all aware of the problem by now. How did passersby react to your gestures of throwing plastic back into the urban environment? Did they get angry at you?

What you see in the video is not the whole truth because it was impossible to cover every reaction. In performance art you have to decide whether you focus on the performance or on the documentation because as soon as people see there’s someone filming or taking pictures around, they immediately think this is not serious and will refrain from intervening. We thus had to ask the filmmaker to stay away and try to be invisible as much as he could. Several moments in the performance were even stronger than the ones you can see in the video. For example, when we started the performance, after some 10 meters as I had just begun to throw out the garbage, a guy on a bike stopped and spat at me. His spit was all over my dress. He didn’t even ask what was going on. Further on, we had people yelling and shouting at us. The old woman in the video wasn’t just slapping me, she was hitting me hard. And she wasn’t the only one. There’s also this guy at the end of the video whom we later discovered was part of far right group The Golden Dawn. If it hadn’t been for the curator who was running behind and trying to explain what we were doing, I think he would have beaten us up.


Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Promenade, 2016, Thessaloniki. Photo by Giorgos Kogias


Collecting garbage at Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Did people get angry like this everywhere you presented the performance?

Yes, people react that way pretty much everywhere we go.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why people get so worked up. They don’t get angry when they see people dropping garbage or when they see trash in the street. They only get so worked up when they see somebody doing it in such a condensed and obvious way. I find it a bit hypocritical.

The funny thing is that I’m only relocating that garbage. We always start by picking up the trash we find laying around the city. In the case of Thessaloniki, we picked it up at a nearby archaeological site. The site is inside the pedestrian area. You can get a ticket, enter and visit the site. Yet, people who walk by still throw their wrappings onto the archaeological site.

In the first performance, I was relocating the actual garbage within the site, picking it up in one place and throwing it in another. After that, we took that garbage and moved it three blocks away, on the promenade. Only this time, we were throwing the garbage while riding some kind of bike for tourists.

I think that the outraged reaction has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t like to be confronted with garbage so blatantly. In a way, they know it’s theirs and it’s their responsibility. No matter where you are and who you ask, people seem to believe that garbage in public space is not their fault, that it’s the others who are to blame for its presence.

Public space is a collective space. We should all be responsible for it. Unfortunately, people just don’t want to take responsibility, neither in a personal sense nor in a collective sense. A performance in which we bring the garbage back to them is like a knock on their doors.

On a more abstract level, it has a lot to do with the walls we create around consumerism and in a broader sense around capitalism. When you start to talk about waste and plastic pollution, you have to question your way of life, the whole system of capitalism as well as us, humans. Of course, that’s probably not what is crossing these people’s mind immediately but I think it all comes together to create this strong reaction. And then on a more personal level, I think that a lot of people might be compensating for their daily lack of responsibility towards waste by acting in such a strong way and pretending they care. Because I throw garbage around in such an outrageous way, they suddenly take the role of the “clean up police”. It’s a bit like when you interview passersby on animal well-being, everyone will tell you that of course they’d be ready to pay a bit more if they were sure animals are treated better. The choices they make in their daily life, however, do not necessarily reflect what they say when they are interviewed in public. My work highlights this contradiction between what you do or say in public and what your private behaviour might be.


Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Do you think part of people’s anger can be explained by the fact that you look like a tourist on that touristic vehicle?

I don’t think so. I was acting in such an exaggerated way, throwing garbage around in broad daylight, in a popular area of the city and dressed in such an extravagant way. It was impossible to take me seriously. It was all staged to look like a performance or maybe an activist action to raise awareness around the waste problem.


Swaantje Güntzel, Portrait at Kaatsch. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Last year you collaborated with the German recycling company Schrott- und Metallhandel M. Kaatsch GmbH in Plochingen as part of the Art Festival DREHMOMENT of KulturRegion Stuttgart in order to follow the route taken by the recycled objects, looking in particular at “the physical and logistical effort required to keep raw materials in a closed cycle of recyclable materials.” I found it interesting that you seemed to have established some relationship with the people working in this recycling company. What role played the relationship you established with them? How long did you stay there by the way?

I produced the actual work in two weeks but the whole relationship started long before that, in January, when we had the first encounter. That’s when I was presented to the company and they had to decide whether or not they wanted to work with me. They were very afraid I would run around their company looking for problems in the way they work. On the one hand, their fear was understandable because so far I had only focused on the damages of consumerism and not on the solutions to it. It took them 3 months to think about it. And it took me a lunch and a lot of wine with the boss of the company to convince him to say yes to the collaboration. But the moment we started to work together, they were incredible. They opened every door for me, they let me do everything I had dreamt of.

The work with the excavator that you can see in the short movie was something I had dreamt of. I never thought they’d allowed me to do that because that would mean slowing down the work process, it would be complicated, require a lot of men power and they’d lose money. And yet, the moment I told them about my idea, they reacted very fast and made it happen.

During my research and over the course of these two weeks last summer when I tried to realise most of the works, I found it very easy to talk to everyone. Later in October, for the opening of the resulting show, I had a conversation with one of the people working there and I almost apologised for being this woman crawling everywhere on their working space, always in the way of the workers on this big scrapyard. But the worker said “No! Not at all! All the women who work here would never come on the scrapyard, they prefer to stay inside the offices but you looked so interested in our work, trying to understand, getting yourself dirty, etc. That was actually very flattering for us.” The people who are in charge of the place also understood the potential of this synergy between the artist and the company and how something completely new could emerge from it. I had warned them that I wanted total freedom, that they couldn’t interfere with the content (unless it was for technical reason) but we never had any situation of tension.

I saw the power of recycling our waste, of keeping the resources in this loop and not lose any of it. It’s the future. They always say that recycling is the 7th resource of the world. Recycling will become an essential resource. Without it, we’ll destroy the planet even sooner than expected.

For me it was a new experience. For once, everybody was so happy about my performances! Although in the end, I think that people getting angry and me being beaten up is part of the solution. It’s one of the puzzle pieces in trying to understand that we are on the wrong track.


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, 2018. Photo by Tobias Hübel

One of the works in the LOOPS series intrigued me. The triptych titled LOOPS / LH 150 E. Did the excavator create these marks?

Yes, you can see the process in the video.

My concept was that I wanted to visualise how much power is in the logistics and in the physical effort you need to keep resources in recycling loops. While doing my research on the scrapyard, I saw the company´s excavators picking up what seemed to be big bundles of steel wires that look like balls of wool but weight tons. The excavators grab these bundles and use them to move the trash from one side to the other. When they’ve finished the work, they use the bundles to clean the spot where they were working. When you see 3 or 4 of these excavators doing it at the same time, it looks like a ballet or a choreography. You can also sense the power. You feel the soil moving and shaking, the air getting very hot and the loud noise. It’s like you’re in a parallel world. I wanted to visualize these movements so I asked if i could drip these bundles into red paint, put the three steel plates on the ground and thus capture these moments.


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, setting the plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 2, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 1, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe


Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, finished plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

You hold a Masters Degree in Anthropology. How does that background inform and influence your artistic practice?

At the beginning, I didn’t think it would influence my practice. I was actually hiding that fact. When I started studying art, I was already older than the others and I was struggling to find my spot. Especially because I was working on ecological topics that no one really likes. In the first years, I had a hard time defining myself. After 5 or 7 years however, I started to realise that the way I look at the world, the way I work, the way I observe is so linked to my studies in Anthropology that I couldn’t deny this background anymore and that it played a huge part in my artistic practice.

Besides, I have this project series with my boyfriend Jan Philip Scheibe, who is also an artists, where we try and analyse with the instruments from contemporary art how the interaction between people and their surrounding landscape is still visible and how this defined their culture and understanding of nature. How these people trying to be nourished by the surrounding landscape have interacted with it over the course of the past several hundred years. These projects require a lot of research and I’m the one in charge of that before we actually start the work. My technique, my way of researching are linked to that understanding of the world as an anthropologist.

When I work on plastic pollution, I collaborate with many scientists, with marine biologists, with physicians, experts in acoustics, etc. Without this academic background, I would have hesitated a lot before before approaching them and asking them if they were open to collaborating with me.


Swaantje Güntzel, Stomach Contents, 2010. Photo: Swaantje Güntzel


Swaantje Güntzel, Box Set XL, 2018, plastics, wood, glass, 41,3 x 31,5 cm. Photo Tobias Hübel


Swaantje Güntzel, Cigarette lighter R, 2014. Photo by Anne Sundermann

How did you work with these other scientists? Do they play only a consulting role or a more active one?

It depends very much on the project. For example, I worked with marine biologist Dr. Cynthia Vanderlip on a series of projects in which she played an active role. She is the head of Kure Atoll Conservancy, a seabird sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the first scientists I approached in my artistic career because I needed items that had been swallowed by birds in the ocean. She works a lot with Laysan albatrosses that have ingested plastic objects and she agreed in 2009 to provide me with all the materials I needed. She collects the pieces found inside dead birds on that remote Atoll. Now she can’t go to the Atoll anymore but she still directs the team over there and asks them to keep on collecting the objects for me. She answers any question I might have. Her role is thus very active.

With other scientists, it’s more about getting answers to very specific questions.

Last year was the first time I dared to present my work in a scientific conference on microplastics. I had no idea if they would appreciate this kind of presentation or even if it made sense for them to see how artists are working on this topic. From the interested reactions I got after the presentation, it looks like it was the right thing to do.

You’ve worked on the topic of plastic pollution for many years now. How do you see the discussions evolving? It seems to me that on the one hand, awareness has been raised years ago. On the other hand, we’re not making much progress in controlling plastic waste, are we?

I started to work on that topic in a time when nobody really knew about plastic pollution or about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all in Germany. There were a few scientists in the States who had just named the problem but there was nothing in terms in public awareness. I was so naive at the time. I thought that if I started making the problem visible, an understanding would grow and that over time we would take action. However, I could see that time was passing and that my work kept being labelled in curatorial texts or critical reviews as “raising awareness”. Last year, I started wondering how long we’d need to “raise awareness” before we decide to actually do something. Five years ago or so, people who are in charge started to advise the public on how we could change habits, use as little plastic as possible or put pressure on politicians and on the industry to see changes emerge. But we’ve been stuck in this same movement for such a long time. By now, I think that each of us is aware of the problem and we all agree that plastic doesn’t belong in the environment. And yet, not much has changed.

At the opening of my exhibitions, people view me as a kind of priest and confess their plastic sins to me. They would tell me that they understand the importance of my work, that it’s essential that someone makes the effort but then they’d try and explain me why they can’t make an effort themselves: it takes too much time and too much energy, it’s the industry that should act, people at the other end of the world do worse anyway, etc. Classic whataboutism that doesn’t help us move forward.

It’s the same with climate change, we know we have to do something and yet we stand there. We prefer to blame others, keep our heads in the sand and prolong our way of life.


Swaantje Güntzel, Blowback II, 2015. Photo by HC Gabelgaard

What keeps you motivated and sane? because sometimes when I read how turtles choke on plastic, how microplastics ends up in the food chain and more generally how biodiversity is dying and the climate is warming up, i despair and want to forget about all that.

You have to look at my biography to answer that one. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time characterised by what some like to call “eco-pessimism”. As a kid, I was traumatised by what we were doing to this planet. I was a little girl asking adults “Now that you know what we did to the environment, why don’t you change your behaviour?” And I would always get an answer which meaning can be summed up in: “As adults we screwed it up. Now it’s on you to find a solution and save the world.” I was old enough to take their words seriously and I was depressed about the challenge I had to face: saving the world pretty much on my own.

Today’s young people feel the same but at least they have social media to connect and combine their energy and knowledge and turn it into something as powerful as the Fridays for Future movement. Back then however, it wasn’t the case and it’s only recently that I discovered that many people my age had experienced the same depression and sense of helplessness. We did what we could of course. For example, going from door to door asking people to sign petitions against seal slaughtering or collecting money for the local pet shelter. But we felt alone and under so much pressure. At some point, I decided I would leave aside those topics for a while. I went abroad and studied anthropology. Over time however, I realised that both the environmental issues and art were so deep inside of me that I couldn´t ignore it anymore. I decided that art could help me put up with the pressure and feel like I was doing something. It’s not on the level of activism where you have to dedicate your energy to a cause every day, you have to fight and you live with the constant frustration.
Art would allow me to do something but it wouldn’t consume me as much. It’s the only way I found to deal with this global insanity without completely losing it myself.

Thanks Swaantje!


Eric D. Clark, Music producer, DJ. A collaboration between Ocean Now and Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for the In Your Face project, part of Ocean Now campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products” Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp

Swaantje Güntzel has a few exhibitions coming up: she’ll be participating to the Deep Sea group show opening at Ystads Konstmuseum, Sweden, on 1 June 2019. This Summer her work is part of the touring exhibition Examples to follow! Expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability in Erfurt, Germany. She is also preparing, together with Jan Philip Scheibe the work Preserved/Grünkohl opening at DA Kloster Gravenhorst, Germany on 12 July 2019. And of course, her collaboration with Ocean Now is currently taking the streets of Berlin to inform passersby about the urgent need to ban microplastics in cosmetics and cleaning products.

Post Hoc, a litany of obsolete inventions and phenomena

Defunct television channels, destroyed artworks, missing aircraft, cancelled military projects, former nations, extinct birds, list of sinkholes, discontinued burial techniques, tornadoes, failed banks, discontinued fragrances, obsolete aeronautical machines, etc.

This year, the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale will feature lists of inventions, life forms, phenomena and “things” that no longer exist. The work traces a kind of “history of progress” through the history of obsolescence. Although the “things” listed are now lost to us, their existence still lingers in the present. We might not see them anymore but they’ve made this moment possible.


Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019, Digital Working Drawing


Dane Mitchell, ​Hiding in Plain Sight (​ detail), 2017. Installation view, Connells Bay Sculpture Park, Auckland

The lists will be broadcast throughout the city via a network of tree cell towers, the often derided communication towers that camouflage as nature. The fake trees are being installed in various historical sites across Venice: 3 will be located at the New Zealand pavilion as a sort of networked plantation, and 4 in other sites across Venice. Inhabitants and tourists will be able to hear a whispering of the lists as they walk by the synthetic trees.


Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019. Screen shot from production video filmed at SJ Cell Tower & Artificial Plant Company Limited, Guangzhou, China


Dane Mitchell during the installation of the work at Palazzina Canonica in Venice. Image facebook

The artist behind the project is Dane Mitchell, an artist interested in the physical properties of the intangible and visible manifestations of other dimensions.

“We all live in some sort of technological filter bubble,” Mitchell told me when i asked him what guided the selection of lists of defunct things. “The work pushes up hard against the edges of my own — it is undoubtedly an expression of the perimeters of knowledge I might have access to. The work embraces the fallibility of encyclopedic thinking — it is a (western) delusion to assume that we might be able to ‘hold’ the world in such a way, however, Post hoc is contradictorily an attempt to momentarily hold aloft these vanished things that sit under our present moment.

The lists are very much generated by, and authored by me. In this way they have a poetic logic…one list leads to another leads to another and onwards. I started with ten, and was apprehensive about the task of amassing this list — a list that reads for seven months, averaging 25,000 words a day — but through a meandering approach the lists grew. The filter bubble is also an expression of the types of material forces I’m interested in, be it in relation to science, belief, materiality, etc. The ‘bubble’ is certainly an expression of my own habits and predilections.”


Dane Mitchell, ​Hiding in Plain Sight (​ detail), 2017. Installation view, Connells Bay Sculpture Park, Auckland


Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019. Production still at SJ Cell Tower & Artificial Plant Company Limited, Guangzhou, China

This year, the New Zealand pavilion will be located inside the Palazzina Canonica, the former headquarters of the Marine Research Institute. The Giardini, the historical site of the biennale exhibition, has space for only 29 pavilions of foreign countries. New Zealand is not one of them. Like many other nations, it has to find a palazzo elsewhere to host its exhibition. Dane Mitchell, however, has devised a cunning way to sneak inside the Giardini of the Biennale. He installed one of the tree towers in the Parco delle Rimembranze, a nearby park covered in (natural) pines. Visitors touring the Giardini of the biennale will be able use their wifi-enabled device and grab the transmissions emitted from the neighbouring green space.

I admire the bravery and irony of creating a project that highlights disappearance in a city that’s slowly sinking into physical oblivion. Without even mentioning the art biennial, a format that’s often been labelled as ‘outmoded’.

Interestingly, the title of the exhibition is “Post hoc” which translates to “after this” in Latin, the most famous dead language of the Western world.


Dane Mitchell, Post hoc 2019. Production still

If you want to know more about the project, do check out Dane Mitchell’s discussion of it a few weeks ago at daadgalerie in Berlin:

Dane Mitchell, Övül Durmusoglu and Heman Chong panel discussion at daadgalerie in Berlin on 12 March 2019

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc is on view at Palazzina Canonica (and across the city), the New Zealand Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, from 11 May until 24 November 2019.

Plastic Capitalism. Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Plastic Capitalism. Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, by Amanda Boetzkes, Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Amazon USA and UK.

Publisher MIT Press writes: Ecological crisis has driven contemporary artists to engage with waste in its most non-biodegradable forms: plastics, e-waste, toxic waste, garbage hermetically sealed in landfills. In this provocative and original book, Amanda Boetzkes links the increasing visualization of waste in contemporary art to the rise of the global oil economy and the emergence of ecological thinking. Often, when art is analyzed in relation to the political, scientific, or ecological climate, it is considered merely illustrative. Boetzkes argues that art is constitutive of an ecological consciousness, not simply an extension of it. The visual culture of waste is central to the study of the ecological condition.


Edward Ruscha, Molten Polyester, 2005

Drawing on the writings of Georges Bataille, Timothy Morton, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Rancière and other thinkers of modernity, aesthetics, politics and ecology, Amanda Boetzkes investigates the use of waste in contemporary art. In her essay, the art historian challenges us not to reduce an artwork using waste to a critique of consumer culture or of modernism in general. It’s more complicated than that. If waste is so popular among artists today, she explains, it is because it reveals the value systems, beliefs and politics that shape our planetary condition.

Plastic Capitalism is both a book about contemporary art and an essay that exposes the blind spots between economy and ecology. Through her selection of artworks, the author dissects waste and reveals its many dimensions, dilemmas and contradictions. Waste is both valueless and a commodity. It is visible and invisible. It is a lowly legacy of global capitalism and a formidable force that hides complex industrial infrastructures, labor power and massive energy expenditures.

Alain Delorme, Murmurations: Ephemeral Plastic Sculptures, 2012-2014. Film by Quentin Labail

The final chapter offers a stimulating reflection on plastic. Plastic, Boetzkes explains, is the ultimate petroleum-based material, the agent that symbolizes humanity’s mastery of planet and its total impotence to alter the course of the Anthropocene, it is the icon of throw-away culture and of a durability that stretches into a future when there’s no one left to use it.

I won’t pretend that Plastic Capitalism is a light and easy book. I often found myself huffing and ploughing through the text. Yet, i soldiered on. The author’s readings of the work of well-known and less famous artists (Mal Chin, Agnes Varda, Critical Art Ensemble, Agnes Denes, Thomas Hirschhorn, etc.) opened up new perspectives on performances and installations i thought i knew. It also allowed me to see more clearly that the formidable power of waste extends far beyond its (much visualized and calculated) physical mass.

Some of the works i (re)discovered in Plastic Capitalism:


Critical Art Ensemble, A Temporary Monument to North America Energy Security, 2014


Critical Art Ensemble, A Temporary Monument to North America Energy Security, 2014

Antony Gormley, Waste Man, 2006


Francis Alÿs, The Seven Lives of Garbage, 1994. Photo via


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 24 July 1979 – 26 June 1980


Tejal Shah, Between the Waves – Landfill Dance, 2012

Swaantje Güntzel and Jan Philip Scheib, Spring Cleaning performance from the Plastisphere series, 2016


An Te Liu, White Dwarf, 2012 at the Musée d’art de Joliette


Tara Donovan, Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006-2015

Materialism, an exercise in dismantling consumer culture

Studio Drift creates elegant installations and interactive sculptures that explore the relationship between nature, human and technology. The creative duo currently has a solo show at the new, spectacular Amos Rex art museum in Helsinki. During my visit there, I was vexed to learn that everybody but me knew the work of Studio Drift.


Studio Drift, Light bulb, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Drifter, 2019. Photo: Stella Ojala for Amos Rex


Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism. Photo by Stella Ojala for Amos Rex

A huge block of concrete floating above visitors’ heads, a light sculpture made of dandelion seeds and LED-lights, etc. Studio Drift excels at experimenting with technology. Materialism, the work in the show that impressed me the most, was decidedly less technologically sophisticated but it nevertheless tells a powerful story about how little we know about the objects we surround ourselves with.

For this series, the designers took consumer goods such as a vacuum cleaner, a classic Nokia phone, a Volkswagen Beetle, a pencil, a PET bottle, a light bulb and a bicycle and literally reduced their complexity to the raw materials they are made of.

Still, Materialism is an affecting exercise in dismantling consumer culture, in leaving aside functions and in ennobling the resources we extract from the Earth at great human and environmental costs.

Studio Drift, Materialism


Studio Drift, Pencil, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Gazelle Bicycle 2005, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij

Each big or small object in their Materialism series becomes unrecognizable. A bicycle is converted to blocks of rubber, polyurethane, steel, aluminum, lacquer paint and other materials. A pencil becomes wood, graphite and a bit of paint. Sometimes the inside of objects is rather surprising. Who knew that a Volkswagen Beetle from the 1980s contained horsehair and cork, for example?

Studio Drift writes that “If humankind could somehow perceive this connection to materials, to our collective consumption and the earth it impoverishes, it would be a leap in our social evolution, in building an awareness that we must somehow become better stewards of our future.” I disagree with that confident statement. I think we’ve been warned time and time again that our reckless looting of the earth is becoming “unsustainable”. Newspapers, documentaries and scientists have spent the past few years telling the Western world that we need to consume less, that resources are not infinite, etc. And yet, we’re still here. Students are protesting in the streets and politicians pretend younger generations will get tired of asking for a future we’ve stolen from them.


Studio Drift, Nokia 3210, from the series Materialism. Installation view at Amos Rex


Studio Drift, Dandelight, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij


Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Materialism at Amos Rex. Photo by Stella Ojala

I’ll end with a few images of the Amos Rex art museum. Its programme of exhibitions that mixes the ultra contemporary with modern artists (right now they have a big show dedicated to René Magritte) is almost as impressive as its architecture. JKMM Architects excavated the ground beneath an ex-bus station, hid the museum down there and created skylights that bubble up through the surface of the ground as domes, turning the square into a playground for skaters and children. The space also has the usual museum shop and an exquisitely renovated Art Deco cinema called Bio Rex.


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex


Amos Rex, Bio Rex, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018


Amos Rex, Bio Rex (interior), Helsinki

Elemental, Studio Drift’s solo show, remains open at Amos Rex in Helsinki until 19 May 2019 alongside the first show in Finland dedicated to René Magritte.

Alma Heikkilä opens up our eyes to the invisible worlds we depend upon

We might not be as human as it seems. Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and other microscopic organisms that colonize both the inside and outside of our bodies and form the human microbiota.

Even though we are not conscious of it, this microbial material affects our mental and physical well-being in ways science has only just started exploring. The microorganisms facilitate digestion, regulate the immune system, protect us against disease and manufacture vitamins. We live in such inter-dependency with our microbiome that some talk about holobionts, making us an assemblage of a host plus the resident microbes that inhabit it.


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä, Warm and moist | decaying wood (detail.) Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

Artist Alma Heikkilä wants us to open up our eyes to a world without which our world wouldn’t exist. It’s not just about the microbiome. She finds these imperceptible worlds everywhere. Where we only see a decaying log of wood, she sees a hot spot for insects and fungi. Where we see dirt and soil under our feet, she senses a vast universe of creatures that communicate and keep the underground and the overground alive. We know we breathe oxygen in, she knows we inhale also other gases, airborne bacteria, fungi as well as all kinds of pollutants.

Heikkilä wants us to become more sensitive to all the micro-organisms we overlook, either because microbiological elements are difficult to experience with our sole human senses or because Western culture has made us too individualist to give much consideration to species other than our own. Beyond these microscopic creatures, her work also touches upon other subjects that lie beyond human sensory perception, not as a result of their tininess but because they out-size us. They are massively distributed in time and space and are what environmental philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects“. Global warming is the most famous of these hyperobjects. Just like microorganisms, they exceed our human apprehension but we can’t keep on ignoring the powerful interdependence between them and us.


Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world, 2017. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä, Primary sensory interface with the external world (detail), 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Heikkilä uses painting to address the necessity to acknowledge the importance of nonhuman life and our symbiotic relationship to it. The difference of scale between the ultra-small organisms and the hyperobjects she investigates is reflected in the composition of the paintings. The size of her works is overwhelming and forces you to take a step back but their visual details and material qualities draw you closer.

Her concern for these invisible forms of life is reflected in the critical examination of her own artistic practice. Heikkilä carefully assesses the impact the materials she wants to use might have on ecosystems, for example. She shuns planes and travels with ‘slow’ transportation only. She even bought 11 hectares of forest, not to use as a resource for her own work but to ensure that it continues being a habitat for biodiversity and acts as a carbon sink for any strain her activities has on ecosystems. Directly or indirectly. This might seem charming to many but her efforts put to shame all the artists, curators and reporters who explore the topic of the anthropocene with much gravitas but don’t think twice before taking a taxi or a plane instead of perfectly convenient public transport systems. It’s going to be interesting to see how working processes like hers will influence the way the art world operates.

The artist has just opened a show at Kiasma in Helsinki that defies anthropocentrism and gives visibility to the various processes of multispecies companionship. Each of her painting installation is like a microcosm of entities that coexist, combine and interact.

Another fascinating element of the exhibition is the way it challenges museum conventions. Heikkilä urged curator Satu Oksanen to consider opening up the usually carefully-controlled exhibition space to a natural element: light. Natural light now floods the space, coming from a sky light and a large window. Light is thus another participant to the show. Depending on the time of your visit in Kiasma, your eyes will have to adjust more or less to its intensity (artificial lights will be turned on if it ever gets too dark to experience the exhibition though.)


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma


Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin 2019. Installation view at Kiasma. Image courtesy the artist

Alma Heikkilä is the second recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin, a project that aims to provide international exposure for one selected Finnish artist. The project is funded by the Alfred Kordelin Foundation which supports the sciences, literature, the arts and public education in the country with grants and awards. Helsinki-based Maija Luutonen was the first recipient of the Kiasma Commission by Kordelin.

Through this commission, Heikkilä receives the support of the Kiasma staff, has been commissioned new works and has gained visibility but she also got a chance to collaborate with Elina Minn. The dramaturge will invite the public to join workshops that explore cellular consciousness inside Heikkilä’s show at Kiasma. Titled Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy, the one-hour sessions are ‘undoing’ practices that enable participants to focus on experiencing the world inside their body.


Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living (detail). Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery


Alma Heikkilä, soil ~ minerals mixing with the living. Photo: Petri Virtanen / Finnish National Gallery

I didn’t know the work of artist and activist Heikkilä before visiting her show in Helsinki. But i did know about Mustarinda, the collective of artists and researchers she co-founded a few years ago. The goal of Mustarinda is to combine scientific knowledge and experiential artistic activity in order to lay out a path towards a post-fossil culture. Check out their residency calls if you’re interested in their work and fancy spending time in an isolated house with a lovely garden at edge of the Paljakka Nature Reserve in Finland.

Alma Heikkilä. Kiasma Commission by Kordelin was curated by Satu Oksanen. The exhibition remains open at Kiasma in Helsinki until 28 July 2019.
Check out this page for information about Somanauts – Workshops for experiential anatomy with Elina Minn. /blockquote>

Superflex. We Are All in the Same Boat

SUPERFLEX. We Are All in the Same Boat, with texts by curator Jacob Fabricius, urban geographer Stephanie Wakefield, curator Gean Moreno, Professor of Latin American Studies George Yudice and science-fiction writer Mark von Schlegell. Published by Hatje Cantz.

On amazon USA and UK.

Summary of the book: The critically-acclaimed Danish artist group SUPERFLEX, founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger (b. 1968), Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (b. 1969), and Rasmus Nielsen (b. 1969), create humorous and playfully subversive installations and films that deal with financial crisis, corruption, migration, and the possible consequences of global warming. The artists describe their practice as the provision of “tools” that affect or influence social or economic contexts, and often root their projects in particular local situations, inviting the participation of viewers. Their work poses questions of political, economic, and environmental behavior and responsibility. This catalogue accompanies the group’s first major museum survey in the United States and highlights video, sculpture, and installation works relevant to the history, present, and future of cities like Miami, poised on the leading edge of pressing issues such as climate change and immigration.


SUPERFLEX, Flooded McDonald’s, 2008

I saw SUPERFLEX’s Flooded McDonald’s many years ago. The film is set inside the life-size replica of a deserted McDonald´s fastfood gradually flooding with water. At first, the idea sounded funny. But as water was rising so was the tension. The film heralded a time when nothing, perhaps not even the most brutal forms of capitalism, would be able to interrupt the effects of climate change.

It was 2008 and the film was not only premonitory, it was also pure SUPERFLEX. It weaved together darkness and the humour, pop culture and environmental anguish, capitalism and provocation, etc.

Over time, the artists have realized bold works that confront some of modern society’s most unsavoury aspects with free goods, free beers, resistance to social control, calls for solidarity and of course tools! They are one of the very few artists whose works you can encounter in fancy art museums, in agricultural areas, in ordinary commercial shops, in the street or in a Turkish restaurant.


SUPERFLEX, Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes, 2002

SUPERFLEX. We Are All in the Same Boat is the publication that accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College (MOAD) in Miami.

It’s not a catalogue. That would be too boring for SUPERFLEX. It’s a little volume that opens on pages and pages printed in blue and white. The kind of blue you associate with Miami. The kind of blue of the water you imagine will one day wipe Florida off the map if we continue to respond to environmental urgency with indifference and inefficient measures. The pages are printed with photo documentation of SUPERFLEX works. The essays don’t start before page 143. They are worth the wait.

Professor of Latin American Studies George Yudice pens a fascinating essay that places SUPERFLEX’s work in the context of the city of Miami. As you read his text (and the ones of the other contributors) you realize why Miami is the perfect setting for a SUPERFLEX exhibition. The city presents many of the problems that characterize our times: immigration, tax havens, inequality, gentrification, money laundering, climate change, narcotraffic, etc. Anything you can find in big cities seem to grow in an exacerbated, almost vexing, way under the Miami sun.

Urban geographer Stephanie Wakefield and curator Gean Moreno explore a contemporary art economy in which artworks are regarded as a commodity. They posit that the tools that SUPERFLEX proposes have the potential to open up new spaces of possibilities: they can be used as incitements, provocations, gift and instruments to fight against forms of enslavement.

Science-fiction writer Mark von Schlegell gives us a glimpse of one of the future versions of Miami. We’re in 2099, the main protagonist of his short-story lives on a houseboat in Miami, an independent entity cut from mainland USA by sea rise. Against all odds and floods, the city has managed to to reinvent itself and keep its hedonistic lifestyle. Adaptation to the new aquatic condition of the city are shrewd, ecological (if that’s still a concept in 2099) but, as undersea wedding chapels linked to human trafficking demonstrate, the new version of Miami has lost nothing of its dark edge.

If you love SUPERFLEX’s work as much as i do and you’re curious about life on a planet that’s lost most of its coastline but none of its resourcefulness then you might enjoy this little publication.

Here’s a a handful of works from SUPERFLEX:


SUPERFLEX, Hospital Equipment, 2014. Photo: Mr. Ali Shahin

Hospital Equipment is a piece of “readymade upside-down.” The artist sourced and delivered operating theatre equipment to hospitals in conflict areas. The surgical equipment is first displayed as installation in a gallery. When the exhibition ends, the equipment is shipped directly to a selected hospital in a conflict zone to be used as potentially lifesaving medical instrument by doctors and nurses, rather than works of art to be contemplated. The photographic documentation of the installation remains with the collector who purchased the work. The first equipment was sent to a hospital in Gaza. The second one to a hospital in the western Syrian city of Salamiyah.


SUPERFLEX, Experience climate change as a Cockroach, Copenhagen, 2009. Graphic design by Rasmus Koch Studio

As part of the official cultural program in connection with the UN Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen 2009, SUPERFLEX offered a group session in which participants were hypnotized in order to perceive the climate change as cockroach. Five more sessions were planned to happen on different locations concerning different animals.


SUPERFLEX, The Fermentation Act, 2016. Photo: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa


SUPERFLEX, The Fermentation Act, 2016. Photo: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

Water is drawn from the air in the exhibition space, collected and heated with tea. The tea is then fermented with sugar the kombucha fungus. After the fermentation process, the liquid is poured into glass jars and stored on shelves. Depending on the type of tea used, the colours and flavours vary and create a museum of colourful teas produced from human body perspiration.


SUPERFLEX, Free Shop (Family Mart, Tokyo), 2003

Free Shop takes place in an ordinary shop, anything purchased in the shop by any given customer, on the days of the performance, is free of charge. Shoppers are not made aware of the “promotion” until they arrive at the till. Free Shop has been held in Germany, Japan, Poland, Denmark and Norway.


SUPERFLEX, Today we do not use the word ‘Dollars’, 2009

A contract was established between the artists and an Auckland based branch of the ANZ bank that required any staff member to pay one dollar to their staff social fund every time she or he used the word “dollar”. The contract, signed by the bank manager and SUPERFLEX, was printed, framed and displayed in the staff room for the duration of the day.


SUPERFLEX, Kwassa Kwassa (Still image from the film), 2015


SUPERFLEX, Power Toilets / UN (A copy of the toilets from the United Nations Security Council headquarters, New York installed in Park van Luna, Heerhugowaard for public use), 2010. Photo: Superflex


SUPERFLEX, We Are All In The Same Boat, 2018

The book is co-published by the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College (MOAD) which is running SUPERFLEX: We Are All in the Same Boat, a survey of the artists’ work that you can visit until 21 April 2019 if you’re lucky enough to be in the neighbourhood.

Climate Surprise, a temperature-sensitive exhibition

If ever you happen to be in or near the city of Mechelen in Belgium this Spring (Spring starting in February courtesy of global warming of course), don’t miss a small but incredibly fascinating show at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space a short walk away from the splendid Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral.


Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR, 2017

The exhibition was curated by Sue Spaid and changes according to temperature. As for the title, “Climate Surprise”, it subtly echoes the rise of extreme and unpredictable climate events that have brought about scientific studies of how “climate surprise” impacts human behavior and health but also environmental policymaking.

I was particularly fascinated by the use that Kaat Van Doren, one of the two artists in the show, has made of bitumen, a material most of us would normally overlook. Because it is used for road surfacing and roofing, bitumen appears mundane and unsophisticated. And because the majority of the bitumen used commercially is a residue from petroleum distillation, we might view it as an inert and nasty material.

Van Doren, however, saw the artistic potential of the material. When the weather is cold, it becomes hard and brittle, its surface appears shiny and glass-like. When sun rays hit bitumen however, it gets more pliable and spreads a golden glow. The wonders of bitumen don’t end there. While visiting the show, i was told about the pitch drop experiment, an excruciating long-term experiment that aims to demonstrate the high viscosity or low fluidity of bitumen (which is a form of pitch, hence the name of the scientific exercise.) The material appears to be solid at room temperature, but is in fact flowing extremely slowly, taking several years to form a single drop.

The Pitch Drop Experiment – University of Queensland, Pitch Drop Time Lapse 2 years to date

The artist thus experimented with the various material dimensions of bitumen in photos and sculptures.

The most spectacular one is the giant Mirror Noir she made by spraying with bitumen an abandoned gas station in Campus Coppens, a former military site near Antwerp in Belgium. She covered both the inside and the outside the disused building, creating a striking contrast with the vegetation that had started to regain ground after human activities left the area.


Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR. In situ installation at Campus Coppens site, 2017


Kaat Van Doren, Miroir Noir inside 17092017 / 11.18 h

I was amazed by the poetry of the result. Bitumen, after all, is a sticky form of crude oil, a liquid i had come to associate with all the ills and evils of this world. As the artist explains on the page of the project:

Thanks to the special properties of bitumen the gas station Miroir Noir is not a finished product but a constantly evolving work, as the material remains susceptible to the impact of climatic aspects. Miroir Noir is both a reflection of and witness to the (in)visible processes of change in which we are all entangled: political, economic, climatological and ecological waves propelled by history.


Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017


Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017


Kaat Van Doren, From Bitumena series, Fig.1 to 24 (of 32), 2017


Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

The title of Van Doren’s series alludes to a painter’s tool called Mirror Noir. Also named Claude glass (or black mirror), this portable mirror was slightly convex and its surface tinted a dark colour. Picturesque artists in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries used it as a frame for drawing landscapes. They would turn their back on the scene to observe the reflection of the scenery in the mirror. The tinted surface reduced the colour range and precision, evoking the paintings of 17th Century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.

The black mirrors of our times are of course the black screens of our tablets and phones. The reflection of reality they produce is much sharper than the black mirrors of 19th century landscape painters but they nevertheless provide us with an experience that is more mediated (and sometimes even manipulated) than real.


Isabel Fredeus, Under the Weather #1 and #2, 2018

The other artist in the show is Isabel Fredeus. She explored another tool from the 19th century: the storm glass. This instrument was invented to help ship captains predict weather and thus the storms much dreaded by sailors. Her hand-blown storm glass sculptures also visibly react to weather, becoming more animated as temperatures rise.

Climate Surprise is curated by Sue Spaid. The show runs until 05 May 2019 at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space in Mechelen, Belgium. You can experience the changing exhibition through the gallery window as you walk by or take an appointment to enter and visit the show. There will be an event on Sunday 05 May 2019 to mark the closing of the changing exhibition.

Terraforming Fantasies

Terraforming is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface or ecology of a planet or any other large celestial body in order to make it habitable by Earth-like life.

Engineering inhospitable planets to suit human physiology and needs might sound like science fiction. And indeed we don’t have the technology nor the resources to achieve this enterprise. Yet, the assumption that we can manipulate and colonize other planets (Mars in particular) has received a fair amount of attention over the past few years, demonstrating both a certain anxiety over the health of our own and a very modern hubris that we can solve every problem just by throwing technology at it.


Geert Goiris, Prelap, 2018


Geert Goiris, Owl, 2018

Terraforming Fantasies is the title of Geert Goiris‘s solo show at Banca di Bologna Hall at Palazzo De’ Toschi in Bologna.

The exhibition, composed of photographic prints, a slide show and a video installation, immerses viewers into a world that resembles our own, yet feels alien and slightly disquieting. The near absence of human figure in Goiris’ images contributes to the eeriness. Here and there a figure appears, either human or non-human. Most of the time, they seem to be completely disconnected from their surrounding.


Geert Goiris, Eugenes Neighbourhood, 2002


Geert Goiris, Albino, 2003

The feeling that the images have reached us from another planet “is achieved though specific technical and stylistic choices: the artist primarily uses a large-format camera with special types of film (orthochromatic, aerial, infrared),” reads the press release. “He shoots most of his pictures at dusk, when the light is beginning to fade and become unreliable.”

The oppressive, ambiguous images suggest a very contemporary approach to the Romantic sublime. Nature today still inspires us admiration, apprehension and other powerful emotions. Its appearance and violent manifestations, however, have changed: toxic industrial landscapes, giant waves crashing over seaside towns, ocean plastic patches, giant icebergs breaking in two, etc. As the success of Burtynsky and other photographers of the Anthropocene demonstrates, we revel in these visions of an environment that the actions of men have rendered treacherous. Goiris’ vision of a world that makes us feel powerless is as dramatic as the one captured by Burtynsky & co but it is far more subtle. Its atmosphere is more enigmatic, more suggestive of a world where we are little more than silent and barely tolerated bystanders.


Geert Goiris, Plot Twist, 2016


Geert Goiris, Erta Ale, 2018

I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed with Terraforming Fantasies. I knew very little about the photographer and was actually in Bologna to visit the Thomas Struth solo show at the Fondazione MAST. The Struth exhibition is spectacular but it’s Goiris’ images that keep haunting me today.

Even the setting of the show, designed by the architect Kris Kimpe, conspires to render the exhibition enigmatic and memorable. The large space is filled with hexagonal display units, some closed, others open, each housing photographs or moving images. The irregularly arranged modules demand that we move around, choose our own path through the show and establish our own connections and fictions. We are in charge of the narrative as much as the artist is. Well, almost…


Geert Goiris “Terraforming Fantasies” installation view at Palazzo De’ Toschi, Bologna, 2019


Geert Goiris, Overgrown, 2014


Geert Goiris, Ecologist Place, 2006


Geert Goiris, Dead Bird, 2008


Geert Goiris, Andrea, 2011


Geert Goiris, Wetwood, 2007


Geert Goiris, 12 Minutes Silence, 2003


Geert Goiris, Zverev, 2014


Geert Goiris “Terraforming Fantasies” installation view at Palazzo De’ Toschi, Bologna, 2019


Geert Goiris “Terraforming Fantasies” installation view at Palazzo De’ Toschi, Bologna, 2019

Geert Goiris. Terraforming Fantasies, curated by Simone Menegoi and Barbara Meneghel, is at Palazzo De’ Toschi – Salone Banca di Bologna until 24 February 2019.

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, by Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller and Gerd Wessolek.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher CRC Press describes the book: Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is an investigation of the cultural meanings, representations, and values of soil in a time of planetary change. The book offers critical reflections on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, including land take, groundwater pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss. At the same time, the book celebrates diverse forms of resilience in the face of such challenges, beginning with its title as a way of honoring locally controlled food production methods championed by “field to plate” movements worldwide. By focusing on concepts of soil functionality, the book weaves together different disciplinary perspectives in a collection of dialogue texts between artists and scientists, interviews by the editors and invited curators, essays and poems by earth scientists and humanities scholars, soil recipes, maps, and DIY experiments.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Ambrosia Lake Disposal Cell, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012


Debra Solomon and Jaromil, Entropical, 2015

Very few of us realize the importance of soil and the deep connection we share with it. Our food system rely on the health of soils. Our dwellings, our modern infrastructures of communication and transports depend on the support of soils. Soil again is the place we open up when we need to extract minerals and other sources of energy and construction material. We need soil to absorb carbon, filter water and ensure the wellbeing of our ecosystems. It’s there, underneath our feet. Yet, we barely acknowledge its existence.

Over time and with the help of globalization, concrete and modern life, we’ve become so alienated from soil that we’ve allowed it to deteriorate. Soil degradation is so severe that, some scientists predict, topsoil will have disappeared by 2070. All of it.

The ambition of the editors and contributors of the book Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is to help society reconnect with soil. The chapters are either essays that explore some of the cultural articulations of soil or incredibly informative conversations between artists, activists and scientists who share their thoughts about the material properties, cultural histories, environmental functions and existential threats of soil.

Field to Palette is an amazing publication. Its almost 700 pages are packed with photos, surprising information and moving encounters. I wish i had the time to talk about everything i’ve learnt in the book. The unexpectedly sophisticated sensory abilities of nematodes or the method to turn plastic-free baby diapers into planters and nutrients for trees, for example. Since one of the greatest achievements of the book is the way it demonstrates the important role that artists can play in raising discussions with the public and in participating to the solution to the many challenges soil faces today, i’ll dedicate the rest of my review of the book to just a few of the artworks and stories i discovered in Field to Palette.


Franziska & Lois Weinberger, Laubreise at the Austrian Pavilion in Venice, 2009


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982

The book is articulated around six functions, six entry points to help us appreciate soil. The first Function of soil is Sustenance. Soil provides us with food, biomass and all forms of nourishment. The intro to the section informs us that 99% of human nourishment comes from 3% of available land. And that, sadly, about a third of that available land is compromised because of chemical pollution, erosion, salinization, etc.

The section starts with the best advocate soil could dream of: Agnes Denes, the artist behind the iconic and spectacularly thought-provoking Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The artist dialogues with the president of the International Union of Soil Sciences, Rattan Lal, about the close connections that could be weaved between conventional agriculture and urban agriculture.


Tattfoo Tan, S.O.S. Mobile Classroom at Farm City Fair, Brooklyn, New York, 2010

Philosopher and curator Sue Spaid writes about 4 artists-farmers whose “artisan soil” practices establish clear links between the health of our soil and the health of our food and of the environment. Their resolution to show their soil as art is an open invitation to cultural institutions to value soil on par with more ‘traditional’ types of museum treasures.

I was particularly moved by artist Maria Michails‘s comment on “energy landscapes” which she sees as a growing tendency to turn good farming lands usually dedicated to growing crops into surfaces that will produce energy through the plantation of plants for biofuel or the installation of solar panel or wind turbine farms.

Parto Teherani-Krônner and Rozanne Swentzell call for more attention to feminist and indigenous perspectives in soil protection debates. They believe that we should rehabilitate the term ‘meal’ because it has a more holistic dimension than ‘food’. A true meal culture has the potential to counter the effects of globalization and regain respect for food traditions, soil and the animals we eat.

The second function of soil is to be a Repository, a source of energy, raw materials, pigments but also poetry.

In that section, Peter Ward offers a guide for collecting and working with earth pigments. I also enjoyed artist Dave Griffiths, science communication lecturer Sam Illingworth and illustrator Matt Girling‘s look at the technocultural archiving of nuclear waste and at the necessity to communicate to far future beings about ancient hazards buried deep below their feet.


Margaret Boozer, Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations, 2012

Margaret Boozer‘s installation Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations features soil samples from all 5 boroughs in New York, extracted over the span of 15 years by Dr. Richard K. Shaw and his team for the New York City Reconnaissance Soil Survey. The work is particularly relevant in urban contexts where most inhabitants might not give any consideration to the soil underneath the concrete.

Soil health and plant nutrition researcher Taru Sandén and artist Terike Haapoja talk about the difference between organic and inorganic carbon and made me want to have a go at the Tea Bag Index, a citizen science method to gather data on decomposition and carbon stabilization.

Function 3 explores soil as an Interface, a site of environmental interaction, filtration and transformation. It’s a dark chapter with toxic infiltration, river bank erosion, climate change-related flooding, industrial runoff, etc. It is also one in which you take the measure of the superhero power of plants that are capable of drawing out toxins from soil, protecting it from the erosive impact of rain and wind and preventing slopes from slipping into waterways.


Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Mel Chin, a pioneer in phytoremediation, demonstrated plant potency in several of his works. Talking with curators Patricia Watts and Amy Lipton (the co-founders of ecoartspace), he recounted the story of Revival Field. In the early 1990s, the artist collaborated with research agronomist Rufus Chaney to prove that hyperaccumulator plants can cleanse soil of toxic metals like cadmium and zinc. The work, which confirmed what had so far only been a scientific hypothesis, continues at a contaminated Superfund site, Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minn.

In a discussion between artist Aviva Rahmani and professor of soil science Ray Weil about their respective approaches to restoration work to degraded systems, Weil explained how he used mega daikon radishes to help wean agribusiness farmers from the use of heavy fertilizers.


Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000

Environmental scientist Farrah Fatemi and curator Laura Fatemi selected four artists from the exhibition Rooted in Soil to illustrate how old energy can be harnessed into new growth. One of these artists is Sally Mann whose disturbing photos of decomposing corpses in a body farm remind us of our visceral connection to earth.

Function 4 looks at the soil as Home, a biological hotspot, a gene pool, a habitat for bacteria, fungi and all sorts of organisms. That’s where i learnt that more than a quarter of the planet’s known species live in the soil. The life underneath our feet might be invisible but it is dynamic and responsible for almost all lives above the ground.

The chapter shows how fiels as diverse as biohacking, Afrofuturism and postcapitalistic sculptures can reveal the activity and even ‘hidden narratives’ of soil. I have a text in that section. Although ‘text’ is a big word since it’s Amy Franceschini who does all the hard work in the interview i had with her about seeds and genetic biodiversity.


Suzanne Anker, Astroculture (Eternal Return), 2015

Interviewed by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, the cofounders of Art Laboratory Berlin, Suzanne Anker made some fascinating comments on the toxicity in the soil since Industrial Revolution and on extraterrestrial farming.

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi Trailer, 2010

Professor of geology and environmental engineering, Peter K. Haff and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu have an engaging exchange about the importance of using speculative narratives when technology is accelerating but human processes are not.

Function number 5, Heritage, sees soil as an embodiment of cultural memory, identity and spirit. Soil adopts the crucial but difficult to assess function of providing us with aesthetic pleasure, recreational enjoyment, cognitive development and spiritual enlightenment.


Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists), 2017

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger calls for a re-indigenization of Western thought and argues that the best way to protect the soil and in particular its cultural heritage is to share it.


Ruttikorn Vuttikorn and Myriel Milicevic, Stories from the Hills: Tales of the Lowland

Play activist Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, artist and interaction designer Myriel Milicevic and specialist of indigenous studies in Thailand Prasert Trakansuphakon give an enlightening perspective on how indigenous people’s life on the high hills of Northern Thailand can inform the urban ways of communal living of the “Lowlanders”. The best quote in their contribution to the book is by a village leader who turned down an offer from the U.S. to export 25.000 jars per year of their local honey. “Nature is not a manufacturer,” he explained.

Function 6 explores soil as a Stabilizer, a platform that enables the construction of structures, infrastructures and socioeconomic systems. Our buildings, underground and overground transport systems, sewers, communication networks and other modern infrastructures would not exist without the space and stability that soil offers for their construction.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Uranium disposal cells in Mexican Hat, Utah, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012

The research and education organization Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) talk about Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, a 2012 exhibition that explored the extent of uranium disposal cells in the US and the kind of unintended “land art” objects the infrastructures left in the landscape.


Lara Almarcegui, The Rubble Mountain, Sint-Truiden, 2005

Lara Almarcegui works with anthropogenic soil substrates, rubble, stones, sand, landfill soil and other waste construction materials to make us think of the true -underground- origin of a building.

Ellie Irons in collaboration with professor of environmental biology Jean Louis Morel speculate on a Soil Assembly and Dissemination Authority (SADA), an hypothetical and future city agency responsible for research, production, distribution and outreach related to an essential (and no longer naturally available) resource: soil.

Related stories: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1) and (part 2), The scars left by electronic culture on indigenous lands, Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons, Interview with Cecilia Jonsson, the artist who extracts iron from invasive weeds, Dust Blooms. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?, Experiments in sound, soil and microbial fuel cells, No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds, Perpetual Uncertainty. Inhabiting the atomic age, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet, The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini, etc. I didn’t realize i had written so many articles related to soil.

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene

Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, by Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller and Gerd Wessolek.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher CRC Press describes the book: Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is an investigation of the cultural meanings, representations, and values of soil in a time of planetary change. The book offers critical reflections on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, including land take, groundwater pollution, desertification, and biodiversity loss. At the same time, the book celebrates diverse forms of resilience in the face of such challenges, beginning with its title as a way of honoring locally controlled food production methods championed by “field to plate” movements worldwide. By focusing on concepts of soil functionality, the book weaves together different disciplinary perspectives in a collection of dialogue texts between artists and scientists, interviews by the editors and invited curators, essays and poems by earth scientists and humanities scholars, soil recipes, maps, and DIY experiments.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Ambrosia Lake Disposal Cell, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012


Debra Solomon and Jaromil, Entropical, 2015

Very few of us realize the importance of soil and the deep connection we share with it. Our food system rely on the health of soils. Our dwellings, our modern infrastructures of communication and transports depend on the support of soils. Soil again is the place we open up when we need to extract minerals and other sources of energy and construction material. We need soil to absorb carbon, filter water and ensure the wellbeing of our ecosystems. It’s there, underneath our feet. Yet, we barely acknowledge its existence.

Over time and with the help of globalization, concrete and modern life, we’ve become so alienated from soil that we’ve allowed it to deteriorate. Soil degradation is so severe that, some scientists predict, topsoil will have disappeared by 2070. All of it.

The ambition of the editors and contributors of the book Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene is to help society reconnect with soil. The chapters are either essays that explore some of the cultural articulations of soil or incredibly informative conversations between artists, activists and scientists who share their thoughts about the material properties, cultural histories, environmental functions and existential threats of soil.

Field to Palette is an amazing publication. Its almost 700 pages are packed with photos, surprising information and moving encounters. I wish i had the time to talk about everything i’ve learnt in the book. The unexpectedly sophisticated sensory abilities of nematodes or the method to turn plastic-free baby diapers into planters and nutrients for trees, for example. Since one of the greatest achievements of the book is the way it demonstrates the important role that artists can play in raising discussions with the public and in participating to the solution to the many challenges soil faces today, i’ll dedicate the rest of my review of the book to just a few of the artworks and stories i discovered in Field to Palette.


Franziska & Lois Weinberger, Laubreise at the Austrian Pavilion in Venice, 2009


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982

The book is articulated around six functions, six entry points to help us appreciate soil. The first Function of soil is Sustenance. Soil provides us with food, biomass and all forms of nourishment. The intro to the section informs us that 99% of human nourishment comes from 3% of available land. And that, sadly, about a third of that available land is compromised because of chemical pollution, erosion, salinization, etc.

The section starts with the best advocate soil could dream of: Agnes Denes, the artist behind the iconic and spectacularly thought-provoking Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The artist dialogues with the president of the International Union of Soil Sciences, Rattan Lal, about the close connections that could be weaved between conventional agriculture and urban agriculture.


Tattfoo Tan, S.O.S. Mobile Classroom at Farm City Fair, Brooklyn, New York, 2010

Philosopher and curator Sue Spaid writes about 4 artists-farmers whose “artisan soil” practices establish clear links between the health of our soil and the health of our food and of the environment. Their resolution to show their soil as art is an open invitation to cultural institutions to value soil on par with more ‘traditional’ types of museum treasures.

I was particularly moved by artist Maria Michails‘s comment on “energy landscapes” which she sees as a growing tendency to turn good farming lands usually dedicated to growing crops into surfaces that will produce energy through the plantation of plants for biofuel or the installation of solar panel or wind turbine farms.

Parto Teherani-Krônner and Rozanne Swentzell call for more attention to feminist and indigenous perspectives in soil protection debates. They believe that we should rehabilitate the term ‘meal’ because it has a more holistic dimension than ‘food’. A true meal culture has the potential to counter the effects of globalization and regain respect for food traditions, soil and the animals we eat.

The second function of soil is to be a Repository, a source of energy, raw materials, pigments but also poetry.

In that section, Peter Ward offers a guide for collecting and working with earth pigments. I also enjoyed artist Dave Griffiths, science communication lecturer Sam Illingworth and illustrator Matt Girling‘s look at the technocultural archiving of nuclear waste and at the necessity to communicate to far future beings about ancient hazards buried deep below their feet.


Margaret Boozer, Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations, 2012

Margaret Boozer‘s installation Correlation Drawing/ Drawing Correlations features soil samples from all 5 boroughs in New York, extracted over the span of 15 years by Dr. Richard K. Shaw and his team for the New York City Reconnaissance Soil Survey. The work is particularly relevant in urban contexts where most inhabitants might not give any consideration to the soil underneath the concrete.

Soil health and plant nutrition researcher Taru Sandén and artist Terike Haapoja talk about the difference between organic and inorganic carbon and made me want to have a go at the Tea Bag Index, a citizen science method to gather data on decomposition and carbon stabilization.

Function 3 explores soil as an Interface, a site of environmental interaction, filtration and transformation. It’s a dark chapter with toxic infiltration, river bank erosion, climate change-related flooding, industrial runoff, etc. It is also one in which you take the measure of the superhero power of plants that are capable of drawing out toxins from soil, protecting it from the erosive impact of rain and wind and preventing slopes from slipping into waterways.


Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Mel Chin, a pioneer in phytoremediation, demonstrated plant potency in several of his works. Talking with curators Patricia Watts and Amy Lipton (the co-founders of ecoartspace), he recounted the story of Revival Field. In the early 1990s, the artist collaborated with research agronomist Rufus Chaney to prove that hyperaccumulator plants can cleanse soil of toxic metals like cadmium and zinc. The work, which confirmed what had so far only been a scientific hypothesis, continues at a contaminated Superfund site, Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minn.

In a discussion between artist Aviva Rahmani and professor of soil science Ray Weil about their respective approaches to restoration work to degraded systems, Weil explained how he used mega daikon radishes to help wean agribusiness farmers from the use of heavy fertilizers.


Sally Mann, Untitled (Body Farm #18), 2000

Environmental scientist Farrah Fatemi and curator Laura Fatemi selected four artists from the exhibition Rooted in Soil to illustrate how old energy can be harnessed into new growth. One of these artists is Sally Mann whose disturbing photos of decomposing corpses in a body farm remind us of our visceral connection to earth.

Function 4 looks at the soil as Home, a biological hotspot, a gene pool, a habitat for bacteria, fungi and all sorts of organisms. That’s where i learnt that more than a quarter of the planet’s known species live in the soil. The life underneath our feet might be invisible but it is dynamic and responsible for almost all lives above the ground.

The chapter shows how fiels as diverse as biohacking, Afrofuturism and postcapitalistic sculptures can reveal the activity and even ‘hidden narratives’ of soil. I have a text in that section. Although ‘text’ is a big word since it’s Amy Franceschini who does all the hard work in the interview i had with her about seeds and genetic biodiversity.


Suzanne Anker, Astroculture (Eternal Return), 2015

Interviewed by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, the cofounders of Art Laboratory Berlin, Suzanne Anker made some fascinating comments on the toxicity in the soil since Industrial Revolution and on extraterrestrial farming.

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi Trailer, 2010

Professor of geology and environmental engineering, Peter K. Haff and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu have an engaging exchange about the importance of using speculative narratives when technology is accelerating but human processes are not.

Function number 5, Heritage, sees soil as an embodiment of cultural memory, identity and spirit. Soil adopts the crucial but difficult to assess function of providing us with aesthetic pleasure, recreational enjoyment, cognitive development and spiritual enlightenment.


Cannupa Hanska Luger, The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists), 2017

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger calls for a re-indigenization of Western thought and argues that the best way to protect the soil and in particular its cultural heritage is to share it.


Ruttikorn Vuttikorn and Myriel Milicevic, Stories from the Hills: Tales of the Lowland

Play activist Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, artist and interaction designer Myriel Milicevic and specialist of indigenous studies in Thailand Prasert Trakansuphakon give an enlightening perspective on how indigenous people’s life on the high hills of Northern Thailand can inform the urban ways of communal living of the “Lowlanders”. The best quote in their contribution to the book is by a village leader who turned down an offer from the U.S. to export 25.000 jars per year of their local honey. “Nature is not a manufacturer,” he explained.

Function 6 explores soil as a Stabilizer, a platform that enables the construction of structures, infrastructures and socioeconomic systems. Our buildings, underground and overground transport systems, sewers, communication networks and other modern infrastructures would not exist without the space and stability that soil offers for their construction.


Center for Land Use Interpretation, Uranium disposal cells in Mexican Hat, Utah, from Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, 2012

The research and education organization Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) talk about Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, a 2012 exhibition that explored the extent of uranium disposal cells in the US and the kind of unintended “land art” objects the infrastructures left in the landscape.


Lara Almarcegui, The Rubble Mountain, Sint-Truiden, 2005

Lara Almarcegui works with anthropogenic soil substrates, rubble, stones, sand, landfill soil and other waste construction materials to make us think of the true -underground- origin of a building.

Ellie Irons in collaboration with professor of environmental biology Jean Louis Morel speculate on a Soil Assembly and Dissemination Authority (SADA), an hypothetical and future city agency responsible for research, production, distribution and outreach related to an essential (and no longer naturally available) resource: soil.

Related stories: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 (part 1) and (part 2), The scars left by electronic culture on indigenous lands, Eulogy for the weeds. An interview with Ellie Irons, Interview with Cecilia Jonsson, the artist who extracts iron from invasive weeds, Dust Blooms. Can we put a price on the services that urban flowers provide?, Experiments in sound, soil and microbial fuel cells, No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds, Perpetual Uncertainty. Inhabiting the atomic age, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet, The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini, etc. I didn’t realize i had written so many articles related to soil.