Category Archives: anthropocene

RIBOCA review: A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene

In 2006, Alexei Yurchak published Everything was forever until it was no more. The beautifully-titled book examined the political, social and cultural conditions that lead to the collapse of the Soviet state. The anthropologist argued that everyone knew the system was failing, but because no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens maintained the charade of a functioning society.

Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015

Katrīna Neiburga, Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017

Everything was forever until it was no more is also the title of the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago. I didn’t know about the biennial until i found myself in the Latvian capital for the always excellent RIXC Art and Science Festival (there’s still time to send your proposals for the upcoming edition of the conference and exhibition.) There were leaflets advertising the biennial at the hotel, i picked up one to read during my last breakfast in town and almost dropped my tea mug over another guest when i read that Katerina Gregos was the curator of the event. Gregos is an art historian and, to my eyes, the most perceptive and politically-minded curator we have in Europe.

Under her guidance, RIBOCA investigated the phenomenon of change – how it may seem inevitable (especially in these relentlessly accelerating times) and yet manages to take us by surprise. The works and artists Gregos selected investigated capitalism, technological revolutions, migration, Europe’s existential crisis, post-Soviet history in the Baltic states and our foolish destruction of the environment. I had only 3 hours to visit the biennial and could only run through two of the exhibition venues before i had to leave for the airport. These were probably the most exciting 3 hours i spent in 2018.

I’ll try and give an overview of what i saw at the biennial over a couple of blog posts. Today’s story is looking specifically at the works that make the Anthropocene disturbingly palpable. As befits an event that aimed to engage with the space of the city of Riga, many of the artworks that delved into our uncertain future on this planet were housed inside an abandoned biology faculty. Invading disused buildings is one of the tropes of contemporary art exhibitions but the ploy worked liked a charm as art pieces that examined the many paths to the demise of humanity cohabited with a once grandiose entrance, musty corridors and desolate labs.

Here are some of the RIBOCA works that embodied in the most distressing way the many threats and dimensions of the Anthropocene:

Jacob Kirkegaard, MELT, 2016

Jacob Kirkegaard traveled to Greenland in 2013 and 2015 to record different stages of ice melting.

The ice sheet in Greenland contain about 8% of the Earth’s fresh water. Particularly vulnerable to climate change, the ice is melting at an accelerating rate not seen for more than 350 years.

The alarming phenomenon is causing a rise in the sea level, which directly threatens populations who live in or near coastal areas. It causes other secondary effects, such as changes in the global ocean circulation patterns and in the patterns of rainfall.

Kirkegaard’s MELT sound installation features recordings of different stages of ice melting, moving from violent sounds of ice caps grinding against each other, to trickling sequences and flows of water. MELT traces how water moves through different aggregate phases, from solid to liquid, changing the combination of molecules. You can get an idea of what it sounds like in this video interview with the artist.

MELT dramatizes and makes perceptible a phenomenon that affects each of us but that remains too often distant and abstract.

IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi, A World in Waiting (78°14’08.4″N 15°29’28.7″E), 2017. Former Biological Faculty. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi’s millefleurs tapestry (a pattern of thousands of flowers) is another work that reminds us, in a visually seducing yet disquieting manner, that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet.

The tapestry transports us into a dark future, when sea levels have risen and the human race is long gone, but the consequences of its past actions are everywhere. The scene is set at the current location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (the coordinates of which are in the title of the work.) The seeds that had been sent from around the world in the early 21st Century have sprouted in the warmer climate of the future. Svalbard is no longer covered with glaciers and frozen tundra but with lush meadows.

The carpet itself will not escape degradation. In the future, it might rot. The artists consulted with climate scientists and the people responsible for the seed program to identify the plants that would be viable in 2,000 years time. Some of the seeds of these plants have then been woven into the fabric of the tapestry, literally waiting for their time to sprout.

“Culture and nature are completely intertwined and even if humans disappear, nature will still be shaped by man, by humans, for millennia to come”, the artists told TL mag. “In a way, the Svalbard Seed Vault is a strong symbol of that. But what happens when those seeds start to have their own lives? Which kind of flora would be dominant from Svalbard in 2,000 years?”

Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013

Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013

Michael Sailstorfer demonstrated in the most poetic way the absurdity of using technology and human efforts to counter a natural processes.

In October 2012, the artist selected a lone tree alongside a dyke of the Rhine, in the Ruhr area, one of the most heavily industrial regions of Europe. Once the first leaves began to fall in early autumn, he and his team collected them, preserved them, painted them and then re-attached them to the tree using a fine wire and a mechanical cherry-picker. This painstaking task continued until mid-November, by which time the tree had shed all of its foliage and the leaves had all been reattached.

The entire operation was documented on film. The footage of Anti-Herbst (Anti-Autumn) was then edited to exclude images containing people or machinery. The artificial transformation would look normal unless other trees in the background didn’t reveal that something is odd in the landscape.

“The goal of the project was to reverse a natural process simply by using human power or effort; to use human labour to artificially revert the tree to the way it looked four weeks earlier – green, in summer,” the artist told Frieze. “In the Ruhr area, it’s really hard to say what’s nature and what’s artificial. Of course, today anyone can walk outside of a city and enter a forest, but even there nothing is truly ‘natural’.”

At the end of the project, the team spent 3 days taking down all the leaves again.

Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017

Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017

Katarzyna Przezwanska works in Warsaw. A few hundred million years ago, that area of Poland was located closer to the equator and covered by a lush tropical forest and inhabited by dinosaurs and other animals.

The artist collaborated with scientists and geologists to create a model of today’s Warsaw terrain from 200 million years ago.

After the mass extinction that ended the Triassic geologic period depicted in her model, life recovered during the Jurassic and the Earth became repopulated with the most diverse range of organisms that ever existed. These organisms then died and gave way to the mineral resources that can now be unearthed in the area: lignite and natural gas, and a major offshore oilfield in the Baltic Sea; large reserves of sulphur and other mineral resources include bauxite, barite, gypsum, limestone and silver; and rich deposits of salt. In so far as present-day Poland is rooted in its mineral economy, these resources are what remain of prehistoric ‘Polishness’.

Her hand-made diorama puts our short-sighted view on everything from energy to politics into the challenging perspective of deep time. It’s this tendency to disregard the long-term consequences of our decisions that have led us to cause tragic and unstoppable damages to the environment.

Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

After the Triassic and the Jurassic came the Cretaceous period. Julian Charrière placed a plant known to have existed during the Cretaceous period inside a hermetically sealed, glass vitrine. The plant has been shock-frozen at –196˚ centigrade by being dipped in liquid nitrogen and then kept refrigerated at –20˚C. As long as this plant from 65 million years ago is kept in this artificial environment and cared for by humans, its appearance will be protected from the forces of entropy and decay, serving as a bridge between distant past and uncertain future. The “living fossil” hovers between life and death, distant past and future. Its fragility echoes our reliance on non-sustainable resources and our arrogant attempts to dominate the environment, at the cost of disturbing its natural order.

Jani Ruscica, Ring Tone (en plein air), 2018

Jani Ruscica fleshed out the direct and unplanned effect of technology on other living species. His video Ring Tone (en plein air) depicts a digital recreation of a lyrebird. This Australian bird is famous for its capacity to render with great fidelity the songs of other birds but also noises made by animals such as koalas and dingoes. In fact, the lyrebird’s ability to imitate almost any sound, including man-made mechanical sounds, has made it quite popular on youtube.

Ruscica created a CGI animation that combines field recordings and special effects. In order to recreate the bird in CGI, the artist studied YouTube and nature documentary clips of lyrebirds. As with many bird species, the movements of the lyrebird can be quite robotic, somewhat unnatural almost, and the CGI, being a digital recreation of the species, only reinforces this feeling.

Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018

Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Oswaldo Maciá’s The Opera of Cross-pollination is an immersive installation that echoes Silent Spring, an environmental science book written by Rachel Carson in 1962 about the catastrophic environmental impact of pesticides.

The Opera of Cross-pollination bombards your senses with intense colour, subtle audio and defused aroma to remind us that the ecological drama unfolds in ways that often escape our senses.

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016. Installation view at RIBOCA. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

The scenes in Julian Rosefeldt‘s In the Land of Drought feature scientists in white lab suits investigating the bleak remnants of civilization in an undefined, post-humanity future.

Shot using a drone in an abandoned film sets close to the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, the images give the viewer a feeling of alienation but at the same time, a sense of thrill, enigma and suspense.

Jevgeni Zolotko, The Sacrifice, 2018 (installation view). Photo Andrejs Strokins

I didn’t see Jevgeni Zolotko‘s The Sacrifice but since we are so intent on treating sentient beings as disposable objects, i feel like i need to mention the work. The artist installed a gray trailer outside the Art center Zuzeum. The trailer, normally used for carrying livestock, evokes the ones in which Latvians were transported to Siberia during mass deportations under Stalin. Disturbing banging noises can be heard as you go near the trailer, but it is unclear whether animals or humans are trapped inside. The ambiguity evokes the cruelty with which humans treat anyone they regard as “Other”, whether this other is another animal species or human being who has different beliefs or ethnic background.

Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015

“I’m not going to make it. I’m a loser. Not good enough. I’m cold. Exhausted. Thirty-three years old, fucked by life.” These are the first words of Mindy, the protagonist in Sven Johne’s video A Sense of Warmth. Mindy, who remains unseen throughout the video, recounts her alleged escape from the digital working environment and her new life on a deserted island. A Sense of Warmth catapults the viewer into a paradise, a life without exploitation, war, ecological destruction; in short, a life without capitalism.

A Hong Kong (plastic) Soup

According to Greenpeace East Asia, more than 17 million pieces of waste plastic are flushed into the sea via Hong Kong’s Shing Mun River every year.

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Transform. Recovered Transformers action figures reflect the inadequate disposal of children’s plastic toys. This group sends the message to transform the habits and behaviour of the younger generation in Hong Kong, with the emphasis being to take action. Part of a collection recovered from various beaches over 3 years

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup. Video by Shirley Ying Han

Mandy Barker, a photographer who keeps on reinventing the artistic language to raise awareness around the plastic catastrophe, has been collecting plastic detritus from over 30 beaches in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2015.

The type of waste she selected echo not only the type of products that found their way into local water streams, they also closely relate to the traditions and culture of Hong Kong: manufactured toys, food wrappers, fake flowers and even hazardous medical objects, agricultural and fishing related debris.

Barker then worked in her studio to compose striking photographs that play with the tension between an immediate aesthetic attraction and the emotional, nauseating response to water pollution.

The series is called Hong Kong Soup:1826 because over 1,826 metric tons of municipal plastic waste goes into landfills every day in Hong Kong. The precise number reflects the artist’s ambition to be scientifically accurate. “It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don’t distort information for the sake of making an interesting image and that I return the trust shown to me by the scientists who have supported my work,” she told Lensculture. “Although aesthetics are important, it has more to do with representing the facts of how we are affecting our planet and changing its environments irreparably.”

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Lotus Garden. A collection of different species of discarded artificial flowers that would not exist at the same flowering time in nature and should not be found in the ocean. The lotus flower reflects early connotation of beauty in China

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Birds Nest. Ingredients; discarded fishing line that has formed nest-like balls due to tidal oceanic movement. Additives; other debris collected in its path.

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Poon Choi. Ten objects of municipal waste collected from twn beaches that relate to Hong Kong’s traditional New Year’s dish: Poon Choi. The dish is comprised of ten layered infredients that go into a one-pot meal. Includes: child’s sandal, mannequin hand, race duck, ribbon, spectacle frame, toy dinosaur, fishing float, shipping tag, pocket game & toy boat. Collected from 10 beaches in Hong Kong, November 2013

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Zongzi. Miniature plastic imitation sticky rice packages found in the sea. Zongzi, or Zong, are traditionally made from bamboo leaves and thrown into the sea as part of the Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong. Recovered from Tai O Beach, Lantau Island

Mandy Barker: Hong Kong Soup is at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester until 20 January 2018.

Previously: Plastic plankton, the Anthropocene’s emblematic “microorganism”.

No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds

Final notes from my visit of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Grounds at MUDAM in Luxembourg:

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017

Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016

National parks, reserves and other forms of sanctuarization of ecosystems are often used as a measure to protect natural territories from the detrimental impact of human activity. No Man’s Land brought together artworks that explore this issue and invite us to re-examine our relationship with the natural world.

I mentioned some of the works exhibited over the past few days (On thrombolites and other victims of human folly and Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica) and i wish i’d have been able to do a proper review of the show earlier. No Man’s Land closed last Sunday. It was small but dense with ideas, moving pleas and incentives to rethink the way our (short-term) economic and political interests slowly consume the only planet we have.

Some of the videos and installations exhibited offered surprisingly convincing remedies to our environmental woes, others confronted us with a poignant portrayal of the consequences of our disconnection from the rest of the living world.

Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years, 2016 (excerpt)

It has been estimated that would take 489 years to demine the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.

489 Years is animated film based on the testimony of a former South Korean soldier who used to be stationed in the D.M.Z. We’re thus literary in No Man’s Land territory. Since only authorized personnel can enter the DMZ, Hayoun Kwon uses animation and the soldier’s memories of his patrols to reconstruct the space.

Over time and in the absence of human activity, nature has taken over inside the forbidden space. Between the guard towers, the fences, the barbed wires and the walls, there are streams and hills as well as animals and plant species that thrive in the strip of land that that divides the Korean Peninsula in two.

The gamer’s FPS (first-person-shooter) perspective and the personal narrative recreate the feeling of a place inhabited by both a unique biodiversity and an anxiety for landmines and other invisible dangers.

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing

Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990

Revival Field is a phytoremediation experiment Mel Chin undertook at Superfund site Pig’s Eye Landfill, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The artist used hyperaccumulator plants as a low-cost means of remediating polluted soil. The species planted on top of the waste tip soak up heavy metal toxins like cadmium, zinc, and nickel from the ground through their roots. When the plants are mature they are harvested, dried and incinerated to recover the metals that is then re-sold to cover the cost of the procedure. Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, a research agronomist who had done pioneering research on the subject in a lab but who had so far never had the opportunity to conduct field research on a contaminated site.

The garden demonstrated that ‘green remediation’ could be a successful low-tech alternative to expensive and ineffective remediation methods to reclaim contaminated soil and toxic waste. It also showed that art can have real, healing effects on the environment.

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Returning a sound, 2004

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Returning a sound, 2004. Photo: Lisson gallery

Vieques is an island off the mainland of Puerto Rico used by the U.S Navy and NATO forces as military testing ground as from the 1940s.

The inhabitants, angry at the expropriation of their land and the environmental and health impacts of weapons testing, organized a campaign of protests and civil disobedience that led to the departure of the U.S. Navy in 2003.

Allora & Calzadilla made a series of works relating to the recent history of this island. One of their videos poetically communicate the interplay between militarism and sound. In Returning A Sound, Homar, an activist, drives around the island on a motorcycle as if reclaiming the territory. The silencer of the vehicle was replaced by a trumpet that echoes the traumatizing sounds of bomb explosions that had shaken the lives of the Vieques inhabitants for decades.

“As artists, we became interested in questions related to the sonic violence that marked this space, as it was exposed to earsplitting detonations up to 250 days out of the year,” explained Guillermo Calzadilla. “The first work we made in that regard was Returning A Sound, which we filmed just after the military lands were semi-opened to the public in 2003.”

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E, 2017

Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E is a quiet and poignant protest against climate change and the decay of local culture in the Philippines. In this subaquatic procession, men wearing all kinds of historical, religious or folkloric costumes advance slowly against the sea and its shifting currents. Leading the parade is a man dressed as the Santo Niño (the child Jesus, Patron of the islands) and carrying a doppelgänger statue. The silent and mesmerizing march replicates Ati-atihan, a celebration that takes place annually on firm ground.

The underwater parade reenacts some of the violent—both natural and political—moments the local communities have been through: the super typhoon Yolanda, the war on drugs, the exodus to find work overseas, etc. The seabed and the corals that surround the performers are unwilling actors that symbolize the assaults to local ecosystems.

Brandon Ballangée, Prelude to the Collapse of the North Atlantic, 2013. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Collapse is an innocent-looking but nevertheless brutal visualization of one of the tangible consequences of the crises oceans are facing. The specimens kept inside the glass jars pilled up in the shape of a pyramid were bought on a fish market. Some are raw fish and seafood we eat, others were caught by mistake but nevertheless displayed by the fishmongers. These sea creatures represent only a tiny portion of the aquatic organisms that inhabit our oceans. The amazing seabed diversity is being impoverished not only by the plastic pollution that makes the headlines these days but also by oil spills, acidification, overfishing and other environmental degradation. This loss is symbolized by some of the glass jars that remained empty of the extinct species they were meant to contain. How long till more empty jars are added? And what will it take for humanity to react and realize the consequence of this relentless erosion of marine biosystems?

More images from the exhibition:

Allora & Calzadilla, Half Mast/Full Mast, 2010. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Mark Dion, Mobile Bio Type–Jungle, 2002. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Piero Gilardi, Tronchi Caduti, 1990. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. © Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

If you want to see truly awful photos of the exhibition, check out mine on flickr.

Previously: Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica and On thrombolites and other victims of human folly.

On thrombolites and other victims of human folly

After Monday’s look at Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica, here’s another artwork i discovered at the exhibition No Man’s Land in MUDAM, Luxembourg.

Art Orienté Objet, Pieta Australiana, 2011

Back in 2009, Peter Garrett, the then Australian Minister of Environment, Heritage and the Arts (and incidentally the lead singer of rock band Midnight Oil), acknowledged the concerns of the scientific community when he added the thrombolites of Lake Clifton in Western Australia to the list of critically endangered communities.

Art Orienté Objet, Les premières formes de vie sur terre, 2011

The thrombolites might look like boring flat rocks but they constitute a unique ecosystem. These rare and extremely primitive life forms have been built over time by single-celled bacteria which deposit layers upon layers of silt and calcium. Scientists believe thrombolites are the earliest form of life on earth, dating back millions of years. What makes them important for mankind and for the environment as we know and love it is that they are believed to be at the origins of oxygen in the atmosphere. Without them, none of us would be here. Local Aboriginal populations already recognized the fragility and importance of the site and regarded it as a sacred, taboo area that men shouldn’t disturb.

And yet, the survival of thrombolites are endangered by the development of nearby urban areas, the increase in salinity of the lake and other environmental disturbances caused by climate change.

Art Orienté Objet, Anthropocene, 2011

Art Orienté Objet, Lake Clifton, 2011

A few years ago and at the invitation of bio-art organisation SymbioticA, Marion Laval-Jeantet et Benoît Mangin from Art Orienté Objet immersed themselves in the cultural and ecological environs of Lake Clifton and proposed a series of artistic projects that respond to the threats faced by the Thrombolites. Some of these works are currently exhibited as part of the exhibition No Man’s Land at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

Art Orienté Objet, Plutôt que tout, 2011-2016. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Art Orienté Objet, one of the “Lampes catastrophes”, 2005, reedition 2018

These projects include a documentary featuring the community of activists fighting for the survival of the lake, TV programs in which Laval-Jeantet and Mangin discussed with ecology experts (and a very cheerful moderator) about the anthropocene, as well as an online petition to have this unique habitat listed as a Unesco World Heritage listing. The artists believe that the only, albeit slim, chance of survival for the thrombolite takes the form of international attention (and thus pressure on the Australian government.) By bringing the local thrombolite problem into the global context, the artists also suggested that we are all concerned by ecological disruptions no matter how far away they might seem from our daily life and geographical position. Unfortunately, the petition didn’t get the broad attention it deserved.

The works they show at Mudam also include a series of “lampes catastrophes” which, when on, display all kinds of man-made ecological catastrophes: a mega industrial complex in Ohio, a nuclear bomb explosion, a forest fire, a heavily polluted lake in Ukraine, etc. I was also very moved by AOO’s photographic take on the Christian art motif Pietà. In their version, artist Marion Laval-Jeantet plays the role of the Virgin Mary and the son she cradles is one of the dozens of kangaroos that get hit by cars in Australia every year (see image of top of this story.)

It’s only when i arrived back home that i realized that the raw-wooden chairs i sat on to watch their videos were cut from a tree that had stood firm on the Île de Ré for centuries until it was uprooted by the heavy storms that hit several parts of Europe in 1999.

No matter how diverse these works might seem, or how distant from each other their disastrous subjects might be, they touch each and everyone of us because we all live on the same planet and we (Western cultures especially) are all responsible for its accelerating deterioration.

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

Previously: Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica and Biorama 2: Save the thrombolites.
By Art Orienté Objet: Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me) and an interview i made with the artists many many years ago.

Arriba! A tropical time capsule in Antarctica

Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017 (détail). Photo by PRC and Narodzkiy

Last year, during the Antarctic Biennale, Paul Rosero Contreras installed a kind of tropical time capsule right in the Antarctic Archipelago. His Arriba! installation consists of a cocoa plant shipped from the Ecuador Amazonian rainforest, enclosed inside a temperature-controlled container and displayed on top of an Antarctic glacier. The glass container protected the plant as much as it protected the snow-covered landscape where regulations forbid the introduction of any alien flora and fauna.

Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017. Video: Antarctic Biennale art projects

The work alludes to the distant history of the polar region. Millions of years ago, the now ice-covered landmass was a tropical paradise, with lush palm trees, balmy temperatures and furry animals. Pollen and micro-fossils found in drill cores obtained from under the seafloor off the coast of Antarctica have indeed revealed that the area went through an intense warming phase around 52 million years ago.

More disturbingly, the installation also looks at a not so distant future, when climate will have changed so drastically that the atmospheric conditions and landscapes we used to take for granted will be modified beyond recognition. Will protecting plants under glass jars still be seen as an artistic eccentricity? How far will we go to protect nature? Is seeds in Svalbard vault only the beginning of something more sinister? How many contradictions will we tolerate in order to ensure that (capitalistic) life goes on as usual?

Paul Rosero Contreras, Arriba!, 2017. View of the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, Mudam Luxembourg, 2018. Photo: Rémi Villaggi / Mudam Luxembourg

Paúl Rosero Contreras, Arriba! 2017 (detail). Organic Premium Chocolate produced by Pacari for the explorers of the South Pole.

I discovered Arriba! at the the exhibition No Man’s Land. Natural Spaces, Testing Fields, at Mudam in Luxembourg. I’ll come back later this week with a proper report on the show. It’s small but it’s so good, i’m glad i made the trip to Luxembourg just to see it.

No Man’s Land was curated by Marie-Noëlle Farcy, Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. The show remains open until 09/09/2018 at MUDAM in Luxembourg.

The God Trick. An exhibition explores the possibility of a more bio-centric society

The PAV Parco Arte Vivente, Turin’s experimental centre for Living Arts, is celebrating its ten years anniversary this Summer with The God-Trick, a group exhibition that aims to offer new perspectives and lines of inquiry on the Anthropocene.

Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

The exhibition title is borrowed from a text by Donna Haraway, the most quoted figure in the anthropocene conversation. The philosopher calls “god-trick” the view that knowledge is only achieved by adopting an objective, disembodied, impartial view from nowhere. She believes this claim to the “objectivizing” of the real is an illusion, for knowledge is always situated geographically, historically and culturally.

The artworks in the exhibition “have the role of reminding us that there is nothing natural, nothing objective, nothing inevitable about the processes of capitalist accumulation, thereby encouraging us to go beyond the confines of thoughts that prevent us from seeing any alternative to the system.”

The exhibition has some very strong works. Whether they speculate on alternative energy supply, un-peel the strata of nature and industrial history beneath our feet or invite us to turn neglected public spaces into community garden, the pieces exhibited demonstrate that there are indeed artists, thinkers and citizens who are willing to look critically into matters that threaten life on this planet. They are not the first ones to do so. We’ve been warned time and time again and as far back as in the 19th century when polymath Alexander von Humboldt drew on his studies in geography and exploration of the South American rain forests to predict deforestation and harmful human induced climate change.

The God Trick will hopefully encourage us to turn these warnings into meaningful individual and political actions.
In the meantime, here are some of my favourite works in the show:

Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Critical Art Ensemble, Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

The Critical Art Ensemble collaborated to the discussion with a fascinating research on the theme of necropolitics. The term is defined as the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die. When applied in a hospital context, the concept can be compared to the process of triage which determines the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. There, where resources are plentiful, the person with the greatest injury receives the greatest share of resources and is treated before others of lesser injury. In the case of war, where resources are limited, the typical application of triage consists of designating who is most likely to survive an injury for the longest period of time, and they are treated first. Those with the worst injuries and those most likely to die, are treated last, if at all.

What might be the consequences of triage when you apply it to wildlife and the environment? How do we decide to use our limited resources? Which damaged ecosystems should be prioritized for remediation? Which one are we going to wash our hands of? Do we use the hospital model, the war model, or something else?

The work is based on a research started in April 2018. Collaborating with a scientist who has a deep knowledge of the biology of the waters in the area, the artists and PAV took some water samples and had them analyzed to evaluate the type of pollution and the presence of micro-organisms and plant species in the water. They selected 4 ‘candidates’ to remediation:
– a lake in reasonably good conditions, both chemically and ecologically, but it needs to be protected and cleaned up;
– a small pond in fairly good health. It would be cheap to regenerate its waters;
– a river that’s chemically healthy but suffering in terms of ecology. It would be costly to clean and protect it but many more living organisms depend upon its health;
– an aqueduct that needs to be upgraded in order for the quality of the water to improve. People would then drink more tap water and be less inclined to buy plastic bottles.

Visitors of the exhibitions are invited to vote for the water pond or stream that needs to be prioritized. I found it very difficult to chose: you get maps, facts, samples of water in tanks to help you make an informed decision. I ended up cheating and casting my vote for two of them.

The CAE explains in the catalogue of the exhibition:

Our experience is that this conversation will not solely be grounded in reason, but will contain copious amounts of emotion, aesthetic prejudice, desire, and for some, metaphysical considerations.

Conversation is one of the key aspects of this work. It leaves space for exchanges of views about local resources and landscapes and, beyond that, it forces us to reexamine our ecological, societal and even political priorities.

Lara Almarcegui, Rocks of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), 2014. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Lara Almarcegui, Rocks of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), 2014. Image

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. Using figures established by the Norway Environment Agency, Lara Almarcegui made a poster listing the rock types and how many tons there are of each in the island’s bedrock.

Rocks of Spitsbergen brings together the region’s long and slow geological formation and its history of prospecting, drilling and mining the mineral resources. With estimated coal deposits of some 22 million tons, the area around Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen has two active mines, and further extraction might start soon. The dry inventory of the volume of the mineral resources raises questions such as: What will remain of the island if its rocks are extracted for minerals? Is our need of minerals worth the destruction of a territory? Who has the right to decide what to do with the ground beneath our feet? Or, more generally, how to manage our natural resources?

Michel Blazy, Forêt de balais, 2013–18. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Michel Blazy, Forêt de balais, 2013–18. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Many of Michel Blazy‘s installations feature organic elements that take over and transform the artworks over time. His “Forêt de balais”, literally “forest of brooms”, features brooms made of broomcorn, a type of sorghum used for making brooms. The domestic objects are planted on the ground and, gradually, they start germinating and growing until they return to their original, living state of plants. After the exhibition, the brooms turned plants again will remain in the park at PAV and become an integral part of its landscape, remembering us that nature can, with time and obstinacy, reclaim the areas which humankind had confiscated.

Bonnie Ora Sherk, A Living Library Is Cultivating The Human & Ecological Garden, 2018. Photo: © Filippo Alfero for PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Living Library is a framework and methodology for planning the “ecologizing” of specific areas.

Sherk is a landscape architect, educator and artist who has been producing visionary ecological work since the early 1970s. In 1981, she founded A Living Library, a community project that enrolls the help of local communities to turn public open spaces that have fallen into disuse or dilapidation into ecological wonderlands and landscapes. Each green site is unique and kept thriving with hands-on learning activities that explore the deep connections between biological, cultural and technological systems.

Go and visit The God Trick if you’re in Northwest Italy this Summer. It is not only intelligently curated but it will also demonstrate, if needed, that the best response to the current heat wave doesn’t lie in more air conditioning and more barbecued meat.

The God-Trick, curated by Marco Scotini, remains open until 21 October 2018 Parco Arte Vivente (PAV) in Turin.

Eco-Visionaries. Art, Architecture, and New Media after the Anthropocene

Eco-Visionaries. Art, Architecture, and New Media after the Anthropocene, edited by Pedro Gadanho.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: Alternative visions for humankind’s place on earth.

Eco-Visionaries presents contemporary positions in art and architecture seeking answers to current environmental problems that transcend mainstream notions of sustainability. This comprehensive volume is a companion to the collaborative 2018 exhibition endeavored by four participating European museums. Each show maintains a different focus and curatorial approach, and for each, artists investigate alternative visions regarding humankind’s place on earth through video and sound works, paintings, and installations.

While the series of exhibitions presents the works of artists and architects who offer critical reflections on pressing contemporary issues, the book unites research, essays, as well as a survey of the artworks. Besides the historical antecedents of current ecological thinking in the fields of art and design, this catalogue also promotes current approaches that represent alternative visions for future uses of energy, resources, and the environment.

Ant Farm, Clean Air Pod, 1970. Image via Spatial Agency

John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017: midday

The authors of this collective publication remind us that one of greatest challenges posed by climate change is that no one knows how to effectively communicate its magnitude and consequences to a non-specialised audience. The facts are there for all to see, they are shared in newspapers, on tv, in books, etc. And yet, the message doesn’t seem to sink in. Everywhere you look, it’s business, meat and plastic as usual. Even when we know the facts, their consequences still seem to be too abstract and distant for most of us to react. Belief that climate change is a hoax has even become normal among members of the U.S. Republican party (on that topic, i’d highly recomment one of the episodes of WNYC’s podcast The United States of Anxiety that explains how this criminal assumption has grown in the U.S.)

Factual knowledge is not enough and that’s where eco-visionaries come in. Eco-visionaries are artists, designers, writers, architects and pretty much everyone else who, confronted with tragic and dispiriting ecological catastrophes, mobilize their create minds to suggest alternative lifestyles, prototype micro-solutions or encourage us to adopt more mindful ways of relating to the world. Through their work, they provide empathetic experiences and help us get a better grasp on complex knowledge.

Leena Valkeapää & Oula A. Valkeapää, Manifestations, 2017

With its web tools that visualize internet-induced deforestation, refuges for urban honeybees, mobile architecture that turn desert into vast areas for crops and robots that sonify pollution, the book is a seducing journey to a possible future, one that is not marred by speciesism, petrocapitalism and anthopocentric mentality.

If the works selected in the book (and the exhibitions it aims to accompany) are solid and tirelessly inspiring, the essays are of unequal interest. Maybe i’m not the right public, maybe i read too much about art and the anthropocene but i thought that some of the texts were a bit bland. Others, however are solid. Linda Weintraub, for example, reminds us that the work of eco-art pioneers has gained more meaning and relevance with time; Matthew Fuller fearlessly brings mathematics to the discussion and T.J. Demos penned a fervent, provocative and politically-minded text populated with Guattari, Standing Rocks and warnings against apocalyptic populism and self-annihilation. Finally, i don’t understand the reason why the title of the book has to catapult us in the post-anthropocene. That’s a bold move.

Since i liked the artworks in the book so much, i’m going to introduce you to a short selection of them:

Joaquín Fargas, Glaciator, 2017

Glaciator is a robot roaming around Antarctica. Powered by solar solar energy, its mission is to compact and crystallize the snow turning into ice and then adhering to the glaciers, allowing them to regain the mass they lost as a result of warming temperatures.

Gilberto Esparza, BioSoNot 2.0, 2017

Gilberto Esparza created an instrument that translates the pollution levels of different rivers into sound.

Microbial fuel cells in the device generate energy from the metabolism of microorganisms found in contaminated water. These cells also estimate the bioelectrical activity of the bacteria while other sensors measure PH, conductivity, temperatures, ORP and other data that define the contamination of the water. The data are then converted into analog signals and translated these values ​​into sound.

John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017: midday

The flag of John Gerrard‘s digital simulation work Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) marks the site of the Lucas Gusher, the world’s first major oil find in 1901, in Spindletop, in the middle of the Texan desert. Gerrard’s flag i made of perpetually-renewing pressurised black smoke. The computer generated Spindletop runs in exact parallel with the real site in Texas throughout the year: the sun rising at the appropriate times and the days getting longer and shorter according to the seasons. The simulation is run live by software that is calculating each frame of the animation in real time as it is needed.

Western Flag symbolizes our reliance on oil. It’s everywhere, it is one of the forces behind climate change and yet it remains invisible. In an interview with the Irish Times, Gerrard describes oil as a “dynamic that allowed for a very particular change in society, allowed for hyper-mobility, changes in food and agriculture. Much of what we think of as ‘real’ is a petroleum reality. Heat, comfort, mobility, it all comes from petroleum.”

HeHe, Domestic Catastrophe Nº3: La Planète Laboratoire, 2012

HeHe, Domestic Catastrophe Nº3: La Planète Laboratoire, 2012

As an earth globe turns inside an aquarium, a fluorescein tracing dye is released, enveloping the sphere in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, Havemos de Voltar (We Shall Return), 2011

In Kiluanji Kia Henda’s video Havemos de Voltar (We Shall Return), a giant sable antelope (an Angolan national symbol) wakes up an archive center. Her name is Amélia Capomba. She finds her body stuffed and displayed in a museum display. She decides she no longer wants to be an artifact at the service of history, intends to push the embalming fluid from her veins, escape from the Archive Centre and return to her past. Amélia’s desire to return can be framed in relation to the ideals of the Angolan Liberation Struggle and more broadly, to the African continent’s need to tell their side of the colonial story.

Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, Fluctuations of Microworlds, 2017

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi, Trailer, 2009

SKREI, Biogas digester (individual plant), 2017

Malka Architecture, The Green Machine, 2014


You can already visit Eco-Visionaries at the MAAT—Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia in Lisbon until 8 October, 2018 and at Bildmuseet in Umea until 21 october, 2018; at HeK—House of Electronic Arts Basel in Basel, 30 August–11 November, 2018; and at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial in Gijon, 28 September, 2018–22 April, 2019.

Plastic plankton, the Anthropocene’s emblematic “microorganism”

Mandy Barker, Ophelia medustica. Specimen collected from Glounthaune shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Pram wheel), 2015. Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

In 1816, John Vaughan Thompson was posted to Cork in Ireland as an army Surgeon. He was not only a physician but also a marine biologist. His interest in sea life led him to be a pioneer planktonologist, the first who systematically used a plankton net back at a time when plankton didn’t even have a name.

Inspired by Thompson’s research into small sea creatures, artist Mandy Barker spent several months exploring the shores of Cork to collect and document the aquatic specimens she encountered there. The samples she found on the beaches, however, are not living microorganisms, they are plastic detritus. A pram wheel, an electric plug, broken parts of children toys, a shoe sole, a mobile phone casing, plastic bottle parts, etc.

Mandy Barker, Laplusa forastuic. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Plastic bags). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Mandy Barker, Index spread. Recovered plastic objects alongside specimen images, with fictitious names that contain plastic. From the book Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Using defective photographic material and a bit of digital manipulation, Barker shot the plastic bits of trash to make them look like plankton in water. “Movements recorded during several seconds of exposure result in the blurred images that represent plankton drifting in water,” she explains. “Film grain is intentionally visible, alluding to microplastic particles being ingested. They were captured on expired film with faulty cameras to highlight the imperfection of both technique and subject matter.”

The images look like microscope slides one can find in the archives of a natural history museum. To complete the effect, the artist gave each ‘specimen’ a pseudo-Linnaean name.

Mandy Barker, Poletastae nipliuc. Specimen collected from Whitepoint, Cove of Cork, Ireland (Container base). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Mandy Barker, Plamacina retroversta ic. III. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (White plastic horse, 3), 2015. Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

The photo series evokes the degradation and contamination of plastic particles in the marine environment. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. They can be found everywhere: in Antarctic snow, in the most remote oceanic spot, in plastiglomerates (a new type of rock made of plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, debris and other hard materials held together by plastic) and in plankton.

Plankton eating plastic caught on camera

Plastic can decompose in particles so tiny that plankton ingest them. After that, plastic particles keep on traveling up the food chain until they reach our digestive systems too. Plastic is so ubiquitous it has become an integral part of nature. One day, it might even consume us.

Mandy Barker, Amphilima distinctae. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Coathanger). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

I discovered the photo series at the Prix Pictet Space exhibition currently open at CAMERA – Centro Italiano per la Fotografia in Turin. The Prix Pictet is an international photography award focusing on the theme of sustainability. This year, ‘sustainability’ is explored through the lens of ‘space’ understood in its broadest, most far-reaching sense. The concept of space was applied to so many subjects (urban overcrowding, migrations, territorial disputes, trash, etc.) that, to me, it lost much of its sense and purpose.

More photos from this edition of Prix Pictet:

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression 75, 2011. Series: Tokyo Compression, 2008–11

Saskia Groneberg, Untitled. Series: Büropflanze (office plant), 2012 © Saskia Groneberg, Prix Pictet 2017

I loved the humorous spin that Saskia Groneberg put on humble “the German office fauna.” Her photos show plants growing and taking control over the office architecture.

Sergey Ponomarev, Police on horses escort hundreds of migrants after they crossed from Croatia in Dobova, Slovenia. Tuesday 20 October 2015. Series: Europe Migration Crisis, 2015

Richard Mosse, Olympic Arena, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse, Idomeni, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse, Larissa, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse won the Prix Pictet 2017 prize with his heat-map shots of refugees. He used a hi-tech surveillance camera designed to detect body heat from a distance of over 30km to track the movements of migrants from the Middle East and north Africa.

Pavel Wolberg, Protestor running from tear gas during riots in the Palestinian village of Nilin in the West Bank, 2010. Series: Barricades, 2009–14

Benny Lam, Trapped 04 Series: Subdivided Flats, 2012. © Courtesy of Benny Lam (photographs), Kwong Chi Kit and Dave Ho (concept)

Benny Lam, Trapped 08 Series: Subdivided Flats, 2012. © Courtesy of Benny Lam (photographs), Kwong Chi Kit and Dave Ho (concept)

Beate Gütschow, S#30, 2008. Series: S Series, 2004–09

Prix Pictet Space is open until 26 August 2018 at CAMERA in Turin.

A bodily experience of man-made earthquakes

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

The province of Groningen in The Netherlands has the largest gas field in Europe. Since the early days of extraction in 1959, the field has produced billions of cubic meters of the natural resource. The exploitation is a lucrative business but, because the extraction process is causing earthquakes, it is also ruining the lives of the local residents. Many of the houses in the area have been so badly damaged by the man-induced earthquakes that they are uninhabitable.

Gas field in Groningen. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg/Getty Images, via The Guardian

House in Groningen. Image via CBS

Sissel Marie Tonn‘s artwork The Intimate Earthquake Archive is an attempt to understand and communicate the psychosomatic effects that these man-made seisms have on the people who live in the area. The research behind the installation combined an exploration of the vast amount of data available in scientific archives (from core samples to sand and soil lab tests, to data on seismic activity recorded by the Dutch Meteorological Institute or KNMI) with a collection of the personal stories told by the inhabitants of Groningen, who describe how they feel the earthquakes passing through their bodies and homes.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

The artist collaborated with Jonathan Reus to turn the digital siesmic archive of the KNMI into a tactile archive, one which can be physically accessed and experienced by the visitor through their body when they don a specially-designed waistcoat with embedded surface (skin) and bone conduction transducers.

The artists have selected 12 earthquakes of cultural and political significance to be part of this sensory archive, and have worked to transform these data sets into vibratory compositions that move across the body and at the subsurface of the skeleton, producing a composition of tremors on the surface of the body – in the same way the seismic waves move across the land.

The Intimate Earthquake Archive is not only an interactive installation that invites “deep listening” within the body but also a reflection on how anthropocentric geological changes might be recorded, experienced and how they can be reproduced for other people in order to help them attune themselves to a future marked by man-made geological changes.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive, 2017. Video

I was supposed to go and experience the work back in February when it was exhibited at STUK in Leuven (Belgium) during the Artefact festival. Unfortunately, one of the joys of the winter was that i got very ill and had to cancel the trip. My only consolation was that Sissel Marie Tonn has kindly agreed to be interviewed about her project:

Hi Sissel! The The Intimate Earthquake Archive started with a research into the blurring between nature and culture in The Netherlands. What is so special about it in the country? Could you give a few examples?

I guess I believe that the scale of anthropocentric modifications of the biosphere has made this separation between nature and culture somewhat impossible. What I find interesting living in The Netherlands is how land management and stewardship is so integral to the Dutch cultural history and mentality.

When researching the phenomenon of the man-nmade earthquakes in Groningen I also started looking into the peat industry in the country, emerging in the 11th century, up until around the 1960s. Peat is is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and other organic matter that can be used as fuel, and the extraction methods of peat was eerily similar to the mining of fossil fuels today. When the reserves most easily accessed had been exhausted peat diggers developed new methods and technologies to reach further into the bogs and mires. This industry has left a visible mark on the landscape, where some areas look like thin-toothed combs of land strips cutting through the water-filled bogs. The peat industry has made it into the cultural history of the country as well – from social history of the poverty of the peat diggers, to developments of canals to distribute the peat, to museums, street names and archives commemorating this use of the land, and the benefits and repercussions it had on culture and life in general. Looking at this part of history I became interested in the idea of how the gas-induced earthquakes that have taken place in the province of Groningen since the mid 80s would enter into Dutch cultural history as a form of archive as well.

I had a look at this phenomenon of man-made earthquake and at the protests of the local population. From what i could read online, it’s very damaging for the houses. But you are more interested in the intricacies between nature and culture of course.

Could you explain the impact these earthquake are having on the human body of course but also maybe (if this has been documented) on the environment in general?

The starting point for this research was a curiosity towards how living with man-made ecological change changed one’s perceptions of place. I had a hunch that experiencing subtle or profound changes within ones immediate environment somehow amplified a sense of a presence of that space, giving an opportunity to grasp the interconnectedness between body and surroundings. This was something I had been working on for a while, but in 2015 I heard about this strange phenomenon – man-made earthquakes. I got in contact with some people who were living in the town where the gas was first discovered in the 60s – really lovely people that hosted me while being there.

I became interested in how they described the earthquakes: physical sensations, metaphors describing how they sounded and felt, as well as the stories they told of dealing with the bureaucracy around damage claims towards the NAM (Dutch earth gas company), the feeling of being ignored by the state and politicians for decades, and the anxiety of not knowing what could happen. The aspect of uncertainty connected with the phenomenon, and the fact that the scientifically predicted “highest magnitude” has changed (and is, essentially, impossible to calculate) brings quite a lot of anxiety and fear to the people living in this area.

I was interested in how some people claimed to wake up seconds before an earthquake was felt. To me this show a tangible relationship between what philosopher Felix Guattari calls the interconnection between the ‘social’, the ‘mental’ and the environmental ecologies. Guattari stated in his essay ’Three Ecologies’ already in ’86 that we would never be able to solve the ecological crisis without addressing these other ‘ecologies’, and I find that very interesting in the context of the man-made earthquakes. When people feel neglected by the state and industry it is as if they develop bodily attunements towards these changes – almost as a mode of survival. At around the same time I was also visiting various governmental institutes that were gathering information on the phenomenon – a huge warehouse full of all the core samples that has ever been taken from the ground, laboratories researching new opportunities for extraction in the material samples from the earth, and the seismologists working on the huge digital database of all the seismic activity recorded in the area. These very different encounters sparked the idea of creating the Intimate Earthquake Archive.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view at Artefact festival, STUK. Photo: Photo: Kristof Vrancken

How did you recreate the feeling of earthquake on bodies? Did you work with people living in the area to have feedback on how close the sensations are compared to what they feel?

The Intimate Earthquake Archive is not an attempt to recreate the feeling of an earthquake per se – it’s not an earthquake simulator. It is rather the gesture of taking a digital seismic archive (managed by the Dutch Meteorological Institute and which can be accessed here) and bring it into the realm of the sensing body – to create an opportunity to know about this phenomenon through the body (rather than the overwhelming amount of scientific information already gathered). I found it interesting that the meteorological institute had made this archive public, yet the data one can retrieve on there is very abstract to someone without specialised knowledge.

Together with artist Jonathan Reus, as well as with the technical help of Marije Baalman and Carsten Tonn-Petersen, I developed The Intimate Earthquake Archive, which connects the digital seismic archive of the man-made earthquakes in Groningen with the sensing body of the visitor. We have designed a wearable interface with embedded surface (skin) and bone conduction transducers.

We have chosen 12 earthquakes of cultural and political significance to be part of this sensory archive, and have transformed these archival data sets into vibratory compositions that move across the body and at the subsurface of the skeleton. Visitors choose which earthquake compositions they want to experience by positioning themselves within a network of long-wave radio transmitting core samples, where proximity to the samples increases the intensity of experiencing that entry. The vibrations move across the skin similarly to how the earthquakes moved across the land, and are intended to inspire a ‘deep listening’ experience within the body.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

What do visitors experience exactly? What are the sensations on the body like? How strong or unpleasant is the feeling?

The visitors put on the vests, as well as noise cancelling ear protection muffs. Then they enter the installation where, as they approach different core samples, compositions of vibrations play out on their bodies. The transducers are distributed so that there’s a mixture of vibration of the skin through parts of the body, and direct transduction of sound through the bones at other parts of the body. So what they feel is a composition for these different modes of experience, based on the seismic recordings, which communicates information on how the earth was vibrating along the x, y and z directions (measured at stations at multiple distances from the epicentre of the earthquakes). The compositions take advantage of the multiple types of vibrations that the vests allow the visitors to feel. For example with bone-conduction you have the sensation of sound coming from within the body, and from no particular direction, whereas with haptic transduction of the skin, it’s really a tactile experience. These different dimensions combined to create a kind of deep listening experience that’s internalised through the body, and this experience is strengthened by the earphones that block out all other environmental sound.

Did you manage to answer the question mentioned in the description of your work “is the sensation of a man-made earthquake fundamentally different than the sensation of a natural one?”

First of all I think there is just something fundamentally weird about the whole concept of ‘man-made earthquakes’. Earthquakes is often connected with the ‘force’ of nature, something outside of our control. But now to a larger and larger degree humans have the capacity to act as geological agents. Therefore I think there is something jarring to the experience of an earthquake that is produced by our dependence on fossil fuels. Furthermore, what I mentioned earlier about how the occurrence of these earthquakes are entwined in mistrust toward the government and industry, resulting from years of neglect and the feeling of being silenced to protect industry, as well as the anxiety of the unknown. These social and mental factors play into the experience of an environmental change that is anthropogenic, and needs to be taken into consideration.

I’m quite curious about the core samples made of sand stone that hang over the head of the audience. Why did you use sand stone?

I used sandstone because this is the kind of stone where the gas is found. I liked the idea that these hanging objects in a way represent the beginning and the end of the phenomenon (core samples being drilled to research whether that particular sedimentary strata contains gas, and the earthquake resulting from the drilling). The samples are kindly donated to us by the TNO (The Geological Survey of The Netherlands). We have been very lucky to get help and information from a lot of scientists working on the phenomenon in The Netherlands.

Why is it more important to you to transfer a physical experience rather than provide information about the phenomenon?

I am interested in moments where relations between our body and the environment around us are revealed to us, and perhaps make us more aware of our place in and effect on the earth system. I am particularly fascinated by how evolutionary processes, such as our senses and perceptual modes of attention, affect our ability to perceive environmental changes, and thereby affect our capacity to act upon them. In that sense I think it’s important to move away a bit from the more cerebral aspects of dealing with the issue of man-made ecological change. Therefore I often create wearable ‘tools’ that challenge the body’s preconfigured modes of perception, for instance by amplifying signals of environmental changes that slip below the radar of our senses, or which exist in a time other than the present. I am interested in how these ‘tools’ can create an awareness of the reciprocal relationship between the body and the surrounding environment, as well as question how artifacts, forms of knowledge, and architecture, shape our perception of the environment. What can we take from these situations, where people living with man-made ecological changes start relying more on the senses of their own bodies than that of scientific measurement systems? I am interested in implicating the body of the visitor, of showing that these changes (in the larger picture) will fundamentally affect the body, and perhaps that we need to attune our bodies more towards these changes in order to act upon them.

Sissel Marie Tonn in collaboration with Jonathan Reus-Brodsky, Sensory Cartographies (video still), 2016

Sissel Marie Tonn in collaboration with Jonathan Reus-Brodsky, Sensory Cartographies, 2016

You designed The Intimate Earthquake Archive as “a kind of test ground for the visitor to attune herself to a future marked by man-made geological change.” Is this something you are interested in pursuing beyond TIEA? And which kind of other man-made geological change do you think you should brace ourselves for?

I am working with Jonathan Reus on an ongoing research-based project called Sensory Cartographies, in which we develop worn biometric and body-extension instruments that challenge the body’s pre-conditioned modes of paying attention. We see them as way-finding apparatuses for reshaping a worldview – knowing momentarily without focus – creating an alternative cartography that is attentive to subtle fluctuations of change.

Sissel Marie Tonn, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. Image courtesy of the artist

Sissel Marie Tonn, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. Image courtesy of the artist

You have recently installed another of your artworks, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. What is the project about?

Becoming Escargotapien is a project I started last year. It deals with the many ways in which the human body is fundamentally entangled with the surrounding world. Living in a world where bi-products of industry seep into our bodies, where ocean acidification bleaches coral reefs and perforate the shells of mollusks, and plastics make it back into our bodies, it seems urgent to me to think about what power-laden distinctions we draw between nature and culture (as we talked about earlier), but also between human and non-human, and between body and environment in general. The Escargotapien is a speculative species I have invented, a kind of tool to explore these distinctions through a story.

The installation that I set up at Jan van Eyck consists of a spoken ‘tale’ that connects the developments of calcified matter in organisms during the Cambrian Explosion with contemporary use of 3d printing technologies used in regenerative medicine. Specifically, it deals with the use of mother-of-pearl as material for reconstructing human bone: Some 550 million years ago, when the oceans underwent a sudden mineralization, the soft organisms of these ancient waters started developing spinal cords and exoskeletons. From then on, species developed along separate paths. But something in the body still recall this shared past, making this marriage of bone and nacre (mother-of-pearl) possible today – bone doesn’t easily forget its mineral origins. Similarly, fossils of the deep past can reveal astounding facts about their environments through material traces embedded in the petrified bone.

The tale is told through a direct vibratory connection between the bone of the visitor and the 3d-printed ‘porosified’ fossil making up the listening devices (the sound is transmitted through a bone-conducting transducer). The tale almost becomes embedded into the body of the visitor, as a felt memory of vibration, that they take with them – for a while at least.

The installation also contained an architectural intervention into the studio space, where the floor was raised in order to bring visitors close to the windows. The movements of the outside world is thus brought into closer relation with the immersive experience of listening/being in the space. The soft ‘mat’ covering the platform requires the visitor to balance and move differently around the space, while being made aware of the repercussions of such small perceptual changes and repositioning of the body, through the audio.

Thanks Sissel!

The Intimate Earthquake Archive was at Artefact Festival, STUK, Leuven, BE and is shown again as part of Hyberobjects Exhibition which opens on 13 April at Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, TX, USA.

Book review: Nonhuman Photography

Nonhuman Photography, by Joanna Zylinska, a writer, lecturer, artist, curator and Professor of New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

On amazon UK and USA.

Publisher MIT Press writes: Today, in the age of CCTV, drones, medical body scans, and satellite images, photography is increasingly decoupled from human agency and human vision. In Nonhuman Photography, Joanna Zylinska offers a new philosophy of photography, going beyond the human-centric view to consider imaging practices from which the human is absent. Zylinska argues further that even those images produced by humans, whether artists or amateurs, entail a nonhuman, mechanical element—that is, they involve the execution of technical and cultural algorithms that shape our image-making devices as well as our viewing practices. At the same time, she notes, photography is increasingly mobilized to document the precariousness of the human habitat and tasked with helping us imagine a better tomorrow. With its conjoined human-nonhuman agency and vision, Zylinska claims, photography functions as both a form of control and a life-shaping force.

Zylinska explores the potential of photography for developing new modes of seeing and imagining, and presents images from her own photographic project, Active Perceptual Systems. She also examines the challenges posed by digitization to established notions of art, culture, and the media. In connecting biological extinction and technical obsolescence, and discussing the parallels between photography and fossilization, she proposes to understand photography as a light-induced process of fossilization across media and across time scales.

Tong Lam, Abandoned Futures (Awaji Island, Japan)

Bonamy Devas, Photographic Tai Chi

Author Joanna Zylinska combines media studies with philosophy, cultural theory and other humanistic disciplines to make us consider the role that the proliferation of images, and especially images detached from human agency and vision, can play in the age of the Anthropocene. For her, photography can do more than visually represent this new, daunting geological epoch. It can also make us look beyond the anxieties brought about by the possibility of the end of world as we know it and produce new ways of seeing that are more ethical, more responsible and less anthropocentric than the ones we are familiar with.

Nadav Kander, Dust (The Aral Sea I, Officer’s Housing, Kazakhstan), 2011

The notion of “nonhuman photography” proposed in the book and its companion website encapsulates three different yet interconnected types of images:

The often uncanny-looking photographs that are devoid of human (vast, depopulated expansive landscapes, for example);

A second type of non human photographs are the ones that have not been made by the human: images produced by traffic control cameras, microphotography equipment, medical body scans, satellites, night cameras, Google Street View, drones, etc. For the author, this type of nonhuman photography can also be the result of deep-time “impressioning” processes, such as fossilization;

Finally, the term can also define the photographs that are not for the human and that escape our understanging. Mosty QR codes and other algorithmic modes of machine communication that rely on photographic technology.

Joanna Zylinska, The Vanishing Object of Technology, 2012

There are many reasons why i’d like to recommend this book to you: its limpid style, its perspectives on a media that has become so ubiquitous many have stopped taking it seriously, the portrayal of the mutual intertwining between organic and machinic agents in the production of vision, the parallels the author makes between biological extinction and technical obsolescence, etc. What made the book particularly engrossing is its anchoring in technology, cultural studies and art. Zylinska demonstrates her deep understanding of these different viewpoints when she uses photographic works to illustrate and comment on each of her arguments. I’ll close this overview of Nonhuman Photography with some of these artworks:

Erica Scourti, So Like You, 2014. Photo

Erica Scourti put some of her family photos through the ‘search by image’ function of google. The result is a collection of images of and taken by strangers. By creating multiple mirror versions of her own life, the artist invites us to reassess our perception of what counts as human uniqueness.

Richard Whitlock, The Street, 2012

Véronique Ducharme, Encounters, 2012-2013

For the Encounters series, Véronique Ducharme used a hunting camera which detects movement and heat to trigger the exposure. The animals portrayed exist beyond human control. Their ghostly images could come from a world devoid of any human.

Juliet Ferguson, Stolen Images (Launderette 24hr cycle), 2012

A series of images taken over a 24-hour period at the top of each hour through cctv cameras that can be accessed online.