Category Archives: green

CCTV cameras, robots and urban animals. An interview with Teresa Dillon

Putting Teresa Dillon inside a neatly labelled box is impossible. She is an artist, educator and researcher whose practice involves works as diverse as a performance inspired by women whose skin and hair turned yellow while working in WW1 ammunition factories, cardboard structures that explore the affects surveillance architectures have on non-human animals, collective bike rides for energy harvesting, talks & workshops that probe into the mechanisms governing urban life, etc. If that were not enough, she is also the principal investigator at Repair Acts (a multidisciplinary network of people concerned with the necessity to foster a repair, care and maintenance culture) and a Professor of City Futures at the School of Art and Design, University of West England (UWE) in Bristol.


Teresa Dillon, Are You Still Watching?, 2017. Image credit: Ministry of Transport, Sustainable Mobility and Transport Electrification of the Quebec Government

I’ve been meaning to interview her for ages and the upcoming Nø School summer school (where we’ll both be teaching and workshoping along with artists, academics, hackers and other amazing people) in Nevers, France, gave me an excuse to finally get in touch with her.


Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018


Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018

In this interview, we mostly talked about a performance that explores her relationship with machines, her involvement in repair culture and technology’s impact on other animal species.

Hi Teresa! I’m very moved by AMHARC, Are You Still Watching? and other works of yours that look at the impact that technologies and in particular surveillance technologies have on non-human animals. It’s an under-explored area of investigation. At least that’s my impression. What drove you to explore the effect that technology has on other species and in particular on urban wildlife?

Thanks Régine. I agree that dialogues relating to surveillance, technology and cities have largely been human-centered. My motivation to explore the area is rooted across multiple vectors. In my human-ness, I’ve always felt very animal and that our human-ness emerges from an entanglement with other species and our environs. So this base sits within my work and is expressed in different manners through performances, sound works, writing, research and installations, I’ve made in relation to survival and the techno-civic.

The specific turn towards the effect of technology on other species emerged from work during the mid-2000s projects like OFFLOAD, Systems for Survival (2007), Come Outside (2005), The Listening Chair all took urban space as the carrier so to speak, through which relationships between nature, ecology, systems thinking and cybernetics were explored. These projects were collaborative works, which I created under the name polarproduce and involved many others, such as the artist Kathy Hinde. Back then we were operating from a post-apocalyptic, post-tipping point feeling and so the work embodied these ideas, that is the earthly, physical, bodily and material relations of consumption and its effects on the environs.

For example for Come Outside we took 25 people on a 2km bike ride in the city. Each bike was augmented with a battery, when the ride was completed, we joined the batteries together and attempted to boil the water for one cup of tea, while delivering a performative lecture on energy transfer under a tree. The Listening Chair simply used a mic to pick up surrounding urban sound at the level of a bat for example, and then transduced this into a range that humans could ‘hear’ like a bat.

I’ve also been interested in the effect of what is defined as noise pollution on animal life and this got extended through research I was carrying out in Berlin between 2014-2016, on how artists (such as Mario De Vega, Martin Howse, Christina Kubisch) are making the human made electromagnetic spectrum (EM) in cities audible. This work led specifically to exploring the effect of EM increase on animal and wildlife.

While this research was developing, I was commissioned to make UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG (2016), which drew on the image of the snowy owl that went viral in 2016. Typically millions of pounds are spent trying to keep birds off such cameras. So there is a tension in this image, the symbol of the owl, celebrated versus the CCTV camera. The installation blows up the scale of the camera, accentuating the bird spikes as hostile architectures, which are designed to ward off birds, or anything that is disruptive to the commercial norm of the city. Low-profile solutions like ultraviolet gels are also used. Birds see in UV and so perceive the gel as a fire, which disrupts their flight patterns.

I’d argue such tactics are similar to what Rob Nixon refers to as forms of slow violence in that it’s not spectacular nor instantaneous but incremental, the effects of which are not necessarily immediate but take place over longer time frames.

Are You Still Watching (2016) extends UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG by contextualising the history of the CCTV camera, its a performative lecture/set design, which also pulls out some animal stories like the owl, or security person who did not want to take care of a dog, which lead to closed-circuits been used as an alternative.

AMHRAC (2018, pronounced arc, it’s the Irish for vision or sight) takes this notion of slow violence further, with the installation itself, taking the form of a totem pole and UV ‘screen’, as a way to imagine spaces of clearing, healing, protection and memory. This is currently developing long paths that look at the histories of animal rights and standing in the city.


Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007


Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007


Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006


Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006


Do you see any sign that technology and science are being used in a way that genuinely benefit other living species? On the one hand, it would look like a good idea because of the dramatic loss of biodiversity so we need to use any tool available to slow down this erosion of biodiversity. On the other, we might not want to trust the tendency to use technology to try and solve problems that have often been created by technology in the first place.

If we speak about technology broadly as a tool, then we could argue that one of its main uses has been to extract capital and this includes capital from non-human species. This is where the narrative has to change. Even when technology is used for the common good, which can encompass other species, the narrative tends to the anthropocentric. The origin of such thinking can be traced back to some of the first stories, we told ourselves like in the Bible where we proclaimed that ‘man’ has the ‘right’ to rule over “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures” (Genesis 1:26). Contextualised in these anthropocentric ways, it becomes very difficult then to answer what is a ‘genuine’ benefit. Therefore there is a deprogramming and decolonisation of the mind and culture that has to happen, and is happening and many people are working on this, which includes bettering the conditions of species with and without tech intervention.


Teresa Dillon, MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life, 2018


Your performance MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life explores the machines that have shaped your “technological know-how and imagination.” Could you explain us what happens over the course of the performance?

Yeah sure, I trace my cyborg life – starting for example with when I was born and placed in an incubator. I spent the first six days of my life in this machine and this is where the story starts. The script which I wrote is approx., 45 mins long, I inhabit the space of the story teller and its intended to be entertaining and goes through for example – the first time I ‘saw’ and ‘used’ the Internet, ICQ, bought a mobile phone, put on a VR head set, shook hands with a robot. I also give some social context or name people who have been instrumental or key to the moment. So the narrative is tech driven but links to people and place. I have created a simple stage design, some noise feedback and worked with the visual artist Luke Bennett (transforma) on the current irritation of images, which are like a triptych that bounce between loops of visual feedback, to photos, comic cut outs, etc, which augment the script. This summer, I’m working to further developing set design, as I will be performing it in Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, on 25th and 26th August.



I imagine that although MTCD talks about computers and other engineered devices, it must have a very intimate component. How much of your private life do you think you are revealing with that performance? And conversely, how much in the performance reflects the direct experiences of the public?

It’s revealing too a point about my personal life and perhaps one could infer many other things from it but in trying to keep faithful to a certain track, which describes the encounter with the tech – e.g., what it felt like to touch, what I sensually remembered, who was around when the encounter happened, where was it situated. This allows, I hope for some balance, without it falling down some nostalgic or narcissistic hole. In keeping to specific details, I would hope that some form of extrapolation can occur that allows the audience to locate themselves in the narrative – oh where was I then; or oh yeah, I remember that…. and to make connects.

Some of the public feedback to date has been interesting, people connecting to the story and resonating with parts of it. I am aware of my privilege but I was particularly moved when some young women spoke to me several months after seeing the performance at transmediale 2018 and shared not just how it made media archaeology feel alive for them. It opened up a conversation about our individual and collective ‘she-tories’ and women’s position and representation in media and tech. Basically, the 2017 story connects to how the first sex robot brothels were opened in Glasgow and Barcelona, with robot names like ‘Frigid Farrah’. Farrah is an Arabic name meaning ‘happy, joyful’, I trust, I don’t have to explain what is at play here with the selection of such a name, alongside the connotations of been frigid. Farrah is marketed as been shy and reserved with ‘personality settings’ so you can essentially tweak her level of submission. Between this and the release and pretty fast take down of Microsoft’s Tay, AI chatbot in 2016 and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics report on Our Sexual Future with Robots also released in 2017, which notes how sex robots are mainly gendered as female models with pornographic bodies. These ‘inventions’ and reports mean we are in the midst of a whole ‘new’ set of values, assumptions and possibilities, that will fundamentally shift how we sensually and sexually engage with each other, which opens up a whole other set of questions.

Sorry for a question that will probably make me look silly but what does MTCD stand for exactly?

MTCD is basically my full name in its initial form but I like the way, it also sounds like ‘empty CD’ and looks it might be an acronym.


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Fraser Denholm


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Yvi Philipp


I love that you sometimes use super low-tech or no-tech materials (like cardboard) to comment on technology. Is that a conscious strategy?

Yes completely. I ‘grew up’ somewhat in the tradition of performance and live art, where for some documenting work was not considered appropriate, as performance is live, it happens in the moment, creating an artefact therefore was not in keeping with the medium. Of course the latter leads to questions of intention and economies but this temporal constraint really appeals to me, as does the affect that post a performance not much is left, aside from these energetic scars in the atmospheres so to speak. So when I found myself working more with objects, it seemed natural when coming from this background that I worked with leftover, discarded material, stuff found on the street that could disappear easily and be turned into material for lighting a fire if needed.


You are the principal investigator at Repair Acts. It is easy imagine what a hacker, an environmentalist or an engineer might bring to the culture of caring, repairing and maintaining. How about the artist then? What can an artistic perspective bring when it comes to stimulating that same culture?

Is it easy to imagine (*/*) or is this the provocation? I mean hacking and engineering are often exploiting the weakness, which is already seeking out the vulnerability and this may not automatically lead to care, particularly if we think how ethics and responsibility have not necessarily been central to the education or training of these professional practices.

More specifically when speaking to artistic practices, I often reference Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Art from 1969, which for me is a pivotal reference here, Laderman Ukeles, refers to two instincts the death and life instinct, she associates the death instinct to separation, individuality, ‘following one’s own path to death’; the life instinct is about unification, the eternal return, maintenance. Development and progression is linked to the death instinct the continual need for the new; maintenance, care and repair is linked to the life system, it’s the boring everyday stuff we need to do to keep the ‘things alive’. I’ve written a short piece for the Screen City Journal titled “Working the Break Point: Maintenance, Repair and Failure in Art” (2017) which goes some way to addressing your question, starting with Laderman Ukeles and linking her work to studies in repair from sociology, geography and other disciplines; and to the work of other artists working in the fields of glitch art, and on topics relating to planned obsoletism, systems esthetics and so forth. Artistic perspectives have lots then to bring to the table when it comes to repair cultures and their associated forms of attention, such as care, maintenance and recuperation. Repair Acts was a first step in bringing together different people, their skills and disciplinary knowledge’s together on the topic. The project is ongoing with collaborators and collaborations forming in various countries, so more will be happening in this space. The most recent of which has been the completion of a mapping exercise called “My Square Mile”, which explores changes in businesses registered as carrying out repairs between 1938-2018 in a square mile of around my neighbourhood in the UK, we will now be going forward with this in other cities. A square mile is a good lens through which to observe changes, the research also explores the visual identities associated with repair practices.


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance, 1973. Photo: Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (via)

There seems to be a growing interest in repairing and taking care of our objects, whether they are electronics or items of clothing. Do you see the industry pushing back against it or are they trying to adapt and accommodate our growing concerns about waste and consumerism?

Phew have you got some hours ☺ Major shifts are simultaneously occurring, on one hand we have the Ecodesign Directive, which recently pushed through legislation that will kick off in 2021 and require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, lights and fridges to make their products easier to repair. You have organisations like Restart in London, who are championing policy change and repair parties; iFixit, in the US established in 2003, they have been publishing manuals on how to repair everyday consumer items and produced the Repair Manifesto; on a corporate level, Patagonia consider repair as central to the brand identity and declare repair as a radical act.

When taken seriously repair pushes the question of how we make things in the first instance further up the production chain and demands we make better quality, open products from the start, rather than waiting to recycle or deal with an objects end of life, when it is in a more wasted state.

Across the US, since 2013 The Repair Association has been working on state and federal legislation. So all this is happening but it will be interesting to see when and where this legislation actually hits practice. As you note there is lots of industry kick back, with Apple, John Deere the tractor manufacturer and others finding loops holes, resisting and going in the opposition direction. Essentially they know how necessary and economically viable repair is and yet they want to not just control this market by locking out third parties, but they also want to lock us down into product cycles by gluing, screwing, scaling down parts, bumping you off software, so that objects cannot be repaired or become redundant. If we are to hit UN sustainability goals relating to responsible consumption and production by 2030 then it’s difficult to see how without some serious enforcement, such changes in practices can happen. In response to this creative work arounds will and are always emerging, as will new black markets, growing pressures, green workers movements and changes in practices and politics. All these elements play into this and so when you speak about adapts and accommodations it’s a very complex, involving diverse global flows and relations that become sited in for example laws, standards, scrap yards and workbenches and the square mile around your home and studio.


Any upcoming event, field of research or work you could share with us?


Sure! Some immediate stuff happening over this summer, which relates to all the above includes: Formats of Care with my colleagues in Soft Agency at Floating University, Berlin, 13-16 June 2019; NØ SCHOOL, International Summer School, Nevers, France, 1-14 July 2019 and the MTCD performance at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, 29-30 Aug 2019. I’ve also got some stuff cooking with artists Joana Moll and Jana Barthel and there are some publications coming out (hopefully soon), including ‘Listening Around: Sonic Extractions of the Electromagnetic Spectrum’ in the Journal of Sonic Studies and with colleagues from the University of the West of England, a paper titled ‘Interspecies Urban Planning, Reimagining City Infrastructures with Slime Mould’, which will be in an edited collection of works by Andrew Adamatzky titled Slime Mould in Arts and Architecture (River Publishers.)

Thanks Teresa!

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.

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.

Life on a Post-Water planet

A few days ago, i visited the National Museum of the Mountain in Turin. Located “on Monte dei Cappuccini, the Museo Nazionale della Montagna “Duca degli Abruzzi” commands splendid panoramic views of a large sweep of the Alps and the city of Turin below,” its website says. The view is indeed imposing (as my crappy shot below will attest) and the presence of the mountains nearby makes the current temporary exhibition Post-Water all the more affecting. The title sounds like a threat. Is any life even possible in a post-water world?


Francesco Jodice, Aral, Citytellers, 2008

It’s difficult not to contemplate the possibility of an arid future when you realize how much climate change is affecting the Alps. Snow season is shortening; tourism relies more than ever on artificial snow to keep its industry prosperous (which rather ironically further depletes water reserves); glaciers have shrunk to half their earlier size, and by the end of the century all the Alpine glaciers, with a few exceptions, may well have melted away. The consequences are rock falls, more landslides and even national borders that need to be redrawn (as Studio Folder’s Italian Limes demonstrates.)

The art show, curated by Andrea Lerda, explores the ecological and socio-political issues that accompany the water crisis. The works of about twenty artists are accompanied by photos from the museum archives and by a series of texts written by scientists for the exhibition. In her contribution, for example, expert in Atmospheric Physics Elisa Palazzi explains that the water emergency concerns each of us. The global warming conditions that are having such devastating effects on the nearby glaciers are affecting the rest of our planet. Higher temperatures have led to an increase in water evaporation from the oceans and the soils. This higher concentration of vapour in the atmosphere has brought about more intense rainfall and an increase in the risk of fire and droughts. This in turn will have (and is already having) an impact on biodiversity as well as on agriculture and economic systems upon which many human activities depend.

We already know all that and more of course. And yet, what are we doing? Hopefully, the works selected for the Post-Water exhibition will drive us to reflect on our individual responsibility and incite us to call for more governmental action to address climate change.

Here’s a quick tour of the works i found most inspiring. And alarming:


Olivo Barbieri, Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System CA (from the series “American Monument and Monument”), 2017

Inaugurated in 2014, Ivanpah is the largest thermodynamic solar power plant in the world. Located in the Mojave desert in California, the massive complex deploys 173,500 heliostats and is able to meet the needs of about 140,00 homes.

Despite its very low impact in terms of emissions, the plant raises a number of environmental concerns. One of them is the enormous amounts of water that Ivanpah, located in a drought-prone state, requires to cool its infrastructure. The solar thermal plant is the testimony that there is no quick fix to our energy crisis.


Francesco Jodice, Baikonur, 2008


Francesco Jodice, Aral, Citytellers, 2008


Francesco Jodice, Aral, Citytellers, 2008

Francesco Jodice, Aral_Citytellers (excerpt)

Back in 1954, the Soviet Union turned the Vozrozhdeniya island in the Aral Sea into a classified military town, a secret base for testing chemical and bacteriological weapons. By the 1960s, the island began to grow in size as the sea around it was drying up. Starting in 1959, the Soviet government decided to divert the course of its two tributaries to irrigate a large area in central Asia and introduce the cultivation of cotton. It turned out to be a tragic engineering mistake. The area is now an ecological disaster, former fishing towns have become ship graveyards and the Aral Sea has declined to 10% of its original size.

Today, the Vozrozhdeniya island is one of the most contaminated sites in the world. The receding sea has left plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals resulting from weapons testing, industrial activity, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff. These substances form a toxic dust that winds spread throughout the region. Local communities are suffering from a lack of fresh water, poor quality crops and health problems.

The other element of this devastating Cold War scientific-military experiment is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located at the East of the Aral Sea, by the city of the same name. Although the city is in Kazakhstan, it is still administered by the Russian Federation. It is from this remote area that humans first sent a satellite, an animal and a man into orbit. The site not only constitutes a geopolitical Russian invasion in Kazakh territories, it is also littered with debris and trash from space missions and experiments, adding to the general feeling of abandonment and contamination of the region.

In Aral_Citytellers, artist Francesco Jodice explores the social, geopolitical and environmental aspects of life in the Aral region. The film is part of the Citytellers trilogy which explores future social conditions in Dubai, Aral Sea and Sao Paulo, areas which are going through drastic geopolitical changes. The film is a video essay, a documentary and a work of video art at the same time. It combines unhurried rhythm, spellbinding images and very relatable characters.


Frank Hurley, By early Spring the Endurance is in a hopeless situation, 1916 (Silver bromide gelatin print from the original negative)

A century ago a ship sank beneath the ice of the Weddell Sea off Antarctica. Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew had planned to cross Antarctica from coast to coast. But after a six-day gale in January 1915, the Endurance became trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea. The ship would remain trapped in the ice for 10 months until the crushing forces of the ice eventually breached its hull.

Australian photographer Frank Hurley recorded the last days of the Endurance and the crew’s struggle to stay alive.

Hurley figured out how to take pictures in the dark, without artificial lights. He would light a flare, holding it with one hand to illuminate the scene while taking a photo with the other. His photo of a ship literally frozen in the ice reminds us how different the situation is today. The ice is melting faster than ever, the region, once regarded as inhospitable and dangerous, has become a tourist destination and a place to observe the evidence of climate change.

I read this morning that researchers embarked on an icebreaker are hoping find the wreckage of the lost vessel later this week.


Adam Jeppesen, Ar Chalten I (from the series Folded), 2014

Adam Jeppesen travelled for 487 days, from the north pole to the Antarctic with a photo camera as his sole companion. He documented the vast expanses but it is the materiality of his images that best embodies the landscapes he encountered.

He printed his pictures of majestic glaciers onto rice paper and then folded them. The result are large-scale images that look fragile and are creased like maps. They offer a poignant contrast to the seemingly everlasting appearance of the glaciers.


Mario Fantin, Expedition to the South-East Greenland: ethnographic and archaeological mission, 1966

In 1966, alpinist and documentary maker Mario Fantin made two trips to Greenland. The photos he took to document the adventures are now testimony of a constantly changing world. According to climate model predictions, sea ice in the Arctic could have disappeared in summer by 2040. Less conservative models and recent satellite images, however, suggest that it will come before 2020. The accelerating melting of the ice, year after year, will have a dramatic impact on the climate system. It will also open up new routes for the shipping and oil industry and thus an intensification of pollution in the region.

More works and images from the exhibition:


Ana Mendieta, Ocean Bird (Washup), 1974


Laura Pugno, A futura memoria, 2018


Bepi Ghiotti, unknown source, Bali, 2015


Jeppe Hein, Who Am I Why Am I Where Am I Going, 2017


Giuseppe Penone, Alpi Marittime, 1968


Mario Fantin, Italian expedition at K2 (aka Mount Godwin Austen, in the Karakoram range) thermal water sources, Chogo. Left to right: Lino Lacedelli, Cirillo Floreanini, Sergio Viotto, 1954


William Henry Jackson, Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, 1898


Post-Water. Exhibition view at Museo Nazionale della Montagna, 2018 @Museo Nazionale della Montagna CAI Torino


Post-Water. Exhibition view at Museo Nazionale della Montagna, 2018 @Museo Nazionale della Montagna CAI Torino


Post-Water. Exhibition view at Museo Nazionale della Montagna, 2018 @Museo Nazionale della Montagna CAI Torino

Post-Water, curated by Andrea Lerda, is at the Museo Nazionale della Montagna in Turin until 17 March 2019.

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.

Paleo-energy: a counter-history of energy

“The history of energy is neither linear nor Darwinian. It is full of forgotten fantastic innovations…”


Augustin Mouchot and Abel Pifre, the first solar power printing press, 1882. Photo: Le petit inventeur

In 1866, Augustin Mouchot unveiled the world’s first parabolic solar collector and later used it to print newspapers in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. At the end of the 19th century, pharmacologist Raphaël Dubois used photobacteria to generate light. Decades later, Nikola Tesla was working on a system that would transmit energy wirelessly, cheaply and over long distance. In 1947, Jean Laigret announced he had identified the bacterium that produces oil and could use it to turn organic waste into petroleum. His patent was never turned into a large scale venture and fell into oblivion.

Other energy efficient ideas are surprisingly mundane but remain overlooked: the pressure cooker, the Japanese kotatsu to keep your feet and legs warm during the winter and the Potato Patch Plan launched in 1894 by the mayor of Detroit Hazen Pingree to allow poor people to use vacant city land for growing food (saving thus on the energy and costs required to pack, ship, transform and sell produce.)

Others like the light bulbs that last for over a hundred year and Alkaline batteries that can be recharged up to 25 times don’t have the lucrative allure of planned obsolescence.


M. Leroy, The electric 2CV Citroën with propellers, 1974


The Bicycle Ride at Steeplechase Park in 1942. It was the oldest ride in the park at the time and dated from 1897. Acme Newsphotos

Many of these inventions were smart and efficient. The economy, culture and politics of the time explain why they have not been adopted widely. But today, it is urgent that we give them the consideration they deserve.


President Jimmy Carter dedicating the solar-thermal panels on the roof of the White House, 20 June 1979

The lack of support by governments is probably the most grating cause for their vanishing from public consciences. The case of The White House solar panels is a depressing example of a country that goes backwards at the expense of the environment and the health of its citizens. In 1979, Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the famous presidential residence to heat water. By 1986, the Reagan administration had slashed the budgets for renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and gave priority again to fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers. That same year, they also quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation.

The members of Paléo Energétique comb through collections of dusty DIY magazines and archives to uncover forgotten patents, innovations and prototypes about the production of energy. The aim of their open source, collaborative research project is to share these forgotten ideas with engineers, designers and the broad public in order to shape collectively a more affordable and more eco-friendly energy future.

The website Paléo Energétique documents some of these surprising inventions from the past. If you want to learn even more about this research project (and you read french), i recommend you get your hands on the book Rétrofutur. Une contre-histoire des innovations énergétiques, by designer and researcher Cédric Carles, artist and engineer Thomas Ortiz, critic and writer Éric Dussert. With contributions by Ewen Chardronnet, Kevin Desmond, Ludovic Duhem, Alain Gras, etc. Published by Edition Buchet et Chastel.

Along with the presentation of each paleo-energy invention, the book contains essays that reflect on the meaning of technological progress, the ambivalent role of patents, the history of electric aviation, design fiction, artistic visions of energy, etc.

Here’s a couple of the most surprising green energy inventions from the past:


Ferdinand Porsche, Egger-Lohner electric car from 1898 (photo)

In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche presented the Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, C.2 Phaeton model (known as the ‘P1’ for short), the world’s first Porsche but also an electrically motored vehicle. It was fairly fast, had a range of around 80 km but its batteries were so heavy the vehicle could not be driven up steep roads.


Camille Jenatzy, La Jamais Contente, 1899

La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied”) was the first road vehicle to go over 100 kilometres per hour. It was an electric car and used ultra light materials to compensate for the weight of the engine and batteries.


Augustin Mouchot and Abel Pifre, the first solar power printing press, 1882 (photo)

In 1866, after six years of work, Augustin Mouchot and his assistant Abel Pifre produced the world’s first parabolic solar collector. Mouchot’s device, developed 15 years before the dawn of commercial electricity generation, was used in demonstrations to power pumps, print newspapers in Paris and even ice-making machines.


Antoine Lavoisier, Heating soles, around 1780. Photo

Antoine Lavoisier, a French 18th-century chemist known for Lavoisier’s Law about the conservation of mass (“Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” in English, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”), imagined this pair heating soles. You would fill them with hot water and they’d keep your feet nice and toasty for a few hours.


Cynophère, a dog-powered bicycle invented in 1875 by M. Huret (photo)


A photophone receiver and headset, one half of Bell and Tainter’s optical telecommunication system of 1880 (photo)

While Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the telephone, uses electricity to transmit voice communications, the Photophone relied on a beam of light to send sound. A person’s voice was projected through an instrument toward a mirror. The vibrations of the voice caused vibrations in the mirror. Sunlight was then directed into the mirror, where the vibrations were captured and projected back to the photophone’s receiver where they were converted back into sound.

Bell believed that the photophone was “the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone”. The photophone was indeed a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems but it didn’t take off during his time simply because the system was useless whenever the weather was cloudy.


Fill Those Empty Seats. Car Sharing is a “Must”!, 1941-1945 (photo)

Propaganda poster distributed by the United States government during World War II to encourage carpooling among American citizens and conserve gasoline for the war. Another famous such posters read When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Hitler


Gyrobus (electric city buses powered by heavy spinning wheels) in Leopoldville, Congo, mid-1950s. Photo

M. Leroy, The electric 2CV Citroën with propellers, 1974

Luud Schimmelpennink, the Witcar

The “Witkar”, or white car, was the world’s first electric car-sharing scheme. Created by social inventor and politician, Luud Schimmelpennink, these small environmentally-acceptable vehicles took to the roads in 1974 in a bid to tackle pollution on the streets of Amsterdam.

The Architecture of Closed Worlds. Or, What Is the Power of Shit?

The Architecture of Closed Worlds. Or, What Is the Power of Shit?, by architect, engineer and curator Lydia Kallipoliti.

On amazon USA and UK.

Lars Müller Publishers describe the book: What do outer space capsules, submarines, and office buildings have in common? Each is conceived as a closed system: a self-sustaining physical environment demarcated from its surroundings by a boundary that does not allow for the transfer of matter or energy. The Architecture of Closed Worlds is a genealogy of self-reliant environments. Contemporary discussions about global warming, recycling, and sustainability have emerged as direct conceptual constructs related to the study and analysis of closed systems.

From the space program to countercultural architectural groups experimenting with autonomous living, this publication documents a disciplinary transformation and the rise of a new environmental consensus in the form of a synthetic naturalism. It presents an archive of 37 historical living prototypes from 1928 to the present that put forth an unexplored genealogy of closed resource regeneration systems.


Ant Farm, Clean Air Pod, 1970

If the title of this book doesn’t get your attention, i don’t know what will. Its content deserves all your consideration too. It’s excellent.

Air conditioned office buildings, shopping malls, airplanes, even large areas of cities work as enclosed worlds. But what happens when you push the experiment further? When you attempt to re-create a miniature Earth on Earth (as with Biosphere 2), install villages on the ocean floor or live in isolation with a few other men as if on a journey to Mars?


Auguste Piccard, FNRS Balloon to Stratosphere, 1931


John McHale, Man Plus Exoskeletal System, 1972

Lydia Kallipoliti authored an architecture publication in which architecture assumes a minor role compared to the ones played by biological science, technology and human resilience. Each of the “living prototypes” she examines explores new ideas on autonomy, inter-connectivity, environmentalism and survival.

One of the most striking lessons of the book is that it is extremely difficult to create a miniaturized world without inheriting some of the problems of the surrounding world. No matter how much control was exerted on the synthetic habitats, no matter how ambitious the vision, the breadth of of engineering and human ingeniosity, the results were marred by surprisingly mundane obstacles: gerbils outsmarting the machine, bacteria loss, fingernails and skin infiltrating collectors or simply the difficulty of implementing behavioural changes.

Closed Worlds also raises questions i had never considered. The central one being that shit (and any other type of waste) is part of the ecology of life. Without the digestion and re-circulation of resources and junk you cannot achieve environmental autonomy.

There are 37 historical prototypes in the book. Some evoke fears of nuclear bombs, toxic air quality or imminent ecological collapse. None really manages to solve the problem that motivated the research in the first place. Each prototype is described with a clear language, even with humour sometimes. The presentation is accompanied by a brief analysis of what went wrong in the experiment, a feedback drawing that illustrates the fluxes of resources and often also with a short essay by an architect or other expert who has an in-depth understanding of the prototype discussed.

The Architecture of Closed Worlds is the catalogue of an exhibition that took place at two years ago at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Along with the 37 “Living Prototypes”, the book features a colour-coded timeline that charts their model and how they fare from the point of view of consumption and production of resources as well as the transcripts of lectures given as part of the exhibition programming.

Here are some of the prototypes evaluated in the book:


The Cunningham Sanitarium, Cleveland, ca. 1928

Once the largest hyperbaric chamber ever built, Cunningham Sanitarium was a spherical steel structure designed to maintain a pressurized atmosphere and treat various diseases with ‘abundant oxygen’.


Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, the Aqua-lung, 1942

Aqua-Lung was an open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) that allowed Cousteau and Gagnan to become “amphibian men” and film and explore more easily underwater.


Snapshots from NASA’s promotional motion picture for television, The Case for Regeneration (1960), illustrating daily practices of personal hygiene and nutrition. From the US National Archives, College Park, Maryland

In the early 1960s, the NASA isolated 4 men in a sealable steel spherical hull. The Living Pod was designed to take care of the basic physiological requirements of its inhabitants for a full year, with minimal re-supply once every three months. NASA documented in real-time the residency of the crew in a promotional motion picture for television entitled The Case for Regeneration.

The experiment involved the conversion of all human waste into oxygen, water, and, it was hoped, food. In the enclosed experiment, the subjects experienced nausea, headaches and eventually contaminated the system with their human waste. Shed hair, fingernails and skin started infiltrating the collectors. The experiment ended before the scheduled date.

This failure was a demonstration of the difficulty of ensuring the 100% recyclability of waste required of closed-loop systems.


Peter Caine and the Street Farm collective, the Eco-House, 1972

The experiment i found most inspiring happens to be a dwelling system built with so little concern for aesthetics that its neighbours called it an “eyesore” and were delighted when it was demolished.

Peter Caine, a member of the Street Farm collective built one of the earliest ecological houses in central London. The Eco-House was built as a laboratory and living experiment. It was a fully functional, integrated system that converted human waste to methane for cooking and grew fruits and veggies in a hydroponic greenhouse.

For two years, Caine and his family were part of the house’s digestive loop.

The house required constant care and the symbiotic relationship between dwelling and dwellers was such that the house got sick when Caine got sick.


Mars500, Collaboration of Russia, China, and the European Space Agency (ESA), Moscow, Russia, 2007–2011. Photo: European Space Agency

The MARS500 mission was a psychosocial isolation experiment run by the European Space Agency, the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems and China, in preparation for an unspecified future manned spaceflight to Mars.

The final stage of the experiment, which was intended to simulate a 520-day manned mission was conducted by an all-male crew. The mock-up setting simulated an Earth-Mars shuttle spacecraft, an ascent-descent craft, and the Martian surface.

The study was an overall success in yielding data on the human effects of isolation experienced during a deep space mission. Nevertheless, participants experienced a host of health issues, sleep problems in particular.

The design of the book is particularly spectacular: the typography, the infographics, the layout, the archive images are a joy to look at. See for yourself:

By the way, while doing some research to write this review, i discovered the existence of the Museum of Shit in the North of Italy. I’m actually planning to go as soon as life is a bit quieter over here.

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

Extremophiles are organisms that can withstand such unforgiving conditions that they’ve survived every mass extinction on earth and are expected to be the first sort of extraterrestrial life space explorers might discover one day.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Geothermal hotspring, Iceland 2016. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

What designer and artist Xandra van der Eijk found fascinating about these tiny and simple organisms is not just their remarkable sturdiness but the fact that they modify their colour when their environment change.

In her research project Genesis, the designer studied their color properties. First she traveled to Iceland and France where she sampled fluids from volcanic hot springs and high saline ponds and isolated strains that produce pigments. She then collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen, to understand and eventually influence the pigment production of the microbes, inducing color change over time. “With Genesis, Xandra is hacking the origin of life, ultimately questioning who is in control.”

I discovered the work of van der Eijk a few months ago when she exhibited As Above, So Below at the Artefact festival in Leuven, Belgium. The research project explored the possibility to “crowdmine” stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals.

I caught up with the designer and artist to talk about space mining without going to space and about controlling or being controlled by microorganisms. If you’re curious about her experiments with colour-changing extremophiles, check out her installation at the Science Gallery in Dublin where it is part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate our future on a planet exposed to increasingly unstable environmental conditions. In the meantime, here’s what our little Q&A looked like:


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions.

Hi Xandra! For Genesis, you took samples from volcanic hot springs. They contained extremophiles, ancient micro-organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and also produce pigments. I found it fascinating that these tiny creatures produce pigments. Could you tell us about the kind of pigment they produce and how they make it?

I think ‘how’ they make it is a big mystery still, but these specific organisms have developed the production of pigments as a sort of defense mechanism to sunlight. The UV can get really intense, and the pigments are like sunscreen to them!

Why did you want to manipulate the color of these microbes?

First I wanted to show their mere existence and tell their story to the public. The organisms are so small, they can only be seen under the microscope. The fact that they produce color brought me to the idea that their existence would become visible through cultivating large numbers. In my projects I research the interrelation between the subject and myself, myself being a standing for human kind. I found an organism that would change color depending on specific circumstances, and I was curious if I could manipulate this metamorphosis.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

And how did you change their colour? Could you describe the work process and explain the kind of techniques and technology you used to do so?

I have no biology background, so I sought help to understand the ways of the extremophiles and well, microbiology in general. I found it at WAAG Society, where a bunch of great people were willing to show me the ropes. Together with Federico Muffatto I set up a series of experiments trying to isolate and cultivate certain species. And later on with Arnold Driessen of Groningen University I set out another series of experiments figuring out the exact parameters needed for color change. Different organisms produce pigments reacting to different parameters, so it’s hard to give one conclusive answer. But in general, the extremophiles have an ideal environment for growth, and when something in this environment changes, they may react in color change. Think about changes in water temperature, UV intensity or salinity.

Do you think that since they are able to survive or even thrive under extreme conditions, extremophiles could teach humans a thing or two about surviving in increasingly unfavourable environments?

Maybe! For now I am mostly admiring these tiny organisms that can do something we can’t. But who knows what we can learn and adapt from them by studying their behavior. I think it is a very interesting and promising field of research.

For this work, you collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen. Could you tell us about this collaboration and in particular how his feedback guided your own work?

And conversely, what you think he might have maybe gained from your artistic perspective on molecular biology? (i can rephrase that one if you think it’s a bit clumsy or too narrow a question)

My experience with Arnold so far has been very positive. There is a very open attitude in the overall collaboration from both sides. The reason why we collaborate is because he leads a research group focused on extremophiles, so we have a strong mutual interest. It has been truly great to find someone so knowledgeable about the subject, it gives my research a clear outline of what is possible and what isn’t, and what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s too early to say anything about what the project might mean for his own research, but I am lucky that Arnold sees the added value of art in general. He is even somewhat of an artist himself, he takes amazing wildlife photographs!

Why did you call the work “Genesis”? How does the work relate to the Biblical description of the origin of the earth?

It is called that way because we believe extremophiles to be one of the earliest lifeforms on earth, perhaps even the very first — maybe they even traveled here as aliens from outer space. The piece is about who is in control: human or microbe. In that sense I like the biblical reference. In many ways these extremophiles are superior to us. And it’s no secret that microbes control our decision making process…


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

I’m still hoping i can catch the exhibition Life at the Edges at the Science Gallery in Dublin but so far i haven’t found the time to travel and visit it. How do you exhibit the work there? What does the installation look like and how does it communicate its meaning?

The exhibition shows the very first step towards a more developed artwork. Working with living material in an exhibition environment is really hard, especially if you are not looking for a lab-setup. I wanted to recreate the manmade landscape of the salt harvesting area’s where I took samples from, as it is a beautiful and rare example of how man and nature can work together and both profit from it. It is one of the eldest manmade landscapes in history, and the process hasn’t changed much over time. Basically we still harvest salt like the Romans did — creating a large biodiversity in the pools. At the Science Gallery I show a grid of nine square glass containers, all with partly filled with the same extremophiles, but in different circumstances. After setting the parameters, the containers are left alone and the organisms show their response towards the parameters in colors and patterns.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

I’d like also to ask you something about another of your work As Above, So Below. I love that one. It’s both charming and very smart. The work is a research into crowdmining stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals. For the work, you collaborated with Kirstie van Noort to harvest stardust from the urban environment. How did you identify and collect stardust? How difficult is it to then extract the micrometeorite particles?

It is actually an urban myth, collecting stardust on the streets and from the roofs. The first amateur scientist who really proved their existence was Jon Larsen, and he has fought hard and long for the recognition of their existence. We were inspired by his work and took the idea one step further: what if we would collectively take the effort to collect stardust — what kind of materials would we find and could they form a new resource of precious metals? We took to the roof and the streets, collected a lot of dirt basically, and dried it out. From the dust we sorted small spherical particles and examined them under the microscope. We do not claim we found any, although the project shows a selection of specimens that might be, and one we are quite sure of. But we still need to find a university who would be willing to collaborate with us and find out about what we found. In the end, I guess we were most surprised by how much you can find in your own backyard, whether it’s from outer space or not.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

Could this practice become, over time, a viable alternative to traditional raw materials dug up from the earth at great ecological costs or mined in space?

I don’t see it as a replacement for large deposits of earths metals and minerals, rather as a possible resource for small quantities of precious metals, and perhaps even of materials that we don’t know yet. Who knows what role they could play in our technology, where sometimes only very small quantities are needed due to very specific characteristics of a metal or mineral.

What is next for you? Any upcoming event, fields of research or project you would like to share with us?

I presented a whole new research into chemical dumping called Future Remnants in April, which I am still working on and presenting a lot. It’s been nominated for the New Material Award. I am already working on something new that will be presented at Dutch Invertuals in October and of course I will continue my research with Groningen University. Many other nice things ahead, it’s a crazy rollercoaster of a life that I am enjoying a lot!

Thanks Xandra!

Genesis is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin.

Also part of the show: Drosophila Titanus by Andy Gracie.

The epic task of breeding fruit flies for life on Titan

In 2011, artist Andy Gracie set himself the task of using patient breeding and artificial selection to develop a new species of fruit flies that would be able to live on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is not the most hospitable resort for us Earth-bound creatures. It’s a very dark and very cold (−179.2 °C) place, its surface lacks stable liquid water, its gravity is a bit weaker than the gravity of Earth’s moon, etc. On the other hand, the celestial body has an atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity, some sort of landscape with lakes and dunes as well as other features that make Titan one of the least hostile places for humans in the outer solar system.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Gracie’s experimental breeding programme aims thus to gradually recreate, in an enclosed habitat, the atmospheric conditions found on Titan and make sure that the common fly would slowly acclimate to it. The insects that would emerge from the experiment would be a new species he calls Drosophila Titanus. The artist recreated the atmospheric conditions found on Titan by combining a DIY and hacking approach with a rigorous scientific methodology.

The project Drosophila Titanus belongs to a long tradition of sending flies into space. In fact, they were the first animals sent into space back in 1947 when the U.S.-launched a German V-2 ballistic missile loaded with fruit flies 109 kilometers away from the surface of the earth. The insects came back alive. Since then, they’ve been regularly propelled into space along with plants, rats and other biological organisms. The reason why fruit flies are popular guinea pigs in space and in labs is that they share a lot with us in terms of genetic makeup.

The project is of course impossible to achieve in a human life time but Gracie had planned to work on it for the rest of his life to see how far the experiment would lead him. Unfortunately, the fly population recently went through an environmental disaster, its population crashed and the experiment ended with a few sad corpses of flies.

Drosophila titanus remains a fascinating work and if you’re curious to know more about it, you could run to the always exciting Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions. Or, if you can’t make it to Dublin, here’s an interview with the artist:


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011. Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Hi Andy! Your experiment involves creating flies that could survive on Titan. I understand that Titan is incredibly cold so the flies have to gradually get used to the very low temperatures but what would be the impact of Titan’s orange sky and the low frequency radiowaves that emanate from Titan on their bodies? And how do you prepare them for that?

The project involved adapting the flies for a range of environmental conditions that are very different to those found on Earth. The cold is the most obvious along with the different atmospheric composition. There is also increased atmospheric pressure, radiation, chromatic characteristics and so on. To reach what could be conceived as the end of the project I would need to condition the flies for all of the characteristics of Titan.

The radio waves experiment has been earmarked for a future stage in the project so I haven’t got too much to say about that right now. However, the chromatic adjustment has been something I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. The natural phototaxis of Drosophila – its instinct to move towards a certain type of light – is geared towards the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum. To overcome this I kept the flies for a year under a Titan analog orange light before testing for adaptation. The selection experiment was modelled on a Y-Trap apparatus, a simple way of offering an organism two choices. The flies crawl up a tube and are faced with a junction offering orange light in one direction and blue light in the other, each tube ending with another non-return trap. Any flies taking the orange option are considered adapted and kept for breeding. Repeated iterations of the project smooth out random events.

You’ve been breeding fruit flies for 6 or 7 years now. Are the changes in the insects already visible? Is anything already perceptible?

Due to the lower temperatures I’ve noticed that their life cycle is longer, which is to say that they mature and reproduce more slowly. The cycle defined by hatching to sexual maturity is 11 to 12 days at an optimum temperature of around 22 celsius. My flies which were living constantly at 15 celsius were taking almost twice as long and also living longer. In the above mentioned chromatic adjustment experiment I was also seeing some flies beginning to choose the orange route. Physiological changes are much harder to see, and I expect it would take several more years and increased adaptations and selections to see anything. The 57 year experiment by the late Dr. Syuichi Mori of Kyoto University and his team was also an inspiration to me in this respect.

And if you were to release the flies in the wild now, would they adjust easily to the outside conditions? Or are they already doomed and unfit to survive on Earth?

I think they would have no problem. Despite 7 years of conditioning and breeding my drosophila were still much much more Earth flies than Titan flies. Their tendency for genetic drift back to what is called wild-type (denoted the natural state of an organism or the prevalent phenotype) is also a factor. If the population remained isolated they would re-adapt to total Earth conditions fairly quickly, otherwise cross-breeding would wipe out any genetic variation in the drosophila titanus.

Bearing in mind one of the subtexts of the project, surviving on Earth might actually be the same as being doomed anyway.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Could you describe your homemade Titan simulation chamber? Has its configuration and equipment changed since the start of the project?

The chamber is an apparatus that has evolved over time as the project has developed. I’m not a great forward planner so the device adapted as I had new ideas or as new necessities presented themselves. The first consideration was being able to make it cold, then to add LEDs that would simulate the Titan lighting conditions. I was lately developing seals that would allow the internal pressure to be increased in order to begin the atmospheric pressure experiment. Future experiments would probably have demanded the fabrication of an entirely new device.

Outside of the main simulator I also made the gravitational realignment torus, it being impractical to rotate the main apparatus. This device did not have a cooling system so gravitaxis experiments had to take place in the winter with the heating off.

A large part of the project for me was drawing from my background in DIY culture – how to improvise experimental apparatus outside of a laboratory or research facility. I was interested in how subtle adjustments of everyday objects and situations can provide conditions that are not typically terrestrial.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

In an interview you gave about the work in 2011, you explain “It originally started out as an artistic project, but I am also interested in how I can run a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process. This means every artistic decision I make has to be accompanied by a rigour check.” How do you verify the scientific rigour of the experiment?

I’ve always been interested in making art that closely follows scientific procedure and Drosophila Titanus is probably the furthest I’ve taken this methodology. The project is purely artistic but without the scientific rigour it would become just a frivolous exercise.

I attempted to be as rigorous as possible by maintaining a control culture alongside my experimental flies, by keeping a lab journal outlining every procedure that took place, by carefully designing experiments according to verified information, by striving to iron out random fluctuations through repeated selection processes. And so on. The corner of my studio that was dedicated to this project was set up to resemble a standard fly lab as much as possible.


Andy Gracie, Drosophila titanus, 2011

Why did you decide to take the scientific process approach? What does it bring to the artistic dimension of the project? How do you manage to still do art and not just a scientific experiment?

As I mentioned, I am interested in what happens when you make an art project by following scientific protocol. Its a way of examining the notion that art and science are both ways of asking questions about nature and devising experiments to see if your hypothesis have any foundation or are cause for further thought.

To push this idea a little further I wanted to make a project that was framed as a scientific experiment and that closely followed a scientific methodology but that had an aim that was patently unscientific. It’s a ridiculous idea to try and breed a new species of drosophila suitable for living on Titan, but if you begin to carry out a serious experiment with the aim of getting there then you get into some interesting and provocative epistemological territory.

By tying together artistic and scientific methodologies I was looking for the ‘breaking point’, a hypothetical locus where what we call art and what we call science become unable to continue sharing practical and ontological space. I think that in this point we discover some very interesting things about how and why we seek new knowledge.

How much do you have to tend to the flies? Do they need a lot of time and attention? Now you’re on holiday are they taking care of themselves?

Regular maintenance is relatively easy. They just need to be ‘passaged’ – a practice of refreshing culture vessel and nutrient medium – every 3 to 4 weeks. This involves cooking up some new medium, sterilising some new culture pots and moving healthy adult flies from the old pots to the new ones. If I was at an experiment or selection point then this process would obviously become more complex. However, the bulk of the 7 years of the project was the flies sitting in their environment slowly getting used to new conditions, eating and mating. And dying.

The question about maintenance and holidays brings me to the point where I have to say that, as of the summer of 2017, the project is officially terminated. While absent from the Barcelona studio for a month the cooling system failed and 99% of the flies perished in the stifling summer temperatures. I was unable to revive stocks from the few survivors. It was fairly apocalyptic.

Faced with the choice of starting again from square one, or declaring the project over having achieved certain aims I decided on the latter. I have the bodies of last 10 flies preserved in alcohol and will probably make a commemorative piece with them. That will be the official end of the line and I can finally spend more time on other works. Actively maintaining a project for several years was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.

It seems likely that large parts of the Earth will be barely inhabitable before the end of the century. Would it make more sense to try and change our own metabolism (maybe through more brutal adjustments than the ones you’re submitting the flies to) or to pack our bags and move to Mars?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are informing a body of current work I’m developing so its something I dwell on to a deeper extent even than when I was doing the post-terrestrial works. To be honest, I think we’re screwed either way. Colonising Mars is the romantic dream of SciFi aficionados and tech-god fanboys and fangirls. The reality is that it would be a chosen few eking out a fairly grim existence that would be barely better, if at all, than a ravaged Earth.

Altering our own physiology could be possible. I’m not totally up to speed with CRISPR but I understand that it could offer radical changes to the human genome in a very short time. As artificial selection of human traits could be even more ethically treacherous and a much slower process it might be seen by some as a solution. But do we really want to go there?

Do you think that at the end of the experiment, the flies will it still be Drosophila melanogaster? Or will you have created a new species of fly?

The claim I made at the beginning of the project was that I was going to develop a new species of Drosophila which would be called Drosophila titanus. To be able to make this claim I would need to test whether speciation had actually happened. Speciation is a broad and complex biological issue, with a range of forms and pathways, and of course some hotly contested definitions.

The standard test would be to check whether Mayr‘s textbook definition is valid, that the two groups are unable to reproduce. If my experimental flies were unable to produce fertile offspring with the control flies then I could claim a new species. However, I would also be interested to check whether I have achieved any of the other species descriptions such as typological, ecological or genetic. I’m completely convinced that it would be achievable and that Drosophila titanus would be listed among the official taxonomies.

The argument about what constitutes a species was another of the sub-narratives of the work.

Thanks Andy!


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin


Life at the Edges at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Photo: Science Gallery Dublin

Drosophila Titanus is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin