Category Archives: Helsinki

Materialism, an exercise in dismantling consumer culture

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


Studio Drift, Light bulb, from the series Materialism


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


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

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

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

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

Studio Drift, Materialism


Studio Drift, Pencil, from the series Materialism


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

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

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


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


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


Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism


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

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


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


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


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


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


Amos Rex, Bio Rex (interior), Helsinki

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

The Museum of NonHumanity


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

Many of us, consciously or not, believe in human exceptionalism. We assume that the human species is not only ‘categorically or essentially different than all other animals’ but that it is also the most significant entity of the universe. Furthermore, at several moments throughout history, a group of people have declared another group of people to be nonhuman or subhuman and have used the argument to justify slavery, oppression and genocide. Examples abound. Think of how the Nazis defined Jews, Roma, Slavs and other non-Aryan “inferior people” as Untermensch. Or how Belgium brought 60 Congolese people to live in a human zoo for visitors of the 1897 International Exposition (and the 1958 one) to gape at.

Such atrocious practices are not confined to the past, alas! Women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority are routinely enslaved, raped and tortured by IS militants who regard them as sub-human. Palestinians are discriminated against on a daily basis and called snakes or animals by prominent figures in Israel. Even today‘s hate speech contain elements of dehumanization.

The Museum of NonHumanity is an itinerant museum that presents the history of the distinction between humans and other animals, and the way that this imaginary boundary has been used to oppress human and nonhuman beings.

The Museum of Nonhumanity was launched by History of Others, a large scale art and research project led by visual artist Terike Haapoja and writer Laura Gustafsson. The duo collaborate with experts in ethology, cognitive sciences, civil-rights and animal-rights activism and other culture practitioners to look at the issues that arise from our anthropocentric world view. In an effort to open new paths for more inclusive notions of society, The Museum of Nonhumanity also teams up with local individuals and organizations to set up a program of lectures, guided tours and seminars that explore local environmental and social issues.

I discovered The Museum of Nonhumanity a couple of weeks ago while i was in Moss, Norway, for the press view of MOMENTUM 9, the brilliant Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art. The Museum of Nonhumanity was one of the two artworks that moved me the most at MOMENTUM because it uses a compassionate, perceptive and pertinent lens to explore some of the issues that mar our relationship with the other inhabitants of this planet.

I asked Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson to tell us more about their art & research project:


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

Hi Terike and Laura! Why do you think it is important to draw attention to the topic of dehumanization nowadays?

When you look at any major crises of our world today, be it related to environmental or animal rights, war or terrorism, you can as a rule find an element of human-animal distinction at play. You can find it in explicit instances, such as the dehumanising language used by right wing xenophobes in Europe of immigrants, but also in the internalised dehumanisation imbedded in structural racism and sexism. And there’s also the fact that nature and all the other species have, because they’re literally “non-human”, no way to be visible to the justice system as a victim of a crime. Underneath all this is a logic where defining something or someone as less human justifies discrimination and abuse.


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

There seems to be an enormous amount of research and thoughtful selection behind the work. How did you select which particular historical case illustrated a specific chapter? Why did you chose Rwanda to typify Disgust for example? etc.

We weren’t interested in cataloguing all the atrocities in history that had been justified by dehumanisation, but in examining the rhetoric devices and the reasoning and motives that connect these actions. So while doing research on concrete cases, we started to think of key words that open up a specific viewpoint to the phenomenon of this boundary making: using someone or -thing as resource, referring them to something disgusting, creating physical or emotional distance between “them” and “us” and so on. Rwanda, the Holocaust or the horrible history of colonised Congo are well documented, but once you start to look into how and where the human – animal boundary is constructed, you see that the boundary making is present in seemingly innocent details, like the guidelines of scientific research, in how we talk about the body and female body in particular, or in the key ideas of western philosophy. its not something that happens somewhere there, or to someone else. We wanted to bring in this complexity.


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

I was particularly moved by the story of the female members of the Red Guards that were imprisoned after the Finnish Civil War. Is their history well known in Finland? The reason why i’m asking that is that i’m Belgian and when i was at school, we were never told about the atrocities committed by Belgium in Congo. I learnt about it much later, while studying in another country. This has changed of course (to a certain extent) and i think children learn about it at school now, but the awakening is actually quite recent. Also i was discussing with a Swedish artist recently and she told me that most Swedish people actually do not know much about the discrimination the Sami people face in Sweden and possibly in other countries too. Do you feel that most nations tend to try and cover up all the terrible and cruel acts they committed in the past?
And do you think it would still be possible to bury atrocities nowadays, in this age of surveillance and over sharing?

The history of the civil war is still very much silenced in Finland, just as is the atrocities towards Sámi people and their culture. There is a lot of work to be done. It seems that the mechanism of dehumanisation is at play in nation making itself, where unwanted and negative characteristics are projected on anyone that is desired to be kept out of the nation. Perhaps that’s the reason why it’s always easier for a nation to see and acknowledge other histories than its own.

In terms of whether it’s possible to bury atrocities – what’s central is that once this boundary has been established, it’s possible to perform these atrocities in plain sight. They become invisible to the collective moral code that forbids them, and in ways that are immune to surveillance. And that happens all the time. Once someone or -thing is collectively defined as “animal”, anything can be done to it.


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

What i find remarkable about the work is that the historical documents you selected sometimes echo so well current situations and opinions. In fact, while reading some of the quotes, i assumed that they were all from decades ago but the dates underneath each quote revealed that some of the most appalling ones were actually found in forum discussions or politician declarations of recent years. Do you see hope in the way we treat each other?

There is something very effectively violent in the culture that we live in, and something that enables ‘othering’ and looking at violence from a distance. The technologies we live with are definitely a product of that culture, and we are a product of it. You can go to the most liberal leftist bubble and see how, even there, people use dehumanising and violent language online. So it’s something that is in us, not out there, and the only hope there is is that we are committed to being self reflective and cultivating solidarity and empathy, and acting against these mechanisms.

The information you share is laid out in a rather neutral way. The way you selected each theme and document is not neutral of course but you leave every document speak for itself. What do you hope people will get from visiting the exhibition or reading the catalogue? Is it about informing them? About inviting them to pause and take a critical look at their own prejudices? Or did you have other objectives in mind?

We decided very early on that we would only include archival material, and reference everything very well. In that way it is not only information, it’s also evidence. This way it becomes a memorial museum, where these things have been put on show, to remind us of a past we don’t want to return. What we’d like the viewer to take with them is an understanding of how fast things can move from words to action.

We’d also hope that it would be a way for people to see that human rights violations and environmental or animal rights issues are not competing struggles, but born out of the same roots. Environmental destruction and factory farming is killing our planet, and it’s happening in plain sight just because this boundary has been so well established.

It’s good to remind here that an important part of the project is programming, which is built by local practitioners and for local audiences. The programming is all about proposing bridges to a more sustainable coexistence. We had lot of programming, a vegan cafe and a book shop in Helsinki, and we will be having that in our Italy exhibit too. In Momentum we will be working with local guest guides and environmental protection activists, and organise a seminar later in the fall. So the project is not only looking back, but it really is a platform for looking forward too.


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag


Museum of Nonhumanity, installation at MOMENTUM9, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag

The installation i saw at Momentum9 is quite stunning, it’s hard not to be drawn into it. How do you turn a research process or catalogue into an installation like this? Which kind of artistic decisions did you take in order to translate a catalogue into a piece of visual art?

We knew it would be encyclopaedic from the beginning, and that it would be a memorial museum. You just have to work with the material and start to organise it and trust that pieces will fall into place. The amount of research material we had was enormous, so working through the structure and making sure all the details, foot notes, references were correct was a big part of the work. When we came to the idea of building the whole thing with video and sound it felt right, because it’s so immaterial, but also because it makes a kind of symphonic approach possible. It’s extremely important to have the viewers open up emotionally to the realities behind the stories and not just the cold data.

The text on the webpage of The History of Cattle states that “The exhibition is suitable for scientific, pedagogical or art context.” Would you say that this statement can also be applied to The Museum of Nonhumanity as well?

Since we are appropriating the form of a museum, it makes sense to think of it from the point of view of pedagogy also. We had a specifically tailored outreach program for high schools and upper classes in Helsinki. That said, it’s clearly an art project, built to make you think, not to give you easy answers. But I guess our approach is that art can be pedagogical, and it doesn’t mean that it would be didactic.

Thanks Terike and Laura!

Check out The Museum of Nonhumanity at Momentum 9, The Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art curated by Ulrika Flink, Ilari Laamanen, Jacob Lillemose, Gunhild Moe and Jón B.K Ransu. The exhibitions remain open in various location in Moss, Norway, until 11 October 2017
The Museum of Nonhumanity is also open in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy for the Santarcangelo Festival.

Previously: MOMENTUM9 – “Alienation is our contemporary condition” and MOMENTUM9. Maybe none of this is science fiction.

Day 2 of HYBRID MATTERs symposium: Root brain, post-fossil culture & why we need to stick with our mess


Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo: Anna Autio

Finally! A few notes from what might very well have been the most exciting and eye-opening conference of 2016: the HYBRID MATTERs symposium that took place in Helsinki over a month ago. As Erich Berger (an artist, curator and the director of the Bioartsociety) explains in the video below, the symposium was the conclusion of a 2 year project that used artistic and scientific research to look at the material conditions and transformative power of human activity over the environment.

This research focused on hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. Hybrid ecologies unfold through complex interactions between actors and elements: human, non-human, biological, mineral, robotic, artificial, etc. There has always been some forms of interaction between humans and their immediate biological environment (through agriculture, bee keeping, fermentation techniques, etc.) but contemporary science is speeding up the synergies and frictions. To the point that the biological itself becomes technological and technologically-altered and the result begins to feedback in the environment.

HYBRID MATTERs not only registered these interactions but also questioned their meaning and implications. The program also attempted to delineate the position of mankind in these new ecologies. Should we keep on thinking of nature as something independent from us and from our activities? Or should we recognize that we drive much of this process and need take responsibility for it?

HYBRID MATTERs by Erich Berger on 25 November 2016

What made the event so interesting for me was that it suggested a new perspective on the Anthropocene discourse. It looked beyond the usual (and of course justified) alarmist attitude and proposed other approaches to this new geological age.

Not only are we starting to realize that we can’t fully control the planet but we also have to come to terms with the fact that the life that we’ve created (almost) from scratch is being slowly released into the world, interacting with the environment in sometimes unpredictable ways and becoming an integral part of it. We need to start thinking about how we, the humans, can co-evolve in a more sympathetic and mutually beneficial way with other living entities and global phenomena.

The symposium also reminded us that the environment is not just a passive victim of human greed and foolishness, it is also a sophisticated assemblage of interconnected, highly adaptive systems and entities that can work for us, with us but also without us. Maybe the time has come for us to broaden our definition of the environment and accept that nature cannot be contained into a romantic ideal of a pristine, untouched, virginal world.

The most inspiring day of the short symposium was Day 2, the panel day. Artists, researchers, curators, biologists, bioroboticists, archaeologists got together and discussed passionately about how we should start developing a language to visualize, narrate and understand eclectic but interconnected topics that range from plant awareness to big bacteria, from autistic conception of the economy to plastic trash on beaches, from de-extinction to tulipomania.

The videos of the whole symposium are online so my notes are not going to cover everything that was said. Instead, i’m going to adopt a very subjective approach, recording few key ideas and concepts, a few artworks and research practices that i believe deserve to be highlighted.

HMs panel on Plant subjectivities, assemblies and assemblages with Kira O’Reilly, Laura Beloff, Jens Hauser, Monika Bakke. 25 November 2016

The panel on plant subjectivities was composed of artist and leader of the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki Kira O’Reilly, artist and researcher Laura Beloff, art curator and media studies scholar Jens Hauser as well as writer and editor Monika Bakke from the Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań.

Together, the panelists discussed the natural and post-natural hybridity of plants.

Monika Bakke talked about plantoids, plant farming in space, plant sexuality but i was especially fascinated by her brief introduction to plant intelligence. In 1880 already, Charles and his son Francis Darwin were talking about a ‘root-brain’. Contemporary research confirms the existence of this root brain, it is a decentralized communicative network that enables plants to behave as multitude and manifest a kind of swarm intelligence. They also exhibit a certain awareness of the world around them.

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Cunninghamia, one of the Eocene trees, growing in Oliver Kellhammer’s garden on Cortes Island. Image: Daniel J. Pierce. Photo: motherboard

Another remarkable feature of plants is that they are more resilient to events leading to extinction than animals. Artist Oliver Kellhammer is looking at this resilience. His project Neo-Eocene focuses on plant species that have survived through multiple geological periods. Charles Darwin called them living fossils. The artist is trying to recreate forests made of living fossils trees in Canada. These trees used to be native to the area and they thus connect distant geological epochs with a future significantly modified by global warming. The future after all may belong to those species that have already proved to be able to overcome extraordinary climate conditions.

I bloody love that project, by the way!

Jens Hauser talked about microperformativity, a term he has been using since 2010 to describe a shift in scale towards molecules, cells, proteins, bacteria, viruses, etc. This shift away from the human body redefines what we consider to be a body and can also be interpreted as a blow to human narcissism.


Yann Marussich, Bleu Remix, 2007. Photo by Isabelle Meister

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Petr Stembera Graft, Graft, 1975. “In a manner customary in fruit-farming, I grafted a branch taken from a shrub to my arm”. Photo: Kontakt

Hauser also discussed plantamorphization, another ‘bioart trend’ which consists in adopting characteristics of the vegetative at large, shifting the attention from movement to growth. An example of this type of practice is Yann Marussich’s iconic performance Bleu Remix. I was less familiar with the work of Petr Stembera who, in the 1970s, grafted a bush sprig into his arm.

Titled Survival of the Prettiest, Laura Beloff‘s talk explored evolution: from natural selection to artificial selection and towards aesthetic selection. More precisely how biological organisms are being designed and selected based on aesthetic criteria that are deeply intertwined with our capitalistic world. An early example of that is the 17th century tulipomania in The Netherlands.

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DSM SalmoFan™. Image via Quartz

A contemporary occurrence of this new spin on evolution is farmed salmon. Clients visiting a farm are invited to selected their ideal salmon colour flesh from a DSM SalmoFan™, a colour card specially developed by a pharmaceutical company for Salmonids. Depending on the precise hue the clients want the flesh to be, the farmer will adjust the colouring added to the food given to the fish which, in turn, will determine how orange or red the salmon will be.

HMs panel Hybrid Growth with Jonas Jørgensen, Merja Penttilä, Paavo Jarvensivu and Maarja Kruusmaa. 25 November 2016

The Hybrid Growth panel explored the hybrid nature of the term growth and its meaning in nature, technology and economics.

In her talk Living Factories: Synthetic Biology for a Sustainable World, research biologist Merja Penttilä explained how synthetic biology could enable us to replace petrochemicals with renewable raw material, while retaining biodiversity and genetic diversity and using contained production systems.

Post-doc researcher in economic culture and member of Mustarinda (a collective currently focusing on post-fossil fuel culture) Paavo Jarvensivu believes that we need to get rid of the current abstract, narrow and autistic conception of the economy. Currently, society has to match economic indicators (inflation, budget deficit, employment rate, etc.) and this is wrong.

We seem to think that there is lack of money but no limit of resources. What would happen if we took things upside down and assumed that there is unlimited money but limited resources?

Professor of biorobotics Maarja Kruusmaa looked at Growth and Information Technology. It was brilliant and often funny. The growth the title of her talk alludes to is the growth in data. From people who don’t seem to get tired of measuring themselves (a trend called quantified self) to robots (‘they are just sensors with hands and legs’), data multiplies fast.

Growth in data means bigger and bigger server farms and other heavy material infrastructure to preserve it.

Kruusmaa (half-jokingly) suggested that maybe people are going start thinking of saving energy by creating less data or by being more creative with the way they produce this data. For example, by taking black & white pictures rather than colour ones as they are less pixel-hungry and thus consume less bits and bytes.

HMs panel In the Aftermath with Kristina Lindström, Åsa Ståhl, Thora Petursdottir, Björn Wallsten. 25 November 2016

The panel In the Aftermath was another brilliant one. It invited us to look at technological development under a new perspective. Not the prevalent one that champions ideas of progress and novelty but one that considers processes of decay, erosion, breakdown and mouldering. I’ve already written about Björn Wallsten‘s introduction to the world of urks and i mentioned Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl exploration of plastiglomerates and styrofoam-eating worms in my review of the Hybrid Matters exhibition. I still had to talk about the equally fascinating work of Þóra Pétursdóttir.


Drift Matter. Photo: object matters


Drift Matter. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir via CAS Oslo

Pétursdóttir, a postdoctoral researcher at the Arctic University of Norway, is an archaeologist from a branch of archaeology that looks at the recent past and the contemporary.

An interesting point that she made was that archaeology has always been about the anthropocene. It is completely reliant on our footprint, on our pollution.

A particular focus of her research is the phenomenon of “the drift beach“, the marine debris that drift and cluster along the Arctic coastlines. Drift matter is a one of the most urgent environmental problems across the world. It is particularly interesting to study its history and meaning in Northern Norway and Iceland. Both have a long heritage of using this material and until recently, this drift matter was considered a natural resource and also a part of the environment. It used to include a lot of wood which was collected and used by the inhabitants as these regions are sparsely forested. The composition of the material has changed drastically over the last century and so has the attitude towards the drift material and the drift beach. It is now regarded as a hazard, an intrusion on the environment.

Marine debris is an environmental problem but, Pétursdóttir argues, it is also part of the environment, it cannot be eliminated from it. This material has never been considered of archaeological interest because it evades the kind of logic that archaeologists expect from their material: they are only interested in waste that has been intentionally deposited, that relates to specific culture or group of people, waste that is traceable, that construct a progressive human history. The drift material doesn’t comply with this nice, linear history.

The interest of drift material is that it suggests unexpected alliances and other notions of environment. It endlessly wanders, gathers and bonds outside our control and may thus contribute to a less anthropocentric and more ecological heritage conception.

HYBRID MATTERs Response to the day by Oron Catts. 25 November 2016

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator. He is the director of SymbioticA. Together with Ionat Zurr, he is also a visiting professor of Contestable Design at the Royal College of Art in London (head to this video if you’re curious about Contestable Design.) Catts wrapped up the discussions of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. His closing remarks were incisive, and appropriately provocative. I’ll just point to a couple of them:

“We try to rationalize things but we are totally irrational ourselves so how could we design rational independently autonomous system without fucking it up? We can’t!”

“Any attempt to try and assert control over autonomous system is a violent act. And we are all engaged in this violence.”

“Hybrid might not be right metaphor. Maybe parasite would be a more appropriate one.”

“Europe is increasingly scary. The kind of funding that is currently given to artists to engage in crossover between living systems, technology systems, society and culture are neoliberal and driven by bankrupt political systems.”

At that point, he also mentioned that a few art and technology festivals look more like trade shows than art events. I just wanted to jump on the stage and hug him!

“Maybe we need less white people. The world has been repeatedly fucked over by middle aged, middle class white men. I’m one of them so maybe you should listen to other people.”

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was a collaboration between the Bioartsociety and the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance, Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The event was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium.

Previously: From animal sensors to Monet as a painter of the anthropocene. 9 things i learnt on the opening day of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium, HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet, Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

Day 2 of HYBRID MATTERs symposium: Root brain, post-fossil culture & why we need to stick with our mess


Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo: Anna Autio

Finally! A few notes from what might very well have been the most exciting and eye-opening conference of 2016: the HYBRID MATTERs symposium that took place in Helsinki over a month ago. As Erich Berger (an artist, curator and the director of the Bioartsociety) explains in the video below, the symposium was the conclusion of a 2 year project that used artistic and scientific research to look at the material conditions and transformative power of human activity over the environment.

This research focused on hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. Hybrid ecologies unfold through complex interactions between actors and elements: human, non-human, biological, mineral, robotic, artificial, etc. There has always been some forms of interaction between humans and their immediate biological environment (through agriculture, bee keeping, fermentation techniques, etc.) but contemporary science is speeding up the synergies and frictions. To the point that the biological itself becomes technological and technologically-altered and the result begins to feedback in the environment.

HYBRID MATTERs not only registered these interactions but also questioned their meaning and implications. The program also attempted to delineate the position of mankind in these new ecologies. Should we keep on thinking of nature as something independent from us and from our activities? Or should we recognize that we drive much of this process and need take responsibility for it?

HYBRID MATTERs by Erich Berger on 25 November 2016

What made the event so interesting for me was that it suggested a new perspective on the Anthropocene discourse. It looked beyond the usual (and of course justified) alarmist attitude and proposed other approaches to this new geological age.

Not only are we starting to realize that we can’t fully control the planet but we also have to come to terms with the fact that the life that we’ve created (almost) from scratch is being slowly released into the world, interacting with the environment in sometimes unpredictable ways and becoming an integral part of it. We need to start thinking about how we, the humans, can co-evolve in a more sympathetic and mutually beneficial way with other living entities and global phenomena.

The symposium also reminded us that the environment is not just a passive victim of human greed and foolishness, it is also a sophisticated assemblage of interconnected, highly adaptive systems and entities that can work for us, with us but also without us. Maybe the time has come for us to broaden our definition of the environment and accept that nature cannot be contained into a romantic ideal of a pristine, untouched, virginal world.

The most inspiring day of the short symposium was Day 2, the panel day. Artists, researchers, curators, biologists, bioroboticists, archaeologists got together and discussed passionately about how we should start developing a language to visualize, narrate and understand eclectic but interconnected topics that range from plant awareness to big bacteria, from autistic conception of the economy to plastic trash on beaches, from de-extinction to tulipomania.

The videos of the whole symposium are online so my notes are not going to cover everything that was said. Instead, i’m going to adopt a very subjective approach, recording few key ideas and concepts, a few artworks and research practices that i believe deserve to be highlighted.

HMs panel on Plant subjectivities, assemblies and assemblages with Kira O’Reilly, Laura Beloff, Jens Hauser, Monika Bakke. 25 November 2016

The panel on plant subjectivities was composed of artist and leader of the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki Kira O’Reilly, artist and researcher Laura Beloff, art curator and media studies scholar Jens Hauser as well as writer and editor Monika Bakke from the Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań.

Together, the panelists discussed the natural and post-natural hybridity of plants.

Monika Bakke talked about plantoids, plant farming in space, plant sexuality but i was especially fascinated by her brief introduction to plant intelligence. In 1880 already, Charles and his son Francis Darwin were talking about a ‘root-brain’. Contemporary research confirms the existence of this root brain, it is a decentralized communicative network that enables plants to behave as multitude and manifest a kind of swarm intelligence. They also exhibit a certain awareness of the world around them.

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Cunninghamia, one of the Eocene trees, growing in Oliver Kellhammer’s garden on Cortes Island. Image: Daniel J. Pierce. Photo: motherboard

Another remarkable feature of plants is that they are more resilient to events leading to extinction than animals. Artist Oliver Kellhammer is looking at this resilience. His project Neo-Eocene focuses on plant species that have survived through multiple geological periods. Charles Darwin called them living fossils. The artist is trying to recreate forests made of living fossils trees in Canada. These trees used to be native to the area and they thus connect distant geological epochs with a future significantly modified by global warming. The future after all may belong to those species that have already proved to be able to overcome extraordinary climate conditions.

I bloody love that project, by the way!

Jens Hauser talked about microperformativity, a term he has been using since 2010 to describe a shift in scale towards molecules, cells, proteins, bacteria, viruses, etc. This shift away from the human body redefines what we consider to be a body and can also be interpreted as a blow to human narcissism.


Yann Marussich, Bleu Remix, 2007. Photo by Isabelle Meister

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Petr Stembera Graft, Graft, 1975. “In a manner customary in fruit-farming, I grafted a branch taken from a shrub to my arm”. Photo: Kontakt

Hauser also discussed plantamorphization, another ‘bioart trend’ which consists in adopting characteristics of the vegetative at large, shifting the attention from movement to growth. An example of this type of practice is Yann Marussich’s iconic performance Bleu Remix. I was less familiar with the work of Petr Stembera who, in the 1970s, grafted a bush sprig into his arm.

Titled Survival of the Prettiest, Laura Beloff‘s talk explored evolution: from natural selection to artificial selection and towards aesthetic selection. More precisely how biological organisms are being designed and selected based on aesthetic criteria that are deeply intertwined with our capitalistic world. An early example of that is the 17th century tulipomania in The Netherlands.

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DSM SalmoFan™. Image via Quartz

A contemporary occurrence of this new spin on evolution is farmed salmon. Clients visiting a farm are invited to selected their ideal salmon colour flesh from a DSM SalmoFan™, a colour card specially developed by a pharmaceutical company for Salmonids. Depending on the precise hue the clients want the flesh to be, the farmer will adjust the colouring added to the food given to the fish which, in turn, will determine how orange or red the salmon will be.

HMs panel Hybrid Growth with Jonas Jørgensen, Merja Penttilä, Paavo Jarvensivu and Maarja Kruusmaa. 25 November 2016

The Hybrid Growth panel explored the hybrid nature of the term growth and its meaning in nature, technology and economics.

In her talk Living Factories: Synthetic Biology for a Sustainable World, research biologist Merja Penttilä explained how synthetic biology could enable us to replace petrochemicals with renewable raw material, while retaining biodiversity and genetic diversity and using contained production systems.

Post-doc researcher in economic culture and member of Mustarinda (a collective currently focusing on post-fossil fuel culture) Paavo Jarvensivu believes that we need to get rid of the current abstract, narrow and autistic conception of the economy. Currently, society has to match economic indicators (inflation, budget deficit, employment rate, etc.) and this is wrong.

We seem to think that there is lack of money but no limit of resources. What would happen if we took things upside down and assumed that there is unlimited money but limited resources?

Professor of biorobotics Maarja Kruusmaa looked at Growth and Information Technology. It was brilliant and often funny. The growth the title of her talk alludes to is the growth in data. From people who don’t seem to get tired of measuring themselves (a trend called quantified self) to robots (‘they are just sensors with hands and legs’), data multiplies fast.

Growth in data means bigger and bigger server farms and other heavy material infrastructure to preserve it.

Kruusmaa (half-jokingly) suggested that maybe people are going start thinking of saving energy by creating less data or by being more creative with the way they produce this data. For example, by taking black & white pictures rather than colour ones as they are less pixel-hungry and thus consume less bits and bytes.

HMs panel In the Aftermath with Kristina Lindström, Åsa Ståhl, Thora Petursdottir, Björn Wallsten. 25 November 2016

The panel In the Aftermath was another brilliant one. It invited us to look at technological development under a new perspective. Not the prevalent one that champions ideas of progress and novelty but one that considers processes of decay, erosion, breakdown and mouldering. I’ve already written about Björn Wallsten‘s introduction to the world of urks and i mentioned Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl exploration of plastiglomerates and styrofoam-eating worms in my review of the Hybrid Matters exhibition. I still had to talk about the equally fascinating work of Þóra Pétursdóttir.


Drift Matter. Photo: object matters


Drift Matter. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir via CAS Oslo

Pétursdóttir, a postdoctoral researcher at the Arctic University of Norway, is an archaeologist from a branch of archaeology that looks at the recent past and the contemporary.

An interesting point that she made was that archaeology has always been about the anthropocene. It is completely reliant on our footprint, on our pollution.

A particular focus of her research is the phenomenon of “the drift beach“, the marine debris that drift and cluster along the Arctic coastlines. Drift matter is a one of the most urgent environmental problems across the world. It is particularly interesting to study its history and meaning in Northern Norway and Iceland. Both have a long heritage of using this material and until recently, this drift matter was considered a natural resource and also a part of the environment. It used to include a lot of wood which was collected and used by the inhabitants as these regions are sparsely forested. The composition of the material has changed drastically over the last century and so has the attitude towards the drift material and the drift beach. It is now regarded as a hazard, an intrusion on the environment.

Marine debris is an environmental problem but, Pétursdóttir argues, it is also part of the environment, it cannot be eliminated from it. This material has never been considered of archaeological interest because it evades the kind of logic that archaeologists expect from their material: they are only interested in waste that has been intentionally deposited, that relates to specific culture or group of people, waste that is traceable, that construct a progressive human history. The drift material doesn’t comply with this nice, linear history.

The interest of drift material is that it suggests unexpected alliances and other notions of environment. It endlessly wanders, gathers and bonds outside our control and may thus contribute to a less anthropocentric and more ecological heritage conception.

HYBRID MATTERs Response to the day by Oron Catts. 25 November 2016

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator. He is the director of SymbioticA. Together with Ionat Zurr, he is also a visiting professor of Contestable Design at the Royal College of Art in London (head to this video if you’re curious about Contestable Design.) Catts wrapped up the discussions of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium. His closing remarks were incisive, and appropriately provocative. I’ll just point to a couple of them:

“We try to rationalize things but we are totally irrational ourselves so how could we design rational independently autonomous system without fucking it up? We can’t!”

“Any attempt to try and assert control over autonomous system is a violent act. And we are all engaged in this violence.”

“Hybrid might not be right metaphor. Maybe parasite would be a more appropriate one.”

“Europe is increasingly scary. The kind of funding that is currently given to artists to engage in crossover between living systems, technology systems, society and culture are neoliberal and driven by bankrupt political systems.”

At that point, he also mentioned that a few art and technology festivals look more like trade shows than art events. I just wanted to jump on the stage and hug him!

“Maybe we need less white people. The world has been repeatedly fucked over by middle aged, middle class white men. I’m one of them so maybe you should listen to other people.”

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was a collaboration between the Bioartsociety and the MA in Ecology and Contemporary Performance, Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The event was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium.

Previously: From animal sensors to Monet as a painter of the anthropocene. 9 things i learnt on the opening day of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium, HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet, Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

The focus of the Nordic art&science network program HYBRID MATTERs is the hybrid ecology that emerges when our environment interacts with technology, when two spheres so far regarded as independent start to affect each other and form new entities with new qualities.

The HYBRID MATTERs exhibition which closed last month at Forum Box in Helsinki showed works, experiments and proposals which expose and explore this complicated liaison between our environment and technology.

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Laura Beloff and Malena Klaus, Fly Printer – Extended. Photo by Anna Autio

With art pieces that address plastic proliferation, global warming, the modification of species to satisfy capitalistic forces or the exploitation of natural resources, HYBRID MATTERs conjures all our darkest fears about the anthropocene. I would normally exit this kind of exhibition with a deep sense of doom and despair. This time however, the poetry, pertinence and also often the sense of humour embedded in the works took over and as i walked back to the hotel, i found myself thinking that we might still be able to make sense of the mess we’ve been so busy creating over the past few centuries. A twisted sense maybe but one that gives me home nevertheless. The show also left me looking at the world with even more questions than ever…

How do we fit in this hybrid ecology made of genetically engineered trees and machines that seem to gently breathe? How much in control of the hybridization process are we really? Should we expand and embrace new concepts of ecology or should we fight for our vision of an ideal (and possibly also outdated) ecology?

HYBRID MATTERs aims to provide a possibility to rethink and reevaluate our relations to this emerging world. As we humans drive this process of hybridization we are part of both the biological and technological. HYBRID MATTERs asks how we can address both ends and develop respectful and mutually beneficial forms of co-existence for all the actors in such a hybrid ecology.

I’ve already written about Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen’s take on our postnatural Christmas trees and about Mari Keski-Korsu’s guerilla experiments in DIY climate manipulation. Here are some other works i found particularly interesting (or just beautiful to look at because i’m superficial like that) while i visited the show:

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Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Plastics used to symbolize man’s mastery over nature. Today, they only evoke man’s poisoning and corruption of it. Plastics have invaded the ecosystem so intimately that researchers have identified a new kind of geological entity made of plastics, basalt stone, corals and more. They call it plastiglomerates.

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Plastiglomerate walk organised by Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström. Photo by the artists

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Plastiglomerate found on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. It combines basalt clasts, molten plastic, yellow rope, and green and red netting

Concerned by this plastics invasion, artists Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl started looking into new places for plastic trash into our daily lives. They soon found some found for thought in a paper that details how common mealworms can biodegrade Styrofoam. The worms seem to be able to live on this depressing diet. It doesn’t even impair their ability to reproduce. Better yet, the animals digest and turn the plastic trash into a substance that can become a new soil component.

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Mealworms eating Styrofoam. Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, discovered the larvae can live on polystyrene. Image credit: Yu Yang

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Composting plastics. Photo by the artists

Just like the plastiglomerates, the Styrofoam-eating worms are examples of unintentional ‘encounters’ between man-made matter and natural matters. “We are curious about what these examples tell us with regard to whether we should or can continue to live with or without plastic in the future. These hybrid materials could be an asset in new design and offer potential for species to coexist,” said Kristina Lindström in an interview.

Ståhl and Lindström have since developed prototype kits for composting plastic. Their content is simple: a glass jar with mealworms and bit of extruded polystyrene inside. The duo then distributed the kits to participants around the Öresund Region to compost plastic waste into their home. Some of the participants regarded the mealworms almost as pets, found it cruel to give them styrofoam as snack and eventually fed them a ‘healthier and more natural’ diet. Others never managed to shrug off the disgust they felt for worms and found it difficult to welcome them inside their home.

The Plastic Imaginaries research project hints at a future where we might be able to find new roles and spaces in the ecology for plastic trash. Could one day plastic trash benefit the ecology instead of asphyxiating it slowly?

The morning after the opening of HYBRID MATTERs, Ståhl and Lindström organized a Composting Plastics workshop. Participants learnt how to DIY their own domestic plastic composting kit and at lunch they enjoyed a vegetarian meal while mealworms got to munch on styrofoam inside their little glass jars.

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Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016

Yeastograms in Hybrid Matters exhibition in Forum Box, Helsinki

Yeastograms are living portraits of strangers whom Johanna Rotko met on the street. They are made of yeast cells cultivated on growing mediums. The developing process consists in exposing a raster image with Ultraviolet LED lamps onto the yeast. The UV-lights kills the cells that are not protected by the stencil. A photo gradually emerges from the surviving yeast cells. After the exposure the artists leaves the petri dishes as they are but regularly documents the evolution of the images by photographing them. Over time conflicts may arise when molds, bacteria or other unknown microorganisms appear in the petri dishes.

Because her artistic research explores how nature is affected by her actions, Rotko favours the use of image-making substances and processes that are as less toxic as possible. She has thus expanded her research to anthotypes where she prints photographs using plants such as microalgae spirulina, beetroots, blueberries and coffee. As for the yeastograms, they end up in the biowaste bin.

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Lawrence Malstaf, Folding, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Lawrence Malstaf, Folding, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

We are continually striving to be objective, we try to look from a distance, and we develop all kinds of technology to accomplish that, which is of course very interesting, but in a way this objectivity is something we know we will never really achieve, it’s a bit of an illusion. – Lawrence Malstaf

Folding combines 3D scanning, modeling software but also traditional origami techniques to build life-size kinetic sculptures and explore the boundary between representation and abstraction.

The sculptures expand, contract, and react according to how close you approach. Whether they are abstract models stuck on a wall or a human-like figure hanging from the ceiling, the sculptures have a clean and almost cold aesthetic but each of them seem to take an uncanny life in your presence, they breathe gently as if trying to communicate with the visitor…

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Kristiina Ljokkoi, Life Studies, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Life Studies is a city inside a terrarium. The total absence of humans in this micro city means that other forms of life are taking over the infrastructure and thriving: wood-decaying fungi and bacteria are breaking down the infrastructure and producing a substratum for new epochs.

With this work, Kristiina Ljokkoi looks at the changing idea of a city. For as long as we can remember, the role of the city was to shelter centres of human activities from the so-called untamed nature, be they wild beasts or weeds. The time has now come to reconsider the role of the city and its place in the broader ecosystem.

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Antti Tenetz, Wolfland, part of JÄLESTÄÄ TRACING. Photo by Anna Autio

Antti Tenetz, TRACING – JALESTAA trailer

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Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

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Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016

While most works about global warming focus on the very visible and material harbingers of change, Hanna Husberg‘s In the Vast Ocean of Air brings the emphasis on the most eluding, the most border-defying agent: air and the slow violence that is implicit in the compositional changes of the atmosphere.

The work comprises a video and a series of neon signs. The film is set in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a region that has been subject to exploitation of natural resources since the early 1600s and also a region where the effects of climate change are particularly tangible, with temperatures getting shockingly warmer year after year.

As for the 5 neon signs, they are lit by ionised neon and argon gas producing their orange-red and blue glow. The signs evoke the carefully controlled temperatures found inside buildings all over the globe. Deriving, in large extent, from fossil fuels this energy to control the air is also a remnant of warmer climates in times past, that, while permitting vast accumulation of plants at high latitudes, would, however, be inhospitable for us humans.

Photos from the opening of the exhibition:

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

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Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

The HYBRID MATTERs exhibition, opened at Forum Box in Helsinki last November. It was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium. I got the chance to attend the symposium and i’ll write down my notes about it very soon!

Previously: Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

Albedo is the measure of the “whiteness” of a surface and its ability to reflect the sunlight. When applied to the Earth, the albedo effect is a measure of how much of the Sun’s energy can be reflected back into space. Sophisticated, large-scale goeengineering research projects are looking into ways to efficiently do that and thus manipulate climate and put the brake on global warming.

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Dreams Rock Bed, part of Albedo Dreams in Reykjavik, Iceland, 2013. Photo

Since 2012, artist Mari Keski-Korsu has been looking into the DIY strategies that citizens could deploy in order to manipulate climate. She discovered a research paper from engineers at Concordia University who estimated that if cities all over the world increased their surface albedos by adopting white rooftops and light-colored pavements, the global cooling effect generated would be the equivalent of reducing CO2 emissions by 25–150 billion tonnes.

What if citizens joined forces and geoengineered climate on a small scale, both in forests and urban areas? Could they have an impact on the climate without ever needing to resort to costly innovations? Just by using kites, suits for men and semi-domestic forest animals, car covers and other low/no tech guerrilla interventions?

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Reindeer in albedo suit (Stuffed reindeer, recycled textile and mosaics.) At Prima Materia exhibition, 2012

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Dreams Kites flying in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: Asgerdur G. Gunnarsdottir, 2013

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

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Mari Keski-Korsu, Albedo Logger (part of Albedo Dreams)

Keski-Korsu was showing one of her DIY strategies in climate change at the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition which closed a few days ago at Forum Box in Helsinki. This one was a video work showing a suit prototype for forest loggers (i could not embed the video but you can watch it here.) The albedo suit is designed to increase the sunlight reflectivity and thus the albedo value of the forests, cooling the climate in the process while allowing the logger to work as usual. The suit even features a stunning white cape that can be spread out during work breaks and rolled up on the back afterwards.

Of course covering the surface of the Earth in whiteness is all a bit absurd (even though i’m sure Trump would think that a whiter world is the way to go) but that’s why the project echoes with so much sharpness and irony the current research in climate manipulation. Ongoing geoengineering projects often display the typical human hubris that assumes that the best way to save the world is by deploying more technology, more innovation, more energy-devouring ‘solutions.’ And not by taking the problem at its roots: by reflecting on our unruly use and abuse of the planet, by trying to show more respect to all the living entities that populate it.

Albedo Dreams started as a collaboration, organised with the help of Bioart Society and HENVI – Helsinki University Centre for Environment, with forest researchers Frank Berninger and Nea Kuusinen.

Mari Keski-Korsu is collecting all her research and findings in do-it-yourself climate manipulation on her Albedo Dreams website.

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Albedo hut village after a children workshop at the Children Cultural Centre Lastu in Lapinlahti, Finland, 2013

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Albedo Dreams “whitening actions” in Reykjavik, Iceland in February 2013. Photo

The Albedo Logger video was screened at the HYBRID MATTERs exhibition at Forum Box in Helsinki. The show was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium. I got the chance to attend the symposium and to visit the final exhibition. More episodes about the whole event coming soon!

Previously: HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.

To Flavour Our Tears – A restaurant where insects can feast on us

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Image Center for Genomic Gastronomy

A few years ago, entomologist discovered that some moths and bees suck the tears from underneath the eyelids of birds and mammals (including humans) while they sleep. The insect attaches itself to the eyelid, then its mouth, shaped like a harpoon, starts sucking salt-rich liquid from the eyes. Some moths have also been recorded drinking sweat and fluids from the nose. Apparently, there’s even a species in eastern Russia that feeds on man’s blood.

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Chaeopsestis ludovicae drinking tears from the eye of the author who photographed himself . Courtesy of Hans Bänziger, via

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, a group of artists who collaborate with scientists to explore the biotechnologies and biodiversity of human food systems, is currently working on an experimental restaurant that investigates the culinary properties of our tears, and the culinary needs of insects and other eaters-of-humans. How do you taste to the small organisms that consume parts of you everyday, and every last bit of you when you die? How can humans manipulate our bodies, diet & emotions to change our own flavour?

I loved this idea that insects could exploit us for culinary purposes and in the gentlest possible way. It would be payback time for them! Insects, after all, are touted as the next superfood. They are supposed to a great source of proteins, are widely available and when the ones you fancy are not around, breeding worms, bugs and other insects have less impact on the environment than breeding pigs. I’ve seen insect snacks in Dutch supermarkets, Belgian ones and in my favourite English organic food stores. You may find the idea horrifying but it appears that we’re already eating them every day.

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The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s insect project, To Flavour Our Tears, was exhibited last month at the Pixelache exhibition in Helsinki and i think the work was a perfect fit for this year’s Pixelache theme: Interfaces for Empathy. Visitors were invited to think of their body as a restaurant, and start to cook and flavour themselves in a way that insects would find nutritious and flavoursome:

Humans believe we have spent the last 10,000 years domesticating species of all sizes, shaping the planet in our image. Perhaps the tear-drinking insects have been domesticating us the entire time, and they are now ready to farm our tears more intensively. Should we be attempting to repel, attract or give thanks to those that dine on us?

During the festival, the Center was handing out recipes (see images at the bottom of this story), offering the possibility to call an expert every day at 6pm to know more about the scientific background of theproject, collecting tears that were then dehydrated into salt, etc. They even had us lay down on a bed with a little ‘eyephone’ to listen to the testimony of Dr. Hans Bänziger, a Swiss psychologist and writer who let moths drink his tears.

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An instrument to help you harvest your own tears

“We are calling this kind of research into flavouring oneself “AUTOGASTRONOMY,” said Zach Denfeld, co-founder of the Center together with Cathrine Kramer. “It is both metaphoric and quite possibly implementable. Where possible, at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy we try to stay true to our materials, assembling real organisms and ingredients in new configurations and find ways that we can give people the taste of the world we are imagining / speculating, and have them put the art directly into their body (or their body into to the art sometimes). We will be looking for ways to get closer to the real moths, but we will continue to search for other organisms that find parts of humans particularly tasty.”

Michael Pollan, A plant’s-eye view, 2007

“Even though our work often consists of Material Speculations I think the TFOT project is taking us down a more theoretical or non-material speculative approach,” he continued. “We are starting to ask questions about whether or not humans are or have been cultivated by non-humans, and how do we even go about exploring that possibility. Are we being farmed and harvested? Michael Pollan gave a talk back in 2007 asking “What if human consciousness isn’t the end-all and be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn’s clever strategy game to rule the Earth? Author Michael Pollan asks us to see the world from a plant’s-eye view.” As this project moves forward, I could foresee us finding new ways to ask if humans are being cultivated / co-evolving with various agricultural species.”

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To Flavour Our Tears Restaurant, a restaurant concept where the human body is regarded as a series of ingredients that are flavoured

In my exchange with Denfeld, he raised another interesting point: the most health-conscious of us are actually already tending to the needs and preferences of our microbiota, the aggregate of bacteria, fungi, archaea and other microorganisms, that resides on or within a number of tissues and biofluids. We know that ingesting more prebiotic food and probiotics is beneficial to the happiness of our gut microbiota, for example. The restaurant would thus be the next, less anthropocentric, step. We would make ourselves more tasty to non-human species that consume us.

Recipe cards:

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Tear Catchers / Lacrimatory

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Saprophytic Supper (from the word saprophyte, an organism, especially a fungus or bacterium, that derives its nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter)

For the second installation of the restaurant at the Jyväskylä Art Museum in Jyväskylä, Finland, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy took samples from people’s skin, hair and from around the room, looking for dust-mites and other eaters-of-human in our DIY microscope.

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If you want to know more about The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s research, i can’t recommend their publications enough. They are as entertaining as they are informative and eye-opening. There’s already 3 issues of Food Phreaking, a booklet about meat-free proteins titled Pray for Beans, and a rather brilliant Experimental Eating,

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Previous stories about the Pixelache festival: Pixelache 2016 – Interfaces for Empathy, Pixelache 2016: Architectures for the Other Side and Pixelache 2016: The Science of Empathy.

Pixelache 2016: Architectures for the Other Side

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Honey combs and instructions. Melliferopolis Workshop Architectures for the Other Side at Pixelache Festival 20-22nd September. Photo Ulla Taipale

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One of the six locations for The Other Side audio work. Photo Ulla Taipale

Honeybees have been mysteriously vanishing from their hives. One day, beekeepers find that worker bees have just disappeared, leaving behind a queen, food and a few nurse bees to care for the baby bees and the queen. Although things have been looking up lately, the phenomenon is so widespread, it has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder.

Scientists are still looking for an explanation to CCD but the suggested causes for the crisis include: climate change, pollution, pathogens carried by honey bees pest, loss of habitat, a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, stress due to transportation to multiple locations for providing pollination services, malnutrition, immunodeficiencies, etc. Or a toxic combination of several factors.

A future without bees would make for a very sad humanity. Bees are not just producing honey, they are also pollinating flowers and all kinds of food staples, from apples to broccoli to almonds to coffee beans. Experts estimate that 50 to 80% of the world’s food production rely directly or indirectly on pollination by insects and other animals.

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Beekeepers Christina and Hanna checking the situation in the Hexa-Hive. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Beekeepers Christina and Hanna checking the situation in the Hexa-Hive. Photo Ulla Taipale

We need to take better care of bees. Either we leave that task to governments and hope they’ll be fast, efficient and impervious to the influence of lobbies and corporations. Or we try and make an impact at grassroot level. Which is exactly the kind of attitude that the Pixelache Festival in Helsinki has been fostering for years.

This year’s edition of the festival featured a series of Melliferopolis events open to everyone curious about the relationships between the tiny pollinators and humankind. Melliferopolis is a long term project launched a few years ago by artist Christina Stadlbauer and curator Ulla Taipale (in collaboration with honeybees) with the objective to learn, discuss, and engage with bees and urban beekeeping from both scientific and artistic view points.

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Ulla Taipale planting pollinator friendly flowers for the Airstrip for Bees

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Airstrip for Bees with an experimental bee hive “Hexa-Hive” on the back. Photo: Hanna Vainio

In practice this means hands-on workshops, lectures, beehive building, bee-friendly flora planting, concerts, guided tours, mapping and other activities that turn the city of Helsinki into a more pollinator-friendly environment.

The idea of installing beehives in the middle of a city is not as unreasonable as it might seem. Research suggests that urban areas are actually good places for plant pollinators to thrive. While rural areas are often intensively farmed and pesticide-drenched, gardens, allotments, parks but also wasteland and industrial estates provide a mixed source of flowers all year long.

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Day before the Hive Concert at Hexa-Hive Village, testing sound from the bee hive. Photo Till Bovermann

Melliferopolis installed its first experimental bee houses in 2012 in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden. Called Hexa-Hives, theses new shapes for bee hives are hexagonal instead of cubic. The design is inspired by the natural patterning in the bees’ own constructions of wax. The boxes can be stacked or aligned, and adapted to the necessities of the bee colony. They can be even be used as little seats for humans.

The design of the Hexa-Hives embodies the whole ethos behind Melliferopolis: it is a bee-centric, rather than a honey-centric, anthropocentric, endeavour.

None of that Flow Hive no pain all gain malarkey, thus!

The installation of more Hexa-Hives as well as other types of hives followed around the city.

This year the whole Melliferopolis programme at Pixelache was inspired by science fiction author Johanna Sinisalo’s book The Blood of Angels. The story is set in the near future, when the collapse of bee populations has gone out of hands and the global agricultural network goes into total disarray. In the story (as in many cultures around the world where bees are symbols of resurrection), the pollinating insects are messengers of the Gods and they can pass from one world to the other.

The Melliferopolis workshop at the festival was thus aptly called Architectures for the Other Side and it invited participants from all kinds of backgrounds to learn about beekeeping and hive ecology in order to build ‘experimental, empathic hives.’

The three beehives created during the workshops were exhibited as part of the Pixelache festival and come Spring, they will be inhabited with bee colonies.

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Melliferopolis Workshop Architectures for the Other Side with biologist and beekeeper Lauri Ruottinen at Pixelache Festival 20-22nd September 2016. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. Panorama Architecures for Other Side workshop at Lapinlahden Sairaala / Pixelache Festival. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. The Jar beehive in the middle of Foodycles market. Photo Ulla Taipale

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Melliferopolis. An A for a B beehive in the middle of Foodycles market

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Melliferopolis. Hanna Vainio workshopping. Photo Ulla Taipale

Under its charming and bucolic guises, Melliferopolis is an artistic experiment that has the potential to have a real impact on the flourishing of honeybees and on the blooming of a more diverse flora in the city of Helsinki. It is also a project that helps the public understand better how much our food supply and the one of future generation depend on the survival of the tiny insects. As Johanna Sinisalo explained in her talk during the opening evening of Pixelache, no one seems to care about the bees, they are the new inconvenient truth, the discussion we don’t want to face because it would force us to change our ways of living.

More images from the Melliferopolis programme:

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Hive Concert at Hexa-Hive Village 18.8.2016, Katharina Hauke and Till Bovermann playing with bees. Photo Till Bovermann

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Melliferopolis. Arilyn, The Other Side (a site-specific audio work that features parts of Johanna Sinisalo’s novel Enkelten Verta/ The Blood of Angels, the free Arilyn app can be activated in an area of Helsinki with its own flora and fauna.) Photo Antti Ahonen

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One of the locations for The Other Side audio work. Photo Ulla Taipale

Melliferopolis is a project that involves regular events but also a fair amount of daily care that requires regularly checking on the health of the colony, ensuring the bees will have enough sugar energy to stay alive till the end of winter, making sure the hives remain free of any parasites or pathogens, carefully observing the honey flow so you know what to leave behind and crossing fingers in the hope that the colonies will still be alive next Spring!

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MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th June, 2014. Photo: Ulla Taipale

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Pollinators have arrived. Photo: Hanna Vainio

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MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th, 2014. Photo: Nigel Helyer

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Bee Ark at Kaisaniemi botanic garden (detail.) Photo Antti Ahonen

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Bee Ark at Kaisaniemi botanic garden. The beehive was built during MFP Workshop III: Bees for Architecture and Architecture for Bees by Nigel Helyer, 9-11th June, 2014

More photos from Melliferopolis.

Previously: Pixelache 2016: The Science of Empathy.
Urban bee activism and Book review: Art & Ecology Now.

Pixelache 2016: The Science of Empathy

The Pixelache Festival opened last night in Helsinki. It is, as usual, full of good surprises and inspiring shenanigans. The theme this year is:

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The whole program is dedicated to exploring how empathy can be extended to the whole ecosystem, not just to other human beings. I’ll write a proper report later but today i really wanted to publish my notes from Katri Saarikivi‘s talk at the opening evening of the festival.

This month i’ve been writing about gloomy topic such as the drones that kill, robots that might take the power over us, oil industry that exploits its workforce, off-shore tax havens that enable the 1% to enjoy full impunity, etc. I thought i should also make space for stories that puts the human genre in a more positive light.

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Katri Saarikivi at Pixelache

Saarikivi is a cognitive neuroscientist and the leader of NEMO – Natural Emotionality in Digital Interaction at the University of Helsinki. The group is looking for new ways to digitalize and transmit empathy in the digital realm. Her quick introduction to The Science of Empathy was brilliant and uplifting.

Saarikivi explained that empathy is important. It’s what makes us connect to other people’s emotions. Empathy is also an essential survival skill for humans. It’s what makes us come together and collaborate. It also makes collective intelligence possible. Compared to big beasts like bears and tigers, humans are small and weak so we needed to cooperate in order to be able to overcome them. That’s what has enabled humanity to survive and flourish over time.

Even if we don’t have to face big beasts nowadays, we still benefit from empathy. It is our route to great achievements. We wouldn’t have managed to put Rovers on Mars without it (whether sending vehicles onto distant planets is the most interesting thing we can do is another story.)

In fact, a report titled Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups showed that collective intelligence was best when it came to finding solutions to problems. According to the researchers, The key to high performance lay not in the content of a team’s discussion but in the manner in which it was communicating. Collective intelligence is at its most efficient when the following factors appear during the discussions:
– short speeches, no monologues,
– responsiveness towards others,
– everyone gets a turn to speak.
– empathy (the reading the mind in the eyes test)

Even Google data analysts agree. After years of intensive research on how to produce a more productive team, the tech giant discovered that the key to good team work was being nice.

In the future, the importance of empathy might become even more apparent. People will have to focus on tasks in which they are better than the ‘robots’. Tasks that can’t be automated and require ‘softer skills.’ Some of these tasks are the ones that involve learning and creativity; flexible, contextual thinking; empathy, etc.

Empathy, according to Saarikivi, is the ultimate human quality.

In neuroscience, empathy is divided into 3 levels: Thoughts, Actions and Emotions.

Thoughts: empathy helps you understand how other people think, it enables you to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. We are all mentalists!
Emotions: other people’s emotions are contagious. We feel sad when we see someone cry and feel happier when we see another person smile.
Actions: Mechanisms in our brain makes it rewarding to be altruistic.

Saarikivi explained that if you remove self-control from humans, they become overly generous towards other humans. It seems that we are inherently altruistic, that sharing and being generous is part of our brain default state.

What Saarikivi’s research group is trying to understand is how these mechanism works so that they can create more opportunities for empathy.

But neuroscience realizes that it might not be enough to understand what happens in the brain of one person. That’s where the two-brain perspective comes in. Two-brain neuroscience measures the activity of two brains at the same time and looks at the connections.

Researchers found that “cognition materializes in interpersonal space“:
– Rhythmic activity of brains synchronizes during interaction,
– The greater the extent of neural coupling between a speaker and a listener, the better the understanding.

Things that increase empathy:
Reading literary fiction,
Playing rock band together,
Moving together in synchrony: bouncing, clapping, rocking in rocking chair.

One of society’s current challenges is that empathy is not communicated efficiently online. The internet was conceived as a tool for empathy but as we know, that’s not what is happening. We need to improve ‘virtual empathy’. It appears that when we go online we are less empathetic than when we are face to face. Why? Saarikivi believes that the tools we use are not built to take human empathy into consideration.

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Kids Read Mean Tweets

When a person’s feeling don’t reach you, this person can’t touch you. That’s how you end up with trolls.

She concluded that we need more interfaces for empathy, whether they are digital or not. We need them now because society is facing problems of global magnitude that we won’t be able to solve without empathy.

The Pixelache Festival takes place from September 22nd to 25th in Helsinki.