Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

Oil industry and artists with a conscience don't usually make for happy pairings. Liberate Tate ambitions to free Tate (and other BP-sponsored art museums) from dirty sponsorship. The Yes Men posed as ExxonMobil executives at Canada's largest oil conference and promised to "keep fuel flowing" by recycling dead human bodies into oil. The security team threw them off stage before the end of their presentation. Sometimes, however, oil companies don't seem to realize when an artist critique is on them.

Ask Matt Kenyon who is currently showing his work Supermajor at the Petrosains Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The piece, which is critical of global oil cartels, has been 'nationalized' by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas.

Supermajor is a rack of small vintage oil barrels bearing the logos of some of the biggest publicly owned oil companies (aka the supermajors): Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil. Oil seems to leak from one of the cans, flowing out in a seemingly never-ending trickle and cascading onto a golden-brown pool. However, thanks to a specialized lighting system and a special system of pumps, the oil appears to be flowing upwards, defying gravity.

Although the work is quite clearly a critique of the oil industry and the perception that oil, gas and other resources are infinite, the local gallery staff secretly changed the Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil oil labels of the installation to Petronas labels. Overnight and without the artist's permission or even knowledge.

Supermajor before. Image Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

Supermajor after. Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

They have nationalized the work, then tried to cover it up, says Kenyon reacting to the label swap. This has left me in an awkward spot as far as documenting this new version of Supermajor. I've been told that the work was returned to its proper form, but the images from the opening show otherwise!

I've thought of this artwork as selectively deploying a cheap illusion to point out the larger most costly 'necessary' illusions used everyday by companies like BP, Exon and Shell to maintain their markets and influence. There is a long strange history of national oil companies like Petronas buying influence and spreading corruption.

0Petronas-supermajor KL opening.jpg
Supermajor at the opening of the ILLUSION show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Supermajor is part of a series of SWAMP works that looks into oil and gas extraction culture. Another fully developed work is Puddle and the artist is also currently working on a piece called TAP which will explore fracking.

The installation is part of a touring show titled Illusion that opened on Sept 10th in the Petrosains Science Centre located in the Petronas Towers. The artist also told me that Science Gallery, who organized the exhibition, has been very supportive and even sent staff from Dublin to Kuala Lumpur in order to sort out the situation.

Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

Interview with Matt Kenyon about Supermajor for the ILLUSION exhibition. Science Gallery Dublin

I asked the artist to help me understand how this could have happened:

Hi Matt! I still can't wrap my head around what happened to your work. The last thing you wanted to do with this work was validating the oil industry, right?

I grew up in Louisiana, a state rich with deposits oil and gas and all of the corporations and corruption that comes with it.

Immediately following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was in grade school at the time, each student was given a tray of water, a feather, table spoon of oil and a squirt of dish soap. It was part of a Exxon sponsored science lesson on how effective Dawn ™ dish soap was in cleaning oil off of bird feathers. In reality, what Exxon was trying to teach us kids was that the heinous oil spill off of Alaska with its oil covered birds and coastal beaches could simply be cleaned up with something as familiar as dish soap. Such bullshit.

The last thing I want is to validate companies such as Exxon, BP, Shell and Petronas extractionist activities. Perhaps for Petronas the image of the oil flowing into the re-branded oil can is a dream come true. To me, the slow motion impossibility of the oil flowing endlessly against gravity back into the can is a spacial kind of nightmare. Clearly they did not understand the work. Perhaps the logos of their competitors cause a sort of corporate autoimmune response.

The labels on the oil cans reference back to the Seven Sisters, the original oil cartel. The National oil companies (NOCs) account for 75% of the global oil production and controlled 90% of proven oil reserves in comparison to the International Oil Companies (IOCs), such as ExxonMobil, BP, or Royal Dutch Shell. NOCs are also increasingly investing outside their national borders (see the recent situation in Canada).

Matt Kenyon, Supermajor

Also do you feel that your work as an artist has been violated? once you had finished laughing at their action, did you in any way feel angry, uncomfortable or annoyed?

My first reaction to the news that they forced the changes to the work was anger. Who did they think they were? Just because they are a wealthy company (45 % Malaysian GDP) does not give them the right to modify the artwork. Such an action is an injustice and a violation of the exhibition agreement. Being on the other side of the world, I was left with few options. I decided that if they (Petronas) want so much to be part of the work (a work they clearly didn't understand) I would oblige them.

Thanks Matt!

Sponsored by:

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, by historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.


Pre-order on amazon USAand UK

Publisher Verso writes: Scientists tell us that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. We are not facing simply an environmental crisis, but a geological revolution of human origin. In two centuries, our planet has tipped into a state unknown for millions of years. How did we get to this point?

Refuting the convenient view of a "human species" that upset the Earth system unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes a new account of modernity that shakes up many accepted ideas: on the supposedly recent date of "environmental awareness," on previous challenges to industrialism, on the manufacture of consumerism and the energy "transition," as well as on the role of the military in environmental destruction.

Through a dialogue between science and history, the authors draw an ecological balance sheet of a developmental model that has become unsustainable, and explore paths for living and acting politically in the Anthropocene.

Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim, via Vantage

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that recognizes that humanity's imprint on global environment rivals some of the greatest forces of nature. The authors suggest that the Anthropocene started with James Watt's improved steam engine designs in the late 18th century which kicked off the industrial revolution and thus the 'carbonification' of our atmosphere. From that time on, human activities started to have a significantly damaging impact on the Earth's ecosystems: high levels of air pollution, ocean acidification, out of control climate, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, modification of continental water cycle, etc. As the authors note, the Anthropocene is a sign of both our power and our impotence.

The book attempts to comprehend this new epoch but also to dispel a few misconceptions. I found particularly interesting the one about the sudden 'awakening' to our responsibility in climate change and the one that claims that only scientists possess the knowledge and wisdom necessary to save the planet.

The Anthropocene is often presented as an 'awakening' as if we were the first generations that realized the damage that burning fossil fuels, overfishing and other human activities have done to the earth atmosphere. But as the authors easily demonstrate, men knew what they were doing 200 years ago and environmentally damaging actions regularly met with criticism, challenge and struggle right from the beginning of the Anthropocene.

The book also states that today's scientific knowledge is put on a pedestal. On the one side is a small elite of scientists who appear as the spokespeople for the Earth. On the other is the uninformed mass of the world population awaiting to be saved or at least shepherded in the right direction. If we believe the experts, serious solutions can only emerge from further innovations in the labs, rather than from alternative political experiments in society as a whole. Besides, as the authors write, to position humanity (or just its elite) as a pilot means that the earth is little more than a cybernetic machine that can be dominated from the outside. They conclude that what we need right now is not a rescue plan made of geo-engineering prowess but more narratives, types of knowledge, a variety of civic initiatives and popular alternatives which explores the outlines of living better with less.

Chemical and biological warfare trials during Cold War in 1956. The masks had to be worn to allow the collection of proxy warfare substances that had been sprayed from aircraft (image via The Independent)

A visualization of satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth on Stuff in Space (image via Hyperallergic)

The book also demonstrate convincingly that the responsibility for the Anthropocene doesn't rest on the shoulders of every single human beings. Fressoz and Bonneuil explain at length the role that the military, capitalism and two hegemonic powers (Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th Century) play in the Anthropocene. Some thinkers even used the word 'Oliganthropocene' to define a geological epoch caused by a small fraction of humanity.

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is well written, impeccably researched (the authors quote all the relevant thinkers you might imagine from Marx to Piketty, from Gandhi to Hannah Arendt) and its discourse brings the Anthropocene into a wide historical and societal context. But above all, it is a book that shows that in the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of past, present and coming political choices. Even though people running the political sphere seem to royally ignore that fact. I've always found it a bit strange to see how low ecological concerns and promises figured in electoral campaigns.

One of the most important lessons the book has to offer is that we should probably all stop talking about an ecological 'crisis'. It's too late for that. A crisis can be overcome, the anthropocene can't. We've reached a point of no return.

Photo on the home page by Marco Gualazzini, Coltan mining from R.D. Congo- The War of Minerals.

The quality of groundwater is heavily affected by modern life: industrial discharges, urban activities, waste disposal and other human activities contaminate drinking and irrigation water with undesirable pollutants.

Looking for innovative ways to supply agricultural fields with clean water, artist Rihards Vitols is currently experimenting with a new type of agronomy that relies on "cloud-farming". In his scenario, farmers will raise thousands of helium balloons above their land to collect water from the cloud. Demonstration in the video below:

Rihards Vitols (artistic concept, video editing) and Janis Jankevics (video)

akA is part of the Transformative Ecologies exhibition which will open this week at the Maison du Design gallery in Mons, Belgium. The show features the result of the "techno-ecological" researches initiated by Latvian and Belgian artists who are exploring sustainable food and energy futures.

Right before the show opens, i caught up with the Vitols to get more details about his first prototypes and experiments:



Launching the first balloon to collect data (with Eva Bukevica)

Launching the first balloon to collect data

Hi Rihards! How did you get the idea for the project?

In the beginning the project was about clouds. I wanted to collect and archive data from clouds over my great-grandparents land, which I did using weather balloons and attaching humidity and temperature sensors to them. After a while I started to notice that balloons are slowly losing height. I took one of them down to check if there was a leak. But instead I noticed that small water drops are all over the balloon surface. Then the winter came and I had some time to think about how I could work with this process. During the Autumn a lot of people around me were talking about the future of water and then the idea about akA and Cloud Farming came into my head.

I was surprised at how low-tech the mechanism was. It looks so simple. But are there tricks and secrets to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible? Or challenges you had to overcome while developing the project?

It is simple. But it is not fast. You need to wait while the water lands on the balloon and it can take some time. One of the challenges is the wind. If it's windy it's harder to get it up in the sky. Wind is just blowing it away diagonally. The second challenge is to launch multiple balloons in one field. I am still thinking about methods so that they would not get entangled with each other. Water collecting is still in progress and I am looking for the best solution. I used a sponge but obviously it`s not the best way, because some part of the water stays in it. At the moment those are all only ideas and i will be doing some further testing next spring.

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Could you walk us through the ideal scenario for akA? it would have to be implemented at large scale with thousands of balloons, right? But what is the process like on a large scale? Would the balloons have to be operative non-stop? Or just be deployed when there is a need for more water? How would a farmer use it exactly?

Farm size depends on the land size. But the ideal would be 1000+ balloons of 3 meters in diameter. All balloons would be lifted at once and connected in a network so they stay in place. Water gathering would need to be automated and at the moment I'm thinking about using a waterproof paper material to create a funnel which then would be attached to the balloon. I'm also considering using a lightweight tube from funnel to farm so that water can safely make its way to the purification station. A daily task of the farmer would be to check if all of the balloons are okay, also to fill the balloons with helium at least once every 2 weeks, fill bottles with water and send them out to shops or private buyers. I would like to automate it so far that all of the work takes only 2-4 days per month. One of best things is that the ground under the balloons can still be used for other things.

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

Is the water from the clouds really as pure as it should be? Aren't clouds submitted to industrial pollution as well?

During the winter kids are eating snow - during the summer they are running around with their mouth open trying to catch the falling rain, at least in Latvia they do so. No one has gotten sick of it. Of course in a larger amount and in a bigger concentration it may not be so healthy. So all of the water needs to be checked before selling it further.

Sketch for data collecting

You have started to collect moist and temperature data about the sky over your land. Could you tell us what you found out?

Data collecting helped me to find the moistest place and time around the property. All data collection was before the water collection and at that moment there was no reason to find out something just to get data. Now I can use this data to show how fertile the sky over my property is for the potential cloud farmers who would like to rent my land for water collecting, if I would choose to stop collecting it by myself.

What's next for the project?

Together with a designer Reinis Nalivaiko I`m building a webpage about the project. All information on the project will be available in the webpage, along with the data about the sky where the water and its analysis are being collected from. The concepts of the water collection systems will be also there along with the documentation from their appliance.

Next spring I want to get the cloud water tested and compare this data with tap water, rain water and borehole water. And then based on these data I would be able to find out what kind of purification system I need for the farm.

With a help of an architect Ivars Veinbergs that would allow me to make an architectural project and maybe in the next 2 years I will be able to create the first Cloud Farm.

Thanks Rihards!

Rihards Vitols holds a master's degree in new media art from Liepaja University where he is now teaching. And in a few weeks the artist will start a second masters degree at KHM (Academy of Media Arts Cologne).

Check out akA at the Transformative Ecologies exhibition on 19 to 30 August at Maison du Design in Mons, Belgium. The show is curated by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits from RIXC Center for New Media Culture and is accompanied by a 3D BioLab symposium on August 20th and 21st in Cafe Europa.

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

For a number of years, artist Gilberto Esparza has been using recycled electronics, alternative forms of energy and other modern technologies to investigate the action of human beings on the environment. His Urban Parasites are small robotic insects made of recycled consumer goods. They climb, crawl and hang over the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. In 2010, he developed Nomadic Plants, a robot hosting living plants and microorganisms. Whenever its 'guests' need to be fed, the autonomous robot will move towards a contaminated river and drink water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cells, the elements contained in the water are transformed into energy that powers its circuits. The cleaned up water is then sprayed onto the plants.

Like Nomadic Plants, but on a larger scale, Esparza's new research project makes use of microbial fuel cells technology to produce electricity and improve the quality of water.

Autophotosynthetic Plants takes the form a hybrid, self-regulating organism. Part machine, part organic ecosystem, it feeds on organisms found into the sewage water of Lima, Peru, in order to create its own light, energy and be self-sufficient.

As any living organism, Autophotosynthetic Plants features a central system where microorganisms, crustaceans and algae live; a digestive system where bacteria feed on polluted water and transform it into cleaner water that can be used for photosynthesis; and a nervous system made of an electronic network that monitors the activities of the organic parts.

The process is probably better explained in the video below:

The modules create hydraulic network that administers bio-filtered water to the central container, creating an optimal environment where producer species and consumer species from different trophic levels (protzoans, crustaceans, micro algae and aquatic plants) can achieve homeostatic equilibrium. The electricity produced by the bacteria is released as intervals of luminous energy, enabling photosynthesis by the plants that inhabit the central container which thereby complete their metabolic processes. When the organic material present in the microbial cells has been entirely consumed, an electronic monitoring networks pumps out the byproducts generated by the species that inhabit the nuclear ecosystem to the modular cells, restoring the cycle.

The ambitious project not only suggests that polluted water can be used as a source of energy but it also stands as a model that could potentially be applied to other cities, communities and industries.

I contacted the artist to know more about the project (Scroll down if you prefer to read the interview in Spanish):

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

Hi Gilberto! Where do the electricity-bacteria come from? Did you find them existing already in the contaminated water? Or were there introduced from another source? Are they the same bacterias as in Plantas nomadas?

The bacteria come from the rivers where the samples are taken. One of the bacteria commonly found in organic waste is the Geobacter which has been used in various studies to generate energy by microbial fuel cells. It is the same system that Nomadic Plants is using.

The obvious question is: could the system be implemented on a large scale? Going thus from the scale of an art installation in an exhibition room to a fully functional system used for a whole area of the city?

Yes, all the research centers that are working with this technology have that possibility in mind. The idea is to implement the use of microbial cells in wastewater treatment plants to reduce the power consumption that the plant requires.

Does the system require a lot of maintenance and attention? Or does it pretty much manage itself without any help from you or from scientists?

The installation has analog electronics and multiple sensors that auto-regulate the functioning of the installation. The only maintenance consists in aliment it with wastewater each time a biodegradation cycle ends.

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

In the video, you explain that you took water from various parts of the city and that each zone of the city had its own level and type of pollution. Could you explain a bit more? How does that translate in the installation? Do the various types of polluted water require different bacteria? produce different intensity or types of energy?

It depends on the area where the samples were taken. In industrial areas, for example, you can find a higher amount of toxic waste that sometimes inhibit bacteria. In other sectors of the city, household waste generate more organic matter. In those waters bacteria feed on this waste and produce more energy and this energy is reflected in the installation in the form in flashes of light that are more intense and that make aquatic plants perform their photosynthetic processes better.

In the video, we see visitors entering the room of Plantas autofotosintéticas wearing a mask. Is it because the installation has a bad smell? Or is dangerous to breathe in? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wyL4jRlqbY

The installation emits bad smells and presents a source of infection for visitors, so we decided to protect them. I find this approach to the work interesting because those same conditions are found in the urban area bordering polluted rivers and their inhabitants are exposed to them all the time.

Thanks Gilberto!

And now for the spanish version of the interview:

¿De dónde provienen las bacterias que se alimentan de electricidad? Ya existían en el agua contaminada? O lo habías introducido desde otra parte? ¿Son las mismas bacterias en Plantas nómadas?

Las bacterias provienen de los ríos de donde sacan las muestras, una de las bacterias que es muy común en donde se presentan desechos orgánicos es la Geobacter con las que se han estado haciendo diversos estudios para la generación de energía a través de celdas de combustible microbianas. Es el mismo sistema que utiliza Plantas Nómadas.

¿Se podría llevar a gran escala el sistema? Yendo solo así de la escala de una instalación de arte en una sala de exposiciones a un sistema totalmente funcional utilizada para toda una zona de la ciudad?

Sí, todos los centros de investigación que están trabajando con esta tecnología tienen presente esa posibilidad. La idea es implementar el uso de las celdas microbianas en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales para disminuir el consumo de energía que la planta requiere.

¿El sistema requiere mucha atención, mantenimiento? ¿O más o menos se maneja por sí mismo sin ninguna ayuda de usted o de los científicos?

La instalación tiene una electrónica análoga y múltiples censores que autorregulan el funcionamiento de la instalación, el único mantenimiento es proveerle de aguas residuales cada que termine el ciclo de biodegradación.

En el vídeo, se explica que le "tomó agua de diversas partes de la ciudad y que cada zona de la ciudad tiene su propio nivel y tipo de contaminación. ¿Podría explicar un poco más? ¿Cómo se traduce en la instalación? ¿Los distintos tipos de aguas contaminadas requieren diferentes bacterias? produce diferentes tipos de energía o la intensidad?

Depende de la zona en donde se tomaron las muestras, se presentas distintos contaminantes por ejemplo en las zonas industriales se presentan mas desechos tóxicos que algunas veces inhiben a las bacterias. En otros sectores de la cuidad, se presentan más materia orgánica por desechos domésticos, en esas aguas las bacterias se alimentas de estos desechos y producen más energía y esta energía se manifiesta en la instalación como destellos de luz más intensos que hacen que las plantas acuáticas que habitan en el núcleo realicen mejor sus procesos fotosintéticos.

En el video, vemos a los visitantes que entran en la habitación de las Plantas autofotosintéticas con una máscara. ¿Es porque la instalación tiene un mal olor? ¿O es peligroso para respirar?

La instalación despide malos olores y representa un foco de infección para los espectadores, por eso se decidió protegerlos. Esta aproximación a la obra me interesa porque esas mismas condiciones se encuentran en las zona urbanas que colindan con los ríos contaminados y que sus habitantes están expuestos todo el tiempo.

¡Muchas gracias Gilberto!

Liam Young collecting radioactive tailings material from the world's Largest Rare Earth minerals refinery in Mongolia. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Last year, the Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio that explores peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness, travelled to Asia to follow the path of the symbol of globalization: the massive container ship. The group came back with amazing stories, images, videos and with a set of radioactive Ming vases made from the toxic waste of our electronic gadgets.

Along their journey, Unknown Fields investigated Rare earth element, a set of seventeen chemical elements which are all metals that are often found together in geologic deposits. What makes REE important to our times is that they are used for computer memory, rechargeable batteries, night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, phones, energy-efficient lighting, solar panels, and many other electronics and green technologies.

China is the number one consumer of rare earths, they use it mainly in the manufacture of electronics products for domestic use as well as export. Since the 1990s, China is also one of the world's main producer of rare earths. A large proportion of the country's rare earth production is located in the west of Inner Mongolia where the Bayan Obo Mining District oversees the largest deposits of rare earth metals yet found.

Aerial view of Bayan Obo, on June 30, 2006. Image Earth Observatory

A toxic lake of mine and refinery tailings stretches for over 6km from Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation

The highly restricted Bayan Obo Rare Earth mine © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

The giant industrial complex is one of the most polluted regions on the planet. It processes 100 thousand tons of rare earth concentrate per year using the sulphuric acid-roasting method and for every ton of rare earth concentrate produced 10,000 cubic metres of waste gas, 75 cubic metres of acid-washing waste water, and one ton of radioactive residues are generated.

The amount of toxic clay produced in the manufacture of a single smart phone is moulded into a Ming vase form. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

The vases are made from the exact amount of toxic waste produced in the manufacture of a smartphone, a laptop and an electric car battery cell. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

To accompany the film that documents their adventures, Unknown Fields Division crafted a set of three ceramic Ming vases, using mud extracted from one of Bayan Obo's gigantic radioactive tailing ponds. The toxic sludge, which contains acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material, was transported it to London where it was tested for radioactivity. After that, the mud was given to sculptor Kevin Callaghan who turned it into elegant vases which silhouette evokes the Ming dynasty porcelain Tongping Vases. Once a family global superpower, the Ming dynasty presided over an international network of connections, trade and diplomacy that stretched across Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, built on the trade of commodities such as imperial porcelain.

Each object is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology - a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. Besides, the vases are sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of each item.

The three Rare Earthernware vases embody the contemporary global supply network but also the long-lasting impact that our thirst for technological goods has on the environment. They will soon be shown at the What is Luxury exhibition in London:

These three vessels are artifacts of a contemporary global supply network that weaves matter and displaces earth across the planet. They are presented as objects of desire, but their elevated radiation levels and toxicity make them objects we would not want to possess and in this case the museum vitrine serves to protect us from the exhibit on display rather than the other way round. They are the undesirable consequences of our material desires.

Rare Earthenware, video by Toby Smith

A worker steams cyrstals from a precipitator in a stage 1 rare earth refinery. The cyrstals contain an elevated concentration of rare earth oxides. © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

A rare-earth refinery with centrifuges concentrates Rare Earth ore into industrial application before it is force dried into powder form. 76% of the world's rare-earth magnets are produced in China. © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Radiation scientists test the toxic clay collected from the tailings lake and find it to be 3 times background radiation. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Rare Earthenware is a work by Kate Davies and Liam Young of The Unknown Fields Division in partnership with the Architectural Association. Photography by Toby Smith. Ceramics by Kevin Callaghan and the London Sculpture workshop.

Rare Earthernware will premiere this April 22nd at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the What is Luxury exhibition. The show will be open until the 27th of September 2015.

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring. Photo: Carina-Hesper

In the South of Spain runs a river so red and soalien-looking that the Spain tourism board is marketing it as Mars on Earth. NASA scientists even came to the area to investigate the ecosystem for its similarities to the planet Mars.

Due (mostly) to the intense mining for copper, silver, gold, and other mineral in the area, the Rio Tinto is highly acidic, its water has a low oxygen content and it is made dense by the metals it carries in suspension. Its deep reddish hue is caused by the iron dissolved in the water.

Cecilia Jonsson visited the region to collect some of the wild grass that grows on the borders of the Rio Tinto. The name of that grass is Imperata cylindrica. It is a highly invasive weed and its other particularity is that it is an iron hyperaccumulater, which means that the plant literally drinks up the metal in the soil and stores high levels of it in its leaves, stems and roots.

The artist harvested 24kg of Imperata cylindrica and worked with smiths, scientists, technicians and farmers in order to extract the iron ore from the plants and use it to make an iron ring. The innovative experiment brought together the biological, the industrial, the technological and even craft to create a piece of jewellery that weights 2 grams. The project also suggests a way to reverse the contamination process while at the same time mining iron ore from the damaged environment.

While "green mining" aims for a more ecological approach to mining metals, The Iron Ring explores how contaminated mining grounds may benefit from the mining of metals.

Cecilia Jonsson's mining adventures are detailed in the e-book of the project but i found her investigation into the overlaps between nature and technology so fascinating that i contacted her in the hope that she'd agree to an interview. And lucky me, she did!

Hi Cecilia! I am very curious to know more about the way you, as someone who was primarily trained to be an artist, approach the science/technology side of your projects. Do you typically work with experts to assist you in your research? Or do you just learn the skills and work on your own? Or maybe a bit of both?

My constructions are a combination of hypothesizing outcomes plus trial and error, especially within parameters of biology, physics and technology. Informed by methods used in the natural sciences and empirical material in a site-related context. Mostly they take the form as installation which are the result of intense field work.

The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier claimed that the great error of the Surrealists was their own lack of faith: they tried to create the marvelous without really believing in it. "Objects" are often a living metaphor of their own history, their formation. To follow their trace through a wide flow of informative perspectives captures a reverberant relation of objective and subjective distinctions in a sort of intermingled morphology. Built on this quantitative data, the cluster eventually starts to web. When the notion of reality shifts into real it has become a concrete term. Which directs me to sites, material, methods and technologies including disseminated collaborations within other disciplines.

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring. Photo: Carina-Hesper

The Iron Ring is an incredible project. You extracted iron from plants and made a ring from what you collected. How did you discover the existence of those iron-containing plants?

Since iron is not the most toxic pollutant, has a low economical and symbolic value and can be virtually scooped up from everywhere, it was tricky to apply the idea to the knowledge base of present-day remediation processes. The research started around five years ago, from my interest for iron in its intrinsic qualities and paradoxical changes. I was looking into experiments of electro-culture, plant communication and how plants can be applied as analytical filters, as a mirroring of their own environment. I found some plants that are more tolerant to iron and are able to grow on this type of contaminated soils. But, most coherent plant studies about efficient iron uptake mostly targeted the human perspective in relation to high organic iron content as an effective adjunct in the treatment of iron deficiency and anemia.

The research was conducted for the project The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra from 2012. The installation shows an ambiguous process of an iron hyperaccumulating plant taking up magnetized iron particles that have been scraped of from a reel-to-reel tape of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. On a later stage the iron was extracted again, glued back to the tape and played, resulting in a reinterpretation of The Four Seasons. This work is a predecessor to The Iron Ring were I was interested in taking a more straight functional and site-specific approach to the grass unique ability to extract and encapsulate iron.

The defined iron hyperaccumulating plant with a minimum required amount of 10000 mg/kg Fe revealed in research articles on plant physiology and biochemistry from the university in Madrid. The constructive study had been conducted on the naturalized weed Imperata cylindrica. Collected from the highly acidic (pH 1.6-2) riverbanks of the Rio Tinto in the mining district Rio Tinto in South-western Spain. That model presented me results and a first equation for the calculations of the Iron Ring.

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra. Iron absorption: I. cylindrica, root - Spring concert. Scanning electron microscope: 5.00 KX-10 ?m. Collaboration with; Irene Heggstad and Egil Erichsen at the University of Bergen, Laboratory for Electron Microscopy

What was the most challenging aspect in the project? Were there moments you thought it was a mad idea and you'd better give up on it? Or did you know right from the start that everything would go according to plans?

I had actual figures on an expected iron content from the grass in Spain. I knew how to extract iron from organic material and had read about iron reduction and deoxidization processes. It was possible. The next step was to figure out the practical weight of how much bio-ore was actually needed for the process of making a ring of 2 grams. I made some calls to traditionally trained smiths to discuss my idea and I got suggestions on possible processes and an "about" quantity.

The greatest challenge was always the restricted iron quantity to create one ring. The problem isn't the metal but its proportion of mass (quote). The thin ring is a complex form to cast even with industrial produced iron. Cast iron is very susceptible to loss of metallization at high temperatures, such as the melt temperature required for the cast. A consequence of this is that with each new attempt we made there was a continuous formation of slag and an equal loss of iron. The inclusion of even small amounts of some elements can have profound effects. Because of the impurities in cast iron and its crystalline structure, it is a strong material in compression but weak in tension and very brittle. As a result, when it fails, it does so in an explosive manner, with little warning.

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Exhibition of The Iron RIng at V2_ Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo; Jan Sprij

The project starts with humble plants and end up with a tiny little ring. But what I found amazing was the amount of craft, heavy industrial processes and knowledge required to go from plant to ring. What have you learnt about the flow of organic matter while working on the project?

From working with iron as material, the matter itself as well as on its interaction with the living. The Iron Ring has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of ecosystems. From the field to the laboratory-scale to craftsmanship and industry, I have had a proper opportunity to build collaborations with proficiency on a wide scale. Their engagement to think out of the box and the connectedness to sort of re-invent and re-discover iron production in our industrial age, has really made a strong impression.

The Iron Ring also highlights the toxic impact of mineral exploitation on the environment. However, you write in the description of the project: "The result is a scenario for iron mining that, instead of furthering destruction, could actually contribute to the environmental rehabilitation of abandoned metal mines." Could you elaborate on this rehabilitation of the abandoned mines? How would that work? What would it be like?

The abandoned mines in Rio Tinto are a no man's land. Apart from tourists who come to visit the unworldly sites, the area continues its forgotten glory to slump and erode. Rio Tinto has a dark, long history of being exploited for ferrous and non-ferrous minerals, copper, gold, silver and lead and due to its historical perspective the rightful ownership of the excavated mess is undefined and beyond present laws of remediation. To stabilize or reduce contamination of sites like Rio Tinto, you first need to analyse the soil and from that result, plant several different types of hyperaccumulating and tolerant green plants.

The project elaborates on this possibility to utilize the cleansing process of the naturalized grass, which overlooked ability is left unutilized. The project proposes to harvest the grass for the purpose of extracting the ore that is inside them. The idea of the ring is to complete the circle, to maintain the clean-up commitment. So that when the soil is stabilized, other native plants can be introduced to restore the biodiversity and help bring back the heritage of flora that was lost through the human activity.

There are many layers behind the "rehabilitation" statement. Which under controlled conditions could include the naturalized grass: Imperata cylindrica in a remediation process where its biomass is utilized for iron production. A larger harvest would also contribute to less complications and a more refined iron production with less slag and more iron in just two steps. Going back to the complexity of ecosystems and my second connotation of the "rehabilitation". Which is to utilize the already inhabited weed to be able to control its spread in the environment. Imperata cylindrica is an aggressive fast-growing perennial grass that can and has become an ecological threat. It's listed as one of the ten worst weeds in the world and is placed on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weed list, which prohibits new plantings. The grass does not survive in cultivated areas but establishes along roadways, in forests and mining areas, where it forms dense mats of thatch that shade and outcompete native plants.

The enigma of use- and exchange-value enchants me as well as the perspectives on precious matter and how it earns its cultural weight. Something that I think Ralph W. Emerson beautifully formulates in What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare and on account of its material nature and rarity, the high value is linked to its cost of extraction.

How long did the whole process take? From the moment you found the plants to the final realization of the ring?

From when the first plant community was found in Spain to the ring had become one continuous solid, 5 weeks of intensive work.




Could you explain what we can see in the photos of the installation Stratigrafi? What is the strange metallic sculpture?

Stratigrafi is a work developed in collaboration with colleague Signe Lidén. Thematically, we were exploring cavities, man-made places and fundamental changes of the landscape. Exploring the mine as an in-between space a geographical cavity between nature, ideas and technologies and how history works way through its forms. Signe had been in Kakanj in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bytom in Poland to explore coal mines. I had gathered material in relation to iron from re-vegetation institutes and large-scale surface mining in the region of the Iron Quadrangle, southeast Brazil. The installation intertwined our works where one was taken inside and introduced to impressions from these places. Representations, imitations, scent, recordings, objects and photographs from the sites.

The metal sculpture is a propane driven apparatus, a citrus distiller. The steam was forced through the citrus material and transported onward through the condenser where the temperature is lowered and consistently forms refined acidic drops and erosion. In the windows scorched wood were piled up and filling the room with intense scent. A video without sound projected an exotic landscape in one meeting with passing carts filled with iron ore. The light table consisted of oscillating reversal film, archive material, seeds, a small projection and an exhibition text written by Roar Sletteland. The visitor obtained an auditory access to these sceneries by putting their heads into listening boxes.

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009

I'm also fascinated by the work Water extraction, Geneva. The work seems to be about global warming. Could you explain the installation?

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009 was a site specific work consisted of three water extracts, three modified found light bulbs and one light sourced bulb. For the installation, the wooden planks in the floor of the exhibition space were removed, uplifted and were then used to create a platform and a bridged island to the work.

The work looks at the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and the changes it brings with it. A glacier is important for freshwater storage, while glaciers also can be regarded as reservoirs for the production of electricity through their seasonal water flow. The project focuses on the melting of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland, which over the past ten years has lost 6% of its mass. The raising temperatures in the region have a strong influence on the seasonal runoff regime of the alpine streams. Where the Rhone glacier runoff with the residues it brings with it, is the main water source for the largest freshwater reservoir in Europe, Lake Geneva.

You are currently in Venice for a residency at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. What are you working on over there? What is the residency about?

It's a three months residency from February to mid May supported by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. I'm here to develop a new work, a hydrodynamic analogy that acoustically transcribes an interdependent exchange between external forces and internal positive feedback. The Venice lagoon is a delicately balanced natural system that combines to produce one of the largest wetlands in the Mediterranean. Land and water are intermingled. An urban Lagoon, a natural Venice as Marcel Proust captures the reverberant paradox relationship. The project explores the Venice Lagoon's sedimentary environment, its dynamics and composition and is developed in collaboration with the University of Padova at the Hydrobiological Station in Chioggia in the Veneto region.

Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us?

After Venice, I will be in Helsinki for a collaborative project on magnetotactic bacteria as part of my participation in a research platform for Art and Synthetic Biology at Biofilia, Alto University. In the fall I will undertake a three-month's residency in Marseille at Triangle France. Let's say there are a few larger research projects under development and works that are more in the making for planned venues.

Thanks Cecilia!

The Iron Ring was made possible through the support of Production Network for Electronic Art, V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Arts Council Norway.

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