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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I'm drowning in really good books this year. Unsurprisingly, half of them are photography books. And because i'm short on time and these publications deserve a review, i'm going to take the lazy road: a sweeping and speedy overview of 5 of my favourite photo books of the moment. In one post.
Here we go...
The Earth is a living organism. Our escalating energy demands are interfering with the carbon and nitrogen cycles and altered the metabolic balance of the planet. Authored by two photographers and a scientist, the book uses images and essays to investigate the landscape in relationship to sources & sites of energy, energy extraction, energy use and climate control.
Gina Glover's work exploits atmospheric weather and ambient lighting conditions to draw attention to such energetic places and artefacts as coalfields in the Arctic, nuclear installations in France and hydraulic fracturing sites in the USA; Jessica Rayner observes how theories of the sun have varied according to the symbolic or scientific precepts of the day, drawing comparison between manufacturing, properties of the sun and changing theories of energy; and Geof Rayner constructs an accompanying textual narrative which shows how the energy transition has profound evolutionary consequences, not only for external nature, but how we see and interpret the landscape.
Next is Some Things are Quieter than Other by a young Polish photographer called Jacek Fota.
Fota made several trips to the U.S.A. between 2012 and 2013, consciously avoiding the mega cities and landscapes we are already too familiar with. Instead, he turned his lens to the 'peripheries of civilisation' and condensed his personal experience of the big country into a small travel diary.
His photos show the U.S. but on a less grandiloquent, less cliché and more mundane angle than we might be used to. His images look effortless, they are both dream-like and very real, very down to earth.
Over a year ago, i saw Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power at the Imperial Warm Museum in London. The photo exhibition brought together five geographical locations that are interconnected through the apparatus of military surveillance.
Steidl has collected into one slipcase three of these photo series. British Watchtowers (2007) studies the surveillance architecture built at the height of The Troubles. The network of watchtowers and observation posts was erected by the British army to control cross-border smuggling and paramilitary attacks but also to maintain an intimidating presence. The watchtowers were dismantled between 2005 and 2007, as part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. As Whyle documented their final days in the countryside, British troops were deploying to Afghanistan, taking with them elements of these Northern Ireland watchtowers.
The second book, Outposts (2011), charts NATO observation posts in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Built on natural promontories, the outposts offer a fascinating parallel with the British Watchtower, as both networks ensured oppression and control in the name of a "war" against terrorists.
The last book in the set, North Warning System looks at a radar station that is surveying a less clearly defined threat. The extreme environment of the Canadian Arctic is home to cyber radar stations unmanned and operated electronically to detect any presence seeking out lucrative natural resources along Canada's Arctic frontier made more fragile by global warming and the new routes though the Northwest Passage it enabled.
Happy Famous Artists beat me to the review.
The term "PIGS" was coined by the financial press as a shorthand for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain . Never doubting the suitability of reducing over 100 million people to a bunch of clichés, the neoconservatives and the mainstream media quickly adopted the acronym.
Photographer Carlos Spottorno attempted to portrays "Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain through the eyes of the economists". The parody starts right with the design of the Pigs: the book cover is modeled on the front page of The Economist, and even the back page of the publication features a fake advertisement for WTF Bank.
Spottorno's photographs show European countries squeezed between a glorious past and far less glamorous contemporary realities.
I'll always have time for war photography. And since i enjoyed the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography so much, i had to get my greedy hands on the catalogue of the show. The show (and thus the catalogue as well) looks at over 150 years of conflict around the world, since the invention of photography. Instead of organizing the photos according to themes, geographical area or chronology, the curator orchestrated them according to the length of time that elapsed between the conflict and the moment the photographs were taken. The result is fascinating. You start with images taken almost straight after a disaster occurred and as you proceed, the duration between image and event grows into days, weeks, months, years and decades. One of the last series was shot almost 100 years after the start of WWI. Chloe Dewe Mathews photographed some of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918.
I'd definitely recommend the book if you can't make it on time to see the show.
I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.
Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.
The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.
By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:
First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.
These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.
On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.
Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.
Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.
The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.
Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.
Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.
This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.
Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.
More images from the exhibition:
Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.
For over 60 years, scientists have been deliberately exposing plants and seeds to radiation in order to mix up their genetic material and speed up mutations. The results are unpredictable and only the mutated plants that show useful or otherwise desirable attributes (stronger, tastier, bigger, more resistant to disease, etc.) are reproduced, creating a mutant variety from the original one.
The technology is called radiation breeding. It emerged in the early 1950s, as part of Atoms for Peace, a program to develop "peaceful" uses of fission energy after WWII. So-called Gamma gardens were planted in laboratories in the US, parts of the former USSR, India, Japan and even in GMO-phobic Europe. A number of plant varieties were commercialized and some of their offspring can now be found in your local supermarket.
The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, an art think tank that investigates food controversies and prototypes 'alternative culinary futures', was concerned by the lack of research on radiation-bred edible plants and their possible impact on our health and on the environment. CGG founders Zack Denfeld & Cat Kramer worked with Heather Julius to create a barbecue sauce that contains some of the most common radiation-bred ingredients: Rio Red Grapefruit, Milns Golden Promise Barley, Todd's Mitcham Peppermint, Calrose 76 Rice and Soy.
The peppermint is a mutation of Mentha piperita, it is able to resist a particularly nasty fungal disease and can be found in chewing-gum, candies and toothpaste. The modified barley is used to make beer and whiskey. As for the grapefruit, it was developed to produce the deepest red. Hundreds of mutation-bred varieties of soy and rice have been registered in the International Atomic Energy Agency database. Now the name of the sauce is a reference to Cobalt-60, the radioactive source gamma gardens are submitted to.
Cobalt 60 Sauce is part of the exhibition Matter Of Life: Growing new Bio Art and Design at MU in Eindhoven. A big sauce dispenser is at the disposal of visitor who'd like to taste the recipe. It's very dark, very yummy and a bit sweet.
Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design exhibition at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
This week, i'm talking with French artist Benjamin Pothier who is currently frost-bound for an ARS BIO ARCTICA residency organized by the Finnish Bio Art Society at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station in Lapland.
Pothier is in the region to shoot videos and make sound recordings but because he a PhD researcher in Arts, Anthropology and Architecture at the CAIIA Hub of the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, he is also investigating nomadic architecture, drawing lessons from the way nomadic cultures live in symbiosis with the environment and more generally exploring issues of global warming which are felt so acutely in circumpolar regions.
The artist had previously attended the FIELD_NOTES laboratory at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station and last year he had been invited as an artist to participate to the Arctic Circle Residency 2013, in the international territory of Svalbard.
I'm catching up with Benjamin while he is still in the Arctic and before he flies to South Africa to show his photos of icebergs in Johannesburg....
Benjamin Pothier, 8KNOT Trailer
Hi Benjamin! The ARS BIO ARCTICA residency has an emphasis on the Arctic environment and art and science collaboration. Are you working with scientists over there? How?
Well, I am not working with scientists right now as there are no scientists at the station at the time, I mean apart from me! What is specific to my work is that I am actually an artist AND a researcher. I am a researcher in anthropology, which is usually classified as a "Social Science". But of course anthropology means much more than that for me. I have been driven to anthropology researches for intellectual and artistic reasons. I think the perspective on society one can gain through anthropological studies or research is quite similar to the position of the artist in our societies, and maybe even in traditional societies, as long as you consider the role of the shaman, which in my opinion is connected in many ways to the role of the artist in contemporary societies. But this is probably more an artist statement than an academic point of view.
As an artist i'm connecting to the site, the landscape, the nature and surroundings, through Photography and documentary film direction, but it is really a way to connect to the site. because all of this also include long walks, or staying still under snow or strong wind near an arctic lake shore, for example, to do video or sound recording. And the body is as much an interface with the landscape as the camera or the microphone.
Then as a researcher I try, and sometimes manage, to get an overview about theses experiences, mainly life in the arctic circle for this residency, in order to widen the frame of reference for my research.
What brought you there? Because surely there must be art residency in more hospitable parts of the world?
I'm actually a PhD candidate at the CAIIA the Center for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, in the program of the Planetary Collegium, which is supervised by the professor and artist Roy Ascott, and my research is focused on Circumpolar North Arctic and Subarctic Tribes... that's probably one of the reason! But I would love to visit... hum... Vancouver or San Francisco for example ! I am also passionate about the art and craft of the Haida people of Pacific Northwest Coast of North America for example...
Well last year I've been selected for the Arctic Circle residency, organized by The FARM,INC, a NYC based cultural organization. And we went up to 20° from the North Pole. I find this kind of residencies challenging. And I like it. For the Arctic circle residency we had to take a zodiac boat every morning to go to the shore, protected by three armed guide against potential polar bears attacks, and it's an "interesting" way to do film direction or photography. For me it was also a way to gain "field knowledge" on contemporary ways to "survive" in the arctic, through discussions with the arctic guide and a study of their gears and behavior.
As an artist I am also interested by that kind of harsh environments because it questions the place of humans on Earth... it's connected to some of my pursuits, I am quite interested by the work of Survival research laboratories, for example, or the Makrolab created by Marko Peljhan, or Angelo Vermeulen's Seeker projects. I'm honestly a die hard fan of "old school Cyberpunk", science fiction at large as well as bio-regionalism and vegan cooking... and to deal with rugged, waterproof or foldable technologies in this harsh environment, or to cook my vegan bolognaise with dried soy chunks in the station kitchen, all of these are experiences that fits with all those pursuits.
And well, of course the Arctic is NOT Antarctica, but I'm a big fan of the movies The Thing, the John Carpenter's one and the quite recent prequel as well. So some of the experiences I'm living there are materials for future art projects, who knows? Art installations, short sci-fi movies or novels, but with strong first-hand field experiences as background. And some like photographing the landscape or directing a cross media project here are very concrete art experiences with a result in the short term.
The Arctic is the perfect place to engage into those kind of life and art experiences. I like being in a place where I can feel that nature is stronger than me, even if it is always a very calculated risk, I'm very cautious and I have a kind of "preppers" mindset. But in a "philosophical" point of view, when I'm saying that "Nature is stronger than me", it's probably because "I" like when "I" becomes "Nature" and there is no more "me" for a few minutes. that's the reward. It's a Zen type experience. I am really not the first human nor artist talking about that!
This is not the first time you are at the Kilpisjarvi research station. You first went there in 2011 for the Finnish Bioart Society's Field_Notes workshop. So is this residency a continuation of the previous one? Or are you working on something entirely different?
Well I was working on something quite different at that time, an interactive documentary Installation about Computer History that I presented at the Computer Art Conference #4 CAC#4 in Rio de Janeiro in September, the project is called Maiitsoh: I've interviewed various people from William Gibson to Noam Chomsky, or John Cale, about topics dealing with computer history, consciousness and creativity, and I was working on that project at the time of the Field_Notes workshop. Maiitsoh is the Navajo word or more precisely the Dineh world because the so-called "Navajo" call themselves Dineh... And it's more than time to give some recognition to the indigenous people. So it's the Dineh word for the Wolf. It's a direct homage to the code talkers during World War II, at that time the Dineh language was used by the Allies as an "analog" cyphering technique, while the Axis Countries where using a mechanical cyphering machine, the Enigma machine. The first ever modern computer ever built, Colossus, was actually built to break the Enigma machine code. It's a part of history quite well known in the computer community. There is also a not that good movie directed by John Woo about the Dineh code talkers. I used the name Maiitsoh as a tribute to the Code Talkers, but also for it's similarities with Macintosh. Maiitsoh is made of wood, like the first computer mouse or the first Apple computer... it's really a multi scalar project. It's about creativity, it's a 3 or 4 dimensional Nodal point, in the Gibsonian perspective. it's a wooden computer and it's an icon of computer recent History. Forget about plastic, the first computers owe things to the wood!
Nowadays i'm very focused on my PhD research, which is a study of the patterns of the Ainu people, the aboriginal people of North Japan. It's for me one of the most beautiful form of craft on this planet. This is a very subjective comment. As an artist, I just love the shape of their patterns.
But the subject is a bit wider. I am questioning the origins of arts and craft on this planet, basically. Why did the human species started to draw, to do sculptures, embroidery ? That is the question! I never take for granted anything that exists on this planet. Why do people wear pants made with denim fabric for example ? And why don't we embroider our clothing nowadays ? What is an object ? Why do human grow those kind of vegetables in the area, and not other ones ? To get perspective is always a good way to make a daily fresh start and enhance your human experience.
You brought a bike in the Arctic? Is it a very practical mode of moving around up there? What's the story of the bike?
Yes, I brought a foldable bike there, a Brompton. For various reasons. First, It's an artistic and activist statement, here in the Arctic which is of course one of the first region exposed to global warming. I am really pro-biking, I was even close to people from Critical Mass at a time. I am proud about that past. It's a shame to see that people are so unconscious of environmental problems. Last year in Svalbard, at 20° from the North pole, we saw styrofoam on the shore. In that incredible landscape... and of course the invisible pollution is also quite dramatic... Species are disappearing , the arctic is melting, and I guess nobody forgot Sandy Superstorm... well , I don't have a short term memory and I remember being already aware of those increasing problems in the 90ies... And you can really make eco-friendly businesses and make money. So come on! Humanity is a teenager trashing its room.
So it is in a way an homage to old friends from the activists community, to bring a bike here in the Arctic, and to use it to circulate around the station, or to go to the grocery store few kilometers from here, despite the wind and snow... But there is also something related to artistic performance, to use that quite "urban Bike" which is in a way the "Rolls Royce" of folding bikes, and to use it on hard snowy roads in the Arctic Circle. I also applied a kind of "artistic protocol" to the use of the Bike, which is a direct homage to Joseph Beuys piece I Like America and America Likes Me.
The bike never actually circulated nor touched the ground on a road before I took it out of its rugged case, here at the station. The same way Beuys didn't touch the U.S. soil before being brought to that room with a live coyote... It was an homage to the political situation of "Native Americans", and here in the North of Finland there are still Sami people, northern Europe's last hunters and gatherers. So the title could be "I like Finland and Finland Likes me", maybe ! hahaha!
I don't personally know them but I have seen some work by a collective called Suohpanterror, they do street art and art related projects dealing with the Sami identity. They are probably much more reliable than me to talk about the Sami question. What I can give as an artist is some visibility about the question. And of course for the bike performance itself, there are some unconscious parts I can't myself explain. It's like making a collage, but in 4 dimension and in real life, with an Arctic logistic, and a study of the possible ways to bring that bike to a research station. It's very useful here for me, and it's of course a bit burlesque to bring it here. I like that mix. It's a very serious and complicated project, it's suddenly completely absurd, and then it becomes really serious again.
I honestly thought that it would be a bit more challenging than that to use the bike. The Brompton works quite well on Sapmi's roads...
And then of course the Brompton itself is a very amazing object. it's manga like and also almost Steampunk . But it's quite Beat-Punk for me. It's a super contemporary object with that 1950ies or 60ies taste and quality. And I'm actually NOT paid to say that.
You've also been invited for a training session with people who use Drones for Search and rescue for the Norwegian Red Cross in the High Arctic. Can you describe the experience? Are you planning to apply to your work what you learnt there?
It was honestly a fascinating experience... As a researcher I have a kind of "classical anthropology " approach, but as an artist I am more interested by digital anthropology or the anthropology of technology. Honestly i've been baffled to meet those people in Tromsø. I was missing some spare parts to make my drone works here in the Arctic, so I looked for forums in Norway on the internet, and two days later I was in contact with those people. And they are very skill full experts on that domain. Their practices are connected to many of my pursuits. I've been invited last year by European Union's oldest program for collaboration in Science and technology to deliver a talk about the future of 3D printing. And then one year later, in Tromsø, on a rest area in a mountainous road I've met this guy who actually makes homemade and huge Octocopters, with 3D printed part that he designed himself.
I remember when there was no mobile phone, that's something I always remember when I want to get some perspectives about the mutations of western societies, or the world at large. I don't take technical progress for granted. It's an organic process in perpetual evolution. It's fascinating to realize what we can do in our ages with technology. People tend to forget about that. I never complain when Skype is slow... I'm always amazed to be able to talk in video with someone in California when i'm in Paris.
And well, for the experience of Drone and FPV, which stand for First Person View. It's way more fascinating than what I imagined. It's actually a physical experience to see through a camera which is flying 200 meters above yourself or at 1 kilometer from you... it's a bit trance-like, or even techno-shamanic like. The only similarity I can find is when i used a 360° camera during a training at the SAT Society for Arts and Technology in Montreal in 2013, and when I was able to see my recording in the 360 dome theatre at SAT, the Satosphere. I had the same weird physical experience challenging my perspective on vision, the body, etc... very impressive!
And of course there is this satisfaction to realize that this technology is used to rescue people, to bring two ways radios or first aid kit to people stuck in mountains.
FPV in the Arctic is definitely an amazing experience. There is that contrast that I really like, I talked about that previously. To be in the middle of that impressive nature, and to be able to use the most up to date technology. So, yes, I will clearly apply to my work what I have learnt there, probably in the form of an installation, might be a short movie also, but it's a bit too early now, I still have to integrate the process and the experience. I am really thankful to those people, and particularly people from FPV.no, Hi Kristian! :)
From what you told me by email about your residency, meeting people is an important part of your work. You're also in contact with the Sami people, for example. How do they fit into your research there?
I am actually in a region that can be defined in many ways... I'm in North Finland, i'm in the Arctic Circle, but I am much more clearly in Sapmi, which is the proper name to describe this region, usually called Lappland. I prefer to use the word Sapmi, the land of Sami people. Lappland comes from Lapp which means rag in swedish. Honestly the Sami people are not the Indigenous people I know the most, I mean in terms of anthropology or basic contemporary History. I'm mostly here to do a comparative study of their decorative patterns. Well for me the residency is much more about feeling the landscape and the ways of living in the arctic.
Next month I am invited as a visiting scholar in Anthropology at the Center for Sami studies, at the University of Tromsø, in Norway. it is actually the northernmost university on earth, and the SESAME, center for Sami studies is at the forefront of Sami and Indigenous studies. They actually deliver masters in peace studies and in indigenous studies... quite an amazing place! There, I will meet Sami people and some colleagues from various countries in order to discuss my research.
What's next, after the ARS BIO ARCTICA residency?
Well in the short term, I will exhibit my series of photographs taken at 20° from the North Pole in Svalbard last year at Kalashnikovv Gallery, in Johannesburg, South Africa in December. The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the IFAS, the French Institute in South Africa. It's really a great opportunity for me to be able to exhibit this Arctic related work in Johannesburg. And it will be another opportunity to talk about the arctic situation and the globalized aspect of the Climate question. I am very thankful to the IFAS for their support as well as to MJ Turpin, one of the owner of the gallery for the invitation. I think he definitely understand my work, which is something rare. He is also an artist and I really like some of his printed work and performances. South Africa is a very specific country, there is a very active art scene, as far as I know through discussions with my South African colleagues, and I had a glimpse of South African creativity last year at the Gaité Lyrique in Paris.
I'm really thrilled to be given the opportunity to exhibit my work in Johannesburg. Then I'm definitely looking for other residency opportunities, as well as planning a trip to Japan in the coming two years for my PhD research.
All images by Benjamin Pothier.
Related story: Field_Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory.