Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at The University of Western Australia, contributed to the Biorama 2 discussion with a presentation of Adaptation, the project he and his team are currently working on. Adaptation is radically different from what you would expect. No victimless leather jacket, no banquet of frog steak. This one invites us to take a peak into the broader issue of ecology and life itself.
Thrombolites are rock-like structures built by micro-organisms. Often regarded as the earliest geographical features of primitive life on Earth, they are in fact bacteria which deposit layers of silt and calcium that slowly grow into rounded rocks. Scientists believe these micro-organisms are the earliest form of life on earth. Millions of years ago, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere and no protective ozone layer. According to researchers, this began changing when the tiny organisms started to appear. They lived in water and produced oxygen which gradually and very slowly built up the atmosphere we know today.
One of the few places in the world where the thrombolites grow is at Lake Clifton, 32 kilometres south of the city of Mandurah. The thrombolite structures, which can reach heights of up to 1.3m, are formed when the micro-organisms photosynthesise. During the processs they precipitate calcium carbonate from the waters of the lime-enriched lake to form the rock-like structures.
A vital feeding and nesting site for endangered migratory birds, including the almost extinct Hooded Plover, the lake is also home to black bream fish. Thrown into the lake by locals with the dream of fishing by the banks, the bream physically adapted to their new environment and bred so rapidly that they have now themselves become a pest, an invasive species endangering the survival of thrombolites. This example clearly demonstrates how little and consequently mismanage our environment.
The lake is protected but not everything that feeds the lake can be controlled. The region surrounding the lake is one of the fastest developing one in Australia. There are plans to build a new city not far away from the lake. Four thousand homes with shops, roads, etc. Development could put in danger the very organisms responsible for life itself: the micro-organisms living on the thrombolites. Especially if the development is coupled with the effects of climate change. One of the major threats to the survival of the thrombolites is indeed the increase in salinity of the lake, due to the decline in rainfall.
Image: Daniel Bozhkov, Darth Vader Tries to Clean the Black Sea With Brita Filter, 2000
Adaptation offers artists an opportunity to engage with the issue under many points of view including the historical importance of the thrombolites, the cultural history of the area, the contradictory nature of human activity and ecology, the effects of global warming, impacts of urban development, evolution of animal species and bioprospecting.
SymbioticA's own contribution to the Adaptation project is a De-Salination Plant. This kinetic sculpture, called Autotrophic Degeneration, will use technological advances to circumvent the lake (or at least a smaller scale pool of the lake water) from the effects of climate change and urban development. SymbioticA's public sculpture may contribute to the lake's salvation by acting as a basic evaporative de-salination plant. Just like thrombolites, the sculpture will grow extremely slowly (1 mm per year.) It will be grown from cyanobacteria, an organism that forms a major part of the thrombolites' bacterial colony. The project will play on the notion of autotrophy -the capacity of synthesizing necessary nutrients using freely available energy (such as sunlight and wind), and basic inorganic substances (such as water and air). The project suggests a post sustainable future and questions the impact of collapsing ecosystems on the idea of generating resources.
In the framework of the Adaptation project, SymbioticA has invited artists to undertake a residency shared between Lake Clifton and their facilities in Perth. For example, Perdita Phillips is developing a soundscape walk around the lake that will take visitors along a half to 1 km route listening to 10-20 stereo sound episodes telling the factual and imaginative story of Lake Clifton.
Biorama 2 was a sequel of the one that saw us hike through rain and wind in Marsden Moor, West Yorkshire. This edition still explored new directions in art, science and technology but with a focus on the biology of the underground through the notion of umwelt developed by biologist Jakob von Uexküll and its influence on the development of biosemiotics by Thomas Sebeok.
The event, organised last month by Derek Hales from the University of Huddersfield and Andy Gracie, was described as follows: Using the underground of caves and mines and the organic life they contain as a form of parallel terrestrial biology, we develop a 'parallel science' through the study of extreme and/or 'removed lifeforms' and through the science of astrobiology. Biorama II will explore a rich contextual and conceptual background against which to investigate some of the outer (or inner) limits of terrestrial biology and strategies for life. Framing itself as a platform for exploring these and related imaginaries - via literary luminaries, various heretics and other visionaries of the underworld and the potential of life (immanent, alien, emergent and other) Biorama2 will stage a series of discussions, workshops and expeditions which will serve to examine how organisms living independently of sunlight develop a sensory and informatic relationship with their strange environments.
I couldn't attend the workshop but i greatly enjoyed the symposium. This time, Biorama's quest for exoticism brought us for a series of talk inside a cave. The programme was exceptional: Microbiologist Dr Paul Humphreys gave a fascinating talk about bacteria (all i knew about bacteria came from acne and toothpaste commercials so i was amazed to learn that bacteria can be grown to repair concrete cracking and marble monuments, it can also block pollution or indicate the industrial past of a landscape that today might look pristine, etc.), Andy Gracie gave a wonderful talk about the Hollow Earth and biotech artists as science amateurs (all the juicy details are coming soon), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was her usual quirki/awesomness, Oron Catts showed a new project likely to surprise those who would enclose Symbiotica in a biotech art box, Ulla Taipale told us about Capsula's adventure towards a total solar eclipse in Siberia and Anthony Hall gave us the lowdown on fish-human communication. The day finished with a truly moving sound performance by Joe Gilmore in a deep cavern.
I'll blog in detail some of the presentations over the next few days. But first, allow me to set the tone.
People there bake lovely cakes:
And cook other delicacies:
Now the cave was The Peak Cavern, which also bears the exquisite name of "Devil's Arse". Until 1915 it was home to Britain's last troglodytes, who lived in houses built inside the cave mouth, and made a living from rope making, while the depths of the cave had the reputation of being a haven for bandits.
Read also The Arts Catalyst's account of Biorama cave trip.
The Radical Nature - Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009 exhibition, which is currently on at the Barbican Gallery (previously covered by Régine) also consists of several off-sites. They aim to engage with the city of London and make some of the themes of the show more palpable and real, if you want.
I went to visit the double piece which is located in London's North-East district of Dalston where both a re-staging of a work from the exhibition, Agnes Denes' Wheatfield, A Confrontation and a new commission, The Dalston Mill by Paris-based experimental architects EXYZT. The site itself is part of an abandoned railway line (the Dalston Junction Eastern Curve) and had recently been filled in with gravel to be used as a car park. Both pieces in fact form a temporary functional ensemble and eventually the mill will be processing grains from the field when the wheat is ready to be harvested.
The field is basically a re-creation of the Manhattan field from 1982, but it's much smaller and the backdrop is quite different, in that case an abandoned house and the Kingsland Shopping Centre, which is so absolutely puzzling in terms of style that it actually makes an intriguing and very London-like backdrop for the piece. The stark contrast between local production of food and the front-end of its industrialized production also makes for a nice update to the 'confrontation' side of the original piece. One could even say that it is being inverted in an interesting way as the 1982 version was partly about exporting the harvested grains to 28 cities worldwide and planting them there. Visitors are invited to sit by the field and, considering that it is jammed in between extremely busy streets and several construction sites, it feels like an island of peace in one of the madder areas of London.
The mill itself was designed by EXYZT, a collective that many Londoners are familiar with through their Southwark Lido, a temporary structure they created in 2008 together with Sara Muzio for the Architecture Foundation and which was based around the idea of "a community of users actively creating and inhabiting their urban environment [as] key to generating a vibrant city". Sara is part of this project as well, creating a documentary about it and was working in the Mill's bakery when I got there. She explained that this project, although consisting of a very different setup, is built around the same ideas of the 'functional city'. Here, structures, apart from providing shelter, can also take on tasks like generating electricity or grinding wheat and provide a shared platform for the local residents.
The mill itself is 16 meters high and the main structure is built from a scaffolding typically used in construction. The six hemispherical sweeps at the top have been made from resin and are arranged in a hexagon. From there, a servo pole leads down to the bar area where it meets a small customized grain grinder which, whenever the wind moves the big structure above is making a few turns. Interestingly, there is also a series of gears which drives a small generator that is charging a battery which at night powers bars of LEDs in different corners to light up the building.
It all moves very slowly and does neither generate a lot of flour nor energy, but it's fascinating to see how the attempt on creating a somewhat autonomous structure in the middle of a highly developed cityscape actually works and above all creates a very pleasant space around itself. However, to drive things like fridges and music, the mill has to have a secondary circuit which actually hooks into the mains because the wind does not generate enough power. It would be interesting to further look at how something like the Kingsland Shopping Centre and an ensemble of Mill and Wheatfield actually compare, as functional spaces and in relation to the absolute space they occupy in a city.
The Dalston Mill and the Wheatfield is unfortunately only up for three weeks in total and will close on August 6th, so make sure you go check it out if you are in London. It is open daily from 2-10pm, and there is a program of events scheduled (including a conversation with EXYZT about 'pirate architecture' on August 2nd) which mainly focuses on notions around community and sustainability.
Entrance by the Peace Mural on Dalston Lane, between Ashwin Street and Hartwell Street, London E8.
I've spent the past few days highlighting some of the works exhibited but i still had to write a proper review of Green Platform. The exhibition, dedicated to art, ecology and sustainability, closes on July 19 at Strozzina (aka CCCS) in Florence.
It is a good show. Definitely less spectacular but gutsier than Radical Nature which i had visited a few days before. It's also much darker. Although there are projects that lead the way to sustainable and achievable strategies, many others leave you with a guilty (but better informed) "What have we done to this planet?" feeling.
About two third of the pieces exhibited have been produced by the Strozzina. A few of them by the usual suspects but there's also a fair amount of talented Italian artists i had never heard of.
As curator Valentina Gensini explains in the essay she wrote for the catalogue:
Traditional indicators of human well-being (life expectancy, literacy, access to sanitation, grain yield, spread of information technology, etc.) do not take escalating environmental and humanitarian catastrophes into account, nor do they include important data regarding both the reduction of biodiversity - viewed also in cultural terms - and damage to the environment, some of which stems from technological innovations and scientific experimentation whose long-term effects are still unknown. GDP (gross domestic product) does not describe the general quality of life in any way, nor does it indicate the environmental sustainability of the paths that have been undertaken.
Accordingly, the exhibition attempts to address ecological issues not only in environmental terms but also with respect to its philosophical, psychological, economic and social implications. As you can guess, Green Platform provides visitors with an intense experience. One which comes with much more questions to ponder on once you've left the gallery than answers.
The work i found most subtle and powerful was Julian Rosefeldt 's magnificent Requiem, a four screen video installation arranged in a square. Visitors find themselves surrounded by 4 films shot in the Brazilian rainforest, home of one third of the primary forests in the world. Precious and fragile as it is, the area is nevertheless relentlessly threatened by logging multinationals.
In the beginning of the video, visitors can revel in the contemplation of lush vegetation, bright colours, the hum of insects, birdsong and the sound of raindrops falling from the trees. After a few minutes, the peacefulness is interrupted by a disturbing sound which signals that a tree is falling nearby. The crashing of the tree is quickly echoes by another one. Then another one. Although, no human figure appears on the screen, it is impossible not to feel guilty and ashamed at man's lack of consideration and long-term intelligence regarding the health of this unique ecosystem. The fact that the sound of the chainsaw is absent, makes the crash of falling trees all the more resonant and distressing.
Tue Greenfort is the darling of exhibitions about ecology and sustainability. The work he created especially for Green Platform is a direct reference to the rise in temperature observed in the Mediterranean Sea. A combination of climate change, water pollution and lack of natural enemies like turtles and tuna decimated by overfishing have enabled the mauve stinger, a jellyfish with a very painful sting, to proliferate in the Mediterranean and threaten its biodiversity. Greenfort asked artisanal glassworkers on the island of Murano in Venice (an area which is more aware than most of the consequences that the rising level of the sea can have on urban life) to produce glass models of the pink jellyfish. The battle against the invasive jellyfish is absurd and tragic as the damage they are causing is the result of human foolishness. They are a part of nature but are deemed not 'natural' enough for European waters. The battle against the proliferation of the mauve stinger constitutes the umpteenth attempt by man to combat the consequences of his bad behaviour without attacking the root of the problem.
Henrik Håkansson (who also has another work in the exhibition Radical Nature in London) had a long stay in the Mexican reserve of Montes Azules, in the Selva Lacadona (Chiapas.) The area is gradually shrinking as a result of human activities, leaving animals to constantly struggle for survival against the progressive reduction of their living space.
The audio works featured in Green Platform reproduces the song of the quetzal. Once venerated by the Maya and the Aztecs as Quetzacoatl, the feather-serpent, the "king" of birds is now an endangered species. Visitors can only hear the bird for a few seconds every 12 minutes, a rhythm that reflects the rareness of the bird. To hear the bird, you either have to be patient and stay there until it sings again or you must be lucky and stumble upon it. In Håkansson's work the song of the quetzal is reproduced by an amplifier, a Fender Reverb 65, which is itself considered a legend and defined, on the rock scene, as the "king" of its kind. The work thus takes the form of a sculpture/sanctuary, a tribute to the living legend of the quetzal, whose song might one day be heard and remembered only by artificial means.
Dacia Manto's Inlandsis 09 layers several sheets of delicate eco-plastic, derived from maize, to reproduce the area of the South Pole, which is gradually shrinking due to global warming. It has been estimated that over 13,000 square kilometres of marine ice have been lost over the past 50 years. Internally, the huge shelf loses between 90 and 150 square kilometres of ice each year. Manto invites us to consider the geography of the South Pole as a living and fragile organism whose protection is vital for the future of our planet. It can be disturbed the softest blow and even visitors passing near the sculpture seem to cast a menacing shadow upon it.
Developed in conjunction with artists Kim Stringfellow and Tim Halbur, together with the Pond: Art, Activism, and Ideas and Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice organisations, Amy Balkin 's Invisible-5 has a more journalistic approach. The project examines the social, economic and environmental context of the San Joaquin Valley along whose length runs Interstate 5 connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. A strategic axis for the transport of goods and people, the corridor is also key in the development of livestock farming and intensive agriculture, waste disposal, oil and gas industries and the construction industry. Interstate 5 is one of the most toxic areas on Earth.
Invisible-5 is an audio tour starring the people and local communities who fight for environmental justice. The sound archive, shared over the Internet, gathers the testimonies of the inhabitants along with typical local sounds and music.
Green Platform, an exhibition curated by Lorenzo Giusti and Valentina Gensini, is on view until July 19 in Florence.
Nikola Uzunovski's contribution to Green Platform - Art Ecology Sustainability, an exhibition running until Sunday at the Strozzina in Florence, is a scientific experiment and an artwork that might be less utopian than it appears.
When (or "if") fully developed, My Sunshine will reflect the sunlight and provide extra hours of lights in urban areas around the Arctic Circle, a region that receives no sunlight in Winter time due to the rotation of the Earth's axis. My Sunshine takes the form of a disc with integrated mirrors, suspended from a transparent aerostatic balloon. Climatologists, meteorologists, astrophysicists, aviation engineers, architects and designers were called by the artist to devise and agree on a theoretical groundwork that would enable these mobile reflectors to bring sunshine to Lapland at the height of winter.
Uzunovski's room at the Strozzina presents his virtual mobile workshop to the public but also engages local design students in workshops that aimed to design the revolving rings on which the reflecting mirror will be anchored.
The most important aspect of this research is the impact on the local population: an artificial sun also comes with improved social interaction and psychophysical well-being.
Interview with the artist.
As i wrote yesterday, i've just spent a day in Florence to see Green Platform - Art, Ecology, Sustainability at the Strozzina center. It is a good show, more coherent than Greenwashing and much darker than Radical Nature. Proper review should land on your screen shortly but i felt compelled to dedicate a post to a project i found particularly striking.
In the Winter of 2001/02, Michele Dantini traveled to Cameroon to photograph and document what is still the biggest private sector investment in sub-Sahara Africa: the construction of the controversial Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.
The World Bank takes the name of the international financial institution that made the construction possible. It's indeed the World Bank that teamed up with ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Petronas of Malaysia and allocated 4.2 billion dollars to the ambitious project. Concerned by the potential risks to human rights and the environment, international NGOs and local communities voiced their opposition right from the start. The consortium attempted to calm down the accusations by forcing the governments of Chad and Cameroon to sign a strict guarantee protocol destining oil revenue for health, education and agriculture.
It soon became clear that the petroleum exploitation did not manage to balance juicy profits with ecological and social principles. The pipeline required the cutting through the primary forest of south-eastern Cameroon for some 1000 kilometres in order to reach the export-loading terminal on the Atlantic coast and the drilling of 300 oil wells in Doba, south of Chad. The region affected by the project is a richly biodiverse area and home to the forest-dependent Bakola and Bagyeli people. 150 families were singled out for resettlement, many village lands were expropriated, crops and plants destroyed and water sources polluted. The upgrading of existing seasonal roads has facilitated logging and illegal poaching in otherwise inaccessible areas. Besides, the arrival of largely male job seekers in the area has led to serious social disruption of the communities, with prostitution, alcohol abuse, and STD all on the rise. The compensation plan crafted by the World Bank was very limited in scope and inadequate to restore or improve on broken livelihoods.
The pipeline commenced operation in autumn 2003. Less than five years later a statement from the World Bank announced that it was ceasing to support the project because Chad's government had repeatedly violated the terms of the agreement by using oil revenue to purchase arms and recruit French troops.
In retrospect, Dantini considers his project a sort of "test" that verifies the skills and socio-environmental responsibility of the managers of the largest Western financial institution, the ideologists of a single model of "development" that has all too often shown itself to be inadequate, unsustainable and even harmful.
The artist created a magazine (bilingual: italian and english) distributed in the gallery and entirely dedicated to the pipeline and its developments. If you can't go to the Strozzina befor ehte show closes, you can download the PDF of the mag online.
Related entry: Flotsam Jetsam.