One of the thing that surprised me when i moved from Belgium to Italy all those years ago is that i suddenly found myself in a culture where the weather wasn't part of the conversation. The sky never changed much. Every day was mostly sunny and fairly dry. This is less the case nowadays. I'm living in London where the Summer has been boiling hot. Meanwhile, Northern Italy has been showered by torrential rains. The weather has decidedly taken a turn for the weirder.
Newspapers publish alarming and disconcerting articles about climate change and 'extreme' meteorological phenomena on a daily basis. It seems that no matter how much we cycle to work and recycle our trash, this is too little too late (becoming a vegetarian would have a bigger impact anyway.) Climate change is a phenomenon so complex and grim that most people feel powerless and inadequate even taking about it..
The exhibition Strange Weather: Forecasts from the Future at the Science Gallery in Dublin gives a more human dimension to the issue. The show features 26 artworks that, each in their own way, act as springboards for new discussions and debates about the eccentricities of the weather.
The show goes from the very absurd (the Halliburton survivaball) to the very dark and dramatic. But the adjective that pervades the show is 'fun'. While visiting the exhibition, i've been drinking cloud, watched a 1959 film that speculates on how weather control departments would use satellites and met with little child mannequins in Hazmat suits in the most unexpected places.
Strange Weather is one of those rare shows that's never dull, never obscure, never preaching. A quick video walk-through of the exhibition will prove my point:
Given my enthusiasm for the exhibition, there's a lot i'd like to blog: all the ideas, all the works i've discovered. Being notoriously lazy, i'm going to bide my time and slowly publish stories about Strange Weather. Here's a first batch of artworks which explore clouds in the most poetical and critical ways:
Karolina Sobecka climbed to the Sally Gap in the Dublin Mountains to harvest clouds, decant them into little tubes and invited gallery visitors to consume them.
The artist built her own Cloud Collector, a device that is sent into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon. Clouds condense on its mesh wings and flow into a sample container. These cloud samples are analysed for microorganisms and ingested by experimental volunteers. By combining the cloud microbiome with their own, the volunteers become part cloud and keep a cloud journal reporting their transformation.
Thinking Like a Cloud owes a lot to Aldo Leopold's land ethics motto 'thinking like a mountain'. It describes an ability to appreciate the deeps interconnectedness of all the elements in the ecosystems. By ingesting clouds, clouds become part of you and you become part of the atmosphere yourself.
I was strangely moved by Studio PSK's proposal for the ash dispersal of your loved ones. I don't care whether it is speculative or art or whatever, i want this project to be real.
I Wish to Be Rain suggests that after their death, people could literally become part of the weather by having their ashes used for cloud seeding, the dispersing substances into the air to trigger rain.
Following a funeral and cremation of a body, the crematorium will give the bereaved an aluminium vessel that contains their loved ones remains and a dormant aerostat. When the family are ready, the encapsulated ashes are sent skywards tethered to a weather balloon, to be dispersed in the macroscopic structure of a cloud. The capsule becomes increasingly pressurised. At the point it reaches the troposphere, the highest point at which clouds form, the capsule bursts, dispersing the ashes into the clouds below. When dispersed into the clouds, the remains get enveloped into a macroscopic structure far beyond the most grandiose human experience. But this is short lived, again they enter the domain of the miniature, falling back to earth as raindrops, before eventually finding their way back into the sea.
One thing i noted when i spoke to people who live or used to live in Dublin is that they all have something to say about the fluctuating prices of the houses in the city. Matt Kenyon's Cloud therefore feeds into two concerns: real estate and weather. The artist turned the last 10 year of housing market into a stream of small house-shaped clouds that fly to the ceiling of the gallery, stick there for a while, lose stamina (and metaphorically value) and then fall down to the floor.
The viewers witness common house-ownership dreams disappear as fast as they materializes -- just as many saw the false promises of their homes disappear as they were quickly foreclosed upon during this period.
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
The weather, that once innocent topic of conversation, now comes the bearer of fears and dark scenarios. Hurricanes, typhoons, flooding and heatwaves are more violent and frequent than ever and climate change has transformed our good old weather into 'extreme' weather.
One of the rooms in the gallery hosts a Tornado Diverter, a device built by artists Bigert & Bergström to intercept and stop a tornado. The sculptural machine radiates 100,000 negative volts and has the power to repel the positive charge of the tornado that causes twisters to touch down.
The artists first read about such machine in a Wired magazine interview with Russian weather-modification scientist Vladimir Pudov. Bigert & Bergström met Pudov in 2007. He had then retired from his position at the the Institute for Experimental Meteorology and no longer had the means to develop his invention. The artists decided to step in, improve the scientist's drawings of the machine and "build it for him.'
In May 2011, the artists mounted the Tornado Diverter machine on a custom built trailer and, accompanied by Canadian meteorologist and storm chaser Mark Robinson, they traveled to the Midwest in the US to hunt down a tornado and place The Tornado Stopper in front of the approaching twister.
The Science Gallery is also screening The Weather War, a film in which the duo documents the increasingly hostile weather patterns and man's attempts to control them. I couldn't watch it until the end alas (i needed to take the bus to the airport) but 20 minutes of it were enough to convince me that the film is simply brilliant.
The documentary takes us on a historical and geographical journey into climate-management. The artists look at how the science of meteorology has advanced in line with military goals throughout history. They also interview people who build concrete shelters that can protect up to 50 (squeezed) people from violent tornadoes, Chinese scientists from the Beijing Weather Modification Office who fired rockets into the sky to seed clouds and make sure that it wouldn't rain over the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, etc.
What makes the work so fascinating is that it gives a vision of how scientists are now attempting to control the weather. Should we put our trust into their hands? Or should such experiments be undertaken by governments? Are we sure they can also control the socio-political consequences of their experiments in climate control? Are we even entitled to modify the weather? And in the background of these questions lies the issue of global climate change:
How do we behave to meet those challenges? Do we adapt? Or do we wage war against increasingly aggressive weather phenomena? Bangladesh is building protective walls against coming floods. China shoots rockets into threatening clouds. And in Italy, anti-hail cannons are fired to protect the year's wine harvest.
Yet another post about a work i discovered in RIga when i visited Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, a (fantastic and still open) exhibition featuring works by artists who have adopted an engaged, critical and active role in society.
Sketches for an Earth Computer is an ongoing series of living "laboratory" studies that explore the links between the earth, code and the human psyche of the viewer.
Over the past few years, Martin Howse has been investigating the possibility to build a computational device that would not only be constructed solely from the earth but would also be embedded within the earth as a critical monument to human technology.
The computer enters a feedback loop with the environment itself as geophysical, biological and electro-chemical elements can both encode and be modified by the computational structures.
Questions to Martin Howse:
Hi Martin! Could you explain the setting of the installation at the FIELDS exhibition?
As background it's important to understand that all of these elements are simply fragments of sketches towards the working out of what could be described an earth computer. The images in the background show elements of the installation operating within a forest environment in Germany. So the elements of the installation are designed as pointers towards these functional aspects of the earth computer, which may or may not operate correctly within an exhibition environment.
For example, the hanging sealed earth container references the potential recoding of electrochemical earth elements using a primitive solar cell constructed between copper, copper oxide plates and forest earth.
The large, floor-situated earth container (using forest earth dug one hour away from Riga in the "magic forest", and gypsum from a nearby quarry), refers to potential chemical changes in the earth induced by water passing through this stack of minerals above the earth. At the same time all of these containers draw attention to the drawing of a boundary for the earth, and the disconnection from the deep forest setting for which the earth computer is intended.
The last, most complex earth computer demonstrates several parts of the earth computing system; a display based on early telegraphy technology, the mirror galvanometer, transduces and makes visible signals from the earth using a moving mirror, fixed coil and small laser light beam. This is the interface to the earth computer. Forest earth in this container is also seeded with oyster mushroom mycelium and doped with silver nitrate, attempting to form over time a processor for the earth computer.
You developed an earthboot that 'enables almost any computer to boot straight from the earth'. How reliable is the system exactly?
The system is far from reliable, given that the earth has no interest or intention in correctly coding an operating system. Most of the time the computer crashes silently; a blank unresponsive interface. In perhaps one out of twenty sessions there are more colourful (see image on: http://www.1010.co.uk/org/earthcode.html)
Would any kind of earth do? or is it like a plant, responding better to certain types of earth (drier, more acidic, etc.) than to other?
Dry earth presents more problems for the flow of signals so is not so well suited for the earthboot device. I also prefer to use more active soils, with plenty of mycelial or insect/worm action. I modified the earthboot device towards the production of worm coded sound performance and worm poetry recitals. This came directly from work with Shu Lea Cheang focusing on links between code or data and the composting process.
The project puts the computer in direct contact with the Earth which at first doesn't sound very eco-friendly. What about all the mercury and other polluting chemical elements leaking into the soil?
Well the earthboot operates on a very small scale and there are no polluting chemicals directly in contact with the earth or soil, but other projects such as The Crystal World with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan have explored the techno-ecological cycle of extraction (of minerals) and return of polluting elements to the earth. I'm very interested in less direct parallels between such cycles and computation itself.
In an interview with Motherboard, you say: "One question I'm very interested in which you could say fuels my research is to ask where exactly software executes. In other words, where exactly do these seemingly abstract coded processes which seriously effects our lives, where do these take place?" Could you explain in more details what you mean by that and how the earth fits into this?
Software is viewed as a more or less invisible, obscured or blackboxed process which is situated, if at all, in computer hardware. Yet the exact place of the transition from physical, material flows or changes to symbolic structure is hard to pin down. So I was interested in speculating where that place of transition might be located, also in moving it away from this black-boxed laptop, phone or PC. These new locations I viewed as sites of execution, of where that thing called software enacts on the physical. One site could be the earth, as code runs predominantly on silicon substrates which have been synthesised from sand/earth.
And concerning the literal impacting of software on humans, I considered skin as another potential site of execution, relating this to computer virus and pornography. I also created a work called Pain Registers which explored very literally this connection; in this piece minute software changes operating under the interface surface of say an app like Firefox are literally painstakingly translated (by code) into the movement of a needle tattooing the hand of the user.
The work in the FIELDS exhibition is called Sketches for an earth computer', does it mean that this is just the beginning, that you are going to push the project further?
Sketches forms the background of a range of works and performances over the years and definitely the central idea of an earth computer or earth interpreter (in the software sense) will be pushed further. I'm interested now in looking at how software processes coded by the earth instead of being simply observed can equally re-code or impact on the earth. Parallels could be established with certain mining practices and I've recently explored these possibilities with Jonathan Kemp during our Stack, Frame, Heap residency in Lueneburg which also aimed to see how this exploration can mesh with historical land art, or large-scale alterations to the landscape.
Check out Sketches for an Earth Computer at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Other posts about the Fields exhibition: Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm and FIELDS, positive visions for the future.
Peter Cusack is a field recordist, musician and researcher who has traveled to areas of major environmental devastation, nuclear sites, big landfill dumps, edges of military zones and other potentially dangerous places. He has been to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the Caspian Oil Fields in Azerbaijan; 'London Gateway' the new port on the River Thames where massive dredging severely damages the underwater environment; the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, which is now being partially restored after virtually disappearing due to catastrophic water misuse.
While most of these locations have been extensively discussed in articles and documented in images, we don't know what a day in any of these places sounds like. With his field recordings, however, Cusack gives us an idea of what a radiometer with a cuckoo in the background in Pripyat sounds like. Or what it is like to hear the wind whistling by the Sizewell nuclear power stations. These recording belong to a practice that the artist calls sonic journalism. The discipline is an audio complement and companion to images and language. Using field recordings and careful listening, sonic journalism provides valuable insights into the atmosphere of a particular site.
Hi Peter! The public is now used to seeing images of dangerous places. Focusing on sound recordings from these same places, however, is less banal. What can sound communicate that an image cannot convey?
Field recordings are very good at communicating the atmosphere of places. They also give a good sense of space (distance, position, how things are moving) and timing of any events happening. I think this is important because it gives a sense of what it might be like to actually be there and allows you to think about what you might feel, or how you might react if present. I don't really agree that images are more banal (some recordings are also). It depends on the image. For me a better impression is given when images, sounds and language are working together. Most reportage uses images and language but not the sounds, which means we are usually missing the aural information. This is a pity because it can be very informative and expressive.
Some of the sounds you collected are seducing and fascinating. The ones you recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are particularly charming, even the Cuckoo and radiometer has some poetry in it. So how do you suggest the sense of danger to the listener?
Yes, sometimes they are a complete contrast to a sense of danger. However they are part of the the larger whole. Most dangerous places are very complex. For me it's important to suggest the complexity and the contradictions that are present. That way one gets a more complete picture, e.g it may seem a contradiction that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now a wonderful nature reserve. That is definitely to be contrasted with state of human health there.
Is it easier to get access to these locations as a sound artist than as a photographer? I imagine that people in charge of a military site or a particularly environment-damaging oil field will be wary of a photographer but might underestimate the strength of a sound recording. Do you find that you face the same resistance and restriction when you record ambient sound than when you take photos?
The only place where i had access to a place where photographers cannot not go was the Jaguar car factory in Liverpool, where they are paranoid about industrial espionage from rival car manufacturers. At Chernobyl they give anyone access if you can pay the entry fees.
In places where you don't get permission it depends on how obvious you are. Large microphones are as visible as large cameras. I often use small equipment which is not easy to see. However, it's true that security guards don't know about recording equipment compared to cameras.
The UK now is very security conscious. I've been stopped at places for recording and for just standing in the wrong place not recording or photographing.
The first recordings of the series dedicated to the oil industry were made in 2004 at the Bibi Heybat oil field, in Azerbaijan. Why did you start there? Was it a conscious decision to start in that location or did you find yourself there for another reason and the idea emerged then to start a new body of work?
i was in Azerbaijan for a holiday. i did not know the oil fields were there, so it was a very lucky accident from which the project grew.
You see Sounds from Dangerous Places as a form of 'Sonic Journalism'. Yet, you are a sound artist, so what makes your work an artwork rather than merely a 'sound reportage'?
My interest is to document places as best i can (audio recording, photography plus any other kind of material or research) so that anyone listening/reading can get an idea of the place itself and the relevant issues. this material gets used for a variety of purposes - sound art, cds, radio, education, talks, installations. whether it is art, documentary or journalism is not so important to me.
Are there dangerous places you wish you could go to or sounds you wish you could capture, only they are out of reach for some reason?
Yes, many. most military areas are completely impossible to get into. So are a lots of industrial sites, nuclear power stations, etc. Sometimes official tours are organised but usually these are useless for recording, which takes time to do properly without other people talking or getting in the way all the time. However it's sometimes possible to make interesting and valuable recordings from outside the fences.
Other places are really, and personally, dangerous like war zones. My project concentrates on environmentally dangerous place. War zones are not part of this and i've no wish to get killed.
After this exploration of the energy industry, you are planning to explore global water issues. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? Your website states that the work will include the dam projects in Turkey. Why do these dams strike you as representative of the global water problems? Where else will the project take you?
The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. the aral sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. today it has almost dried up because the water flowing into it is diverted into major irrigation schemes far up stream. The disappearance of the sea has been disastrous for the local climate and huge fishing industry that once supplied the Soviet Union with 25% of its fresh water fish.
The Kazakhs are now trying to restore a small part of the sea with support from the world bank. This has been quite successful and the fishing industry has re-started bring the economy back to some of the fishing villages. the wildlife has returned and so has the climate. I have travelled there twice so far - very interesting.
Art & Ecology Now by Andrew Brown.
Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: 'Eco' awareness has had an enormous impact, not least in the art world. This accessible and thought-provoking book is the first in-depth exploration of the ways in which contemporary artists are confronting nature, the environment, climate change and ecology.
The book moves through the various levels of artists' engagement, from those who act as independent commentators, documenting and reflecting on nature, to those who use the physical environment as the raw material for their art, and those committed activists who set out to make art that transforms both our attitudes and our habits.
Don't judge a book by its hideous cover and its rather bland title, Art & Ecology Now is a timely, inspiring and exciting book.
Concerned that we are today about the increased surveillance of our online existence, the financial crisis, legal and illegal immigration or the lack of bright prospects for many young graduates, we might forget to look at what lays directly below our feet and what hangs above our head. 5 or 6 years ago, ecology was a hot topic in major museums and art galleries, sustainability was the magical word and many still believed that we could go back to some Arcadian state. Or at least that the dire consequences of global warming and the over exploitation of natural resources were distant in time and place. Nowadays, we know that the world as we know and despair of right now is probably very different from the one that awaits us.
The artists in this book remind us that everything is interconnected. That immigration, business and politics are affected by change in environmental equilibrium and that any disruption taking place in Mongolia might sooner or later have ecological and thus economical repercussions at the other end of the world.
Art & Ecology Now organizes artworks in 6 chapters that deals with the level and type of personal engagement with nature:
re/view highlights the work of artists (mostly photographers) who document the ecological challenges the world is going through. The author of the book compared their work to the one of war artists and investigative journalists. And indeed what these artists offer us are worrying reports and frightening images that show nature hovering between power and vulnerability.
The re/form section introduces us to artists who use the physical environment as a raw matter from which to make art. Their works take the form of permanent interventions or very light actions that leave only ephemeral traces.
re/search looks at artists who attempt to explore and understand the inner working of the natural world. Either out of personal curiosity or because they want to offer alternative ways to consider important ecological challenges.
The re/use section present artists who are concerned with the Earth's resources and who cast a critical look at how our throwaway culture disrupts the equilibrium of the environment.
Packed with novel ideas, prototype, experiments, beta tests and hypotheses, re/create offers a selection of artworks that emerged out of a quest to propose solutions to environmental problems.
Finally, re/act presents what might be the most ambitious projects in the book. The artists featured in the pages are actively seeking to transform the world in modest but tangible ways.
I've already expressed my dislike of the very underwhelming cover, I'm not sure i see the point in mentioning the year of birth of each artist under their name and i would have liked to see more pioneering works from past decades (even if i realize that this is probably not the point of a book that focuses on contemporary practice) but otherwise Art & Ecology Now is an inspiring and exciting book. I was very impressed with the selection of artworks, many of which i didn't know and almost of which i found truly relevant and stimulating.
Here's a quick tour of some of the works i discovered in the book:
Benoît Aquin 's The Chinese Dust Bowl series explores the impact of disastrous agrarian policies that have turned the grasslands of central China into desert. Frequent and violent dust storms affect three hundred million people in China. And beyond since winds carry the barren topsoil to North Korea, South Korea, and Japan and as far as North America.
In China's Qinhai Province there were once 4,077 lakes. In the last 20 years, more than 2,000 have disappeared. In Hebei Province, surrounding Beijing, 969 of the regions 1,052 lakes are now gone. And in Africa, Lake Chad, once a landmark for astronauts in space, is just about gone.
The Tar Machines photo series reflects Ravi Agarwal's fascination with issues of labour and industrial machines. He found these iron tar-boiling machines (i had no idea such devices even existed) in the street and presents them as if they were sculptures, giving them nobility and life.
Haubitz+Zoche painted a blue line running through Copenhagen's city center. The line delineates the city's new waterfront if the inland ice of Greenland were to melt, prompting water levels to rise by seven meters.
Atlantis, a collaboration between Halldor Ulfarsson and Tea Makipa, appears as a wooden cabin sinking in the middle of a lake or river. The work reminds us that our current lifestyle isn't as secure as some of us might like to think.
To passersby, the house will looks as if it is inhabited: there's light inside and the sound of family life can be heard from the street.
Allee der Schlaflosigkeit [Avenue of Wakefulness] was a 1:2.45 scale model for a botanical pavilion accessible to visitors. The structure was a long corridor lined with Angel Trumpet trees, a hallucinogenic plant with ties to shamanistic rites and valued for its ability to induce powerfully vivid dreams. Three beehives were added at the end of the 'avenue'. During the exhibition, bees collected nectar from the trees and produced pure Angel Trumpet honey.
We usually associate water consumption with the water that we drink, use for washing, use in the toilet or watering plants. On average this amounts to about 150L of water per person per day in the UK. Yet, if we consider the 'virtual' or embodied water used to produce the goods and food we consume, our daily average is much closer to 3,400 litres of water per person per day. This 'hidden' water accounts for nearly 96% of our daily consumption! Hidden explores the virtual water present in manufactured goods and industrial materials. It includes a set of glass vessels designed to communicate the differing amounts of water required to produce a range of industrial materials. The stopper in each bottle is manufactured from a different material: steel, aluminium, epoxy, glass and ceramic. The vessels are sized to contain the amount of water used to produce that bottle's cap.
The Clean Air Machine improves the air quality of indoor environment by cleaning the air of dust, viruses, fungus, bacteria, toxic gases, malodorous gases, organic solvents, smog, carbon monoxide etc.
The Tabernas Desert in Andalucia is the only 'true desert' in Europe. Growing in size each year due to climate change and poor land management, the land is home to both the film studios of the Spaghetti Westerns era and the Plataforma Solar de Almería, a research facility developing the use of solar energy for the desalination of sea water.
On the 9th September 2004, Starling travelled 41 miles across the Tabernas Desert on an electric bicycle. The bicycle was driven by a 900 watt electric motor that was in turn powered by electricity produced in a portable fuel cell fitted into its frame, generating power using only compressed bottled hydrogen and oxygen from the desert air. The only waste product from the moped's desert crossing was pure water of which 600ml was captured in a water bottle mounted below the fuel cell. Starling has used the captured water to produce a 'botanical' painting of an Opuntia cactus. The painting of this most 'ergonomic' of plants refers back to the site of the journey and to film-maker Leone (who introduced cacti into the area as part of the film sets), while also parodying the somewhat clumsy prototype moped. Sealed in a perspex vitrine, the project has become a kind of closed, symbiotic system, referring in part to Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube. The work makes a direct reference to Chris Burden's 1977 Death Valley Run, a desert crossing made in the real wild west on a bike powered with a tiny petrol engine. (via)
During the UN Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen 2009, SUPERFLEX offered a hypnotic group session in which the participants were hypnotized in order to perceive the climate change as cockroach. Further sessions were then scheduled to take place in other locations, this time with other animals that are either extinct, about to become extinct, are spreading rapidly or carry dangerous diseases.
The Canary Project, founded by Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris in 2006, uses photography and other media to highlight evidence of global climate change and the devastation that has already occurred.
One of their ongoing projects, Increase Your Albedo!, invites people to wear white to help cool the planet. Albedo, or reflection coefficient, is the measurement of the Earth's ability to reflect the radiation of the sun. The more reflective the Earth, the less sun is absorbed and the cooler it stays. Ice and snow are white. When they melt, the earth gets less reflective, warmer. More ice melts, and it gets even warmer. We want you to increase the overall reflectivity of the earth by wearing white. Albedo is the measurement of the earth's reflectivity.
The introduction to the book contained a number of pioneering works from the 1960s and 70s.
From 1965 to 1978, Alan Sonfist planted a garden in Manhattan. The artwork consisted of plants that were native to the New York City area in pre-colonial times. Conceived in 1965 the Time Landscape was among the first prominent art works in the Land Art movement and is still an inspiration to create Natural urban landscapes.
In 1968, Nicolás Garcia Uriburu dyed the Grand Canal in Venice bright green to protest its pollution. He was arrested by the police, but was released when he demonstrated that the substance he had used was not toxic. Uriburu then proceeded to tour the world in search of polluted waterways to colour: the East River in New York, the Seine in Paris, the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. Joseph Beuys joined him in coloring the Rhine. In London, he was fined £25 for "offending the British Empire" when he colored the fountains of Trafalgar Square. The work has as much relevance and strength as ever.
Touch Sanitation is probably my favourite work in the book.
In 1976, Mierle Laderman Ukeles accepted an unsalaried position as artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation to raise public awareness of urban waste management issues.
For the 11 month-long performance Touch Sanitation, Ukeles traveled sections of New York City to meet over 8500 sanitation employees and shake their hands. Ukeles documented the conversations she had with the workers, their private stories, concerns, and public humiliations.
Views inside the book:
Related stories: Radical Nature - Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009.
As promised about 100 years ago (see: FIELDS, positive visions for the future), here's another post about Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, an exhibition featuring works by artists who adopt an engaged, critical and active role in society.
This time, i'd like to focus particularly an installation which explores the life of a very common, yet mysterious, snail that travels around north west Europe. Possibly on the feet of ducks which i find most romantic.
This Wandering Snail is the radix balthica. The reason why we should all get a bit more excited about those little creatures is that they can survive in extreme and varied environmental conditions and constitute thus an excellent model for determining the traits which species might possess that could be beneficial for survival under altered environmental conditions, such as climate warming and increased saline intrusion into freshwaters.
The installation is an improvised rigging of laboratory vessels and technology developed with support from laboratory technicians skilled in researching and constructing various laboratory setups. The application of data (lab and field) has been developed through the work - investigating the control of lighting, sonification and physical vibration of elements in the installation. One aspect of the data explored is the connection of the name "Radix balthica", the snail, and "Radix Sort" a computer science based sorting algorithm. We are interested in the interplay between a snail (a messy biological entity under scientific observation and the subject of experimentation) and an algorithm (dating back to 1887 and the development of tabulating machines) that sorts and orders data sets..
Clearly, this required a few questions to Radix:
Why did you decide to work with the Radix balthica? What makes it more interesting than other types of snails?
From the scientific perspective Radix balthica is a species of aquatic snail that exhibits a high degree of plasticity - i.e. its shell form, pigmentation, physiology and development are all known to change in response to environmental conditions. This plasticity is thought to be the reason that it is widespread, occupying a range of different habitats in Northwest Europe, from small temporary ponds to large rivers and lakes and the Baltic Sea. The fact that this species has such a high level of tolerance and exhibits a lot of variation in its development, physiology and form makes it an excellent model species for studying questions to do with evolution - as variation is seen as the 'raw material' on which natural selection can act. Moreover, it will also give clues as to the way that freshwater organisms might respond to climate change, i.e. increased temperatures and saline intrusion into fresh waters through sea level rise.
(Radix balthica embryo image)
Research into the evolutionary ecology of this species at Plymouth has focused in on its developmental biology. Because it has transparent embryos its development can be observed easily in the laboratory and it also reproduces readily in the laboratory, allowing studies of inheritance. Most recently, there have been advances in the generation of 'new generation' genomic resources for this species that will allow the investigation of how genetic and environmental factors interact in its evolution and ecology.
From the art perspective our interest in Radix balthica has grown over a three year collaboration with Simon Rundle (freshwater ecologist) and involvement in his research. We are intrigued by how a tiny grey snail that is easily overlooked and seemingly insignificant, has come to play an important role as a marker of climate change. We are interested in our human relationship to this creature.
We were drawn to the idea that this species had been named the 'wandering snail', a name that alludes to its widespread distribution but could also be seen to relate to the ambiguity associated with its scientific names, which have shown numerous changes since its original naming by the father of classification Linnaeus. This aspect of the snail's biology were included in the work through the text from Linnaeus's journey to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea in 1741, on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica. We felt that working with the snail in the context of the Fields exhibition in Riga would be very appropriate in relation to location and migration as well as transdisciplinary research brought into the public domain.
Could you explain the installation? I actually couldn't see the snails when i was in the gallery, i guess they were hiding.
There are two main strands to the work that draw on the idea of wandering. The first relates to the tolerance of the species. There are three 'replicate' jars containing snails and pond weed in water of three salinities from three locations where Radix balthica can be found: i) rivers near Plymouth - the place where the snails in the exhibition were collected from; ii) the Baltic Sea at Riga; and iii) further south in the Baltic Sea, where the salinity is higher. A further, single jar sits on the shelf above each of the three replicates for each treatment. This jar contains water of the same salinity as the corresponding three jars. This jar 'controls' the light intensity in the corresponding jars by converting salinity sensor readings into values for LEDs. This form of control reinterprets the common use of the term of 'control' in scientific experiments - replacing the idea of a 'reference' treatment against which experimental responses can be gauged with a more literal interpretation of control.
The second strand of the work draws on the ambiguity of the naming of the species since Linnaeus. We provide three readings of Linnaeus's original text describing his journey to Gotland on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica - the original text and in two versions sorted by the Radix algorithm.
When it comes to perceiving them they are the humble snail - an often overlooked species, difficult to see and with the work we invite you to spend time looking and watching.
But i saw glass containers, wires, plants. What are they? What is their purpose? How do they work together?
The glass containers are setup in three groups representing Plymouth, Baltic and Riga. Each set has three jars with water, plant, snails and a measured salinity inside that are lit from above using white LED light. The fourth jar in each set has the same measured salinity as the three jars below it and a salinity sensor. The salinity sensor in each group is measured using Arduino to control the intensity of the LEDs. The code also introduces the changes in the system over time - a six-hour fluctuation in line with tidal movements that would alter the amount of salinity present in the water. The wiring shows the mapping of these connections throughout the system and also includes the surface transducer that is placed on the top shelf from which the audio plays out across the architecture of the installation.
The plant inside the jars is Canadian Pond Weed (Elodea canadensis) that is part of the small ecosystem where the snails feed off the algae that grows on the plant - sustaining both the snails and the plant.
During the course of the exhibition, you are monitoring the way the snails respond to gallery conditions, light, salinity and atmosphere. What have you discovered so far?
Such a long exhibition provides challenges to keeping the snails healthy and alive especially at a distance: we don't quite know how they will fare and so - in this sense - it is a real experiment, taking lab snails back into the field which is, in this instance, a public art field. We have set up some test conditions and are monitoring the liveliness of the creatures through observation by colleagues. In mid June Professor Richard Thompson (a member of Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, Plymouth) visited the gallery and re-photographed the snails using Simon's original viewpoint. One of us will go across to Riga to repeat this process in a couple of weeks.
Why do you want to monitor the response of the snails to their long sojourn in the gallery?
At the outset of the project we wanted to monitor the fate of the snails for a couple of reasons.
We wanted to know how the snails would respond to an art environment, and how their fate might shape in accord with our artistic intent.
Beyond this we envisaged that the act of 'monitoring' might act as a strategy around the instability of the gaze (moving between aesthetic/scientific) in relation to a gallery context. We worked with the idea that scientific visualisations are premised on a relational positions of power between those who are scientifically educated and those who are not. We wanted to extend an invitation to the gallery viewer to participate in (but not be educated by) the scientific gaze .
We have set up what appears to be a scientific experiment in a gallery. The approach was to use a strategy of mimicry where the art exhibition context is deployed as a means to identify fissures within an experimental system that can then be opened to further reflective artistic investigation.
Note: A reading of the work of Luce Irigaray (1985) that gives emphasis to the development of mimicry as an anti-essentialist strategy underpins how we have approached Wandering Snail - a work that could be conceptualised as a kind of "essence of an experiment" and used the specific context of the gallery as a mechanism that could potentially reveal aspects that may be repressed in another context - the laboratory. "Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called itself that is left behind" (Lacan, 1977)
The description of the work also mentions the Radix Sort algorithm. What kind of role does this algorithm play in the installation?
Radix Sort is a sorting algorithm that is a playful mediation between the human and the snail. The initial connection came through the name 'Radix' as the root or base in computing and in the naming of a species and this connection developed further after researching the way Radix Sort uses two categories to sort data: Least Significant Digit (LSD) and Most Significant Digit (MSD). The use of the LSD method brings up ideas around noise in information that, which parallels other areas of research within the Radix group.
The algorithm is used within the work to play with the text and form a sonic output that is both a reading of sorted text (lexicographically) and a further manipulation of the audio file of that reading. Two readings of the text about Linnaeus' journey to Gotland, on which he discovered the species were recorded - one is a straight recording and another made after the algorithm has sorted the text alphabetically. The audio files are also sorted using Radix Sort by frequency and amplitude and the results are then mixed with the readings and played out across the architecture of the installation shelving using a surface transducer.
You work together under the name of radix research group at the University of Plymouth. What brought you together? Is there a website that gathers all the works you've done together?
A shared interest in interdisciplinary art/science research through practice brought us together. Three of us - Deborah, Simon and David - are academics at Plymouth University and we have worked together on precedent projects involving the snail since 2011 when Deborah became artist in residence with MBERC (Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre) at Plymouth and created a collaborative work called Transpositions with Simon. David then worked with both on a second project, an immersive sound installation based on the snail embryo, called ATRIA. Bronac Ferran is a writer and curator who we invited to collaborate with us to build new audiences for the work. Radix as a shared art organism is relatively new. We're building a website and will hopefully do some publishing in future as well as more exhibitions based on the humble snail.
Website (under construction) about Radix.
Do check out Wandering Snail at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.
Previously: FIELDS, positive visions for the future.