Data Cuisine goes against everything i've learnt as a child: Don't play with food! Don't mix meals with political discussions! In these workshops, participants experiment with the representation of data using culinary means. I suspect they are even allowed to put their elbows on the table.
The workshop invites participants to translate local data into culinary creations, turning arid numbers into sensually 'experienceable' matter.
Participants chose their topics, investigate related data, shop for comestible ingredients and under the guidance of chefs, they learn how to create dishes that will not only be delicious but also act as entry points to discussions about local issues that range from emigration to criminality, suicide rate, unemployment, sexuality or science funding.
Hi Susanne and Moritz! Seen from the outside, the idea is somewhat simple: just take some data and assemble them on a plate instead of a graph, use culinary ingredients instead of lines and block of colours. Yet, i suspect the process must be more complex than that. What are the challenges participants encounter when trying to turn numbers into dishes?
SJ: It might sound simple, but cooking and data visualisation or representation are two very different disciplines. Food is sensual, tangible, ephemeral, emotional and social. Data is not like this at all. This dialectics is the starting point of the Data Cuisine workshop and for someone who has never done it, it is already a challenge to think both together and to play with the various qualities of food such as its cultural connotations, colour, taste, shape, nutrition and the range of techniques to prepare food such as melting, freezing, boiling, baking, foaming...Not to speak of the various ways one can present and consume food.
Actually there are so many possibilities to explore on both ends, the data and the food, that most participants end-up with something relatively simple, because they are overwhelmed by the complexity. A translation of data into a visual edible diagram is relatively easy, but that's not what we are striking for, but for creations that work and communicate on both levels, visually and as regards taste.
One of the questions the workshop asks is "Have you ever tried to imagine how a fish soup tastes whose recipe is based on publicly available local fishing data?"
So does data affect taste and how? For example, do you have to make concession and be a bit less respectful of data to ensure that a dish is delicious?
MS: Generally, when it comes to tasting precise quantities and differences, of course, our taste organs are more limited than our visual system. It is simply much harder to determine what is "twice as sweet" as opposed to as twice as long line in a graphic. Then again, taste is a much more emotional and temporally complex experience that just looking at a dot on a screen. So, the mechanisms to encode information might be more fuzzy, but potentially much deeper.
Depending on the theme, there could also be a case to be made for dishes that don't taste all that well (like, e.g., the noise visualization through salt).
In the end, our goal is to create eating experiences that teach you something about the data, and taste is one dimension you can vary, but there is also temperature, texture, amounts, the plating, all the cultural connotations different dishes and ingredients have ... all this plays together in creating a successful dish. Here, precision of data readability is not of primary concern, but rather, the overall personal experience, and the dishes' concept.
Can any data be turned into something edible? Or did participants find themselves in front of data that when cooked together could only lead to unpleasant flavors?
SJ: We ask the participants to work with local data, ideally open data, and the experience from the two workshops shows that most people tend to pick data that reveal social and economic problems. This is not really surprising as we encourage people to pick a topic that they feel close to, that motivates them to work on, and to turn it into some kind of food experience. Creating a dish that tastes terrible is sometimes the best way to communicate a negative development or a problematic situation. Good examples for this are the 'Suicide Cocktail' that looks at the relation of alcohol consumption and suicide rates in Finland and 'Unemployed Pan con Tomate!' that visualises the drastic increase of unemployment among young people. We tell participants that they should decide early on, if they want to be that radical or if they want to try something that is more subtle and comparably more difficult to produce.
You work with chefs in each of these workshops. How do they intervene? What exactly is their role in each workshop?
SJ: The chefs are very important, when it comes to creating the dishes. In most cases, a 'data' dish is created by either remixing, altering or re-interpreting existing recipes. The group of participants is usually very heterogeneous and have different professional backgrounds. However, they all have an interest in cooking or at least in doing something with food, but some are knowledgeable than others. The chefs bring the real cooking expertise to the table. Usually our participants quickly develop ideas what they want to do and which dishes they want to create, and then it's the chef who -- with his or her experience and creativity -- pushes them to open up their mind, to try something new and unusual, such as trying out other techniques or ingredients. When we are in the kitchen, the chef is in high demand, not only for the preparation of dishes, but also for their final presentation on the plate.
So far you've organized 2 Data Cuisine workshops. One in Helsinki and one in Barcelona. These are two very different kind of countries in terms of cuisine. Do you feel that participants approached the idea of mixing data and food differently? Because i somehow feel that a lot of personal culture and subjectivity enters into account when dealing with food.
SJ: In Helsinki less of the dishes were local, maybe also due the fact that a lot of Helsinki workshop participants were either immigrants or just visiting. I remember that Moritz and I were wondering what constitutes Finnish cuisine before we had our first meeting with Antti Nurka, the Finnish chef. And it was particularly interesting to see how the shortage of vegetables that grow in Finland and the variety of local mushrooms, berries and fish influence the Finnish menu. But other than that I couldn't discover much differences in the general approach of the participants, maybe because the people who join the workshop are usually food-aficionados.
I think what i like about this workshop is that it breaks a taboo for me. I grew up being told that you don't mix politics and food, that you can't talk about sensitive or potentially divisive topics while having a meal. Yet, many of the projects were directly related to politics and social issues. Besides, one of the objectives of the workshops is precisely to merge food with data in order to "gain unexpected insights into both media and learn about their inner constructions and relations". So what have you learn so far about these constructions and relations?
MS: From a data visualization point of view, I found it really interesting to watch how deeply people meditate on very simple data points, when they think about turning them into food experiences. In a way, this is a very needed counterpoint to the current trend of consuming lots of data in a very quick and superficial way. As Jer Thorp said, "we are so used to flying at 10,000 feet that we forget what it is like to be on the ground" and both the preparation and consumption of the data dishes providesa very earthy, grounded way to connect with statistical information and the human stories behind the numbers.
From a food point of view, knowing how expressive food is as a medium, it is surprising to me by now, how little the intellectual side is stimulated in high-end cuisine. It is surely nice to just enjoy interesting tastes in good company, but it can also be quite enriching if there is a whole extra conceptual and intellectual dimension to the dining experience. I think this side has been quite neglected in the history of cuisine and we are hoping to provoke a few reactions in -- and hopefully some inspiration to -- the traditional cooking scene.
What's next for Data Cuisine?
MS: We aim for a few more editions of the workshop, in order to understand the local differences better and continue to explore the medium. We might also vary the format in the future - one format we were considering is a high-end "data dinner", which would put less emphasis on the collaborative workshop process, but more the final outcome and dining experience. And I would like to learn more about the science of cooking and the technological advances in the area - this field is buzzing right now!
Thanks Susanne and Moritz!
All images courtesy of Data Cuisine. More photos.
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.
I see far more exhibitions than i can blog (i could but i'm fairly lazy, you see.) So this morning, i went through all the photos i took in London galleries and museum in June and threw them hastily in this almost laconic post in case you're in town and bored. Being bored in London seems to be my latest obsession but that's another story.
Here we go...
The ever fabulous Science Museum has a small show about the work of scientist and inventor James Lovelock. I spotted this apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars. Lovelock built it in his home lab in the 1960s while working on NASA's Viking Mission to Mars. It is made with an ordinary kitchen jar and lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.
Check out the Exponential Horn while you're in the building.
Speaking of wild inventions. I caught the very last day of the Paul Granjon exhibition at Watermans. It was called Is Technology Eating My Brain? and it was very very funny. It's not every day that i laugh my face off all alone in an art gallery. The show was the result of the artist's residency in the art center. He had a couple of works in the gallery (including a magnificently visitor-unfriendly Biting Machine), the rest were works made by participants of Granjon's Wrekshop. They included a slicing photo booth and a geranium survival kit.
I spent far too long watching the videos of Granjon's fancy inventions and performances:
I watched this one three times:
And I now need this book: Hand-Made Machines [Includes DVD]
The show's already closed alas! but here's a few images. And a video.
The Victoria and Albert museum was showing the short listed artists and the winner of the Prix Pictet. The theme was Consumption in all its disastrous relationship to environmental sustainability.
Abraham Oghobase photographed hand scribbled texts advertising the various informal services offered by people living in Lagos, a city of over ten million inhabitants and the commercial capital of Nigeria.
In Lebensmittel, Michael Schmidt portrayed the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture. From pigs standing skin to skin in a factory farm to piles of discarded food. Seeing the images one next to the other up on the wall was both shaming and mesmerizing. No wonder the series won the prize.
The exhibition closed a couple of weeks ago.
Talking in the context of her Post-Surveillance Art series, she said that: "What has altered for me post Snowden, is not an awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist."
I have no time for design products, except when they come with a Soviet aura. The GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design is showing all kinds of plastic toys, a dial-less Telephone, red velvet flags, retro futuristic vacuum cleaners, etc.
Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain is at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design until 24 August.
I also visited The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture during the press view. I can't say that was the show of my life. AT ALL! But there were a couple of works i was glad to see again....
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is at the Hayward until 7 September.
Gun Architects's rainforest-inspired pavilion at Bedford Square for the 2014 London Festival of Architecture.
Photojournalist Nick Danziger visited North Korea in 2013. He recorded the everyday life in the DPRK and was given rare access to cities outside Pyongyang. The story behind each photo is probably more interesting than the photos themselves. The subjects are doing very ordinary things (getting their hair done at the hairdresser, sunbathing by the sea with their kids, etc.) only it does look like the photos were taken in the past.
According to the British Council the exhibition is "the first cultural engagement of its kind" between the UK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Guardian adds that it opened in London with no advance publicity, for fear that the dire relations between North Korea and the west might sink the first cultural project of its kind.
Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is open at the British Council HQ in London until 25 July.
I spotted this one in the street.
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.