Wallace Heim: documenting art science collaborations focused on environments Pt.2

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The second of Wallace Heim’s reviews of recent publications on art-science collaborations focuses on Field_Notes from the Finnish Bioart Society.

Going someplace unfamiliar for an adventure, and doing this with a group of strangers, is an ancient exercise to stimulate human learning and imagination. This suspension of the everyday for the inspiration of the new is the backbone of several art and science residency projects.

For the bi-annual Field_Notes events, the unfamiliar place is the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, a science institution for monitoring ecological and climatic processes in Lapland / northern Finland. The territory is one of lichens, reindeer, fjords, tourists, seasonal workers, lemmings, crowberry juice outlets, chainsaw art, gift shops, mountain birch, Arctic scrub, the Olkiluoto nuclear plant, northern lights, granite, the Talvivaara mine, Arctic charr, stone age habitations, trailer parks and swarms of government and civilian drones.

For the first of these, ‘Field_Notes_Cultivating Ground’, in 2011, the group included foragers, hackers and techno-, data- and bio-manipulating artists who spent a week together doing and reflecting on field work and experimentation in ‘bioart’. Around 30 people divided into five working groups: Arctic Waters, looking at freshwater ecosystems; Biological Milieu, investigating the biological matrices of cell structure and tissue growth; Body Nature, looking at communication and the human body as sensor; Environmental Computing, exploring how computational data from the field can contribute to sensory and political engagement; and Second Order, a group studying, as if anthropologists, the workings of the other groups.

[Field Notes] From Landscape to Laboratory is the publication that followed, and has three sections, inter-leaving those groups. The first, Rooting the Practice, provides philosophical and artistic overviews of ‘art&science’; Section 2: Probing the Terrain is accounts from artists of their research; and the third, Impressions from the Field, are four lively personal responses, glimpses into the counter-currents of the week, the passing moments of the adventure that the reader has missed.

The book offers facets of inquiry into the practice of bioart. A Venn diagram of art in the carbon realm (as opposed to the silicon realm) has bioart as the larger category, as art that is alive or that has living components, including ecological and land arts, within which the sub-category of biotech art sits: art that involves biotechnology, genetic and non-genetic manipulations of organisms, tissue culture interventions.

The creation of knowledge through field work and technology are over-arching themes. The opening essay by Tarja Knuuttila and Hanna Johansson sets the ground with reference to an early essay by Bruno Latour, ‘The Pédofil of Boa Vista: A Photo-Philosophical Montage’ in association with the artwork ‘Homage to Werner Homberg’ by Lauri Anttila. Latour used the idea of inscription to explain the chain of representations between the object in the field and the scientific paper. An inscription is a sign, symbol, picture, diagram, co-ordinate grid; an inscription device is any instrument that can transform material substances into signs or numbers. The chain of inscriptions from sample to sign mould the object into something more susceptible to being known by science. The end diagram is more abstract; elements have been lost in its coding. But it is also more concrete; it is detached from its context, but it can travel and circulate.

The contemporary artist Lauri Anttila retraced the treks by the Finnish landscape painter Werner Homberg (1830-1860) to see how one could experience those landscapes today, including how they are known through scientific documentation and measurement. Homberg painted from fragments of sketches, objects, plant drawings to assemble a landscape that appeared coherent. Anttila displays fragments from the field, objects and photo documentation and reworks them into depictions of the ‘reality’ of Homberg’s paintings, and into a construction of changing representations of the land that is itself constantly changing.

This drawing together of art, philosophy and experience with questions of representation, scientific process and technological developments runs throughout most essays. Questions concerning fieldwork – artistic and scientific – of location, data and cultural meaning are argued from theory, experience and by association with artworks. This gives the reader some traction in understanding how this residency worked, what practices were experimented with and what ideas discussed. The collection is of diverse fragments, but is several steps along an inscription chain from a simple reporting back of what happened.

Each chapter could be the subject of a review in itself, triggering questions over the artist’s practices, the politics and ethics of the work undertaken, its ecological import. What follows are selected summaries.

In the introductory chapters, Laura Beloff sets out the centrality of ‘experience’, as presented by the philosopher John Dewey, and the ‘practical aesthetics’ of Jill Bennett as central to artistic and scientific processes. Maria Huhmarniemi outlines conflicts in conservation plans in Finland between the building of a hydro-electric plant and the habitat of the nocturnal Capricorniae butterfly, and speculates whether art can be used as a means of argumentation in such situations. Paz Tornero provides a summary of art-science collaborations as being matters concerning beauty and truth, quoting Siân Ede, Kant, Arthur Danto, David Bohm. These chapters are useful in providing an artistic and theoretical basis, but it is the following chapters by participants that provide the substance of the book.

Oron Catts, whose practice involves the use of tissue technologies as media for artistic expression, went to Kilpisjärvi to further his research into the roles of inanimate cellular substrates, structures or matrices in biological processes. The matrix and the milieu of cellular development may be as important in cell differentiation and development as DNA. Anticipating an arid, barren environment, Catts was looking for biological material to be used in the technique of decellularisation, a process by which cells are removed from tissue, leaving only the extracellular, inanimate matrix, onto which Catts can apply new cellular material.

In a candid essay, he finds that the diversity and abundant biological life of the Arctic location overwhelmed him, diverted his attention. In that distracted state, he found the site of a crashed WW2 German Junkers 88, and in the charred remains, a piece of Perspex from the cockpit. He weaves a story around the history of that plastic as an inert material that living tissue can accommodate, taking in the work of surgeon and eugenicist Alexis Carel, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, experimentation with rabbits’ corneas and contact lenses, and the birth of biomaterial sciences attributed to the British eye surgeon Sir Harold Ridley. Catts questions whether he has become so separated from the soil that he can relate only to a small piece of plastic – before he returns to his project to grow amphibian cells over an array of substrates as an exploration of the materiality of life at that scale, in that context.

An unintentional armature for microbial life was Niki Passath’s robot, a seeming four-legged device with a head and neck made of jointed, white strips of material (see book cover). The robot as tourist accompanied Passath on field walks and experiments, enjoying the mosses and lichens. On their return to Austria, Passath noticed vegetal growth on the robot, and set up conditions to support it. His question, as the growth proceeds, is when will it overcome the robotic material, when will the symbiont become only living matter. What Passath misses is that the mosses and lichens have become feral.

Questions over methods for collecting data are strong preoccupations throughout the essays. Artist Andrew Gryf Paterson used the crowberries/cloudberries, a fruit indigenous to the area, as a ‘boundary object’, one that positions different viewpoints into a network of inter-relations. Through tracing the names and classifications of the fruit across different languages, foraging for the berries on the nearby fell, visiting a local family business processing berry juice, determining the berry’s nutritional value, and setting a meal of foraged food, including a crowberry parfait (recipe included in book), Paterson provided an experiential variation to the other artists working in the environmental computing group.

The influences of Beatriz da Costa and tactical media art, of DIY culture and citizen science is prevalent in several essays. For da Costa, who attended the residency, artists are activist intellectuals, placing themselves between the academic world and the public, countering the force of global capital to control the production of knowledge. Further, a DIY, hacker culture is one that can maintain ‘good practice’ in relation to technological power. Annti Tenetz, working in media- bio- and urban arts, argues that the artist must fearlessly adopt any technology as an instrument for expression, to act outside the protocols of science for field research in order to create new forms of information. These include recording images from drone civilian aircraft, and creating and editing image fields as representations of experience, not merely cartography.

Jennifer Gabrys, a sociologist, considers how the ongoing, continuous monitoring and the sensing technologies directed on the environment can re-define environmental citizenship. With access to monitoring data, and in the distributed networks of citizens generating data through a multitude of devices, citizens have access to information that may change their behaviours – such as knowing when a sewerage system can cope with a toilet flush. Indigenous peoples can monitor the effects of energy extraction. These new practices of citizenship, and multiple modes of ‘sensing’ gives rise to considerations of whether the more-than-human is not merely the object source of data, but, too, an expressive subject, a citizen. Her philosophical ground is A.N. Whitehead who finds the subject as being always in formation. Citizens are not defined according to rights, then, but according to relationships. A subject emerges through environmental practices that are constitutive of citizenship, and that includes the more-than-human.

A different take on data is given in ‘On Collecting Anecdata’ by artist Julie Freeman. ‘Anecdata’ is data that is not precisely measureable; has no reliable provenance; is not comparable; cannot be unproven by the traditional scientific method; but as information drawn from direct experience, can be valid empirical data. Unlike computational data, most of which contains errors that are ironed out with algorithms producing averages, there is no ‘average’ with information based on human interpretation, memory and reflection. Freeman asked each member of the Arctic Waters group to list the items they collected on their field trips, the biological data, the technological data and the emotional data. Using a data visualisation technique, she wrote the textual responses on coloured backgrounds and placed them on a page, then submitted them to five layers of degradation, removing information until what remained is a final abstraction of coloured shapes, indicative and interpretive of the process, but without the anecdata itself. Latour’s concrete abstraction.

Freeman’s larger questions are over how the technologies for documenting halt, interrupt or change the moment of experience. Technological documentation is instant; it’s logged; the researcher moves on. The exploration of a place through devices may prescribe what is experienced. But, for Freeman, experiencing the landscape of reindeer and waters, the technology led her to collect un-prescribed actions, serendipitous, extra-curricular data in a process critically reflexive of the expectations of the working groups.

The extra-curricular is delightfully represented by artist Rosanne van Klaveren and her lemming-related moments in ‘The Importance of Fieldwork for Border Crossing Frames of Mind. Probing for Fine Madness’. The intense, deep focus and separation from everyday life that happens in field work can render the artist/scientist eccentric. Van Klaveren was at Kilpisjärvi for a month prior to the other participants, working in isolation, becoming intensely connected with ‘the field’. The human socialisation needed when the others arrived was overwhelming. On a first walk, and wanting to be connected with both the human group and the ever-present lemmings, van Klaveren found herself leaping out over rocks to catch a lemming, in a moment outside normal rationality. On another hike, she found a dead lemming, and declining the human social milieu for an evening, took the animal home, to feel closer to it, to examine, to dissect, and possibly, to eat it.

For the reader, van Klaveren’s account peels back the formality of the other essays, acknowledging the social pressures that accompany these events and providing an animated, sensual feel to that field-place. More, she opens the door to the unexplained, the improvisatory, the moments of flow and ‘fine madness’ that inspire across arts and sciences. How does one connect with the living ‘field’; how closely should one engage with the subject of study; how does one get beyond the limits of what one thinks to be true; how does one experiment passionately.

A fellow writer in the rogue ‘Impressions’ section, Corrie van Sice, in ‘substrate n.’ ruminates on contact lenses; American air conditioners and the immune system; a meal of smoked fish, Manchego cheese and reindeer; and the smell of cardamom oil that lingers in his suitcase all the way home. With Beatriz da Costa, he talks about death, the electrical impulses of the heart, the matrix of human skin. And how much of what the artist and scientist are fabricating in the laboratory, as seeming alchemists of life at a cellular level, would not survive in the ‘chaos’ of organisms in the field.

In the book as a whole, it often seems as if what was a familiar language suddenly becomes unfamiliar, slightly shifted. This may be the effect of translations, but more likely, the more productive effect of ideas around ecological art and bioart being configured slightly differently to expectations.

In each chapter of the book, gripping ethical issues are raised and too often let drift, as with van Sice’s underlying acceptance of artists as bio-alchemists and its justification on the grounds of being ineffective. Other questions linger over the assumption that artists need not, maybe should not, follow the etiquette or protocols of institutional science, a position that can be critiqued when the processes undertaken could cause public and ecological harm. Too, most authors do not engage with the political questions over the means of production of the technology with which they are working, and how this may bind them into a neo-liberal economic structure. The philosophical references are drawn mostly from pragmatism and early environmental ethics. A more robust dialogue with a wider body of theory, including continental philosophies, would be fascinating. More contributions from scientists, with their views on research technologies, would balance the publication.

But that is not what the book sets out to do. Its ‘place’ in the ‘field’ is as a new kind of documentation, somewhere between the polished proceedings of a conference and a straight report back on what happened. The week was a time of experimentation, discussion, field visits, random exchanges, soaking in and taking away. The ephemerality and the liveliness of that is tacitly represented; the sense of a crafted, productive event comes through. The essays are reflexive, analytical and descriptive without the formality of an academic paper. There is a generosity to the collection, not merely a recording of data, that informs and entices.

[Field_Notes] From Landscape to Laboratory, edited by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger, Terike Haapoja and you can order it on line here.

ISBN 978-952-93-2313-5

The next project, Field_Notes-HYBRID MATTERs is underway, a two-year programme with a residency at the Kilpisjärvi Field Station in September 2015.

Essays not mentioned above:

‘Microbes and a Symbolic Journey’:

Antero Kare describes several exhibitions of his bioart with microbes and chemicals and relates his work to Kandinsky’s ethnographic studies of Finland and the ancient national epic Kalevala.

‘Learning from Locality. A Critical Consideration of the Uncontrolled’:

Melissa Anna Murphy sets out ideas on place/locality and the importance of attention, identity, ‘stewardship’ and the unexpected in experience of the local.

‘Science and Art: Harmony and Dissonance’:

Antero Järvinen is the director of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. He argues against climate modelling as inaccurate, and as feeding overly dramatic responses to future climate change, in favour of empirical field work as representational of veracity and an indication that climate change will incur the effects predicted. He gives two examples in which a change in habitat and species’ behaviour is not indicative of climate change, although his examples only range to the influence of immediate co-habiting species, and not environmental dependencies more widely.

‘Probing Sound: Capturing Natural Data’:

Artists Dave Lawrence and Melissa Grant recount their workshops showing how the collection, recording and listening to sound, and the sensing involved, including a sense of humour, contribute to field studies data.

‘n Degrees’:

Marta de Menezes and Luis Graca consider temperature; latitude and longitude; the angle of diatom; and academic degrees as variations on a term that was omnipresent in discussions.

Dr. Wallace Heim writes and researches on performance and ecology, and she does this in many places. Her academic slant is philosophical, but she works across disciplines to analyse the experience of performance, of art and of social practice arts, to consider how these events shape ecological and social understanding.


She recently published Landing Stages. Selections from the Ashden Directory 2000 – 2014, an ebook marking the archiving of the Ashden Directory and Ashdenizen, websites focused on ecology, climate and culture which she co-edited. Landing Stages can be downloaded from www.ashdendirectory.org.uk.

Her current writing is on conflict; on sense and extinction; and on how a place can learn.

She has published in Performance Research and in Readings in Performance and Ecology. She is on the Advisory Board of the upcoming publication series Performing Landscapes. She co-edited Nature Performed, and co-curated the conference/event BETWEEN NATURE. She taught on the ‘Art & Ecology’ MA at Dartington College of Arts. She has also worked as a set designer.

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