The speculative proposal at the heart of Kat Austen’s Palaeoplasticene (2022) is to consider what would happen if we could rewind the history of Earth and add pre-human plastics into the evolutionary mix. Her experimental work, realized in collaboration with data scientist Indrė Žliobaitė and environmental engineer Laurence Gill, has entailed growing rock crystals in the presence of microplastics in a variety of locations. Observation of processes of growth and entropy in these hybrid environments provides clues as to how the biogeochemical cycles of plastics might have evolved and the biosphere could have adapted to their presence in the geological time of planetary history. The first results of this multifaceted artist-led investigation are presented in the exhibition in the form of an interactive digital platform. The work builds on an earlier project entitled Stranger to the Trees (2020), which explored the coexistence of microplastics and trees in the context of the climate crisis. By visualizing the journey of microplastics from the soil into tree roots, her two-channel video installation articulates the troubling entanglement of plastics and living organisms in the Anthropocene.
A world without fossil fuels is a future on which escape from the spiral of climate breakdown depends, and the harvesting of sunlight holds the key. Netherlands-based artists Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand have focused in their project on the properties of light, specifically on its ability to cause tiny portions of matter to hover in space. Teaming up with quantum physicist Florian Schreck and chemical engineer Guillaume Schweicher, their work aims to enable the flow and shape of light itself to become visible through the light-induced motion of optically levitated liquid crystal. Their photonic explorations lead back to the origins of biological life in the effects of sunlight on non-organic matter and forward to a future in which artificial photosynthesis frees the biosphere from the burden of modern energetic needs.
The Venetian terrazzo method of combining shards of quartz, marble or glass with a binding agent to produce distinctive floor tiles is repurposed by Greek duo Hypercomf as an artistic response to marine pollution and its residues on the sea floor. The tiles in Benthic Terrazzo (2022) are composed of fragments of concrete, marble, seashells, microplastic and detritus collected from the shores of the island of Tinos, along with discarded fishing and marine gear from across Greece, and finished with a layer of flame-retardant polish. As well as proposing a novel take on sustainable design, the work alludes to the fossilization of industrial modernity in the geological present of the Anthropocene. The progressively darkening tones of the tiles are also a reference to the journey into the depths of underwater cave ecosystems off the island of Crete by marine biologist Markos Digenis. Their collaborative art-science research is documented in the accompanying film, Marine Caves and Benthic Terrazzo (2021). The cosmic connections of submarine realms to on-land worlds, as revealed in the folk wisdom of seafaring cultures, are invoked in the film Fish Kissed (2022). In a twisted age in which the guts of seabirds and fish are bloated with plastic waste, the alternative knowledge system of ichthyomancy, or reading the future from fish entrails, returns in an eco-critical light.
Siobhán McDonald’s work, realized in collaboration with geophysicist Chris Bean and soil scientist Arwyn Jones, examines particles floating in the air and matter buried underground originating in the deep time of the planet. Cosmic Gas (2022) is a series of works on paper made using ink harvested from methane gas, which is formed underground from decomposing mushrooms and plants. Consisting of both drawings and lithographic prints, they bear the direct imprint of plant fragments collected from bog sites that used to be living organisms, but which over time have become gaseous. The work examines delicate ecologies and the co-existence between earth, humans and plants as the permafrost melts and slowly releases toxic gases into the air. The accompanying sound piece, A World without Ice (2022), interweaves the sounds of humming devices with site recordings from dying glaciers and exposed boglands. Acoustically reimagining the celestial “harmony of the spheres'' for a human-altered planet, this composition gives sonic expression to the changing frequencies of nature and the broken rhythms of the Earth in the Anthropocene.
The starting point for Sandra Lorenzi’s collaborative project is the question How to Read Poetry to Cancer Cells? Her artistic research entailed working with Belgian oncologist Jean-Christophe Marine, filming in the state of the art laboratories of the VIB Institute of Biotechnology, and conducting workshops with cancer patients to consider the ramifications of the insight that cancer cells express themselves through aberration. Her installation Forcefield (2022) incorporates artist drawings based on those made by the patients as an exercise in taking back power over cancer cells through creative expression. These are arranged within energy circles, with the use of gold leaf a reference to the healing qualities of natural elements. The poetry read aloud in Latin to cancer cells in the accompanying film is an excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, while shots of the healing stone malachite point to sensorial flows that cannot be captured by the apparatus of mainstream science.
The elements of London based artist Oswaldo Maciá’s immersive installation coalesce to reactivate the senses of sight, sound and smell. The walls are covered with drawings of plant roots, while the space is filled with the scent of ancient amber from the Baltic coast and reverberates with echoes from the depths of the lithosphere. The tracks on a vinyl LP Corruption and Consciousness are of recordings made by the artist in South American forests, from the field research into seismic vibrations by geophysicist Chris Bean, as well as neuroscientist Emilia Leszkowicz’s acoustic samplings of rhythms generated in the human brain. Bars of soap are scented with a distillation of the essences of corruption and consciousness, representing the struggle between the forces of self-interest and rising ecological awareness on which the future of biological life on planet Earth depends. The act of hand washing also refers to the physicality of the sense of touch, expanding the repertoire of artistic and scientific methodologies to make the full spectrum of planetary sensing tangible, vivid, audible and pungent.
Working closely with philosopher of plant science Paco Calvo, Bucharest-based artist Alexandra Pirici has devised an educational programme that aims to engage students in the observation and appreciation of plants, forms of life and intelligence dramatically different from humans and animals. The preliminary results of their collaborative research into Sensing The Living: Promoting the Perception of Plants takes the form of a booklet that provides written guidance and instructions for hands-on engagement with plants, detailing methods of observing and understanding plant movement and intelligence. By emphasising the involvement of the body in the process of observation and experimentation, the artist counters the privileging of vision over other senses and the Cartesian division of body and mind characteristic of modern, industrialized ways of living. In the face of the devaluation of other species in extractive capitalism, the tactile experience of growing, observing and identifying plants promotes sensibility to and appreciation of the non-human beings with which we share the planet.
The Zoetropic Centrifuge is a project by Dutch artist Christiaan Zwanikken that sets out to use the hypnotic effect of spinning plants to change perspectives on biodiversity. The work draws on the artist’s experiments into the response of plants to hyper-gravity, which has entailed growing basil plants on a rapidly rotating centrifuge over a period of months and observing their more-than-human sensitivity, as they sway and dance to the gravitational forces. It aims to foster empathic connections between the human observer and spinning plants, by using strobe lights to draw visitors into an altered state of consciousness and provide a gateway to societal shifts in perception and behaviour. The results to date of this phytocentric research programme are made visible in two films: The Hungry Spirits of Photosynthesis (2021) and The Zoetropic Centrifuge: A Lab Journal (2022). This collaborative output points to the dissolution of the boundaries between artistic and scientific methodologies, with the artist providing the footage, structural engineer DM Hoyt the spoken word, and anthropologist Emmanuel Grimaud editing the film.
Athens based artist group 3 137 turn their eco-critique to the charade of green capitalism by parodying and hijacking the faux environmentalism deployed in corporate branding. Working on the realization of their collaborative project with green chemist Audrey-Flore Ngomsik, their video teaser is a collection of spurious eco-actions in the city, such as planting medicinal pills in the soil. It also includes demonstrations of guerrilla approaches to sustainable design, such as repurposing the organic waste of crushed eggshells, orange peel and the dregs of ground coffee to make alternative products. A QR code leads unwitting passers-by to recipes on a project website, while an enigmatic logo consisting of a scientific formula on a schematic depiction of the globe alludes to the subversive potential of a circular economy existing outside of the capitalist system.
Voldemars Johansons’s Quantasonic is conceived as an experimental installation to create a dynamic audiovisual landscape in which the spectator is invited to experience the turbulence of data visualisation. Abstract data structures are interpreted as particles in space and sound, using a novel projection technology to literally project data objects in physical reality by means of light. Working with an international team of photonics specialists, Hugo Thienpont, Alexander Kish and Antoine Reserbat-Plantey, the artist is pushing scientific technology to the limits of the possible, in an attempt to transcend the virtual representation of data through the physical presence of particles animated by powerful lasers. His project takes further the concerns of Oscillations (2018), an installation visualizing the real time effects of seismic events such as tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes take place in different parts of the planet.
South Korean artist Kuang-Yi Ku’s project Calico Human (2022) explores a futuristic medical scenario in which in order to protect people from skin cancer, doctors use biomedical technology to manipulate the distribution of colours on human skin. Faces patterned with patches of light and dark pigment, similar to the fur of a calico cat, are both safer from ultraviolet radiation and also make obsolete racializing differences in skin tone. Centre for Plant Immigrant Integration (2022) is conceived as a fictional institution which deals with the visa applications and interspecies integration of plant immigrants. The Centre provides guidance to the soybean, whose situation mirrors that of human migrants to Europe, in navigating the bureaucratic hurdles of applying for residency papers and integrating into the local environment. The ideas behind these developing projects, and the artist’s collaboration with oncologist Jean-Christophe Marine and plant biologist Sofie Goormachtig, are communicated through two introductory films.
The uneasy relationship between human and planetary temporalities is the perspective through which Romanian artist Ciprian Mureșan approaches the interwoven layers of the Anthropocene. House Swallowed by a Tomb (2021-22) investigates the process of entropy through which architectural structures degrade over time and consists of models and an accompanying photographic series. The photographs show models of desolate cottages in the Danube Delta, which are constructed of natural materials and are gradually being reabsorbed into the environment. Paper models depict the remains of a communist era prison located in the same remote region, the concrete walls of which are more durable, but in the long run are subject to the same characteristics of ephemerality as organic matter. The work, which arose in dialogue with conservationist Sanneke Stigte, opens up questions of the preservation of contemporary artworks and the need to consider the longevity of synthetic materials that also degrade over time.
Slovenian artist Maja Smrekar’s !bruteforce is an artistic research platform that facilitates intersections between humans, dogs, artificial intelligence and soft robotics. The “!” symbol in the title renders it as “non-brute force”, pointing to a rejection of the remorseless automism of artificial intelligence, which proceeds by trying all possible paths. Her work explores and critiques the role of digital technologies in mapping the physiological activities of the human subject, such as through fitness watches connected to the cloud. The artist disrupts their anthropocentric logic by introducing the data of canine protagonists into its registers. In the most recent iteration of this complex project, which was realized in close collaboration with biorobotics researcher Jonas Jørgensen, the data of canine-human vital signs are transformed into an undulating kinetic landscape.
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