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Posts from the ‘Essay | Text’ Category

Conflict Minerals: extractive capitalism and its costs

Grasberg mine, West Papua

Extractive capitalism has spread over our world with a rapacious force.  From the mineral-rich Congo to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, USA, from deep-sea seismic oil surveys in the melting Arctic ocean to the vast fracking fields of Pennsylvania, there is nowhere remote, forbidding or beautiful enough to keep out the insatiable propagation of the minerals and fossil fuel industries, fuelled by our energy-hungry, networked, consumer-focused, waste-generating lifestyles.

Conflict Minerals is a month-long exhibition and inquiry, taking place at Arts Catalyst’s centre in King’s Cross, into the human and environmental impacts of extractive capitalism, specifically the mining and minerals trade. It continues my long-standing interest in the planetary commons as an underlying conceptual framework for artists’ engagement with stewardship of the earth’s natural resources and governance of transnational domains (such as the deep seas, polar regions and outer space), and considers whether we can usefully speak of a geological commons.

Centering on two artists’ projects by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway and by Nabil Ahmed, each at a different stage of development, and through a programme of discussions and workshops, Conflict Minerals looks at how the extractive industries affect people and ecologies in areas where mines are sited, and considers more broadly how the mining industry and minerals trade are materially and economically intertwined with our own technologised, networked lives. Against concerns about the destructive aspects of mining are arguments for the industry as a path to broader development, but what are the benefits and what are the payoffs for people living in those regions and communities where concentrations of natural “critical materials” are found?

While the term “conflict minerals” is usually associated with the situation in Congo, where the mining of valuable minerals fuels violence and armed conflict, the artists’ works and research in this exhibition reveal that, across the globe, different scales of conflict and tension are unfolding in countries and communities that are inextricably connected to the extraction of geological resources. Through the exhibition and programme of events, we will explore the different ways in which artists approach these subjects – including methods of inquiry, aesthetics, exposure, and tactics of resistance – and how their work can help to build our understanding of how geopolitical and Anthropocenic forces manifest on a local level: in environments, communities, and between people.

Film still, Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016), Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway’s film Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016) is a work-in-progress, forming the first part of the artists’ long-term investigation into the conflicts facing the small, mostly indigenous, community of Narsaq in southern Greenland. Narsaq is located next to the pristine Kvanefjeld mountain, the site of one of the richest rare earth mineral resources deposits in the world, and one of the largest sources of uranium. The film offers glimpses of the painful community divisions that can occur when people are swept up in forces beyond their experience, in this case the decision being taken whether to allow a multinational mining company to begin mining in Kvanefjeld. Greenland Minerals and Energy (an Australian-owned company) propose to create an open-pit mine, expected to process over 100 million tons of ore in the coming decades. The mine would be the fifth-largest uranium mine and second-biggest rare earth extraction operation in the world.

Film still, Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld (2016), Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway

Greenland is a former colony of Denmark, an island of 56,000 people living across an area of 2.1 million square kilometres. Since the 1960s a movement of anti-colonialist nationalism has grown in the country and it is now recognised as an “autonomous administrative division” of Denmark, supported economically by the Danish state. Many people see exploitation of mineral deposits as the only viable route to full independence for the country. For generations, the farming near Kvanefjeld has been Greenland’s only agricultural industry. This way of life will be profoundly changed should the mine go ahead, transforming the local area, its culture and landscape. Autogena and Portway’s film portrays a community divided on the issue of uranium mining, and speaks to people in the community struggling with painful emotions that they find difficult to express in a culture that is non-confrontational. It explores the difficult decisions and trade-offs faced by a culture seeking to escape a colonial past and define its own identity in a globalised world.

Autogena and Portway’s position at the start of their inquiry echoes the Greenlandic people’s situation at the beginning of an uncertain social, political and environmental experiment. Artist and researcher Nabil Ahmed, by contrast, presents “spatial evidence” from his research into a situation that has evolved over decades: the conflicts around the Grasberg mine in Papua. Here, the conflicts manifest as violent confrontations between the mine’s Indonesian security forces and local Papuans, direct attacks on the mine’s workers, and anger – both local and international – towards the mine’s immense damage to this rich, bio diverse environment.

Installation (detail), INTERPRT (2017), Nabil Ahmed

Ahmed initiated The Inter-Pacific Ring Tribunal (INTERPRT), a collective commission of inquiry, whose long-term goal is to support legal processes taken by people of the Pacific Rim against environmental destruction by corporations and governments, by gathering spatial evidence and hosting a series of alternative tribunals to debate and test “ecocide” (the deliberate destruction of the natural environment) as a viable legal instrument. In the research exhibition for Conflict Minerals, INTERPRT presents visually powerful spatial evidence – maps, animation, drawings, models, and archival material – gathered over three years on the case of ecocide in West Papua, a militarised territory, the site of a long-term conflict between Indonesia and Papuans seeking self-determination. Central to the conflict is the Grasberg mine, which contains the planet’s largest combined reserve of copper and gold. Since the late 1970s, Freeport, the transnational company that operates the mine, has been dumping as much as 200,000 tonnes of mine waste, known as tailings, every day directly into the Aikwa delta. The practice has devastated the environment, turning thousands of hectares of forest and mangroves into wasteland. The company has controversial security arrangements with the Indonesian military, which commits severe human rights violations and suppresses political free speech. International journalists, humanitarian workers, and researchers face restricted movement in the region, requiring remote methods of visualising and reporting on the conflict.

LANDSAT 8 false colour composite display, Grasberg mine tailings contamination of river system, INTERPRT

INTERPRT’s analysis of the spatial evidence is based on human rights reports, corporate financial data, and freely available remote sensing imagery, oriented towards building a case of ecocide committed by Freeport and potentially the Indonesian state, that demonstrates the deliberate destruction of Papuan social, cultural, and natural environments.

Through a programme of events during Conflict Minerals *, we will draw out themes of conflict and culture, mining and demonology, and the geology of media, as well as progressing the artists’ projects, both of which are process-based and long-term, and developing discourse with other artists, curators and researchers from different fields around conflict, geological extraction and artistic practice.

Time permitting, I plan to update with a further blogpost later in the inquiry.

Conflict Minerals runs from 23 March – 22 April, open Thu – Sat, 12-6pm, at Arts Catalyst’s Centre for Art, Science & Technology, 74-76 Cromer Street, London WC1H 8DR.

Kuannersuit; Kvanefjeld was commissioned by Arts Catalyst as part of the Nuclear Culture research programme, led by Associate Curator Ele Carpenter, a partnership with Goldsmiths College London.

INTERNT collaborators and supporters: Nabil Ahmed, Olga Lucko, Michael Alonzo, Jamon van den Hoek, Sandor Mulsow, Linz Wilbur, International Lawyers for West Papua (Netherlands branch), Akademie Schloss Solitude, Forensic Architecture, OCA Norway and TBA21 Academy.

CONFLICT MINERALS EVENTS PROGRAMME

Conflict, Culture and Song: Jack Tan, Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway
Fri 24 March 2017, 6:30-8:30pm (Doors open 6pm). £5, booking essential

Artist Jack Tan’s project Karaoke Court is a legally-binding karaoke dispute resolution process that draws on Greenlandic Inuit traditions of song duels, used to settle disputes. Tan will be in conversation with Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway.

Metallurgy, Demonology & Materiality: Melanie Jackson & Angus Cameron
Sat 1 April 2017, 2-3:30pm. Free, booking essential

Artist Melanie Jackson and writer Angus Cameron discuss the demons that have populated the shafts and galleries of mines around the world through history.

Conflict Minerals and Artistic Practice – A Workshop
Wed 5 April 2017, 2-6pm. Free, booking essential

In this workshop, we will explore different ways in which artistic and cultural practices contribute to our understanding of the relationship between geological natural resources (their extraction and distribution) and conflict. Artists, curators and researchers who would like to present their research and work as part of this workshop should email a brief outline with a biography to director@artscatalyst.org by Wednesday 29 March.

The Geology of Media: Jussi Parikka 
Wed 19 April 2017, 6:30-7:30pm (Doors open 6pm). £5, booking essential.

Exploring the resource depletion and material resourcing required for us to use our devices to live networked lives, media theorist Parikka argues that, to adequately understand contemporary media culture, we must set out from material realities that precede media – Earth’s history, geological formations, minerals, and energy.

Open Meeting: Inter-Pacific Ring Tribunal (INTERPRT)
22/23 April – More details to be announced

 

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All at sea

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Let us talk about oceans.  About resilience. About the sailor.

During the past week, I have had the joy of spending three days with a large group of oceanographers and other scientists and artists interested in the state of our seas. The theme of this year’s NAKFI conference, intended to foster interdisciplinary research, was ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Beginning on the evening of the US presidential election result announcement, there was a sense of despair among the participants – from the prospects for climate change mitigation with a denier as president-elect to a deep fear about the future of academic research and science. However, by the end of our three days together, we had generated an array of new ideas, both for new research into the mesopelagic zone of the ocean (the specific focus of the conference) and for how to engage more people with ocean science and conservation, as well as a powerful sense of community and of direction around a shared matter of concern.

Part of the magic was that we all stayed in a hotel on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the sound of endless rolling waves during our evenings together giving a powerful sense of place. It was unsurprising perhaps that there were so many sailors at this conference (as well as surfers, swimmers and divers). It seems that lovers of the sea like to encounter it in embodied as well as intellectual ways. This is my understanding of the sea: the smell of salt, the sting of spray, the power of the waves, the shifting winds and cloud shadows.

Philip Steinberg suggests that, if we wish to appreciate the ocean fully, we need to engage with its material, dynamic and aqueous nature, with its creatures and flora, as well as its political and economic role and connections and its poetic and metaphorical role in human culture. We need to think about it in ways that incorporate its endless flux of diverse elements: non-human and human, biological and geophysical, historic and contemporary. How better to do that than in the company of ocean scientists who study its ecosystems, flows and inhabitants?

ocean_like_deep_space_2_by_brenli-d2xq620

Michel Foucault writes of the ship as an “other” space, one that operates socially and culturally in a very different way from most spaces: “… the boat has been for our civilisation, not only the greatest instrument of economic development, but also the greatest reservoir of imagination …. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage replaces adventure, and the police the pirates”. This conference was our small boat. More ‘sandpit’ than conference, it took a broadly open space structure this year, with people forming and reforming their own groups around ideas, thematically focused on the changing conditions of the mesopelagic zone. Extending from around 200 to 1000 metres below the ocean surface, where light is dim, the mesopelagic is home to many creatures: microorganisms, many species of fish, and other semi-deep sea animals. With so much life, the mesopelagic plays a significant role in global carbon cycling and so is critical in our changing climate.

My small group gathered around the topic of resilience: what does it mean and how is it measured? Resilience in ecology is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb or withstand disturbances or other stressors, enabling it to resist damage and recover quickly. As people depend on ecosystems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live, resilience is also a property of these interlinked social-ecological systems. And it seems that cooperation and diversity (a mix of expertise) are key to resilient systems. It was impossible not to relate – if only metaphorically – our discussions of the resilience of organisms in the mesopelagic zone to our own resilience in the face of the enormous pressures and disruptions facing human society.

Mark Dion, The Trouble With Jellyfish (2016)

Mark Dion, The Trouble With Jellyfish (2016)

Being so close to the sea made me think about the sailor, and of a sailing friend of mine whom we lost recently, the artist Nathalie Magnan.

In 2005, Nathalie and I conceived a project with some other sailing colleagues to follow the migration route across the Mediterranean by sailing boat. Sailing for Geeks 2: Ship to Shore linked Tarifa (Spain) and Tanger (Morocco). In high winds, we sailed across the Straits of Gibralter, entering each country from the sea, cooperating with the processes of immigration control. Even in a strong and well-crewed boat, with a radio, crossing the straits under sail is still dangerous, with its high winds, strong currents and busy shipping channel. As we sailed over the large waves and changed course suddenly at night to avoid a large ship, we felt some sense of what it might be like to cross this zone in one of the “pateras”, the fragile boats of fortune of the illegal migrants. In Tanger, we met two men from an organisation which works with immigrants, trying to give them “a boat for life”: a craft to succeed in Africa, rather than trying to seek happiness over the sea.

The sea means many things to me at this moment: a deeply threatened global commons, a transport arena for our consumer and fossil fuelled society, a mysterious and barely explored territory, a deep world inhabited by other species and intelligences, a contested zone of border crossings, a space of stories, and a place of death and of hope and of resilience.

 

 

sailing4geeks

Nathalie Magnan (centre in headband), me at the wheel behind her (just visible), Ewen Chardronnet (left), Peter the boat owner (right). Sailing for Geeks 2: Ship to Shore. Photo: Jacques Servin

 

This is a memory of a friend who taught me much and a small remembrance of two hundred people who recently died in the Mediterranean. This is also a thanks to the scientists who try to understand and protect our oceans and to the people who help migrants making dangerous crossings. 

Graveyard of Lost Species: a monument for a changing estuary

Boat with engraved letter on its hull on a marsh.

Graveyard of Lost Species, 2016. Photo: Simon Fowler

A few weeks ago, Arts Catalyst launched the Graveyard of Lost Species, a public monument by artists YoHa (Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji) and Critical Art Ensemble in partnership with Arts Catalyst.

Graveyard of Lost Species is an outcome from an ambitious 3-year collaborative inquiry with people of Leigh-on-Sea and Southend on the Thames Estuary. Created from a Thames bawley fishing boat, rescued from the estuary mud by the partners, the names of lost species gathered through research with local people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend, including fishermen, amateur ecologists, divers, walkers, artists, sailors and others, have been laser cut onto its hull and decks. These lost species include not just wildlife and fauna but also – recognising the inter-connections of ecology, industry, society and culture – traditional industries and occupations that have declined or disappeared, as well as objects, words and phrases associated with these. The artwork is dedicated to the people of Leigh and Southend-on-Sea.

The trigger for the collaborative project (its overall title being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone) was YoHa artist Graham Harwood’s observations of the vast industrial infrastructures being constructed along the Thames estuary, where he lives in Leigh-on-Sea, their impact on local people, traditional industries and the estuary’s ecology, and the lack of local voices in these processes.

Traditional marine based industries (such as fishing, cockling and boat building) have for centuries provided employment for communities along the estuary. However, this heritage is rapidly declining. The government and large corporations have devised new schemes for the area, including the London Gateway, the largest deepwater port in the UK, which was under construction when we began the project. Such rapidly changing situations and intense economic interests in the area greatly concern people in local communities, but they feel they have had little or no say. Harwood, Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble) and I, drawing on their artistic practices and my curatorial interest in developing collaborative inquiries that combine art and citizen science, decided to initiate a new project. We wanted to explore whether, by using art as a critical and investigatory tool and working with a growing group of local people, we might be able to make a difference to how people think about the estuary and how it might survive the pressures that face it.

Interior of boat with carved words visible

Graveyard of Lost Species (interior).

From 2013, we have led a set of enquiries with people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend to gather local knowledge of and expertise about what is being lost or is disappearing and what changes are taking places in the area. These began with consultation workshop to ask local people what their concerns were in respect to the new wave of industrialisation of the estuary and the impact on local culture and estuarine ecology. Much of the discussion focused on local concerns about the impact of the super port dredging activity on fish stocks, diversity and the cockle beds, and potential impact of the port’s activity on estuary wildlife, including migrating birds. Another area of discussion was the nature reserve of Two Tree Island, where many local people walk their dogs and forage for blackberries, which is built on a former landfill site that has no records of what was dumped there (as there were no regulations in force at the time).

Two main strands for our inquiry emerged. One was to uncover and highlight local knowledge about the changing ecology, society and industry of the Thames estuary by collecting stories of lost and declining species, and then to create an appropriate public monument to Leigh’s past and future. Kurtz asks: “How do you make a monument that, rather than creating a smooth ideological space in which all people are expected to feel and believe in the same way, instead accounts for difference and allows for the contradictions and conflict of history, that lets all the different voices speak out? It might be a community but there is not unity of story – there are vastly indifferent interpretations of what’s going on.” The artists’ answer was to create an ‘anti-monument’, one that would come apart, like the memories it marked, over time, and return back into the mud.

A second strand of inquiry was to investigate Two Tree Island to try to build up a picture of what might lie under the nature reserve and how toxic it might be, through speaking with people who worked there and by running citizen science workshops, and to develop creative responses to the relationship between people, soil, water and what grows in a polluted environment.

Boat on marsh

Graveyard of Lost Species in situ. Photo: Steve Barnes.

During 2014, with little funding confirmed, the team decided to run some public activities and workshops for local people to get things going, raise awareness of the project and attract participants and contributors. We set up an event at Leigh on Sea Marine Festival at which YoHa and Claudia Lastra with artists Andy Freeman and Fran Gallardo invited visitors to “eat, small and taste the Thames estuary”: tasting estuary vapours through e-cigs, smelling distilled oils from local fauna, and eating delicacies made from foraged and prepared foods from Two Tree Island. Alongside this, Freeman presented several proposed citizen science and monitoring initiatives. Following this event, we offered a series of free public exploratory workshops focused on Two Tree Island. These included a mud walk led by local amateur biologist Paul Huxster, studying eelgrass and cordgrass spatial fluctuations across the tidelands, a digital mapping workshop led by Freeman, introducing participants to a range of citizen science tools and techniques, and a wild eating and foraging workshop led by YoHa and Gallardo, guiding participants through the potential hazards of eating wild herbs, plants and fruits on this former landfill site.

Man sniffing something in the hand of smiling woman

Wrecked team at the Leigh Maritime Festival, 2014

With some funding secured from Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust, activities and investigations were able to unfold in a more structured way in 2015. We invited Critical Art Ensemble to the UK for a month-long residency. Two local artists – Warren Harper and Stuart Bowditch – joined the team as researchers, conducting research with local people, connecting stories and examples of the ‘species’ that once flourished in the Estuary and are now disappearing. Harwood identified a local wreck – the ‘Souvenir’, a 40ft 12-ton Thames bawley grounded on the estuary mudflats. Over the summer, Harwood and Stuart Mchardy cleaned and reconfigured the boat. They sailed it ashore, siting it for its preparation and engraving in a prominent public setting by the shore on Belton Way, the main thoroughfare between Leigh station and the old town, with a large noticeboard outlining the nature of the project and the monument to lost species. The Souvenir attracted the attention of hundreds of interested passers-by, many of whom stopped to share their memories and stories with the artists and researchers.

Gallardo, YoHa, Freeman and Arts Catalyst, supported by the expertise of environmental chemist and food scientist Mark Scrimshaw, led the Two Tree inquiry. We organised a series of public events involving local foods, their source, preparation and consumption, to explore environmental change. Alongside these tastings, citizen science workshops further investigated the traces of waste disposal on Two Tree Island.

This intertwining of contemporary art practice, expert scientific knowledge, citizen science techniques and various forms of local situated knowledge has co-produced, and continues to generate, a significant new knowledge archive about the estuary, as well as generating a public conversation around the many changes to the ecology and community of Leigh on Sea. We are collecting the knowledge archive on a website – http://wrecked.artscatalyst.org/, which includes transcripts of interviews, photographs and short films.

This collective knowledge is now also taking physical and visual form, giving voice to the contributors and giving back to the community, through the public monument Graveyard to Lost Species and a soon-to-be published ecopolitical book of recipes from the local area, co-authored by Gallardo and Claudia Lastra. As the project moves forward, we are looking at other ways in which local views can be creatively expressed and heard in the governance of the estuary.

This summer, with planning permission granted from Southend Council and Natural England for its siting and installation, the Graveyard to Lost Species was sailed back onto Leigh Marshes to become part of the local landscape. With the names of many lost species carved into the boat’s hull, decks and interior, the artwork is visible to the public from the shore, and publicly accessible by foot at low tide, so that visitors can read the text on and inside the boat. It will gradually decay over many years back into the mud.

I hope that you will feel inspired to visit the monument, which is sited a short walk from the road as you enter Two Tree Island coming from Leigh-on-Sea station. Ordnance survey grid reference is TQ 82738 85478.

Further outputs, writing and discourse will continue to unfold over the coming year.

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The active role for culture in a divided nation

Poster showing coastline. Text: No man is an island. No country by itself.

Wolfgang Tillman poster (detail), 2016

A surprising number of people have said to me lately that they don’t know any Leave supporters at all. So I think I should say that Leave voters include members of my family, neighbours, and friends I have met through my non-work related interests.

I’m trying to understand why they voted Leave (which are not uniform, although – yes – immigration is a common theme), even though I disagree passionately with the decision they took. Many people feel ignored and disempowered by the political establishment and were delighted at the chance to say “fuck you” to their recommendations. Others blame different aspects of the EU for their woes – from immigration to the decline of the fishing industry to perceived threats to their culture to a vague fear of “faceless” unaccountable bureaucrats. Others, yes, I think were misled by the lies and propaganda sent out by ambitious, mendacious politicians and promoted by tabloids owned by an anti-EU tycoon. But, as we know, the Remain campaign’s response to those misrepresentations was too late and rather feeble.

In any case, how could complex arguments for our membership of the European Union and the ramifications of withdrawing be explained and conveyed through a campaign motivated by power play and presented as a stark IN/OUT choice? It took me quite a lot of research to understand, even partially, the various ramifications of the decision I was about to take; time which most people don’t have.

Of course, I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the vote. I am desperately worried for all our EU immigrants and visitors – as well as, frankly, anyone with a non-white skin – who appear now to be being openly insulted by loons who have misunderstood this vote as some kind of validation of their racist isolationist ideologies. I am scared for the protection of our environment, deeply concerned for my son, given the work done by the EU to give rights to disabled people, worried about my daughter’s future, and frightened of an extreme right mandate emerging from this. Culturally, I feel European as well as British, English, etc, etc. Selfishly, I don’t want to lose my freedom to travel and work in Europe. But those of us in the Remain ‘camp’ need to understand that we have more in common than we realise with many Leave voters. Particularly those frustrated people in communities who feel left behind by economic growth, their industries decimated by Thatcher, their community spirit and personal wellbeing shat on by so-called “austerity” policies, (sparked by banking idiocy, in which they played no part, and a political ideology that they probably didn’t vote for) and their voices totally ignored. Remainers state their bafflement at communities who appear to have scorned the EU’s investment in their communities. But handouts from the EU don’t rebuild community spirit and pride.

As for the demographic analysis of who was IN and who was OUT: it’s helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I fall into a number of OUT demographics. I am not a young person and I live in a small town that voted to leave (“Little England”). Conversely, Leave voters include many whom we assume would vote Remain: immigrants – both EU and non-EU -, people with degrees, academics, socialists, artists, scientists, young people, disabled people, those who care about the environment, Londoners, Scottish people, and people in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Leave camp also includes people with whom I would find very little in common, and those with whom I would find it pretty impossible to have a fact-based tolerant conversation, but I’m just saying there are many with whom we can talk.

I believe that leaving the EU and the single market is bad news for us all. We are all victims of a political and media campaign of over-simplification, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lies, sparked by an internal party political struggle. Handing power to those who don’t believe in the welfare state, nor in rebuilding and investing in communities left out in the cold by the UK’s economic growth, and who intend to dismantle the NHS, is not something that many Leave voters intended.

I am not being an apologist for the bigotry, racism and violence that emerged during the campaigning and since the vote. It is disgusting and shocking. Yet I hope we may prevent further division and bolster the tolerance and openness that still exists across our society. Somehow, we need to find a new political conversation that is more informed, kinder, more inclusive and nuanced, before we head down this road of no turning back and find ourselves in a more divided world than the one we already live in. This conversation is going to be desperately needed, whether we proceed with Article 50 and leave the EU, or (and perhaps even more so) if the desperate attempts to circumvent it are successful or the whole thing is fudged.

How does art and culture play a role here?

I’m not sure that we will get this new conversation, this lead, this honesty, from politicians. With one or two honorable exceptions, they are still – 3 days after the referendum – hiding in their sixth form common rooms, squabbling about who is going to be head prefect. We can, of course, keep lobbying them, hoping they will eventually get their shit together. And as for the EU leaders baying for our exit before the dust has even settled on this momentous (and advisory) referendum, how unhelpful and divisive can you get? Shame on them as representatives of a united Europe.

But party politics and policy, in any case, change back and forth with the prevailing wind. Our role in the arts is to affect and change culture. This is more permanent. We need to make work within the communities that are not in the major cities and who are not the usual audiences. We need to make work and open conversations around complex issues such as migration, race, climate and environmental change, the commons, how to nurture health and a sense of well being, and disability rights. We need to work with scientists, other experts and communities to do this: we need informed conversations. But even more than this, we need to create new visions of the tolerant, progressive, inclusive society we could be. We need to seed hope. Art, as ever, has a role to play.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

– John Donne

 

Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in London

Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, London. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, London. Photo: Alec Steadman

I’ve been back in the UK for the opening of Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology in King’s Cross London, an exciting initiative for Arts Catalyst after more than twenty years pioneering art that engages with science and technology in society. In those two decades, we have commissioned over 13o artists’ projects and many exhibitions, presented in partnership with galleries, museums and other spaces across the UK and internationally. So what has driven us to set up our own Centre now?

At Arts Catalyst we remain committed, since our very first projects in 1994, to enabling and promoting artists who are investigating topics relating to contemporary science and technology and its interplay with society and the environment. Our mission is to commission and exhibit artworks that challenge our contemporary science and technology saturated society to reflect on its present shape and consider the future. We want to prompt artists, scientists, participants and audiences to ask fresh questions, explore new ideas and perspectives, and co-produce alternative solutions.

Underpinning our work is a belief that the most compelling challenges facing society, including stewardship of the planet’s natural resources, healthcare for all, future energy choices and managing emerging technologies (such as human gene editing), need transdisciplinary approaches and the voices of many diverse stakeholders. We see artistic projects as catalysts to serendipitous ideas and new directions for research, and for opening dynamic public conversations about the challenges of our changing world.

Centre2_AS

In recent years, we have keenly felt the need to have a physical space where artists and scientists can meet to experiment and generate new projects and ideas, and where we can enable more frequent direct interactions between artists, experts and audiences. We also want to use the Centre as a site for consolidation and reflection on our work further afield. Over the past decade, our investigative interests have often engaged with the ‘global commons’: those transnational realms such as outer space, the polar regions, the atmosphere, the oceans, and Earth’s biodiversity. Now we are keen to investigate the ‘commons’ – the idea that certain cultural and natural resources should be accessible to all members of a society, held in common and not owned privately – closer to home, in London and the UK.

Our opening project presents some of these themes. ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practice in Art and Science’ explores art as an investigative social process and experience, and reflects on science in this light too. The exhibition is built around two key elements: our ongoing art and citizen science project, led by artists YoHa and Critical Art Ensemble, with communities on the Thames Estuary – Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, alongside a presentation of the Arte Util Archive, a project initiated by artist Tania Bruguera, that chronicles the history of art as a useful tool or tactic for changing how we act in society.

Wrecked on the Inter-tidal Zone - installation shot. Photo: Alec Steadman

Wrecked on the Inter-tidal Zone – installation shot. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

The exhibition activated by talks, workshops, and resident researchers, exploring the contention that art – and science – should work collectively within society to be more useful. Contributing artists and scientists include Alistair Hudson, Co-Director of the Arte Util Association, Graham Harwood, artist from YoHa, Kit Jones from the Centre for Alternative Technology, Dimitri Launder, ‘the artist-gardener’, Dr Sylvia Nagl, transdisciplinary complexity scientist, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead from the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, design-activist Lisa Ma, artist Fernando Garcia-Dory, Sue Hull, Co-Director of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, hacker and electronic engineer Paolo Cavagnolo, artist and technologist Andy Freeman, and artist researcher Fran Gallardo.

Lisa Ma Workshop in Notes from the Field. Photo: Alec Steadman

Lisa Ma Workshop in Notes from the Field. Photo: Alec Steadman

During the exhibition, we will be contributing to the Arte Util Archive, proposing projects particularly relating to the archive sections ‘Science’, ‘Technology’ and ‘Environment’, both from Arts Catalyst’s back catalogue and further afield. Projects we have proposed for inclusion in the archive so far include Biosphere 2, Makrolab, East of Eden, Arctic Perspective Initiative, Open Sailing, and Aerocene.’

The criteria of Arte Util state that initiatives should:
1- Propose new uses for art within society
2- Challenge the field within which it operates (civic, legislative, pedagogical, scientific, economic, etc)
3- Be ‘timing specific’, responding to current urgencies
4- Be implemented and function in real situations
5- Replace authors with initiators and spectators with users
6- Have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users
7- Pursue sustainability whilst adapting to changing conditions
8- Re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation

We invite you to drop in, view the exhibition, chat to resident researchers, join talks and workshops, and propose projects for the archive yourself.

Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science is on until 12 March at Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology, 74-76 Cromer Street. London WC1H 8DR. On Thursday 18 February, artist Fernando Garcia-Dory presents a discussion and workshop on his Bionic Sheep project, part of the Arte Util Archive. You can also propose projects for the Arte Util Archive directly on their website.

Arte Util Archive, Arts Catalyst Centre installation. Photo: Alec Steadman

Arte Util Archive, installation at Arts Catalyst Centre. Photo: Alec Steadman

Trust and the taste of flesh: the ethics of Martin O’Brien’s zombie performance

Naked man on a chain leans towards laughing woman as if to bit her

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The first three articles from the Trust Me, I’m an Artist project (funded by Creative Europe) have just been published online, which gives me an excuse to reflect back on the subject of all three texts – Martin O’Brien’s Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, which Arts Catalyst commissioned earlier this year, curated by Jareh Das.

The series Trust Me I’m an Artist seeks to address the isolation of artistic activities from the regulatory frameworks that both contain science, medicine and biotechnology but also provide guidance and clarity for activities in those fields. The conventions and understanding that scientists bring to their work concerning safe or ethical practices are formed during their training and research within institutional settings over years. Artists who engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science are generally unlikely to share these norms and rules because of their different training, knowledge and culture.

A pilot series of Trust Me I’m an Artist events, which included Neal White’s The Void at Arts Catalyst, placed artists in front of an ‘ethics committees’ to present their proposals and allow the committee to discuss them, which could then approve or reject the proposal, or – in the case of White’s The Void – decide that their remit did not enable them to reach a decision. In the Creative Europe funded series, the format is more flexible, enabling broader questions to be raised around issues of risk and audience consent, the interplay of fiction and factual accuracy in relation to science, the responsibility of the curator (to artist and audience), and the different institutional frameworks and cultures of art and science, as discussed in an introductory text to the project by artist Anna Dumitriu, biomedical ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides and curator Annick Bureaud.

Main in straightjacket and rubber mask smears green paint with his head while people look on

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

Martin O’Brien’s performance emerged, as does much of his work, from his experience of living with cystic fibrosis, the impact of the medical interventions he receives and the reactions from others towards his illness and symptoms. In this new durational live art work, he turned his attention to the fear of contamination associated with the sick body, playing with depictions of the zombie in popular culture and highlighting recent public anxiety around the risk of infection, which O’Brien discusses beautifully in his text Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology

The three-hour durational performance took place at the White Building, London. The staging was reminiscent of an emergency medical tent or quarantine centre. Clear plastic was stretched over a wooden frame creating a room within a room. As people arrived, they were briefed on the nature of the performances, and invited to put on protective wear for their clothes. Upon entering the performance area, one met small groups of people huddled in the corners of the space. All watched intently as the artist, wearing a straitjacket and mask, chained to a pole in the centre of the space, struggled on his hands and knees to dip his head in a bowl of green paint and then arduously paint a spiral around the enclosure. As the length of chain increased, the spiral enlarged moving the artist further from the centre and closer to the audience and eventually forcing them to move away to avoid being painted. Over the course of the next four hours, Martin undertook a series of actions which explored interaction and changing power relationships between performer and audience, focusing on the idea of contagion, all the time chained to the pole and semi-naked, often circling the room, making people move around to avoid him and the moving chain. These actions included coughing up mucus and blowing bubbles from the mucus in people’s faces, piercing his lips with a needle drawing blood, and biting members of the audience (with their complicity, as it was easy to move away) and inviting the audience to bite him in return. Over the course of the performance, the audience’s reactions moved from discomfort, disgust, pain, concern and awkwardness to laughter, participation and relaxation, and back again.

Chained man bites laughing woman

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The Arts Catalyst team conducted exit interviews with audience members. Many of the responses centred on the act of watching and participating in the performance, and commented on the shift of mood during the performance, from seriousness and unease to laughter, empathy and connection, even a sense of camaraderie. Several spoke of their feeling of the artist’s generosity in sharing and enduring pain or hardship.

The performance was following by a discussion event, which featured a specially convened ethics committee of Professor Karen Lowton, Dr Gianna Bouchard, and Lois Keidan, director of the Live Art Development Agency, chaired by Professor Bobbie Farsides. Issues discussed included audience consent, particularly around the biting, the power of the performer in this situation and how this related to the participation of the audience.

As a commissioner of the work, as well as obvious health and safety issues that had to be addressed before the performance – from paint fumes in an enclosed space to a whirling chain, to the risks of the artist letting blood and potentially being in contact with audience members (1) – there were many other issues of concern for me in terms of both the artist and the audience’s safety and well-being. While I felt a lot of trust in the artist as a highly experienced performer, he was placing himself in a position of both vulnerability and power during the performance. Given the actions, in particular the act of biting, I was concerned about the impact on and reaction from audience members. In her text, the curator of the work Jareh Das reflects on the ethics of extreme live art, addressing the limits of ‘watchability’, ‘bearability’ and what ‘informed consent’ means in terms of audience members and how much information can and should be given to them in advance.

In the past, I have shied away from commissioning live art performances in which the artist hurts or causes injury to themselves (piercing, etc), not from any sense of disapproval or lack of interest in the artform, but because of the ethical dilemma – for me – of commissioning (i.e. paying) someone to commit these acts on themselves. I have also learned that, in the act of performance, the frameworks and restrictions that you have put in place may not work, or may sometimes be transgressed, and then the question of whether or not to intervene.

With the long tradition of live art, these are not new ethical considerations and dilemmas and they have been extensively discussed in that arena. However, it is useful to situate what are often represented as ‘new’ ethical dilemmas of emerging art practices (i.e. those engaging with science and medicine) within art historical contexts that have long addressed complex ethical and social issues and learn from them.

Trust Me I’m an Artist is an ongoing series of projects aimed at investigating the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions. involved. Institutional partners are: Waag Society Amsterdam, Arts Catalyst London, Capsula Helsinki, Ciant Prague, Kapelica Gallery Ljubliana, Leonardo Olats Paris and Medical Museion Copenhagen.

 

  1. We were careful to alert people to this aspect of the performance, so that those with compromised immune systems or who had cystic fibrosis did not come into the performance, however there remained an element of risk.

 

Man paints spiral of green paint with his head in enclosed performance space

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The performance (and performativity) of science

B&W photo. Man dressed as giant butterfly

Jan Fabre, A Consilience, 2000. With Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology, Natural History Museum

The text of short talk that I gave at DASER in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, as part of a themed event on science and performance (you can also watch it here – and see the other speakers’ talks):

Whilst the Arts Catalyst’s work is primarily situated in the visual arts, we see our work – the artistic outputs of our work – as ‘experiences’, in which the medium itself is not the main criteria. I would like to look at three projects that the Arts Catalyst has commissioned, which centre on or incorporate performance as an artform or tactic, and to discuss them through the lens of ‘performativity’, a term which has increasingly entered the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades.

Previously used primarily within theatre and the performing arts, the term ‘performance’ – or the notion of ‘performativity’ is now often employed as a principle to understand human behaviour. The notion that we ‘perform’ our role in society has roots in the 1940s and 50s in the writings of scholars such as Erving Goffman, who in his highly influential book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), emphasized the link between social life and performance. In the 1990s, Judith Butler famously theorized gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. Scholars interested in the notion of performativity stress the active, social construction of reality, as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs.

The concept of performativity in the social sciences sprang from its use by the language philosopher J L Austin, who argued against the predominant view in philosophy at the time (1970s): that the chief business of sentences was to state facts. In particular, he described a type of sentence, ‘performative utterances’, which perform a certain kind of action (such as ‘I name this ship …’). This concept of ‘performativity’ has been picked up, developed and extended by theorists across many disciplines. It has broadly come to be used to describe theories, models or activities that affect and are affected by their actions, rather than being objective observations or truths.

In the study of science, until recently, experiment – science’s interaction with the world – was viewed as something secondary to theory and technology was barely theorised at all. But a new generation of historians and philosophers have pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. In the 1990s, Andrew Pickering argued that studies of science should go beyond science-as-knowledge to include the material, social and temporal dimensions of science [1]. Rather than seeing scientists as ‘disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations’, he suggests that we should start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency.

Two artists, one dressed as a beetle the other as a fly, converse

Jan Fabre & Ilya Kabakov, Eeen Ontmoeting/A Meeting

From the earliest days of the Arts Catalyst, I have been interested in commissioning art, in any medium, that reflects this ‘performative turn’, exploring how scientists shape society, culture and the world and are also shaped by them, rather than art that simply represents scientific discoveries or technologies.

The first project I want to speak about, Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, we were inspired to commission when my colleague at the time Rob La Frenais interviewed the Belgian artist Jan Fabre and returned to the UK to show me a film that Fabre had made with the famous Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, in which Fabre represents the world of the beetle, and Kabakov the realm of the fly.

We invited Fabre to undertake a residency at the Natural History Museum in London, a working scientific research institution as well as, of course, a world-famous public museum. He proposed to interview senior entomologists, each to be costumed in the guise of the insect of the scientist’s focus of study. Fabre himself was an amateur entomologist. To our surprise, the scientists not only agreed to participate, but there was such enthusiasm that we practically had to hold casting sessions.

In the end, five scientists, including the Keeper of Entomology Professor Dick Vane-Wright and the Deputy Keeper Dr Rory Post, took part in a series of conversations held in the museum’s extraordinary backstage collections. As well as discussing their scientific interest in the subject, each was happy to ‘perform’ a number of physical actions of the insects of their field of study. Through this, the film – shown in the museum as a two-screen installation – played on the notion of how the insects and their behaviours act on the humans who study them, as much as being purely the objects of scientific curiosity.

Extracts from Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, 2000, featuring Professor Dick Vane-Wright

In my second example, we brokered and facilitated a collaboration between the French dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois and the multidisciplinary scientific Biodynamics Group at Imperial College London. They worked together from 2000 and 2005, studying control and movement of the body in weightlessness, including a number of zero gravity flights with the European Space Agency and the Russian Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, that we organised.

This work led to installations, performances, films and scientific papers, as well as a published scientific paper and a whole new area of scientific research for the Biodynamics Group.

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (video extract), 2000

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (performance), 2003

In the spirit Pickering’s introduction of a ‘performative image of science, which aimed to rebalance our understanding of science away from an obsession with pure knowledge and towards recognising science’s material powers, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – in their book Laboratory Life – suggest that the aim of science is not to provide facts or representation about nature but rather to ‘perform’ it [2]. Among their cast of actors are the new products of science, such as genetically modified organisms.

In the US group Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory performance GenTerra (2002), performed as part of Arts Catalyst’s CleanRooms exhibition, audience members could grow and own a sample of transgenic bacteria and, after an intensive learning experience, make their own decision on the ‘release’ of transgenic organisms into the environment.

Since the 1970s, spectacularly rapid developments in the biological sciences have become a source of concern as well as excitement. Many scientists warn of the dangers of commercial pressures to push forward with biotechnology, a technique that contains many unknowns and many defects, leading to real and possible dangers to our health and to the ecosystem.

Man in white coat shows petri dishes of bacteria on release device to young boy

Critical Art Ensemble, GenTerra, 2003

Critical Art Ensemble’s work from 1993 to around 2006 sought to expose misinformation about biotechnology that came from such sources as market directives and science fiction. As few people have direct experience of working with biotechnology, the subject can seem abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. A key Critical Art Ensemble tactic therefore was to bring this science out of the lab and stage it in the public domain – giving people direct experience of common scientific processes and reliable information on a one to one basis.

The artists’ projects described above give present a few brief examples of how tactics of ‘performing science’ can focus attention on science’s ‘performativity’: on science as a series of actions that affect the world.

(This talk drew on an essay I wrote about Critical Art Ensemble’s work for the book: ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ in Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies and Rachel Zerihan, Published by Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (Princeton University Press, 1986).

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