ARTISTS AND SCIENTISTS AS EXTRAMOPHILES: EXTREME ENIVRONMENTS AND ECOLOGY

28 02 2009

By MATT RATTO and BRONAC FERRAN

The conference call and associated texts ask us to reflect on extreme environments and the extremophiles that inhabit them, understanding such things as indicators and vectors for the mutations that constitute biological change. The goal of our presentation is to extend this concept, to use the language of mutamorphosis,to link biological, environmental and cultural change and to explore how shifts in the space of the artist studio are occurring in the context of social and scientific exploration within their work. Referencing the work of two London based artists – Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist, as well as an emerging project being developed in northeast Brasil, we explore the notion that artist-scientists are increasingly becoming extremophiles, in the sense that many of them are seeking extreme natural and cultural environments in which to develop their work. In doing so we suggest a renewal of engagement by these artists with the notion of crisis – a pointwhere it becomes critical, in their view, to assert the presence of art and artists within conditions of social and environmental change. Often the goal of these artist-scientists is to imagine and achieve beneficial environmental, ecological and cultural impact . But this is by no means a given. If “science looks and observes and art see and foresees,” (Gabo, 1937:9) what can the combining of these disciplines mean in the context of extreme conditions?

FOREWORD: POLITICAL THOUGHT: IS EVERYTHING BECOMING MORE EXTREME?

The world may be becoming more extreme and more accessible. We may be losing our boundary conditions. The recent descent by Russia onto the seabed below the melting ice at the North Pole illustrated in a highly topical way the extent to which previously inaccessible (and therefore unknowable) extremes of the earth are not just being discovered, but are also becoming subject to human intervention and even – as in this case – political branding. What also was interesting about this probe was that the justification offered was ‘research’. An extreme act requiring a great deal of scientific and technological preparation and execution, it also raises the possibility – if not the likelihood – that the melting of the ice cap will lead to both political and environmental crisis. As is increasingly recognized by scientists, politicians, and lay public alike, the world currently faces issues related to unsustainable cultures and the problem of fragile environments. What are appropriate and inappropriate actions – and interventions – in such contexts? What do we make of this point of change? How do science and art relate to the complex inter-relations of nature and culture such as those described by Roger Malina?

We indeed need to replace the Gaia myth with a realization of the fragility and ever changing ecosystems of which we are a part. (Malina, 2007).

We suggest that addressing two forms of extremity – global climate change and socio-economic impoverishment – increasingly requires a re-negotiation of the distance of art and science from the ground; a movement of both the studio and the laboratory into the very environments studied and a collaboration with the organisms and individuals it purports to effect. We suggest that the movement of these artists from the safety of established contexts – while by no means new – is indicative in its shift of pace and methodologies of engagement of an intense desire to imaginatively occupy a space beyond the known and in doing so to activate and achieve change. However, as the Russian expedition described above makes clear, investigation and engagement may well have negative as well as potentially positive consequences. Artist-scientists as extremophiles might then occupy a space of paradox, as in the biological world, where what might look like a stunted tree or plant surviving on minimum nourishment is in fact doing fine by its own standards. Like this tree, artist-scientists, having won through against all the odds, begin now to establish their own condition of normality – and over time can build new ecosystems, for other living things will follow those who lead. At the point of boundary breaking and making – in cultural forms as elsewhere – we see new conditions of normality emerge.

In this short paper we draw particularly on the work of two visionary and research-based artists, Jo Joelson and Bruce Gilchrist, otherwise known as London Fieldworks – a name indicative and illustrative of their approach to their practice. We start by describing two of their projects Little Earth and Outlandia; and also discuss a new initiative called The Human Project in Sergipe, a region in northeast Brasil, with which they have recently become involved. The first project brought together art and science fields and involved artists and scientists in collaboration; the second project involves establishment of a field station – an art and environment/ecology initiative aimed at creating tree houses as studios for artists within a site of designated natural beauty (and hence highly protected) in the Fort William area of Scotland. The third project we survey seeks to use art, science, technology, education and business methods to intervene in a context in northeast Brasil which is extremely challenging from an economic as well as ecological perspective.

LONDON FIELDWORKS

London Fieldworks1 have characterised their own practice as “a poetic interpretation of the narratives of science, an inherently collaborative, cross-disciplinary enquiry into how data from human experience and natural phenomena are interpreted and manifested in both art and science.”2 Their projects demonstrate a particular mode of engagement that blends aspects of art and science in ways that link a variety of domains of knowledge that are typically kept distinct. In their work, narrative, truth, fiction, scientific data and hypotheses, life stories and ecological histories are intertwined in productive and socially pragmatically useful ways.

LITTLE EARTH

In Little Earth, London Fieldworks explore the work of two Victorian-era scientists, both of whom carried out atmospheric observations in remote and extreme locales; CTR Wilson, whose experiences at the Ben Nevis mountain observatory in Scotland would later inform his work on subatomic particles, and Kristian Birkeland, who studied auroral phenomenon at the Haldde and Talvik observatories in Norway. Both scientists shared a willingness to address extreme phenomenon and to do so in extreme environments. For London Fieldworks, it is the experiences of these scientists that are of paramount importance. Their study of Wilson and Birkeland is therefore not only a purely historical description, but engages with these experiences in multiple ways and through multiple forms. Leveraging narrative, film-making and sculptural expression, they attempt to convey how these scientists existed on the cusp between early naked-eye observational science and more modern, instrument-based, mediated practices and thereby interacted with nature in novel ways.

The choice of these scientists is not happenstance. In addition to being figures that bridged the gap between Victorian and modern science, both scientists ultimately invented apparatus that had field-changing effects. Wilson’s cloud chamber provided the means to visualize sub-atomic particles, and Birkeland’s terrella allowed him and others to explore and simulate complex electromagnetic phenomena. While Wilson focused on the sub-atomic and Birkeland on the planetary – phenomena far removed from each other in terms of scale – both scientists provided new means for making previously little-known natural phenomena perceptible and understandable. London Fieldworks note that despite their experiences at Ben Nevis and Haldde, these two scientists through their invention of new scientific apparatus helped create the current focus on “big science” leaving, as they say ”…the diminutive naked-eye observers far behind.” (London Fieldworks, 2005:8).

The issue of perception and its relation to embodiment and representation is what links London Fieldworks’ multiple retellings of the Wilson and Birkeland stories. Rather than consisting of a linear narrative, their interest is in exploring the interconnections between these stories in ways that ”…create a dialogue between people, places, and events.” (London Fieldworks, 2005:30). One way Little Earth accomplished this was through an event that emphasized the continuities and discontinuities between the two projects. This event, a “twinning ceremony” held on October 2, 2004, included demonstrations of the apparatus invented by Wilson and Birkeland, and the retelling of their stories through photographs, notebooks, journals, and letters. As Jeni Walwin notes in her description of the ceremony, the event was marked by the inclusion of music from Scottish and Sami (the indigenous population in the Haldde region of Norway,) cultures, both intending to convey the experience of the landscapes in each region. Describing the Joiks, a traditional Sami song-style, performed by Marit Haetta Overli during the ceremony, Walwin writes:

The deep sonorous moments and joyful calls of her second joik transported us to Haldde Mountain, celebrating the particular quality of the northern lights and filling the museum with sparkling echo and low reverberation. By comparison the bagpipes, led by Ali Macdonald, needed the dark hills and open streets to demonstrate their unstoppable ability to override the loudest competition from outbursts of Scottish weather. (Walwin, 2005:24).

The “twinning ceremony” demonstrates three important aspects of what might be termed “extremophile art/science.” First, the event provides a way of linking the experiences and environments of these two related projects through the representation of the shared objects, themes, histories and narratives that make up their respective trajectories. Rather than describing the specificities or generalities of these events through binary categories, or typographies, or by breaking the natural/cultural ecologies of each into separate quanta, an alterative mode of knowledge is created that does not require the unitizing aspects of scientific practice, nor falls prey to a purely descriptive narration typical of art/humanities practice. Such a practice thus holds out the possibility of conjoining the holistic aspects of art with the comparative aspects of science, providing a way of conceptualizing the world that does not fragment or only untangle the complexity of real-world interactions, but sees an appreciation for entanglement as part of the process of doing contextual science. The twinning ceremony thus represents a holistic attempt to understand science and extreme phenomena. Second, the incorporation of musical expression into the ceremony makes one point abundantly obvious: place matters, and while both Ben Nevis and Haldde Mountain are marked by extremities of cold, wind, and weather, they remain different environments. In the twinning ceremony the alternative landscapes as perceived by their inhabitants are represented through their different cultural traditions. Third, as the inclusion of music makes clear, these are not uninhabited landscapes. Unlike many of the extreme environments studied by scientists, the mountain laboratories of Ben Nevis and Haldde are located in regions where people live. Therefore, those who venture there to work must engage with both the natural as well as the cultural environment. Typically only the natural environment is represented in scientific results. However, as the twinning ceremony demonstrates, engaging with the cultural environment of extreme locations serves an equally important purpose. Just as the extremophile bacteria found in the heat vents in the ocean have adapted and developed deliberate strategies to survive the temperature and pressure, so too have people adapted in extreme social and natural conditions. Since in the second case, these adaptations and developed behaviours are not biological but cultural and social in origin, representing natural environments in the laboratory is not enough. Understanding these environments requires representing context in both an environmental and a cultural/temporal sense. This understanding is exemplified in both a new project by London Fieldworks, called Outlandia and by The Human Project in northeast Brasil.

pict2 Composite photograph from LittleEarth twinning ceremony; London FieldWorks, 2004]

OUTLANDIA

As we mentioned earlier, the second project – the aptly named Outlandia – sets up conditions where tree houses will become artist studios in an environmentally protected and therefore contested area of Scotland, in Glen Nevis, near Fortwilliam – a site and context which is not known for its contemporary arts explorations but for mountaineering and such extreme sports. The project is still in planning stages having provoked a number of objections and some resistance from powerful lobbies within the area but, as true extremophiles, rather than backing down or backing off, the London Fieldworks duo have reworked and adapted their original site plan to shift the site to a nearby location. They have also found that, having come from London and faced down the local opposition, that like-minded individuals and kindred artist groups, previously invisible in the region, have begun to show up in vocal support of the tree house project idea. The seemingly extreme – outlandish – proposal has had the effect of raising consciousness, shifting local boundaries of expectation and therefore possibilities for future action in this area of outstanding natural beauty.

pict1 [Image 2: Photograph of Outlandia site, project architect in the foreground; London Fieldworks, 2007]

As in Little Earth, Outlandia is an artistic intervention that emphasizes the specificity of both the natural and the cultural landscape. The planned tree houses have been designed around local materials and their construction involves the participation of local labour. Equally, Outlandia is intended to point up the natural environment as one that is lived in and worked upon over generations. As the project description notes, the Outlandia project is sensitive to this shifting ecology between human population, industry and landscape and makes explicit the dichotomy within a landscape under pressure to function as an area of outstanding natural beauty as well as a resource for society’s raw materials. Like the mountain regions of Scotland and Norway addressed in Little Earth, Outlandia reminds us that even extreme environments such as Glen Nevis have been and remain inhabited.

THE HUMAN PROJECT

The third project we focus on is at the developmental stage in northeast Brasil. It has been conceived with an ambitious long-term agenda to build a research institute in an area of high environmental biodiversity yet very low socio-economic development. The region in which it is being developed is Sergipe, the smallest region of Brasil. The idea of The Human Project is to develop the human potential and economy of the region by bringing art, science, technology, business, health and educational elements into this region, working with regional, national and international partners to achieve transformative results. Initial proposals were seen as overly ambitious by agencies in the region, with politicians there perhaps threatened by alternative strategies for development arising from external sources. However, the agency behind the concept, IPTI from Sao Paulo, is stridently pursuing a course of action, which seeks to redefine the limits of possibility and expectation in the region. At the core of the concept is the idea that:

…the culture and cultural patterns of a given society are considered as central in the construction of processes of knowledge and innovation and that these act as determinant agents in both the validation and creation of sustainable models of socio-economic change.4

Here, as in the projects described above, natural as well as cultural environments are considered conjoined and equally important. It is through an appreciation of art – a core issue in The Human Project – that the expression of identities and culture will take place. And it is through the concept of art that the above areas of knowledge are to be integrated. At the same time, given the context where the project will be based (an area of fragile ecosystem, with nearby mangrove and Atlantic forest) there is high potential for environmental science initiatives. One of the pathfinder initiatives is an analysis of public health issues in the region which will lead to the production of data and generate new research. Similarly art, science and ecology projects for schools are being explored as well as artists residencies engaging with the environmental context. There is great scope for making connections to the Outlandia project – with similar tree houses being built in northeast Brasil. London Fieldworks have been developing project ideas which they seek to realise – one of these being connected to the symbol of the Arctic Tern, a bird which flies from the north pole to the south pole, passing over northeast Brasil – and which spends, it seems, more time in daylight than any other bird. An aerial extremophile if ever there was one, perhaps?

The desire among these artists, as well as other researchers working with The Human Project, to spend time living in the community and to contribute to life there has echoes of what Terry Eagleton describes in his chapter on Truth, Virtue and Objectivity, (2003). Here he cites Hardt and Negri (2000):

Only the poor lives radically the actual and present being, in destitution and suffering, and thus only the poor has the ability to renew being. (Hardt and Negri, 2000:157, cited in Eagleton, 2003:136).

Eagleton goes onto say:

only those who know how calamitous things actually are can be sufficiently free of illusion or vested interests to change them. You cannot change the situation effectively unless you appreciate the depth of the problem; and to do that fully you need to be at the sticky end of it, or at least to have heard the news from there. (Ibid).

SHARED THEMES

What all these projects share is an emphasis on artistic, technological, scientific and architectural skills and an embodied immersion in environments marked by extreme natural beauty. Through dialogue and reconstruction of the physical landscape, each project extends the notions of ‘interaction’ prominent in current art-science-technology work to include social, cultural and ecological engagement with local communities. Importantly, each project involves taking concepts from “laboratory’ environments into ‘real world’ constructed material situations – and hence detach from an arts or science specialist ‘niche’ into novel, creative, and productive relationships with a public. There are also challenges inherent in this level of social engagement which requires a careful and considered approach to issues of negotiation, and decision-making and a sensitivity of approach to issues of ownership, branding and positioning. We would also suggest that the nature of this engagement in order to be successful requires both adaptability and resistance so that a new set of conditions might be (a) provoked (b) created and (c) left behind. These artistic interventions work to create new relationships between experience and what counts as valid knowledge in scientific as well as public contexts. More importantly, in relation to issues of environment and economy, these projects work to increase our knowledge of the complex interactions between natural and social phenomenon. In many ways, these new engagements reverse the stripping away of context typically seen as necessary for scientific knowledge and re-inscribe notions of ecology as a complex inter-working of social, natural, and technological worlds. We suggest this approach should be seen as necessary given the issues of global environmental change and extreme poverty that the world faces. Understanding such contexts goes beyond the skills typically associated with science, and enters the arena of art and the humanities. Here the possibilities for art/science collaborations go beyond a desire for novel forms of expression. Instead, the ability of artists and scholars to explore the specific, the cultural and the contextual becomes increasingly important.

CONCLUSION

Extremophiles are not a new phenomenon: many artists have spent time in the wilderness and pushing their bodies and minds to the limit in extreme physical conditions. We think of William L. Fox, Richard Long and other land artists who are well known for leaving highly poetic traces of their journeys in deserts and other spaces. We suggest however the current conditions of environmental crisis change the pace and notation of such interventions. We note also that the building of temporary and permanent dwellings in these new spaces for intervention offer scope for residencies, for research and for the level of social engagement that can produce artworks that reflect a ‘dwelling in’ rather than a ‘passing through’ – and may also cause a return back into the environment that goes beyond artwork into culture. We see these interventionist and interactive projects as emergent environments where conceptual and theoretical explorations of both art and science become closely coupled in order to materialize new possibilities for living.

As this conference illustrates – with its representation of other key exemplars of the extremophile model like Marko Pelijhan and his Makrolab project5 as well as the Arts Catalyst – which staged a conference of the same name in London in 20046 – this way of working is around and here to stay. Many current art and environment projects such as the Environmental Office project shown at this year’s Ars Electronica7, which focuses on the use and abuse of water within Europe, as well as those featured here within our paper, can be seen as social experiments/situated laboratories with all the risk that might be found there. They impact both internally and externally, affecting mind and body. They drive together business interests with cultural and techno-scientific concerns thus provoking an often uncomfortable yoking of ‘values’. Within these processes we see larger questions and challenges emerge – about climate change and the potential impact on building in fragile ecosystems, about how traditional notions of ‘research and knowledge’ can interplay with imported processes and how the edges and boundaries of extreme spaces are managed, maintained, or created in order to create novel living spaces for the extremophiles we are increasingly becoming.

Footnotes:

1 http://www.londonfieldworks.com/

2 Personal communication with authors, September 11, 2007.

3 http://www.londonfieldworks.com/projects/outlandia/, last accessed Sept. 12, 2007.

4 From The Human Project draft report, personal communication with Saulo Barretto, IPTI, Brasil, Sept. 11, 2007.

5 http://atc.berkeley.edu/bio/Marko_Peljhan/

6 http://www.artscatalyst.org/projects/space/extremophiles.html

7 http://www.aec.at/en/festival2007/program/project.asp?iProjectID=14040#

and http://www.overtures.de/

Bibliography:

Eagleton, T. (2003) After Theory. Penguin Books, 2003.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Gabo, N. (1937) “Editorial” in J. Leslie Martin, Ben Nicholson, and Naum Gabo, eds., Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (London: Faber and Faber.)

London Fieldworks (2005) London Fieldworks – Little Earth (London: London Fieldworks Ltd.)

Malina, R. (2007) チStatement of Chair Leonardo OLATS and ISASTチ, online at http://www.mutamorphosis.org/, accessed Sept. 1, 2007.

Walwin, J. (2005) “Twinning Ceremony” in London Fieldworks, London Fieldworks – Little Earth (London: LondonFieldworks Ltd.)

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