The Future is Elastic (But it Depends): An Interview with Zoe Todd

August 23, 2016 · Print This Article

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Born in Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), Zoe Todd (Métis) travelled to Scotland to get a PhD, an experience that amplified her awareness of the all too-pervasive colonial systems permeating life today. Like Canada, Scotland was founded by the British Empire. Unlike Canada, Scotland’s awareness of its violent foundation has been smoothed out and marginalized by academic discourses. In a 2014, Todd wrote, “By the end of my time in Scotland in November 2014, a gnawing frustration at the erasure of Scottish complicity in colonialism haunted my days in the country” (1). After that polarizing experience, Todd returned to Canada, where she maps similarly colonial and imperial habits, particularly around environmental imagination and local indigenous histories. Todd’s vision emerged in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin’s  Art in the Anthropocene (interviewed earlier this month):

To be at the margins, be they aesthetic, intellectual, or physical, is a shared experience for Indigenous people in Canada. What shape this marginalization takes is different for each person, and each Nation or People. But it occurs again and again, in slightly different forms: gentrification (or colonialism in the form of gentrification) appears as a shape-shifter.(2) When spaces are gentrified, which intellectual buildings are Indigenous and/or People of Colour allowed to occupy?(3)

The pressurized term “Anthropocene” can easily push for a unified vision of the planet; as such, it is imperative to slow down and acknowledge the many forms of multiplicity at hand. Todd currently teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Carlton.

Caroline Picard: More and more Anthropocene-related conversations attribute environmental devastation to colonialist, capitalist, and imperialist mind sets. I’m relieved to see that connection articulated, but also worry that the “Anthropocene” term—as a call-to-arms that elides immense pluralities under a single, umbrella—might actually encourage colonial behaviors, as nation states might suddenly assume a mantle of responsibility and try to “save the world.” I’ve heard you mention state fishing laws, for example, which impinge indigenous fishing without addressing the industrial fishing practices that actually cause so much environmental devastation.

Zoe Todd: I think that the danger in any universal narrative or epoch or principle is exactly that it can itself become a colonizing force. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I’m suspicious of the Anthropocene as concept for the very reason that it subsumes so many peoples, nations, histories, geographies, political orders. For that reason, I think ideas like the Anthropocene can be a useful short-hand for a cluster of tangible things going on with the Earth at the moment, but we have to be very careful about how fluid and dynamic ideas become concretized into hegemonic principles in the hands of researchers, policymakers, and politicians. There’s so much diversity in histories and experiences and environmental realities even between relatively linked geographies here in Canada that you cannot apply knowledge from one region to another without erasing really vital local contexts. Imagine what happens when we try to do that on a global scale—and a lot of euro-western Anthropocene, climate change and resilience research risks doing that—eliding local specificities and appropriating knowledge to serve a broader euro-western narrative without attending to the inherent colonial and imperial realities of science and policy processes, or even attending to the ways that colonial capitalist expansion has created these environmental crises to begin with. While we, as a collective humanity, are struggling with the realities of the Anthropocene, it is dangerous to erase the specific histories, power-relations, political orders that created the crisis to begin with. So, I’m glad that a robust critique of the Anthropocene as a concept is emerging. At the end of the day, we need to stop erasing local self-determination, local legal orders, philosophies, stories, histories praxis. Place matters. History matters. Stories matter. Nuance and resistance and context and complexity matter. The critical stuff that is being written by Donna Haraway, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and so many others about the Anthropocene is really important. To counter the hegemonic way, the term and idea is being deployed across disciplines and institutions right now.

CP: How do we, as a species, amplify and collectivize around ecological consciousness without diminishing various local pluralities?

ZT: I think we start attending to the knowledge systems, philosophies, legal orders that have been subsumed by white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism. We start making strident efforts to pay attention to scholars and thinkers and activists who are not privileged in the “leading” journals and academic spaces. We look beyond the horizons we are conditioned to listen to, we stop privileging the same one hundred scholars (mostly white, mostly men) in our hot takes on the Anthropocene and other current issues. We enthusiastically embrace Sara Ahmed’s call for a citational rebellion. We ask ourselves: what do I know about the places I live in and who I share territory with? What do I know about the more-than-human beings that I owe my life to, here, right now, in this place? We turn towards each other and acknowledge that we can only survive as a collective if we radically embrace principles of reciprocity, care, kindness and gentleness—these are things that are deeply embedded in nehiyaw (Cree) legal orders in the Territory I grew up in (Treaty Six territory in Alberta, Canada). I am sure that we can find similar principles of reciprocity and collective, relational accountability across lots of territories, geographies, and histories. We really really need this work to happen right now.

CP: I feel like the whole notion of the Anthropocene compresses massive swaths of time—geologic time and human time—while pinching the future into a tiny compressed and ever diminishing point. What does reparation look like within that scale? How do we walk this line between devastation, hope, and care? 

ZT: This is a good question. Here is where I think folks need to pay attention to and acknowledge the amazing work on Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurisms that is being produced! One of the coolest projects I’ve seen this year here in Canada is a project that Eve Tuck produced with her students at the University of Toronto—it’s a podcast called ‘the Henceforward’ (the description on their website is: “the Henceforward is a podcast that considers relationships between Indigenous peoples and Black Peoples on Turtle Island. We reconsider the past and reimagine the future, the henceforward,” link here: http://www.indianandcowboy.com/the-henceforward/). I think that re-examining the past, as Eve and her students are doing, and reconsidering what kinds of futures we want, and examining what kinds of relationships we need to build to get us there, is really important. In fact, I’d say it may be one of the only ways to navigate our way out of our current nightmarish situations. The future is elastic but it depends on the past and present, and so we have to do the work to address these in tension (and here I think of how Cree scholar Dwayne Donald discusses what he calls ‘an ethic of historical consciousness’ (Donald 2009: 7). He describes this as: “This ethic holds that the past occurs simultaneously in the present and influences how we conceptualize the future. It requires that we see ourselves related to, and implicated in, the lives of those who have gone before us and those yet to come. It is an ethical imperative to recognize the significance of the relationships we have with others, how our histories and experiences are layered and position us in relation to each other, and how our futures as people similarly are tied together. It is also an ethical imperative to see that, despite our varied place-based cultures and knowledge systems, we live in the world together with others and must constantly think and act with reference to these relationships. Any knowledge we gain about the world interweaves us more deeply with these relationships and gives us life.” (Donald 2009: 7). (Article can be accessed here: http://mfnerc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/004_Donald.pdf)

I like this principle that he describes. It reminds us that we are inter-connected and that we have to attend to past, present and future simultaneously.

CP: I’ve heard you say that fish have a sense of humor. How does that humor tie in with the simultaneous plurality of fish?

ZT: Well, fish have agency. And so fish can tease us. I like to think of fish as having rich lives far beyond what we’ve been taught, in euro-western narratives and thought, to imagine for them. So, I think that fish can provoke and challenge us, and one tool through which to do that is humor. And, as someone from the prairies, I imagine them to have the good-natured sense of humor that I grew up with in my large Métis family. Trust me, I’ve learned many lessons through teasing. And it makes me a more accountable person today.

CP: In a recent talk at the University of Toronto, you describe eating a summer trout when your host explains that every bone of a fish has a different story. She tells you that the stories, however, are not for you as an anthropologist, which I take to mean they aren’t to be shared in academic settings, and then systematized by the public context of, the colonial academy. Your anecdote struck me as especially significant, in that the regime of global capital seems flatten different types of knowledge; the privilege of accessibility is fostered through systems of education and expense, rather than privileging intimacy. Going to back to your point about new, local systems of knowledge, I wondered if this was an example of an alternative strategy for learning?

ZT: I think folks need to realize that not all knowledge is for their consumption. Knowledge is produced through relationships—relationships to space, time, people, other beings. And those relationships create responsibilities. It’s not my place to learn something if I do not have robust and ongoing relationships to a specific place or person or history. And if I cannot tend to place, people or history in the ways that those who hold the knowledge deem to be necessary/adequate/robust, I have no business extracting that story. In that sense, knowledge is also deeply shaped by a kinship of sorts—and it requires labor to continue to tend to those relationships between ourselves and the stories we are gifted or granted through our connections to others. This is something my colleague Damien Lee and I have been discussing over the last little while—the labor and renewal of relationships really matters. Kinship isn’t just about blood relations, it is about a constant tending-to, and a tenderness towards, those who give us life through stories and relationships through time and space. Being given a story, or co-creating a story involves concomitant responsibilities to that story and the relationships it encapsulates and also creates through the telling and re-telling of it. And for this reason, when someone tells me that a piece of knowledge isn’t for sharing, I respect that as an act of self-determination.

CP: I’d love to hear more about your idea of refraction as mode of resistance and operation within restrictive power structures that try to regulate who is same and who is other. When I first heard you mention it, the idea of hacking came to mind as well; hacking might be a parallel activity for asserting direction and influence over a network of—say—bureaucratic agendas. And yet hacking has so many other political associations, the fact that you chose “refraction” seemed particularly significant. What made you you choose that word?

ZT: Well, I realized that the visual in my mind as I was talking to Inuvialuit interlocutors in my research in Paulatuuq, in the Northwest Territories, was one of Indigenous legal orders, kinship, and relationships to space and time literally bending and diffusing the colonial efforts of the State, the church, and corporate/capitalist institutions. Through this bending and diffusion, Indigenous peoples assert local knowledge, local praxis in creative ways to maintain local self-determination in the face of often very violent colonial incursions into local life (see, for example, the legacy of the Indian Residential School system in northern Canada). But I also see it as something related to fish, too. The way fish see us, up here in our “air world” is refracted by the water. And the way we see fish is also refracted by the water—things are not always what they seem. We have to adapt our actions to the water interface in order to actually catch a fish—to actually physically interact with a fish. So, refraction, as a physical imperative, creates conditions that are complex and require care and skill to navigate the boundaries between interfaces, and I see this as an apt metaphor to also query and understand the complex and dynamic interface between Indigenous legal orders and the State. For me, refraction is an active process—conscious, creative labor is required to shift, distort the efforts of the State to subsume, control, erase Indigenous laws and stories. I see refraction and diffusion as pretty badass processes. And, diffusion, well it’s that process we get when a prism scatters a ray of white light and reveals all the constituent wavelengths. In Canada, we’ve been sold a story about the country as a particular “good”—but when these stories of Canada as a human rights champion are refracted and diffused through Indigenous legal orders (and through the stories and histories of diverse marginalized communities in the country), you get the full spectrum of our history. You hear more than just the white-washed history of this place. So. That’s why I have been using these metaphors of refraction and diffusion in my work.  And I am continuing to flesh them out as I write more work!

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1. “Decolonial Dreams: unsettling the academy through the namewak,” The New [New] Corpse, Green Lantern Press, 2014.

2.Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel, “Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism,” Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics 40, no. 4 (2005): 597–614.

3. Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” Art in The Anthropocene, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (Ed.s), Open Humanities Press 2015.

Adapting the Umwelt: Art Orienté objet

August 22, 2016 · Print This Article

The following interview was originally published on Bad at Sports in March, 2014. It has been reposted here as part of the August in the Anthropocene series.

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In a 2007, Art Orienté objet, a French collaborative group comprised of Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, began a series of body modification experiments intended to communicate with animals outside of language.”Basically the project was to artistically adapt Jacob von Uexkull’s Umwelt theory, which argues that the meaning of an environment differs from one animal to another in relation to its sensorial system” (Marion Laval-Jeantet, Self-Animality, Plastik: Art and Science, June 2011). The project began with an investigation of cats, and eventually culminated in a single piece, Felinanthropy, where Laval-Jeantet put on a pair of cat-like prosthetic hindquarters; by transforming her status as a bi-ped, she was able to change the hierarchical relation between herself and the cat. A subsequent experimental work led Mangin to put on a prosthetic giraffe head and engage giraffes in a zoo, exploring the giraffe’s ability to recognize Mangin not as a human, but as something almost giraffe. More recently, AOo embodied an equine perspective; Leval-Jeantet built up a tolerance to horse blood by injecting a small bit of the animal’s plasma into her system over the course of a year. She subsequently staged a horse blood transfusion performance with her partnerBenoît Mangin. What remains of Que le cheval vie en moi!, is the “relic,” a small, innocuous petri dish, with human/horse blood. In the following interview, (originally conducted for Paper Monument where an affiliated essay, “Humanimals” was published), I asked Laval-Jeantet a few questions about this work. All answers have been translated into English by Basia Kapolka.

Art Orienté objet, Felinanthropy, 2007.

Art Orienté objet, Felinanthropy, 2007.

Caroline Picard: What were you anticipating the affect of injecting horse plasma into your blood steam would be? How did you expectations measure up with the reality of your experience?

Marion Laval-Jeantet: In a certain way, I knew what to expect from the injection of the horse plasma since I had received injections of the horse antibodies one at a time during the preceding months.  But it was still difficult to imagine what the effect of receiving all the antibodies at once would be. In actuality, my body’s reaction was much more unruly than predicted.  I think the families of antibodies increased each other’s effects, so that the final reaction was very complex, affecting even my metabolism, my endocrine glands, my nervous system, as well as my sleep and appetite.

CP: Also, did you use the blood of one specific horse? Did your relationship with that horse change at all?

MLJ: I used the blood of three specific horses that belong to the laboratory I worked with. You couldn’t say I established genuine contact with the horses.  On the other hand, I wasn’t specifically familiar with the horses before the experiment. The experiment changed my psyche so that I saw the horses differently after it, with a different appreciation. A familiarity.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about your horse-stilts? How did your experience of your own body change?

MJL: The stilts were mostly there to allow me a different way of communicating with the horse who was present during the performance. I was a little afraid of horses, actually. And it seems like horses attitudes change completely when your eyes are at the same height as theirs. With the stilts, my eyes were the same height as his, and I could see that the horse was calmer. It was also a way for me to be aware of the reversal of roles between me and the animal. And naturally, it was a way to distract myself from the possible anxiety that might arise because of the infusion. Because I was on stilts, I could only think of the goal: to join with the animal, and not of the psychological problems that might come out during the performance.  Experiments with prosthetics always affect your fears about your body, and in the performance it was necessary that I have a strong sense of a double transformation, mental and biological.

Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011

Art Oriente objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011.

CP: Do you feel like your “self” has been forever altered? In other words, there is an idea I believe I, at least, take for granted: that is that my self is continuous and sustaining throughout a linear experience of time. This assumption is challenged by ideas of drastic plastic surgery, transplants and cloning, for instance—the self as it was defined before is fundamentally no longer the same self it was before. It seems to me your work poses similar a question: how can a distinctly human self sustain its identity when it has become, also, part horse?

MJL: Your question about fundamental change is completely fair. At the moment, I have a very strong sense that my body, and also my identity were deeply changed by the experience.  In a physical sense, it’s true.  I will always have within me biological markers that bear witness to my meeting with the horse. The problem is that the external physiological effects seem to have only lasted a few months, and were strongest in the first four weeks. So today, even if there are some delayed reactions or long-term consequences, I can say that the transformation remains more in the mental structure than in the physical one.  I have the sense of not having been completely human for some time. The experience changed my inner self forever. But this is also the case with previous strong experiences I’ve had, like my introduction to the pygmies of Gabon, who made me see death.  Each of these experiences makes my thoughts and my existence more complex, the more they change them. I believe deeply in the adaptation of the human body. More than in homeostasis. Existence itself is a permanent transformation, a constantly-evolving system. You speak of changes made to the body, but I think grief, for example, shakes up identity much more. My aim is not so much a transformation of my essence, as the wish to respond to an eternal frustration: to finally feel the animal otherness in myself, but also to stop thinking from a purely anthropocentric point of view. Already, the pygmies succeeding in making me feel the spirits in the forest, during a trance. I think that I am less and less purely human, which is to say that I am fundamentally more and more human, in the utopian sense of philosophical humanism.

Paper Monument was recently interview on the Bad at Sports podcast.

Sunday Comic: Golden Spike: Rock Shop of the Anthropocene

August 21, 2016 · Print This Article

 

Anthropocene Rock Shop Comic—forBAS

The first comic-art-review I ever made was inspired by a remarkable 2015 exhibition at The Comfort Station in Chicago’s Logan Square entitled Golden Spike: Rock Shop of the Anthropocene, featuring work by Conrad Bakker, Harry Kuttner, Lee Hunter and Ryan Thompson. It was organized by MK Meador and Stella Brown. The comic was never published, but the show remains vivid in my imagination.  Together artists and organizers installed a cohesive “roadside attraction” that playfully stages evidence of humanity’s influence on geological material, torquing Frontier-fantasy trading posts and Pastoral tourist stopovers with Anthropocenic evidence culled from the the city. The specimens presented are not pure minerals but rather amalgamations of dirt, grit, and human industry. As such each rock reflects a massive network of industrial, economic, national, and political forces within which everyone—humans and nonhumans like—are implicated. The conceit of the exhibit therefore mixes “real” specimens with “authentic” artworks by the aforementioned artists. A far room features a small pile of short rusted strips of iron are “priced by length;” nearby a cardboard box on the floor boasts five pieces of Metra train tracks for a dollar. On a higher shelf above this box, pieces of “Tar Obsidian” in cotton-bedded gold cardboard jewelry boxes are available for sale as well. Information cards are positioned beside every sample, slipping between didactic museum text and sales cards used in fossil shops. On an opposing wall, Harry Kuttner hangs his sculpture some crushed Budweisers: a series of used, crumpled and sun-faded beer cans with smooth palm-size rocks protruding from their centers. In the main room, more rocks are arranged and encased in plastic boxes or wrapped in cellophane Cabrini Green Housing Complex rocks similarly for sale at affordable single digit prices and nearby with an information card that describes not only the location of the original building but also what the specimen contains (a mixture of brick and concrete). Positioned equivalently Conrad Baaker installs a series of painting of hands looking at rocks on shelves. This collection entitled, Untitled Project: The Crystal Land was inspired by a Robert Smithson essay about of the same name. Or Ryan Thompson’s Vogel-Cut Crystal Prototypes of assorted materials: a series of encased rods comprised of different materials which, according to their wall label were designed by an IBM researched who “turned his attention from magnetic disks to another type of information retrieval system—quartz crystals” and thus designed his “Vogel-cut” crystal form. This exhibition was designed like a stage set, and the effect is pleasurably wry and informative, demonstrating how these strange geological specimens encompass the larger mesh of human civilization in inert, everyday materials.

The Comfort Station is currently accepting proposals for artist submissions.

SHE IS RESTLESS: The Artist Books of Rebecca Mir Grady

August 20, 2016 · Print This Article

Sometimes it seems impossible to fully conceive environmental space, and the many time scales that extend far beyond that of a single human life. What does it mean to imagine the ever expanding rate of extinction, full absences defined by “critters” I never knew existed, much less imagined. At such times, I simultaneously bump into a limit to my own imagination and the certainty that those limits must break open. With that in mind, I wanted to tie in an ongoing publication project by Rebecca Mir Grady, an artist, bookmaker, and jeweler based out of Chicago. She has been working on her publication series, SHE IS RESTLESS for about five years. The series is deceptively modest; each palm-sized publication is handmade, each dedicated to one subject: spill, drought, lost at sea, polar vortex, each ecologically minded. Upon opening one book, a single page folds out, expanding outside the bounds of its cover into a flat, single graphic. The humility of the endeavor, the shifting and interactive experience of scale, and the delicate line drawings each publication contains collude to offer a path towards making-thinking-learning through environmental crisis. You can read a previous interview I conducted with Mir here.

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Caroline Picard: What made you start to produce this series of publications? Did you always imagine that they would be ecologically-minded?
Rebecca Mir Grady: My work is always revolving around nature in one way or another, and our interactions with it—so when I was first planning the series in 2011 to show at Chicago Zine Fest, I only had a vague idea of making something that referenced global warming. (I’d been making a lot of drawings of melting Arctic ice at the time). I was reading Susan Casey’s book The Wave, about giant waves and tsunamis, and their increasing occurrence, when the T?hoku earthquake shook Japan; then came the tsunami, and then the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It was difficult to think about anything else besides those events. So, the first two editions “fracture” and “waves” reference the earthquake and tsunami, respectively.
CP: What happens when you transform such large events into these palm-sized books?  So often conversations around the environment are huge, covering massive time scales, and physical scales, and scales of devastation. One of the things that I love about your series is that it feels exquisitely humble, and even like a good reminder of one’s place within massive events. 
RMG: I’ve always loved books, all kinds, and artist books and zines. So I think of the SHE IS RESTLESS series as a little bridge between some of the artist books I’ve made in the past and the more zine-like mini comics. One of the great things about zines is that they can be made quickly, cheaply, and efficiently. I self-publish them, so I was able to produce two quick volumes in a short amount of time in direct response to what was happening around the world. But the biggest drawback (for me) with zines is the lack of a spine—I collect zines all of the time, but they quickly disappear into a pile of zines and mini comics on my bookshelf. When I was in Italy, I bought a map of Venice that had a cardstock cover with a spine, which I thought was genius! A perfect format to merge the artist book and zine formats. Initially I planned to make some larger ones, but after considering the possibility, it seemed out of place for this project.
CP: Why?
RMG: The scale of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami was so huge. Looking at pictures and hearing coverage on the radio, it was still so hard to comprehend. I’d also been thinking a lot about scale while reading Casey’s book: How do you describe a hundred foot wave? What about a thousand foot wave? By translating those environmental catastrophes into a book—and a tiny book at that—the scale is exaggerated. Because the book is small, a reader has to get closer to it, to really peer into the subject matter. When people pick up the “waves” book, I say, “That is a really big wave.”  They open the book, and—by unfolding the map-like page—the wave tumbles out (this one was accordion folded), and seems to go on forever. Then it folds back up, fits in your pocket, and you can take it with you.
CP: How did the “Underwater Cities” publication occur to you? 
RMG: I’ve continued to make one or two editions each year in response to different global warming / climate events / natural disasters that have happened in the year. In that way, I imagine the “SHE” in “SHE IS RESTLESS” as the Earth. The Earth is restless. “Underwater Cities” was made after Hurricane Sandy swept through New York and New Jersey. I saw an image of a boardwalk rollercoaster underwater, and it reminded me of a kid’s sandcastle getting washed away by a wave. Humanity has built so much right on the water; I’m sure that sort of sandcastle effect is going to keep happening with more and more frequency.
CP: Is that the only edition with a distinctly human architecture?
RMG: The “Lost At Sea” edition also directly links to our human presence through its absence. We’re all so connected now, with GPS tracking and whatever else, that it seems impossible to disappear. That made it all the more shocking when Malaysian Airlines flight 370 went missing.
CP:  Connecting to that idea of absence, I also somehow love that for “Wildfire,” the trees define the negative space, and the rest of the skyline is consumed in red. What made you make that decision? 
RMG: I made a lot of drawings before I got to the final one for “Wildfire.” This one is definitely one of my favorites—I love the negative space. Visually, it made for a much stronger image than drawing the trees themselves burning, and conceptually it also worked—as some of the trees would be completely consumed by the fire.

View more of Rebecca Mir Grady’s SHE IS RESTLESS publications here.

Considering Coexistence: An Interview with Jenni Nurmenniemi

August 19, 2016 · Print This Article

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Frontiers in Retreat: Mirko Nikolic (2015–) ‘We heart Copper and Copper heart Us’, data copper mine as part of Excavations exhibition. Photo: Matti Tanskanen

Last April I had the opportunity to meet with Helsinki-based curator, Jenni Nurmenniemi during the Anthropocene Curriculum: Technosphere Issue at the HKW in Berlin. Nurmenniemi and I met towards the end of the conference, after having attended a number of different workshops and Anthropocene-related events. In the following conversation she and I talk about curating, particularly the work that she has been doing with the Helsinki Artist Program, and its largest project Frontiers in Retreat.

Caroline Picard: What is the Helsinki International Artist Program?

Jenni Nurmenniemi: HIAP is one of the largest residency centers in Nordic and Baltic Region, hosting up to 100 per year with an emphasis on interdisciplinary practices. We have two locations: one is on an 18th century fortress island, Suomenlinna—not too far from the city center, though it feels quite remote. It’s visually interesting as a mix of Slavic and Scandinavian influences. And the idea is that living and working space are combined, so work is entangled in a nice way. Our other location is very different. It’s a former Cable Factory. We have three studios there. That site is very urban and industrial—a nice contrast to the otherwise picturesque island location.

CP: Frontiers in Retreat is specifically interested in ecology and art, is that right? It’s part of HIAP?

JN: HIAP runs several projects, of which Frontiers is the biggest one. It actually occupies quite a lot of our physical space and mental capacity at the moment—or until 2018; it’s a five-year engagement. HIAP has a few other thematic programs and maybe one really interesting to mention is Safe Haven; it allows people who are somehow persecuted in their home countries—under threat of human rights violations or their freedom of speech is suppressed in their home countries. HIAP is part of a residency network that allows these people the chance to kind of take a break and come for residency for a longer period of time to rethink their situation.

CP: In those cases, do you find that you have to coordinate with different government bureaucracies?

JN: Absolutely. It has been a very challenging residency program. Ethically, there are so many questions, and I actually am not the best person to talk about it in detail because it’s run by another group of people. Questions about what happens when the residency ends raise questions about ethical responsibility; sometimes people need asylum, to establish their lives in a new context. What’s the responsibility of the residency and art center then and what are the constraints and possibilities around how we can support these people? I think that relates to the art and ecology residency in a sense that when you’re running a project with local communities (which is often the case with Frontiers residencies) the question of continuity and support comes up again. Like, what happens after the artist has left? Will their processes and initiatives continue or will their work just vanish as if it never happened?

CP: People often bring that up in relation to Social Practice projects—like if an artist wants to come to a community and build a green house, but then nobody takes care of the green house after the artist leaves and it ends up just falling apart…

JN: I might have to say more about the Frontiers structure. We have seven locations and some of the ecosystems are quite fragile. If an artist wants to make an intervention, that will obviously have some consequences, influencing the balance of its particular system. For example, a Berlin based artist, Tue Greenfort, wanted to work with mushrooms. He came to Suomenlinna island and he started researching what kind of mushrooms grew there, whether they could actually provide solutions for food production. He often works with mushrooms, but in this context, he wanted to cut down a huge tree on the island in order to make it into a mushroom For cultivating protein for the island’s human residents.

I think the most interesting part was the negotiation with the chief gardener of the island who explained how important this tree was, even though it might look dead—trees like that facilitate a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Removing it would be very bad for more-than-human kinds on the island. The conversation was rather speculative, but removing one tree might have interfered with the island ecology drastically. All in all, there are twenty-four artists working within Frontiers.

CP: Do most of the Frontiers projects take place in nontraditional exhibition spaces?

JN: Yes and no. I think people move nicely between gallery or museum contexts and their field work, as well as at the intersection of theory and practice. We wanted exactly that. To form a platform that allows people to move between rigid categories that usually structure how one navigates the art system.

CP: I think it’s amazing how much invisible work there is to curation—boring paper work, bureaucracy, administration, as well as hosting and facilitating. What is a curator to you?

JN: It’s a question that I think about pretty much everyday. It’s a lot of invisible work as you said especially now and especially because I’m a bit weary of imposing trending theoretical or conceptual frameworks on my approach. Every six months or so, there is some key concept that people start to obsess over. I’m wary of that. I try to construct open platforms where things emerge organically or slowly, and then engage deeply with the artist work over a long period of time. Taking time, recognizing artists’ capacity to mediate between different forms of knowledge and different disciplines. They can cross those boundaries and I try to support that potentiality.

It’s a lot about hosting. It’s a lot about listening and being super sensitive to nuances. We somehow set certain loose parameters, follow what emerges, and then try to tease out meanings. Meanings in plural because I don’t feel it’s possible to construct a coherent or singular narrative around art and ecology. That topic emerged here at the HKW many times. It’s important to allow space for complexity and select epistomologic multiplicity that generates difference.

CP: Today there was a related critique that “The Anthropocene” is problematic in that it represents a single totality. Maybe it’s better to say the Anthropocenes, so as to allow for multiple timelines or extinctions, multiple experiences, types of experiences, and various relationships to our ecological times.

JN: I’m really fond of imagining history as a web—interconnected webs or networks, a network approach to history instead of maybe kind of the chronological timeline and drawing from different cultures as much as it’s possible, recognizing that, okay, I’m situated.

One project I thought a lot about during the Co-Evolutionary Perspectives Seminar has to do with mining or the extractiveness, in extraction industries. I’d like to bring up this project by Serbian artist, Mirko Nikoli?. It started last year and now it has had iterations in different locations. It’s called “We Heart Copper, and the Copper Hearts Us.” Mirko is looking into what kind of ideas and meanings humans attached to copper. He set up this site, WeHeartCopperCopperHeartUs.com—a data mine that sources everything with a hashtag copper from across the world, from different social mediums. He uses this as a study of kind of what it signifies to humans in different context. Then, actually there is also a physical DIY data center which Mirko is going to take to different mining sites in Southern Finland this spring.

CP: And it exhibits in a gallery space?

JN: It’s a good example how we exhibited this last summer, the prototype out here at the Gallery Augusta as part of the group show titled, Excavations. This year, it’s going to be activated and it’s going to be instead of hanging from gallery ceiling, it’s going to hang from trees. The idea is that Mirko can fold it, put it on his shoulder and somehow cycle to a different mining site or…undiscovered deposit. Ironically maybe, I love the word “deposit” in this sense, but kind of a site which has not been excavated yet or extracted yet.

He’s been researching into ancient mines in Finland and then ongoing mining projects and then future mining sites. This is kind of reaching the different timelines or historical moments together and putting emphasis on how much we rely on copper. We don’t really often think about it although its been a subject in the art world for quite many years now but how its conductive properties actually allow us to use our technospheric devices and build this whole network that we articulate as technosphere.

CP: I also keep thinking about the Joseph Beuys reference to the I Love America and America Loves Me. I can’t figure out if you or maybe it’s just not that I can’t figure out, but in sort of game kind of way. It’s like, “Oh, is the coyote the copper?” In some way, I think of Beuys’ coyote as a nexus point for all ecological, political, historical narratives. It’s sort of funny to think about precious metals that way. Of course, they’re embedded in so much of our experience but we don’t think about them.

JN: Exactly, that’s well articulated. Through Mirko’s work I’m always led towards dissolving the hierarchical binaries of Western dualist thinking

CP: You mean like the nature/culture binary for instance?

JN: Exactly. But also, the division between material and immaterial, animate and inanimate. For instance, the idea that data is somehow immaterial. Mirko’s project has an undeniable material aspect. It has the website of course but then you can see, for instance, Mirko works in copper mines himself in Serbia. He really engages with the material, both extracting it and putting it back to the earth. There are all these sediments and layers to his project that I find fascinating.

CP: I was also suddenly thinking too that it seems like one of the things you had also negotiate is these labor structures that are similarly embedded…

JN: Absolutely. Here, another Frontiers artist, Bart Vandeput, or Bartaku, a Belgian mastermind. He also conducted his artistic research in a mining city in Serbia and was very interested in labor structures and the fact that actually there are not that many miners left.

CP: I was wondering if you could talk about the Anthropocene, ecology, and the words that we choose to work with when looking at our ecological times? Do you think the Anthropocene as a term is a fad?

JN: I like how you mentioned that it might be a good idea to talk about the Anthropocene in plural. It’s also about language. It’s hard to translate sometimes from Finnish to English, but I think the term provides an umbrella term to recognize that humans are influencing most if not all ecosystems in this biosphere. But I want to know how to go beyond that acknowledgment. There, I think we need more specific concepts. I’m very careful of what I impose upon the artists whom I work with. At the same time, I realize that they also need critical dialogue and input from curators. What we’ve tried to do with Frontiers is to build a glossary that allows this different epistemic frameworks or multiplicity.

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

 Frontiers in Retreat: 'Excavations' exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen


Frontiers in Retreat: ‘Excavations’ exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen