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Speculative fictions & microbial collaborations

Sophea Lerner: Open Fields Art & Science Festival, Riga

Sophea Lerner is an sonic media artist and broadcaster, currently composing with compost microbes. She is a member of Delhi Listening Group and The Loop Orchestra. @phonebox

Pond Battery, Fluctuations of Microworlds, 2016, Rasa Smite & Raitis Smits Pond Battery, Fluctuations of Microworlds, 2016, Rasa Smite & Raitis Smits
photo Sophea Lerner

Stepping into the dimmed room it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the details. At first there doessn’t seem to be much here: a simple stage set at the harbour’s edge of a small city by the sea. Turnton, an imaginary town from a possible future, is brought to life by Austria-based Time’s Up over a two-year process of futuring and scenario building. Only a fraction of that work is manifest here at the RIXC Gallery for the Open Fields festival, but lingering on this fictional harbourside slowly reveals incredibly
detailed fragments of this extrapolated world, drawing you into the constraints and possibilities the work projects. The world outside the gallery is repositioned as an historical exhibit in the Turnton Museum, titled Europe 2006-2026.

The ‘energy descent’ future portrayed is one where we didn’t act in time. Current damage to the oceans is taken to some of its worst conclusions. But we also see resilience and new social formations that have sprung up in response. Outside the harbourmaster’s office, jobs are displayed offering opportunities to travel, by sail boat or overland. The bees are gone. Equipment belonging to a professional pollinator lies nearby, in the basket of a research balloon. Signposts point us towards the Radical Recycling Headquarters and the New Neighbours Integration Bureau which is celebrating 20 years of welcoming displaced people to the community.

Posters, signage and a local paper quietly weave together a back story of social formations and institutions that have emerged to support the changes that have been necessary. The algal toxicity of the water is registered on a sign reminiscent of a fire warning indicator. But there is remediation work afoot, just out of sight at a kelp farm, and the local bar (what harbourside would be complete without a shady watering hole?) serves snacks based mostly on seaweed and jellyfish. I was tempted by a plate of crispy seaweed on the menu but the gallery closed and I had to step back into the museum of the present where the decisions leading to that possible future were still being made.

Back in Riga in 2016 I head over to the Open Fields exhibition and conference in the Latvian National Library, where I find several more works that mix speculative fictions with scientific data and practices to reflect on the present and the possible.

Artifacts from Open Care, 2016, Erich Berger, Mari Keto Artifacts from Open Care, 2016, Erich Berger, Mari Keto
photo Sophea Lerner

In Open Care by Erich Berger (FI/AT) and Mari Keto (DK/FI), a display case of artifacts proposes a social thought experiment: what if nuclear waste were a very personal responsibility? It’s an imaginary system for distributed nuclear waste storage which implicates us intimately in a much longer swathe of the future than most of us can imagine easily. The waste is encapsulated in steel pellets mounted in a bronze disk. An electroscope, gold leaf, an electrostatic rod and fur to charge it are provided along with instructions for a ritual to be conducted periodically, generation to generation, to ascertain whether the waste of which you are custodian has become safe “or if you and your descendants need to continue to care about it.” Rendering the huge timescale of radioactive decay into more meaningful units of lifetimes opens the question of collective care from a fresh

Shifting from these vast timescales to the fluctuations of the very tiny, Pond Battery by RIXC's Directors, Latvians Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, builds on a long period of working with bioelectricity and microbial fuel cells to bring the murky depths of electrogenic microbial pond life into our perceptual range using a mix of timelapse video, sonified electrical signal and an object that physically traces fluctuations in the microbes’ electrical output over seven months as a series of peaks and troughs. Through this indexing of the activity of these tiny organisms into a relief reminiscent of the varied rings of a tree, the microscopic is projected into a much more expansive timescale and the normally imperceptible activity in the pond seems to be both sped up and slowed down for us to see.

In a more conventional division of labour, scientists tend to produce data and artists are often involved in making meaning. One of the directions taken in this festival seems to be to stir up those delineations and explore overlaps, differences and collaborations in how art and science practitioners conduct research, produce knowledge and frame the stories data can tell.

Bio-scientist turned artist, Raphael Kim (UK) distinguishes the goals of artist biohackers from those of corporate bioscientists in several ways including a focus on implications versus applications, with an interest in better questions over answers and a process of enquiry driven by a hands-on approach. In his project Microbial Money, four classically composed and meticulously staged photographic scenarios draw us into a fiction combining the accoutrements of corporate finance with the apparatus of biotech to pose questions about a future of money in which microbes execute rapid decisions on the trading floor and cycles of boom and bust are tied to genetic markers in fluctuating microbial populations.

For his ultra low-voltage survival kit, Mindaugas Gapševi?ius (LT/DE) directly names bacteria as his collaborators in making paper out of dried Kombucha scoby (a mix of cultures of bacteria and yeast) in the kits laid out in his Introduction to Post-human Aesthetics.

If money and paper seem to be quite human-centred byproducts of microbial activity, Laura Beloff and Malena Klaus's Fly Printer-Extended [Laura Beloff (FI/DK) in collaboration with Malena Klaus (DE/DK)] explores a grey area between living systems and informatic processes not controlled by, or purposed to, human agency. A community of fruit flies dining on a diet laced with printer ink gradually 'print' images around their enclosure and onto a square of paper under the gaze of a trained machine vision device. The flies can't be controlled to print anything in particular and the vision machine’s algorithm can't stop over-interpreting the ‘noise’ of their distributed dots as meaningful visual data. As I peer into the disarray of fine grainy speckling produced by a small colony of fruitfly over several hours, the AI is literally joining the dots to seek out an interpretation of these cross-hatched constellations. Unlike in the perception of human stargazers, images here are not formed in integers, but probabilities. At that moment what the machine sees is something that is “3.5% Space Shuttle” and I wonder if it is looking at a fruitfly.

PSX Consultancy, Cyclamen Pollinator, 2014, Pei-Yin Lin (TW), Špela Petri? (SI) PSX Consultancy, Cyclamen Pollinator, 2014, Pei-Yin Lin (TW), Špela Petri? (SI)
photo Sophea Lerner

With a more tongue in cheek approach, PSX Consultancy [Pei-Ying Lin (TW), Špela Petri? (SI), Dimitrios Stamatis (GR), Jasmina Weiss (SI] takes a playful look at genuine reproductive challenges faced by several species of plants for various reasons (eg specialised breeding of them by humans or the extinction of pollinator species). PSX works with a user-centred design methodology to understand the needs of their vegetal clients. The aquired data is reworked as delicate printed objects, specialised sex toys for plants.

In Hue Dichotomies: Two Meadows, Ellie Irons (US), on the other hand, chooses to work with plants that are less domesticated and proposes that the urban weeds with which she makes paint pigments are a form of “vegetative resistance.” These contribute valuable greenery to marginal urban spaces through a process of rapid adaptation.

Like our personal microbial landscapes, many weeds have continually co-evolved with us. Perhaps it is these intimate relationships with the microbes, insects and plants near us that can bring some of the daunting data of our contemporary environmental challenges within our grasp through narratives that place human involvement in complex systems at a scale we can perceive.

Visit the festival site for artist biographies and information about other works exhibited.

Open Fields RIXC Art and Science Festival, RIXC, Riga, Latvia, 28-1 Oct

Sophea Lerner is an sonic media artist and broadcaster, currently composing with compost microbes. She is a member of Delhi Listening Group and The Loop Orchestra. @phonebox

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Sophea Lerner; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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