Living Matters online exhibition

A story-telling of AKI Bio Matters research in the precarity that has always been now

Non-curator: Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko

“Perhaps that is what the role of an artist relies on―giving a foretaste of something that could exist, and thus causing it to become imaginable. And being imagined is the first stage of existence.”1

What is a storytelling, or better, what does a storytelling do? To tell a story, imagine it, is not so much a reflection upon the reality, its representation, but already a moulding and shaping process that often brings to existence the unspoken. In that what is unseen and unuttered, we tend to abstract ourselves from due to assumed ideologies, personal negligence and comfort of habits. Therefore, in the moment of telling a story, we can make intangible tangible, we materialise that what seemed to be immaterial by bringing it into the sphere of importance. Today thus, in the time of the virus, what seems to be at stake is how to keep on telling stories so that they are not subsumed into one narrative of the risk management driven and governed by privileges, ideologies and abuses of power. In other words, in the time of many crises, the way how stories are told, the choice who tells those stories and what kind of stories are heard, becomes a matter of not only survival, but also thriving.

During the classes on how to work with living images within AKI Biomatters artistic research program, students have been exploring such ecological and alchemistic questions as: how can we create in the time of ecological disasters? What is the role of art and design when we challenge the anthropocentrism? Can art be autonomous and irrelevant in the time of environmental crisis? How can we create with mess and trouble rather than ignoring it? And while I have been discussing with the students what the possibility of imagining and, therefore, creating different futures is, the singularity of the virus has proved that the future has always been now.

AKI Biolab, Living Images class with Christine van der Heide on natural dying. Class interrupted by the national conference on Covid—19 and the announcement of the measures that were taken against the risks. Nevertheless, we kept working that day, since the school did not close, even though we had expected the announcement of a national lockdown. We only found out later that evening that the lockdown had also consequences for all the institutions, including universities and art academies. Image taken on 12 March 2020 by A.A.Wolodzko.

With classes moved to online platforms, we faced problems on how to create and function within this new learning environment. In the precarity of students struggle to find their way back home across the national and continental borders, with scarcity of materials, with work moved from safety and access of biolab to home kitchen, with risks and illegality of being in the pen air and between people, the questions we have been asking so far became overwhelmingly urgent. The assumption, that there is a one approach, one correct response that would fix the problems of medical, ecological, economic and social precarity we all found ourselves to be conditioned by, quickly evaporated, making us gradually aware that we do not know how to respond to the difficulty and complexity of problems.

Each video chat with my students quickly turned thus into sessions of sharing experiences and coping strategies, each lesson began and ended with new stories and narratives of worries and hopes. It became obvious how this health crisis we are in, is the crisis of institutions and how the exposure of political governance, economic and social injustice influences individual capacity to care. Through finding possibility to think and practice, we witnessed how each of our experiences as students and teachers, as citizens and bodies, cannot be subsumed into one narrative, but needs to maintain and develop the sensitivity in order to respond to different conditions and their problems we all found ourselves to be enclosed by. In this way, rather than striving for one survival strategy, we all became enveloped by the need of finding new various ways of how to create and thrive in the difference of precarity.

Instead of results – which are characteristic to habitually defined nature of an art exhibition – we are sharing with you the sphere of the complexity and intimacy of artistic research in the time of pandemic. We are waving here stories that were driven by the existential tension and mutations of questions one encounters in the viral precarity and which conditioned artistic and design practice. Please note, in that what is “non”, there is no negation, but rather relations of pause and wonder, imagination of becoming otherwise. This is a glimpse to the process of the students’ experiments outside our biolab. This is again an attempt to tell stories anew; to care for in and through your work with other living bodies–and with the porosity and dynamics of life and living bodies. In this way, we hope to map the conditions of how to tell stories that will allow for us to mutate again and again, anew.

A story of Celile Demir who asks: What does it mean to be an organism?

Celile maps the boundaries of bodies when zooming into their parts. Are bodies just a sum of their parts or are their more? As she claims: “There is a constant exchange between our internal environments and outside environment. This means that our organism extends beyond what we currently define as an organism.”

She mostly works with enveloping bodies into bioplastic, be it skin, hair, plants or meat, as if she wants to capture those organs in that what can resemble the temporary fixity. But as she experiments with recipes and textures of bioplastic, she gives those bodies new field of contamination. In her home kitchen, Celile investigates what happens when she loses the control over the shape and form of her new creations.

A story of Dawoon Kim who asks: What is the new biological me?

In the time when education means being stacked behind the screens, and all that we can hope for in human communication is the mercy of the algorithm and a good wi-fi, the questions of who we are as living bodies, became urgent for Dawoon. As she states: “Nowadays, because of reduction in data generation costs and the development of analytical techniques, we can find increasingly more genetic data online. It is obviously true that these technological developments have contributed to the improvements of medical treatment, however, various ethical and political issues and conflicts can arise, such as genetic discrimination, insurance refusals and inability to work due to unfitting DNA data.” In search for our intimate relationship with the data, she brings into vision that what is assumed to be granted and meaningless, asking: who we are when we can be translated into waves of flickering codes? Which depictions and visualisations is more significant for the algorithm that we became?

A story of Eric Bari who asks: How can we rethink/re-use our wastage into creating resources to gain knowledge, as well as understanding the value of our surroundings?

“Due to the corona-crisis, I changed my way of thinking towards my experiments. When I am at university, equipment is provided for us. Being home, I had no equipment, so this means doing experiments from start to finish with nothing. This made me think how dependable we are on the things around us.” Having time to work on wood at his home, Eric collected a lot of woodust, that he learned to transform into MDF (medium density fiberboard). Next to it, he started to ferment food, but not in order to lead more healthy life, but as he explains, he was searching for the smell of his grandparents’ house, as their used ferment food as well. In this journey into that what seemed to be lost, by experimenting with recipes and DIY techniques with making glue, searching for materials that were labelled as waste, he delved into the complexities and humbleness of what he named as the “matters of survival.”

A story of Garrett Szmyd who asks: How do humans perceive life and the environment?

Garrett was curious how to make bioplastic, and while experimenting with recipes in his home kitchen in US, measuring the variables of its drying and melting, what struck him the most is what are the visual strategies of making us notice ecological problems, and how do we make ourselves care about the environment. As he explains:

“I started the experiment while searching for ground in the broad topic of living images. I simply wanted to try working with a bioproduct, manipulate its conditions, and produce images from the results. During the experimentation I asked myself: why test these bioplastics for temperature? My immediate answer was that a bioplastic that is adapted to withstand a large range of temperatures would be an ideal candidate for packaging. Then I questioned the very urgency of using bioplastic for packaging. These lines of thought led me finally to a series of ‘why’ questions about concepts of industrialization, economy, and capitalism, revealing the relationship between humans, perception, behaviour, and commodification.”

A story of Talitha Fruneaux who asks: Is it OK to play with life?

“I spent some time searching for ethics on bio art and bio design. I found a lot about the ethics from human perspective. How can bio art, design or technology affect humans, society, culture, privacy, human rights and so on. But apparently these ideas weren’t what I was looking for. I just wanted someone to tell me that what I was doing was okay. That it was okay to play with bacteria, mushrooms and plants. I read about how plants and bacteria also use other bodies to grow, eat, survive and even manipulate other bodies to make life easier for themselves. Does that mean I am also allowed to do the same? How is their practice different from what I as human do? Why do I need to be sure that they do it also – to feel less guilty?”

Talitha mapped bacteria from her home surroundings and these invisible bodies quickly became her companions. But it was risky to keep them close for long, as they multiply too fast to be safe. So before saying her goodbyes, she packed them into a bag, so that they cuddle with each other. To work with life, is to embrace the complexity and uncomfortable positions. Her learning how to grow mycelium, how to work with living and fragile bodies with hope to manipulate them and create from them, quickly turned into realisation that to work with living bodies is to be implicated in their living and transformative processes. Rather than finding answers, staying with and dancing with the problem becomes more important.

A story of Anivia Beylard

The crisis of covid-19 has many levels and faces, and Anivia spend her time in a strict curfew of France mapping the narratives, meanings and vocabularies emerging from the screens. Her experience she captured through interviews and collection of video and news documentations, composing the daily chaos of the new norm that emerges through words: “essential workers”, “quarantine”, “masks” and “privilege.” As she reveals: “I decided to use for the background clips of the great outdoors that were used already as a background for some of the witnesses I have collected. I think it highlights the relationship we have with the outside: we romanticize it as we yearn to be there, it is so beautiful, so gracious and we look upon it in a ‘God-like’ perspective while continuously being confronted with dehumanising practices and tactics of governments and the medias theatrics while trying to make sense of our own experience, and what is supposed to be ‘the new normal’.” As she explains, it is a work in progress as things are continually unfolding implicating us.

A story of Suzan Stemerdink who asks: How to pay attention to the plant root system?

In her investigation on plants as a resource, Suzan looked at their roots, to think of possibility to work with: “I wondered if I could make such a plant by means of a small experiment, where the actual plant is for consuming, and its incredible root system for a different purpose.” She thus started to experiment with directing root system of plants to grow them into a certain shape and form. In her meticulous study and observations, considering different plants and their vegetative capacities and needs, she tested the best ground, gravity and water system of roots’ growth. Through this experiment of control and master, she learned, however, how it is difficult to navigate that what is alive, how rather than imposing your own ideas, you need to work with the complex and embedded relationality of alien agency that is a plant:

“The underlying idea of my research was that I believe we have to reconnect/engage ourselves again with our environment. Not only when we are alive, but also when we die. With toxicities everywhere around us, we have to be aware of our own burden on the planet.

A story of Rojin Tavassoli who asks: How we can bring past and future in life? How bio-art can help in this process?

“The uncertainty of our life at the moment is the obvious evidence that we need to somehow change our vision of art as a material outside the body into a material which involves the body or living things. I started to think and observe the possibility of gathering my past and save it by using the living media, I wanted to grow my memory into the future. Windows were the interesting objects that help me to start my investigation. Windows are the very first object in the building that connects one to the outside world – a strong phenomenon that helps one to feel safe and, at the same time, to feel power that one can see and be seen without physical connection. The thin layer of glass is framed with wood or metal to protect our privacy and to provide us with natural light: what if we could capture their living nature and grew them in the lab?

I use the recipe of bioplastic based on agar with nutritious to capture the samples from a few windows that I pass the last weeks and try to grow the living things which I got from those windows. The aim of this investigation is the curiosity of how I could grow my memory and preserve it in the future.”

AKI BIO MATTERs is an artistic research program that focuses on working with new biomaterials where art and design meet life science, philosophy, politics, ecology, bioethics, and DIY. It is led by Dr. Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko https://aki.artez.nl/en/highlight/aki-research/

The present program is part of the minor Living Images in collaboration with Patrick Mangnus, Aalt van de Glind and Artez Studium Generale film series How on Earth?

Dr. Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko

Dr. Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko is a lecturer and researcher at AKI Academy of Art and Design ArtEZ, where she has initiated BIOMATTERs, an artistic research program that explores how to work with living matters, of which she is the coordinator. Since 2017, she has been a lecturer at Leiden University teaching courses on post-humanism at the intersection of art, ethics and biotechnology. Parallel to this, she is also a curator and writer. Her recent publications include “Forgotten Rituals of Yearning,” in Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry; “Between Bio(s) and Art – Intensities of Matter in Bioart,” in: Inside. Outside. Other. Bodies in The Work of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, (eds.) Ann-Cathrin Drews, Katharina D. Martin; “Materiality of affect. How art can reveal the more subtle realities of an encounter,” in: This Deleuzian Century: Art, Activism, Life (eds.) Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

References

Olga Tokarczuk, “The Tender Narrator,” ‘The Nobel Prize in Literature 2018’, NobelPrize.org, accessed 10 December 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/104871-lecture-english/?fbclid=IwAR3VKZsPXLK-YfcMOm-4gXMHhTXSJ-_89heaal6ULICqJd8JTbpIzz09J2A.