Festival 2020 report: Taking the time to immerse ourselves | Sensing Place

Installation view of Resurrecting the Sublime by Daisy Alexandra Ginsberg at Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne, March 2019. Vitrines with smell diffusion, lava and limestone boulders, animations, and ambient soundscape. Photograph: Alex Cretey-Systermans.

Sensing Place reiterates artistic practices that make unstable concepts such as ‘unseen’ and ‘unknown’ visible and more graspable. By interacting with hybrid instruments and engaging in experimental try-outs, the speakers Sébastien Robert, Yara Feghali and Viviane El-Kmati (FollyFeastLab) and Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg engage with forgotten narratives, speculative futures and alternative ecosystems.

Sébastien Robert in the studio, with remote speakers Folly Feast Lab (left) and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (right). | Photo: Pieter Kers

Sébastien Robert, a French sound artist, photographer and researcher, focuses on indigenous rituals and music which are in danger of disappearing due to technological, social and ecological issues. His research centres on the function of music and musical instruments as conceived by Indigenous worldviews, where nature and culture are considered inseparable. Music is used as a tool to create social cohesion, knowledge of other bodies and as a means to communicate with nature.

Sébastien participated in the Valley of the Possible residency, which gave artists, scientists, thinkers and makers an opportunity to connect with nature in the Cañon del Blanco, a remote and secluded valley in La Araucanía Andina, Chile. Here, he developed Rite of Passage, a project that researches Kultrun — a disappearing Mapuche drum used during shamanic ceremonies — and its relation to the surrounding community and its most important symbol, the Araucaria Araucana tree. Now it might not be obvious what the relationship between the tree, the drum and its community is, but Sébastien ventured to explore these interconnections, by tapping into anthropological and biological blind spots, and by listening to the locals’ stories and their long-experienced connections with their environment.

Sébastien Robert’s ‘Study of Crystal Growth’ 2020

The sacred tree Araucaria Araucana is considered by the Mapuche culture to be the living memory of the land, capable of capturing all the history of the ecosystem. And because music is considered the means to communicate with nature, the tree resonates with these ancestral rhythms. Through analysing samples of resin from the Araucaria Araucana tree, Sébastien plays with the process of sensitive crystallization, questioning the materiality of sound. This technique allows the formative forces of any organic material to be illustrated, revealing pictures of the living force of the resin.

Some of the questions asked during this process were: how do certain materials respond to certain rhythms? How do you store disappearing sound patterns? What tools can be employed, while countering extractivist practices?

Bottom left: Yara and Viviane of Folly Feast Lab | Photo: Pieter Kers

Can we imagine a future in which wastelands become sources of livelihood? Instead of considering landfills as barren, wasteful and infertile places, Yara Feghali and Viviane El-Kmati from FollyFeastLab propose an alternative. By imagining wastelands as ecosystems, emerging cultures and as places with economies and politics, Yara and Viviane explore new territories of architecture, criticising current social, urban and environmental practices. FollyFeastLab is an experimental design studio based in Los Angeles, creating visually-led immersive and interactive experiences by using new media and storytelling techniques.

What is the afterlife of overproduction? Where do phones end up after being used? What happens to e-waste? These are some of the leading questions addressed by FollyFeastLab while developing their on-going project Mediterranean Sea Diaries. Landfills are considered landscapes of the Anthropocene, environments that have consequences both for human and non-human beings such as health risks, fires and pollution. Nonetheless, these are still inhabited places, where people work, make a living out of scavenging, where animals roam around and plants grow out of organic compost. Inspired by the waste management crisis which led Lebanon to dump its waste in the Mediterranean Sea, the project imagines the future of post-human spaces, landfills and e-waste lands, the result of overproduction. By paying attention to the variety of technological materials and devices found there, these territories become places of shelter. Yara and Viviane closely investigated this by visiting the places, talking to people and documenting their site-specific findings.

Mediterranean Sea Diaries by Folly Feast Lab

Finding alternatives based on speculative design can open up spaces for possible futures in which instability can be used as a bridge to creativity, learning and experimentation. Plastic wraps can be turned into new gardens and functional e-waste into building blocks for shelter. Clearly, this is no excuse for the West to stop thinking about more sustainable supply chains or better waste management systems. Yet FollyFeastLab looks at this problem from an alternative angle, constructing an interactive VR documentary that curates the experience of such post-human landscapes.

Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg giving her presentation during Sensing Place | Photo: Pieter Kers

The concept better seems to encumber our ability to act. Can we make the world better? We hear and overhear our friends, relatives, media figures, politicians and policymakers trying to better their lives and our lives, but what does better mean? During her PhD, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg investigated how dreams of better futures shape the products and services that society creates. Thinking about a better world gives us a sense of hope, but better does not necessarily mean good for all, as better depends on who creates it, their contacts and political ideology.

In the face of crises, we sometimes find ourselves feeling hopeless, discouraged and lost. Better seems to promise something bigger than our present — our future. But better is a human idea with human measures and human values. What is better for nature? To tease out the conundrum of better, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg works at the intersection of cutting-edge science, technology and art, using captivating storytelling methods to explore these questions. The role of art in the face of ecological crisis is to ask questions, tell stories, imagine alternatives and enable action.

The installation Resurrecting the Sublime explores the idea of interacting with plants driven to extinction by humans’ colonial actions. Synthetic biology is used to predict and resynthesize gene sequences that might encode fragrance-producing enzymes, and so reconstruct the smell of each flower in the lab. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, with a team of researchers, recreated the landscape of the Maui volcano site in Hawaii, using a vitrine with smell diffusion, lava and limestone boulders, animations, and ambient soundscape. This draws us into the sublime, an aesthetic state of human contemplation amidst the immensity of nature, making us question our actions and calling for change in the future.

Apocalypse — End without End, Natural History Museum, Bern. Resurrecting the Sublime: Orbexilum stipulatum (smell diffusion hood, limestone boulder, documentary film, animation), March 2020. © NMBE Flueckinger

In her other project Machine Auguries, she explores how urban sound and light pollution affect the lifestyle of birds, obstructing their communication and survival. In this multi-channel sound installation, artificial birds are taking over, reproducing solo recordings of chiffchaffs, great tits, redstarts, robins and other city birds through machine learning. This sets out to question how the city might sound, if bird populations diminish, change or disappear.

Both projects offer audiences and museum visitors spaces for contemplation, artificial versions of the natural world which raise questions about better worlds and their implications. By bringing people together in social imaginaries, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg hopes to trigger conflicting emotions that ultimately question human beliefs and actions. How do we imagine better for humans and non-humans? Who gets to imagine our future?

Sensing Place was curated in collabration with MA programme Ecological Futures. Xandra van der Eijk, the creator of Ecological Futures, (far right of the table) joins the panel. | Photo: Pieter Kers

The speakers of Sensing Place do not offer solutions to our climate crisis, but imagine alternatives for potential futures and uncover pre-existing valuable knowledge, through diverse artistic practices and storytelling. Only by taking the time to immerse ourselves in our surrounding landscapes, acknowledge multispecies symbiosis and listen to stories and more-than-human perspectives, can we try to step away from individualistic behaviours, dichotomous relations and anthropocentric beliefs. Even if the unknown remains unseen, mapping instabilities is a worthwhile exercise.

Written by: Iulia Aionesi

Edited by: Rhian Morris

Iulia-Irina Aionesi recently graduated from Arts, Culture and Media (RUG), specializing in Theatre Criticism and Analysis. Her interest lies mainly in contemporary art practices and their intersection with ecology, public space and mobilities, but also topics surrounding more-than-human perspectives, intersectional climate justice, cultural anthropology, ritual decolonization and dance theory. Currently Iulia is nurturing methods of slowing down, grounding herself in the present by listening, sowing seeds, growing plants, foraging and cooking. She also practices dance and vocal improvisation, documenting stories and imagining alternative futures.

Watch the entire session of Sensing Place online at: https://2020.fiberfestival.nl/replay/

This session was co-created in collaboration with MA Ecology Futures

FIBER Festival is an Amsterdam based festival for audiovisual art, critical artistic research and digital culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the 2020 edition was transformed into a hybrid broadcasting platform, which brought together over 1400 visitors and more than 70 international makers and thinkers. With the theme of Instability the festival explored new ways of understanding and adapting to an age of planetary and societal changes. We asked: what opportunities are open to artistic making and thinking to contribute to this transformation? Missed the festival? You can watch all the sessions here: https://2020.fiberfestival.nl/replay

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