Anthropocene walk London

On the 28th of July I organised a walk for CCW tracers, a group based at Chelsea College of Art and Design. This group is researching and visualising entanglements connected to the notion of humanity’s ecological footprint and possible cracks in financial superstructures. Three locations marked the walk, the first being an open air talk about the emergence of new species by geneticist Ekaterina Yonova-Doing, the second a visit to a London Plane tree in the heart of the financial district, and the third a visit to Deptford Creek including a guided tour showing the newly created habitats for plants, birds and fish and some background on the way these activities were connected to the developers currently building around the creek. Neil Cumming’s account of the day can be found here.

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Neil Cummings and Marsha Bradfield operating John Hartley’s collapsonomic creekcam.

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Duet for voice and film

In my search for a more positive approach towards the big ecological challenges that seem to lie ahead of us, the notion of the posthuman started to catch my attention. As in many cases, when discovering something new and attractive, it won’t go away anymore. But what is posthuman? The term could refer to humans becoming cyborgs, implanting computer chips into their bodies, or an even more unpredictable future of genetic manipulations on humans and other animals. I prefer a more simple explanation: a future that is less focussed on the human, or to strengthen this: an end to human exceptionalism. A new window opens if we look at the world keeping that idea in our minds. Suddenly the situation is less desperate, maybe it does not matter at all if we disappear. There are many other creatures living on this planet that are as ingenious, beautiful and full of potential as we are. Even matter itself has properties that lead to endless change and productive reorganization. Our claim that we are the only conscious entities on the globe (or even in the universe) seems less and less likely to be true.

Taking this as a theoretical starting point, I have gone back to my practice as an artist and filmmaker. In a bid to collaborate with natural processes and micro-organisms I have set up a series of experiments with analogue film, exposing it to a variety of organic materials and minerals. The 35mm film I used was many years out of date, rendering it useless for ‘normal’ photographic use, but as such becoming more receptive to the processes that I was using. Yeast grew, salt crystalized, chlorophyl was absorbed, and the acidity in rotting leaves destroyed the emulsion. I also experimented with so called organic developers made with coffee granules and fresh mint leaves, and 19th century recipes for toners based on more ‘aggressive’ chemistry. Now an interesting contradiction presented itself, are these images abstract, or are they true reflections of nature?

In a next step I organised my results through an editing process, looking at the shapes, colours and rhythms. Something that I could not control now entered my realm, after my initial role as an observer I now found myself in the role of translator. Some of the images produced are clearly an expression of a certain event and easily translate into a specific emotion, others are much more ephemeral or mysterious. The slippage of meaning into chaos seems actually a very productive way to communicate my initial idea. In order to amplify that I wrote a score, consisting of sounds, some english words plus snippets of other, presumably foreign, languages.

The final work is presented as a performance, projecting the moving images while performing the score with the use of my voice. Duet for Voice and Film is as such a work that exists in the space between nature, process, language and the active perception of the audience.

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Productive Micro Organisms

Microscopic life forms are usually not the most beloved creatures. Techno-culture produces sanitised environments of gleaming white, metallic and transparent nothingness, desirable as fetishes of material wealth and total control. This lifeless world does not offer any form of sustainability or proximity. Contemporary biology and evolutionary science offers a different perspective. The human body is understood as a symbiotic complex system involving many different bacteria that influence us deeply. Evolution is driven by viral infection and emerging symbiotic behaviour of cells. Christina Agapakis, a biologist, writer and artist, show us this in a provocative project involving bacterial colonies harvested from the human body which are used to produce cheese. This ‘human cheese’ is tested and tasted by a panel of cheese loving culinary specialists. On a more purposeful note she developed cell cultures producing hydrogen, as a potential source for sustainable energy. Biofuels produced with algae are already industrially produced on a considerable scale, but these fuels still contribute to global warming. Bio-hydrogen could take us a step further towards fully sustainable energy production. But even on the other side of the spectrum, in the Chernobyl disaster zone, micro organisms play an unexpected role. In 1991 scientist discovered black molds growing inside the Chernobyl sarcophagus. According to an article published in 2007 by PLOS ONE these radiothrophic fungi successfully use the remaining radiation as a way of capturing energy, instead of photosynthesis.

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Inspired by these examples I have embarked on a series of experiments seeking the help of micro-organisms for the production of images. The main component of film emulsion, gelatin, provides a feeding ground. Water and warm temperatures help the creation of a viable environment. The above image is an example of yeast growing on the emulsion, offering a variation of tones and shapes.

Divided by Nature

Inspired by the Drake equation, a formula that aims to quantify the probability of extraterrestrial civilisations, I started thinking about the possibility to develop my own speculative mathematics. I am proposing a formula that helps us to understand the relation between future development of human population, human culture and global environment. Taking the advance of humanity and its culture as defining elements for the future, and acknowledging that these activities will have an accelerating impact on global ecology, the following equation is established: h(umans) + c(ulture) = n (global ecology) * f(uture). In this version culture and ecology are safely divided on both sides of the equation. By moving ecology to the other side, the division is disrupted: (h+c)/n=f. Although I do not want to make any claims to the mathematical validity of these speculations, the equation might help to further discussion about the relationship between our actions and a possible future. Instead of dreaming about conquering the stars, I rather dream about new possibilities that are close at hand. Doing_Equation

London Underground Mosquito

Stagnant water (pools, flooded sumps and shafts), relatively warm temperatures and an abundance of mammals (humans, mice and rats) in the London underground system form a habitat for a population of mosquitos, genetically different from the species found on the surface. Maintenance crews are plagued by the mosquito, and drivers have to clean the front windows of trains daily. Infamously named molestus this insect is benefitting from the man made environment in multiple ways and has adapted to its new environment in a mysterious way. While normally new species take thousands of years to evolve, the molestus has succeeded in doing this in a period of less then 150 years, making it an evolutionary erratic. According to a article published in Heredity by Katharine Byrne and Richard A Nichols the species seems to have emerged from a single colonisation that happened around the same time as the Bakerloo line was build (1898-1906).

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Woodstreet

On Woodstreet, in the heart of the City of London, a solitary tree stands proudly between old and new buildings. The Plane was planted in 1821 in the Churchyard of St. Peter’s and in 1835 was said “to occupy the space of a house”. Then years later two rooks’ nests were observed. Clauses in the shops’ leases prevent its destruction. The churchyard were the tree grows is mostly used by city-folk to smoke cigarettes in the short breaks punctuating their busy and purposeful lives. The tree towers over the old building and extends its branches, occupying all precious space that is left. The resilience of the tree in this neighbourhood that is entirely dedicated to exploitation and commerce is remarkable. By following the tree and its surroundings over a period of a year, light will be shed on this strange co-existence.

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I am not the first to give special attention to this tree, as demonstrated by a poem by the English romantic poet Wordsworth.

The Reverie of Poor Susan

“At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes!”

William Wordsworth  7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850)