1.3 The Emergence of Performative Aspects
Most seed banks start by collecting seeds locally. Methods used for the conservation of germplasm are generally desiccation and low temperature. Seed banks don't require a lot of space, but they can be expensive to maintain. Preoccupied with methods of preserving seeds inside a public sculpture, I started to study how this could be accomplished in a sustainable way.
I researched ancient methods of conservation obtained by building cooling rooms, also known as Yakhchāl. These constructions are built in such way to form ice indoors - a very valuable material in the antiquity - and were used in Persia since the 5th century before Christ. The structures were able to function independently from the external temperature thanks to a complex system resulting from the use of a layered material called sārooj, their specific architectural proportions and curves forming a ventilation system, as well as the right orientation. Based on this engineering research, I designed my own mechanical ventilation system inside the sculpture in order to preserve the seeds without the use of electricity.
I started collaborating with sculptor Nastia Elseeva, who developed the shape of the sculpture hosting the ventilation system. We worked closely together, as the monument presented two parts: the 'body', whose function was to attract and engage the public, and the ‘soul’, which had the function of keeping the seeds alive. To merge these two entities together was a genuinely demiurgic task, as there are innumerable technical requirements for the merging of different materials and shapes into an object that wants to be attractive, safe in public space and functional for the designated purpose of preserving and distributing seeds. The work presented also two types of participatory interfaces mimicking the dynamics of contraction and expansion, centralisation and decentralisation: the interface seeds-to-human, a system to preserve the seeds in an urban area; and the interface human-to-seeds, a public ritual to set the seeds free to grow.
In 2014, I was invited by Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger to exhibit my work at Mänttä Art Festival. I decided to exhibit the ongoing process with Ark of Seeds, and in particular show my research related to the seeds container and the participatory ritual, two key aspects that I was directly implementing to my work. I realised a prototype of the inner mechanism in collaboration with metallurgy expert Martti Halonen, and I equipped it as a musical instrument in collaboration with composer Timo Tuhkanen. We wrote the libretto and designed dramaturgy, choreography and soundscape of the ritual in collaboration with musicians Outi Pulkkinen and Juho Laitinen, with aerial acrobats Pinja Shönberg and Riikka Pentinsaari and with actresses Iika Hartikainen and Riina Tikkanen from Metamorfoosi theatre. The garments were designed by fashion artist Suvi Hänninen and the actresses’ masks by Laura Mäkelä. Sharing the creative process with such variety of professionals created a sense of community. Consequently, the work started to live in a completely different dimension, moving and drifting again, this time from installation-sculpture towards performance. The cultural reference for the ritual's dramaturgy was rooted in medieval street-theatre, its aesthetic was rich with symbolism related to anthropological and historical research, and at the same time the action was designed to be easily received by the general public and children.
We launched the work at XX Mänttä Art Festival, New Present. It was well received by the audience attending the opening, participating in the ritual with wonder, receiving the seeds and asking themselves questions about the future of the planet and its resources. The ritual was rooted into the local community thanks to an artist residency in Mänttä, that facilitated collaboration with a high school teacher and their pupils.
The piece was dedicated to scholar Ville Oksanen, who had been part of my workgroup implementing the publication of the research with a CC license. The idea we had was to make the piece available to the widest audience possible, keeping the procees open whilst encouraging people to reproduce it or copy it in any way they wanted. As the work included natural seeds, we hoped that the instigation to copy it, would trigger a necessary discourse about ownership of seeds, about their reproductive potential as part of their basic living strategy, and the necessity of an organised collective action – even a decentralised one – to safeguard biodiversity through the reproduction of the seeds and keeping them alive in their habitat.
By working together with Turre Legal (experts on legal aspects of extending digital licenses into the material world), I learnt that under the legislation, there are only two ontological types: the legal person (humans and registered companies) and the object (any asset owned by a legal person, or included in the public domain of a state, including natural resources and living non-humans). This weltanschauung, which is certainly instrumental to implement the law, seems detrimental when looked at through the lens of conserving natural resources. The damage that led to the extinction of biotic mass and natural resources has been implemented along the centuries perhaps because there is a void in the definition of a 'third type of legal persons', personhood related to living entities that are not humans. Paradoxically, the law has been much faster to grant rights to human-like AI machines, in comparison with the interminable controversies faced to grant a minimum range of basic rights to animals in farming, pharmaceutical research, or in zoos.
At this point, the prototype of the public monument and the prototype of the participatory performance were ready; they could enter a pre-production stage in order to become a permanent work. This possibility attracted the attention of the City of Espoo, who eventually wanted to include the monument and a cyclical ritual to become a part of the cultural resources of one of their public greeneries.
Encouraged by the interest around the project, in 2016 I presented the sculpture and the performance once more in Helsinki at Catalysti exhibition The Visitors ed. 3. in Kattilahalli. During the same year, a very important debate took place in relation to the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), the Transatlantic Trade Agreement between the EU and the US. The text agreement was purposefully kept away from the public eye to such an extent, that it was even difficult for MEPs to access, read and fully understand. With the excuse of supporting free market exchange, TTIP aimed to involve ownership over natural resources and introduce products and foods that were not considered safe by EU regulations. This would eventually also include agricultural seeds, their circulation, and ownership. The regional crops variety and the rich diversity of IGP products would be irremediably threatened under the weight of a massive and unregulated flood of low quality and very cheap food products coming from the US into the EU market.
I decided to accompany the presentation and display of the artwork with a public debate called The Seeds of Future. The workgroup included the participation of documentarist Antti Ahonen, art manager Johanna Fredriksson, curator Marita Muukkonen, and scholar Herkko Hietanen. We decided to organize a debate where pro and contra TTIP would be analyzed. As moderator of the discussion, we invited Kimmo Collander, Director of Amcham (American Chamber of Commerce in Helsinki) and Global Investors’ Program, and as key speakers we invited Martti Koskenniemi, professor of International Law at University of Helsinki, and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics; Olivier Hoedeman, the research and campaign coordinator at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO); MEP Heidi Hautala, chair of the Euronest delegation; Jaana Kivi, freelance journalist, writer of the book “Brussels sold - lobbying paradise for merchants”, published by Into Kustannus; Aleksi Kuusisto, international officer at SAK, The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions; and Marco Roccato, deputy secretary of Italchamber Finland.
The event opened with the performance as inspiration for the discussion. The seeds were shared with the public during a spectacle of music, acting and aerial acrobacy, in a happening that aesthetically referred to medieval street theatre. Immediately after the performance as the debate begun, Professor Martti Koskenniemi opened with these words: "In the past, if somebody would have asked me if I want to be a person who sits in a panel or a person who climbs to the ceiling with a red thread, I would have had no difficulty in answering which one I would want to be. But here I am sitting in a panel. (...) The Ark of Seeds performance reminded me of aspects of the history of property, especially of the western idea of property. In the Early Middle-Ages and until the seventeenth century, it was mostly taught to Europeans that when God gave the world to human beings, it gave it to human beings in common. But when Late Middle-Ages people looked out of their window, they realized that there was very little common property left."
After the key speakers, the discussion was open to the public, focusing on the burning issue of if under the TTIP treaty natural resources would be common property or owned by private institutions. Participants discussed the ownership of seeds and the impact of the TTIP treaty on natural resources. It was a heated debate, with 300 participants present in person and a few thousand following live online. Thanks to his participation in the Ark of Seeds project, Herkko Hietanen was asked to study the TTIP text, and after our event he was invited to give a speech at the Finnish Parliament about his analysis of the treaty. A few months after The Seeds of Future discussion, the TTIP was opposed by the Finnish Parliament and later rejected by the European Parliament.
The juxtaposition of the artistic ritual together with the public discussion about the ownership of natural resources, initiated a new and unexpected line of thought in my research. Humans and plants, politicians and citizens, scientists and artists, one could say that in very specific settings we appear to be performing together. The frameworks of such collective and perhaps unconcious happenings is delicate and labile, present like a chance, a wind, an open door to languages yet to come; languages that are the result of an inter-disciplinary, inter-species, and inter-environmental exchange of a deeper level. It is near impossible to re-create the same conditions for a performative habitat to happen a second time. Rarely is one able to create the favoured conditions for a performative habitat to form and nest in the first place, for it to root, resist and sprout into a fully formed, inter-collaborative momentum.
It was then that I understood that my interest had shifted from the production of a fine art object - the monument, the public artwork - towards an interest for the performative act of forming an interdisciplinary nest, of caring for a habitat collectively.