Agential Matter (Invisible Landscapes)
by Sabine Popp
The project examines performativity of algae, objects and bodies in instances of observation in scientific research, industrial production and artistic encounter - specific fields of discourse in society, where discourse is enacted by material engagement. It is based on a shared attention towards kelp forests as matter and landscape, and touches upon personal and public interests. The spaces of investigation are seen as sites of social practices, and performativity as an ongoing dialogue and interaction between different parts involved, with matter as one of the actants in a wider community beyond the human.
Kelp forests, laboratory, industrial site and the art space form alternately and on equal level the site for artistic research, and production and presentation of work. Elements from these sites - in form of objects, sounds, images and movements - are exchanged and displaced to question meanings and values shifting over time in the respective fields, and society.
Lines from three directions in contemporary art are brought together in testing and questioning the conceptual and aesthetic potential of matter. The project is situated between a documentary approach in its application of the camera as the observational tool and the addressing of socio-political issues and questions of landuse on the one hand, and explorations of material processes and their affects by engaging with them on the other, meanwhile applying methods from social practices in work on site and in the studio. The work enacts thinking by doing fueled by tendencies to be found in what has been coined as New Materialism in the last decades.
Matter has turned from being passive and merely acted upon to being attributed a high degree of activity in theoretical discourse influenced by feminist thinking. In the arts, the notion of passive matter became challenged already with process art in the 60s. In order to investigate agency the project examines not so much what matter is, but what it does in relation to others.
Material entanglements - with kelp as the recurring and partaking element in everyday life and seasonal shifts - are traced by different ways of acting, observing and discussing. Dialogue is carried out by doing, with the aim to create a feedback loop in the complex system of interwoven spaces. The boundary between audience/ dialogue partners/ collaborators remains unclear.
Fragments of the first three spaces - the lab, the sea and the industry - are brought to the art space, seemingly to isolate them from their context, and to illuminate and reflect relationships by dissecting, multiplying and reassembling elements before potential returns. Process and performativity are more important than any stable condition, as the entanglement of materialities isn’t stable but fluid. The art object appears as a momentary communicator and facilitator, not as autonomous object. Entanglements manifest performing in space, physically, and are alive in (sensible) lines and (spoken and written) words.
The project was formally commenced in October 2016 (and finally defended in 2021 to conclude the doctoral study), as research fellowship in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, building on previous projects and experiences, especially from working periods in Greenland and Iceland between 2010 and 2012, when algae - or more commonly 'seaweed' - still seemed a widely marginal and overlooked matter. However, it had started to attract growing interest as something of potential for future economies (mainly through applications in medicine, energy related technologies and food) - especially in the geographic periphery, and with an eye to changing climate conditions. Artistic investigations on kelp in Norway had started for real in 2015.
Brown macro algae are prevalent on all coasts of the North Atlantic, and seemed a good mediator for tracing naturecultures’ conditions in arctic and subarctic regions. Kelp is highly valued by the alginate industry, ephemeral, regrowing and mobile to a certain extend. In its sensitivity to certain parameters, it can be read as a sensor for reigning environmental conditions. Questions of knowledge, natural resources and connecting economy are strongly related to national independence, meanwhile mutual dependence is what keeps ecologies alive across borders drawn by humans. Kelp forests give space to a huge number of other living beings, and produce much of the oxygen we breath. The social space of these ecologies includes humans and non-humans alike, and a growing awareness of this is to be perceived in the face of changing and critical conditions of existence. Sensibilities and visions are in demand for imagining a common, livable, future.
The project doesn’t aim for innovations and solutions, but rather hopes to stir up things, or keeping them suspended in their contradictions to prepare a ground for collective thinking and doing. To get on solutions one tends to blind out part of collected information, which still might be necessary for the future. To keep things suspended in their potentiality, the project constantly folds elements and layers into each other, rather than increasing focus on one specific aspect.
Observation of and learning from marine biological research, staging of collective spaces and the setting up of experiments follow each other, using the diagrammatic as tool to follow up, observe, (re)think, enact and transfer - drawing on paper, walls and floors, with (in)visible lines connecting elements (of movements, sounds, objects and images) in four-dimensional space, or formed by looping, turning and aberrant lines of words.
The notion of re-enactment as a kick-off for doing serves as mimic to gain an embodied understanding, or at least a different kind of closer proximity in the investigation of matter. In some cases, isolated gestures become signs when appropriated and transferred to the art context. Certain terms or objects – for instance ’the frame’, and the discourse of inside and outside that follows with it - are tested and discussed as potential boundary objects in speech and action to cross over between fields and perspectives, and to establish a common ground with other disciplines.
What is included here are glimpses into observations, experiments, stagings, processes and spaces – some of them made publicly accessible, others kept inside the more enclosed environments they originally derive from. Main focus had been on fieldwork with marine biologists in a fjord close to Tromsø (www.kelpex.org), on the impact of torn-off fragments, or debris, from kelp forests after transport into adjacent communities. A second strand has followed the increasing interest for growth of algae in aquaculture and experiments of processing and application – with visits to a laboratory and experimental sites close to Bodø and Trondheim, and historical research on the use of seaweed as natural resource at the Research Institute for Seaweed (Institutt for tang- og tareforskning), founded 1950 in Trondheim. This research is today continued in various branches of the university (NTNU), and other govermental and private research units.
The last strand connects to harvest of wild growing kelp for the production of alginate.
Repeated visits to a landing station for harvested loads throughout a year aimed at observation of the seasonal change in the algae’s condition, and were an attempt to gain understanding for harvest rhythms and infrastructure. The only company harvesting in Norway (in 2019, and having had the monopoly since the beginning of the 60s), has shifted from Norwegian to American ownership (FMC Biopolymer) in 1999 - from Norwegian state-owned to privatized multinational ownership. In autumn 2017 it became part of the DuPont corporation (www.stortare.no). Their production serves almost a third of the global market of alginate. Harvest has been contested throughout the years, mainly in local communities, and has been attacked by fishermen and environmentalists alike. This provoked scientific monitoring of harvested areas, that is conducted to certify that no harm is done to local ecosystems.
From the beginnings of the industry in the 30s and up to the 60s (when harvest technology developed to reach the deeper forests) at times more than thousand fishermen were engaged in harvest by hand along the coast just below the tidal zone. Today only few locals are involved in harvest, as crew members on small trawlers.
My journey tok me up and down the Western coast of Norway - it is the site of my work, with many stations along the way, and people encountered - workers, divers, community builders, marine biologists, academics, herbarium custodians, theorists, practicioners, harvesters, entrepreneurs, and colleagues from the arts. The artistic research project at OsloMet Oslofjord Ecology, initiatives of the Nordland akademi for kunst og vitenskap in Melbu, the KMD (Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design at the University of Bergen) seminars on socially engaged art, the Art Academy's other collective spaces, and the Kelp Congress of LIAF (Lofoten International Art Festival) offered temporary spaces to anchor the project in an art community.
I want to thank all of those who supported me one way or an other, who listened and responded to questions, doubts and lamentations. Who helped with practical and technical issues. Who opened spaces for exchange, experience, insights and presentation. Thanks to all those from the marinebiological field, and from the landing station, for generosity, trust and the willingness to share knowledge, and to allow access and border-crossings of various kinds.
There are provided two entries to the project - one consists of mainly visual material and the other, diffracting a wall, of mainly verbal material, weaving a web of reflections, references and thoughts on how to approach the given issue of Agential Matter with artistic means and methods. It might be a good idea to switch back and forth between the visual and the verbal. Possible cross-links are sometimes provided on the way - at least from the verbal into the visual material. However, if getting lost one can find help by the content list on the left of the drop-down menu bar (when you touch the top edge of the window) of the research catalogue, to get back on the track.
More indepth information on kelp, and various perspectives on and interests for it, can be found by listening to the video version's voice-over of >>> pro.vocations (for a not yet fully articulated time (40min) or by reading the essay of the same title, published in >>> Oslofjord Ecologies. Artistic Research on Environmental and Social Sustainability (pdf for download).
For inquiries you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you'll find your way.
>>> visual material