Interview with artists

In­ter­view with the com­mis­sioned artists of Speculative Realities by Michelle Kasprzak, as published in the ebook.

Michelle Kasprzak (MK): When I first ap­proached you with this brief, what were your first thoughts on how OOO & SR was al­ready sit­uat­ed with­in your prac­tice?

Re­vi­tal Co­hen of Co­hen Van Balen (RC): We have been work­ing around de­signs for an­imals, an­imal de­signs and de­sign of an­imals for a while now. There­fore, ob­ject-​ori­ent­ed-​on­tol­ogy’s (OOO) ideas of things that are be­yond (or per­haps around) hu­man per­cep­tion are rel­evant to our prac­tice. We’re in­ter­est­ed in non­hu­man pres­ence and in­ter­ac­tions, in pro­cess­es that are be­yond hu­man con­trol. We ap­proach these pro­cess­es and sit­ua­tions from a spec­ula­tive point of view, not al­ways con­cerned with re­al­ity, rather with fields of pos­si­bil­ity.

Cheryl Field (CF): The thing that ap­peals to me most about OOO/spec­ula­tive re­al­ism (SR) is the egal­itar­ian po­si­tion these philoso­phies adopt. They of­fer a demo­crat­ic stance that is per­haps at odds with our nat­ural im­puls­es. It’s a very hu­man qual­ity to har­bour an an­thro­pocen­tric and an an­thro­po­mor­phic view of the uni­verse. For ex­am­ple, chil­dren will agree with state­ments such as ‘rocks are jagged so an­imals can scratch them­selves’ and ‘birds ex­ist to make nice mu­sic.’ These kinds of tele­olog­ical state­ments make in­tu­itive sense to us; they are the kinds of ex­pla­na­tions that come nat­ural­ly to hu­man minds. Sci­ence on the oth­er hand re­quires the kind of ab­stract thought that doesn’t sit so eas­ily. And I think that is where my work (which as you know is heav­ily in­flu­enced by my back­ground as a molec­ular bi­ol­ogist) and OOO/SR start to find com­mon ground – there’s a strik­ing re­sem­blance be­tween these philo­soph­ical po­si­tions and the uni­verse as de­scribed by sci­ence. Nei­ther of the pieces of work I made are meant to be di­agram­mat­ic of OOO / SR (there are bet­ter ways to do that than though art-​ob­jects I’m sure).

Karoli­na Sobec­ka (KS): My work hasn’t ex­plic­it­ly ref­er­enced OOO or SR ideas, but it was fol­low­ing a few re­lat­ed tan­gents. The most promi­nent might have been the non­hu­man per­spec­tive, as a lot of my work has to do with cre­at­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the view­er and in­ter­ac­tive agen­cy, rep­re­sent­ed of­ten by an­imals or ob­jects. I have been in­ter­est­ed in Jakob von Uexküll’s writ­ings. Uexküll made de­duc­tions about how a par­tic­ular an­imal ex­pe­ri­ences the world or what he calls its umwelt, for ex­am­ple, in­fer­ring the bee world from, among oth­er things, the struc­ture of their eyes and their be­haviours. This is kind of an ear­ly ver­sion of the ex­plo­ration of mul­ti­plic­ity of non­hu­man per­spec­tives that OOO en­cour­ages.

I was al­so think­ing a lot about ob­jects and how they rep­re­sent cul­tur­al mo­ments that they were cre­at­ed in. The Am­ateur Hu­man project is meant to be a kind of in­verse ar­chae­ol­ogy – look­ing at man-​made ob­jects and de­ci­pher­ing from them the be­liefs, de­sires and knowl­edge of peo­ple who cre­at­ed them – ex­cept in this case the ob­jects would be cre­at­ed to em­body this in­for­ma­tion, rather than ex­ca­vat­ed. The project was de­signed to re­flect on our re­la­tion­ship to en­vi­ron­ment in the mo­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis.

MK: Can you tell a lit­tle more about the works you cre­at­ed for the ex­hi­bi­tion, be­yond what we can learn from read­ing the short de­scrip­tions of them?

RC: We were in­ter­est­ed in the spe­cif­ic vi­su­al lan­guage of na­ture doc­umen­taries fol­low­ing noc­tur­nal an­imals, at­tempt­ing to look in­to a non­hu­man ter­ri­to­ry of night­shades and crea­tures guid­ed by their ears and noses in­stead of their eyes. Night im­ages of places and be­haviours not meant to be seen ap­pealed to us as they take bi­ol­ogy out of the realm of ‘da­ta’ and hold it with­in for­got­ten ter­ri­to­ries of won­der and mys­tery.

We want­ed to de­vel­op a work that will repo­si­tion bi­ol­ogy in the su­per­nat­ural ter­ri­to­ries of the un­known, the en­chant­ing and the un­spo­ken. Es­pe­cial­ly look­ing in­to an­imal-​plant sym­bi­ot­ic re­la­tion­ships, where one of the most beau­ti­ful and in­trigu­ing as­pects is the op­er­ation of very com­plex sys­tems with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion or in­clu­sion. Or­gan­ical­ly al­ter­ing the de­sign of biotopes and self-​en­gi­neer­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty, these in­ter­ac­tions are like the­atre that takes place on­ly when there is no au­di­ence. We want­ed to build a ‘set’ or scaf­fold for a po­et­ic in­ter­ac­tion be­tween an­imal and plant where the ex­changes can nev­er be ful­ly in­ter­pret­ed.

CF: I cre­at­ed two pieces of work for the ex­hi­bi­tion – the first was a se­ries of clock­work fin­gers ti­tled Nei­ther ready nor present to hand. The fin­gers were cast from life and mount­ed on brass brack­ets. The fin­gers and brack­ets wob­bly wild­ly, in a whol­ly un-​hu­man way, when they are wound up by the clock­work mech­anism. The sec­ond piece was ti­tled (C8H8)n, CSi, KAl2(Al­Si3O10)(F,OH)2, C, C, Ca­SO4, Fe3C, SiH3(OS­iH2)nOSiH3 and con­sist­ed of three turn­ing steel plates, on one face of each was a cast, pink, rub­ber tongue and on the oth­er face was a minia­ture moun­tain. There is some­thing un­can­ny about sen­so­ry and sen­su­al or­gans (i.e. fin­gers and tongues) be­ing dis­lo­cat­ed from the body. Both the fin­ger and the tongue are al­so fun­da­men­tal to our sense of hu­man­ness and to some ex­tent they are sym­bol­ic of our evo­lu­tion i.e. the op­pos­able fin­ger and thumb and the pow­er of speech and lan­guage have giv­en us the dom­inant po­si­tion on this plan­et. With both com­mis­sioned works, I want­ed to take that whol­ly an­thro­pocen­tric po­si­tion and play with it. The fin­gers are part prop, part fic­tion­al-​func­tion, part bi­ol­ogy, part whim­sy. Sim­ilar­ly, the tongue/moun­tains are an­oth­er means of re­clas­si­fy­ing or­dered struc­tures, if you will.

KS: This project was con­ceived as a set of ob­jects and in­stal­la­tions that ex­plored what a cloud is through many sets of lens­es – from their phys­ical ap­pear­ance to their sym­bol­ic use as an aid in myths, philoso­phies and rep­re­sen­ta­tions. OOO de­scribes each ob­ject as ‘with­drawn’ or un­know­able, be­cause any ob­ject (for ex­am­ple a tree) is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent thing in an ant’s ex­pe­ri­ence, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, a cloud’s ex­pe­ri­ence, or its own. Nepholo­gies aimed to ex­plore cloud-​ness from sev­er­al sim­ilar­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

For the ex­hi­bi­tion, I cre­at­ed one ob­ject, the Cloud­Mak­er (though I still plan to de­vel­op some of the oth­er Nepholo­gies). The Cloud­Mak­er is al­so part of the Am­ateur Hu­man project and is a per­son­al de­vice for weath­er mod­ifi­ca­tion. It con­sists of cloud-​mak­ing gear sent up in­to the at­mo­sphere in a weath­er-​bal­loon pay­load. As it reach­es spe­cif­ic al­ti­tudes it dis­pers­es Cloud Con­den­sa­tion Nu­clei (CCN), heat and wa­ter vapour. Mois­ture in the air con­dens­es in­to cloud droplets around the CCN, form­ing in­to small clouds. This method is in­spired by a geo-​en­gi­neer­ing tech­nique pro­posed to cre­ate brighter, more re­flec­tive clouds which shield earth from sun’s ra­di­ation, and thus part­ly coun­ter­act the cli­mate change.

The Cloud­Mak­er as a con­tin­ua­tion of the Am­ateur hu­man project is fo­cused on hu­man un­der­stand­ing of ‘na­ture’ and our place in it, or as Tim­othy Mor­ton would put it, on de­vel­op­ing our eco­log­ical aware­ness. It cen­tres on en­gag­ing peo­ple in en­deav­ours and con­ver­sa­tions that might seem bor­der­line ab­surd and thus re­veal­ing of par­tic­ulars of one’s ac­tions in the world.

The ‘meta-​sto­ry’ of the Cloud­Mak­er de­vel­oped in a re­al­ly in­ter­est­ing way as I was work­ing on it. Each cloud launch is ac­com­pa­nied by a sto­ry of its tra­jec­to­ry in the at­mo­sphere and of the ac­tu­al cloud-​mak­ing, but al­so, and in­creas­ing­ly more in­ter­est­ing­ly, by a sto­ry of its land­ing in some­one’s back­yard and pro­vok­ing a quite var­ied spec­trum of opin­ions from ran­dom (or at least not self-​se­lect­ed) part of the pop­ula­tion. For ex­am­ple, the first launch land­ed the cloud-​mak­er in a clump of trees on the bor­der be­tween an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ly pro­tect­ed wet­land and some­one’s yard. The prop­er­ty own­er was quite sus­pi­cious of me and of the Cloud­Mak­er, and would on­ly let me on his prop­er­ty af­ter I have been cleared by the lo­cal po­lice. In­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions en­sued, with the po­lice, the prop­er­ty own­er, and the lo­cal tree ser­vice, bring­ing up such is­sues as le­gal­ity of cloud-​mak­ing, so­cial and per­son­al re­spon­si­bil­ity, pri­va­cy, and law­ful en­force­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

MK: When con­front­ed with the main tenets of OOO & SR (re­think­ing cor­re­la­tion­ism (an act of di­vi­sion be­tween hu­man and world); a non-​an­thro­pocen­tric world­view; an in­ter­est in modes of on­to­log­ical lev­el­ling (a democ­ra­cy of things); a con­sid­er­ation of ag­gre­gate forces like cli­mate through cat­egories of au­ton­omy), how do you broad­ly see these as rel­evant to cur­rent vi­su­al & me­dia arts prac­tice?

RC: On­to­log­ical­ly, our prac­tice has oc­ca­sion­al­ly been de­scribed as part of vi­su­al & me­dia arts prac­tice; in the midst of it, caught up in the tur­moil. It doesn’t give us the best per­spec­tive to speak of the area in broad terms, nei­ther to sit­uate its tenets. We leave that to the oth­ers.

CF: Un­like the sci­en­tif­ic pro­cess, which is de­signed, wher­ev­er pos­si­ble, to re­move the hu­man from the equa­tion, the same is clear­ly not true for vi­su­al art. The work any artist makes can on­ly ev­er re­al­ly be a re­flec­tion of their per­son­al ex­pe­ri­ence of the times in which they live. How then does that rec­on­cile with the no­tion in SR that ‘the re­al’ must be thought of in­de­pen­dent­ly of its con­nec­tion to mind or hu­man ac­tion? I’m not sure it can. We can try and stand out­side of our own ex­pe­ri­ence and noo­dle about ecol­ogy; pre- and post-​hu­man uni­vers­es; in­ter- and in­tra-​species par­ity, but ul­ti­mate­ly we are tight­ly teth­ered to the in­side of our own heads, to the most com­plex ma­te­ri­al in the known uni­verse – our brains – and there­in lies the rub.

KS: I think OOO and SR are re­al­ly in­spir­ing the­oret­ical dis­cours­es. The ter­mi­nol­ogy they in­tro­duce alone is a kind of bom­bas­tic nam­ing state­ment that forces re­think­ing and re­or­ga­niz­ing our as­sump­tions. It was re­al­ly in­ter­est­ing to delve deep­er in­to this think­ing when work­ing on this project. New ways of think­ing about is­sues such as glob­al warm­ing or re­la­tion­ship with and be­tween the non-​hu­mans (in­clud­ing things as well as an­imals) are re­al­ly re­vi­tal­iz­ing them. It’s even more in­ter­est­ing that those thoughts emerge ‘as we speak,’ and the philoso­phies are still shaped and formed in the on­line fo­rum post­ings, com­ments and the net­worked dis­course, which as prob­ably con­tribut­ed to its em­brace by new me­dia art com­mu­ni­ty in par­tic­ular. As Levi Bryant (2012) put it, talk­ing about the pro­lif­er­ation of OOO and SR: ‘its grow­ing pres­ence in aca­dem­ic de­bates has not so much been the re­sult of pre­sent­ing per­sua­sive ar­gu­ments – though hope­ful­ly it does that too – but the re­sult of how it has un­fold­ed in the ma­te­ri­al do­main of so­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies and open-​ac­cess pub­lish­ing. In oth­er words, there’s a sense in which, as McLuhan put it, ‘the medi­um is the mes­sage.’

MK: Can you tell us a lit­tle more about the play with OOO thought in each of your works? Maybe Cheryl, you can elab­orate on the role of Hei­deg­ge­ri­an thought for you?

RC: The piece is the piece: an in­ter­face for a hare to lis­ten to sig­nals that have been bounced off the moon. The noise in these sig­nals is caused by ir­reg­ular­ities in the sur­face of the moon. A moon­flow­er is part of the de­sign of the an­ten­na. The moon­flow­er is a night­shade that cor­re­sponds to the moon, aim­ing as an an­ten­na. The moon­flow­er is a psychedel­ic plant. Hares eat all plants and flow­ers. Be­cause of its vi­olent mat­ing rit­uals, the hare has his­tor­ical­ly been per­ceived as a lu­natic. ‘As crazy as the March Hare.’ Lu­na­cy is the at­tri­bu­tion of men­tal ill­ness to the moon. East­ern cul­tures tell sto­ries of a hare liv­ing on the moon, en­gaged in sa­cred prac­tices that are be­yond our un­der­stand­ing.

CF: My most ob­vi­ous nod to Hei­deg­ge­ri­an thought is in Nei­ther ready nor present to hand. It tick­les me that by tak­ing a hu­man fin­ger or thumb and re­mov­ing it from the body and ac­ti­vat­ing it by me­chan­ical means in­stead of bi­olog­ical means, it ir­re­vo­ca­bly shifts the Hei­deg­ge­ri­an tool-​state of that fin­ger from be­ing ‘present-​to-​hand’ to ‘ready-​to-​hand’ which for a fin­ger is, frankly, next-​to-​use­less. Af­ter all, we need more fin­gers in or­der to ac­ti­vate (and wind-​up) the tool-​fin­ger. It is a tool no more, but an ob­ject nev­er-​the-​less. By lib­er­at­ing it from the shack­les of the hand, it with­draws from us and leads a life in­de­pen­dent of our an­thro­pocen­tric per­cep­tion.

KS: Clouds are bare­ly ob­jects at all and so, be­ing a kind of edge con­di­tion, seemed fit­ting for ex­plo­ration of ob­ject-​hood. Clouds have been his­tor­ical­ly used as philo­soph­ical aids in­clud­ing by Descartes, who was con­vinced that if he could ex­plain clouds, he could ex­plain ev­ery­thing, since they epit­omize the un­gras­pable.

Try­ing to make a tiny cloud in the at­mo­sphere is kind of like try­ing to make a wave on the ocean, and some OOO dis­cus­sion is re­lat­ed to the long con­ver­sa­tion re­gard­ing such po­et­ic/hu­mor­ous ges­tures of ab­sur­di­ty and fu­til­ity (Robert Bar­ry’s In­ert gas se­ries for ex­am­ple, in which he re­leased neon, he­li­um and oth­er in­ert gas­es in­to an at­mo­sphere). From the OOO stand­point, re­mov­ing con­sid­er­ations of what mean­ing or util­ity these ges­tures might have for hu­mans, we can see them and their prod­ucts as tru­ly ‘demo­crat­ic,’ ‘ob­jects-​for-​them­selves,’ rather than ‘for the gaze of a sub­ject, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or a cul­tur­al dis­course’ (Bryant 2011: 19). Like La­tour’s ‘gal­lop­ing free­dom of the ze­bras,’ they ‘lack noth­ing’ with­out our gaze (49). Their in­vis­ibil­ity to hu­mans doesn’t take away from their ob­ject-​hood.

The ab­sur­di­ty of try­ing to make a cloud is in­stead of linked to the fact that clouds are just tiny ‘foot­prints’ – tem­po­rary lo­cal man­ifes­ta­tions – of the gi­ant ‘hy­per-​ob­ject,’ the cli­mate, so mas­sive­ly dis­tribut­ed in time and space that it is in­vis­ible to us, yet whose shad­ow looms in­to our world ev­ery­where, and whose re­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to Tim­othy Mor­ton, is more re­al than the ‘wet stuff un­der your boots’ (2010). It tow­ers above hu­man com­pre­hen­sion and makes at­tempts such as com­mer­cial or mil­itary weath­er mod­ifi­ca­tion ei­ther laugh­able or hor­ri­ble.

The in­vis­ibil­ity of mat­ter in this project is al­so part­ly re­lat­ed not on­ly to the ephemer­al na­ture of the ob­ject (po­ten­tial­ly) cre­at­ed, but al­so to the kind of me­di­ation that usu­al­ly takes place in por­tray­ing phe­nom­ena that are be­yond our im­me­di­ate ex­pe­ri­ence. Such ‘in­stru­men­tal­ly de­tect­ed re­al­ity’ is in­ferred from blips on mea­sur­ing or view­ing de­vices and pre­sent­ed to us in an en­hanced, il­lus­tra­tive ver­sion.

MK: Look­ing at the show as a whole, do you have any com­ments on the most sig­nif­icant syn­er­gies and con­nec­tions be­tween the works?

CF: Two things come to mind – pur­pose and hu­mor. What struck me about the ex­hi­bi­tion was that each of the artists built seem­ing­ly func­tion­al ob­jects, i.e. ob­jects that looked like they should ful­fill a pur­pose. Whether that was a fic­tion­al, a philo­soph­ical, a po­et­ic or a prac­ti­cal pur­pose (or in­deed many pur­pos­es si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly) was for the au­di­ence to de­cide. Al­so I have to ad­mit that I found the works in ex­hi­bi­tion re­al­ly fun­ny. There is some­thing slight­ly un­hinged (I mean that in a good way!) about the works in the show; the hi­lar­ious jour­nal that ac­com­pa­nies Karoli­na Sobec­ka’s tremen­dous­ly se­ri­ous cloud ma­chine and Tu­ur van Balen & Re­vi­tal Co­hen bonkers sys­tem for a hare to lis­ten to the sur­face of the moon… these are fun­ny, func­tion­al/non-​func­tion­al ob­jects. These works are about ideas be­come mat­ter, and mat­ter in­sin­uat­ing its way back in­to thought. Per­haps, in the end, this is the on­ly way we can tack­le a sub­ject like SR?

KS: All the projects are very dif­fer­ent ap­proach­es, and I think maybe thanks to those dif­fer­ences they com­ple­ment each oth­er, es­pe­cial­ly when con­sid­ered through OOO con­cepts.

One uni­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic might be their un­can­ny-​ness: Cheryl’s tongues, moun­tains and fin­gers mix their fa­mil­iar­ity with strangeness, putting the view­er re­al­ly in the bot­tom of the un­can­ny val­ley. The moon gar­den for the hare and the gi­ant an­ten­na that com­mu­ni­cates with the moon (and the car­rots and the moun­tains and the clouds and ev­ery­thing else) is a re­al­ly won­der­ful sto­ry and a way of imag­in­ing the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of things, evok­ing Tim Mor­ton’s idea of ‘strange strangers’ (2010). The Nepholo­gies project al­so points to Mor­ton’s un­der­stand­ing of un­can­ny val­ley – where the more we come to know about some­thing the stranger it be­comes.

MK: Do any of you have fu­ture plans for your work(s)?

KS: I’m plan­ning to take the Cloud­Mak­er to places where it might find new res­onance. Wyoming, North Dako­ta, Texas, Utah, Col­orado and Neva­da have now or had in the past state’s weath­er mod­ifi­ca­tion pro­grams, so they seem a promis­ing launch­ing ground. I will al­so take the Cloud­Mak­er abroad to launch it in dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al, en­vi­ron­men­tal and le­gal set­tings.

Each of the launch­es sto­ries adds to the Launch Log – the ex­per­imen­tal doc­umen­tary I am mak­ing around the sto­ries of each Am­ateur hu­man ob­ject, which I’ll be work­ing on for the next few months. Even­tu­al­ly I al­so plan to de­vel­op oth­er Nephol­ogy and Am­ateur hu­man projects.


Works Cit­ed

Levi Byrant, The Democ­ra­cy of Ob­jects, Open Hu­man­ities Press, 2011; http://open­hu­man­itiespress.org/democ­ra­cy-​of-​ob­jects.html

—. ‘The Ma­te­ri­al­ity of SR/OOO: Why Has It Pro­lif­er­at­ed?’, Lar­val Sub­jects (2012); http://lar­val­sub­jects.word­press.com/2012/06/03/the-​ma­te­ri­al­ity- ​of-​srooo-​why-​has-​it-​pro­lif­er­at­ed/

Tim­othy Mor­ton, ‘Think­ing Ecol­ogy: The Mesh, The Strange Stranger, and the Beau­ti­ful Soul,’ in Robin Mack­ay (ed.) Col­lapse VI: Geo/Phi­los­ophy, Fal­mouth: Ur­ba­nom­ic 2010, pp. 265-293.

—. ‘Hy­per­ob­jects and the End of Com­mon Sense’, The Con­tem­po­rary Con­di­tion (2010), http://con­tem­po­rarycon­di­tion.blogspot.com/2010/03/hy­per­ob­jects-​ and-​end-​of-​com­mon-​sense.html

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