Bio-art, Installation and Performance as Holistic Modes of Understanding the Human and Non-Human
Biological cultures, artistic methods as alternate forms of ecological sampling, and critical theory are some of the multiple resources that drives artist Jasmin Märker’s creative process. Our virtual relationship with Jasmin began the beginning of this year, we had just selected her to become a part of our March-April 2020 Bosque Pehuén Residency Program, in which she had proposed to research on invasive species, traditional forms of ecological knowledge and a series of onsite community engagement activities through bio-art, which we will hopefully be able to conduct in early 2021. In the meantime, over the past weeks we’ve spoke about how the pandemic has affected her creative processes, and how many new things have risen from this challenge, as well as on her latest work. Let’s begin delving into her choice of materiality as well as creative process.
Fundación Mar Adentro: You partially situate your work in the genre of bio-art, that is creating art with living organisms. In particular, you work a lot with members of the microbial kingdoms such as fungi, slime-moulds and bacteria. For example, your work Chimera (2017) was a wall hanging made from Kombucha cultures. How did you become interested in these specific materials? Do you cultivate them yourself, and if so, how did you learn to do this?
Jasmin Märker: After the end of Year 2 at Belfast School of Art we had to move into a new building and our much beloved historic art school was demolished. At that point I was still quite influenced by my early twenties’ participation in socialist groups. Much of my art attempted to convey leftist messages through some abstract sculptural expressions with plastic resin, latex and metal –which I find quite amusing now. Anyhow, a lot of the work went into the skip because of the move and my naive younger self decided that if my sculptures cannot change opinions then they should at least be compostable. Several dozens of ‘googles’ later I came across Phil Ross who invented the mushroom brick and who has since contributed much to the development of fungal materials. Initially I just wanted to find a compostable sculpting material, but I was soon captured by the aesthetics of fungal growing processes. There were A LOT of failures. But slowly my studio transformed into a lab-like setup and I became obsessed with working with all sorts of microorganisms and eventually even larger ones. It feels like I’m creating assembly of all beings. With this fascination came also a curiosity for how human cultures relate to biological cultures and therewith an interest in biopolitics and environmental philosophy. I studied medicine for just over a year before doing art. Not a lot of information stuck with me, but I dare to say that this background provided me with enough scientific literacy to teach myself basic microbiological processes.
When you start a new project how does your creative process begin? And, has this pandemic affected your creative processes?
Good question, I feel my creative process has benefited a lot from lockdown. Normally, I tend to start with an interesting piece of critical theory. It is often a text which contextualises human problems through the lense of non-human ecology or vice versa, analyses of the anthropocentric lenses through which we conceive non-human nature. Then I begin with more practical explorations and visual information gathering that get the creative process going, such as urban walks, nature explorations and intuitive art-science experimentation. I think like many other artists I know, I have always struggled with making the bridge between theory and practice. Often I got stuck on details or I was focusing too hard on giving the contextual preposition justice, and that sometimes stopped me from trusting my ideas. Somehow I always felt guilty about spending time exploring, rather than producing in the studio, unless I was on a residency away from home. This is quite bizarre, because in theory I thought the opposite, but ultimately capitalism still conditioned me to feel about labour in those terms. With lockdown, my studio closed, but luckily we were still allowed outside for exercise. Spring was just awakening and I kind of created my own residency that involved foraging in nearby woods and grasslands. Lockdown took away the pressure of having to make work, but spending so much time in the ‘wild’ led to plenty of ideas and inspiration. This experience has given me more confidence in my creative processes and encouraged me to set more time aside for such explorations, even during busy times.
Has the pandemic taken you to explore new questions, also ?
I don’t think the themes I explore have changed, if anything they have become more relevant. The global pandemic highlighted the entanglement of non-human and human cultures. While this is not a mainstream media discourse, we know there is a clear link between biodiversity loss and viruses shifting hosts to humans as a result.
Do you believe the role of art has changed in light of everything that has happened globally?
I believe art has always had the role to connect our outer world with the inner one, to reflect critically on what others accept as the status quo and to imagine new futures. Art has a history of being very responsive and adaptive to new conditions. Right now in the UK, artists feel very frustrated. As pubs reopen and people are offered ‘eat out to help out’ vouchers, theatres and other cultural venues remain shut with little to no support. The government’s complete disregard for the arts has become more apparent than ever. Though, I try not to rant too much about it and to seek out positives. I really hope that the temporary closure of traditional arts venues leads to new ideas for cultural events that are more accessible to wider segments of society. For example, I just finished an outdoor art & science activity trail as part of a community project, which was born out of lockdown. Also, we are currently organising a multi-genre, walk-through art event in our car park, which uses social distancing restrictions as an inspiration for new event formats.
You mentioned how your art-science practice addresses epistemological questions and lays specific value on intuitive ways of learning. How do you incorporate interdisciplinarity in your practice to promote critical perspective on our relationship to nature?
I have always jumped between disciplines. In primary school my favourite thing was theatre and maths, and my teacher asked me which one of them I would like to pursue as a career. I said both and she laughed at me. There is a tendency not to take people who cover broad areas of research and have ever changing interests seriously, but I think the generalists are as important as specialists. I got referred for ADHD assessment in December, which partially explains my non-commitment to specific media, organisms and disciplines. This neurodiversity has caused me some really erratic ways of working in the past, but with it also comes enhanced divergent thinking. I believe it is that divergence, which has always made me question ‘Why?’, ‘How do we know this?’ and ‘Is that really so’? My inquiries brought me across David Bohm’s work, specifically Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980), a philosopher and one of the most important Western theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Bohm suggested that thought itself was divisive and inadequate to solve problems of sustainability. His work speaks of how language, an extension of thought, relies on categorising and dividing ‘things’ to describe them. Only because our language often cannot communicate our perceptions in detail, art and art research are dismissed as subjective and incapable of producing knowledge. Of course, thought is not inherently bad. Thought has enabled us to solve problems in manageable proportions and hence how to make fire etc., but at some point humankind started dividing things beyond their indivisibility and acted as if it was separate from nature. Creativity and technology are essentially opposing processes. Technology is concerned with how to produce a predetermined outcome. The creative process joins various perspectives and subject matter without trying to force an end result and therefore is free to really understand what a problem is actually about. Mainstream responses to sustainability issues involve replacing plastics by less toxic plastics to enable us to continue our current routines. But they do not address the fundamental systemic issues and problems with the human psyche that have produced this crisis in the first place.
Your latest work, Slime Dynamics is very interesting, particularly how you broke down barriers between the artist and the spectator by inviting them to participate in experiments with non-humans. What were these human-non human interactions? What were some of the reactions, feedback or results you saw in those who engaged?
Slime Dynamics, part of the NI Science Festival 2020, was conceived as a research project to explore common dynamics of biological communities and human territories and to experiment with more engaging exhibition formats. I have a desire to ‘make’ in my practice, but at the same time it is very process driven. There is nothing more exciting than entering my studio and checking my experiments to see how they evolved. This is the element, which I believe has the greatest capacity to fascinate people for non-human worlds; but these processes remain hidden to the one time gallery visitor. I wanted to see if I could somehow combine both, a display of art works and the experimental aspects. The project included a series of workshops during which participants were invited to make psychogeographical reflections on Belfast and translate them into art-science experiments with slime-moulds and wheatgrass roots.
For example in one experiment participants represented areas they liked by giving the slime mould ‘favourite foods’, and undesirable areas were marked with salt or exposed to light. Similarly in the wheatgrass experiments we used salty soil, neutral soil and nutrient rich soil to mark different territories. I got less information about how people relate to the city than I hoped when I planned the project. The workshop would have required some tweaking and would have had to be a lot longer, which did not fit in the format of the festival. Though, I felt it was really successful in fascinating people for these non-human organisms. Many were really perplexed that slime-moulds used the same decision-making process as humans. And I got some really enthusiastic updates on how their slime moulds experiments had progressed after they took them home. One person even told me this was the most he cared for a non-human in a long-time, which was very rewarding to hear.
Can you speak a little bit about your latest research ? You mentioned that you were looking at artistic ways to survey natural environments.
Yes, I started a project named Invasion Aesthetics as part of the Rapid Residency programme from Science Gallery Dublin, which derived from the project I had planned for Bosque Pehuen, originally. Invasion Aesthetics examines how aesthetic concepts, nationalist sentiments and economic ideologies render life forms desirable or pestilent and therefore affect our decisions to kill or nurture them. I used nature forays to investigate the different habitats humans construct e.g. gardens, agricultural land and ‘the wild’. Throughout my research I collected, pressed and collaged plant material. But rather than just sticking the plants to paper I am trying to create dynamic works that are reflective of the complex interspecies relationships that make habitats and also consider the human conceptions that govern these. I am creating my own paper from plant matter to represent the decaying vegetation through which new life emerges. I am also allowing the paper to be colonised by various microorganisms, fed on by insects and altered by seeds sprouting from it in order to reflect on the organisms we consider disruptive to these territories. In a way I see these works as artistic alternatives to ecological sampling methods. While the latter uses quadrants to count the number of species present in an area, my ‘collages’ aim to produce holistic understandings of habitats and the humans and nonhumans that make them. I am, though, very much at the beginning of this research and I think it will take me a long time in order to produce really successful works.
Jasmin Märker. German-born Belfast-based visual artist working at cross-sections of bio-art, sculptural installation and performance. She holds a BA in Fine Arts from Belfast School of Art and since has exhibited across Ireland, UK, Sweden & Portugal and conducted various residencies exploring art-science themes. Her practice involves collaborations with non-human organisms to explore holistic approaches to sustainability.
The illustration of this interview has been made by Constanza Salazar.