Interpreting time in non-linear ways through art

Ela Spalding, Panamanian artist and facilitator, reflects on the ways in which art can help us accept the changing nature of environments, as well as find ways to adapt to the socio ecological crisis.

For fifteen years she has been traveling between Panama and Berlin, weaving individual and collective reflections as well  as  creations  through her non-profit organization Estudio Nuboso, a project with which Ela Spalding has developed the SUELO methodology: artistic mediations and facilitations that seek to reconnect inhabitants of diverse contexts with  materialities and meanings that underlie a surface that houses life, time, and depth.

Recently, she participated in the 4th edition of our art and science dialogues titled Poligonal: New Narratives or Regeneration,  leading a meditative key-note presentation as well as through her sound installation Ocaso in the gardens of the Mirador Interactive Museum (MIM) in Santiago, Chile, which offers a space of rest with hammocks and maps whilst reading stories about the past, present, and future of the place the installation is in, accompanied by her lullabies for humanity.

Fundación Mar Adentro: What do you find most valuable in  transdisciplinary experiences in its possibilities of bringing together art and ecology in communities? What territorial differences have you experienced in  this regard?

Ela Spalding:  I’ve developed my experience mainly through Estudio Nuboso (EN), which emerges as a horizontal platform to bring together various disciplines. When I started, 15 years ago, there was greater freedom for experimentation, now capitalism has become much more accentuated in Berlin. It was in 2012, within the framework of the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Alemania, when I began –again– to observe and be inspired by art as a platform and space at the service of humanity to interpret the past, present, and future. Back then, these types of transdisciplinary projects were very innovatives, less so now.

Regarding territorial realities, in Panama, a small country,  I have found that there is more access to having the support of scientific institutions to develop artistic projects in a transdisciplinary way, while in Europe it is more difficult for a scientific institution to commit to working with artists, there are more reticences and disciplinary hierarchies. I however have felt that in the past years scientific institutions in Berlin are becoming more open to the idea of collaborating, although there are more individuals. Another important point is that in Europe the focus is more on art, science, and technology, while in Panama the intersection of art and nature is more  conceptual. In the post-pandemic there has been more attention to what we do with Estudio Nuboso because we are experiencing the emergency and the importance of working intersectorally to potentially impact public policies. . Little by little I see that transdiscipline is leveling out due to contingencies.

In Chile we have also experienced this gradual shift, with more public funds available for trandisciplinary approaches within scientific institutions. In that sense, what adaptations have you observed in art based on your creations and collective projects?

I have seen various works that address that topic. Thinking about preserving an ecosystem as it was before is a conservative attitude that does not go with the reality of constant change, on the other hand, talk about “preserving” indigenous traditions that make up living cultures is complex, to give another example. We are evolving and changing with the ecosystem. I try to focus on the fact that adaptation is absolutely necessary, and I seek to observe and study these changes rather than warn about them.  There is a danger in seeing the world in a linear way, a topic that is discussed in the book Arts of living on the damaged planet, which refers to art that emerges in contexts of emergency or pollution. We must make visible ways to accept change and see what can be generated, where art is a fundamental path for this.

Where do you see the  SUELO methodology situated within this  panorama of adaptation and non-linearity in pursuit of the acceptance of change?

What SUELO seeks is to focus on a place and its particularities. By focusing on this, the history of human dramas, at present or further back in their existence, enter into a movement that dialogues with the transformations of the tectonic plates, which allows us to imagine. These explorations allow us to conceive that national territories, as human inventions, perhaps come from another part of the planet or of the universe. SUELO highlights the characteristics of the particular ecosystem that we address in each instance, this implies looking back archaeologically and so, through art and new narratives, we can learn from practices to co-create a future.

In SUELO it is possible to observe that the past is a continuity constituted by processes that began and remain in motion. The methodology seeks to weave these stories from more holistic spaces that involve an interaction of entities with information. You can weave those experiences, and expand horizons to other realities and perceptions of the world, not only in circles of people who think similarly.By observing the dynamics of other beings we enter new temporalities, this generates empathy, because we understand that not everyone comes from the same situation, and this exercise is generative because it allows us to have a greater openness about what can be done in the future.

In your work there is a concern to facilitate connections between  humans and  their surroundings. How do you conceive the agency of  the connection that occur as a consequence of certain interactions?

It is difficult to attribute a single causality, but in meditation, for example, I see a way of communicating with a person or group at the same time in a certain space. From an internal connection it is possible to genuinely connect with the environment. This occurs especially if they are pleasant, beautiful places or surrounded by nature, relaxation is facilitated, people open up more than in sterile spaces. As an artist I usually seek to create moments of transformation of spaces with others as collective experiences, to open a window of  self-perception and spatial perception in a different way. It is my desire to support people to connect with themselves, with their communities and with their environment. My work Ocasois a good example, in which I use the children’s bedtime routine applied to living beings of all ages – and in this case, the narratives help to recontextualize (us in) the place and the lullabies for humanity, they relax us.

Regarding the effect of these connections, I am beginning to integrate artistic practice more consciously with facilitation. Until now, they have been different creative spaces, but I sense that they come from the same intention of creating a space and time to reflect and connect. The effects range from relaxation that is built from various avenues, spaces that allow artists and scientists to release their roles, hats and hierarchies to connect as human beings. We are beings with a common interest in well-being and awakening for all.

Finally, I would like you to delve deeper into the idea of how art balances and, at the same time, generates hierarchical disruptions between disciplines. How does this intention complement the educational project you are developing at the moment?

Art is a flexible space where you can play with different ways of expression and investigation. Other disciplines do not always have that freedom, science I feel is especially limitating. Art, collaborating with other disciplines, gives a space of freedom to be, see and question in other ways. Currently, I am developing an educational program  called “Healthy watersheds, strong communities”– for Fundación Marea Verde Foundation, in Panama, which has been an important challenge, since we work with teachers from public schools in urban areas with diverse social complexities.

There has been an ideological clash between intentions and the bureaucratic paralysis that inhabits other belief systems. Art has allowed us to explore ways to deal with problematic realities. In that sense, we not only seek to promote the exchange of disciplines, but we talk about the life paths of different people, social situations in which we must develop great tools of empathy and deep listening, as well as humility and flexibility. Only adapting to needs allows us to fulfill a common desire.

This is an ongoing certificate course that has generated very nice final projects. We are working with ten schools, some have made medicinal gardens with indigenous knowledge, and an ecological brigade has also been created to empower students and parents. At the same time, awareness is being raised about solid waste management, which is the main mission of Marea Verde. We have worked with the SUELO methodology to generate connection  with the ecosystem and, from these connections, the desire to clean and regenerate arises.

Ela Spalding: Artist-facilitator who explores the ecotones between worlds of knowledge, using art as a medium to practice and transmit expanded notions of ecology and interconnection. Her work focuses on sound, well-being, and the processes of nature to invite both individual and collective listening and resonance. She is founder and director of Estudio Nuboso, an art and ecology platform based in Panama, with which she is currently developing a Field Guide for the SUELO Methodology. Currently, she teaches a diploma focused on strengthening community spaces that seeks to transgress the ways of conceiving and meaning that space that sustains us.

Violeta Bustos

Interviewed by Violeta Bustos: Communications Director at Fundación Mar Adentro. Journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. She has specialized in digital strategies, cultural and academic management.