Nina Röder, Him and Her, a diptych made in residence at Château de la Napoule, France, 2017. Image courtesy:  The artist.

Synapse

Artists: Alex Côté (Canada) | Dennis Bourke (USA) | Julia Sinelnikova (USA) | Nina Röder (Germany) | Natasha Haverty & Brendan Pensue (USA)

 

Curated by Adwait Singh

Exhibition dates: 17 – 19 March, 2017
Venue: Gallery Blanche, Château de La Napoule, France.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. – Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace

 

Light plays an important role as a carrier of meaning as well as a narrative trope in the 1963 Norwegian classic novel The Ice Palace. It witnesses and mediates the affective encounter/exchange between the two pre-pubescent protagonists Siss and Unn who bond over an intimate moment of sharing their reflection in the mirror. The life-giving light that weaves the enchantment also proves dire in the end, as it lures and inures, disorients and entombs Unn in the reflective maze of the ice palace, where she perishes of hypothermia and reposes in an unnamed grave. The search party presses Siss for the vital knowledge that could yield clues to Unn’s whereabouts but the knowledge, like the light shared by them the previous night, remains locked within her mind like the beguiling luminescence in the ice palace before it melts away. 

The ancients were not far from truth in believing/worshiping the father sun and the earth mother. Sun’s energy is the source of life on our blue planet and the eminent scientist James Lovelock in his Gaia hypothesis has put forward the notion of the existence of a self-regulating global entity. Earth’s climate has changed little since the appearance of first life about 3.5 aeons ago despite changes in its surface conditions and atmosphere and the output of heat from the sun. Lovelock attributes the stability of surface temperatures[1] and ocean salinity as well as the singularly incompatible mixture of gases that constitutes our atmosphere to a living and dynamic biosphere, one that actively maintains environment suitable for life[2]. As such, the atmosphere can be conceived of as an extension (like nails and fur) of a large living and intelligent entity that composes the biosphere, with its own primary and tertiary organs and a multiplicity of complex and evolved cybernetic systems in place regulating its homeostasis. Interestingly, towards the end of the book, Lovelock refers to an article "Knowledge is Power" by Tribus and McIrvine, literally equating sun’s energy to knowledge: “the beneficence of the sun could be regarded as a continuous gift of 1037 words of information per second to the Earth, rather than as 5 X 107 megawatt hour of power per second, as is the usual way of putting it. We have seen that we are near the limits of what can be done with this much energy, but there are almost no limits to our ability to harness this flood of information from the sun.”[3] In her book Vibrant Matter, the American political theorist Angela Carter situates a special agency that she calls ‘impersonal affect’ within inanimate matter: “What I am calling impersonal affect or material vibrancy is not a spiritual supplement or ‘life force’ added to the matter said to house it. Mine is not a vitalism in the traditional sense; I equate affect with materiality…”[4] The technicolour vibrancy of sunlight is the first instance of this impersonal affect on our planet, giving/governing the moods to/of its various human and more-than-human critters. Light is a major ‘actant’ (to borrow Bruno Latour’s term) in this exhibition, composing, ostending and expounding its contents. It serves as the principal medium in Julia Sinelnikova’s ephemeral light sculpture and photographs, Alex Côté’s video projection, and Nina Röder’s poloroids.

 

The pollutants that find their way in Côté’s installation are metaphors of the large-scale planetary perturbations caused by unsustainable human desire. Interestingly, Lovelock qualifies the point by revealing ‘pollution’ to be an anthropocentric construct and something that naturally occurs in nature and is even a vital sign of life at work. However, in the decades since the book was published, both human greed and its environmental ramifications have spiralled to a critical point, putting a vast chunk of terrestrial life (up to 50 - 95%)[5] at risk if not Gaia itself. The Iranian Philospher Reza Negarestani employs (what he calls) a ‘nethermost viewpoint’ or ‘blobjective’ in his ‘novel’ Cyclonopedia (2008), animating petroleum as a slithering, slick Satanic force controlling its various ‘petropolitical puppets’ on ‘chthonic strings’. The black mass, biding its time in the depths of the earth, devouring organic matter, has finally surfaced and captured the imaginary of the anthropos and subsumed his desire. This dark rippling desire coursing through the planet now threatens to runs its course and consume his matrix in the process. Attempts have been made to undo the enchantment at several fronts (environmental, political, metaphysical) and with awareness comes hope.

 

UK based artistic practitioner Nabil Ahmed points a way by reconfiguring the purpose that remote sensing, satellite imaging and mapping more generally, has been put to historically – from being a hegemonic and colonising tool in the hands of states and corporations locating and exploiting the planetary resources to being redeployed in the prosecution of environmental crimes. By envisaging the earth as a corpus dilecti (the body of crime) Ahmed advocates a new form of forensic practice and spatial aesthetics based on high-resolution spectral imaging that can evidence/ render visible the numerous and diffused crimes perpetrated against Gaia (such as the mineral extraction in the tropics carried out under cloud cover) and hence help serve environmental justice[6]. Julia Sinelnikova’s practice cultivates this spatial aesthetic through the marriage of optics with anonymous surveillance videos. A technological succour is also prescribed by Lovelock rather than a hasty return to primitive ways. However, a return to nature might just be what is wanting in our philosophy to break the enchantment. This forms the underlying impulse in the photographs of Nina Röder’s which stage queer encounters between humans, landscapes and found nature. Peter Gray of Scarlett Imprint, certainly feels that we have compromised our Gaian links and disenchanted ourselves, exchanging our witchcraft for a capitalistic one-track mono-culture. He calls upon us as the creatures of the land to revive our animism and our tellurian bond.[7]

‘Synapse’ connotes this link to Gaia by materialising sites/shrines where such connection can be presenced. It signifies the intricate network that implicates the human and more-than-human components of our biosphere with the largest living assemblage – Gaia. Lastly, it points towards the promethean gift of vast fibre-optic matrix of contemporary technology as a key for the survival of the species.

*****

[1] Lovelock writes, “If the earth were simply a solid inanimate object, its surface temperature would follow the variations in the solar output. No amount of insulating clothing will indefinitely protect a stone statue from winter cold or summer heat. Yet somehow, through three and half aeons, the surface temperature has remained constant and favourable for life, much as our body temperatures remain constant whether it is summer or winter and whether we find ourselves in a polar or tropical environment.” (Lovelock, 1079, pp. 18-19)

[2] James Lovelock, Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 64.

[3]  Ibid. pp. 131.

[4] Jane Benett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. xiii.

[5] American author Elizabeth Kolbert projects these figures in her book The Sixth Extinction the Unnatural History (2014).

[6] See Nabil Ahmed’s essay ‘The Body of the Crime’ in TAKE Ecology (volume 3, issue 1), January – June 2017, pp. 10 - 13.

[7] See Peter Gray, ‘Rewilding Witchcraft’ in Scalet Imprint (June 13, 2014) http://scarletimprint.com/2014/06/rewilding-witchcraft/

Still from Alex Côté's multidisciplinary performance Sun.Sync. Image courtesy: The artist.

Julia Sinelnikova's projection-mapped surveillance light sculpture PentAutomaton. Image courtesy:  The artist.