"Our body could be seen as the virus’ technology to operate on a global scale"

In your CV you have an interesting definition for your professional focus: “on man-made environmental breakdown” and “more-than-human minds”. What picture of the world do you keep in mind for professional practice? Is it a human-centered world? 

I think the idea of centre/periphery should be largely reconsidered, and gradually dismantled, since perspective can shift wildly according to our standpoint and way of looking at things. The idea of this world being human-centred is misleading, and mostly an illusion produced by ideas of exceptionalism that characterize and drive our species. In reality, the functioning of all forms of life on this planet is deeply interdependent. I remember reading an interesting subversion of logic in a book by Michael Pollan, where he described corn as the quintessential capitalist plant: corn adapts itself to a petroleum-based monocultural global type of agricultural production system and when we think we are growing corn, in fact is corn that is using us to carry out its program for world domination. So I guess from the corn’s perspective, the world may also be corn-centred.

What I have in mind instead, is a world thriving with meaningful entanglements and irreplaceable symbiotic relationships among living beings, that are all around us, and within us, but that we somehow still fail to respect and consider fully. We acknowledge their existence, although we often operate as if they weren’t there. Recent theorists (mostly rooted in Lynn Margulis’s findings, which go back to the late ’60s) have widely stressed the fact that the individual human body is not an entity that can exist by itself, therefore the idea of an independent functioning is a misconstructed illusion: we are composed by millions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and without their work, our bodies could not function. Billions of human bodies have massively impacted life on this planet, and on the surface, they seem to operate beyond nature’s regulatory systems. In addition, neo-Darwinian interpretations of the theory of evolution, such as the survival of the fittest through harsh competition for limited resources, have somehow crystallized in public opinion and have ultimately served to inform and partially justify the pervasive logic of capitalism in all its forms (including the cognitive one). My favorite example of this lately has been that of the green slug elysia chlorotica, a species that has gradually learned to perform photosynthesis by establishing a symbiosis with its favorite algae food. This animal has managed to engage into a molecular process of becoming-plant, and can find nutrition in exposing her body to direct sunlight. In a way, elysia chlorotica defies our distinction between animals and plants, according to which plants (autotrophs) are able to create their own food departing from raw chemical components and sunlight, whereas animals (heterotrophs) would be doomed to exploit the biochemical work of other beings (either plants or other animals through predation).

Tuomas A. Laitinen, Protean Sap (2020). HD video, 11’8’’. Still from video. Courtesy the artist and Helsinki Contemporary.
Agnieszka Polska, The New Sun (2017). Still from video. Courtesy of the artist.
Jenna Sutela, Holobiont (2018). HD video, sound, 10’27”. Still from video. Courtesy of the artist.

What then is the core of the relationship between artist and curator? Is it the relations of codependency, symbiosis, conquer or even a  war for the place under the sun? Are we really ready today for non-anthropocentric ways of living and cooperation in the art world?

The way we see the relationship among all the agents operating in the arts can vary considerably. Some of us see it as an interdependent one whereas others act more aggressively, which brings us back to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of Darwin’s findings, which has been centred around the idea of survival of the fittest through harsh competition for limited resources. Art is a competitive field, and its internal mechanisms of exclusion can be very violent, so in a way, it can make sense for some to compare it to the way we have traditionally been taught biological evolution. In my experience, collaboration has always brought much more interesting results than working “independently” (whatever this means), in terms of personal and professional growth. Honestly, I believe one can not really work independently, because we are essentially influenced by so many inputs that it becomes difficult to see where our ideas begin and end—in the same way as it is difficult to detect where our bodies begin and end if we stop thinking about them as single organisms and see them as holobionts, namely consortiums including bacteria, fungi, viruses that are crucial to our existence.

Enrique Ramírez, Tidal Pulse, 2018. Site-responsive sound piece and visual journey on a local ferry. Duration: 3 hours. Premiered within AMIFF – Arctic Moving Image and Film Festival (Harstad, Norway). Courtesy of the artist.

Do you mean we are all more about interdependence than independence? But again, how is that interdependence “centered” for each subject?

Our so-called “human-centered world” is strictly interdependent and entangled with all other life forms, despite our misbelief that being at the top of the food chain (or even operating outside of it) can grant us some level of autarchy. The functioning of the system we have set in place, and that was long enough perceived as stable and uncrushable, can be dismantled very quickly, as it has been widely demonstrated lately, and by forces that operate outside our control. Think about the COVID-19 situation, for example. In 2019, the years 2020 and 2021 would have looked like a dystopian sci-fi movie: a virus that pulls the brakes of our velocity, attacking production, capital, and life itself. A virus operates like an inert chemical component outside a body, and it can become alive and functioning only when reaching a host. So it could be considered as an intermittently living thing, functioning in-between life and death, but that can nevertheless operate on such a tremendous scale, attacking an intentional/voluntary act that our bodies need to perform for living: breathing—an act that has suddenly become so charged with meaning (political, racial, of health… who has the right to breathe today?). In a way, our human body could also be considered as the virus’ technology to operate on a global scale, in a virus-centred vision of the world. But right now, what counts, is exactly to abandon this idea of the distinction between a regulating centre and a periphery, to abandon our old binary logic and focus instead on the blurs, the cracks, understanding the grey, the in-betweens.

Kristina Õllek, Powered By, 2020. Installation: bioplastic, 110x170cm aluminium frame, UV print on plexiglass, spirulina powder, emerald green pigment, clay, fountain, water, energy drink cans, bioplastic-epoxy panels, adjustable holders. Installation view at EKKM. Photo: Kristina Õllek. Courtesy of the artist.
Kristina Õllek, Powered By, 2020. Installation: bioplastic, 110x170cm aluminium frame, UV print on plexiglass, spirulina powder, emerald green pigment, clay, fountain, water, energy drink cans, bioplastic-epoxy panels, adjustable holders. Installation view at EKKM (detail). Photo: Kristina Õllek. Courtesy of the artist.

That idea of abandoning binary oppositions had been the focus for humanities for the last 50 years years. And one of the main counterarguments against the utopian possibility to eliminate the binaries is that our mind and cognitive process have binary nature. Would it not look like a utopian project attempting to abandon binary oppositions?

I have long thought about this as well, whether our symmetrical bodies and brain architecture may somehow influence the way we automatically see and categorize the world. To me, it makes total sense to see binary thinking as a projection of our bodily existence. But like any projection, it can also be spotted and hindered, and this is the effort that many of us are currently trying to make. Donna Haraway has proposed a wonderful strategy to overcome dualisms, which she named “tentacular thinking” (2016)—a mode of thinking and operating that can be symbolically embodied by the octopus, with their fluid bodies and decentralized minds defying the human body/brain architecture, and craftily merging what we call “understanding” and “sensing” into a single gesture. Thinking “tentacularly” could have a profound transformative effect on the ways we understand the planet and its functioning. Ideally, it could disengage us from binary thinking and help us find creative ways to shift our logic from competition, exclusion and oppression, and imagine new worlds based on collaboration, inclusion and justice.

Kristina Õllek, Nautilus New Era, 2018. Installation view at Utenriksterminal (International Terminal), Screen City Biennial 2019 (Stavanger, Norway). Photo: Kristina Õllek. Courtesy of the artist and Art Museum of Estonia.

What place do you set the position of curator today within that still competitive and binary based institutional system?Can we say you are a real “independent” curator working out of institutions 

I am always tempted to rewrite my role as an “interdependent curator”, but the risk is that it sounds just like an eccentric buzzword in a statement. But this is actually so. We can consider the art world(s) like ecology, and the work of each part is deeply entangled with all the rest, so I do not see my practice as something that happens by itself, unaffected by other forces (how could that be?). “Independent” curators could not survive without the work of artists and institutions (not only art institutions, but also funding institutions), and I believe art institutions also benefit highly of this mass of freelancer professionals who are fueling their programs with a fresh voice, and whose work can be booked on demand with no further contractual commitment. For me, creativity and the possibility to create meaning has been strictly linked to a certain perception of freedom. Although I agree that being a “free agent” is an illusion and a quest to escape gravity has somehow informed my practice as an independent curator since the start. Sitting in an office nine-to-five and doing something I don’t believe in for someone I don’t care about was never really an option. It may sound a bit idealistic, but for me it is a tremendous luxury to be able to live happily with an extreme low budget, no property, and almost no responsibilities, but to be able to shape my day as I want, every day. Of course, freedom comes at the price of embracing a highly precarious life that can quickly go out of balance with overwork, too many travels, too much exposure, and less time to think, sleep and generally focus on oneself. 

What kind of artists are you working with? How do you find “your” artist to collaborate? And what form of collaboration suits your interdependence model?

Usually, my entry point to get to know the practice of a new artist is their work on moving images, out of a passionate predilection for the medium of film and video. I spend hours a week watching new works. Sometimes I learn of an interesting new video work through online platforms, or through colleagues, or reading a review, and then I get in touch with the artist. I watch the films entirely, some of them many times, and at times I get so excited about some works that I do private screenings for friends. I have also been invited to be part of the jury at Videonale.18 for two consecutive editions, which gave me the chance to watch a myriad of films and get acquainted with some works I would have hardly encountered otherwise. 

I personally adore following the genesis of an artwork until its presentation, and I hope there will be always more chances to be able to directly support the artists’ work in the future. 

Emilija Škarnulytė, Deep Point Cloud, 2019. Video installation at Stavanger Cathedral, Screen City Biennial 2019 (Stavanger, Norway). Courtesy of the artist.

You initiated and curated numerous international projects on environmental topics, such as film programs that were screened in conjunction with the UN Climate Change Conference, the sound performance Tidal Pulse within AMIFF, or the Screen City Biennial in 2019. Does art today really influence global politics? 

I believe it is important to confront the reality of the current climate breakdown without blind hope or complete resignation, but rather understanding that interdependence of individual and collective action is the key to lead to a global change, and having an influence on global politics. So the answer to this question is complex—yes and no, largely depending on the expectations we have on the scale of art’s influence, on the way we demand it to operate. We can say “Yes” because, since everything is interdependent, and given the transformative force that art experiences can convey, also art can mutate things on a larger scale. However, this impact is not often very direct, and sometimes we have the reasonable feeling that not many outside our field even notice or care what we do, outside our bubble, and that the usually “free zone” we have in art to openly express our political ideas is also the demonstration of its lack of political power on a global scale: we can say what we want to say in an artwork, but try to make a difference in the world of global politics with an art project and you may often be disappointed.

Many artists are currently engaging in activism, and I find this engagement very meaningful, demonstrating how artists and art professionals are believing in the political agency of art and embracing it actively to make a change. Recently, I have contributed to a book edited by artist and activist Oliver Ressler, titled Barricading the Ice Sheets. Artists and Climate Action in the Age of Irreversible Decision, with texts by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Lenka Kukurová, Oliver Ressler, and Imre Szeman. In this book, Ressler argues that artists and cultural producers increasingly tend to become central protagonists in the climate movements as participants and direct agents of change, whether as spokespeople or in shaping media tactics and broader strategy. This evolution into our role, where aesthetics crush the boundaries of the white cube and reach a wider audience, is currently very visible. In turn, science is also largely initiating and funding collaborations with artists, demonstrating an interest in a transdisciplinary approach that values art way beyond its aesthetic value.

Band of Weeds, The Greenhouse Phenomenon, 2019. Live sound performance at Stavanger Art Museum, Screen City Biennial 2019 (Stavanger, Norway). Photo: Oddbjørn Erland Aarstad. Courtesy of the artists.

Did somehow your background influence your curatorial perspective? Has your professional practice changed in pandemic times?

I come from a working class single-parent family: my mother, who was employed full-time and raised me with the help of my grand-mother, somehow managed to give me the conditions to study and later on to become a curator—a profession whose pragmatic unfolding she still doesn’t grasp completely, but whose importance for me she has never questioned. She has exhorted me to seize any opportunities to study, to live abroad and to make all those experiences that in her generation and for her socio-economic conditions were unimaginable—a completely selfless act of care and unconditional love. When I was a teenager, I worked periodically 4h daily shifts delivering pizzas to pay for my bass guitar lessons. Later, at the university, I took on jobs at restaurants,bars and clubs, and did countless hours of free work in the art and cultural field, on top of  many weird things before being able to become what my statement should actually say—an in(ter)dependent curator.I believe that this life have given me tremendous tools to adapt and be versatile. My work has changed massively since the pandemic has started. With all exhibitions, public programs and events canceled, and museums cutting first all external collaborations, the fragility of independent cultural work became very evident, so I have been driven by circumstances to embrace other forms of curating. I must say, it has been fun to reinvent oneself, and it has been really fruitful to “stay at home”, avoiding all (polluting) travels and FOMO-inducing hectic schedules to which we had been exposed until 2019.

Recently, I have started teaching at the Universität der Künste (UdK, Berlin) the seminar “More-than-human perspectives and tentacular thinking” with Prof. Nina Fischer, at the department of Experimental Film and New Media, and I must say it’s a truly rewarding experience to work with curious and talented young artists. Among other things, in the past year I have also started to collaborate as research advisor at Petrit Halilaj’s studio in Berlin. Initially, I was struggling a lot with this decision since, after a 4-weeks ugly experience at a large studio in Berlin back in 2014, I had radically decided that I would hardly ever work at an artist studio again, at the risk of losing interest in the art world and its violent dynamics of power. But I am extremely glad of this decision, since working with Petrit has been so far a truly great and rewarding experience on so many levels. As an interesting coincidence, after fleeing the Kosovo war, Petrit has been living in Bozzolo (Mantova, Italy), and I grew up in Mantova—a city that I left in 2003. In a way, it feels like this encounter was meant to happen. You are asked to take a distance from what you usually do to focus on something else that radically resets your GPS.