Most interactions between people and the Earth are mediated through technological objects governed by opinions embedded in code influenced by a dualism that separates nature from culture. They filter out a wide range of data streamed from events that cut across spheres: the biosphere, the lithosphere, the semiosphere, techno-sphere, etc. This partial approach haunts our perception, calling for new modes of abstraction; objects that would flatten the hierarchical ontology between humans, animals and algorithms with its particular rhythms, codes, and politics. This would invite us to think beyond human scales, beyond human aesthetic standards.
Like in “Nausicaä, in the Valley of the wind”, very few pockets of life remain untouched and we have now to deal with rather toxic jungles inhabited by new critters. We witness the proliferation of quasi — objects such as genetically modified organisms, mutations, ozone layers, cybernetic forests and thinking machines that totally violate their own categories. When an intervening instrument (aka media) blends with the more-than-human, it emphasizes their very own potential to produce new knowledge and potential ties among species. We realize their agency, as Jane Bennet in Vibrant Matter describes as “the thing power”, “not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power but Thing Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.”
Suddenly things have political weight, sensing capabilities and memory to project us far beyond the Anthropocene.
In the beginning of the summer 2018, I headed towards the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station located within the sub-Arctic circle. A huge environmental data farm and scientific “Big Brother” with an eye on the outer space, very sensitive to environmental changes. It is a semi-electronic forest streaming out data from the heights of Saana, down the fells upon the glassy lake of Kilpisjärvi. Critters, sensors and algorithms are stitched together in a sort of bionic layer that connects technology, nature, and people… and there is a lot of moss as well. [ ++ here ]
Moss is a tiny organism with slow temporalities of growth which can decipher the secrets of life on Earth. She pioneered land when glaciers stepped back, preparing the land to be refilled by a rich biodiversity. Bacteria started to break down the stone, releasing minerals and forming the soil where the windblown spores of moss had landed. The moss turf trapped decaying organic matter that accumulated at the base to built up more soil. She is a nexus between the upper and the under-world, hosting microbial life-forms that are proved to resist in the outer space or atmospherical conditions from harsher times. Could moss sense the Anthropocene?
Because they lack a root system they are fed by everything carried by the wind including pollutants and, since the 1960s, they have been used as bio-indicators of atmospheric deposition in the Nordic Countries. Combined with a satellite they serve to map pollution after an ecological threat. Equally, since 2008, millions of Sphagnum Palustre are cloned and hanged within plastic spheres to trap polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or heavy metals in the facades of European cities. When we first touch a Mossphone (moss with a cybernetic add-on), we experience a pleasant feeling of joy.
Dipping our fingers into this humid pool of life, we enter part of our existence into an old Queendom of resistance. Our body interacts physically and emotionally with an entity that silently keep track of this mess we are in. A metal thread would be carefully sew into, creating a resisting body, a resistor that changes depending on density, humidity and toxic particles trapped by the mini branches of the moss. When we caress her, the cyber moss varies its capacitance, altering the flow of electrons within the wires traveling towards the computer. The algorithm will use this data to modulate a field recorded noise of the area. This media ecology enables a dialogue that would be performed differently at every location: Moss under the polar caps of Siberia, the mossy couch of Iceland, your local moss companion, moss in the immediacies of the nuclear reactor of Fukushima.
Environmental changes are often invisible. Some are trapped in complex data in scientific reports that a few really understand. Some others are communicated below the radar. The unseen remains unknown and we too often need extra tools to unveil it.
“We cannot see it without a cosmic flashlight, but guess what, I’ve got one”. Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, Twin Peaks (2017), Season 3, Part 5 .
By merging electronic media with toxic artifacts, Camera Obscura & the artefacts of the invisible uses bacteria as more-than-human narrators of an ongoing invisible ecological shift. We humans failed at telling liable stories about some of our damaged ecosystems. By shifting the narrator, we discharge a shirking society while storytelling the unspoken and seeking for alternative futures.
In collaboration with Sachiko Hirosue from Biodesign for the Real World, and Hackuarium, we focused on bacteria’s perception of the world; an “augmented” gut bacteria with an extrasensory superpowers to detect the invisible. We sampled the disrupted area with various techniques and analyzed the soil and water in the area, both scientifically and intuitively. The genetically modified Escherichia coli. with a fluorescent protein eGFP, acts as an indicator of mercury, a highly neurotoxic and endocrine disruptor. Non of them is supposed to be there nor meant to cope with each other. When the GMO and the neurotoxin fuse, they produce a sublime blink.
Like in a camera obscura, a representation of what is happening outside can be seen by the public through a hole. The camera will then turn the fluorescence into bits of black drops, that travel along the tentacular tubes injecting a proportional amount of black ink in a jar of freshwater. The more people come and see what happens inside the Camera Obscura, the more evident the traces of progress become.
By creating new hybrid objects, we can tell new stories and therefore, allow other realities to exist. Like in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, we struggle, collaborate and resist.