Erich Berger is the Director of the Bioart Society, now numbering over 100 members, based in Helsinki, Finland. He spoke with Hannah Star Rogers following Field_Notes: Ecology of Senses to discuss the origins of the program, what makes a field laboratory important for artists, and the Bioart Society’s future plans.
Hannah Rogers: The Bioart Society was founded at the Biological Station in Kilpisjärvi, which is an amazing place in the far north of Finland—home to ongoing scientific research, but also some remarkable art projects. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that beginning moment of how the program came together.
Erich Berger: The Bioart Society was founded there in 2008, and so we had from the very beginning a very strong relationship with the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. The station supported the idea of being a site for transdisciplinary work from the beginning. Back then, nobody was specifically experienced in the field, but there was enthusiastic momentum. The group was quite diverse, from digital and media artists to environmental artists, painters, photographers, and so on. In Finland it is very common to go ahead and make an association for a common-interest group, and this was the start of the Bioart Society.
Rogers: What is Field_Notes?
Berger: Some refer to it as a workshop or residency, but for me it is a field laboratory. A group of about forty practitioners with diverse professional background from art, science, and other disciplines meet for one week at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station to work in different groups under an umbrella topic. The work in these groups can take different forms but essentially is located in the field—the landscape—and uses this surroundings as a research and test site, as a catalyst to dive into the different questions posed. The groups are encouraged not to produce anything specific like an artwork, but instead explore their question, carry out experiments, and gather materials of all kinds that could help them understand their question or find answers. To allow this freedom is one of the strong points of Field_Notes. You could also say that we ask what artistic fieldwork in the landscape could be. This freedom can also be seen facilitating spaces of possibility—creating a space enfolded by a question, but not confined by any one method on how to answer it.
Rogers: Could you explain a bit more about the origins of Field_Notes?
Berger: We started to work at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in 2009 as one of twenty nodes on the planet to look into topics with regard to the human condition. This program was initiated by Ars Electronica and our topic was climate change. We worked for two months onsite and produced a conference and a series of artworks. This showed us the potential of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and the uniqueness of the landscape. Next, we started a residency program named Ars Bioartica; then we produced site-specific workshops, which were scaled up to become Field_Notes.
Rogers: Could you dissect the theme “Ecology of Senses” for us?
Berger: It came out of the two-year Hybrid Matters program, which was composed of a field lab, symposium, exhibition, and other activities under the same name, where we were investigating hybrid ecology, the convergence of our environment with technology, and, essentially, the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. In a hybrid ecology, you have all these different actors: the biological ones, like humans, other animals, and plants, but also technological ones, like algorithms, software, tech infrastructure, and so forth. Through Ecology of Senses, we wanted to explore the role of sensing within this convergence: the ways we make sense of the world, how worlds are made through our senses, and the changing sense of self that comes along with that.
Central to the theme is the notion that humans expanded our original sensorium considerably with technology. The spectrum is wide: in it we find our own human body senses, but also animal- and biosensors and electronic sensors. We can already catch a glimpse of a fully quantified computational planet with its first implementations of orbit-tracked, networked bird and fish swarms, or fully wired forests. A general excitement about technological sensing possibilities with their reliable production of objectivity has led us to give less value human and animal senses or phenomena and environmental indicators around us, considered to be subjective. Ecology of Senses wanted to explore this gap and to engage with the inner and outer landscapes, create field experiments, find and establish test sites, and set up observatories and excavations. We did this by establishing five different groups of about six experts, each hosted by an invited practitioner.
Rogers: I can see that one thing that makes the organization unique is that people who want to work with art and science have come to a station not to use the lab, but to be in the field. Kilpisjärvi Biological Station has good labs and [scientific] collections, and some people are using them, yet the focus remains the field. Do you think that has to do with the people who create a type of bioart work that doesn’t really come from the lab, or is that only one aspect?
Berger: Lab work can be done anywhere. That is the main point of it: to create a work environment that can be reproduced by others as long as the conditions are the same. So for this we do not need to go to Kilpisjärvi. Fieldwork, on the other hand, is site-specific; it can’t be reproduced somewhere else. That we do fieldwork in Kilpisjärvi stems from the fact that the biological station is supporting us and that its subarctic environment and ecology is unique in Europe. From the very beginning, we have been working within a very broad spectrum. Traditionally bioart was a laboratory practice, which we do as well, but we have expanded on this with the idea of updating traditional environmental art to explore what environmental art is under the contemporary (bio)technological condition. There is more about this in our first book Field Notes: From Landscape to Laboratory.
Rogers: My observation is that language is so important to this group. I understand that, within the group, there is an avoidance of the word “nature.” Could you talk about that?
Berger: One example of this was in HYBRID MATTERs, in which we avoided falling back on binaries like “natural/artificial.”1 Nature is a very romantic concept, and in our everyday thinking it does not necessarily include humans. It is a place to go when you want to relax, be alone, or feel the sublime. We wanted to operate within a language where it is clear that there is no place left on this planet which is not part of this convergence I mentioned before. The concept of nature allows the illusion that there is a separation between our activities and our environment, and elides the fact that we are currently destroying the foundations of our being on this planet.
Rogers: Many people at Field_Notes seem to have made art with digital technologies in the past, and many still do. Could you talk about the trajectory of working with the digital as an art medium and subject, and then working with the living world out in the field?
Berger: Yes, that is true for some people, but the digital arts was also the place where bioart was shown for the first time and people got inspired. Another reason might be that artists interested in technology have experienced the transformative power it can have—just think of the world pre-1990 and the world now. Not even thirty years, and how much our lives have changed. So if you have even a little bit of an idea about biotechnology, it is easy to extrapolate what an immense transformative power it will have over the next twenty years. Artists are motivated to explore this transition not only through the lens of new materials and technology, but that of the ethical and political implications—biopolitics.
Rogers: Another thing that many people associate with bioart is a critical view of science and technology: an explicit or implicit critique of scientific institutions or biotechnology, or the way those things fit or don’t fit into society. But it seems the Bioart Society has embraced not only a range of practices and subjects, but also orientations toward the subjects of science, technology, and the environment.
Berger: As mentioned above, we never tried to stick with bioart as it was originally understood. You can see that in our program. We don’t ask in what medium do artists work in order to be considered to participate in our activities. We are interested in their motivations and their questions. From the very beginning, we wanted to be a place for emerging artistic practices. If we restricted ourselves, we would only find and experience those things that we already know. In the most general sense, we are interested in the contemporary biological condition.
Rogers: Can you talk about the relationships at the Biological Station that make Field_Notes possible?
Berger: The station’s director, Antero Järvinen, was part of the Bioart Society from the very beginning. He is very generous, and continuously encouraged our work without interfering in it. He will soon retire, and we hope that the new director will continue to support our work.
Rogers: Many art-science organizations were founded around the needs of specific artists or the promotion of particular artists or styles of artwork. It seems to me that this is one of the features that separates this group from others.
Berger: The Bioart Society started with a group of fifteen people: artists, scientists, and curators. We came together not to promote our own work, but instead to create a platform for professionals to be able to develop and carry out art-science work.
Rogers: Could you tell us about the new space that has just opened in Helsinki?
Berger: For the past ten years we have worked without a permanent space, collaborating with others when we needed it. About three years ago, we did a couple of internal self-assessment workshops with our board and saw that we have, on the one hand, quite a bit of unused potential in our program, and on the other, that there is an increasing number of practitioners interested in the type of work and opportunities we are offering. So we sketched out a plan in response to this, which, in the end, crystallized as SOLU—an artistic platform and laboratory for art, science, and society. We now have a space in Helsinki that functions as gallery, forum, workshop, library, and production office; we still maintain our vital collaborations and activities within our large local and international network.
Rogers: So what does the future look like for Field_Notes?
Berger: The topic for 2019 will be “The Heavens.” We will look into everything above ground. Until now, we have only been working with the land. Now we want to turn our gaze upward to look at the biology and the ecology of the atmosphere and atmospheric phenomena, but also beyond into the solar system to discuss conditions of life and address topics like xeno- and exobiology.
Erich Berger is an artist, curator, and cultural worker based in Helsinki. He directs the Bioart Society, creating interdisciplinary encounters between art and science. His artistic interests lie in processes, which he investigates through installations, situations, performances, and interfaces. Throughout his artistic practice, he has explored the materiality of information and information and technology as artistic material. His current interest in issues of deep time and hybrid ecology led him to work with geological processes, radiogenic phenomena, and their sociopolitical implications in the here and now. Berger’s award-winning work has been exhibited widely in various museums, galleries, and major art events worldwide.
Hannah Star Rogers researches the intersection of art and science, particularly critiques of science in contemporary art. Her publications have appeared in Leonardo, Configurations, The Kenyon Review, and the LA Review of Books. She received an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from Cornell University in Science and Technology Studies. Her exhibition Making Science Visible: The Photography of Berenice Abbott received an exhibits prize from the British Society for the History of Science. She is past Director of Research and Collaboration for Arizona State University’s Emerge: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future. Her current curatorial project is Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures. She is a visiting scholar in STIS at the University of Edinburgh and teaches at Strathclyde University.
- HYBRID MATTERs was a Nordic network program directed by the Bioart Society in collaboration with Forum Box (FI), IT-University Copenhagen (DK), University of Malmö (SE), Nikolaj Kunsthall (DK) and Kunsthall Grenland (NO), that operated in 2015 and 2016. HYBRID MATTERs was funded by a two-year grant from the Nordic Culture Fund. The program included activities all over the Nordic countries, including art and science research, citizen science activities, art work productions, field laboratories, exhibitions, and a conference. ↩