Research & Art

Interview with Noora Sandgren

This interview is conducted with Noora Sandgren by Bilge Hasdemir as part of the Outre: Encounters with Non/living Things exhibition.

What are the potentials and difficulties of  art and science collaborations, and working across and beyond disciplines?

Noora: It is possible to look at what kind of questions, experiences and information is left out from the scientific research and how can those then be translated into art & science projects. Artistic research and scientific production produce different kinds of material, and those can be combined in ways that may make f.ex scientific abstract data more tangible, more concrete through art. There is the translation work and entangling work to be done and this requires good connection in the collaboration. It requires genuine curiosity other than your own expertise and ways of knowing. There is a need in establishing a common vocabulary and understanding of common goals, from that more easy access and more experiential data encountering is possible for the viewer of art & science work of art.

For instance, new materialism gives ideas to think about the agencies of different material entities and to research both the meaning but especially the agential qualities, namely, what different things can do, what is the effect, in different assemblages. This can bring forth the relational aspect of all meaning, and the fundamental collaborative constructedness of all life happenings. Art & science collaborations can bring out the different ways of knowing, showing the multitude and therefore promoting multi-voiced dialogues and breaking the single truth ideas. Difficulties may rise if there is not enough time to get to know the different fields in questions and vocabulary is surprisingly important.

Have you ever experienced any conflict with the scientific laboratory protocols and/or health and safety policies of the institutions you have collaborated with?  Has it required any change in the direction of the research or  at the  initial plan? How do you usually negotiate with the possible restraints or limitations which might apply in such circumstances?

Noora: At one project I planned to purify drinking water out of snow, but there was a protocol for not making edible things at Biofilia. Being able to do this, and serve it at the opening of an art exhibition would have suggested a very different position to visitors at the exhibition, compared to the more traditional way: looking at objects without touching. So my idea was about building an experience of relatedness, of kinship and of life circulation of shared metabolism. Because of the protocol I had to drop this idea, instead I presented a system of snow water purification process, which was also really great.

Based on your own experience, what kind of long-term transformations might be needed at the  infrastructural level to support and encourage trans-, post-, para-disciplinarity in art&science or biological art practices in a more sustainable way?

Noora: I think transformations have the perspective of sustainability, therefore I´m looking at this from different interconnected aspects such as:
Social: community building is the basis for any good collaboration; there is a need for informal nonhierarchical settings for practitioners to get to know each other, start talking about projects and interests. This kind of setting is involved with trusting the organic growth of connections instead of super organized formal and too productivity oriented meetings. The Finnish Bioart Society is a good example of this; there must be a solace of friendly atmosphere where projects can be presented and discussions can flow. Common interests and friendliness is the start of any trust based collaboration. If something like this was created in Aalto, it would be great because there is so much research knowledge here as well as facilities. Accessibility to f.ex Biofilia and Aalto studios also for alumni, is fundamental, as long term support for collaborations.
Economical equality: artists should always be paid for the work done. So far this is not the case and innovations don´t grow from nothing.
Ecological: reusing all material when ever possible and support for developing more ecological and biodegradable materials is a start. Ecojustice in terms of multispecies work situations, is a topic perhaps not talked too much.

What kind of challenges and limitations could  migrating to the digital realm in these pandemic bring to the  field of art & science, the bioart works which are heavily dependent on materiality and the biological  matter,  living organisms...etc?

Noora: I see lots of possibilities in this, in terms of better accessibility of art experience to all despite distances. This is a sustainability question. I, together with media artist Samuli Homanen just completed a successful pilot project on building a virtual reality exhibition space. This means more people can access the exhibition, and the experience can be truly immersive where one can look very closely at all art works, from different angles and therefore build an embodied relationship to the materiality of the works. This online virtual reality space works also as a collaborative hub, making contacts with other visitors even easier than in real life situations. This VR -environment can be experienced by using VR-goggles - or just by any web browser (phone, computer), without any extra installations. This makes it a very intuitive and friendly space for many kinds of visitors. This is about taking a digital leap, which enables thinking of the exhibition space in a new and more imaginative way. Art space of this kind can be much more inclusive, also contributing to ecological sustainability, in terms of not having to travel.

I think this way it would be possible to enrich the viewing experience of especially durational evolving works of art, when it is possible to follow the development of the work in real time. This is many times not possible in the physical world, as one enters exhibition usually just once. That kind of visitor experience with durational art work is lacking the understanding of the works material liveliness. To be able to follow the evolution of the work brings out the liveliness and therefore the agential aspects of non-human materialities.

Following the previous question, what could have been lost and/or gained during this migration?

Noora: As said, what is gained from the viewer's perspective, is actually having access to the evolutive process of the art work, while perceiving the life of the art work in real time. This may also provide important feedback to the artist, not always able to be with the art work or the audience so tightly. Creating space for the liveliness of the non-human materialities to become visible, is about making space for otherness, making it easier to be perceived as  having agential powers, instead of just perceiving the artworks as objects.
One great advantage could be the possibility of also encountering other visitors' thoughts, associations and comments, therefore being able to link and relate personal experiences to others. This could bring forth new ideas and understanding. I feel there could easily be new interactive and participatory possibilities in the digital world. Also this could be used for educational purposes, without limiting distances.

What is lost depends on my perspective or the environments created; if the VR experience is really virtual reality that enables f.ex to really go close to work and even get some sensual feedback from the perceptual experience. I mean a lot of what is lost -question deals with f.ex. Haptic visuality and immersiveness of the whole experience. So far in my experience these kinds of experiences are very rare; developing well working environments need resources and pedagogical knowledge - not just technology know how.  Therefore, crossdisciplinary work is needed in order to make the digital art experiences really work. Otherwise I´d say a lot can be lost in terms of sensual experience of the work. I must say pedagogical understanding seems to not be in use too often, still we have very different kinds of users and one of the sustainability aspects is accessibility and therefore equality in terms of services and aesthetic experiences.

What kind of changes or challenges (conceptual, ethical, and practical) could be expected in the field of biological arts and art & science in relation to  the paradigm shift coronavirus pandemic have brought to (life) sciences?

Noora:This is not an easy question, as many effects remain to be seen. However the pandemic has made it clear that invisible to eye kind of life forces can have powerful effects, shaking the human centered way of perceiving the world. The agential power of non-human is now clear to all, but probably the attitudes toward this kind of life forms are prejudiced due to the situation. Art & science approaches serve as important bridge builders in this respect, in widening the scope of understanding microbial life, of perceiving it as fundamental to all life, and finding respectful and curious relationship to this topic. Art & science can help in informing and working with attitudes towards the Other, to work with the notions of otherness in general and finding ways to inspire a way to live and die well in collaborative manner, within coexistence, where we need to think and function With other-than human forces as well, as Donna Haraway would say, and to add to that, It can mean staying with even those troubling relationships.

What alliances can be found within the context of life, death, care, non/living actants, pandemic crisis and justice?

Noora: In my own artistic practice I have been looking at things which  I can find in my immediate surroundings, at specific home garden places. But this has been my way of working for many years. In times of global crisis in so many levels, not just the pandemic but the interspecies injustice, climate change and biodiversity loss, I find it meaningful to for example work with garden compost. This means looking more closely the whole notion of consumption, the desires behind it, and understanding the cyclical way of life. When one looks with curiosity at the shared metabolism between one's own body, food, soil, water and caring practices, then the material circulation becomes more clear. This is about becoming connected and of becoming entangled too, but in the spirit of kinship and survival at the same time. Simplifying and slowing down life happens easily when living within and of the garden.  Working with local soil, can bring understanding not just of the interactional qualities of human & more-than-human -relationships, but also the intra-action of how all life is in constant flux of becoming. This is a very hopeful image suggesting a more flexible way of being also to humans. For me the idea of allying with the  compost microbes as image editing agencies while doing the kind of mixological photographs with them, has made me realise important things about notions of shared chemistry, inhabiting and boundaries which are always porous. Working with the compost has made me research and renegotiate the notion of residue, questioning the definition and seeing the powerful potentialities of it. Working with outdated photo sensitive papers and compost matter has made me think about questions of purity and dirt and to listen to what the in-between-categories type of material suggest and enable. This wild identity-carrying material can be rewildening also for the art making human. The alliance with compost has made me research the planetary food security and food waste situation: according to WWF Living Planet 2020 raport food waste makes 1/3 or food production, meaning 1,3 billion tons of waste yearly. However consumption is a much wider thing for a modern fossil-subject´s experiential world. Yet compost is a good start in working with the ideas of consumption, because it brings things bodily closeness into question; in digestion what we think as I is becoming mixed with those others: the boundary between inside and outside shows its way of working, which tells a story about inseparability. Therefore, garden work alleviates the distancing from the life sustaining agents and processes, of soil, water, air, light. Distancing being the effect of highly mediated digital life. Whenever possible we need more direct relationhood with things we are dependent on. I feel if photograph as medium has made its part in creating the human centered perspective and the seeing of the world as image, then compost could be the new metaphor of this era of change and crisis.Compost brings forth multiperspectival, multispecies, odd-kin, all kinds on surprising relationships, of vibrant things coexisting in a dynamic fluid mesh, which is not organized by some centered power entity. Compost as something to think with, work and live with, tells a story of life of constant transformations, helping to deal with the idea of death, as part of cyclical material flow of life. Spiritually too, compost as a metaphor of collaboration, belonging and relationhood based on care enabling new life, is working; it is highly performative both as material happening and as a metaphor, it can do many things! And we need small concrete ways to bring a sense of agency to us humans, not only as guilt producing information but I mean a sense of being able to care and work with other material entities in health and enjoyment giving ways. It's important to find ways of generating meaningfully productive energy, that can be response-abling and renewing. Here art & science can serve as model of non-conforming, experimental ways of thinking and living in a playfully serious manner which can be felt.

Have there been any particular influences of Covid-19 restrictions & reactions to your artistic research and your collaboration with other practitioners/institutions?

Noora: Since the pandemic my own practice has become more non-human centered in general, which is not a bad thing at all. My practice has become more solitary but only in human sense, which has enabled strengthened concentration on sustainability aspects related to my own life and also writing as well as in depth research on theoretical literature and working with different materialities. This has generated new ideas to my artistic practice. Surely there is a sense of distance and unease in how some practical things such as working in a lab or other studio with special equipment and staff will work out, because of the restrictions. But I feel with some patience things can be resolved. Of course with some international group exhibition projects, the idea of meeting in person and doing the installation work at the gallery by ourselves, might be challenged. But new ways of working must be invented. In Finland the pandemic has created a situation with some extra funding for art projects and this has helped me to carry through my artistic plans so far. However, art field needs more sustainable funding improvements than these fast emergency reactions.

How has the Covid-19 changed the  form and format of art&science collaborations and  research networking activities?

Noora: It has limited events and therefore also made social networks more vulnerable. Also finding new connections might be more challenging. For that new innovation, virtual community building actions and spaces is needed. On the other hand the pandemic has made a difference in attitudes related to online coworking; people have started to work together despite distances as something more natural. I have a feeling that this has been crucial for some of my future multidisciplinary international work projects. I mean the fact that online co-creating is now a norm, this idea can be helpful in many ways. Also I´ve participated in international workshops and festivals now more than I used to, really great happenings have been created during these times.

What would creativity mean to you, could you please describe in three words?

Curiosity with kindness.

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