Testing Grounds

Episode 4: Baltic Art Center - Artists' Role in an Age of Climate Crisis

April 28, 2023 Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action Season 1 Episode 4
Episode 4: Baltic Art Center - Artists' Role in an Age of Climate Crisis
Testing Grounds
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Testing Grounds
Episode 4: Baltic Art Center - Artists' Role in an Age of Climate Crisis
Apr 28, 2023 Season 1 Episode 4
Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action

What role can, and should, artists play in an age of the climate crisis? What opportunities do artists have in this context, and what – if any – are their responsibilities?

Baltic Art Center (BAC) is NAARCA’s Swedish partner. It’s based in Visby, the main town on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Gotland is a popular tourist destination known for its beaches, its medieval history, and – increasingly – its water shortages. The reasons for these shortages are complex – industries such as agriculture, chalk mining and cement production have played a part – but there’s little doubt that climate change is exacerbating the problem.

Helena Selder is the Artistic Director of BAC. She introduces us to Visby, to Gotland, and to our three contributors: artists Rikke Luther and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, who work together as Urbonas Studio. All three artists are engaged with water, but in very different ways – Urbonas’ focus is on swamps, and Rikke Luther’s is on mud. They explore their shared interest in human-nature interactions and climate change, their contrasting approaches to their work, and the potential for art and artists to help us navigate our current reality – and, perhaps, imagine a different one.

Find out more:
Baltic Art Center: balticartcenter.com/home
GRASS Fellows programme: balticartcenter.com/projects/grass-fellow
Swamp Observatory app: nugu.lt/us/?p=1687
Swedish Art Residency Network: swanresidencynetwork.com

Helena Selder, Artistic Director, Baltic Art Center
Rikke Luther, artist and researcher (rikkeluther.dk)
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, artists and educators, Urbonas Studio (nugu.lt/us)

Credits: Testing Grounds is produced and edited by Katie Revell and includes original music by Loris S. Sarid and artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. With thanks to Alex Marrs and the rest of the NAARCA team.

Contact us: naarca.art/contact-us

Who we are: Art Hub Copenhagen (Denmark), Artica Svalbard (Norway), Baltic Art Center (Sweden), Cove Park (Scotland), Saari Residence (Finland), Skaftfell Art Center (Iceland) and Narsaq International Research Station (Greenland).

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

What role can, and should, artists play in an age of the climate crisis? What opportunities do artists have in this context, and what – if any – are their responsibilities?

Baltic Art Center (BAC) is NAARCA’s Swedish partner. It’s based in Visby, the main town on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Gotland is a popular tourist destination known for its beaches, its medieval history, and – increasingly – its water shortages. The reasons for these shortages are complex – industries such as agriculture, chalk mining and cement production have played a part – but there’s little doubt that climate change is exacerbating the problem.

Helena Selder is the Artistic Director of BAC. She introduces us to Visby, to Gotland, and to our three contributors: artists Rikke Luther and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, who work together as Urbonas Studio. All three artists are engaged with water, but in very different ways – Urbonas’ focus is on swamps, and Rikke Luther’s is on mud. They explore their shared interest in human-nature interactions and climate change, their contrasting approaches to their work, and the potential for art and artists to help us navigate our current reality – and, perhaps, imagine a different one.

Find out more:
Baltic Art Center: balticartcenter.com/home
GRASS Fellows programme: balticartcenter.com/projects/grass-fellow
Swamp Observatory app: nugu.lt/us/?p=1687
Swedish Art Residency Network: swanresidencynetwork.com

Helena Selder, Artistic Director, Baltic Art Center
Rikke Luther, artist and researcher (rikkeluther.dk)
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, artists and educators, Urbonas Studio (nugu.lt/us)

Credits: Testing Grounds is produced and edited by Katie Revell and includes original music by Loris S. Sarid and artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. With thanks to Alex Marrs and the rest of the NAARCA team.

Contact us: naarca.art/contact-us

Who we are: Art Hub Copenhagen (Denmark), Artica Svalbard (Norway), Baltic Art Center (Sweden), Cove Park (Scotland), Saari Residence (Finland), Skaftfell Art Center (Iceland) and Narsaq International Research Station (Greenland).

Thanks for listening!

00:02 Katie: Do you have a window nearby? 

00:05 Helena: I do, but I don't happen to be on Gotland at the moment. If I were in the BAC office in the main town, Visby, I would be able to see the ruin of St. Catherine, a Franciscan monastery from the 13th Century, because Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it's, you know, lots of medieval architecture. And that's what I would be looking out onto in our main square, where our office is.

00:34 Various speakers: Velkommen. Tervetuloa. Välkommen. Fàilte. Bures. Velkommen.

00:40 Narration: Welcome to Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Episode four – Baltic Art Center: what's the role of artists in an age of climate crisis?

00:55 The Nordic Alliance of Artists Residencies on Climate Action, or NAARCA, is a network of seven artists' residencies across the Nordic region and Scotland. They've come together to explore what potential artists' residencies have to be testing grounds – testing grounds for new ways of living and working that are ecologically, socially, mentally, and financially sustainable.

01:20 I'm Katie Revell. In this series, I'm talking to people in and around the NAARCA residencies about the themes, the challenges, and the questions they're grappling with – that we're all grappling with – in the context of the climate crisis. In this episode, we're visiting NAARCA's Swedish partner, Baltic Art Center.

01:45 Helena: My name is Helena Selder, and I'm the Artistic Director of BAC or Baltic Art Center, which is our full name, and we are an international residency for contemporary visual art based on Gotland, a Swedish island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. 

02:00 Narration: BAC is based in Visby, Gotland's main town.

02:03 Helena: It's a small, medieval, we say Hansa city, you know, it's from the time of the Hansa trade league and it's lots of medieval architecture, but it's a mix also. It's a small town. I think it's not more than like 6,000 people living inside the walls, 'cause it's a walled medieval city. And then it has a sort of sprawling, kind of residency buildings and all kinds of buildings outside the walls.

02:40 It's very cosy and it has lots of tourists during the warm season, and it's a lot more quiet during the cold season, if you say. So, it has a sort of sleepy time and a more very active, bustling time during the summer.

03:06 Katie: And what about Gotland more generally? What sort of a place is it? 

03:11 Helena: It's a very well known place in Sweden, because it's the biggest island we have off the Swedish coast. It's known for its dramatic landscape. It's made up of limestone, so it has a very sort of special, rocky landscape. It's also known because there is a small island attached to the bigger island, Fårö, where the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman used to live. So it's associated with beautiful landscapes, history, lots of heritage, and I guess summer tourism.

03:52 Katie: What are some of the ways that the climate crisis is impacting Gotland? 

03:58 Helena: Well, one important thing is the water shortage on the island, which is climate related, with, um, the climate changing in such a way that the weather has become more extreme. For example, you have longer period of droughts or periods of intense rain.

04:17 And so, like for many places where there is agriculture, for centuries, people have been creating arable land out of, for example, wetlands. So there is a system of trenches all over the island, so whenever it rains, a lot of it sort of flows off of the island to, to not swamp the, the fields. So that's a historic reason for why you get droughts on places like this.

04:42 But it's also because there is industry on the island that uses intense amounts of water. For example, there's the biggest concrete factory in Sweden is located on Gotland, and they use an immense amount of water just to produce the concrete, but they also extract limestone, and the extraction itself affects the groundwater.

05:06 Like if you drill into the ground here, you will lead groundwater to the holes you're making. So you are redirecting groundwater, which could have the effect that you are draining another bit of land that you didn't really expect. So there's been a number of conflicts around that with activists joining forces to stop new limestone quarries on the islands, et cetera.

05:30 Katie: Are the water shortages something that you notice, or is it more an issue for agriculture...? 

05:36 Helena: When you arrive in the ferry terminal on Gotland, it says, "please don't use too much water while you're on the island", or "be careful with the water", and there is a watering ban. Most years since I've been on Gotland, from April, you cannot wash your car or fill a pool or... it's quite detailed.

06:01 Also, I've heard about people drilling for water where they actually enter in pockets of groundwater, which could be millions of years old. So that's a very special thing that you have to try to find new water for your home. During 2018, there was a long period of drought during the summer, and I remember the farmers at the end of the summer had to buy water because their wells had gone dry.

06:29 And that led to that a lot of farmers had to kill their animals. I know that there are farmers on southern Gotland having these desalination plants where they can desalinate the water from the ocean. They lower the pressure in the water system so that there's less pressure, basically, when you shower and you use less. So it is an issue that does enter into your daily life. Yes.

07:06 Katie: Can you just tell us a bit about Baltic Art Center? 

07:09 Helena: Yeah, so Baltic Art Center was founded in 1999 and it opened an art space in 2001, and it was funded by the region of Gotland and the Swedish Arts Council, and they were really keen for Gotland to have this sort of contemporary art space, to open up the island and to create like a meeting place.

07:36 We transformed into a residency in 2007 or '08. From the beginning in the art space, they had something called production-in-residence and that meant that they would invite artists who could propose a new artwork. And we sort of kept that strand in our programme. So we usually say that we are a project and production-based residency.

08:00 So we're not so focused on artists coming to stay for a certain amount of time. We focus on making a project together, and that means that artists may come and go actually over a longer period of time. BAC is a very small organisation, sort of staff-wise. We're only two people and we have offices and a guest apartment in Visby.

08:26 And then we actually use all of the island as a studio. We have an old car that we use and, and let the artists, uh, use to drive around the island. Most of the cases they're interested in connecting to, to the landscape of the island, to the history, to different kinds of people, organisations and such. So that's what we try to facilitate their process on Gotland.

08:50 And it's also where we see that the exchange in between Gotland as a location and the international artist community happens. It's when they do their research. We don't always present things on Gotland. Sometimes the process itself is enough.

09:12 Katie: I have the impression that a big part of BAC's work is making links not only with artists, but between different organisations, different institutions, for example, through the GRASS Fellows programme, and I just wanted to ask a little bit about that, about that focus on collaboration and why that's important.

09:32 Helena: It has to do what I was saying just now, uh, that that's how the artists exchange with the island. So creating these collaborations with organisations like Uppsala University's Graduate School on Sustainability Studies, which is housed on Campus Gotland, is very important for us. It means that we can create sort of a base for exchange. And we have several collaborations like that, for example, with the Gotland Museum, but with the one with GRASS, which is the acronym for Graduate School on Sustainability Studies, we started together the Grass Fellow programme. Together, we invite artists to exchange with a research environment and also some of the master programmes there, that are focused on sustainability.

10:18 So we invite artists that have a particular focus on sustainability issues to establish and develop new relationships and ways of working in this environment on campus. And we also try to use our GRASS fellows to draw out the research students out of their normal environment. So we do excursions and workshops, and we've also been trying to do sort of one-on-one meetings in between artists and the graduate students. So that's an important context for us also to locate our NAARCA partnership in.

11:03 Katie: On that note, why then, did Baltic Art Center want to be part of NAARCA, how did that come about? 

11:09 Helena: Well, I guess you could say we already had a sort of climate-conscious programme in the sense that we were inviting artists to BAC to work with artistic projects related to climate and climate action, for example, through the GRASS Fellow programme.

11:23 But actually we were very often contacted by artists who were interested in these issues and wanted to come to BAC and take part of the programme because the climate crisis is showing its effect on Gotland locally. So we were doing that, but NAARCA does provide a context where we can critically reflect on the sustainability of our residency practice, so that it is a great context to have colleagues to do that with and to analyse how we work, and not only our emissions, but other sort of, uh, sustainability issues. So that's basically the opportunity to develop our residency and be part of the transformation of our organisation.

12:07 Katie: What would you say is your own motivation for working on these issues? 

12:11 Helena: I guess mild panic! And not so mild always. Yeah. I'm like everybody else, I'm worried. And what can you do? And for me, I guess, working with the GRASS Fellow programme and working with NAARCA is a way of dealing with those feelings.

12:31 What is it that I'm already doing that is, uh, productive? What is not productive? What is, you know, damaging? It's good to know that you're doing something and good to find out more things you can do. It helps. And I'm also trying to see how our discussions and findings can circulate in my other networks. So it's also something good that it’s knowledge that can spread.

12:58 Something we've been talking about a long time is to try to have artists stay longer, and that would change how we organise the residency itself. So it's a very practical outcome, I think. The discussions we've had and the toolkit we are developing within the partnership is also helping us to realise what we are already doing – for example, in terms of raising the issues through our programme.

13:23 So there's the possibility to reflect on what we're doing is what we want to get out of it, and it feels like it's already happening and it's going to change our programme, I think.

13:39 Narration: For this episode, our guests are Rikke Luther and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. They'll be exploring what role artists can – and should – play in an age of climate crisis – what kinds of opportunities artists have in this context, and what responsibilities they have, as well.

13:58 Katie: Could you just introduce us to our contributors for this episode? 

14:02 Helena: To put it simply, both Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, who work together as Urbonas Studio, and Rikke Luther, they both work with projects relating to water or environments that depend on or are affected by water. So this of course interests us at BAC since there is this water scarcity on Gotland that gets more and more urgent. So that's a sort of common denominator, I guess.

14:29 Rikke Luther is a Danish artist and researcher whose artistic work explores new relations created by environmental crisis, and NAARCA has commissioned a new work from her, a project that bears the name "More Mud", that examines the new mudscapes that are developing as the planet heats and thaws. So she's developing the project in dialogue with the NAARCA partners, also by making research trips to our locations, and some of them are really affected by these mudscapes, for example, Iceland that have had serious landslides. Other places like Gotland are affected by how the climate affects the oceans surrounding us.

15:11 So, uh, she has different sort of ways of touching on the, the water issue, you could say. And More Mud is also part of a bigger research project that Rikke is working with called “The Ocean Lands: Mud Within The Earth's System”. Rikke is actually our GRASS fellow right now, and she spent time at BAC during the fall, in October where she visited BAC and she did workshops and a lecture about her work, but she also did research and went to see different people and researchers on the island. So she was doing both, uh, being a, a GRASS fellow at the same time making research for her NAARCA project, the More Mud project.

15:53 And she's going to come back because she actually got caught in a blizzard when she was on Gotland in October, which is also, talking about climate change, it is not normal for a snow blizzard to happen in October. So a lot of that research that she wanted to make, which is how the ocean meets the land on Gotland, she couldn't even come to the coast because of the snow. So she's coming in September, we think, we hope, to do this, uh, more marine research.

16:26 Nomeda and Gediminas are artists, researchers and educators that for many years have worked with the wetland as both a biological concept and as an environment, and the way they see it, wetlands can be seen as a model, a model of coexistence between all the life forms that inhabit it, and it's a model that we humans can learn from, in their view. 

16:52 And in collaboration with the Public Art Agency in Sweden, we commissioned them a public art project as a part of a planning scheme for a field in a new city district in Gotland's main town, Visby. And this field that they developed a work for was meant to be converted into a stormwater pond to take care of excess rainwater.

17:14 So the field that they were working in would be, you could say, turned into a wetland during certain periods of the year, and the artists created a digital tool called The Swamp Observatory. It was basically an augmented reality app that enriched this field with imaginary sort of future species, or “monsters” as the artists prefer to call them.

17:43 And the project was meant to inspire thoughts about the importance of lost wetlands of Gotland and their recovery in a time of, yeah, global climate change. So that's why I thought they would be interesting to talk to as they work with water in so many different ways, which is a big issue on Gotland.

18:11 Nomeda: Hello, my name is Nomeda Urbonas. 

18:12 Gediminas: And my name is Gediminas. 

18:16 Nomeda: We are artists originally coming from Lithuania, but now we live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

18:20 Gediminas: We have collaborative practice and we are researchers at MIT where I am Associate Professor at Art, Culture and Technology programme. And Nomeda is Research Affiliate. And for the past years we've been working with a new initiative at MIT that is called Climate Visions.

18:42 Rikke: I'm Rikke Luther and I have a background in fine art. My postdoc is based at the ROCS centre, the Research, Ocean, Climate and Society, under a professor in Oceanography, Katherine Richardson. And then I'm sitting at the Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the university in Copenhagen. So it had very different links and interconnections, the work I'm working on for NAARCA. It will mainly be a film and I'm also doing some larger maps and through the project there will be exhibitions and then my postdoc will also end in a publication. 

19:22 Katie: I wanted to ask a bit about the projects that I guess are most related to your time on Gotland. Nomeda and Gediminas, if you could start by telling us a bit about the Swamp Observatory project.

19:36 Nomeda: Yes. We started the Swamp Observatory project by the invitation of BAC, which was actually a very interesting collaboration with the region of Gotland, and later, also the Public Art Agency Sweden joined the project. This is a project which involves artists in the very beginning of the planning process of the future sustainable city called Visborg. It's a suburbs, you could say, of Visby, and it is a former army base, and now this territory will be like re-planned and regenerated for the needs of the community.

20:17 Gediminas: As part of this regeneration, the planners were suggesting rainwater ponds that would function as a sponges to receive the water during the floods and release it during the droughts.

20:30 So invitation to the artists came in this early stage of the planning, so the artists could suggest the ways how the planners could perhaps rethink their position. As artists, we are very much interested in destabilising certain habits of thought. So Swamp Observatory had a role to imagine ecologies that are not yet on site, things that are invisible to human eye, or maybe even cannot be detected by the, you know, human sensorial apparatus, by hearing or by vision, but could already be imagined, you know, as taking place in the future. That's how we came up with the idea of the Observatory as a specific sensorial instrumentarium that could help us to imagine future ecologies. And perhaps by that imagination, hypothetically we could say set what we are calling the environmental citizenship.

21:34 Narration: The Swamp Observatory is an augmented reality environment. It’s accessed through an app that people can use on their phones or computers. Together with students from a local school, the Athene School, Urbonas Studio created a menagerie of future species – weird and wonderful imaginary creatures that the proposed stormwater ponds might create a home for. By scanning QR codes, visitors to the site can “see” these creatures, learn about them, and follow them around the landscape.

22:05 The augmented reality environment has five different scenes, or “moods”, and each mood has its own soundscape. The one we’re hearing right now is called “methane cloud”. The sound design is by the German electronic duo Mouse on Mars, using audio samples created by the students.

22:33 Katie: Were there any stipulations about what your involvement had to look like, or was it quite an open invitation? 

22:40 Nomeda: It was an open invitation, but of course they were thinking of a certain subjects and themes, which were important for the region, for the planners, perhaps also for the developers. So they were like three themes what they proposed. 

22:55 Gediminas: And those were mobility, identity and ecology. So they invited local artists from Gotland, also the Swedish artist and then the international artist. So, each of us, we could choose one of these areas and then make a proposal in the first stage. And then in the second stage we got, uh, Public Art Agency of Sweden joining the project and further funding it towards the realisation.

23:21 So the invitation came end of, uh, 2019. Beginning of 2020, we visited the site, and then the Covid started. So basically we had to develop all the project remotely, without actually visiting the site.

23:36 Nomeda: Maybe also interesting detail is that the invitation came just for a project proposal. So the initial idea was like really to make a research, to like think freely, to imagine and not think about the outcome or actually rather not think about the realisation of the project.

23:54 And that was a condition. And also I remember like very vividly that the planners, they said like, “No, no, no, there are no promises that your project will be realised”. So, you know, we could have like relax and just like think what it would be like, what we would like to do. 

24:12 Gediminas: And I have to say that in Sweden, they have quite a radical, if not revolutionary approach when it comes to engagement of artists to planning. So this project also had this characteristic, given that artists were approached even before the planning took place. So the discussion, the engagement of the artists with the planners in the region, with public administration, with landscape architects, with all the researchers that are thinking how this territory could be approached, was really exemplary in this sense because artists could really set a way how the planners could think about engaging the territory, engaging its ecologists, engaging the land.

24:55 Nomeda: And engaging the people or communities, uh, particular communities we have.

25:00 Katie: Yeah. That's so interesting. I was talking to someone just yesterday actually, about that question of engagement and what role artists can play. I mean, I'm not an artist myself, but I have friends who are, and a lot of them I think would describe themselves as community engaged artists. But I think a lot of the time it feels like getting the artist involved for community engagement is a bit of a side project, or it's kind of a box that gets ticked. But it's not clear how it actually feeds into the direction of the project. So yeah, it's really interesting to hear about a context in which the artists are actually really integral and as you say, they're there right at the start. It's not a kind of an afterthought.

25:43 Gediminas: Yeah, exactly. Artists are not invited to sort of like, repair the damage that is done by the planners.

25:48 Nomeda: Yeah. Or beautify. 

25:49 Katie: Right.

25: 51 Gediminas: Yeah. 'Cause uh, we know so many cases when artists are called to mitigate, let's say, acoustics in the urban domain 'cause the planners, you know, they didn't take into consideration maybe acoustic elements, you know, and so on and so forth.

26:04 So in this instance, that was really characteristic that artists were called right in the beginning to sort of like sit down together and think about the ways how the planning can be re-approached, recombined and reimagined from the outset.

26:25 Katie: Rikke, could you tell us a bit about what you're working on, and especially how that relates to the time that you spent on Gotland and the time that you're planning to spend there again. 

26:37 Rikke: My main work for the NAARCA project is this film and it relates to mainly mud. So the outtake is Ocean Lands: Mud Within the Earth's System, and that means that I'm looking at the ocean and the land and the interaction with these two elements, including atmosphere. So Gotland is a part of the larger project where I have been examining mudscapes or sediments on the east side of Iceland, and then I'm going to Greenland and Svalbard. And then also I'll be here in Denmark. And then Gotland, my former work was based on concrete and they said, oh, there's all this chalk in Gotland. It's more or less chalk.

27:26 That's related to concrete production. And there's a big problem with the mining in Gotland because it means that the water level is getting lower. It includes that there's a lot of plants, biodiversity, that's being changed, that's dying out. It also includes that the saltwater is getting into the island. So that was things I found out when I was invited to Gotland and when I came there, then I started to talk to scientists and local people that's related to these questions. And then I thought, Since it's not so muddy in Gotland, it would be more trying to form an image of the ocean space because Gotland is very old sea bed that had been pushed up. So it's a very specific site in relation to that. So Gotland would be very much about the deep time description of the planet in relation to the ocean. 

28:38 Use it as a spot to try to talk about the historical changes in the ocean-land relation. That's where I am right now with Gotland. So it had been very much meeting different kind of people there and just being out in the landscape, filming and reading. That's very much how I work. I have a very, very strict abstract, and I really stick to the abstract, but from there, I have no idea where I'm going.

29:06 Katie: I find that in some ways a terrifying thought and in some ways an absolutely thrilling thought. The idea of being able to dive into a project and just see where it takes you seems like such a joy. 

29:16 Rikke: It is. But uh, on the other hand, the thing I just have met recently, also when I was in Iceland I talked to a scientist there - they worked for many years, but they are in year zero. Everything is uncertain and it's such a new land for the researchers as well. So I'm absolutely not alone with these questions, what is this and what is this new landscape?

29:46 Katie: It seems that the work that you're doing takes quite different approaches. But a commonality, I think, is that you're all engaging in your work with climate, earth systems, landscapes, the relationship between our human systems and what we might call natural systems. And yeah, I'm curious to know why – why are you all motivated to engage with these themes? 

30:12 Nomeda: Quite often we get this question from people like, "what is the most important subject now to work with?" So in a way, you know, we think, of course, like climate crisis is the most important subject. Of course, there is a war going on and there are like, you know, inequalities within the human society, you know, human species let's say, which is also very important, you know, things to address. But somehow, like climate crisis is the overarching, I think, subject of the time. And you know, it is like something what we feel we have to like, respond to in a way and engage with. 

30:56 Gediminas: For the past seven years or so, we've been very much engaged in swamps, not only as a very important biosphere, but also as a metaphor and also as a notion that historically was irritant to humans, also to modernity, and especially became apparent during the political campaign in 2016, you know, with this notorious slogan, "drain the swamp".

31:24 So our work on one hand really sort of like attempted to rehabilitate the swamp. We got interested why in culturally, during the many historic epochs in many geographical destinations, swamps would be compared with the wasteland, with Hell even. And meanwhile, discussing either with botanists or with pedologists, you know, people who are experts of the soil, hydrologists and so on and so forth, you know, with planetary scientists – swamps are recognised as very important ecosystems whose contribution to making of the planetary goods, so to speak, even exceeds the tropical forest in terms of the carbon sink, in terms of the methane lock and so on and so forth. So this became kind of driving force for our work through the artistic practice and for artistic work, how we could contribute to unlocking, unentangling certain habits of thought of the modernist mind, where the swamps are considered, you know, the unuseful, dirty, um, terrain.

32:35 Um, so we set up Swamp School in 2018 as a contribution to Venice Biennale. We proposed curatorial vision for the Lithuania National Pavilion and within that effort we wanted to bring artists and philosophers and architects. So definitely addressing architecture education from the hybrid perspective, arguing how important is to address hybrid practices. Also, how important it is to learn from the environment, to learn from the swamp itself, where the swamp itself could become a classroom. So we brought students from dozen schools around the world to actually middle of the lagoon and proposing them listening to the swamp.

33:18 And also thinking of the different materialities emerging out of what we call swampian pedagogy and swampian imagination. The argument there was that the swamp could become a lens through which we can look into complexities of today's world and even into such a wicked problem as a climate crisis. 

33:37 So within that effort, drawing a lot of inspiration from the sixties cyberneticians such as Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer, who were researching ponds – and here maybe we are extending this into the swamps – as they try to imagine, uh, future models for the biological computers where the human and the man-made environment could be coupled with the natural environment. So natural environments using the feedback loops could hypothetically solve the mess and the issues that humans were making.

34:12 So this legacy of this sixties, experimental cybernetics found the way into how we are trying to organise the Swamp School back in 2018, and that gave us so much inspiration also to continue the work further into the experimentation with artificial intelligence, what we're calling swamp intelligence. We try to again, like destabilise all the discussion about artificial intelligence by proposing swamp intelligence.

34:44 Narration: This is the soundtrack to another one of the Swamp Observatory’s five moods. This one’s called “Sulfur Swarm”.

34:58 Katie: Rikke, you have already, I think, explained your reason for focusing on mud and your fascination with that, but maybe more broadly, where does your interest in Earth systems come from as an artist, as a researcher?

35:14 Rikke: I think it always been there in some way. I worked in two other groups before I started to work for myself, N55 and Learning Site, and we always had that element in it. I mean we also have looked a lot on urban spaces. I built some constructions in adobe bricks with mycelium, so the mushrooms were breaking down the dwellings. In N55 we did a hydroponic and we did fish farm and we built a floating island. I lived on the water. I think that was in ’10?

35:52 And that day, Manhattan was flooded; my house was standing on the seabed. So this feeling of the ocean and how it moves and how I'm part of it. So I've been for very long time, really wanted to go into the ocean, but I had not found out how to get there. And then in my PhD thesis, I got sidetracked into sand and sand extraction and the conflict that it's a limited resource. And at that time there was hardly no research on, on sand. So I, I wrote a paper in August '17 and then I found some research in Leipzig and I saw they've done a paper and, and I was, "Oh, can I have it?" "No, you can first have it the 7th of September” – it would be out in Nature.

36:39 And then I read it. "Whoa, that's so much the same we have been writing". I think that scared me a little, that me as this artist could more or less do similar things that came out in Nature. That means that there's pretty limited knowledge about it. And that paper was the base for a project that called The Sandbank I did for Urbonas's invitation to MIT. And then suddenly I was out into resources in a new way. So it had always been that, what is it, the material I'm working with, how is the relation to the society and where it comes from? So I think it had always been there, but then I've gone more and more into not the urban landscape, but the landscape more general.

37:28 So I see myself as this landscape artist, and since the landscape have changed, then my work is following that. So it's not so much me that have wanted to work on that, it's just the world have changed. So when I describe the world, then that's it.

37:48 Katie: This next question is also something that you've all touched on. But to focus on it a bit more specifically, I mean, we can also debate this term "climate crisis", whether it's adequate or appropriate or whatever. But for the sake of this question, how do you understand your role as artists in the context of the climate crisis? Do you have a responsibility to be engaging with the crisis in your work, or is that idea of responsibility a bit problematic? 

38:18 Rikke: I don't even see it as a question. It's just there. And the same with the biodiversity. 

38:24 Gediminas: I think as perhaps any challenge, you know, we should also approach this dialectically. You know, there are these two sides of this challenge, I would say. And of course, you know, we can say it is problematic because, well, we could say that neoliberal capitalism almost like, you know, puts the pressure on the artists and other creators to resolve issues, you know, and basically to clean all the mess, right? And another aspect of this challenge, you know, comes that how the artists are dealing with the question of problem solving, which is perhaps more characteristic to engineer's mind.

39:00 You know, and here there is always the question like, okay, how effective then artistic problem solving could be to compare with the one of the engineers. But on the other hand, perhaps we could also say that in our work we've been interested in the certain legacies of artistic practice, and those are having the starting point in constructivism.

39:24 Sort of like opposed to bourgeoisie artist, you know, we could say the constructivist artist try to bridge the life practice with artistic practice, you know? So develop something that is called praxis. And I think also this is what we also understand in Rikke's work, as well. So yeah, there are these grand challenges, as Nomeda was also referring earlier.

39:48 You know, whether we're talking about inequalities, whether we are talking about many other things that constitute this uncertain future. I think artists have a great role contributing to that precisely with this kind of like dialectic approach that is different than engineers' problem solving approach.

40:05 Because this, the dialectic approach always suggests some paradoxical model. On one hand, we can say it engages with the problem solving, but on the other hand, it proposes a different type of perspective. And this tension between the two is something that has very powerful effect for the imagination of the people.

40:26 Nomeda: I totally agree with you Gediminas in this point. Maybe my like genealogy of my thinking is like slightly different because as I remember myself from the very beginning of my artistic practice, I would always try to like question the, the idea of the artist as genius, as somehow exceptional, as in a way, like a modern, kind of modernist figure.

40:53 And in that sense, I would say like artist is no different from the other, you know, like professional groups of the society. So in that sense, like artist is in a way also responsible for, you know, what is happening with the climate and what is happening around us in the same sense, you know, like equally responsible as all the other, you know, people around us and all the other professionals around us.

41:23 So I think it is a responsibility of everyone. But then there is another part of me which, I dunno, looks at Kepes for example, you know, György Kepes who said like, "All artist is a seismograph". He's like a, a very sensitive, in a way instrument which senses the problem maybe earlier than the other, you know, other people around.

41:47 Rikke: I really agree on, on that. That's what the artist can do, that you can sense what is happening without really knowing what's happening, uh, so to say. Because that's what I've met in, in my recent work. I come and ask these questions and say, "yes, we're looking at it, but we can't tell yet". So many people are sensing this, and it's in many different fields, but we are doing it very different. And I think what artists then can do is to make this wider image and try to build, for instance, a new ethical and aesthetic public language that's capable of communicating the crisis, for instance, within the Earth system in this situation. 

42:35 Katie: Which brings us on quite nicely actually, to something else that I wanted to ask, which is very much related, but which is, what kind of engagement do you hope that people have with your work? Rikke, something that you said I think in the presentation you gave to the NAARCA group, you said something along the lines of you're not working to reach the public. Could you maybe explain what you meant by that and what you didn't mean by that?

43:02 Rikke: Oh, I didn't mean that. It's not that I don't care about the public. I, I think it's more that I enter a terrain and I simply do not know what's coming out of it when I'm doing that. I have to try to understand what is this, and from there, then I have to create an output. So it's more in relation to the output. Then you start to have this idea about who's the audience. So I think I more mean I cannot form the audience. It is the work I'm sending out. It's very much up to the audience, what they do with the work. 

43:35 Nomeda: I can shortly say that, you know, like the biggest satisfaction so far in a way I get from the situation when those people who are engaged in our projects take over the project and continue, you know, as if this would be like their own thing. And this was happening like, you know, many times throughout our practice. So I think this is like the, you know, the best recognition in a way of what we do, if this is something what, you know, is needed by the others. So I think this is like the best recognition. 

44:16 Katie: Can I ask specifically actually about the work that you did on Gotland with the app and specifically the collaboration with the schoolchildren?

44:24 Nomeda: Mm-hmm.

44:25 Katie: Why did you want to do that and how was the experience? 

44:29 Gediminas: Well, the reason why we engaged, uh, children, first of all, we know how the engaged, and also we could say revolutionary young generation of Greta Thunberg is in Sweden. And thinking of the future development of the future city that argues itself a ‘sustainable city’, we thought that we should bring to the discussion the coming generation.

44:55 So those who actually already live on site and they go into the school on site, so they are familiar. We could say, we decide that maybe there are some invisible things on site that they are not aware and we are not aware, you know, so we wanted to bring them into dialogue so we all could figure out what are those invisible things that constituting this, what we calling shadow biosphere, which is emergent hypothesis in biology.

45:23 That argues that there are these ecologies around us that are not yet visible to us and not yet maybe known to us as the life forms that we are defining as the life forms depend on our understanding of biology and of science. And then another aspect that is characteristic to our work is that we are very much interested in pedagogy.

45:45 That is in the core of the artistic experience. So again, this has legacy with Joseph Beuys and it has legacy with pedagogical turn in art, where as Nomeda was also mentioning where the artist positioning their work more as a learning environment or as a platform. Where the communities are taking over and have certain liberatory effect perhaps on the communities, so they could form their own autonomy and their own, we could say independence from uh, whatever regimes of governmentality we can imagine.

46:19 So certainly there are regimes of governmentality when we are talking about the public administration, but also when we, even if we are thinking of, you know, certain protocols that are, you know, designed about how we understand the environment. So engaging this younger generation allowed us to be way much more perhaps free and experimental, if you will, and play outside of those constraints. And even like proposing them, almost like as a game, kind of like to engage the shadow biosphere to, to... 

46:49 Nomeda: Imagine. 

47:46 Gediminas: Yeah. To imagine together. Right. And also this, uh, imagination, I think this is what we tried also to position as the provocation for the, for the planners, you know? So not only to work and engage the species that are known to us, but also to engage this imaginary biosphere that maybe it's already like lurking around us.

47:12 It is just, we don't see it, you know? So therefore, the Swamp Observatory was positioned as artistic slash scientific technology that allows us to, to see and experience you know, the species and make connection with them. So when we are speaking about the future societies or the future settlements or, or the future of the humanity, this cannot be separated from all these other species and ecologies around us. So why not imagine the future society in kinship with, uh, with those imaginary creatures?

47:44 Katie: A term that's been popping up a lot recently is "imagination infrastructure". And I, I think that's maybe somewhere where the role of the artist is, is really, really pertinent. You know, just this idea that our imaginations are not completely free to wander wherever we want. We've been socialised, and so having actors who are able to kind of break that open or provide provocations and to point out that there is an infrastructure within which our imaginations are operating, I think that's, yeah, that's really valuable.

48:17 Gediminas: Yeah, absolutely. And also some of the theorists, like for example, T. J. Demos who is proposing ecofiction as a way to deal with this doomsday scenario of the Anthropocene is also, you know, trying to encourage artists to come up with the new vocabularies and new concepts, new parafictions, new ideas that could suggest possibility for survival.

48:39 And I think dealing with the climate crisis or you know, these, kind of like the dark, kind of like doomsday scenario, it requires in a way the opposite. And I'm not talking about beautification or the use of aesthetics, kind of like to anaesthetise humans. On the contrary, to come up with some radical propositions that can propose different scenarios that are playful and maybe hopeful.

49:05 Katie: Yeah. Yeah.

49:07 Rikke: I think very much uh... lately how we have talked a lot about like climate crisis and biodiversity crisis. It is just like, "Oh, now we understand and things are just the end”. But it's just the end of humans and – if we should say so, I mean, everything will continue. I think it's more that we have to create a new language actually, to try to live in it. Because when I look at how that kind of language we have created, affecting the younger generation, I can absolutely understand why they are reacting, saying, "Oh no, there’s nothing to do. We are leaving now".

49:48 Katie: Mm-hmm.

49:50 Rikke: And I think that's one of the most serious things we have to understand when we try to think about creating a language. It's so complicated, what's happening, because there's so many parameters that's interacting. But how can we then create an image or images there, start to interact with this new situation we're in, and how we are creating the images? I think that's where artists are challenged right now, and that's one of the most difficult exercises for artists, I think.

50:25 Katie: And that relationship between the language we have available to us and the scope of our imaginations, I think is a really interesting one.

50:33 Rikke: Maybe also because we have to talk about something we don't know what is. So in that sense, we don't have to create any science fiction, it's just in front of us. But how do we then enter that situation with a, a language that can be used to communicate well.

50:57 Katie: The final thing I wanted to ask about was this whole idea of legacy, which I guess anyway is an interesting question, but especially in the context of the climate crisis, in a situation where the future – well, the present and the future – is so uncertain. How do you guys feel about the idea of artistic legacy? Do you hope to have any sort of legacy, and if so, what? And how is that affected by the climate crisis and the fact that everything is in flux? And I suppose, is it still a relevant idea that artists should have some kind of legacy? 

51:42 Gediminas: Wow, I never thought in these terms. You know, it's really funny because we often, maybe during the past years, you know, I could say often talking about artists being compost. And I was just like, as we were talking earlier, responding to your question, Katie, uh, I was looking at this, uh, book that is called "Steal This Book" from ’71, on counterculture.

52:05 And, um, and I think, you know, we're often thinking of our work sort of like almost in these terms, like steal this work or, or artists becoming a compost or the artistic ideas becoming compost that could become someone else's um, um...

52:22 Nomeda: Food. 

52:23 Gediminas: Food. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. 

52:25 Nomeda: Yeah. I think it is also the scale and which you look and where do you look from? Whether you look at it from the, like let's say arts field perspective or you look, uh, at it from the society perspective, or you look at it from a more a planetary, you know, aspect. So it's, it always depends on the scale where you look at.

52:49 And I mean, it is nice, you know, when you do something, what is kind of meaningful for society and it leaves the mark and it actually is inscribed somehow in the, let's say, history of this society. You feel like flattered when you made something like that. But at the same time, I think, you know, definitely we think a lot of being a compost. And…

53:18 Gediminas: Yeah, I was just looking for another word. Substrate.

53:21 Nomeda: Substrate. Yes. 

53:22 Gediminas: This American developmental biologist, Scott Gilbert, he was one of the very first one to call himself "we", and he used that with understanding that, uh, the human body contains less even human cells. You know, there are all these, uh, different organisms that are thriving on what it constitutes the human body as a collective of species that are all the time in, uh, certain relationship and codependency with each other.

53:50 And this is very humbling thought. You know, like to think that we are substrates, we are substrates to all other visible and invisible species. And if you look from that perspective also into our environment, I think it is very healthy. I think it is humbling. And it's also, I would argue it's very realistic as well.

54:08 When we were in Gotland, we learned like the entire island is a fossil and it gives us this deep time perspective. And once we started to look into variety of the fossils that we have found, we encountered the one that is called Tortotubus. Tortotubus, uh, fungi. It's perhaps the oldest fossil, but also it's oldest life form, that has 440 million years old, known to humanity. And scientists arguing that this Tortotubus mushroom helped to jumpstart life on the planet.

54:38 So basically it, it was the first one who started to produce compost, allowing all other plants and species and forms of life, you know, to occur. So thinking in these terms, I think it is sobering to think of yourself as a substrate and to think of, of yourself as a compost. I think it is, um...

54:57 Nomeda: Liberating.

54:58 Gediminas: It is liberating, yes. It's hopeful.

55:07 Narration: To find out more about the work of Urbonas Studio, visit nugu.lt/us

To learn more about Rikke Luther’s work, visit rikkeluther.dk

And check out balticartcenter.com for more information about Baltic Art Center – that’s “center” spellt “er”.

55:36 As we edge towards summer here in the northern hemisphere, we’re going to be taking a bit of a break. Testing Grounds will be back with four more episodes at the end of August – so remember to subscribe to the podcast now if you haven’t already, to make sure you don’t miss it.

55:53 Thank you for listening to this episode of Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. If you enjoy the podcast, please tell your colleagues and friends, and leave us a review.

56:06 This episode featured Helena Selder, Rikke Luther, and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. It was produced by me, Katie Revell. Our series music is by Loris S Sarid, and our artwork is by Jagoda Sadowska. This episode also featured compositions by Mouse on Mars, originally created for the Swamp Observatory app using samples made by students at the Athene school.

56:31 Thanks also to Alex Marrs, Charlotte Hetherington, Leena Kela, Alexia Holt, Vibeke Koehler, Jacob Fabricius, Rose Tytgat, Helena Selder, Lise Autogena and Iben Mosbæk.

56:44 The members of NAARCA are Cove Park in Scotland, Saari Residence in Finland, Skaftfell Art Center in Iceland, Art Hub Copenhagen in Denmark, Narsaq International Research Station in Greenland,  Artica Svalbard, in Norway, and Baltic Art Center in Sweden. NAARCA’s initial three-year programme is generously supported by Kone Foundation and Nordic Culture Fund.