The Rencontres Internationales Monde-s Multiple-s, formerly Rencontres Bandits-Mages, was to be held in Bourges from November 13 to December 6, 2020. But the lockdown has decided otherwise and the festival switches online. Makery joins the exhibition of the EMAP network, European Media Art Platform, and presents the different projects that were to be exhibited in Bourges. Interview with Kat Austen on her multimedia project ‘Stranger to the Trees’, microplastics and coexistence.
Kat Austen’s multimedia project ‘Stranger to the Trees’ explores the complementary coexistence of microplastics and trees as carbon sinks. How do trees and microplastics coexist in forests, capturing carbon in the time of the climate crisis? Combining video, inter-active sound and sculpture, ‘Stranger to the Trees’ queries the response of forest ecosystems to the ubiquitous and irrevocable dispersal of microplastics around the Earth.
Kat Austen is one of the small, but increasingly growing, number of research scientists who have switched careers to become full-time artists. How did her career as a scientist affect her art practice? “Before I was either, I was an environmental activist, and the motivation that has driven me through my life is to understand and address how we can live better with other(s) in the world. My focus has long been on the environment as other(s). I was a researcher in chemistry at environmentally relevant interfaces in order to address anthropogenic pollution. I used computational methods to study water and aqueous interfaces, looking at a molecular level at how different chemicals cross boundaries and change state. This vivid understanding of molecular scale processes is woven deeply into my relation to the world. I essentially look now at the same thing, but with different tools and a broader understanding of transformation and boundaries.”
‘Stranger to the Trees’, teaser (August 2020):
Symphony for the Arctic
Austen recently travelled to the Arctic on a former Russian spy vessel, which gives both tourists, artists and scientists a chance to see what is happening in this highly endangered region, where the ice has declined by 95% in the last 30 years and is set to be ice-free by 2040 if there is not a drastic reduction of human impact global heating. How was the experience? “I was sent to the Arctic on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a research vessel that was – rather fittingly for my project – equipped with an enormous hydrophone, as part of the Artist in Residence program by the Friends of SPRI (Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge). I had a studio on the top deck of the vessel where I could hole up and hack my instruments, work on the visual aesthetics and so on. I would go out on visits to the islands we passed, as we sailed from Iqualuit in Baffin Island up through some of the Northwest passage to Resolute. Once we passed the Arctic Circle, I would lose track of time and in the early hours of the morning emerge blinking into the other-worldly constant daylight – a dawn that never dawned for a day that wouldn’t die.” It’s lucky that Kat Austen was able to travel on the ship, as shortly after, it was unexpectedly seized by the Russian government and is now the subject of an extensive legal action.
Kat Austen’s work ‘The Matter Of The Soul’ uses sound, in her words to “engender empathy with the Arctic ecosystem in the time of the climate crisis. The work reflects how dispersal of water, human movement and digital identity are three intrinsically interlinked processes of transformation relevant to the climate crisis in the Arctic. I captured the sounds of the dispersal of water due to melting ice by hacking the electronics of lab equipment to transform them into musical instruments that play the sounds of melting ice. The lab equipment is usually used to measure how salty and how acidic water is. I took these sounds and combined them with excerpts from interviews with people in the Arctic, alongside traditional instruments and other field recordings, to compose a symphony for the Arctic in the time of the climate crisis.”
She goes on to describe the work in The Conversation: “The behaviour and trajectories of molecules are changed by the ocean that they have joined and become part of, just as when we travel – either for tourism or migration – we change and exchange with the cultures we encounter, and within ourselves. There are plenty of scientific instruments for gathering data on how water changes due to climate change, but not many pianos that do it. I decided to merge artistic and scientific methods of encountering the world, by hacking the scientific instruments to make sounds that I could use in my musical compositions.” Like many artists working in collaboration with scientists, the actual scientific process is clearly imbued in the actual methodology of the artwork.
But as a pianist as well as an artist what did she think of the dramatic stunt recently performed by the Italian pianist Einaudi, ‘Elegy for The Arctic’ where Greenpeace rather expensively installed a concert grand piano on a melting iceberg? Was this not a form of disaster tourism? “Adequate action to address the climate crisis will only be achieved if many people address the problem from many perspectives, using many disciplines, and via many channels. The stated aim for the project was to address delegates at the OSPAR Commission meeting (A major marine policy meeting in Tenerife) in 2016. Einaudi’s composition is very beautiful; it speaks to me of loss and the documentation of his performance on a glacier near Svalbard adds the Arctic’s soundscape to the piano composition. Though performed far from the meeting in Tenerife, the performance location allowed the composition to be played to the place it was written about. Augmented by the sounds of ice calving from an iceberg as he plays, the composition takes on additional meaning.”
Another work she has created previous to ‘Stranger To The Trees’ was the ‘Coral Empathy Device’ It’s a striking wearable art work relying on sound, touch and smell to touch the audience. How did this work and what did this do? “A precursor to both The Matter of the Soul and Stranger to the Trees, the Coral Empathy Device is my first experiment in engendering empathy for a non-human/more-than-human other under anthropogenic influence. In this case, the work deals with anthropogenic pollution – heat, microplastic and sound – in underwater environments, translating the experience of coral, understood in terms of what we know if its perception and response, into an embodied experience for humans in their natural environment. The research for the Coral Empathy Device, done in collaboration with Gjino Šutić was the first step in my journey developing DIY science protocols that we can use to interrogate the presence and meaning of microplastics in the environment. I further developed DIY microplastic research methods in collaboration with Joanna MacLean for our workshop (Un)Real Ecologies. MacLean is now one of the scientific experts on my current project Stranger to the Trees.”
‘Stranger to the Trees’ is about ‘incorporation and rejection’ between trees and plastic. Did this mean we have to accept the ubiquity of microplastics in our environment? “Microplastic is ubiquitous in our environment, whether we accept it or not. The question for ‘Stranger to the Trees’ is to understand the affordance of this relatively new material in the environment, how it co-exists with the bodies of trees in forests. These trees and forests are descendants of the raw materials for the oil used in plastic production. I am focussing on birch trees, known to be a pioneer species that heals the land. What happens to these pioneers in the plastisphere? If the microplastics are incorporated into the trees, matter comes full circle; but what is the consequence of the multiple transitions that have happened in between? What corporeal knowledge is conveyed? Plastic in terms of its chemistry is similar to the lignin produced by the trees – could this mean that the birch trees can assimilate a material that for fauna is a little more foreign?”
What would we see in the installation? “Two channels of video orient around a musical composition combining traditional instruments, hacked instruments and field recordings. One video, an analogue silhouette animation mixed with live-action video, explores the macro perspective of this coexistence. The other, incorporating results from a scientific experiment into the effect of microplastics on birch trees, explores the micro perspective. Together, they query the response of forest ecosystems to the ubiquitous and irrevocable dispersal of microplastics around the Earth.”
Austen is currently trying to carry out the residency between Berlin, where she is based and WRO in Wroclaw, Poland. How has this been affected by the pandemic? “I stopped flying at the end of 2018 as one of the personal measures I could take to reduce my complicity in the climate crisis. So, I had already begun to organise my life such that when the pandemic hit, the restrictions required less adaptation. Nevertheless, border closures have meant that some trips to Wroclaw have not been possible. Fortunately, I visited Wroclaw prior to the pandemic, and carried out much of the site specific research necessary during that visit. Thereafter, I shifted the focus of the forest locations to stretch between the two cities, which opened up extra resonances about the transgression of boundaries both as a physical border to an individual entity, and as shifting borders between countries – and in the case of Berlin, at one time through the very city itself. It’s indeed a fascinating resonance that birch trees predominate along the erstwhile route of the Berlin Wall.”
Austen will discuss how questions of identity and boundaries affect the climate crisis at Taboo-Transgression-Transcendence on 27th November.
Austen and MacLean’s ‘Microplastics and Coexistence’ discussion is curated by Art Laboratory Berlin.