From November 13 to December 6, for Mondes Multiples online festival, Berlin-based Italian artist Marco Barotti presents his work “Clams”, a commentary on water pollution and the ingenuity of ecosystems.
Watching electronic swans made of satellite dishes mingling with their flesh and feather fellows, we no longer know whether we should find it beautiful, absurd or strange and frightening. Marco Barotti’s electronic menagerie may look nice, but it serves a very serious purpose: to raise awareness on environmental issues. Those funny and peaceful swans swimming from Iceland to Germany? An invitation to reflect on electronic waste, the bodies of these “tech animals” made of technology now mostly obsolete. Those curious woodpeckers with their guts of wires that he installed all over Lisbon to Saint Petersburg via Tokyo? A commentary on electromagnetic pollution, electrosmog, as creatures peck at street furnitures at a rate whispered by radiation. At the occasion of the European Media Art Platform‘s exhibition at Rencontres Internationales Mondes Multiples, online from November 13 to December 6, Marco Barotti presents Clams, a work that focuses on the quality of water and those humble scrubbers of the seabed that are clams. Interview.
Makery: After exploring Tech waste and electrosmog why get into the topic of water quality?
Marco Barotti: With Swans, I was interested in addressing the topic of tech waste, the way we perceive technology, and where it ends up once we are done with it. Consequently, I created tech animals made out of recycled satellite dishes that resemble a flock of Swans and swim peacefully in the water. Swans opened up a new artistic perspective and many questions came with it, some of them related to water and plastic pollution. At that point, I felt the need to tackle these topics in my next artwork.
During my research, I discovered that in nature, clams are some of the best detectors of pollutants and they serve as tiny filters in our ecosystem. As they purify up to two liters of water daily, the bivalves’ tissues absorb some of the chemicals and pathogens, such as herbicides, pharmaceuticals, and flame retardants.
Stimulated by these phenomena I created Clams. A fictional and poetic reinterpretation of these animals inspired by their biology and functionality in nature.
An important part of the work is the data. Let’s call it the “rational side” of it. When I deploy the sensors in the water, I record the water quality data, its graphics, and numeric values. At the end of the temporary exhibition, I offer the collected data to the community, they then decide what to do with it.
What kind of water quality data do you collect?
I measure, some of the most relevant parameters related to water quality. Temperature, pressure, conductivity, pH/ORP, Rugged Dissolved Oxygen (RDO), turbidity, resistivity, and dissolved solids.
These measurements allow scientists to partially understand the quality of the water and decide if a deeper investigation is required. The sensors are not DIY. They are sold by In-situ, a company that produces equipment for water quality measurements.
How is the soundtrack?
Clams is a multichannel sound installation. Inside each Clam, I installed a loudspeaker. The data is generated by the sensor placed in the river, lake, or sea of the city where the artwork is presented. Every minute the sensors send real-time data to a server. The server communicates with a chain of computer applications, including Max/MSP and Ableton Live that convert the water quality data, into bass frequencies that generate the opening and closing movement of the sculptures and an evolving microtonal soundscape in constant variation with water quality levels over time.
Which waters will you be testing?
We were going to measure the water quality of the swamps. Since the exhibition will only happen online, there won’t be a live situation this time.
There will be a video interview where I explain Clams, the video documentation of the work, and the making off of the production.
Where did you find the recycled plastic to produce the artwork?
After a lot of research, I found the Precious Plastic Initiative online. It is a community that fights the issue of plastic waste and create solutions for it. After becoming part of the community, I found my way to their Bazar. An internal online marketplace, where people trade plastic, machines for recycling, and designed products made out of recycled plastic. There I found VanPlestik, also members of the community that helped me out to find what I was looking for. I was looking for industrial waste, and I found a type of plastic that came mainly from pharmaceuticals bootles recycled for the consumer packaging market. The plastic is washed and shredded into clear transparent plastic PET-G.
To create the clams I use two types of machines: a press for printing T-shirts and a vacuum former. I first use the press to melt the shredded grains of plastic into larger plates. Afterwards, I use two types of shells I found (one in Moscow and one in Hong Kong) as moulds and I print the history of these shells into the recycled plastic using the vacuum former. When the plastic cools down, I cut the formed clam. It’s a long process, especially since I made 160 clams.
Clams making-off, Marco Barotti, 2019 :
You have created woodpeckers, swans… Are animals better messengers?
I do believe that they are indeed very good messengers. The animals I reproduce in my works are extremely important in our culture, people relate to them and because of that, they find immediately a strong connection with the artwork. They are more receptive and open to welcome the deeper message in it. Even if sometimes it is complex and involves many levels of explanation.
As an artist, how did you deal with the lockdown?
The first wave was very intense since it hit Italy very hard. I was scared and worried for my family. I self-quarantined even before the lockdown measurements were imposed by the government in Berlin.
After a while, something unlocked. I was inspired by the way nature reacted to the lockdowns and how the quality of the air we breath improved in such a short time. Berlin was empty and beautiful. I couldn’t stay at home anymore, so I started going to the studio every day and things got better and better. Creativity overcame my fears and worries.
The city of Berlin gave 5.000 euros to all the artists. So we didn’t have to worry too much about money. At least for these first months.
It was the first time in a few years that I stayed in the same place for more than two months. It felt very inspiring and luxurious to have all this time to dedicate to new projects. In June I had my first show, in Le Havre, France, and it was wonderful to be able to leave town. The freedom to catch a train, have a coffee in Paris, show my work in an exhibition, and drink a glass of wine on the seaside of Le Havre was priceless.
Has it changed the way you work?
When the second wave arrived, the shows were no longer canceled. Many of them switched to an online format instead. I sent my work only to Spain and Slovenia, to the institutions that managed to open a physical exhibition. It was very revealing to see the difficulties that they encounter when setting up my work. I realized that my fragile art must become more solid and autonomous. I am in the process to rethink and upgrade all my works, make them stronger and even more sustainable.
Can you tell us about this new work inspired by lockdown?
During the lockdown, I was impressed by how the air quality improved in cities and industrial areas. I began investigating air pollution, causes, health effects, and solutions. In the process, I discovered that moss acts as a bioindicator of air pollution. The idea hit me and before I realized, I was producing my next artwork. Working with living moss arose many ethical questions, that go beyond my artistic practice and made me question, even more, my connection to nature. It is an emotional and moral challenge but also a rewarding and meaningful time that makes me grow and allows me to gain a deeper understanding of species and myself. I will tell you more about the project next time we meet.