Cyanobacteria, mushrooms, symbiosis… Over a weekend in Bourges, France, Antre Peaux hosted the second (post-pandemic) opening of its new UrsuLaB: an artistic biolab dedicated to living things and ecologies—along with a new exhibition on art in agricultural environments. Makery reports.
In 2020, the collectives Emmetrop and Bandits-Mages, which had been co-occupying an open creative space in Bourges for several years, finally merged under the name Antre-Peaux to mark a new momentum in renovating and expanding infrastructures. UrsuLaB, their brand-new biolab named in honor of science-fiction author Ursula Le Guin, was originally scheduled to launch in conjunction with the opening of the eco-feminist Even the rocks reach out to kiss you exhibition at Transpalette, an art center at the site.
Postponed by the national lockdown, UrsuLaB finally celebrated its public opening one year later, during the weekend of October 15-17, 2021—in conjunction with the new exhibition Agir dans son lieu programmed by Kina of the art collective Quimera Rosa, who initiated the biolab.
Antre-Peaux is a “refuge zone” or “safe zone” for many, and good-natured humor was in the air as people enjoyed reuniting with old friends and making new acquaintances. Agir dans son lieu, an exhibition at Transpalette curated by Julie Crenn, tackles the relationships between artists and farmers in artworks by 14 different artists. Among these are Pascal Rivet’s life-sized wooden tractor, Nicolas Tubéry’s installation-stabulation, Damien Rouxel’s farmer family photos, and Meg Boury’s offbeat interventions in rural funfairs.
Before the exhibition opened, UrsuLaB gave a public presentation of a weeklong workshop on speculative narratives led by Maria Ptqk, curator of the ongoing Science Friction exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Barcelona, and Helen Torres, feminist author and Spanish translator of the American philosopher Donna Haraway. During the workshop, seven participants from Marseille, Annecy, Brussels, Barcelona and Bourges presented their research on a world that faded out for unknown reasons in 2100, at the fictitious INARSPEC (Institute of Speculative Archivism) congress in 2200.
“In the year 2100, a team of artchivist archaeologists united by alliances among ecoqueer, interspecies witches and transhackfeminist communities proceeded to excavate damaged hard drives scattered around the Earth… after the fall of the Internet,” began the introduction text to the workshop.
“The idea was to project ourselves into the future, in order to investigate a past that is also our future,” says Maria Ptqk. While the speculative narrative approach refers to philosophers such as Donna Haraway and Vinciane Despret who reflect on interspecies relations, “We didn’t want to bring too many theoretical references into the workshop to avoid overwhelming the participants. We preferred to work together on a common imaginary ground, a common substrate, a common sensibility,” she adds.
At the fictitious INARSPEC congress, the participants projected themselves into a character. An excavation installation was available to the public, various temporal doors were opened, Dr. Chloé Desmoineaux staged a small drama with figurines, while Dr. Faust Lust Smiatek offered a metaphysical narrative of circular, linear timelines, a fantasy of speculative philosophy, and to conclude, Dr. Dimitri gave a final musical performance.
The next day began with a lecture by the Barcelonian philosopher Laura Benitez Valero, who directed the Biofriction project. Ph.D. in Philosophy, independent researcher and curator, her research in philosophy, arts and technosciences focuses on bioart, biohacking, processes of bio-resistance, bio-civil disobedience and non-human agents. In Bourges, she invited the audience to join in our common “Bio-resistencia”.
Referencing the theory and practices of the Critical Art Ensemble, Valero advocated an initial artist-activist approach for UrsuLaB. “How to resist the imposition of bios on zoē?” she asks, citing concepts developed by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life—a concept that would later be reprised, adjusted and developed by the philosopher and feminist Rosi Braidotti.
Valero reminds us of the definitions of bios as the form or the way in which life is lived, and of zoē as the biological fact of life. She cites Agamben’s observation that separation of zoē from bios, and producing a naked human life as a product of sovereign power, has undergone a transformation in modern times, because zoē, or biological life, has been repositioned inside the polis to become the organizational power center of the State. For Agamben, this process, grounded in classic politics and extending into the present, indicates Western politics as having been constituted from the very beginning as biopolitics.
Braidotti takes this concept further, with a feminist perspective. For her, zoē “represents the crazy vital force of life, which continues independently and without any rational control”. This concept is “the core of the postanthropocentric feminist turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic transspecies commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism,” she writes in “The Posthuman in Feminist Theory” (The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, L. Disch & M. Hawkesworth, Oxford University Press, 2016).
Valero also cited Braidotti: “Contemporary capitalism has a biogenetic structure, which is why it invites us to invest in Life as an information system. Biotechnological intervention on animals, seeds, cells and plants, research on stem cells and plants, research on stem cells in humans and non-humans, has determined in part the refinement of scientific and economic control and the commodification of everything that lives.”
Valero calls for vigilance and points out that in many biolabs, it’s not uncommon to be confronted with “a techno-centric exaltation with the tools in the lab, an exaltation that in reality hides a quantification of life”. She prompts us to consider UrsuLaB as a project to “generate engagement and knowledge situated in such a way as to confront humans’ exceptionalist pretention”. Valero points to the drifts of “a transhumanist discourse that is definitively based on eugenic heritage, where what is normal exerts power over what is abnormal”.
Laura Benitez Valero’s communication was followed by a presentation by the British artist Sophie Hoyle, accompanied by Jule Lanoix from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art in Bourges, with whom the artist collaborated during a residency at UrsuLaB in early 2021 as part of the EMARE/EMAP program. Sophie Hoyle (whom we interviewed before her residency) presented her project Chronica, which “aims to explore the shared experiences of chronic disease, disability and collective trauma through multiple forms of social marginalization but also forms of collective healing and autonomous corporal knowledge in relation to the health system”. Hoyle explains how, especially due to the complexities of the pandemic, they used UrsuLaB for informal and speculative explorations of the body instead of for scientific research.
The sound of life
Saturday evening started off with a performance by the artists Ce Quimera and Gaia Leandra—accompanied by Ari Gatak who manages the biolab at the Hangar cultural center in Barcelona—in the form of a long-term residency. Bioxeno was performed inside the Nadir, Antre-Peaux’s concert hall, around a sonorized, augmented laboratory table and invited the audience to sit on the floor, feel at home, see and listen to fragments of sensitive ongoing research on the efflorescences of cyanobacteria in the deltas of the Ebro river in Catalunya, Spain, as well as rivers in Paraná (Brazil), Uruguay and Argentina.
Ari Garak read a text by the artists: “(…) Residents of the delta talk about cyanobacteria and contaminated water, tell stories of invasions, toxins and problems caused by these cyanobacteria in their daily lives. Another research begins: news sites and scientific journals evoke the proliferation of cyanobacteria in all the affluents of the large rivers that reach the La Plat basin, traveling thousands of kilometers from the Amazon. Fertilizers from monocultures and deforestation infiltrate the river waters, and toxins are assimilated by the cyanobacteria. Once the cyanobacteria flower, they invade the water—this same water that is the life source for human and non-human animals. (…) Whom do the cyanobacteria protect? What are they protecting themselves from? Is the same thing happening in the Ebro delta? First collection of samples… but what to do with them?”
Through textual and visual narratives and sonorized microbiology, the artists created “scattered, non-definitive narratives, story sketches made up of sounds, textures and smells”, because “biology is not teleological” (citing the Colombian queer ecologist Brigitte Baptiste).
Next up was an audiovisual performance by Óscar Martín, Meta Music Machines, punctuated by neon flashes and retinal impressions synched to sound impulses, followed by a concert and techno DJ set by XX0019 und Motto.
The festival weekend concluded with the screening of a 147-minute documentary film on the life of the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis.
Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution (trailer):
The film shows how when Margulis was still a young scientist in the 1960s, she was ridiculed for being the first to propose that the principle of symbiosis should be considered as the driving force of evolution. She challenged the mechanist vision of life whereby life evolved through random genetic mutations and competition, as developed by neo-Darwinists, her main adversaries. Margulis, the true “21st century Darwin”, has throughout her career constructed a symbiotic narrative of evolution, whereby bacteria united to create complex cells that formed animals, plants and all other organisms—which together form a multidimensional living entity that covers what James Lovelock called Gaïa.
Symbiosis is when organisms of different species live together for an extended amount of time. Lichen, mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria that live inside our bodies are all examples of symbiosis. Indeed, every individual organism that we see around us—animals, plants and fungi—are actually consortiums of numerous different organisms living in symbiosis. These consortiums are called “holobionts”. For his documentary, the filmmaker John Feldman traveled around the world to meet Margulis’s avant-gardist colleagues and to examine how the neo-Darwinist “survival of the fittest” vision of the world has led to frantic competition, racism, genocide, as well as contemporary climate change and extreme capitalism.
The film was screened in three parts, so that in between Maya Minder and I (Ewen Chardronnet) could moderate discussions with the audience about the key points of Lynn Margulis’s endosymbiotic theory of evolution. Maya Minder and I will also be in residence at UrsuLab in 2022 to work on the problematic efflorescences of microalgae and cyanobacteria in waters around Bourges.
UrsuLaB is off to a good start, as its opening weekend ended with the launch of another weeklong workshop: MYWO (Mycology With Others), led by the Barcelonian artists Marzia Matarese and Óscar Martín, members of eemeemee (Enclave Micopirata Mutante), a community for sharing processes and knowledge around fungi. The workshop covered mycelium cloning techniques in Petri dishes using agar and reproduction using a substrate of cereal for mushroom fructification.
The exhibition Agir dans son lieu is showing at Antre-Peaux through January 16, 2022.
With the complicity of Ensa de Bourges, UrsuLaB was created with support from the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation. It has since received support from Région Centre Val de Loire, as well as the “A vos ID” program and DRAC.
Next: an interview with Quimera Rosa