In the framework of the “ART4MED: Art meets health and biomedical research” residency program, Finnish designer and film maker Emilia Tikka collaborates with artist and reindeer herder Leena and Oula A Valkeapää. The on-going project is situated in the semi-nomadic reindeer herding practice and speculates on how restoring interspecies memories with genome editing, leads to more-than-human futures in the arctic. Correspondence.
Emilia Tikka is a Finnish transdisciplinary designer, film maker and researcher. She is currently artist in residency for the “ART4MED: Art meets health and biomedical research” Creative Europe project at the Bioart Society in Helsinki and the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station located in North Finland’ Sápmi territory.
in the initial description of her project for ART4MED, Emilia Tikka writes: “The modernist episteme of extraction, taking nature as raw material for human ends, threatens all life forms including humans themselves. This results today as rising health issues, extreme weather conditions and toxic environments. In the arctic areas, the global warming advances even two times faster reinforcing extinction of species, increase of rain and floods and decreasing of snow. Therefore, radical re-imagining of human-nature-technology relations in the arctic are urgently required. (…) In this frame the project aims to speculate on human genetic alterations with CRISPR as Xeno-Optimizations for Arctic Survival in the era of climate crisis.”
During her first summer solstice visit in Sápmi land, at this artificial border between Finland, Sweden and Norway where Kilpisjärvi is located, Emilia Tikka started collaborating with artist and reindeer herder Leena and Oula A Valkeapää. Oula A. Valkeapää is living with reindeers in Sápmi reindeer herding tradition. Leena Valkeapää is an artist and researcher, currently a mentor of the Ars Bioartica Residency, the program led by the Bioart Society in Kilpisjärvi. Internationally recognized for their art and research driven projects, Leena and Oula A Valkeapää explore natural phenomena, local reindeer herding practices and situated environmental questions.
Makery discussed with Emilia Tikka, Erich Berger from the Bioart Society and Leena Valkeapää to know more about their research and collaboration.
Makery : Erich Berger, can you give an introductory description of the complex collaboration between Emilia Tikka and Leena and Oula A Valkeapää?
Erich Berger: In its essence the project is about the question of human adaptation to a changing environment – now in the face of a planet in transformation because of human impact – but also in the long run because we know from the past that planetary conditions do change on their own. Currently predominant considerations are to counter-act those changes and to preserve the environment to support human life as we know it. But what if we would go the opposite route (without of course throwing environmentalism overboard), think about deep human futures and speculate about directed human evolution xeno-optimizations – to adapt to an ever changing world? With Emilia Tikka these speculative scenarios are drawn from existing realities and stories of the past, and are situated in the geographic area of the Finnish Sub-Arctic and Sápmi reindeer herding tradition- that’s why she is collaborating with the Valkeapää’s. In the frame of ART4MED, the project aims to underline how issues of human biomedical health are increasingly connected to the questions of the environmental crisis. The work also wants to imagine biomedical applications of genome-editing beyond genetic determinism and human exceptionalism indicating the human condition as deeply entangled with more-than-human worlds.
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Makery: Emilia, how things were going in the sound recording stage in the project in Lapland, from which you had recently returned?
Emilia Tikka: The recordings went really well, we were recording sound and music for Oula’s film, which is in production at the moment. Oula uses his own voice for the voice-over and music for his film, which makes it very personal. The home sound studio in the northern-most fell region in western Finland gave a depth to the voice that could not have been reached in a classical studio setting elsewhere.
Makery: Your project involves deep human futures. How, speculatively, do you see the transformation of humans to more closely relate to the ecologies of the ‘more than human’ such as reindeer?
Emilia Tikka: Our common starting point was to discuss the current state of human presence in nature in the area where Oula lives and how that shows in the contemporary reindeer herding culture. In this, Oula’s personal experience and perspective as a reindeer herder has been central. We decided to focus on the nomadic aspect of reindeer herding, and the human relation to nature within the culture now and in the past. For example, nomadic herding used to be an ecological way-of-life. Because of the migratory movement, the soil was able to rest. Since the nomadic ethics of the past are still present in Oula’s herding practice, he is able to discuss the on-going changes that he witnesses including technologization and diminishing space for herding. Further on, the project turns to imagine a different kind of future, led by the ethics of the past. The idea behind the speculation of change through a biomedical transformation is connected to a wish to remember something that has been lost. The transformation is a starting point to remember, but also to see things differently, a starting point to a different kind of (human) future. The idea is not to become similar/same as animal/reindeer but to shift the perspective in a way that it includes more than just human-centered visions of a future. As the human-reindeer relation is shifting now through modernized herding practice, the future-part of the work will speculate on a different turn where humans need to re-establish the connection to reindeer (more-than-human) to survive themselves. This indicates an idea that humans can only survive if they acknowledge the other living things and the shared histories with them.
Makery: How do you connect your experiments with CRISPR gene editing in the lab with your storytelling narratives such as Æon. Is it just a matter of informing yourself of the technological procedures to inform the narrative or is there a more direct connection between the science and the art?
Emilia Tikka: As I have a background in design and my practice is based on speculative and critical design approaches. The core of these approaches is to speculate (through design and storytelling) on societal implications of yet non-existent technologies, however informed by the science of today. The goal is to create narratives that engage people to imagine the present day differently, look at things through a critical lens and perhaps see that different kinds of present(s) could be possible. The unreal/speculative is used as a space to explore ideas and sometimes to challenge hegemony/state-of-art today. My works are not necessarily limited to the scientific facts of today, and often propose an element we don’t yet know, as a speculation. However these speculations are deeply informed by science and it is important to me to have an understanding of the science also at the hands-on level. I started my journey of learning about synthetic biology and later genetic engineering by being part of a citizen science group and later also did laboratory residencies where I used the technology myself in an institutionalized laboratory setting. My work is therefore not solely about creating speculative stories informed by science, my work also functions the other way around. I have brought an aspect of speculation into scientific protocols, like with Æon for example. Together with the scientists we speculated how a particular protocol usually used for understanding cellular programming of human cells, could be used for other purposes, in our case a “clock” to turn back time in cellular level. The protocol usually used to ‘understand how something works’ was now used to create a poetic element through speculative mindset. This also allows scientists to see their everyday-lab work differently. I was interested in what could be discovered if the scientists would be looking for something they are not usually looking for, seeing their work through different lenses. Speculating together in the lab was possible because I understood the basics of the science they do, and for them to understand what I was trying to do. In this project my main collaboration partner is of course Oula and therefore the perspective, through which I look at science, is also coming from our conversations. There might be a scientist involved later but this time more in an advisory role. In order to look at science imaginaries from different perspectives, through more-than-human perspective, the speculation does not this time start from science.
Makery: Do you agree with, or just want to explore, issues around transhumanism and the post-human?
Emilia Tikka: As my previous works have been critically engaging with human ‘optimization’ around ageing and psychology, the aim from my side was to connect these issues in the urgent environmental questions. The working title Xeno-optimizations was referring to other kind of optimization, one that would step out of the human centered-ness. The ‘optimization’ would be driven by different ethics, seeking a connection to nature and other living things. The title of the work will probably change but this perspective was interesting to start with. We explore this question further together in a more situated manner, we focus on nomadic reindeer herding, where traditionally the reindeer – not the human – is central. Therefore the nomadic herding practice is not human-centered. Oula’s perspective and his personal relation to his herd has been crucial to establish this way of looking at the human-nature relation. Our perspective leans more towards the post-human approach, however without forgetting the human.
Makery: Our notion of planetary survival is very human-centered. What can we draw from the knowledge we see from other species and do we humans have a responsibility to those species?
Emilia Tikka: In the process, Oula has shared his ancestral knowledge on herding and his personal perspectives about many things that a herder learns from his herd and how the ‘reindeer perspective to nature’ comes from the time spent with animals, observing them, following them in their migration. In this sense the herder’s perspective is more-than-human since a good herder has to see the environment how the reindeer would see it in order to live with them. But also thinking about all (migrating) animals, which are kind of automatically ecological, the human seems to be the only species that did not realize the traces he/she leaves behind. I think all of us agree that we as humans definitely have the responsibility.
Makery: On the science and technology level, how would the ‘xeno-optimization’ actually take place? Is the science already developed enough?
Emilia Tikka: The project is not about proposing that biotechnologies would be the solution, even if it would be possible, the work rather aims to ask what ethics are driving techno-science? Whose visions of future? Since the kind of modernist idea of technological progress has driven the planet to the situation we are in, it is time to widen the spectrum of techno-scientific imaginaries, to start thinking differently, what is ‘progress’ and to whom?
Makery: What do you think the outcome of this project would be, or is it too early to say?
Emilia Tikka: The final work will be an installation including two films. Oula’s autobiographical film is a non-linear story, describing the events of one summer as he experienced it. The film is a poetic story about a life as a contemporary semi-nomadic reindeer herder, whose life is deeply connected to the past. It is about the connection between herder, his reindeer and the environment, however including the struggles of being human, the power of it. It talks about the nomadic way of life in which nature, more particularly the migration route of the reindeer, is the home of the herder. The film discusses what it means to be human in this setting and how being human is deeply connected to the living with reindeer. On the other hand It is also a melancholy story about the inevitable: vanishing of the nomadic-herding and the culture around it and about the sadness of witnessing it. The other film will be a fiction about a different kind of future, where nomadic herding returns in a different form. The aim is to speculate: what if the ethics of the nomadic reindeer herding drove the development of the area? The unreal and the speculative is taken as a space to discuss the problematics of the present day. In the story an ecological collapse will be a turning point to start thinking differently. It is a story where the lost human-reindeer connection is ‘restored’ through biotechnologies. In the story a bygone herd of reindeer carries memories of the shared past of the humans and animals in their epigenetics, valuing and restoring these memories will be a key for human survival.
Makery: Leena Valkeapää, let’s come to specific questions about reindeer herding and the environment. How is climate change reflected in your living environment right now?
Leena Valkeapää: Changes in the weather may have a fatal effect on the reindeer’s food intake during the winter, as the reindeer dig up lichen under the snow to feed. Changes in rainfall and temperature variations bring out problems. When it rains a lot in the fall and the ground is still wet when the rain turns to snow, the ground will grow moldy. The mold spoils the pasture and therefore the reindeer won`t get food from the wild. Another problem is when the times of snow cover, strong temperature alterations cause the snow to freeze. In this case the reindeer cannot get food through the ice. These type of challenging weather conditions in the winter mean that reindeer have to be fed by the herder. Feeding reindeer is expensive and challenging. Feeding also eutrophicates (causes excessive richness of nutrients) the soil which is bad for lichen growth. Thus, feeding weakens the condition of the pastures.
Makery: How is the nomadic lifestyle of the past reflected in Oula’s own current shepherd life? Did he already see this reindeer-herding as art when you were working outside the artistic context 20 years ago? (as Joseph Beuys implied when he said that every human activity can be seen as art)
Leena Valkeapää: In Sámi art history, the relationship between art and reindeer herding life is inseparable. The Sámi artists Johan Turi, Paulus Utsi and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, who are close to Oula, have not distinguished between art and reindeer life. For Oula, an understanding of contemporary art and a reindeer herding means a process that does not have locked-in categories of art or everyday life. Reindeer life inspires and gives content to art. Art, on the other hand, brings depth and significance to reindeer life. This dialogue is a central part of Oula’s life.
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Makery: What are the main elements leading to a reduction in movement in reindeer life?
Leena Valkeapää: The national borders between Finland, Norway and Sweden fragmented the nomadic herding culture. In Finland, the state has organized reindeer husbandry as part of agriculture. The mainstream culture based on stationary way of life has stopped the nomadic movement. The nomadic way of life seems to be cramped all over the world, as so many livelihoods compete for space.
Makery: Would you also like to tell us how you have worked together in the past?
Leena Valkeapää: I’ve been working with Oula since we met each other and I started asking him fundamental questions. The first joint project was my dissertation (2011). Oula’s text messages play a key role in my dissertation. With his messages, he has answered my questions directly in the situation where the answer has been completed in his mind. For example, when the wind has reversed the direction of the reindeer and Oula’s plans are changing, the message written by Oula summarizes the situation, from which I understand that the mood plays a key role in Oula’s life. The messages are also independent works that we have used in the multimedia works Manifestations (2017) and In the Wind (2019). Asking questions and preparing and receiving an answer is our way of sharing experiences with each other and the audience. Dialogue provides us with a space of thought and content that transcends everyday life. We started cooperating with Emilia, as our mutual dialogue has already become commonplace from time to time. Emilia’s involvement brought us back to the beginning of our thinking, as we had to explain the basics of reindeer life to Emilia. The process of explaining is awakening, as the understanding of one`s own everyday life becomes clearer. Emilia also gave us a reason to work and try out the possibilities of our sound studio. We got production support and it helped us to use the new technology. With this collaboration we also hope to have new audiences. The hopeful attitude towards future in Emilia’s work is an important aspect for us, as the everyday reality of reindeer herding feels little bit desperate at the moment.
The following video discussion was recorded by the Bioart Society in May 2021 for the ART4MED projects presentation at the Open Source Body festival:
Read our previous article on Emilia Tikka.
ART4MED consortium is coordinated by Art2M / Makery (Fr) in cooperation with Bioart Society (Fi), Kersnikova (Si), Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology (Dk), Waag Society (Nl), and co-funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union.