From the 4th to the 22nd of July, Cultivamos Cultura, in the Portuguese town of Sao Luis, was taking place. A Summer School of art, making and sharing ideas and knowledge. Artist Maro Pebo reports.
The Summer School at Cultivamos Cultura is enabling for those starting to create in the field of art and biology or for creatives that require a space that will allow them to focus on making and be stimulated differently by the environment and by the people. The support becomes highly personalised. Everyone gets to communicate what they are working on or what are the themes that interest them, to be given ideas or suggestions on how to start acting upon them.
Through this report, some of the most significant characteristics of the Cultivamos Cultura Summer School 2022 are narrated from a perspective of place, making and people. The place is about the spatial specificity where the learning and transforming of our thinking occurs. Making or the creative stimulation that gets everyone, even the theorists, to take the challenging step to start producing. People are the core that gives the strength to the summer school.
Setting in the present in Sao Louis
The space of Cultivamos Cultura is a place of exception. It offers a set of specific conditions that stimulate creation. In the town of Sao Luis, located in Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park, we could explore a landscape of different species within a short walk. With its smaller scale, low pace and quiet atmosphere, Sao Luis isolates us from the busy, distracting environments we come from. It sets you in the present, in a moment fully devoted to creation. In the silence, space, material, and interaction to make art.
In the introductory lecture by Marta de Menezes, founder of Cultivamos Cultura, we started learning the technique of agar culture and went on to collect the samples of our microbe sources. We were thinking about the particularities of making art with living organisms. We learned to be aware that we are always producing context-specific knowledge, therefore being wary of the presumption of apparently neutral knowledge, and instead embracing the specificity of subjectivity, of the value of forms. Another idea was that of art as meaning production and the possibility of conducting experiments with everyday tools and in an everyday context.
We cultured the organisms with different nutrients and became very aware. We started to develop a sensitivity for living matter in itself and as an art medium. As we walked the surrounding area one morning, we picked up and photographed but most importantly noticed. We looked at how everywhere in places we took for granted in everyday life, living organisms thrived.
Discussing while washing the dishes
Central to the experience is the people that share the time. We formed networks to work during the Summer School but also to keep working after. The experience is that of community, learning from each other, creating together, cooking and eating together. Food, cooking and eating were also indeed central for the experience of the Summer School. We helped prepare nutritious foods eating wholesome meals, feeling like every dinner was a celebration. In those weeks I experienced all the feelings and reached a closeness it would be really hard to get in our task-saturated lives in different countries. And still, we had this chance to hear each other for long, to share fears, pain, and desires. To encourage each other in art. Friendship and relations were central.
Cultivamos Cultura is a former farm that hosts the participants in a home, which gives plenty of time and opportunities for exchange in formal sessions and in informal conversations. While washing dishes, heated discussions about the borders of the living and non-living matter, on how to care and who to care for… The house generates relations, living together, with our roommates, with the people who first woke up and set up the table for breakfast. Outside the house, the open space was great for finding samples in the garden, spray painting, and setting up cyanotypes. The shaded area in this edition of the Summer School became a watercolor / sewing workshop, particularly to work with Andrew Carnie’s instruction and material inputs.
Finally, we had the great extension of space in the barn, which holds the microscopy tables used to watch our microbe cultures grow, the samples collected, the fertilised sea urchins ovules, and generally to explore the new microscopic landscapes of everyday life. In the barn at the centre there are experiment tables, cabinets containing the materials, the screening room, and a lot of space for creating. On the upper floor, there is an extensive area for dancing, gathering, and art making, as discussed below with the Suratomica’s network, or generally for exhibiting art.
Working with living beings
Cultivamos Cultura is also close to the river, a great place to find creatures, mud and fun. We were close to and travelled to the ocean in Millfontes, to refresh a but also as part of the quest for the living and the awed observation of it. Among the rocks, we gently collected sea urchins. The artist Marthin Rozo found and picked up most of them, 8 females and one male we got, but we did not know until we were in the lab. We carefully brought them to Cultivamos Cutura. With various methods, we stimulated them to release their germinal cells, and we made several experimental wells of mixes of sperm and ovules to have germination of sea urchins.
We organised in turns to take care of the fertilised eggs. It was an initiating experience to work with living beings. It demanded to embody care in a way that was so taxing for us as to take turns at every hour of the night to wake up and come to the barn to tend for them.
Places that enable.
It was weeks of heterotopic wonder of care and learning.
In her presentation, the artist Daniela Brill Estrada made us think of the minerals of our body at an astronomical scale: exploding massive stars, the astronomical origin of the minerals in our bodies : of all the matter in our bodies? She also raised a question that is close to my heart : How to transit and inhabit both the poetry of the micro-macro scale and the grounded political realities of Latin America? Daniella talked to us about Brigitte Baptiste, a biologist activist who talks about the Queerness of nature. We delved into a specific queerness, the queer taxonomies and queer transspecies.
We watched an informative documentary on the life of Lynn Margulis and her challenges and achievements as a revolutionary biologist whose work aimed to change our culture of centring competition and separation in the natural world to one of symbiosis and cooperation. This film that was chosen by Daniela Brill Estrada was a great way to end the evening and prepare for the activities to come.
Likewise, meeting experts in each field was a gift of summer school. For example Carolina Paez, a microbiologist who could advise us on projects and in taking care of our microbes. The conversations with each person became an intellectual thirst-quenching, where we patiently and generously replied to many questions, and then we started debating fiercely on an array of topics from the borders of life to the place of art and science. We imagined our place inside each other’s projects or drafts for collaboration. We created a bond for work, and we discovered fertile friendships.
Development of projects and new ideas.
Projects are supported by any media available, but most importantly, they are supported by feedback from Marta de Menezes and other artists at Cultivamos Cultura, who carefully listen and give references, ideas, and points of view.
This summer, privileged materials were solid agar cultures with freedom of the nutrient medium to select and feed microorganisms, but we also modelled with airdrying clay, worked with ceramics at the workshop next door, painted with watercolours at Andrew Carnie’s workshop, created cyanotypes with organic homemade dyes, fertilised sea urchin’s ovules, created networks with gathered materials for Suratomica’s taxonomy, Daniela Brill worked with the crystallisation of salts in ink. The making was encouraged; everyone either continued working on an existing project or started new ones.
Marthin Rozo further developed his project “Refugees for non-human life” at Studio 14, where he worked on the pottery wheel to build two shelters for non-human life. Curator Beatriz Seidenberg worked on empathy through meditative narration and drafted a multi-media installation titled Black Pearl, depicting the origin of pearls from a queer, speculative, and non-Western perspective. Black Pearl allows the viewer to dive into a fictional underwater landscape via a guided meditation. It invites the listeners to come with and imagine more-than-human ways of co-existences.
I (Maro Pebo) worked with Bacillus Subtilis because I want to understand microbial cognition, organisation and communication, and how these bacteria form architecture of biofilm through their cognition. The goal of the work is to enable humans to be able to look into these architectures and blur the notions of unicellularity. To experience complexity.
Daniela Brill and Natalia Rivera from Suratomica lead a collaborative work, by inviting us to build a network in a tridimensional structure, one that seemed to imitate a spider’s web, a neural system, or a constellation with the bodies we collected on a dedicated walk around Sao Luis. The relation among objects was marked by strings, wool, metal, and cotton. In the process of constructing the web, the bodies of the artists and participants became part of the web, then they were gone, came back, and so on, building a living structure, a fluctuating and mutating network of objects, bodies, strings, entities, heat, smells, glue, hands.
Every cohort is enriched by those sharing
The summer school at Cultivamos Cultura 2022 as a place was home, dance, and food. Making was encouraged, and facilitated, with blood as watercolours. It was organic and enabled, with sea urchin cells, microbial solid cultures, cyanotypes, and ceramics for non-humans.
The core was the people. Marta de Menezes first with her personal care and generosity to make sure we are materially fine and joyful and most importantly to advise us and mentor us in the creation. Every cohort is enriched by those sharing during those weeks. The strength and ideas of Andrew Carnie, the criticality and care for other species of Daniella Brill were among our share this year, to which I hope to have modestly contributed with theory on bioart.
Despite the increasing interest, art and biology remain among the offer of training. The Summer school of Cultivamos Cultura is an extraordinary example of extra-academic education to initiate, support and inspire any science-artist in the field of life and living organisms, life and art.
Cultivamos Cultura is part of the Feral Labs network and the Rewilding Cultures cooperation project co-funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union.