The “Ocean-Space-Ocean” edition of the “More-Than-Planet” symposium series brought together artists and researchers to question the role of the oceans in planetary balances and the perspectives offered by marine biodiversity in the ecological transition. The event took place on 16-17 May 2023 at Délégation Wallonie Bruxelles (Paris) in the frame of ISEA 2023.
“The world-transforming powers of human social life have always depended on the forging of relations with the inhuman potentialities of our home planet.” (Clark and Szerszynski – Planetary Social Thought)
The More-Than-Planet symposium at ISEA 2023 in Paris at the Délégation générale Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris, while a partner event to ISEA, provided almost a mirror-image version of that conference, with many delegates escaping the neon-lit subterranean Forum Des Images in Les Halles to the classic architecture of this embassy building to hear an impressive range of speakers on the way we view our changing planet. The symposium focused on the planetary layers between the oceans and outer space and stated in the introduction ‘The ocean is not a solid, flat and extended surface where supertankers are moving around, burning oil to transport oil, food or manufactured goods’. However the TETI group’s Gabriel Gee kicked off the symposium with an image of exactly that, citing Christoph Swarze’s 2010 project ‘Supercargo’, where the young Austrian artist is apparently the only person on board a semi-automated container ship, heading for Shanghai, on an ‘oceanic motorway’. He is there, it seems, for insurance purposes only and as the ship heads through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, he is also immune to capture by pirates, as he would be the only hostage and nearly all the containers are empty. He slowly goes crazy, giving all the containers names, and eventually moves himself and his backpack into one, until he is carried off the ship semi-conscious by ship-workers in Shanghai. As a recent interview with him is called ‘Faking The Truth’ it may be stating the obvious that this could be fiction, but it is a very cleverly constructed one. It was a powerful image to start the symposium and recalls our confusion about exactly which planet we are on. As Gee says “the standardisation of containers in maritime transportation induced a distancing between ever-modernising globalised societies and the seas”.
Gee also introduced the work of fellow Teti Group member David Jacques, whose work ‘Oil Is The Devil’s Excrement’ I was familiar with. The term comes from the founder of OPEC, the Venezuelan politician Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo who said: “Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see; oil will bring us ruin. Oil is the Devil’s excrement”. The artist mentioned: “The description of oil as Capitalism’s infernal obscenity ‘the Devil’s excrement’ also saw Alfonzo reaching back into the depths of time, invoking the Pre-Columbian peoples to whom the term was first attributed”.
Gee cited a number of important works including the Singaporean artist/olympic sailor Charles Lim, whose influential series ‘Sea State‘ which was an an “in-depth inquiry by an artist that scrutinises both man-made systems, opening new perspectives on our everyday surroundings, from unseen landscapes and disappearing islands to the imaginary boundaries of a future landmass”. In the discussion afterwards we also mentioned Lim’s more recent work on the massive purchase and shifting of sands by the Singapore government to create new, valuable, land. He also referenced the fictive marine works of Ursula Biemann, ‘Acoustic Ocean’, featuring a Sami biologist-diver (indigenous of northern Scandinavia) who deploys all sorts of hydrophones, parabolic mics and recording devices to sense the submarine space for acoustic and other biological forms of expression and ‘Subatlantic’ which juxtaposes the science of geology and climatology with human history. Such works are cited in his book ‘Maritime Poetics, which “engages with contemporary artistic practices and critical poetics that trace an alternate construction of the imaginaries and aspirations of our present societies at the crossroads of sea and land – taking into account complex pasts and interconnected histories, transnational flux, as well as material and immaterial borders”. Finally he mentioned the collaborative remote work, adapted because of the pandemic, ‘Ghost Ship’ which asked ‘what forms do spectres emerging from the past, take in our industrialised present?’
Maya Minder, the first of the ‘Cyanobacterians’ (as an audience member later coined them) showed us satellite pictures of green algae from space. She also pointed out the massive meat industries, the farming of cows, pigs and chickens were also a major factor in promoting climate change, as well as human activity. Instead, seaweed and other marine food sources and pointed to her ‘Micul Micul’ project, which collects knowledge from Japanese people. She mentioned that by eating seaweed over many centuries, scientists think a lateral gene transfer occurred within the Japanese microbiome, the so-called ‘Sushi effect. More radically she proposes a ‘Green Open Food Evolution – dietetics and endosymbiotic co-evolution to become Homo Photosyntheticus ‘. In other words she speculates that the eating of seaweed and other marine products could revolutionise the human body so that nourishment could enter through the skin with sunlight in the same way as plants. On hearing this, in the discussion, I recalled the cult of ‘Breatharianism‘ in which members literally tried to ‘live on air’. Another interesting aspect of her talk was the role of seaweed, or spirulina, as not only potential space food but as ‘nostalgic food’ sent to the ISS by JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency. Maya Minder and her team later presented ‘AQUATIC DEVOLUTIONS : A bio-food dinner in contrapuntal speculations’, with the TETI Group and sound composition by Matthieu Philippe de l‘Isle, at the Swiss embassy for the delegates in an ambitious and visually spectacular performative cooking performance. Perhaps we were all able to evolve a bit during the meal that evening.
Author Sébastien Dutreuil, research director at CNRS Marseille, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the complex relationship between microbiologist Lyn Margulis and chemist James Lovelock in developing the Gaia hypothesis. He has traced the history of Gaia, from its initial rejection by evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins and its adoption by the neo-pagan movement, to the more evolved thinking of Earth Systems Science, a combination of geology, chemistry, biology and physics that is now vital to the understanding of climate change here on earth, which is what the More-Than-Planet project seeks to understand in a multi-disciplinary, cultural level. Rejecting Buckminster Fuller’s famous dictum: “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship…” Lovelock wrote “(Gaia) is an alternative to that pessimistic view which sees nature as a primitive force to be subdued and conquered. It is also an alternative to that equally depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever travelling, driverless and purposeless, around an inner circle of the sun”. (From Dutreuil’s essay on Margulis and Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis: ‘A New Look at Life on Earth’.
Dutreuil’s talk, and the discussion which followed focussed on Lovelock’s controversial views on everything from nuclear power to geo-engineering, the latter being relevant to the day’s topic in that it was asked if the giant algae seen in today’s oceans could be activated to ingest carbon and thus regulate climate change. Lovelock in 2007 said “If we can’t heal the planet directly, we may be able to help the planet heal itself”, proposing a series of giant pipes in the ocean which would fertilise the algae. There have been many scientists warning about geo-engineering, one scientist himself publishing a dystopic novel about cloud-seeding, Professor Bill McGuire’s ‘Skyseed (Hacking The Earth Might Be The Last thing We Do)‘ and Lovelock himself later came out against this approach in 2009, writing in The Guardian “Geo-engineering implies that we have an ailing planet that needs a cure. But our ignorance of the Earth system is great; we know little more than an early 19th-century physician knew about the body. Geo-engineering is like trying to cure pneumonia by immersing the patient in a bath of icy water; the fever would be cured but not the disease.” Dutreuil gave us a useful historical context for the understanding of Earth’s systems, citing the rise of geophysics during the cold war and the subsequent development of meteorology.
Continuing with algae, artist and photographer Alice Pallot described her ‘Algues Maudites‘, or ‘cursed algae’ project about the proliferation of green algae that has invaded the Brittany coast. In describing her project she says “This phenomenon is the result of a process called eutrophication, linked to an overabundance of organic matter, it leads to the asphyxiation of the environment. The multiplication of green algae is induced by the excessive presence of chemical nutrients (nitrate and phosphate) in coastal waters. This results from the discharge of sewage, agricultural runoff, industrial waste and massive releases of nitrogen fertilisers from livestock and intensive agriculture”. The photographic image she showed of an unnamed ecologist studying this algae was disturbing in that it showed an utter alienation between the scientist and the distressed environment. From the essay on her work by Constance Nyugen, her metaphors include “behind the green, there is black”, “Oil tides are the new green tides…”, the “sterile” beach. Alice Pallot gleans waste, seaweed recovered from Breton beaches in order to use them as photographic filters. We then view the scene through the prism of pollution”. She went on to collaborate with scientists at CNRS Toulouse to create an artificial aquarium to reproduce this phenomenon.
I first came across the work of Anne-Marie Maes and her ‘Bee agency’ in the exhibition ‘Beehave‘ curated by Martina Millà at the The Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona in 2018 which was entirely about…bees. She has built an impressive roof-garden in the centre of Brussels, where she not only keeps bees but also encourages other colonies of insects and plant life. : “My rooftop garden is my laboratory. It is my training ground to develop my creativity. It is a space where thinking and manual work go hand in hand” At More-Than-Planet she presented her Theatrum Algaerium, a large-scale durational performance on the beach at Ostend working with the tides, with the performers collecting samples of algae in petri dishes and handing them to passers by. “Early in the morning and late in the evening, between low and high tide, the Theatrum Algarium rises from the sea. Metal frames hold the fluttering weeds. Glass jars fill up with seawater, their round shapes are acting like a lens and focus on the morphology of the floating algae”.
Hideo Iwasaki is a research biologist who is responsible for the discovery of internal clock genes in cyanobacteria and in-vitro reconstitution of their circadian rhythms as well as the founder of the art-science bioaesthetics space Metaphorest. His talk was about the way these biological clocks in both humans and cyanobacteria incorporate the earth’s rotation cycles in both sleep patterns and also cell behaviour. An interesting example of his art-science work was the project ‘aPrayer’: a memorial service for microorganisms and artificial cells and lives. He also described his ‘CyanoBonsai project creating three-dimensional bubble architecture with cyanobacteria. Iwasaki is a very good example of a top-level research scientist who has also throughly immersed himself in the artistic process.
The first day was concluded by Anthea Oestreicher, who not only views the ocean as a sensorium, but dives into the phytoplankton directly, both with conventional diving equipment, but also using the free-diving breath techniques used by marine indigenous communities, what divers call apnoea diving, an ancient technique going back millennia, examples being the Ama pearl divers from Japan or the Haeneyo sponge divers from Korea. Using diving to develop a sensitive relationship with the breathing phytoplankton she intends to “help to better understand and appreciate the intricacies of the ocean ecosystem…and cultivate a deeper appreciation for their vital role in the ecosystem and the impact of human activities on their lives”.
More-Than-Planet partner Marko Peljhan opened the second section of the symposium by drawing our attention to what he called the landscape of the imagination and how it interacted with the social and biological complexities of planetary systems, in a time where more data was stored than any time in history. Pointing to current events (one of the biggest attacks with hypersonic missiles by Putin on Kiev had just taken place as we met), he reminded us that we are living in the most dangerous times ever since World War 2. Peljhan, whose work critiques highly complex systems of political, economic, and military power, had correctly predicted the future of hypersonic weapons in his work representing Slovenia in the 2019 Venice Biennale, ‘Here We Go Again…System 317..‘ In terms of our relations with our planet, he asked us to consider that what he called the ‘cosmic end-game’ should not be self-inflicted. It is perhaps no co-incidence in these difficult times that Peljhan is directly engaging with the forces of technological, political and military control as the co-founder and partner of the Slovenian drone company C-Astral (motto Fly Further – See Better).
Elena Cirkovic from the Max Planck Institute, Luxembourg and University of Helsinki / Research Affiliate with the Space Enabled Group at the MIT Media Lab, focused on complex Earth-Outer Space Systems and formal structures of international law, comparing the Law of The Sea, the forthcoming UN High Seas Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty. The High Seas Treaty will provide legal rules for biodiversity and, as Cirkovic points out, an important reference to indigenous communities and their knowledge systems, although with words of qualification where their knowledge is “relevant”, “as applicable” and “as appropriate”. She also pointed out that oceans are not outer space and vice versa. The Outer Space Treaty was about trying to secure the peaceful uses of outer space and was predicated on there being ‘nothing out there’. In the context of the areas beyond national jurisdiction and the commons, States can get specific licences to explore and exploit international waters (e.g. The International Seabed Authority (ISA)). The Outer Space Treaty is somewhat special because all human activities are “national activities”, and all OST signatories are therefore liable for any breaches of the treaty.
However international law and its interpretation is complex. No treaty explicitly bans the testing of direct ascent ASATs. At the same time, OST Article IX states that parties to the treaty “shall conduct all their activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty.”
As Marko Peljhan pointed out in the discussion, ‘You can still blow up a satellite in spite of the Outer Space Treaty!” In response to my question to Cirkovic, being invoked retrospectively has never happened in the Treaty’s 55 year history, apart from a semi-joking issue of a fine to NASA from the Esperance Shire Council in Western Australia for ‘littering‘ the landscape after Skylab’s hard landing with pieces of debris (I checked). On the human factors issue and ethics of space activities, Cirkovic pointed out that space is still dangerous and ‘space exploration can’t be done out of your kitchen’. This is why there are legal provision in place and potential accidents are the responsibility of the launching nation. Private companies are incorporated in specific jurisdictions and are governed by national laws, including space laws, and that State bears responsibility under international law.”
Xavier Fourt from Bureau D’Etudes spoke of the Laboratory Planet, founded by them with Ewen Chardronnet, which they say the Earth became after the first nuclear explosion in 1945, following three centuries of the ‘planet as factory’. As the co-organiser Miha Turšič mentioned in the introduction, he referred to planetary layers, which he called ‘planetary stacking’. He referred to the physical layer, the bio layer, the psychic layer and the spiritual layer, with reference to Vladimir Vernadsky, who coined the term The Noosphere. The Laboratory Planet project, both a newspaper, a travelling exhibition and a producer of an Atlas of Agendas’ – a political, social and economic atlas: informing the public about socio-political power structures uses ‘paranoia as an exploratory method’ to expose the ‘industrialisation and massification of secrecy’ Referring to ‘Alien Capitalism’ Laboratory Planet plays with the idea that capitalism has extraterrestrial origin, but also the planet as laboratory in terms of Gaiia feedback loops, photosynthesis and geo-engineering. They refer back to Russian Cosmism in the initial dream of sending humans and non-humans away from the human cradle, but conclude that since the bomb was exploded “only the elect could access it, leaving the post-nuclear bio-proletariat locked in a devastated Earth”.
John Palmesino of Territorial Agency complemented Gabriel Gee’s opening image of Supercargo by inviting us to listen to the earth for a few minutes, from the bottom of the ocean, with a sample of hydroacoustic audio data from an underwater nuclear detonation detection system, which listens out for breaches of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty under which underwater testing is outlawed (according to Palmesino, the last such breach was three years ago). The sound was very moving, in that is contained acoustic data of ships, whales, drilling, seismic activity and many other human and non-human sounds. The underwater stations, of which there are 11 in the world, patiently listens out for any discrepancies in this cocktail of sounds, which would indicate an underwater nuclear test. Territorial Agency is collaborating with TBA21-Academy in the project ‘Oceans In Transformation‘ to record and utilise this kind of data set about the ocean. They say “The ocean is a sensorium: it records the transformations of the Earth in its complex dynamics, and it inscribes back into the forms of life its own cycles…The ocean is in a new phase of its non-linear history, shaped by the intensification of the impact of human activities on the Earth System—the Anthropocene”. Linking scientists, artists, policy-makers and conservationists they see the project as “an instigation for new cognitive modes of encountering the ocean and a line towards attainable solutions”. He spoke about ‘renegotiating the horizon’ of the oceans, given that rising sea levels are almost invisible and asked ‘how do we start sensing the ocean that is sensing us?”
Nicolas Maigret from Disnovation reflected Maya Minder’s talk about Homo Syntheticus by reflecting that sunlight was the primary source of energy for most life on earth, and as Vaclav Smil points out in ‘How The World Really Works’ energy is the only universal currency. Maigret proposed the creation of a ‘Solar Share‘ an edible currency formed of a a “speculative photosynthesis-based exchange unit” which allows us to “fully appreciate human dependence on perpetual solar-activated energy flows on Earth”. It would be based on the average amount of sunlight needed for one square metre of plants on earth and could be exchanged for goods or services. It would be a ‘post-growth prototype’ and be shaped like a biscuit.
The final presentation was a very extensive survey of the activities of Space4Good by remote-sensing expert Federico Franciamore. Space4Good uses remote -sensing data from many satellites orbiting the Earth. While its activities cover all kinds of environment sectors such as tracking deforestation events, monitoring biodiversity, detection of illegal fishing (particularly relevant to the the Oceans in Transformation project mentioned above), surely the most relevant area right now are their peace and justice activities. They say: “remote sensing enables non-invasive and safe monitoring of conflict zones, enabling Space4Good to generate insights into post-conflict damage assessments, unexploded ordnance (UXO) detection and classification, as well as clandestine grave identification”. I asked if there were any sensitive areas which they might be blocked from getting data. He replied that as they did not actually operate the satellites themselves, buying in the data, the main issue might be commercially sensitive data that would conflict with the interests of the satellite companies themselves. He also pointed out some unusual utilisations of remote sensing of the Earth, such as working out which rural communities had the most toilets and where were the best places to release tigers into the wild (obviously not near inhabited communities). For More-Than-Planet Space4Good will conduct four workshops where where artists and scientists can share knowledge and experience in the context of climate change and earth observation.
In the final discussion the phantom of the recently-late Bruno Latour was very much in evidence, with terms like ‘retro-active causuality’ being very much in evidence. Many of the comments in the discussion here were resonant with those I heard in embryo in the last decade at the Anthropocene Monument symposium performance in Toulouse organised by Latour and Bronislaw Szerszynski. However this Latourism was challenged by Marko Peljhan, citing the writings of Zoe Todd on ‘The Great Latour’s’ failure to recognise “Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations” in his arguments concerning Gaia. The new feudalism and the dissolution of democracy by “Elon Musk and his small cabal of characters” was also discussed. As one delegate pointed out, Latour, in a dialogue with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber at HKW in Berlin, said that in France “throwing sharp objects into the social fabric is (to solve the climate issue) is called a guillotine”. Despite the above reservations, Latour is significant to the main debate with his description of a ‘critical zone‘ – the thin layer where we can live in, versus a more porous vision and the links between the biosphere and the orbit, the moon, the sun’s energy, that also influences life, and as Ewen Chardronnet mentioned, as well as the impact of humans on outer space with orbital debris. There was also a further discussion about Vernaksky’s noosphere and comparison’s with Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Perhaps the final word could come from the Ukrainian-Russian curator Daria Parkhomenko, founder and director of Moscow’s Laboratoria Art and Science Foundation, which has been forced to close since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, (on their website the single word tragedy) speaking from the floor. “How do we take this beyond”?
‘Aquatic Devolutions: A bio-food dinner in contrapunctual speculations’, final performance at the Swiss Embassy in Paris by Maya Minder and TETI Group:
All photos by Quentin Chevrier. Videos by Arthur Barbe.
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