Northern Basque Country artist Alizée Armet presented her creation “Ghostly plants of damaged worlds” this autumn at the Ars Electronica festival in Linz in September, last week at the Digital Art festival in Sofia, and will be in the “I Told You It’s Alive” exhibition at the Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia, from November 28 to February 2. Makery wanted to know more about this intriguingly titled work.
This interview was conducted at the Ars Electronica festival in September 2023 and continued online in early November.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Alizée Armet and I’m an artist-researcher. I wrote my thesis at the Universidad del País Vasco in Leoia (Upv-Ehu), in the art and technology section, with the title “Art et technologie au XXIe siècle. De la machine de vision à l’Intelligence artificielle” (Art and technology in the 21st century. From vision machines to artificial intelligence) which focuses on the visual capacity of artificial intelligence and its influence on artistic practices. In particular, I’m developing an artistic research project that led to a residency in 2019 as part of the third edition of the International Exchange Program for Artists between the NekatoEnea residency in Hendaye (France) and Basis in Frankfurt. I proposed a neurofeedback and virtual reality device in which the visitor wears a neuroscience headset and a virtual reality headset. Through this interplay of devices, they can move a beacon inserted into the digital universe – a shape created by photogrammetry of a square in Frankfurt. Neuroscientists Jelena Mladenovic and Léa Pillette from INRIA Bordeaux accompanied the project. It’s important to say this because it laid the foundations for what I’m creating now. Before, my practice was very much focused on these questions of the relationship between nature and science, and was much more of a representational nature. More recently, I’ve been focusing on biomedia. (For a definition of “biomedia”, we refer the reader to Eugene Thacker’s 2004 essay Biomedia or to the writings of Jens Hauser, rather than to the ZKM’s recent exhibition of the same name, whose definition proposed by Peter Weibel departs from that developed by the former – editor’s note).
In 2021 I was awarded the production grant “Cultures Connectées” offered by Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. This opportunity led to a collaboration with Patxi Bérard and Denis Geral, engineers from ESTIA, an engineering school on the Basque coast. For this project we have come up with an art installation featuring collaborative augmented reality, giving rise to an exhibition at the festival Accè)s( Cultures Électroniques in Pau, October 2022. The subject is the mega fires in the forests of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. In the course of my research, I’ve come up against a number of amateur videos of accidents found on social networks, which fall in the fascination with the sublime of the accident. My aim is therefore, through collaboration, and also inspired by exchanges with mycorrhizae, to take another look at the accident or its phenomenon, with caution for all other living beeings, and not just the individual relationship to the smart phone and the sublime of the accident.
Could you describe your project for the European Media Art Platform?
Last year, I was selected by the EMARE-EMAP scheme. I was able to do a residency at the Kersnikova Institute in autumn 2022 and clearly (the artist emphasizes – ed. note) I understood that I had to stop being in representation, and much more experiment with the material of organisms. The subject I proposed to them was to explore albino plants. Some of them have phytoremediation capacities. They cannot feed themselves due to their lack or absence of chlorophyll. They do not photosynthesize, but have a symbiotic relationship with certain mycorrhizae, which provide them with the necessary exchanges. They themselves can filter heavy metals through their roots and stems, and in discussions with upstream researchers, I came to understand that albino plants are better able to grow in acid soil. I approach this work from the perspective of speculation, care and attention, but my interest also lies in reflecting on technical gestures as well as those of innovation. Speculation allows me to explore the question of soil contaminated with heavy metals, because for me, plants are not just objects, but point us towards a reflection on our own human condition. I mean about resilience and mutation. These singular plants have found tactics for survival, or simply for living.
So the plants that grow on soil that seems hostile to us isn’t hostile to them? How do you feed the plants in your installation?
In fact, it’s the nutritional input from mycorrhizae that promotes this survival. For most scientists, the subject remains a mystery. Researchers know how these plants survive, but are still puzzled by the mystery of their appearance. We must continue to consider that a hostile soil remains hostile: these plants do not grow as fast as others, they are not large, and their fragility is exposed. In my installation, I’ve integrated mycorrhizae. The nutritional contribution consists of a base of dextrose and vitamins, which is transformed by the mycorrhizae into food that is much more digestible for the plants. Roots need phosphorus, for example, which mycorrhizae can provide.
And in the wild, how do they live?
Various terms are used to describe these relationships between plants/trees and mycorrhizae. French biologist Marc André Selosse, for example, has described the parasitic relationship between certain plants and mycorrhizae as “Mycoheterotrophy”. For all plants, “Mycotrophy” is the general, mutualistic relationship with mycorrhizae. In green plants, there is also “mixotrophy”, where photosynthesis is exploited by both parties. Mychoheterotrophy is a parasitic relationship in which the plant depends almost entirely on the mycorrhizae.
In my research, I was interested in the particular case of albino redwoods. Albino trees function by “mycoheterotrophy” within other normal redwoods known as “mycotrophs”. Total, or obligatory, mycoheterotrophy occurs when a non-photosynthetic plant, i.e. one largely devoid of chlorophyll or a functional photosystem, obtains all its food from the fungi it parasitizes. Partial mycoheterotrophy occurs when a plant is capable of photosynthesis, but also parasitizes fungi for food. There are also plants, such as certain orchid species, that are non-photosynthetic and obligatorily myco-heterotrophic for part of their life cycle, and photosynthetic and optionally myco-heterotrophic or non-myco-heterotrophic for the rest of their life cycle.
This strangeness was my first inspiration. Albino sequoia trees grow in certain areas of the west coast of the United States, in Oregon, Washington and California, such as Muir Woods National Monument and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the north of the state. In the course of my research, I came into contact with Zane Moore, a PhD student in biology at the University of California working on the issue, both to better understand how it works and to hopefully get some shoots to start my project. Zane Moore and Tom Stapleton, a chartered herbalist, have together created a form of reserve where they can both protect these albinos and pursue their researches around the chimeric redwoods. This reserve is a kind of lab-greenhouse that I’d like to visit, and of course I still have to find the context to go there.
Which species did you use in Europe?
I wanted to bring in albino sequoia shoots from California, but it was complicated. I wondered if there were any other European species. It was when I compared different species that I realized that the plants known as variegata were the ones closest to my goal. Biologist Mélanie Roy, who does her research in Latin America, wrote me a potential list of subjects to study. The Mesembryanthemum cordifolium ‘Variegatum’, the heartleaf iceplant or heart-leaved aptenia, formerly known as Aptenia cordifolia ‘Variegata’, proved its worth.
The installation features an assembly of metal bars on which rest scientific detection and visualization instruments. At the top of the installation are two automatic irrigation pumps and two liquid solutions, either a nutrient solution or an infusion of polluted soil from Jesenice in Slovenia. Three pots are also on show, displaying plants and mycorrhizae. Visible instruments include pH sensors and a microscope.
I’ve been working on this project for a year. The most recent part is the addition of a medical pedestal table on which all this assembly rests. This same part is a new reflection on which I’m currently working: how can I put into action the maintenance required for this part? I regularly take samples and test them for heavy metal content and potential nutrients. I’m working with Jakob Grčman, an engineer from the Kersnikova Institute, to create a mobile heavy metal sensor for integration into the part. I’m also in contact with specialists to evaluate plants and their heavy metal content.
One last question: how did the residency in Slovenia go?
I loved it. Until now, I sometimes had a lot of doubts about my practice. Was it really conform? (the artist underline – ed. note) The resources provided by the Kersnikova Institute and its Biotehna lab gave me a foot in the door. The idea of a laboratory workshop really gave me inspiration about how to create in other types of environment. Since then, I’ve completely changed my studio at the Villa Madeleine in Boucau, modifying it as a result of this residency. I’d already been lucky enough to have a 3D printer funded by DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine, with which I was already producing things, but I created my own greenhouse, my own vivarium and so on. I did some tinkering and created my own tools. I even see this project as a foreword to what’s coming next.
Interview for European Media Art Platform (French, English subtitles):
Le site internet de Alizée Armet.
Alizée Armet was a European Media Art Platform (EMAP) resident at Kersnikova Institute in 2022 and will be featured in the EMAP group exhibition “I Told You It’s Alive” in the Kapelica gallery and the Rampa Lab at the institute from November 28 to February 2. In September, her work was presented in Linz at the Ars Electronica 2023 festival and in Sofia in October for the Digital Art festival.