Toxic Environments, Sensitivities, and Planetary Times: Susanne M. Winterling
Susanne M. Winterling interviewed by Sara R. Yazdani
Some ten years ago, ideas of time and agency were being explored anew in the field of contemporary art. Simultaneously, artists and thinkers were reflecting on different concepts of nature and life to shed light on the actual conditions on Earth. Art was becoming a site that incited new dimensions of thoughts, and over the years, artistic efforts emerged to critically investigate new relations between art, global politics, and ecologies at a time of environmental crisis. Yet questions of the relations between art and different ecologies on Earth are of course not new; they have been a topic of the avant-garde since the beginning of the twentieth century. What was new in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, was how artists began to emphasize such questions in light of digital networking technologies, which, through some particular critical approaches to non-human agency explored how and to what extend natural systems of the world may resonate with digital ones.
One of these artists is Susanne M. Winterling. She experiments with different modes of thinking about agency and the living by engaging with the natural world through an oceanic worldview. Foregrounding bioluminescent dinoflagellate algae (indicators of the health of coastal waters), epiphytes (organisms that grow on plants and get nutrition from air and water), and other plants and species, her works point to some odd types of life on Earth. In her installations—often involving sculptures, images, sound, and screen projections—processes taking place in nature and biological life (seeing, sensing, touching) merge with processes taking place within digital environments: They forge alliances, collectives, where life and nature cannot be reduced to some modern fantasy of an opposition between nature and culture. Here planetary sensitivities and network systems come together as a collective whole that puts the future into new perspectives.
Sara R. Yazdani: Ways of thinking sensitivities and natural processes on Earth seem to have been present in your artistic practice for quite a while. One of the first artworks of yours that I experienced was Diademseeigel Immersion Prototyp (Diadem Sea Urchin Immersion Prototype), a 3D animation of about nine minutes from 2014. The work shows what appears as an odd pair of virtual human hands floating against a black background—a void. They are in constant flow, moving in a way identical to the physicality of real human hands. Yet they consist not of flesh and blood but of different abstract objects and fluid materials, floating in and about the computerized hands. Can you please elaborate on how was this work made?
Susanne M. Winterling: The question of life in- and on-screen was what brought me to look at matter and life forms as nature-cultures, as well as the question of who and where is life nurtured and cared for, and where is life pushed into genocide and ecocide. In this particular piece, I worked with the node structure and the grid as a scaffold for sensing textures; more and more, I became aware that as a form it needs to be tentacular. Eva Hayward uses the term “fingery eyes,” which I think is splendid, and it derives from what she calls trans-thinking, which I would like to bring into our conversation, as there is a political agenda.1 What we experience in the prototype, as I call this version, is not covered with a “trans-species.” It goes beyond that term into a multiplicity of touch and connectivity. We are reaching out here from a multispecies and a multiplicity of engaged and dependent relations. The first model was a hand, which to me is interesting as an interface in itself; then we had to exactly replicate the movement of the fingers and the rotation of each single muscle underneath the glove to get as close as we could to the way that my hand moves (which we took as a track). Then the texture of the glove in the stretching and flexing movement, and then the sea urchins get their stage, and the following species. They took over and, in a way, centered the idea of “fingery” eyes on fingers or the hand as a cluster. And as a last step in the compositing, the hand is keyed into the water again, which is actually the water where I had also made recordings for the sound. It’s one of the bioluminescent bays in the caribbean which are very special and threatened.
SRY: In your more recent works, as in your installation at Variations of Time at ACUD Galerie, Berlin (2018), an exhibition including works by you and Kapwani Kiwanga, non-anthropocentric ways of thinking life forces in some social terms appear. Epiphyte (to learn from) (2018), for instance, a computer-generated video work showing bright green, glossy epiphytes, corresponds to the social complexity of ecosystems and computational technologies. The show also included a close-up photograph of shells and natural objects lying on Bombay Beach, California—a census-designated place where a high-toxicity and salt level of the water has implied an almost entire dead ecology—printed on a carpet on which the viewer could sit, lie, or socially hang out on, and a sound piece audible over the entire space. What I have in mind when noting that your works reflect upon social collective formations, is Félix Guattari’s article “Three Ecologies,” published in new formations in 1989.2 To be more precise, when I look at how you works are made and exhibited, it seems as if his thinking inspires a way of engaging with nature, bodies, knowledge, and politics in his ecological terms.
SMW: Definitely. That is such a good reference, and I would even take him as the beginning of analyzing actualized forms of intersectionality and looking into why the struggle against structural violence is so interwoven. The term ecologies is key to perceiving more intimate and more vibrant connections, entanglements, and also dependencies. Guattari’s terms and analysis bind it to the social, which is central. However, even though the categorizations and reflections Guattari and Gilles Deleuze lay out are central, we have to look closer: what that is in 2018, what dynamics are at work, and what terms are appropriate to which practices. So there has been a lot of work done to look into these entanglements. Cohabitation in these ecologies has ethics and obligations and is embedded in the commons.
SRY: Exactly. I find Guattari’s push to see any event or object of the world through the lens of three ecologies—the social, the environmental, and the mental—present in your works, as infrastructures of planetary environments are explored as places that speak to alternative cultures and lives: algae, bioluminescence, human muscle fiber, toxics, plasticity environments, ocean water, Bombay Beach. These nature-culture and significant others—forms of lives not necessary human, which can connect beings and forces with each other, such as bioluminescence—to borrow Donna Haraway’s terms, are beings whose interactive voices and bodies are made visible (or heard) in your installations. In this regard, it also seems as if a geopolitical dimension can be discovered in your works. Would I be inaccurate in considering your way of making and thinking art as a pivotal instrument or platform where lives and temporalities of our world of crisis are alerted?
SMW: Yes, an instrument, but not so much in the functional sense—more a cohabitation and forming alliances and solidarities, or, to use Elizabeth Povinelli’s suggestion to call them “embankments.”: a sediment can also be an embankment. It might be necessary to get this a bit more precise, and with sharpened conceptual spikes that are also more ecologically and biologically anchored in the organism of Gaia and her processes. But in a way, I am interested to follow this on a material and technological (also an interspecies) level. It seems more than urgent to investigate, in practices of connectivity (transnational, trans-ecosystemical), and keep the specific relations of the singularities in focus, and avoid modes of representation that can be instrumentalized. The local biosphere of the Franconian woods where I grew up and still run with the dogs—not so much with the horses since I became a cyborg—is one example, which, in its geopolitical frame, is connected to the bioluminescent bays I investigate in the Caribbean or the drowning islands off the coast of Bangladesh and the aridity line. The planktonic drifters and sea urchins that Christian Sardet3 microscopically captures are some of the species that permeate and cohabitate in the ocean.
SRY: Is it in these processes, collectives, and complex systems where the question of solidarity comes in?
SMW: The term “solidarity” is really important for me, but I do admit that it has a history and a past, and in reality, we face its being misused and wrapped in neoliberal and even fascist fog. There is a bond of white supremacy, gangs that persistently also “solidarize” and find new forms of violence. And there is the reality of people drowning in the Mediterranean sea, police violence, and academic and art world complicity in structural violence against people of color, women, immigrants. So I also see a complicity and entanglement of forms of alliance and technology across species and across the life-nonlife boundary. The realm of software and hardware is a great playground for this. With the microscopic images and the scientists and activists I work with, I make alliances that can spread hope of improving connections and „embankments“ through technology. Some of the fishermen I have learned a lot with made an alliance, had the water analyzed, and went to the ministry of development in Jamaica to stop a factory coloring textiles from polluting their bay with chemicals. The suffering ecosystem will make all dependent species, including humans, suffer eventually—that’s only delayed, let’s say, in the case of nuclear waste. But the solidarities that I try to raise awareness of, and that I want to trigger taking on more consciously, can be based on politics of care, speculation, and necessity, and involve ethics. And you are right: in the term there is a history of workers’ rights and class struggle that is important, and we can learn from not only the Italian autonomists but also the women’s movement. They have been very important for my work, especially being entwined also in questioning modernist structures in the past and present, as well as the dominance of certain knowledge systems.
SRY: The playground of technologies you mention is worth taking further. Networked information technologies, very much involved in your installations, and these types of media form our understanding of time while, as media scholars such as Wolfgang Ernst and Siegfried Zielinski in their different ways have underlined, they produce hidden layers of time.4 Media are “spaces of action” and writers of time, which enables them to exist as archaeologists of knowledge beyond human time.5 This idea of time partly departs from the eighteenth-century theory of “deep time,” assuming that, in contrast to the linear way of thinking history, the Earth itself produces and archives a different dimension of time. Meanwhile, the technicalities explored in your video works question what an individual being really is—what Gilbert Simondon called “individuation.”6 It seems to me that your approach to nature and machines could be interpreted as a mediation where the very process of individuation takes place in a shared environment, an associated milieu, where different forces are intertwined in a process of “becoming.”7
SMW: A shared environment, to me, is not so much a choice but a given or even an obligation to—as Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers say—think with. Life, and here I would sometimes even like to call myself religious, is always entangled, and demands reflecting and acting in relational and symbiotic ways. Like you say, I would also here question the individual and its relevance. We are trained to think and act as individuals, to constantly compete and accumulate, but the accelerated “capitalocene,” the post-Snowden era, the ecocide we live in, should make us seriously reconsider these dynamics and work on healing, as well as a recollection of wrath and standing up against injustice.
SRY: Thinking recollections and collective alliances beyond the individual in light of the “capitalocene”—where the water is still alive and the world is a place where different forces are coming together—is a vivid place to end this conversation.
1. Eva Hayward’s haptic-optic methodological approach of “fingery eyes” has been crucial for Winterling’s practice. See for example “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transpeciated Selves,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, nos. 3/4 (2008): 64–85.
2. Félix Guattari, “Three Ecologies.” new formations, no. 8 (Summer 1989): 131–47.
3. Christian Sardet is the cofounder and coordinator of the Tara Oceans expedition; director and group leader of Observatoire Océanologique, de Villefranche sur Mer; European award recipient for the Life Sciences 2007, European Molecular Biology Organization; recipient of the Grand Prix des Sciences de la mer 2013, Academie des Sciences; author of book Plancton aux origines du vivant (Plankton: A Drifting World, 2014); and the “Plankton Chronicles” project http://www.planktonchronicles.org. He has been an inspiration and collaborator for the work vertex immersion sea diadem.
4. See Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 2013), 55–73; Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
5. Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, 1–13.
6. Gilbert Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual,” in Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992): 297–319.
7. Ibid., 305.