Rasa Šmite, Raitis Šmits

ART AND RENEWABLE ENERGY OR 0.36 VOLTS OF BEETROOT JUICE

“Energy can be neither be created nor destroyed itself, it only can be transformed.”(Law of Conservation of Energy)

Energy can be obtained not only from oil and coal, but also from fruit and berries - through the action of sunlight, as we learned at the symposium ‘Art and Renewable (Energy) Technologies’, held this summer at the Serde Artists’ Residency Centre in Aizpute. The symposium brought together artists, architects, biologists, philosophers and ecologists, who exchanged ideas and presented their approaches, research findings and artistic interpretations relating to renewable energy technology, sourcing energy from the wind, sun, water and biological materials. The intention behind the symposium was to draw up conceptual guidelines and to inspire new works of art for the Art+Communication festival that is being organised by RIXC and is to be held in Riga from 8 to 10 October, 2009, this year’s theme being ‘Energy’.

Energy and its future on Earth

The theme of ‘Energy’, chosen a year and a half ago, seems to have become even more topical during this time. Present-day society, with its modern information technologies, is now using more energy than ever before. This time, the energy, ecological and economic crisis is a global problem. But how is an energy crisis possible in the first place? Generally, if we know anything at all about energy, it’s the Law of Conservation of Energy...

Energy does not disappear, it only transformes from one form into another. All processes occurring in the Universe and on Earth involve energy. In the environment, energy occurs in many different forms: kinetic energy – such as a rock fall; sound and electrical energy – such as thunder and lightning; thermal energy – such as fire; magnetic energy – such as the Earth’s magnetic field; electromagnetic energy – such as radio waves; energy in water – such as waves on the ocean and rain. And, of course, the sun is an inexhaustible source of energy, its warmth and light having been used by mankind since the earliest times.

It turned out that atomic energy, that once promising 20th century invention, can have unforeseeably catastrophic consequences. Also, we now know that the energy source hitherto most utilised across the world, namely the fossil fuels oil, gas and coal, is not only exhaustible, but is actually harmful to humans and the environment. Currently scientists and researchers all over the world are working intensively on alternative energy solutions. These include hydrogen technology and biofuel, but at the same time the so-called renewable forms of energy, i.e., solar, wind and water energy, are becoming ever more important.

It seems there is nothing paradoxical in the fact that, as the issue of global ecology becomes increasingly topical, the search for alternative energy technologies has come to mean a return to nature in modern-day society. It stands to reason, too that artists should be among the innovators seeking new perspectives on nature and its interaction with people and technologies.

Nature in a suitcase

Also participating in the Aizpute symposium were Swedish artists Erik Sjödin and Michel Bussien, who work at the Art and Technology Studio of the Interactive Institute in Stockholm. In their work, the artists look at relationships between nature and technologies in present-day and future societies. In their joint works, Sjödin and Bussien tend to challenge traditional views on nature. Thus in the work Suitcase science examples of natural ecosystems are placed in a “suitcase” – a small, portable sealed container. The Bactopia project is a 3D printer that uses agar and other bacteria for printing. Currently Erik Sjödin with other artists are working on a new project, which they have called the Nature exploration kit. Within the framework of this project, two devices for monitoring nature are being developed. The first is a sensitive microphone plate that enables you to listen to trees and hear the flowing of sap and the gnawing of beetles and grubs. Similar tree-listening technology has already been utilised by other artists, such as the Canadian David Dunn, who has applied it in his acoustic energy projects. Dunn’s experiments constitute one of those rare cases where technologies developed by artists have also been found useful by other researchers: listening to trees is nowadays used as an effective instrument for forest monitoring, for studying tree growth. The other device is a wireless camera attached to a very long telescopic pole. It can be used while walking in the forest to transmit images from unusual vantage points: treetops, tree hollows, caves, ravines and other generally less accessible locations.

With their controversial work the artists really did provoke the other participants of Aizpute symposium to discuss nature and human manipulation with it. It may seem at the first instant that the Nature exploration kit, which merely observes nature, represents a sensitive approach, while another work – the Growing chair by Bussien, where fast-growing trees are grown within the container of a clear perspex chair, is reminiscent of industrial manipulation with nature. However, the discussion revealed that the boundary between active human manipulation and passive observation is not so easily determined after all. Since ancient times, people have modified and exploited nature for their own needs. And sometimes even a tiny amount of intervention – such as sampling for microbes to be viewed under the microscope – could be regarded as a manipulation, as a result of which the natural course of events in nature is being altered.

A dialogue between humans and living nature...

Another way in which people might communicate with nature is reflected in the installation Dialogue by Finnish artist Terike Haapoja. Adapting technologies from forestry research, the work includes benches fitted with sensors: when you sit on them and begin a “conversation”, a moment later the wood answers through small boxes that are moved by means of photosynthesis. In this way the artist examines situations in which the concept of communication is extended beyond the bounds of the human world, inviting other living beings to “converse”. Haapoja considers that other living beings too are characterised by semantics and intercommunication. Thus, for example, it has been discovered that trees are capable of warning other trees of disease, in order to protect one another. If a person perceives a tree as a partner in cooperation, a new communicative situation develops, and this, in the view of Haapoja, is the artist’s main task: to explore, study and reflect a variety of situations from unconventional viewpoints.

Communication between humans and other living beings also features in the work Self-portrait, which resembles an image of the Moon, but is actually a close-up photo of a small area of the artist’s face. It demonstrates that we are host to millions of microorganisms of many different kinds. This work addresses the issue of the boundary that becomes significant when we decide to biologically modify our bodies, since it becomes clear that the human is not the only being influenced by this decision. We are not alone: in reality we are a whole set of different organisms, a whole community. Such a perspective invites a new discussion on bioethics.
Another of Haapoja’s works is an installation that from afar resembles an ordinary painting, but on closer inspection reveals a whole ecosystem. This work, like Suitcase science by Sjödin and Bussien, strives to pose a question: is it still nature, if we adapt it to our milieu, or if we find nature and change it so as to put it in our pockets in order to take it with us? These works also show a variety of approaches and technologies utilised in art and science for studying nature. Even though the artistic perspective is more subjective, while science aspires to create an objective system of representing nature and the world, these two research fields can find mutual points of support. The most essential matter, in the view of Haapoja, is that they both are dedicated to a quest in which the world is revealed through particular images and representations.

... between art and science, nature and technology

The artist Terike Haapoja took part not only in the Aizpute symposium, but also in other events leading up to the festival on energy. On Museum Night this year in Riga, her video installation Entropy was shown at the RIXC gallery in Spīķeri. The video was created by filming infrared radiation emanating from the body of a dead horse as it cools: it gradually fades from the screen as the body loses heat. The artist’s work Inhale – exhale is on a similar theme, only in this case the dead element is leaves, which gradually transform into earth. The work Inhale – exhale consists of a closed ecosystem: decaying autumn leaves and earth have been placed in coffin-sized transparent glass containers. The only contact with the world outside is through a ventilation mechanism in the corner of the box. As the leaves decompose, the earth in the box ferments and pulsates. The boxes are also fitted with sensors that create pulsating sounds, heard by the visitors to the exhibition as sighs. The work depicts the almost intangible soulfulness of nature in a world that has lost its spirituality with the arrival of the scientific materialist perspective. While the work was on display in the artist’s solo exhibition in Finland, new shoots unexpectedly appeared in the soil, which would probably have become dry leaves once again, continuing nature’s quiet cycle of life and death. In this way, on the one hand the works directly encourage one to reflect on the themes of life and death, but on the other hand they bring to the fore wider relationships – such as that of science and art. 

The study of the interaction and relationships between science, art and technologies is also at the core of a thesis Haapoja is currently writing. In Haapoja’s view, science, in contrast to art, is always concerned with the known, rather than the unknown. Science addresses reality, always claiming objectivity, while artists seek to discover the world by posing questions conceptually about what are technologies and interactivity, and about the significance of life and how it can be expressed without the instruments appropriate to the objectivity of the scientific world. Citing the contemporary French philosopher and researcher of science Bruno Latour, the artist aims for a broader understanding of the concept of technology, in the belief that it expresses a way or approach through which we interpret the world.

Haapoja is interested in how the significance of art for studying and interpreting the world is revealed against the background of various scientific models of interpreting the world. The artist considers that a phenomenological approach cannot resolve the issue of life and consciousness, since it is focussed on that which is specifically human, placing humans alone at the centre of philosophical and artistic investigation. However, life, spirituality, technologies and communication are concepts to be viewed in a broader perspective, relating to nature as a whole. From this angle, one can inquire how the human world interacts with nature around it, striving to see beyond the objective view of nature that science maintains, and permitting art to reveal the spirituality inherent in nature.

Art, agriculture and the open source approach

Yet another approach to ‘bioart’ was presented at the Aizpute symposium by artists Malin and Mathieu Vrijman, who have created on their own an art and agriculture centre ‘Kultivator’ on a small island in the Swedish countryside, not far from Kalmar. The centre is located next to a small biological farm with some 30 cattle and sheep. Kultivator utilises as a conceptual metaphor the approach of the open source movement, which strives to make knowledge, skill, information, research results and other data open and accessible. In the case of Kultivator, the open source approach applies to a synthesis of the contexts of agriculture and contemporary art. The Kultivator group organises diverse projects, working groups and experiments, bringing together a variety of elements: art, nature, agriculture, ecotourism, architecture and design. These projects not only involve artists from abroad, who are often quick to respond, but also foster the gradual development of contacts within the wider local community.
One of the most interesting projects by Kultivator, called Dinner with cows, is a seven-minute video about a nighttime filming event in a meadow where cows have been put out to pasture. In order to involve as many of the local residents as possible, an announcement was made that people were required for the filming of crowd scenes. The film shows the local farmers eating and drinking on one side of a long dinner table, while the cattle have approached on the other side. The project only succeeded because the local farmers knew how to ‘communicate’ with the cattle, and the cattle showed an interest in the event, joining in the meal: they ate from their side of the table, and only one plate was broken.
The artists of Kultivator not only work with various international contemporary art projects, but frequently also receive guests from different countries and cultures, in the belief that agriculture cannot be viewed only in local and European contexts. For example, the children of Columbian artists turned the future residency guestroom in the attic of the farm into a space for urban recreation – a skateboard area. An interesting project was developed in collaboration with local art schools. The task was to build a sculpture that would also have a recycling function. The result was a mobile chicken house, which was both an artistic and design project, and at the same time a completely real and functional structure of wooden boards. 

Walking trail, the most recent project by Kultivator, aims to connect the open source approach to information dissemination with the places where local people traditionally go for walks, and which have been in existence since ancient times. Not far from the Kultivator property there is a forest trail leading to an old castle ruin, dating from about 200 BC. Much of the flora and fauna along the trail is unique and rare to Sweden, having developed over the many centuries that the trail has been in use. The trail is the subject of all kinds tales, hazy historical facts and myths that may seem incomprehensible to outsiders and the younger generation. As part of the project an analogue (map) and digital (website and blog) structure was developed for the exchange of information and knowledge about the folklore, fauna and flora of this place. It will serve as an open source guide for the joint accumulation of information and resources about the forest and the trail.

The approach used by Kultivator in its Walking trail project bears a relationship to the creative activities of Signe Pucena and Uģis Pucens, the hosts of the Serde Artists’ Residency Centre in Aizpute, where folklore and technology, myths and art are successfully combined with open source ideas. The participants in the Aizpute symposium had great enthusiasm for the ever-popular Točka project undertaken by the Puceni, which acquaints visitors with the local tradition of home distilling. As artists, the Puceni invite people to view this well known tradition from a different perspective. Instead of moralising about home distilling as a social evil, they appreciate people’s inexhaustible ingenuity under conditions of limited resources: alcohol can be distilled from old jams, and it can be used in the preparation of herbal tinctures to be used internally or externally.

Also very popular among the participants of the Aizpute symposium was the so-called green solar cell technology presented by Belgian artist and researcher Bart Vandeput, also known as Bartaku. At his creative workshops participants developed colour sensitive solar panels, using two pieces of glass, freshly squeezed vegetable and berry juice, soot, titanium dioxide and iodine (as the electrolyte). The darker juices, obtained from blackcurrants, beetroot and aronia, make a more powerful cell, while the lighter coloured ones, such as that from boiled onion peel, make a weaker one. However, the result was three 0.36-volt cells that lasted half an hour. At the energy conference, Bartaku presents his project PhoEf: the undisclosed poesis of the photovoltaic effect, in which he examines the essence of the photoelectric effect – the transformation of light into electricity – from the perspectives of art, science, technology and ecology.

The invisible worlds of information and energy

The Energy exhibition at the ‘Art+Communication’ festival will also include works that deal with the mutual relationships between energy and information, and between the analogue and digital world.
The work Bitquid,by new media artist and designer Jeroen Holthuis, is a study of the invisible boundary line separating the digital world from the analogue world. The artist emphasises that for almost thirty years we have been living in a digital world, one that in reality is abstract and objective. In his work Bitquid the artist has endeavoured to find a way of making digital information, and our lives, material and tangible once again. The installation also shows that in the analogue environment the flow of information is never as precise as in the digital world, since the ‘protocols’ of these two worlds differ significantly.

For his part, Gints Gabrāns attempts to make the invisible worlds of electromagnetic energy visible in his most recent project, Photon landscapes. The work consists of large format ‘photon paintings’ and video monitors displaying a landscape of light created by a laser beam in space, as it reflects on a specially prepared surface. When the laser beam is reflected, the light is dispersed - as in a prism - into all the colours of the spectrum. The projection obtained permits us to look into the nature of invisible light waves. What can be seen bears a visual resemblance to networks of unknown worlds, which can be observed feeling like a discoverer, or through the eyes of a landscape artist engaged in plein air studies in a parallel world.

The Energy exhibition will be accompanied by an international conference discussing issues of energy and sustainability from a variety of perspectives. “Smart” devices and an energy internet, clean and renewable energy resources, alternative and ecological design and production methods, as well as open source and hybrid approaches to information technologies, are only some of the future scenarios for “saving the world” to be discussed by the participants in this interdisciplinary conference.

And once again it is logical that the capacity of art for communication and revealing the invisible will be the factor that will help to create a common conceptual space at the festival, a space for people from different fields to meet: artists and scientists, politicians and manufacturers, theoreticians and practitioners, futurists and engineers.
Accordingly, art that relates to science and technology and hence does not fit into any of the traditional categories of art needs to be viewed in a new light. Rather than forming a new category or genre, it marks a new paradigm. And it is art that can help develop a different view of nature and people, the visible and invisible world. Of course, we can ask whether we are really approaching a new paradigm, or whether we have simply found yet another way of constructing a representation of the world. However, it is undeniable that the future scenario of a sustainable world can only succeed if we become more open to new ideas and new collaboration.

Biographies

Rasa Šmite (Latvia) and Raitis Šmits (Latvia) are new media artists, founders of the E-LAB (1996), RIXC (2000) and organisers of annual “Art+Communication” festival in Riga, Latvia (since 1996).

Since 1997 interested in “acoustic space” research: they are initiators and founding members of the net.radio OZONE (1996) and XCHANGE network (recieving PRIX Ars Electronica in 1998); editors of the “Acoustic Space” publication series (since 1998); organisers of the "Acoustic Space Lab" symposium in the Irbene Radiotelescope (2001); in collaboration with r a d i o q u a l i a, Clausthome and VIRAC they have developed live-installation and streaming project „Solar Radio Station” (Dortmund, 2006-2007); in collaboration with Spectral Investigations Collective – artistic research project "Spectral Ecology" (2007).

Together with Armin Medosch, they has curated exhibition "Waves" (Arsenals, Riga, 2006; Dortmund, 2008). Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits are also curators of exhibitons “Spectropia” (Riga Art space, 2007), and “Energy” (RIXC galery at Spikeri, Riga, 2009).

Their current activities include setting up of a new node – RIX-C Studio for Art and Sustainable Technologies in Spikeri (collaboration with Interactive Institute / Sweden and Art Research Lab of Liepaja University), as well as developing of Art and Renewable Technology network in the Baltic/Nordic/EU region.

Since 1996 they have organised and participated in numerous conferences, exhibitions, symposiums and festivals; lecturing in Latvian Arts Academy, Riga Stradina and other universities; they have been experts and members of various boards on new media culture.

Rasa Šmite presently is director of the RIXC center for new media culture, researcher at the Art Research Lab (by Liepaja Pedagogical Academy) and is studying PhD candidate at the Riga Stradina University.

Raitis Šmits is PhD researcher and assistant professor at the Latvian Academy of Arts (Visual Communication Dept.) and artistic director of the RIXC.