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The Word for World Is Forest

"I was thinking about how bizarre it is to live in times while knowing that we are facing an impending and ongoing disaster. I've been interested in the "end" as a time and place, but also the culture around it. The end is the entry here into the notion of the climate collapse. We are living through the antropocene era that is prompted by our own actions. These consequences present as climate changes, rising temperatures and more extreme weather conditions. The way the world looks today, I think everyone needs to act up; us artists too," says the artist and the curator behind the exhibition 'Där världen kallas skog' Niklas Wallenborg, The exhibition joins his work with three artists sharing his interest in approaching sciences and the non-human realm; Hanna Ljungh, Lina Persson and Timo Menke.

Installation view, Där världen kallas skog, Köttinspektionen, Uppsala. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: The exhibition at hand, ’Där världen kallas skog’ just ended its run in Uppsala. It felt super timely to me as I was seeing in its opening weekend, just as the media reports were going on about the fires of the Amazon jungle. Prior to the exhibition I found a paraphrase on The Smiths’ ’There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ that Niklas made using the words; ’The Climate Collapse Such A Heavenly Way to Die’ which with some wry sense of humour and by a stretch felt like a great good lead-in to the exhibition. What were some of your ideas and considerations that went into presenting this exhibition?

N.W: That particular wording came to me as I was thinking about how bizarre it is to live in times while knowing that we are facing an impending and ongoing disaster, if yet one that is extremely slow. I've been interested in the "end" as a time and place but also the culture around it. The end is the entry here into the notion of the climate collapse. The climate challenge is something that is hard to grasp; it's not something where depiction comes easily. The exhibition we've made partially is about this crisis. We are living through the antropocene era that is prompted by our own actions. Consequences present as climate changes, rising temperatures and more extreme weather conditions.

This crisis will change the earth for all times to come. A problem is that we run with a short-term perspective and outlook on the world which makes it difficult to realte to how our actions will deply imprint and impact a future yet distant world. While all of this is central to the exhibition, I also imagine that the exhibition informs our human relationship to time and that the exhibition is an attempt to work with a non-human narrative.

T.M: Timeliness and a sense of more-than-contemporary can be both a gift and a burden. Living inside the slow catastrophe of our times makes up for a lot of ambivalent feelings, ambitions and beliefs. I understand this show as stretching into a longer and wider timescale, by which the human image of nature appears to be recollected as memories, visions and fantasies from a forestial perspective, far beyond our "current now"; a posthumous footnote of the posthuman. During the installation of the show we became aware of how all works seem to fade into each other, despite their formal and material differences. Practically engulfed by works wherever you set foot, I think as a visitor you might experience the feeling of being watched by, rather than watching artworks, inverting the “natural” relation between object and subject. 

H.L: I like to think that my ideas in this show hover between anger and some kind of dark humour but for me there’s also an urge to look at the situation at hand from several perspectives and perhaps several senses of time simultaneously, if this is at all possible.

L.P: Human caused environmental disasters have been happening on a daily basis for hundreds of years and are increasingly the case, but there is no other way than being in the present.  Balancing the thin active line between becoming exhaustedly overwhelmed or passively numb, it sometimes seems like a good idea to make exhibitions.

Köttinspektionen, Uppsala. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: In a way seeing the exhibition just reminded of, or rather became an epiphany about how there are so many institutions in Stockholm that could have made an exhibition likethis, but have not, and in reality largely have kept absent from questions relating to the environmental crisis. This is a very thought-provoking show I hope will tour and have another run for more people to actually get to see. What responsibility do you think art and artists should or need to take to in a global crisis like the one we are in the middle of?

N.W: 10 years ago I would have said none, no responsibility, but I realize my art is getting more and more political. The way the world looks today I think everyone needs to act up; us artists too.

T.M: The scope of the crisis we are in is overwhelming, and thus – again – feeding into the before-mentioned ambivalence. There is really no excuse for not taking action. With that said, I find it hard to demand art or commit artists to show responsibility in line with a certain code of ethics. The systemic failure of Western capitalism in dealing with or healing our planetary disaster can provoke artistic action, that has an “activist feel” like Olafurs Eliasson's melting glacial ice blocks, but just worsens all its wrongs. At the same time John Gerrard's 'Western Flag' (Spindletop, Texas) from 2017 sends a heavily polluting fossil-fuelled but direct message to the people in power, namely Trump. Each in their own way, purpose and means, work in similar ways, but their impact couldn’t be any more different.

In general, I think as artists and as communities of artists we need to collaborate for change more than ever, simply for our own, the arts’ and the planet’s survival.

Installation view, Där världen kallas skog, Köttinspektionen, Uppsala. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

H.L: I think, artists, institutions, politicians, enterprises and citizens all have a huge reponsibility and I think many of us know and feel that but have a problem in contextualising this; the challange being how to act and be in this and about this without feeling useless and hopeless. I don’t think artists have a bigger responsibility per se but we have a possiblity to look at and examine our existence in a manner that is unique to art-making and thus can contribute with hopefully a wider perspective.

L.P: I like mutual relationships, I like to be in symbiosis with the ecosystem I sprung from, I like to explore these connections (in art, activism, politics, gardening… ), restore where they’ve been cut off, untangle & change the toxic ones, trying to grow lifegiving connections…, It doesn’t feel like a responsibility but more like the meaning of life. But if you think of responsibility as being in a way that gives others the ”ability to respond” (Barad), then I guess it’s the same thing. 

I think artists and art institutions are  better at addressing  the underlying structures to crises, for example critiquing human-centric worldviews and such, and that’s ok, but if they at the same time support those structures through their organisation, like being sponsored by the fossil industry, I feel a responsibility to opt out of that. 

Installation view: Lina Persson. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: What kinships do you see exist between you four?

N.W: As I see it, there a common denominator in how we relate to time in our practices but as well a drive to approach sciences and the non-human realm. We share mututal interests but have vastly different processes of working. I feel very inspired by the work of the others and it gives me great satisfaction getting to exhibit alongside them.

T.M: I think the kinship has just come into being, evolving into this ecosystem of a show that hopefully will tour and develop on its way. There are thematic and methodological similarities, but like in a phylogenetic tree (tree of life), there is variation in how we address the ecological urgency and the audience. I was surprised by how we filled the space of Köttinspektionen, so one had the impression of seeing a large group show. Partly due to few walls to mount works on, ceiling and floor were used extensively, so the show had to be sculpted into mid air. Yet, there was little sculpture or three-dimensional objects, but mainly photographic works, from cyanotypes, to print scrolls and projected moving image. That formal kinship and the use of lighting to provide focal points was fruitful for a (bio)-diverse coexistence.

H.L: I think this show was cleverly put together by Niklas, he was the common factor who knew us seperatly as artists and saw a potential in bringing our work together. In hindsight I see many connections between all of us, that I perhaps didn’t know of beforehand. But of course the common denominator being our shared interest in the more-than-justhuman perspective and a turn away from an antropocentric world view. 

L.P: All of us are interested in similar ideas and are occupied with similar questions, but our approaches and methods are quite different. I think it’s so exiting to be able to meet through our works, to install them together and have them spend time with each other, it's a way of getting to know each other on a level that can’t be done in any other way. So much more about the art is revealed when it meets an exhibition space and other artworks and how we make up a space together out of all that.

Installation view: (front) Niklas Wallenborg. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: Tell me about your respective works in the show 

N.W: The work 'Forest On the Edge of Time' consists of cinematic narratives taking the form of a series of montages and presented like five rolls of scripted text. The narratives take place during or after the climate crisis. The montage process consists here, like in many of my works, of copying, translating and samling and recreation, where sci-fi serves as a point of departure.

Through the work I'm trying to create images of a distant future. How do we imagine a future which most likely looks radically different from the present? I've looked at what role the forest and nature have in sci-fi and in our collective storires about the future. I'm interested in what that can tell us about where we are, where we are going. The aim was to depart from nature, plants and forests the way they present in these collective stories, to create a new vision of the future where nature and technology play two key roles. This in order to survey and work with relationships between humans and technology in an impending and possible future and to understand the epic consequences brought forth by climate changes.

T.M: My main project 'Cogito ergo Pisum' has developed into a growing flora of transdisciplinary experiments and material objects hat revolve around ways of rethinking, creating for and becoming with other life forms. For this show I focused on "Timo". Timo is the name of a human and of a grey pea cultivar (NordGen NGB4018). Pisum Sativum (lat.: pea) used by Gregor Mendel in 1856 when unfolding the laws of Mendelian inheritance, constitute a key plant in 'Cogito ergo Pisum'. Other related agents and patients are part of the project, some of which were featuring in the performance I did during the finissage.

In the show growing “Timo” grey peas were set under typical growing lights creating a certain color spectrum aura. The table-mounted peas were growing right on top of a projector displaying a time-lapse film of a larger cultivation filmed in my studio. What struck me was, what looked like a double exposure (real peas and filmed peas facing each other), turned into mirrored realities from different temporal perspectives. The living peas dwell in plantlike sleep mode, calling for human care and close inspection. The peas on screen enacted a vivid dance for light, visible only in their high-speed presence. Sunlight, shadows and human gardening flash by for fractions of seconds only. Within their temporality human action appears ghostlike and ephemeral. 

Installation view: Timo Menke. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

Similar ephemeral beings (human Timo) were on display as six upside-down hanging cyanotypes in natural scale, set in three rows along the gallery space. Somehow connected to the larger project, this is a work in progress and has earned its own title 'human herbarium', playing with the notion of the herbarium as a plant-archive. Reactivating the pre-photographic cyanotype print technique for documenting humans, in tandem with a photosynthetic illumination of living plants, both life forms will in time merge into a hybrid being, exposed in a horizontal dark room.

At the entrance wall of the show you were welcomed by a “Pisum” signboard similar to throw-in signs like “Pizza”, “Coffee” or “Sushi”. Peas are also very healthy nutrition and this little extra work hopefully provides some sense of humor to my project.

H.L: In the show I have two cabinets from the body of work: Curiosity Cabinets: You, me, rock, mountain commodities of the quantified universe. and a triptych of photographs Like a Virgin (you make me feel). The cabinets are an ongoing body of work where I examine the mineral content in the human body (with my own body as a reference) looking at minerals that are extracted from the ground and also found in the human body such as iron, coal, sulphur, magnesium, copper, salt, kalcium etc. I make connections between the will and eagerness to quantify both in relation to the monitoring of ones own health and the prestanda or performance of the human body (as in the quantified self-movement and the quantified worker) and the extremely close quantification in the extraction industries.

There is also a more existential note to this as well, to look at what unites us with a non-human materiality. The cabinets in the show contain boron and molybdenium, two minerals that geochemists believe came to earth in meteorites from Mars and were the catalysts to life on earth as ’mineral seeds’ of sorts.

Like a Virigin(you make me feel) is an older work where I play with the definition of a virgin forest, as "a relatively untouched forest" (quote from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency). The forest is hosted in a teenage room or fantasy. I see them as a kind of altarpiece.

Installation view: (back left) Hanna Ljungh. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

L.P: For 'The Return of the Silurians' I made clay imprints of the fossils found in the archive of the museum of natural history, on the island of in Gotland. I animated them and assembled them in animated dioramas. Some of the animated corals I project onto stones that I had collected from one of the largest limestone quarries on Gotland. Originally some of the corals were also projected onto objects in the geological exhibition of the museum of natural history on Gotland and some of the exhibition structures from there were brought to the exhibition of the main art museum of Gotland (Gotlands Konsemuseum)

One of my aims during the process was to try to by-pass the human/nature dichotomy in the film subgenre ”the Revenging Nature” which resulted in my building a story-world where the revenging zombie corals turns out to be human ascendants.  At the same time I wanted to address how the museum sector upholds the same dichotomy with its division between natural history museums and anthropological/art museums, so I ended up working with both museums in the process and combining them in the presentation.

The work was also a way for me to go to the bottom of my existence, tracing my life form back through millions of years of evolution but also to my childhood, to the ground I was raised on, to the stones and fossils that had me fantasising as early back as I can remember.

Installation view: Lina Persson. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: Niklas, sci-fi generally has felt distanced from the realm of contemporary art in its attribution as popular culture and arguably by many as low-brow culture. What are the benefits in turning to sci-fi for inspiration in light of the challenges of the present day?

N.W: I see sci-fi as realm of history that runs in coexistence with our actual history and reality and which speak of an alternative, a change and perception of the unexpected. Sci-fi is narratives about us and about how we relate to each other through time and space.

What have we done? What to do now? What to do in the future? In Sci-fi literature our need to understand and interpret the world around is addressed from a string of angles; from a human outlook, morally, politically, technically etc. Sci-fi is an expression of our ideas and thouhgts about the times we live in and about the evolution of these times into future scenarios. To make use of this artistic base gives endless possibilities to scrutinize and criticize contemporary society from alternative ends.

I use sci-fi as an act of resistance, not as escapism, but rather as the offer of an alternative world and possibility to change the face of present realities. Fictive worlds I believe can help shaping reality.

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: Lina, you are currently conducting a research project funded by the Swedish Council of Sciences called ’Climate - Just Worldlings’. What can be said about it?

L.P: The idea for the project started growing already in 2011 when I travelled to the University of Connecticut to meet Professor of Physics Ron Mallet. He developed a theory of a working time machine and I wanted to understand how it worked. We made a collaboration and the results impacted me very much. When I started to understand how this technology would work I realized that it was something very different from conventional sci-fi time travels. This time machine would not allow me to explore spectacular futures. This time machine would open a one-way portal giving the future access to my time. We would open a door to the unknown that we would not be able to enter, and without knowing what we would let in. This meant  future generations could have a voice in the now, these future generations that are being colonized by the present through our overuse of resources and energy. Speculating on what would happen in such a situation opened up how I saw the world, It made me see new ways to act and orientate.

Since more than ten years I have worked on how human storytelling and environmental transformation are intertwined, and in this project I want to apply that experience in order to expand this fictive or hypothetical situation allowing it to spin off into materializations in the different infrastructures of my life, giving feedback loops and unforeseen new directions, I’m so excited to be able to live this out!

Installation view, Där världen kallas skog, Köttinspektionen, Uppsala. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: As you mentioned, at the finissage of the exhibition, Timo, you did a performance called ’Mörk materia’ (Dark Matter). What are the propositions you make about darkness in contrast to light?

T.M: Dark matter is a charge-coupled scientific concept rich of agency and symbolic tension I borrow – or you could say appropriate - in order to highlight and examine the biopolitics and semiotics of darkness in their broadest sense. While the physics of dark matter is far beyond my comprehension, which interestingly is true for science too, the aesthetics and ecology of a partly invisible universe is compelling, especially in an art world system that still is referencing the white cube and the enlightenment of modernity. What you see is not always what you get! 

In my reading performance 'Dark Matter' the very notion plays only a minor part, whereas becoming with other life forms is central. Following Timothy Morton’s strange loop in his writings (Note: Morton, Timothy, Dark ecology: for a logic of future coexistence, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016) I am tracing a number of figures and tropes that are connected to a new materialist understanding of darkness: from the invention of Cyanotype as a lensless photographic technique in 1842, used by Anna Atkins to document a wide flora of British Algae, to the discovery of genetics by Gregor Mendel during pea plant experiments between 1856 and 1863 (Mendelian inheritance), to the history of green men a.k.a foliate heads in European art and architecture, and patients suffering from Tree Man Syndrome (Epidermodysplasia verruciformis), just to mention a few. Among these, darkness is a condition of being, i.e. at times cause and at other times effect, but not an antithesis to light. 

Darkness, from my visual arts point of view, is as little about “not light”, as blindness is about “not seeing”. Darkness is traditionally inscribed and saturated with low, irrational, evil or otherwise non-/inhuman beliefs and behaviours, from satanic rites, dark ages to ultranationalist movements, and I see no reason why we should leave darkness to shady forces of such kind. In part my argument is to up-cycle and reclaim the dark in all its configurations from being demonised or “othered”. Such a critical politics of darkness is of course difficult to navigate and I have merely entered that realm. 

Installation view: (Above) Timo Menke. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

I recently tried to pursue this rethinking of darkness in a series of events at Nacka konsthall in February 2019 under the title 'Dark enlightenment' (Mörkrets upplysning), initially curated for its neighbouring library and gallery spaces. Rather than enlightening darkness I aimed for darkness to enlighten – in every sense of the word. Bringing together a number of artists and creators (Diana Agunbiade-Kolawole, Svante Larsson, Sandra Praun and myself) who share a common interest in UV-light, the color black, and dark glow in their photographic and writing practice, and combining the presentations with Blacklight Yoga inside the white cube, was a truly transforming experience – at least for me. I’m currently planning for a new edition of events in other places, with an even stronger emphasis on the transformation of the space into a dark room. Stay tuned for more.

Installation view (left, right) Hannah Ljungh. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019

C-P: Hanna, you’ve since long turned focus away from the human-centric gaze to earthy matters and materials and what they can tell us about ”our” conditions. You already brushed on it earlier and at a moderated talk we had all four of you and me, you were talking about notions of closeness and interconnections that we don’t always think about and overlook; between us humans and others matters. It was compelling. Could you elaborate?

H.L: I have been very interested in looking at the human in relation to minerals or stone. Humans as being part of something larger or if you will, an organic creature made up of inorganic matter. That we are much closer to being earth than we perhaps like to think. And perhaps this is, in an odd way, a means of escaping the extreme individualism of contemporary society? I make connections through the curiosity cabinets to a prescientific age where magic, science and religion were all part of the same sphere of thinking. I am not saying that we should go back to the pre-scientific era, but for me, combined with hard facts, it has been a fruitful mode of operating for a while now.

Images courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Béranger © 2019 The exhibition 'Där världen kallas skog' was on view at Köttinspektionen in Uppsala, Aug 24 - Sep8, curated by Niklas Wallenborg.


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