Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas Talk on the Project Zooetics
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas explain the origin and references present in the Zooetics Pavilion, an experimental project that unites human and other lifeforms knowledges with art. Interview by Lars Bang Larsen at the São Paulo Art Biennial.
Original text by Sao Paulo Bienial.
Lars – Last year you began to work on the Zooetics project. And your work for Incerteza Viva is a manifestation of this project. So, what is Zooethics?
Nomeda – Actually we started Zooetics more than a year ago, perhaps already a couple of years or even more. And that is a long term engagement. Zooetics tries to weave together different types of knowledge: human knowledge, the knowledge of other life forms and poetics. It meant to become an educational program. So we collaborated with the university, Technological University in Lithuania, to create kind of a new type of department or even a body within the university, where those three types of knowledge could coexist and be practiced. So basically our task at the beginning was to develop a common language for artists and for scientists. That was supposed to be a program within the University of Technology but really looking at different matters through the lens of artistic methodologies.
Gediminas – Also we argue that Zooetics weaves together Non-Ethics and poetics. And as we know Non-Ethics is the system of thinking, of beliefs, that may also break through systems of knowledge that are acceptable. So for us this combination of different types of knowledge is also to change the logic of scientific research. I also think that Zooetics comes from our interest in the system theory and, to be more precise, also in the hybrid systems. And that is inspired by several genealogies. One of those is art and science collaborations, that basically we can say that are also inspired by the cybernetics discourse that emerges in the Cold War. We also are interested in the Cold War confrontation that gave the impetus and the starting point, if you will, for the modern forms of culture. We have also the emergence of the first arts and science collectives, that questions the paradigm of science. Within the Zooetics research, we also observe this hybrids when we look at Mycelium, for example, which is the roots of the mushroom. So the Mycelium is a very powerful network and has been known for years, thanks to scientists like Paul Stamets and others, for its ability to colonize and turn other species into hybrids, like insects or like algae. So for us to think of this hybrids and of the collectives is one of the core thoughts engaging with the Zooetics research. And when we think of the spaces that produce knowledge or the spaces where the experimentation with knowledge production takes place, of course the first thing that comes to our mind is the laboratories (the laboratories if you look at the idea of Varela’s portable laboratory). Those are the instruments that also develop specific methodologies and gestures that lead to methodologies. So for us Zooetics Pavillion is, first of all, a place for experimentation in which we as artists are in the dialogue with scientists and in the dialog and in confrontation with other fields. And in this case we are in dialogue, we are flirting, we are negotiating not only with biotechnology but also with the culture of what we could describe as a Maker Culture. So in that sense it is a space where we want to appropriate something that belongs to the experts, like biotechnology, and democratize that process by bringing it to the general audience. But we also want to make it accessible, we want to make this knowledge, if you will, open source. Also through the process of creating a educational space. So there is another flirt, there is another relationship with the ideas that inspired the phenomena that come from the radical pedagogy and the phenomena that come from this thinking about educational spaces or what we can call learning environments. And of course it is thrilling to speak about learning environments in a place like São Paulo and Brazil where we have such people like Paulo Freire. So for us Zooetics Pavillion is a place that is experimenting with forms of pedagogy and it is also experimenting with materials.
Lars – The complete title of the work is “Psychotropic House – Zooetics Pavillion of Ballardian Technologies. What are the “Ballardian technologies”?
Nomeda – We really like this direct reference to Ballard and, in particular, maybe we were inspired by Vermillion Sands, his collection of novels from 1971, where he describes all this kind of crazy, very sensitive technologies but also at the same time it provokes a critical view maybe towards the contemporary biotechnological sciences.
Gediminas – There is a strong link in which we are interested between the experiments with art and technology and the interest in the science fiction literature, for example. Ballard is a British science fiction writer that writes Vermillion Sands at the same time brothers Strugatsky, in the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Russian writers, write Roadside Picnic, the book that inspired Tarkovsky to make the Stalker movie. In that book they describe a zone that was led by extraterrestrials visiting Earth and leaving those very obscure artifacts that are not yet known by humans. But with all our curiosity they give a knowledge to us to understand questions of the universe, but at the same time touching those objects and revealing them can be very dangerous for humanity. For us it is really interesting that Ballard, for example, in Vermillion Sands, also describes intelligent systems, systems that also maybe speak to bio-empathy. And this is exactly happening in 71 – 72, when we have, perhaps on the global scale, the movement that can be described as the Environmentalism. And this is being born in the time of what is called the Techno-Humanism, where there is also a believe that with the help of new technologies we can better connect with the environment. Not only better connect, but we are part of the same system. An idea that perhaps after 50 years we are no longer sure about. So for us it is really interesting, first of all, how the ideas that come from science fiction gave impetus to specific modern forms in culture and technology, and then how those ideas, specially the ideas in the technological developments, somehow manage to subvert the cultures.
Lars – Can you talk a bit about the cultural significance and cultural context of mushrooms in Lithuania?
Nomeda – We have a big mushroom culture and we always had it. We remember ourselves since childhood we would go to the forest at a certain time of the year during the weekends. Actually today we were discussing how come we knew which mushrooms are edible and which are not, but as long as I remember myself I would be able to go to the forest and feed myself from what I find there. Now I can say one thing in Lithuanian: Jai ne grybai ir ne uogos dzūkų mergos būtų nuogos. Which means: if not because of mushrooms and berries, the girls from Dzūkija (a certain region in Lithuania) would be naked. And there is a tradition up to nowadays of mushroom picking. And we were thinking: isn’t it still this kind of relationship which you have with indigenous knowledge, almost? Which in many other countries and many other regions in the world is simply lost. If you go to Scandinavia, Norway or Sweden you will find lots of mushrooms, very big, beautiful ones, but no one picks them. People just don’t have this habit and they don’t recognize them and they go to the store and buy Chanterelles from Lithuania.
Gediminas – Certainly there is a very strong proximity with the indigenous. And I think it comes from this proximity to the biggest, largest forest and oldest forest in Europe. I think it also make some traditions more secure. And if we speak about this cultural traditions, there are a lot of beliefs, lot of fairytales that perhaps also supports that desire of discovering yourself in the nature or through the nature. For sure there is economy and they still maintain this tradition of foraging and mushroom hunting, making the preserves for the winter time, exchanging those as a gift between one another, but I think it is not only about securing the income, I think it really has to do with this self discovery, self recognition, self exploration, if you will. Being in the forest and trying to figure out your routes, getting lost in the forest. Hunting mushrooms is also like a lottery. It is not only that you find those that are poisonous and those that are edible, but it is also where you find them and getting to know the nature and also developing the consciousness of how you cut them and how you take them, what you need to leave in the forest. So this all makes you more sensible and attuned within the system of invisible wires that are being transmitted in the nature by the different objects. Which we, as brothers Strugatsky suggested, we don’t know fully yet.