BAW JOURNAL: The Immersion / Berliner Festspiele exhibition ›Down to Earth‹ at Gropius Bau addresses issues related to climate and sustainability in the broadest sense. You curated an ›exhibition within the exhibition‹ on the ocean in two of the rooms. To what extent does the ocean stand for a different way of thinking, a different perspective? What potential does it have?
STEFANIE HESSLER: As mostly land-dwelling humans, our feet are grounded on the earth while the ocean is considered as foreign, as out there, until it floods your home. With warming temperatures and rising sea levels, this is prone to happen ever more frequently, sparing neither Kiribati, nor Venice or Miami. The ocean is crucial for the earth’s climate system, but it also holds crucial philosophical potential. If the earth is considered mostly stable, unmovable except for earthquakes etc., the ocean is more suited to thinking the current continuous moment of uncertainty. Ocean water is always in flux; it can’t be measured and controlled as easily as land and requires adaptation and response-ability (in the words of Donna Haraway and Karen Barad). The ocean overflows boundaries that Western thinking likes to establish, between inside and outside, us and them. It connects and nurtures when treated well, but if not cared for, it can also destroy.
In a text for the exhibition programme booklet, you write that Western systems hold an entrenched view of the ocean as ›the Other‹. What do you mean by that exactly? And how could we imagine a different kind of relationship to it?
The ocean provided the subsurface for explorations to reach and colonise far-away locations, at least far-away from the perspective of Europeans. This notion of distance, of the islands in the Pacific, for instance, being remote small island states, persists until today. The Fijian thinker Epeli Hau’ofa argued against this idea and worked towards considering the islands as large ocean nations. The American president justified his refusal to send help to Puerto Rico after the triple hurricane devastated the island in 2017 by saying that the island is too distant. That has not, however, hindered American military to use the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for military exercises. Elizabeth DeLoughrey writes succinctly about this. These are but a few examples. Older maps, such as Ortelius’s cartographies from the 1500s, depict the ocean as full of sea monsters, sending a warning and simultaneously evoking the curiosity of many. The ocean has long been the threatening Leviathan for Western cultures. I strongly believe that we (mostly a Western ›we‹) need to rethink and refeel our relation to the ocean, and to the planet at large. As Métis scholar Zoe Todd writes, it is mostly the Western Anthropos who is causing the Anthropocene. By not considering the ocean as distant, dangerous or exploitable other, we can work towards a planetary understanding of not being ›in‹, but ›of‹ the world with its land and its waters. I’ve unpacked these connections in much more detail in my book ›Prospecting Ocean‹ (2019).
What is an artistic approach to the ocean? Could you name one or two examples from the exhibition?
The artist Miriam Simun, for instance, has devised a poetic training programme through which humans can learn different breathing techniques that may allow them to stay longer underwater. She has worked on this for many years, together with dancers devising workshops and taking the idea very seriously. Ultimately, she suggests that we should become (closer to) cephalopods. The work is a poetic, speculative approach to transhumanism from an intersectional feminist perspective. So rather than the macho Elon Musk transhumanism, Simun is considering embodied forms of knowing as a starting point for a shared interspecies future. Sissel Tolaas’s ocean smell is a sensory offering for exhibition visitors. She has collected the smell molecules near the ocean, synthesized them, and brought them into the exhibition space. The smell is diffused in the space according to the tidal calendar of Warnemünde. It is also an archive of the molecules found at a specific site at a specific time, an olfactory portrait of a site. Smell is interesting to me because it is registered in the same part of the brain where memory and emotions are processed. Tolaas’s work is both methodologically scientific and sensorially evocative.
Infrastructure has been discussed repeatedly in the art discourse of recent years. Do you think we’ve also seen a shift away from the ›institution‹ and toward ›infrastructure‹? If so, how could this shift be described? What does infrastructural thinking and action in the art world mean in concrete terms?
Thinkers such as Keller Easterling argue that infrastructure is becoming ever more important, and that it is not merely the physical assets surrounding us, but all that which allows goods including information to flow. Within the arts, I observe heightened attention on structures—different structures of power and attempts to create structures for better equity and justice. This is absolutely key, and especially urgent at this moment of planetary upheavals of climate, health, and social justice. An institution is always an (infra)structure, and the current turn towards these structures is absolutely urgent to create more equitable futures.
What specific perspectives can art open up when it comes to sustainability? And: How can the art world itself become more sustainable?
Art can shift perspectives; art can make us think and feel things differently. It can either propose new ways of doing or give rise to new thoughts, or old thoughts that were forgotten. I am doubtful that promethean technological solutions can show a way out of the deep structural crisis that have long been in the making—a composite crisis of climate, health, social justice. Art is not the solution, but it can be part of it. Therefore, it is crucial to also rethink the way the art system works, the framework within which we negotiate these issues is never separate from the issues themselves.