‘Life Matters’
Ariane Koek

Download Pdf

‘What happens when human exceptionalism and bounded individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.’

– Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene”, e-flux Journal, Issue 75 (Sept 2016).

We are living in an age of revolutionary re-vitalism – when broadly accepted ideas of what constitutes life are being challenged. Common understandings of consciousness, intelligence, and matter, which were central to Western definitions of life, are being overturned, and a boundless array of new possibilities is opening up.

Troika’s series of ever-evolving ecology of artworks, known as Untertage, is an exploration of the new possibilities  that welcome new interpretations of life and vitality. The series is playfully premised on an imaginary that suggests that there is another consciousness and intelligence shaping our world – namely, the natural mineral and crystal, salt. What we may think of as inert matter and dismiss in a human-centric hierarchy of being, privileging consciousness foremost, is dismantled by the subversive agency of Troika’s figure of Salt.1 Untertage both witnesses and heralds the extent of Salt’s agency, from its various manifestations to a shared apocalyptic future, highlighting Salt’s infiltration into the very conceptualisations humans use to premise their own will to be and raison d’être. Through this series of works, Troika question the forces that give life to matter, what is intelligent life and consciousness, what is artificial intelligence, and where do human beings’ beliefs, knowledge, and understanding sit within these questions.

This reconceptualisation of a world in which Salt has made a grand take-over to a certain extent resonates with the philosophy of vital materialism, which has come to dominate the discourse in the twenty-first century.  This philosophy, espoused by Jane Bennett and corroborated by new discoveries in the sciences, introduces a perspective that all things which exist, whether sentient or not, human or rock, active or inert, have equal validity on our planet and in the very formation of reality.2 Thus, Salt being an active agent fits with this perspective in which all matter is endlessly intra- and interacting and entangled, affecting one another in multiple ways.3 After all, as particle physics shows us, everything material in our world came from the same source – the moments after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago when matter won over antimatter, and the material world in which we exist came into being. We are all intimately connected in a network of being-ness, and it is only we humans who have created a false hierarchy that isolates and elevates humanness above other beings and what we perceive as dead matter. This false hierarchy is ultimately detrimental to the natural world and our connection with it. According to Bennett:

‘The image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. […] The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable models of production and consumption.’ 4

As Bennet indicates, dismissing nonhuman agency has political consequences too. It results in a politics unable to put the planet and sustainability at its centre because the essential links between everything that exists – i.e., all matter, whether designated as inanimate or animate – have been broken by a human drive for control and mastery, which lead to exploitation and extraction. 

Nowhere is this human drive more clearly shown than in the work Obsolete Landscapes, which shows the extractive materiality of technology created by humans. The work comprises hanging curtains printed with skies and cut out to remove any visible geography. Mountains, coastlines, and islands are rendered featureless, except as fading outlines, skylines held in permanent suspension. Obsolete Landscapes draw on the iconography of Apple’s operating systems, which borrow their names and backdrop images from North American landscapes of mountains, deserts, islands, and coastlines – Yosemite 10.10, El Capitan 10.11, Sierra 10.12, High Sierra 10.13, Mojave 10.14, Catalina 10.15, leading to Big Sur 11.0. Nature is reduced to a marketing tool appropriated by Silicon Valley in order to extract value, compounded with built-in obsolescence. The materiality of the pictured scenes is denied by the erasure of any defining features and details. But then again, without nature, which these incomplete images of landscapes represent, and without earth minerals, Apple would not exist in the first place, let alone the technology of silicon-based hardware: ‘Computers are a crystallization of past two hundred to three hundred years of scientific and technological development, geological insights, and geophysical affordances.’5 Furthermore, the development of technology is never divorced from consequences for our planet; it is created by the extraction and exploitation of natural resources taken out of their natural place of origin, then bought and sold at the earth’s expense, despite risk of depletion. Computers themselves contribute to the destruction of the material of nature: their processing power is harnessed to identify and locate the elements that took billions of years to make, but have taken only decades to extract, deplete, and commodify.6

Within the works known as Evolutionary Composite, Troika plays out these human drives of extraction and commodification, with the figure of Salt underlying all these pieces. In each work, a single neolithic flint is placed onto the centre of a silicon wafer, which surrounds it like a halo. These works exude the sensation of looking at ancient holy relics that have come from the future but are composites of different pasts. They have been extracted by the artists from their contexts, and the paradox is exploited. The juxtaposition of two technologies from two different moments in human history is both bewitching and unsettling – an uncanny twist across time and space. Flint axes were among the first tools crafted and used by human ancestors some 3.3 million years ago.7 In stark contrast, integrated circuit wafers first date from the twentieth century. Both are created by and symbolise human consciousness, as well as the interplay between matter that is transformed into technology by the human mind: the shaper/creator both makes/shapes and is shaped/created by their creations, which in turn may become tools to shape and be shaped ad infinitum.8

In addition, the actual timelines of the fabrication of the central element of each piece are not what they seem: the axes may appear ancient but were created in the twenty-first century.9 Their fabrication is more recent than that of the wafers. These two technologies may be millions of years apart and have come from very different places, but both components are connected by salt as their essential, underlying ingredient.10 The inherent message is that Salt is always present in the making of our story. There is no escape from its infiltration and our subjugation to its influence and control.

The multimedia installation Terminal Beach follows the consequences of this in all its bleak desolation and despair and points to a circuitous agency at play. What appears to be the last tree on Earth is relentlessly hacked at by an axe-wielding ape-like KUKA robot covered in shaggy fur. The fur, which swings and sways with every stroke, bestows a benevolence and clownish appearance to the robot in direct contrast with its repetitively destructive and deadly activity. Troika trained the robot featured in the animation using AI and motion capture, digitizing the action of chopping down the tree. Thus, real life and virtual life are conflated – the robot is doomed to fulfil humankind’s desire to extract resources, even if it means depletion and destruction of source material. The robot is only doing what it is programmed to do by a human being, thereby revealing human intelligence as a crude death force.  As Bruno Latour says, technology is an extension of the human – it is not separate from it. Yet, Troika turns to Salt’s domination of human will itself, uncovering human intelligence as an extension of Salt and thereby technology as well. If one returns to Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto”, where she defines the cybernetic organism as ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’, Troika’s work seems to question when the fiction begins. 

The acoustic backdrop to the piece mirrors the uncanny animal-like appearance of the KUKA robot. The sounds from the future bear a resemblance to bird sounds, but they are in reality field recordings of space weather – lightning strikes, solars winds and geomagnetic storms – captured by British Antarctic Survey at its Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica. These recordings  are normally used to understand the potential impact of space weather on the climate system. 

Both, the ape-like robot and the willingness to hear weather as biological sounds, speak to a human tendency of attributing human-like qualities to non-living things suspected of agency. This tendency to implicate an underlying agency to non-living things is reminiscent of the nineteenth century debates about vitalism and the spark of life versus the mechanistic view of the universe promoted by Newtonian physics. These debates were drawn horrifically and fantastically together within Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein in which Shelley’s monster is sewn together from dead matter and is given ‘the spark of life’ by Dr. Victor Frankenstein. In the case of Untertage, each new artwork is a still-evolving body of work which becomes a vehicle to contemplate and critique what constitutes intelligent life – just like the vehicle of the monster through which contemporary ideas of consciousness, morality, gender, and the virtue of the human soul are played out.

During the nineteenth century, when Frankenstein was written, crystals were believed possibly to hold the clue to organic life. The chemical gardens were all the rage at the time, and were first observed and described by Johan Rudolph Glauber in 1646. A metal salt is added to a sodium silicate solution, and crystals appear to move as if blown by invisible winds – the inorganic seemingly blending with the organic with whole landscapes of trees and plants forming. The German philosopher Friedrich Schelling in his influential doctrine Naturphilosophie (nature-philosophy) believed so much that crystals were part of the secret of life, that he and his followers went as far as to say diamonds were in fact carbon coming to its senses via crystallisation.

Troika’s series Solid State Fiction are themselves created from the process of transmutation and growing. Troika made their own chemical gardens in tanks of waterglass (sodium silicate), in which crystals were grown, then photographed. The shapes, colours, and forms were digitally manipulated, then subsequently printed on fabric.  This is Salt’s future. In fact, Salt IS the new  world –  it is not only the agent and being which infiltrates all matter,  but it also comprises the environment which it inhabits. 

This is hinted at the exhibition in Mexico where the salt which falls from the installation No Sound of Water freely bleeds out onto the gallery floor towards the LED screen  Terminal Beach which rises out of the every evolving salt landscape as if placed on the edge of time.  Salt’s takeover of the universe in which it is both object and subject,  sensorium and landscape, breaks down the human enforced and created dichotomy between nature and technology, suggesting a new reality. 

These works – and others to come, which comprise the ongoing investigations of life known in Troika’s oeuvre as Unterage – present an alternative history of the world, which includes possible new futures and reveals disregarded pasts. Life is no longer defined by human consciousness. Matter is no longer immaterial, in the sense of being without value, if it does not move, speak, or talk. Intelligence is nothing but a hollow human trope when it doesn’t take other beings into account.

In his book All Art is Ecological, the philosopher Timothy Morton argues that art endlessly connects the apparently disconnected and evokes the ineffable, characteristics of nature itself. He talks also about the ‘think-feel’ of art and how these are both in constant interplay. As shown by Troika’s work, art is arguably also alchemical – it challenges the boundaries of the accepted to engage with the spiritual, sensual, magical, and imaginative, together with philosophy, science, technology, and art, in defining what makes up life. Alchemy was banished during the Enlightenment for being  magical, irrational, and imaginative. It was replaced by objectivity, logic, and systems of science. Yet, alchemy was the basis of natural sciences and philosophy, using the imagination in its ultimate quest to reveal the mysteries of life, by exploring different dimensions both inside and outside the physical realm. In this sense, Troika create an altogether new perspective on the world’s ecosystem – they take the visible and invisible worlds, and put them into the crucible of their imagination to forge new meanings, new questions, and new narratives, where human consciousness is revealed as a limited version of reality. Untertage reveals that underneath reality is Salt, which is the catalyst for human motivations and even human thinking itself.  When will we realise that we’re not the ones who are in control after all? (17) The LED screen of Terminal Beach is a technology made of salt whilst the saltfall No Sound of Water is a machine which mimics nature by using salt instead of water. The two technologies are both linked visually as well as by their materiality and individual composition in the evolving landscape of salt which evolves on the gallery floor between them.

Ariane Koek, ‘Life Matters’, in ‘Untertage ’

1 Salt is the ultimate insider/outsider. It exists as a crystal or rock outside of us, is eaten by us, yet already exists inside us naturally. It occupies spaces simultaneously in an endless exchange of being, forming, and reforming. It is both geology and biology, rock/crystal and human. It is also a mineral that is soluble and can exist either as a liquid or as a solid rock and crystal. Its very existence is based on transmutation.

2 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010).

3 One of the main influences on vital materialism and the way in which matter intra-acts and influences each other is outlined in the seminal book by the physicist turned philosopher Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press, 2007).

4 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, ix.

5 Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 137. 

6 Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Duke University Press, 2016) as well as Parikka, A Geology of Media, 51–53.

7 See, for example, Sonia Harmand, Jason E. Lewis, Craig S. Feibel, et al., “3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya”, Nature, vol. 521 (2015), 310–315, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14464.

8 See Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 31 where she points to philosopher Bernard Stiegler who contended that tool making led to the first self reflective consciousness in human kind, evolving from an understanding of inside and outside into a ‘psychological landscape of interiority’. Bennett continues: ‘Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other. There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this intermingling is harder to ignore.’

9 The flint axe heads were created by Dr. James Dilley, an experimental archaeologist based in the UK, who has both studied and practiced the ancient art of flint knapping for many years. Dilley is responsible for creating numerous, historically accurate replicas exhibited in museums worldwide.

10 Both are made of silicate, and silicates are salts containing anions of silicon (Si) and oxygen.

16 Friedrich Schelling, in his doctrine known as Naturphilosophie or science mysticism, defined the entire natural world as a system of invisible powers and energies replete with spiritual energy or soul, and all physical objects ‘aspired to become something higher.’ Quoted in Chapter 7 of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Harper Press, 2009).

17 ‘Crystals are compelling because they are indexical of existential questions, poised at the crossing point of life and death. While their perfect forms appear lifeless, they suggest life because they “grow” and move.’ Mark A. Cheetham, Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s (Penn State University Press, 2010), 251.

18 For a full explanation about alchemy and how it, together with the imagination, were banished to the margins by the rise of science and technic to create a new more controllable version of reality, see Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

11 Bruno Latour, “Love Your Monsters: Why We Must Care For Our Technologies As We Do Our Cchildren”, published in The Breakthrough 2 (Fall 2011), https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/issue-2/love-your-monsters.

12 Donna Haraway, “Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (Socialist Review, 1985; University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

13 During Troika’s research project with Cambridge University they met Space Weather Research scientist Dr. Nigel Meredith from British Antarctic Survey who shared his findings with them. https://www.bas.ac.uk/profile/nmer/; https://www.bas.ac.uk/project/sounds-of-space/.

14 See Esther Leslie, “Meltwater”, Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (Reaction Books, 2016). Leslie  points out that the theory of crystal as a source of life stretched into the twentieth century, with even Erwin Schrödinger (of Schrödinger’s cat fame) voicing a theory in his 1943 Dublin lectures (published in 1944 as What is Life?) that an ‘aperiodic crystal’ was a part of the living cell that carried genetic information, hence predicting and inspiring later insights into DNA.

15 ‘Crystals are compelling because they are indexical of existential questions, poised at the crossing point of life and death. While their perfect forms appear lifeless, they suggest life because they “grow” and move.’ Mark A. Cheetham, Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s (Penn State University Press, 2010), 251.