Art, science and curating – PART 1

From left: Paula Toppila (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro), Erich Berger (Photo: Mari Kaakkola) and Ulla Taipale (Photo: Tommi Taipale)
This two-part conversation unravels objectives and questions of existence as a contemporary art agent at the crossroads between art, science and curating. Paula Toppila, Executive Director and Curator of IHME Helsinki, invited two colleagues to join her in discussion: Ulla Taipale, Curator at Capsula and at the Climate Whirl Arts Program at INAR, University of Helsinki, and Erich Berger, Director of the Bioart Society.

The first part focuses on why and how we work at the cross-section of art and science and what curating means in our case. The second part focuses solely on contemporary art curating and will be published at the beginning of January. The third part will be a live discussion to be held as part of the Night of Sciences at Sofia Future Farm on January 16th, 2020.

Why Art and Science?

Paula Toppila: Thank you for accepting my invitation to join this conversation mapping our practices together. When the Pro Arte Foundation Finland was founded, our objectives were defined, briefly, as follows: to make contemporary art more accessible; to create collective experiences in the public realm; and to reach out to new audiences. The annual IHME Festival was born with the concept of commissioning annually one new work by an internationally recognized artist along with a related 2-3 day programme of talks, workshops, artists’ films and music.

About three years ago we started to look more closely at the changes around us, not only in Finnish society or the art world, but also at what was happening on a global, planetary level. We then realized that IHME has existed in the midst of crisis ever since its inception: the financial crisis started in 2008, followed  by the political crisis of nationalist populism, and then a rapidly escalating environmental crisis characterized by alarming global warming and radical loss of biodiversity. While continuing to produce the festival, we noted that in the field of contemporary art there were interesting conversations going on between science and art, between scientists, researchers, representatives of other knowledge systems and artists who were more frequently exploring environmental questions, including Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Saraceno, Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas, Superflex, Henrik Håkansson, to name a few.Perhaps your work at the Bioart Society and Capsula also reflects this emergent trend?

With Superflex we realized a film sculpture called Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building) in 2011, which addressed among other things the question of climate change and its effect on the built environment. Also through our collaboration with Henrik Håkansson and his film THE BEETLE, the entire festival was themed around climate crisis and the sixth extinction. We then started to rethink the purpose of our work and the values upon within we should base our new direction. This thinking process started within our long-time expert team and was taken further within the current one. Together we defined a new direction for the IHME Helsinki, we renewed our values by placing a stronger focus on ecologically sustainable practice and by deciding to invite artists that collaborate with scientists, while still focusing on one public art commission every year. In short, we are trying to answer the question: how are we to exist as a high-quality contemporary art commissioning agency, and how are we to collaborate internationally and create relevant discourse in the age of climate crisis?

Ulla Taipale: How exciting! My background is in environmental engineering and technology journalism, which I studied at Satakunta Polytechnic and at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain as an Erasmus exchange student. This orientation meant in my case a combination of environmental engineering and visual communications. Later, after working in exhibition production at Valencia’s Ethnological Museum for four years, I took a post-graduate course in curating in Barcelona. Environmental issues were my passion already back then, along with my interest in communicating art and culture topics related to natural phenomena and natural sciences.

At Capsula, an independent curatorial agency founded in 2006 together with Spanish curator Monica Bello, we developed many art & science projects. In 2007 I launched a long-term project called Capsula Curated Expeditions. As part of the first Expedition in 2008, three artists visited the Total Solar Eclipse in Siberia. Five new commissioned artworks were produced as part of the second Expedition, which involved visits to the Baltic Sea between 2009-2011, commissioning five new artworks. Altogether these first two Expeditions resulted in eight new artworks that debuted in an exhibition at Kiasma as part of the Pixelache Festival in 2009, followed by their inclusion in the programme of the Turku 2011 Capital of Culture.

Between 2011 and 2014, I worked at Aalto University as a project manager with a new laboratory concept, Biofilia – Base for Biological Arts. This ambitious initiative was developed together with Professor Helena Sederholm from Aalto Arts and artists and researchers Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from SymbioticA in Australia and lab manager Marika Hellman.

Another project worth mentioning is Melliferopolis -Honeybees in Urban Environments, an ongoing project with artist and researcher Cristina Stadlbauer. The project combines urban beekeeping and arts. Another is the Climate Whirl arts programme, which started around 2012, when forest and climate scientists at the University of Helsinki who, recognizing the potential of the Hyytiälä Forestry Field Station for fostering dialogue with artists, opened the research station for artistic residencies. They contacted me as they knew about my experience in the field of art & science. Now that you mentioned the growing public consciousness and mounting severity of the climate crisis, I think that perhaps art is too vague and weak to make a difference. I might be experiencing a personal crisis with this issue. We are spreading important seeds, but perhaps it´s not enough…

Paula Toppila: This is exactly why our organization took a new direction. We are not leaving the change-making process solely to thinking and making arts. The changes need to happen so quickly that we need them on all possible levels. This is why we updated our values and strategy and invited other kind of experts to join us in our Advisory Board. As a result of all this too, we decided to hire an eco-coordinator to think through our productions from the perspective of ecological sustainability. We hope we can make a difference and also spread the word of change. What about you, Erich, and the Bioart Society? How did it all get started and how did you join the conversation between art and science? We should perhaps specify also the meaning of the word ‘science’, as it is slightly different from the Finnish word tiede, which also includes the human sciences.

Erich Berger: The founding moment of the Bioart Society happened through several different conversations that came together in 2008. There were individual artists like Anu Osva, Laura Beloff and others, there was also an official from Ministry of Culture Hannele Seitsonen then that was interested in supporting this kind of activity, there was the director of Kilpisjärvi Biological Station Antero Järvinen and also Ulla was involved back then. We all came together at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and founded the Bioart Society in May 2008. What it is and what it wants to be was basically defined by practice. The first project was based in Kilpisjärvi and it was executed in collaboration with Ars Electronica as part of the European Cultural Capital year 2009 in Linz.

What is perhaps interesting is that we didn’t start small: this two-month project was quite ambitious from the outset. Back then, at the beginning, we faced a challenge in defining who we are, what we are doing, and how we want to talk about that. We soon realized that we are different from other bioart and art & science organizations.

I still find that the subtitle of our book Fieldnotes (2013) – “From landscape to laboratory” – describes our approach very well. Bioart is originally understood as a laboratory-based art practice, particularly directed towards a critique of life sciences like biotechnology. Bioart can be seen as a critique of this kind of technology expressed through artistic means, using living material as the artistic medium. What was really important for me was not to let those kinds of definitions dictate what we are doing. At times I found our name limiting, but in the end we paid less attention to it: instead of tying ourselves to a certain medium, we started to focus on the content we were interested in. In the most general sense we are looking into the question of what is the contemporary biological condition. In retrospect, we also started to think about how to update the idea of environmental art quite early on in the project.

Environmental questions are still the same as always, but the environment itself has changed. It has changed not only in a material sense through us introducing new environmental actors in the form of infrastructure, hardware, software and genetically modified organisms, but also through our awareness of the interdependence of human-led and earth processes and how we make use of/misuse the land and environment. All this ultimately feeds into our understanding of the global environmental crisis and climate breakdown. I think that what a contemporary environmental art approach should achieve is a redefinition of our environmental self-conception.

What is it that we do when we curate?

PT:  Now that we have reviewed our organizational backgrounds and why we have chosen the art and science orientation, let’s move on towards the issue of curating and the curatorial: where do these come into the picture and what is curating in our cases?

UT: I realized very recently what exactly I have been doing and what my core interest is. I concluded that it is about facilitating and mediating, giving impulses for creative processes to emerge and conceptually creating a framework such as the Curated expeditions 2007-2011.You can invite, arrange an open call, or commission a new artwork, but the core of curating revolves around mediating and facilitating. I find this more fascinating than selecting finished artworks for an exhibition.

EB: What you just said is extremely important. There is very short history of curatorial education in Finland and I think there is often a big misunderstanding about the curator’s role. It is not only about selecting the artists in an exhibition. This is why the word ‘curator’ has such a bad reputation here. ‘Curator’ is understood as the gate-keeper that selects the artists for an exhibition. Now I’m probably amplifying this a bit, but also for me curating is a curatorial process that is about creating a framework. Of course it overlaps with production, but for me it is part of it.

UT: Production is part of it.

PT: I agree with this definition of curator as facilitator and mediator and it also describes some parts of my practice working as a curator at IHME. We don’t work with existing works. When we start the conversation with the artist, we basically have nothing but the ethos of IHME and the artist’s previous work and current interests to reflect on. Together we map conversation fields of mutual interest to the artists and IHME and connections to the local context, and gradually the project starts to take shape. It is indeed very much about creating the conceptual framework together.

In my case at IHME there may also be other people involved in the conversation with the artist at this stage, depending on what kind of practice the artist has and with whom s/he would like to develop the concept or simply what kind of special expertise is needed in the process. As for production, it is indeed part of curating also in my case. I think curating is a more complex position and profession than we might think and it is very much dependent on the institutional context where the curator is working and the curatorial practice there. Often museum curators are regarded as the gatekeepers, as you say, Erich, because of the hierarchy in the art world. Having a museum show or getting your work in a museum collection is of particular credit to the artist. The curator working in an established art institution is in a power position because the curator makes selections, chooses the artists and thus often gives them various career opportunities.

The conversation on curating is to be continued in January, 2020, stay tuned!

Paula Toppila is the executive director and curator of IHME Helsinki. IHME is a contemporary art commissioning agency that works at the crossroads between art and science. Every year we commission one public artwork and a series of events highlighting perspectives and awakening hope around the topic of the environmental and climate crisis.

Ulla Taipale is a curator, researcher and artist. Her curatorial and artistic practices are often situated at biological field stations, botanical gardens, zoological parks and cemeteries. She works as Curator at Capsula (art-science-nature) and at the Climate Whirl arts program at the University of Helsinki, Institute for Atmospheric Sciences and Earth System Research (INAR). From 2011 to 2014 she was project manager of Biofilia – Base for Biological Arts at Aalto University. She holds a BSc in Environmental Engineering (1998) and a Master of Arts degree (2018).

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Erich Berger is an artist, curator and cultural worker based in Helsinki. He directs the Bioart Society, an artist association based in Helsinki, which since 2008 facilitates trans-disciplinary work between art and science. Previously to that he has worked as chief curator at Laboral Center for Art and Industrial Creation in Gijon/Spain. Bergers current interest in issues of deep time and hybrid ecology led him to work with geological processes, radiogenic phenomena and their socio-political implications in the here and now. Berger has exhibited widely in various museums, galleries and major art events in Europe and worldwide and his works received several awards and prices.