Ursula Biemann talks about her inter-disciplinary collaborative practice

In an interview with STIR, Biemann dives into three of her significant works, Devenir Universidad, Forest Mind, and Acoustic Ocean, and the making of an ingenious university.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Nov 24, 2021

When was the last time you heard of an artistic intervention leading to the creation of a university? Swiss video artist Ursula Biemann’s project titled Devenir Universidad began as a collaborative project that has culminated into a decentralised indigenous university. It involved closely experiencing the life of the Inga community of the Amazonian rainforest. “The forest is a living community of thinking and sensing beings. Indigenous people in the Amazon view knowledge as embedded in the environment where knowing something means becoming part of a field of meaningful relations, social and historical relations, relations with all beings who cohabit the space,” says Biemann.

I had a fascinating conversation with Ursula Biemann (b. Zurich, Switzerland) on her significant works, Devenir Universidad, Forest Mind, and Acoustic Ocean.  

Flora Macas and Waira Jacanamijoy, performance artists in <em>Forest Mind</em> | Forest Mind | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Flora Macas and Waira Jacanamijoy, performance artists in Forest Mind Image: Ursula Biemann

Rahul Kumar (RK): Devenir Universidad seems to be an ambitious, yet a visionary project focussed on the Amazonian culture and history. Please talk about the genesis of this and how far has the team reached in achieving the desired objectives?

Ursula Biemann (UB): Devenir Universidad is many things. It is an art project, a living collaborative organism, multispecies research in the Amazonian rainforest, but above all, it is the collective effort to co-create an indigenous biocultural university in the South of Colombia. In 2017, when I was approached by curator Maria Belén Saez de Ibarra from the Art Museum in Bogota to visit the region, it had just emerged from several decades of armed conflict. I was sent to do recognisance for a new work and start making contact with indigenous communities who inhabit the region. The leader of the Indigenous Inga people, Hernando Chindoy Chindoy, took me through the territories in his bullet proof car for several weeks. In return, on the last day, he asked me to help him establish an indigenous university. This struck me as a compelling idea since I have been interested in indigenous cosmology and knowledge systems for quite some time. Approaching ETH Zurich, Anne Lacaton agreed to run a year-long studio. In her gentle manner, it was never her intention to build an infrastructure in this foreign country, rather the studio generated cartographies and proposals that would help the Inga take decisions about their project. The University will be a decentralised network of various sites and paths across the entire territory, that allows for river-learning, forest-learning, chagra-learning in their research gardens.

Workshop Piamonte | Devenir Universidad | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Workshop Piamonte Image: Ursula Biemann

With a group of Inga social leaders and educators, we also began a broad discussion on the contents and pedagogies of this new institution which shall bring western science and indigenous knowledge into a contemporary dialogue. A group of six academics, artists, architects and nature rights lawyers are now committed to bring this project ahead. The forest is a living community of thinking and sensing beings. Indigenous people in the Amazon view knowledge as embedded in the environment where knowing something means becoming part of a field of meaningful relations, social and historical relations, relations with all beings who cohabit the space. This field of relations is what indigenous people in Amazonia call territory, it is intimately connected to knowledge, wisdom, perceiving and caring. Western students have approached us to sign up for this University! Before we drove in the first pole, the vision already inspires the imagination and desires of a new generation.

Interview with Mercedes Jacanamijoy | Devenir Universidad | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Interview with Mercedes Jacanamijoy Image: Ursula Biemann

RK: What are the notable interventions from a visual art perspective? The project involves extensive pedagogical study, research and planning on culture, design, and indigenous knowledge. How does this go beyond documentation towards ‘artistic’ expression and ways to communicate with a larger audience?

UB: The encounter with the extraordinary indigenous cosmology and way of life made me think about cinematic or videographic ecology, which views the world as consisting of all kinds of relational processes and encounters that produce and reproduce the world anew in every moment. Generally, I see my videos as part of the slow and laborious project of putting the world together somehow. They generate an aesthetic ecosystem, often planetary in scale. In this sense they are geomorphic; they contribute to a process of forming worlds. In my mind they are distinctly non-representational. So you see, I have a deep interest in ecology as a way of thinking of how the living world is composed, how it interacts and interdepends. This concept of image-making is vital for a project that assembles undocumented histories and memories, engages with nonhuman actors, visualises postcolonial dynamics, performs a deep description of the territory, and generally creates a new knowledge organisation from scratch. Images transport knowledge in more than textual or purely cerebral ways. Art and audio-visual communication can implicate emotional, sensorial, spiritual and physical experiences. In the University project, images also help to give form to the thoughts this University will be made of, giving form to cognition and knowledge. They actively help to rearticulate the community by reassembling a contemporary cultural identity and connect their creative effort to a global and very vocal indigenous movement. Images have many vital functions in this project.

Tree of Life in <em>Forest Mind</em> | Forest Mind | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Tree of Life in Forest Mind Image: Ursula Biemann

RK: Please elaborate on the ideology of your video work titled Forest Mind that ‘everything already exists (in non-linear time) and all events occur on a mathematical pre-existing code’. And in this context, how do you view any creative endeavour then?

UB: Forest Mind entails various strings of thoughts, one of them is the metaphysics of plants and their telepathic communication. A Shaman tells the story of his initiation featuring an indigenous atlas that succumbs to the weight of the Earth and reorders it with its song. Indigenous cosmology, and particularly their stories of origin, are often described anthropologically as mythical or rather fantastical. So, I decided to write a prologue that offers an equally fantastic and irrational sounding version of how the universe comes into being, which is currently put forth by the most advanced astrophysicists and neuroscientists. Mathematics makes an organic appearance in this narrative. The mathematical code of the universe is not in opposition here to an imaginative, intuitive and sensorial perception. My favourite line is that the codes are written by imagination and conscious thought because it brings art into play in a major way. It posits art as a catalyst of imagination that creates realities, not only our own but of everyone whose imagination is triggered by coming in contact with our work. Perhaps we are more magicians extraordinaire than we would like to admit.

Interview with Rubiela Mojomboy | Forest Mind | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Interview with Rubiela Mojomboy Image: Ursula Biemann

Another aspect of Forest Mind reminds us of the convergence of the two histories of colonialism and natural science which simultaneously took place in the Amazon from where the early botanists brought back vast new knowledges to western universities. Natural science was created in the spirit of colonial conquest. By bringing science into conversation with indigenous knowledge practices and their deep communion with plant intelligence, the video intends to reintroduce a radically different view on knowing the world. Knowing not from a distance by describing and naming but as an encounter between minds, encountering the plant as a person. That’s where the rights of nature come from. It’s a subjectifying practice, honouring the other as subject rather than turning it into an object of investigation. I see this shift as fundamental in reshaping our relationship to earth and the living world.

Hiking to the future university site | Devenir Universidad | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Hiking to the future university site Image: Ursula Biemann

RK: Is your work titled Acoustic Ocean an experiential sound scape, or is the intent to underscore importance of marine life in the larger scheme of our planet and life?

UB: It is both, and also more than that. My videos always propose multiple entries and can be read through the lens of multiple audiences. They are intersubjective in this way. Acoustic Ocean is science-fictional poetry pointing to and creatively morphing our communication with nonhuman species. My videos document real and fictional scientists who perform scientific acts, use scientific instruments, and aspire to scientific rigor, but are, at the same time, field workers embedded in complex ecosystems, working from uncertain positions and operating as political actors. In the case of Acoustic Ocean, I created a fictional figure of a Sami marine biologist, indigenous of arctic Scandinavia, enacted by a Sami performer and composer. She is an aquanaut dressed in an orange performance-diving suit, sporting a reindeer hood and handling all kinds of acoustic hydrophones registering the vocalisations of marine species. These sonic recordings are feeding into a kind of animal mixing desk. In the credits of the video, you can read the names of all marine species who participated in this film with their voices. How many of them do we know? Hardly any.

02 mins watch Acoustic Ocean (clip) | Acoustic Ocean | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Acoustic Ocean (clip) Video: Ursula Biemann

Resorting to semi-fictional narratives can help to extend our limited sensorium and rational thought patterns by introducing speculative intelligence and poetic forms. The fictional characters are transmitting scientific knowledge that is readily available, I am not interested in news. But it doesn’t stop at the tangible and measurable reality. The knowledge embraces thoughts, emotions, apprehensions, and psychic processes which merge with the landscape and the sea. The poetic language I craft is meant to transport the viewer into these other dimensions, by perforating the scientific information with moments of rupture from rational logic. Creating these ruptures gives me great pleasure, I have to admit. Science has never been more important than now, but it’s not enough to explain the data science produces. The images and narratives have to reach a collective imaginary, it has to go deeper than the rational mind. This is what is at stake, basically, the ability to mutate and imagine ourselves anew. That’s why I create cinematic environments that include epic, psychic, non-temporal dimensions.

For weeks she has been scripting the seascape, seeding it with an auditory dimension that leaves space for a reply.

- Excerpt from the script of Acoustic Ocean

Science has put a huge focus on what can be perceived with our senses, but humans and as it turns out, other beings, are constantly broadcasting emotions, thoughts and psychic fields as an expression and extension of their selves, reaching into immaterial realms. We should treat images and thoughts like material units that enter the equation. In my videos, they reconfigure our engagement with the changing ecology, they merge with frozen methane, with polar crackling atmosphere, they become part of weather events, unhinge new maritime cohabitations. They are out there in the landscape, physical and performative. They speak of a world in which the human-earth relationship is fragile, complicated, poetic and intensely physical.

A still from Acoustic Ocean | Acoustic Ocean | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
A still from Acoustic Ocean Image: Ursula Biemann

RK: It is fascinating how you capture and work with ‘non-human actors’ (rivers, plants, ice, and forests) in the project Becoming Earth. It is also noteworthy that this monograph is a departure from your human-centric work, going ‘above and below the thin layer of our biosphere’. How are you using these as ‘tools to reassemble a world that is desirable’? Have you succeeded in this endeavour?

UB: Starting with water, I have worked my way through a number of environmental and climate related topics in various parts of the world - water in Bangladesh and the River Nile as in Deep Weather and Egyptian Chemistry, climate in Twenty One Percent, Subatlantic and Forest Law, interspecies communication in Acoustic Ocean. Bringing these works together in one site highlights their commonalities and allows for a broader worlding reflection. These questions have become the crucial object of our concerns, from being a passive backdrop to global human reorganisation of labour and migration, landscape, nature and matter itself moves to the fore and take centrestage. The task is to feed our collective imaginary with vibrant images, new charismatic figures and unexpected theoretical propositions that can convey the eminence of these vital actants.

Full installation of <em>Acoustic Ocean</em>, Taipei Biennial, 2018 | Acoustic Ocean | Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Full installation of Acoustic Ocean, Taipei Biennial, 2018 Image: Ursula Biemann

Egyptian Chemistry would be a good example for highlighting minute but consistent material transformations as a driving force in reshaping our terrestrial reality, including politics. Egypt’s topography is changing as a result of its strategic expansion of arable land, but also in the strata deeper underground. Extended irrigation draws heavily on the subterranean aquifers causing the Nile Delta to subside at a rate of one centimetre per year. With a series of major infrastructural intervention in the watercourse (Aswan High Dam, barrages etc.), the ecology of the Nile inevitably changed. Reducing the velocity of flow, the barrages inevitably diminished the supply of oxygen which facilitates the aerobic decay of organic pollutants, thus converting the agricultural irrigation canals into biochemical cesspools. The result was an insurgency of tiny pollutants reconfiguring Egypt on a molecular level. While environmental engineers had a tremendous impact on the hydraulics of the Nile by regulating its velocity, gauge, and seasonal flows, the variations of water quality—its salinity, acidity, oxygen content, mineral composition, nutrient systems, organic pollutants, suspended particles, and the silt it carries—largely escaped human control. Although the hydraulic regime of the Nile was deliberately changed, the biological and chemical composition of the water was equally, but inadvertently affected. Altered water chemistry transforms soil quality, interferes with land management, drives urbanisation processes, and disrupts food supply chains. It infiltrates the human sphere through so many venues and illicit channels. We have to begin to understand these correlations as hybrid bio-sociological ecologies. Another approach is taken in Deep Weather. The short video connects the extraction zones of the tar sands in Alberta, Canada with the rising sea in the Bengal Delta, as a way of creating planetary landscapes based on circuits of consumption and the atmospheric chemistry. This is the range of actants involved in reassembling the world, from minute water pollutants to planetary atmospheric streams.

Ursula Biemann | STIRworld
Ursula Biemann Image: Courtesy of Ursula Biemann

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