Field_Notes – The Heavens
art & science fieldwork in the Finnish Sub-Arctic
by Anu Pasanen & Erich Berger
The article was originally published in niin & näin philosophical magazine 1/20 in Finnish.
Field_Notes is a field laboratory organised biannually by the Finnish Bioart Society and it aims to support artistic fieldwork without the pressure of producing finished artworks or research data. Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and the subarctic environment of Northwest Lapland are the home and unique research area for 40 people, who are interested in the interaction of art and science. The first field laboratory was organized in 2011 and the intense week of testing the limits and co-living and learning was described by one participant as “fine madness”. (1) Last autumn the participants of the fifth field laboratory turned their gaze towards the sky when Field_Notes gathered them together under the theme “Heavens.”
The concept of bioart was born to depict the interplay between art and natural sciences where organic substance as material and the methods of biotechnology are intrinsically linked. The expansion of the transdisciplinary field has enabled a situation where “bio-artistic practice ranges from critical interventions into contemporary biotech practices to proposals for techno-utopian solutions”. (2) One of the key figures of the field in Finland is the Finnish Bioart Society working with an emphasis on biology, ecology and life sciences. The approximately 120 members of the artist association have diverse practices in the art&science field, dealing especially with the political and ethical questions related to human impact and technology.
The Bioart Society’s multipurpose SOLU Space in Katajanokka, Helsinki, works as the home base for exhibitions, discussions and workshops. The society was founded at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki. The long-term collaboration has ensured a versatile program in a unique setting. Both the Ars Bioarctica residency program and the Field_Notes field laboratory are held in Kilpisjärvi with the aim to support and develop artistic research work.
The scientific fieldwork which is carried out at the station has been the starting point for Bioart Society’s questions regarding artistic fieldwork: What kind of data, information and experience remains outside of the scope of scientific research and how can this be turned into knowledge through artistic methods? How can the scientific, cultural and natural environment of the locality be a catalyst for questions a transdisciplinary group creates at the station? How could the artistic practices be applied to these specific situations and how to be alert of practices and approaches which emerge in such field situations?
Finland has a strong tradition in land and environmental art practices and art which addresses nature-related topics. Also, many Bioart Society members and program participants show interest in those areas. One aim of the Field_Notes field laboratory is to find out what contemporary environmental art can be. Instead of working with an idealised idea of nature, the activities in Kilpisjärvi aspire to work with an actual environment which is strongly affected, both intentionally and unintentionally, by human activity. These new actors are being introduced continuously in the form of built infrastructure, algorithms, new life forms, waste, byproducts, etc.
Building the field laboratory
The first edition of Field_Notes in 2011 was called “Cultivating Grounds” and its goal was to focus on the locality and how artists can conduct experiments in this scientific environment. The way the field laboratory is organised has stayed quite similar since then, but the theme changes every time. Field_Notes consists of five groups, which pose different questions or interpretations of the theme. The society invites a host, a primary investigator, to every group. The remaining 30 participants, who can be artists, researchers, designers, architects, activists, hackers or other practitioners, are selected from a pool of applicants who answer to an open call.
Participants apply to a specific group and are selected according to their motivation and expertise, among other criteria. Other important factors in forming the groups are diversity and a good balance between Finnish and international participants. The society also tries to include practitioners who have already participated before so that each group already has prior knowledge and experience on how to work at the station and on land.
The name and mission of one group is predetermined. Every Field_Notes has The Second Order group whose task is to visit and study the other groups. The group members are selected from different theoretical backgrounds and traditions and, besides observing, they can participate by offering critical feedback and suggestions to the other groups. By performing a form of auto-ethnography, The Second Order delivers meta-level knowledge of artistic fieldwork to the Bioart Society but also creates a positive friction to Field_Notes.
All the groups prepare an outline of what they want to do and what material they need beforehand, although the situation always changes on site. The real work starts at the moment most of the group members meet physically for the first time in the night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. The joint travel continues with an eight-hour bus ride from Rovaniemi to Kilpisjärvi and after that the rest of the participants are met at the station as the official program starts with the group presentations. The working week is extremely intense. In addition to each of the groups’ daytime work sessions on the field or at the station, the evenings are filled with screenings, sauna and discussions around the fireplace in the kota and the hope that this evening the aurora would make a visit.
In the book Field_Notes – From Landscape to Laboratory, the director of Bioart Society Erich Berger together with Laura Beloff and Terike Haapoja defines the similarities between artistic and scientific fieldwork:
“Fieldwork is typically thought of as connected to science practices, but a very similar type of practice is inherent in the arts. This is specifically apparent with art forms that aim at creating awareness, mobilising the public, and working locally with people in their environment. In these kinds of practices, the artistic research, production and implementation are happening in the field, close to the subjects and to the public the artist wants to reach.” (3)
The purpose of Field_Notes is to find out what artistic fieldwork could be and how to create a research and learning environment suitable for artists. Fieldwork is not only about collecting material and raw data nor is it just about lab work, although the Kilpisjärvi station offers facilities for scientific research. Site-specific fieldwork connects the investigator to the location and to the subject matter on a bodily level. The importance of the program is not in the artistic production, but in the process of learning and sharing: the possibility for critical thinking in the midst of a unique scenery, and creating new and unexpected connections. (4)
Kilpisjärvi as an area of research
The Biological Station is located at the feet of Saana fell and on the shore of Kilpisjärvi lake, and the area is especially suitable for a bioart field laboratory for many reasons. Kilpisjärvi is situated in Northwest Lapland in Sápmi land, over 400 meters above sea level. Continental climate and the impact of the Arctic Ocean meet at the subarctic region and its ecology is sensitive to changes. The vegetation is abundant with downy birch and dwarf birch dominating the lower parts whereas moss and lichen govern the hills above the treeline. The 2,8-billion-year-old bedrock meeting younger rock types also serves geological interest in the area.
Kilpisjärvi region is also an example of different ways of defining borders and the encountering of cultures. The Sámi have lived in the area long before Norway, Sweden and Finland created border lines, and they still practice traditional reindeer herding there. The close vicinity of Norway makes Kilpisjärvi, part of the municipality of Enontekiö, a busy trading post, even though the village has only about one hundred permanent residents. Thus, the area is an intersection of the needs of a sensitive environment, reindeer economy and a community, whose livelihood is based on tourism. Acknowledging and respecting the local knowledge is an important part of the fieldwork, and the Bioart Society is engaged in a long-term collaboration with Oula A. Valkeapää and Leena Valkeapää who live in Kilpisjärvi. Through their involvement, the Field_Notes participants have had crucial perspectives on local history, natural environment and modern reindeer herding. (5)
Towards the heavens
Images of field work usually show people bending towards the ground, making contact with rock and plant life. Studying the landscape by tracing the land has been an integral part of the previous Field_Notes, but the latest field laboratory in September 2019 turned the gaze towards the sky. With the theme Heavens, the Bioart Society aimed to focus on what’s above the ground and how the subarctic environment of Kilpisjärvi could help to learn more about it.
Heavens is a massive theme, in which the cultural meanings of sky, atmosphere and space intersect. The five groups brought together different skills and perspectives to approach the subject and, especially, to challenge the dominating systems of science and technology related to different forms of aviation. The most crucial methods were looking and questioning the various ways of knowledge production. In practice the field work of the groups varied considerably. (6)
Multiplicity of air
How to engage with the element that defines human existence, but cannot be sensed with human senses? The AIR group, led by artist Hanna Husberg and environmental scientist Agata Marzecova, addressed the theme from the perspective of a shared, common atmosphere and the ethical objectives related to it. Knowing the atmosphere is dependent on scientific descriptions and technological infrastructures and, thus, the knowledge as been built via violent methods of militaries and corporations. The group used different political and aesthetic means to investigate the messages and signals transported through air, and the problematic of noticing and studying those. The methods of getting better acquainted with the air varied from drone lessons and research station visits to deep sensing and other bodily practices. The group’s efforts revealed that the key elements of promoting the equality of the common atmosphere are unlearning, recognising inter-species co-dependencies and caring. (7)
The starting point for Space Earth Space group, led by artist Andy Gracie, was the connections of Earth and other objects in space, and the value mechanisms related to those. Meteorites pierce the surface of the Earth, which is considered unchanged, and strong narratives are attached to these special encounters, but otherwise the interconnectedness might easily stay invisible. The ongoing exchange, both material and immaterial, includes electromagnetic phenomena and radio waves as well as satellites and other infrastructure that extends the human senses to space. The group’s field work brought up the extremities of studying what’s above ground. For example, the different device methods and research stations aimed at visualising and recording data show the inescapable materiality of these actions, but the nature and scale of the phenomena under investigation also call into question the futility of all fieldwork. (8)
Most of the groups divided their fieldwork into activities, excursions and exercises during the week, but one group applied scientific practices by repeating the same routine. The group called HAB, High-altitude bioprospecting, led by biochemist Melissa Grant and lab automation specialist Oliver de Peyer, collected microbial samples from the atmosphere, and this task assembled them on the Saana mountain slope to fly a helium-filled kite on a daily basis. One of the group's goals was to find out what microbial life is like in the subarctic stratosphere and how the helikite is suited to such work but, alongside this, the group, or indeed the kite and its cable, recorded the encounter of instrument and environment. Various materials associated with artistic activity, from photosensitive paper to ink, drew the movement and rhythm affiliated with the collection of this particular data in the spirit of kinetic art. In addition, the presence of the kite and the multilayered spirit of the fieldwork were also recorded via contact microphones and can be heard in Till Bovermann's audio recording of “Some 210 meters of orange wire…”.
The microbial samples collected with the help of windsocks attached to the kite continued their journey from Kilpisjärvi to a lab in Birmingham, where their origin and properties are being studied. In the field laboratory of the HAB group the significance of the kite and its flying materialised during the Field_Notes week. On the one hand, the kite repeated its historical function by acting as an instrument of human curiosity but, on the other hand, it literally became both a tether that bound people to the research device and an actor with its own needs and gestures. (9)
The effects of looking
Recognition of the various actors and their positions also emerged in the Strange Weather group, led by Marja Helander, a Sámi artist. The group's name depicted an interest in studying weather changes in the subarctic region and the effects of climate change on reindeer herding. However, the politics of looking and researching in Sápmi land becomes particularly prominent. The group's work centred around ethical issues and questions such as how to be aware of the oppressive and fetishising performances associated with research settings and how to avoid roles such as performer and audience. The northern “wilderness” is often associated with an unchanging and deserted landscape, although it is full of different meanings for its inhabitants, human and non-human beings who live and work there. “We should not assume we have access to it simply because it ‘looks’ empty to our eyes,” as one of the group members, Niko Wearden summarised. (10)
The Second Order team was hosted by artist, curator and author Ewen Chardronnet. The aim was to participate in the activities of other groups and to introduce them perspectives on, for example, anthropological perspectivism and decolonialist methodologies. One of the SO group members, body philosopher Vishnu Vardhani Rajan presented an exercise called “privilege walk” to dismantle inequalities. As a result of the group assignment, the participants became very aware of their privileges and, consequently, of the factors affecting the socio-cultural and political status of others. Relationships between the groups also became a topic of reflection during their joint work. How to host a visiting member in the group and, reciprocally, how to view the work of others? The intensity of fieldwork reveals different needs, the respect of which requires a balance between critical perspectives, care and giving space. (11)
Suggestions of unlearning and being present
The results of artistic fieldwork are a variety of experiments, prototypes, data and documentation in the form of texts and images. And, of course, new skills, experiences and anecdotes are also captured. After a week, interpersonal relationships may begin to evolve into friendships and partnerships, and ideas will materialise into new actions and modes of working.
One of the conclusions of the week was the notion of the importance of the complexity of existing narratives. As countermeasures to the belief of progression and the demand for innovation, several exercises emphasised the significance of repair and care. As a method of learning, one can strive “to go against looking.” This is where the senses and bodily knowledge come into play.
Artistic fieldwork at Kilpisjärvi is a very physical experience. Changes in the seasons and weather, and spending time outdoors altogether enhance the meaning of human senses – whether hiking in the mountains or experiencing sleep deprivation and flu symptoms, drowsiness caused by sauna or feeling the grains of a meteorite in the mouth and digestion. For the participant, exposure to these bodily experiences may also be an opportunity to examine their own boundaries as an actor. Different ways of sensing a place reinforce the relationship with the object of study, through which one can find new views to one's own practice.
Field_Notes week can provide an intense communion with other participants and the environment. Experience of isolation from the rest of the world supports immersion in fieldwork and temporary community. These can lead to momentary states of manic, grandeur and euphoria. As Rosanne van Klaveren, a contributor to the first Field_Notes, states, “For the sake of border crossing frames of mind, fieldwork can bypass rationality towards the non-assumed, the inappropriate, the extraordinary, the thrilling, or the transcended.” (12) In a state of fine madness there is a delicate balance between comprehending reality and blurring its boundaries.
(1) van Klaveren 2013.
(2) Bello 2020, 8.
(3) Beloff, Berger & Haapoja 2013, 8.
(4) Beloff, Berger & Haapoja 2013, 8.
(5) Beloff, Berger & Haapoja 2013, 10–11.
(6) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/pages/about-the-heavens
(7) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/posts/air-blog
(8) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/posts/space-earth-space-blog
(9) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/posts/hab-blog
(10) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/posts/strange-weather-blog
(11) See also bioartsociety.fi/projects/field-notes-the-heavens/posts/second-order-blog
(12) van Klaveren 2013, 220.
Bello, Mónica, “Foreword.” In Art As We Don’t Know It. Toim. Erich Berger, Kasperi Mäki-Reinikka, Kira O’Reilly & Helena Sederholm. Aalto ARTS Books 2020, 8–9.
Beloff, Laura, Berger, Erich, Haapoja, Terike, “Introduction. Between Landscape and Laboratory.” In Field_Notes. From Landscape to Laboratory. Eds. Laura Beloff, Erich Berger & Terike Haapoja. The Finnish Society of Bioart 2013, 8–12.
van Klaveren, Rosanne, “Probing for Fine Madness. The Importance of Fieldwork for Border Crossing Frames of Mind.” In Field_Notes. From Landscape to Laboratory. Eds. Laura Beloff, Erich Berger & Terike Haapoja. The Finnish Society of Bioart 2013, 214–223.
Anu Pasanen is a freelance writer and art critic based in Turku, Finland. She is one fifth of a collective running EDIT, an online publication focusing on contemporary art. She is interested in wondering, listening and mediating, especially in the context of art and nature. Pasanen participated in the 2019 Field_Notes as a member of The Second Order group.
Erich Berger is an artist, curator and cultural worker based in Helsinki. His 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. He moves between visual arts and science in an area which he also investigates and develops as director of the Bioart Society in Helsinki.
Photo from Field–Notes – The Heavens by Johanna Salmela