The Critical Garden Collective has done a two-week residency at the University of Helsinki biological station in Kilpisjärvi, Lapland, under the hospices of the Bioart Society. The project has shown a tendency to outgrow the individuals that are a part of it, and we all hold some small fragments of its definitional shape – distributed storytelling. Here is a window on two of its fragments, Éva’s and Bea’s, braided as one would braid sweetgrass (with a tip of our hat to Robin Wall Kimmerer).
We get our name with a nod to critical making. We have no divinely instigated mission, no list of criteria or boxes to check when working, no fixed boundaries between art/science, concept/object, natural/artificial. In that regard, the grounds (physical and conceptual) of our project keep shifting under our feet and we’re often left with just our legs to find equilibrium in changing weather, eyes, ears and hands to document the processes of it all. We’re creating both hybrid creatures, named Cybryonts, and moss gardens for them to frolic in. The cybryonts’ electronic viscera throb under clay skin. They’re an odd synthesis, as we are, of a shape wrought by sensible touch, technological systems weaved into a warm body, prescribed functions and occasional dysfunctions.
What is an ecological community? Could we translate those relations into a garden – a novel ecosystem of misplaced wanderers and locals? Maybe, looking at the enclosed gardens of the Arabs, those miniature symbolic versions of paradise evoked from within a tightly controlled whorl of earthly power… maybe the point could be something other than that controlled contemplation of the order of things, but be a speculative break from normality. Maybe a garden’s real purpose is not so much for meditative contemplation, but as a form of moving material speculation through which we can meet up with other life forms? As our entire planet has already turned into tightly simplistic structural series of land use strategies we need a pause, a counter to the barrage of stimuli from the bright maps of productive leisure we're all submitted to by the non-spaces of highway-strip-mall-development-airport-tarmac-parking-golf-lawn-playground-asphalt-hell-strips? Gardens: speculative ecologies of interruption; communal spaces of maybe; fungal, bacterial, pheremonal, material architectures of carbon quenchers and boosters to support the photosynthesizers...and to a human it might look like beauty, but beauty as a subterranean physical silence to break the fabric of our daily straightness. Maybe I've failed so far, but as I brush up close to the spotted muzzle of a reindeer amid the mosses, bilberries and dwarf birches of this sub-artic Krummholz forest I can begin to imagine some of the ingredients.
As we get closer to the Arctic Circle, the sun reverses its tilt and hovers above the horizon. We advance in a night train rewinding the path of daylight, our eyes heavy with fatigue. From Rovaniemi, where we take a bus to Kilpisjärvi, the landscape becomes less dense, conifers fade with farms and signs of human passage. The trees we see from the window are twisted and thin, the ground opens in various places, filled with pools of water barely stirred by the wind. The clouds are reflected in them, and at times we can't make out what's above or below the horizon. This is my first impression of the tundra, a land of immense mirrors turned towards the sky. We arrive at the biological base of Kilpisjärvi, deserted for the weekend.
Every day, we discuss the progress of fires. On the continent we've chosen as our home, forests are ablaze, and friends abroad are sharing their stories of smoke, black particles and sphagnum-red sunlight. Stories circulate. The left accuses the conservatives of burning down forests targeted by mining projects, the conservatives accuse the environmentalists of starting the fires as a marketing stunt for their cause. Words fly, fingers are pointed. Ash and soot seep through my pores and into the gaping wounds that separate me from the world.
A thick black crust coats my throat. I have no answer to the fires. I smoke, I cough. Below our base, there's a huge lake. Every day I walk along its shores and listen to the ice cracking on its surface; it reminds me of those scientists who recorded the sound of air bubbles bursting as the glaciers melted. The whole world, and its so-called ending, have always been presented to me as a vague and distant story. Words on paper that leave me paralyzed with the idea of loss. I'm numb, captured by the movements of ice rivers, suspended with the sun above the arctic moors. There is something material to every story though, the scratching noises of a pencil, the automated machines that cut the wood, the glittering excavators that dig up the graphite it contains. I am still learning how to pay attention to the backdrop of the stories and the conditions of emergence of their words.
It’s always been a matter of senses – we wondered at first what it would be like to experience the world as a moss. I invent monstrous sensibilities, cobbled together from my flesh and the black boxes with which I equip it. Vectors of meaning slide down my limbs. I go to the mosses and try to find new physical ways of getting acquainted while letting them exist in the full scope of their silence. Faire connaissance. I have come to listen to the rifts. I have come to untangle my emotions parasitized by anguish. I have come to work on my atrophied senses to make sure that the alleged end of the word is something other than a story already enacted and established. I have come to find the outlines of our beings and the right words to erase them. I lean over the moss patches and ask them the names they have chosen to wear this morning.
We start our fieldwork today. We need to find, somewhere on the base, a perimeter where some of the so-called 'bipolar' mosses we've identified are growing. Their epithet comes from the fact that their distribution in the world is disjunct, split between the north and south poles – bipolar. We targeted 7 species. Be., J. and I were the first to go out and start studying the forest and thinking about a method for collecting samples. It's exciting to finally meet these mosses whose scientific names I can barely remember, but that have inhabited my imagination since the beginning of the project. Kneeling in the rain-soaked earth, each patch reveals layer after layer of plant species. Every time I think I've spotted a little carpet of bipolars, I carefully pull out a shoot to observe it through a lens that I keep in my pocket.
11:00 - 30 paces from the path by the lake shore – I'm trying not to just fall into the forest this morning, but to spot the mosses and take samples the way I'm supposed to, lens, notebook, spray bottle, pens, pencils, dressmakers’ tape. 140cm from the flag marking Eva’s spot: boulder, orange flag, moss hollow...but these things… packed tight suggesting the tight unwinding bellies of fetal spaceships distract – mutant bonsai, rising from last year's layers of birch duff…
I try to remember how to prepare a microscope slide. A drop of water, tweezers to separate the shoots from the soil and debris, whatever I'm looking at has to be thin and flat enough to let the light filter through. Immersing ourselves in matter as we do sharpens my understanding of the scale at which these organisms live, and for the first time I have the impression that I'm getting slightly closer to a vision that is unique to them. I slow down, trying to match their temporality; I linger for dozens of minutes on a single cell. The rhizoids unfold a space, an entanglement of brown lines that I can move through by adjusting the microscope's zoom. I place a shoot that I suspect belongs to Cinclidium Stygium on the beam of light. Its leaves (or rather phyllids) are tiny and delicate, and I struggle to prepare the slide without ripping them. They are only one cell thick, a thin diaphanous tissue which, when illuminated, resembles the combs of a beehive.
—mosses' doubled liquid abrupt sperm tails tapped rupturing tiny archegonium—wet stunned wind laughing hollow across the lake down into these stunted fairy tale forests—lichens whorling their drag queen excesses bright foliose chocolate rimmed with the electric orange Kool-Aid marking Solorina crocea's organs riveted to rocks—this version of controlled sparseness could fuel alien reactors—liquid asps scenting after the rasping of reindeer rub rub tooth suck greenery some sort of piss spots in the underlayer splayed foot layered hoof strand so small as far as the cattle elk say nothing furred antlers aching to tongue their velvet spotted muzzles. Improbable. So aged. Baemyces rufus, how many crones made it into curves for their lotus lips? try noting skywards down: stump. birch stump. single berry amid the bilberries, bell heather, blue mountain heath, net-leaved willow, crowberry, cloudberry, dwarf azaleas...citrus and emerging calcareous chocolate cups of Parmelia olivacea lining birch bark perfectly giving the Betula trees gorgeous stumps of possibilities to reach the sky. They will all metamorphose again by tomorrow. I swear the leaves stretch and red buds mesh into the sky out from their stems even as the bones of the lake’s ice crusts break open in the sun stunning the punk ducks.
We continue our game of hide-and-seek with the mosses. The act of tracking sharpens our eyes. Looking for bipolar mosses gives me an excuse and a reason to crouch for hours, my eyes riveted to the ground. I quickly develop reflexes, learn to look for certain characteristics rather than others, and integrate the potential living areas of each of the target species. Distichium grows on limestone rocks. Melted snow creates gullies that meander through the base. Mniaceae grow on the water-soaked soil at their edges, including Plagiomnium and Cinclidium, two of our bipolar species. These small varieties of moss are among my favorites, their translucent bodies seem to be made of glass and water. I found a few mats of Meesia Uliginosa on dead birch stumps. I end up calling them all by their first names, their behavior becomes amusing and increasingly familiar. Plagiomnium, for example, which we only find hidden and scattered through moss carpets of other species, seems to me to be timid despite the beauty of its round leaves. There are some I love, like Sphagnum, with its colors ranging from forest green to vibrant red and the waterlogged bumps it forms all over the marsh. There are others that I have a few complaints about, such as most of the Polytrichum, whose taxonomic keys are cryptic sets of criteria that are terribly subjective to interpretation. J. and I have spent hours trying to differentiate them, left with as sole conviction that taxonomy is a very pure form of neurosis.
We invoke — only touch — a sub-reality clause born of confusion — agree no questions asked, no lies, at least, not yet, for if this is a ship, if this is the birch crone universe bone heels plugged bacterially into mineral — then I’m not even a one playing the fool, just missing the script for this counterfeit invasion — and they are the wizened wise through spore babes reincarnating into this krummholz moss mud machine island—the slip of their sliding cryptogram elephant skins splayed across stone looking like nothing at all—a crust of mud- till I press and realize it feels oddly living, wetly warmly actually giving beneath my fingers as any other body’s skin. June 12th, 400 km north of the arctic circle, we’re sunbathing and we all hide our breathing...
I awake from a bed of mosses and everything is soaked in light. Saana is watching me as her slopes get greener, reindeers come out of her woods to cross the road. Flowers burst open under the white gold night. It is time to head back home.
Photo 1: The Critical Garden Collective and one of the cybryonts. Left to right: Arnaud Mery, Beatriz Herrera, Éva Giard and Thierry Bardini. Bastien Gauthier Soumis is taking the picture.
Photo 2: Bastien and Beatriz are putting the finishing hand to settling a cybryont in its new home.
Photo 3: a bed of the obvious, yet allusive, Polytrichum sp.