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The smell of wood and a bird's language

Irina Mak

17 June, 2021

Laboratoria Art & Science Foundation, Russia’s main hub for hi-tech and new media art, is opening its doors in a new venue, in the halls of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Over the past few years, the Laboratoria Art & Science Foundation, created in 2008, had no permanent venue. Now, it is moving into a new space in the New Tretyakov annex, a vast building that houses the nation’s collection of 20th century Russian art. From June 22 to October 10, these recently renovated halls will house an inaugural project titled: ‘Let the Other Live In Me’.

“It will be an exhibition about interspecies communication, about the fact that Man should no longer perceive himself the king of Nature, rather a peer of other species,” Daria Parkhomenko, the founder and curator of Laboratoria, comments. “I mean a non-anthropocentric approach to understanding the world: humans and non-human agents, from animals and plants to artificial intelligence systems, form ecologies of community. The artists in this exhibition are all inventing new interfaces, which in the future may be the basis for new ways of understanding the Other.”

Although one might recall the words of Anton Chekhov - “lions, eagles and partridges” - it is not only about man and beast. Now, as we have all exprienced bacteria, viruses and, on the other scale, stars, planets and galaxies may equally become a subject in the genre of Art & Science. For example, in the work ‘Mirage’ by German Ralf Baecker (b. 1977), an established artist in the world of technological art, a neural network-driven optic he has created reads the Earth's magnetic field and transforms it in his dreams into fantastic landscapes. And we see their moving three-dimensional projections.

This is one of two works which open the first section of the ‘Observations’ exhibition. A total of 11 works by Russian and international artists are included in the project. Among them is a video titled ‘Bird language’ by Helena Nikonole, an attempt to decipher bird language, inspired by Noam Chomsky’s ideas about innate language structures. The network installation ‘WannaScry!’ by Danja Vasiliev (b. 1978), created especially for this show, plunges us into the world of the digital traces that we ourselves leave behind. Well-known Russian media artist know as ‘::vtol::’ (a pseudonym of Dmitry Morozov, b. 1986), together with Alexandra Gavrilova, made a robotic installation titled: ‘Unnecessary Attractions’. Its main element is a magnetite crystal that is “circumscribed” by electrodes that take various readings from its surface. The whole is an image of “an automated entity, as if aware of itself by touching itself”. Last, but not least, the line-up also includes Marina Abramović (b. 1946), whose presence here is not incidental: Daria Parkhomenko has worked with Abramović for two years as a curator of the project ‘Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze’, a scholarly study of the phenomenon of non-verbal communication, inspired by the artist’s iconic performance ‘The Artist is Present’.

In the second section, titled ‘Dialogue’, one finds, among other things, a pine tree integrated into Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s (b.1973) biochemical object ‘One Tree ID’. ID refers to the unique code that distinguishes each tree, similar to the way fingerprints distinguish people. The code is determined by the scent of a tree and through which it communicates with the world around it. The experiment involves two real laboratories, in Moscow and Germany. Aerosol samples containing volatile organic substances are analysed in Moscow and sent over to Germany where the artist and the perfumer create a unique scent, the smell of a particular tree. Viewers are invited to apply it to themselves in the exhibition and so appear to the tree as if they are another tree.

The most radical object awaits viewers in the third section, Symbiosis: a work by French duo Art Orienté Objet, ‘Let the Horse Live in Me’. Daria Parkhomenko admits that she was struck by this work back in 2011, when she was a member of the jury of Ars Electronica, the main festival of technological art, which has been held in Linz, Austria, since 1979. The video and photo documentation of the bio-art performance realized by a member of the duo Marion Laval-Jeantet (b. 1964) will be on view at the Moscow exhibition. It consists of Marion injecting herself with a serum of horse immunoglobulin. The performance, which took place in Slovenia, the only country where such symbiosis is legal, took a long time to prepare. To avoid anaphylactic shock, Laval-Jeantet had been taking small doses of equine glycoproteins for months. She called this preparation mithridation -in memory of King Mithridates, who ensured his immunity to poisons by taking them regularly in small doses.

This is the only project in the exhibition reflecting on the theme of human guilt towards animals. It is not a feeling of remorse that drives the authors and viewers here, but the joy of the discoverer, from the precision of the metaphor matched to a natural phenomenon or scientific discovery. “Technological art makes us feel the same emotions as any other,” Parkhomenko says. “Each of the artworks in the exhibition gives impetus to thinking about our ecosystem.”

This kind of art is not yet very popular in Russia, but it seems to be well suited to the West Wing of the New Tretyakov Gallery, a modernist structure that was built with a lot of technological know-how in the 1960s and 1970s. Laboratoria Art & Science is allocated 300 square metres on the ground floor, to the right of the entrance. The institution received this space on a non-commercial basis and will have to vacate it when the museum's reconstruction, masterminded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, begins.

Laboratoria Art & Science officially became a resident of the Tretyakov Gallery in 2019. For almost two years, Daria Parkhomenko and her team, supported financially by its long-time partner, Kaspersky software company, restored the rooms, cleared them of the cultural layers of several decades and prepared them for new life. The plan is that it will last at least five years.

Exhibitions are already scheduled for the coming years. The second, titled ‘New Elements’, was invented by Parkhomenko in collaboration with Austrian researcher Dietmar Offenhuber, who lives and teaches in Boston. It brings to life an idea that was born during their Zoom conversations in the first lockdown, when the life of machines stopped and nature continued to exist according to its own laws. In essence, it’s a reflection of the material view of digital data - both concrete, describing our lives and big, describing mega-processes. The idea of the project was born from trying to match autographic data with “big data”, from accepting the fact that terrabytes of data always have a material expression and from observing neural networks, which are like micro-organisms, gravitating towards nature. “Few people understand,” explains Parkhomenko, “what a half-degree warming is, but everyone understands what happens when a glacier melts.” This show will open in November 2021.

Let the Other Live in Me

Laboratoria Art & Science, State Tretyakov Gallery

Moscow, Russia

June 22 – October 10, 2021

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