Change is everywhere; after all, as we know, it is the only constant. The work of Sissel Marie Tonn reflects change. By allowing the viewer to concentrate on the sensory and perceptual impacts to environments undergoing some sort of change, her work allows for its own narrative and a very real, very special sort of anthropological history.
We caught up with Sissel to ask her about her extraordinary and varied work, in advance of her talk at Sensorium in June.
Please start by telling us about your talk at Sensorium.
SMT: I will primarily be talking about the work I'm doing with my partner and collaborator Jonathan Reus. We've been working on this project called Sensory Cartographies since 2016. The ideas for this project developed through conversations with Dutch anthropologist Judith van der Elst, whose work with geoinformatic technologies and indigenous cultures reveals the fact that spatial ontology is not universal across the human population, while geoinformatics tends to reify a certain western perspective on the navigation of space and geography. Through the project we imagine new wearable mapping technologies and practices that take into consideration the constant flux of change, that plays out at the interface between body and world. We are experimenting with the way mapping technologies determine the way we experience space. This project has led us into research done by cognitive and neuroscience, for example, specifically the phenomenon of 'sensory gating', whereby the body's sensory system acts as a filter, singling out or amplifying events in a sea of impressions. From this point of departure we have developed prostheses/extensions and recording/playback devices that amplify or challenge the sensory system in this process of spatial and environmental dynamics.
For the Sensorium Augmented Attention Lab, we're in a sense departing from this idea of 'sensory gating', of how our bodies, as well as our culture and the technologies we use, determines how we pay attention to our surroundings. Darwin placed attention as the most basic factor for survival of a species, being a capacity that needed to be continuously developed, stimulated and exercised in order to survive. With the lab we want to gather a group of diverse professionals interested in this topic, and particularly interested in challenging the ways in which everyday technologies and perceptual habits determine what we pay attention to, to discuss and develop new practices and technologies. We attempt to facilitate a fertile experimentation space where designers, creative technologists, theorists and researchers can benefit from each others' expertise in actualizing new sensory paradigms through cognitive "hacks" and technological prototypes.
Your practice focuses on attention and perception in environments undergoing change. Where do you think that this interest comes from, personally?
SMT: This direction in my work started with a trip to Canada in 2014, for residency in Montreal at a place called Senselab. I initially wanted to research how digital technologies is used in archaeology to create a sense of 'presence' of lost buildings/spaces. However, upon arriving I found myself in conversations with a lot of Canadians that were frustrated with the current state of the environment (this was during Stephen Harper's last couple of years as prime minister). I learned about the crude oil trains running across the whole continent, and about this horrible crude oil train disaster that happened in a small town called Lac-Megantic that had happened 2 years prior. I read a news story about a mushroom collector in this town, that no longer wanted to pick his mushrooms in the area, because he knew about their abilities to absorb toxic substances through their mycelium network underground. I went to the town, and found this mushroom collector, and made a video work (Megantic: where the fish are held, 2015) where we're tracing the "infrastructure" of the migration of the spilled oil (and fracking chemicals), from the site of the accident in the center of town, out into the paths where he used to pick his mushrooms.
From then on I have been researching this kind of sensing the 'presence' of the environment, as it is undergoing a subtle or abrupt change. I am interested in how this moment of disruption, of feeling your body in crisis because of it's interconnectedness with the environment, creates a sensation of being part of an ecology – for better or for worse.
Around the same time I was also reading Felix Guattari's Three Ecologies essay, which talks about how we need to understand the interconnectedness between what he calls the three ecologies: the mental, the environmental and the social ecology. If we are to address the imbalances in one of them, we need to understand this interconnectedness. This has been so clear throughout my projects: An environmental crisis affects the social and the mental ecologies as well. This is also something I've been very interested in with my project about sensing man-made earthquakes in Groningen.
In many of your works, such as Becoming Escargotapien and The Intimate Earthquake Archive, you connect a given socio-historic position (ocean mineralisation, or earthquakes in Groningen) to a modern, physical user interface. How do you connect these in your practice? At what point does your consideration of the interface start to "kick in" with your research?
SMT: My starting point is often a specific situation, or a story, that to me embodies the felt relationship between the social, mental and environmental ecologies. I want to use this moment or sensation to reflect the psychological, social and perceptual challenges we all face in a time of volatile ecological change – thus I want to use the local context to reflect a more general planetary condition.
I create these wearable and sculptural 'tools' that are meant to not only transmit the story or sensation I have encountered, but also to challenge the evolutionarily and culturally conditioned modes of perception of the person experiencing the work, for instance by amplifying signals of environmental changes that slip below the radar of our senses, or that only exist in data-archives. I relate strongly to philosopher Timothy Morton, when he states that while we can easily 'think' about long-term impacts on our surrounding ecology, but what is imperative is that we find ways to 'feel it'. I am interested in how these 'tools' create an embodied awareness of the reciprocal relationship between our bodies and the surrounding environment, how they can create new forms of knowledge that a more 'cerebral' exploration of the story or subject might leave out.
For instance, for the last 4 years I have been working on an ongoing research project regarding the man-made earthquakes in Groningen (The Intimate Earthquake Archive). When I started the research in 2015 I came across an overwhelming amount of data in scientific archives: a warehouse full of core samples, sand and soil tests, as well as the immense database of seismic recordings managed by the Dutch Meteorological Institute. Meanwhile, visiting the region, and hearing the stories of people feeling the earthquakes in their bodies, I wondered about the role of the body in the archiving of these events. The work thus became this "interface" that affords sensory impressions of the databank of the KNMI, through vibratory compositions mediated by haptic wearables, on the surface of the body. These vibrations range from barely perceptible to intense, and the work is thus for me a kind of 'test ground', in which visitors can attune their own threshold of sensory perception of these "man-made geological changes". I guess, this desire to directly implicate the sensory perception and gradations of attention towards these datasets, is where creating a haptic interface comes into the picture for me.
What I enjoy the most, is when the experience takes on it's own life in the body of the visitor: One person for instance said that she had this vision of being inside the earth, and it was protesting these extractive violations taking place – this reminded me of the Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi novel When The Earth Screamed, in which the earth takes on a kind of organism character, reacting and protesting a violent, rape-like probing of it's inner core. I'm very fascinated by this moment, when this kind of dry, scientific dataset affords these kinds of imaginations, and I think creating a sort of "loose" structure around the initial story/event, which sparked the project, has a lot of potential.
If we think of a consumer-grade sensory interface such as Virtual Reality, then it strikes me as something of a "blunt instrument" - ie the environment may be completely different in every program, but the interface is the same every time. Do you feel that as digital experiences become more immersive, there is insufficient creative thought as to how the interface could be developed, and how the body can respond/react in new ways?
SMT: I must say, I don't have too much experience with VR, having only tried it a few times, so I'm by no means an expert on the topic. But one experience was very interesting for me: At the 2018 Artefact festival I experienced a VR piece as part of the Congo Tribunal project by Milo Rau. Here, the VR experience (created in collaboration with the Congolese artist and political illustrator Kayene, and the Game Development Studio Monokel) was an extremely stripped-down, almost graphic-novel-like representation of a witness testimony given at the hearings of the civil war atrocities in Congo. You are taken through a war-zone experience, in which these black-and-white animation style visuals are accompanied by a very affective soundscape, and you end up "walking" into a court hearing room, ready to give your testimony. I thought was an interesting use of the technology, because it didn't attempt to create a believable reality, but highly stylized what you experienced visually. In this sense, I felt that the technology of VR was used to question our capacity to 'witness' events through mediation. What was strong about this piece was that the visuals represented sorts of 'contours' of a visual memory recounted to me, but the real embodied experience was listening to the terrified panting of the witness trying to escape the situation. It was through this strange tension between my visual and audible inputs that the affective response to the witness account took place in my body.
The shortcomings of documentary photography and film being able to objectively represent reality is something that we are increasingly aware of, from the Rodney King trials of the 90's to current fake news and image/video manipulations as a constant threat to information technologies of the present, and I thought it was interesting that VR was questioned along those same lines – perhaps this was not the intention of the director, but that was what I took away from it. I guess what I'm trying to say, is that I don't think the interface has more shortcomings than any other medium, be it a cinema projection screen, a camera, and so on. I think it's up to each creator to critically address the medium, its histories and implications with power structures, sensory hierarchies, its affective capacities... and to challenge that through their content.
With the (western) world now seemingly transfixed on always-on media, how do you think that this plays with our senses? Are we conditioning our senses in new ways, to be perhaps hyper-sensitive to new information while, at the same time, desensitising ourselves to events outside of our "filter bubble"?
SMT: I recently read an interesting article about the 'dopamine seeking reward-loop' that occurs when scrolling social media, in which it's explained how our 'want/desire' system focuses our attention on anticipating pleasure while scrolling. The scientist shared her own ways of breaking out of the loop, which was by doing a physical movement, that becomes it's own conditioned response to the otherwise strong conditioning of the brain to seek dopamine releasing activities. For her it was to become aware of the loop, press the home button, and put the phone face down and get up. It seems so simple, but it's about creating new habits that acknowledges the neurological effects these kinds of technologies have on our bodies and resist them.
I'm trying to do that in my own life, especially because I suffer from insomnia, and can definitely feel the after-effects of these constant visual bursts you get when scrolling Instagram. So for sure these inputs are conditioning our senses and our brains in new ways, which I think many people are already aware of. I think creating small 'perceptual hacks' to challenge our habitual perceptual modes are important, and that's also what we're trying to do with the Augmented Attention Lab, but on an even broader scale: How can we become attentive to what's happening in our peripheral vision? How can we perform deep listening to challenge the filtration mechanisms of our bodies? These kinds of 'hacks' have been used by artists and musicians for a long time, but I think it's important to continue these kinds of communal practices, to become more aware of the habitual ways we pay attention to our surroundings, not just in regards to technologies, but also to how we navigate the world in general.
Works such as Circling the Mountain and Sedimented Attention, as well as The Intimate Earthquake Archive and Soft Fossils seem to explore a disrupted relationship between the physical and natural worlds, so to speak - between the self and nature. How do you think that this relationship is changing, particularly in the light of climate change, where we are disrupting the natural world to such an extent that it is disrupting us in return?
SMT: I think that's one thing that terms such as the Anthropocene (or whatever doomsday-ish term you prefer to use for the irreversible human impact on all of the earth's spheres) has brought forth, is a somewhat broader understanding of just how much we're affecting our surroundings, and how those disruptions are indeed disrupting us in return. It's also important to mention that this destruction occurs in a very unequal manner, across the human and non-human population (which is the critique of the etymology behind the word Anthropocene – it's certain unsustainable human activities that have caused the majority of havoc on the ecosystems of all).
I am currently doing research into the hydrophobic chemical PFOA, which is one of the most ubiquitous chemicals in the world – it's virtually found everywhere, from the most remote tropical island, to the breast milk of mothers in the arctic regions. It's present to some degree in most human bodies, and it's got carcinogenic and immune-depressing impacts on bodies. The chemical was initially used to make Teflon, and was subsequently used in a host of different water/oil repelling products, such as Gore-tex, firefighting foam and textile treatments.
I'm super inspired by the biologist and author Rachel Carson, who in 1963 published Silent Spring, a book which alerted the public to the over-use of DDT on American land and abroad. She used her scientific knowledge, her flair for poetic narration, and a good deal of courage to go against the chemical lobby. DDT is still one of the most ubiquitously found chemicals in the world, however, even as it's no longer used. She connected the dots between massive killings of birds and other animals, and an extreme over-use of this chemical, and brought this awareness to a broad public (making a best-selling book with a striking language and illustrations). When we look at the mass-extinctions we've caused today, I think it's really important to honour such voices, that actually made an impact to change policy around the use of this kind of stuff, those who could see an image starting to take shape, and who could formulate it's impact on the ecology.
A line running throughout most of my work is the wish to advocate for a more long-term thinking, that go beyond our own experiences of a human lifetime, when it comes to the use and abuse of the earth's resources. These are real issues that I'm deeply concerned about, but I'm also trying to make room for poetics, for imagining different outcomes, and for not spelling doom and despair. I think the idea of being part of such an interconnected system, as the ecologies of which we are part, is really the beauty of existence, although we have of course created some nightmares. But I think there's important work to be done, when it comes to dealing with these situations, and exploring how they make these interconnected and relational ecologies apparent.
Further information on Sissel and her work is available at her website.