I firstly met Robertina at the time of her engagement with “Ljudmila”, the oldest Digital Media Lab in Slovenia and a year later we worked together at the Cultural Centre of European Space Technologies. I would like to thank her personally for this interview, which came to light during her participation in two residencies, a workshop and her graduation.
Robertina Šebjanič is an artist, researcher and an active community builder of networks and an active member of Hackteria and Theremidi Orchestra. Robertina has just been nominated for the prestigious European Commission STARTS Prize 2016 – the prize for innovation in technology, industry and society inspired by art, with co-authors Ida Hiršenfelder and Aleš Hieng – Zergon for their work Time Displacement – Chemobrionic Garden. She is currently in her momentum with the exposure to international exhibitions and residencies showing that her artistic research is more than ever at the centre of contemporary societal questions.
Mainly embedded in a co-creative collaborative process, Robertina’s artistic expression took over from her earlier video and sculptural/ambiental techniques and led her into investigating philosophical questions at the intersection of art, technology and science.
She started exploring the permutation of biological and human life through the research and artwork called Humalga with co-autor Špela Petrič. This project is proposing an alternative, constructed evolution of the human species where a biotechnologically engineered post technological vehicle, leads to the creation of a humans and algae trans species. In this work, the authors enter a world of experimental molecular engineering where they actually genetically modify the human and alga in such a way that both organisms appear as morphologically distinct living entities.
Her research is oriented towards the Living systems, noise/sound art, installations and interactive ambiental responsive environments, and this year her work Aurelia 1+Hz/proto viva sonification received the Honorary Mention for Interactive Art at Prix Ars Electronica.
Jerneja Rebernak: Can you tell me about your experience in working collaboratively in this project?
Robertina Šebjanič: Humalga is a complex project that raises a lot of issues and deals with that radical speculation of the human – algae evolution, the perception of gender roles, of social structure of society, culture and science. With Špela Petrič, an artists and biologist, we have been developing this project since 2012 and this is still an ongoing process as the project is not over yet, and it is continuously evolving. Throughout the years our roles have been shifting all the time, especially when we are both co-authors within this project.
After some years and different stages of the project we managed to influence each other in how we perceive the concept. This relationship is a great experience, where one is pushing forward and the other is slowing the process, rethinking and seeking out the critical angle all the time.
While pursuing her research, further artistic and scientific encounters influenced her sensible effervescent expression that explores questions of eternal life and interspecies communication. This is best perceived in the work Aurelia 1+Hz. The author works with an extremely fragile, but resilient plankton, that offers a deeper reflection on the future of human bodies, and the quest for new biotechnological cohesion that is already being developed within medical research. Mainly inspired by the quest for immortality and the poetics of interspecies communication Aurelia 1+Hz offers a transhumanistic perspective in dealing with other life forms.
Jerneja Rebernak: Can you explain your work’s engagement in this metaphorical question where humankind needs to advance its resilience and adapt itself, thus overcoming biological decay through technological advancement?
Robertina Šebjanič: The Honorary Mention for the Prix Ars Electronica means a lot to me, as it is a recognition of my research into the topic of interspecies communication as well underwater acoustic / bioacoustics. Humankind is in the era of the Antropocene – the era when we know that our existence in itself is damaging our planet and the question of what the future will be its (bio)political.
The project Aurelia 1+Hz, is divided in two parts, the first is an installation – proto vivagenerator and the second is an audio – visual performance –proto viva sonification. The first piece, produced by Kapelica Gallery seen as a biocybernetic experiment, seeks to propose a future where animal and machine will coexist. I am fascinated with this living organism and its ability to survive in extreme situations, and I am especially fascinated by the immortal jellyfish – Turritopsis dohrnii, and its ability to regenerate.
This jellyfish can return to a polip state if triggered by a non favorable environmental, thus enveloping an immortal aura. The main question that drove this artistic investigation research was the possibility of tissues replacement that would defeat the inevitable decay of our bodies, thus having huge implications for regenerative medical applications.
Aurelia 1+Hz proto viva sonification comprehends a performance with live sound that is generated via a location tracking system of the Aurelia Aurita (moon jellyfish) in a special jellyfish tank capturing its audio-visual data. The data captured by a Raspberry Pi camera is then transformed in real time into sound via an algorithm. A second layer of sound is the interaction with a series of archival sound materials that I captured using seismic technique through hydrophones of Aurelia recordings as part of a collaborative project at the Triennial of contemporary art in Izmir, Turkey.
This audio visual performance was developed in 2015, with the immense support of Slavko Glamočanin who developed the programming and supported the project technically. Proto viva sonification is a co-production by DecaLab andLe Cube in Paris and I would take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Annick Bureaud and Natacha Seignolles whom made this work possible.
Jerneja Rebernak: What was your main inspiration when you started working on Aurelia 1+Hz and how do you engage within this artistic research?
Robertina Šebjanič: Jellyfishes are one of the oldest species on Earth, they are 650 million years old and composed mainly of sole water and yet there isn’t an understanding of the communication system in jellyfishes. They are now expanding faster in the oceans due to the favorable rising temperatures. I study the Aurelia Aurita/moon jellyfishes by direct observation, its sensors and responses to its surroundings, in a quest to understand biological communication system through artistic exploration.
Jerneja Rebernak: Can you also tell us what the next Aurelia work in this series will be?
Robertina Šebjanič: This year I had the opportunity to continue my experimentation with bio/acoustics with a focus on sea urchins and other marine animals as part of the art science residency at the Roscoff Marine Station in France. With Aurelia 1+Hz as this is a series now, I would like to continue towards developing work in relation to pharmacy and cosmetics. These are two imperatives, that are hard to gasp and understand especial in the biopolitical sense, but as the project research is still at an early stage, it is hard to predict what the outcome will be so I prefer to remain mysterious.
Jerneja Rebernak: What are the main ethical challenges working with this living organism?
Robertina Šebjanič: I started working as an artists through video, and then I engaged with simple robotics, but working with living organisms is a big responsibility, you need to understand how to work with them. Living systems are very complex to maintain in closed enviroments, it is important to understand how animals behave and talk to experts to establish a safe environment that enables these organisms to have the best possible experience in closed habitat. I see this as the main challenge when showing works involving living organisms. The Aurelia 1+Hz project is demanding, especially the maintenance of jellyfishes, so I really try to make sure that the moon jellyfish are not in a stressful environment during my exhibitions and preformances.
Jerneja Rebernak: Time Displacement / Chemobrionic Garden is an interactive generative (chemical) sound installation, a collaboration with artists Aleš Hieng – Zergon and Ida Hiršenfelder. Initially this piece was inspired by the theoretical paper entitled: “From Chemical Gardens to Chemobrionics”, that discusses the history and experimentation of chemical gardens, which prove to unravel the biological formation at the origin of life. Chemic gardens are a chemical experiment, where a reaction from solid metal salts immersed in an aqueous solution of sodium silicate forms growth of plant-like forms. Can you describe your artistic input and the process of collaborative work that led to this piece?
Robertina Šebjanič: It is a very special moment for us. We were really excited to receive a nomination for the STARTS prize and we were especially honored when we received and e-mail announcing the project will be featured on the web page of the NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. At the same time Julyan Cartwright, one of the scientist working on the original article contacted us expressed his appreciation that we based our work on this research. We have been inspired by it and we have been intrigued to work with these chemical processes, but at the same time we also trying to rethink the processes while doing it.
This installation is a further development of a performance project Echo – where we worked on the sonification of movement and shapes of Nanobots, Ferrofluids and Nanofluids under a Raspberry Pi microscope. We had been intrigued to work further in connecting sound and chemical reactions, and in how to understand time and so we created this artwork. We developed and exhibited this project at the end of 2015 and since then, this project was presented as part of Device art Triennale at Eastern Block in Montreal and it is on shown now at the Ars Electronica in Linz.
Jerneja Rebernak: How do you see your role in enabling further artistic and scientific collaboration nowadays?
Robertina Šebjanič: I see the importance of integrating art, science and technology as imperative for consequential progress and the future development in human culture. Unimaginable achievements often arise from new knowledge which emerges from interdisciplinary practices. We need specific knowledge, but we also need intertwined new realities, situations and research, that can bring new exciting results but also critical rethinking and speculate future scenarios, but hopefully not only dystopian ones.
Within collaborative process it is also important to ask at the same time ethical and philosophical questions and understand the (bio)politics beyond doing just science. Knowledge should be accessible to everybody, so I definitely see that the future will see strong empowerment of citizen science in contrast to the popular science communication where the information provided is very ambiguous, inaccessible and unclear in the name of “simplification”. We should also not forget that it is important to discuss the relationship between the dominant narratives and art and I try to explore this aspect in my work.
I’m sure that we really need to rethink our understanding of nature and the relationship between humans and animals/plants/fungi/bacteria and machines and also how we the understand human beings and humanity as a whole. Hopefully these future relationships will not end up as in dystopian fiction.
Jerneja Rebernak: What is the next stage in your artistic research work?
Robertina Šebjanič: I am traveling to Ars Electronica in Linz to exhibit Aurelia 1+Hz and with Chemobrionic gardens we are currently planning our future exhibitions. And I am also developing a new project which I am really excited about. I am preparing a series of vinyl records (produced by Kibla), which will include sound recordings from my residencies at Bergen (Pixel festival), Dubrovnik (Science Underground Academy), Roscoff (art – science residency), Izmir (Deep Blue – art – science residency) and some more…
This new production is dealing with grasping the water habitat, which covers almost 70% of the Earth’s surface, while being still very unknown and unexplored. When I started to archive and collect subaquatic audio recordings I realized that there is an amazing sonic world out there. I started to do recordings with different hydrophones (some were self-built ones) and then I started doing compositions with the sub aquatic environmental sounds. A variety of marine animals are depending or their subaquatic sonic environment like for instance whales, shrimp, seals and dolphins.
The arrival of human made technological interventions in the ocean soundscape has contributed in creating huge disturbances in this fragile habitat amplifying underwater sound pollution. In the world we live in now – our present time – where wars are raging and tensions are getting stronger day by day, we really need to understand the distance between our comfort zone and the “bottom of the food chain” as these are really dependents and not a mere geographical and temporal coincidences.