The Baltic Triennial

Has “anthropocentric” become a pejorative term? Might one soon be contemptuously accused, in graduate seminars and at dinner parties, of clinging to dangerously anthropocentric views? The prospect did occur to me as I left a recent event at the XII Baltic Triennial, a cerebral, aesthetically arid show calling attention to our moment of environmental crisis, among other themes.

The exhibition reminded me that we are living in the Anthropocene, a relatively new term denoting our current geological epoch. Some scientists say the period began when humans started to interfere with Earth’s ecosystems, as far back as the advent of agriculture. Artists and theorists have embraced the appellation in critiquing anthropocentric thought. In the context of this triennial, the Anthropocene and its implications emerge not so much as an explicit theme but as a starting point for divergent aesthetic moves. 

The home of the Baltic Triennial since 1979, the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius has long been a bastion of the conceptual and the subversive. I’ve been visiting the gallery since 2001 and have come to expect little in the way of formal beauty or emotive pathos; a good deal of theoretical play, entropy, and whimsy is more likely to be on tap. If the CAC has a patron saint, it would have to be Fluxus impresario George Maciunas, a Lithuanian. (The gallery houses a permanent display of Fluxus artifacts.)

What’s exciting in this year’s triennial is the collision between aesthetic theory and ecological concerns. How might a post-humanist conception of human civilization and its relation to the natural world influence our understanding of, or need for, aesthetic experience? Can art really be wrenched, theoretically speaking, from its position as a chiefly humanist, anthropocentric endeavor? 

Entering the exhibition on opening night, I first encountered sheer plastic tents housing climate-controlled workspaces in which young men and women hurried about in lab coats and medical masks, engaged in the production of “mycomorphs,” a futuristic fungal building material. This was Psychotropic House, one incarnation of a “research project” named Zooetics by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, Lithuanian artists affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science & Technology and MIT, respectively.

Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s story collection Vermilion Sands, Psychotropic House crosses speculative fiction with performance with scientific inquiry. The participants were growing mycelium in earnest, using flax, hemp, and straw; days later, pots of the stuff had bloomed into elegant fungal forms. Blurring distinctions between the aesthetic and the functional, between artistic and scientific inquiry, the Zooetics project provides one answer to its own question, posed in the Triennial program: “How might we move forward into the Anthropocene era with a radical shift in our approach to other life and biology’s own technologies?” Rather than consuming materials in manufacturing, we could work with life forms to grow what we need. 

In Psychotropic House, art models potential behaviors and human endeavors. It’s a didactic enterprise, to be sure: the laboratory on display, augmented by various workshops and lectures, is an educational project at heart. It shares the urge to instruct with other projects featured in the show.

The World in Which We Occur, an event led by Margarida Mendes and Jennifer Teets, featured live phone calls with various thinkers who each spoke in turn, via telephone, to an audience seated in the CAC’s cinema screening room. Over four ninety-minute sessions, Mendes and Teets invited contributors to pose questions of relevance to “the world in which we occur,” a phrase borrowed from pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. In asking their questions, the speakers addressed topics relating loosely to ecology and climate change. I listened in on a talk from a philosophy professor at Wesleyan named Lori Gruen who wanted us to recognize that polar bears and other animals grieve as humans do.

The Dewey quote comes from Experience and Nature (1925): “The striving of man for objects of imagination is a continuation of natural processes; it is something man has learned from the world in which he occurs, not something which he arbitrarily injects into that world.”

The passage calls attention to the process and sources of learning. In his later work Art as Experience, Dewey contends that a sustained experience of thought can be said to possess aesthetic power by virtue of being pervaded by consummated emotion. This insight came to mind as I considered a work that had nothing at all to do with ecology, Be As It May, a “lecture concert” given at the opening by French artist Perrine Bailleux. She sang out remarks on the Kazimir Malevich painting Sisters while playing synthesized music and showing slides on a large screen. The performance revealed an enlightening reading of the painting as a poignant critique of impressionism. Thanks in part to its musicality, Bailleux’s analysis took on emotional force.  

The earnest tone of these instructional projects is leavened by zanier works on display. Artist Jay Tan has presented a messy network of face-up stereo speakers. During the opening, viewers were invited to spit into them. Sound blasted from the speakers made the pooled saliva shudder and plume. Equally goofy, Robertas Narkus offered Boiling Fanta, among other curiosities; true to its name, the vat of soda steamed on a field of artificial grass carpet. 

The theme of repurposing, ubiquitous here, receives more elegant treatment from Polish artist Gizela Mickiewicz. The show includes two of her sculptures, both part of a series experimenting with materials of the future. Bringing the Singularity in consists of a strip of folded and undulating concrete canvas. Future Memories, a fragile, glassy construction, makes use of a substance called aerogel. Rather than demonstrating the utilitarian potential of a futuristic material, here the artist transforms industrial substance into aesthetic spectacle.

In the exhibition program, curator Virginija Januškevičiūtė asks whether it is more apt today to speak of the “use of art” or “the art of uses.” The exhibition’s very design addresses this line of thought. Architect Andreas Angelidakis has plundered the CAC’s old exhibit materials and used them in designing the gallery’s spacious hall. Bolts of black cloth hung from the ceiling form tower-like structures in which the audience can view video works in the dark. Heavy panels are stood up to form barriers and shelters. Scrap-wood constitutes a staircase housing an array of photographs.

The overall effect is an unfinished, improvised, makeshift look. It suits a triennial that favors process and practice, gesture and mess over formal refinement. One wonders if in the ominous ecological future we’ll have no patience for aesthetic pleasure of the Kantian variety. That’s a strident claim; let’s hope it isn’t true.

Contributor

Paul Jaskunas

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