View “YAMSUSHIPICKLE” in the K21 gallery here →
Cybernetics was Norbert Weiner’s mid-20th century neologism for the then novel field of “man-machine” interaction. It gave us the language and mechanics to leash carbon to silicon in a random walk toward convergence. Built on the logic of the feedback loop, the information tether between man and machine, cybernetics made each more similar to the other, like an owner that begins to resemble their dog.
The initial model of an aircraft pilot fused with their fighter jet — cyber comes from kyber, Greek for the steward of a vessel — gave way to the teenager texting under the dinner table. As clunky but legible hardware became increasingly complex and microscopic, software offered the primary metaphors for interfacing. Now that billions of humans have taken nano-scale gene therapy to turn their cells into drug factories, the machine has been ingested, the interface infused. Cybernetic hardware and software are finally dissolving into wetware. Our long prophesied cyborg future is nigh.
Jenna Sutela’s artwork gives us a compass to make sense of this bold new world. Trained in media arts, she has always been adjacent to the cultural fallout of cybernetics — cyberpunk and its children — which she troubles by upsetting notions of man as much as machine. Not simply the obvious outmoded gendering or even the implied individuality of the singular figure, Sutela puts doubt into once stable notions of humanity itself.
Her humans are inextricable from a web of participants. From invisible microbes and ancient retroviruses to the distant galaxies that may have spawned them at profoundly ancestral time depths, each character of her cosmogonies play a role in her artworks, whether explicit or implied. She even calls into question those parts of us that seem irreducibly our own: “our so-called human cells,” as she labels them below.
Situated in such vast dramas of time, space, and species, her work takes the edge off the present. By zooming in, she allows us to zoom out. By zooming out, she reminds us to commune with the world within.
Language is central, as is transcending it. Whether as an interface between herself as an artist and the many scientists she collaborates with, or between us as humans and the various other creatures Sutela helps us to communicate with. She doesn’t so much invent them as summon them, coax them, bringing forth means of communication beyond language.
In nimiia cétiï, Sutela produced a glyph set from the twists and turns of a bacterial culture dancing along the surface of a petri dish. She then used it to spell out the thoughts of an artificial intelligence trained on a purportedly Martian language channeled a couple centuries back by medium Hélenè Smith. Here “man” was neither male nor singular, but a long passed 19th century conduit for the lexicon of an off-planet culture displaced even further in time. Sutela’s “machine” played the shaman.
Her blown-glass human head-shaped lava lamps for I Magma are at once kinetic sculptures and the seed for another AI. This one you can access through an app, made together with Memo Akten and Allison Parrish. Install it on your phone and turn on notifications. From time to time, when the heads are on display, it will ping you with cryptic koans, fragments of wisdom from a silicon oracle. Sutela and her collaborators trained this one on a corpus of holy texts, making the machine a descendant of our prophets and mystics. Its regular updates are triggered by the blobs of coloured oil swirling around in the otherwise empty transparent heads of the anthropomorphic sculptures she calls “neuroplastic portraits.” In this hauntingly sterile wetware, the human brain has been replaced by a stochastic process while the mind of the machine does the rest of the thinking.
Her multi-species collaborations began with slime mold, a single-celled organism that can chain together into vast rhizomes evoking a complex spatial intelligence, finding elegant solutions to convoluted labyrinths. The design of the Tokyo subway, for instance, would have ended up more efficient had it been left up to this creature than us humans. An extremophilic biocomputer that is just as happy floating freeze-dried through the hostile environs of outer space as it is growing under your fridge, slime mold is a decentralized organism in the class of those panspermic microbes that may have seeded Earth with life. It’s mystique seems to predate such scientific discoveries: an unnamed researcher has been noted to have found the creature strewn throughout a 15th century Bosch masterpiece.
Through video works, sculptures, and performances, Sutela dances with the organism. She’s even dropped it like LSD, consuming some slime mold she cultured on blotter paper, adding it to the chorus of her biome. The wetware artist as wetware art.
Sutela brings the same relations and fascinations to yam, sushi, and pickle in this piece. A video vanitas featuring the emblematic foods of decentralized finance rotting away, her work reminds us not only of the fleeting nature of worldly pursuits but that even crypto projects are themselves alive. We discuss this in the interview below.
What is YAMSUSHIPICKLE and what inspired you to make it?
It’s a video vanitas or memento mori, which are artworks that help to remember the transience of life and the vanity of earthly pursuits. They often symbolize something opposed to material wealth. YAMSUSHIPICKLE was a very spontaneous idea to create a crypto-vanitas. I have been making fermentation-related work, using bacteria and molds, and had shot foodstuff before, so this felt appropriate in many ways. Both as a symbolic gesture but also as an exercise to capture the durational chemical and esthetic process of these edibles rotting and decaying.
How did you make the video?
I put a yam, a pickle, and a piece of nigiri sushi in a glass terrarium for one and a half months — the longest video project that I’ve ever engaged with — and let them decay. I captured this process in a timelapse, while also featuring microscopic zooms into the foodstuff, or their biofilms. Another important element to the work is throat singing. I worked with a Brandenburg-based throat singer, Arjopa, who is one of the only females in her field and recognized in the Tuvan tradition even though she is German. Her singing mimics sounds from the environment, like water. There’s this really meditative quality to it and a kind of darkness that I love.
When did you start working with biological material?
I studied in the media department of an art school in the early 2000s in Helsinki. The focus was on computational experimentation and sound. I was always very interested in the concept of wetware, next to the concepts of hardware and software, and the cybernetic left. Maybe it was the cyberpunk sci-fi moment of the time. Coming into contact with Physarum polycephalum, the single-celled yet “many-headed” species of slime mold in 2015 finally expanded my media, or co-creators from machinic to biological. From there, my work developed into using fermenting materials as part of computational systems. One thing led to another and now I’ve been looking into things like sonifying microscopic phenomena.
You do seem to be a medium for the microscopically inarticulate. Where does this shamanic impulse come from?
We are made up of more bacteria than so-called human cells. So, in a way, we are constantly speaking for our gut-brain. I’m always out to find means for interacting with more-than-human life forms and forces. I think it’s necessary to try and sense the world in ways beyond language. In throat singing, there’s this inherent practice of mimicking the environment, or communicating with it . With Arjopa, we discussed a number of watery references, evoking the bubbling material of the video. When we recorded, there was construction work going on next to the studio. There would be a banging sound and she would react to it during a long meditative singing session. She was relating to her environment in vocal terms. She uses her mouth and throat, but this isn’t communication through language, it’s something else.
Being an artist that has worked with invisibly small critters for some time, how has COVID affected your work? How has your work allowed you to think of COVID?
It has made some microscopic forces in, on, and around us — sadly maleficient ones, in this case — very much seen and felt. There are all these choreographies, this dancing around the virus, like masks and distancing rules, that have made something invisible so tangible in our world. That dance is a sort of language as well. And working from home — for me, that meant living with a rotting pickle farm — results in much more looking in as there’s been less looking out. Beyond interspecies symbiosis, which is what a lot of my work has been focusing on, this moment has highlighted our responsibilities as part of the human society. Also here, the survival of the fittest narrative just won’t do.
When did you start collaborating with scientists and how do you work with them?
It’s always been about using art as an excuse to get into obscure places or learn about interesting things that I would not have had access to otherwise. It began with the slime mold work. I contacted Toshiyuki Nakagaki, the first person to put the slime mold into a labyrinth, to visit his lab in Hokkaido, Japan. That was my first science collaboration and since there have been many, such as the MIT residency I’m currently on. These collaborations depend on establishing a language together. It takes a lot of energy but quite often we will have common interests beyond the science itself. Nakagaki, for example, had the same esoteric manga on his bookshelf as I, as well as some particular books on linguistics. That almost always applies: there are shared obsessions or philosophical topics that connect us. This is critical because our ways of approaching the world and work are so different. At best, these collaborations result in sustained experimentation without the burden of immediate use or commercial value.
Your work stretches from the ancient past to the far off future. Where do you think we are going?
I think in terms of transience, of humans on a timeline much deeper than us. We will come and go. Considering that we’re not fully human to begin with, perhaps we will find another shape or form at some point. I find solace in cosmological narratives that see us as part of the environment and longer term processes. That, of course, comes with a lot of responsibility. We’re occupying a planet that’s not our own.
Is the hardware future of transhumanism at odds with the mutability of a wetware future?
I find the image of the silicon existence more governed by what we’ve made out of the world and what our idea of the next phase may be than what has come before. I feel more at ease in the primordial and future soups. Futures beyond anthropocentrism and individualism.