In Conversation: Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen with Lucia Pietroiusti
Back to Earth artists Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen discuss their ongoing project, Heavens in the context of ecologies, invisible global infrastructure and exhibition-making.
Lucia Pietroiusti: It’s lovely to have this conversation with you. Part of the reason I wanted to speak about these two bodies of work, The Odds and Heavens, is because your work addresses economics, politics and so on in very complex ways. One research project can lead to various different kinds of outputs and objects. I wondered if you could speak a little about how these two works began to take shape for you?
Tuur Van Balen: With Heavens, which is currently in development, we have been thinking about the octopus as a radical other being – and about what constitutes animal consciousness. What is ‘an experience’ for an animal? Can an octopus feel that it’s an octopus?
Revital Cohen: In terms of process, in many ways making the work is always a self-directed experience. Which is to say that it’s never about reporting as such, it’s about trying to capture something of the very particular moments or experiences of feeling ‘alive’ that we have either witnessed or staged, and where these moments come from.
LP: Heavens has an origin myth coded into it, right?
RC: Yes, Heavens is inspired by a sort of origin myth, a scientific hypothesis claiming the octopus was originally in fact a squid that was infected by a virus from outer space.
TVB: These theories are collectively referred to as ‘panspermia’, which is the idea that life on Earth originated from outer space. Various panspermia theories have been around for decades now in the scientific community, but have largely been disproven. We’re really interested in this particular origin myth concerning outer space and ecology, for various reasons, but particularly because it features the octopus. The scientific paper in question, Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? talks mostly about the cause of the Cambrian explosion – a sudden, massive increase in biodiversity 541 million years ago, in which almost all major animal groups started appearing in the fossil record. The paper argues that the Cambrian explosion was partially caused by extra-terrestrial DNA.
RC: It brings up so many questions and some really quite wild propositions, such as – what does it mean if we compare a squid and an octopus? Can we say all the things the octopus does (which the squid does not do) are extraterrestrial urges or behaviours? The octopus is one of the most interesting animals in existence, and of course, it’s also used as a metaphor for a million other things throughout history and in various cultures.
TVB: The octopus has some very interesting characteristics and properties, for example self-cannibalism, or the fact of having nine brains—it has a very particular form of intelligence. It also has thousands of colour-changing cells, called chromatophores, beneath its skin, meaning that it can generate any colour in these super quick, incredibly realistic camouflages. But then at the same time, the octopus is also probably colourblind. So there are all these questions to do with why and how can the octopus camouflage in this way, when it cannot see itself change. It might be that it actually has very different ways of perceiving colour, perhaps similar to the way that we can feel the sunlight on our skin. This camouflage also plays a role in its communication – but then who is it communicating with, if other octopuses cannot see these colours? Is it perhaps talking to itself?
RC: We’re interested in producing a kind of alternative to a planetarium show, whereby instead of looking at the planet, we look deep into this weird story of the Earth’s origin, and question what a virus does to life.
TVB: It’s also close to a lot of our other works, in terms of encountering animals – it feels as though we are encountering this animal now, which is probably the most radical ‘other’ animal we will ever encounter. We want to think about the way we look at the octopus, and look with the octopus, or how we think with the octopus. We think of Heavens as a film produced for a planetarium setup or installation – which is to say that it’s a very particular experience of watching film, in which you look up in (in space) order to look back (in time). It’s often a kind of didactic experience – we’re trying to almost flip it inside-out so that we’re not looking ‘at’ the object of study – we’re looking into the deep sea. The work also relates to a beautiful text by Walter Benjamin, called To the Planetarium, which is a brief essay addressing the fact that with every advance in optical technologies, whether this is the telescope, the projection technology of the planetarium, or any other form of optical technology, we have moved further away from sensing or addressing where we come from or why, or who we are.
LP: What you are describing makes me think about the fact that the octopus is an animal that has always looked a little bit like an alien species, and as such we develop the assumption that it’s strange enough, and alien enough, to actually be earthly. Which is to say that it’s so weird, and it looks so much like it doesn’t belong, that it has to belong. Then, through both artistic representation and scientific theories such as the panspermia hypotheses, the octopus is simultaneously returned to its own alienness. Here, something about appearance and deep-time origin join together through this process, with all of the history of materialist science and rational thinking having happened in the process. It’s interesting to me, because the more I work very particularly at the intersection between animal consciousness, or more-than-humanism, ecology and so on, the more I come to realise that art forms (and art in a wide sense, including myth and poetry and visual arts) are forms of memory, as it were. They have been separated from what’s considered to be ‘knowledge’, as in ‘materialist science’, in quite a violent way – and that was a huge mistake. And it is one which also led to the genocide of Indigenous people, who have known how to live in symbiosis with the planet for thousands of years, and who actually do currently take care of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. So perhaps what was actually happening was that at the moment of colonization, as Marisol de la Cadena proposes with the notion of the ‘not only’, the colonial being encountered a system that was a cosmological system for knowing – one that had endured for tens of thousands of years, and was a very strong, resilient system, and misunderstood it as ‘only’ ‘religion’ or ‘myth’. And de la Cadena tells us: yes, but not only. So art practice holds an encoding potential, which is a form of deep time resilience, I think. So much so that with hindsight, we can now see that this particular work of yours, which you began long before the coronavirus pandemic, is very prescient; the work was already addressing alien viruses just a few months before the outbreak. You couldn’t have known it, we couldn’t have known about it then – but again it suggests that there is a kind of coded knowledge in abstraction, art and myth, that we really need to start to trust a little more, somehow. For me, that also relates to this strange being of the octopus, that is too alien to be alien, but maybe actually is.
RC: Absolutely. One of the other important things about this work is that the octopus will not be present. So in a way, it’s just the muse – it inspires and guides the work. It will not be shown or mentioned or discussed. It’s as though we are taking all the things that have been piled onto the octopus, all of the interpretations, the observations, the speculations – and just using them to think about these connections between this planet and others through astrobiology, through the deep sea and through deep space.
LP: So you are leaving just the negative shape of an octopus, with everything else around it.
RC: Yes exactly.
TVB: Though it’s not just to do with astrobiology – it brings us back to the Benjamin quote, in which he addresses how all of these optical technologies and all of these forms of ‘not knowing’ have only removed us further from the cosmos. And that actually the idea of a ‘cosmic experience’ has never been about knowing, it has always been about the kind of rituals that enable us to question what constitutes an authentic experience. How do we access this now unless we do ayahuasca, or DMT, or various kinds of psychedelic drugs, or turn to religious practices in order to arrive at these moments?
LP: Or fasting, or sports.
RC: Yes, although all of these are more connected to the body.
TVB: I do feel that the ecstatic trance is also a way of being together, being communally. A way of losing oneself within an experience, whether that experience is psychedelic or not, whether it takes place in a warehouse with stroboscopes or in ‘nature’. These can come close to the idea of a cosmic experience. And it’s good to ask what forms of knowledge can emerge through this.
LP: I would like to ask you about some of the references and connections between materials in Heavens—who are the people you’re speaking with? What are the images you’re wishing for?
RC: There are a lot of references within the work which are still very much in progress, but one of the things we wanted to do is to avoid generating a text as a spoken element sitting alongside all these images. If we think of the planetarium, and of the person who explains things in that context; in this work there will not be a ‘teacher’ as such, but rather what we think of almost as a sermon – using the octopus intelligence that is divided into eight or nine brains, and compiling this text from the thinking of eight different people, who are each researching or reflecting on something that relates to all of these connected questions.
TVB: I think the idea is that while we do leave an octopus-shaped hole, we are taking the octopus not as an outcome, but as a way of structuring the process of producing the work. So indeed as Revital mentioned, the octopus has eight brains – it thinks with each of its tentacles and then there is also a central brain. So we started to think with different people, too – we’ve spoken to Amia Srinivasan, an amazing philosopher who also happens to know quite a lot about octopuses, for example. We don’t discuss the octopus so directly with her; we speak instead about animal consciousness, about otherness, about some of the behaviours of the octopus. We’re also incredibly interested in talking to a psychologist about self-cannibalising, and the different mating strategies that an octopus has, but again, to talk about them as mating strategies, not as mating strategies of the octopus specifically, and so on. So that’s one way I think that we feel the octopus sort of determines the process.
LP: So it’s not a hole in the shape of an octopus and more an artwork in the shape of an octopus.
RC: Yes, let’s see what happens. But there’s also something else, which only came later—but I felt my apophenic brain saying that this was all connected—which was discovering William Burroughs speaking about language as a virus that came from outer space, and the writing method he developed from this theory in which he composes a text from other people’s writing. It felt like a beautiful reference for this attempt of compiling nine stories into one.
TVB: We’re hoping to talk to one of the 33 scientists who’ve written the original panspermia paper – not to talk to them about the paper, but about what it feels like to write a scientific paper with so many brains. We’re interested in how the paper in itself is already this sort of assemblage. Which is maybe also a recurring fascination within our practice, because obviously everything we do, working collaboratively, is a form of some assemblage or collage.
LP: To move on to the work just before Heavens, let’s discuss The Odds (Part 1) and the longer project within which it is situated.
RC: The Odds is part of a project we’ve been working on for the past three years, which is still ongoing, and which looks into gambling as a contemporary condition. It’s a way of thinking about gambling as a sort of common gesture, or maybe a state of mind, shared by many of us in recent years.
TVB: We were really interested in asking what motivates people to do something that they rationally know they will lose from in the long term. It started with looking at casinos and mechanisms that are deployed by the gambling industry, but we then started to think about gambling in a much wider, political sense. And this is why the overall project had had the earlier working title, Nearly Winning. We spoke to a psychologist who told us that a gambler never feels like they’re losing, they always feel like they’re ‘nearly winning’. We were fascinated with the difference between ‘losing’ and ‘nearly winning’ and how that’s articulated on a systemic level, on a psychological level, but equally on a kind of architectural and material level. Especially when we think of the architecture of the casino – when we think of its material, and the slot machines, and all the psychology that is coded into how these things are constructed and how they have operated over time.
RC: We don’t use the title Nearly Winning anymore because I decided it was bad luck! But it was also the beginning of another long strand of work looking into the thoroughbred racehorse. Our work has always been occupied with the body of the animal as a manmade construct, asking how it becomes an object shaped by culture, by desire, by belief. And thinking about this within the ecology or economy of gambling, the thoroughbred racehorse was a prime example of a body cultivated by those behaviours. So a lot of the works around The Odds look into these horses – the way they are bred, treated, sculpted, imagined.
TVB: The thoroughbred horse, by definition, can be retraced through the male bloodline to just three historic stallions. So one man – a white, British man – at some point decided, well, these are the three ideal horses. Which means that still to this day, centuries later, we’re using those three horses as the definition of an ideal that we can retrace all the way back through this one, male line. The anthropologist Rebecca Cassidy, who has been researching the world of thoroughbred horse breeding, talks about the fact that in some way, then, the thoroughbred is an expression of the British empire. That it’s loaded with misogyny, chauvinism, eugenics that all become very evident when we deconstruct the horse’s breeding practices. At the same time, we were really interested in the role that art has played throughout the centuries in keeping up and maintaining that brand. If we think about the paintings of George Stubbs for example, and his portraits of thoroughbreds, which Cassidy defines as early forms of brand management. So when working with these animals we were thinking of the works as forms of horse painting. It’s something we always look at in our practice: how to implicate ourselves within these large enormous systems, because when we deconstruct these systems, these ecologies, we will always find ourselves somehow on the inside. That’s the starting point: we are always already finding ourselves within these worlds. This is incredibly important, because we begin from a point of complicity. We cannot think ourselves outside of this enormous totality of entanglements, of ecological and economic relationships.
LP: When we first spoke about this project, we spoke about it in terms of an ecology of relationships. Would you speak a little bit about its component parts and how they intersect at the point of gambling?
RC: Another important element within this project is a casino in Macao called The Londoner, which is currently under construction, and which will be a sort of simulation of London, and is owned by Sands Corporation. We were very interested in the idea of someone reconstructing the city that we live in and work from to become a form of entertainment or stage set , as well as the fact that the owner of these casinos is a big political donor. Which means that the funds that the casino generates activate very real geopolitical activities. Strangely then, a place constructed as a pretence is incredibly real. It’s just another form of reality instantiated somewhere else.
TVB: Which I feel is also a theme within our practice – addressing things that are connected but not perceived to be so. We’ve worked in factories in China and in coltan mines in the east of Congo. These are very real connections, but at the same time, they’re also non-transparent. And so we’re interested not just in the connections themselves, but also in the way that they’re kind of obscured, or denied, or hidden.
RC: This maybe brings us to the idea of apophenia, which is also an important part of The Odds. Apophenia is a term taken from psychiatry, a tendency of the brain to see patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated things. For example star constellations can be considered apophenic visions. The gambling industry has developed a lot of different strategies for making a casino a place in which reality is suspended, a place that encourages irrational thinking. And one of the ways it does this is by intentionally creating this experience of apophenia. For example, next to the roulette in a casino there’ll often be a digital sign showing the last few numbers that have been drawn, which actually have no statistical significance– but it feels like there is logic to this completely random set of information.
TVB: We then also started thinking about analogies between the instruments deployed by the gambling industry and those of the museum or the gallery, because in some way, the casino and the gallery space are both spaces for non-rational thinking. We then translated this into the way the work was installed. We started to think about this work as a series of exhibitions. Whenever we show this body of work, we show the different elements almost as ecologies, as well as of individual works that relate to one another. The perception of these relationships may be subjective, and it may be objective.
RC: The work also includes a series of what the gambling industry calls ‘atmospherics’, which are things that are felt rather than seen. So for example, we commissioned a bespoke scent for the gallery space, or created a haze for our last exhibition. There was also a soundscape, and all these other elements when exhibiting this work, which are beyond the work, but part of the general feeling or form of perception from which one should be seeing the work.
LP: You’ve just made me realise that to a certain extent, much of the research and the outward or declarative kind of factual statements about those connections don’t make it into the show – they make it into the pre-process, the research, but they don’t make it into the show. It’s almost as though what you were doing is taking that ‘black box’ process as it were, in which there are non-transparent connections, and turning it into a kind of ‘atmospheric paranoia’ inside the exhibition itself – whereby those connections become a little bit more bodily and affective, rather than completely invisible and intangible.
TVB: Absolutely. I think it’s really important for us in how we make exhibitions to not make these things too explicit, because we feel it could get in the way of the more bodily responses you might feel when you first encounter the work. I think that’s really a balance we’re looking for.
LP: I saw elements from this long project, presented as the exhibition Luna Eclipse, Oasis Dream at Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston in 2019. Would you describe it?
RC: The exhibition included the film The Odds (Part 1), which moves between three scenes. One of them features three showgirls, dancers who used to dance in the Sands casino in Macao, doing their routine while talking about the state of the world, about the difference between art and entertainment, about their time working in this environment.
TVB: The group of showgirls is called the ‘Sands Sirens’. We didn’t come up with this, but the idea that this suggests is that they are the mythical beings who seduce you to your own downfall, which we thought was entirely appropriate.
LP: The floor of the gallery space is very slightly reflective, and if we follow that thread of thinking about paranoia – you could almost see the reflection of the film within it; as a viewer, you develop an almost physical sense of resonance with the film.
RC: Yes. It’s not a full mirror, but it does reflect enough of the light to be able to produce something a little bit more visceral or all-encompassing. We wanted to recreate a feeling of the reflection from a very flat sea, inspired by the sea in Siquijor island in the Philippines, which is just eerily and amazingly flat. Another part of the film follows the thoroughbred race horses as they get anaesthetised on ketamine in a horse hospital in Newmarket, next to Cambridge. We were thinking a lot about these horses as being somewhat sculptural – there is something about them going under anaesthetics and being hoisted in the air that transforms them into these floating statues, rather than animals, for a moment.
LP: Touching for a moment on the ways animals appear in your practice as human-made elements within a process of production. Uncomfortable things come up – I felt it this seeing the horses being hoisted up in the film. But one of the things you also notice is the incredible amount of care with which veterinarians are handling the horses. You see the details of hands stroking the horses, for example. There’s an immediate layer there, and then there’s a kind of sub-layer around animals and humans, or interspecies relationalities.
RC: This feeling of being enchanted yet uncomfortable, seems to me a very appropriate way to think about the way animals are existing in our lives, and especially in these scenes, which appear to be really brutal but are actually incredibly loving.
LP: It’s worth mentioning the scent you commissioned for the show.
TVB: The overall brief for the company that created it was to make a scent for a ‘successful exhibition’. When the producer sent back a sample, their interpretation of this was given in the form of a note in which she said, “When I waft this, I envision a cold or an empty gallery, or the feeling of empty emotions.”
RC: This was her interpretation of what an art gallery smells like, which we thought was quite funny. We used those words, but that was definitely not the original brief. The brief was a bit open – it’s also worth mentioning that this was a marketing company, not a perfumer. They make scents for spaces in order to evoke certain feelings, for commercial environments. So we wanted to ask them ; what should a gallery smell like? And the only thing we requested was that the scent include a few specific ingredients. One of these was a flower called Dead Horse Arum Lily, which smells and looks like a dead horse, in order to attract flies. But apparently in scent-making it gives off a kind of faint smell of the sea, as well as being a little bit reminiscent of stress. I thought both were both very appropriate references – the sea with the sirens, the stress with the gallery.
TVB: The last of the three chapters in this film is a portrait of a grade-2 listed building, a bingo hall in South London, which was originally built as a cinema that would look like a church. We were interested in the building because it performed this strange triangle of belief, gambling and culture. In order to portray it, we asked Steve Ignorant from the anarcho-punk band Crass to perform the role of a sort of bingo caller . We were thinking again of the climate of increasing inequality and how that also increases people’s desires to take risks and gamble – even politically. Why do we vote for Brexit? Why do we vote for Trump? Why do we make these decisions that we rationally know we will lose from the long term?
RC: The film was made for an LED wall which was programmed to be both a screen but also a light display. So the different LED lights blink separately, and in doing so create what we sometimes call an ‘LED rash’, which is a sparkle on top of the image.
TVB: It’s something between a glitter and a glitch, which breaks the image and also behaves independently from the film. So in a sense – to come back to the exhibition as an ecology—the whole thing is run by a computer program, in which the sound, and the lights that you see, and these LED glimmers on top of the screen, all respond to each other and create this environment we sometimes refer to as a sort of visual seduction, I guess, or a ‘visual siren song’.
LP: This is of course interesting in relation to Jean Baudrillard’s writing on the simulacrum, and his argument that the simulacrum exists in America to mask the fact that America is already itself a simulacrum. That was 1981, and it is probably more true, and more wide-spread, now. How do you adapt that into an exhibition context, or generate that sense of interpretive paranoia, while identifying which parts of the experience are prescribed and determined? Where does the exhibition begin and where does the context end? One of the things I experience so powerfully in relation to your work is the sense that these questions might in fact no longer be pertinent, given the state of the contemporary condition – that the sense of there being an authentic space without all of these layers of meanings, or without all of these prescribed experiences does not, or cannot, really exist anymore.
TVB: Absolutely. And it is a total illusion in itself. We were reading Learning from Las Vegas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s early 1980’s text, alongside Inside the White Cube by Brian O’Doherty from 1986. And we were discovering all these strange analogies between the gallery space and the casino – both of which contain illusions of neutrality and authenticity. Space where bodies are reduced to just their eyes, and maybe also to a smaller extent to the legs as you walk from one piece of art to another.
LP: Someone asked me yesterday in an event “what are your strategies for practicing ecology in the everyday?” If one doesn’t go off to do some kind of appropriative ayahuasca trip in the forest – then what alternatives do we have for the daily practices that can negate or reduce our layers of interpretation? Do you feel you have authentic experiences in life, even if there are always illusions within these?
TVB: I do feel part of the practice is looking for those experiences. We’re often more interested in the making of the work and spending time within situations. Deconstructing or inserting ourselves into those entangled or obscure processes of production is one way of searching for that authentic experience, although I would not necessarily call anything ‘authentic’. We always end up stretching the surface a little bit further, and then we suddenly find ourselves surprised by the arrival of or return of something unexpected or something we had left behind.
Heavens is co-commissioned by Malevich.io and Serpentine Galleries for the Serpentine’s Back to Earth project. Rehearsals towards Heavens will be presented as Three Hearts at Shanghai Biennale 2021 (April-July 2021) and POWER NIGHT, E-Werk Luckenwalde (May-July 2021).