May 23, 2020 – October 23, 2021
The Swamp Observatory (2020-21) by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas with MIT Climate Visions is commissioned for the Critical Zones – Observatories for Earthly Politics, an exhibition curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, with Martin Guinard, Bettina Korintenberg and Daria Mille at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Gediminas Urbonas, MIT Associate Professor
Nomeda Urbonas, MIT Research Affiliate
In a time marked by radical instability and threats of war and environmental collapse, the Swamp Observatory illuminates the vital urgency of human cohabitation with other forms of life. The swamp offers the ideal conditions to test the idea of sympoiesis— creating and becoming together in order to find a new ethos of coexistence—and to recognize the poetical power of the ecologies surrounding us. It is both a biological concept and a milieu that enables us to scale planetary issues down, allowing us to perceive them within our closest reach. In a swamp community, every member is part of every other member’s environment, as well as necessary for the survival of the whole.
The Swamp Observatory combines scientific knowledge and artistic vision to unfold the concept of swamp as a well-organized biosphere, and as a library of diverse cultural, historic, and even cybernetic threads. Through four instruments disguised as swampian figures—Swamp Brain, Biotope Model, Time Stack, Olfactory Crevasse—the Swamp Observatory grows into a parasitic structure on the architectural envelope of the ZKM exhibition space. These instruments constitute a hybrid artistic-scientific model, that articulates swamp as an interface to Gaia. The figures of the installation are designed by merging electronic machinery with recycled peat—decomposed and carbonized vegetation and organic matter found in swamps—the most efficient carbon sink on the planet.
As an altered sensorial organism the installation lures the audience to experience relationships between natural, cultural, material, and immaterial swampian nodes, raising our awareness of its networked relations. Instruments invite audience to learn from the swamp through sensory immersion and thus experience so-called “hybrid knowledge”. Here the artists raise questions about a swamp as an evocative form of primordial technology that supports collaborative experiments in design, pedagogy, and artistic intelligence for learning and adapting to imminent unknowns of the new climatic regime.
“The Swamp Observatory is part of the larger ecosystem of the swamp research that manifests itself by several embodiments including The Swamp Game, online exploratory game commissioned for the Critical Zones digital platform. Along with the book Swamps and The New Imagination, the Swamp Observatory is an outgrowth of the Swamp School—commissioned for the Lithuanian National Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.”
“We must face up to what is literally a problem of dimension, scale, and lodging: the planet is much too narrow and limited for the globe of globalization; at the same time, it is too big, infinitely too large, too active, too complex, to remain within narrow and limited borders of locality whatsoever.” (Bruno Latour)
The Critical Zones exhibition takes its point of departure from a change of perspective: it exhorts us to recognize that we don’t live on the globe, but within the critical zone, embedded in its multifarious dynamic processes. The term “critical zone” comes from geoscience and describes the fragile layer of the Earth, which is only a few kilometres thin and on which life is created. Bruno Latour has extended the term into the philosophical dimension where it becomes a critical, participatory relationship of ourselves to our lifeworld, whose threatened state has reached an unprecedented scale in the Earth’s now human-made history.
For a long time the reactions of Earth to human actions remained unnoticed, but in recent times with the protest movement Fridays for Future climate crisis has moved into public consciousness. The thought exhibition Critical Zones invites audience to deal with the Critical situation of the Earth in various ways and to explore new modes of coexistence between all forms of life. By now everybody knows that there is an existential threat to our collective conditions of existence, but very few people have any idea of how to cope with this new Critical situation. The citizens of many developed countries appear disoriented; it is as if they were asked to land on a new territory – a new Earth – whose reactions they have ignored for a long time.
The Earth as a network of Critical Zones:
The hypothesis the curators of the exhibition want to propose is that the best way to map this new Earth is to see it as a network of Critical Zones. Generated over eons of time by various life forms, these Critical Zones form a surface only a few kilometers thin. Those life forms had completely transformed the original geology of the Earth, before humanity transformed it yet again over the last centuries. Over the years, scientists have installed multiple Observatories to study these Critical Zones and have made wider audience aware of the complex composition and extreme fragility of this thin layer inside which all life forms, humans included, have to cohabit. They have renewed Earth science in a thousand ways and very much in a way that Alexander von Humboldt would have approved.
A new turn towards the Earthly:
Increasingly, scientists, artists, activists, politicians, and citizens are realizing that society is not centered solely on humanity, but it has to become Earthly again if it wishes to land without crashing. The modern project has been in flight, unconcerned by planetary limits. Suddenly, there is a general movement toward the soil and new attention to the ways people might inhabit it. Politics is no longer about humans making decisions on their own and for themselves only, but has become an immensely more complex undertaking. New forms of citizenship and new types of attention and care for life forms are required to generate a common ground
The exhibition as an Observatory of Critical Zones:
The exhibition hosted by ZKM is conceived as a scale model to simulate the spatial novelty of this new land as well as the diversity of relations between the life forms inhabiting it. It serves as an Observatory of Critical Zones allowing visitors to familiarize themselves with the new situation. This special combination of thought experiment and exhibition was developed by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour in their previous collaborations at ZKM. Iconoclash in 2002, Making Things Public in 2005, and Reset Modernity! in 2016 constitute the three former ‘thought exhibitions’ (Gedankenausstellungen) that resulted from their intensive working relationship which now spans twenty years.
The Swamp Observatory is produced by ZKM Karlsruhe and MIT Climate Visions
Concept: Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas
Research: Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Nikola Bojić, Kristupas Sabolius
Architecture: Urbonas Studio and Indrė Umbrasaitė, Studio SOL, Vienna
Drawings: Urbonas Studio and Serge Rompza, NODE Berlin Oslo
Fabrication: Urbonas Studio and Rytis Urbanskas, Simona Kačinskaitė Scientific advisors and data: Vesta Aleknavičiūtė, Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, Jūratė Sendžikaitė, Nature Research Centre at the Institute of Botany, Lithuania
Processing programming: Thomas Sanchez Lengeling, MIT Media Lab
AI module: Jonas Kubilius, Three Thirds, Lithuania
Smell: Jurga Katakinaitė-Jakubauskienė and Reda Valentinavičienė
The production of the installation is kindly supported by the Arts at MIT and Philip Khoury, Associate Provost for the Arts; Gintaras Rapkauskas and Sigita Kantautienė, Durpeta UAB Lithuania