In an essay called Slick Images, artist and researcher Susan Schuppli suggests we have now entered “a new geo-photo-graphic era in which planetary systems have been transformed into vast photosensitive arrays that are registering and recording the rapid transformations induced by modern industrialization and its contaminating processes.”1
As theorized by Susan Schuppli, matter — and by extension territories and places – has the capacity to record and reveal the image of its own contamination as a “material witness”.2 The notion of “material witnesses” is useful to understand many contemporary artistic practices that actively seek ways to incorporate non-human agencies into their work, in order to investigate the consequences of industrialization and capitalism in a non anthropocentric perspective.
In chemistry, toxicity is the degree to which a chemical substance can cause damage to an organism: this effect is dose-dependent, and species-specific. There is then an intrinsic ambivalence in a toxic element that depending on the dose can be a remedy or a poison, and its capacity to harm one organism while benefiting another.
Acknowledging that both organic and inorganic entities are equipped with a toxic agency means recognising that pollution also activates the ability of living forms to evolve and mutate, reconfiguring the hierarchies of power in the relationship between human and non-human, polluters and pollutants.
What are then the effects of contamination within us, inside us, on our relationships with other life forms? If we agree with Donna Haraway’s proposition that all vision has an embodied nature,3 how can we integrate the toxicity of the world into the very material of the image?
The works presented here blur the boundaries between image, plant, animal and landscape. The toxins that infest our habitat become a departure point for weaving and defining new relationships. These images are above all a powerful testimony to the resilience and survival of intoxicated forms of life, and to the artists’ will to endlessly seek forms of representations that reflect on these contaminations.
Lieselotte Egtberts, Elisa Maupas, Lucie Ménard, Anna Stoppa
1 Schuppli, Susan. “Slick Images: The Photogenic Surface of Disaster.” (2015).
2 Schuppli, Susan. “Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence.” (2020).
3 Haraway, D. “1988: Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.
Feminist Studies 14, 575-99.” (1988)
Algues maudites • Alice Pallot
Alice Pallot describes her approach in Algues Maudites (Cursed Algae), as a practice of “sensitive documentary”. Anchored in rigorous scientific research at CNRS Occitanie Ouest, her work deviates from pure documentary and incorporates fictional narratives. This is a tool that the artist employs to seize the truth of her subject: the phenomenon of poisonous algae washing up en masse on the Brittany shores.
An issue twice invisible: on an environmental scale, since the gas released by these algae decomposing on the beach is imperceptible, yet lethal for humans and animals; and on a social scale, given the local authorities’ attempts to hide the true extent of the problem.
The notion of toxicity unlocks the different entanglements between humans and ‘cursed algae’. The seaweed is an organism that is not at all dangerous in its own marine habitat, it is only due to the impact of local agricultural activities that its excessive propagation becomes a threat. This project thus underlines the fact that toxicity is above all a matter of dosage and context.
Here, Alice Pallot takes the chance to approach the toxicant with empathy, and invites it to participate in the photographic process in various capacities: as subject, as filter, as colorant, as substrate.
Vivants • Matthieu Gafsou
Vivants by Matthieu Gafsou aims to render perceptible the invisible toxicity pervading our habitats. Treating the surface of the photographs with crude oil to alter the image with false colors, and staging interventions with harmless pollutants in the natural space, he reflects on the sensory appeal of the contaminated landscape.
The project questions human responsibility towards the loss of biodiversity and environmental changes, and our inability to grasp the scale of the destruction unraveling in front of us.
Matthieu Gafsou renders an unsettling image of the places we inhabit, as if they were observed by a non-human gaze that alone is able to perceive their latent toxicity. As if the pollutant were observing our world and perceiving us humans as
the contaminant agent.
Zilverbeek • Lucas Leffler
“This is the story of a man who turned mud into silver”. This sentence might be reminiscent of a children’s tale, yet Zilverbeek (Silver Creek) is based on the true story of a man working for a photographic paper factory, finding a way to recover silver from the wastewater discharged in the nearby creek.
What interests Lucas Leffler, rather than the accuracy of the facts, is the evocative power of the myth and its creative potential: would it be possible to harvest a photographic image out of the polluted mud?
The very matter that constitutes the contamination in the landscape surrounding the industry becomes the support of the image that represents it. Renegotiating the terms of his relationship with toxic waste, Lucas Leffler proposes a definition of toxicity as intrinsically linked to the photographic process itself, an inevitable fatality embedded in its own history and condition.
Transit • Kristof Vrancken
Kristof Vrancken’s Transit investigates the entanglements between humans and non-humans inhabitants of the city of Genk: a former artists colony known for its bucolic scenery, later transformed into an important industrial center. By concocting photosensitive emulsions with contaminated plants collected on site, he produces anthotypes prints that materialize a landscape in constant evolution.
These images are living entities, materially unstable: the same light that allows the image to appear, will cause it to fade over time. Living images in order to represent a living environment, a non-static habitat characterized by impermanence, where survival implicates transformation and renegotiation of existing relationships among humans and non-humans.
Eating Magma • Elena Aya Bundurakis
The work of Elena Aya Bundurakis employs the hybridization of natural and artificial elements, visually merging in a non-hierarchical way, to offer a sensory approach to understanding the living.
Using the camera as an hungry haptic device rather than an optical one, and combining photographs, drawings and haikus – which she defines as snapshots in words – Eating magma aims to sense what it means to be alive today, to coexist with
the toxicity within us, and in the world that surrounds us.
For Elena Aya Bundurakis the concept of toxicity is omnipresent and mutable, it can take forms as diverse as “preschools trying to teach children the alphabet, contaminated soils, the monetization of water, extravagant rents for unsanitary apartments, the ignorance and mockery of others”. This toxicity affects every relationship in our interconnected universe and forces us to assume shifting identities, to contaminate each other, and sensually cooperate in order to sense new
ethical positions within our environment.
A Visual essay curated by moss collective, 2022.