Art Laboratory Berlin: Post-Disciplinary Curation with Regine Rapp
By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
I showed up at Art Laboratory Berlin (ALB) on an overcast Sunday, picking my way through the Berlin’s District of Wedding without the aid of the U-Bahn wifi. I had been in contact with the heads of the gallery a week or so back, Christian de Luz and Regine Rapp, but I wasn’t sure they would remember their invitation to stop by for a brief interview. When I arrived, the gallery was empty save for Rapp, dressed in red. At first she seemed a bit scattered by my presence; she apologized and explained to me that she had been up all night for an event for the gallery’s current exhibition Water Ecologies. I began to regret my time spent in line for some Berlin club; it seemed that they had quite the party, with one of their artists DJing cassettes from her otherworldly symphony. Rapp remembered our email exchange and told me that de Luz was at a park with their daughter for the next hour or so. Would I like to come back then? I assured her that an interview with her alone would be more than enough. What I thought would be a twenty minute conversation became a two hour affair as Rapp walked me through the exhibition and took the time to answer my questions about ALB. I extend my thanks for her incredible generosity, an ethos that is palpably felt in the gallery and the work it crystallizes.
The gallery was founded in 2006 by an internationally composed team and since 2010 has been headed by Regine Rapp and her partner Christian de Luz. Art Laboratory Berlin fulfills the promise of futurity and interdisciplinary practice that its name suggests. The pieces exhibited are not for sale. Rather, the gallery acts as a meeting point for collaborations between the scientific and artistic realms, supporting research by their artists in residents, hosting workshops in such fields as DIY chemistry, and even acts as a publishing house for the work that comes out of the conferences they hold. The gallery also holds conferences whose very names are indicative the new wave of interdisciplinary thinking that ALB supports, like Nonhuman Agents in Art, Culture, and Theory (2017) and Synaesthesia: Discussing a Phenomenon in the Arts, Humanities and (Neuro-)Science (2013). Though I have suggested that ALB is “futuristic,” I’m better off calling it utterly modern. As Rapp continued to say throughout our interview, the gallery and its aims are targeted at “understanding the complexities of the 21st century through interesting artistic positions.” ALB is not caught up in the future. What makes it such a radical space is how it focuses so keenly on the present.
Water Ecologies is a great representation of the kinds of work that ALB does. The exhibition features three artists whose long and interesting careers echo the hybridity of the art forms they have come to create. Kat Austen is a former environmental journalist who holds a PhD in Chemistry. She is now an artist whose piece, The Matter of the Soul, Research in the Canadian High Arctic, leans heavily on her background as a classically trained pianist.
Mary Maggic, in their own words, “makes freak science.” Their pieces at ALB focus on the presence of endocrine disruptors in water, primarily estrogen, and the subsequent hacking and extraction of this estrogen for personal use, a process we are let in on in their satirical video “Housewives Making Drugs” (2017).
And finally we have Fara Peluso, trained in industrial design and now invested in what Rapp calls “speculative design.” Peluso has been working intimately with the potentialities of algae. On exhibition are her different experiments, including one in which spirulina algae is dried into powder, made into a gelatinous skin, and hardened into a ceramic-like consistency. The uses for these objects are still unknown, though perhaps there is an architectural possibility. Also on display is her constantly evolving weaReactor. Rapp describes it as a “biomorphic, futuristic, maybe even utopian, backpack and in that backpack is the algae package.” This “mobile alge station” would produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide that humans breathe out. Like many of the artists working with ALB, Peluso is involved in collaborative research and workshops that ALB supports. Recently she led a workshop where participants made their own bioreactors out of algae. Peluso and ALB have been working with the scientists of the Technische Universität Berlin as part of a collaborative project called “Mind the Fungi,” a study on symbiotic relationships at the microorganism level.
Collaboration, symbiosis. This could be ALB’s motto. When I asked Rapp if she had been uncomfortable reaching into the realm of science, having been trained in the humanities, she brushed aside this expectation of discomfort.
Regine Rapp: Sure, at the beginning, a little bit. But this is also our strategy and our interest and the answer to the complex questions of the 21st century; it can only work in collaborations. We want to replace the ‘I,’ the ego ‘I,’ whether it is the curator’s or the artist’s or the researcher. We want to replace the ‘I’ with ‘us,’ ‘we.’ So actually, when we make projects we are always collaborating in a post-disciplinary way. So it is giving and taking.
But this willingness to cross, if not destroy, borders (post-disciplinary often came up in our discussion) hasn’t always been reciprocated.
RR: I see that more and more universities are interested in collaborating with us, which we see with joy. But even five, four years ago, even the scientists who were curious about what we were doing were reluctant when we brought artists – artists who would know very well their science and their scientific field, and were also lab capable. For example, we were working with a comparative zoologist who is the world-wide specialist in crayfish, and he was actually lending us crayfish for a bioart installation, but he would not want to appear in public. That was a different time, when actually it was maybe taboo for scientists to come into art-science collaborations, at least publically. Whereas now, a lot of scientists are speaking with us and coming to us. We have collaborated with three institutions now, the [Freie Universitat Berlin], thhe [Technische Universität Berlin] mainly, and the Max Planck Institute.
Shanti Escalante-De Mattei: What do you think changed?
RR: I guess the broad public awareness, like “Oh, we are really in a crisis right now.” In Berlin there are ongoing events and themes and podium discussions on the term of “anthropocene.” It has definitely come into the discussion, although with artistic formats that go into modernist formats, representationalism to deal with science and then go make a painting out of it, for example. We are more interested in open formats.
Bioart is not as advanced in Germany as, for instance, in Slovenia, or in the Netherlands, or in the US. But I think Germany is also waking up to it. We got an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is like our New York Times, in the Nature section. And now we have a big interview coming up, so we cannot complain about the lack of press reception. But I think there is an interesting phenomena in Germany, and my partner would be even more radical in phrasing this, that Germany is so hierarchical...thinking outside the box is hard to swallow for these institutions, and for academia as well.
SED: So, how did you come to be interested in these really contemporary, open format kinds of work? What is your background?
RR: My personal background is art history and literature, not science. I was studying in St. Petersburg. Maybe I should add the Chris is from New York, and he also comes from art history and the humanities. We have Art Laboratory Berlin now for eleven, twelve years. We were always interested in art and other interdisciplinary fields, but from 2010 on, when Chris and I took over, and our other colleagues went for other jobs, we actually focused on, as I said, understanding the complexities of the 21st century through alternative artistic positions. And then we were focusing on the sciences. We had a series that brought us in the live sciences – we had an open call called “Synesthesia, Art and Neuroscience.” Synesthesia is really interesting parameters for our multisensorial way of thinking and living today: seeing music or feeling voices or sensing the world with multi-modalities. So we did an exhibition and a final conference.
And then we moved into the live sciences through other series. In 2014 and 2015 we were curating and researching macro and micro aspects of biology. We were there really going into the bioart field and so we stayed there. And like this we came to the subject of nonhuman subjectivities.
Now when someone asks my background maybe I can admit that I’m not a scientist and not a biologist. Coming from the humanities, I’m not even an artist, but a theoretician. So I can ask basic questions, I can look from outside: I’m a bridge, I’m a communicator, I’m a researcher, a publisher.
SED: How has your literacy in science changed since working here and trying to communicate these really interdisciplinary issues within art?
RR: Well, we work a lot in exchange with scientists, lately with microbiologists and even more lately with technologists. And by collaborating already we learn a lot, and then we read a lot, that goes along with our research that we do for our exhibition. [She points to three thick black ring binders, sitting on a low table by a window]. What you see here is three full folders. Each artist has a folder full of papers and texts, basic, and broad, or specific texts that they say we have to show the audience.
ALB actively encourages a scientific understanding of the artists’ work, but beyond that they also provide space for “everyday people” to not just be informed observers, but actors. For example, ALB has been working with Kat Austen on a project called “Hack the Panke” that is founded on citizen science.
RR: The Panke is a little urban river that flows directly [parallel to the] next block. It flows into the spring. We have a little group of ten people, artists and curators and also scientists from the Free university, botanists, microbiologists, molecular biologists, that have been involved in a project called “Hack the Panke.” We are interested basically in “hacking” the knowledge from the river. Kat [Austen], together with a colleague of hers, realized a workshop of microplastics in and around the river panke, and that is one of the several actions we were doing and will be doing in public groups. This is really dear to us, the field of citizen science. I think Berlin is very open to that and has been interested in that for quite some time. We consider this to be an artistic practice, not just knowledge sharing, engaging the public, getting hands-on possibilities.
So we built a “lab” here in the exhibition spaces with Kat for the DIY chemistry project and we used the space as a seminar, exhibition, or as a workshop.
SED: That’s wonderful! I wish I could participate. To backtrack a bit – how did you become to be interested in climate change specifically?
RR: We were initially interested in the idea of non-human subjectivities, and decentering the human. Looking at what several people call the anthropocene – but we like to not call it the anthropocene, because it’s an absurd and non-constructive term – let’s consider interesting artistic positions who take into consideration intelligence, cognition, capabilities, forms of other organisms, and non human organisms. So actually...we were interested in bacteria intelligence, primate cognition, jellyfish intelligence, animal/machine interaction, the 6th extinction. Those were some themes that we were working through, and so automatically we came to the issue of climate change. So that’s a very basic thing to our research for the past years. It's not so surprising that you’ve come to exactly this exhibition where climate change is the basic theme between all three artists.
SED: Do you think there’s a risk that if we decenter the human, we run the risk of not properly assigning responsibility to humans for climate change and other environmental issues?
RR: The responsibility lies totally upon the human shoulders. But humans should not be left out of responsibilities if you draw attention to the non-human – or the more-than human, maybe this is a better term. Human or nonhuman – this is actually another opposition that we do not want, right? It’s interesting that sitting in this show here. I would actually argue all three artists tell us the human is absolutely responsible for the mess we are in, the issue of algae, ice melt, hormones in the water, and this is done with a consideration for the more-than-human.
SED: I guess, by taking away these boundaries we see how far the human effect goes, because there is no longer, “oh well, this is in some other realm.” You have to fully conceptualize the places in which the human influence can permeate.
ALB is just the kind of space that I hear people talk wistfully about. It’s a place where art and science can meet collaboratively, a place where people can come together to explore science and climate change in entertaining and engaging ways – one that so rarely actually manifests. ALB is incredibly inviting, and I encourage anyone currently in Berlin to enjoy the gallery and the various workshops they offer.