Fermenting Subjects: An Interview with Arne Skaug Olsen

By Eirik Zeiner-Henriksen.

Arne Skaug Olsen is a visual artist, curator, critic and an associate professor at Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art and Creative Writing. At the university he is researching microbiological processes in art, and together with artist Anders Dahl Monsen he is currently arranging the project Fermenting Subjects, a platform to explore the issues he researches in more tangible forms. This includes arranging workshops where the participants learns fermentation processes in order to discuss questions of art, politics and technology. The two have also exhibited the sound installation Fermenting Subjects Orchestra at the Arctic Arts Festival in Harstad in June, and at Lofoten Sound Art Symposium in September. This is an ensemble consisting of buckets with sugar, water and yeast, where the pressure of the carbon dioxide produced by the sugar-eating yeast is playing different kinds of wind instruments, creating an alien atmosphere of light and dark tones vibrating through the space. I contacted him to hear more about his practise and thoughts about the relation between art and natural processes.

Hi Arne! You are researching microbiological processes at the art academy, is that right?

It is not entirely correct to say that I research microbiological processes, at least not in a properly scientific understanding of the term ‘research’. It would be more correct to say that I use microorganisms as an important material in my artistic work, and to a large extent my artistic work is the result of my artistic research. The term ‘artistic research’ is somewhat contested in academia because it does not imply that scientific methodology is used, but rather that methodological reflections on what art making is – how results and knowledge is created, mediated and disseminated through artworks – is an integral part of the process and the artwork. In my work that uses microorganisms as a material, I rely on scientific and technological knowledge simply in order to make it work. However, unlike scientists, the knowledge I am searching for is speculative and metaphorical, like exploring the political agency of microorganisms.

Are you also doing any writing as part of your engagement?

Part of my work is writing, but mostly to expand on the speculative and metaphorical notions of the artwork, like what would it mean if we give bacteria a voice, will they claim agency, self-interest or concerns? Ultimately this might be just anthropocentric speculations, but in case of for instance the Fermenting Subjects Orchestra, we want to give these ideas and notions a body that carry an aesthetic and emotive experience.

A very alien kind of voice indeed. And a great example of how art can explore other forms of life and agency. How can a fermentation workshop be useful for students at an art academy?

I think this question has to be expanded quite a bit, to “What is useful for students at an art academy?” Anything, or at least almost anything. Learning skills, gaining knowledge about art history and critical thinking, finding a language in which to talk about and reflect upon your work and the processes involved in art making, being exposed to other artists’ ways of doing and thinking would be some of the more useful things. Although we today see a returned interest in more traditional media (like ceramics, printmaking and sculpture), I think it is fair to say that we’re still very much in a post medial paradigm of art. When Anders Dahl Monsen and I set up the first Fermenting Subjects workshop in Bergen, part of our interest was to create a platform from which we could use our long standing interest in fermentation for culinary purposes as a means to establish a collaborative conversation about art making. The microorganisms we brought into this conversation were catalysts for placing some of the agency of the artist outside of the very anthropocentric framework of art making. The lovely thing about operating within a post medial paradigm of art is that (almost) anything goes, at least in terms of what is a possibly relevant material. Also, one of the preconceived notions about art making is that it should follow the idealised scheme: Idea -> Process -> Artwork. In my experience art making rarely happens like this, and more often than not it starts with simply doing something, often without knowing exactly why or for what purpose.

Did the Fermenting Subjects Orchestra come about in ways like this?

It had a rather pragmatic starting point. We were invited to participate in the North Norwegian Festival Exhibition in Harstad, an exhibition that were to have the laboratory as a starting point, inviting artist and academics to work side by side during two weeks researching, creating and mediating to the public at the same time. Based on previous experiments and our interest in challenging the anthropocentricity of art making, Anders and I wanted to find out if it would be possible to make an autonomous instrument played by microorganisms. We had made a prototype of the instrument as a proof of concept, and we brought the necessary materials and equipment to develop the instrument in the gallery.

What made you interested in microorganisms?

Food. It’s staggering, when you think about it, how many of the things we eat and drink primarily for sensory and aesthetic enjoyment that owe their complexity to fermentation. From chocolate to champagne. Food is not bothered with the repertoire of criticality and meta debauchery (which I love) that inflicts contemporary art. Food is incredibly advanced, complex and challenging, in its own right.

I agree. I’ve also heard rumors that you have served foods as parts of exhibitions recently?

Yes. I recently made coppa, a cured pork shoulder using koji, or Aspergillus oryzae, the fungus used for making sake, among other things. I served it at a dinner I did with the former chef, now artist, Øyvind Novak Jenssen, on plates shaped as the Copernicus crater on the moon made by artists Lutz Rainer Muller and Stian Ådlandsvik. This was at Trondheim Art Museum where the Copernicus project is part of the current exhibition NATURvitenskap. In Bergen I was part of the exhibition Superare Sensibus curated by KNIPSU and Lydgalleriet. The exhibition focused on “full contact perception”, and I didn’t serve food per se, but I invited the audience to take part in séance-like group therapy sessions exploring sensory experience modifying the experience of time, sound and flavor.

Can it be said that creating encounters between humans, and between humans and non-human entities is more important for you than creating objects?

Coming to art from photography, I have an intimate but fraught relationship with representation. Firstly, a photograph is an object insofar as it is produced with a very narrow set of technologies of which the lens is the primary (and the one I’m interested in). Secondly, the lens represents an externalisation of the eye, and ontologically as well as epistemologically I have a feeling that we still don’t have a clue what this means. Thirdly, photography is indexical and it produces and constructs realities, memories and emotions. It’s not to be trusted, it’s lifeless but imitates life. This is the beauty of photography though. Art ‘objects’ on the other hand are always part of complex games, and it is the way in which the object is played with or against contexts, traditions and expectations that it receives ‘meaning’ or ‘complexity’. This isn’t a normative judgment on my part, I value and enjoy art objects as much as the next artist, but I don’t know how to embody things with the beautiful lifelessness of photography, so I try to avoid it. The Fermenting Subjects Orchestra is an installation and a sculpture, but it’s the music that it makes and the emotional and aesthetic experience of the music that interests me. The ‘sculpturalness’ of the orchestra is something that Anders and I discuss quite a bit, and he has a different interest in and sensibility for these things.

And the microorganisms themselves, do you see them as in any way being political?

I’m not sure if I do, but I like to speculate about it. There is an obvious contradiction in at the same time wanting to escape an anthropocentric worldview and wanting to give something that is not human an attribute that is decidedly human. For one, if I could convey the meaning of ‘being political’ to the yeast that we use in the Fermenting Subjects Orchestra, how can I assume without being exceptionally arrogant that this is something that would at all be meaningful or attractive to yeast?