Marjolijn Dijkman & Toril Johannessen - Liquid Properties

Updated: Sep 19, 2018

By Eirik Zeiner-Henriksen.

Dijkman, Marjolijn and Toril Johannessen. Reclaiming Vision (still). 2018.

An incoming train is approaching Oslo Central Station. The squealing sound of its breaks fills the surrounding area as it’s gliding towards the platform. As the train performs a full stop, a relief is going through the daily commuters who are ready to board the train and to be liberated from this weeks duties at work in the city. Chaetoceros decipiens. A number of screensavers from the offices of EnterCard Norway, a supplier of credit cards and private loans, are lighting up the windows of one of the Barcode buildings as they are left in standby-mode for the weekend. Prymnesium parvum. Cars and buses are passing by, enjoying the asfalt of the newly constructed Dronning Eufemias gate. Many of them turn onto the bridge that takes them over the railway station, among others a motorcycle that are making its presence heard. Rhodomonas salina. Under this bridge, in the midst of all these high-rise buildings, construction sites and transportation facilities, the Aker River is revealing itself. After floating for about 10 kilometres, through large parts of the city, and after a tough finish under the central station, it comes out to meet the fjord here. At this place there is constructed a little park, with benches, plants and trees. A place to breathe and to admire the river in the midst of it all. This is the place of the screening of Marjolijn Dijkman and Toril Johannessen’s new film Reclaiming Vision.

Starring in their 27-minutes long film are actors like Alexandrium tamarense, Dinophysis norvegica, Eutreptiella braarudii, Rhizosolenia hebetata and Skeletonema costatum. On the screen they are dancing around in captivating movements, accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack consisting of string instruments, and various backdrops in different colors, spaces and textures. All of the performers have different shapes and sizes, some being thin, tall and rod-shaped, others are rounder or spiral-formed. Some of them has arms, legs or tails, other what looks like feelers or antennae. There are those fortunate of having eyes, others are provided with a simpler structure. They are algae, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that are found in the water that is flowing between the the viewer and the screen that is hung from the bridge. Dijkman and Johannessen have collected water samples from the Aker River and the nearby fjord, and have together with scientists from the Department of Biosciences at the University of Oslo, filmed them through a microscope. The microbiological life of the water cannot be seen by the human eye, but the reflections on the surface of the river gives the effect of magnifying the rich aquatic ecosystem in front of us. The film on the screen, its reflection and the water is forming an intricate play that gives insight to the lives of the diverse species of the area.

From the screening of Reclaiming Vision. Photo: Øyvind Fykse.

Although it share some of its aesthetics, Reclaiming vision is not a documentary. The artists have fictionalized the material in several ways, like introducing algae cultures from the lab and by creating their own narrative. In the first part of the film, the microorganisms are seemingly acting on their own, fascinating us with their shapes and movements. Later, it becomes clear that the microorganisms are not purely observed in their own habitat in a documentary manner. They are in the lab, with the evident presence of human involvement. They are in the alien territory of petri dishes, not in the strange landscape that the first part of the film gave the impression of. Pipettes are conditioning the action on the screen, sucking the microbes towards it, or spreading them away from it. For the sake of measurement and observation, the backdrop is now occasionally grids. Towards the final part of the film, the microbes are found in a cinematic space, a dramatic scenery where the texture of the water is more opaque. Thick, foreign fluids are flowing in, as if a nearby octopus had just been escaping a predator. However, these materials are not coming from within. Ink, oil, pigments and microplastics are injected into the water by Dijkman and Johannessen. These are materials from human activity that are altering the ecosystem. The microbiological life is encountering human interaction, as it has been doing for as long as there have been humans in the area. Reclaiming Vision is making the microscopic traces of human impact in the river visible. The injections are mirroring the historical leaking of dyes from the clothing industry up the river, to this summer's vast oil spill in the fjord [1]. Humans and marine species are coexisting, and Reclaiming Vision presents life from the position of the microorganisms in the water. By stepping away from the self-obsessed, anthropocentric belief that the human is the most significant being in the universe, the film displays existence from the perspective of the non-human entities in the river.

Dijkman, Marjolijn and Toril Johannessen. Reclaiming Vision (still). 2018.

In these ways the film corresponds to movements in contemporary philosophy that is dealing with a radical restructuring of how we understand other species, things and the human. Object-Oriented Ontology is evolving from the study of how things exist in the world, ontology. While leaving the anthropocentric hierarchies of existence, it rather introduce a flat ontology, insisting that all things equally exists [2]. It acknowledges that every single entity in the universe is possessing its own perspective and agency, and that the multiplicities of experiences of the world and its countless relations cannot fully be understood by human cognition [3]. This mode of thinking seems to be a fertile approach facing the anthropocene, the current geological period of the Earth marked by the omnipresence of homo sapiens. Humans have through our relatively short timespan - compared to the deep time of the Earth - affected the planet to such a degree that it has become a geological force, leaving traces of ourselves not only in cities, but also in the Earth's surface, in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and in the most remote places some still think of as nature. In the failures of the anthropocentric organization of the planet, another ontology seems to be inevitable. Reclaiming Vision is offering this through an optical exploration fusing art, science and technology, expanding our perception by countering the dominant modes of visuality.

Bacteria, algae and other microbes are essential for the very being of life on earth. According to Dijkman, every second breath we take is produced by algae in the oceans [4]. The microbiological life of the water is typically only entering our consciousness when it poses a threat to humans, such as this summer's higher-than-normal sea temperatures provoking an outbreak of the vibrio virus that infected some open wounds and oysters. Being a part of the ongoing project Munch Museum on the Move, the film serves as a critical regard in the midst of the transformation of the area the museum is relocating to. As the artists notes, the buildings might look pretty by the waterside, but there's a throughout lack of actual interaction with the water in the district [5]. Reclaiming Vision is decentering the human, and embraces the perspective of the microorganisms offered by the microscope. Recognizing the limitations of the human eye and cognition in approaching our all-too-neglected, coexisting species, Dijkman and Johannessen narrates a glimpse of their situation in a very fertile attempt to do them just.


[1] Tampere, “Interview with Toril Johannessen and Marjolijn Dijkman”, 19.

[2] Bryant, “Flat Ontology”.

[3] Bogost, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology?”.

[4] Tampere, “Interview with Toril Johannessen and Marjolijn Dijkman”, 10.

[5] Ibid. 10.


Bogost, Ian. “What is Object-Oriented Ontology?”. Bogost (blog). 08.12.2009.

Bryant, Levi R. “Flat Ontology”. Larval Subjects (blog). 24.02.2010.

Tampere, Karolin. “Interview with Toril Johannessen and Marjolijn Dijkman”. In Liquid Properties (2018), edited by Natalie Hope O’Donnell, 7-19. Oslo: The Munch Museum, 2018.