Conversation 01. Serena Porrati – Ding Ren
How would you define a natural/artificial territory?
DING: A natural territory is a rock, a mountain, a cliff on the coast with waves crashing below, a body of water, a lake, an ocean, a river, a cloud in the sky. It is unaltered by the human touch. It is instead touched by the wind, the air, the sun, the rain, the fog.
An artificial territory is a shipping container on a boat, a hole in the ground, an apartment complex, a skyscraper, a cut down tree turned into paper, a plastic water bottle floating in the ocean, a row of flags stuck in the grass marking an impending structure. It is an alteration of the environment by an outside force.
MARIA: Thanks Ding for your answered. It is straightforward division of the world. And when I read it I agreed with your description, but then I started to think: if your definition of artificial territory is an alteration of the environment by an outside force how you could classified those territories that are no longer unattached but are recognised as natural spaces. I’m talking about pretty much any natural park in Europe, that all has been altered by an outside force, or is it that humans are part and cannot be counted as an outside force?
DING: I would count parks as a pseudo-natural territory, somewhere in-between I guess.
PAULA: Also, I would add another question. The natural territory of a species is defined as its habitat. It clear what the habitat of a panda or a sequoia tree is, but how can we define the natural territory of species such as dogs, cats and we humans? Is it possible that our natural territory is an artificial one? If the answer is yes, that would mean that through time our nature became artificiality.
SERENA: I am very interested in human categories. I used to think in this terms of opposition considering artificial and natural as two extremes. However I felt that through this approach I wasn’t going very far. I realised that a more interesting understanding of the human and nonhuman worlds could derive from the idea of one single flow. If we take something very artificial, such as a computer, we could actually trace down each of its component to an original natural element. So I would say nature doesn’t get artificial but simply more layered. Is our imagination or intelligence natural? I think so. Society likes the terms artificial as it makes us stop thinking about the link between our built environment and the natural resources; it makes things easier but this is how perhaps we now feel artificial too.
SERENA: Its a very interesting question. Maybe there is a basic layer, but I guess for me it is very hard to define. For instance if we consider the landscapes that you mentioned like a mountain or a lake, how do we know they are untouched by humans? The water could be chemically influenced by acid rain or carbon produced human activity or the wind can be a storm or pressure change originated by climate change (again induced by humans) like in this picture: CLICK HERE Maybe we should go back in history when man was living in the wild.
MARIA: I like your definition of the layered natural, but I read it the other way around, as if everything is natural. With this understanding the idea of the artificial gets obsolete, and with that the division nature/culture starts to be less relevant… What I do not understand is what is the relevance of the existence of the natural in a pure state?
PAULA: However, even if the dividing line between natural and artificial can’t be sharply or drawn or can’t be drawn at all, we insist on dividing our experiences. I mean, many times I find myself longing for some contact with “nature”, as if my life (full of natural stuff from plants to iron-made computers) lacks some natural experience. Then, the question would be what do we look for when we search for nature or natural experiences.
ROSARIO: Thinking on Paula’s writing, Did you all divide your experiences or have this desire to find nature? What about in your practices? Do you think of them as something that is culturally driving or that has a natural existence? For instance Ding, in your work of about island shapes and displacement, do you think that this practice is an artificial practice of appropriation of natural representation or a re-claim of nature by artistic procedures? Or Serena, do you see your work as an add-layered practice that distance the natural object from their origin? Or more as a reclamation of it?
DING: Thanks for your questions Rosario.
For my own work, I try to always respond to what is already “naturally” there. Whether that is man-made or natural in terms of the landscape. For the island-shapes piece, I am responding to what is already naturally there in a space, but that of which has been man-made. So far I have only done the piece twice in indoor spaces. It would be interesting to do it for natural spaces such as stains on rocks and cliffs.
Of course I believe that all of us work and are driven by external cultural factors, but for me I believe it is important to always have a natural element in the work, to have an organic flow that responds directly to a virtually indescribable essence of a space.
What about your own work?
ROSARIO: I’m really sorry about the delay… I was in the writing process of the PhD… so so bored!
Answering your question, in my work I took a material culture perspective, particularly a Latourian (not sure that word exists) one in where this division of what is considered natural is less productive. I consider all elements in my projects as actors that play roles in the images in same levels of relevance, this is to say, what is considered natural or not will not change the way I propose my project but will illuminate how the elements will relate . In this sense, I would focus on the relation that natural and non-natural elements embody.
What about the rest, Serena, Paula?
PAULA: In my work I investigate the relationships between people, specifically the role those relations play in the creation of identity, both at an individual and collective level. In relation to your question, Ding, I’m interested in those artificial constructions took on by communities as natural facts. I’m thinking here from facial gestures to urban structures. In my work I try to reflect on those processes on which human creations end up being experienced as nature, as they are no longer questioned or rethought of. For example, I experience the block and the building that I live in as given facts, as my natural environment. I no longer think of the design or life-time of those things, I just interact with them in the present time, the same way I’d do it with the sand at the beach. In my projects I try to reveal the artificial and relational nature of the social reality that we lived in. I believe it is empowering to realize that your personal and collective identity are fluid and changeable, therefore we can build up most of our reality.
DING: I think it is interesting that you mention about our “natural” every-day environment and how we no longer think about how we interact with certain aspects of it because it has become so common and repetitive that it is a given. In this way then, I agree with your approach in how you try to reveal these certain relationships in a new way so that they are highlighted perhaps. This is how I approach my work and life in general, by trying to isolate moments that we would otherwise overlook and take for granted. Moments and situations that are fleeting and unnoticed if we did not take some time to pause and reflect upon them. I believe there is a certain pattern in these moments, a rhythm and an intrinsic beauty. I try to capture them through photography and I look for them in the topography and geography. In this way I differ from you Paula, in that I seek to find traces in the environment, whereas you seek to find them through direct social engagement.
SERENA: Very sorry for the long absence too. This conversation made me think about an aspect of my work.
I also feel inspired by overlooked phenomena and circumstances that shake my human consciousness. Through my research I wonder about human cultural / pre-established perceptions of the world. As an artist I try to evaluate the conceptual divisions or the categories that are somehow imposed on us or we inherit through “knowledge”.
However, I often ask myself whether I can ever be effective since, by a sort of theory of relativity, I am part of the system I am observing, no matter how I try to stand outside and be detached from it, I will always be human and also “culturalised”. I would like to ask you which effect has your own culture had on your work while thinking about the idea of natural/artificial. How much or how little you think your knowledge is playing in what you are doing?
PAULA: In relation to your question Serena, I think one is always part of a system, however one is also an individual who doesn’t match the system (like a puzzle piece). In that sense, even if our nature is the (social, economic, cultural) system we are partially detached from it and that distance allows us to observe critically our reality — for example in the way Ding works. I believe our culture is the tool that allow us to “see” our reality. I see culture as a pair of glasses which certainly distorts the reality we see but also become the tool to see it. In that sense, although we can consider that the contemporary world is our nature today, we are not really natural beings since we can break off from it to observe it. We are both, artificial and natural beings — we are constructed by a system (natural territory), but we also create ourselves within that system (artificial beings) changing it (artificial territory). It seems to me that our culture, as you put it Serena, condemns us to move in and out from our nature.
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