ISEA’s 2020 artistic program explores the infinitely large and the infinitely small worlds of Sentience — feeling-sensing-making sense.
There were to be seven exhibitions across various venues for the ISEA2020 artistic program, until the city’s shutdown in March 2020, here as elsewhere, of all non-essential businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, two core themes had already been identified running through the exhibitions.
The first was a careful attention to scale and scalar complexity in the age of the Anthropocene. The selected works not only share a collective sense of urgency to rethink relationships between sentient beings — human, non-human, more-than-human — in different times and spaces, but also engage in vastly disparate scales ranging from the extraterrestrial and planetary to the bodily and microscopic. Among the calamities scientifically linked to human activities, climate change most vociferously connects socio-economic tipping points to changes in the planet’s geological scales as well as microbial worlds.
The second theme explored the human sensorium — touch, taste, smell, as well as sight and hearing. Sue Huang’s multimedia installation In the Time of Clouds (2019) explores sensorial relationships to clouds and on our collective imagination on their shapes and taste. Custom-made ice cream—a tangible product of this collected data—can be sampled by spectators, the cool dessert acting as a sweet unifier of our perceptions of clouds. Stephanie Rothenberg’s Aquadisia (2020) is an immersive installation that invites viewers to recline in comfortable chairs, take in three looped videos, and interact with a soft robotic sculpture of a cyborg oyster, with the option of tasting the amino acid liquid produced by the oyster via a series of tubes. Guillaume Cousin’s Le silence des Particules (2018), a large-scale installation using a machine-cannon that cyclically projects ephemeral large circles of smoke moving slowly in the glow of warm light, and leaving a slight trail as they pass and slowly disappear. In a room with extremely controlled light, Le silence des Particules renders visible, almost tangible, the billion particles that form each gram of matter.
With ISEA2020’s transition to an online format, the challenge was to present a series of virtual exhibitions that would bring these different scales and senses together in a meaningful way while at the same time respecting the nuances of each work. Fathoming online versions of work intended for physical spaces was simply not possible; a poor and disappointing imitation of the “real” project would almost certainly be the result. As much as we are plugged in and connected through the Internet, most of us need and miss embodied experiences of the world. Among the simpler things in life yearned is walking excitedly into a gallery free of safety measures concerning every breath taken.
By June, the global pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism that amplified the health precarity disproportionately impacting Indigenous and other racialized communities and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement against policing, pressed gravely upon us even more than before about why sentience matters today. The capacity to feel, the ability to care, to sense and make sense of what it is to be a subject of experience – to be conscious. Of the unconscionable.
The intersections of artistic, scientific, and media narratives play a pivotal role in feeling, coping with and making sense of not only this moment but also of all our relations. Climate futures, biodiversity, multi-species survival, and thrivance, also depend on it. We can no longer deny the place of human beings in this world is simply as another vulnerable species; we are no more immune from ourselves than from other forms – sentient or not, and neither are we separate.
Presented on both the ISEA2020 Online platform and on a separate dedicated website, ISEA2020’s artistic program embodies this urgency to decenter inherited anthropocentric, or human-centred views, so that we can not only see but feel and sense ways to deepen relationships with other systems and forms of being. Touch and be touched; then act.
This dedicated website is an invitation to delve deeper into the ISEA2020 artistic program that is in dialogue with the academic program of the symposium. In addition to the program, the website features additional images, and videos as well as discursive sections highlighting each artist’s unique research-creation process and video documentation of installations. The website also showcases a program of online performances as well as Internet-based projects later adapted for online presentation. We invite ISEA2020 delegates to explore the different projects using the navigational tools under each “Core Theme.”
Animality considers the experiential existence of what is not human, and asks us to reflect on our attitude towards what we perceive as not feeling, what is not deserving of our feeling. Animality invites you to consider not only what it is like to be a bioluminescent organism, but a sound, the water flowing between rocks, hills, and continents that divide and unite us. A call to invert, observe, and obliterate the subject/object binary, the programme is a radical reconfiguration of our sympathetic drive and our general habits of agency (dis)placement.
The Planetary uses universal frameworks — a global perspective, a life cycle, circular pathways folding back into themselves in a pluralistic eternal return — to address the particularities of sense and feeling in the human experience. The projects that fall under this celestial banner trace out pathways of interconnectivity across continents, generations, and in between the social and the ecological, in order to highlight the nodes from which sentience reverberates. The Planetary is in many ways an ode to the sentient butterfly effect, mapping out in concentric circles the reverberation of the initial moment of feeling, zoomed out to illustrate the greater framework of this initial exchange and the interconnectedness of experience resulting from it.
The Ecosophic World features concrete and conceptual investigations of the macroscopic environments we inhabit and the microscopic ones that inhabit us, and the navigations within and without these interlacing spheres. The programme’s featured artworks are explorations of the subjective imprint left on the lived, traversed, or avoided environment, through memory and touch. The Ecosophic World embraces and insists on the safeguarding of the diversity of existence and feeling, and the causal link between their preservation and the survival of all ecologies big and small.
Machinic Sense & Sensibility investigates the sentimental whims of rational machines, of what makes the heart race in what is without pulse. Machinic Sense & Sensibility not only puts forward the emotive experience by robotic and digital creations, but the attainment of a heightened sense of this experience through these creations by human beings themselves, which begs the question: if androids dream of electric sheep, do they dream of us as well?
Sentient Difference insists on the vital importance of viewing sentience through an intersectional lens. The works featured in the programme are studies on the diversity of human, machine and ecological experiences approached through decolonization, environmentalism, and human biology. Sentient Difference considers navigations of the social, natural and material worlds beyond or against the constraints of normativity — in terms of race, gender, and (dis)ability — in order to embrace the beauty of the manifold entanglements of our existence.
The Politics of Sentience features works which focus on the political and intersectional implications of feeling and experience with the advent of contemporary technology. The programme’s artists propose new ways of viewing archiving, experience, history (and its physical counterparts and monuments), and the transformation of sentience through the ebb and flow of time in the age of acceleration and instant information.
Matter’s Mattering is an exploration of conduits to feeling — bodies, circuits, infrastructure, matter in all forms — and their placements and roles in human modalities of engagement and sentience. The artworks adopt an alternative approach to matter beyond the limits of the traditional mind/body human/matter binaries to recognize and consider how touch imbues an object with import; the meaning of human kinetic energy invested in a fabric weave, in sound, in water, and how these all fold back to effect and affect human experience and its sonic and ecological environments.
Erandy Vergara wishes to thank the artistic co-chairs Alice Jim and Caroline Andrieux for their rigorous yet open spirit in making the final selection of ISEA2020’s Juried Selection. Erandy also wishes to thank the invaluable feedback of Pascal Dufaux, ISEA2020’s technical director, who spent countless hours on the phone and video conferences discussing, imagining, planning how to best adapt the ISEA2020 Art Programme to the new online format. Lastly, Erandy would like to thank the artists, who were open to discuss ways to adapt their work, first to an exhibition context, and for their patience of the many times we proposed something that a few days/weeks later could not work because of the changing landscape with regards Covid-19 security measures in Canada.