Written by Ben
Emails and reports of polluted water are the first things I’ve exchanged with Paz Toreno, my partner for The Bridge virtual residency. Paz is currently working in a city called Murcia on the coast of Southeastern Spain, though she was recently working in Ecuador on a variety of projects at the intersection of art and biology. I, on the other hand, am writing from State College, Pennsylvania: a town utterly dependent on its namesake university, and located in the geographical center of the state. Today was homecoming.
We’re both excited about this international collaboration, and will do our best to persevere through tenuous WIFI connections and discover what lies at the intersection of our individual practices and interests.
Paz has trained her research and public outreach on a variety of environmental targets, focusing on engaging communities through workshops and activism. Her workshops in Ecuador encouraged active participation in biology, and explored how to use living cells to trace the effects of pollution and customize their DNA for creative purposes. This is well beyond my own experience with biology, which has focused largely on fermented beverages and foods, and gawking at things through microscopes.
For the past six months, I’ve been developing a project called the Foggy Bottom Microobservatory, as part of the 2016 Foggy Bottom Sculpture Biennial (also including radical gardening by Patrick McDonough and apocalyptic bird algorithms by Krista Caballero and Frank Ekeberg). The Microobservatory served as a platform to engage with local microflora through workshops and wild fermented beer. I collected many, many samples of wild yeast and bacteria, and photographed my specimens to contribute to an ongoing Instagram account.
Given our shared experience with microbes and agar plates, Paz and I are considering new ways to explore the chemical and political nature of beer, which has led to a conversation about food as a sort of cultural envoy. Murcia is located around a Mediterranean lagoon, where a thriving ecosystem of fish, birds, and other wildlife contributes to the city’s economic livelihood. Mar Menor is well known for it’s seafood and sea salt-infused cosmetics, which along with other industries seem to be threatening the water systems of the bay with pollutants.
Paz is already thinking about how bio-markers and analysis of water could help identify threats to the ecosystem, and I’ve also been thinking about the reliability of water sources lately. Just last week, it was reported that the drinking water in State College and numerous other cities in central Pennsylvania contains trace amounts of chromium-6, a carcinogen that can apparently never be mentioned in print without citing Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Erin Brockovich (see? I did it too). This, in addition to PA’s well-documented water troubles derived from the fracking of natural gas.
I always start projects with a period of research; bulleted-lists and hyperlinks making this style of contemporary art look more like a book report than l'art pour l'art. From this swirling mix of polluted water, sea life, and laboratories, three questions stuck out. They’re from a presentation that Paz gave about her work, and address the exciting possibilities of making activist digital art:
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Paz Tornero is an artist, visiting professor at the University of Caldas in Colombia, researcher at the University of Murcia, Faculty of Fine Arts in Spain, and visiting fellow at the Institute of Microbiology (USFQ) in Ecuador.
Benjamin Andrew is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist, storyteller, and Instructor at Pennsylvania State University.