Common Frequencies / Frecuencias Comunes at BioBat Art Space

In Dialogue with Elisa Gutiérrez Eriksen

Elisa Gutiérrez in conversation with Miguel Gleason, Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute in NY, at the opening of Common Frequencies. Background video shows Marcela Armas’ video piece “Tsinamekuta”. Image: @onwhitewall

Common Frequencies brings together a group of Mexican artists whose work explore the intersection of art and science through sound, urban ecology, language, and collective imageries through performance, installation, photography, sound, and drawing. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of free bilingual educational programs that encourage the participation of families. The exhibition runs through October 16th. 2021.

This is an admirably ambitious curatorial project. Tell me about the genesis of this exhibition.

The idea of this exhibition came in January 2019. It resulted from the convergence of several personal interests in art and science practices and connections to the environment, the possibility of presenting the work of Mexican artists in NY, and specifically to present it to audiences that don’t always have access to exhibitions in their language. I was clearly thinking of the large Latinx population in the neighbourhood and the gallery as a space to think of collaboration, union and interconnection at a time when ICE raids were very common. Essentially to me, it had the potential of bringing different cultures and interests into a common space.

At the time of the first proposal I was reading Sonic Intimacies by Meneley and I was really touched by the idea of sound being one of the most basic ways in which living beings experience their position in relation to others in the world. This idea gave the premise to establish a space of commonality threaded by sound. After a first general proposal for the exhibition, I was able to visit Mexico City and conduct studio visits with a few artists, some of whom would then become part of the Common Frequencies exhibition. I was really fortunate to have a receptive audience in the directors of BioBAT Art Space, and I feel grateful that they saw the potential in this idea.

After more than two years from that first proposal the exhibition expanded the number of collaborators and artists involved in the show, and continues creating connections with other artists and visions.

The introductory text for the show indicates that the works in the show draw on processes of collaboration between humans and our environments. Can you describe some specific works in that context?

The idea of collaboration permeates in the whole exhibition. The works not only speak in different ways to the idea of cooperation and connection between species, but were also created with other artists, performers, scientists and members of the community.

Almost Non-Human was proposed as a collaboration between a group of students and the Interspecifics collective. The main goal for the piece was to present stories that speculate on future living organisms that evolved from the synergy between existing species and historical events that changed the course of the world. With the guidance of Leslie García and Paloma López (two of the founding members of the Interspecifics collective) six young students created stories by looking at events that have changed environmental history, and species with characteristics that could somehow aid in the remediation of the consequences caused by these events. A few examples are the Chernobyl disaster, air pollution, the creation of CRISPR technology, water pollution, and hurricane Sandy.

In these stories, the students merged their research and by using techniques of speculative fabulation, science fiction and futurism, they created a first person story about new fictitious organisms that would exist in a not too far future. They gave them a context for their existence and described their last day on earth as a species on the verge of extinction. The final works combine the voices of the students narrating their stories with visual and sound materials created by Interspecifics using AI algorithms that generate the graphics of each story. This collaboration was possible with the help of Genspace, a community biology lab also located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and is also presented virtually through the Common Frequencies website, in monthly iterations.

Installation view. Almost Non Human by Interspecifics, featuring Patricia Rea. Image: @onwhitewall

BioSoNot by Gilberto Esparza is another good example of the idea of collaboration between humans and our environments. This project started in 2013 and it was made to create awareness about the polluted rivers in Mexico – a problem that has increased with the years.

Esparza sees the BioSoNot as an instrument to convey what is happening in the rivers, and a perfect excuse to start conversations about conservation, remediation and life, and a way to connect emotionally with other organisms.

With the help of BioSoNot, a completely analogue instrument made out of microbial fuel cells, Gilberto gives a sound (or a voice) to the different bodies of water. The sound emerging from this instrument translates into audible frequency values like PH, oxidation, bacteria and other elements while it also cleans the water. The sound values for pollution elements translate into raspy and rough sounds, while cleaner bodies of water have a more harmonious sound.

Something that interested me about bringing BioSoNot to NY was the different results that the instrument would generate with the local waters. As part of the exhibition, a short documentary created by Ryan Spears presents different perspectives regarding the state of the water in NYC, and a couple of activations of the instrument at the Gowanus Canal and the Brooklyn WaterFront (Bush Terminal Park).

The video also introduces the invaluable work done by the Billion Oyster Project to regenerate the coral reefs in the NY harbour, the Gowanus Dredgers who have done amazing work in aiding to reduce the pollution in the Gowanus Canal, and Elizabethe Hénaf, scientist and artist who has conducted detailed research on the biome existing in the Gowanus Canal. These people are also great examples of humans collaborating with the environment.

Gilberto Esparza activating the BioSoNot in front of the Gowanus Canal. Image: Elisa Gutierrez Eriksen

In the brochure essay you point out – “the exhibition stresses the idea that humans are only 1 of millions of other living vibrating beings and that we require each other to make our milieu work, in the same way that us, as individuals, need every living being inside us to be. Evidently, this concepts also extrapolates to the social.” Can you bring a few examples to highlight this premise of interconnectivity?

The first work that comes to my mind when I think of interconnectivity and its extrapolation to the social realm is Tsinamekuta by Marcela Armas, an Instrument that reads and translates into sound the magnetic frequencies in minerals. In this specific case the artist worked with Pyrrhotite, a ferrous sulfide that is distinguished by its magnetic properties, and is susceptible to magnetic induction under certain processes, and that can be found, among other places, in a mine that has been producing copper, gold and silver for 150 years, located in the Potosi Highlands in Mexico. The mountain where this mine exists is called Cerro del Fraile, a name given by spanish colonizers, but originally named by the Wixárika or Huichol people Tsinamekuta, which means the house of the rain.

The extractive ways of industry have not only destroyed the mountain and the life that existed around it, but it is also a reflection of the potential disappearance of the Wixárika people. With this in mind, Marcela Armas collaborated with the Wixárika community to conduct a ceremonial act to extract a piece of pyrrhotite to then induce the information of the heartbeats of one of the members of the community, and later return the mineral to the mountain as a sacred offering.

Through this process, the heart of the Wixárika people will continue to live inside the mountain. ‘Tsinamekuta arises from the ritual approach, a repositioning of the technological object and the purpose of its use. It is also an ethical consideration of the mineral world as the foundation of life, and a space for reflection on the meaning of intention in human contact with nature.’ Marcela Armas

Tsinamekuta, Marcela Armas, 2017-2021 . Image courtesy of the artists. Image: @onwhitewall

Another piece that appeals to the history and reconstruction of spaces to explore ritualistic, poetic and listening practices is Syreny, by Tania Candiani. Syreny addresses one of the most important forms of vibration in our species. It uses the human voice as a form to integrate with space in the same frequency and with others in unison. Syreny was a project made in Poland, at a town that used to have a diverse and dynamic life as a commercial port, however in recent years that maritime commerce ceased, changing the life of this place. Syreny appeals to the reactivation and remembrance of a space from the reconstitution of history.

For Common Frequencies, besides presenting the video piece, Candiani will be working with the Grace Chorale Brooklyn and the Mexican composer Rogelio Sosa to explore the sounds that emerged from the lockdown during the pandemic. The final piece, Household Requiem, will be presented live for the closing of the exhibition in October, 2021.

Tania Candiani, Syreny, Installation view. Image: @onwhitewall

It seems that sound and language are central in this show. For instance, in Lorena Mal’s Synchrony and Tania Candiani’s Syreny. Can you tell me more about these two works and how do you see the relationship between them?

I was particularly interested in the use of systems of communication through sound that could delve into poetic relations between species and frequencies that allows us to tune into other realities less evident to human senses. In both Syreny and Household Requiem, Candiani uses human voice to reconfigure histories, memories and emotions of a recent or distanced past, although language is part of them, it is mostly focused on sonic interpretations of the world.

Lorena Mal’s Synchrony reconfigures temporalities based on the heart beat of different animal species. Since the beginning of this project, Mal has been working with composers and scientists to gather the data and find ways to translate the different beats into musical notes, tempos and rhythms, taking into account not only the beats per minute of every species but also their body mass and size. To me, both Syreny and Synchrony transport the audience into other realities, and open a portal that allows us to see more, to hear more, to realize that we’re a small part of something bigger.

Installation view. Synchrony, by Lorena Mal. Image: @onwhitewall

The artworks in the show seem to be based on rigorous research. Let us take a look at 2 pieces in the show. How do you see the relationship between the scientific research-based elements and the visual manifestation?

I think that scientific research and visual manifestations nurture each other constantly. The artists are making in some cases very simple associations, that are rooted mostly in observation -an important part of both the scientific process and the artistic process. The complexity of the pieces grows as the research and variables expand.

Synchrony explores various notions of ‘living’ time through the meeting between systems that measure it’s passing, where rhythm is both biological and musical, and tempo, pace or heartbeats are all counted as beats per minute. Many of Lorena Mal’s interests are rooted in the idea of archive and history and in Synchrony she takes elements like old metronomes and books to create new connections between these two apparently unrelated subjects (music and animals).

The installation in the gallery space presents 4 framed pieces that bring together old books about the history of music and taxonomy, carefully placed and reframed to highlight relations between these two disciplines, 3 modified metronomes that incorporate the temporalities of other living/ beating beings in different states (hibernation, sleep, calm, activity and limit) and a series of carefully placed scores mirroring that distance between beats per minute in each composition. The installation is accompanied by a 5-hour piano composition that encompasses the heartbeats of over 300 animal species, including the human heart beat, turning the act of listening into an intersubjective process of reciprocity.

Installation view of Synchrony, by Lorena Mal. Image: @onwhitewall

The Tsinamekuta installation is accompanied by a video piece where Marcela Armas activates the instrument, the instrument itself, and a reproduction of the mineral that was extracted from the Tsinamekuta mountain. Specifically in this reproduction, we can see the magnetic memory map of the rock over a reproduction of the mineral, made with white plaster, bees wax and colored beads or chaquiras—a traditional Wixárika technique. In this piece, the bead work becomes a language that amplifies and integrates a holistic perspective integrating academic with traditional knowledge, while also reflecting the spiritual relationships.

Marcela Armas, Tsinamekuta, 2016-2020, white plaster, bee wax, colored beads, 7 x 5 x 3 inches. Image: @onwhitewall

There is a strong educational and interactive element in this show. What is your goal there and what would you like visitors to take away?

I was definitely interested in opening dialogues between the artists and the NY/Brooklyn community. Due to the pandemic, many of the artists were unable to travel so we designed programming to introduce them to the NY community that was meant to engage the artists and the community as collaborators in the project before the delayed opening of the exhibition.

This programming included virtual listening sessions with Gilberto Esparza and Marcela Armas, who also explained and talked to the audience about the process in making Tsinamekuta and BioSoNot. Even though this didn’t happen at the same time of the exhibition for several logistical reasons, it was a crucial element of the project as it opened a door for connection and curiosity from the audience and enabled fruitful dialogues. Also, during this time, Interspecifics did the workshop with the students, and Lorena Mal created a version of Synchrony that was presented only for 24 hours, through the Common Frequencies website, and at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn.

In terms of the goals, I would love for this exhibition to open a door to a place where we can perceive beyond our human capabilities, and prove that there are other temporalities, other interactions, other perspectives and other possibilities towards the future. Another goal is to simply insist on the importance of open spaces for collaboration, conversation, and community.

Installation view, Almost Non Human by Interspecifics, featuring Amia MacDonald. Image: @onwhitewall

Common Frequencies / Frecuencias Comunes at BioBat Art Space Curated by Elisa Gutiérrez Eriksen. Thru October 16th, 2021. Artists: Marcela Armas, Tania Candiani, Gilberto Esparza, Interspecifics and Lorena Mal.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: