Aniara Omann at Humber Street Gallery / Hull

Aniara Omann 

Essay by Greg Nijs

12 October – 29 December 2019

Humber Streer Gallery 
64 Humber St, Hull, UK

un/imagining “us” or the stories we live by

Upon acquainting with a slice of the entities
populating Aniara Omann’s Equanipolis, you may find yourself telling stories.
Stories of origins, evolutions, transmutations, stories of alternative futures
and otherwise possible presents, stories of interdependencies, entanglements,
intimacies, and the differences within. Stories imagined, skilfully crafted,
enacted convincingly, elegantly worn.
Amidst the current period dubbed the Anthropocene,
marked by the rapid decline of biodiversity and changing climatic conditions
due to human activity, making and relaying stories has considerable importance.
For stories are big. They’re bigger than science, society, economics, politics,
and all the stuff that makes up our contemporary human lives. This is because
stories have capabilities, which are world-making, empathy-shaping,
complexity-fostering. Stories affect, guide and enable us, not just as
individuals, but as communities, societies and cultures.
Let us loop this huge potential back through Aniara
Omann’s Equanipolis. Exploring Omann’s current work cannot be done without
bringing up science fiction. Sci-Fi is usually understood as a literary or film
genre and is mostly seen as an attempt to imagine the future of our social
system. However, both Sci-Fi writers and cultural critics alike concurrently
frame Sci-Fi as a method, more precisely “a structurally unique “method”, for
apprehending the present as history”i. Sci-Fi can also be understood as a way
of reading the present through the lens of an imagined future.
Omann’s approach hovers between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’
Sci-Fi. That is to say, she brings together bio and techno-oriented
imaginaries, thereby navigating the intersection of “art in the biological,
ecological, and cyborg modes”ii. Furthermore, the tropes of Sci-Fi movie
blockbusters are sidestepped; the typical tales of human triumph or unambiguous
dystopia, of quickly unfolding cataclysm or simplistic techno-heroism. Instead,
Omann’s focus stands ‘besides’iii what is usually highlighted; epochal fashion
garments, algae, the dreamlike state of a cyborg.
The cyborg that Omann has created for Equanipolis
presents an anthropo-zoo-technological knot – tackling questions of
post/humanity, deep time and nonhuman justice-to-comeiv. As in a backward and
forward-looking archaeology, this cyborg contracts origins, evolutions and transmutations
in one figure, spanning from our deep past to a deep future. We are thereby
reminded of the importance that origin stories have for understanding “us” as a
species and their role in determining the fault line of subjectivity v.
It may be suggested that Omann relays the cyborg
environmentalist posture advanced by literary and cultural scholar Ursula K.
Heise – whereby bio- and technologically generated life-forms are not put into
opposition, but they are rather seen as allies in repairing the fallacy of
human exceptionalism. Heise proposes that “the animal cyborg can take us,
through the discovery of otherness in our own technological creations, to the
recognition of and respect for the nonhuman others we did not make”vi. Thus,
re-reading the animal cyborg, not as a replacement for bio-species but as a
co-shaping agent that queries our current take on more than human ethics.
All the while, like a hauntological thread looping
back through a deep future, wonder glimmers underneath about the existential
status of “us” as a cyborg-splice “of imploded (not hybridized) human
beings-information machines-multispecies organisms”vii. The entity’s dreamlike
state solicits questions about the extent to which human selves will dissolve.
Would such bio-technological cross-platform architectures “burst forth a wholly
different subjectivity, or none at all”?viii Will a constant state of pure
experience be the rule rather than the exception? Pulsing a pure in which self,
other and world are undifferentiated. Like a mosaic without seams. Whatever the
case, it will entail considerable boundary work between “us”, “it” and “them”.
For now, suffice it to say that we are all always already prosthetic. Most of
it depends on just how – or how just – we name and qualify our entanglements.
The abundant presence of seaweed in Equanipolis
signals another current world-making dilemma. By way of ‘thinking-with’ix –
that is by describing and connecting situated stories to foster their
‘contagious potential’ – we can thicken the plot. To that end I want to relate
Omann’s seaweed to science historian Leah Aronowsky’s ‘real’
astronaut-algae-spacecraft storyx. Although we associate spaceflight with
human’s ultimate break from nature, with the space cabin as proof of human
technological mastery over their environment (without the help of their earthly
fellows), “the story “could have been otherwise””xi.
In the 1960’s NASA considered and earnestly researched
the possibilities of a bioregenerative life-support system based on algae. Algae
would “inhabit the spacecraft and, through a series of interspecies symbiosis,
maintain cabin conditions and sustain astronaut life”xii. Aquatic systems with
bacteria-algae compositions would digest human waste, dispense drinkable water
and produce oxygen to keep the astronauts alive in space. The test results
proved very promising, but the systems were prone to instability. The algae
thrived so well that they needed to be culled by the astronauts to keep them at
the optimal bloom state. More generally, the daily human maintenance was
extensive. The demands of interspecies reciprocal care were deemed too high. It
was not worth the risk. In the years that followed, NASA’s interest and funding
for algae research faded. Were it not for the care bias, the story could have
continued otherwise. As Aranowsky notes: “the history of American spaceflight
as we know it today was not at all inevitable, and in fact it could well have
been a thoroughly multispecies affair”xiii.
Let’s make a speculative wager here and take Omann’s
Equanipolis’ seaweed as a material metaphor. The sheer abundance hints at a
reversal of the “backgrounding of herbality”xiv, by literally spreading it
around the entire exhibition. In enveloping everything, not only are we drawn
into an encounter – drawn into granting due attention – but we are also
confronted with an oblique reminder: that we’re all astronauts and Earth is a
space cabin running on a bioregenerative life-support system.
Since its conception from early capitalist modernity,
fashion has been an agent of change. As a nexus of creative imagination and
social self-differentiation it has afforded humanist emancipation across race,
class and gender. In its late postmodern phase, unfettered imagination cut
loose representation from substrate. This turned out to be both a blessing and
a curse. Im/material resources and labours became more and more invisible and
thus were unaccounted for. Anything goes and all is possible, production nor
matter holding the flux back. Or so it seemed.
What if we were to take the best of both worlds, yet
with a twist? As in Omann’s vestimentary applied speculative fabulation. To
unleash an unbridled imaginary for emancipation once over – actually attempting
to do it, not just referencingxv. Yet this time affording more than human
emancipation. We’d arrive at something compostmodern going composthuman, in
which “us” is not “us” is “us” again.
Upon acquainting with a slice of the entities populating
Aniara Omann’s Equanipolis, you may find yourself telling stories, telling
stories after stories told. In the process, you may be touched, thereby
potentially transforming yourself, and touching, thereby potentially
transforming the world. Subsequently you may solicit others around you to be
and do equally so. And this, my dear fellow human, may turn out to be crucial,
in some future past. Seriously. It’s the stories we live by that can invigorate
us towards another here and now.
Greg Nijs is a researcher, curator, teacher and
writer. He was trained as a sociologist, and is currently working as a
researcher at Urban Species – a Brussels-based academic action-research
collective focussed on citizen participation and technology development. Nijs
is the co-founder and co-director of c-o-m-p-o-s-i-t-e, a Brussels-based
contemporary art space, where he has created specific work protocols, which
allow curator and artist to engage intimately, both conceptually and
materially, in the production of exhibitions.
Aniara Omann (b. 1987, Denmark) lives and works in
Glasgow, UK. Omann’s practice evolves around themes of interconnection, ecology
and social fictions. Working across sculpture, writing, drawing and live
performance Omann seeks to expose and question the apparent boundaries of
individual objects and their projected identities. The work is often produced
using methods and materials found in manual special effects and prop making.
Aronowsky, L.V. (2017). Of Astronauts and Algae. NASA
and the Dream of Multispecies Flight. Environmental Humanities, 9:2 (November
Barad, K. (2015). On Touching – The Inhuman That
Therefore I am. In Kirsten Stakemeier and Suzanne Witzgall (eds.) Power of
Material/Politics of Materiality, Zürich: Diaphanes.
Gruber, D. (2011). Bodies Without Skin. Feeling out of
a Ubiquitous Future., Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc025.
Hache, E. (2015). The Futures Men Don’t See. In Didier
Debaise and Isabelle Stengers (eds.) Gestes Speculatifs, Dijon: Les presses du
Haraway, D. (2011). SF: Science Fiction, Speculative
Fabulation, String Figures, So Far, Pilgrim Award Acceptance Comments, July 7,
Heise, U.K. (2003). From Extinction to Electronics:
Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs and Electric Sheep, in Cary Wolfe (ed.)
zoontologies. The question of the animal, Minneapolis: Minnesota University
Houle, K. (2011) Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as
Extension or Becoming? The case of Becoming-Plant, Journal for Critical Animal
Studies, Vol. X, Issue 1/2.
Jameson, F. (2005). Archeologies of the Future: The
Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.
Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017) Matters of Care.
Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Yusoff, K. (2018). A Billion Black Anthropocenes or
None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

i. Jameson, 2005: 288, ii. Haraway, 2011: 2, iii. see
Hache, 2015, iv. see Barad, 2015, v. see Yusoff, 2018, vi. Heise, 2003: 78,
vii. Haraway, 2011: 6, viii. Gruber, 2011, ix. see Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017,
x. Aronowsky, 2017, xi. Ibid.: 361, xii. Ibid.: 361, xiii. Ibid.: 361, xiv.
Houle, 2011, xv. Aniara Omann, pers. comm