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On Coexistence: Unboxing Jenna Sutela’s “Protoplasmic Flow”

Review
Review
Artificial Intelligence
Disappearing
Donna Haraway
Grunewald
Mailart
Petri Dish
Physarum Polycephalum
review
Unboxing

As part of the Samara Editions project, Eva Neklyaeva, Lisa Gilardino, and Marco Cendron invite artists to contribute performance pieces that can be distributed by mail – physical, not e-mail. Those who buy a ticket will have a box sent to their house; it contains everything necessary for the work to be experienced from home. This mail performance art not only turns recipients into performers and incorporates art into everyday spaces and practices, it also is organized by an entity that occupies a space somewhere between promoter, curator, and publisher. Additionally, the art form begs the question how it ought to be reviewed and critiqued. We asked German author and publicist Sascha Ehlert to go in search of answers to this question and to review one of Samara Editions’ postal art works. Ehlert accepted and received Jenna Sutela’s “Protoplasmic Flow”. The Finnish artist works with audiovisual, sculptural, and performative media to reveal connections between the natural, human, and technological spheres. Her works have been shown, among other places, in London’s Serpentine Galleries, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and at the Shanghai Biennale.

Text Sascha Ehlert
Images provided by Samara Editions
The box and its contents. Photo: The Author.

I set myself a goal for this review: to fail as a journalist. I wouldn’t do research beforehand or google terms I hadn’t heard of; I wouldn’t formulate a premise to be explored through the contents of the little parcel; and so I couldn’t have been curiouser. The box I just received contains a square little black box. It bears a monogram, which I can’t decipher, as well as the name of the artist and the title of the work: Protoplasmic Flow. As I said: googling prohibited. I open the box and take out: a little black bowl with a lid, folded instructions, and three opaque, tightly sealed black baggies. I unfold the instructions.

And I read: „In anticipation of futures free from the modern urge to achieve domination over nature and each other, and in preparation for a new human form, it is useful to excercise a more fluid, symbiotic existence with other life-forms.” I’m reminded of reading Donna Haraway, and how important it seemed to me that humans find different ways to connect to octopi, corals, and so on. How strange and wonderful it all was, the way Haraway wrote about the relations between species and the necessity of a practice of coexistence. At the same time, I remember how exhaustingly difficult it is to put the lessons from this reading into practice as far as my lived experience of technology, the supermarket, and my deeply ingrained habits are concerned.

The instructions also introduce me to a species called Physarum Polycephalum, a billion-years-old slimy fungus that, I’m told, could survive in every nook and cranny of the planet and even in space. And now I’m meant to cultivate it in my living room. The little black bowl in the box is a petri dish, the instructions tell me, which I’m supposed to sprinkle with boiling water and a powder consisting of algae.

I decide to gift the alien species that supposedly lives on the small yellow paper enclosed in the second black baggie a little bit of spit.

The next step makes a bit uncomfortable, which translates into a tingling sensation in my left nostril: I’m to collect some saliva or blood. For half an hour, I think about asking my girlfriend to cut my finger, but ultimately that feels a little too black magic-y. I decide to gift the alien species that supposedly lives on the small yellow paper enclosed in the second black baggie a little bit of spit. All this is to say, the petri dish now contains a single-cell organism, algae, and my oral excretion. Next, I’m to store the bowl beneath my bed for the night without disturbing, and because I’m a slavish performer, I do just that.

I wake up the next day, my eye lids sticking together, and am full of expectancy for I don’t know what. But I’m irritated initially by the realization that nothing much seems to have happened in the bowl. Baggie number three, however, is still unused. It contains oat flakes. I present the Physarum Polycephalum one flake and add a little spit for good measure. Over the next few days, something happens: the more oat flakes I add, the moister they get and are subsumed, so to speak, into this thing, this expanding organism. My spit is part of it. And there’s something else: initially I was wishing for more to happen while I wondered what differentiated this performance from the experiments with the primeval crabs in the Yps magazine my parents had given me as a kid. By now, I’m sucked in by the performance and feed the organism, which partly consists of a part of me, on a daily basis. I frequently wonder what would happen if I stopped doing that. The instructions read: “if the organism is not sufficiently fed, it will flow out of its container in search for more food.” I’m intrigued to see this, but I’m also a little scared. Apparently I’d prefer it if the alien thing stayed in its cage. Yet, and this is interesting, with every day that passes with the thing living in my apartment, the more I think of and about it. Now it spends its night underneath the couch (having something live under my bed kept me from a good night’s sleep), but after a little more than a week, it’s still a part of my daily life. I don’t know yet how the situation will develop, but it seems that I completed phase one of the performance (called “Coliving”). Phase two is called “Coexistence (Advanced).” The instructions read: “Consider this experience as a form of artificial intelligence. The Silke Servus as a paranoic-criticial agent, helping you make Connection where none previously existed. It‘s movement will take you where you need to go.”

The thing, which contains my DNA, survives me and all my progeny. It doesn’t live off the labor of others and never harms anyone or thing.

I realize that phase two is a lasting process incompatible with the deadline of this review, which is to say, I don’t know yet what will happen with the thing and me. Instead of making something up, I want to conclude this text with suggestions for two possible endings to the story. Both came to me while writing.

A.

A few days after the publication of this text, my girlfriend and I decide to hire a cleaner, as a one-off impulse born from our faux-bourgeois aspirations. When the cleaner bangs the vacuum cleaner around the underside of the couch, they discover the black bowl, open it, and toss it out with the garbage because of its foul smell. The thing lands in the maws of Berlin’s waste management where it finds a home in a container. There it lives and feeds from then on to the last days of humanity.

B.

The thing and I become friends. At one point I run out of oat flakes, and the black bowl gets too cramped for my friend, so I decide to give it something one more time: freedom. We drive out to Grunewald forest, find a moist, cozy spot among the fallen leaves next to an ancient-looking oak, and say goodbye. The thing, which contains my DNA, survives me and all my progeny. It doesn’t live off the labor of others and never harms anyone or thing.

Review
Artificial Intelligence
Disappearing
Donna Haraway
Grunewald
Mailart
Petri Dish
Physarum Polycephalum
review
Unboxing