The multi-media artist’s guide to the galaxy-An interview with Golnaz Behrouznia

Golnaz Behrouznia is a multi-media artist who employs scientific data and sci-fi aesthetics to interrogate her audience about the future of Earth and our role in the universe. While being guided through her imaginative installations, we got to talk about her views on the persuasive power of art and the possibilities of art-science and other interdisciplinary experiments in the communication of environmental concerns. Starting from Reverse Phylogenesis, a museum-like installation complete with artificial specimens and labels, Golnaz takes us on a thrilling discovery of futuristic scenarios and holistic interactions.

Ki Culture: You have recently exhibited Reverse Phylogenesis — made in collaboration with Dominique Peysson — where you displayed many pieces connected to the reversed life cycle of jellyfish in a museum-like scenography, realized by Rémi Boulnois. Can you take us through some of your decisions regarding the display and type of environment you created? How important is the feeling of the space?

Golnaz Behrouznia: In the project I did with Dominique Peysson, in order to question something in the real, we were thinking that we had to get close to it. Creating a kind of experience to live, perhaps creating a parallel. To give the feeling of a scientific context, or as you say, of a sort of museum in a work such as Reverse Phylogenesis we must respect the codes of that context. The elements in a scientific laboratory or even in a museum are well-lit and usually accompanied by precise information, pictograms, and support in the showcases. This is why our scenographer Rémi Boulnois envisaged things in this way. He wanted to create a minimalist and purified space to give the idea of a future aesthetic, also echoing science fiction. To give symmetry with the phylogenetic times, crossing past-future.

In short, the given atmosphere is the form of the work which visitors can feel and receive. It was necessary to put the visitors in the atmosphere, in the context, to be able to tell them the content.

Two glass cases in the dark with pink and red objects that look like coral in them, like specimens in a museum

K.C.: Speaking of museums, the new definition of museums has been recently compiled by ICOM. How do you think artists can help museums fulfill the new resolutions, especially regarding accessibility, inclusion, diversity, and sustainability? Have you felt supported by institutions in these aspects?

The new definition for reference: “A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

G.B.: Reverse Phylogenesis opens a breach and provides trails for multiple experiences which can lead to different questions. At the core, it seeks to question the tools of perception employed in our society and our fundamental means of knowledge. Museums, for instance, but also the approach of the sciences, it makes us ask “which other possible ways for studying and observing the world do we possess?” The book Science avec conscience (Science with a conscience) by Edgar Morin criticizes the fact that scientific observation does not accept its suggestiveness, detaching itself from human sciences.

A black sign with text and images and a cylindrical shape out of focus

For us, it was important to link different ways of perceiving. Reverse phylogenesis questions the construction of knowledge and research, through the creation of a parallel collection, and finally a parallel narrative. The construction of logic, as a basis for scientific demonstration, is apparent in the design and textual dimension of the project. We have created an autonomous system that has its own coherence, which we built through the textual propositions (labels) of each object or entity: they can be images, diagrams, classifications, or descriptions. This is done to invent structures and contexts through an artist’s eye which aims to broaden the imaginary, give possibilities for new visions, and free itself from a centralized voice, but above all to think about knowledge in an interdisciplinary way as it still proposes philosophers of complexity to renew the sciences to obtain a look more coherent and more adapted to our world of today. We have shown Reverse Phylogenesis only in art centers like Teatros del Canal in Madrid and iMAL in Brussels until now, but it would be interesting to create a dialogue between this speculative work and a museum collection in the future.

K.C.: Your practice seems to entail a constant discovery of new materials. In Apparitions, you used rocks to create objects that remind us of fossils, for example. How do you choose your materials? What relationship do they have with the concepts?

G.B.: The choice of forms and materials arises in an intertwined way with the concepts within the process of formation of a project. For Apparitions, I was invited to do a research residency about the stones in a small town called Saint Béat on the Spanish border, where the director François-Xavier Poulaillon, together with institutional cultural partners, had set up the possibility of revisiting the practice of stone working in a contemporary project. While being there and visiting the quarries, I thought about the fact that minerals are the memory of the living. By observing the forms on each piece of marble, I tried to make a body, a form, an entity appear. How can I make a trace of the past emerge in the future? This game interests me. It was one of the works that formed a basis for Reverse Phylogenesis later on.

A rock with the shape of a fantastic looking animal engraved on it

K.C.: In some of your works, such as Morphogenetic tensions the boundary between fiction and scientific facts blurs and opens up to unexpected results. Using 3D sculpting, 360 animation, drawing, diagrams and effects the artwork takes us on a journey through morphing biological shapes. Where can speculative fiction lead us? Do you think we can find answers in this sort of visual language?

G.B.: I think that fiction and hypothetical forms conveyed through art can give us good cues to speak about the real. We can use fiction to question the “true”, go into the past to question the future, or develop the fictional and poetic to echo scientific reality.

I, as a “non-scientific” person, seek to reproduce the sensitive subjects of our world, observing the general elements of science. This is perhaps why the boundaries between the concept of art and the question of reality are blurred, but the difference with other fields such as sociology or environmental studies is that my work does not provide faithful or useful illustrations. Moreover, it does not provide a direct contribution to a scientific solution nor to its popularization. My artistic work gives fields, visions, sensations, and perspectives, but not answers. It can help people to open up to new questions, to imagining, to feeling, and maybe then to rethinking current and future situations.

New media forms and digital technology can give us the possibility to mix languages. Movement in image and sound can create more immersive and real sensations than frozen elements like sculpture can. Also, computer programing allows us to generate elements in connection with real data, putting us in more of a living experience. Finally, I think it is normal for someone to go seek the techniques and tools of their time, to speak about the questions of their time.

three abstract colorful shapes on a black background.

K.C.:Different artists have diverse ways of approaching what we might call environmental questions. You seem to favor an “art-science” approach, using science and tech languages and semiotics to create sci-fi scenarios, like in Dissimularium 0.2., a sort of imaginative diorama that speculates about the future of human and more-than-human interactions. Miniature landscapes populated by miniature figurines and architectural structures take us to a possible tomorrow. Can you talk about that artwork from your perspective? Where does your interest in science and sci-fi come from?

G.B.: In my pieces, there is an art/science approach that seems to me to belong to the less common contemporary art/science voice. I see some artists working in a very sharp way and using something close to scientific form and data, while other artists in the visual arts fieldwork from a distance, in connection with rather vague notions and metaphors. On my part, I have a strong interest in the question of our future on Earth and the environments typical of our contemporary scenario.

A dark landscape where nothing is distinguishable. Only in the center a scene with small figurines is lightly illuminated

For Dissimilarium 0.2 I wanted to observe these strong transformations of the terrestrial environments and the hybridization of the elements within these environments (terrestrial elements, micro or macroscopic, biological, mineral, and meteorological) with the artifacts of humans.I also wanted to observe the taming of these elements and ask “what will the future of all this be”?

So, instead of sticking to precise spaces and geographical references, I tried to work on the origin of forms. Objects with ambiguous forms can take different tendencies according to the light and sound design, which is scripted in a generative way. In these islands, the figures in scale observe the future of these landscapes. Visitors can project themselves into these miniature scenes. Through various scenarios of light and sound, I definitely chose several contexts that echo both the sci-fi literature of the 20th century and various futuristic theories, like many approaches to anticipations, uchronies, or dystopias such as Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The war of the worlds by H. G. Wells.

In a dark landscape three red spotlights illuminate miniature architectural structures

Especially since these landscapes are to be interpreted and quite enigmatic, the visitors will take in what is possible for them. They will be able to collect references for their future landscapes, being fed vague geographical indications as opposed to very precise ones. The way is open, these islands are applicable to many different situations. And of course, this is to reflect on all the inhabitants of the planet and not only centralize on mankind. Man is but one of the components of nature, not the other way around.

For me, creating miniature islets that live and transform from one phase to another was a way to give life to frozen objects, and to create several possible realities in the same context. That way, I only offered views of suggestive fiction. To speak about the real, though, I wanted to give an anchoring in the real. I collaborated with an astrophysicist and I searched for data on the universe, astronomy, and data on the beginning of the universe 400 thousand years after the big bang. The farthest information we have.

I included those elements in order to create, again, symmetries and games: the miniature islets connected to the infinite universe, its past, and the future of Earth. This also puts humans in the context of the universe to remind them once again of the space they occupy. They are not at the center of the world. And if they cause themself and Earth to disappear, all that will remain is just dust vanishing in space. Is nature in our contemporary or future time defined as forms controlled and modified by the intervention of mankind?

K.C.: Your works often deal with environmental questions and our perception of the non-human. What fascinates you about these topics?

G.B.: What has always fascinated me is understanding the world in which I belong. I could never get used to the majestic phenomena of nature, biological or geological. I liked to produce a possibility of this fascination for the public, through the autonomous universes that I create. I do this to ask the central question: what is life? Additionally, other questions I tackle are what is living? what is nature within our world of today? what is its future?

My research aims to raise these questions within society to develop a more conscious relationship between mankind and life in general. If we bring back the wonder in our gaze, and some decentralization in our relationship with other occupants of Earth, we can change the world and create a different communion with the rest.

K.C.: In works like Dramaturgy of biospheric cycles, you employ a specific narrative to immerse the viewer in concepts that are typically hard to grasp like our presence in the biosphere. The video-mapping installation narrates the cycles of Earth and shows them overlapping and syncronizing. What strategies do you think can be used by museums and artists to talk about the future of humanity, climate change, displacement, and other difficult topics?

G.B.: It is necessary to create sensory experiences. We are more likely to be taken by our senses and by our lived experiences than by logical discourses. It is necessary that different languages and fields help each other. We must not forget the power of art and that scientists, philosophers, and sociologists should work more often in collaboration with artists.

A figure with appendices that look like tentacles emerges from the dark

Artistic expression is located in such a place for me: it contains no knowledge, utility, science, notion, or solution. But it doesn’t prevent us from revisiting the knowledge, the sciences, the notions, the costly problems and reformulating them, to highlight them or interpret them in new ways, to move us outside from our points of view, to help develop another perspective, new connections.

C.K.: What is sustainability to you? How important is it and where do you find it in your practice? Do you consciously make sustainable choices when you make art?

G.B.: I think that we must absolutely and urgently change our direction and our global and national centers of operation. The problem is that financial profit is the goal of every private system, and governments are completely in agreement and in connection with this central goal. This means that, despite our scientific and technological advances, we dealt a lot of damage to the planet, a lot of imbalance, and caused human and non-human suffering. I think the fundamental solution is rather to raise awareness at this level, and for people to mature their awareness about the necessity of fundamental change. Because when the infection is deep, even if consumers are consuming less and eating more organic food, we are still only treating the surface, not the central problem. What can we do? Work on collective awareness and sensitivity?

A mass, or maybe organ, with appendices that look like tentacles emerges from the dark

I think that to say that the big problem is the electricity consumed by museums means not getting to the heart of the issue. In reality, we need to look at the figures relatively and understand that global warming is not going to decrease at all if the big industries and powerful governments don’t give up ultra-liberalism. We should try to echo what the Earth is able to give us, and do more of what’s good and coherent for the people and the planet instead of seeking more profit.

How can we replace the financial system? Which forces growth in a finite and now fragile world, in favor of a healthy economy? The codes of our global economic system should be redefined. We need to gain the courage to change this. Sustainability comes when the obligation of growth and the one of renewal, disappears. How can we do this? Artists can only put questions on the table.

My artistic choices regarding sustainability are not about form but about substance. I don’t do anything lucrative and I don’t charge to take advantage of it and abuse it. But sure, I do make my materials last as long as possible.

To explore more of Golnaz Behrouznia artworks and poetics visit her website https://www.golnazbehrouznia.com and to learn about sustainable solutions for museums and artists visit kiculture.org

Valentina Bianchi is a Brussels-based curator particularly interested in environmental questions and the role of art in our relation with nature. She has been collaborating with Ki Culture since 2020 and is now contributing with interviews on the blog.

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Sustainability is the future. Culture is the key. We are Ki Culture.