“Archives are the things that are curated but not exclusively by human beings!”
Katrin Hornek is an artist who works interdisciplinary in art and science. Her current project, "The Anthropocene Surge," models and maps the spatial development of the anthropogenic layers in Vienna as a 3D body. Together with scientists, Hornek tries to create a visual language for human deposits in Vienna from the Romans until today. Natalia Gurova talked with Katrin Hornek about her ongoing project, the differences between human and non-human archives and how the artist deals with data on a nano to meta scale, as well as private, artistic and geologic data.
You are currently involved in a 4-year research project in cooperation with Michael Wagreich at the University of Vienna, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group. He is working with a group of people who try to make Anthropocene a new geologic epoch which marks the human being as a geologic factor. Could you tell me more about the work in this project and what kind of archives you are accessing?
We are attempting to map and understand the "human-made" ground of Vienna. Together with scientists from various fields, we’re trying to grasp the anthropogenic soil, map it and to create a 3D model out of it. I accompany this process with my camera in order to imagine the so-called "Anthropocene" on a physical level. What does it mean to live on soil, that is so disturbed and interconnects non-human time and geological time; and is traversed by digitalization?
Working together for such a long period, and also sharing context-specific formats like conferences, workshops, and papers, we aim to invent new languages, new metaphors, new ways of recording. Some of the scientific outcomes are increasingly aiming to create images that carry messages that people can understand and work with.
The digging into the ground, into the human archive can give us some new markers. What could these look like?
Usually, whenever you claim a new epoch, you need a marker, a golden spike that marks this major event on a global scale. For instance, the golden spike which marks the beginning of the Holocene – the epoch we are currently living in until the Anthropocene will be officially recognized – was found in an Ice core, which marks the material evidence of the new epoch. Undisturbed caves for instance with growing stalagmites and stalactites are excellent recorders for global climate change too. If they grow continuously, they can be read like tree rings. For the Anthropocene, the best spike will probably be plutonium fallout from bomb tests in the 1950s. This could be read from corals, which are also good biologic recorders. I have heard that the nuclear fallout of some bomb tests are still sinking down the water column and haven’t even reached the ocean floor yet. From a geologic point of view, in the blink of an eye, many things have changed dramatically, which is challenging all methods and fields.
As far as I understood in the team you are working with, everyone is trying to create an image of what's going on, not necessarily visual. What kind of image are you aiming to create?
Within my work, I am tracing different narratives and stories. I'm looking at how the narratives of so-called culture and nature are changing, especially within the Anthropocene, where it's said, that humans are becoming a geologic force. Nature can’t be reduced to a backdrop, a landscape or a stage for human needs anymore. Concepts are collapsing and new stories have to be told. I'm against the narrative of a privileged position of human beings.
To give you an example of another storyline following a different path: one project of mine traces stones which get produced in human bodies - so-called body stones - like gallstones, bladder stones, and kidney stones. They get produced inside and outside bodies in the very same way. Just like the mineral Weddellite, which is the second most-produced body stone in humans here in Austria and which was for the first time found outside the bladders at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, which is located around the south pole. Therefore, the bottom of the Weddell Sea and organic bladders seem to produce the same environment. If you read from those stones, which stories do they tell? Those body stones also build a geologic archive, but a different one.
I'm very interested in those changing constellations, which leads us to past conditions in nature, where the relationship between all the connected parts have to be rewritten and newly imagined. How will the new alliances between objects and subjects look like?
Your artistic oeuvre includes the outcome of long-term research projects. Could you compare the archive you are working now on, which is Vienna’s soil ecosystem to more classical ones?
Within the Anthropocene Surge project, the first thing that blew my mind was the drill core storage here in Vienna. There, the most recent drill cores are stored in order to examine the stability and composition of the ground. When you see a drill core from Vienna’s underground, you see the most recent ground you might have walked on, but you also see millions of years in the past, the deeper you go. You also see the changing layers in color gradings and change of materials. Compared to a lot of classical archives I have been to and tried to gain knowledge, that was a very physical and direct experience. Everything is captured in one core, in one image.
Another archive-based piece I did was in 2013 in Los Angeles. I spent one month at the L.A. public library and collected all 600 books with the word 'plastic' in the title. I sorted all collected items chronologically and made a book out of the scanned title pages. I wanted to see the plasticity of the term plastics in a city like Los Angeles, where grassroots ecological cultures clash with petro cultures and the cinema industry.
As the decades of the twentieth century unfold, the titles touch on mass production, war materials, multinational corporations, Tupperware, plastic surgery, plastic money, plastic art, recycling and printing in plastics.
Since I did these projects at different libraries over the years, they also become a portrait of the collecting institutions. Questions arise like: what is the first critical book and when did it join the collection? How is supporting the institution and what do the changing signatures tell about ways of organizing different libraries?
How do you work in these archives? Does the idea influence the method of your work?
My first approach often depends on what archives we are talking about. Is it a library or an open pit? On the ground, I often try to connect on a physical and tactile level. But in my studio, I do work a lot with mood boards because I need visuals to make interconnections. When it makes sense, I also do interviews. But I force myself not to do the interviews too professionally because then it's harder to skip the material and not use interview footage. I think in order to become something else, it needs another translation.
How important is archiving your works and how do you do it?
For me, doing lecture-performances is a way to archive and sort my work but also to re-write it. For those lectures, I often trace changing human-stone relationships. I don't know if I would call that an archive though - Let's say it is a temporary archive, a vessel.
For me, it is very important to follow a material through different systems and start relating that thing to other entities. Like following the apatite of human bones to a marble sculpture, which might have been a future geologic host for growing an apatite outside of the body. Like following the CO2 exhaled from my lungs, which gets precipitated by a shell in order to build a shelter, which eventually becomes limestone, which is crushed and burned and becomes cement, which transforms into another artificial rock formation architecture.
Lecture performances help me to ventilate these cycles which I try to grasp and translate. I often try to take things from the natural sciences and loop them through art. The first step is translating materials into language, and a language is a very good way to imagine further.
How often do you revisit the works you did earlier? How does this time machine work for you: when do you come back, how far, for what purposes?
Many of my works are interconnected. Since I do a lot of long-term projects, I feel my work is never finished. On the one hand, this is frustrating sometimes, but on the other hand, it's also beneficial. I feel my work itself becomes a little organism, that is reworking and re-writing itself.
Do you have a physical archive?
I have three different spaces (my home, my studio and my office) where I like to work and where I also store artworks, research, paperwork, bills, as well as 12 hard drives.
What's the difference between archiving and collecting, and what makes an archive an archive?
An archive is a thing that is worked through, curated, sorted and collected. But then again, I would also call Vienna’s underground an archive. If you say that everything is an archive, it loses its distinction. Geologists also call rock formations sedimentary archives – an archive that is collected over time and materializes in rock formations. Maybe archives are things that are curated but not necessarily exclusively by human beings.