Looking at bodies and ecosystems through arts

The Sonic Acts Biennial 2024 started at the beginning of February, celebrating 30 years of artistic and interdisciplinary research with the theme ‘The Spell of Sensuous.’ With performances, exhibitions, club nights across Amsterdam and Zaandam, and a two-day symposium during the festival weekend, the Biennial closed at the end of March after two months of activities.

Between criticality and engagement, Sonic Acts is an interdisciplinary organisation exploring different modes of research and understandings through the lens of arts. Seeking the invisible intersections between humans, nature and technology, the Biennial’s theme takes inspiration by ecological thinker David Abram’s text ‘The Spell of Sensuous’ (1997). Different artworks and creative approaches unfold a multiplicity of ways to perceive our bodies and the world of non-humans as part of an interconnected flow. While Western conceptual frameworks often perceive body and mind, nature and technology, as separated entities, the rapid escalation of climate change and disruptive use of new technologies calls for a ground to investigate new paradigms including these unpredictable and hidden intersections. Exploring the role of art in these ongoing social and environmental transformations, the festival investigates how forms of expressions can respond differently to the complex world of non-humans.

Dividing the exhibition in two spaces in Amsterdam centre, the curatorial approach suggests a multiplicity of entry points to embrace the complex fluidity behind scientific data and numbers. Entering gallery W139, Harun Morrison’s speculative fiction work ‘The Telepathic Butterfly’ (2022-2024) tells the story of a butterfly able to escape the Lyceum taxonomy for centuries because of intraspecies telekinesis. Next to the collaborative work ‘Environmental Justice Questions,’ Morrison’s speculations question how scientific paradigms size reality and our understanding of the environment. Expanding the idea of ‘sensuous body,’ the Biennial encourages to re-think the intricate web of relations and intersections in a wider ecosystem.

In the same gallery space, Natasha Tontey’s ‘The epic of Mapalucene series’ (2021) zooms on the Indonesian Minahasa tribe to illustrate how different narratives and beliefs are deeply interwoven with past and current social structures. The tribe believes that the first person on Earth was a woman who gave birth through a stone. Following these mythologies, the economy of the tribe was based on gifts, voluntarism and mutual aid. After colonial times, the Minahasans’ economy evolved into a stone-based exchange system, combining their old traditions with the new colonialist and capitalistic system. The two video installations, one with loud headphones, is a hectic representation of this evolving reality, and the contradictions coming with it. Walking into the dark room upstairs, visitors could sit on a grass carpet to experience the mixing of sounds, colours and images from two screens. The experience of the work is almost overwhelming, representing how contradictory narratives create frictions while finding new synthesis in an ongoing transformation.

Moving between environmental and social criticalities, the exhibition invites us to look at the intersections of different cases rather than at their differences. Brackish Collective’s installation ‘Still Life of a Laid Table with Lecithin and Voice’ (2024) takes inspiration from a banketje, a popular painting style among Dutch middle-class merchants, to illustrate the impact of production, commodity and trade. Next to the installation, Pedro Matias’ ‘dépaysement’ (2023) invited the visitors to sit on glowing Coralia and Molluskulars to listen to digitally generated landscapes acting as subjectivities of micro and macros worlds, while Jota Mombaça’s video installation ’waterwill’ (2022) explores the impact of logistic and migration of our social fabric. In the middle of the space, Touche-Touche’ ’Senser,’ inspired by Christian distributors of incense, allows the visitors to touch the ceramic material and smell the scent coming from the installation, while Annika Kappner’s installation ‘ATER MUTI’ (2024) explores alternative futures through the the five elements, air, water, earth, fire, and aether. Next, the double screen ‘My Want of You Partakes of Me’ (2023) by Sasha Litvintseva & Beny Wagner closes the exhibition interrogating the process of digestion as a fundamental condition for being in the world through multiple storylines.

Human and non-human bodies, visible or invisible, form a net of relations in constant metamorphosis and exchange, creating new dynamics in the ecological and socio-political ecosystem. Any body, not only the human body, is more than a singular unit and it is also influenced by, and impacting, others and the world. In Looiersgracht 60 gallery, the installation ‘Residue, colliding archives: Chapter 3’ by Elena Khurtova & Anika Schwarzlose explores these complex intersections zooming on the Hamburg weapons factory. Active from 1904 to 2003 in the Amsterdam neighbourhood Zaandam, the industrialised production still poisons the soil in the area as well as the factory’s weapons are still distributed in international conflicts. Starting from the intersection of history, material production, and land, the installation becomes an artistic historical artifact to explore what is left out of the main narrative. On the ground floor, artist and filmmaker Lukas Marxt researches the Salton Sea in South California to capture with different media the rapid change of the ecosystem after nuclear and weapon testing. As a result of this aggressive treatment, the land, now scouted for lithium mining, is predicted to become a dust bowl within the next 20 years. From an upscaled 18-pieces assembly kit of the Hyroshima atomic bomb, ‘Little Boy 1:1’ (2022), to the video-installation ‘Valley Pride’ (2023), Marxt’s works give an overview of the complex interactions between ecosystems and technological productions through time.

Entering the gallery, visitors could walk in the wooden box decorated by Laschulas Collective, ‘On Breath and Sound: Narrative Strategies for a Contaminating Composition’ (2022). Inside, a mixture of voices and sounds, as well as words on the wall, guide you into a meditative state. The wooden box is red, and people can sit on pillows almost forgetting the outside world. Walking out the wooden box, visitors could play with two other installations by Touche-Touche and produced by Chris Paxton. Rather than scent, ‘Fountains 01-02’ captures the audience with sound and vibration. Next, ‘Olibath’ is an interactive installation made of an engraved and slit open block of mattress foam, inviting visitors to sit and reflect on how the artificial world is deeply influencing the way we think and act. Through a diversity of media and conceptual research, the Biennial’s exhibitions suggest new ways to understand how bodies are interconnected and how mutually transform through time.

Alongside the exhibitions, the Biennial proposed a multiplicity of events, talks and performances. In The Listening Room at Zone2Source, visitors could discover newly commissioned work by artists such as Felicity Mangan, KMRU, Slikback, Galen Tipton, Hugo Esquinca & Russell Haswell, and Mint Park. In conduction, iconic recordings by artists and thinkers like Annea Lockwood, Hildegard Westerkamp or BJ Nilsen become part of an octophonic sound installation giving life to Sonic Acts’ archives. Among the new works, the sound installation Embedded/Embodied by Farzané explores sonic knowledge as a dynamic and evolving process. During the Festival, the 12-performance TRANCE is between a concert, an underground rave, an immersive theatre production, and a hypnotic cinematic experiment. By Asian Dope Boys director and contemporary artist Tianzhuo Chen, the evolving performance is a synthesis of the artist’s work. Presented in Paradiso by Sonic Acts and Hartwig Art Foundation, the multidisciplinary work captures the audience creating a surreal world responding to different rules. The audience and performers are filmed and streamed during the show, blurring the lines between viewers and artists. Evolving from a meditative collective dance to a concert and DJ set in the night, the hectic performance represents the festival’s intention of exploring different languages to open new perspectives. After TRANCE, ‘Expanded Experience’ invited the audience to a multi-sensory experience in Muziekgebouw. The six hours of concert and audio-visual screenings challenge the distinctions between image and sounds, proposing playful and cutting-edge explorations to engage the audience with alternative artistic practices.

During the festival, the two-day symposium delved into the question ‘what is more than human?’ exploring new ways to connect with the natural world. From writer Astrida Neimanis reflects on the feeling coming from the fear of climate change, to artist and researcher Adriana Knouf introducing Xenology as a flux of transformations to break Wester binary frameworks, the discussions touched upon several points to explore different conceptual frameworks including non-human bodies in the conversation. In combination, film screenings such as Sébastien Robert and Mark IJzerman’s Another Deep (Try-out), an immersive project that explores the impending deep-sea mining in the Svalbard region, or Susan Schuppli’ world premier’s Moving Ice, delving into European and American merchants’ routes for cargos to unveil less-known consequences of industrialisation in the 1800s.

The Biennial officially ended at the end of March with a series of participatory and interactive workshops. In the Zandaam centre Het HEM, the audience could listen to the story of the wind with Minji Kim, ride a bike becoming part of a participatory performance on the weather with Yeon Sung, exploring the area through sounds with Mint Park to create a collective composition, or walk around with Elena Khurtova and Anika Schwarzlose in the former weapons factory to see how the past still have traces in the present.

Combining commissioned works with cutting-edge performances, the Biennial creates a space to discuss and think differently not only about the place we live in, but also how we inhabit it and our responsibility towards it. Understanding the world in holistic terms, Sonic Acts is an example to imagine differently the relationship between nature and technology, environment and society, and try to rethink our role as humans not in anthropocentric terms but rather as part of a living ecosystem.