Erich Berger is an artist, curator and cultural worker based in Helsinki, Finland, with a specific focus on the intersection of art, science and technology and a critical view of how they transform society and the world as a whole. Throughout his career he has explored the materiality of information, using information and technology as artistic material.
Berger’s current interest in the issues of deep time and hybrid ecology has led him to work with geological processes, radiogenic phenomena, and their socio-political implications in the here and now. He straddles a line between the visual arts and science in a field that he also researches and develops as director of the Bioart Society of Helsinki. His installations, performances and interfaces are widely exhibited and have received awards from renowned institutions such as Prix Ars Electronica, ZKM, Vida Telefónica and Files Prix.
For Berger, science is oriented towards the common good and what we call objectivity; in particular, to all sorts of things that, in essence, we can experience, share and reproduce together. But objectivity in the world does not come so perfectly. Beyond it lies much, much more, which is why we need other ways, such as the arts, to explore the ineffable. They create subjectivity and open people up to the possibility of exploring their relationships with the world. This difference between the arts and sciences should be welcomed, because it represents the opportunity to strengthen and further these forms of knowledge.
The Bioart Society is an association based in Helsinki, Finland, which promotes interdisciplinary work between the arts and sciences. It focuses particularly on biology, ecology and the life sciences in general. The association has a space in Helsinki, where it holds exhibitions, seminars and workshops, and an artists’ residence at the Kilpis Biological Station of the University of Helsinki, in Sami territory, in the north of the country, which receives between 15 and 20 local and international artists each year in a unique sub-arctic setting and also organises a special programme of workshops. The Bioart Society team uses the term “field nodes” to refer to specific events, which they consider one of their most remarkable activities. These art and science field laboratories bring together groups of up to 40 experts to work on scientific or cultural issues, or those specifically dedicated to the experience of nature, always in relation to the environment.
The name of the association expresses its commitment to bioart, a term that originally involved artistic practice in the life sciences laboratory. Many of its manifestations could be considered reactions to biotechnology research and development; others are the result of the desire to work with materials and the possibilities of the manipulation of life unheard of in art, and also manifestations of the ethical questions that arise when life becomes something immaterial. Perhaps such a conception remains valid; however, it is plain to see that the laboratory can no longer be regarded as an isolated entity from the environment. Intentionally or otherwise, the technologies emerging or applied out of research sooner or later return to the environment.
The idea that human activity can be separated from what we call nature still permeates our thought process. The concept, which emerged from the Enlightenment, must be explored, questioned, and revised. The Bioart Society proposes the study of hybrid environments or ecologies as a starting point for this exploration. The ideas of humanity and nature were conceived as separate entities, but we tend to superimpose them when having to identify certain qualities or details. That is why the Bioart team consciously proposes hybridisation as a characteristic trait, a term that represents something that has still not been perfectly defined, but needs to be articulated. Hybrid ecologies can contain anything, even ourselves, or any of the biological actors that have emerged with us from the planetary environment. They could also contain robots, software or infrastructure: whatever happens to interact with our environment and have the ability to affect it. Nature contains biological agents, but it can also incorporate machines.
This way of thinking is crucial to finding the path that humanity should follow in overcoming the crisis we face. We need to collectively understand that the way we treat the environment is, in fact, the way we treat ourselves. At present, however, we are damaging what is most essential to our living conditions, and it is this dichotomy between humanity and nature that sustains the convictions that justify this damage and has us believe that there will always be a place where things are kept safe. That, however, is just a dream. It is not real. All the agents we release into our environment sooner or later reach all corners of the planet; and then, they begin to act.
Eric Berger is particularly interested in exploring what he considers the dichotomy of the human perception of time and the time of terrestrial systems, of which, in any case, we are an inseparable part. We need to find ways to think about intergenerational justice: We are responsible for our current decisions, but we are still unaware of the long-term effects of the agents we release into the environment. It is not necessarily time on a human scale that worries him. In the reflections of this artist and curator, the long-term time frame is treated as the time in which we are no longer there or the planet has changed completely. As an example he cites the consequences of Finland’s decision to become the first country to build a permanent nuclear waste dump. Very soon the Onkalo facility will be ready to receive the first waste from Finnish nuclear power plants and will do so continuously until it is sealed in 2120, when most of us are long gone. It is 500 meters deep and engineers certify it has been designed to isolate waste for the next hundred thousand years. Berger wonders what will happen next, maybe a few ice ages later, when the layers of material that now protect us from the waste disappear. It is a timeline of a duration that we have never considered, but at some point the waste will begin to spill and release its poison into the environment.
Much more support is needed for artistic and scientific explorations aimed at research without short-term utilitarian purposes, because, argues the director of the Bioart Society, art and science are currently the only ways of thinking capable of containing the onslaught of a capitalism that only values creativity as a quantification in economic terms. This is very problematic, he warns. And he concludes that we have to have enough insight and intelligence. It must be clear that the current chaos cannot continue.