Intimate mapping – In conversation with Jonathon Reus & Sissel Marie Tonn

COTVN Interview #5

06 | 02 | 20

Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraerts & Jarl Schulp | Edited by: Rhian Morris 

From 9 to 13 September 2019, the Cartographies of the Vanishing Now Lab took place in Amsterdam. This five-day art-science laboratory investigated how sensory art, cartographic design and speculative storytelling can contribute to a better understanding of a new unstable world under the influence of climate change. More than 40 makers and thinkers – artists, designers, scientists, creative coders, performers, scholars and speculative writers – came together to work on new knowledge development and artistic prototypes. The Lab set out to capture the impact of the growing ecological instability on the way we organise and model our modern world, trace the forces behind environmental change and shift perspectives to relate differently to our past, present and possible futures. This is the first interview in a series of COTVN interviews and essays.

Jonathon Reus & Sissel Marie Tonn

Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist based in The Hague. She creates wearable, sculptural artifacts that challenge the perception and attention of the body, questioning the complex ways humans perceive, act upon and are entangled with their environments.

Jonathan Reus [US/NL] is a musician, educator and researcher in the field of electronic music instruments, sonic interaction design and critical computing. His artistic work deals primarily with themes relating to computing culture, software and the capacities of mathematical-logistical systems to capture and represent the world. Musical performance is, for him, a method and means of being material. Together with Sissel Marie Tonn, he is one half of Sensory Cartographies, an artistic project that speculates on new forms of mapping through wearable technologies and techniques of observation and augmented attention.

In an interview, we spoke with them about intimate mapping and the multisensory experience.

MG: Quite recently, you both have worked on the project Sensory Cartographies, which involved cartography practices linked to sensory experience and site-specific artistic research. That sounds like it really fits the idea of COTVN as well. How does COTVN complement this project and what does it entail for you, how does it fit in line with your own background and work?

SMT: We’re doing this ongoing research project called Sensory Cartographies since 2016, which also started from the desire to understand different ways of mapping space. We began working on it while at a research residency in Madeira (called Multimadeira), and we wanted to connect the sensory experience of navigating that space with the social-political histories of Madeira as a strategic site for the colonization of the Americas. The island itself was – during this “age of exploration” – quite strategically important because it is in a subtropical climate. So all of the rest of the island is inhabited by all these invasive species that were brought by these explorer ships to the island, in order to acclimatise them to European climate. This was also the beginning of a time period when Western science really caught on with the idea of categorizing nature, and when the Linnean system was developed. So we were really interested in this desire to collect and categorize and map out nature, and make a work that’s challenging different kinds of datafication of the lived experience of the world, focusing on the limits to categorisation and collecting ’the wild’.

That was the start of the project Sensory Cartographies, and it is still ongoing in a lot of collaboration with others. Recently we have focused our energy on setting up workshops, work sessions and labs with other people. For instance we have a pressure-cooker style event called Augmented Attention Lab (created in collaboration with Sensorium Festival in Bratislava) which is bringing in a lot of similar ideas: how can we create technologies that instead of reducing experience through a set of data points, create an experiencing-with or experiencing the constant flow of change, that is our perception of our surroundings.


MG: Do you think this experiencing-with and this richer experience of a certain area has to do with embodiment and multisensory experience as well? Because most of these taxonomies or scientific data about what we call ‘nature’ or ‘wilderness’ are very much quantitative and either text or visual, but they’re not very multisensory. And your work seems to reflect a lot of connection with materials, like Jonathan does, and the feeling on your skin – like with the Earthquake Archives. Do you think that multisensory experience is crucial to experiencing-with, as you mentioned? And do you think that art is the only way to bring across these multisensory experiences or are there other media to do so?

JR: This question really makes me think about what Timothy Morton says about his theory of hyperobjects: he talks about how you could possibly make sense of something so big and so complex and multi-relational. And his response to that was: try to make it small and intimate. And I think that is the reason that we take these sensorial experiences as a starting point; because I don’t think multisensory experiences are necessarily crucial for understanding large and complex systems, but creating an intimate experience that is multisensory, really creates an opportunity to be more aware, in the sense of awareness, of mindfulness, of reflexiveness, of getting out of the calculating mode, getting out of the abstract processing mode and thinking more in terms of ‘what is this, what is actually going on? What am I experiencing? What am I feeling?’

SMT: I think one thing that was also resonating a whole lot with me when we were doing the AAL at the Sensorium festival, is we brought in Marcello Lussana who is researching embodiment in musical experiences. He presented us with the theory of microphenomenology which is a research method on the gradations of sensory experience and perception. What was really interesting about this method for me was this gesture of ‘zooming in’ on a specific moment of experience, and unpacking all of the layers of that moment. And in that process you become really aware of how much your actually filtering out, and how rich that one moment of sensation is. But your brain has been trained throughout your life to filter out all of the other sensory impressions in order to make sense of the world. I find that has such an incredible artistic potential: to think of how we are already trying to categorize the world through predictive mechanisms of our brains and sensory organs and how, as artists, you have this kind of freedom to zoom in and zoom out, and to point, to ask your audience to attend to a certain thing over others. And how much political potential that has in an environment that is undergoing change, for instance. For me, that resonated a lot with what we are trying to do with Sensory Cartographies, which was initially trying to create these sensory collection technologies. With them we are mixing the data, or mixing the flow of data from the body, but also from the environment, and so playing with that interface between the body and the world.

JR: I think it is also really interesting to use the body as a measurement instrument. To think of the body itself as something that is already sensitive to the environment and that you don’t even necessarily need some abstract representation, some technology that reduces or that depends on presenting you with an abstract representation – I mean, it could be something that you feel. There is a relationship already there; it just needs some kind of amplification or attention-increased awareness.

SMT: That’s the answer, maybe, to your question on whether it necessarily needs to be art. I think there’s also just daily practices that many people do already, that are tapping into this kind of feeling of becoming-with or becoming aware of these filtration mechanisms, and how you can tap in and out of that. My ideas are also very closely related to Felix Guattari’s idea of the three ecologies, which he wrote in ’86 among other premonitions he had about our current situation: the mental, the social and the environmental ecologies are intimately interconnected and they need to be seen as a whole, so bringing in the mental and psychological aspects of sensing an environment undergoing change is important for the way that I look at my approach to dealing with different issues. And I think, like Jon says, that zooming in on these intimate relationships and trying to point towards them in some way or another (through art, for instance).


MG: So you already did a lab that was really overlapping in some ways with the COTVN lab: the interdisciplinary approach; trying to create new narratives to describe our relationship to ecology and technology as well. What do you expect for this lab of Cartographies of the Vanishing Now and how does it relate to your earlier lab, and how does it relate to your collaborative work? What do you hope to see or do during the lab?

JR: Well, I’m using the lab as an opportunity to do some research into a dimension of both Sensory Cartographies and the Intimate Earthquake Archive that we’ve been talking about a lot but haven’t had an opportunity to dig into. And this is the aspect of how you can re-activate or re-enact these experiences along with their contexts somehow. So one thing I’m going to probably focusing on with the lab is experimenting with nonlinear wearable storytelling devices, that can provide an additional layer while doing field work, like reactive fieldwork as a sort of artistic experience. That’s what I want to play around with, and I’ve been doing a lot with wearable computing and wearable sensor systems. I want to take the idea of giving context to what you feel in your body and extend it into the sensory cartographies realm, also in the process of exploring nature, in the flow of the work, experiences, gathering impressions, and somehow adding a spoken aspect to that.


MG: Would that also include translating scientific data into wearables?

JR: Yeah, in terms of the format I’m not quite sure yet – that is part of the experimentation. But there is a couple of ideas, one being that externally sourced data is somehow integrated into the experience of being there. So, things you don’t have the perceptive or phenomenological power for to experience, for example, long timescale changes in the environment and things like this could somehow be communicated through this spoken, storytelling aspect. And the other one is, if you are out there, wearing this – and in Sensory Cartographies we have a lot of sensors that are worn on the body that are gathering information from our bodies and also from the environment – there is this question of ‘how do you make this not only perceptable, but also receivable?’. Because the idea is that you are somehow detecting things that you would not be aware of otherwise, or only marginally be aware of, and you’re not sure how you’re aware of it. Somehow it needs to become perceptable, but also in a way that takes advantage of different modalities of consciousness besides vision so that one can be sensitive to it. This is what I mean by it being receivable.

There is quite a lot you can do with haptics and sound design or music to create experiences where the wearer can better understand their relationship to the environment through play and improvisation. I’m always trying to think-with music performance, trying to get into this kind of awareness that you’re in when you’re performing, playing music. Because this is already a kind of being-with way of being in the world. But there’s limitations to what you can accomplish with abstract sound, music or vibrations on the skin. I find that I eventually hit the wall between form and content that haunts musical practice in these days of extreme political urgency. That’s where voice and language become interesting for me as a composer. How can there be a real-time, dynamic, nonlinear narration of the environment that you’re experiencing? These are the directions, but it’s the beginning of probably a multi-year research trajectory.


MG: In that way do you think we can also include nonhumans or more-than-humans in mapping? When we go beyond the standard two-dimensional idea of a map, what role, for example, do animals have?

SMT: Yeah, I think most organisms to a certain degree create categories and maps of their environments in order to navigate them otherwise you get completely lost. So, oral cultures and indigenous peoples, across the world and across time, have used these kinds of technologies like star mapping, maps, or monuments in the environment as navigation technologies. We continue to be fascinated with ways of mapping space where the human isn’t removed from the space, as this kind of all-seeing eye-in-the-sky, or where land is just mapped as a resource. I think as contemporary map-makers it’s important to look towards different kinds of mappings than the predominant western kinds. But rather look to the polynesian stick maps for instance, which map out the flow of water around an archipelago, and which can only be read by the mapmaker him or herself. So we are thinking a lot about subjective, personal or intimate maps that are self-reflective or self-referential to your own experience. I think Jonathan called these gloves that we were making with a GSR-sensor Meta-sensing instruments’, because they are self-referential in a way, because you get a heightened sense of your own sensing experience.

JR: I think we’re not necessarily trying to tear down the whole practice of western cartography [laughs]. But I think it’s very interesting what Sissel said that most people’s concept of a map is synonymous with what you see on Google Maps. This format is only one way of understanding relationships and space. Really mapping could be any method you use for creating relationships between things. They don’t even have to be spatial relationships; they can be temporal relationships also. Getting away from thinking of a map as that archetype, that’s what we’re trying to get at. Doing mapping instead by creating systems of relationships that can be dynamic, evolving or nonspatial. How would that look? What kind of aesthetic tools do we need? How do we navigate these relationships?


JS: Also interesting what you say Jon, is if you look at what T.J. Demos is writing about Earth observation, satellite data, is that it creates this boundary between the Earth and […] distance. You still have control over this landscape because you have this powerful way of looking at it. What you’re saying is you’re creating a different, temporally closer connection in which relationships also change, am I right?

JR: I think it is also important to think, in the tradition of (western) mapping, you had to be there first before you could map the space. You had to walk into the mountains, ride your boat to map the ocean and map the stars as you moved through the ocean. But using geospatial technologies, you don’t have to be there. So there is a complete removal of individual embodied experience, even in the data gathering stage. And I find that really fascinating.


MG: This reminds me so much of scholarly works such as Morton’s that are about our perception of climate change, because we have so much agency but we don’t really feel it anymore because of all these layers of mediation. And there is this responsibility that get’s kind of pushed away through all these layers until the point that you don’t know who is who or who does what anymore. And then, Morton says: as an individual you’re not guilty, but as a species you have caused the Anthropocene, so that’s a big gap there. And maybe this COTVN project as a way to mediate that gap, to make it more graspable. Do you see this the same way, or how do you see this?

SMT: Yeah, last year we were in west Texas, in Marfa, because we were invited to a show that Tim [Morton] co-curated at Ballroom Marfa, called Hyperobjects. We were not so familiar with his work at that point, so we were trying to get a bit of a ‘primer’ on his work before we met him. And one of the strongest experiences we had during that whole trip was riding up to the Trinity test site in New Mexico to see where the first atomic bomb was tested, while listening to a podcast with Tim. He was talking about this sense of uncanniness that he calls Ecological Awareness – the kind of nausea and shame that comes with knowing the extent to which we as a species are contributing to ecocide. And we really got this sense of the physical embodiment of Tim’s ideas, which felt very present in that environment. Having grown up in Europe and having lived in the Netherlands for so long, going to the midwest and the south-west, where you just have this sense of presence of the age of the earth. It’s also kind of easy to understand why people – you know they can’t see how human beings can have impacted the Earth on such scale, because there it just seems so eternal. 

JR: It’s so huge, in a way, it’s so biblical. The landscape is biblical and so I can totally understand this belief in the sublimeness of God’s creation, you know, like ‘humans are so small, what can we possibly do, what can I possibly do?’. I feel like the Netherlands is much different in that respect because the Dutch have such a long history of having a close relationship to the land. And seeing directly the effects of their impact on the land. It’s actually very surprising to me that Dutch folks aren’t more gung-ho about climate change legislation, given the historic relationship to land stewardship.

SMT: I’m also part of an exhibition right now that’s called ‘Elsewheres within here’ that’s curated by Jo-lene Ong. The overall theme of the exhibition, which I think is quite important, is questioning the concept of home, by looking at fluid exchanges across boundaries – of our countries, regions and bodies. I think for me it’s important to look at one’s own environment first and foremost, and not only look elsewhere when exploring ecological damage, or pointing fingers towards all the things that are happening outside of one’s own backyard. There is a great saying in Dutch, which is “een ver-van-mijn-bed-show”, which means something like the troubles are far away, not in my backyard. The discussions I had with Jo-lene around this show revolved around both the responsibilities of western countries for climate emergency in other, more distant places, but also the inequality within one’s own country, in terms of who is being subjected to ecological damage. 


JS: Can you reflect on some of the insights you have gained while working with a very diverse group of people with a diversity of skills, disciplines… Does it, and how, change your work as an artist? What kind of insights, from an artistic perspective, did you gain from your transdisciplinary collaborations? And did it change your own practice?

SMT: Yeah, I think in many different ways. In my work, I always try to get into labs and scientific settings, and parasite on those kind of knowledge frameworks and see which kinds of free passes I have as an artist to mix things around a bit. Which does not come without a good amount of friction from both sides, I think. I have also encountered scientists who did not want to be associated with the work that I did because it was anecdotal, like bringing in ‘unknowable’ bodily sensations, or things that are more foci-knowledge, which understandably, science doesn’t want to have associated with their very strict and rigid ways of annotating and understanding the world. But I think for me that is also interesting: what kinds of measurements are we paying attention to, and where is there place, for instance, for weird experiences of waking up before the earthquake is felt, or interspecies relationships and communications, like canaries sensing earthquakes.

And I am also really interested in how that might also differ between the scientific frameworks in different countries. For instance, I’ve come across a lot more earthquake-related research in Japan and China that takes into account animals sensing. So we are really interested in going there and learning more about that. I don’t think that would ever work in scientific research frameworks in the Netherlands that you start researching a dog’s relationship to seismic activity, and how that dog’s owner relates to that. But then, why is that different somewhere else? What do we consider scientific data? When is it valid? For instance, in California there is also an electromagnetism lab where they’re actually looking at how much impact electromagnetic sensing in different animals can be connected with earthquake perceptions. Like: how ants start walking differently because of a change in the polarity in an environment. And this super well-respected researcher was laying down all these possible prediction mechanisms in different animals. It’s a pipe dream at this point.