Interview with art collective P L A T E AU R E S I D U E about their long-term project Sub Persona that was premiered at MGLC Švicarija in Ljubljana [25 October 2019-9 February 2020]. The interview was published in Slovenian in the Likovne besede magazine (112/2019).
Art tandem P L A T E AU R E S I D U E are geographer and artist Aljaž Celarc and art historian Eva Pavlič Seifert. In their integrated works, usually a combination of spatial intervention and moving image, they address issues such as ecology, the relationship between humans and nature as well as and different ways of cohabitation of diverse living beings. By tackling these phenomena, they seek new modes of raising public awareness. Since 2017, they have created three long-term projects based on extensive and thorough research: in Ex Topia (2017), they tackled the issue of the disappearing glacier under Mount Triglav in the Julian Alps; in Alma mater (2018), they conducted research into the disappearing ice in underground caves; and in their recent research and exhibition project entitled Sub Persona (2019), the tandem explored the current condition of forest ecosystems as a consequence of human management. Sub Persona premiered at MGLC Švicarija in Ljubljana (25 October 2019-9 February 2020) and was presented as a multimedia installation that fosters development of sensory thinking and questions contemporary human understanding of natural environments. In the process of researching and preparing for the piece the artists interviewed people directly involved in maintaining forests, all of whom have different opinions on how they should be managed and perceived. Forests enable a high quality of life and have many functions—ecological, economic and cultural. Contemporary urban populations often perceive forests as places of untouched and virgin nature; however, centuries of human intervention and management completely transformed them. In the following interview, recorded during the preparation for the exhibition at MGLC Švicarija, the artists reveal some details about the process of developing Sub Persona.
In your recent project Sub Persona you deal with the forest, or maybe better with the relationship between humans and the forest. Why forest?
Aljaž Celarc: It is a logical continuation of our previous research about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. The forest is a highly important natural ecosystem, particularly in the temperate zone area to which the territory of Slovenia belongs. This area would have been almost entirely covered by forest if humans hadn’t interfered with it over the centuries. Forests enable quality of life for humans and other living beings; the more forest there is, the healthier the environment is. Forests retain CO2, produce biomass that decomposes into the soil, produce water as well as clean it and forest ecosystems retain water. On the other hand, the impact of human presence has transformed this ecosystem to the point that one can no longer speak of the forest as an (exclusively) natural phenomenon. Even these rare residues of primeval forests nowadays feel human impact. This topic is close to our beliefs, emotionally and ideologically; therefore, we also intimately desired to live in a forest or in its immediate proximity.
The fact is that the forest—at least in our immediate surrounding—is seen as something self-evident and mundane. In your previous projects you addressed the issues of melting glaciers and underground caves, which are phenomena that most people don’t come across on a daily basis. However, the forest is omnipresent.
Eva Pavlič Seifert: Numerous phenomena, such as stone or the surface of a stone, may not represent any special challenge, but if they are presented in a suitable way, they may incite some reflection on the very aesthetics of a landscape. When we were researching underground caves in the Alma mater project last year, we felt that this environment suited us. And, when we focused on ecosystems around those caves, which is inevitably related to the forest, we started to be fascinated by the forest itself. We were astonished by several things, such as the light in a forest that falls in between canopies and creates a notion of a sanctuary. And, that is a somewhat logical continuation of our previous practice.
At first, when exploring the forests, we focused on the bark beetle, which is nowadays a very present pest. But, as it turned out, we were very naive because we followed the same conventional logic, according to which the bark beetle is only a pest that causes huge damage. We hadn’t thought of the fact that the bark beetle helps revitalise forests and that it regulates species structure. The bark beetle is also a logical and a direct consequence of human activities that have brought about rising temperatures, contributing to the deterioration of spruce trees. However, the bark beetle only attacks already damaged pine trees and in doing so, it performs some kind of natural selection. In the process of making the Sub Persona project, we established connections with a number of experts who opened our eyes and explained that things are not so black and white.
A: As you already hinted, the forest is quite self-evident for most people in Slovenia. Tomaž Hartman from Slovenia Forest Service, who is the greatest national expert on primeval forest, says that, in Slovenia, forests do indeed do cover over 60% of the surface, but that is also the reason that people can’t properly see it; we don’t think enough about its key features and functions.
Most people see the forest as something intact and authentic. However, a glimpse into history shows a completely different picture as humans have regularly maintained forests in the past couple of thousand years. Did you manage to explore the history of forests within the frames of the project?
A: This is not directly reflected in the piece, but we managed to significantly deepen our knowledge. In the period of mass settlement, the share of forest was around 96% but it shrunk to approximately 36% up until the period just before World War I, when the exploitation of forests was at its peak. Throughout history, up until the Industrial Revolution, most of the best forest areas were used for charcoal and firewood production as well as for the production of lime and glass. The mountain range of Pohorje in Slovenia, for instance, is a great example of an area with a long glassmaking tradition, where the authentic beech and oak tree forests have been cut down and replaced by spruce trees. Nowadays, Pohorje is known as an oasis of spruce trees. Pokljuka and Jelovica, on the edges of the Julian Alps, have a similar story. However, the biggest interventions in forest ecosystems took place in the 19th century with the development of industry.
E: In the piece, we also point out that human beings caused the most pivotal changes in forests and that as soon as we intervened in the forests, we were obliged to take care of them. Pohorje was artificially transformed from a beech to a spruce tree forest; therefore, the duty of humans now is to maintain the spruce tree forest.
A: This responsibility is necessary because a hypothetical successive situation of severe windstorm damage, followed by a bark beetle invasion, followed by draught could decimate a spruce tree forest. This potential scenario actually did happen in 2014 when a sleet storm caused the breaking of trees, which caused a huge invasion of bark beetles. In Leskova Draga, for instance, which is an area of Snežnik forest, some of the high karst plateaus saw such enormous emergency deforestation that soon after a problem with soil erosion appeared, which can irreversibly change the surface. In the beginning, we asked ourselves what is a reasonable measure of care and what would eventually happen if humans completely withdrew from maintaining forests. Through conversations with experts, we learned that humans are deeply involved in, and responsible for, the sustainable management of forests.
Glassmaking and charcoal production are industries that date back in the Middle Ages; however, the forest had probably been maintained even earlier, ever since humans ceased to be hunters and gatherers.
A: It is true that humans intervened in forests for many centuries and millennia, but we couldn’t call that a maintenance. That came much later. There is an interesting theory about prairies in North America, which is that they were initially overgrown by forests but that the native Americans deliberately burnt them and also purposefully killed predators in order to increase the population of buffalo, consequently transforming forests into grassy pastureland. However, when speaking about distant history I didn’t find any available literature in Europe that would explore the history of forests beyond the Middle Ages and feudalism.
For some time now, we have known that the Amazon area is being deliberately deforested for the purpose of short-term profit—not only for the wood processing, but also for gaining pasturelands. What are the long-term consequences of such obliteration? Was there any occurrence of deforestation, on such an industrial level, here in this area (Slovenia, Central Europe)?
A: In Slovenia, forestry is based on selective tree cutting and that means clear-cutting is strictly prohibited; except when it comes to clearing the consequences of natural disasters or invasions of the bark beetle. Therefore, since the end of World War II, the Slovenia Forest Service has been organised in such a way that loggers designate the trees that will be eliminated and, by doing that, can favour certain species. Pro Silva is a method of managing forests that was developed in Slovenia and Switzerland, which is being widely promoted across Europe today. This principle defines some key criteria and aims of management, i.e. meeting the needs for raw material, providing a space for wild animals, retaining water, increasing the share of biomass and, finally, enabling spaces for recreation.
Primeval forests are, nowadays, supposedly very rare. What does a primeval forest look like in comparison to a forest that is maintained by humans?
E: The difference is enormous. Primeval forests have a different energy and a different odour. Being there, we noticed things we wouldn’t have otherwise in human managed forests such as fallen branches and dead trees; in most forests these are cleared away. There are more birds, which create a very special sound backdrop. Primeval forest can be very inspiring for somebody who is at least a little bit sensible to the natural environment.
Where are primeval forests located in Slovenia?
A: Most of them are located in the Kočevje region (the most wooded region in Slovenia). I think there are 17 primeval forest reserves where entry is prohibited without special permits. However, there is a scenic trail in Rajhenau Rog where people can see primeval forest by walking along a guided route. Technically speaking, the wooded biomass in a primeval forest is around 600 cubic meters per hectare while in an ordinary forest it would only be 300 cubic meters. However, these areas haven’t always been primeval forests. This is because environmental protection doesn’t have such a long history. It was only at the end of the 19th century that Leopold Hufnagel, court forester of the Counts of Auersperg, first proposed that certain parts of the forest be left completely unmanaged. He knew that certain areas had to be protected. In our film, which is the core of the Sub Persona project, we have footages of decaying stumps in the primeval forest that are the last remnants of logging from almost 200 years ago.
The Sub Persona project is based on interviews. In the process of creating the work, you collaborated with numerous people who are in one way or another engaged with managing and maintaining forests. Did you want to highlight different views?
E: It is true. But, at the same time, we wanted to emphasise the eternal struggle between personal and expert opinion.
A: We included three portraits in the project, even though we spoke to many more people in the process. We wanted to contrast three views on how the forest should be cared for and to present three different stories of a forest. The first is the story of a primeval forest; the second is the story of a human managed forest, under attack by the bark beetle; and the third is the story of grazing land, overgrown by forest. Furthermore, we stress the institutionalisation of maintaining forests.
What could be the most dystopian scenario for forests? How fatal and long-lasting would be the consequences of a bigger clear-cut in a certain area?
A: The most dystopian scenario would be to completely abandon managing forests. Although some environmentalists promote it, if this idea were to come true it would be fatal. We could lose a very important source of ecological building material. It would also probably lead to severe ecosystem damage because the area would not have adapted to new, more extreme climate conditions. I can’t imagine what would happen with a huge clear-cut. The area would likely become like Scotland or Wales, which used to be covered by forests that were later cut down in order to make pastureland. Once turned into pastureland, the forests wouldn’t be able to regenerate. Gradually, there would also be soil erosion. The Kornati islands in the Adriatic Sea, where all the soil was washed away once the trees were cut down, are an example of the consequences of clear-cutting. The Kras region is another example; it took several hundred years for the forest to be regenerated and only after some very radical measures were imposed by the authorities, from prohibition of stockbreeding to several attempts at reforestation. Clear-cutting causes different consequences in different areas.
What is the political history of managing forests? When was this imposed in the area of Slovenia and Central Europe?
A: In the period of the absolute Habsburg monarch Maria Therese in the 18th century, some significant policies concerning managing forests and trees were adopted; even now, we still live with the consequences of these policies. Ever since the feudal period, forests have always been divided by ownership. Nowadays, the ownership is very fragmented. However, some very old feudal owners still own significant parts of forests and their management is often extremely doubtful. Personally, I think that all forests should be nationalised and managed centrally. That would be the only way to provide and (re)establish their key functions. Many owners don’t know how to manage forests which can lead to, among other things, bark beetle invasions. Often, they can only see profit in them. Archdiocese of Ljubljana, for instance, who are the owners of huge forest areas in the vicinity of Triglav National Park, represent one of such conflicts of managing that originate deep in history.
In your previous projects, you have dealt with the consequences of climate change on different ecosystems. In Ex Topia you explored the issue of a disappearing glacier, while in Alma mater you conducted research into underground caves with constant temperatures. To what extent is climate change affecting forests?
E: The most obvious consequence is the prevalence of the bark beetle. Another consequence is the changed hibernation periods of wild animals, which nowadays eat certain vegetation also in the winter. Often, there are economic consequences also such as a drop in the value of wood and a corresponding increase in cutting of trees. However, climate change is much less visible in forests than in caves or on glaciers where the changes are obvious.
A: In relation to forests, many consequences of climate change that are perceived as negative could also be seen as positive. Because of bigger CO2 emissions in the air and because of higher temperatures, trees actually grow faster. Consequently, the storage of CO2 in the biomass is even higher. This is the classic argument adopted by global warming sceptics. It is worth bearing in mind that climate change diners often consider local studies , ignoring global facts such as the huge deforestation of Amazonian primeval forests.
In the Ex Topia project, where you focused on the remnants of the Triglav glacier, you used similar principles; you invited interested publics to cooperate and they became an integral part of the project. How do you use this external view in the Sub Persona project?
E: In Ex Topia, our aim was to confront people with the phenomenon of a melting glacier where the consequences were very visible. The aforementioned participation of people who followed our protocol was, in this case, both for them and for the audience of the film, very strong and stimulating. In the case of Sub Persona, we focused on having conversations with people who have been acquainted with the forests for a longer period of time and, importantly, we set them in the environment where they felt the most comfortable and relaxed. In this case, the interlocutors take over and conduct the process. It is quite obvious how much the environment can influence the development of the conversation.
Like Ex Topia and Alma mater, the Sub Persona project is the consequence of long-term field research and collaboration with several experts. The final result is an artwork, which is presented in a gallery. How do you accomplish the transfer from the field to a gallery space?
E: That is precisely the reason the spatial and the atmospheric components of the installation have been so important to us. That is why the film is being screened inside the wooden construction. The spatial installation increases the intensity of the experience for the audience. At least, that is what we strive for. If we had more time and resources, we would probably have expanded the project—spatially and conceptually.
A: It would be easier if we could include more people in the production of the piece. But, on the other hand, we are used to do-it-yourself production. This piece was created in the same way. Film or video seems very appropriate for presenting our artistic research because it builds the narrative into a very ordered temporal sequence, guiding and shaping the perception of the viewer. Therefore, the space of watching the film is crucial in that instance.
E: The film also enables us to show people locations and situations in which they may never have found themselves otherwise. We want to present an experience that would maybe encourage them to think. By arranging the intimate space in which to watch the film, we establish some kind of an aesthetic atmosphere that immerses the viewer by stimulating different senses. We don’t want the spatial installation to be a support element. Rather, we want it to be an integral part of the film. We humans use all of our senses and every single sensory change can affect our perception. We react to changes in temperature, humidity and even odour. We see all these elements as contributing to a holistic experience.
© Miha Colner, October 2019 / proof reading: Ana Cavic