The Soul Expanding Ocean #4: Diana Policarpo's Ciguatera
Ciguatera is the name of a disease that has plagued navigators and coastal populations from antiquity until today, caused by eating fish that is intoxicated by certain marine microalgae. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, hallucinations, and neurologic problems, which can last days, weeks, or even years. There is no cure, and it can be deadly. The artist Diana Policarpo travelled to the Portuguese-administered Ilhas Selvagens (Savage Islands), in the North Atlantic Ocean, one of the places with the highest percentage of ciguatoxin contamination on Earth, to conduct extensive research. Her findings and collaborations with scientists and astrobiologists on this inhospitable sanctuary crystallise in her newly commissioned multimedia installation at Ocean Space, in Venice.
Within the framework of a two-year exhibition cycle that gives voice and presence to the Ocean “as a repository of colonial histories where storylines interconnect past, present and futures”, co-commissioned by TBA21–Academy and curated by Chus Martínez, Ciguatera is presented next to lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive, by Dineo Seshee Bopape, separated by the former church’s double-sided altar. When entering the installation, one feels immediately immersed into a landscape that references Selvagens, bathed in sound, light, and the scent of Palo Santo.
The two sculptures mimicking large rocks are also containers of various screens that host a constellation of seven short videos Microcosms I — VII, and the videos When the Sea Swallows, The Fourth Door, and Toxic Blooms I. The ten-channel sound installation, in collaboration with Odete, plays a mix of carefully designed field recordings and stories told by microorganisms about the human and nonhuman memories. The tracking of natural biodiversity and the recounting of stories around Ciguatera create a mapping of colonial histories, where the storytelling meanders through symptoms and facts, such as the Pizzigani brothers from Venice being the first ones documenting Selvagens in cartography, or the way in which Ciguatera made colonizers suffer. One of the voices belongs to the island, who thus speaks for itself.
The focus on a toxicity that crosses the entire food chain serves as a starting point to an important conversation about a path towards healing.
Beginning with presence, being there, and learning more about the flora and fauna of the place, the next step is to reach for healing practices—the artist speaks of a connection between healing the land and healing ourselves. One vital element is to break differentiating dualisms such as nature and culture, science and belief, and another to stop the violent impulse to name, possess, and colonize life and nature.
Sitting down at Ocean Space, Diana and Chus expanded on the dramaturgy developed to encompass a work where “the camera is closer to a mouth that tells than to an eye that records.” A landscape so analogous to Mars that scientists train astronauts there, Ilhas Selvagens becomes a lens through which the artist asks relevant questions in relation to science, its implications in colonial processes, and toxicity on an interplanetary scale.
Ana Sophie Salazar (ASS): When did this commission start? I know this is the first time you are working together; how did you approach each other’s starting points when you initiated a conversation?
Chus Martínez (CM): I don’t exactly remember the month.
Diana Policarpo (DP): July 2021.
CM: Yes, you remember it. I was thinking about Dineo [Seshee Bopape] and the space and it’s difficult—it’s like magic. I never know exactly who will come until I think intensely about it. You need to choose somebody about whose work you have the intuition that it will work well with the space but also work well together. What if the artists don’t feel they relate to the work of each other? I was thinking about it and then, all of a sudden, I remembered Diana's work. I can’t explain why exactly I thought it was going to work, but it works. I’ve never had a bad experience following this type of very intense intuition, where I think and I sense the works go together. That’s part of what I consider curating. You observe very carefully the work of people, and then one day it comes to your mind that it would be good to place these two practices together. That’s how it happened.
ASS: And when you received the invitation, Diana?
DP: When I received the invitation the two things I thought were: finally, I would love to work with Chus, she is someone I respect and admire and I’ve known her work for a while. We didn’t have the chance to meet personally at that time, when Chus called me. We really got along and we had a conversation about the project and the main ideas for these two commissions. And, obviously, I love Dineo’s work, so I was really happy to start this journey together.
ASS: Diana, how did you first become interested in Ciguatera and Selvagens? Can you maybe describe a bit the research you did and how you dived into this project? How does it relate to previous projects?
DP: First of all, having a commission to work and think with the ocean was very important for me and a great opportunity, because I had never made a project dedicated to and in collaboration with marine species and the ocean, and in such a specific location as these islands. But I’ve developed projects that deal with stories about very specific places and the resources that exist in that place, its ecosystem, background histories, traditional remedies, politics, etc. In the last five years, I’ve been focusing on very specific subjects that deal with questioning health, economy, capitalism, gender, and interspecies relationships and exchanges. For me, Ciguatera was a constellation of themes that come from this idea of exploring psychedelia in nature, and how climate change affects specific parts of the planet. Developing a project in Portugal was a very important step for me to look closely into a problem on our continental coast and islands, and to meet people, make friends, collaborate with people from different fields, including the scientific one. This was my first idea, and I jumped onto the subject of Ciguatera.
Diana Policarpo in the studio of scenographer Rinaldo Rinaldi, work in progress for the exhibition Ciguatera at Ocean Space [Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Venice], Castelfranco Emilia, 2022. Photography: Enrico Fiorese. Cortesy of TBA21–Academy.
ASS: In this work there is a presence of deep time, geological time. We observe this ecosystem that has an ancientness to it, so it merges time, future, past, present, and is a very important element in the work. You see it as a landscape or an oceanscape that is both recording and a repository for these memories that are human and non-human. How do you personally relate to this geological place-time and how do you read history, specifically the colonial history that is embedded in this oceanscape?
CM: We have become accustomed to artists talking about this merging of time. It’s very important because science has been trying to convey quantum physics and quantum time for a long time but it’s counterintuitive, so for us it’s very difficult to think about anything other than our biological time. Thanks to the experiences that artists are creating, we are opening up to times that are not experienced only by humans—times that are experienced differently by nonhumans and by fiction, but also by other forms of life. This is really important because, without this consideration, preservation is not possible, as that’s one of the main points of the problem. I think we only preserve during our lifetime, even if we say differently. Even if we try to be intersectional and think about the future, humans are really limited in the imagination of time. So, imagining it, experiencing it—this is fundamental not only to think about the past as the past but also to give it an actuality. It also means a sense of responsibility towards the colonial, towards what happened, a sense of actuality to the problems that we created. Even if we were not the main agents, we are still co-responsible for that, because of our background in Europe, because of our thinking background in modernism, because of our eagerness to control resources and create economies despite the life of others. It’s a fundamental question that we are trying not to answer, because the answers are really uncomfortable. It’s a very important experience, because the more we feel close to that past, the more we feel the pain of that past; the more we feel that certain things are impossible and cannot be repeated. Then change may happen.
DP: Yeah, absolutely. I was also thinking about this idea of looking into rocks or how we also objectify the idea of an island as something that is constantly being occupied, invaded, exploited, etc. Because that is present in the imaginary and in history, right? We always think this landed here, but I also landed on something. In reality, it’s something that forms and takes so much time, from a submerged volcano to actually becoming something more visible. The process happens through erosion and transformation. It’s about looking into a rock or an island as a total, with everything that surrounds it and that creates it. Making something sculptural that comes from that observation of deep time and geology was interesting, because it's as if you are in the ocean when you’re walking around the installation. For me it was also this experience of mapping, and the experience of observing what was happening there, who inhabited it, what kind of life existed there. The fact that it’s preserved and so ancient was really something that struck me. You need to spend time to understand what kind of stories exist there already. Materially, the fossils that are there, and the fact that there are, for example, new kinds of bacteria that were found conserved in salt. And the fact that it is a territory analogous to Mars made it a really interesting territory for me to research and spend time with filming, recording, and writing, because I wanted to find out more about these analogies and ways to observe the ocean from space, scalability, and these coincidences, which we are learning about a little bit more right now—there are still many undiscovered facts about this place. Also, this obsession of training an astronaut there in the caves and using a portable lab to study bacteria and plants for the next mission to Mars. What can we take with us to space? But we are actually looking at things that came from outer space into our planet. There is this exchange of life, and we're studying different ways of life that involves not just us, humans, at the centre of the stage but also all the other species that inhabit this place. I would say it’s intentional not to have only humans as the central focus of storytelling, because we also need that collective participation and that energy. It’s not just about the damage. I think Chus was also saying something very important connected to that—it’s more about transforming and healing, looking into this toxicity, looking into these problems.
ASS: Chus, could you speak a bit about where you situate Diana’s work in relation to all the different projects you have curated as leader of The Current II? You spoke a bit about the connection with Dineo, but now maybe a bit broader?
CM: What I really like is that she’s able to combine artistic research with physicality, and a plasticity, and I think very few artists can do that. People see that in contradiction. When they produce a piece, they think that the research goes around it or is the subtract of it. But to make it the substance of it is a very difficult thing to do. I think it’s very important to do it like this because ideas are also physical, in a way, or they depart from something physical—they go to our mind, they go back to something physical. If we think of the next ten years or so, we will see this more and more. That is something that we are actually not seeing in this biennial, which is how is the future of this practice. I think that Diana is really touching on it, because it’s all about producing real experiences and merging all these dimensions as much as we can, instead of separating, or making pieces, or making subtracts, or making correlations—it’s about really blending them, and thinking that everything is material for an artistic practice. In that sense, it has been very important, because Taloi Havini started with an incredible sound piece, then Isabel Lewis introduced the idea of choreography and movement, and Dineo Seshee Bopape presented the idea of the dream and the spiritual. Diana brought it back to her collaboration with scientists, but then brought this collaboration into the rocks and embedded it into a plastic form. This brings us back to the 1980s, when plastic was impressively important—the tactile, the visual, the question of form, composition, the question of the languages you use for artistic practice. In that sense, it really rounds everything super nicely.
Diana Policarpo, The Soul Expanding Ocean #4: Ciguatera, Ocean Space, Venice, 2022. Photography: Matteo De Fin. Commissioned by TBA21–Academy. Co-produced by TBA21–Academy and Centro de Arte Moderna Gulbenkian, in collaboration with Instituto Gulbenkian Ciência.
ASS: Ocean Space is a magnificent church space that has been renovated. My question is: how did you deal with the scale of the space and its historical legacy? Experiencing this installation, you can see that the sound is very carefully designed and the light is thought through. You are fully immersed in this experience, in this universe that is referencing Ilhas Selvagens. How did you think about the experience of the visitor?
CM: For me it’s very important that the visitor can relate. Sound is a very important element to produce a relationship. We think that we relate through the eyes and through touch, but we relate very much through the sonic dimension as well. To craft and design the sound, to be very conscious about it. Churches are normally created for the human voice—the voice of the priest talking to a community, a choir singing the praises of god—so it’s very important to take that primary design of the space into account to design further. It has been difficult, and observation is very much required, otherwise this space expels you, because this space is really not there to compete with anything but space itself. It has been created for the sake of itself. It’s not an exhibition space, so it requires some thinking and lots of conversations. Probably my major expertise is to commission and to accompany the artist in that conversation, to talk and look at all the scenarios and speculate with all the possibilities, so that we can foresee the experience of the viewer and then, when it happens, be more or less sure that we are doing it right.
ASS: There is also Salvia and Palo Santo burning, added coincidentally by both of them, as if telepathically.
CM: Yes, amazing. This has been added by both the artists, who are completely into those practices, and I think it’s a beautiful addition. The olfactive that goes back into the function of the space itself. Super nice, but it came later.
DP: The first time I actually had access to images and archives of this space was really interesting, because visually it’s something very powerful. It’s a church with a very strong history, but I was really interested in this idea of composing something for a church. I had never had the chance to work with that kind of acoustics before, for example, but even visually and within the scale, which is very important to collaborate with and not to fight against. This was a really important factor, because working site-specific is something that actually takes a lot of time. Studying the space and working with a lot of 3D models was really helpful to get to a point where it felt like it was sculpturally right and worked with the scale of the space. Then, the first time I physically arrived in the space, I had access to its energy as well. It has a two-sided altar, and that side is connected to the place where women gathered for mass and for their social life, which was something that interested me from the beginning. Since I was writing this science-fiction short story that is about these gatherers and these divers which are a society of womxn who live on this water planet, I really wanted to build something from scratch and bring those two universes together. Also, the ideas of spirituality, magic, and ritual are very present in my work. How do you work with both things instead of making them collide? Then obviously the light of a church and the acoustics of a church were very important, because for me those two factors really activate and bring many things to life in an installation. The process of composing in collaboration with Odete was really powerful because we had made music and art together before, but the work in the studio, and then coming here to really sculpt it into the space and create a multichannel piece and work with the reverb, was fantastic—something I did for the first time. The first thing you feel when you enter is how sound travels, how the circuit is built for you to go around and have contact with the films. And also how light adds to the experience. Is it Mars, is it the island, what time of the day is it? The light is programmed in a cycle so you perceive a change, though it's a very slow one. The perception is also involved in that sensorial experience.
ASS: I’d like you to speak about the notion of healing. You have spoken of medicinal herbs inherited in your family, as well as of a connection between healing the land and healing ourselves. I thought that was beautiful; and there's also the way in which the artist steps back to let the island speak for itself, and this is an act of care towards this landscape. To do that you need to be quite attuned, as you’re still the medium through which it is speaking. Can you talk about healing and the gesture of bringing new characters onto the stage?
CM: I think it’s fundamental because unconsciously we are trained in separation. Modernity is about being able to separate the real from the language, the judgement from the thing that you are judging. In order to be able to act, there needs to be a separation between the human and the environment in which the human is acting. Little by little, we have been surpassing this separation and going towards something that we now call non-binarism. However, the binary thinking, the dialectical thinking is in us—problem and solution, poison and anti-poison. Healing is reconciliation, as well as the acceptance that there is a coexistence of contraries inside the real. I think that artists are bringing it together not only because they want to make a world without violence, which is really important—it’s an aspiration and an ambition that we should all share—but also because healing names the possibility of bringing together the contradictions of the real and trying to live with it in a practical way. Healing is a practice. Practice-based situations are important to understanding and are fundamental to the future. I think that’s the reason why it’s so present now.
DP: I try to always make a statement about how we can look into anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, antiracist practices and politics of care in all my works, within a more-than-human approach. The idea is to try to combine modes of care and healing, or forms of meditation and ritual, into places that are very affected by violence, for example, or by pollution, extraction, or by toxicity. We can also think about what is toxicity on a planetary level, like the patriarchy. How can we find these different modes of healing for something that has been imposed and embedded in our society? Obviously, speculative realism, intersectional feminism, and sci-fi really bring these questions and the possibilities to imagine new futures using this kind of mechanisms and tools, which are not only about resistance but also about thinking through these politics of care and non-violence. In a way, some things are ancestral to me, like working with medicinal plants, for example, and growing up with ceremonies that are spiritual and not just purely religious, with practices that come from pagan and folk traditions, including the remedies, the working songs, and the healing practices amongst women as a communal form of labour. It was important for me to maintain that in different projects. Looking into the wider theme of contamination can be a way to act and to create a constellation of discussions and questions around this potential of healing and care, which is a communal effort, not the individual, alienated existence that is expected from us by our society and governments on a global scale. The potential of sci-fi, for me, is to really be able to articulate the speech of science, of land, of activism, of discussion, but also of dreaming and the potential of dreaming a future with a different scenario or possible scenarios. The question is: how do I materialise this experimental writing, experimental filming, and composing into world-making or world-building? How are we thinking about healing and magic in opposition to science, which is very much commodified and human-made?
We don’t have nature versus artificiality, but we have these different languages that articulate all these processes.
This idea of decentring the human in the narrative is not about taking it away, but about bringing visibility to other forms of life, to other ways of living, and collaborating with them, instead of centralising the role of the human in these ecological problems. We are connected with everything in Nature.
Ana Sophie Salazar  is curator at the Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen, writer, and initiator of the Museum for the Displaced, a para-institution addressing issues of forced migration. Through undisciplined explorations of nomadic, poly-lingual, and transcultural subjectivities and expressions, her work proposes inventive ways of challenging established geopolitical world mappings. From 2016 to 2020, she was Assistant Curator for Exhibitions at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Ana was a curatorial fellow at Shanghai Curators Lab , a mentee of the global exhibition program Project Anywhere [2020-21], and a curatorial fellow at Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral [2021-22]. She graduated with an MA in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts, New York, and a BA in Piano from the Music School of Lisbon.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro
Diana Policarpo, research images from Ilhas Selvagens. Cortesy of the artist.