Agnes Meyer-Brandis has developed her artistic research in the boundary between fiction and science, exploring both the ground beneath our feet and the sky above us. She has been awarded the Second Prize in VIDA 15.0 for Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, an ongoing project inspired by the story “Man in the Moone” by Francis Goodwin. The artist explores the possibility of training modern geese to become “moon geese”, capable of carrying a person to the Moon (as described in Goodwin’s fantastic tale), through a series of laborious experiments that ultimately inspire a reflection on the role of imagination in our understanding of the world.
You have stated that your aim is “to combine real and fictitious elements through the use of scientific methods, artistic fantasy and «ground breaking technologies».” How much science and fantasy is there in your work: is it more a scientific research of an imaginary subject or an artistic fiction disguised as scientific research?
Neither one nor the other, it’s subjective science and art. I call it “subjective science”, but it is also up to you what this might be. Subjective science can be both at the same time: poetry but also research. And it doesn’t need evidence. , I don’t need to repeat my experiments to prove them, I just need to trust the sensory perception that I made and move on to the next step. Another aspect of subjective science is that you can combine everything, making very logical but also very illogical connections or imaginative connections, and this can create very specific, stubborn or fancy new realities.
I’ve talked with a lot of scientists within the frame of my work. For example, last summer, when I was an artist in residence at the Hyytiälä forest research station in Finland, I remember a conversation I had with a group of scientists about the collection and use of data. I asked them about the subjectivity in their research: where is the subjective moment in science? And it is very interesting to see how subjective science can be and also when do these subjective moments pop up in data interpretation.
As for the fiction, I’m interested in the real, so the experiments I do, I really do them. They are true in the sense that I do spend all the time doing the research that I describe in the project. Otherwise, it wouldn’t develop in the same way, and for me it is boring to install a fake or to tell something which is not true. I am living and realizing these experiments. A lot of what I do is not directly visible in the final presentation, but I believe that the field works, the context and research are indirectly present in the installation, in the form of quality.
You have created the Research Raft for Subterranean Reefology, which has turned into the Institute for Art and Subjective Science (FF) and the Laboratory of Applied Falling (LAF). Why is the image of a research institute important to you? What does it say about your work?
In the beginning, the Research Raft was a method and a frame, a base for all my projects. In a sense, it’s like a platform where all the different projects dock on, as well as different approaches from other people, so it becomes an open construction for different approaches to come together. This was around 10 years ago. It was also a way of finding a position for my artistic work. Consider that, at that time, the combination between art and science was more of a fringe phenomena, it wasn’t so present as it is today. But now, after 10 years of intensive work and with the development and expansion of my research focus, the initial name seems too narrow… so it is called Research Raft Institute for Art and Subjective Science. It is better for all the different departments and the research directions. It’s a kind of meta-installation, a platform for all these different universes which come together. On one side it’s order and on the other it’s chaos.
When you have presented your work to scientists, for instance in Porto Alegre, what has been their reaction? You frequently work with scientists, how does this relationship evolve? What do you expect from them and what do they expect from you?
So far, I’ve met a lot of very positive experiences. But for me it doesn’t matter so much to have a positive feedback from scientists, I do not only have contacts with scientists but also many other people from different disciplines. It really depends on the project, and in the end, it’s a question of how curious each person is: if you can talk to someone or not, if you have an interesting conversation or not. When I approach someone I’d like to work with, that person is interesting for me in a very specific area of knowledge or subject on which I am also working, so there is a common ground and common interest. Since I’m not making fun of any form of scientific research, there is nothing for them to be afraid of. I take my work seriously, they take their work seriously, so there is a respect between each other.
Do you think that, as Roger Malina once said, art can “change the direction and methodology of science”?
I would say art can change, not only science, but life itself. It’s about everything.
Regarding the influence that an artist can have on scientific research, I would say that it is not very directly visible on their work. While you can more or less clearly see that an artist has been influenced in her work by certain specific scientific research or theory, this hardly happens the other way around. But I believe that there is, of course, an influence which it is not directly visible.
As for the collaboration between artists and scientists, I believe in structures that grow by themselves. It is not enough just to put an artist and a scientist in the same room and ask them to make something nice together. It must come from an inner conviction and shared interest, and evolve naturally. In that case a very good collaboration can emerge.
In 2007 you developed the Cloud Core Scanner project in collaboration with the German Space Agency. Apparently, that has drifted your attention from the ground beneath our feet to the sky above us. What drove this change of direction? Has your working methodology changed in this new context?
After working on the subterranean for several years, the Cloud Core Scanner was the first project that I realized in the other direction, so to say, but actually my view into Space was inspired by my experience underground. The Space travel started deep down, in an ice borehole that was 1,200 meters deep. When lowering down a probe into an ice borehole in Antarctica at a depth of about 1,000 meter – even though it’s all ice, at that depth everything is pitch black. The only thing you see is the area that the little light on the probe is able to light up. And then, when the probe is moving through the borehole, you can see in this darkness some ice horizons passing by, some contained frozen debris or a frozen stone. They’re all passing by and it really looks like in Space, like a comet passing by, and the stones, in this clear ice, it looks like they are weightless. So it was this deep borehole that my interest in Space started. Since then I started to investigate parallels between very deep down and very high up. And it’s interesting, because there are many.
The Moon Goose Experiment started as an adventurous trip to Siberia and has evolved into a multifaceted, complex project. How did this idea evolve? Will you continue developing it?
When I was preparing my experiment in weightlessness, the Cloud Core Scanner, I stumbled upon the book by Francis Goodwin, because he was the first author to describe the phenomena of weightlessness. Since then it was going around in my head, and then a year later I realized the first experiment. I observed moon geese during the total solar eclipse in Novosibirsk, and that took me to develop the rest of the project. But the book was an incredible source of inspiration. It is amazing how close his description of weightlessness was to what we know today, at a time when nobody had experienced that. So I was reading this book and I was asking myself: What happened to the Moon Geese in the 21st Century? Do they still exist? Do they still fly? Have they ever flown? Do they still remember their migration pattern? Is it within their genes? In order to find my answers, I started to breed my own Moon Goose Colony.
The project is open ended: as long as the geese are living, the project continues, and the geese can be 20 to 80 years old, and this very special breed can get 100 years old. So it is a quite long term project. The geese currently live in a farm in Italy, but we are also considering another kind of long term habitat for them, maybe something that is, at the same a time, a sculpture. As for their activity, the first unmanned flight is planned for 2027 and the first manned flight for 2036, but we will see how the project evolves, and hopefully no foxes find their way into the geese farm.
In Moon Goose you have worked with actual living creatures for the first time. How was your experience with the geese? Is it very different from other projects?
The Moon Geese are quite eccentric collaborators. On one side you have more responsibility, and on the other side, you have less control, and also you must find new ways to communicate. It has been the first time that I worked so closely with living creatures. On the bright side, they have already multiplied themselves, there were new goslings born on the moon in Italy, so the colony is growing, and the Moon is getting closer.
Your work stems from a long, usually painstaking process in which field research is important. But in the end, you must present your project in the context of an exhibition or performance. How do you “translate” your work from one context to the other?
Of course, it is very important to have some output or presentation format – this is more or less difficult to fund. For the experiment in weightlessness, it was very difficult to find a presentation format because I cannot simulate weightlessness on Earth. I couldn’t recreate this reality at all, so it stays far away. For this reason, I have developed two formats: one is the Wanderkino format, based on the scholars in the Middle Ages who were wandering from one location to another and telling about remote realities with the help from self-constructed tools and narration. In the Wanderkino that I develop, this reality stays remote but the combination of my own tools and experiments on stage and narration approach it a bit to the audience. The other format provides the viewer with a hands-on experience, so the reality is closer and present.
The presentation format for Moon Geese came out in a very natural way. I made a film documenting my fieldwork, and then I designed the control room because I don’t want to travel with the geese. Both the control room and the idea of setting up a live stream with the farm in Italy stem from my willingness to keep the geese in a non-public place of their own, where they have their peace and they just can enjoy life, while it is the control room that travels to different exhibition spaces.
The presentation of your projects usually involves the participation of the public. What does this interaction bring to completion of each project?
In some installations, the participation of the audience completes the work. The visitor completes the work by experiencing it and through the action of searching. My work is mainly about searching and finding, and the joy of discovery. Therefore, it is important for me that the viewer experiences my installations, specially when they enable a situation that is contradictory to what everyone knows or think they know. But after experiencing them, they start to question what they know, or what they believe in.
In your work you address the fantastic and unknown using scientific methods. How would you define artificial life?
Artificial life is the life of imagination and it is neither real nor unreal.