In conversation: Vanessa Lorenzo and Debbie Ding, examining new forms of art and speculative design

MY MANY MOUTHS, Vanessa Lorenzo, 2020

The realm of contemporary art is vigorously growing and morphing. While all definitions of practices and institutional frameworks have shifted and blurred, contemporary art is an expanding field of broader knowledge and practices. This results in interdisciplinarity and multiple ways of knowing, creating a crisis of knowledge, rather than a crisis of expression for artists. Nonetheless, it is performed by the shifts of artistic forms and practices. The most significant change in curating contemporary art practice has been conversation and discourse; opening up a closer space which is related to the notions of performativity and interdisciplinarity.

Navigating between the ephemeral and the material, floating above the sea of signs and their categorical subordination, the practices of artists Vanessa Lorenzo and Debbie Ding collapse the boundaries between science and art, between matter and mind, between the active and the still. The challenge of bringing their thoughts across, exposing their questioning behind and displaying something that lacks a form is a rough ground that Ding and Lorenzo turn into fertile soil for their artworks to sprout out from. Their two different mixed media art practices constitute methods of working with speculative design to expand the human ways of perceiving the world. 

Originally from Singapore, Ding investigates archaeological and historical finds, designing new approaches to collecting, mapping, labelling, organising, and interpreting assemblages of information. In a way, her art practice Ding explores diverse ways that pursuit of knowledge could be expressed in. On the other hand, Lorenzo mixes biology and technology to expose the entangled essence of the nature-culture subsistence. Her works are devoted to an investigation of the more-than-human ways of environmental existence. 

CLOT Magazine and so-far bring Ding and Lorenzo together to look for answers to the new ways of constructing the conventions of the contemporary moment and discuss the limitations of representation. Working with organic matter and initiating a conversation about what could be called the ‘internal workings’ of a material form (animate or inanimate) both point to the discursive nature of art displaying on the contemporary scene while creating affective spaces beyond the sphere of linguistics. Technological design and public participation in interactive art and ways of working in an artist studio, where scientific experiments fuse with creative activity. 

The Library of Pulau Saigon, Debbie Ding, 2015
The Library of Pulau Saigon, Debbie Ding, 2015

Debbie Ding: When I first started looking into your work, it made me wonder: How do you get people to understand what you are doing? How do people react to your work? I’m asking this because understanding your art may require a certain amount of background information or knowledge. Personally, I put a lot of research into a project, but when someone sees the final result, they only see a small part of it. Therefore it can be challenging for the audience to appreciate the complexity of it. 

Vanessa Lorenzo: This is an interesting question. I try to make sure that the places where I show my work provide parallel platforms that allow me to present the ideas behind a project through a talk or discussion. My inspiration for this kind of more holistic approach comes from Dune and Raby and the school they created: a way of presenting complex ideas in which you invite people to participate in understanding the context. I also like to develop this idea with workshops, which is a format that allows a more extended time to talk about my work or specific parts of it.

Ding: I think talks or workshops are some of the best ways to speak directly to people. I also think there can be different ways of making this beyond the more traditional formats like some of the workshops you give. I’m thinking of Expanded Sensorium, Alienated Landscapes or  Bioprinter | Bacteria As A Post-presentational Medium. 

Lorenzo: Yes, I agree, it’s a compelling way to produce and disseminate knowledge even though it takes a lot of effort to run a workshop. It’s a more direct platform to communicate, and you need to find a balance between your creative idea and the practicality of executing something meaningful and of quality. What is your perspective on this? I mean, how do you collect, document, and share your knowledge and ideas, considering your work is pretty complicated.

Ding: I would say this is something I’m still trying to figure out: doing these workshops and thinking of how to communicate my ideas, and the relation to the aesthetics of the work as well ( something I see in your work). I consider how to pass on knowledge, how to inform communities… to me, choosing the format of the work and the documentation process is also a way of communicating it.

Vanessa, you’ve described your works as ‘interactive media assemblages’, which I think is very similar to how I have described my work in the past, could you explain more about your understanding of this concept?

Lorenzo: Yes, I use different media in my work, and I call it ‘interactive media assemblages’ because we have access to all these platforms and technologies like video, speculative machines, and sounds. I see it as a way of stepping out from the pure design and instead of creating art through devices and objects using processes closer to the ones used in interaction design.

Currently, I’m working on a new project (Mari Mutare) based on the figure of the Green Man with vegetal prosthetics and speculative body modification through technology. Though this representation is based on a pre-Christian figure sculpted in some churches across Europe, this hybrid figure of human and plant can be found represented in cultures all over the world.

The project is in a very initial stage; unfortunately, it coronavirus impacted it. For a possible workshop around this project, I’ve come up with the idea of making a sort of ‘biocompatible biological skin’. Also, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to push forward my intersectionality with biotechnology, while simultaneously pushing forth my practical interaction with the audience.

Sandweight, Debbie Ding, 2018. Commission of Singapore Art Museum for the President's Young Talent 2018
Sandweight, Debbie Ding, 2018. Commission of Singapore Art Museum for the President’s Young Talent 2018

Lorenzo: What about you, Debbie; you are teaching regularly?

Ding: Yes, I have been teaching at the Polytechnic in Singapore, which means the content and teaching is quite technical. It’s interesting to understand the traditional values of education so that I can reinterpret them in my own terms. In Singapore, it is easier for me to separate my art and teaching.  I chose to make art because it was not tied to money or a specific function. Now I try to inject that into my teaching, so my students understand there’s a way beyond just the practical side of design.

I wanted to ask you, did you do industrial product design in the past? When I see other artists working in media arts I’m always curious about their perspective on the aesthetic. What role do aesthetics play in your artworks?

Lorenzo: I come from a very technical background. I studied engineering and industrial design; half of my life was metal, huge machines and modelling for these machines or cars. Then I started a media design MA in Switzerland and met the biohacker community there. When I started working with these biomarkers and their organic compounds, it felt almost like something prohibited, mixing electronics with the wet lab. I found it very challenging. On the other hand, when you come across speculative projects, such as your New Biologist for example, where you question new species and future extinct species, it’s really powerful to be able to make people think something is possible through the techniques we are using.

Ding: Yes, I would describe this power you mention as exploring the line that separates observations or research, and people’s actual beliefs. It is a process of figuring out how to express something speculative, and how to make it feel real enough so that people think it is a possible reality. I remember friends whose projects were picked up by the media as if they were real things even though their projects were speculative designs and no longer had the life they were made for. The projects turned in something new to me.

Lorenzo: I’m curious about the archaeological aspect of your work.

Ding: The Library of Pulau Saigon began with a library book about the Pulau Saigon, a former island in the Singapore River, that I had never really read about. The book was a catalogue of items recovered from this post-eighteenth century archaeological site. I was interested in finding out what those objects look like so I contacted the archaeologists who worked on it, but they couldn’t tell me what they looked like because they couldn’t recall. I went to see the things themselves but there wasn’t really much to look at. So my early works were more about Singapore, the archaeological site, and the environment of Singapore. I used that as an outlet to investigate the things that were meaningful for me or ask questions that never really got answered.

Lorenzo: This reminds me of when you asked me how I store the information about my projects.

Ding: Yes, I was thinking that these days everything is digital and virtual, but what about the biological and living material you use for some of your projects? It made me wonder about storage and keeping the documentation.

Lorenzo: When I started making art, I had the habit of keeping a small booklet with details of each project. I stopped doing this because it was very time-consuming. Something that I learned from the biohacker and biomarker community was that, as we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, documenting and disseminating knowledge is an essential part of the process. I learned how to write protocols and replicate experiments from the people working in biology during my first project.

Ding: Do you still have the moss you used in your Mossphone project?

Lorenzo: Yes. In my studio, I have a little garden with some round plates where I keep my mosses growing. This small garden is a way of storing. I have a lot of that stuff in Petri dishes and plastic boxes too, like all the bioprinted materials and structures.

The Archipelago, Vanesa lorenzo, 2019
Always Calling Home (The Archipelago), Vanessa Lorenzo, 2019

Ding: I keep a fair amount of soil and rocks from my projects, some of these rocks are quite muddy. I love rocks. The ones I have are mainly man made because those are probably the only kind of rocks I can get in Singapore.

Lorenzo: I’m also fascinated by rocks because they are little pieces of territories that can develop into something else. When you say you collect mud and rocks that become muddy, I can picture a lot of life happening there!

I worked quite a lot with asteroids. In the beginning, I was just collecting certification data and sending out memories of asteroids. Then I came across a meteorite in South Africa. It has a characteristic red colour that looks like Mars rock. I collected these pieces,  some of them I used for interactive sculptures and others I’m observing to see what develops when combined with the Earth’s climate. I’m not thinking about the minerals, but rather about new collages that come from other planets and that can enrich our biodiversity since the Earth is facing such a significant loss in its biodiversity.  

This makes me think of your dreamt future-extinct species…which one would these be?

Ding: I was thinking it could be snails. I have had pet snails for quite a number of years. The snails from Singapore have been kind of competed by the giant African land snail here. In Singapore, there are a lot of tiny button snails that are not aggressive or hungry for life like the African ones. So if I have to think of fossils and extinct species I would say local snails are very delicate compared to the invasive giant ones which have become endemic to Singapore now.

Lorenzo: There is a political perspective here since we can talk about native and non-native in a way. But what is native anyway?

Ding: I didn’t realise that the big African snail was not native to Singapore until I went to the UK and I saw they were sold as exotic pets. These snails are so common in Singapore though. I wanted to bring a pet snail back from the UK to Singapore so that’s why I had to know about the origin of my snails. I wrote to a few different places to ask how I could bring my snails back to Singapore but as they were classed as food, I wasn’t allowed to bring them back. The authorities [in Singapore] said it would be too dangerous. I thought about, you know, to what extent is something native or non-native.

Lorenzo: Yes. This is something we all are realising now. It’s also impressive when you realise that the “normal” that you’re used to is not that normal anymore.

Ding: Yes, maybe other people have a completely different reality. Nowadays, we all live in a kind of bubble of understanding. Taking us back to your question,  what do you think a future extinct species might be?

Lorenzo: Inspired by one of my latest workshops, which involved imagining a species you would like to hybrid with, I have been thinking quite a lot about humans, beans, and other plants. For example, in terms of functionality, what could you take from a pre-existing species, give to us humans, and change or subvert how we operate. I started to read a lot about plant horror and of these horrible movies about gender. It crossed my mind it would be a good idea to become a little bit more plant, becoming phototrophic and begin consuming energy from the sun. This could have political, ecological, and economic consequences that could flip the whole reality of how the system works.

Ding: During the pandemics, I have been thinking about how the world would look without people, but then I reflected humans are so resistant, so enduring that they always find a way to survive. We spend thousands and thousands of hours, practising things and learning. My baby just turned one, and I was thinking too about the amount of work that has gone into only one human. I’ve never really appreciated it until now. We see people that may not be mindful of what they do, but at the same time I feel that people have the opportunity to learn, grow, and change because that’s what people have been doing since the day they were born.

Topsoil, Debbie Ding, 2019
Topsoil, Debbie Ding, 2019

Always Calling Home (The Archipelago), Vanessa Lorenzo, 2019

Lorenzo: The human brain is the perfect machine, so incredible! We talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, but our brain is hugely more wired. Going back to human hybrids and prosthetics, if you could design an extra limb, an add-on to your body, what would it be?

Ding: I would say, only for this period during which the baby is small, I would ask for an extra hand to deliver milk so I would not have to hold the baby all the time. No one told me how time-consuming it would be. But, having a baby has also allowed me to figure out how to prioritize work better. Now I have less time to experiment, and I make decisions faster. I have to think in terms of sustainable practices as well.

Vanessa, how have you balanced the more technical and the artistic sides of your practice alongside your career? I switched over a few times, always edging towards the technical side only because I didn’t study anything technical in school. I didn’t need to become an engineer. I just wanted to know enough to make the technical part of any project by myself.

Lorenzo: In my case, I’ve been on the side of engineering, and it was fascinating at the beginning. But in the end, it became more practical, more directed to the needs of the industry. That’s why I stuck more to the design aspects of engineering. 

Ding: That’s probably also why I, despite also working in design and teaching design, make work as an artist because we’re never going to be like “I solved everything in design”. We are always going to think art has the chance to pick out the holes and show us where there are gaps.

CLOT Magazine: If you could imagine a collaborative work together, how would you envisage it to be?

Lorenzo: I think we have had a couple of ideas about snails during the conversation then, let’s think about how to frame them.

Ding: Yes, indeed. We have a lot of similar interests and you’ve gone a lot further into the practical level. I’ve never seen the bio wet labs in Singapore on the same scale that I saw in Europe.

Introduction by Agata Kik

(Pictures courtesy of Vanessa Lorenzo and Debbie Ding)

This is the second in a collaborative interview series between contemporary artists on the so-far platform and those within CLOT Magazine’s network. The format attempts to seek out alignments between new media practices across the globe, and forge serendipitous networks through dialogue and open sharing sessions.
This series is supported by the Embassy of Spain in London

09 Jul 2020