Hope your May is treating you well. I’ve been cramming like crazy for my final exams and papers and wishing I had more time to explore during my last few weeks here in Amsterdam. I also just found out that my thesis prospectus was accepted (!!!) I am going to be researching the Dutch Cobra artists, so I am trying to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible while I still have the entire Stedelijk library at my disposal.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time for fun this past month! A couple weeks ago I went to one of the coolest spots in Amsterdam, Mediamatic. Mediamatic is an unconventional exhibition space that combines technology and biology with visual art. When I went, I took a look at the current exhibitions, but Mediamatic is also known for its greenhouse, and for hosting lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Today I am going to talk about Soot-O-Mat, created by Dr. Špela Petriča.
Here is a photograph of Soot-O-Mat:
At first glance, it looks like a series of copper wires attached to lamp shades and whirring boxes, all balanced on a rolling cart.
But now, take a closer look at the lampshade, specifically what is on the base of it.
That tiny little speck is actually the muscle of a mussel, isolated from the rest of the creature. It is still pulsing, slowly but steadily. Attached to the muscle is a thin strand, which is in turn connected to the mechanism beside the lampshade. As the muscle pulses, the mechanism makes an imprint along the length of the cylinder. Note how most of the imprint curves around the lampshade in a smooth line, yet tiny spikes interrupt the lines every few centimeters. These spikes represent the pulse of the muscle.
After a time, a pattern forms on the lampshade. Take a look:
Soot-O-Mat epitomizes the mission of Mediamatic: to combine the biological and the technological to create art. But that is not all this work does. I would like to propose my own interpretation of this work, one that is deeply subjective, and may not be in line with your own thoughts. Keep your own interpretations in mind while you follow my train of thought.
When I look at Soot-O-Mat, I am highly aware of the concept of size, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems odd that such a tiny object, a mussel’s muscle, provides the energy to power so much machinery. Secondly, it seems strange that the effect of so much equipment would be so minor- a little blip on a line, a dip in a curve.
Perhaps the strangest sensation that I am filled with, however, is meaninglessness. We are given an aesthetic object, a lampshade, decorated with a mildly interesting pattern. Yet we are also forced to view the mechanism as well. The viewer sees the machinery, its size and complexity, and the energy source: a living thing. Or if one wants to be technical, a body part that used to be part of a living thing. When confronted with this complex system, the final product looks trite. What’s the point of killing a living thing, isolating its muscle and strapping it to a mass of wires if the result is going to be an unwieldy, easily replaceable lampshade?
That question, I believe, is what Dr. Špela Petrič was trying to get viewers to ask. Soot-O-Mat points out the strangeness of using animals to create consumer goods. A leather jacket doesn’t look like a cow. A billiard ball or piano key made from ivory doesn’t look like the tusk of an elephant. When using shampoo and conditioner, we are completely displaced from the animals that the product may have been tested on. But what if you could see the cow being slaughtered, the elephant shot, or the guinea pig coated in pink liquid? Would you still want to buy those products? In showcasing the process of making, in addition to the final, purchasable object, Dr. Špela Petrič forces the viewer to see the abuse of an animal for human consumption. Perhaps not all viewers would have the same response, but I was left wondering why this was even necessary, when there are so many other ways to make a lampshade look pretty, that don’t utilize a living thing.
Soot-O-Mat is not a PSA about crustacean abuse. In this interpretation, it stands for something greater, for questioning the use of animals in all kinds of aesthetic objects. Are we not an advanced enough species, Dr. Špela Petrič seems to ask, that we can’t make beautiful things without costing lives?
With all that in mind, another part of me wonders if this work could also be a celebration of the power yielded by the smallest of things. A mussel is already tiny. A muscle of a mussel is even tinier. If I saw it on the beach i wouldn’t notice it, and would walk right by as I picked up shells for my growing shell-necklace collection. Soot-O-Mat illustrates the great power of life by juxtaposing a small yet powerful creature with an unwieldy manmade contraption. The fact that such a small thing can even influence the motion of heavy metals is astounding. When viewed together, one cannot help but be in awe of life.
Let me know what you think about Soot-O-Mat! Should biological and technological art be analyzed according to the same standards as paintings and sculptures? Is there a non-vegan interpretation of this work? (I’m not vegan, but I began to feel like one the longer I thought about Soot-O-Mat…) I’m curious about other people’s thoughts, as this was a very unique post for me.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3