FiR Artist Interviews: Bartaku

This interview with artist Bartaku, conducted and written by Tessa Aarniosuo, is a part of a series of discussions with artists taking part in the Frontiers in Retreat project at HIAP, Helsinki International Artist Programme. 

– Jenni Nurmenniemi, ​Curator, Frontiers in Retreat; HIAP

 

A berry that is really an apple

In 2009, at the early stage of researching the relationship between light, energy and bodies, Bartaku (Bart Vandeput, b. 1970, Belgium) was guided towards an abandoned Aronia m. (chokeberry) plantation at the edge of Aizpute in Latvia. Since then, Bartaku has been returning every year to the 1 Ha Aronia m. Power Plantation, where one of the 15 remaining lot-owners grants him access. Hundreds of Aronia bushes and companion plants have been growing just outside the little Mid-Western shrinking Latvian town since 1991.

The Aronia berry is an interesting little thing, as it connects with light, defends itself against it and transforms it into energy. And as Bartaku tells me, it is not actually even a berry – it is an apple. He describes his interest in Aronia as an intimate relationship. And from the sounds of it, that is exactly what it is.

One aspect of the relationship between Bartaku and the Aronia m. involves the name change of the berry from its science given name Aronia m. to Baroa belaobara (from now on the Baroa belaobara berry will be referred to as Babe). This attempt to change the berry’s name is bound to fail since the science world will surely not accept this formal request. Nevertheless, due to the request, the old name Aronia melanocarpa or Aronia mitschurini (it is unknown which variant it is) is rendered obsolete and without a referent. So, a new berry has emerged through Bartaku’s practice, first as image, then as clay shape. The first in-vitro experiments towards the new Aronia m. are currently undertaken at Aalto University’s Biofilia Lab in Espoo, Finland.

Early last spring, Bartaku got a notice that the plantation was undergoing serious transformation. After swift southbound travel, he discovered that a young man he has known for years had prevented the plantation from being sold. Without hesitation Bartaku started taking out the grass, shrubs and weeds that were taking over, and trimming the Aronia bushes so they can regrow and thrive in two years’ time. He dug out approximately twenty-two bushes of various sizes and drove them to the Otaniemi campus of Aalto University. They now form the Dstrbtd. Otaniemian Baroa belaobara Plantation, in the shape of future new Aronia m.

Bartaku’s work on the plantation is ephemeral, emergent and non-invasive. Whatever manifests itself is the result of merely hanging out and observing.

 

Tell me about your work methods. Do you plan well ahead or work more intuitively?

B: I work both extremely intuitively and extremely rationally, harvesting the energy from the tension between both poles. Often ideas are deeply influenced by the context in which work takes place. And then we create the context. I like to be influenced by science, learn from its practices, methods, observe its unspoken premises, and comment on them. It is an important source of inspiration in my artistic research practice.

Sometimes the circumstances require to act according to a gut feeling. Especially with stressed out Babes in the van, I gave in to the idea of imposing the shape of the Babe on top of the map of innovative Otaniemi. That is how I decided where to plant the Babes. So for a whole day and night I drove around to try to match the real plant position to the digital finger-pointing version. Some kind of gut-geared geomorphic intervention.

One could say I am an agent, or agency, expressing the being of the Aronia m. and the Babe.  

Where and what did you study, and how did you transition to creating performative events?

B: I tend to start public talks by saying I am an ex-social scientist and an ex-drummer. Both exes are true. Wooden benches in red brick buildings supported mass-lessons in sociology, political and communication matters. I loved the percussive sound of those wooden benches, the perfect distraction.

After a period of work for and with artists and arts institutions, I went for some aimless wanderings in Latin America. A nice way to digest and ferment Eurocentric and Anglo-American academic mind goggles. The encounter with a pre-Colombian tactile communication system consisting of knotted threads and the the non-dualistic cosmovision in the Andes region were the main sources of inspiration for the first installation work in 2004. It consisted of “talking cords” that contained sounds and coded experiences and colours of the travels. It was a collaborative work, with friend artist SofieSaufage, two young textile artists and a weaving community in the Peruvian Andes.  

Then there was a period of experimentation and learning in open labs, workshops etc. I also became a member of the transdisciplinary lab FoAM. The developing artistic research practice was and is inspired by themes ranging from science and biology, philosophy (of knowing, technology), linguistics, astronomy.

Would you describe your art as performative, or maybe as installation? Is it even art?

B: The research in itself forms in a way the art, questioning and commenting on life, often in close connection with other humans and/or non-human entities. The work is for sure transdisciplinary and medium independent. I like to leave defining and classifying up to those who feel comfortable about it. I prefer to contemplate and practice the challenging mode of -non-categorizing.

To give you an example of genre defining ´fun´: together with Babe, a composer (R. Vitkauskaite) and electronic sound artist (K.H. Jeron) the ´Aronia Overture´ was made. 11 movements in which the essence of Babe was expressed via the bodies of an Unchoir –humans trained to explore Babe based sounds in their bodies. In a live performance these kind of non-human overtones were layered upon the sounds from a custom electronic hardware apparatus that represented the Babe-metabolistics.

Who’s your audience?

B: I get invited to both art and science manifestations, and also ones that fall somewhere between art and science. I have worked within arts organisations and scientific institutes – as an artist. I have also worked with and presented for all age groups, university students, artists, biologists, astronomers, and so on. So, the people I tend to end up being with, are quite mixed in terms of background. But in general, apart from the free range children, I sense some fancy education.

Where have you worked in the past and how do these environments differ from where you are working now?

B: Travelling is the start of it all, you know. I started using the name Bartaku in Japan in the late nineties. I saw self-similarities with the Japanese otaku, the nerd, whilst observing the Eurocentric deformation –bias- in my thinking and behavioural habits. It was my travelling experiences that were expressed through Andean threads in my very first installation. I had the privilege to explore light-electric transformations during a residency on an immobilized petrol icon on the Brahmaputra river in North-East India. Also, I told you the story about the young boy who prevented the plantation in Latvia from being sold. And now, Babe installed me on a stretch of land surrounded by sea waters that look like a lake.

Currently I am connected to three places: HIAP and Helsinki, the plantation in Latvia, and the open pit mine of Kolubara in Serbia. These are the environments that inspire me as we speak. But soon St. Petersburg will be added to the list, since Babe was taken there by Nikolai Vavilov, coming back from his trip to the North-American region of the Great Lakes.

Does the need to change the name of the berry come from a need for a new vocabulary in general?

B: Again, this boils down to my (dis)interest in classifications and taxonomy. With new emerging technology all previous classifications are shuffled once more. A lovely instable system that is, this taxonomy. With many lovely cracks and folds for artists to thrive in. But the essence of the world remains the same. The berry remains the same, no matter what you call it.

As said, the idea emerged whilst walking in the plantation. It became very clear that the Latin science given name wasn’t appropriate. It became very clear that the only suitable name is Baroa belaobara.

What’s next? How far into the world of Aronia and Babe can you go?

B: It could go on forever. Babe produces several speculations, and there will be more to come when I go back to the plantation this summer. There is for sure interest in a further deepening, a more embodied relation between Babe and other (human) beings… a more empathetic entangling.

Babe might also be interested in commenting on, or connecting with real fine art masters. The ones that had a strong connection with light, as well. Think of J.M.W. Turner, who famously said just moments before dying: “The Sun is God”. In some Babe-based ´temporary Photoelectric Digestopians Lab´ it was said that “God is not the Sun” … Babe and Turner, there is strong potential. And some Aalto scientists are very much aware of the potential energy.

 

It seems like we could have talked about the Aronia and Babe berries for hours. However, we decided to meet up again soon and talk about inks and pigments instead.

 

Bartaku is currently reading: 
Application of Bacterial Pigments as Colorant: The Malaysian Perspective by Wan Azlina Ahmad, Wan Yunus Wan Ahmad, Zainul Akmar Zakaria, Nur Zulaikha Yusof

Text by Tessa Aarniosuo
based on an interview on 28 April, 2016