FiR Artist Interviews: Tracey Warr

This interview is part of the series of Frontiers artist discussions between Tessa Aarniosuo and the artists participating in Frontiers in Retreat residencies and other activities at HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme during 2015–2016. Tessa is a Helsinki based artist and writer currently working with several residency related activities at HIAP.

– Jenni Nurmenniemi, Curator of Frontiers in Retreat (HIAP)


FiR Artist Interviews: Tracey Warr

I met with Tracey Warr during her autumn 2016 residency at HIAP, to discuss her projects relating to Frontiers in Retreat, her relationship with Fine Art, water, and the world’s end. 


TA: What does it feel like, being a writer working with artists in a contemporary art project?

TW: I’ve been doing what I refer to as ‘writing in the vicinity of art’ for a long time. I started out as a curator and art writer, taught art history and theory writing in Fine Art departments, and collaborate with visual artists. I write with artists rather than about them, embedded in the process, collaborating and contributing, rather than simply looking at end results as an art critic does. Sometimes the writing I do relates directly to other artists’ work – an essay on their artworks, for instance, and sometimes I write my own fiction within contemporary art projects. 

In Frontiers in Retreat I’ve been working with Jutempus on the Zooetics project. We recently held a think-tank on a former US military base in Iceland. I did some fiction writing that Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas incorporated into an installation/performance at Reykjavik Art Museum. Earlier this year I wrote a future fiction novella called Meanda set on a watery exoplanet for the exhibition Exoplanet Lot organised by Maison des Arts Georges Pompidou, Cajarc in France. I published the novella in French and English as an ebook and as Twitter Fiction. I’m developing that story now and will publish an expanded version, along with other future fiction stories, next year, as part of my work for Frontiers in Retreat. 

Generally, working as a writer alongside contemporary visual artists provides lots of stimulating ideas. I use visual, material, spatial, sensory inspirations in my writing. Contemporary art projects often have quick turnaround times and require a physical or performative outcome which can be a challenge for a writer. Writing a book often takes a long time – a few years rather than a few months. I’ve solved the outcome challenge in exhibitions so far by producing books and sited text installations and by running workshops and seminars.

TA: Tell us a bit about your work in Frontiers in Retreat, especially the Zooetics series of seminars.

TW: Zooetics is a word made up by the Jutempus team (Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Viktorija Siaulyte and myself) to gesture poetically, playfully, artfully, at radical ideas around extended notions of life from mammals to molluscs to mycelium, and to explore the possibilities of weaving together human epistemology with the knowledge of other lifeforms. We began with a series of lectures and seminars at Kaunas University, Lithuania in 2014-5 on anthropocene, nature and interspecies. The lecturers included Natalie Jeremijenko, Timothy Morton and Keller Easterling. You can find the lectures on Youtube and more information on the Zooetics website. We were working with the idea that fiction can help us get past an impasse in ecological thinking and action. We looked at J.G. Ballard’s fictional technologies in Vermilion Sands. Working with mycelium, Nomeda & Gediminas created the Psychotropic House, Zooetic Pavilion of Ballardian Technologies, which was shown in the Baltic Triennale at CAC in Vilnius, in Gallery Bunkier Sztuki in Krakow and in the Sao Paulo Biennale. I recently led a seminar on ‘Nonhuman, Nonanimal’ which included presentations on Zooetics at the Museum of Nonhumanity in Helsinki in September 2016. 

TA: The Zooetics series is meant to cover the entire alphabet eventually. Does language help define the ideas or the other way around? What came first, language or definitions?

TW: I think it’s a fluid, dynamic interchange going in both directions. I like to see language as having a kind of life of its own. Etymology is interesting. I’m always thinking about Georges Bataille’s non-dictionary, The Critical Dictionary, and his complaint about definitions as straight-jackets. But he was a writer. He wasn’t attacking language, just the way some people use it. Language can be used divisively, hierarchically, to repress and control – but language is also expansive, poetic, evocative, blooming and conjuring. Text is a material – like wood, paint or stone – that can be worked and honed.

TA: You have written extensively on rivers and water. How has your time in Helsinki, and Suomenlinna specifically, helped develop your ideas? Helsinki is, after all, a coastal city.

TW: Being on Suomenlinna island, travelling to and fro on the ferry, and also travelling in the Turku archipelago, in both winter and summer, have been enormously influential. I integrated experiences of watching water here in Finland into my fiction. I ran a water workshop with children at Annantalo Art School in Helsinki and then recently with postgraduate students from the Helsinki University of the Arts MA Contemporary Performance and Ecology. It was very interesting for me to engage with other people’s different cultural experiences and knowledges of water. I know more about rivers but the Finnish children for instance, were more interested in the sea and in islands. On the Turku Archipelago ferry I ran a workshop on Viking readings of the marine environment. Two of the participants had grown up in the archipelago with an embodied knowledge of navigating and their kayaks were prostheses. Another artist used her hair as a navigation aid: its responses to wind and humidity. I was struck by the idea that the islands in the archipelago are joined by the water rather than separated by it.

TA: How do you go about giving a voice to the other, or in your case, water? It must be difficult to think of water as the protagonist, without giving it human attributes.

TW: Yes, we can’t ever really get away from refracting everything through human knowledge, sensory capacities, language, but I find out as much as I can about water behaviour and characteristics and try to write from an imagined perspective inside water. Books such as Tristan Gooley’s How to Read Water, Felix Franks’ Water, Charles Fishman’s The Big Thirst, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (an amazing account of feral swimming), Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World are all big influences on me. And I spend a lot of time swimming and looking at water. I live right next to a river.

TA: The Frontiers in Retreat project focuses on matters of ecology. Do you believe the world needs saving?

TW: The world doesn’t, if you mean the planet by that, but the world with humans and many other lifeforms threatened with extinction does. My interest in ecology doesn’t stem from a desire to save the world but rather from a desire to see a different way of human life – that doesn’t regard everything around it recklessly and selfishly as resources to exploit until they run out. I don’t believe that a dog eat dog attitude is fundamental to human nature. Capitalism and consumerism are ideologies. They are not biological imperatives.

TA: ”If the world would end, it wouldn’t be ’sad,’ because sadness is a human concept.” Discuss.

TW: Of course it would be sad although I’m not sure that little word fully empasses that potential tragedy. I don’t have anything against human concepts! The world is amazing and so are we, and our co-lifeforms living on it. Everything passes, and even Earth will end as a consequence of the heating up of the Sun – but it does have about 1 billion to 7.5 billion years to go yet. We could still be here for some of that if we make a bit of an effort to live differently.


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Interview by Tessa Aarniosuo