Columns Exploring Science

Reimagining our shared future

Sindhu M

The exhibition Critical Zones: In search of a common ground’ urges visitors to contemplate innovative ways of coexisting with other life forms for a sustainable future on Earth. The travelling exhibition is on display at Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) from February 16 to 17 March 2024. Sindhu M, a PhD student at IISc, shares her experience of visiting this exhibition at SGB.

Critical Zone titleimage
Mira Hirtz and Daria Mille are the curators of this traveling exhibition that was conceived and first exhibited at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and is based on a concept by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. The original exhibition has been adapted for the local audiences in a close dialogue between the curators, art mediators, and the participating Goethe-Institut. Credit: Goethe-Institut/Max Meuller Bhavan.

Towering Pine trees of the Pfynwald alpine coniferous forest enveloped me. Golden yellow specks flew around like stars sprinkled on a canvas. The golden spots are a visualisation of the volatile organic compounds released by trees, in the Atmospheric forest’ exhibit at the Critical Zones: In search of a common ground’ exhibition housed on the third floor of the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB). It is an adaptation of the exhibition Critical zones: Observatories for earthly politics’, originally conceived and showcased at ZKM, Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2020−2022). The exhibition was the brainchild of Bruno Latour, French philosopher and sociologist and Peter Weibel, an Austrian artist. 

What is the critical zone?

What is the critical zone?” a curious visitor asked. It’s the thin layer of Earth where all life exists,” said the mediator. It is everything from the ground beneath our feet, the hidden world of underground rivers and tiny creatures, all the way up to the air we breathe. It is the life support system’ of Earth that makes life on Earth possible. Think of the earth as an orange — the critical zone would be just the peel”, explained the mediator. 

The critical zone may be thin, but it holds a surprising variety of landscapes and water forms – and these change rapidly over geological time. The Sahara desert, for example, was once a vast ocean. Thematic maps visualise these shifts which shows how a place’s landforms have transformed over different eras. The Physical Atlas” exhibit is a thematic map that represents the landforms of a location over different periods in horizontal sections. Although critical zones have always been changing due to natural forces, in the Anthropocene’ era humans are the dominant force shaping geography, climate and ecology. The critical zone now faces unprecedented challenges as a result of our actions. 

The exhibit ‘Physical atlas’, at the critical zone exhibition. Picture Credit: Sindhu M.
The exhibit Physical atlas’, at the critical zone exhibition. Picture Credit: Sindhu M.

Health of the critical zone

Scientists are concerned about the health of our planet’s critical zone. Humans have altered over half of the Earth’s land surface, pushing the planet’s life support systems beyond sustainable limits. To assess the health’ of the critical zones, scientists have made field stations that monitor various environmental parameters. The Critical Zone Observatory’ (CZO) exhibit showcases artwork inspired by CZOs in France, Switzerland and the Indian Institute of Science. 

At the CZOs instruments track measures like soil moisture, groundwater level, and streamflow. This data helps analyse how resilient the critical zone is to change. 

The mangrove ecosystem has also become a site of destruction, as explained by the exhibit Critical membrane’ by Sonia Mehra Chawla. The artist worked with scientists at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, India. They collected soil and water samples from mangrove ecosystems. Scientists at the MSSRF, known for their research on the role and preservation of mangroves, then grew microbiological cultures from these samples. The MSSRF is also studying traditional fishing techniques used in these areas, as these techniques create networks of canals that contribute to the health of the mangrove ecosystem. 

Fransesca Romana Audretsch, art mediator at the Center for Arts and Media, Karlsruhe, says,

The exhibition is not about the climate crisis. It is about finding ways to coexist with all forms of life on Earth. It is about finding common ground, about how we can identify ourselves with living forms around us rather than as nations, and making people think.

The Cloud studies’ exhibit by Forensic architecture further underscores the vulnerability and interconnectedness of the critical zone. It captures the drastic changes clouds face due to air pollution and chemical emissions, highlighting the impact of human activities on even the seemingly distant sky. 

We are all interconnected

The exhibition introduces the concept of Ghost acreages’ and asks us an uncomfortable question- Do we live where we are? We depend on international trade, coal and oil sourced by displacing local communities for our sustenance. The land we live in is not the land we live from and there is profound interconnectedness in the critical zone. Soil Affinities” by Uriel Orlow reveals the complex story of European food production relying on industrial farms in West Africa, established during colonialism. Meanwhile, Raiz Aerea” by Edith Morales showcases an indigenous Mexican maize variety, uniquely capable of self-fertilization. This plant, with its nitrogen-fixing aerial roots, has been nurtured by indigenous communities for millennia. However, in 2018, scientists and corporations took notice, potentially putting its intellectual property at risk. This raises critical questions about biopiracy and the exploitation of indigenous knowledge. 

Visitors interacting with the exhibits at the Critical Zones exhibition. Picture Credit: Sindhu M.
Visitors interacting with the exhibits at the Critical Zones exhibition. Picture Credit: Sindhu M. 

Every element, from water and soil to gases and minerals, has been shaped by living organisms, exemplifying the concept of Gaia – how life forms create and sustain the conditions for other life to exist. Such interconnectedness can lead to profound experiences, as was the case with the artist Cemelesai Dakivali. Years ago, a group of young people from Dakivali’s tribe in southern Taiwan fell ill with a strange disease after conducting research in their ancestral lands. This incident echoed the warnings of tribal elders who believed certain areas should remain untouched. Inspired by their wisdom, Dakivali created large-scale artworks depicting not invasive species, but the viruses and creatures unleashed from the wilderness in response to human intrusion. This powerful reversal of perspective challenges the traditional narrative, highlighting humans as the disruptive force facing retaliation from the natural world.

The exhibition introduces us to the concepts of critical zones, interconnectedness in the critical zones and the urgency to act to save our life support systems from reaching the tipping point. To do so, it proposes a paradigm shift- that humans should move away from national identities and focus on building a shared understanding of our place on earth. It invites visitors to join this ongoing process of finding new ways to exist and thrive on Earth. 

By engaging with the Critical Zones” exhibition and its message of interconnectedness and shared responsibility, we can collectively move towards a more sustainable and harmonious future for all life on Earth.

The critical zones exhibition is open to the public free of cost till 17 March 2024. More activities, talks, film-screenings and workshops are lined up as part of the exhibition.

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