Interview: Artist Jenna Sutela on ‘I Magma’

Jenna Sutela is an artist working with both extremely current technologies and old concepts.

By Alex Czetwertynski

Photo: Aage A. Mikalsen courtesy of Kunsthall Trondheim

Combining a deep understanding of contemporary tools such as Machine Learning (a form of Artificial Intelligence) with an interest for non-human intelligence, divination, mysticism and oracles, she fits perfectly in an age where “reason-fatigue” and a lack of faith in traditional systems of knowledge is slowly settling in.  Some of her recent pieces have used slime-mold and bacteria as living material, but I Magma, one of her most recent commissions, is focused on a piece of technology that has fallen into the realm of kitsch, the lava lamp.  Commissioned by Moderna Musset and the Serpentine Galleries, the piece is composed of a series of glass blown copies of the artists head, filled with what she calls “Primordial goo”, i.e Magma.  The lava lamps operate both as a physical installation and as an app. Analyzing the movement of the “goo”, the app generates texts  that can be taken as oracular pronouncements.  There is a precedent to the use of lava lamps to derive “information”, specifically when Sun Microsystems researchers decided they could use the random movements of the “lava” to derive random numbers.  But in this case the analysis of the goo’s movements yields nothing practical, rather it suggests that there is an intelligence afoot in the “minds” of the active lamps, something we can’t entirely grasp, but that give us hints.  These hints are maybe less useful in themselves, but act as a sign of a hidden intelligence, one that the artist can express when they act as a catalyst, making the artist’s practice a form of translation between worlds.


We spoke to Jenna Sutela about her work and in particular about I Magma.  

Jenna Sutela: I, Magma – Moderna Museet / Teresa Hahr
Jenna Sutela: I, Magma – Moderna Museet / Prallan Allsten

I,Magma is both a sculptural piece and an app.  What were the challenges for you in creating a functioning Lava lamp, if any?  


The mouth blown glass needs to be heated very carefully. Kudos to the team at Moderna Museet for coming up with some ingenious dimmers for my halogen lamps.


In your pieces you are used to partnering with programmers and technologists to develop various components of your work.  What aspect of your background and education let you to the level of comfort you have now with those types of technologies?


My background is in so-early-2000s media art school. That’s where I got introduced to programming and electronics. I also studied the history of digital media.


Several of your pieces are focused on biological processes, mostly at the microscopic level.  What led you to developing an interest in micro-organisms?


Through cyberpunk, I got interested in wetware next to hardware and software. This computer-related idea applies to biological life forms. Coming into contact with Physarum polycephalum, the single-celled yet “many-headed” species of slime mold, finally led me to the path of biocomputational experimentation.
Similarly, you seem to have a deep interest in spiritualist practices and“magic” or non-rational knowledge.  When did that interest start and how does this relate to your interest in non-human intelligence?
It’s about more-than-human knowledge and intelligence, about sensing the world in ways beyond language, about interspecies symbiosis… The gut-brain connection is an interesting example. The bacteria in our guts regulate not only the course of our health and wellbeing but our thoughts and emotions too. Regarding spiritualist practices, I’ve been inspired by glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, spirit mediums, and Jain ascetics who reverence all life forms. A lot of my recent work looks at, or looks for the ghosts in the intelligent machines of our creation that are increasingly shaping our reality.

Seen from the outside, there seems to be a certain “randomness” in I,Magma –which is appropriate given the usage of lava lamps as randomness generators — but this randomness could seem arbitrary if it was not attached to a non-rational process.  In a sense, if you throw down a set of seashells, it makes sense to a medium trained to read them, but no sense to a lay person.  Your work seems to play a lot of with this nexus of irrational causality, where technology seems to be imbued with spirit and organic life with “computing” powers.  What is your role in facilitating these connections?  There seems to be something a bit“Beuys’ian” in the artist role you assign to yourself, i.e to manifest invisible connections and meanings.  How would you describe this and do you see artists, tiring more and more of modernity promise of invincible rationality, acting more as these types of“connectors” between forces?


While I Magma is inspired by the history of using lava lamps as random number generators at Sun Microsystems in the 90s, the work actually looks for patterns, signs, or meaning in blobs of liquid color in motion. With input from head-shaped lava lamps, a computer performs textual divinations based on the shapes that form. There’s a reference to the deep dreaming artificial neural networks that loop feature-recognition algorithms back on themselves resulting in hallucinatory connections between formerly unrelated things. Also, I often think about the Surrealists’ paranoiac-critical method where “irrational knowledge” was created by interpreting delirious phenomena.


A final question : I,Magma seems to be the most“tangible” of your pieces, in the sense that it could conceivably be purchased as an object and owned by a collector.  Without suggesting that that was your goal, do you think it is important for artists to produce objects of this type to be successful or can pure commission based models afford artists a decent way of achieving financial security?


I Magma is based on a similar logic with some of my earlier pieces that have made use of living materials (such as a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast in Gut-Machine Poetry) for computing. This time, the seed is a contained chemical process, which makes a long-term installation at a museum rather straightforward in comparison to microbes that I would’ve probably had to culture and film at a lab instead. I’ve been lucky with commissions in the past and I Magma was a commission, too. I think it’s probably best not to bet on either one of these paths alone. Tangible is also just more experiential sometimes.

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