Archives of Curiosity is a limited edition book created by Masters students at the Royal College of Art and sponsored by Pureprint. Alongside writing Chapter Seven, I acted as Co-editor, working closely with all members of our team to produce the final version…
Full text here. Excerpt below.
Biomonitoring as Worlding
Interspecies entanglements […] are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. – Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing (2015, p.vii).
Contamination destroys worlds, but it also makes room for others. In order to understand how contamination transforms ecosystems over time, an ‘indicator species’ can be repeatedly measured. Lichens are mapped and measured to track and understand fluctuations in atmosphere as well as geomorphology and biodiversity (Power et al., 2015; Favero-Longo, 2012; Favero-Longo, 2010). Several qualities make lichen a useful bioindicator: it is a perennial, long-lived, widespread and pioneering life form, with a tendency to concentrate elements in its environment (Purvis, 2000, p.77). Therefore, lichen’s collective presence, absence or formation provide useful data for evaluating the status of ecosystems all year round, over relatively long periods of time, in extreme environments, before other life forms have settled, and in response to contamination.
It is important here to distinguish between the method of bioindication, which can be a one-off encounter, and the methodology of biomonitoring, which happens over time via durational observation of bioindicators. While bioindication reveals dynamics between pollution and ecosystems at one point in time, biomonitoring shows how those dynamics unfold progressively, so that we can make predictions of the past and future. In Lichens, William Purvis compares the two approaches to photography and videography (ibid). Thus, when Jennifer Gabrys in her article ‘Sensing Lichens’ proposes ‘[e]ngaging with bioindication as a speculative register’ for understanding the ‘relationships and conflicts encountered through environmental pollution […] over time’, I suggest it would be more appropriate to call upon biomonitoring instead (2018, p.435). While my own approach is inspired by Gabrys’ speculative register, it centres upon the need for a commitment to monitoring fluctuations in air quality durationally.
[b]ioindicators are taken here to represent the basic application of a method, while biomonitoring is taken to represent the application of bioindicator techniques over time at given locations. – Joint Nature Conservation Committee (Sutton et al., 2004, p.4)
For example, in a recent survey by Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) and the NHM, citizen scientists identified up to nine different lichens with a range of air pollution tolerances to show species-level patterns and significant relationships with air quality (Power et al., 2015, p.1). X. parietina was the ‘nitrogen-loving’ lichen on the bioindicator index and, according to a cartographic data visualisation of the results, it was the most commonly recorded lichen during the time of the study (OPAL, 2019). The data visualisation also showed that most recordings were made in densely-populated areas; ethnolichenologists might fabulate that X. parietina thus appears woven into the figurative fabric of our lives as a witness to our polluting activities. For most participants, the air quality survey was a snapshot of air pollution in a singular situation. The researchers hope that the bioindicator indices will be used in further site-specific studies of air pollution (Seed et al., 2013).
It is my contention that bioindication needs to become self-referential biomonitoring in order to take on a ‘metastability’ in terms of how we read and relate to our environment, so that ‘a sense of something happening emerges’ (McCormack 2016, p.6). As I have discussed, a particular lichen might be an indicator in one spatiotemporal context. It is only through points of comparison that we understand how ecosystems are different or changed. Biomonitoring depends upon multiple engagements with bioindication in order to generate comparable data, which invites reading between the lines to produce an interspecies account. The fluctuations of such a narrative dissolve any definite end or beginning and instead point to a state of perpetual interconnectedness articulated through constant transformation.
An unlikely parallel can be drawn here between biomonitoring and Sasha Engelmann’s analysis of artist Dryden Goodwin’s large-scale, digital installation of 1300 sketches on a loop, which intimate the shape-changes of respiration in a young boy’s body. Breathe (2012), elucidates Engelmann, is both a sequencing and a surface presentation of inhaling and exhaling which promotes an ‘aesthetic sensibility’ that she terms a ‘poetics of air’, based on the work of Tim Choy (Engelmann, 2015). Goodwin’s ethereal installation, overlooking London’s Westminster Bridge, invited onlookers to collaboratively sense the passing of time with each sequenced ‘breath’ in the stop motion animation. The surface markings of skin come alive as each sketch transitions rapidly to the next and the figure’s boundaries jump about, showing a ‘porous’ body that operates like a negatively pressurised, organic valve (ibid). The vulnerability inherent in a lack of boundaries between the depicted child’s body and the air he mechanically needs to survive links back to the EXHALE programme which inspired the artwork, ‘a long-term study of the medical effects of air pollution on children’s respiratory health’ (ibid, p.434). Biomarkers in children after exposure to traffic pollution had already been monitored for two to three years when Goodwin collaborated with the researchers to create Breathe. Similarly, where one individual sketch by the artist is the counterpart of bioindication, the flowing progression of sketches collectively become akin to biomonitoring and something much greater than their combined parts: a relatable story.