Finnish science and art collective Fern Orchestra rewarded in Canada

NEWS
Sanna Kangasluoma, Finnish Dance in Focus 2020 - 2021, 13.9.2022

The founder of the group, lighting designer Vespa Laine and sound designer Markus Heino have been awarded at the World Stage Design exhibition in Canada. Why is photosynthesis important, and what can biodiversity teach us? Vespa Laine was interviewed in Finnish Dance in Focus magazine 2020-2021.

Vespa Laine © Petri Tuohimaa

Fern Orchestra is a multifaceted multi-art group that has studied subjects such as photosynthesis, closed biosphere and the senses of plants in their works. Plants and micro-organisms operate as the orchestra’s intruments while the works include performance art, contemporary dance, publications and light & sound art.

The art group participated in the World Stage Design exhibition in Canada with their work Vox Herbārium – Plant Series IV (2019).

Vespa Laine, the founder of Fern Orchestra, is a lighting designer who makes a plant band sing and creates light art from algae and choreography from the motion of plants. In the article of Finnish Dance in Focus 2020 – 2021 she tells us why she works with plants and other living materials, why photosynthesis is important, and what biodiversity can teach us.

Laine has done a lot of collaboration with choreographers and worked in theater, but when she moved to an outer archipelago in the Baltic, her former collaborators were left far behind and nature and the sea was close by.

“In the spring of 2014 I found a bottle garden in my yard that I had thrown out in November, when I thought it was dead. And now, to my surprise, there was a fern growing in it. Ferns are living fossils – that’s why it was able to grow in that bottle. It had created its own biosphere in the enclosed space – if I opened the bottle, it would die. It will last as long as it gets light! To me, this is comforting, in light of the environmental situation.”

“That’s where I got the idea for my first piece, Ferns, where I explored what plants sound like. I built my own biosphere, a dome for plants, and composed a piece where I play the plants by varying their electrical resistance using light, water, and touch. There was a presentational part of it where I played a character and talked about photosynthesis.”

The plants sounded quite different than they had in rehearsals. Suddenly I had a punk band on my hands!

“But: I had only rehearsed it in the daytime, when it was light out. And the performance was in the evening in a room full of people – in other words carbon dioxide. One of my plants ‘went to sleep’. The others just ‘shouted’. They sounded quite different than they had in rehearsals. Suddenly I had a punk band on my hands! The whole piece went sideways. The time of day had changed. The plants had already ‘done their day’s work’. They panicked.”

“I realized how little we know about plants and how poorly we understand nature. Finns consider themselves forest people, but our connection to nature is broken, too. Around the world, the importance of biodiversity isn’t understood at all anymore. Nature is seen as a frightening, incomprehensible thing. These problems come from an exploitation mentality.”

“You can find all kinds of things on the internet, but actual, researched information is hard to get. Our collective includes a marine biologist and we collaborate a lot with researchers. If we humans knew more, maybe we would treat the environment better. As it is, we don’t even know how to question the exploitative mindset—we don’t understand why we should leave those trees standing.”

“The unsuccessful Ferns performance was the germ of something new: plant jams that combined performance art and dance, where people got to play the plants themselves. Everybody wanted to try it! People said it changed their concept of plants and of nature – they were so sentient.”

What does it feel like and sound like when you pinch a plant?

“Of course you could call that anthropomorphism. But it’s a good way to make people aware of what it feels like and what it sounds like when you pinch a plant! Then you can imagine what a clear cutting sounds like – yikes!”

“Our working group has found itself pondering whether we’re plant colonialists when we do these performances. When we use plants and drag them around from place to place. I’m sure they don’t like it. But I think they’re pioneers, come to preach! We also have a plant rest home. Some of them are always there taking a break from work.”

Plants and movement

“When creating a piece, it’s important to try to make a connection with the plants – What might the plant want? Where would it like to be, and what is its relationship to the other plants and to us humans? The dancer’s instrument – the body – can do this well. Dancers can use their kinaesthetic intelligence to find a kind of vegetativism, or ‘plantism’. But it’s not an easy thing.”

Esiintyjiä ja kasveja kasvitieteellisessä puutarhassa

Fren Orchestra © Petri Tuohimaa

“Organic movement in this context means specific things. Plants are surprisingly strong movers, but a plant doesn’t do anything for no reason. Its movement is organic because it has a clear purpose.”

“I often think, What would a plant do in this situation?”

“My pieces have dancers —they’re movement pieces —but we call them performance essays. We haven’t wanted to refer to them directly as dance, because people have such strong preconceptions of dance. I’m of the opinion that it definitely is dance. It’s just that the focus is not on the human, but on the plant.”

“When, because of corona, our garden tour was cancelled, we decided to make a dance video intended for plants. People can watch it together with the plants. In the video, the plants send voice messages, and plant viewers in another location, perhaps on the other side of the planet, can receive the message and admire what a wonderful plant that is!”

Politics

“Art is my tool. I try to be political, to be an activist. We’re now sliding into such a terrible state of the world that I can’t think about creating performances about something like sexuality. All our performances are about taking responsibility for the environment.”

“It’s important to think about how we create our pieces, and where we create them. We think ecologically. We’ve turned down gigs that smelled like greenwashing.”

“As an artist, you can make a choice – about how you heat your studio, what you eat. Your practice can be ecological. The Fern Orchestra doesn’t fly; we always go by train or bus to our gigs. The best trips were the ones where we sat on a train together for days. Those situations don’t arise in normal life. It’s a kind of ‘pilgrimage to the mountain’ ”

Everything is dispensable except photosynthesis!

“Photosynthesis is the most important thing in the world; without it there would be no oxygen, nothing. Thanks to photosynthesis, solar energy is stored in green mass and through it sustains the entire food chain. Humans are dependent on oxygen, which is produced by plants and forests, but also by the photosynthesis of ocean bacteria.”

“We should better protect and value the things that make photosynthesis possible. The need to protect forests is somehow easy to picture: if the forests are cut down, you can see what’s not there anymore, what is lost. But what does it mean to protect the oceans? That’s not as clear to us.”

We have ocean microorganisms to thank for every other breath we take
“I live on the shores of the world’s most polluted sea, the Baltic, which is surrounded by modern welfare states. So much poison is dumped into it. Most of Finland is in the Baltic watershed. Everything we dump in the earth for a 100 km radius around the Baltic ends up in the sea.”

“We have ocean microorganisms to thank for every other breath we take. They produce half the world’s oxygen. Protecting the oceans is a first priority.”

Algae light show

“Our piece, the Mareld light show, is performed by a bioluminescent phenomenon caused by dinoflagellates in the ocean (Alexandrium ostenfeldii). In Finland, this type of algae, which glows in turbulent water, is called sea fire, or mareld in Norse language.

“It’s quite fantastic that the performing algae is a 77-million-year-old microscopic organism that cannot be seen with the human eye, but produces a light phenomenon that we can see! This is what we have under the surface of our sea. How can we learn to feel empathy for such wonderful forms of life?”

“There are also people in the piece, and dancers. We ask what it feels like to be single-celled, and how to sense the glow of fellow cells.”

“We have four categories of ticket prices: spectator, knower, influencer, and actor. We use the ticket proceeds to buy forest as a carbon sink. And the price of the ticket includes your fare on Turku public transit.”

The premiere of Vox Herbārium – Plant Series IV was in 2019 at the Turku Botanical Garden.