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Confluences: On Anaïs Tondeur

Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.

Anaïs Tondeur, based in Paris, is an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of natural sciences and new media. Across photography, installations, and video, she creates speculative narratives and explores new modes of relationship between humanity and the more-than-human world. Back in Issue #3, writer Anna Souter looked at Tondeur’s work in her piece Nuclear Plants. Several years on, I caught up with Tondeur to chat about how her practice has evolved since then - and about her new olfactive installation, Ceci Est Son Souffle (A Breath), which is on view from now until 8 August at the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Madeleine: How did Ceci Est Son Souffle come about?

Anaïs: This olfactory investigation stems from an earlier and ongoing project called The Clouds Parliament. If you don't mind, let's take a short detour through this photographic protocol to introduce you to the genesis of the installation Ceci Est Son Souffle. A form of deep mapping, this initial photographic investigation opened up a long-term research into our relationship with the atmosphere. Immersed in different skies marked by anthropic activities, I undertake, alone or collectively, walks of up to several hundred kilometres to create, on each new day of the expeditions, a sky portrait that I print with the particulate matter that I filter through my breathing mask and later transform into ink.

Ghosts of our industrialised societies, the particulate matter in the image is the result of the partial combustion of hydrocarbons. These contemporary meteors are dispersed by the wind, drifting on atmospheric currents for a few days before falling several hundred kilometres from where they were emitted. In this way, for the first series, I retraced a trajectory of 1350 km_the paths taken by the carbon particles from the point where they were emitted to the sky in which I was plunged. On each day of the walk, I kept a trace of this immersion by making a portrait of the sky, which I later printed with the carbon black particles collected on the day of the image.

In fact, carbon black belongs to the same family as soot, which has been used for centuries to produce Indian ink. This led me, in collaboration with physicists from the JRC, to create an ink using the air pollutants filtered from the air on the day the photograph was taken. The volume of particles present in the sky thus determines the palette of blacks and greys in the image. The carbon ink prints invite us to reconsider the sky, which is no longer an object of contemplation, an element of the landscape or a backdrop to our lives on earth, but, breath by breath, the environment on which our lives depend.

As the anthropologist Marc Higgin puts it, this protocol brings us back to the air, to our breathing and to the quality of this relationship. In an essay written with four hands, we interrogated this very act of breathing -an act that implies that we are involuntarily and constantly immersed with and in our environment. We cannot not breathe: the atmosphere is a shared environment in which we live in total dependence. The installation Ceci Est Son Souffle precisely invites the visitor to an experience of sharing: that of their breath. It opens up a reflection upon this air which passes through our bodies and emerges transformed from them, participating in the composition of a shared atmosphere created by the breathing of humans and non-humans since the distant Triassic period and even beyond.

Madeleine: What was the genesis of this body of work, and/or how did your interest in paleobotany emerge? 

Anaïs: The research began in a quarry in the Swiss canton of Aargau. In a layer of red clay formed more than 210 million years ago, the teeth of an excavator came across a bone. Palaeontologist Ben Pabst discovered that it belonged to a giant bird known as a Plateosaurus. This herbivorous mastodon lived in the Triassic period.

At the invitation of the Natural History Museum of Neuchâtel, I met the palaeontologist on site as he dug up the fossilised body of Grande Gueule, which has now entered the museum's collection. This dinosaur, like the other members of its herd, spent its last days in this Swiss canton which was then a lagoon in the midst of an intense drought caused by natural climate change. Probably searching for water, they died trapped in the clay, which at the same time preserved their bodies. Most of their fossilised bodies are found in a similar position, with the head stretched towards the surface, and certainly, their last breath. The story of this giant fossil entered in direct resonance with the discussions and brainstorms that I had been having with the anthropologist Marc Higgin.

Following the approach of palaeobotanists, I set out to find the descendants of the plants on which the animal fed and which grew in Switzerland during the Triassic. I searched for the bodies of horsetails, ferns, cycads and pines that have evolved up to the present day, which I then immersed in a fatty substance to reveal their scent. Then, with time and light, an odour formed at the heart of each macerate, allowing the perfumer Carole Calvez to identify the smell of the plants the plateosaurus ate. Based on a study of the animal's rib cage, palaeontologists believe that it swallowed large quantities of plants, which were then crushed by the movements of gastroliths (stomach stones or gizzard stones). Symbiotic microorganisms then participated in the fermentation of the plants in the animal's intestines. We tried to imagine the scent of the transformation of these plants in the animal's body and, ultimately, the scent of its breath.

Madeleine: Your work is extremely interdisciplinary, often in very integral ways (I’m thinking here about your previous works with carbon black ink). And in this project, you collaborated with Carole Calvez. I’m curious how you think about the different mediums that you incorporate, and also what the experience of working with scent was like, as that’s not often a sensory element that we encounter in a fine art context. 

Anaïs: The interdisciplinary practice in which I have been engaged for many years, in collaboration with researchers from the natural and social sciences, but also composers and artists, is an attempt [at a] response to the profound crisis we are facing. I am convinced we need to assemble, from our different perspectives, confronting and bringing together our multiple understandings of the world to embody alternative ways of thinking and living in the world, in order to wound our relations to the earth.

‘I am convinced we need to assemble, from our different perspectives, confronting and bringing together our multiple understandings of the world to embody alternative ways of thinking and living in the world, in order to wound our relations to the earth.’

— Anaïs Tondeur

Anaïs: For the French philosopher Corine Pelluchon, "the current global crisis is a crisis of reason". For Edgar Morin, it is a crisis of thought because of its fragmentation. For Aurélien Barrau, astrophysicist and environmental activist, it is a crisis of sensibility. Along the same lines as the philosopher Baptiste Morizot and the art historian Estelle Zhong Mengual, I feel in deep proximity with this understanding of the crisis as a rupture in our relationship with the others of the living, "an impoverishment of all that we can feel, perceive, understand and relate to the living world, a reduction in the range of affects, perceptions, concepts and practices that connect us to it. [Manières d’être vivant, ed. Actes Sud, 2020, pp. 17-20]

We have developed a rich and complex typology to describe relationships within human societies, between groups and institutions, with technical objects or with works of art, but far fewer in our relationships with living beings. We have also lost the ability to name this sensory way of relating to the "natural" world as an ancient language that no one speaks anymore and whose treasures are invisible. This is partly explained by the historian of the senses, Alain Corbin, who has studied how - since the end of the 18th century - we have come to an olfactory silence in urban environments. At the same time, even though the environments in which we can experience smells have been drastically reduced, even though we have lost the words to describe them, our olfactory senses ignore these realities. They open up a powerful quality of attention to the environments in which we live, leading us beyond the focus of the cognitive, the prenominal and the representational to spaces - times - beyond our understanding.

At the beginning of the Ceci est son souffle installation, visitors enter a dark space that gradually invites them to embody their sensory body. This first chamber is slightly marked by an olfactory landscape of clay. Few perceive this smell, but it is present as a form of neurological stimulus that awakens their olfactory receptors. Then they are enveloped by a large shadow on the ground. The shadow of the animal's breath. Its scent rises to their nostrils. Some prefer to avoid it. They turn away. Others approach. Their breath meets the animal's exhale, a light, warm moisture, laden with the scent of its breath.

In this way, this olfactory experience leads to an experience of sharing, bringing back to the forefront of our perceptions the cycle through which each being constantly mixes with the world through a breath. As Emmanuelle Coccia points out, each time we inhale, the outside world enters our inner atmosphere, while each time we exhale, we return to the world the carbon produced in our cells, which in turn feeds the plants that produce the oxygen that makes this planet habitable. From this point of view, calling upon our sensory perceptions is not a simple passive reception, but rather a power of intensification and transformation of our relation to the world.

‘Calling upon our sensory perceptions is not a simple passive reception, but rather a power of intensification and transformation of our relation to the world.’

— Anaïs Tondeur

Madeleine: So much of your work touches on the precarious interplay between humankind and the natural world of which we are a part. What do you feel is the role of the artist in our current ecological moment? 

Anaïs: We are entering a terrifying yet promising moment of urgent and profound change - at least that is the hope I nurture. I feel that we have reached a turning point where it is less a matter of denouncing the tragedies that are unfolding, or of gathering up the debris of the crumbling world, but rather of trying to wound it and build new ones. The ecological crisis can be understood as a crisis of sensibility, a crisis in our relationship with living things; for this reason, although the current crisis depends on the political, economic, scientific and militant realms, artists have a decisive role to play in transforming our relationship with the earth, as the elements and beings that animate it.

There is a feedback between what we do on the Earth and how the Earth responds to us, how the soil, the plants, the animals, the elements respond to our collective actions. Yet how can we bring to life ways of living from and with the earth through an artistic, sensitive, embodied ecological and philosophical approach?

This question drives my practice. I seek to develop relational figures that enable us to perceive and enrich the interconnections between our human existence and the living world as a whole, in all its layers. I believe that an art practice in its transformative power can participate in a metamorphosis of the way our representations translate, shape and change our experiences of the world and the entities that make it up, as a form of reparation and reconciliation.

‘I believe that an art practice in its transformative power can participate in a metamorphosis of the way our representations translate, shape and change our experiences of the world and the entities that make it up, as a form of reparation and reconciliation.’

— Anaïs Tondeur

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