The Artist’s Science
Aroussiak Gabrielian, a futurist, media artist, and landscape architect, gives a glimpse into her innovative work and world
March 18, 2021 | հեղ.` Creative Armenia
Imagine a vest that you could grow personal crops on, fertilized by your own waste? In fact, you don’t need to imagine it – “Posthuman Habitats” designed by Aroussiak Gabrielian does exactly that. Behind the cutting-edge concept stands an equally impressive artist, who seeks to redefine relationships between humans and nature and synergizes Arts and Sciences to develop ideas capable of real change. In her work, she synergizes Arts and Sciences to develop ideas capable of real change. Explore the fascinating and complex world of our 2021 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow in our exclusive interview.
CA: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a media artist and landscape architect.
AG: The journey began in college where I majored in art – specifically sculpture and expanded media (performance art, installation art, video art), as well as art theory – or the theoretical underpinnings of such practices within contemporary art discourse.
My work was concerned with the embodiment of borderland identity, pulling from my experience as an immigrant straddling two worlds, two tongues, and two everyday realities. My interest in architecture and landscape architecture sprouted indirectly from examining the expanded practice of a handful of artists who were experimenting with and appropriating spatial and environmental elements in their work. Of particular significance and relevance were Ana Mendieta’s earth-body performances, Agnes Denes’s reclaimed landfills, Doris Salcedo’s occupied absences, Mona Hatoum’s semblances of shelter, Rachel Whiteread’s underside castings, Christo & Jeanne Claude’s environmental wrappings (the list goes on…).
Wanting to more closely examine the connections between contemporary artistic practice and forms of spatial and environmental design, I pursued a dual masters in Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where I ended up being fascinated by other, more physical manifestations of borderlands – geopolitical, ecological, material, as well as between the “natural” and the “constructed.”
My work in graduate school was profoundly impacted by mentors Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cuhna who as postcolonial scholars and designers problematize the colonial roots of imperial mapping practices, challenging geographic knowledge derived from Western science particularly related to the hard lines drawn between land and water, which has impacted how we value, shape and engineer our hydrological systems. I became increasingly interested in the ways in which technology intersected with these questions of cultural ways of seeing and constructing the world, so after years in professional practice in NYC, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Ph.D. in Media Arts Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, and to establish my own design-research studio, foreground design agency.
Through my doctoral research, I began to examine the ways biology has been used as technology and the possibilities of biological media as a new arena for design inquiry and practice. My current work still operates at the body scale – bridging between and negotiating two vastly different dynamics – ecological systems at the planetary scale and biological systems at the material (and sometimes microscopic) scale – yielding speculative proposals for how we (humans) might live in stronger and mutually beneficial interdependence with the rest of the biotic (and abiotic) world.
CA: What is a single work of art or a person whose work influenced you the most? Why?
AG: I am constantly finding inspiration from the arts (some examples are above) as well as from works of theory/philosophy (the interconnected webs of discourse that weave together: Feminism, New Materialism, Environmentalism, Phenomenology). I would say, however, that these days, most of my influence comes from the biophysical world itself – the sociality of trees, the complex multispecies world of living soils, the binding force of our planetary watercourse. As a medium that is always in the process of change, landscape and the liveliness of its composite material (be it “natural” or “constructed”) is a source for reflecting, making, and being in the world.
CA: Throughout your career and numerous projects, you have worked on redefining the relationships between humans, culture, and nature. How have you developed those views and philosophy?
AG: Throughout my experiences, I have come to see that the working structures of all systems of power – white supremacism, imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy – and the degradation of our biophysical world are fundamentally entangled. Much of my work is critical of Western thought that has constructed dualisms or binaries that value some above those deemed “Other.” My work aims to dismantle such structures of power and privilege that render specific humans, species, and matter silent.
In the current geologic epoch of the Anthropocene, in which humanity has directly altered atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric systems, developing design approaches that help steer ourselves, our communities, and our environments toward more ethical futures is critical for planetary survival. Aided by advanced capitalism and bio-genetic technologies, humans have radically disrupted their interactions with the multispecies world and turned ecosystems into a so-called planetary apparatus of production. My design inquiries aim to shift away from such extractivist models to those that value cultural and natural systems as sources rather than resources. This radical revaluing requires we design with rather than for, and thus strive to be cocreators with those that have been historically devalued through frameworks of worth that privilege some at the expense of Others. My creative process strives for a condition in which all humans can participate in processes of comaking and coliving with the more-than-human world.
CA: You constantly work on interdisciplinary projects, collaborating with scientists and artists to develop new revolutionary approaches. What do you value the most about working with different professionals?
AG: Contact, collaboration, and consultation is an integral part of my design process given the interdisciplinary nature of my work and the pragmatic need to reach out to experts in fields that I have little to no experience in – from evolutionary biology, to mycology, to entomology. The disciplinary worlds that we each inhabit offer a unique lens – we see, experience, and live the world differently – and one of the most valuable aspects of working with others is having access to their versions of the world. Being invited into these worlds and experiencing them through others is incredibly stimulating for me (beyond the practical need to do so in my work) – not only for the access and the collective learning that takes place but for the shared generosity that the act of collaboration instigates.
CA: Right now you’re working on a speculative project called Near-Extinction Rituals. Tell us more about it. How did you come up with it?
AG: Near-Extinction Rituals is a series of speculative design prototypes that catalyze or require (for survival) new rituals that force humans out of their exploitative relationship with the world, and obligate them to collaborate and thus co-evolve toward more inclusive and ethical models for living.
It began with a single project called Posthuman Habitats which I initiated in 2015 right after the birth of my daughter Zabel, at a time when I was both keenly aware of and deeply astounded by my body’s ability to produce and deliver the exact nutrients that my child required. This was a period in which I was additionally immersed in literature around the posthumanities and particularly Rosi Briadotti’s book, The Posthuman, in which she poses the question of what a geo-centric subject might look like. Through this work, I wanted to explore whether we (and especially our bodies) could feed more than just our kin.
Posthuman Habitats is essentially a wearable farm fertilized by human waste which doubles as an expanded ecosystem that attracts and integrates other animal and insect life, including essential pollinator species. By tending to the daily needs of this constructed ecosystem (because our lives depend on it as the source of our food), the human develops new rituals of care and compassion for its more-than-human companions.
The Near-Extinction Rituals series has since grown to include two other prototypes – Transcorporeal Atmospheres (which focuses on the design of water production mechanisms within human-fungal networks to address issues around water scarcity and access); and Future Symbionts (which engages the material processes of decay and recomposition by collaborating with the invisible assemblage of organisms within the soil biome).
All three projects prioritize the more-than-human species and systems that have been exploited or rendered mute by the inseparability of advanced capitalism and the colonial project. The first prototype was funded and completed in Rome in 2017-2018 while a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and I am in the process of fabricating the last two prototypes which will eventually coalesce into a book project with associated essays that elaborate on the future of our relationship to food, water, and waste.
CA: You are also an academic and currently work as an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism at the School of Architecture and Affiliate Faculty of Media Arts Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. What do you like most about teaching? How has teaching changed the relationship with your work?
AG: I enjoy many aspects of teaching – from the research involved in the curation of individual courses to structuring assignments that connect theory to practice, to empowering students to become critical thinkers, makers, and shapers of this world, to the conversations we share during lectures, pin-ups, and working sessions.
In my work, there is a seamless feedback loop between research, pedagogy, and design and each has a productive impact on the next, developing and interrogating ideas, testing methods, and a general ethos of experimentation which collectively pushes my thinking and methods forward into new and interesting areas of inquiry.
I recently launched and directed a design-research lab at USC called the Landscape Futures Lab and it serves as an incubator for expanding climate innovation and imagination. As a pedagogical and research platform it supports collaborative investigations into the implications and applications of technology within the biophysical world and establishes experimental methodologies with which to generate alternatives to our current environmental trajectories and the existential threats we now face. As a trained futurist, the lab is additionally a vehicle through which to help others see and imagine alternate environmental futures, which is an area I am deeply invested in both as a designer and as an educator. Through my lab and my teaching, I focus on educating designers and media artists on such innovative methods and ethical models for practice.
CA: You have said that the recent war in Artsakh had an impact on the way you think about our entanglements with land, geology, and soil. What do you mean?
AG: The thinking came out of a brief reflection that I was invited to contribute to the Institute of Armenian Studies at USC during the war as it was unfolding in Artsakh. I sought to understand what the phrase “մենք ենք մեր լեռները / we are our mountains” meant to us as group indigenous to the land. It has since become the seeds of a design-research project that I am slowly starting to formulate. I am co-curating a symposium this term on the multiple manifestations and meanings of the ground and many of the panels that I have helped organize will serve as platforms to extend my thinking around this work as I continue to flesh it out. I hope to be able to share details soon - it is still a period of reflection for me as the events still feel very raw.
CA: Your projects are complex, layered, and involve many steps, from asking thought-provoking questions, to designing and prototyping. What do you personally find the most difficult when picking up a new project?
AG: There are distinct challenges at every phase but the one common element is always time. It takes time (and space) to ideate and read and write and sketch and research, it takes time to find the right people with the right chemistry to work with, it takes time to develop relationships, it takes time to search for funding sources, it takes time to test and fabricate, it takes time to then promote the work or to write about it. So finding the time is the biggest challenge.
CA: What project of yours are you most proud of? What makes it special?
AG: I’m proud of different aspects of different projects – in some, I am more proud of the collaborative process that was fostered and the nurturing of mutual trust and openness that the act of co-creation instigated. In others, it is the kind of gut reaction or feeling or emotion that my work was able to inspire. In yet others, it is the ephemeral elements that seemed to be aligned so well that made the work special in that particular place and at that particular time.
There’s an ephemeral nature to most of the work that I produce – I utilize materials that change (and in some cases die in the process) and so what I find special or what I'm drawn to is also this sense that the work can't be repeated or captured or held still for very long. There's something to work that asks you to be in the moment when you have to be experientially present and awake with your entire body and all your senses which really taps into the visceral and makes you feel something. And at the same time recognizing that that moment is only temporary and cannot be reproduced. Those moments are special to me.
And finally, while I work in an intensely methodical manner, I rely heavily on my intuition. And I guess I’m also proud that I can listen to myself on such a deeply intuitive level.
CA: Tell us about your daily creative routine.
AG: Generally, as an introvert, I spend a lot of time working through ideas on my own, with many hours of sitting with and stewing on concepts and doing a lot of research during the ideation process (both theoretical research as well as practical research in terms of looking at the field to see who and what I am in dialogue with, etc). As I start to formulate a concept, I try to build a world around it – which involves a lot of reading, a lot of sketching, a lot of drafts of design, and a lot of conversation. Once I have a close enough draft that I am comfortable with sharing, I reach out to experts to talk about processes that I’ve developed and the possibilities that Art + Science collaborations could open up. This usually impacts the draft and then I spend more time massaging the design until I arrive at a place with which I am comfortable. From that point on, I begin to think about how something might or might not be constructed and again reach out to experts (this time fabricators and the like) in order to realize the works.
So there’s a lot of research and testing and sketching and making and modeling but there's also writing. At times, I design a work by writing about it – the writing puts me in a different kind of network of ideas, and the language I use helps me think about my projects differently. As mentioned earlier, there’s a fair amount of intuition as well – I listen to my gut a lot (in some projects this is literal!).
Walking used to be a creative routine that these days has become less accessible (see the question on Covid above). Right now, while this routine is quite interrupted and fragmented, there are some pockets of intensity that I can still access, for which I'm grateful. But the overall process is very intense and I very much live in the works when I am in that creative zone.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
AG: To continue to probe at what it means to be embedded in interdependent networks and more-than-human entanglements and to continue to engage the productive triad of research, practice, and teaching – all aimed at pushing us toward more ethical and more just futures.
CA: What are your plans as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
AG: I think what's really special about this fellowship is the holistic support infrastructure that it offers – a combination of funding, promotion, and mentorship. Even things like this interview provide a valuable window into the worlds that we occupy and the things we think about and the processes we deploy which one wouldn’t necessarily have access to when interacting with our creative works alone.
The opportunity to be a part of the ecosystem of Armenian creatives is also thrilling in terms of possibilities for future collaborations. I also grew up with a very strong ethos of service – to contribute to the betterment of society more generally and to Armenia more specifically – so being within this community and impacting the future development of the arts in Armenia is a gift in and of itself.