HKW Logo

SYNAPSE Workshop 2015 | June 30 – July 4, 2015

SYNAPSE 2015 – Evolution Day and the Beneficial Influences of Dust

02.07.15 | PROJECT: Blog | AUTHOR: Anna-Sophie Springer

From 29 June until 4 July, the Haus der Kulturen hosted an intense SYNAPSE 2015 workshop on the theme of “Ape Culture.” For the workshop, a group of eleven up-and-coming international curators participated in a dense programme of lectures, performances, and museum and gallery visits at different spaces in Berlin. Like in the last SYNAPSE workshop two years ago, the programming at the HKW again alternated between presentations by the new SYNAPSE members themselves and talks by invited “expert” speakers—including the artists Rachel Mayeri and Coco Fusco as well as curators Chus Martinez and Cord Riechelmann, who all presented aspects of their ongoing work.

Screen shot 2015-07-12 at 4.29.09 PM

Image: The SYNAPSE 2015 curators Jenna Sutela (Helsinki, Finland), Caroline Picard (Chicago, USA), David Ayala-Alfonso (Bogotá, Colombia), Sofia Lemos (London, UK), and Joan Legalamitlwa (Mafikeng, South Africa)top—top row—and Silvia Franceschini (Milan, Italy) Juan Canela (Barcelona, Spain), Renan Laru-an (Quezon City, Philippines), Rachel Thompson (Cambridge, USA), and Sophia Gräfe (Berlin, Germany) —bottom row—during a visit to the Tieranatomisches Theater. Photo by Etienne Turpin.

With its focus on human-animal relations and nature-culture questions, the workshop couldn’t have been timed much better. For, it was on 1 July 1858 that the famous and paradigm-changing Darwin-Wallace paper, proclaiming Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s independently formulated theses on the theory of evolution by natural selection, was read out loud for the first time to an assembly of gathered naturalists at the London Linnean Society.

Screen shot 2015-07-12 at 4.36.53 PM

Image: Scan of Wallace’s personal copy of the Darwin-Wallace paper as it was sent to Wallace in the Malay archipelago; courtesy The Wallace Correspondence Project.

Now sometimes called “Evolution Day,” it was on that day 157 years later that during our workshop we listened to three brilliant presentations by Agnieszka KlepackaSofia LemosSilvia Franceschini, who all have found unique angles from which to approach natural history institutions through curatorial interventions. As it happened, all three of the presentations also argued their points through references to either Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace.

Having herself in 2014 curated an exhibition project at the Krakow Botanical Garden Museum which was inspired by A.R. Wallace’s essay “The Importance of Dust,” Aga Klepacka spoke from the perspective of a curator smuggling contemporary art into historical display galleries. Taking the figure of Wallace as her conceptual starting point, Aga said, was interesting to her because the explorer represents an “ecclectic thinker,” thus allowing for a great spectrum of different directions from which to further explore his legacy. Indeed, while in his earlier lifetime, Wallace (1823–1913) had roamed the world as a collector of natural history specimens, the same man later dedicated himself to the advancement of socialist politics, the riddle of life on other planets such as Mars, as well as writing about mesmerism and land reform. A tireless individual, he published 22 books and nearly 750 essays—”The Importance of Dust: A Source of Beauty and Essential to Life” (1898) being a late piece, which was also included in the Haus der Kulturen’s recent publication Grain Vapor Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene.

Screen shot 2015-07-12 at 5.36.36 PM

Image: Installation view of The Importance of Dust (2014), Botanical Garden Museum, Krakow, with work by artist Mateusz Kula. Courtesy of Aga Klepacka.

Dust as a conceptual keyword came up again in the talk right after by Sofia Lemos, whose curatorial thinking for her new project in partnership with the Berlin Medicinal Museum turned out to be partly inspired by her encounter with a particular passage of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Here, Darwin describes noticing peculiarly fine dust particles coating the scientific equipment of the ship even while navigating thousands of miles away from any major landmasses. Upon collecting the dust and sending it in small parcels to the microbiologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg at Humboldt University in Berlin, Darwin learned that this aeolian dust consisted of micro-organic particles—many of which sweet water organism—travelling through the atmosphere between the continents. Interested in the “exhibition-as-research and research-as-exhibition,” Sofia explained the dust as an example for thinking about the relationships between materiality and discourse where “how to see and what to know” becomes an important question.


Image: Dust samples collected by Charles Darwin while navigating on the Atlantic in 1834.

Silvia Franceschini, who was the third presenter in this session, also explored the relationship between civilizational narratives and the rise of the museum, questioning especially the contemporary role of evolution displays and natural history exhibitions more generally. In addition to discussing her own curatorial work, for instance in the framework of the Kiev Biennale and against the background of the current political violence in Ukraine, Silvia presented an interesting case study of one lesser known natural history museum: the State Darwin Museum of Moscow founded in 1907 by Russia’s first taxidermist, Alexander Kohts (1880–1964), and run by himself and his wife, the zoo-psychologist and passionate Darwinian, Nadia Ladygina-Kohts (1890–1963).

Based on the Kohts’s private specimens collection, the Darwin Museum was the first and only natural history museum in Russia and dedicated to illustrating the main principles of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Remarkably, according to this entry in the Encyclopedia of Science and Learning, Ms. Kohts also curated the first-ever exhibition devoted to the evolution of behavior and moreover founded the Zoopsycholoy department at the museum in order to deepen the study of animal cognition.

Regarding our interest in Ape Culture, it is worth re-narrating from Silvia’s presentation that Nadia Kohts conducted a series of experiments on animal learning with an infant chimp named Jony whom the Kohts had adopted and who lived for three years with the couple as their child. The results of living and studying Jony were published in books such as Chimpanzee Cognition (1923) and covered questions and observations regarding emotions, locomotion, bodily expression, reasoning, etc.


Image: Nadia Ladygina-Kohts with chimpanzee Jony. Photograph taken by A. Kohts in 1914; courtesy of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, Russia.

But it was less the complex familiarities between the larger primates, which occupied and permeated all of the presentations that day. Rather, the main questions and something, which we also discussed together in the wrap-up session, were guided by a desire to find ways so that curatorial research and exhibition making can produce scenarios for “good and bad encounters” and possible futures. However, there was some concern that the exhibition alone—due to its representational character—might be a conservative, possibly limiting format for such experiences. In fact, it was through the recurring metaphor of dust—as well as familiar bodies such as clouds or mist, and their relationships to gradient states of visibility—that someone pushed further: how then can curatorial agency be engaged to confront our inherited civilizational narratives while remaining attentive to the rhythms, iterations, and general movements of the less stable and more minor and dust-like qualities?

In the words of Alfred Russel Wallace: “The overwhelming importance of the small things, and even of the despised things, of our world has never, perhaps, been so strikingly brought home to us as in these recent investigations into the widespread and far-reaching beneficial influences of Atmospheric Dust.”

More reports to follow …

Screen shot 2015-07-13 at 6.15.40 PM

Image: Scirocco dust which had travelled from Genoa to Lyon in 1846 as seen through Prof Ehrenberg’s microscope. Illustration reprinted in Klingan, Scherer, et. al., Grain, Vapor, Ray: Textures of the Anthropocene (2014), 85.










Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *