“A lot happens when you sit down and breathe, but this is not the way our society is set up today. We rarely take the time to truly listen, breathe, be and contemplate." - Sissel Thastum.
Sissel Thastum (b. 1987, DK) is a graduate of Fatamorgana and holds a First Class Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts in Documentary Photography from University of Wales, Newport. In addition to being a photographer she is the director and co-founder of the non-profit art organisation The Independent AIR, which is behind the residency leading to the exhibition We can stay here while we wait. Her latest projects are interested in exploring a connection and kinship between humans and nature, between sentient and non-sentient beings. For We can stay here while we wait she has made the video installation No You without Mountains, without Sun, without Sky in collaboration with sound artist and musician Alexander Holm (b. 1986, DK).
The Independent AIR is an international non-profit organisation founded in 2013. Their field of work is centered around residencies, workshops, networks and exhibitions. Dialogue, community and creative processes that discuss the role of art and the artist in relation to society and the earth, as well as practical sustainability is central to their activities.
In 2016 and 2017 The Independent AIR established an artistic laboratory and residency at Moinho da Fonta Santa - a beautiful location in the sparsely populated area of Alandroal in Portugal, south east of Lisbon. Here the Anthropocene was explored in all of its forms with 4 young international artists living and working together for 6 months. The artists researched and developed projects as a reaction to the malaise of the 21st Century; their projects, preoccupations and sensitivity inviting them to expand on the debate into a space where scientific and linear logic cannot go.
Sissel Thastum in conversation
E: Just to set the stage, could you tell me a bit about what incited you to start your organisation The Independent AIR?
S: The idea for the organization came because I felt a need for more support for art students in between, and photography students in between. That was something I felt was really lacking in my university and the people I talked to seemed to have the same experience. So I asked my parents if they wanted to invite a few artists to stay in my childhood home and basically just host a two week residency of peer reviews and discussions.
I don’t know the official definitions of a residency (I guess what we had was a bit too short to be called a residency), but we called it a residency because we wanted to emphasize this idea of living together in a space and having a sense of participation and engagement. And then it developed from there. The first three years there wasn’t any requirement of producing any work. At the latest residency which took place in Portugal in 2016 and 2017 the focus was on producing work under the theme of Human Ecology // Images in the Anthropocene. Another thing that changed was of course the duration of the stay. I wanted a long-term residency where the participants really had to commit. We went with half a year but divided into two periods of three months with a four month break in between.
E: Why did you choose Portugal for the residency?
S: It wasn't actually a conscious choice. We wanted to find a new place and were exploring our possibilities when we came across an existing residency that was willing to host us. We shared similar visions and the location was perfect for a long-term residency: rural and undisturbed, which provided a space for concentrations but were at times also a challenge of course. There were no one else around aside from our hosts and one neighbor.
E: Was the focus on environmental sustainability and the Anthropocene part of the organisation from the beginning?
S: To run the organization in an environmentally sustainable way has always been a given. The interesting development has been that we now also engage artistically and theoretically addressing the theme of Human Ecology and the Anthropocene. My mother, Line Thastum, is an environmental adviser since 15 years, so as the project has grown we have combined our interests and strengths, attempting to create a sustainable residency while also working artistically on the theme.
A few examples of working practically with sustainability could be our little forest, that we planted a few years ago to make up for all the traveling we are doing. We have also tailored a website dedicated to sustainability in cultural projects, which shows different examples of acting environmentally and sustainable when putting on events or residencies and so on.
E: When did you decide to be part of the residency yourself?
S: That was always the plan. I participated artistically in the first residency, but then I became more of a coordinator than a participating artist, which was interesting in one sense, but not really what I wanted in the long run. So now I’m back to participating. Which of course can be a challenge, functioning both as coordinator and participant. What I tried to do was to leave the role as coordinator behind when I was at the residency, which my colleagues at the organisation and the other artists were really good at helping me with.
E: Has it affected your process to get involved at such an early stage?
S: Actually I was so busy with planning the residency that I didn’t have time to consider what I wanted to work with, so that was not really an advantage for me as a participating artist I would say. When I arrived in Portugal I actually had kind of a small panic attack about not being prepared. And then I decided to address more or less that: the pressure you can feel when having to produce something, thinking of the end product before you have even started. I don’t find it very helpful to focus on the ‘product’ of what you are about to do. That immediately limits you mentally. I wanted to avoid that and be as open as possible to what would come my way.
So I started using breathing exercises and attempted to meditate regularly, and often before I would go photograph. This also made it clear to me that my starting point was the nature somehow, and about me in it. At this point it was not a clear theme to me, but simply a point from were I found myself addressing how to work, free of outside and mental pressure.
E: Can you elaborate on your use of meditation as part of your process?
S: I don’t actually know if you can call it meditation, but for the first three months I regularly went to this certain spot, an ancient rock, where I sat and tried to just breathe and be in the present. Sometimes it was a challenge, I had too many thoughts or just couldn’t find a comfortable position, and would stay there only for at short time. Other times it would be a relief and I could stay there for hours – and sometimes I fell asleep on the rock. I’ve even spent the night there. I think that to make something you need to have something at stake, to address something personal. Not that the art has to be about something personal per se, but you still can’t make anything without being personally involved. And in this project meditation was how I chose to be involved, meditating to get closer to myself and thereby closer to nature somehow. It is about ‘doing nothing’, and what is at stake when ‘nothing’ happens. A lot happens when you sit down and breathe, but this is not the way our society is set up today. We rarely take the time to truly listen, breathe, be and contemplate.
E: The installation carries traces of the meditative I think. Is getting the viewer into a meditative state mirroring your own, something you’ve consciously worked with?
S: In a sense, yes for sure. Not when I was recording – then it was important for me to just loose myself totally in the moment, letting go of all considerations regarding the final product. But of course it’s important at some point to think about how to translate not necessarily my experience but what the work is about, what it touches, to the viewer. There’s sort of like a back stage and a front stage, not everything in my process is important for the viewer to see or know, but it still has to be there in the background. When I was cutting the movie I would consider the length because I didn’t want people to feel forced. But at the same time I wanted to get it the way it was supposed to be, keeping the long scenes if I felt they were as they should be. Nobody will be forced to watch it full length, you can just get up and leave.
E: How was your process editing the installation?
S: What I did when I started the editing process was that I listened a lot to this album by the Japanese percussionist Midori Takada to sort of bring me back into the same state I was in when meditating in Portugal. Editing the movie back in Berlin was quite difficult, it was very very different sitting in my apartment than on a rock in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have the same tranquility. The album touches very close to a sense of being that I wanted to tap into, it’s very connected to nature as well. Very alive. I meditated to the music as well as analyzed the structures of the album, the movements from dynamic to sensitive, from day to night, light to dark. For me there was something cyclical about it, which appealed to me – these very simple elements turning into something universal. So I tried to follow this structure, not strictly but as an overlying guideline.
E: The sound is made in collaboration with sound artist Alexander Holm, when did he get involved in the project?
S: Quite late, in the middle of the second period of the residency. I’d been taken aback at how static my photos from the first period were, they felt so removed from what I’d experienced and I realized that I needed to work with moving images and include sound too. I recorded sound myself but it’s not something that I’m used to working with, and I wanted it to be on the same level as the images. There needed to be balance between the two, like two equal living beings, moving and breathing together. That’s when I contacted Alexander who’s an old school friend and invited him to come to Portugal to work with me on this project. Or just to explore the possibility of working together really, if it felt forced we wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.
E: Adam Jeppesen and Esther Teichmann were mentors at the residency, why did you invite these two artist?
S: The reason why we asked Esther and Adam was both out of appreciation for their work, but also because we (the organisation) wanted to work with younger, but somewhat established artists, having been in our position not that long ago. They would come for a few days during each residency period to discuss our ideas, work, and progress together with the rest of us. Since we were so few people, these workshops were quite personal and intense. We would basically all present our work and the process we were currently in, and then just talk and discuss everything. For me, the workshops were very important, although exhausting as well. I think everyone were always really tired afterwards, which is of course natural when you have been so ‘on’. On the other hand I would always have the feeling that I could take another step in my process after one of the workshops.
E: The title of your installation, No you without Mountains, without Sun, without Sky, is from Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Why did you choose to use this title?
S: Yes, I’ve been reading her book for a while. She writes about the Wintu people, a native American tribe, that represents a worldview where the self goes beyond ones ego and exists in relation to and in connection with the nature and the rest of the world. There is for the Wintu people, as Solnit writes: “No you without Mountains, without Sun, without Sky”. I found this so fitting and beautiful, and very inspiring, that I had to borrow her words.
E: Is reading a big part of how you work?
S: My work isn’t research based as such, but more based on intuition and attraction to certain elements, themes or people. Reading is somehow a parallel process that gets intertwined with the artistic process when I officially begin to contextualize my work.
It often feels coincidental, like suddenly someone else putting what I feel into words or music, or something else. The deeper I am into my work and the process, the easier it is to see these connections. But following my intuition in the process always comes first, and for a while I am living with the freedom (or burden) uncertain of “what it is about”. It is an interesting turning point that can give you a headache if you don’t know how to answer it for yourself. Luckily I don’t think it has to be about something specific, it just has to add up to something!
The exhibition can be seen at Kalkværksvej 7, Aarhus, from the 12.08-02.09 and on Campus Bindslevs Plads, Silkeborg, from the 12.11-02.12.
Emmali Sellner (f. 1992) er kandidatstuderende ved Æstetik og kultur på Aarhus Universitet. Emmali har bidraget til idoart.dk siden 2017.