Text by Emil McAvoy
Interference, Hannah Valentine’s new exhibition, takes curious robotic devices known as Argo floats as its point of departure. Argo floats are used to collect data on ocean temperature, salinity and acidity, alongside oxygen and nitrate concentrations. Used by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in Aotearoa, alongside others worldwide, they have become influential in climate observation, aiding human understandings of the ocean’s crucial role in climate change.
There are currently close to 4000 of these devices – resembling long cylindrical oxygen tanks topped with an array of protruding instruments – floating through the top two kilometres of the ocean and transmitting data to satellites in real-time. Valentine has modelled and cast these intriguing instruments in bronze, combining elements from different models into hybrid sculptural forms. Installed in Visions’ outdoor rooftop space which is often glazed with rain over the winter months, these forms appear as if surfacing from the depths – and into a strange kind of aquatic sculpture garden.
Valentine has long been interested in the influence of modern industrialised technologies on our bodies, and her earlier work has referenced the visual and material culture of the fitness industry in particular. In this new body of work, the artist’s interest extends to technological innovations developed in response to the catastrophic implications of climate change. After listening to a podcast on marine permaculture, she began looking for tangible examples of innovation in oceanography which represent positive developments in this space. This interest led Valentine to research human-made ocean structures for seaweed farming, and the construction of 3D printed coral reefs, as innovations that hold potential for mitigating the impacts of climate change. For example, giant kelp (the largest of all seaweed) can grow over half a metre per day, and it sequesters more carbon than our tropical rainforests. On the ocean’s surface, other projects such as Oceanix City by architect Bjarke Ingles attempt to address the impact of rising sea levels on major international cities, through the construction of artificial floating cities.
However, the artist notes that these forward thinking projects are not necessarily divorced from the ongoing expansionism and environmental exploitation that have come to represent human actions to date. While these new technological innovations offer positive developments for regenerating ocean ecologies – and hence, ways of dealing with the pervasive climate crisis – Valentine is attuned to a nagging irony which lingers. In the case of Argo floats, the artist notes that due to the prohibitive costs to retrieve them, when their use value has expired they are left to sink to the bottom of the ocean. In this light, her bronze instrument-like sculptures begin to look as if they may have somehow resurfaced from a machine graveyard on the ocean floor – haunting us like zombies from the deep.
Valentine also notes that emerging technologies such as the floating cityscapes of Oceanix City are emblematic of humankind’s attempts to solve issues it is responsible for creating, through our interference with natural resources in the pursuit of technological and economic development. She references the modular architectural structures of Oceanix City in her fabrication of blue powder-coated aluminium hexagon forms lit with LED lights.
The exhibition also features a series of bronze forms which often resemble seaweed and cellular structures, a material conversation between human pressure and weight, and between constructed and natural forms. Her tactile sculptures often bear the hand-made marks of their creation, and in turn, invite audiences to lift and hold them in their hands, caressing their undulating surfaces – touch as a form of knowledge. The artist states: “when fit into unsustainable systems of growth, the impact of the human hand seems destined to weigh more heavily.”
Interference sees Valentine reflect on the nature of innovation and the often utopian excitement it can generate, in contrast to the ecologically unsustainable models of economic growth which still underpin many of these activities. She asks, are our new methodologies so different? What unforeseen interference might filling the oceans with yet more constructed objects cause? Further, what might critical artistic engagements offer this territory? Interference speaks to the contradictions and tensions which surround ecologically conscious actions in the Anthropocene, where things appear increasingly complex and fragile.