Long Stories


Understanding the language of alpacas and micro-organisms – Interview with Mari Keski-Korsu


Long Stories


Understanding the language of alpacas and micro-organisms – Interview with Mari Keski-Korsu

What would alpacas like to say to people struggling with ecological disasters? How does it feel to walk barefoot on the surface of melting slushy permafrost?

The Saari Invited Artist of March and April is Mari Keski-Korsu. She creates dialogue between people and non-human species, as well as between scientific thinking and traditional knowledge. Keski-Korsu’s artistic work is characterised by experimentalism, which often takes a back seat in a world full of technology, subordinate to measurability and dominated by human activity. At the Saari Residence, Keski-Korsu offers the other artists and researchers a sauna ritual and a walk during which they get to sense the surrounding nature and the ground underfoot.

Conversations with non-human species

One of the core themes of Keski-Korsu’s art is the interaction between humans and non-human species, whether they are bred and domesticated animals such as horses or micro-organisms and bacteria hidden in the surface layers of the earth. There is nothing unusual about such dialogue as such. After all, we often unconsciously converse with non-human species in our everyday lives without giving it much thought. Dog owners, for example, can recognise their pet’s state of mind from their body language, while dogs are able to interpret various messages from their owner’s tone of voice.

When studying interaction, Keski-Korsu uses a method known as intuitive interspecies communication which, as the name implies, is based on simple and intuitive practical communication. This way of interacting, which is very common in itself, can be observed, for example, in the activities of horse whisperers or in animistic cultures, where non-human species are considered to have a consciousness of their own.

Keski-Korsu has used this method in her project Alpaca Oracle (2014), which involved human participants spending time with a herd of alpacas at the Alpaca Fuente farm in Lohja, Finland. Keski-Korsu’s starting point was the concept of the role of non-human species as teachers, messengers or protectors. Alpacas have lived together with humans for thousands of years, which is why Keski-Korsu decided to find out what kind of answers alpacas have to the ecological questions of life and death that we are facing.

Although in works such as Alpaca Oracle the artist creates a kind of spatial and temporal framework for the activity, when working with non-human species the situation itself is unpredictable and can take a turn in any direction. This work was performed twice and both times it differed in several ways. At the first meeting, the people participating in the performance entered the enclosure cautiously and sat in an area of their own while the alpacas ran around among themselves. On the second occasion (2015), at the request of one of the participants, movement artist Eija Ranta, the human participants chanted a Buddhist mantra. The alpacas reacted to this by joining the group and relaxing, lying down and even falling asleep close to the people which, according to alpaca herdswoman Päivi Partanen, is quite rare.

Keski-Korsu emphasises that respect and empathy are extremely important when working with both fellow human beings and non-humans. For example, in her work with alpacas, the artist made sure that all the people who participated in the performance were aware of the fact that they were the guests of the alpacas. An alpaca herd has its own hierarchy, and the wrong kind of human gestures may be stressful for the animals. As an enabler of experiences, the artist also bears responsibility for the well-being of the human participants. In her sauna rituals, for example, the artist must actively monitor the state of the participants, as the heat and humidity may cause various sensations in the bathers. Empathy plays a key part in Keski-Korsu’s art, both in terms of her practical methods and on a content and theoretical level.

Keski-Korsu emphasises that respect and empathy are extremely important when working with both fellow human beings and non-humans.

Dialogue between art and research

Keski-Korsu is currently conducting artistic research at Aalto University, working at the interface of art and research. She has worked on her art projects, for example, at the Abisko Scientific Research Station in Sweden when engaged in the project Changing Perspectives: Nature’s contribution to people in the past, present and future of a changing climate, which included an anthropologist, two natural scientists and three artists.

At Abisko, for example, Keski-Korsu organised walking rituals for the locals that encouraged them to think about their everyday routes from a new perspective and experience their environment in a new way. When talking about art, a recurring word in her vocabulary is ‘ritual’, which she finds both an apt and problematic concept. The beauty of a ritual lies in its uplifting and highly sensory nature that underscores the experience instead of it being an automatic everyday routine. At the same time, it is possible to interpret a ritual as something too exalting, even giving it a religious dimension, when in fact the meaningful experiences of human life often arise in a more down-to-earth, even mundane, way. As an example Keski-Korsu mentions the tradition in place at Abisko that involves people getting together on a nearby hill and greeting the rising sun as it climbs over the horizon for the first time after the sunless period of winter darkness. In its repetition and meaningfulness, it is a ritual-like activity, but ultimately the celebration is about the community getting together in a social setting and having a pleasant time together.

When working in the north, one cannot avoid seeing the damage caused by climate change and the downsides of human activity. While working in the Arctic region, Keski-Korsu has dealt with subjects such as permafrost, the melting of which is causing a complex chain of problems in the atmosphere and nature. In her work Walking with Bacteria (2022), Keski-Korsu collected samples from the molten surface layer of the permafrost and studied the movements of microbes under a microscope. The movements of the micro-organisms were transferred back into the landscape as she walked barefoot along the circular lines drawn by microbes on the permafrost. The shapes of the surface layer of permafrost influenced the choreography, as it forced her to step outside the planned line due to wetter patches or other natural obstacles.

The special nature of artistic research as something that lies between art and science sometimes causes friction in the world of research. Keski-Korsu received peer criticism for being unscientific when she wrote about her conversations with her cat in her article On the Edges of Consciousness: Messaging between Species. Despite their research-based nature, the methods of artistic research can sometimes be difficult to fit into a strict academic mould. At the same time, this is exactly where the value of artistic research lies: the aim is not to conduct scientific research based on purely academic criteria, but to bring other, more experiential perspectives to the research topic and scientific thinking through artistic research. Keski-Korsu likes to quote Henk Borgdorff’s definition of artistic research. He claims that artistic work is not only a research result, but a methodological tool through which the research is revealed in and through the processes of creation and performance.

Anyone interested in traditional skills such as healing or intuitive inter-species communication may become pigeonholed as an esotericist who denies scientific knowledge. This is true for Keski-Korsu too, although she follows scientific research and its results with interest and actively strives to build dialogue between different worldviews. Her work is not only about learning traditional skills, but about being part of a living culture and the intergenerational accumulation of experiences and traditional knowledge. At best, past generations’ traditional knowledge and skills, intuitive communication and treatments that invite a holistic sensory perception bring the participant back to their own feelings and holistic presence as part of the circle of life.

Focusing on themes such as empathy, rituals and sensation, Keski-Korsu by no means wants to forget the political dimension of art. From a young age, the artist has worked with environmental activists and organised, for example, site-specific events and works of art in her hometown of Raahe when the Hanhikivi nuclear power plant project was in its early stages. As ecological thinking permeates Keski-Korsu’s oeuvre as a whole, her other works – from sauna rituals to participatory performances with non-human species – can also be seen as having a strong political dimension, even though they do not necessarily take a direct stand on issues defined as political but focus on the power structures of anthropocentrism and interspecies relations.

Room for thinking and artistic work

At the Saari Residence, Keski-Korsu organised a participatory performance in which the researchers and artists-in-residence walked for about an hour in silence in swamplands and collected a souvenir that was meaningful for them, such as a plant, a few drops of water or a piece of moss. In the sauna, these souvenirs were mixed with a specific type of peat used in skincare and this mixture was applied to the skin during a sauna ritual that draws on traditional peat treatments. This participatory performance was part of Permafrost Bathing (2023) for which Keski-Korsu has collected melt water from permafrost and various organic matter from the layer of earth on top of it in order to carry out peat treatments in a sauna tent. She documented the physical ritual by recording the sounds of the peat being applied to the skin and recorded the formations of sweat and peat by pressing blotting paper onto the skin. She intends to study these formations in the laboratory to see how sweat and permafrost might combine. Thus, the themes of care and empathy familiar from her previous participatory performances are also repeated in her work at Saari.

For Keski-Korsu, the Saari Residence provides an opportunity to work in an environment supported by a strong forest and marine ecosystem, as well as the residence’s staff and facilities. “I appreciate immensely the fact that my artistic work is considered meaningful and that I don’t have to explain where my art begins or where it might end,” she says, describing the atmosphere of the residence. She also appreciates the fact that the Saari Residence takes families and different types of family into account, which is still far from self-evident in residency activities.