Keep turning; programtext

I, Jens Strandberg, am standing in the old communal granary storage in Bie. The results of previous harvests are noted in pencil on the walls. It is my first time in Bie. I have been told about the history and how the spring water that flows below my feet historically attracted visitors from across Sweden. I am paying extra attention to the sounds and smells as I walk across the fields. I do not know what I am looking for exactly, but I feel as though my thoughts and ideas need rooting.

It is Dave Allen, an artist that has shown at each Bie Biennale since its beginning in 2016, that gives me this grounding. Allen’s artwork The Cat’s Miaow was originally presented at the first Bie Biennale and has been slowly fermenting since. The Cat’s Miaow consists of a microbrewery and about 100 beer bottles. The work juxtaposes the image of Bie, known for its healthy spring water, with the bitter taste of beer. And the result is a beverage located somewhere between health and illness, brewed with Bie’s highly radioactive health water, that Allen claims gives the beer “a certain kick to it”.

Since the first installation of The Cat’s Miaow, Allen has become the house artist for the Bie Biennale, and his work has been exhibited and consumed at every one since.

A central part of beer making is the fermentation process. For a successful fermentation process, one needs to generate the “right” environment for bacteria to come together. KEEP TURNING has therefore transformed the biennale into a bacteria bar, which forms the core of the biennale and provides social meeting places for artistic knowledge and bacterial exchange.

The bar emerged from Allen’s beer installation with the idea that it should develop out of necessity and survival rather than particular styles or designs. “Made by many” [Katryn Böhm] is crucial for its form and the hope is that the bar will transform and evolve over the coming years of KEEP TURNING.

Behind the bar structure lies a number of rejected funding applications. In fact, funding for the arts in Sweden has been radically cut in recent years. The current right-wing government has made it increasingly difficult (or impossible) to live as an artist and the Bie Biennale is not an exception.

At one point, we considered canceling the biennale and many of us have throughout the year considered giving up being an artist. Some of us cried and some of us took a side hustle. I do not know exactly what happened to me, but I began pickling. Turning that which was about to go bad into something long lasting. And this is important for KEEP TURNING, instead of giving up; what learnings can one draw from fermentation both as a method and metaphor. It is therefore my aim to consider the whole biennale as a fermentation experiment. As a jar of rejected funding applications, vegetables and artists on the verge of (non)existence.

No new works are presented here and instead we present fermented ideas, pickled interventions, yeast performances and bacterial sculptures. What is also present is that which is not present: our failures, struggles, conflicts and disagreements. Our tragedies, a bad knee that keeps us immobile for months, family grudges and as mentioned our rejected funding applications.

“Fermentation” originates from the Latin fervere, which means “to boil”. Sourdough starters bubble away, bubbles in our soaked vegetables pop to the surface as we let them sit on the kitchen counter. “A cold boil” is what the fermentation guru Sandor Katz calls it. I like to think of fermentation as a jar of excitement, passion and a bubbly liveliness, but also as a space for breakdown and decay.

We break down with our vegetables.

We keep transforming.

We keep turning.

In this way, one can say that this year’s Bie Biennale is not an exhibition, or that it is an exhibition that is both dead and alive. A fermented preservation as well as a transformation or a sort of broken-down homage to the process rather than its outcome.

For me it is a collective attempt to embrace the idea that bacteria will take over the process but KEEP TURNING is also a call to artists to stop pursuing new projects. A bit like a ceremony to the artistic communities and collaborators that are about to go sour, desperately competing for short-term cultural grants.

A temporary get together with those who dropped out of art school, worked extra jobs in a crumbled healthcare system, just to make ends meet. Or a tribute to the artists who stopped making art and started growing food. It is a biennale for all artists who no longer have the energy to fight, as cultural budgets shrink and exhibition opportunities
evaporate, and feel like it is hard for object-making to remain relevant in periods of war, nationalist politics, and ongoing ecological collapse.

With other words, KEEP TURNING is a call, a statement, and a pickle. A proclamation to ourselves and everyone around us. Let’s put everything in a pile, in a container. Let’s ferment. Let’s start over.

Like all ends, this is also a beginning.

In a fermentation process, a bacterial culture builds up that can have a preserving effect and allow something to last over a longer period. This process breaks down food and forms new substances such as vitamins, antioxidants and phytonutrients. In other words, bacteria change shape, come together, and give the fermented thing a flavor. It is a process of movement and stillness at the same time.

Bacterial life is around us and in us all the time. Humans have three times as many bacteria as cells inside their bodies and it is said that two kilograms of an adult human’s body is bacteria. They are vital and help us to, among other things, break down food into nutrients. They form and reform us and our society. This feeling of excitement, movement and transformation is probably why fermentation is commonly used in contexts outside of food culture: political ferment, intellectual ferment, social ferment, all these are connected words that build on this bubbly notion of excitement that bacterial transformation brings with it.

But it is not all jolly, for example, the radical right in the USA have used bacterial research as an argument against abortion. This has made me ask the questions: what is the role of bacteria in today’s society and what and when is ”life”? How are our lives entangled in communities, bacterial cultures and other living beings? Have our perceptions of what is ”clean” and ”dirty,” ”native” and ”foreign,” made us blind to the societal-shaping potential of bacterial culture? And what can non-anthropocentric perspectives teach us about commonality, connections and collectivity?

It is important to note that this biennale won’t be answering these questions, rather it attempts to speculate around them and see how art can create and sustain life and communities. KEEP TURNING is therefore an experiment to see how people, art, and bacteria come together and embrace life in every place we find ourselves in it, or it within us.

The hope is that when one starts to look closely, on a micro-cultural level, one will see that all lives are entangled. Micro-entangled. Microbes connect us, sustain us and change us. In this way KEEP TURNING tries to move away from the artist as a maker in the studio and later presenting in a gallery, or a performer as someone who rehearses for life instead of simply living it [ref. Paula Caspão, Sticky Tales for Affect: Episodes of Situated Thought, 2013]. Instead it wishes to “rewild” artistic processes and put art back where it belongs, in life. Once it is there, we wish to show how our lives are always entangled. A stirred up place of bacteria that is turning, mixing and making our surrounding environment and communities.

Personally it is somewhere there I realize that I am always part of a we. A “we” of togetherness. A “we” of many. A “we” that is always in a process of preservation and transformation. A “we” that is in movement between stagnation and speed, between the finished and becoming. In this way one can say that the “I” or “self” is breaking down, just as a  collective breakdown within me and together with me occurs simultaneously. A constant process of change and care. Bacteria that makes me part of an “us” that breaks us and remakes us, in a murky communalism.

Like pickled vegetables and preserved artistic endeavors: this is not an exhibition, this is a bar. A temporary moment to get together. A container that surrounds a group of people, in a period of our lives. A jar that allows bodies and bacteria to come together, discuss, share and collectively ferment.

Rather than striving for a final outcome, KEEP TURNING embraces the fermentation process where things, material and living, can transform and become over time. We are at home in different parts of the world. Some of us talk about pickling, some of us make art about it and some put vegetables in a brine.

Therefore a lot of the works presented here are beginnings rather than final results. In one way they are finished pickles, ready to be consumed, in another way they are starting points for thinking. An ongoing process of experimenting and learning. A behaviour that is foreign to our societal norms and at the same time essential for our existence. KEEP TURNING is an experiment in the creation of life and chaos. A twisting and turning, that might taste, feel and look murky but that brings us together, keeps us together and makes space for new beginnings.

This is also an experiment that can easily fall apart or simply not work. That is one of the learnings that we have taken with us from our ferments. A lesson that has taught us that fermentation processes are always a balance that stirs, moves, evolves and sometimes molds.

Bacteria and microorganisms were here before us and will outlive our presence. Our microorganisms will prevail over rejected funding applications, humans, and capitalism: our bacteria will go beyond our understanding and ideas of progress. They will break down our breakdowns (or build stronger bonds).

These are forms of life that will survive and return when human capital-driven economies fueled on ideas of progress have destroyed our environment, lives and ecology. This is when we need to keep turning. To move towards the hidden economies of coming together and sharing. Economies that are central for our society to function and allow us to think towards a politics of possibilities.

We hope that this year’s Bie Biennale can be a temporary moment to come together, as a collective jar of ferments. A moment of sharing and learning, tasting and experimenting. Our bacteria will be our guide. Through them we will learn, stir, and keep turning.

Written by: Jens Strandberg with the help of many bacteria and people.