and Ulla Taipale
What is your personal story behind Melliferopolis? How did you start working together with each other, and then again, with bees?
Christina: My fascination with honeybees came from my phobia. Confronted with an open hive and the sound and activity of maybe 30,000 bees paralyzed me. Immobilized, I stood there and looked – but what I saw relaxed me – it was beautiful, mysterious, and finally not at all scary. I got hooked and decided to explore these animals further, also in my work. In 2009 at a conference, I presented the first steps of my artistic research and met Ulla. Her work and her approach intrigued me and I asked her if she wanted to be part of a proposal that I was writing. That project was never granted, but out of it came a first collaboration with Ulla, around bees in urban contexts, in Helsinki. Slowly, we continued to build up the Melliferopolis project and explored together many different aspects of insects and their worlds, variations of beekeeping, and human reactions to uncontrollable semi-domesticated “farm animals“ that we installed in publicly accessible areas in the city. Melliferopolis has been a journey with and towards bees and other insects. These creatures needed us to negotiate spaces, reassess relationships, and confront emotions connected with ancestral fears. We became urban landscape gardeners, made friends with neighbors in the vicinity of the hives and radically extended our concepts of inter-species relationships.
Ulla: When I read Christina’s proposal I thought it was truly interesting and I was very disappointed when it did not get funded. At that time I was involved with the developing and building a new laboratory for bioarts at Aalto ARTS. I invited Christina to collaborate and Melliferopolis started as a part of the program of the Biofilia – Base for Biological Arts. It was good timing and an excellent way to combine arts with life sciences and engage students, researchers, makers and beekeepers. And we ended up working in apiaries, museums, public parks and fancy art galleries. Ten years ago in Finland taking bee hives to accessible urban settings without “Danger” signs was totally unexpected. The Melliferopolis approach to beekeeping also made people wonder at our inexistent motivation to gather honey from our hives. Instead of calculating the kilos of honey we produced, we focused on the immaterial, creative and spiritual matters, as well as the interconnectedness of the bee colonies with humans and other life forms, for example with plants. Little by little other people got involved and really nice activities and programs were created.
Your work Hexa Hives deals with inter-species encounters, like human-honeybee, and also arose from the notion of vanishing bee populations, among other things. Hexa Hives and Cities carrying honey in this exhibition, are documentations or representations of their earlier installation outdoors. Could you tell more about what made you interested in what you call human-insect cultures, and what led you to facilitate outdoor places for these interspecies encounters?
C: The relation between humans and bees goes back a long way and the pollination activity has been very important for developing agriculture. My fascination with these animals coincided with city bee-keeping becoming fashionable. All over Europe, bees boomed in front yards, on rooftops or at Museums and public buildings. It was a response to the decline, the disappearance that had started due to bad management of bees and crops, mono-cultures, pesticides and exploitation.
I think the Hexa-Hive was an attempt to comment on these developments and a proposal to localize and manifest what was happening. Suddenly having bees in your park might raise questions and make you wonder what these insects mean. An invitation to sit next to them is like a plea to listen. The dynamization of these installations came through public interventions, like concerts, guided tours, workshops, but a lot happened just because bees were living in these artworks – so they were live installations.
How can you facilitate human bee interaction? The baseline is that both should be in the same place and that the invitation to interact is open. Instead of “danger” signs we appealed to the visitors’ caution and their self-assessment of fear or courage towards the hive. We encouraged curiosity and left the responsibility to each individual visitor. This makes you reflect but it gives you agency.
U: Exhibit bee life in live situations requires being outdoors. Part of our work consisted of diplomacy and negotiations with city officials of local administrations. The first reaction was always “no”, when asking for permission to install a beehive to a public place. After negotiating and reasoning our inquiry was always accepted. The administration tends to act like gatekeepers to minimize the problems. You need to go beyond the first “no” and interesting things start happening.
Now after a decade, can you tell how urban beekeeping has changed? Or how it changed your projects? How are the bees doing? And are your Hexa-Hives still inhabited by bee communities somewhere?
C: In the last few years, the glamorous image of the honeybee that needs to be saved started to blur a bit to the background and with it the boom of city beekeeping. Still, many urban dwellers keep bees, but the talk diminished. How the bees are doing is a hard question to answer. To make general statements about the state of the bees or any other species can only result in a rough approximation. I think the state of our planetary disequilibrium is perpetuated and the bees, as well as most other species, continue to be adversely affected. There are two remote Hexa-Hives - one in South England and one in Northern Germany. Currently, the Hexa-Hives are not inhabited, as far as I know.
U: As Christina explained, Melliferopolis has not had and kept bees for many years now. However, the body of work that was created during the dynamic years of the project, let’s say 2012-17 includes many other creative manifestations of bee and pollinator related artworks, without living bees. Bees did inspire us and our collaborators in very diverse ways. Not all the artworks included live bees but were inspired of them. One of them is an artwork I created for urban event Melliferopolis Fest in Helsinki in 2016 and has continued as a long-term research ever since. It is called The Other Side. This aural space for thought and bee listening features texts around the bees and the eternity, written by philosophers, poets and other authors. The selection of texts can be listened through an augmented reality application at site-specific installations outdoors, in public places or through the web site in five different languages (www.theotherside.fi). After Helsinki the work was exhibited in Barcelona, Geneva and at Topoló village in Italy. Bees and other insect pollinators do not cease to fascinate me and every time I see a bee hive I must go closer and halt to observe their activity, to listen to their humming and smell the hive scent. Once I have an adequate place and life situation I will have bees again. And it is really nice to see that initiatives like Evolution in Action contact us to exhibit and find the contents of the project still interesting. Bees are timeless and though most of the works were created almost a decade ago, they still are relevant and interest people.
What led you to work in an interdisciplinary way, combining art and science in your practice? And do you consider your work to also carry educational aspects? If yes, what do you think are the strengths and challenges of using art & science together?
C: The longer I live it, the more I see trans-disciplinarity as the only way forward. We are suffering from divisions, seclusions, dualistic opposites and nonetheless we are reproducing them autistically. In our more and more complex world, challenged by wicked problems, we must realize that finding solutions by logic has become an illusion. No technology, no calculation and no analytical study can lead us the way. Adopting systems thinking, and allowing multiplicities to interplay, might help us navigate. That means that crossing disciplines is unavoidable. I think the power of the arts lies in symbolism, a playful, poetic or ritual approach to the complexities we are facing. I was trained in hard sciences and this background has always informed and inspired my artistic workings. However, it seems that only a radical shift towards the artistic field has liberated a way of thinking that is daring and has given me tools to communicate. What manifests in my artworks is a thin layer of profound research done in preparation. The educational aspect can be maybe found in these indirect contents? Science and art together makes both of them more fun and adds meaning. For me they cannot be separated again, but as mentioned before – I am progressively trying to abandon separations...
U: I was educated first as an environmental engineer but ended up working in arts and culture and then, I also studied arts. In principle I don´t think about disciplines but topics that fascinate me and make me curious – to start a new art project takes several years to develop and thus needs to be something that really interests you. In his Manifesto for Art through multimedia and curating the new art forms German media theorist Ziegfried Zielenski says: “You have not to be an engineer, but it is good to know how engineers think and work.” To combine arts, sciences and technology means to work with interdisciplinary working groups and this I love. In Finland we are lucky to have funders and institutions which allow this blurring of the walls. Without their support practices like ours could be impossible to flourish.
Many of your projects, also outside of Melliferopolis, have community, educational and engaging aspects and weaving nets between science and art. What kind of themes and projects are moving you at the moment?
C: My work has been revolving around bees, then I got deeply involved with mollusks. Both these species are somehow quite alien to us, but can clearly be understood as animals. Currently, I am working with fungal and bacterial communities, mostly. Dots on a petri dish or some mycelial hyphae are life forms that seem challenging to relate to, as these creatures appear so “abstract“. How can a communication be established, if at all? I explore ways to relate to them, while having to re-evaluate our understanding of life, of our value system and what is considered good or bad for humankind.
When dealing with bioethics, we soon reach limits of how to even define life. My current work deals a lot with establishing an ethical approach towards any living creature – but then - who falls into that category? Clearly, ethical considerations should be applied towards any species, but how is an animal ranked differently than a plant, or a virus? Where and how do we draw lines, even between what is alive and what is not strictly alive but still part of a living system? There is a long way to go…
U: As explained before, Melliferopolis started within the program of Biofilia at Aalto University, having a strong link with the students, researchers and the academic community. We always tried to reach participants from different paths of life, and from different age groups, and I think we succeeded as for example the workshops were open not only for university students but also for other publics. Mixing different people to create together with bees happened to be very satisfactory for us! I continued after in another Finnish University, in a community of natural scientists at INAR / University of Helsinki. I work as an art & science curator at the Forestry Field Station which offers a possibility for artists to have a dialogue with scientists and work at a field station in the forest. Next summer a permanent art exhibition will be opened at the station.
Great Cormorants, a sea bird species living in the Baltic Sea, have been my other passion in the last few years. Strong reactions of the citizens towards the shy birds living on the rocky islets in “inhuman” conditions captivated my curiosity and working with a multi-talented group of people this resulted as an audiovisual artwork with choir, dedicated to the great cormorants called Chorus sinensis.
So the bees were followed by forest, peatland and lake ecosystems and then by the sea birds: all these creatures are somehow connected and ideal as inspiration for artistic and educational ends.
C: I would like to end with a quote of the book “Ecocene Politics“ by Mihnea Tănăsescu, 2022: “No single creature can have a complete view of the world, for three reasons. First, the world changes continuously, partly in response to the actions of creatures, and so it can never be frozen in a single state. Second, each creature has a limited sensory range, and can thus never adequately represent to itself the full spectrum of space. Third, creatures are interested in a limited number of things, but these are in turn not necessarily representative of the wider situation, nor indeed are they the most important constitutive elements of that situation, nor are they ‘proxies’ for other, unseen elements. So, creatures are liable to undermine their own maps of the world by stepping on landmines that they do not see, because they do not know of their existence.“
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Melliferopolis intertwines bees and arts, using the city as its canvas.
Melliferopolis experiments with manifold ways of understanding bees, beekeeping and the ecology of the hive, as well as other insect pollinators. The project examines the role of honeybees in an urban context and explores the many differing relations between humans and these semi-wild insects.
Melliferopolis creates shared spaces for Human-Insect cultures and facilitates encounters through artistic installations in public spaces, and visible actions such as participatory interventions, workshops, lectures, rituals and performances.
The Melliferopolis project has a broad and diverse approach, combining disciplines such as life sciences, architecture, engineering, visual arts, gardening, apiculture, literature, sound, crafts, and more, inviting local and global agents with or without experience in beekeeping to collaborate. The project appreciates the intrinsic value of honeybees and other insects, reaching beyond the reductionist view of bees as ecosystem service providers and honey-producers. It experiments with new ways of understanding bees, beekeeping and other urban ecosystems of insects. Melliferopolis was initiated by Christina Stadlbauer and Ulla Taipale in Helsinki in 2012 and has since invited human and non-human for dialogue and collaboration.
Ulla Taipale is Finnish curator, artist, and researcher, who has vast experience in creating and curating multi-disciplinary projects combining arts and culture with natural sciences and natural phenomena. Her work is developed in collaboration with people and institutions from arts and sciences, internationally. She works currently at the University of Helsinki, within INAR (Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research) community, curating Climate Whirl Arts Program. Parallelly she is busy with various creative processes and research to commission and realize new artworks in the crossroads of ecology, climate studies and arts such as Chorus sinensis @ Conference of Birds and Melliferopolis - Honeybees in Urban Environments. She holds a BSc in Environmental Engineering (Satakunta Politechnical University, Finland) and a Master of Arts (Visual Culture, Curating and Contemporary Art at Aalto University, Finland).
www.theotherside.fi / www.climatewhirl.fi/en
Christina Stadlbauer (AT, BE, FIN) is an artist / scientist focused on non-human life forms (plants, animals, bacteria,etc). In her work, she attempts to re-negotiate the relations we humans have with our environment.
She instigated artistic long term initiatives, e.g. “Melliferopolis – Bees in urban environments” and “Institute for Relocation of Biodiversity”. In the core, the projects are concerned with loss of diversity & habitats and propose poetic, speculative or absurd solutions to take other-than-humans into consideration. Interfaces between humans and other creatures of the planet are created and take form as tangible objects, public installations, performances, ephemeral interventions or rituals.
Another node of Christina’s work pivots around cracks and Kin Tsugi - the old Japanese craft of mending ceramics with gold. She is intrigued by the philosophy of this transformative repair, and applies the principle to other materials, and – in a more conceptual way - for mending broken places, communities and situations in every day life. With Bacto-Healing for example, she explores Kin Tsugi with mycelium and bacteria in the microbiological lab.
Currently she is a post-doctoral researcher at Centre for Synthetic Biology, Ghent University and Department for Bioethics University of Antwerp, Belgium.
Hexa-Hive for Bees and Humans
The Hexa-Hives are experimental hives intended for inter-species communication. The boxes serve as home for bees and can be used as seats where human visitors can observe the insects from close. Hexa-Hives were placed as outdoor live installations in different public parks in Finland between 2012 and 2017. These installations were exhibited in Otaniemi/Espoo, Poikilo-museo/Kouvola and Tarja Halonen Park, Helsinki.
Concept and idea: Christina Stadlbauer and Kiran Ganghadaran
Curator: Ulla Taipale
Hive construction: Niko Rissanen
Cities Carrying Honey, 2012 (8:12)
The poetic flow of the film documents the first public workshop of Melliferopolis at Harakka island. Together with 13 participants, apiaries are prepared to welcome honeybees in urban settings.
A film by Lotta Petronella
Concept: Christina Stadlbauer
Production: Christina Stadlbauer and Ulla Taipale
Hexa-Hive Village with Airstrip for Pollinators at Tarja Halonen Park, Helsinki, 2016, photo by Ulla Taipale