Working as an artist, musician, educator, Robertina Šebjanić is above all a thinker, maybe even somewhat of a renaissance woman. She speaks and describes her projects with a confidence and in detail you might expect from a scientist. The intricacies of the projects are remarkable, and are very far from what one might expect to encounter in an art museum or gallery. Her work spans across technology, sound, installation, in medium but intersects or rather transects many more fields in topic.
She began exploring the sea and watery environment in 2012 with a project examining underwater soundscapes of jellyfish in the Bay of Izmir (Šebjanić, 2018). Notions of the watery environment, the watery body, and hydorfeminism (Neimanis, 2017) are somewhat a new field of thinking that has been taken up alongside ecofeminism and thinking of the oceanic feeling as described by Erika Balsom (2018). These lines of feminist creative methodologies are evidently present in Šebjanić’s work and approach to research and art. The approaches to interacting with these underwater environments, through not only an ecological and humanitarian perspective, but also along the lines of geopolitics of the spaces of her project “Echinoidea future – Adriatic sensing,” are overwhelmingly present in the work and her words.
This recent project started as a response to an open call by “STARTS4WATER – Zero Adriatic Pollution,” that is part of the residency Zero Pollution Adriatic, that tackles the question of sustainable tourism along the Adriatic coast. The initiative addresses various forms of pollution which are the results of mass tourism and are changing the coastal and underwater environment of the region.
The tourism industry in Croatia contributes a higher share to GDP than any other country in the EU. And while the numbers dropped drastically during the pandemic, we have seen them soar this past summer. The effects of tourism are not only seen and felt by eco-scientists but by many locals in the cities and towns that populate the coast. Since the mid 2010s we have seen discussions about measures to be taken to tackle overtourism. As far back as 2017, the mayor of Dubrovnik along with UNESCO had contemplated reductions in numbers to ensure that the Old Town of Dubrovnik, a protected site, would be protected from excessive and accelerated ruination.
These new measures have not seen numbers fall but rise. In the first 9 months of 2022, 17.2 million tourists visited Croatia and there were 99.7 million overnight stays (Ministry of Tourism and Sport, Republic of Croatia). As much as these numbers of tourists effect the cultural cityscape, Robertina and I talk in the following conversation about these effects on the seascape of the Adriatic, last but not least reflecting on the negotiations that could be set in sites where tourism is the livelihood of the majority of the population, the future of sustainable tourism, and working with art as a way of thinking through ecological anxieties.
I saw you worked in Ireland and Galapagos and have created projects all around. What do you think is the difference with what’s happening in the Adriatic and the kind of awareness exists regarding tourism, impacts of tourism, but also generally of other industry impacts to the seascape?
I think that all around the same topics are resonating. I wouldn’t say that some are more or less aware. There are always different ways to implement this kind of policy and think about the measures that could be set into place. What I learned and what I know, is that these protective areas are really great because biodiversity is the beneficiary. I was just recently in the Galapagos, there we see a kind of very, very protected space and it’s gorgeous. But at the same time, it is so protected, there are so many regulations for people living here and that can be really hard or harsh for the locals. So, the harmonization or balance of harmony of both factors is very complex.
So you think that the possibilities of maintaining environments like that are counteracted by the fact that the rules and regulations that are in place basically impact local communities to the extent that it makes life difficult? Also taking into consideration that many of these communities living in coastal towns work in the tourism sector.
It is important to strive forthe harmonization of both. I can be very critical about all the impacts, but on the other hand, I know that it’s impossible for people whose livelihood is tourism. Changes cannot happen from one day till the next. It’s very important to have good a strategy of how to change people’s behavior. I would say that political pressures can also be counterproductive at times. This is something which I’m constantly going back and forth about. I honestly can’t decide. But if/when for example, hypoxia would occur, a loss of oxygen in the waters, then we are doomed. Then, we too are without the oxygen. It’s something which I’m really thinking a lot about and I really try to find the best way how to approach and talk about this.
Many times I do workshops with students at different universities, during which I developed a kind of a model, which is called empathic strategies, a way of thinking about a solidarity with the environment. In the workshops we go through different scenarios, either of specific fascination of some species and its own capabilities, how they are adaptable to the changes or to the bigger changes of ecology or through the human perspective or through the non-human, animal perspective.
You mentioned in one of your lectures citizen science. How do you think that citizen science impacts or effects or might potentially create space for new ideas regarding sustainability and how communities could work?
I think it’s important. I use it as a tool. And this is not only about going somewhere and taking measurements and then comparing these measurements with the government’s measurements. With citizen science, I always try to bring people to this understanding that they can be independent, especially when I work with students and to show that science is not like something dogmatic but it can also be very fluid in the sense of doing some experiments, learning how creative you have to be to understand different kinds of parameters and changes you are working with.
In your recent project in Dubrovnik you used different methodologies. Could you tell me a bit about this project?
In “Echinoidea future – Adriatic sensing,” I was interested in understanding what is happening on the levels of liquidity and tourism. For six months I worked together with a from the UR Institute in Dubrovnik on the research (including GjinonŠutić, Filip Grgurević, Marjan Žitnik, Tanja Minarik, Alenka Malej, and Matjaž Ličer) and then with support of Miha Godec and David Drolc in Ljubljana on the production of the artwork. For me it was important to work with the local environment, with local people and to speak about what sustainable tourism means and how they are thinking about it. Most of people, with which we spoke, are aware that we have to move further into new ways of working but the question always remains is: how can we do that? And what could be the economic benefits for the people making a living from the tourism industry.
This is always complex, especially but not only after Corona, because everybody has been shattered with the effects of that. Because of Corona many people realized that if biodiversity is in such decline, in both terrestrial and also marine environments, this can quickly lead to some devastating developments. After all, if you have nothing to show and enjoy, there is no tourism. This was one of the conclusions which we all came together.
I read that there are attempts to significantly lower the numbers of tourists coming in to the town (Dubrovnik) with ideas relating to the size of outside seating areas of restaurants, how many tourists per day can go inside the old town, etc. They are adding a lot of surveillance in the city so that they can record how many tourists come every day. But they don’t really mention how this is actually relating to ideas of sustainability related to the sea. There are many discussions related to cultural heritage. The sea itself, biodiversity, marine life, and effects on the environment are not mentioned.
There is always this discrepancy between enjoying the coastal life and living there. My collaborator, Marjan Žitnik, and I, spoke a lot about this in our working group because we also had the opportunity to meet up with the city municipality teams. Marjan was working on more technical solutions and together we developed a website and initiative. This was all pointing to thinking about what it means to build biodiversity. Also because he’s local and works in tourism – running a business focused on sustainable fishing, with tourists – he was able to provide an interesting perspective and knowledge.
He has clearly in mind that we have this awareness of ecology but that living from this as part of the tourist industry is a completely different thing. So, he had really good proposals, asking, for instance,what could be the benefits for people and how could the city provide assistance. When we started to speak about how this can be observed from a cultural perspective, my work came into the picture. But all this takes time because ecology can be a very complex topic and we can very quickly sound like we are “preaching” and then we lose the connection to the general public.
What were the specific experiments you worked on that you were able to then share with the general public?
I was working with sea urchins, and these are actually the glass sculptures which you see in the exhibition. They are the results of in vitro experimentation. I was working alongside people from the UR Institute to expose embryos of sea urchins from their early stages of development, to different stressors, different pollutants, in order to see how this is influencing their development: How do they develop? Do they develop slower? Do they have anomalies? And so on. We wanted to understand what is happening on the big scale, in the oceans and seas. We used benthic chambers, which allowed us to recreate the coastal situation in situ.
The images in the exhibition are representations of what happens to the embryonic state at the embryonic stage to the sea urchin when it’s affected by soap, cook oil, oil, all these different residues which are used in daily life, in our households. This is something which is hidden, but very present, especially in tourist areas because there is lots of cleaning, washing, and oils. Part of the installation were these glass sculptures, which represented exactly such experimentation and then there were also screens. We had three TVs, which showed data gathered from the last 30 years of changes in pH of the Adriatic Coast waters. We created this data in video representation. The TVs were mimicking the flow and go of the coastal waters during the last years. But that was very abstract.
When people come inside the exhibition space, is there a specific way that you want these installations to be viewed? In terms of, as you mentioned, presence of being with and understanding these kind of empathic strategies. Is there a way that you transmit this into the observation for the audience of the installation itself?
When you’re 200 meters under water level you are in a twilight zone, so the visual is not so imperative anymore. The visual is still interesting but it’s more like a moment, not a constant sensor, or constant sensory perception. Sound, touch, and smell are the main sensors in deep sea, the chemical crack of communication. So that’s why I started to work a lot on this, to understand the environment. For me, it was very helpful to understand what is happening on the sonic levels and then become aware that I’m researching different parameters and different sensory perceptions.
I want to bring the audience into these proto-immersive states. That’s why I use audio as part of suchexhibitions. With audio I can recreate the environment and bring the visitor into another atmosphere. In “Echinoidea future – Adriatic sensing” I used mostly recordings of the spaces and environments I had been exploring during the research phase of the development of the artwork and my interpretation of these, including audio recordings made with hydrophones or different microphones and so on.
My goal is to create a novel experience, bringing the essence of the sea and its materiality closer to the visitor and going beyond the typical leisure experience of the sea and water habitats. Hopefully this engenders empathy for or solidarity with the environment.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Manca Bajec is an artist, writer and curator whose interdisciplinary work concerns the topics of space and time, memory and sociopolitical issues and studies. Starting from the selection of the space, she creates a specific language and builds environments and atmospheres where the viewer can interact, observe and experience the work. She holds a research position at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Robertina Šebjanič is an artist whose work explores the biological, chemical, political and cultural realities of aquatic environments and the impact of humanity on other organisms. Her projects call for the development of empathetic strategies aimed at recognizing the rights of other (non-human) species. In her analysis of the Anthropocene and its theoretical framework, the artist uses the terms “aquatocene” and “aquaforming” to refer to the human impact on aquatic environments.