What if my cells were kept alive forever?
15 • 11 • 19Judit Flóra Schuller
Maija Tammi (1985) is a Finnish artist and researcher, based in Helsinki. In her works, she investigates different approaches towards science, aesthetics, sickness, time, and (im)mortality. This spring we had the chance to shortly meet in Helsinki, and now we found the time to have a trans-Atlantic Skype call between Montréal and Linz to talk about Tammi’s projects and her current exhibition at PaperLab.
What are you doing in Montréal? Is your travel work-related?
It is partly work-related. I am here for family reasons, but I am also working on the Hydra project in California during the same trip.
Your background is in photojournalism but your artistic practice has a more subjective and often poetic approach. How did your interest shift towards the artistic use of the medium?
I worked as a photo journalist for a long time and I still sometimes do, especially for the Finnish Red Cross. I really enjoy photojournalism and journalism as well; I used to work as a journalist before starting to work as a photojournalist actually. The reason why I drifted towards making art was because in photojournalism, photos are always encaged in their specific news context, they can only speak within this one ‘box’, within this one framework. Well, art has its own box as well. But it is a different kind of box, where you can say things in multiple ways, and you can make people experience the images more profoundly than within photojournalism. That is how I feel, at least. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to do a PhD in art rather than in photojournalism.
Many of your projects have scientific background and/or are based on collaborations with scientists. What is your relationship with science?
I did study biology for one year before journalism, and I am still very interested in it, but also in physics and chemistry. I just find it fascinating how many things in science are actually more spectacular than fiction. Now I am working with the Hydra which is this biologically immortal little creature; it is the kind of creature one could imagine reading about in a sci-fi book, but it is actually real-life, this creature is out of everything we know. It can clone itself, regrow from a small cluster of cells and it does not get old at all.
So in a way, in your work you abstract science into art.
Not necessarily. I actually start with really hands-on things, and I build the project from this base towards something more philosophical, more abstract. But the starting point is usually very concrete.
So would you rather say that you build up some kind of fiction based on these scientific pillars?
Yes, we could put it like that. It is like starting from concrete, scientific things and then broadening the thoughts considering what it could mean on a larger scale and how it is related to our being in the world, to our mortality, and to the way we perceive our place in the world.
: In the dissertation, I am examining, all the way from the invention of photography, how sickness has been represented in art photography. In my practice-based dissertation, I connect parts from anthropology, psychoanalysis, psychology, social psychology, sociology, neuroscience, biology, and art.
The visual outcome of the research was two series, Leftover and White Rabbit Fever. Do you regard White Rabbit Fever as a continuation of Leftover?
All of my works are somehow related to each other. In the book (research) I use an anthropological model that differentiates between sickness, illness, and disease. Sickness is an umbrella term for illness and disease, and it refers to the way how we deal with sickness on a larger scale, how it is entwined in our society. It entails, for example, political, economic and institutional power structures. While disease is the biomedical model, the scientific and seemingly objective approach towards sickness. And the third term, illness is the way how we experience disease.
In my dissertation, I mapped the positions of over 60 artworks within this triangle of definitions, by taking into account what they try to represent the most and how they represent sickness. The work Leftover is the continuation of Removals, a previous work of mine which I did before I started my PhD. Removals is really at the corner of disease in the triangle, since it deals with and actually shows real cut out tumors and cancer tissue, photographed in a distanced, still-life-like way. Leftover shows radiation therapy masks that were made individually for patients who had cancer in the head or the neck area. I collected over 300 of these masks, and built a sculpture out of them. And while I was waiting to have enough of these masks, I took portraits of them. There is actually a surgeon behind each mask. For me, Leftover was an experiment to show something from people’s personal experiences behind these objects. The photographic part of the work is a repetitive series, trying to emphasize the statistical frequency of cancer. Leftover still has a distanced tone, although it is the closest to the definition of illness. White Rabbit Fever aims to show some more general aspect of sickness and as to how it is related to our mortality, our being.
White Rabbit Fever aims to show some more general aspect of sickness and as to how it is related to our mortality, our being.
Why did you choose the title White Rabbit Fever?
Rabbit fever is an actual disease, tularemia, while the white rabbit is a symbol of fiction, if we think about Alice in Wonderland, or Matrix. The white rabbit is the figure that leads us into the fictional world. By this title, I try to imply that the work represents reality but aims to invite us to a rabbit hole of wondering.
The series consists of seven different parts with two main threads, or as you call them, timelines. How are they connected to the concept of mortality and death?
On one hand, there is a decaying rabbit in the series. Through the observation of its body, one can face the transformation that happens to the corpse, which after a certain point cannot be recognized as a rabbit anymore. On the other hand, there is a sequence of the HeLa cell line cells, which are immortal cancer cells. I find them very poetic; they just keep growing and growing. They have been growing or grown for so long that the estimated total weight of the cultivated cells is over 10,000 kilograms. That is way more than Henrietta Lacks, the person from whom the cells originate, could have ever been. These cells have been used in scientific research, for example in the development of the polio vaccine and in research on HIV. They are doing ‘great’ at their job, replicating themselves forever under certain conditions. Well, obviously, from the point of the individual, they are not great at all, but this is part of the evolution. Cancer happens because our cells mutate, and mutation is the basis of evolution. So, in a way, cancer is the price for the evolution.
Your new project is called Immortal’s Birthday. Is it related to the immortal cell lines?
The new project deals with the Hydra, which I mentioned before. It is a tiny organism that lives in fresh water and it can live forever, it does not age. I am working on it together with two professors of biology. One of them is Daniel Martinez from the Pomona College. At the beginning of his career he was trying to prove that hydra must age like all other animals do, which was a common belief back then, but after 12 years of research, he had to come to the conclusion that no, it does not age.
In your projects, you often show images that are on the edge of the notion of abject, things that provoke some kind of disgust. In the case of White Rabbit Fever, how do people react to those images?
In the case of the images depicting the HeLa cell line cells, people need context, some information about what they are actually looking at, before having any reaction to them. And it is interesting how one’s train of thoughts work then… A few people have even started thinking ‘what if my cells were kept alive forever?’ As for the rabbit, it depends. On the image that was taken on day 10, some maggots are visible, and it is definitely disturbing for some people to see life in death. But when people give me direct feedback, it is mostly positive. They do not want to tell me ‘oh my god, it was so disgusting, I just wanted to walk away!’ So I think I do not get the full picture.
White Rabbit Fever is currently on view at PaperLab gallery where we focus on presenting photobook-based project. Do you consider the photobook as the main format of the project?
As for White Rabbit Fever, I regard the exhibition as its main format. In the first exhibition at Lapinlahti Gallery in Helsinki, there were five different rooms and it was made into a small journey. I used the physical space to make room for thought. In the last part of the exhibition, there was a big installation made out of big and stackable light boxes. It was a physical experience, something I cannot bring forth in the book. So the book came afterwards.
Some of your other projects, like One of Them is a Human and Milky Way were also published as photobooks recently.
Those are actually special edition booklets, not real photobooks in the classical sense. They are rather prints bound into a booklet. Honestly, after making my first book Leftover/Removals, I wanted to make no more books, because the process was an awful experience. But then I met Alex Jutard-Verdon in China, who is the publisher at Bromide Books, and he wanted to make a book out of White Rabbit Fever and I went with it. And with the Immortal’s Birthday, I found myself again making a book, though I did not originally plan it. However, I am quite happy to do so. It seems that I keep ending up making books without ever planning to do so.
So the process of making photobooks is something that just happens rather than something you would plan ahead.
Yes. When I start a project I think of it as an exhibition and how to experience it in a space. The book is not in my focus, but now I feel like I am getting better in using this medium. It is not an easy medium. I am working on the new book together with graphic designer and illustrator Ville Tietäväinen and we are creating a fictional story about an imaginary hydra researcher. It is a story-based book in which we are going to combine real scientific research, art, and storytelling. It is a challenging one, but I believe it is also going to be an interesting one.
Besides the exhibition installations and the photobooks, you have also collaborated with musicians in the form of live performances. Where did these collaborations come from?
I have been really fortunate to work together with Pekka Kuusisto who is a great Finnish violinists and composer. He has been organizing this festival called Our Festival in Tuusula, Finland. It is a classical music festival combining classical music with science, visual art, poetry, and talks. The first year we collaborated, he asked me if I could make a video for Fratres by Arvo Pärt. I asked Aapo Huhta to collaborate with me on this work. It was super interesting to create something visual when the starting point is a classical music piece. You just listen to it over and over again and try to figure out what you want to say. For the second year, Pekka asked me to make a 23-minute-long video for which he composed a piece afterwards. So again, I had to build something from scratch. And now I am collaborating with Charles Quevillon. In 2018, we made the piece 1m3 of the Human Experiment, where we combined performance art and video. I made the video for the piece and Charles was performing in a small box behind a glass. It was really interesting to see how a video piece can interact with a live performance. I really enjoy doing these collaborative pieces.
My last question would be a little bit different and a more personal one. Has motherhood changed the way you think of your own artistic practice?
Has it changed? I think motherhood in general has made me gentler. I think that I am less harsh on other people. And in terms of making art, well, I guess not so much has changed. I am more efficient, I would say, because there are fewer hours in a day. I need to be quicker.
Maija Tammi: White Rabbit Fever
09. 10. 2019 - 17.11. 2019.
PaperLab Gallery, Mai Manó House, Budapest, Hungary