Everyday Militarisms: Multi-media Artist Katja Aglert on Encounters Beyond the Human

SEI editor Liberty Lawson speaks with transdisciplinary artist Katja Aglert about collapsing species boundaries and her unique methods of hybrid storytelling, performance and practice.

Moon jellies are ubiquitous in Sydney Harbour, but despite their huge populations they are not considered an invasive species, unlike the Irukandji box jellyfish. Image by Darren Chan, via Unsplash

Could you give an overview of your current practice and background as an artist?

As an artist I commonly describe my practice as constituted of several arms, to borrow octopus terms, but they are all attached to a body that is the artistic research in practice. In a broad sense, one arm (with suckers) is situated in the art field, another in the more than human transdisciplinary research field, another in the educational field. Naturally all arms perform in a rhizome where there’s not necessarily a clear distinction between them. This said, my training is in the fine arts, with special focus in video editing, and with studies in feminist critical theory. However, as a child I was inspired by my father, who was involved in the political grass roots movements and animal rights activism of the 70’s, and I would consider this influence as part of my background as artist.

Over the past decade, I have been developing artistic projects from stories of encounters between humans and so-called alien invasive species. From a storytelling perspective, I ask how experiences of encounters between these diverse beings can explore what it can mean to materialise more-than-human perspectives. As part of this, I am trying out participatory methods through diverse performance experiments.

Descriptions of your practice often include oxymoronic tensions like “artistic experiments”, “performance lecture” and “multi-being storytelling”. This theme of breaking down familiar categories runs deep throughout your work, and I wonder if you could speak to your process of exploring liminal spaces without reconstructing those binaries and preconceptions which you are aiming to transcend?

A principal question in my work is, how can we use language and at the same time escape confirming the order we attempt to question? In my examinations of possible responses to this, I use methods of repetition and rehearsal to examine processes of ongoingness through hybrid forms. Through these processes I strive to conceptually, materially and aesthetically instigate imaginaries situated in the sliding, contradictory and liminal fields. With the words of the curator Stefanie Hessler, describing one of my projects, “Even more than the different elements in themselves, it is the field between them that is the subject of the project”.1 

I’m more interested in the performatic aspects of the durational relationality of things, rather than the ’representative’ outcome. During the Everyday Militarisms collaboratory, feminist theorist and collaborator Astrida Neimanis put this on the agenda with her posed question; how can we show, and not only tell? 2

Rehersals for Descent X, by Katja Aglert. Photo by Katja Aglert.

I’ve also heard you refer to your work as ‘speculative fabulation’ – could expand on this term and perhaps the methodologies with which you engage?

Oneof my previous participatory performance experiments, entitled Care to Dance?, can serve as an example to expand a bit on this. In this performance I appropriate the DTMF (Dual-tone multi-frequency signalling) of the ABC-telephone keypad to generate dual tones from written messages I compose, such as ‘Care to dance’. I use these tone sequences as basis for calling/dialling in marine environments through sound vibrations, as attempts to get in touch with alien aquatic beings. In working with these I’m applying feminist and artistic strategies of speculative thinking and practicing fiction, as means to explore how experiments with DTMF could become means for creating new imaginaries related to more than human storytelling. Multispecies feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s well known figure ‘SF’ is a reference and inspiration here.3 Also, an author like Patricia Highsmith and her writings with snails is another inspirational reference.4 During the Everyday Militarisms collaboratory I performed one of these sound experiments in the waters of Cockatoo Island with the idea to get in touch with one of the ‘invasive species’ of Sydney harbour, Irukandji box jellyfish.

Rehersals for Descent ~, by Katja Aglert. Photo by Lindsay Kelley.

What are some of the other familiar figures and military histories that arose in these sessions?

My starting point is to examine relations between the Irukandji box jellyfish and everyday items invented by the military such as duct tape, instant coffee, and bug spray. Thinking about so-called invasive species, which I understand the Irukandji are considered to be in the Sydney’s surrounding waters, we can notice war metaphors in stories related to ‘alien species invading’ habitats where they ‘don’t belong’ and, humans ‘striking back’ to ‘restore balance’.

In the Everyday Militarisms collaboratory I choose to approach the context as a process to further research this relatively new (to me) topic of everyday militarisms, together with the participants and audience. I do this through a three parts performance experiment entitled Rehersals for Descent 8~X. In the first part, Rehersals for Descent 8 (lecture performance) I employ footnotes to the conference abstract for my paper, which become the means and method for a participatory learning experience in sympoiesis with the audience. Through the audience’s choice of action with the footnotes, they become co-creators of the composition of the lecture and the content of it which consequently creates a unique topological research process. Toby Smith, one of the PhD candidates participating in the collaboratory, noted that this lecture performance “collapses both structures and practices of the footnote”.5 This made me think of how becoming more aware about ongoing relations with everyday militarisms, can collapse all kinds of things that one might initially have taken for granted, opening up new experiences, stories and possible imaginaries.

Rehersals for Descent 8 (lecture performance), by Katja Aglert. Photo by Toby Smith.

1. Winter Event–antifreeze, Stefanie Hessler, ’Winter Event–antifreeze, Winter Event–antifreeze, Winter Event–antifreeze, Winter Event–antifreeze’ (2014), ed. Katja Aglert and Stefanie Hessler, Art and Theory Publishing.
2. https://everydaymilitarisms.squarespace.com/
3. Donna J. Haraway, ’Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene’ (2016) Duke University Press.
4. Patricia Highsmith, ’Eleven’ (2011) Grove Press.
5. Lethal, Transpacific Entanglements, Hidden in Plain Sight — Everyday Militarisms, Toby Smith, , May 14, 2019.

Katja Aglert is an independent artist and researcher whose practice – situated in feminist, more-than-human imaginaries – is transdisciplinary in nature, and includes both individual and collaborative projects. Currently she examines through hybrid forms of storytelling how we through the experiences of multi-beings-encounters can investigate what it can mean to materialise perspectives beyond the human centered narratives. She exhibited widely including exhibitions at Marabouparken, Sweden; Solyanka State Gallery, Moscow (RU); Polarmuseet, Tromsø (NO); Biologiska Museet, Stockholm (SE); FLORA ars+natura, Bogota (COL); Museum for Contemporary Art, Santiago (CHL). She teaches regularly at Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts, and Design.

This work was presented in April 2019 at Everyday Militarisms, a week-long collaboratory between the University of Sydney, Sydney Environment Institute, The Seedbox and UC Davis. The collaboratory brought together researchers, artists, activists and other professionals in order to illuminate some of the underexamined, but vitally connected ways in which militarised infrastructures, languages, logics and matters pervade our everyday lives—for better or worse.

Everyday Militarisms was held on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. Katja, along with the organisers and participants, pay their deepest respects to Elders past, present and emerging, both in this region and beyond.