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Issue 233

Katherine Ball Is a Habitat for Fungi and Bacteria

The artist speaks about their recent actions at COP27 in Egypt and how collectivity can be reconsidered using microorganisms

BY Olamiju Fajemisin AND Katherine Ball in Interviews | 14 MAR 23

Olamiju Fajemisin You’re currently in Egypt for COP27.

Katherine Ball I’m at Sharm el-Sheikh’s only art gallery, Radim Kacer, with Kevin [Buckland] and Dani [Rupaszov] of The Artivist Network, who rented the gallery as a place to make art for actions during COP27. Today, we’re making signs that encourage reparation for damage to water and ecosystems as well as for loss of life or stolen land. I have one here that says: ‘PAY UP NOW FOR LOSS AND DAMAGE!’ It speaks to the histories of colonialism, oppression and domination, and how these conditions interface with the climate.

OF On the landing page of your website, you describe yourself as a composite entity, a ‘habitat for fungi and bacteria located on planet Earth, moving together in symbiosis, like waves moving an ocean, [practicing] the art of living on a damaged planet’. How did you come to recognize this of yourself and how does this inform your artmaking?

KB When I reflected on my choice of pronouns, I realized that it made complete sense to use ‘they’ because I am a collective being. The recognition that my body is a habitat for a multitude of microorganisms came through reading about the microbiome and learning that there are more cells that live within us than comprise us. The boundary between what’s me and what’s another organism is super blurry, which I embrace.

Flo Graul at Contaminations, 2021. Courtesy: Daniel Seiffert ​​​​​

Another reason is the amount of work I’ve done with fungi and the realization that the different microorganisms I collaborate with in my artworks are also living inside of me. I’m not just working with some external being but, literally, with what’s inside of me and on top of my skin. I continue to be fascinated by this.

Last year, I took a class in soil science and learned that fungi pair with different plants! They not only live on the roots of the plants, but inside the roots, too. It’s just amazing! Over how many millions of years did they develop this interwoven symbiosis?

Recently, I’ve also become super interested in dance and the body. An exercise I get asked to do sometimes when dancing is to move one part of my body – say, my arm. But where, exactly, is the arm? Is the back of my shoulder also part of my arm? I’m always curious to explore how these things that seem black and white are actually far more of a blurry grey.

Water ritual at Floating University convened by Katherine Ball and Naama Ityel. Photograph: Roman Kareer

OF What happens to the concept of selfhood once you let go of the notion of yourself as a singular being? Does it also benefit your community-oriented practice?

KB My work, which is mainly focused on environmental and social-justice issues, involves a lot of research that I am keen to put in the public domain. Over the past five years, for instance, I’ve been working closely with scientists on developing Floating University Berlin, a project that proposes biologically filtering waste water from the university campus and the polluted rainwater basin in which it is located, and using it to irrigate local parks and graveyards when there’s a drought – as there has been in Berlin for the past four summers. Biennially, curators Gilly Karjevsky and Rosario Talevi organize Climate Care, a two-week festival at Floating Berlin. They asked me to do some programming around water, so I met with some scientists and asked them how we could build a biological water-filtration system. We then invited people to join in our ‘research conversation’, which essentially meant making this research public so that it became a learning opportunity for other people instead of just for my own private experience. I see this open access to knowledge as a form of empowerment. I recently completed a master’s degree in environmental studies and what they really taught us on the programme was to teach ourselves: you don’t always need an expert to do things for you. I’m interested in thinking collectively around anti-capitalism and I see this approach as a fundamental part of that.

Another element of the action we’re taking today, organized by Egyptian choreographer Sarah Rifaat, will involve eight women leading a parade to a monolith made of LED screens in the centre of the UN conference space. The women will wear oversized blue tunic dresses painted with slogans and symbols against loss of life, damage to land and land theft in the name of environmental colonialism.

Floating University. Courtesy: Daniel Seiffert

OF It would appear that you’re operating at two extremes: deeply within yourself and deeply within the community. What happens to the ego here?

KB I find it super hard to let go of myself when I’m in a place of precarity. So, recently, when I was involved in organizing Contaminations [2022] – a collaborative project between 20 artists who work with their bodies – we worked hard to ensure we were providing all the things people might need to participate. These included a stipend for artists travelling from out of town, childcare for artists with kids, hiring two cooks to provide meals, and making sure everyone was paid the Berlin living wage for artists. This was another way of organizing collectively and taking care of the needs of the group through artistic creations that reimagine the infrastructure and habits of everyday life.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Out of Many’

Main: People’s Plenary and March during the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27, 2022. Courtesy: Bianka Csenki and the Artivist Network

Olamiju Fajemisin is a writer based in London, UK.

Katherine Ball is a habitat for fungi and bacteria located on planet Earth. They live in Berlin, Germany.