What could a more synthetically biological world look like? Artist Tesia Kosmalski investigates this question with her project »Chronicles of a Moss Woman« created for the Solitude & ZKM web residencies on the topic »Refiguring the Feminist Future« curated by Morehshin Allahyari. For the opportunity to potentially live life pain-free, a woman travels to a moss-covered volcanic island to cure her painful skeletal disorder with the plant. Visit the project and read an interview with the artist on women and medicine and the story of moss and healing.
Schlosspost: With your project for the web residencies at Solitude & ZKM, you tell the story of a woman who heals her painful skeletal disorder by traveling to a moss-covered volcanic island. What does she find there?
TK: She finds a landscape that she feels instantly connected to. She also finds a team of scientists and engineers interested in working with her as a case study for human bone and moss tissue synthesis.
The research teams on the island have been fusing human bone with moss tissue already to build more robust moss strains that can survive the ecosystem’s sore points. Resource depletion due to excessive geothermal mining and drilling is taking its toll on the landscape and on the industry grappling with its own model of sustainability.
»Since the landscape of Bryn Gowain’s body is at risk, she sees a lot of hope in the two synthesized, thriving mosses. She hopes that moss growths will find homes within the recurrent bone fractures that can appear even when she slams a door too hard.«
Since the landscape of Bryn Gowain’s body is at risk, she sees a lot of hope in the two synthesized, thriving mosses. She hopes that moss growths will find homes within the recurrent bone fractures that can appear even when she slams a door too hard.
So what she truly finds there is an opportunity to potentially live life pain-free and imagine a different kind of future for herself.
Schlosspost: How did the idea of this project start?
TK: While I was living in Brooklyn, New York, I was active at the community biology lab, Genspace. They provide events, workshops, and an actual lab for non-ivory tower science enthusiasts.
As an artist, I attempted to understand how biomaterials could connect with my work. And as patient, I think I was there to invent a research plan for healing my own mysterious health issue.
I took a creative writing class called »Genetically Modified Storytelling: Science Fiction and the Biotech Future.« During class sessions, we’d riff on the powers, potentials, and drawbacks of what a more synthetically biological world would look like. In my mind, the autogeneration of new types of cells sounded like the most elegant way to reclaim my body. To start with new cells, press play, and watch the new balance emerge.
»In my mind, the autogeneration of new types of cells sounded like the most elegant way to reclaim my body. To start with new cells, press play, and watch the new balance emerge.«
Ten years or so ago, I went to Iceland, exhausted after an incredibly busy fall term. As we flew in, I found my eyes tracking moss everywhere. That green carpet-like aesthetic was just inviting me to nap the minute I landed. It quickly became clear what type of role moss had in the ecosystem: a great mediator that ensures all important conversations were happening. And as I wanted to take a nap everywhere moss was, my body was anxious to participate in all those conversations and continue moss conversations, even after I left the island.
Iceland thus became the partner in this story.
Schlosspost: What role does storytelling play in your work as an artist?
TK: When I begin imagining a work, it first takes the form of several potential concepts cranking and colliding in my mind. After all that settles, I ask my body to identify all the pieces that could most connect with other people, seem beautiful, or are profound.
Then my mind and body connect, start building meaning, and tell the story. So for me, integrating storytelling into my work is pretty key to keeping me on track, communicating with all parts of my creative self, and staying in touch with people that may experience the piece.
I certainly resist storytelling as a tool, though, when one gets to the level of hero’s journey requirements or observing the 180-degree rule.
Often I tell my story ideas to others before I communicate the intended medium. Oh! That’s a graphic novel!? Or that’s a short film!? Or that’s a circus act!? I’ve of course pondered those avenues and ideas. But the art world is the only world with a system that’s open enough for me.
Schlosspost: The woman is inspired by the analogy of »glacier to bone, magma to marrow,« as you write in your concept text – could you elaborate on this further?
TK: This is a line of exposition meant to paint the metaphorical picture for the story. Her body and the landscape now have a new reciprocal relationship. The white of her bone is the white of the landscape’s glacier. Her spongelike marrow is the porous volcanic rock. And in between all of these elements is the moss.
Schlosspost: In many parts of the world, women’s participation in medicine has been significantly restricted; or women are still seen only as caregivers. There has now been an increase in critical studies of women’s medicine. How do you refer to this context with the self-treatment of the moss women?
TK: This story is definitely in solidarity with the female critiques of the medical institution. It is because the institution has neglected her that she’s had to find this last-resort solution. Second to that, the greater scientific community neglects her, only after the initial discovery has been made.
»I think the self-treatment of the moss woman means to be a bit of a call to action more than a critique. Because if anyone is going to survive within this framework, pure and unabashed self-ownership of your body is what will get you there.«
But I think the self-treatment of the moss woman means to be a bit of a call to action more than a critique. Because if anyone is going to survive within this framework, pure and unabashed self-ownership of your body is what will get you there. We just cannot trust the medical and scientific communities to do it for us, solve it all for us, or explain it to us when they don’t know what’s next.
Schlosspost: In fairytales, there are mysterious elixirs and plant-based balms still being used in medicine today. How real is the story of the healing moss?
TK: It is real in that moss is like a great mediator of the natural world. It purifies water, makes homes for small vertebrae, and can actually be an engine of biodiversity. Soldiers in World War I even used it to heal wounds.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is a book that I’ve only found just recently that does a remarkable job summarizing the story of moss and healing. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer is highly recommended to anyone interested in the power of moss.
Schlosspost: The image of the female body being intricately connected to an ailing landscape reminds of the personification of mother earth or mother nature standing for creation, fertility, unity and so on. Yet the picture you paint in the end doesn’t quite fit.
TK: I guess, yes, the earth in this story is more of a partner than a sort of a matriarchal force. The relationship I’d like to see to come through is that indeed the landscape and moss woman are unified, but partnered. They need to rely on reciprocity to survive.
Schlosspost: You also work as a designer. How do design and art overlap in your practice? How do you combine those fields in your (artistic) work and what inspires your new projects and topics?
TK: I think art and design have a lot of crossover with each of the practices.
The idea of iteration in design has been helpful for my art practice. In design it’s expected that you build the thing, test the thing, learn from the thing, and then build the thing again. But learning to approach art making as such has definitely made a huge impact on my productivity. I tell myself to not think so much, just make it, then make it again differently if you want to.
»Learning to approach art making as such has definitely made a huge impact on my productivity. I tell myself to not think so much, just make it, then make it again differently if you want to.«
As a digital designer, its also pretty important to keep users’ needs and motivations at the center of your design solutions. This also seeps into my art. People are usually at the conceptual center of my project work.
Schlosspost: How can art help us to refigure the female future? And what does it actually look like?
TK: I think art is the best way to figure out any future! And the future I can see through the lens of regenerative moss healing – including smaller carbon footprints – a.k.a. bodies that need less oxygen, a greater kinship with other life forms – especially photosynthetic ones, and sufficient access to the resources one needs to thrive.
Interview by Clara Herrmann