Niche Construction
Interdisciplinary exhibition
NOD, Prague, Czech Republic
Curators: artist Adam Vačkář and biologist Dr. Jindřich Brejcha
(Transparent Eyeball)
25.7. – 14.9.2023

Gerard Ortin Castellvi, Shezad Dawood, Andro Eradze, Pilar Mata Dupont, Martin Netočný, Andrey Shental, Adam Vačkář

Biologist (texts):
Vojtěch Abrahám, Martin Adámek, Jindřich Brejcha, Kristýna Eliášová, Roman Figura, Petr Tureček, Martin Weiser

Niche construction is a biological process. It is a process by which an organism changes its own environment or the environment of other species. The change can be a physical change in the environment, or even just a simple movement of the organism to fulfil a new role in the new environment, or even a new type of behaviour to which other organisms respond. The theory of niche construction is currently one of the foci of interest in evolutionary ecology.

The exhibition Niche Construction focuses on the interdisciplinary dialogue between art and biology, two diametrically opposed systems of knowledge, just like the Transparent Eyeball platform of the exhibition's curators, artist Adam Vačkář and biologist Jindřich Brejcha. The interest in interdisciplinary cooperation arose from the mutual need to bring the deeper biological processes shaping not only human nature and the nature of the near and distant environment we inhabit closer to the general public. The exhibition deals with phenomena that are well mapped in biology. We consider it important to discuss specific non-human perspectives.

The artists, in the form of a moving image, and the biologists, in the form of a text, jointly address specific natural processes behind which humans stand. Biologists' texts inspire and spark interest in the narrative of natural processes, the understanding of which should ideally be central to all human education in the future. Processes that shape and influence humans and nature and of which most of us have almost no awareness.

In the film Reserve, Spanish artist, filmmaker and esearcher Gerard Ortin Castellvi treats the theme of the construction of niches through the issue of the disappearance of the predator wolf, which no longer inhabits the territory that was once part of its territory. His film constructs a narrative about the delicate balance of the territory after the disappearance of the predator, where the complex coexistence of humans and non-humans constitutes a significantly marked anthropogenic ecosystem. In the text, Czech biologist Kristýna Eliášová describes the phenomenon of the wolf and the complex instability of the whole biom, well mapped by biologists, that occurs when a predator disappears.

Argentinian-Australian artist and researcher Pilar Mata Dupont presents a film about the huge seed bank in Kew Gardens in London, which was created during the period of overseas discovery by the British Empire and colonisation. Biologist Dr Martin Weiser responds to her film with a text about the sophisticated properties of seeds, their ability to detect the type and characteristics of the environment they are in, and describes the breadth and richness of the types of seed banks that actually surround us almost everywhere.

The artist, researcher and co-author of the exhibition, Adam Vačkář, in a film essay he created just after the fire in the National Park Bohemian Switzerland (2022), lets the burnt apocalyptic landscape affect the viewer. Through the author's text and an interview with a scientist, he explores a completely different perspective of the burnt landscape. Despite being started by a park ranger, fire remains one of the fundamental regenerative processes of the landscape. The film is showing the positive meaning of fire, commonly perceived as a natural disaster, which is hard to bear at first sight. The text by biologist Dr. Martin Adamek reveals the complexity of the topic of fires in the landscape, the characteristics of resistant trees and the importance of fire in the restoration of niches.

Berlin-based critic and Russian-born artist Andrey Shental presents simultaneously provocative and romantic self-portraits, a form of photo performance, voyeuristically staged in natural landscapes with no presence of other human beings. He seeks for ego-dissolution within the environment, particularly the one where he grew up and feel a direct connection to. According to Adorno, while it is commonly assumed that humans dominate the environment by exploiting it, in reality, the opposite is also true: humans are increasingly alienated by nature. Biologist Dr. Roman Figura responds to the work with a text on anthropomorphism, reflecting on the phenomenon of the inevitably distorted view of humans on non-human beings and processes.

Presented at the last Venice Biennale, Tbilisi-based artist Andro Eradze's film Raised in the Dust creates a dramatic atmosphere full of the tension and expectation in a dark forest. It stems from the conclusion of classical Georgian poet Vazha-Pshavela’s The Snake Eater (1901). The poem’s protagonist has a supernatural talent for understanding the language of nature and must decide between his social responsibilities and his connection to nature, finally adherering to the latter. Eradze’s film uses fireworks as initiation into the dark and mythological aspect of the forest life, it‘s plants, animals and phantoms. Taxidermized animals appear one by one enlightened by explosions of New Year’s Eve fireworks.

British artist Shazad Dawood's ambitious ten-part series Leviathan draws on information from biologists, oceanographers and anthropologists to address climate change, migration and mental health. The seventh installment of the series presented in the exhibition was created for the Toronto Biennial. It moves beyond explorations of environmental, physical and psychological decay and instead explores new strategies of collaboration and coexistence. Set in Senegal, it features a writer and a lawyer who have been challenged to imagine and envision themselves as their future selves. They combine the imaginings into a possible collective futurology. Dr. Petr Turecek, a scholar at the Center for Theoretical Studies, responds to his work.

In his observational video Something Like Nature, Czech artist and researcher Martin Netočný explores spoil heaps, sites created after mining. It is a portrait of Czech city Ostrava's largest heap, which is currently undergoing extensive recultivation. The film is accompanied by comments from ecologists, recultivation company workers and the inhabitants of the landscape themselves. The clash of two diametrically̌ opposed approaches in the context of cultural landscape management is open in the film. The text on the species poverty of reclaimed landscapes and the contrasting richness of natural succession and niche creation was written by Dr. Vojtěch Abrahám from Charles University.

Man cannot control nature because of its complexity, interconnectedness and innate autonomy. Nature operates at a level and scale beyond human comprehension, with emergent properties and unpredictable behavior. It is influenced by many factors, including random events and non-linear dynamics, making it difficult to predict and manipulate. Nature has its own internal rules and robustness, and attempts to control it often lead to unintended consequences. Furthermore, nature is immeasurable and our abilities are limited. Instead of controlling, it is important to develop sustainable and harmonious relationships with nature. Biology therefore maps processes that have a long historical development and at the same time do not have well-defined rules. The link between the subjectively emerging art and the science that strives for objectivity, biology, can thus be the accidents and individual events that play a fundamental role in life and its history.