An extensive exhibition presentation and artist interview by Sabin Bors
September 28, 2016.
On September 28, 2016, Austrian artist Herwig Turk (b. 1964) opens Landschaft = Labor at the Carinthian Museum of Modern Art / MMKK, a comprehensive show of works based on the artist’s examination of complex scientific themes. In an essay on Turk’s artistic practice, curator Andreas Krištof argues that “the material culture of the high-tech laboratory is seen as a multi-layered environment, in which the significance of the term landscape is considered; a landscape that, between political determination and industrial instrumentalisation, becomes an experimental laboratory. Thus, the concepts laboratory and landscape blend seamlessly in the exhibition. The artist dissects a variety of tales from laboratory life on the one hand, and on the other, he explores civilizational connections and colonial exploitation methods within the concept of landscape. The pictorial and object worlds generated by Herwig Turk thereby refer to traditional patterns of representation, which call in question both stereotypes of landscape painting and forms of portrait painting. In the exhibition and the accompanying publication, Herwig Turk’s work undergoes a contextual expansion, through the dialogue with works from the Museum’s collection itself on the one hand, and on the other, through a selection of artworks which hark back to related artistic strategies and have a place in the scientific discourse on art. This results in a diagrammatic structure in which different perspective axes, with the added vectors of distance and proximity, are applied to the equation of landscape and laboratory, representing both pictorial and abstract elements as contemporaneous and equivalent.” 
Discussing Land Art’s “urge to break away from conventional ideas of art and hegemony of exhibition space,” as well as its determination “by an attitude which assumes the malleability and the self-evident availability of the landscape,” Andreas Krištof claims that, in contradiction to the actual situation, Land Art’s primary concern was “to give the impression of a landscape which would show [artists] as the first to intervene in it.” As Krištof explains, Herwig Turk’s work “gives an exemplary account of the history of a landscape which can be characterised by the suppression of visibility, where historical and political strata overlap, with a mutual levelling effect.”  The visual presence of these overlapping formations reveals the ‘constructedness’ of the landscape, Krištof continues: “The constructedness of the landscape emerges clearly as a motif, showing how the unique, isolated Land Art interventions are embedded and thus placed in a political and social context. The constructedness of the landscape, however, finds its formal counterpart primarily in the constructedness of the photographic work twin hills, which consists of many segmented digital images which create this natural-looking panoramic view. In his work, Herwig Turk plays with the motif of rasterisation and thus with the surveying instrument which subsequently appears in his laboratory works, establishing a kind of aesthetic constant when he emphasises certain topographical formations, linking these with man-made structural interventions. This changes the perception of landscape enormously. The previously so often heroised image is demystified, and landscape is seen as a social and political concept – as a man-made construct, revealing more about lifestyle and its concomitant traditions.” 
Landschaft = Labor is conceived as a narrative account around the changes in the way we have come to understand and relate to the environment. Herwig Turk claims that “landscape is not anything untouched, sublime and of inherent beauty waiting to be explored. Landscape is rather a multi-layered battlefield of industrial and political endeavours and a laboratory of colonization and exploitation. It’s a setting or an arena for mostly profit driven activities. With the works of my invited colleagues a variety of methods come into play and an apparatus is mounted to observe and experience space, territory, landscape and laboratory work.” While the light situation changes from room to room, inviting the viewers to constantly reconsider the wide range of sculptures, photography, video and installation works, “the sound of one installation is used as the soundtrack for works of different artists,” Turk explains. The exhibition display emphasises the multi-layered construction of the landscape, revealing it as a receptacle for social interaction and subjective projection, an indistinguishable pellicle between fiction and reality.
It has been argued that rational utilitarianism has evolved into functionalism throughout the past decades, affecting our ideas of nature and environment. Reflecting on this transformation, Turk claims that both “transmit, to a certain extent, that the relation between mankind and its environment is driven by insight and somehow biological logic that guarantees beneficial effects and the survival of the species. I have serious doubts that there is any kind of global responsibility and ecological long-term strategy that drives the political decisions and the general attitude towards our environment in the industrialised world. And I think it’s misleading to follow the concept of society as a body with brains, organs, etc. One marker for the grade of civilization throughout history is the capacity of the military to control the territory and impose rules and regulations, and much of the resources runs into the military complex. So it’s necessary to have a close look at this entity since the military understands everything primarily as material to experiment with, including humans in all stages of life. All matter is used by the military in settings that one could name ‘laboratory’ or playground, and anything that can be done on a technical or scientific level will be tried out for sure – as it always was the case –, even risking the extinction of the species.”
Unsurprisingly then, Turk operates with military aerial views in his room installation linescape, relating them to a series of abstract graphic drawings realized by Robert Smithson based on aerial photographs of airports and military infrastructure. “Printed on screens which themselves form the basis of a visual and imaging process,” Krištof explains, “the motifs are transformed into graphic surfaces. They tell of the story of the ‘aerial view’ – a form of bird’s eye view photography developed and used by the military – and of the exclusivity of the landscape view.”  Turk’s work enters an intriguing dialogue with Great Salt Lake Evaporation Ponds, a video work made by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in 2013. “The content of this work is similar to that of Herwig Turk’s research project on the salt desert in Utah, which enters the picture slowly, in the course of an overflight,” Krištof points out. “The positions of the person flying (the observer) and that of what is observed (the landscape) are blurred; it is not immediately clear whether the observer is moving towards the landscape, or the other way round, with the landscape approaching the observer. Similarly to cataloguing and archiving, the video recounts the intensive exploitation of this landscape. The chosen viewpoint – the detached bird’s eye view – is determined by the attitude of a researcher who gathers topographical data and offers these to the observer for interpretation. This horizontal form of image production, which gives equal treatment to all that is represented and illustrated, not only opens up new perspectives and interpretations, but also stands for the appropriation of a strategy for applying a hegemonic view which, however, contributes to its democratisation. All the works discussed here have a further common feature: they can be interpreted figuratively as illustrations of a route system between centres of power creation, which ultimately extend like a net over the entire globe. (…) Nature, from this perspective, is not a state to be preserved, but a field of interaction between man and nature, telling us much about human treatment of the world, its resources, its climatic conditions and its possible future prospects. 
The pictorial and abstract motifs in Herwig Turk’s work challenge the viewer to reflect on the construction of facts and the world; to revisit the situations they are presented with and question the stereotypical, socio-political, and multi-layered landscapes. “I try to shift the modes of perception and trigger tacit or non-explicit knowledge consciously,” says Turk. “In twin hills, I present a 360-degrees landscape panorama as a 10-meter long image on the wall, showing the stitching lines and the fringes of the single images that are merged into the one huge panorama. This way, I deconstruct the impressive coherent landscape and make the constructive media related patchwork felt. The observer cannot overview the scenario but has to walk and select actively the point of interest and, by this, read the landscape. In another work, a landscape is presented as a horizontal image on a huge desk-like structure and the landscape immediately shifts closer to the notion of a map. By adding handwritten notes onto the image, it moves closer to a manual or navigation tool, with many references that point outside the actual photography and connect the work to others in the exhibition. So any visitor can read and reassemble the scenario and reflect on the construction of the image and the narrative it might suggest. This is, for me, empowerment and strengthening of analytical skills that do have a direct influence on the legibility of our media generated environment. It’s very similar with the Land Art references I use. I simply try to shift the attention to phenomena in the vicinity of the works that so far were rather neglected. This can be physical or geographical neighbourhoods or historic events that are embedded in the production of the work; also reports in mainstream magazines and their aesthetic appear to give us an idea of the societal framework at the time when the works were done or before. Again, it’s the analysis of the artist’s motivation to go into this specific landscape and the narrative that was constructed around the artistic undertaking that I want to discuss.”
To understand the construction of landscape is to create, alter or interfere with the different images of the world; to overlap fiction and reality, the negative and the positive; to reflect on conditions and deflect the situations – to think of the world together with and beyond the phenomena of the environment. “When we consider the equation of landscape and laboratory,” argues Krištof, “one main concern is the relation between image and reality, and the reflection of the depicting medium, which in turn significantly influences the perceived image of reality and ultimately plays a part in its construction. In this sense, the image becomes the laboratory and field of experimentation. In his work, Herwig Turk plays with the ambivalent evaluation of imaging processes in science and art. While science draws upon digital technologies as a basis for decision processes, giving the medium an objective status, media theory laments the loss of reality due to the possibility of digital generating and manipulating of pictorial worlds.”  To understand the construction of landscape requires one to challenge the authority of institutional parameters and knowledge practices that have determined the logics of perception mechanisms.
Andreas Krištof argues that “laboratories, committed to producing scientific facts, serve as a field of research for the artist to explore questions concerning the material culture of the laboratory as well as to fathom and render visually the relations between instrument, experimental practice and theory construction – e.g. in [Herwig Turk’s] photo series agents (2007) or labscape (2007) in which laboratory equipment is the central focus.”  In his work, Turk resembles an ethnographer who closely inspects the laboratory in search of ubiquitous objects and processes that reveal the inner workings of scientific production, the spatial structures and divisions, the arrangement of arguments and machines, to challenge the complex network of traces between facts and artefacts.
“What has always fascinated me,” says Herwig Turk, “is the fact that nature science seems to be one of the last universal systems and that experiments are reproducible and should ideally work the same way in any lab around the world. Of course, this can only function if the setting of the experiment is highly standardized and the conventions are ubiquitous. The requirements are quite complex and in many cases not attainable, but the methods and tools create a certain aesthetic that reflects the attitude and ambitions of science. In many of my works, I do amplify certain aesthetic patterns and in several of my images and videos I introduced an underlying grid to imply measurability and control. What makes me curious in particular is the Idea of a controlled environment – an arena where one defines exactly the conditions of the incidents – because it can never be achieved or it can only be achieved to a certain extent. So anytime an expert claims that things are under control and he or she knows exactly what risks are being taken, we have to get a closer look at the situation.”
This, of course, raises questions on authority and credibility, which in turn challenge the economic and epistemological foundations of scientific value, its inscriptions and circulation. The routine work of scientific practices, rather than the exceptional or the controversial, provides us with the crucial insights into the development of scientific knowledge. In the laboratory, all that is organised, logical and coherent supposes alternative interpretations and endless uncertainties, shedding different lights on the construction of epistemologies and ideologies, paradigms and ethnomethodology, technical investigations and scientific proofs, history and philosophy. Facts arise in social contexts and the events taking place unpredictably in the laboratory influence the way facts are constructed; they are the result of complex social interactions rather than rational thought. Construction is the metaphor for scientific activity and the realities that take on the appearance of phenomena created through material techniques. Turk’s explorations reveal to the viewer the complex system of inscriptions that defines the laboratory, its inherent politics and economies. As Krištof explains, Herwig Turk “lays down points of reference which, like a wide system of coordinates extending beyond systemic boundaries, observe both ideological motifs and proportional relationships in the wide discursive context of society as a whole.” 
“I think the division of nature and society or nature and manmade environments has been anachronistic for quite some time,” says Herwig Turk. “Especially in central Europe, we live in cultivated environments and the human activities have given shape to the land for centuries. The virtualization through technologies and the enhancement of the human body and mind has happened already and is slowly but constantly blurring the border of organisms, machines and programs.” Cultivated environments are also directly linked to financialization networks, neoliberal policies, and economic valuations of nature, which provide a corporate enclosure of the commons. Landschaft = Labor is an invitation to reconsider the constructedness of facts; its experimental approach is a means to identify and de-stratify constructed relations to the environment. As such, it is in line with calls to urgently rethink ecology itself, consider nonhuman environmental agency, as well as posit experimental aesthetic approaches to species extinction, which has been at the forefront of recent development in political ecology, as a means to identify multiple competing approaches to the environment. As T.J. Demos observes, “these approaches nonetheless share the common ground of a scientific-cultural interdisciplinarity and a philosophical criticality, which, when brought together with contemporary art, indicates an eco-aesthetic rethinking of politics as much as a politicization of art’s relation to the biosphere and of nature’s inextricable links to the human world of economics, technology, culture and law.”  In Herwig Turk’s work and exhibition setting, both laboratory and landscape reveal the intricate genealogies and articulations of the scientific, its intersections with cultural geography and human ecology, socio-political economies and their imprint on life and the world. According to Bruno Latour, Demos notes, “it is politically imperative to do away with the concept of nature altogether, given its ideological function that sanctions a ‘factual’ and depoliticizing scientific discourse. Rather than positing political ecology as the protection of ‘nature,’ Latour defines its aims as the progressive composition of a common world, beginning with an epistemological critique of the very assumptions of scientific authority that could lead to a democratic politics.”  Media and aesthetic investigations such as Turk’s allow for a horizontal approach to deconstructing the constructedness of realities and to contesting anthropocentric determinations and command of the Earth.
How much experiment and how much fiction is there in a laboratory? – “The laboratory is not a technical unit but a political one,” says Herwig Turk. “That’s why we have to get some insight and democratic control – it is demanding but necessary. Reality is shaped in the molecular labs where stem cells are tailored and just in a few generations we will know what we did today.” The challenge today comes from the need to bring together critical environmentalism with an ecologically attendant post-colonialism, which could engender dynamic political ecologies observant of environmental sustainability, biodiversity, social justice, human rights, economic equality and democratic practices. While there are transversal connections between emergent subjects, newly conceived democratic social collectives, and de-financialized and singularized environments, T.J. Demos observes, “environmentally concerned artistic practice relinquishes the privileged position of its autonomous and exceptionalist positioning, and joins a widening of its aesthetic parameters to visual culture at large that engages the environment. In other words, the aesthetics of political ecology (…) brings about a blurring of the divisions between activist visual culture, artistic forms and the appearance of non-human agents of environmental change. Aesthetics in this sense designates the mode of appearance that ‘parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world,’ and reaches a moment of politicization when conventional categories of and separations between the seen and heard versus the forgotten and overlooked are challenged and redistributed.”  Current and future eventualities cannot be separated from wars and conflicts for energy resources and food, military counter-insurgency against rebellious populations, or the entrenchment of fortress communities of the politically elite, argues Demos. The various expressions of this will not be met with a single politics, but artistic engagements such as Landschaft = Labor make visible the pressure to address our fundamental and constitutive relation to the material world. “We dominate and appropriate it [nature]: such is the shared philosophy underlying industrial enterprise as well as so-called disinterested science, which are indistinguishable in this respect. Cartesian mastery brings science’s objective violence into line, making it a well-controlled strategy. Our fundamental relationship with objects comes down to war and property.” 
Through video and photographic work, text-based interventions, cartographic and topographical accounts, sculptural and mixed-media installations, Herwig Turk’s Landschaft = Labor creates an aesthetic situation around constructed conditions and determinations. Within the exhibition space, Turk’s explorations are as much investigations about spatial nature, as they are poetic addresses about human nature. Like, most evidently, in his agents series, where elements are taken out of their context, removed from their assigned position in the standardized and efficient organization of the world, and presented in isolation, devoid of any function – Landschaft = Labor will greet visitors with Herwig Turk’s unique artistic vision control and mise-en-scène. The interaction between the material culture of the laboratory and the production of scientific insights mirrors the construction of the landscape as an image of the world, to challenge material and theoretical organization by means of experiential and experimental aesthetic knowledge. In a time that urgently requires “the critical production and sharing of knowledge, resistance to flattening aesthetic diversity, and the invention of sustainable models that don’t threaten the viability of the whole, whether economically or ecologically, socially or institutionally,”  Herwig Turk’s Landschaft = Labor can also be seen as a confrontation of predetermined frameworks, whether scientific or artistic, politically misguided and procedural models, or ideologies of specialization and control. It is a gesture to venture beyond mere aesthetic contemplation and explore an “intersectionalist politics of aesthetics”  where artistic practice blends with field research, creative pedagogy, political mobilization and interdisciplinary collaboration.
An extensive exhibition presentation and artist interview by Sabin Bors
September 28, 2016.
Herwig Turk lives and works in Vienna. His projects probe the interconnectivity of the fields of art, technology and science. From 2010 to 2013, he has been artist in residence at the Instituto da Medicina Molecular (IMM), Lisbon. From 2003 to 2009, Turk worked together with Paulo Pereira, head of the Department of Ophthalmology at IBILI (Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Life Sciences) at the University of Coimbra.
In recent years, his work has been shown at venues such as the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, the Seoul Museum of Art, the Neues Museum Weserburg in Bremen, the Media Art Laboratory TESLA, the Galerie Georg Kargl in Vienna and the Transmediale in Berlin, to mention only these. Herwig Turk is currently working on a monographic exhibition for the Carinthian Museum of Modern Art (MMKK). Since 2014 he works as Senior Artist at the department Social Design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.