Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere

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Dark gallery with a water processing system suspended from the ceiling with eleven chambers connected through various tubes and wires. At the center, a glass sphere contains livings plants, small fish, and processed wastewater.

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas autofotosinthéticas [Autophotosynthetic Plants], 2013–14 (detail). Installation view: Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Location
Hayden, Reference, and Bakalar Galleries
Featured Artists
Crystal Z Campbell
Gilberto Esparza
Jes Fan
Pierre Huyghe
Candice Lin
Alan Michelson
Nour Mobarak
Claire Pentecost
Špela Petrič
Pamela Rosenkranz
Miriam Simun
Jenna Sutela
Kiyan Williams
Anicka Yi
Explore all artists who have exhibited at the List in our Artist Index.

Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere brings together over a dozen international artists whose work prompts us to reexamine our human relationships to the planet’s biosphere through the lens of symbiosis, or “with living.”

Symbionts are organisms of different species that are found together and that thrive through their interdependent relations. They include mutualists such as the bee and the apple blossom as well as microbial organisms that circulate in the atmosphere, oceans, and soil to make the oxygen we breathe. Symbionts can also hover as potential predators or bloom as parasites—all forms of entanglement considered by the artists in Symbionts.

Engaging living entities such as fungi or bacteria—some of which will transform artworks during the course of the exhibition—the artists in Symbionts represent a new generation of practitioners within bioart. Whereas the code-driven works of bioart in the 2000s had centered the artist’s authorial manipulation of genetic sequences, the young and diverse practitioners in Symbionts are not interested in being masters of code. Instead, they explore what it means to be interdependent or collaborative, ceding individual human control of an artwork in recognition of our more-than-human relations. Symbionts foregrounds the fact that the vast majority of genetic materials in the “human” body are not actually human, but thought to be “other”: bacteria, fungi, and virionsLikewise, works in the exhibitions engage a biosphere dynamically modified by the growth of mushrooms, the blooming of algae, and the decomposition work of soil.

With experimental practices that blur the boundaries between art and science, while also underscoring the intersections of biological, social, and economic systems, these artists unveil the critical interactions that give shape to our world and the interspecies entanglements that evolve it.

The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue-reader designed by Omnivore and published by MIT Press that features new essay commissions and republishes selected key texts from a range of voices: artists, art historians, theorists, botanists, biologists, geoscientists, geneticists, Indigenous ecologists and others. Additional texts on each artist, authored by the exhibition curators, round out the publication, alongside an edited roundtable conversation on the themes of symbiosis, reciprocity, and Indigenous epistemologies, and a robust glossary of terms. The book is printed on innovative eco papers by Gmund and Favini (with separate sections comprised of algae, citrus or coffee “mash,” and upcycled leather paper). 

Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere is curated by Caroline A. Jones, Natalie Bell, and Selby Nimrod with research assistance by Krista Alba.

Audio Tour

Access an exclusive audio tour for Symbionts online using our new digital guide, available on Bloomberg Connects, the free arts and culture app.

Download 

Sponsors

Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere is made possible with the support of Fotene & Tom Coté, Audrey & James Foster, Idee German Schoenheimer, Joyce Linde, Cynthia & John Reed, and Sara-Ann & Robert Sanders. The exhibition and publication are also supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, Frame Contemporary Art Finland, and the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology. The publication is also made possible through the support of the Jane Farver Memorial Fund at MIT List Visual Arts Center.

General operating support for the List Visual Arts Center is provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the Council for the Arts at MIT; Philip S. Khoury, Associate Provost at MIT; the MIT School of Architecture and Planning; the Mass Cultural Council; and many generous individual donors. In-kind media sponsorship provided by 90.9 WBUR. The Advisory Committee Members of the List Visual Arts Center are gratefully acknowledged.

Images