Steffie de Gaetano | WARP #07
Permeance, Steffie de Gaetano, 2022
extended until 29.01.2023
Steffie de Gaetano
(written on the basis of research
published by de Gaetano)
This exhibition is part of
art and sustainability program
in fold #05 on Reimagining
Steffie de Gaetano is a Dutch-Italian interdisciplinary researcher based in Brussels where she pursues a PhD at Hasselt University with the title ‘Geologic Architecture and its Landscapes of Extraction’. Her family roots split between Umbria in Italy and the Noord Brabant region thus finding her in ‘the outsider-insider’ position. This ‘inbetween’ state, as she is describing it, offers a starting point for ‘bridging the modern and demodern’ and it is also where she finds the ground in her professional interests, in-between the disciplines. Her research is based on unbuilding architecture, landscape, photography and anthropology and aims to excavate the remnants inherited through entanglements of colonial violence and Modernity.
At SEA Foundation’s vitrine and the front room, de Gaetano presents the adaptation of her artistic research named Permeance. From the pollution of a small river Dommel which is passing Belgian-Dutch borders to histories of land dispossession and industrial extraction that continue to degrade the environment, the traces of the past or present actions are mapped via the material language. This type of communication, although visible by the human eye and accessible by the human skin, might not be seemingly perceived. Thus de Gaetano invites us to stay open to ‘beyond-human communication’ which questions our relationship with the environment, soils, and rivers and which finds us as porous beings never isolated from the pollutants left behind. The Permeance project, specifically, then translates the story of the cadmium and zinc contaminated soils that accumulate along the stream of the river Dommel.
“Permeance is a conceptual vision of reality which emphasizes the permeable nature of membranes, both of living and non-living beings, through which substances can be exchanged in chemical and physical processes.” (de Gaetano, 2021)
The Permeance project is based on the misuse of the soil chromatography method. This sorption process is mainly known as a chemical analytical method during which the soil compounds are separated. However, it is also an alternative photography technique due to the use of silver nitrate which responds to the chemical, physical and biological characteristics of the studied soil samples once exposed to the light. The capillary action phenomenon that moves the liquid through the chromatography paper captures the polluted soil and creates an image. The resulting picture is not supposed to represent the pollution existing in the river Dommel but instead, it is the contamination itself tracked via the chromatography process.
This aspect of non-representational images is the first step towards reimagining the photographic act which is predominantly understood through the lens of the camera and it is a crucial condition for de Gaetano’s research. Photographer, in this case, is not an inactive observer, in contrast, they are the one who initiates, provides the choices and terminates the permeating process. At the same time, the agency of the earthly matter intra-acts with the provided materials and makes an image that can never be staged by a photographer to its single detail. The captured image is a collaboration of human input and non-human manifestation in a specific time and space.
Following the project on Permeance, Steffie de Gaetano founded an artistic research practice called Studio Ditch which suggests her perspective on the current state of the world – leaking and contaminated, permeable and mixed with adrift substances. She follows discharged materials and links the environmental damage to colonial greed. As she is digging through the ditch and collecting the soil samples for the chromatography experiments, she also reflects on the permeable bodies that shapeshift. Toxicities redistribute between the entities – at first, they are extracted from the earth’s crust and transformed in the factories and smelters; then the leftover traces are released to the river, to only be again dug up and diffused in the chromatography paper. The medium absorbs and releases back. The pollutants infiltrate via our fingertips and leave to the ditch through the gutters.
The exhibition is part of WARP, a series of vitrine exhibitions which were activated in 2020. These exhibitions now also follow the SEA Foundation’s folds on art and sustainability, currently researching fold on Reimagining. The WARP series aims to stimulate artistic research and present the adaptations of the works made by regional artists or artists with regional connections.