From the radiation-loaded nuclear disaster zones of Fukushima and Pripyat, the polluted and highly acidic waste run-off of the Iron Mountain Mine in Northern California, to the Gulf of Mexico’s oceanic dead zone caused by excess nutrient pollution from industrial agricultural practices, countless man-made ecological disasters have rendered areas on Earth uninhabitable to living beings. In light of the hypothetical yet impending crisis from anthropogenic climate change, scientists and researchers have asserted that humanity needs to prepare and adapt to imminent transformations to our environment. How then, can we start to imagine alternative and posthuman modes of being that are non-anthropocentric, and deeply rethink our relationship to the non-human?
Science fiction, perhaps, poses powerful suggestions towards such new imaginations. In renowned science fiction author Octavia Butler’s trilogy, Xenogenesis (comprising Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989)), a future earth has been destroyed by humankind and rendered uninhabitable by nuclear disaster. An alien race has saved the remaining survivors from a dying Earth and restored Earth’s environs, yet completely transformed it in the process. Through a radical proposal of the possibility — and in fact, cruciality — of new hybrid beings which merge alien and human species required to survive in this new environment, Butler’s characters defy gender binaries and conventional understandings of human-ness, and in doing so question the limitations of human perception and challenge the fixity of contemporary binaries and bodily forms.
Along similar lines, the practice of Athens-based artist Lito Kattou attempts to articulate alternative futures that are divergent from dominant extractive, dislocated and anthropocentric narratives of the environment. By harnessing sculptural articulations to construct hybrid characters that undergo fluid transformations to survive future environmental circumstances, she draws from folk narratives and mythological beings to imagine possibilities of metamorphoses in posthuman bodies and natural phenomena, and of creating communities and kinships that deviate from existing structures. In her sharply coherent yet materially complex works, Lito pushes the fluidity of sculpture and engages with its traditional limits by reconsidering form, flatness and volume, and incorporating material gestures, communicative languages, electrochemical transfigurations, and speculative environments. I had the opportunity to connect with Lito through an unfolding, long-distance dialogue via email over December 2020, to understand better her working processes, multitudinous influences, and speculations on what the future holds.
I engage with the less anthropocentric in order to question the very idea of the human body within the Western tradition as something that has been differentiated and distanced from its surroundings, as a historical construction based on excluding several modes of being.
SYT: Could you tell me about your current obsessions? What is occupying your time now?
LK: I am obsessively collecting wild milk thistles from the side pavements in Nicosia, my hometown, where I spent the second wave of the pandemic and lockdowns in Europe and am happy to be stuck for a bit. The thistles will probably find their way later into future works.
I am continuing research and works that were initiated during a residency I recently concluded at Art Hub Copenhagen, examining aspects surrounding issues of alterity, ecology and the potentiality in structuring communities within a less anthropocentric understanding. I keep thinking about ideas of flatness and bi-dimensionality, and how to articulate volume. By using elements and manipulations from my personal sculptural vocabulary, I am developing a series of new sculptural and wall pieces which will deal with the representation or abstraction of the body and its relation to climatic change. Materiality, form, imagery and composition are used to research a series of works which deal with the state of the body under transformation and metamorphosis. At the same time, I’m focusing on the largest wildfires which occurred lately in the Mediterranean area, a region which is currently profoundly affected by ecological shifts. As a result, there will be a series of characters, recurring or new, that are visualised as protagonists from folk tradition or speculative fiction connected to the Mediterranean and Middle East. I am thinking of them in in-between states of functioning as non-gendered guardians of nature, mythical creatures, fighters, endless walkers and dreamers of places for symbiosis.
SYT: In engaging with the body in a state of metamorphosis, your practice has included hybrid figures in your sculptural works. Could you tell me more about the body (or bodies) in your work, and how you develop these figures?
LK: The digitally-fabricated aluminium sculptures that I present are non-gendered bodies, hybrid entities between anthropomorphic, animal and mythical subjectivities. Their names and titles suggest specific characteristics and attributes; the time, gender and location that they come from are fluid and unprecedented. I see them as possibly being at the starting point in the pursuit of a place or a condition, in the middle of a journey or being part of a community. They seem to be able to structure communities while wandering as individuals.
They also carry images from the places and biodiversities they were once part of or the ones they seek to be integrated in. The imagery, symbols, and fragments of language hand-painted on the surface of their bodies reveal their relationship with their physical environment. Sunsets and landscapes, for example, indicate their link to earthly and cosmic time. These relationships also become visible through sculptural elements such as the copper-electroformed and nickel-plated milk thistles or the wicker baskets, which are completely dried under the sun before being electrochemically processed. Thus, the figures’ characteristics, skills, objects and adornments, equipment and tools are carried with them, indicating places they have or are willing to live in and cherish. These wounds and memories are traced and “tattooed” on their aluminium epidermis, referring to the highly industrial and technological aspects of contemporaneity.
I engage with the less anthropocentric in order to question the very idea of the human body within the Western tradition as something that has been differentiated and distanced from its surroundings, as a historical construction based on excluding several modes of being. Furthermore, when questioning the power of the body as an agent for change, I feel that we need to think again about what kind of bodies we are used to referring to. Will there ever be a neutral understanding of them? Through all of their exclusions, inclusions and potencies, which are the ones more affected by the changes, for example, environmental and socio-political shifts? Who is eligible to have a “body” and under what image? What kind of contribution will technology offer? Those questions remain unanswered or under observation.
SYT: Your works harness aluminium sheets as canvases on which paintings, drawings and text float, but also take material form as free-standing beings in the space. You’ve also spoken previously about unwritten modes of communication that lie outside the human. What sits on the flat surfaces of your sculptures — as encoded information, other modes of language, or perhaps evoking the virtual space of the screen?
Who is eligible to have a “body” and under what image? What kind of contribution will technology offer?
LK: Materiality presented in flatness could be perceived as shadows but not impartial apparitions. The bodies in my works are reflections of condensed materiality from other worlds, which we do not have all the senses to perceive. Representation and existence of volume are also linked in this way through the digital spectrum. How do we perceive the world? Through our screens; an “atonement” from the experiential world of flesh and organic matter. The creatures dematerialise into shadows, getting rid of the heavy responsibility of a material, fleshy body.
I have always thought that those bodies, whether they structure communities or not, possibly have strong communication abilities. By using written language traces, I imply communication within the communities that the bodies of my practice could potentially construct. But since I will never be able to understand their language, yet feel the need to address it as a concept, I engage using languages that I speak and the tools I have.
SYT: How do notions of adaptability, metamorphosis and processes of becoming in the face of ecological change manifest in the mythological beings and narratives in your work? Are these beings from existing stories, and which types of figures are you drawn towards?
LK: I think of folk narratives and how they are rearranged in relation to different areas and cultural contexts, and also how they change through centuries. I relate to them through the notion of survival, and in this way, I think of the various fabricated or existing subjectivities which persist in a continuity of time which is not predominantly linear. Adaptation and survival are questioned not only through physical occurrences to the body but also in events which amend perception and knowledge, especially when thinking about the changes we deal with day-to-day.
How do we perceive the world? Through our screens; an “atonement” from the experiential world of flesh and organic matter.
Mythology is made of hybrids, bodies that become natural elements, natural phenomena that are embodied, personified forces. There are several examples that, in different civilisations share same powers but different names, and others which are unique such as the Minotaur, the Sphinx, the Werewolf, the Chimera, the Siren, the Japanese Baku, the Assyrian Lamassu, the Egyptian deities Bes and Beset, the Greek serpentine giant Typhon, and the half-woman, half-snake Echidna or Nure-onna. This power of metamorphosis and of allowing subjectivity to fluctuate fascinates me. In relation to ecology, adaptation (or resistance to it), dislocation and transformation are major issues affecting the future of the planet. Decentralising the human from the core of historically-institutionalised humanity might be a way of embracing this fluidity and survival. This is what my works seek to imply. I think of the bodies that I develop throughout my practice in relational states, where symbiosis and/or differentiation construct characteristics and virtues.
For me, one of the fabricated characters within my practice that intrigues me for their ever-changing nature, is San from Red Lake. Developed over the course of a residency at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, San is a basic artificial intelligence (AI) which embodies an ecological subjectivity alien to human thought, imagined as a mythological figure protecting their unique surroundings. As a non-gendered AI, San is hybridly conceived with divine and animal traits, and lives in a 3D simulated environment based on real-time data collected from Red Lake, a mine site located near Nicosia, Cyprus. It is one of the fastest climatic changing regions of the South East Mediterranean zone, and a remnant of the ancient copper mine of Kokkinopezoula in Mitsero. The high acidic environment of the lake does not allow any biological living organism to develop, leaving the surrounding area impervious. San’s body and actions respond to specific climatic variations, such as temperature, humidity, visibility, wind speed and weather, and function as a guardian of the spot.
SYT: I was particularly drawn to Red Lake and the figure of San, which interestingly both respond to a physical product of ecological crisis and harnesses it to generate a new imagination of future subjectivities. Could you tell me more about Days of San (2018)? What were the dialogues that San had with the Greek cultural artefacts of the Benaki Museum’s permanent collection, and what were your considerations in situating San and their sculptural manifestations within a museum?
LK: The exhibition included the real-time video projection of Red Lake on the museum’s third floor as well as five sculptures — embodiments of the character’s physical aspects — on the ground floor. I was lucky enough to be embraced by the museum, which is one of the few institutions in Greece hosting and proposing dialogues between antiquity and contemporary art, together with the curator Polina Kosmadaki from the Deste Foundation and Point Centre of Contemporary Art that generously commissioned and produced the works.
Nevertheless, there were institutional limitations in such endeavours. It was a challenging and a creative process for me to take these limitations into consideration, which included humanity’s understanding of linear time, the boundaries of materiality through organic and inorganic matter, and the archaeology-technology dipole…
One could follow specific narratives unfolding throughout the museum oriented towards the historical continuity of Greek culture. Within this configuration, San — as a liquid being between human, machine, god and animal (conceived as an AI) — reflected and negotiated other creatures, guardians, and non-human entities in mythological traditions and histories. Skins and feathers from the creature’s epidermis were extruded from its digital body and situated in the space as sculptural forms, coming into dialogue with ancient traces and archaeological depictions of subjectivities throughout the first floor of the museum’s permanent collection.
Mythology is made of hybrids, bodies that become natural elements, natural phenomena that are embodied, personified forces.
In reverse, on the third floor, the exhibits dealt with the 19th century liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire and the construction of the modern Greek identity. Present in the space was a large collection of traditional costumes on mannequins that have beautiful embroidered tapestries of landscapes as backgrounds. This setup created a theatrical atmosphere, a set design installed as if there could be a play going on. I chose those bodies, dressed with the traditional costumes and symbolisms of their apparel, to endlessly witness San’s trials of success and failure within the 3D-simulated environment of Red Lake. In this way, spectatorship was expanded from the visitors to the presence of the rest of the exhibits. I found that this specific relationship — of having the bodies spectating, guarding or surveilling San’s constant motion, while San’s presence in the space challenged the dressed mannequins’ subjectivisation and status — unexpectedly aligned with my interests.
SYT: It’s really fascinating how you set up these elements in conversation with the other museological objects, their histories and contexts. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the sculptural extensions of San (as feathers, skin and brain) and whether it is even possible to imagine or comprehend future non/post-human forms if they are still conceived around what we understand of biology, nature and machines today?
LK: I am not sure about that. I think there will always be a human filter. It is hard to think of gaining a comprehension other than what we are assigned to, except by modifying our biological and spiritual limitations. But through proximity to a less anthropocentric way of perceiving core elements of nature and technology, we can expand our understanding and tools for a symbiosis and kinship beyond what we currently know. San will always remain a human construction. They have very specific characteristics, limitations and potencies with regards to machine learning.
Similarly, I think of language within my works, and in this way I interpret, for example, San’s motion paths within the digital environment in the series of copper works Encephalograms . I make use of language and forms that I know of and can control. I embrace the limits of my own verbal and written communication capacity, while at the same time fulfilling partially the need (as I believe that every effort will always slip in the sphere of the impossible) to capture a meaning of the wholeness of the world, of grasping the unsayable and getting into proximity with the other-worldly.
SYT: How does your zine project AM figure in your practice? And, on the topic of its most recent issue, PROPHECY , what does it mean for you to make art in this moment in time — plagued as it is with conflict and crisis as much as it is with unprecedented connectivity, creativity and potential — before a new future is as yet to begin? In other words, what are your thoughts on prophecies for the future?
LK: I am keen on voices in the same way I integrate written language with the epidermis of my sculptures, and I am interested in the interplay of movement and immobility. There are a few archival texts derived from the editorial project AM which I run with artist Petros Moris  that I would like to integrate into future installations. AM itself is a zine with a collection and curation of excerpts from open source texts, literature, poetry and theory developed under a different theme each time. I find a sense of freedom in letting elements previously used in my artistic vocabulary recur after a while and take different forms.
I can hardly think of myself not making or not thinking about art at all. At the same time, I do not believe that there will be a moment free of calamity. Humanity has those downfalls embedded in its nature and from which art in general can propose a psychic refuge, a resistance towards those pitfalls’ persistent attack on solidarity and symbiosis. Through the pandemic we initially got into a state of force majeure  which has now, after eleven months, shifted our limits, strength and perception of the future. It feels weird to demand a return to the rhythms we had before, as one wonders how we can remain the same after experiencing this historical event. The virus acts as a shared biological threat that applies disproportionally on different communities, magnifying preexisting inequity. The pandemic’s intensities are political, and since it is not an event disconnected from other ongoing phenomena such as climate change or migration, it makes us think not only about how our bodies are related to the bodies of others, but also how the histories of these relations have and are affecting our overall earthly environment.
At the same time, I do not believe that there will be a moment free of calamity.
I would characterise myself as a dark optimist… if ever such an oxymoron could exist! I could think of a future gone down the dark path: full of pollution, corporate domination and killer robots. Simultaneously, there is a “what if” that I tend to think could brighten up these scenarios. Thinking of our future now, what seems most probable is something similar to the depressing gloom of an imperialist wreck. But what if possibilities are more open and erratic than that? What if we still have the option to drag the direction of social changes and technological developments towards something brighter? We can think of what is available to us right now and use it in our favour. Similarly, I think of art as “piracy”, destroying and stealing our focus from the dysfunctional downfalls of anthropocentrism.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in 2011 when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear reactors to fail at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. See “Fukushima disaster: What happened at the nuclear plant?”, BBC News, March 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56252695
The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear disaster in history, which occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant of Pripyat, Ukraine in 1986. See Erin Blakemore, “The Chernobyl disaster: what happened, and the long-term impact,” National Geographic, May 20, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/05/chernobyl-disaster-what-happened-and-long-term-impact
The Iron Mountain Mine produces some of the most acidic waters in the world. See “Environmental Effects of Iron Mountain,” USGS, https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/iron_mountain/environment.html
See “Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’ is the largest ever measured,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, August 2, 2017, https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-is-largest-ever-measured
“Xenogenesis Series,” Octavia E. Butler, https://www.octaviabutler.com/xenogenesis-series
Lito Kattou, http://www.litokattou.com/
Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus.
Art Hub Copenhagen, http://arthubcopenhagen.net/en/
“San,” Lito Kattou, http://www.litokattou.com/projects/San/
“About Google Cultural Institute,” Google, https://about.artsandculture.google.com/
“Kokkinopezoula - Mitsero Red Lake,” Cyprus Island, https://www.cyprusisland.net/cyprus-lakes/kokkinopezoula-lake
“Days of San,” Lito Kattou, http://litokattou.com/projects/days-of-san/
Benaki Museum, https://www.benaki.org/index.php?lang=en
“Polina Kosmadaki,” CURRENT Athens, https://www.currentathens.gr/curators/curator/128-polina-kosmadaki
DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, https://deste.gr/
Point Centre for Contemporary Art, https://www.pointcentre.org/about
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "War of Greek Independence." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 12, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/War-of-Greek-Independence.
The series forms a part of San (2018). “San,” Lito Kattou, http://www.litokattou.com/projects/San/
Petros Moris, http://petrosmoris.com/
See “COVID-19: Force Majeure Event?”, Shearman and Sterling, March 12, 2020, https://www.shearman.com/perspectives/2020/03/covid-19--force-majeure-event