Benera and Estefan
The Delusion of The Commons, 2021
3D printed model in PLA. Finished with primer, spray paint and sands.
Seven A3 drawings: natural pigment (bone black), polymerase enzyme, and drawing pen on paper.

"The project of Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan turn to the future of the last untouched places on Earth. Considered a possible source for the origins of life and now contested for their vast mineral deposits, deep sea vents become an enigmatic space from which the artists imagine how political, legal, economic and scientific forces will reshape human relationships with nature.

Coronavirus has been a reminder of our proximity to other ecosystems. Whilst a warning that our continued encroachment into places like rainforests increases our chances of unleashing thousands of other viruses harboured by different species, it has also prompted a reflection upon the way we define ourselves. Eight percent of our DNA comes from viruses and as they pass from species to species, they demonstrate a totally different perspective that sees us as a small part of a much bigger series of interrelated systems. Asked to respond to this idea, Benera and Estefan created a sculpture that on the outside brings together the form of a deep-sea vent with that of the Tower of Babel. On the inside, a form derived from diagrams of tungsten mines that connects their research with a very current area of contention – private enterprises presently tooling up to dredge the sea floor. Surrounding the sculpture, drawings made using an enzyme called polymerase, mixed with a natural pigment, connect the sculpture to their interest in archaea, mysterious single-cell organisms that are considered extremophiles because of their remarkable ability to survive in extreme environments. Whilst they are an important part of our own biomes (our bodies’ habitats for micro-scale organisms), they also live among the deep-sea vents and produce polymerase, the enzyme that is today being used to test for coronavirus.

Evocative of science fiction, the drawings project into imagined underwater futures. In one we see a cutaway that might take us inside the model or another deep sea station: at once an oddly calm corporate space – were perhaps dubious activity might take place without ethical scrutiny – and a strange tentacular hybrid form suggestive of mysterious and terrifying natural worlds. In others we see the chemical symbols of lauded elements, mining tools, the enzyme in phials and the mapping of deep sea territories. Then there are more idealised forms. Collectively they evoke the real-world prospecting that underlies the artists’ critical research, whilst poetically they allude to more abstract concerns, such as a free commons space, protection of resources and ecological balance.

Mineral companies are currently poised to try to take advantage of the deep-sea territories laying in international waters, thought to contain more valuable deposits than all the continents combined. But, like all ventures into new kinds of space, the regulations for deep sea mining don’t yet exist. The UN has given the task of making these regulations to the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The tension of facilitating the interests of big corporations against the idea of a commons space that belongs to everyone is neatly captured in its stated mission: ‘to organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole.’ The ISA have so far issued exploratory permits to around 30 contractors, but much of their work remains in progress. Crucially, the industrial dredging these laws will facilitate has been deemed ecologically disastrous by scientists who still hope to discover so much more from studying these mysterious worlds. Once thought baron, the eventual discovery of organisms like archaea helped to redefine the limits of life. This ecosystem has also been found to provide several valuable functions for sustaining life on earth, including a ‘biological pump’ that helps to regulate greenhouse gases. Hence, the apt symbolism of the Tower of Babel, an allegory of collective good, knowledge and human vanity.

Benera and Estefan describe science fiction as the ‘only cognitive framework to perceive reality these days’. The novel Starfish by Peter Watts (1999) – in which power stations operate below the seas, run by bioengineered people deemed unfit for life among human society – inspired them to bring together these different ideas: power, politics and our continued fascination in these spaces, with their potential for opening up more-than-human terrains." (James Clegg)

3D modeling: Segiu Negulici
Photo © Sally Jubb Photography
Commissioned and produced by Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art

                         

                     The Delusion of The Commons, 2021
                                               3D print

                                                                                                                                                                Hydrothermal vent chimney 
                                                                                                                                                                   depth 2.4 km, Southern Ocean
                                                                                                                                                             Photo © University of Southampton

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents are one of the seafloor environments now being targeted
for mining of their mineral resources, because the “chimneys” that form at vents.   
are particularly rich in metals used for modern technology.                     


                                                         

The Delusion of The Commons (detail), 2021                                                              
                                          watercolors using natural pigment (bone black)                                                           
and polymerase enzyme