Canary in the Coal Mine

Adhesive vinyl inkjet prints

Dimensions variable

2020

Installed on storefront windows in the Boven 't IJ shopping center in Amsterdam Noord as part of 'Shelf Life' and ongoing exhibition commissioned by Kunsthalle Amsterdam. The installation opened in late February 2020 and will be up until summer 2020. 

Alongside a series of 5 images, the middle panel features a text written in English and translated into Dutch. The text was adapted for the purposes of this installation from a text by Florian Sprenger, titled, 'Environments of Experimentation and Epistemologies of Surroundings', which can be found in full here.

Photocredit: Charlott Markus, Kunsthalle Amsterdam

Curated by Bas Hendrikx

Canary in the Coal Mine

 

At the turn of the 20th century, the physiologist John Scott Haldane sought to reconfigure the longstanding conceptual separation of organisms from their surrounding environments. One of Haldane’s main areas of investigation was the physiology of respiration. In order to understand the dynamics of this process he created experimental setups in which atmospheric compositions could be modified. He had a 2 x 2 meter sealed chamber built, which was nicknamed the coffin, in which he would enclose goats, dogs and eventually himself. 

 

Within these artificial environments, every factor of the physiological process under study, whether in the organism or in the environment, was to become a technical variable, one that could be controlled and used to modify the regulative circulatory systems under investigation. The process of studying and understanding respiration was inseparable from its regulation. 

 

Haldane spent decades studying catastrophic mining accidents in southern England. One of the first things he tried was using canaries as indicators of air quality, since they quickly showed symptoms caused by toxic gases. A dead canary indicated that the air’s carbon monoxide content had reached levels hazardous to human beings. We have Haldane to thank for the phrase: Canary in the coal mine. 

 

If the whole is taken to consist of both organisms within environments and the environment surrounding those organisms, then everything can have an affect on everything else, because there is no point at which the one begins and the other ends. What Haldane understood, based on his study of reciprocity, was that an organism can be manipulated by changing its environment, but inversely, that an environment can be modified by manipulating nothing but an organism. Imagine one person with a virus sharing the room you’re currently in. To modify an organism is a form of environmental design.