Agnieszka Tarasiuk

text from the book accompanying the exhibition Cultivating Culture
BWA Tarnów, 2015

The waves had almost completely disappeared, and the top of the fluid—the stuff the ocean is made of—had become semi-transparent, with smoky spots that faded away until, after a very short time, the whole thing was completely clear and I could see several yards, I believe, into the depths. Deep down there was a kind of gold-coloured ooze that was gathering and sending thin streaks upwards. When it emerged onto the surface it became glassy and shining, it started seething and foaming, and solidifying. At this point it looked like dense burned caramel. This ooze or sludge collected into thick knots, rose up out of the ocean, it formed cauliflower-like swellings and slowly made various shapes. I started being pulled towards the wall of fog, so for a few minutes I had to counter the drift with the engine and the rudder. When I was able to look out again, down below, underneath me, I saw something that resembled a garden. That’s right, a garden. I saw dwarf trees and hedges, paths, none of it real—it was all made of the same substance, which by now had completely hardened, like yellowish plaster.
Stanisław Lem, "Solaris”

In June 1960 the Polish writer, philosopher and futurologist Stanisław Lem completed Solaris—one of the most beautiful books of the 20th century. The title refers to a distant planet orbiting two suns. Its unstable gravitational conditions are kept in equilibrium by one enormous living formation—a jelly-like ocean, which covers over 90 percent of the globe’s surface. The key issue of Lem’s novel are man’s attempts to contact the ocean’s intelligence, which is highly developed and cosmically effective, though no one knows if self-aware. The Solaris sea reads the memory traces of human brains and plays the data recorded in them by means of its plasma’s matter.

Five years after the first (Polish) edition of Solaris James E. Lovelock, a British scientist and inventor, was engaged by NASA to join a team of experts Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They worked on the Viking project, whose aim was to detect life on Mars. For the purpose of the research Lovelock put forward a thesis which claimed that it might be possible to detect life on a distant planet by means of the remote analysis of its atmosphere. Lovelock came to a conclusion that the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere is far from thermodynamic equilibrium thanks to the constant work of living organisms, which continue producing gaseous oxygen and, simultaneously, reduced compounds like methane or ammonia. Hence, should spectrometry measurements detect thermodynamic imbalance in the atmosphere of a planet, one could suppose that there is vegetation on that planet. The research on Mars gave no hope for finding life there, but the implications of the idea helped to better understand the processes that take place on Earth. For Lovelock, it became clear that living organisms exert influence on the lifeless matter of the planet to no lesser extent than the lifeless factors influence the organisms. Moreover, though it might sound like a scientific heresy even today, living organisms can alter the conditions of their environment in a deliberate, regulatory way, that is by actively maintaining conditions that support life. He came to a conclusion that the whole of living and lifeless matter on Earth constitutes one homoeostatic superorganism, which acts in a deliberate, if not conscious, way. Following the novelist and Nobel prize winner William Golding’s suggestion, James Lovelock named the Earth’s system Gaia, after the Greek goddess. Thus, his theory established a connection with the centuries-long European tradition.

These hypotheses brought back from the grave and revived one of the oldest philosophical problems – the relationship between matter and consciousness. It took a fair amount of courage to lead the way … in attributing consciousness to ocean. The problem, deemed by methodologists as metaphysical, lingered at the bottom of almost all discussions and disputes. Is thinking without consciousness possible?, wrote Lem in 1960 in his futuristic novel. Twenty years later similar discussions broke out in real life thanks to James Lovelock’s famous book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, first published by Oxford University Press in 1979.

The belief that process that go on on Earth constitute an integrated system was nothing new. It re-echoes in the mythologies of many cultures, as well as in the history of contemporary science. In 1795 James Hutton, known as the father of geology, presented the Earth as a mega-organism in his Theory of the Earth. A similar idea, more realistic in terms of science, was clearly formulated in 1926 by the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, who was the first to use the term biosphere. However, Lovelock’s hypothesis claiming that all Earth’s organisms, though in competition with one another, together form a structure of a higher order, a kind of superorganism, whose mythological name alluded to a creature endowed with consciousness and singularity, was unacceptable for the evolutionary biologists and geochemists of the late 20th century. The radical views expressed by the scientist-individualist, who worked on his own and made limited use of the achievements of other research teams were proclaimed scientific heresy. The Gaia hypothesis and Gaia theory formulated a few years later have not stood the test of any meticulous scientific analysis. In spite of this, a great deal of research carried out nowadays in the field of global biogeochemistry and evolutionary biology seems to draw on Lovelock’s ideas and, over the years, provide evidence that his research was going in the right direction. In November 2011 Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, Professor at University of Illinois, published his article Life began with a planetary mega-organism in "New Scientist". The article describes how searching for LUCA , the last universal common ancestor, lead him to a concept of life descending from one planetary mega-organism, which 3 billion years ago filled with itself all primeval ocean; which was the ocean. Around 2.9 billion years ago LUCA began to differentiate, thus giving rise to all organisms on Earth. However, it seems that The Gaia hypothesis had more influence on the development of the post-humanistic perspective in philosophy and the rise of many esoteric and para-religious movements than on the world of science. Various gurus of the new spirituality began to preach the metaphysics of Gaia. Some followers focused on searching for the lost contact with Gaia’s system by means of hypnosis and natural psychoactive drugs like Peyotle or Ayahuasca, which was taking esoteric salons by storm. In the second decade of the 21st century another habit became widely popular. In the natural environment people would find forms resembling artefacts, which were supposed to be messages sent by Gaia to her most defiant child – man. The worship of rocks or trees shaped like well-known works of art or popular industrial forms proliferated. Miracles multiplied especially in the countries which until recently had a strong religious tradition. In the places where the Catholic or Orthodox Madonna had appeared a few dozen years before, in 2020s Gaia’s messages were worshipped.

One of the first social phenomena of this kind was the sect of worshippers of Park Strzelecki in Tarnów, a city at the foot of West Carpathians. From 2015 on, members of the sect would find in the park some forms resembling works of art from the fields of visual arts and architecture, which had reputedly appeared spontaneously. The creations sprang up haphazardly across the park—both in exposed spots, like central clearings and inaccessible places—among treetops or in dense thicket. The found creations recreated the form of artefacts only superficially, in isolation from their sense and original function. The best example might be a span of a fence emerging aimlessly in the middle of a lawn or elements of musical instruments appearing on the highest branches of trees. Almost legible inscriptions and even equations or chemical formulas were sighted. Special worship was attached to a metallic regular shape interpreted as the formula of photosynthesis and an evidence for plants’ self-awareness. A number of smaller signs were found, like the gilded thorns of hawthorns and robinias or blackthorn shrubs that would spontaneously take geometric shapes.

The fame of the park was growing from year to year. The situation became troublesome for the authorities of the city, which could hardly hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. Statements issued by dendrologists and local moral authorities, who defied the supernatural phenomena, were for naught. The statement of the local cultural institution, BWA in Tarnów, which claimed that the author of the installations in question was the artist Kama Sokolnicka met with a shrug of shoulders from the Park Worshippers: An artist? So what of it? Why would not Gaia use a human female to achieve her ends?

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