Interview

Not Everything Everywhere is for us. An interview with May Abdalla, Co-Founder and Director of Anagram Studio

Contemporary Lynx met with May Abdalla, VR/Immersive Producer and Director, to talk about one of her latest projects realised by the Anagram Studio, Messages to a Post Human Earth. It is an interactive, multi-sensorial project commissioned by Adam Mickiewicz Institute to mark the year of Stanislaw Lem. Inspired by Lem’s science fiction writings, Messages to a Post Human Earth explores the future of a world in which humans are no longer be present.

Creditis: Patchlab Festival 2021 photo: Dawid Ścigalski

Maria Markiewicz: I would like to start by briefly introducing Messages to a Post Human Earth. Could you tell me a bit more about the project?

May Abdalla: Messages to a Post Human Earth is an immersive journey about the end of our species and plant intelligence. You do it with one other person in a park, garden, or woodland, and you are guided through parallel journeys that represent a human looking into the future and a non-human looking into the past.

It’s a fantastical story that makes use of some science-fiction tropes in many ways but is inspired by two real-world scientific moments. The first is the story that links this piece with Stanislaw Lem – which is an essay he wrote in response to the US government bringing together some scientists to help develop the signage at sites where nuclear waste was buried. The point was that the language or message of the sign would need to be understood tens of thousands of years into the future when the material would still be toxic. So how do you do that – design a language for future intelligent life warning the new lifeforms of the material that we had buried that could kill them but also pollute the waters and threaten their life and health? 

MM: Do you remember when you were first introduced to Lem and his ground-breaking work? 

MA: Like many others, it was through the movie adaptation of Solaris directed by Tarkovsky. After that, The Cyberiad and The Futurological Congress were just brilliant, mad, free, funny, and profound. They stuck with me ever since I’ve first read them. 

Creditis: Patchlab Festival 2021 photo: Dawid Ścigalski

MM: For this project, you’ve collaborated with Dr Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary ecologist and professor at the Southern Cross University in Australia. What is she bringing into the project? 

MA: Monica is incredible. She’s a pioneer in the field of plant acoustics. Not only that but she’s also been working with indigenous groups in Australia and South America, wanting to learn how they connect with and are present around plants. The combination of that scientific perspective together with an awareness of its limitations was really inspiring and we worked to find ways to navigate the journey between knowing and understanding and not knowing and being open to uncertainty. 

MM: Together with Amy Rose, you are the founders of Anagram, an award-winning creative studio specialising in exploiting the most recent advances in immersive technologies. Can you tell me a bit more about the work that you do as Anagram? 

MA: Anagram is an artist-led studio making thought-provoking experiences that ask audiences to explore social and political questions in personal and profound ways. We use technology and real-world tactile objects to make immersive journeys that helps us think anew about how we inhabit the world.

Creditis: Patchlab Festival 2021 photo: Dawid Ścigalski
Creditis: Patchlab Festival 2021 photo: Dawid Ścigalski

MM: Messages to a Post Human Earth had its premiere in Krakow, during the Patchlab Digital Art Festival, and in London, in the Orleans House Gallery. The project will also be presented at the IDFA Festival in Amsterdam. How do these different settings influence the project? 

MA: We love touring the project and seeing what is magical about each venue. It’s an experience where people are asked to really feel the place they are in and identify particular plants around them. Whenever we go, we end up thinking – ah this was the best place! But then the next location changes our mind again.

We loved showing the project in a botanical garden, which evoked the science of categorising and collecting plants. And in London, the ancient wood of Orleans House Gallery was incredible with its gigantic cedars that were really breath-taking when you looked up. It’s really an experience about what you find around you – so no two journeys are ever the same. 

MM: Your project is designed for two people to experience together. Why have you decided to invite people to explore it together, in pairs, rather than individually? 

MA: We did the bulk of the creation of this project in lockdown. It was both a practical measure of having a small experience that people would be able to coordinate as well as a creative decision not to make something that you experience alone. There needed to be another person so that the first person could be much like a character in a film. The other person’s presence also drives your commitment to the experience. What they do surprises you, what you do surprises them. Neither of you sees the whole story – you build it together.

Creditis: Patchlab Festival 2021 photo: Dawid Ścigalski

MM: In The Invincible, Lem writes that “Not everything everywhere is for us.” Is this also how you approach the natural world in this project?

MA: Recently, the Nigerian author Ben Okri wrote in response to COP26 that “we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine.” In many ways, Messages is a project about imagining our non-existence. Freeing ourselves momentarily from the denial of the crisis, we are finding ourselves in a world where it has already happened. The drama is over, and the dust has settled. To know that not everything everywhere is for us is to make peace with a story where we are not the protagonists, but only one of many species, who appear and disappear from the stage with a little to no fanfare. There’s a kind of meditation in that it allows you to see the world without yourself as the centre.

Return to the homepage

About The Author

Maria
Markiewicz

Aspiring art writer. Born and raised in Poland, she currently lives and studies in London at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Interested in art tackling issues of marginalization, body, sexuality and feminism, she draws inspiration from both European art of the late 90s and emerging European art. She has a background in history of art and critical theory.

This might interest you