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Remembering Maria Rebecca Ballestra: Connecting Nature, Culture And The Future

Words YINGBI LEE

25.01.21





On August 9th, 2020, Maria Rebecca Ballestra’s family announced her passing at age 46 on the artist’s Facebook page. Ballestra, whose work spans across the mediums of photography, installation, video and performance, travelled extensively across the world and engaged in many site-specific projects that were activated by the social, environmental and political context of their location.

Ballestra’s site-specific installation ‘Post-Human Garden’ (2011) was among the first few projects which drew me in to the visual juxtaposition of nature and technology. Upon closer inspection the boundaries explored in the project take on further layers beyond a simple contrast between organic and electronic elements. An artificial garden comprised plants in both pots and in vitro, interrogating the borders between nature and science, and natural and artificial.

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The plants surrounded TV boxes that project DNA mapping of plants and cellular material in test tubes, accompanied by an interactive sound installation by Taiwanese artist Wen Chin Fu, which bring into fore interactions between nature and contemporary culture, technology and human activity.

Set against the frescoes at the Villa Croce Museum of Contemporary Art, the project also contemplates the intersection of these themes with culture of the past.

While ‘Post-Human Garden’ leans more toward entangling the idea of ‘nature’ with technoscientific developments, Ballestra’s other work looks into cultural biodiversity – the idea that communities’ collective heritage, memory, identity and beliefs in relation to biodiversity, connect  ecology and the natural environment with strategies for sustainable futures.

Often, Ballestra explores these themes through food and agriculture. Long-term project ‘Social Soups’ (2014) with Rachaela Abbate, focused on food as a social practice containing diverse social, cultural, environmental, scientific and political influences and interpretations.

Understanding food as a social practice heavily intertwined with environmental practice helps frame Ballestra’s other work around genetically modified food and food sovereignty (Orto d’artista, 2010); or agro-biodiversity as a strategy for agricultural sustainability (Agri/Cultures, 2019 with Seed Cultures Archive).

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To characterise Ballestra’s work by ‘Post-Human Garden’ alone would be a disservice to the breadth of themes she explored, synthesised and critiqued.

What stood out to me most in ‘Post-Human Garden’ in that very first encounter was an overarching theme that connects her oeuvre:  her concern for ecology and the natural environment’s close relationship with social practice – whether digital or ancient. Her work was instrumental in introducing me to a world of art about the environment which touched on perspectives I felt were pertinent when discussing the topics of nature and ecology, such as culture, technology, politics and community engagement.

Beyond creating art, Ballestra’s commitment to connecting the environment with science, technology, culture, social practice and the future also manifested as community-making and network-weaving, gathering scholars, researchers, artists and activists in a cross-pollination of disciplines and methods for developing sustainable futures in ‘Festival of the Earth’ (2015).

Although we lost Ballestra way before her time, she leaves behind an impactful body of work worth referring to as we navigate different ways of being and interacting with the environment.

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Yingbi Lee is a researcher, communicator and digital media producer with a particular interest in culture and media as a driver for community and identity-building, and environmental and social justice. Her background includes producing content around culture and climate for @juliesbicycle and an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths. In her spare time she nurtures a small army of plants and explores the intersection between the built and natural environment, culture and ecology, and human and machine at @plant.dmg.

YINGBI LEE / INSTAGRAM / TWITTER / WEBSITE.








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