Shifting Scales, Salinities, Shorelines

Taru Elfving


Saara Ekström, Beacon (2019)

“Entanglement with others makes life possible, but when one relationship goes awry, the repercussions ripple”[1]


Flying over the Baltic Sea, as the plane approached Copenhagen airport, I gazed at the expanse of blue below me, dotted with wind turbines, and thought for a moment that every white splash of a wave hid a briefly surfacing creature of some kind. I imagined the sea as full of life, of creatures large enough for me to glimpse from high above. As if from this elevated and detached point of view, here and now, I could share the vision of my ancestors who sailed these very seas. 

Left with a confused sense of wonder and loss, I focused my eyes on the shifting patterns of different shades on the surface of the sea. Here it may well be visible how the Baltic approaches the North Sea. Without an expert by my side, I had no idea how to recognise the meeting of the two liquid bodies, of the saltier streams weaving their way into the brackish water of the Baltic. What is the exact salinity of the sea and how is it measurable at this point of fluid crossing from one sea to another?

Salt matters when it comes to the Baltic Sea. “More Salt in Your Tears”, the sea wistfully spoke in the work by Raqs Media Collective in 2011.[2]  The mirroring text sculpture floated along the shipping and ferry lanes in the Archipelago Sea, off the South-West coast of Finland. According to average measurements, the salinity of the Archipelago sea is just below that of human tears. As the seas will inevitably rise due to global warming, the changing salt levels of these waters may irreparably alter the highly specific local marine ecosystems. Let there be more salt in your tears, the work whispered while reflecting the shifting tones of the sea and the sky.

Yet these matters are more complex than any average can capture or communicate. The Baltic Sea differs from other seas in its low salinity, due to its geography as a rather shallow expanse of an estuary with numerous rivers running into it. Its salinity depends on an increasingly irregular salt pulse coming through a narrow passage from the North Sea, without which the rains and melting snow would eventually turn the Baltic into a large fresh water basin. Thus the salinity varies significantly in different parts of the sea. The irregularities of the salt pulse together with the variations in rainfall bring unpredictable changes as the climate breakdown accelerates. How can the local ecosystems possibly adapt to all these fluctuations? And how to make sense of, or to make sensible, this diversity of flows?

The Baltic suffers from decades of nutrient overload from agriculture, industry and cities along the river networks that feed the sea. Toxic algae blooms are but one visible symptom of the myriad of ongoing changes. The Baltic Sea can be seen as an indicator of things to come, a transitional zone where both planetary and local environmental transformations have rapid observable impact. The Archipelago Research Institute of Turku University, on the island of Seili in the Archipelago sea, has for decades been gathering data on the changing salinity levels, among other factors. This time series allows for insight into how changing salt levels affect the size of herring and plankton populations.[3] We may, therefore, not only taste the salt in the water, but witness climate change on our plates.


Island of Seals and Souls

At the Institute in Seili, I spent a few days last spring with a group of artists looking through the microscope at local water samples.[4]  We were enraptured by the visions offered as nothing became something under our eyes. A myriad of microscopic creatures wriggled in the water. The body of water appeared to suddenly be made up of a range of bodies previously invisible to us. Neither solely a cocktail of varying levels of salt, minerals, chemicals and tiny micro plastics, nor simply a space for different life forms to inhabit. Rather, it turned thick with liveliness. Without warning, matters of life and death entered the lab, as we struggled to return the water samples back to the sea without spilling too many of the intangible beings on the way. Is there really anything so small as to be insignificant?

The daily routines of vertical movement of different plankton species are at the heart of the functioning ecosystems in the seas and the oceans. The largest synchronised movement of biomass on the planet, the plankton not only provide a stable diet for many species, but also keep nutrients in motion, while producing oxygen and sequestering carbon.[5] Their microscopic life is inseparably entangled with planetary processes. Chains of cause and effect begin to appear as porous relations—the micro and macro scales are interwoven in their functions and fates.

How do we relate to the scales usually imperceptible? How can we not only be attentive to the different scales, but gain some sense of their interrelations? How does one notice the magnitude of the impact of the minute? In order to make any sense of the climate breakdown, it is urgent to weave connections between the micro and macro perspectives, local specificities and planetary processes of transformations. This demands, in the words of Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, “a multiscalar method of telescoping between space (planet) and place (island) in a dialectic or “tidalectic” way to see how they mutually inform each other”.[6] When zooming closer to the islands, it is also necessary to reflect on the ways that the life that makes up water is interlaced with the life of the land.

Water carries with it ongoing natural and cultural histories of unintentional journeys and encounters, discoveries and invasions, unequal access and violent exploitation. Yet it also holds promise in a world that was never fixed in the first place. The tidal cycles are minute here, due to the relatively small volume of water in the Baltic, yet the shorelines are nevertheless in slow motion. The lands on the west and south coasts of Finland are rising, gradually, as they have done since the release of the weight of ice sheets at the end of the last Ice Age. Half a centimetre a year in the Archipelago Sea, half a meter in a century. Will the seas rise as fast due to the melting glaciers in the future and eventually catch up with the shifting shorelines here?

The land of the ever-changing islands, where life has been evolving since the ice gave way, has been ceaselessly traversed by humans and other beings. Small pockets of diverse ecosystems have formed here, yet always in contact with their neighbours and with far away shores. While islands form an archipelago, the archipelago informs each island. The island of Seili, its name referring originally both to seals and to souls, is a case in point here.[7] It may be approached as a microcosm of exclusion, enclosure and experiments with its history as a base for Western institutions, from a leprosy asylum and women’s mental hospital to a contemporary scientific research and nature conservation. Here, it is viscerally felt how an island is connected through myriad flows—ecological, social, cultural and symbolic. 


Fingery eyes

How does one arrive somewhere so rich in sediments of interconnected histories of landings? Upon arrival, “how to inherit the layers upon layers of living and dying that infuse every place and every corridor,” as Donna Haraway asks?[8] This calls for responsiveness to the rich inheritance of a place, so as to be able to adjust our practices in relation to it. All arrivals have impacts, more and less intentional, impossible to forecast in the complex ecosystemic changes already unfolding. As artists and researchers, we are no exception. The challenge is not solely how to bring into visibility the ongoing entanglements across different scales, but also how to be sensitive to that which haunts the borders of our vision and knowledge, like a tingling on the skin in an encounter.

Artist Saara Ekström has been filming butterflies and other insects on island meadows in Seili for her new work premiering at the Screen City Biennial 2019. The work captures in airy, flickering projections these little creatures living fast forwarded lives in terms of human time scale. The habitats they thrive in are particular ecosystems that farm cattle has been an integral part of for centuries. They are now actively restored by conservation efforts that have reintroduced summer grazing, no longer part of intensified agricultural practices today. The meadows are ancient living nature–culture entanglements. Meanwhile, the human trace may be only about one meter deep in the island soil, as recent archeo-biological excavations unveiled.

Ekström’s choice of medium, the film, brings with it a reference to the past, to documents of potentially already lost worlds. The work can be encountered, for example, through an intimate, passing moment of a projection onto the hands of the viewers. What does it mean to hold that world in your hand, in all its minute and massive miracles of life forms? Vision is no longer a matter of a detached gaze, of projection and capture, when you have it suddenly in your cupped palm. There is no longer a clear sense of distance, from the human scale and temporality to that of others, but a temporary collapse of distinctions. With no medium such as a microscope or a telescope present, only a flickering apparition on the skin blurring the contours of the viewer’s body. Viewing becomes intimate and multisensory, like touching with “fingery eyes”, in Haraway’s words.[9] Simultaneously the vision appears more like a spectre than a view or a vista. Close-up moves ever closer, approaching not the object viewed but rather the viewer. 

Scales blur and multiply as if seen through watery eyes. Micro and macro organisms fuse in and out of each other. Insects cannot be fully distinguished from their habitats, the flowers they perform their dances with, the webs woven in between plants. They are all part of the same ever-evolving composite, interdependent yet irreducible. There is no empty space of projection or detachment in between. 


Sound Waves

What can be measured, pictured or heard, only gives a glimpse into the complex ecosystem in transformation. Yet, like with the time series of the Archipelago Sea at the research institute, when put together the data allows for the myriad codependencies to begin to emerge. How to allow this data to become resonant, across the diverse watery bodies in all their porosity and potential, beyond what is visible and tangible as yet, here and now? Or, how to listen to the voice of those who have been given voice as representatives of the accelerating extinctions?

For his work with Band of Weeds, performing at the Screen City Biennial 2019, artist Kalle Hamm has been doing exactly that––listening to plants such as Field Cow-wheat (Melampyrum arvense), which flourishes in Finland only on these isles today, thanks to the conservation of the meadows. Band of Weeds centers its attention on the interiority of plant life, which is usually recognised only as a support structure for other life forms. In practice this means tuning to the sound of the plant’s fluid interconnections with the earth. With the help of microvolt sensors, the movement of liquids carrying minerals from the soil through the plant can be turned into a sound audible to the human ear. Can we thus hear the difference, in the voice of this single plant species, as its ecosystem mutates?

In its collaboration with plants, Band of Weeds has its ear to the ground. The composition of the soil, changing temperature and humidity, and numerous other factors affect the sound of the plant. The sound produced acts here as a multi-sensory channel for listening not only to what is, but to what may be coming, through the mediated wavering voice of beings living on the brink of extinction. Their precarious presence draws attention beyond the single species to an ecosystem it is redundant without. Field Cow-wheat allows insight into this codependent existence on the meadow that would no longer be without the efforts of repair. 

This hemiparasitic plant is dispersed by ants and used to prosper in cultivated wheat fields. It is assumed to have originally hitchhiked to these Northern shores together with rye seeds. Its story is but one of many migrations on these shifting shorelines, where both the land and sea water is on the rise today. New land and changing climatic conditions have always kept plants in motion here. Roots have never tied them down, yet some are more agile than others. Their pace of migration may not be able to keep up with the current acceleration of change.


Times of Repair

As the indigenous Sami artist and activist Pauliina Feodoroff argues in relation to her ongoing restoration work on an arctic river, it is necessary and urgent to tend to past damage in the present.[10] Preparations for the unknown future of the climate breakdown demand acts of reparation. But what do we choose to repair? And who is the “we” having a choice here over preservation and restoration, matters of life and death?

On the island of Seili the spectres of reason haunt the efforts to address the ecosystemic transformations witnessed. Its biopolitical history of institutions of containment and care demand attentiveness to our own means of engagement, the chosen methods of observation and listening. The island calls for humble acknowledgement of both our always partial views and our partiality in the unpredictable processes of change. The conservation of meadow ecosystems, for example, is based on current assessments of optimal biodiversity on these islands, but protected meadows also come with highly problematic colonial legacies in some parts of the world.[11] Whose epistemologies and experiences set the shifting baselines that determine what is worth repairing or protecting, and what may be sacrificed? 

These dilemmas call for us to slow down, empirically and imaginatively, even in the face of emergency.[12] Moreover, this slowing down has to problematise anthropocentric sense of temporality as well as linear futuristic notions of progressive time. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa writes about soil, we need to attune to and take time for “the relations between a diversity of coexisting temporalities that inhabit interdependent ecologies”.[13] This brings us to the art and science of noticing. Counting individual plants or ticks or plankton, one by one, time and again. Zooming into the precariously choreographed dance of a feather-light cloud of flowers and a robust beetle, or listening in on the intimate exchanges of a plant with the earth and the sky. Observations unravel as spirals of repetition and cycles of ceaseless change. This is an art of paying undivided attention to something minute until it appears both indistinguishable and indispensable within its ecosystem. 

The entwinement of different scales and temporalities serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of the universal, industrial dreams of scalability, which has its roots in colonial plantations.[14] As diversity is erased in the name of monocultural efficiency, the “entanglements, blocked and concealed in these simplifications return as virulent pathologies and spreading toxins”.[15] Salinity, minerals, bacteria, antibiotics, microplastics. Communities, communications, compassions, contagions, contaminations. 

The Baltic sea is more than one. It is composed of specialised ecosystems, where transformations reverberate across the food chain and beyond. Meanwhile, as part of planetary water circulation, the fresh water streams out of the Baltic bring nutrients to the fisheries up along the Norwegian coast, on its way towards the Barents Sea in the Arctic. The bodies of water are not the only ones in flux, but the changes are embodied by all the living creatures making up these very waters and their shores. Ebbs and flows are their––our––very mode of being. This codependence, across radically different scales, appears in itself neither as a pathology to be treated nor a haunting to be exorcised. Yet it calls for us today to reckon with it.

 October 2019



[1] Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan & Nils Bubandt, ”Introduction. Bodies Tumbled into Bodies”, in, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis & London: Minnesota University Press, 2017), p. M5.

[2] Site-specific new commission by Raqs Media Collective for Contemporary Art Archipelago exhibition, part of Turku 2011 Cultural Capital of Europe programme,

[3] This unique time series in the region has been collected already by generations of scientists from the 1960’s onwards. For published research, see e.g. Katja Mäkinen, Climate-induced Variability in Northern Baltic Sea Zooplankton (Turku: University of Turku, 2019).

[4] This was part of Spectres in Change project by CAA Contemporary Art Archipelago, which brings artists into dialogue with scientists at the Archipelago Research Institute.


[6] Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2019), p. 2.

[7] Själö, the Swedish name of the island.

[8] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 138.

[9] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 5.

[10] Pauliina Feodoroff, “Skäädsual-Skää´dsuâl – What is the Birth Story of This Age / What Form Can an Atonement Take”, unpublished lecture in Aboagora Symposium (Turku: Sibelius Museum, 23.8.2019). For more information,

[11] See e.g. Ingrid M. Parker, “Remembering in Our Amnesia, Seeing in Our Blindness”, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan & Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis & London: Minnesota University Press, 2017).

[12] See here especially Isabelle Stengers’s call for slow science: Isabelle Stengers, Another Science is Possible. A Manifesto for Slow Science (Cambridge: Polity, 2018). Further arguments for slowing down in scientific and art practices, see Tsing, Swanson, Gan & Bubandt, M8.

[13] Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, “Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care”, in Social Studies of Science, 45(5), (London: Sage, 2015), p. 19.

[14] See e.g. Ros Gray & Shela Sheikh, 2018. “The Wretched Earth. Botanical Conflicts and Artistic Interventions. Introduction”, in Third Text, no 151-152 (London: Taylor & Francis, 2018), pp. 163-175.

[15] Tsing, Swanson, Gan & Bubandt, p. M4.



TARU ELFVING is a curator and writer based in Helsinki. Her practice focuses on site-sensitive investigations at the intersections of ecological, feminist and decolonial thought. She is currently developing a multidisciplinary platform for artistic research with the Archipelago Sea Research Institute of Turku University. Her curatorial projects include Earth Rights (Kunsthalle Turku 2019), Politics of Paradise (Tallinn Art Hall 2019), Beyond Telepathy (Somerset House 2017), Hours, Years, Aeons (Finnish Pavilion, Venice 2015), Frontiers in Retreat (HIAP 2013-18), Contemporary Art Archipelago CAA (Turku 2011), and Towards a Future Present (LIAF 2008). She has co-edited publications such as Contemporary Artist Residencies. Reclaiming Time and Space (Valiz, 2019), and Altern Ecologies. Emergent Perspectives on the Ecological Threshold at the 55th Venice Biennale (Frame, 2016). With a PhD from Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths London (2009) she also supervises doctoral students at UniArts Helsinki.