What experimental lifeform will rise after the end of fossil modernity, from the ruins of civilization, the oil-black Nigredo of reverse enginereed alchemical process? How can we let go of nature as something fixed and give way to the multitude and utter strangeness of nonhuman life? Antti Salminen writes enigmatic works on post-fossil futures, experimental ways of life and the end of modern civilization.

In a quaint café in Tampere, at the old horse stables built by Russian nobleman Wilhelm von Nottbeck in the 19th century, Antti Salminen apologises for his voice being rendered so frail because of a cold, but the sentences captured on tape are perfectly clear and well-structured like the verse in his prose. Antti Salminen is known as a philosopher, writer and poet. His fiction novel ”Lomonosovin Moottori” (Poesia 2014) is without doubt one of the strangest and finest works of modern Finnish literature. Its hypnagogic world is at once poetic, beautiful and grotesque, its verse clear like the alchemists’s Lapis, even when it sticks its homunculian head out of horse manure. A fragmented mirror, reflecting the horror of a world falling apart and the beauty of a world that might be. The book is followed by ”Mir”, published in Finnish in February 2019 by Poesia, a book consisting of fragments of decomposed documents unveiling a cosmogony revolving around an eternal but almost unnoticeable war between plants and mushrooms.

In this interview from August 2017, when he was still writing his new book “Mir”, Antti Salminen discusses the end of civilization, post-fossil experimental lifeforms and reverse alchemy with Sudenmarja.

 

A live recording of Antti Salminen reading passages from ”Mir” with modular soundscapes by Ilpo Numminen at Maagillinen Teatteri free festival in September 2017 is out on Sudenmarja on cassette and digital download at sudenmarja.bandcamp.com or through Sudenmarja mailorder.

I understand you are writing a follow-up to your book ”Lomonosovin moottori” (”Lomonosov’s Motor”, only available in Finnish), is it true?

”Yes, it is. It might be better to speak of an indirect sequel or sister work or something like that, but it does amass upon ”Lomonosov’s Motor”, and they can be read together.”

 

Given that the structure of ”Lomonosov’s Motor” is quite peculiar, and the storyline or lack of it is so hard to grasp, how is the new book a sequel or sister work to it?

”What I am generally interested in narration, or what I am interested in doing with it, is that usually I abandon linear storylines, credible characters, traditional dramatic structures, actually all regular structures, the psychology of the characters and so on. But in a way this also permits building a very different world esthetically and poetically than the normal novel form. It allows building on different themes, developing them in different ways – writing in fragments is constellating or clustering, which makes it more agile than traditional form. Writing in that way, building and deconstructing the material, can be done in a very flexible manner. This so-called sequel is parallel to ”Lomonosov’s Motor” and also involves a certain community and place and mission. It’s sort of a war novel, but with a very heavy twist.”

 

In what way – is it more about actual war or rather some kind of metaphorical or spiritual war?

”It has to do with a war between plants and mushrooms that has been going on for millions of years. It is centered around a clandestine mushroom-minded group, a sort of terrorist clique, who have their headquarters in central Russia in a vast, abandoned open pit diamond mine called Mir, a place which actually exists. The book follows the so-called warfare and other activities carried out by this gang. There’s also a lot of history in it, starting from the cultural history of mushrooms and different meanings given to mushrooms over time. It became a very mushroom-centered book. That’s how it has become over the last three years.”

(This fragment has been added to the interview at a later stage)

A while ago I read ”The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben, and even though I don’t agree with a lot of his views, I think the most important notion in his book is that our perception of time as humans is very short-sighted compared to nature, for example trees, who can live for hundreds of years, a timeframe we humans are incapable to really understand. Anyway, in his book Wohlleben mentions a mushroom living in Oregon, USA, who is estimated to be 2,400 years old, and whose mycelium extends over an area of nine square kilometres. Mushrooms of course are very interesting in many ways, but why did mushrooms become so central for your book, and what kind of meanings are given to mushrooms or explored in the book?

”That mushroom in Oregon is also probably the single living creature with the most biomass on Earth, if it is regarded as a single organism. But exactly this”if” is important when discussing mushrooms. Still very little is known about them, and only a small fraction of mushrooms are known to science. Is a mycelium one being or many? Is it a being at all in the conventional meaning of the word? At the same time mushrooms are everywhere and hidden from sight, mostly underground. This leads us to the idea that life itself is not what it seems, and mushrooms could represent another life, an alternative regime. One where life on some fundamental level is not one but many. This kind of hypothesis actually exists, and it is possible that life on Earth has been born many times and has many parallel systems. As for what kind of meanings mushrooms are given in the book – you’ll read about it in time – many diverse and quite unpredictable meanings.”

In ”Lomonosov’s Motor” there also appear many different lifeforms, real or imaginary or manufactured, in centre stage or on the sidelines. The illustrations also remind me of ones found in old bestiaries.

”A certain theme of the ubiquity, diversity and weirdness of life is something that I have been working with for a long time. It’s also strongly connected to the current situation where at the same time there are strong questions about artifical life and the mixture of life with artificial life and the non-living – it is a strong thematic thread in the book. It has quite a grotesque and macabre taste to it, which it seems is something I just can’t shake off. It feels alive, and it gives way to an experimental thinking about life, an experimental natural philosophy, if we consider natural philosophy to be something like Presocratic philosophy or 17th century Hermetic philosophy. These are themes that I have carried with me for quite a long time.”

 

What could this experimental natural philosophy mean?

”One way to look at it would be to say that it is partially letting go of the idea that nature consists of distinct beings that are in some way fixed and organized into hierarchical structures. Of course, even evolution itself encourages us to think of nature as processes, but I think this can and should be accelerated, so that our understanding of nature would not be static, it would be harder to take hold of nature and hence harder to take advantage of it, to exploit it and so on. The unrelenting strangeness of nature – that in the end, we cannot know, and we should not know – this can be underlined by means of literature or art. It’s connected to propagating a wider understanding of nature, but I don’t want to do it in a directly political way, but rather develop it esthetically and imaginatively.

”Experimental natural philosophy can also be – alchemy, for example, is a tradition that I view as a close ally, one that is partly science, partly art and partly a spiritual practice, partly a craft and partly philosophy. When there are many of these different levels at work, and they coagulate up to a point where it becomes hard to tell them apart from one another, that’s when things become interesting, and we arrive at an area where meanings and experiences are formed in a somehow more stark and dense manner, and above all, they become more suprprising and alive.”

 

Actually, while I was reading ”Lomonosov’s Motor”, I was thinking that there is a lot of alchemical references in the book, and some passages, like the ones describing glass paintings, remind me of the same sense of mystery that is found in alchemical imagery. There is a definite feeling of strong meaning, but it is somehow so cryptic that it’s hard to get a hold of.

”Yes. In a way mystery and wonder act as two poles, and together their dialectic creates surprise – a philosophical or esthetic or some other kind of surprise. Traditionally one criterion for good art has been a sort of game based on whether the artist can surprise the person experiencing the work. And if it’s succesful, then the experience of the experiencing subject usually twitches somehow or is even transformed, but if it doesn’t happen – it rarely does, or maybe it happens some other way, being interpreted more rationally or slowly.

”Then there is also a certain difference between mysticism and occultism – mysticism is usually based on un-knowing and sort of recognising and admitting that the deepest foundation cannot be known, readily admitting it. But this unfounded foundation is still built on and charged with different things. Whereas many occult traditions are Gnostic in the sense that they are reaching for the highest knowledge possible. An occult, hidden knowledge, a sort of knowledge that no-one else possesses. This is how the difference between mysticism and occultism is drawn to me epistemologically. And it feels that – if you permit a certain eclecticism – it is permitted to take advantage of and explore both.”

 

Alchemy is usually about different, often dualistically divided things or their different aspects becoming one and purification through complex processes – when you are writing, are you also aiming for some kind of purification or distillation in the work?

”It works two ways. On the one hand, yes – purification or the purifying aspect of the work has much to do with the level of language, and the fact that I need to write a lot before I am satisfied with the sentences. It is rendering a sort of service to language, the experience of language.

”That is a form of purification, but then there is also a coagulation or a downward movement, which has to do with nightside materialities, and a descending movement towards them. Here we are also talking about experience and the experience of writing. I shun upon certain strands of mysticism and occultism that are only concerned with the purifying aspect, because aspirations of purity come close to the dangers of totalising and dogmatic forms of authority. A continuous testing, why not even a private–public struggle, carried out on the level of language and experience – in my opinion it needs both purifying and coagulating movement.

“In one article, I have even suggested that the alchemical movement, which aims for example to create the Lapis, the Philosopher’s stone, can be in some way turned around, the area of perfect mind and pure spiritual experience can be reverse engineered, and it is possible to explore backwards how to arrive to it. Then of course at the end we arrive at the level of Prima Materia, where the alchemical work begins, which is the phase of Nigredo, the nocturnal, dangerous phase connected to depression and difficult crossings, the first phase of the work. And it feels that being there and residing there is also very important, that especially in the current state of the world it should not be bypassed too quickly. It is very important to keep the mind in Hell without falling into desperation, so that we can avoid all kinds of crystal hippie things.”

(This fragment has been added to the interview at a later stage)

In some way alchemy – or maybe even most of mysticism and occultism – is also very anthropocentric, even though it starts out with natural elements and the alchemical Prima Materia is something that is found in everything in nature, in the end it is the human and the human spirit – or the divine spirit with the human as an intermediary – that carries out these processes of alchemical purification and transmutation. Maybe in this reverse alchemical process there could also be seen some sort of a return to a natural state, moving away from an anthropocentric world? After all this backward process is also about returning to primordial chaos, which is where everything is born, isn’t it?

”There is no going back to beginning, because the beginning draws near, or maybe rather is flung towards the invisible, always from the future, which makes it at the same time tragic and salvaging. So, I am not in favour of the idea of return, it is nostalgic and an error of thought. And chaos – in some way, yes, but chaos for one means order for another, especially if we are thinking at the border of the human perspective and reaching over it. Also, the natural state must always be found again, found otherwise, at the same time from ”inside” the human and as a gift from the nonhuman, should it happen to offer it. To put it simply, we are headed away from the anthropocentric whether we like it or not, and if not, then so-called civilization hasn’t got much of a future.”

You have mentioned experience here quite often, what is the experience you wish to offer to the reader with your books, if we are talking about your fiction works?

”I cannot take responsibility or aim intentionally to one specific experience which I would try to offer. It would be underestimating the reader, holding them by the hand, saying: ”Now I will lead you to this experience with this work”. It’s more about wanting the readers to be able to take something of the works with them, something that would be invigorating, something that might create the feeling that there are still areas to experiencing the world left uncharted, which produce a certain kind of experiential openness, sensitivity, why not compassion and love, but in a way that treads a more difficult path, requiring work.

”But that it would be intended to change the reader somehow – maybe it can happen, but the possible changes would surely be so strange that it’s not possible to take any ethical responsibility for them. Literature is non-ethical. Good literature is non-ethical – or it is pre-ethical or post-ethical. When literature or art becomes an intermediary for some moral message, it has given up it’s proper power and given itself for very cheap.”

 

I picked up this phrase you wrote or said somewhere about the interlacing of experimental art and experimental life: ”There is as little certainty of success as there is knowledge of the future: none.” I was thinking, could the whole book ”Lomonosov’s Motor” be read as an allegory for building some new experimental way of life, because in the book the Motor is also an experimental project, the purpose of which no-one seems to know or whose function no-one seems to understand?

”Yes, it can be read exactly like this. Uncertainty, enduring uncertainty, and even learning to live in this uncertainty, to be and think in it, is what I see is required. It is also in part a political demand. In a situation where we are struggling with problems and questions on a civilizational level there are many temptations to make art and theory which nail only one nail and trust that whole world can be hung from it. That is a great danger. Committing to uncertainty, doubt, openness, to multitude with some reservations, these are values which I am pursuing behind these projects. Maybe not contrary, but alien to them is this very straight-forward solution-centeredness or the primarity of solutions. In the modern times we are in a situation where it is exactly the solutions which have pulled us into this quagmire. It’s maybe not slowness, but some kind of philosophical crabwalk and the like, which is not done enough. The extent of the problematic is still largely uncharted and what people’s will and aspirations are usually directed at are single questions, and usually quite simple ones. In the past three or four years, I have been going all the time in a direction where work reflecting the civilizational level is primary, because any lighter approach wouldn’t do much good.”

(In the background the waitress is bringing orders to the table next to ours. ”And wine!”)

”It is not only a societal or a cultural question, but a question of civilization, of civilizations, the conditions of their continuing or not continuing.”

 

Do you also see experimentality as a sort of survival strategy in this uncertain world or the possibly coming post-civilizational or post-fossil world, which many of your works are concerned with?

”It can be a survival strategy, that is one way of looking at it. At it’s best it could be – because experimentality can be practiced in many ways. It’s not a doctrine, but more like a skill. This is something I have tried to emphasize, because we need to start letting go on many levels, and letting go, the processes of letting go are difficult. People don’t want to give up their comfort or feeling of safety very easily. They run very deep and prevent many kinds of changes. Thinking of experimentality and the theory of experimentality can work as a sort of repair kit.

”On the other hand, I shun upon a sort of survivalist spirit, because it is very often survivalism of young, healthy, masculine men, and it’s not a culture. Survival is a transitional stage and usually it should rather be relatively short. What is needed, even wanted, are entire formations of culture that would be adequate to replace for example fossil modernity, which must fall, and most likely will in one way or another succeed in doing it by itself. But one can help it out shooting itself in the leg in whichever way one can.

”So, survival and managing is one aspect, and another aspect could be therapeutic and healing, and the third would be that there would be thought which would make possible for, well, let’s say post-fossil, post-capitalist, post-sustainable, post-anthropocentric culture to be born. And of course, it is being born, it has been born in many places, in manifold ways. But that it would gather strength and foundation is what is needed here.”

(This fragment has been added to the interview at a later stage)

In some way survivalism is also turning your back to the world and curling up in your own small community. Often it seems also to be connected to some kind of return to some ancient form of religion or spirituality as well. It feels that in the end survivalism is more about an attempt to return to the past rather than to create something truly new. My own works have also often been in some way anti-modern or about rejecting the modern world, but I’ve started to think that by going backwards you can only get to a certain point. If you want to create something new and enduring, you must look forward, at least in some way. For example bringing some ancient rituals back to life can remain only a performance, if they don’t find a place or create meaning in peoples lives. In your book ”Kokeellisuudesta – historiallisesta avantgardesta jälkifossiiliseen elämään” (”Experimentality – From Historic Avant-Garde to Post-Fossil Life”, only available in Finnish), you write about experimental life, art, self-sufficiency and hospitality. What could these self-sufficient cultural formations be that would replace the tumbling fossil way of life, and what role does art play in creating them?

”Aiming for the new is not a value in itself, as new toys can be bought from the shop. Maybe on this level of asking we shouldn’t even aim for what is good – what I mean is that the answer does not lie primarily in the domain of ethics. It’s always suspicious when people try to tell each other how to become better people. The answer would require a series of books, a few revolutions and some generations. But let’s admit that I largely live to think and test this. The only obvious thing is, that if in these cultural formations you don’t dance and go to the sauna, you can count me out.”

In ”Lomonosov’s Motor” there is a lot of the thematic of death and awakening and being born, for example in how the Motor is built out of, not necessarily parts of the dead but at least of human parts, and the Motor in some way awakens and something is born – what do you believe will be born after civilization or in the post-fossil era, or what would you like to see being born?

”I hope that many things will be born. That is probably most important. The most horrible thing would be if only one thing was born. That is in some way the premise. One central aspect is that the area of human would be understood anew, that the borders of the human and nonhuman would be renegotiated. That would be one goal on a higher level. And these negotiations, it is very important that they happen locally and not universally, in a way where we would have only one world government in power that with some dogmas would lead all areas, all people and all nonhuman actors into one and the same.

”And why it should be like this – what drives me forward and carries me in some way is the multitude of life, it’s unchainedness, it’s strangeness, it’s uncontrollability – because I feel that these things could also provide a more meaningful life for people if one can find contact with these experiences. And then different questions regarding the nonhuman would arise, they must arise to the center, but what it means exactly, that is very much unknown, and in this moment it feels sometimes that we couldn’t be further from these questions arising. But where the danger grows, also grows the saving power.”

Pauli Samuli Huttunen

Writer and Visual Artist at Sudenmarja.
To bring to light the hidden things of darkness.

Ilpo Numminen & Antti Salminen:
Maagillinen Teatteri live 1.9.2017

Sudenmarja 003
Released May 18, 2018

Writer and philosopher Antti Salminen reads fragments of texts from his forthcoming book “Mir” over post-apocalyptic modular soundscapes by experimental musician Ilpo Numminen of Pai Tapes and Vuosi collective. This unique live performance was recorded at the last act of the Maagillinen Teatteri free festival in Tampere, Finland, September 1 2017.

Available formats:

Ilpo Numminen & Antti Salminen:
Maagillinen Teatteri live 1.9.2017
Blue or Green C40 Ferro Cassette Tape

Metallic Blue or Green C40 Ferro Cassette housed in recycled cardboard slipcase with printed 10 x 18 cm paper insert. Blue Cassette edition of 60 copies, Green Cassette edition of 27 copies. The first 27 cassette orders will include an extra 6 x 9 cm print of the cover art on photographic paper regardless of cassette colour.

6 €
(Green Tape sold out)

Ilpo Numminen & Antti Salminen:
Maagillinen Teatteri live 1.9.2017
Download + Print in Vintage Envelope

Folded two-sided 10 x 18 cm paper insert with a live photo on one side and fragments of the texts on the other side and a 6 x 9 cm print of the cover art on photographic paper. Includes digital download. Sent in vintage envelope. Edition of 40 copies. (Please note! The 10 x 18 cm print is the same as the insert included with the cassette.)

4 €