Souad Mani — The Esthetics of Consciousness

Written by Meriam Gaied. Published on 18 September 2022.

When young Souad Mani took a trip to Gafsa, a governorate in south-west Tunisia, she was fascinated by the Roman ruins; more precisely, the ancient Roman pools. These pools had running water and were a prime source of attraction to the citizens and visitors. However, in 2010, Souad came back as a professor of arts, only to discover a dried-out cavity with neither water nor life. Souad was intrigued, concerned, and curious to investigate the alterations of the landscape of Gafsa.

To understand the transformation that has occurred, she went on asking the locals whenever she went out for a stroll after classes. According to some, the disappearance of water in the pools was following Ben Ali’s politics. Others attributed it to the drought that the region has been experiencing. Finally, some claimed that the Chemical Group of Gafsa and the Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG) were responsible for using up all the available resources in the production process. Gafsa is, from a historical and geological point of reference, one of the oldest traces of humanity and it was interesting for Souad to study and examine the changes occurring in this specific region of the country. She started her process in the region surrounding the Gafsa mines where CPG was established in 1897 under the protection of the French colonization of Tunisia.

As a response, Souad started observing and examining the different changes in the scenery. The dried-out pools were just the beginning of a series of changes that had been occurring in the region over the course of time. Not only did she set on a journey to unravel the mystery of what Gafsa has undergone, but she aspired to bring water back to the pools, or at least the sound of it through an in-situ intervention. The artist covertly entered the phosphate production site in Redeyef, Gafsa one night and secretly recorded with a camera and sensors to measure different parameters such as the temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels. Thus was the realization of her video project ‘Of Myths and Things’ that was displayed at GABES CINEMA FEN FESTIVAL and at GIRLS IN FILM PRAGUE. ‘Of Myths and Things’ is actually part of a series of projects titled ‘Impressions Embarquées’ (en: Embedded Impressions) through which the artist works on different layers of the region while recording and analyzing data. The sensors used were developed within the project ‘Under the Sand’, which is an art residency and a collective exhibition. There, the artist, who was also the artistic director of the project, explored the region through the data collected by the sensors in an attempt to understand the ecological, political, and historical aspects of the territory.

Images: Souad Mani.

Souad Mani’s Experience in Gafsa was the beginning of a journey about consciousness and ecological realizations that will go on to inspire and influence the projects and practices that followed. The ecological changes in Gafsa were just one example of the issues constantly affected by the colonization of the environment by industries and human activities. According to the artist, Gafsa was colonized twice: the first being the French colonization that continues to be present in different forms long after the independence of Tunisia. And the second is the colonization, by the phosphate industry, of the habitat in the mining region in Redeyef, Metlaoui, and Moulares. By habitat here, we are referring to the ecosystem where humans and non-humans have settled to live and thrive. The artist’s focus in her practice is to highlight and pinpoint how humans are altering their habitat with their careless activities. She also seeks to somehow nudge the responsible parties to acknowledge the consequences of their actions on the ecology and the habitat.

Images: Souad Mani.

Souad’s practice in Gafsa inspired her ongoing project ‘Strates de l’Incertitude’ (en: strata of uncertainty) in Martigue (fr), where she adopted the same protocol as in Gafsa. She used sensors and nocturnal filming to measure the carbon footprint of two factories, one being abandoned for quite a while and the other being in full activity. The name of the project is inspired by the uncertainty of the times we live in, especially within the context of the pandemic. The Strata refers to the elements Souad worked on in her projects and includes the underground, the ground or soil, and the air otherwise known as the critical zone.

’Strates de l’Incertitude’ is the fruit of politically engaged artistic research. Souad takes up the methods of scientists in harvesting the data in-situ, but then paints with graphs and scales of an extremely poetic and pictorial value. She looks to express impressions of uncertainty in an impressionist-like manner. Her practice is heavily influenced by pictorialism which is a very recurrent approach in her photography. For ‘Strates de l’Incertitude’, she decided to substitute the brush with sensors and pigments with data, steering away from what she was formally taught in art school.

What has really piqued my interest in Souad’s practice was the subtle emotions brought to the viewer in unconventional ways. As a student in Networks and Telecommunications engineering, part of my work is to study the transmission of data and distribution of energy. I am used to reading graphs and interpreting data visualizations almost all the time and believe me, it is as tedious a task as can be. However, Souad Mani makes it simple and aesthetically appealing. She brings a kind of elegance to the data that she shares. It is nothing complicated per se, but she uses compositions and layering in her visualizations that create strata-like superpositions, creating a subjective game of mind elasticity.

Images: Souad Mani.

In many of her works, the artist handles meteorological data, visualizing parameters from temperature and humidity to carbon dioxide footprint. In addition to an already complex artistic practice, she manages to up the game by involving poetics. The choice of sites is elaborate, arising from a necessity of creation. Her work in Sidi Bou Said (tn), where she chose to record the temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure to be transformed into visualizations, at dusk, is a great example of how intricate her settings are. She brings a new aesthetic to the data visualization framework that differentiate it from the scientific method and research processes.

Images: Souad Mani.

Much like in her photographs, she transforms data into poetry to formulate her thoughts and impressions. The data and graphs she shares with her audience, whom she likes to refer to as observers, would appeal to the ‘pathos’ as well as the ‘logos’. She takes the scientific discourse and adds to it to make it more accessible. She chooses to reflect on life from a poetical stance where the dynamics are less constrained and more humane. In fact, she defines a certain state of consciousness where one thrives through poetics. This goes along the lines of what Heidegger states, that the only authentic way to dwell or sojourn on this earth is to dwell poetically.

For Souad, poetics is at the center of what she describes as the aesthetics of consciousness. She speaks about a context where we are deliberately conscious of our politicized surroundings, where we should refuse to give in to today’s normalized systems and where we should create our own path in life. According to the artist, it is “an ensemble of actions that mix between life and art.” It is also “to transmit, to awaken, to economize, to recycle, to repair, and to create humane relationships when making art. Those are the actions that have an aesthetic echo. Making sure to transmit the ethics of sharing and to include the artistic and poetic creations, the environmental consciousness, and education.” Souad continues, “it is a state of being, choices to make before creating or during the process of creation. It is an attitude or even a work ethic.”

By work ethic, Souad is not referring to the visibility or the abundance of work produced, but to a solid link between the senses and the relationships developed with every piece of work. This esthetic of consciousness is fairly invisible. She explains, “It is indistinguishable just like relational aesthetics which is a conceptual process guided by the need to make work as well as by what the Russian painter Kandinsky calls ‘the inner necessity’ in order to give meaning to the work.” By ‘inner necessity’, Kandinsky referred to a means for the artist to convey universal human values and ideas.

While the esthetic of consciousness is present in Souad’s body of works, it does not fully define it. It is part of a multitude of approaches that co-exist with different intensities, varying from one project to another. She comments that, over the course of time, she learned how to take a step back, rethink the footprint she leaves behind, and listen to the environment she lives in. It is in fact this mindset that brings her to consider the aesthetic of consciousness as a state of awareness of her surroundings. This includes senses, thoughts, actions, or anything that constitutes the sensorial sphere we live in, be it sounds, noises, light, and natural or political events.

Souad is currently in an introspective phase, concentrating on herself and her relationship with the present time. She drew her attention back to the earth in order to listen and understand its complexity. Understanding this complexity brings her closer to the essential and infuses spirituality into her art.

In this sense, the artist invites us, through her artworks, to observe our surroundings and to research more. Being an active rather than a passive viewer is important to understand the meaning behind the artistic research and practice of Souad Mani. Through her artworks and projects, she urges us to question our lifestyle. To reduce our impact on the environment, we need to pause, change our perspective, get closer to the earth, and listen to its movement and needs. Maybe, this way, we can achieve harmony with our habitat, and enter this stream of consciousness that is, indeed, what she calls the “esthetic of consciousness”.