BA Fine Art, The Cass, London Metropolitan University final-year student Preeti Shannon Tak speaks to India Nielsen.

“I am fascinated by the genetic make-up of everything”

London artist Preeti Shannon Tak is in her final year of BA Fine Art at The Cass, London Metropolitan University. Her large-scale, participatory installations use imaginative role-play to encourage greater empathy and connection with ecological systems.

Drawing on her studies into the global biodiversity of sharks and tropical coastline ecosystems, Preeti hopes that this ecological understanding will lead to increased personal and environmental responsibility.

You studied Shark Global Biodiversity at Cornell University in 2017, and Tropical Coastal Ecosystems at The University of Queensland in 2019. What prompted you to follow this line of research and how does this inform your own artistic practice?

My work is very driven by research. I take any chance I get to learn new things so that I can become confident exploring these topics. I was bored one summer – I had just achieved my scuba diver certification and was wondering where else that could take me. I have a passion for the natural world and its creatures throughout history, including sharks,  so I decided to study them. I didn’t realise this would lead to more science/research-based learning.

When I started my Fine Art degree I realised that I can incorporate science and nature into my own works. Scientific data can be really hard to understand – visualising it can make it much easier to digest. I feel as if this is very important in this time of the Anthropocene. An understanding of the importance of ecology is growing amongst the public, not just scientists and critical thinkers. My artwork aims to speak of that which scientists cannot.

Why did you choose art as a medium to explore these ideas as opposed to a scientific field? Do you feel that you are speaking more to an art audience, and if so, how? 

I’ve always said that if I wasn’t an artist I would be a scientist. But why can’t I be both? The tutors at The Cass school of art helped me realise that it’s OK to combine my passions. I make my work for a diverse audience: inclusivity is important to me. I believe artworks like mine should have a voice and many people should be able to hear and see it as we’re all in the same world, battling the same ecological problems.

Is there also a personal, emotional element to your work or do you see yourself as, like a scientist, accumulating and visualising data?
A bit of both. As a human in a modern capitalist society I feel very responsible for the state of the Earth. I often spiral into an existential crisis about the environmental situation, while remaining hopeful for a sustainable future. These emotions can’t help but permeate my work. In the process of making, I often feel like a researcher. I must draw, photograph and observe ideas in order to understand them in every way possible.

Your work often takes the form of installations which often encourage the audience to participate. Which of these do you feel has been the most ‘successful’ so far and why?

My most successful installation was Future Fossil (2019), a large dirt mound in the middle of the studio, created with layers of sand and clay slip of differing densities. Within each layer was a different type of waste: the layers represented the time each type of rubbish would take to biodegrade – if at all. This was mixed with a couple of real fossil finds. Around this mound were gloves, goggles, masks and tools for excavation; the audience was asked to become the fossil finder. Whatever they found they could keep, but to their dismay, this would mostly be the rubbish we are leaving around today. So many people got involved that the mound looked unrecognisable. It was great! I’d say this was successful because there were many participants who needed very little prompt to get involved. I had a lot people come up to me that night to tell me what a wake-up call it was as they realised that today’s waste could be tomorrow’s fossils.

Which figures have influenced your thinking and practice, and how?

I am fascinated by the genetic make-up of everything and how animals, humans and non-humans have evolved throughout Earth’s history. I am very aware of my existence and what marks I will leave behind, organically or inorganically. This influences my practice a lot as I try to make works that can be repurposed. More specifically, I admire ecological researchers like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough as well as artist Mark Dion’s science-inspired archival and installation works. I’m currently reading publications from conservation biologists such as George Church, Stanley Temple and Stuart Brand, all of whom are making me question the idea of de-extinction and rewilding in conservation.

What are your plans for the degree show?

I am planning to make a walk-through biosphere that mimics the biome of a rainforest. Everything will be controlled to the point where it can sustain itself for a period of time, including temperature and humidity. Real plants would be used as it would act as breathing space. As we have very poor air quality in London, in the future we may need designated spaces to breathe to get a hit of fresh air. Conceptually it will be very dystopian, but not visually. The materials used for this project will be reclaimed and recyclable.

How has the coronavirus shutdown affected your practice? Have you found that your research into relational systems is allowing its impact to be a source of inspiration in any way?

My work is mainly installation and as I am working from home and without access to workshops, I am unable to create this project to the scale I want. I can’t say this pandemic is a source of inspiration for me. However, it does highlight how connected we are as a species and I’ve seen the benefits of this virus on the natural world. Wildlife has returned to places where humans have been quarantined and air quality has improved in high-density areas. Perhaps this will teach us the importance of ecological balance and sharing our lives with nature as we reassess our own position in it?

Preeti Shannon Tak on Instagram

Interview by India Nielsen, one of eight a-n members on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20

1. Preeti Shannon Tak, Future Fossil, installation view, 2019.
2,3. Preeti Shannon Tak, Modern Fossils, 2019.