Ayatana’s Biophilium is a biology school for artists, but what exactly is their Mortem program? During this two-week (now) online residency, death-curious artists are encouraged to explore and develop their perspectives on death.
We sat down with Alexis Williams, Director of the Ayatana’s Biophilium, to learn more about the origins of Mortem, what the program entails, and how artists can apply.
This Artist Residency is Focusing its Lens on Death
How did Mortem begin?
As with many great ideas, Mortem emerged from the fringes. In this case, “nerdy artists” who wanted to research unusual things in the natural world. Alexis told us that “the idea was to give artists an opportunity to really geek out about things that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to on their own.” Early incarnations included teaching people how to pilot airplanes and explore abandoned buildings, but soon evolved to visiting laboratories and museums to develop bioart.
So how did the focus transition from biology to death? For artists, in particular, it’s a pretty natural evolution. Alexis observes that almost every artist that appreciates the natural world has some interest in death, but they don’t necessarily know how to talk about it or express it. Artists might produce work about death without being aware of like-minded artists, which can be an isolating experience.
“We started hosting this program that was just for artists who make work about death to come and learn about what other people who do work about death–who are not artists–how they live their lives.” This meant meeting with death industry professionals from morticians and casket builders to gravestone historians. During in-person residencies artists would attend tours and demonstrations.
Despite Alexis’ misgivings about creating a space for the death-curious, and her own lack of authority to speak about death, none of her worries were realized. Her conversations with death professionals and artists alike helped her understand that “everyone has the authority to talk about death. It’s in everyone’s lives…once you lift the taboo, there was just so much that needed to be said.”
What does the Mortem program entail?
During previous (in-person) iterations of Mortem, artists would gather for a week-long program in Canada where they would embark on 10 different field trips over five days. The day-trips took them from the funeral parlor to the cemetery and the museum, and put artists in conversation with funeral directors, academics, and death doulas who shared their expertise. Although there is no dedicated creation time, “creative things would happen spontaneously,” Alexis explained.
In the COVID-era virtual space, artists come together for two weeks, approximately two hours each day. Every day they meet with a different expert in the field of death care and hear from a fellow artist. The presentations include slideshows, demonstrations, or interviews. Beyond the formal programming, artists are encouraged to have virtual studio visits with each other to discuss their work.
What are the outcomes of Mortem for artists?
Mortem is a research program rather than a production residency. Artists spend time learning and sharing, but there are no dedicated studio spaces or expectations to create. Nevertheless, artists take away many lessons and inspiration. Alexis observes that the program has “really empowered people to go and do things publicly in the community. We have had a couple of artists who have gone on to host Death Cafes and to have exhibitions with other artists who are showing work about death. One of our artists went on to teach a course at university on death and photography.”
Sonia Bazar, artist and former Mortem resident, shares that “The Mortem Residency informed and grounded my understanding of death through seminars and conversations with professionals from green burial to specialists in mass extinctions, artists who photograph dead albatross to death doulas. It radically changed the way I thought about death. More importantly though, it changed my understanding of grief and grieving.”
In addition to new projects and understandings, artists often invent rituals. “A lot of artists who come to us are people who are inventing ritual. Maybe ritual objects, but often things to do in the community to either mourn together or to memorialize something or to lament together.” Former resident Mia Star van Leeuwen is a founding member of The Happy Phantoms Collective, a group of artists that explore the themes of death through ritual, performance, photography, and video art.
Beyond these tangible projects, artists often describe feeling more comfortable situating themselves and their art in relation to death. “I think people go away feeling encouraged and feeling safe. So that they can go and do these things. And they go away realizing that this is something people really want to talk about, so I don’t have to be quiet about it.”
Toni Ardizzone attended Ayatana in 2019 and describes her work as driven by the idea of death within life. Her tactile paintings play on the human body, skeletal structures, and emotion. Fellow resident Katrina Vera Wong creates Frankenflora, imagined hybrids of dried flowers. This practice became more dear as a way of connecting with her recently-deceased father.
How can artists apply?
All varieties of practicing artists–visual, written, music, dance, performance–are welcome to apply and six will be accepted. The application must include an artist CV, artist statement, online form, and a portfolio of 5 to 10 examples of work. The materials must be submitted via email by April 16, 2022. The fee for the two-week program is $575 USD and it begins on November 7, 2022. Visit their website for details.
Can non-artists participate?
The Biophilium has begun offering online seminars to the general public on topics of wildlife, nature, bioart, and death rituals. Everyone is invited to attend the Death Rituals seminar on March 23 as part of the Wild Wednesdays Webinars at the Biophilium.
Artists have a way of expressing themselves in ways that resonate with so many. We hope to see the Mortem program flourish and others to join in to promote conversation and exploration of death. As Alexis rightly sums up, “It helps people find the words to talk about it.”