Tekla Alexieva is known for her covers of science fiction books (the series „Galaktika“ of Georgi Bakalov Publishing House) and environmental themes (the series “Eco” of Zemizdat Publishing House) from the 1980s, which now have an almost cult status. Today Tekla continues to paint and exhibit, but her latest experiments with digital imagery are virtually unknown to the public. A logical extension of the “technology” of illustration, with new techniques and without reference to specific texts, Tekla Alexieva’s digital images seem to offer a contemporary commentary on the array of subjects she has worked with as an illustrator for more than a decade over the past century. The earth as simultaneously geological, ecological and mythological; progress as the flight of the spirit to new worlds, but also as a mutation of the human – Tekla Alexieva’s images entangle the instincts of ancient knowledge with a now archaic belief in technology. Here we present a small selection of her (mainly digital) work, along with short extracts from texts that I believe Tekla’s work might illustrate in an imaginary series “Eco” or “Galaktika” of today.

Художничката Текла Алексиева е позната с култовите си корици на книги на научна фантастика (Библиотека „Галактика“) и екологични теми (Библиотека „Еко“) от 80-те години на 20 век. Днес Текла продължава да рисува и да прави изложби, но експериментите й с дигитални образи са почти непознати на публиката. Логично продължение на „технологията“ на илюстрацията, но с нови техники и без задължително конкретна история, дигиталните изображения на Текла Алексиева сякаш предлагат съвременен коментар на спектъра от теми, с които като илюстратор работи повече от едно десетилетие през миналия век. Земята като едновременно геологична, екологична и митологична материя; прогресът като полет на духа към други светове, но и като мутация на човешкото – образите на Текла Алексиева заплитат инстинкта на древното познание с една вече архаична вяра в техниката. Тук представяме малка селекция от нейни (основно дигитални) произведения, заедно с кратки извадки от– текстове, които смятам загатват част от идеите, които произведенията на Текла биха могли да илюстрират днес в една нова, въображаема библиотека „Еко“ или „Галактика“ на XXI век.

Tekla Aleksieva, The Day of the Triffids. Mixed technique on paper

“AT an Indigenous gathering in Brazil in 2010, I was told that there are three ways of imagining society: individualism, collectivism, and metabolism.1 It took me several years to wrap my ahead around what metabolism meant in that comparative frame. The best definition I can offer, with the language I have—and this is my own interpretation—is to say that metabolism evokes nested systems and entities that operate in rhythms and cycles and that are constantly exchanging and processing energy and matter. In the language of modernity,
seeing the planet as a metabolism can only be used as a metaphor that gestures toward something that is living, that contains us, and that has a much longer temporality than humanity. The metaphor of metabolism is an invitation to seeing everyone and everything (human, nonhuman, seen, unseen, known, unknown, and unknowable) as nested living entities engaged in nonlinear movement, in nonlinear time.

Some people now talk about a “metabolic turn” in the sciences, where a mechanistic view of human and nonhuman bodies is being slowly replaced by a more organic and dynamic image of entangled shape-shifting matter. How- ever, unlike the scientists that are now paying more attention to metabolic processes, the way I use the word metabolism here is not representing some- thing that humans (who are a small part of a greater metabolic entity) can fathom. In this sense, metabolism has its own bio-metaphysical intelligence, authority, and autonomy that are integrated with, but much larger than human intelligence, authority, and autonomy.

However, for many Indigenous people, the reality of metabolism (whether they use this word for it) is not a concept or a metaphor—it is a “thing thing- ing” and we are part of it. Through the sensibility of separability that has been imposed by modernity, it is still very difficult to fathom what relating to the world as a metabolism beyond concepts and metaphor feels, tastes, and looks like. We have lost the metabolic literacies necessary to notice and sense how we are entangled with everything else. Modernity has vigorously attempted to eliminate these literacies and it actively selects against them: people who choose to hold on to these ancestral literacies tend to disidentify with (or reject) the metropolitan consumerist individualism that is necessary for social mobility. Thus, these literacies are exiled from the house of modernity.

Tekla Aleksieva, Hades. Digital artwork

… Metabolic literacies are about intake, process, integration, and output in nested layers. I can also say that this language is extremely limited and mechanistic. There is much it cannot express in relation to our metabolic reality, in the same way that there is a great deal we cannot even see or imagine because of the patterns of sensing, relating, and desiring that we have inherited from modernity. As a starting point, let us imagine four juxtaposed layers of metabolism: me (my individual temporal body, which is also a nested system for other entities), me and you (the many social bodies both human and nonhuman we inhabit), me in you (the planetary body, where we are all “in,” which is a larger entity with a much longer temporality), and us in neither me nor you—which refers to our existence beyond time, form, and space.

One of the most difficult things to explain about Quechua and other Indigenous worldviews is the fact that the ancestors are also an active part of the metabolic reality. Just as tangible as the plants that grow in the fields, the ancestors who have gone before and are yet to come are integral to the ecology. Ancestors belong in the layer of existence beyond time, form, and space; therefore those who have come before and those yet to come are part of the same ethereal matter (whether one believes in reincarnation or not).

Ancestors are also special because they can intervene across metabolic layers and negotiate on our behalf. These negotiations can include anything from how diseases are healed, the amount of rain that will secure the crops, and the good fortune of businesses, to the trajectory of our livelihoods. This is one of the reasons why it is important that education in this life also prepares us to become good ancestors on the other side, and for ourselves in the next life. The ancestors need to be “fed” and therefore offerings are necessary. The importance placed on the ancestors can be observed very clearly when catastrophes happen—people will use the scarce resources they have to make the offerings even if it means going without food or other necessities. In this worldview, misfortunes are caused by blockages in the flows of reciprocity of the metabolism and if this is not rectified right away more misfortune of one type or another will follow.”

From Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, 2021.

Tekla Aleksieva, Solaris, Mixed technique on paper

“WHETHER one calls slime molds, fungi, and plants “intelligent” depends on one’s point of view. Classical scientific definitions of intelligence use humans as a yardstick by which all other species are measured. According to these anthropocentric definitions, humans are always at the top of the intelligence rankings, followed by animals that look like us (chimpanzees, bonobos, etc.), followed again by other “higher” animals, and onward and downward in a league table—a great chain of intelligence drawn up by the ancient Greeks, which persists one way or another to this day. Because these organisms don’t look like us or outwardly behave like us—or have brains—they have traditionally been allocated a position somewhere at the bottom of the scale. Too often, they are thought of as the inert backdrop to animal life. Yet many are capable of sophisticated behaviors that prompt us to think in new ways about what it means for organisms to “solve problems,” “communicate,” “make decisions,” “learn,” and “remember.” As we do so, some of the vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought start to soften. As they soften, our ruinous attitudes toward the more-than- human world may start to change.

… For humans, identifying where one individual stops and another starts is not generally something we think about. It is usually taken for granted— within modern industrial societies, at least—that we start where our bodies begin and stop where our bodies end. Developments in modern medicine, such as organ transplants, worry these distinctions; developments in the microbial sciences shake them at their foundations. We are ecosystems, composed of—and decomposed by—an ecology of microbes, the significance of which is only now coming to light. The forty-odd trillion microbes that live in and on our bodies allow us to digest food and produce key minerals that nourish us. Like the fungi that live within plants, they protect us from disease. They guide the development of our bodies and immune systems and influence our behavior. If not kept in check, they can cause illnesses and even kill us. We are not a special case. Even bacteria have viruses within them (a nanobiome?). Even viruses can contain smaller viruses (a picobiome?). Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life.

… Charles Darwin, writing in 1871, took a pragmatic line. “Intelligence is based on how efficient a species becomes at doing the things they need to survive.” It is a perspective that has been echoed by many contemporary biologists and philosophers. The Latin root of the word intelligence means “to choose between.” Many types of brainless organisms—plants, fungi, and slime molds included—respond to their environments in flexible ways, solve problems, and make decisions between alternative courses of action. Complex information processing is evidently not restricted to the inner workings of brains. Some use the term “swarm intelligence” to describe the problem-solving behavior of brainless systems. Others suggest that the behavior of these network-based life-forms can be thought of as arising from “minimal” or “basal” cognition, and argue that the question we should ask is not whether an organism has cognition or not. Rather, we should assess the degree to which an organism might be cognizant. In all these views, intelligent behaviors can arise without brains. A dynamic and responsive network is all that’s needed.”

From Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, 2020.

Title image: Tekla Aleksieva, The Andromeda Program, digital artwork

Gallery: Tekla Aleksieva, digital artworks