Sissel Marie Tonn with Heather Leslie & Juan Garcia Vallejo

Becoming a Sentinel Species

In collaboration with Heather Leslie (Department of Environment and Health, VU Amsterdam) and Juan Garcia Vallejo (Department Molecular Cell Biology & Immunology, Amsterdam UMC - location VUmc)

Becoming a Sentinel Species investigates the issue of microplastics by re-introducing the concept of a sentinel species.

This experimental science-fiction film follows two researchers on a quest to explore and amplify their own bodies’ sensitivity to microplastics on a cellular level.

The fictional narrative emerges around the documentation of the artist’s research into the immune system and microplastics. By imagining a future with humans in the role of sentinels signaling pollution in their bodies, the film reflects on how all life on earth is fundamentally interconnected with each other and the environments they inhabit. The human health impacts of microplastics are yet to be elucidated, but their presence in our bodies and surroundings is a potent reminder that we are not impenetrable entities, but rather fluid organisms - no cleaner than the environments around us.

The film opens with the two protagonists gathering microscopic plastic in a pristine seascape. We follow their meticulous laboratory work of extracting and growing their own macrophages (the ancient 'first responders' of the immune system). The researchers discover that when macrophages are exposed to microplastics they react by sending out powerful chemical signals to the rest of the immune system. They realize these chemical signals, called cytokines, overwhelm their brains and trigger delusions and dreamlike states. The protagonist pair then begins to introduce the microplastics into their bodies deliberately, to evoke hallucinations of our shared evolutionary origins in the primordial sea, many millions of years ago.

Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist based in The Hague. In her practice she explores the complex ways humans perceive, act upon and are entangled with their environments. Her works always return to the question at the core of ecological thought: Where do we perceive our bodies to end, and the environment to begin? In her artistic work Sissel is fascinated by moments of increased awareness and shifts in perception, where the boundaries between our bodies and the surrounding environment begin to blur. Tracing and capturing these moments often result in hybrid, interactive installations and objects, where the audience is invited to engage in a sensory and participatory way with the stories and data at hand. She often works with wearable, sculptural and performative ‘props’ that are meant to challenge our pre-configured modes of perception and attention.