In one of my earliest conversations with Giovanni Aloi, he described the problem of being a plant studies person at an animal studies conference: by entertaining the subjectivity of plants, any moral high ground previously associated with vegetarianism/veganism get a little complicated. Undaunted, Aloi explores the mess of that new territory, tracing their appearance in contemporary art and art history. He is the Founding Editor of Antennae, a Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, teaches at The School of the Art Institute, works for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, moonlights as an art expert on the BBC, and is on the verge of finishing two books on taxidermy and art, and plants and art.
Caroline Picard: You work at the intersection of philosophy, art history, and contemporary art. Why is the animal interesting to you within those fields?
Giovanni Aloi: Since I was roughly three years old two things would excite me like no other: nature and art. I drew animals, I looked for animals in paintings, photographs, documentaries, and everywhere else—there was nothing better than finding a grasshopper, a beetle, or a tree frog! Plants caught my attention a little later, but back then, I used to spend most of my evenings drawing animals.
CP: So art and animals were joined at the start in a way…
GA: As I grew up I fostered both interests but struggled to combine them in my work; animals in art were not taken seriously as an academic/artistic subject (and there’s still much to be said about that lack of serious engagement today). In the late 1990s the emergence of animal studies placed that subject on the map. Jonathan Burt and Steve Baker have published important work in relation to animals and representation in art and film. Both, along with other scholars, contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art.
CP: How would you characterize those early conversations around animals and art?
GA: The first ten years of analysis, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both, theory and practice, engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.”
In my 2012 essay, “Deconstructing the animal in search of the real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new and productive path of inquiry could involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships/reciprocal entanglements. Although the non-anthropocentric slant of animal studies was extremely refreshing from a philosophical perspective, I looked at early developments with some suspicion.
GA: Personally, I believed that animal studies should be very weary of falling into the conceptual fallacy of proposing a zoo-centric system in place of an anthropocentric one. From earlier on, I thought that animal studies inquiries should unfold into rhizomatic networks of interconnectedness in which humans, animals, plants, and environments are equal parts.
CP: Do you feel like the animal studies conversation has shifted?
GA: Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model. But this is happening outside animal studies. My impression has always been that re-thinking animals entails re-thinking everything. It is a deep ontological undertaking. Connections between the ways in which we treat animals and the ways in which we treat fellow humans have been exemplified by Agamben. But there is much more at stake.
CP: How so?
GA: Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position. I am not entirely sure if this new shift could be incorporated by animal studies as a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on similar ontological levels as plants and bacteria. Would that change optics in a productive ways? And of course, there’s object oriented ontology, Morton’s notions of hyperobjects, broader notions of anthropocene…I am yet to see any animal studies scholar engaging with these philosophical tools. The challenge is to adapt them to fit the task. My forthcoming book on taxidermy in contemporary art attempts to do just that. But in any case, I think that the disruption of anthropocentrism caused by animal studies, posthumanism, and by the new waves of speculative realism is essential to the definitions of new cultural directions. We have clearly messed up—the planet is telling us that very clearly. Global warming and mass extinction are clear symptoms of the urgency with which we need to find new ways to think about our relationship to what we call nature. But changing people’s minds is one of the hardest things to do—especially when utilitarianism is involved.
CP: Do you mean that people have to change their way they think about the environment somehow? In other words, maybe like animals, there is a need to resist making the natural world purely symbolic? Even as I say that, it seems tied up with consumer culture…
GA: Capitalism has alienated us entirely from the plants and animals around us to a degree that, for too many people, looking into their phones or tablets is more interesting than looking at anything to do with the natural world. How can you care to preserve ecosystems when you don’t even care for what’s in your backyard or on your way to school or work? Capitalist normativity has reduced nature to a curiosity in urban reality and to a sublime escape in holiday adventures—this is the root of the problem.
CP: It’s hard to think of ways to shift that paradigmatic approach to nonhuman (or more than human) landscapes. I’m always interested in articulating openings for agency but it’s easy to feel daunted by the scale and conviction of capitalism.
GA: In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or at primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “That is/I am” approach that promotes a pre-encoded identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, and snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as John Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, we grow up to become constantly disappointed with the lack of the promised sublimity of animals. We expect them to somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges they have no stakes in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is generally understood as dumb or as edible. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a key moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters: work, buying a house, careers, children… animals become the object of hunting or entertainment.
CP: What do we do with that? It seems sort of impossible to work out an alternative approach, especially if you are talking about a problem that starts in kindergarten.
GA: This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in my book Art and Animals (2011): you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up in, shattering certainty and picking up the pieces thereafter to re-configure yourself all over again, allowing for a different conception of non-human/human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, and to make things more complicated, you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices—choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural make-up, and personal sense of urgency.
CP: Can you describe a bit about your transition from Animal Studies to Plant Studies? What are some interesting comparisons between the fields for you?
GA: I don’t think I have transitioned from animal studies to plant studies. I am very critical of animal studies because I cannot ethically justify its zoo-centric scope anymore. Its reliance on post-structuralism almost 20 years on is becoming embarrassing. Personally, I don’t care anymore about what Heidegger thought of lizards, Agamben of spiders, and Deleuze of wolves, as they all knew very little about these animals. They wrote about them in transcendental terms—in the singular/plural chimeric catch-all form that the word ‘animals’ inscribe. 10 years ago it was interesting to recover these animal-fragments from the thought of continental philosophers, it was necessary to validate the subject of scrutiny for the field, and to lay its foundations—but we should be done with that phase, now! In any case, I’m still in the field, as I understand animal studies to be an important component of posthumanism, but I like to think of myself as a “grumpy dissident” within the system. Some of my colleagues also share my views—I think something interesting might be happening soon. But ultimately, I am not very interested in the discourses of a discipline that places animals first in front of plants and other levels of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.
GA: That approach seems extremely out-dated considering the times we live in and the challenges we face. That is also why multispecies ethnography and new materialism are more interesting to younger scholars at present—these philosophical waves are at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking whilst animal studies currently seems to have shaped itself as a questionable ethical-minefield for vegan/animal rights ideologies. Those agendas are also mostly out-dated. Veganism refuses to acknowledge plant-intelligence because it causes the emergence of new and hard to negotiate ethical problems, whilst animal-rights is still bound to obsolete concepts like sentience, consciousness, and agency.
CP: Does plant-studies as run into similar problems as a defined field?
GA: I don’t think a field of plant studies has actually shaped up yet. Michael Marder has done some important work recovering plants from a number of philosophical texts, thus mapping a base for discussion on the subject whilst a number of artists have—for years—engaged with plants, knowing that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no unified field yet. Plants still carry a cultural stigma imbedded in a number of popular culture-layers of validating disregard: the association between sociopaths and plants is a recurring cliché. There’s also the gender connotation between plants and women imposed by patriarchal systems of value that still gets in the way. And the recurring notion that caring for plants too much would require an entire revision of ethical values involving animals and humans…the implication that self-aware (or even sentient) beings must act as an exploitable base for us to feel ethically relieved through the acts of basic subsistence. I am sure that things are just about to shape up; hopefully, plant studies will be a freer space in which to seriously consider non-human alterity beyond obvious anthropomorphic strategies and imbedded/obsolete ethical agendas.
CP: What do you mean?
GA: In a sense, animal studies and plant studies have thus far been shaped by the desire to recover specific narratives and reconfigure ontological strata. And that is pretty much what Marder has accomplished with his body of work for the field of plant studies already. Plants are the new animals—they push all the concerns involved with agency and anthropocentrism to a breaking limit: alterity, reciprocity, communication, co-existence, intra-action, and so forth…These are all new paradigms that have been explored in human/animal relations. But simultaneously, thinking about/with plants requires a more ambitious leap of faith. The hope for meaningful plant responses; responses that we can fully comprehend is very slim, much slimmer than in animals, but this should not put us off from being inquisitive and curious and from attempting, for instance, to envision what it might be like to be a plant beyond the tools of mimicry.
CP: I want to go back to the question of education again…like, how would plant-sympathy be taught if not through mimicry?
GA: One of the most glaring contradictions of animal studies is that the discipline, through its marked non-anthropocentric drive has identified science—and Cartesian thinking more specifically—as the humanist tool by which distance and objectification between animals and humans occurs. Yet, animal studies implicitly relies on the scientific definition of “animal” in order to retain topicality. That’s a critical problem of some proportion. If the premise is to re-think animals beyond the scientific realm of inquiry, at what point do we begin to find the strength to tamper with the very last question (which should have perhaps been the first): “What is an animal?” Or is that taking the whole thing too far for the philosophical framework? At what point is an animal plant-like in a way that becomes interesting to us beyond scientific taxonomy? This gray area between zoology and botany contains a number of disregarded beings who rarely, if ever, emerge in scholarly discourses. Animal studies claims to have recovered repressed subjects, but it simultaneously represses those at the fringes of its implicit mammalian-normative approach. I guess that more generally, plant studies polarizes the already charged questions of animal studies through a stronger desire to develop a holistic approach, rather than a phito-centric one.
CP: How have you noticed plants appearing into contemporary art recently? Do you think plant’s contemporary art appearance differs from past examples?
GA: Yes, there has been a substantial shift. One category I am interested in is postmodernist plants, like with Anya Gallaccio and Marc Quinn, whose work, in a sense, laid the foundation for what is being problematized today. Gallaccio was concerned with decay. Dutch still-life paintings, the beautiful vases of flowers that reminded us we would all eventually die, were painted at the height of their beauty and freshness. Postmodernism threw this lovely poetics up in the air by haunting viewers with the raw ugliness of decay in the gallery space or by upstaging the representational notion of the memento mori through the shock of materiality. Marc Quinn’s Garden from 2000 amazed viewers by representationally suspending the lives of a multitude of wild and greenhouse-grown varieties of flowers in a massive tank of frozen silicon. The illusion was mesmerizing—but the shattering of the utopian narrative resounded loud and clear through the darkened gallery space. I feel that most postmodernist work involving plants, and I hate to generalize here, was more concerned with notions of realism expressed through materiality. Because of that, postmodernism laid the foundations for speculative realist tendencies in art.
GA: It is the mistrust for metanarratives and the iconoclastic slant nurtured by postmodernism that paved the way for what is happening today. Yet, Gallaccio’s and Quinn’s works are largely concerned with symbolic registers of representation that, despite the material presence of the plant in the gallery space, end up leaving the living-plant behind, so to speak. The symbolic order in which they operate, as it turns out, was not deployed towards a new conception/understanding of plant-life and its interconnectedness with humans and environments, but it ultimately was transcendental and inherently anthropocentric.
CP: Didn’t you explore this question in the online journal you edit?
GA: In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art. We especially focused on the work of artists interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centered view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. One of the most interesting and captivating works I have recently encountered surely is Revolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (2015) exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. The installation enabled three pine-trees to move around and outside the gallery space through a wheeled-base guided by a complex electronic interface, which measured the speed at which their sap flowed. This type of work produces new connections between the old categories of nature and culture, and object and subject, blurring boundaries and posing important questions about agency, perception, ontology, and epistemology. There’s a major difference between the new, speculative interest for plants now and past approaches.
CP: I’m always curious about what these artistic gestures do, somehow? Like, if it’s true that the world is ending, why bother making art at all?
GA: Ultimately, I think that contemporary artists involved in this new register of criticality are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to configure new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.
Methodologically, artists like Heidi Norton, Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Pierre Huyghe, and Andrew Yang are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is, in all instances, paramount and solidifies relationships that are developed over time, slowly, and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork—sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is embedded in the layers of complexity that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors that has led to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.
CP: You have two books coming out—one on animal taxidermy and one on plants. Since you have been working on them simultaneously, I’m curious about what kinds of connections you are making while working on both, even if those connections might not be apparent to readers?
GA: Yes, I do …and it is not something I would recommend. When I handed in my taxidermy in contemporary art manuscript to my editor she said: “Great! Now you can enjoy your summer!” to which I responded: “Not quite—plants have been haunting me for the past few months and I am not quite done with them yet!” But I think that in a way, one book has been productively informing the other. My book on plants in contemporary art is an odd hybrid between a monograph and an edited collection. I am basically writing a backbone for each chapter and have invited “guest authors” to contribute their own voices/experiences to each section. I wanted the reader’s experience to be as varied and idiosyncratic as possible. I wanted to move away from pretending to own a truth about plants that is universal and singular. I truly believe that if we begin to seriously value personal experience as valid epistemic tools in the reconfiguration of anthropocentrism, we then have to also question the monographic approach to writing. Fragmenting and interspacing one voice with those of others seems essential to me, especially in certain circumstances. But my books also wanted to take animal studies to task and address its approaches to central question “what is an animal?” that it still evades.
CP: How does that tie in to taxidermy?
GA: Thinking about taxidermy, the ultimate “animal-made object” has substantially shaped my ideas on agency and passivity in contemporary art involving the non-human; whilst Jane Bennett’s and Graham Harman’s work have substantially expanded my views on objects and agency. I have also been thinking a lot about surfaces in contemporary art. Taxidermy is all surface—a practical and metaphorical totalization of animality whilst plants are all-surface in a more, “helpless” but nonetheless related way. So far these ideas have filtered in my “plant book” and are being further problematized by the elusive/ambiguous essence of plant-being. Foucauldian biopolitics is also essential to both books—there is something of an ontological parallelism between animals-made-objects and plants that can be explored through the materiality of bodies. Notions of space and epistemology define the encounter between us and plants or taxidermy objects. This approach replaced the more general idea of the “encounter in the gallery space” that characterized my earlier animal studies writing. In both books I am concerned with notions of materiality and resistance as well as power as a productive/shaping agent that actively molds human/non-human bodies, ecologies, and intermingling. Don’t want to say much more yet…But I’m glad they came in that order: taxidermy first and plants after.
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