Nonhuman Solidarities: Katherine Behar and Eben Kirksey Discuss High Hopes (Deux)

August 18, 2016 · Print This Article


Last fall New York-based artist and theorist, Katherine Behar presented High Hopes (Deux) a more-than-human performance that involves two Roombas (each with its own rubber tree), the Karaoke version of Frank Sinatra’s High Hopes set on repeat, and a large square of astroturf installed at Sector 2337 in Chicago. For about 30 minutes, the Roombas appeared to be dancing around the gallery while they cleaned the space as visitors came and went. More recently, Behar sent me a transcript of a conversation she had with the mutispecies ethnographer, Eben Kirksey about the same work. What follows is an edited version of that discussion. High Hopes (Deux) was curated by Every house has a door in Wasted Hours, an evening of performance that also featured Joshua Kent. Kirksey and Behar’s conversation will appear in an upcoming Green Lantern Press catalogue, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, for which the performance event was curated. Behar recently co-authored  And Another Thing: Nonanthropocentrism and Art (Punctum) with Emmy Mikelson; in addition to finishing a book about decelerationist aesthetics last spring Bigger than You: Big Data and Obesity (Punctum), her latest book Object Oriented Feminism  is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press and her first solo show, Data’s Entry, will open this September at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.

Eben Kirksey: Where is the hope, or is there hope, in these cyborg phytological assemblages?

Katherine Behar: The “hopes” in the title come from a children’s song about a little old ant who’s trying to push a rubber tree plant. Why does the ant think that he can move the rubber tree plant? It’s because he’s got “high hopes” and he thinks he can accomplish the impossible.

Of course, the ant is a symbol for the worker. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful message about overcoming impossible odds if an ant can move a tree, but on the other hand, in my view it’s pessimistic or perhaps dystopian to teach kids to identify as the ant and grow up to be good little workers.

EK: One teleology of capital and machines is the end of work, as in the fantasy that a new appliance will get rid of a whole regime of labor. But going back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that fantasy often spins out of control and results in all sorts of cataclysms—people unemployed, factory workers, and whole categories of people that no longer have meaning or an economic place in contemporary society. High Hopes (Deux) seems to grapple with similar ideas.

KB: Robots like the Roomba are a form of the automated labor you are talking about. The etymology is from the Czech word robota which translates as “forced labor” or “serf labor.” This means whenever we talk about robots, we are really talking about social relationships because we are employing the metaphor of slavery.

So who gets to enjoy the end of work? If we fast-forward to the contemporary moment, automated labor might be better understood not as machinic labor but as dehumanized labor. Today automation either still means forced labor—slave labor, or maybe prison labor—or it means offloading jobs that have traditionally been done by humans to machines, leaving humans unemployed and vulnerable.

At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between dehumanization and the nonhuman. Nonhumans—like the plants and machines in this project—can counter dehumanization by expanding the possibilities for solidarity which dehumanization forecloses.

EK: It seems like in this domestic context or in conventional patriarchal relations, the labor of cleaning often gets done by women, but also often by undocumented workers in elite U.S. households. How are Roombas changing these roles and the hopes of folks in such entangled situations? It seems like in some ways the Roomba is a hopeful, liberatory technology, but in other ways it is problematic.

KB: With this project, I’m trying to draw solidarities between all of these roles, between the middle class mom, the possibly undocumented domestic worker, and the machine—not to mention the plant. Machines are one of my focal points because they represent an extreme case. We don’t need to think of machines as having any kind of humanity because they’re not human. For me, the question is, is the undocumented worker closer in kind to the machine or closer in kind to the mom? There’s something about how we treat machines that I think prefigures how we treat entire classes of people.
The same could be said for our relationship to plants and nature, which we exploit on similar grounds. Initially I imagined High Hopes (Deux) as a way of drawing nonhuman solidarities between a houseplant and a housekeeping robot, both of which are usually cast as existing for human enjoyment. Although human interaction emerged an important factor, my first response to the concept of this show was to create a nonhuman system for plants and machines to play and care for each other, an experience that would be censored in the typical domestic setting.

EK: Relations of care are key to this piece. In fact, in one way or another many relations of labor and cleanliness are about care. The fantasy is that machines don’t require care. The Roomba seems to be an indestructible prosthetic, its own little war machine combating dirt and making cleanliness happen. This is the disembodied image of remote control. But in reality you’ve got to care for the machine in certain ways, just as you have to care for your wife, or maybe you don’t. In this context humans and machines are engaging in all sorts of relations of care, going both ways, but that may be uneven or unreciprocated.

KB: Uneven and unreciprocated care are critical notions for me. I’m interested in how we care for machines, and are cared for by machines, and why. In the case of the Roombas, they’re very charming. On Roomba list serves, you find people talking about just wanting to watch their first Roomba clean, like proud mamas and papas. Even pets want to play with Roombas. They’re very endearing devices. Yet these transpecies relationships are complicated because we’re mirroring how we interact with humans. We work for them and they work for us, and part of that work involves making ourselves care–for–able, and learning to expect certain kinds of care in return.

EK: In the gallery, as the Roombas interacted with people, it seemed like they were soliciting things. There were moments of corporeal interaction where the Roombas sort of snuggled up to people. What affective exchanges were taking place in those moments?

KB: Those moments were one of the really lovely surprises of the piece for me. Roombas are programmed to try to understand the perimeter of a space and learn to travel through the space to fill that perimeter. When they are in an empty gallery, the Roombas do a very geometric dance. Choreographically speaking, it’s very expansive; they really traverse space. The presence of people introduces organic clusters, and the perimeter of the space becomes much less rectilinear and predictable. The Roombas become confused by organic shapes, especially moving ones, and try to figure them out.

What’s surprising and can’t be explained by the algorithm is that the interaction feels very interpersonal. It feels as though the Roombas are trying to have a relationship.

EK: In some ways hope occupies an anthropocentric or zoocentric space. How can we think about these things as desiring machines that might orient towards an object and try to bring that object into contact with reality?

KB: Perhaps we would need to eliminate the desire part of hope, which may be hope’s zoocentric aspect. Assimilating to plant temporality, hope becomes a stand-in for futurity. A futurity without desire might mean orientating towards a species future, or even remapping hope and pessimism toward a future that includes species extinction.

EK: The Roomba really isn’t a species as such. A Roomba can’t fuck another Roomba and make baby Roombas. In that way a plant is different from a Roomba.

KB: Maybe the Roomba is closer to being a species than we think. I don’t know whether I want to say plants fuck, but plants reproduce and cross-pollinate and changes happen between generations of plants. A similar thing happens between models of Roombas. For instance, there’s now a more advanced Roomba that doesn’t have bristles on its brushes. For Roombas evolution occurs in design, not genetics.

EK: Thinking about evolution as a teleology—in botanical or technological realms—just maps on to one possible vector of change. Things are constantly becoming beside themselves with dissolution and glee, to paraphrase Brian Rotman.  In some ways what you created is this shared space of hope and happiness, where the Roomba is enabling the plant to actualize desiring teleologies that could rarely happen otherwise. Certain plants move. There’s a walking palm that can slowly put out another prop root in Costa Rica. But having a Roomba enables all sorts of wild possibilities that a rubber plant might not have imagined before.

KB: If a rubber plant has to wait around for an ant to push it, it’s not going to get very far. But as an interspecies collaboration, or perhaps a symbiotic relationship, the Roomba and rubber tree as a unit are able to dance. They’re able to traverse space, they’re able to be aesthetic, and they’re able to solicit relationships with the humans who keep getting in their way.

Conceptions of Plant-Life: An interview with Giovanni Aloi

August 17, 2016 · Print This Article

Giovanni Aloi, The Window. Photo courtesy of artist.

Giovanni Aloi, “Windows,” 2014. Photo courtesy of artist.

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.

CP: Why?

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.

CP: Why?

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.

CP: How?

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.


Why are we doing art at all? An interview with Eiko Honda

August 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

What happens to a word when it is introduced to a foreign language? What kind of concepts and realities are engendered? There is something viral and adaptive about the conveyance of ideas. The new word “Anthropocene,” for instance is interesting to track—although it might carry an immediate potency, it doesn’t have the history of other words, vs. “Leviathan,” for instance, or “equality.” A few weeks after the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum, UK-based curator and philosopher, Eiko Honda, and I met to discuss the curious way terms refract through culture. She is the 2013-2016 curatorial fellow of the Overseas Study Programme for Artists, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Recent exhibitions she worked on include Ting-Tong Chang: P’eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness, Asia House, London (2016); Saya Kubota: Material Witness, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London (2016); and Missing Post Office UK, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2015).

Caroline Picard: In your talk, “Japanese Nature? Between Language and Landscape,” you describe a linguistic paradigm shift that emerges when when an ideographical language (like Japanese or Chinese) meets a phonetic language (like English or German). As you describe it, the tension of that encounter can eventually yields a shift in thought. Does that shift relate all to the idea of authority?

EH: I think it’s related to the question of who is the authority creating or translating a language. I’m personally very interested in the role of the agent. Let’s say in “Anthropocene,” for instance, there are currently two different ways of articulating that word in Japanese and I’m not entirely sure which one we have settled on. One of the words is written with the sign for “a person” and the sign for “a new age.” The other is written as “mankind” or the age of mankind. The first possibility follows patterns of translations from the previous epochs, matching for instance how “Holocene” was translated. Depending on who actually translates the term and what kind of specialty that person has as far as academic study and political ideology, the implications can be quite different.

CP: How has that interest influenced your research?

EH: I’ve been looking at how the notion of “ecology” was introduced into the Japanese language at the beginning of the 20th century, as it compares to other everyday words which, in regular use now, were introduced by Miyoshi Manabu —a plantologist. Manabu studied in Germany in the late 19th century. He was a government bureaucrat well-known for introducing a policy to protect rare species of trees, and for introducing the term “ecology.” Miyoshi created the term seitaigaku as the Japanese translation of the English term ecology in his book Futsuu shokubutsu seitaigaku/The Ecology of Common Plants in 1908. On the other hand, he had a contemporary Minakata Kumagusu who never really finished school but nevertheless ended up in London working in the British Museums. As an alternate transliteration of “ecology,” Kumagusu gave it a different spelling.[1] The clear difference is that whereas one of the sei conveys the living things themselves and focuses on the life of the creature or plant, the other sei suggests rather a “nest” and “house”—that is, a safe comfortable sphere and space in which all living things can exist. Despite numerous essays and research notes he produced on all topics from the phenomenological study of Shingon Buddhism to science of the time to a reference on 19th Century England’s Commons Preservation Society in his activism against Shirine Amalgamation Act that concurrently caused industrialization nature, which threatened habitat of his focus of research slime molds, he never ended up publishing a comprehensive work on his theory of ecological thoughts as such. However, what is strongly implied is that he urged ecology as an interdependent community of life that supports the production of each others’ habitat. Whereas Miyoshi focused on the preservation of specifically rare trees, Kumagusu saw the importance of not even removing weeds, because weeds are part of an overall ecology sustaining the delicate nature of the primeval forest, and thus produced what the naturalist saw as the wonder of living things. Miyoshi and Kumagusu’s approaches to ecology were comparable, but significantly different.

CP: In a funny way, I feel like you are suggesting that something as small as a single word or idea can have similarly large effects—

EH: I think, in a sense, words and languages we use are one of the most fundamental commons that affects scope of human imagination. Depending on when a term is introduced to certain cultures and by whom can lead to significantly different outcomes. Cultivating the similar line of inquiries, I recently wrote a short paper for the forthcoming publication The Nuclear Culture Source Book (Ele Carpenter ed., Black Dog Publishing) inspired by how the idea of “individual” in the West wasn’t introduced into Japanese language until the end of the 19th century. Before that time, they didn’t have an equivalent word that would articulate such notion. People back then had a different conception of how the world was organized. It’s also important to pay attention to the context in which the notion was transliterated. When the word kojin, or individual, first appeared as it is used today in 1884, it was in a translation of a book Kokka Seiri Gaku or the “Physiology of Nation” written by the German—well Prussian, at that time—diplomat and grossdeutsch thinker Constantin Franz who urged federalism with a monarch, where a selected—not elected—council would advise the sovereign and make decisions. The same word was presented together with a translation of selected chapters from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan.

CP: What brought on the publication?

EH: The book was published right after the coup d’etat of Meiji Year 14 in 1881 at the Japanese parliament, during which the government was trying to form a modern constitution; there was a dispute about whether they should follow a Prussian model or a British one. Political leaders of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement believed in the latter one; they were engaged with Franco-British social theories as reasoning ground. However, they were expelled from the government as a result of the coup, marking a shift in the government’s translation of political theories to Prussian philosophies.[2]

CP: What role did the Leviathan play?

EH: The translated version of Leviathan was introduced in combination with that other, Constantine Franz’s publication entailing the individual as somebody with equal, free and independent existence that would not be violated from the power of the state or any others, regardless of its occupations or social position.[3] When the Leviathan was translated in this context, however, the first chapter wasn’t included, and the second chapter, especially the part that discusses the absolute power of the sovereign state, was meticulously translated. That first chapter includes Hobbes’ theory of human nature, describing how an individual only exists outside the society. It only gains citizenship and enters human society in contract with the authoritarian power of sovereign. So, what is suggested here is that the individual was introduced in a context that makes the very origin of the idea in the constitutional narrative.

CP: Are you suggesting that Hobbes’s writing changed Japanese culture differently?

EH: There is a huge difference between reading an original text and a text that’s been only partially translated with a different structure of argument, or another version of the same text that has been translated differently, for instance one that has been heavily edited, presented without its very important introduction and first chapter. Those omissions can limit readers or human imagination from possibilities of what “individual” might mean.

CP: How have you been thinking about this in terms of the Anthropocene?

EH: Attending the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum certainly made me think about that. In fact, I am currently working on a short text for the forthcoming edition of the Japanese-English journal 5: Designing Media Ecology edited by one of our conveners from the AC campus, the artist Andrew Yang, on the theme of the “Anthropocene.”  I look forward to feedbacks from our fellow participants and readers when it is done.

CP: I wonder how the idea of individuality changes in relation to large-scale environmental events. Maybe because I know your essay in The Nuclear Culture Source Book is about “Atomic Subjectivity,” and we’ve talked a little about social practice in Japan, I was wondering if you thought current interests in social practice in Japan might be connected at all to Fukushima?

EH: There’s been so much discussion around that for sure. Not everybody changed their nature of practice, but just as 9/11 completely shocked everyone in the US, there were urgent questions amongst practitioners who had cultural ties to Japan about what art could do and where it stands under the circumstances; in a sense, questions of collective responsibilities were addressed whilst conveying expressions of individual thoughts, interests, and concerns. I can never generalize, but it seems to me that whereas widely canonized older generations of contemporary artists in their late 40s and 50s were more concerned about their place within Western art history and the international market during their youth, increasing numbers of younger artists have started to question the importance of international esteem. Now the question has more to do with, “Why are we doing art at all?” I’m personally interested in the latter concern and trying to find a different idea of art history, or a different way of narrating artworks that might not necessarily fit within the established convention of Art History.

CP: What might that look like?

EH: I would like to think that it would be more to do with historiography of artistic practice that entails a possibility for empowerment of everyday life of everyday human beings—not necessarily just of artistic “genius” and heroes. As we know, grand-narrative histories have been written by certain identities to serve interests of certain race, culture, power, and gender and not of others. Whilst working with living artists to create a space of engagement—such as exhibitions, talk events, and published texts—with living minds of diverse culture, I came to think that these are acts of creating or amplifying narratives of what might be significant and otherwise potentially dismissed; to me, to consciously take part in the narrative making is, in a sense, to take part of the collective responsibility mentioned earlier. Re-evaluation of seemingly mundane languages that created the grand narratives of human history through investigations beyond the disciplinary convention of Art History felt like an important initial step to take. For example, the art historian Kinoshita Naoyuki has discussed how the idea of artwork—which is nowadays recognized with this word, sakuhin, in Japanese—is written in Chinese as a sort of product that’s being made. That word, that term for artwork didn’t really settle in our language until after the 1940s. Before that period, artwork was called sakubutsu. It’s spelled as an object that’s been made, but sakubutsu, if you write it and if you don’t put it in a context or tell anyone what’s it’s about, it can also be read sakumotsu. It’s exactly the same writing. Sakumotsu in our contemporary language today means vegetables or a harvest that have been gathered from your field—rice, or anything that you harvest from your soil. I’m interested in finding these kinds of underlying thought that have been hidden in history. Could we possibly investigate these different terms further and, in doing so, find a potential tool or a method for a new kind of language? One that might narrate practice without falling into a standard idea of art history or art historical narrative?

CP: Subtle shifts like that can have large and lasting consequences, even to the extent that they might destabilize hierarchies, or disrupt ingrained patterns of hierarchical thinking. What you propose is like a form of non-aggressive resistance, because you’re just posing a question that says, “Well, what happens to our configuration,” for instance, “of the art world or of the way we define art if we imagine that an artwork and a vegetable equate to one another?”

EH: Yes, exactly, and it’s also related to the widely discussed issue of modernity. What does it mean to be modern? And can we possibly find a different kind of modernity by narrating our current issues and past events differently? Might that change the future as well? And of whom? How can we try to extend one’s imagination beyond our established conventions? The historiography of language—of one of the most fundamental commons—and of artistic practice that works with the human tool of imagination— might have some answers to the queries.


This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.



[1] The particular difference between these two trajectories of ecology has been discussed by Takeuchi Yoshinobu, the Kumagusu scholar and chief curator of Wakayama City Museum.

[2] Takahashi Shinji, “Kindai Nihon to Hobbs/Modern Japan and Hobbs,” Nishi Nippon Shimbun February 19, 1992, 51.

[3] Sait? Tsuyoshi, Meiji no Konoba, Higashi kara Nishi no Kakebashi (Tokyo: K?dansha, 1997), 229.

Attention Drift: An Interview with Mark Payne

August 15, 2016 · Print This Article


It is difficult to comprehend humanity’s position within our vibrant ecology, particularly when that environment—traditionally seen as such a stable property, is so clearly susceptible to human influence. Mark Payne, author of Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction (2007) and The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (2010) tracks the reciprocal relationship between myths, narrative patterns, and poetry, and the types of awareness that emerge around ecology. Mark Payne is a Classics Professor, teaching at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He also runs an incredible poetry series at U of C’s Gray Center during the school year.

Caroline Picard: In your book, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010), you begin with how hunting narratives often center around the human realizing that he—usually a he—is seen by the animal he is about to kill. At the risk of starting out with too grand a beginning, I started wondering if perhaps our awareness of the Anthropocene parallels that hunter’s awareness somehow, where the human suddenly sees itself within a larger, collective, and conscious environment? 

Mark Payne: I see the question of time and how to make sense of ourselves in a dislocated narrative. One kind of dislocated narrative is a conversion narrative where two parts of a life lie on either side of a traumatic break. Are we there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Doubtful I think. 

CP: What do you mean by a dislocated narrative? In what way or why is it dislocated?

MP: I mean it like a dislocated joint. The two parts don’t work together any more. Understanding that we were in the Anthropocene ought to feel something like that I imagine.

CP: This makes me think about a later section of the book about metamorphosis, and maybe especially a part in Ovid where you describe humanity’s confused origin story—whether we were “made by God from his own substance, or whether Prometheus scooped some leftovers from the sky that were mingled with the earth,” making us into the image of a god as one might a dumpling (or at least that’s what came to my mind). “This passage speaks of a kind of homelessness in the world on the part of human beings,” you say, “separated from animals by their later birth and stance, but unsure of their kinship with higher beings. Every transformation in the poem underlines the futility of their efforts to close the gap between themselves and the gods by widening the one between themselves and the animals.” (125) On the one hand, I feel like the predicament you describe here—perhaps especially in the context of animal/human hybridity the chapter lays out (almost as a way of illustrating one’s own alien-ness as it appears in one’s self, spouse, a neighbor, or an encounter with a stranger)—seems exactly the same now as it was then; in other words, this same confusion or homelessness  is just as relevant to ancient Roman society as it is in the Anthropocene. On the other hand, I wonder if we might need different narratives, myths, poems, and fairy tales in framing otherness and contextualizing humanity? 

MP: Why is it that we have this capacity for ecstasis? But then maybe the animals are no more captivated by where they are than we are. Once I spent some time with a Gila monster at an oasis in Arizona. We both seemed equally out of sorts with the desert despite our different adaptations. But we do not trust ourselves when we go along with the other animals, as Heidegger puts it. I think it’s more about trusting what we already have than always needing to innovate. I guess I don’t really trust that impulse of always needing to move on from what’s there already. 

CP: That makes sense, though I sometimes feel like humanity has been in this multi-generational conversation with environment, and its tone has recently changed; it’s less predictable, maybe, noisier. More direct. Maybe instead of thinking about needing some new approach, we need to adapt or evolve? I have a hard time understanding how to take on the violence that’s been enacted on our world thus far, especially when the future seems so dark. What would the ancients say about that? How would/do you approach teaching landscape today?

MP: I think the loss of Nature and the loss of the past are the same thing – a loss of shared life. Hölderlin talks about gleaning – going over the ground again for what we didn’t realize was there. Adaptive mutation is an open question I guess, but I doubt that we can will it into being for ourselves. I feel more hopeful about endurance in being possessed. If we could stay with the remains I think it might have more lasting consequences as a possibility of transformation. That’s how I would teach an ancient landscape, as trying to stay with it, now that it has come all this way to be with us.

CP: In an essay you wrote about trees, you spend some time describing how Christopher Stone’s proposition, whereby trees’ rights would be incorporated into our human legal system. I love the way you describe the awkwardness of that endeavor—how we might then have arbitrate between sometimes conflicting desires of a grove of trees, a paper corporation, a beetle infestation, and it’s local rabbit, robin, human, or bee populations. I feel like you set that exercise up in contrast to the lyric poet who seems better equipped, somehow, to bridge human and nonhuman experience. I was wondering if you could say more about the way poetry specifically assists the imagination? What kind of attention can we find there that we may not find in legal computations of equivalence? 

MP: I feel like the poet’s role, or poetry’s role, anyway is to disequilibriate, that is to say, to throw everything out of balance with disharmonious attachments. I think poetry is really good at that. Disequilibriation might be the beginning of liberation. Stone begins with disproportionate attachment as the beginning of ecological concern but then wants expert panels to make the decisions. I would like it if we could linger some more with the kinds of discomforts that poetry provokes. 

CP: At present, I understand you are working on a new book about shared life, or choral life. I got the sense that you were proposing that shared life illustrates how landscape—something we have traditionally relegated to a silent backdrop—is something that steps forward and participates, perhaps the way a Greek chorus does in a play. I’m wondering how you see that chorality, and what narrative it is attuned to? Would rhythm be an important factor here as well? 

MP: It’s the uncanniness of it that I’m trying to get at. That there’s not just this tree here and this tree there as we typically encounter animals as singularities but that these trees have a shared life together that is also part of our shared life together with them. It’s like the way the chorus comes forward and retreats. I think that’s what you mean by rhythm, except that rhythm to me suggests a kind of regularity whereas the coming into awareness of shared life is more aleatory. It has the structure of attention drift even though it is bringing something to us.

Sunday Comics: Animal Bones as Artistic Medium

August 14, 2016 · Print This Article

The following comic was inspired by Inherencies (Nov-Feb 2016): a solo exhibition by Rebecca Beachy, and originally appeared on Hyperallergic. Beachy’s show was also mentioned here, on Bad at Sports’ Edition 44.

Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.22.50-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.09-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.32-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.49-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.23.57-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.05-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.17-AM Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-8.24.28-AM

Thanks to Jillian Steinhauer for all of the editorial support.