Chuck Cannon moved to Chicago in 2015 when he accepted the position as the first Director of the new Center for Tree Science at the Morton Arboretum to spearhead a new initiative around tree science, study and education. The Morton Arboretum is an unusual place, a tree museum, essentially, where visitors travel to observe a highly curated collection of different indigenous and nonindigenous trees. The first time I went there to meet Chuck we walked around the grounds discussing whether or not trees know things, a conversation that since had a lasting impact, eroding my assumptions about where thought is located and how it might be retained.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about your work at the Morton Arboretum? What is it like to be a tree doctor working in a tree museum?
Chuck Cannon: The best thing about going to work at the arboretum is literally being surrounded by thousands of very cool trees. They have been brought into our living collections from all over the world. Our collection’s staff have been bringing in interesting trees for almost one hundred years. I go for a short walk and compare an American and European oak side by side. Or a Japanese elm to one that is a hybrid between an American and Chinese elm. These trees evolved on different hemispheres. They have been separated for a very long time and we’ve done this unusual thing of bringing them together again, perhaps after two million years or more of separation. It’s like going on the Voyage of the Beagle without ever getting sea sick or even on a boat.
And trees largely remain a mystery. Despite the fact that trees are probably one of the most essential creatures on Earth, and despite the fact that they grow everywhere, we know little about them. We know the broad elements of their life and about forests, but we are missing a lot of the day-to-day details. We think of trees as behaving slowly, over long periods of time, but it is the accumulation of daily behaviors, of a chronic water deficit or nutrient imbalance, too hot with low humidity, that leads to the eventual decline or vigor of a tree. You walk by a tree for years and then you suddenly notice one day that a substantial part of the crown is leafless and might be dead and we think how did that happen? We don’t have any easy cues to understand the “mood” of a tree. As a kid, I helped my parents raise a lot of animals and you learn to tell whether a young calf is feeling sickly just by looking at it. It’s head hangs down a bit, it’s eyes are watery, and its nose a bit snotty. How do you notice that a tree is not feeling so well? How does it act if it is being attacked by an internal fungal infection? Does it ooze sap, or wilt? We have little native intuitive ability to read a tree’s mood or physical condition but they certainly do send signals, both intentional and unintentional. That’s to me the essential mystery of a tree and what draws my curiosity. They are a very alien life form compared to animals but they are enormously successful. A tree doesn’t have a brain or a nervous system but yet it makes animals and insects do its dirty work all of the time.
CP: Given that strangeness, how do you approach trees contextualized by such a longstanding institution?
CC: As a tree doctor, I feel very fortunate to work at an institution devoted to the scientific study and sustainable care of trees. The leadership of the arboretum has always held scientific research to be a central part of the arboretum’s mission. I was hired last year as the Director of The Center for Tree Science to lead an ambitious goal for the Morton Arboretum to somehow overcome the neglect of tree biology. Although research has long been a major part of the Arb’s activities, we are creating several new programs to get our small in-house team of scientists aligned with a global network of scientists of all stripes. The hope is to work together to advance meaningful research on trees, fostering appreciation and understanding among students and early-career scientists for basic tree science.
CP: Why now?
CC: I have a real sense of urgency. One has to only glance briefly at the basic trends around the world—the astounding explosion of the human population and the accompanying and equally disquieting explosion in our per capita consumption; take that alongside the degree to which forests have been converted and damaged so that nothing can be considered outside the direct impact of human activity. Clearly, we can’t continue doing what we are doing and expect a good ending. Something fundamental has to change. Our economic system? Wouldn’t be the first time.
CP: It must be strange that you are immediately happy to live and work alongside trees every day, while being nevertheless especially aware of the ecological crisis we inhabit by virtue of the trees’ proximity.
CC: Basically, I feel like the kid who got the golden ticket but now, we have to try and fill Willie Wonka’s shoes and make trees somehow wondrous and magical to the rest of the world.
CP: As I understand it, you started working as a researcher studying primates in Borneo, but shifted your research to trees. How did that transition happen?
CC: Yeah, as a young boy growing up in West Texas, I had an intense interest in human evolution but you know a lot of people weren’t comfortable talking about it. At college, I wanted to understand how humans became “human” instead of being just another primate. I was fortunate to be chosen as a research assistant to live and work at a remote research station in a national park near the western coast of Indonesian Borneo for a year. While doing my research on primate behavior, I was also responsible for monitoring vegetation plots where all of the trees were measured and tagged. Each month, we’d go look at them and observe whether they were flowering or fruiting. Now, this is a mature tropical rain forest; the trees are quite tall. They are massed together and tangled with vines and epiphytes, and deciding whether a tree was flowering or not was difficult. Doing it properly was a lot of work. It easily took hours to finish a single plot. You can imagine, much of my time as a research assistant was spent looking up into the forest canopy, trying to see flowers and fruits in a confusing chaotic green mass of leaves and branches tens of meters over my head.
CP: How did that compare to the research you conducted on primates?
CC: My primate research was quite difficult because I was studying gibbons and they were not well-habituated to human presence. To find them, I got up in the dark, early morning, typically putting on wet clothes, throwing together some crappy cold lunch, and going out to listen where the male gibbon was singing. Gibbons are territorial and monogamous, so the pair sing a duet most mornings, starting with a bit of male soloing before daybreak. Even when I managed to get out there before they disappeared on their morning forage, it was very difficult to follow them and gather the data I needed. So, after many months of going through this, I only had a few minutes of quality data on primate behavior but pages and pages of quite invaluable data on tree reproduction. Also, trees don’t go anywhere. You can stagger out of bed at 8:30 am, scratch around a bit, take your time getting to work and when you go out, the trees are still exactly where they were last time you visited them. Basically, perhaps unflatteringly, studying trees fit my metabolism. I’m a lousy failure at being a birder. Also, I began to realize that very few people were studying the trees themselves. Lots of conservation biologists were talking about the endangered animals that live in tropical forests but few were actually talking about the trees that make up the forests, so I began to see that shifting over to studying trees and forests could provide a more meaningful and significant contribution. We tend to take trees for granted. They are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, everywhere you look practically, and they form the structure and productivity of any forest community, but few scientists devote their research specifically to trees.
CP: When did you realized you were more sympathetic to trees?
CC: I just remember one day, while I was working in the forest, and I was standing in front of some massive tree that was covered with climbers, its bark deep and furrowed, completely oblivious to me but covered in living things. A little movie of its life played in my head—imagining this grand old tree as one of thousands of tiny seedlings, so vulnerable and hopeful, while people were just starting to sail around the world; and that it grew in that same spot for hundreds of years, unknowing to all of the great events in human history. The rise and fall of empires seemed like ant hills. The New World was still innocent of the Europeans. Some trees in that forest are so old. A single individual, a single lifespan, was possibly longer than much of humanity’s history. I found that very intriguing.
CP: During a talk you gave last winter at Sector 2337, you explained that trees know when they reproduce. Can you describe how you’ve observed that knowledge? What is it like for a tree to know?
CC: That’s a tricky question because we have a very poor understanding of tree awareness. We have a pretty poor knowledge of even their basic behavior. While they don’t have a nervous system or musculature for active movement. they are not passive organisms. They have fine control of their breathing rates, down to the leaf level, through their stomata. So while you look at a tree and see it as a single unit, each leaf is responding to the exact light, wind, and heat conditions it is experiencing. This behavior is not controlled in a centralized way but each branch can be thought of as a competing “lineage” of clonal cells. As they grow, they have to maintain their balance, simply not falling over, while responding to the light and wind conditions of where they germinated. They have complex behavior each day as they respond to the weather as it changes with the seasons. They interact with many animals and fungi, resisting attack from insects, signaling to other trees about the attack. Their behavior changes dramatically as they grow from a tiny seedling into a mature tree. How this behavior is organized and coordinated is not understood.
The reproductive behavior of trees or tree sex is particularly poorly understood but obviously it is a critical piece of the puzzle. First of all, there is the timing. You must flower when the rest of the individuals in your species are flowering, so that the pollen isn’t wasted on the wind. How do trees know when to flower? In the temperate areas, it’s relatively easy because you have a very strong environmental signal—freezing weather in the winter and a big thaw in the spring. But in the tropics, in places where it rains year round and the weather and day length etc. remain pretty much constant, how do you synchronize yourself with potential mates? Frankly, we don’t know.
CP: Accepting that a tree possess knowledge, and even intention about its reproduction, would blow upon traditional ideas about what it means to “know.”
CC: I do believe that trees “know” quite a lot but that knowledge is obviously processed in a very different way. Is it stored some way? If so, where? Some studies have shown that individual trees often wait several years accumulating the necessary resources so that they can reproduce. Somehow the tree knows that it should wait until next year to give it a shot. There is a structural knowledge to a tree, the tissue that is created to conduct water, support branches, etc., build up an understanding of how to live in that particular spot, right? There’s also a dynamic knowledge to a tree, how hormones are produced, pheromones and volatiles released, phenolics and alkaloids concentrated. Again, it is not really centralized but the trees’ slow process of emerging is highly adaptive to its environment.
CP: You also showed a slide during that same talk arguing that we need to let our trees be kinky if they are going to survive the Anthropocene…
CC: My point is relatively simple. We’re heading into a future that seems very difficult to predict. The normal parameters of how things work are no longer valid. That is why I think the Anthropocene is a useful term. The question is whether we will last long enough to leave a trace in the geological record. With both human population and consumption increasing, our impact on the Earth’s biosphere is obvious. Natural areas are mere postage stamps, surrounded for many miles by agriculture monoculture or human infrastructure. The processes that have generated the incredible natural wealth that we enjoy today through millions of years have been interrupted by human activity. And I am sure they will return to normal in the not too distant future but what we need to do is survive the dramatic shift that seems necessary to achieve a new “normal.” We can’t break Nature but it can sure break us.
How do we emerge on the other end of that ‘re-adjustment’ intact? We obviously won’t do that by looking backward and regretting what we are losing. Instead, we need to be looking forward and utilizing the resources that we still have. Much of the invaluable genetic resources and diversity produced by millions of years of evolution are now being lost without a trace.
CP: And the answer is kink?
CC: What I meant by trees being kinky is allowing them to bend the rules of sex beyond their normal parameters. Sex is all about mate choice. But how do you choose a mate as a tree? First of all, you can’t even select your mates yourself. You have to lure some insect to your reproductive parts and reward it with some nectar and then send it off in hopes that it will go find that fateful soul mate out there in the forest. Or, worse yet, if you are an oak, you send massive amounts of pollen on the wind, hoping that it blindly lands where it should and not where it shouldn’t. There are estimates that an oak tree produces more than 100 billion pollen grains during a single spring flowering. To me, this means they have incredible evolutionary bandwidth. Compare this to humans, who might attempt producing offspring with one or two mates. You can have ten kids but you are supposed to only have one mate. But each one of those pollen grains is off on its own adventure, hoping for the best. A single tree could potentially have sex with every tree on the planet during its lifetime.
Typically, we think of individuals being “faithful” to their species. A general assumption is that hybrid crossings lead to less successful offspring, although a certain hybrid vigor does emerge in some circumstances. I think trees are among the most promiscuous organisms on Earth. I think breaking the basic rule of being a “good” species is key to tree sex. They conduct enormous experiments in genetic recombination and they only need ONE successful offspring for all of that exploration to pay off. From the perspective of a tree, because its offspring might only become a mature tree in two hundred years’ time, how do you know what the environment is going to be like at that future time? In a few generations, the local climate might have changed considerably, or a new bug might have come to town, etc. How do you produce an optimal offspring when your own ability to predict the future is quite limited? You try a lot of options and produce a wide variety of offspring! In the 40’s, a German geneticist named Richard Goldschmidt put forward the idea that major changes in evolution occur through the production of “hopeful monsters”—a dramatic novel shift that fits a new unprecedented niche. This is sort of what we need now, with the coming of the Anthropocene.
CP: That also seems interesting to think about within the context of a curated tree collection…
CC: I think the arboretum setting is ideal for allowing these kinds of genetic experiments, conducted naturally by the trees themselves. We have the Chinese chestnut by the American chestnut. We have oaks from around the world. I actually don’t believe that it will lead to one huge melting pot where all of the oaks begin to look like some mongrel oak. I do think there are reasons species exist and we can recognize distinct types. This divergence is necessary and powerful. But it is also quite possible that something entirely new and successful will emerge from this natural experiment. That “hopeful monster” idea.
CP: After your talk, I remember someone asked how we should relate an interest in tree kinkiness with traditional agricultural and horticultural strategies—specifically with regards to wine. Certain grapes have been carefully and conservatively reproduced to ensure that the resulting wine is the same as it has always been. To me, the question illustrated an interesting tension between the Romance of cultural traditions and the controlled goods they yield—goods that so often encapsulate human identity and accomplishment, i.e., wine, cheese, yogurt, maybe even apples. It’s hard to square that tradition against a dismal future, where human identity may not even exist. Should we give up the ways that winemaking, for instance, informs our approach to the landscape?
CC: A leading researcher for Gallo Wines recently spoke directly about this issue because wine breeders feel tightly constrained by the market. Everyone demands that Merlot remain Merlot, somehow sacred, while in fact, when you consider all of the research that they have performed about mouth feel and volatiles and aromatics etc. etc., all the things that make up the taste and value of a wine, they know how to grow grapes that taste fantastic and yet, you can’t sell them because this new fantastic grape variety doesn’t have a recognizable name and didn’t emerge out of the Old Country. It’s a bit ridiculous. It’s like demanding that new automobile technology not be introduced because we really like our Model T. There is nothing sacred about wine varieties. In fact, they are a hybrid plant, with these varieties grafted onto an American rootstock that was brought over to Europe to save the vineyards which were being attacked and killed. If you really remained true to these varieties, you should have let them go extinct. We can still continue to improve them. It’s not as if the ancient Romans perfected the wine grape and we have no power or ability to modify or improve them to our own modern tastes and climates.
CP: That makes sense, and maybe highlights a strangely human propensity to impose a kind of changelessness on the world. But it’s heartbreaking also somehow, and maybe that’s one of the ways I feel very much implicated in this Anthropocene question. On the one hand, I’m all for crazy tree evolutions and multispecies enthnographies, and let’s disrupt the status quo, or redistribute wealth etc., and yet funny things like coffee, cheese, wine, bread—I would miss those things. Even further, I admire the generational craft they contain.
CC: It’s a problem with purity. Purity and diversity are almost naturally opposed to one another. Demanding purity negatively impacts diversity. To maintain a particular type of grape, you have to propagate it clonally, and to refine it further, you would have to breed it with itself, which leads to inbreeding. If you demand that a particular natural product, like perfectly consistent ears of corn or just so long fat potatoes, remains utterly the same and mechanizable, you have to basically break one of the fundamental tenets of evolution—that the population varies. Nature is all about change and exploring that change, exposing the potential of that change. Nothing ever remains the same in nature. There is no “right” way to do anything.
It’s that reason that I promote tree kinkiness. We emphasize diversity and freedom of expression in humans but we demand an unnatural level of consistency in nature. As we enter the Anthropocene, there is no way to predict the future climate or most appropriate land use or the dominant economic drivers of the future. We cannot hold trees to a level of fidelity that we don’t expect of ourselves. Going forward, we should be willing to imagine unnatural sex in trees in order to create a new type of tree that meets the needs of the future. Tree breeding is difficult. I was discussing the process of breeding a new variety of tree and it takes roughly 15 years, under the best circumstances, to develop and test a new type of tree and get it into the marketplace.
CP: Do you think standards will continue to make sense in our Anthropocene future?
CC: Nature is all about change. We are trying to hold nature to a standard that it rejects. It is always poised to mutate and change and adapt to the new reality, which throughout history is generally unpredictable and the process is rather chaotic. We talk about sustainability a lot these days without recognizing that sustainability itself is an unnatural concept itself. Populations naturally boom and bust, species teeter on the edge of extinction and then expand across a continent as conditions change over tens and hundreds of years. What we are trying to do is reach some type of steady state with high levels of constant production, completely predictable and standardized natural products, like the utterly predictable potato, indistinguishable from a vast field of identical potatoes? I’ve always struggled a great deal with the idea of sustainability because I don’t see it anywhere in nature and so we are trying to invent something that is basically supernatural. To me, going back to my search for what makes us ‘human’ versus a ‘primate’, it is the spiritual, the belief in good, the quixotic search for sustainability. To make the transition into a new bright and shiny world without causing the sixth great extinction or plunging ourselves into a new dark age, we will have to defy or at least bend some rules of nature.
Last winter, I had the chance to interview Lindsey French, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Sarah Ross, and A. Laurie Palmer, about a collaborative exhibition they participated in with artists and students at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts in Gary, Indiana. Featuring maps, photographs, videos, and books, At The Headwaters (November 6-22, 2015) explored the Calumet River—a series of highly industrialized waterways connecting Lake Michigan, Chicago, and Indiana. With its French Colonial name and a directional flow that humankind has changed to serve its trading needs over the years, it muddles any delineation between culture and nature. The Calumet is Anthropocenic and At The Headwaters traces its relationship to petcoke, steel, international trade, and the pollution it produced.
Caroline Picard: What made you all interested in the Calumet River? How did you decide to work with students?
Lindsey French: We were interested particularly in it as the site of petcoke deposits, a petroleum by product that was being stored open air along the Calumet River. When we decided to choose this site last fall, petcoke was in the news, and as we learned more, its reach spread not just airborne to the local community, but its effect and implication extended to sites like the Alberta Tar Sands and ourselves and the petroleum industry, of course. We also chose this site for balloon mapping because balloon mapping affords the potential to capture a map of a place in a particular moment of time – distinguishing it from a more standard, or maybe public, view from google earth. So while pet coke might have drawn us to the site, we were also interested in the Calumet’s particular as complicated role as an industrial river.
Gulsah Mursaloglu: Also we were interested in the Calumet river as a site that is so proximate to us, but one that we know very little about. In a way it was an attempt to fill one of the holes in our knowledge about the environment that surrounds us.As we started researching we became more interested in the pet coke deposits and how it was affecting the local community. Since Calumet is a particularly dynamic site as Lindsey said it became important to capture an image of the site at that specific moment in time.
A. Laurie Palmer: The Calumet also offers a condensed and multi-sensory experience of industrial history more generally, as others have said, at a particular point in time when it is disappearing, or has disappeared, leaving the mounds of jumbled parts, wastes, and abandoned steel yards now used for storage for another kind of materiality that is not so much human-made, as in manufactured, but machine-made, as in captured flue gas, pulverized coke. While none of us wanted to do ruin tourism, there is something to be said about the stimulating effects of a cold boat-ride on a clear november day with close to 70 curious people; there is something to be said about amping up sensory engagement even as the experience was initiated as a critical practice of DIY sensing, and of putting ones body there, in the thick of it, holding onto the other end of the balloon.
CP: Can you describe the project and how it came about? Why make an exhibition? How did the works on display come into existence for this project?
GM: The project started as a balloon mapping collaboration between three classes at SAIC. Our initial aim was to have a different perspective of the site through the balloon mapping process; all of the classes were interested in how we understand geographies and how our understanding of these geographies are so much determined by our limited visions. After our research and balloon mapping experience on the Calumet river and the things that we learned through conversations with the community members we wanted to present these findings in the format of an exhibition. We wanted this exhibition to be presented in Miller Beach which is one of the sites that are affected by the petcoke deposits and we wanted to share our findings and present a different vision on the location to the local community. The works in the exhibition vary from documentation of our boat trip to knitted maps, to the balloon which was the departure point to everything, to works that are made after the boat trip as a reflection to our trip and findings.
CP: Would you consider the river a collaborator? How? And do you consider the river in the same way now that you did when you began?
LF: The river is perhaps the element in this project with the strongest, or maybe most consistent, influence. But strong and consistent in a more liquid sense, in the sense that it was a structural force that moved between the industrial sites on each bank and moved us between those sites. But also in the sense that it was this strong, central feature that shaped our understanding of the project, and also allowed us to think about its influence as it leaked out of this site and into neighborhoods, into the city, into the tar sands in Alberta, into us as inextricable from the materials it moved and the social and political spaces it shaped. As we were discussing how to organize the show the river as a structural feature came about really early, a form around which everything else was organized. Speaking for myself here, I think if we didn’t approach it as collaborators we might not have been as open to understanding our own liquid qualities.
Sarah Ross: I would just add that, for me, the river is a collaborator in the same way that a freeway is. The river is a highway for goods, raw materials, and only sometimes used for recreation. In this way, it is an ecosystem in the most broad sense. It is part of my ecosystem because it facilitates all manner of materials that I use. Other work I’ve done looks at river systems that move materials so I understood the way ‘natural’ features are part of industrial systems. But moving down the Calumet it was pretty amazing. The river was engineered and modeled for industry. The turning basins, concrete embankments, and lack of trees or marsh was pretty astonishing. It is all industrial.
CP: What privilege does/did the boat offer you all? And what about the balloon?
LF: The boat afforded this particular opportunity to travel while mapping. In earlier projects, mapping was done from a relatively static location. On the boat, we could move along the length of the river, generating an aerial view for a much longer length of the Calumet. Maybe even more significantly, it located us in the physical position of the river, and of the materials that travel down it. We could momentarily position ourselves as materials traveling the industrial river. The balloon gave us an extension of sight, an augmentation of vision, like other lens-based viewing apparati. We talked a lot about the balloon vision—the lo-fi but high-altitude perspective of the balloon.
ALP: and just to add to that, again, our bodies there too, being watched by the balloon too – not absent staring at a screen in a distant relation to the place being mapped—but feeling, smelling, sensing the place at the same time.
CP: How do your roles as teachers/students function within the process of organizing and producing this exhibition?
SR: We met with students over the summer, almost on a monthly basis to figure out how the show could work. Since we had collectively gathered data—images, video, sound, etc.,—we used that as the basis for the work. We thought of the work as a collaborative endeavor, which might be a different starting point for some students who are often encouraged to make their own work, for their own portfolio, etc. But since it was a huge group effort to do the balloon mapping, it only made sense to approach the work in this way. As teachers, we contributed the same way students did, sometimes more and sometimes less. We acted as initiators of the process, we set meeting dates, etc. but the production was quite an open, dialogic process.
ALP: To do the balloon mapping expedition, we had to be collaborative to start with, and since so much of the material generated from that initial trip was documentary, and it was shared experience that was being documented if by lots of different eyes, it only made sense to think together about the show. And then we invited other artists to join in at Miller Beach, some whom we knew had already been involved with thinking about the rivers in Chicago and related environmental justice questions.
CP: It sounds like you all are interested in a kind of mapping for this show. Is that true and if so, can you talk about how/why that impulse plays out in this project?
GM: Since everything started with the idea of balloon mapping—having a different perspective on a site—we wanted the idea of mapping to be the framework for the show. We knitted digital maps from the images we have gathered through the balloon. We are interested in mapping as a way of representing a space/location; because it is a particular way that grants the maker agency and creativity. A map of the Calumet river that will be built in 3-d will act as a spine through the exhibition, both physically and conceptually. This format allows us as creative makers to both represent our findings and observations and reflect on it.
ALP: That map or spine that structures the show was beautifully elaborated and manifested by Lindsey French’s current Experimental Geographies class, a group of students who weren’t even on the original boat trip. This was another kind of collaboration, their taking that idea and running with it. The idea of the map came in part because the exhibition space at Miller beach is so huge, and it is rare to have the opportunity to expand into such a large space. The map acts as a kind of locator for visitors, in an otherwise open space, providing potential paths, directions, way-finding, and complicating the space without putting up vertical barriers.
At the Headwaters featured the work of Marissa Lee Benedict, Nathan Braunfield, Samantha Chao, duskin drum, Corey Hagelberg, Brian Holmes, Sarah Lewison, Frances Emma Lightbound, Gulsah Mursaloglu, Thomas Newlands, Allyson Packer, Dan Peterman, Alix Shaw, Koy Suntichotinun, Jan Tichy, Fereshteh Toosi, Maurice Walker, Patrick Zapien, and students in KnowledgeLab, EcoSensing and the Soundscape, and Experimental Geographies classes at SAIC; with organizers Lindsey French, A. Laurie Palmer, and Sarah Ross.
In 1887, The Illinois General Assembly reversed the Chicago River, bringing water from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi instead of the other way around. Completed in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, the process ensured that the city of Chicago could reliably access clean water, despite the immense amount of industrial activity that relied upon and the waterway for production and trade. In 1999, the same lock system that made that reversal possible was acclaimed as the “Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Both the award and the accomplishment are surreal, like something out of a China Miéville novel, perhaps especially because of the notorious pollution the same river, and it surrounding neighborhoods suffers. This industrialized approach to natural resources is not unique. It is in effect around the world, with different countries reflecting different stages and impacts of a philosophical approach in which the environment is recognized as an instrument for human affairs. Based out of New Delhi, artist, curator, writer and activist, Ravi Agarwal works to unearth the complexity of humanity’s ecological and economic imagination, drawing connections between Europe and India, while comparing the implementation and impact of industrial methods.
Caroline Picard: How do you shift between your work as an artist, curator, writer, and environmental activist? Do you find that you’ve developed a rhythm between those different modes?
Ravi Agarwal: It is exciting and challenging at the same time. It is important for me to engage politically and socially, but then there are so many modes of expressing what I think and feel. Each form needs specific outputs, requiring a different materiality that cannot be compromised of its own quality or intensity. In some ways this has become a way of my being, and I cannot seem to do without any of them. I am not aware what is being left out or undermined by working in multiple modalities at once.
CP: In 2011, you and Till Krause with Nina Kalenbach, curated the Yamuna-Elbe project, an Indo-German exhibition that took place on two rivers, the Yamuna and the Elbe. How did that project develop?
RA: It was challenge to try and link two such different landscapes not only in geographical terms, but also culturally, socially, and historically. We tried to think of common points between the two sites, but also the differences. The history of urban rivers and ecologies is coincident with histories of nation building, power, and control over rivers and suppressions of both people and other species. That same history simultaneously includes fighting diseases like cholera and malaria, through the draining of marshes, and articulates what human’s fear—nature as “disorder” or as wild. According to that vision, nature has been tamed. This was true in Europe from the 18th century when marshes were drained, forests decimated, and rivers channelized. Each of those instances was viewed as a sign of progress and its (undeliverable?) promise of utopia.
On the other hand, in countries like India where urbanization is taking place in 30 years compared to 300 years in Europe, the same assumptions and techniques to control of nature are being followed—via engineering and technology. All other embedded cultural positions which speak of co-existing with nature are slowly being forgotten in the framework of a global capitalism and smart cities. However, the situation is so different here—there is a different demand for natural resources, as well as intense populations and high levels of inequity. Once again the promise of progress is espoused as thing to believe in. There is a widespread belief that one day we will clean our rivers in India and restore them just like Europe did. But that notion is a flawed; European rivers can only be re-naturalized to a certain extent, since so much is already gone and cannot be re generated. Also in India the river is no longer public space, or treated like a commons.
We realized that not only has progress not dealt with ecological questions but also it has not questioned the fundamental location of man with power over nature. Today we know nature strikes back, such as in climate change.
CP: Do you feel like the idea of translation between sites/languages/geographies/contexts of the Yamuna-Elbe Project, was something you all were interested in?
RA: We defined three curatorial questions which were common in Germany (Europe) and India: Does progress address the question of ecology? 2) How will the land look from the river 3) Is the river public space, is it free?
Besides these unifying questions, we tried to locate the two projects in the specific discourse of public art and ecology as they exited in Hamburg and in Delhi—which were different. In Hamburg people are used to public art, as it has been there for a long time. Also the discourse on the Elbe relates to a political debate about whether or not to make the river deeper so that bigger ships could come into its river port, in order to compete with ports like Rotterdam, as well as the extent to which the Elbe can be re-natured. In Delhi the debate is different. For the Yamuna, the question is how to clean the river? How to prevent people from turning their backs on it when it is so smelly and dirty? And foster the idea of the river as an ecological landscape not only a water channel.
Also there is hardly any experience which people have with contemporary public art. So while the overall questions were common, the form of the art, the idea of publics was different. These differences changed the form of the project in the two spaces so as to lodge it in specific contexts.
It was an attempt to see a global moment in ecology and its contestations with “progress,” while locating that moment in a locally specific trajectory of art and ecology.
CP: What did the final exhibitions or events look like?
RA: In Hamburg we parked a barge at Hafen City, the high end site for the new gentrified Hamburg riverfront, where artists were invited to install works. Besides, it hosted talks and workshops from several people from different disciplinary backgrounds. This was on for over a month. In Delhi, the site in Delhi in the riverfront became a site for art installations, performances, talks and music concerts, walks etc., for two weeks. The riverfront—which was typically avoided by people—became a place to see, visit, and discover.
CP: In your recent exhibition, Else, all will be still, you included a series of Sangam Engine photographs—images that framed individual, corroded pieces from motorboat engines that look as though they no longer work. I feel you focus on those objects to highlight the engineered materials used to fish, as well as their obsolescence, the traces of the sea’s encounter with those objects, and the choice fishermen often make to pay extra money for motorboats in order to pull a larger catch. There is something very linguistic about the images, as though each object could almost be a poem in and of itself, with a grammatical machinery; that sense was reiterated when I read about the connection you were making between the engine parts and the Sangam poetry tradition. I wanted to see if you might talk a bit about how you connect our relationship to the environment with language, and where you see the parallels and refractions between Sangam Engines and Sangam poetry?
RA: I am very interested in the different trajectories which were possible over time, and where for one reason or another we, as human societies, took certain paths over others. Sangam poetry is pre-modern, said to be written between 300 BC and 200 AD, in Tamil language from South India. A significant part of it deals with landscapes and internal ideas of the self. For example the sea is not the “sea,” but denotes internal sentiments like “pining,” and “waiting.” There is a dissolution of the didactic subject–object relationship, which is a far cry from how we know nature now—as an object to be conquered and codified, rather than an unknown entity which can only be partly known and experienced, depending on what questions one asks about it. I believe that we can only know nature in terms that we pre-define—that is in an epistemological system of our own making. We produce “nature” in a Foucauldian way to gain power over it, but on the other hand as a cosmic entity, nature is elusive and confusing.
The Sangam engine works arise from these thought processes. Does Nature have to be inscribed in the history of technology and capital or can it also be projected in the lost history of early landscape poetry? The two linguistic systems lead us to very different trajectories of human “progress,” and also to very different desires of human beings which are reflected in them. What are we as a species? The first or the latter? And what can we be? In this question also lies a future of sustainability I think.
CP: In a conversation at the Venice Biennial, “Disappearance As Work In Progress- Approaches To Ecological Romanticism,” you said “Somehow there has been legitimization of anything that is institutional. If something is legitimate it becomes institutional. So we have the U.N. body, the corporate bodies, and these are legitimate states. But what do they hold, and what value do they hold, what are their imaginations, we do not enquire about that and when you try and battle them and you try and reform them, they are not often aware of what you are trying to deal with.” I’m really interested in this idea of institutional imagination, perhaps especially with respect to the subject/object division. How are hierarchical patterns—or binaries of thought—re-inscribed by institutional habit? What might alternative institutions look like?
RA: Institutions are placeholders for values and imaginations, providing society a sense of continuity. They are repositories of culture and techniques of our times, and help shape our present and the future. In many ways they are capable of holding time which is ecological or long. As humans we live for a few decades only and our cause and effect desires only relate to short periods, while ecological impacts can take centuries to manifest. Since historically, nature has been considered a “free gift,” our institutions are very human centric, and do not hold the required values to cope with the current ecological crisis, for example. Hence in an era of climate change we are struggling with embedded values in financial, political, and scientific institutions. Because the crisis is ecological, which has been the unrepresented or underrepresented reality, our institutions need to reinvent themselves very drastically to cope with it. Amitabh Ghosh, the well known author, in his recent writings on climate change, reflects why literature has been unable to speak of such “unlikely” events. It seems we cannot deal with natural calamity which is so basic that it rocks the very basis of our epistemological constructs of society. It’s like an Alien landing on Earth.
If we recognize that nature is not only a resource, but a complex idea, where we are both subject and object at the same time, we will have to reinvent the idea of “progress” itself, and rethink realities which are equally immanent—like fragility, mortality, ephemerality, un-knowability. All these are against the idea of certainty, permanence, control, greed, fixed identities, which have become the hallmark of our existence today. Imagine a society which holds such values, and the institutions which hold it. Poetry will become the language and the poet the chronicler. I do not want to romanticize this, but only to suggest that another set of values which are not “power” based, will lead to another society and another set of institutions which hold them.
CP: During a seminar discussion about Governance in the Anthropocene at the HKW last April (2016), the group discussed modes of protest, asking how we might answer the ecological and social devastation tied to corporate and industrial extraction through civil disobedience. If I remember correctly, you pointed out that the nature of what we are facing is quite different from any power structure faced in the 60s, and as such requires a different strategy for resistance. Taking to the streets, so to speak, would not have the same effectiveness it once did. I wondered if you might say more about that—why wouldn’t the traditional protest model work and what might alternative modes of resistance be?
RA: Like women were (are?), nature has been an outsider. Both are categories produced to be ‘operated’ upon, in a schema of power. In that sense, I feel, both are generated through a ‘male’ or patriarchal gaze. Feminism taught us that we needed a new gender sensitive politics, a new terminology and a new reading of what was considered history. Before, even our most radical politics did not recognize its inherent and deep biases of gender. Upturning power structures needs a epistemological overhaul. Similarly challenging the idea of ‘nature’ as the category it has come to represent, needs a new way of thinking of the planet, of other conditions which are non-human which impact our lives and our futures. The history of the world can be re-written (is being re-written in parts in fact) as a history of nature and resource-use. Only now, we are at a point of a crisis, which needs urgent attention.
In many senses we have failed in parts to bring the equity and fairness we sought through our past revolutions. There is now an easy coincidence of democracy and capital, where a very few people control the world’s wealth and we have not been able to keep large corporations in check. Democracy has also provided a safety valve to counter the idea of revolution itself, and while electoral representational politics promises equity, it has also become more and more corporatized, funded by capital with private interests. I think we are coming to realize that there can be no fair human society without the long discarded and discredited term “ethics.”
However introducing ethics is not only about human societies, it has to be about the idea of the non-human as well. “Human interest” has to include the “non-human” not only for human futures, but as an idea of equity itself. We need to make “nature” political, but not only in the way it has been so far, i.e. as a politics of resource use, but in a new way—as a politics of a planetary futures.
How do we hear the voices of the under-represented and the oppressed? Are we capable of hearing the voice of something that speaks a different language? Can we hear the voice of the non-human? We are far away from that still; it will mean re-inserting a lost relationship of co-existence or co-imagination of nature—more akin to what is reflected in Sangam poetry—and a new respect for what ultimately we cannot and should not really control.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
During the HKW’s (Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s) 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, Delhi-based multi-media artist, Rohini Devasher, and I attended the same Co-Evolutionary Perspectives of the Technosphere Seminar. Part of our required reading was Tim Ingold’s essay, “On Weaving a Basket.” By looking at the long history of basket making, Ingold explores how “the difference between making and growing is by no means as obvious as might have thought,” (p.1) suggesting as a result that we might have to soften “the distinction between artefacts and living things” (p.1), form and substance, and even technology and nature. In the following conversation, Devasher and I explore similar themes as they weave in and out of her own diverse practice.
Caroline Picard: Is this what you thought the House of World Cultures would feel like?
Rohini Devasher: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I had any particular expectations about the HKW.
CP: I guess I ask because the name, House of World Cultures, seems very literary to me. It sounds like a place that people in a novel would go. (laughs) How did you come to be here? Did you apply?
RD: A curator I know, Maya Kovskaya, went to the first 2014 Anthropocene Curriculum and she said it was something I should look at, so I decided to apply.
CP: It does seem like there is a strong interest in ecology and technology in your work.
RD: I’m glad. I’m always a little afraid of saying that because I feel like I don’t necessarily have the, what’s the word…
RD: Exactly! That is exactly the word I was looking for. Because I don’t have training in ecology, I don’t have field experience like people who work either with grassroots organizations or specifically with real science, whatever that means, but ecology is something I am very interested in. I’m glad that comes across.
CP: Your work addresses fractals, botany, radio telescopes, video feedback, the sky…
RD: There are parallel streams in my practice. Video feedback is one side, my interest in amateur astronomy another, or my wall drawings—I’ve been doing those since 2004. Depending on what research I’m doing at the time, the wall drawings change, obviously, but they’re a very real, physical, embodied way of working on a space. I’m really interested in the contemporary condition of wonder—because with the Amateur Astronomers for instance, what worries me is that Delhi is losing the skies…
CP: What do you mean, losing the skies?
RD: Light pollution. When I joined the group in 1997, we had overnight observations just at Nehru Planetarium which is right in the center of the Delhi. Now you have to go six hours or seven hours out of the city to see stars. It’s really bad. Pollution in Delhi in any case is bad, but what people aren’t talking about is light pollution. What happens if a generation of people grow up without ever seeing the stars? That’s deeply troubling to me. Seeing the night sky is something that plants you on the Earth in a way that nothing else does.
CP: Yeah, Astronomy makes you think about what is above and beyond—just having to acknowledge that burning rocks hang out in the distant universe is wild! But I also love pretending sometimes that the sky might just be a black cloth with pin holes in it.
RD: A screen for projections or something.
CP: You started as a painter and a print maker?
RD: I think print making started everything off, because it has two parts. You’ve got the plate making and the actual print making; and the plate—whether it’s stone, whether it’s metal, whether it’s a screen, whether it’s a block of wood—has this potential for multiplicity and iteration which I found very interesting. Even when I was studying print making, I was frustrated by the idea of the edition, where every print that you make has to be identical to all the rest. Later, I started using the plate as a sort of block that also has the potential for multiplicity and iteration. I would take like a lithograph and just one piece of paper and I would keep printing over it with that same image.
CP: Like an analogue method of distortion…
RD: The interesting point is when pattern becomes noise becomes chaos and then after that form emerges again. That’s what got me interested in plants, because nature is fractal. Nature has a very simple and effective method for building complicated structures from simple parts using recursion—manifesting in almost infinite instances of pattern, symmetry and geometry. Plants are one example. From the more conventional forms of printmaking, I moved into digital mediums, where I would construct these sort of strange denizens of a science fiction botanical garden, specimens in a bizarre cabinet of curiosity, or portents of a distant future. Each final work was the result of many hundreds of layers, of both photograph and drawing. But once finished, they were necessarily flattened and lost any sense of gradually articulated complexity that is so integral to their making.
CP: And that’s how you moved towards video?
RD: Literally. One day I was just surfing, researching complex systems online, and I saw an image of what looked like a star burst, so I clicked on the link and it went to this page which was a DIY diagram of video feedback, which has been around since what, the 1960s, right? I tried it out, and until that point if you had asked me if I would work with video I was sure I would never have, but this feedback approach was a language I understood, because I got it, it was just a camera plugged into a TV. It’s a camera looking at itself. It’s like a reflection, and then the forms that are generated within it start to mimic biological life, and that’s amazing, and then the wealth of possibilities within this dynamic system and the fact that it’s so embodied.
CP: So, the technology starts to perform patterns we’d otherwise attribute to the natural world? What is it recording? Is there a first landscape, for instance, that you then distort? Like the lithograph block?
RD: In video feedback the forms are all generated within the machine, so if you just have a camera and the TV, then usually you get a blob, a circle, which then becomes a square, which then becomes a triangle; it’s instructional if you want to understand morphology. It’s very similar to the old kaleidoscopes. The optical equivalent of acoustic feedback, where a loop is created between the video camera and the television screen or monitor. Like two mirrors facing each other, the image is doubled and interferes with itself. And if you add mirrors at right angles to the TV, that’s when it gets really interesting! It becomes fractal. Because there are more surfaces for the light to bounce off, you get an amazing array of spatio-temporal patterns, mimicking those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, cells, tree forms, galaxy like formations, starbursts, bacteria, snowflakes. I take all that footage, I dump it into a computer, then cut it up and stitch it back together in different configurations, sort of like a backward jigsaw.
CP: Over the last few days in Berlin, we’ve had different conversations about the Technosphere as an auto-poetic system. It seems related to what you’re describing.
RD: It is! Video feedback is an example of self-organization of pattern in nature, which is why this behavior starts to look like trees or phytoplankton or zooplankton, which under the microscope also have the most incredible skeletal structures. This is what I’m really interested in: how you see biological patterns mirrored in digital space. Like when moss grows in zero gravity, it grows in a spiral, as if the spiral shape is embedded in the material somehow.
CP: Would you say you “collaborate” with the material?
RD: It’s you interacting with the environment at a point in time, and it’s the material suggesting the way forward, which is exactly what happens with printmaking and video feedback. The material, in a very real way, leads the way, much more than in any of the other work I do.
CP: But then isn’t everything that way? Like any material has limits and strengths that one has to adapt to and work with?
RD: I’ll tell you what, I don’t feel that way with the other work that I do. When I go to an observatory, for instance, the site becomes the activator but I don’t think I could call it a medium, do you know what I mean?
CP: Even when you’re documenting the site? For instance…
RD: The telescopes.
CP: Yeah. Describe it…
RD: I’ve been doing this project for about five years, but it started long before that. When I joined the Amateur Astronomers Association in New Delhi (the same year I joined art school) I was a pretty active member for about five years. Then I lost touch with the group for a while, but then in July 2009, India witnessed the longest total eclipse of the millennium and I travelled to Patna, Bihar to see it. Unfortunately, the weather played spoilsport and the eclipse was completely occluded. I saw nothing, except the rain, the darkness, and the euphoria of every astronomer on the roof. I have never been as aware of my position on the Earth as I was at that moment. I had this intense sense that there was something there, something tangible, something that could be channeled, something extraordinary. I wondered if it was possible to create a sense of engagement with someone else’s experiences even when they were of the single most transforming celestial event, a total solar eclipse.
CP: I like appreciate your interest in the astronomers’ euphoria…that somehow that helped locate your place on the earth as well.
RD: Almost immediately after that, I came a residency in Delhi called the City as a Studio, initiated by the Raqs Media Collective at the Center for Developing Societies (CSDS). I applied, got the nine-month fellowship, and began by interviewing the amateur astronomers. Then started travelling to a bunch of observatories all over India with them, including the second highest observatory in the world, the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) at Hanle, one of the world’s highest sites for optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes in Ladakh—like something straight out of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rama.” It’s this 14,500 feet high altitude desert and you’ve got these incredible telescopes—they become almost chimeric, like interesting signifiers…that’s what got me interested in the idea of these sites of technological strangeness as interfaces.
CP: And when you’re at these locations?
RD: I just shoot. I photograph the site blindly almost…The video feedback work demands such a structured and specific approach, when I first started shooting these sites, I didn’t know what to do because I was like, “this the real world, how do I react to it?” I was shooting everything but what the amateurs were shooting. The amateur astronomer is shooting the night sky. I wasn’t interested in that. I’m more interested in their lived experience of the site.
CP: Even though you’re going to these visually astonishing places, my sense is you’re not trying to capture a traditionally sublime experience of landscape…does that make the landscape more or less a medium?
RD: That’s a great point. I don’t think I’m interested in the sublime in the way I understand the word, if that makes sense. But I am interested in “wonder.” I don’t know if that’s very different? While I’m there shooting the site, I don’t know what the end result will be, so I don’t know then if I could say the landscape is medium. Once you get the footage, then of course the footage will tell you what to do with it.
CP: I’m flirting with metaphysical territory maybe, but at least for me when I see something that I want to work on, write about for instance … let’s just say I feel like there’s a way that the material acts on me. In that way I can’t tell if I would locate the landscape as a kind of medium, or if the medium would only be in the material I use to capture that landscape.
RD: Yeah, you’re right, on the one hand you’ve got these kinds of sites but I’ve also found—like when I went to Japan on this other residency, it was in the island of Kyushu, and I realized that there was a volcano three hours away, so I was like, “I have to go there,” and I was as drawn to that site—so now I’m wondering, “what’s going on here?” Because you’re right, then it is actually about the other kind of sublime, which is the more traditional reading, right? Where it is just this incredible, smoking volcano. I haven’t done anything with that footage yet.
CP: What did you film when you went?
RD: Kyushu actually has one of the largest calderas in the world, this big crater, and you can walk along it, but you couldn’t because there was a level two eruption, so they had closed off one kilometer back. What I actually shot was the smoking crater—a huge cloud, like a massive cloud maker—spewing this beautiful bluish white smoke into the sky. I also shot a lot of fog and mist, It was a very wet and overcast weekend (and the clouds follow me wherever I go, that’s a whole other story, I have been to some of the highest sites in the world and have yet to see the Milky Way!)
CP: What did the volcano smell like?
RD: We were coughing a lot and couldn’t figure out why, but it’s just what you imagine; it’s like rotten eggs, extremely acrid. It’s amazing, but then I trekked along the other bits and there are these older calderas, which are these beautiful perfect green mounds with little dips in them, but then, because you’re high up, and they’re in the middle, and you’ve got this amazing volcanic sort of fractal pattern in the ground; the fog came down then, so the mountain came in and out of focus. It was an amazing thing, and I’m not sure what, maybe I’m going to build some kind of fiction around the idea of disappearance and re-appearance.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
The following comic was inspired by In The Cosmic Fugue (Oct-Dec 2015): a solo exhibition by Jacob Hashimoto, and originally appeared on Hyperallergic.
Thanks to Jillian Steinhauer for all of the editorial support.