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.
In 2014, Open Humanities published Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2014), a robust collection of essays, interviews and “vectors” co-edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin. Over the course of 400 pages, more than forty contributors provide an unflinching, polyvocal examination of artistic production in the Anthropocene. As Critical Climate Change editors Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook write in their introduction to the series “The possibility of extinction has always been a latent figure in the textual production and archives; but the current sense of depletion, decay, mutation and exhaustion calls for new modes of address, new styles of publishing and authoring, and new formats and speeds of distribution.” In the following interview, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin describe their editorial process, articulating once more the need to disrupt petrocapitalism and the violence perpetuated by its entrenched hierarchies.
Caroline Picard: I’m curious about the character of your conversation as editors on Art in the Anthropocene—what made you come together, and what it was like to follow through on such an ambitious project?
Etienne Turpin: I wanted to work with Heather because her writing and research were already very influential on my thinking in Architecture in the Anthropocene (2013), in which she made several key contributions, but also because she was a colleague whose thinking I admire and respect. Fortunately, she was interested to work on this collection together, and we shared an interest in moving beyond a standard academic collection to include many voices that often get “edited out” through a credentialized, patriarchal, and white supremacist process of publishing in the Higher Education industry. We both had ideas about who to invite and how to proceed, and I learned a lot as we made the book together. It was a serious project—I think for both of us—because the Anthropocene was becoming a thing, and we wanted that thing to remain political and meaningful; it has, of course, become a theme, and a rather sad theme in many instantiations, but I think the book was an attempt to keep alive a trajectory of thinking, and to explore it with thinkers, artists, and writers with whom we shared some affinities.
Heather Davis: I was keen to work on a book that drew together my interests in art, politics, and environmental thought. Etienne’s and my own commitments and perspectives both converged and diverged throughout the project, and so part of the reason the book contains so many different lines is that we opted for the plurality produced through the tension in our different positions and geographical locations. We were both committed to trying to retain the Anthropocene as a political concept, as Etienne says. Also, we both reject traditional hierarchies being applied to the modes of thinking that art, writing, and conversation enable. Each of these forms is necessary when working through the ecological horrors and their attendant social crises in this historical moment. The art projects that are published in the book are not an afterthought nor are they used as illustrations; instead, they are valuable, nuanced ways to engage with the affective complexity of living through these difficult times.
CP: At one point in your introduction, you suggest that “the arts can be a way of attuning to new realities,” almost as an antidote, I think, to culture’s fast-assimilation of facts, conditions, and terms. I was wondering if you could talk more about how you see art’s role, and what art and philosophy might have in common?
HD: One of the things that is so strange about our current moment is that the world we are born into changes, has changed, is changing, so fast that it is almost unrecognizable, even within a relatively short lifetime. The kinds of tacit knowledge we have about a place cannot be assumed to continue. I am thinking of everything from technological change to when a river will freeze or what kinds of plants or animals one might run across. The forms of knowledge that people (and animals and plants) have carried from generation to generation for thousands of years are becoming less and less stable, making their use equally precarious. We are having to learn to adapt at a pace that is unprecedented, all to keep up with the fantasy of unending economic growth. These kinds of changes are aesthetic changes, changes to our systems of sensing and feeling. Art practices have deep vocabularies with which to express and explore the strangeness of our present, its contradictions, and the ways we are moving and being moved. Art practices can provide a secular space of ritual and engagement with the affective horrors of our times in a way that allows us to feel without becoming completely overwhelmed or desensitized.
Philosophy can also be creative and meaningful, it can help find ways to develop structures of relation and feeling that allow us to move through, to continue. In developing concepts, philosophy or critical theory helps us to name structures of power and new modes of existence.
Of course, each of these modes, despite our attachments to them, are completely enmeshed in capitalism’s systems of accumulation. They are not enough. We need direct action and government policies that address the problems that we are living through. But we also need ways of feeling and thinking that allow us to continue without falling apart. Art and philosophy can be ways of making sense, of providing modes of futurity, and propositions for living differently.
ET: I agree completely with Heather on this point; for me, personally, philosophy and art are practices that help keep me together amidst the violence of the present while, at the same time, connecting my work as a researcher to other transversal elements which cross paths conceptually or pragmatically. A remarkable thing, isn’t it, that art and philosophy can both keep you together and pull you apart?
I’d just add to what Heather wrote that I think that philosophy and art are engaged, in a fundamental way, with what Deleuze identified as a problem of the cliche. It is not that thinking or artistic production face a blank page (or a blank canvas), but one that is so full of cliches that it prevents thought or sensation from unfolding during an encounter. So, perhaps this was present as well in the book: how can we approach the Anthropocene, with its climate migrations and resource wars, its mass extinction and ecocide, without adding to the cliches already filling our thoughts and perceptions in a world of mass media? How to make sense and make thought that avoids the reductive trap of the trending cliche?
CP: Going to this idea of epistemological diversity, does the banner of the Anthropocene offer new possibilities for that vision? What role might translation play in such an endeavor?
HD: I think the Anthropocene offers the possibility of genuinely working across different academic disciplines, from the humanities, the arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences. It is a concept that has sparked a lot of dialogue among these epistemological communities and has prompted new methodologies that seek to link and take seriously different disciplines. There have been some interesting moments in the humanities incorporating geologic and biologic thinking into our understanding of the human. Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of work to be done for the Anthropocene to not simply be a reiteration of white supremacist, European, patriarchal thought. We can see this in the unquestioned re-assertion of Man as the signifier of humanity, and White Man as both the ultimate villain and paradoxical saviour of the Earth. These narratives are incredibly damaging and it is deeply troubling that they are being re-told as part of the Anthropocene story. This is what Zoe Todd takes aim at in her brilliant essay “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” the blind re-articulation of white supremacist logics couched in psuedo-scientific language.
ET: I agree with Heather on this point as well; while there is an incredible opportunity to leverage the Anthropocene as a context which demands the complete overhaul of the disciplines in the Higher Education Industry, committed, engaged post-disciplinary research remains precariously on the fringe despite so much lip service being paid to collaboration by university deans and presidents.
Meanwhile, you have the journal Telos publishing an issue called “Political Critiques of the Anthropocene” with only male European contributors. In 2015! Maybe the left of the European academia isn’t so far from the patriarchal white supremacy of Donald Trump after all?! It seemed like it must be a joke, or something from The Onion, but it wasn’t at all. The blindness that allows Telos editors to reproduce patriarchy in this way is no different from any other status quo comportment to the violence of the present, or toward the political economic system we call capitalism. Of course, this is just one among countless other possible examples.
But, please let me try saying this another way: if the practices that converge in and through encounters with the Anthropocene—whether as a discourse or as an existential condition—do not work to dismantle patriarchal white supremacy and Eurocentrism, they won’t have achieved much. Sure, Telos might appear to be relevant, or even contemporary, or someone might add a few lines to their CV or shore up their tenure case, but enduring the Anthropocene requires a renewed, militant attention to the organization of power and its everyday reproduction, which is not some academic trend but a vital part of political struggle within a history of “emancipatory social practices,” as Félix Guattari might say.
CP: You connect the violence of petrocapitalism with white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and ableism, offering this elegant and seemingly effortless capsule of why the Anthropocene is so entwined with both human society and the environment, a capsule that reiterates the entanglements of our world. As Heather points out in her essay on plastic, it seems impossible to stop producing the stuff without creating a massive disruption in global society. How can we move forward within the paradox that many of the systems of civilization (particularly Western civilization), which were devised for its subsistence, are both extremely harmful and yet impossible to step outside of without spurning some other form of violence? How would humanity accomplish such a change, or is this change what we should aim for?
HD: It is certainly what we should aim for. There are lots of people who are living in the world who have knowledge of how to live well without this ecocidal violence. You are right that such a drastic shift will signal the end of this world, and that will cause a huge amount of disruption, but thinking about this moment historically is useful. Capitalism has only been around for a few hundred years. Industrialization is an even shorter period. And the world that we are living in is undergoing rapid change all the time. It seems strange that we are so willing to embrace so many kinds of change that continue ongoing violence in tacit and explicit ways, but are so reticent to embrace change that would result in a lessening of this violence—of course the reasons for this are structural, but we need, at least, to hold on to a perspective that what we are living through is an anomaly and that there are multiple ways of living differently. We don’t need petrocapitalism to survive; it is slowly killing everything we need, from human knowledge systems and cultural vibrancy to the air and water and land and other-than-human creatures. How to go about creating this change, undoing petrocapitalist logics and subjectivities and cultural systems is a different question, but there is no doubt that this system is slowly strangling most of us and it is imperative that we end it. Keep it in the Ground or Idle No More are future forms of resistance enacted in the present, vital forces that show a way forward.
ET: Of course, it is true that radically undoing an omnicidal system like capitalism will cause tremendous stress on all related systems, no doubt. Are those stresses and challenges worth enduring, worth considering as amor fati, given that capitalism is programmed to resist all reform and kill everything on earth for the obscene, unprecedented profit of literally less than 100 billionaires? Jacob Wren’s recent book Rich and Poor takes up this question with incredible elegance and humor; in essence, he asks us to reimagine class struggle in the context of the Anthropocene, where “man to man” antagonisms are displaced by precarious affinities, contingent alliances, and an array of entangled forces that cultivate resurgent, albeit “post-heroic,” political struggles.
CP: When the Anthropocene asks that we revisit so many priorities, I wonder how it might influence our sense of the self?
HD: In The Three Ecologies, Guattari talks about the necessity of addressing not just the ecology of the natural world, but the social and psychic ecology. In many ways, this assertion underlies our editorial decisions in the book. We want to address not only the ways in which petrocapitalism is tearing apart the earth and the other-than-human creatures that we share the planet with, depend upon, and are composed of, but to seriously think through the forms of social and psychic life that are created, what Brett Bloom calls petrosubjectivity. Many of the essays, interviews, and art projects which appear in the book are experiments in how to inhabit the world and the notion of the self differently. What might it mean to think about temporality outside of the logics of everyday capitalism, as Ada Smailbegovi? asks? Or, what does it mean to think about history from the point of view of a human-made organism, as Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson do with cattle? And, how might we imagine, with Natasha Myers, what we are living through beyond the teleological assumptions of the apocalypse with all its masculinist fantasies? Each of these questions are about the kinds of subjects we are and might become. These thought experiments in imagining the self differently are central to the process of undoing petrocapitalism, even if we cannot stop there.
ET: Your question is extremely important. Why edit a book together? Why work with others—others who have different ideas, perspectives, concerns, passions, convictions—if not to be remade by these encounters? For me Art in the Anthropocene is like a well-crafted scrapbook from a period of extremely painful reflection on the violence of the present, a period of thinking and reworking how I could sustain a commitment to struggle through my practice and my encounters with others. There is no contribution that did not change my perspective on my own work and on the condition of the Anthropocene, not to mention how co-editing the book with Heather and designing the book with Sara Dean shaped other lines of inquiry related to my practice as a designer and curator. If by reading this book other people are remade a little too, I would be pleased; I was changed by the project and I am grateful to Heather, Sara, and all the contributors for helping me encounter new ways to believe in the world. So, as we write in the introduction: “We can’t say where it goes; in bringing together these essays, projects, and interviews, the measure of our work will be the measurelessness of the worlds which take little bits of this book elsewhere to resist, struggle, and become-together something more powerful than universals and more sensitive than identities.”
Working at the vanguard of art, technology, and education, Nettrice Gaskins currently directs the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) Lab at the Boston Arts Academy—the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts, “serving more than 440 urban students who otherwise might not have access to both formal arts and a college preparatory education.” Within the Lab, Gaskins puts techno-vernacular creativity into practice, while pursuing her own independent work as a writer, artist, teacher, and Afrofuturist practitioner. When so many conversations around the Anthropocene call for a new epistemological approach to learning and accessibility, it’s amazing to speak with someone inhabiting that vision so intimately. In the following interview Gaskins and I discuss the intersecting layers of imagination and technology.
Caroline Picard: I’m curious about the power of imagination and how it can open new possibilities, futures, and histories—In a recent Art21 article, you quoted Jerry Philips, saying “By exploring ‘possible worlds’ and ‘intuitions of the future’ that critique the present…the [artist] recovers purposive human time, the sense that history is not something that simply happens to us, irrespective of our will and desires, but is, indeed, ours to make.” How does that approach influence your teaching strategies at STEAM?
Nettrice Gaskins: Recently, I taught a summer STEAM workshop at Boston Arts Academy. The theme was “Journey to Mars” and students ages 11-15, spent a great deal of time thinking about and designing models based on ideas about what the Mars mission would look like and what life would be like on Mars in the future. First, they were asked to identify the positive and negative elements of their actual home community, then draft a plan for an ideal community, and build a simple three-dimensional model of it. Students also constructed vehicles that would get them to Mars or help them travel on the planet. In order to do these tasks, young people have to be able to imagine possible worlds like Mars and what it might be like to live there in the future. The level of student engagement was notable because they worked constantly, sometimes through scheduled breaks. They researched and tinkered for hours. Today, students don’t have many opportunities to get involved in semi-structured (at least on the surface) activities that allow them to move from ideas to prototypes. This is the promise of STEAM, especially of “making,” or artscience which are two applications of STEAM.
CP: It sounds like there is a way you give students a kind of agency that they might not feel in most other educational contexts, creating an integrated learning environment, where social, practical, scientific, technological, and environmental factors are in play at once, to such an extent that group effectively builds a world together.
NG: Sure, that’s fair. One of the summer STEAM students approached me to say that she’d heard that I liked David Bowie. For the next half-hour we listened to tracks from his last album Blackstar, Space Oddity, and Life on Mars, then used a sound impact sensor and other electronics to see how LEDs responded to the music. I watched this student go from being extremely shy to standing in front of parents, friends, and other students to talk about her project, in addition to the work she did with her group. It’s not something you plan for but you can be prepared to respond to almost anything.
CP: Could talk a bit about your project, Alternate Futures: Afrofuturist Multiverses & Beyond (2010), an interactive, virtual exhibition you made for the IBM exhibition space, Second Life. What is it like installing an exhibition in virtual space?
NG: For this project, the now-defunct IBM Exhibition Space was the sponsor and curator. They marketed the show, so people all over the real world could visit. I had unlimited access to virtual land and virtual 3D objects to build simulations from the ground up, so to speak. There were no physical walls, just virtual borders for the Second Life region. I had virtual water, air, and sky. During the time when I created the simulation, I was researching and having conversations with different people about “afrofuturistic cultural production.” These inputs gave me ideas about where to begin. For example, I was inspired by by JJ Grandville’s 18th century interpretation of an interplanetary bridge. My version of this structure spanned the length of the simulation and was the centerpiece of the exhibition. On either side were two installations exploring utopia and dystopia. The work culminated in a grand opening and was visited by several people (as 3D avatars), some more than once. A new installation grew to include simulations of work by artists such as Futura 2000, Keith Haring, and Grace Jones. Because people from all over were in that virtual space, I had to provide information in the form of notecards that visitors could read and save in their Second Live inventories.
CP: Can you say a bit more about what the IBM Exhibition Space was like? How did you approach the relationship between physical and virtual space?
NG: The only physical part is the computer (screen, mouse or trackpad); the rest is virtual. In a sense, you become the avatar you control in Second Life. Prior to the IBM SL build I took a leap from a virtual 3D cliff in someone else’s simulation and, for a few seconds, my brain reacted as if I was leaping in real (physical) life. A really good virtual simulation does that; it uses objects or effects we experience or see in physical space and re-purposes them to create entirely new experiences. For example, in my IBM SL build surveillance/profiling was simulated by scripting a wall of eye balls that follow the visiting avatar around the installation.
CP: You mentioned how you provide an option to enter either an alt_Utopia or an alt_Dystopia at the beginning of Alternate Futures. How does the layered, multi-textural experience you compose with chain link fence graphics, photography, digital simulation, cosmograms, music, shifting perspectives and architectures work together to articulate that dichotomy?
NG: Texts in afrofuturism are often about utopia or dystopia. For example, in the novel Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler created a futuristic, dystopian, science-fiction world where the United States has devolved into city-states warring for the few remaining resources. Within this dystopia is Earthseed, a sacred space or religion based on the idea that God is Change. Earthseed was an option to create a different reality and in the Second Life simulation/exhibition there was a sandbox where visitors could do that. In other spaces there were objects that simulated the experience of being watched (profiled) or jailed for minor infractions. In fact, there was a floor tile in one of the SL builds that moved the avatar that stepped on it into a cage or cell. They could get out whenever they wanted but the experience urged them to explore how any group’s reality might be like that in real life: one minute you’re pulled over for a busted tail light and the next you’re in jail or worse. These Second Life installs facilitated aesthetic responses to mediate the visitors’ perceptions and interpretations. These responses were triggered by installations in a virtual 3D simulation that provoked sense making. Installs or builds are spaces where people can make sense out of raw sensory input. In real life, this is usually done through performance, i.e., call-and-response interaction. In SL, an avatar’s actions can trigger different events.
CP: Does it connect to Alexander G. Weheliye’s notion of a “virtual sounding space”?
NG: Alexander G. Weheliye’s notion of a “virtual sounding space” is a collection of sensory inputs but it’s not necessarily interactive. It is through the creation of virtual 3D spaces that we can simulate future worlds.
CP: You’ve described Afrofuturism 3.0 as a “new wave grounded in cyberpunk or postmodern sci-fi, DIY culture, electronic music, and data visualization.” Can you speak more about that lineage and how Afrofuturism 3.0 builds upon themes you attribute to Afrofuturism 2.0—i.e., inventiveness, adaptability, imagination, (re)appropriation, and persistence? What are the differences and similarities between the two? What about our current era yields this new development in Afrofuturist thought?
NG: The term Afrofuturism 3.0 challenges the notion of technology, not merely as a 20th century, Western domain. I was inspired by the coinage of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. The former consisting of static web pages, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), blogs (WordPress), and microblogs (Tumblr). Second Life is Web 2.0 because you can bring in live video and social media feeds into the virtual 3D space. Web 3.0 refers to the concept of every gadget and appliance we own being interconnected via the Internet. It is made possible by Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), Bluetooth, Wireless Fidelity (WiFi), and more. After the Second Life/IBM simulation, I started looking at how objects/designs like the cosmogram— cultural maps that represent the universe—could be overlaid with digital or virtual content. The cosmogram is a technological and navigational tool and it also facilities audience participation, specifically movement, improvisation, and ritual. This design can also be simulated (re-appropriated) using software to explore geometry and other subjects. We live in a time where more and more things (devices) are connected and, yet, more and more people feel disconnected or divided across race, class and gender lines. I see Afrofuturism 3.0 as a mechanism to bring people together through art.
CP: In a funny way, this makes me think about your Alternate Futures exhibition again, in that the Afrofuturism 3.0 you describe, where all devices are synced and connected and interacting with daily movements, seems to mash virtual and material reality, illustrating on the one hand how porous those differences are, but also how they can very easily slip into utopic or dystopic scenarios. What are some strategies for empowerment?
NG: If we were to look at what Mark Dery was studying when he came up with the term “afrofuturism” we would see that the technologies are outdated. The artists were at the cusp of a shift in how technology is viewed, from a narrow scope to a much wider landscape where we are now. To become empowered is to engage the technology, to learn it, to hack, or jack into it. I bought my first pair of virtual reality goggles in the late 1990s but it took another two decades for the mainstream to catch on (i.e., Oculus Rift). Because I am an artist who is also a computational thinker I feel empowered to tinker with Web 3.0 or the “Internet of Things.” W.E.B. Du Bois imagined this scenario in 1905 in his short story “The Princess Steel.” Now it is a reality. Right now, young people are either consumers or producers of the technology. It is the latter and the speculators who power the imaginations of the writers and artists. This is why I took on virtual 3D space.
CP: Why is art important to you? What is added, for instance, in Art and Technology as a pair, rather than just Technology? Partly, I’m thinking about it with STEAM vs STEM, though maybe also because so often it’s the art and humanities educational or public support that suffers funding cuts.
NG: Art is an extension of the creator. My mother was a computer programmer but I was not interested in computers or technology until I learned that they could be used to create art. Once I started pushing pixels around on screen I was hooked and this happened in high school. It would take a couple of years before I learned how to program and I never stopped drawing, painting and sculpting with analog materials. Artists are often more willing than scientists or programmers to engage other domains, which is why STEAM is more provocative than STEM. I began as a visual artist (sans the computer) and now I can program or build virtual 3D environments. It’s still an extension of me (the creator). My toolkit is bigger. It is because of silos that we find ourselves having to choose a domain. Many, perhaps, older funders are not aware that these fields are converging. Real integration of these fields is a fairly new paradigm.
CP: Do you think there is a connection between Afrofuturism and the Anthropocene? What does the future look like in that intersection?
NG: I think there is a connection (i.e., the overlay of art with a socio-political dichotomy). Depending on who you talk to, the world began or ended with the election of President Barack Obama. His presidency resulted in a shifting of social interactions and political allegiances that will greatly impact current and future generations of people. Octavia Butler wrote about a character named Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, a harbinger for violence in the novel Parable of the Talents, which follows Parable of the Sower. Jarret ran for office during a period of isolationism, religious intolerance and duress. This period of time existed in Butler’s mind and she could imagine how it could have a much broader impact on nature in the future. Butler imagined Earthseed to counter this development, as a religion that comes from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and through adaptation will grow, in many different types of situations or places. There is something subversive in black speculative fiction and afrofuturism that challenges people to think of alternatives to current conditions. Butler’s Earthseed feeds into this idea of an Anthropocene where human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Many artists or practitioners that are considered to be afrofuturist have some version of a utopia within or in contrast to a dystopia. For Sun Ra it was Saturn. For my summer students it was Mars. In general, the afrofuturist’s alternative is another world or reality.
CP: I read that you developed a math and music curriculum based on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. That seems like another example of how you dovetail art and science.
NG: Coltrane’s chart for Giant Steps is a cosmogram or mandala. This design connects to many things including the cosmos, geometry, physics and music. You really can’t sit in a silo and break down Coltrane’s design. I tell music students who study Coltrane or Giant Steps about his interest in Einstein’s theory of relativity and it blows their minds. Einstein is famous for his ability to transcend mathematical limitations with physical intuition. Coltrane’s mandala explores jazz improvisation as a characteristic of both music and physics. The use of the cosmogram/mandala reveals a musician’s and physicist’s capacity to contextualize or place something in a new or different context, synthesize or see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields, and syncretize or invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to put together. At the center is the art form, that we can use to connect to academic subjects.