August 20, 2016 · Print This Article
Sometimes it seems impossible to fully conceive environmental space, and the many time scales that extend far beyond that of a single human life. What does it mean to imagine the ever expanding rate of extinction, full absences defined by “critters” I never knew existed, much less imagined. At such times, I simultaneously bump into a limit to my own imagination and the certainty that those limits must break open. With that in mind, I wanted to tie in an ongoing publication project by Rebecca Mir Grady, an artist, bookmaker, and jeweler based out of Chicago. She has been working on her publication series, SHE IS RESTLESS for about five years. The series is deceptively modest; each palm-sized publication is handmade, each dedicated to one subject: spill, drought, lost at sea, polar vortex, each ecologically minded. Upon opening one book, a single page folds out, expanding outside the bounds of its cover into a flat, single graphic. The humility of the endeavor, the shifting and interactive experience of scale, and the delicate line drawings each publication contains collude to offer a path towards making-thinking-learning through environmental crisis. You can read a previous interview I conducted with Mir here.
Last April I had the opportunity to meet with Helsinki-based curator, Jenni Nurmenniemi during the Anthropocene Curriculum: Technosphere Issue at the HKW in Berlin. Nurmenniemi and I met towards the end of the conference, after having attended a number of different workshops and Anthropocene-related events. In the following conversation she and I talk about curating, particularly the work that she has been doing with the Helsinki Artist Program, and its largest project Frontiers in Retreat.
Caroline Picard: What is the Helsinki International Artist Program?
Jenni Nurmenniemi: HIAP is one of the largest residency centers in Nordic and Baltic Region, hosting up to 100 per year with an emphasis on interdisciplinary practices. We have two locations: one is on an 18th century fortress island, Suomenlinna—not too far from the city center, though it feels quite remote. It’s visually interesting as a mix of Slavic and Scandinavian influences. And the idea is that living and working space are combined, so work is entangled in a nice way. Our other location is very different. It’s a former Cable Factory. We have three studios there. That site is very urban and industrial—a nice contrast to the otherwise picturesque island location.
CP: Frontiers in Retreat is specifically interested in ecology and art, is that right? It’s part of HIAP?
JN: HIAP runs several projects, of which Frontiers is the biggest one. It actually occupies quite a lot of our physical space and mental capacity at the moment—or until 2018; it’s a five-year engagement. HIAP has a few other thematic programs and maybe one really interesting to mention is Safe Haven; it allows people who are somehow persecuted in their home countries—under threat of human rights violations or their freedom of speech is suppressed in their home countries. HIAP is part of a residency network that allows these people the chance to kind of take a break and come for residency for a longer period of time to rethink their situation.
CP: In those cases, do you find that you have to coordinate with different government bureaucracies?
JN: Absolutely. It has been a very challenging residency program. Ethically, there are so many questions, and I actually am not the best person to talk about it in detail because it’s run by another group of people. Questions about what happens when the residency ends raise questions about ethical responsibility; sometimes people need asylum, to establish their lives in a new context. What’s the responsibility of the residency and art center then and what are the constraints and possibilities around how we can support these people? I think that relates to the art and ecology residency in a sense that when you’re running a project with local communities (which is often the case with Frontiers residencies) the question of continuity and support comes up again. Like, what happens after the artist has left? Will their processes and initiatives continue or will their work just vanish as if it never happened?
CP: People often bring that up in relation to Social Practice projects—like if an artist wants to come to a community and build a green house, but then nobody takes care of the green house after the artist leaves and it ends up just falling apart…
JN: I might have to say more about the Frontiers structure. We have seven locations and some of the ecosystems are quite fragile. If an artist wants to make an intervention, that will obviously have some consequences, influencing the balance of its particular system. For example, a Berlin based artist, Tue Greenfort, wanted to work with mushrooms. He came to Suomenlinna island and he started researching what kind of mushrooms grew there, whether they could actually provide solutions for food production. He often works with mushrooms, but in this context, he wanted to cut down a huge tree on the island in order to make it into a mushroom For cultivating protein for the island’s human residents.
I think the most interesting part was the negotiation with the chief gardener of the island who explained how important this tree was, even though it might look dead—trees like that facilitate a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Removing it would be very bad for more-than-human kinds on the island. The conversation was rather speculative, but removing one tree might have interfered with the island ecology drastically. All in all, there are twenty-four artists working within Frontiers.
CP: Do most of the Frontiers projects take place in nontraditional exhibition spaces?
JN: Yes and no. I think people move nicely between gallery or museum contexts and their field work, as well as at the intersection of theory and practice. We wanted exactly that. To form a platform that allows people to move between rigid categories that usually structure how one navigates the art system.
CP: I think it’s amazing how much invisible work there is to curation—boring paper work, bureaucracy, administration, as well as hosting and facilitating. What is a curator to you?
JN: It’s a question that I think about pretty much everyday. It’s a lot of invisible work as you said especially now and especially because I’m a bit weary of imposing trending theoretical or conceptual frameworks on my approach. Every six months or so, there is some key concept that people start to obsess over. I’m wary of that. I try to construct open platforms where things emerge organically or slowly, and then engage deeply with the artist work over a long period of time. Taking time, recognizing artists’ capacity to mediate between different forms of knowledge and different disciplines. They can cross those boundaries and I try to support that potentiality.
It’s a lot about hosting. It’s a lot about listening and being super sensitive to nuances. We somehow set certain loose parameters, follow what emerges, and then try to tease out meanings. Meanings in plural because I don’t feel it’s possible to construct a coherent or singular narrative around art and ecology. That topic emerged here at the HKW many times. It’s important to allow space for complexity and select epistomologic multiplicity that generates difference.
CP: Today there was a related critique that “The Anthropocene” is problematic in that it represents a single totality. Maybe it’s better to say the Anthropocenes, so as to allow for multiple timelines or extinctions, multiple experiences, types of experiences, and various relationships to our ecological times.
JN: I’m really fond of imagining history as a web—interconnected webs or networks, a network approach to history instead of maybe kind of the chronological timeline and drawing from different cultures as much as it’s possible, recognizing that, okay, I’m situated.
One project I thought a lot about during the Co-Evolutionary Perspectives Seminar has to do with mining or the extractiveness, in extraction industries. I’d like to bring up this project by Serbian artist, Mirko Nikoli?. It started last year and now it has had iterations in different locations. It’s called “We Heart Copper, and the Copper Hearts Us.” Mirko is looking into what kind of ideas and meanings humans attached to copper. He set up this site, WeHeartCopperCopperHeartUs.com—a data mine that sources everything with a hashtag copper from across the world, from different social mediums. He uses this as a study of kind of what it signifies to humans in different context. Then, actually there is also a physical DIY data center which Mirko is going to take to different mining sites in Southern Finland this spring.
CP: And it exhibits in a gallery space?
JN: It’s a good example how we exhibited this last summer, the prototype out here at the Gallery Augusta as part of the group show titled, Excavations. This year, it’s going to be activated and it’s going to be instead of hanging from gallery ceiling, it’s going to hang from trees. The idea is that Mirko can fold it, put it on his shoulder and somehow cycle to a different mining site or…undiscovered deposit. Ironically maybe, I love the word “deposit” in this sense, but kind of a site which has not been excavated yet or extracted yet.
He’s been researching into ancient mines in Finland and then ongoing mining projects and then future mining sites. This is kind of reaching the different timelines or historical moments together and putting emphasis on how much we rely on copper. We don’t really often think about it although its been a subject in the art world for quite many years now but how its conductive properties actually allow us to use our technospheric devices and build this whole network that we articulate as technosphere.
CP: I also keep thinking about the Joseph Beuys reference to the I Love America and America Loves Me. I can’t figure out if you or maybe it’s just not that I can’t figure out, but in sort of game kind of way. It’s like, “Oh, is the coyote the copper?” In some way, I think of Beuys’ coyote as a nexus point for all ecological, political, historical narratives. It’s sort of funny to think about precious metals that way. Of course, they’re embedded in so much of our experience but we don’t think about them.
JN: Exactly, that’s well articulated. Through Mirko’s work I’m always led towards dissolving the hierarchical binaries of Western dualist thinking
CP: You mean like the nature/culture binary for instance?
JN: Exactly. But also, the division between material and immaterial, animate and inanimate. For instance, the idea that data is somehow immaterial. Mirko’s project has an undeniable material aspect. It has the website of course but then you can see, for instance, Mirko works in copper mines himself in Serbia. He really engages with the material, both extracting it and putting it back to the earth. There are all these sediments and layers to his project that I find fascinating.
CP: I was also suddenly thinking too that it seems like one of the things you had also negotiate is these labor structures that are similarly embedded…
JN: Absolutely. Here, another Frontiers artist, Bart Vandeput, or Bartaku, a Belgian mastermind. He also conducted his artistic research in a mining city in Serbia and was very interested in labor structures and the fact that actually there are not that many miners left.
CP: I was wondering if you could talk about the Anthropocene, ecology, and the words that we choose to work with when looking at our ecological times? Do you think the Anthropocene as a term is a fad?
JN: I like how you mentioned that it might be a good idea to talk about the Anthropocene in plural. It’s also about language. It’s hard to translate sometimes from Finnish to English, but I think the term provides an umbrella term to recognize that humans are influencing most if not all ecosystems in this biosphere. But I want to know how to go beyond that acknowledgment. There, I think we need more specific concepts. I’m very careful of what I impose upon the artists whom I work with. At the same time, I realize that they also need critical dialogue and input from curators. What we’ve tried to do with Frontiers is to build a glossary that allows this different epistemic frameworks or multiplicity.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
Last fall New York-based artist and theorist, Katherine Behar presented High Hopes (Deux) a more-than-human performance that involves two Roombas (each with its own rubber tree), the Karaoke version of Frank Sinatra’s High Hopes set on repeat, and a large square of astroturf installed at Sector 2337 in Chicago. For about 30 minutes, the Roombas appeared to be dancing around the gallery while they cleaned the space as visitors came and went. More recently, Behar sent me a transcript of a conversation she had with the mutispecies ethnographer, Eben Kirksey about the same work. What follows is an edited version of that discussion. High Hopes (Deux) was curated by Every house has a door in Wasted Hours, an evening of performance that also featured Joshua Kent. Kirksey and Behar’s conversation will appear in an upcoming Green Lantern Press catalogue, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, for which the performance event was curated. Behar recently co-authored And Another Thing: Nonanthropocentrism and Art (Punctum) with Emmy Mikelson; in addition to finishing a book about decelerationist aesthetics last spring Bigger than You: Big Data and Obesity (Punctum), her latest book Object Oriented Feminism is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press and her first solo show, Data’s Entry, will open this September at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.
Eben Kirksey: Where is the hope, or is there hope, in these cyborg phytological assemblages?
Katherine Behar: The “hopes” in the title come from a children’s song about a little old ant who’s trying to push a rubber tree plant. Why does the ant think that he can move the rubber tree plant? It’s because he’s got “high hopes” and he thinks he can accomplish the impossible.
Of course, the ant is a symbol for the worker. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful message about overcoming impossible odds if an ant can move a tree, but on the other hand, in my view it’s pessimistic or perhaps dystopian to teach kids to identify as the ant and grow up to be good little workers.
EK: One teleology of capital and machines is the end of work, as in the fantasy that a new appliance will get rid of a whole regime of labor. But going back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that fantasy often spins out of control and results in all sorts of cataclysms—people unemployed, factory workers, and whole categories of people that no longer have meaning or an economic place in contemporary society. High Hopes (Deux) seems to grapple with similar ideas.
KB: Robots like the Roomba are a form of the automated labor you are talking about. The etymology is from the Czech word robota which translates as “forced labor” or “serf labor.” This means whenever we talk about robots, we are really talking about social relationships because we are employing the metaphor of slavery.
So who gets to enjoy the end of work? If we fast-forward to the contemporary moment, automated labor might be better understood not as machinic labor but as dehumanized labor. Today automation either still means forced labor—slave labor, or maybe prison labor—or it means offloading jobs that have traditionally been done by humans to machines, leaving humans unemployed and vulnerable.
At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between dehumanization and the nonhuman. Nonhumans—like the plants and machines in this project—can counter dehumanization by expanding the possibilities for solidarity which dehumanization forecloses.
EK: It seems like in this domestic context or in conventional patriarchal relations, the labor of cleaning often gets done by women, but also often by undocumented workers in elite U.S. households. How are Roombas changing these roles and the hopes of folks in such entangled situations? It seems like in some ways the Roomba is a hopeful, liberatory technology, but in other ways it is problematic.
KB: With this project, I’m trying to draw solidarities between all of these roles, between the middle class mom, the possibly undocumented domestic worker, and the machine—not to mention the plant. Machines are one of my focal points because they represent an extreme case. We don’t need to think of machines as having any kind of humanity because they’re not human. For me, the question is, is the undocumented worker closer in kind to the machine or closer in kind to the mom? There’s something about how we treat machines that I think prefigures how we treat entire classes of people.
The same could be said for our relationship to plants and nature, which we exploit on similar grounds. Initially I imagined High Hopes (Deux) as a way of drawing nonhuman solidarities between a houseplant and a housekeeping robot, both of which are usually cast as existing for human enjoyment. Although human interaction emerged an important factor, my first response to the concept of this show was to create a nonhuman system for plants and machines to play and care for each other, an experience that would be censored in the typical domestic setting.
EK: Relations of care are key to this piece. In fact, in one way or another many relations of labor and cleanliness are about care. The fantasy is that machines don’t require care. The Roomba seems to be an indestructible prosthetic, its own little war machine combating dirt and making cleanliness happen. This is the disembodied image of remote control. But in reality you’ve got to care for the machine in certain ways, just as you have to care for your wife, or maybe you don’t. In this context humans and machines are engaging in all sorts of relations of care, going both ways, but that may be uneven or unreciprocated.
KB: Uneven and unreciprocated care are critical notions for me. I’m interested in how we care for machines, and are cared for by machines, and why. In the case of the Roombas, they’re very charming. On Roomba list serves, you find people talking about just wanting to watch their first Roomba clean, like proud mamas and papas. Even pets want to play with Roombas. They’re very endearing devices. Yet these transpecies relationships are complicated because we’re mirroring how we interact with humans. We work for them and they work for us, and part of that work involves making ourselves care–for–able, and learning to expect certain kinds of care in return.
EK: In the gallery, as the Roombas interacted with people, it seemed like they were soliciting things. There were moments of corporeal interaction where the Roombas sort of snuggled up to people. What affective exchanges were taking place in those moments?
KB: Those moments were one of the really lovely surprises of the piece for me. Roombas are programmed to try to understand the perimeter of a space and learn to travel through the space to fill that perimeter. When they are in an empty gallery, the Roombas do a very geometric dance. Choreographically speaking, it’s very expansive; they really traverse space. The presence of people introduces organic clusters, and the perimeter of the space becomes much less rectilinear and predictable. The Roombas become confused by organic shapes, especially moving ones, and try to figure them out.
What’s surprising and can’t be explained by the algorithm is that the interaction feels very interpersonal. It feels as though the Roombas are trying to have a relationship.
EK: In some ways hope occupies an anthropocentric or zoocentric space. How can we think about these things as desiring machines that might orient towards an object and try to bring that object into contact with reality?
KB: Perhaps we would need to eliminate the desire part of hope, which may be hope’s zoocentric aspect. Assimilating to plant temporality, hope becomes a stand-in for futurity. A futurity without desire might mean orientating towards a species future, or even remapping hope and pessimism toward a future that includes species extinction.
EK: The Roomba really isn’t a species as such. A Roomba can’t fuck another Roomba and make baby Roombas. In that way a plant is different from a Roomba.
KB: Maybe the Roomba is closer to being a species than we think. I don’t know whether I want to say plants fuck, but plants reproduce and cross-pollinate and changes happen between generations of plants. A similar thing happens between models of Roombas. For instance, there’s now a more advanced Roomba that doesn’t have bristles on its brushes. For Roombas evolution occurs in design, not genetics.
EK: Thinking about evolution as a teleology—in botanical or technological realms—just maps on to one possible vector of change. Things are constantly becoming beside themselves with dissolution and glee, to paraphrase Brian Rotman. In some ways what you created is this shared space of hope and happiness, where the Roomba is enabling the plant to actualize desiring teleologies that could rarely happen otherwise. Certain plants move. There’s a walking palm that can slowly put out another prop root in Costa Rica. But having a Roomba enables all sorts of wild possibilities that a rubber plant might not have imagined before.
KB: If a rubber plant has to wait around for an ant to push it, it’s not going to get very far. But as an interspecies collaboration, or perhaps a symbiotic relationship, the Roomba and rubber tree as a unit are able to dance. They’re able to traverse space, they’re able to be aesthetic, and they’re able to solicit relationships with the humans who keep getting in their way.
August 18, 2016, 6-8PM
Work by: Selina Trepp and Dan Bitney
DePaul Art Museum: 935 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
August 19, 2016, 6-9PM
Work by: Jaclyn Jacunski
Chicago Artists Coalition: 217 N. Carpenter St, Chicago, IL 60607
August 18, 2016, 5-9PM
Work by: Janice Bond, Ricardo Gamboa, Amanda Gutierrez, Roberto Martinez, Oli Rodriguez, Darryl Terrell, and Darius Thomas (curated by Sadie Woods)
Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: 164 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601
Don’t miss out on these shows, they close soon:
Closes August 28, 2016
Curated by Beatriz Colomina and Pep Aviles
Elmhurst Art Museum: 150 S Cottage Hill Ave, Elmhurst, IL 60126
Closes September 9, 2016
Work by: Rita Ackermann
Soccer Club Club: 2921 N Cicero Ave, Chicago, IL 60641
Hey Chicago, submit your events to the Visualist here: http://www.thevisualist.org
August 17, 2016 · Print This Article
In one of my earliest conversations with Giovanni Aloi, he described the problem of being a plant studies person at an animal studies conference: by entertaining the subjectivity of plants, any moral high ground previously associated with vegetarianism/veganism get a little complicated. Undaunted, Aloi explores the mess of that new territory, tracing their appearance in contemporary art and art history. He is the Founding Editor of Antennae, a Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, teaches at The School of the Art Institute, works for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, moonlights as an art expert on the BBC, and is on the verge of finishing two books on taxidermy and art, and plants and art.
Caroline Picard: You work at the intersection of philosophy, art history, and contemporary art. Why is the animal interesting to you within those fields?
Giovanni Aloi: Since I was roughly three years old two things would excite me like no other: nature and art. I drew animals, I looked for animals in paintings, photographs, documentaries, and everywhere else—there was nothing better than finding a grasshopper, a beetle, or a tree frog! Plants caught my attention a little later, but back then, I used to spend most of my evenings drawing animals.
CP: So art and animals were joined at the start in a way…
GA: As I grew up I fostered both interests but struggled to combine them in my work; animals in art were not taken seriously as an academic/artistic subject (and there’s still much to be said about that lack of serious engagement today). In the late 1990s the emergence of animal studies placed that subject on the map. Jonathan Burt and Steve Baker have published important work in relation to animals and representation in art and film. Both, along with other scholars, contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art.
CP: How would you characterize those early conversations around animals and art?
GA: The first ten years of analysis, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both, theory and practice, engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.”
In my 2012 essay, “Deconstructing the animal in search of the real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new and productive path of inquiry could involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships/reciprocal entanglements. Although the non-anthropocentric slant of animal studies was extremely refreshing from a philosophical perspective, I looked at early developments with some suspicion.
GA: Personally, I believed that animal studies should be very weary of falling into the conceptual fallacy of proposing a zoo-centric system in place of an anthropocentric one. From earlier on, I thought that animal studies inquiries should unfold into rhizomatic networks of interconnectedness in which humans, animals, plants, and environments are equal parts.
CP: Do you feel like the animal studies conversation has shifted?
GA: Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model. But this is happening outside animal studies. My impression has always been that re-thinking animals entails re-thinking everything. It is a deep ontological undertaking. Connections between the ways in which we treat animals and the ways in which we treat fellow humans have been exemplified by Agamben. But there is much more at stake.
CP: How so?
GA: Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position. I am not entirely sure if this new shift could be incorporated by animal studies as a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on similar ontological levels as plants and bacteria. Would that change optics in a productive ways? And of course, there’s object oriented ontology, Morton’s notions of hyperobjects, broader notions of anthropocene…I am yet to see any animal studies scholar engaging with these philosophical tools. The challenge is to adapt them to fit the task. My forthcoming book on taxidermy in contemporary art attempts to do just that. But in any case, I think that the disruption of anthropocentrism caused by animal studies, posthumanism, and by the new waves of speculative realism is essential to the definitions of new cultural directions. We have clearly messed up—the planet is telling us that very clearly. Global warming and mass extinction are clear symptoms of the urgency with which we need to find new ways to think about our relationship to what we call nature. But changing people’s minds is one of the hardest things to do—especially when utilitarianism is involved.
CP: Do you mean that people have to change their way they think about the environment somehow? In other words, maybe like animals, there is a need to resist making the natural world purely symbolic? Even as I say that, it seems tied up with consumer culture…
GA: Capitalism has alienated us entirely from the plants and animals around us to a degree that, for too many people, looking into their phones or tablets is more interesting than looking at anything to do with the natural world. How can you care to preserve ecosystems when you don’t even care for what’s in your backyard or on your way to school or work? Capitalist normativity has reduced nature to a curiosity in urban reality and to a sublime escape in holiday adventures—this is the root of the problem.
CP: It’s hard to think of ways to shift that paradigmatic approach to nonhuman (or more than human) landscapes. I’m always interested in articulating openings for agency but it’s easy to feel daunted by the scale and conviction of capitalism.
GA: In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or at primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “That is/I am” approach that promotes a pre-encoded identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, and snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as John Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, we grow up to become constantly disappointed with the lack of the promised sublimity of animals. We expect them to somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges they have no stakes in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is generally understood as dumb or as edible. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a key moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters: work, buying a house, careers, children… animals become the object of hunting or entertainment.
CP: What do we do with that? It seems sort of impossible to work out an alternative approach, especially if you are talking about a problem that starts in kindergarten.
GA: This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in my book Art and Animals (2011): you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up in, shattering certainty and picking up the pieces thereafter to re-configure yourself all over again, allowing for a different conception of non-human/human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, and to make things more complicated, you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices—choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural make-up, and personal sense of urgency.
CP: Can you describe a bit about your transition from Animal Studies to Plant Studies? What are some interesting comparisons between the fields for you?
GA: I don’t think I have transitioned from animal studies to plant studies. I am very critical of animal studies because I cannot ethically justify its zoo-centric scope anymore. Its reliance on post-structuralism almost 20 years on is becoming embarrassing. Personally, I don’t care anymore about what Heidegger thought of lizards, Agamben of spiders, and Deleuze of wolves, as they all knew very little about these animals. They wrote about them in transcendental terms—in the singular/plural chimeric catch-all form that the word ‘animals’ inscribe. 10 years ago it was interesting to recover these animal-fragments from the thought of continental philosophers, it was necessary to validate the subject of scrutiny for the field, and to lay its foundations—but we should be done with that phase, now! In any case, I’m still in the field, as I understand animal studies to be an important component of posthumanism, but I like to think of myself as a “grumpy dissident” within the system. Some of my colleagues also share my views—I think something interesting might be happening soon. But ultimately, I am not very interested in the discourses of a discipline that places animals first in front of plants and other levels of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.
GA: That approach seems extremely out-dated considering the times we live in and the challenges we face. That is also why multispecies ethnography and new materialism are more interesting to younger scholars at present—these philosophical waves are at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking whilst animal studies currently seems to have shaped itself as a questionable ethical-minefield for vegan/animal rights ideologies. Those agendas are also mostly out-dated. Veganism refuses to acknowledge plant-intelligence because it causes the emergence of new and hard to negotiate ethical problems, whilst animal-rights is still bound to obsolete concepts like sentience, consciousness, and agency.
CP: Does plant-studies as run into similar problems as a defined field?
GA: I don’t think a field of plant studies has actually shaped up yet. Michael Marder has done some important work recovering plants from a number of philosophical texts, thus mapping a base for discussion on the subject whilst a number of artists have—for years—engaged with plants, knowing that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no unified field yet. Plants still carry a cultural stigma imbedded in a number of popular culture-layers of validating disregard: the association between sociopaths and plants is a recurring cliché. There’s also the gender connotation between plants and women imposed by patriarchal systems of value that still gets in the way. And the recurring notion that caring for plants too much would require an entire revision of ethical values involving animals and humans…the implication that self-aware (or even sentient) beings must act as an exploitable base for us to feel ethically relieved through the acts of basic subsistence. I am sure that things are just about to shape up; hopefully, plant studies will be a freer space in which to seriously consider non-human alterity beyond obvious anthropomorphic strategies and imbedded/obsolete ethical agendas.
CP: What do you mean?
GA: In a sense, animal studies and plant studies have thus far been shaped by the desire to recover specific narratives and reconfigure ontological strata. And that is pretty much what Marder has accomplished with his body of work for the field of plant studies already. Plants are the new animals—they push all the concerns involved with agency and anthropocentrism to a breaking limit: alterity, reciprocity, communication, co-existence, intra-action, and so forth…These are all new paradigms that have been explored in human/animal relations. But simultaneously, thinking about/with plants requires a more ambitious leap of faith. The hope for meaningful plant responses; responses that we can fully comprehend is very slim, much slimmer than in animals, but this should not put us off from being inquisitive and curious and from attempting, for instance, to envision what it might be like to be a plant beyond the tools of mimicry.
CP: I want to go back to the question of education again…like, how would plant-sympathy be taught if not through mimicry?
GA: One of the most glaring contradictions of animal studies is that the discipline, through its marked non-anthropocentric drive has identified science—and Cartesian thinking more specifically—as the humanist tool by which distance and objectification between animals and humans occurs. Yet, animal studies implicitly relies on the scientific definition of “animal” in order to retain topicality. That’s a critical problem of some proportion. If the premise is to re-think animals beyond the scientific realm of inquiry, at what point do we begin to find the strength to tamper with the very last question (which should have perhaps been the first): “What is an animal?” Or is that taking the whole thing too far for the philosophical framework? At what point is an animal plant-like in a way that becomes interesting to us beyond scientific taxonomy? This gray area between zoology and botany contains a number of disregarded beings who rarely, if ever, emerge in scholarly discourses. Animal studies claims to have recovered repressed subjects, but it simultaneously represses those at the fringes of its implicit mammalian-normative approach. I guess that more generally, plant studies polarizes the already charged questions of animal studies through a stronger desire to develop a holistic approach, rather than a phito-centric one.
CP: How have you noticed plants appearing into contemporary art recently? Do you think plant’s contemporary art appearance differs from past examples?
GA: Yes, there has been a substantial shift. One category I am interested in is postmodernist plants, like with Anya Gallaccio and Marc Quinn, whose work, in a sense, laid the foundation for what is being problematized today. Gallaccio was concerned with decay. Dutch still-life paintings, the beautiful vases of flowers that reminded us we would all eventually die, were painted at the height of their beauty and freshness. Postmodernism threw this lovely poetics up in the air by haunting viewers with the raw ugliness of decay in the gallery space or by upstaging the representational notion of the memento mori through the shock of materiality. Marc Quinn’s Garden from 2000 amazed viewers by representationally suspending the lives of a multitude of wild and greenhouse-grown varieties of flowers in a massive tank of frozen silicon. The illusion was mesmerizing—but the shattering of the utopian narrative resounded loud and clear through the darkened gallery space. I feel that most postmodernist work involving plants, and I hate to generalize here, was more concerned with notions of realism expressed through materiality. Because of that, postmodernism laid the foundations for speculative realist tendencies in art.
GA: It is the mistrust for metanarratives and the iconoclastic slant nurtured by postmodernism that paved the way for what is happening today. Yet, Gallaccio’s and Quinn’s works are largely concerned with symbolic registers of representation that, despite the material presence of the plant in the gallery space, end up leaving the living-plant behind, so to speak. The symbolic order in which they operate, as it turns out, was not deployed towards a new conception/understanding of plant-life and its interconnectedness with humans and environments, but it ultimately was transcendental and inherently anthropocentric.
CP: Didn’t you explore this question in the online journal you edit?
GA: In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art. We especially focused on the work of artists interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centered view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. One of the most interesting and captivating works I have recently encountered surely is Revolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (2015) exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. The installation enabled three pine-trees to move around and outside the gallery space through a wheeled-base guided by a complex electronic interface, which measured the speed at which their sap flowed. This type of work produces new connections between the old categories of nature and culture, and object and subject, blurring boundaries and posing important questions about agency, perception, ontology, and epistemology. There’s a major difference between the new, speculative interest for plants now and past approaches.
CP: I’m always curious about what these artistic gestures do, somehow? Like, if it’s true that the world is ending, why bother making art at all?
GA: Ultimately, I think that contemporary artists involved in this new register of criticality are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to configure new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.
Methodologically, artists like Heidi Norton, Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Pierre Huyghe, and Andrew Yang are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is, in all instances, paramount and solidifies relationships that are developed over time, slowly, and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork—sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is embedded in the layers of complexity that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors that has led to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.
CP: You have two books coming out—one on animal taxidermy and one on plants. Since you have been working on them simultaneously, I’m curious about what kinds of connections you are making while working on both, even if those connections might not be apparent to readers?
GA: Yes, I do …and it is not something I would recommend. When I handed in my taxidermy in contemporary art manuscript to my editor she said: “Great! Now you can enjoy your summer!” to which I responded: “Not quite—plants have been haunting me for the past few months and I am not quite done with them yet!” But I think that in a way, one book has been productively informing the other. My book on plants in contemporary art is an odd hybrid between a monograph and an edited collection. I am basically writing a backbone for each chapter and have invited “guest authors” to contribute their own voices/experiences to each section. I wanted the reader’s experience to be as varied and idiosyncratic as possible. I wanted to move away from pretending to own a truth about plants that is universal and singular. I truly believe that if we begin to seriously value personal experience as valid epistemic tools in the reconfiguration of anthropocentrism, we then have to also question the monographic approach to writing. Fragmenting and interspacing one voice with those of others seems essential to me, especially in certain circumstances. But my books also wanted to take animal studies to task and address its approaches to central question “what is an animal?” that it still evades.
CP: How does that tie in to taxidermy?
GA: Thinking about taxidermy, the ultimate “animal-made object” has substantially shaped my ideas on agency and passivity in contemporary art involving the non-human; whilst Jane Bennett’s and Graham Harman’s work have substantially expanded my views on objects and agency. I have also been thinking a lot about surfaces in contemporary art. Taxidermy is all surface—a practical and metaphorical totalization of animality whilst plants are all-surface in a more, “helpless” but nonetheless related way. So far these ideas have filtered in my “plant book” and are being further problematized by the elusive/ambiguous essence of plant-being. Foucauldian biopolitics is also essential to both books—there is something of an ontological parallelism between animals-made-objects and plants that can be explored through the materiality of bodies. Notions of space and epistemology define the encounter between us and plants or taxidermy objects. This approach replaced the more general idea of the “encounter in the gallery space” that characterized my earlier animal studies writing. In both books I am concerned with notions of materiality and resistance as well as power as a productive/shaping agent that actively molds human/non-human bodies, ecologies, and intermingling. Don’t want to say much more yet…But I’m glad they came in that order: taxidermy first and plants after.