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.
The stage, the performer, the audience, and the narrative around which all these conspire: performance inscribes an architecture for meaning. Subject and object, actors and props—an implicit hierarchy is incorporated and represented. Like many seemingly stable architectures, the Anthropocene disrupts that arrangement: landscape becomes an actor and the humblest props come to life. Based out of the University of Exeter (UK), João Florêncio’s studies that instability and through his research of recent realist and materialist philosophies, ecology, and performance, asks what a nonhuman performance might look like, and what kind of ethics it might demand in turn.
Caroline Picard: Recently you were in Melbourne at a Performance Climates conference?
João Florêncio: Performance Climates, the 22nd Performance Studies International conference, was very productive in how it covered a wide variety of work that brings performance theories and practices to intersect with issues of climate change and the Anthropocene. It was really interesting to see how performance artists and theatre makers have been using performance to address such big questions and to rethink climate and the place of the nonhuman within performance. I sat through some really fantastic panels on things from astroperformance to landscape and cyborg theatre, and a couple of very interesting performance-lectures on soil as interfacial medium between life and death, and on micro-algae and lab performance. On the less positive side—and especially since another mass shooting happened in the US while we were at the conference—some of us could not help but feel that intersections between climate change, the Anthropocene, issues of race, and embodied difference were sadly missing from the conference.
How can we keep on thinking the Anthropocene and anthropogenic climate change without reflecting on what that means for different bodies and human populations? Without reflecting the extent to which some bodies might have higher degrees of geological agency whilst others might have a higher likelihood of being affected by—and even dying as a result of—changing planetary dynamics? I believe this is one of the most important contributions performance studies can make to current debates on the Anthropocene and one that, unfortunately, was missing from most of the panels I attended. Having said that, the last keynote of the event—by Rebecca Schneider from Brown University—managed to very poignantly think through the Anthropocene and issues of race and settler-colonialism by reading pre-historic cave paintings of hands as a hailing out of time and articulating them with the contemporary hail, or call and response, of the “hands up, don’t shoot!” slogan of Black Lives Matter.
CP: In a recent paper for O-Zone, “Ecology without Nature, Theatre without Culture: Towards an Object-Oriented Ontology of Performance,” you suggest that performance might benefit from shifting towards an in-/nonhuman awareness, responding to a growing realization in the rest of the world that humanity is neither distinct from nor master of its environment. Can you say a bit more about how you see an non-anthropocentric approach to performance?
JF: For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about performance as something that takes place in the spaces between bodies, or between how bodies present themselves and what their ontology might be. Ultimately, for me, performance is about that fuzziness and uncertainty; about an inescapable out-of-phaseness between a body that encounters and a body that is encountered. Or, one could say, the space that exists between a body and its translation into meaningful knowledge, considering that a translation cannot replace its original any more than a map can replace the territory for which it stands. So this process of translation is, I believe, performance’s ontology; the space of translation is the space where performance dwells; it’s its territory. And all translations are contingent; all translations leave a remainder whilst also acquiring new possible readings from the new context in which they start circulating. Accordingly, this process is not exclusive to forms of human cultural performance but is, ultimately, also found in encounters with the more-than-human.
CP: Do you have an example?
JF: For instance: the semiotic reading of a prop on stage—its meaning in relation to other objects and performers on stage—does not exhaust its being, as Graham Harman would say. Rather, its existence as a prop is contingent on my encounter with it as a member of a theatrical audience. For a swallow that flies through the theatre door and dives on stage, that same prop will have a very different existence as, for instance, a place to stand on and rest. Ultimately what this allows us is to think again, and seriously, the idea of the world as theatre. Performance is a privileged body of knowledge and embodied practices that allow us to think these interstitial spaces between ontology and epistemology with a lot more care because, as both a field of knowledge and as a practice, performance has always had its home there.
CP: I read a little about a project you are currently collaborating on, Rock/Body: Performative Interfaces Between the Geologic and the Body. What do you mean when you describe the human body as an interfacial zone between bio- and geo-logics?
JF: This project came out of a realization that current scientific discourses on the Anthropocene were too quick to posit an abstract and universal “Humanity” as dominant geological force without taking into account existing scholarship, coming most from the critical humanities, on issues of embodied difference and biopolitics. So what we did was bring together a diverse group of researchers—scientists, humanities scholars, social scientists, etc.—alongside artists and curators to think about how different kinds of bodies might affect and be affected by the geological in different ways depending on their biopolitical differences. The way we’re going about doing that is by examining the zones of porosity—or the interfaces, as we’re calling them—between the lithic and the human body. Thinking about minerals, for instance, they were created by chemical processes in the stars and eventually entered the composition of rocky planets like ours. Some of them end up entering our bodies either through the food chain, the skin, or by being breathed in. Whilst some are essential for own own movement (by becoming essential for bone formation) and even survival (by entering essential cellular processes), others can become toxic, affect our behaviour and even kill us (think arsenic, mercury, lead, etc.). But not everybody is affected by these substances in the same way: miners suffer from black lung but not people living on the surface; people in developing countries (barely) paid for processing e-waste can become contaminated in ways that those of us in Europe or the USA using smartphones and tablets and computers won’t ever be. So the whole narrative of human geological agency and the health risks posed by anthropogenic changes to earth systems gain much more complex dimensions once we start thinking them alongside the circulation of labour and capital, planetary networks of commodity production, waste production and waste management, the materiality of media and planned obsolescence, as well as the types of human bodies that populate the various nodes of such massive planetary networks and the ways in which some of those bodies count more than others. In short, what we are trying to do is to sketch new avenues for interdisciplinary research that think together geo- and bio-politics by thinking human bodies—different iterations of the Anthropos in Anthropocene—as case-study sites where that porosity between Geos and Bios manifests itself in different ways. In a sense, to think the ways in which the Anthropocene can actually tell a story of exploitation, oppression and displacement of both geological and human bodies under capitalism.
CP: In another paper, “Encountering Worlds: Performance in/as Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” you write, “Capitalism has become an autonomous machine, a network through which flows of information circulated in the form of capital and are received and processed not only by finance analysts and high street and online shoppers but also, at a time when financial operations are executed automatically every second without the intervention of human agents, by other nonhuman nodes of the machine,” highlighting the ways in which humanity has become more and more of a witness to algorithmic forces it set in motion and is now subject to, as though real-life (whatever that is) is a stage we do not act upon but watch unfold. What does being an audience member in a performance teach us about inhabiting the Anthropocene? Does performance become a mirror? Is passivity a benefit or a weakness?
JF: Two words spring to mind in that context: responsibility and care. And both are notions that are extremely important to performance. There is this unsigned contract between audience members and performers whereby both sides are aware of their responsibility over each other and the event. There is also certainly some level of passivity, of letting go, which I believe is an important aspect of any ethics of care: how does one care for something, how can one be responsible for something, whilst not losing sight of that crucial moment when an extremely difficult decision must be taken, when the ultimate demonstration of care is letting go. Michel Foucault has written something beautifully along those lines in his later work on the care of the self. About the tension between practices of care and liberty. If responsibility is about the ability to elicit a response, about opening that space of performance, of call and response, I mentioned earlier, responsibility demands a passing of the ball and waiting for it to bounce back. There’s something quite scary and uncertain but also quite poignant about that gesture of having control (or responsibility) only by letting go of it, by opening oneself to that space of the encounter and its generative potential, even when the outcomes can never be predicted in advance. So yes, there’s a level of passivity but an active (or creative?) passivity, if that makes sense. That’s exactly the kind of ethics I believe performance is grounded on.
CP: In the same paper you include a vision where “humans accept that they are members of a universe-wide, borderless, community of strangers” such that “the ethical debates that will follow will have to concern themselves with how best to approach one’s neighbor.” I was especially touched by this sentiment because of all the upheaval I see in the world at large, all of the acts of violence, defensiveness, tightening of borders, bullying, and retaliation. Your suggestion, by contrast feels like a defiant and glorious demand for openness and inclusion—what is especially pronounced by the “community of strangers.” Can you say more about that?
JF: I totally agree with you. Opening ourselves to the other, welcoming strangers is about both human and more-than-human others. And I feel only an unilateral form of that openness can take us out of the terrible times we’re living through—politically, economically, environmentally. A big problem with existing attempts at solving these issues is that they keep on being grounded on a politics of recognition of rights. Although that might be useful in the short term—think about civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT movement, etc.—in the long term a politics of rights, whereby rights are ascribed to different bodies depending on their degree of sameness with bodies already in possession of rights, will do nothing to question the exclusionary logics upon which a rights-based ethics depends.
CP: What do you mean?
JF: In other words, for as long as we keep fighting for rights—of racial, gender, sexual, or ability minorities—we continue to occupy a logics of membership criteria: what do you have in common with me in order to gain my rights? How similar are you to me? This is also valid to the mainstream animal rights movement, for instance, which fights for animal rights on the basis of their similarity with humans (considered the benchmark). So we need to give animals more rights because they suffer like us, or because they have highly developed intellects, or because they’re capable of affects similar to ours. What most of the supporters of these strategies overlook is that such logics of membership of a club of rights will always depend, for its existence, on the exclusion of some bodies that do not possess the criteria for membership. To know who or what ought to be allowed into our communities of equals, we need others to be excluded by definition. Any community of equals needs an outside against which it defines itself. No matter how much we work on extending the criteria of membership, there will always be those left outside against which we can define those included inside. So what I advocate is a total rejection of a rights-based ethics and, instead, an unilateral openness to the other in its condition of stranger. To approach the other not according to what they might have in common with us but according to their difference, to their strangeness. Obviously this will make everyday life a lot harder because it will deprive us of all pre-existing codes of conduct, of all manuals on how to deal with others, ultimately of all law. But isn’t that what ethics demands from us anyway? That we approach the other with responsibility, consideration, and openness to the uncertain space of every single encounter rather than simply by acting according existing laws and postponing that most painful but most necessary moment of ethical decision-making?
August 4, 2016, 4-7PM
Work by: Josh Rios, Alex Braley Cohen, Nazafarin Lotfi, Robert Burnier, Alberto Aguilar, Peter Fagundo, Edra Soto, Jorge Lucero, Dana Bassett, Chiara Galimberti, Hui-min Tsen, and Alberto Aguilar
The Art Institute of Chicago: Classroom 5/Museum Education/Modern Wing: 159 E Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60603
August 5, 2016, 6PM
Work by: David Anthony
Blanc Gallery: 4445 S King Dr, Chicago, IL 60653
August 6, 2016, 6-9PM
Work by: Hugh Sato, Colin Mosely, Zoe Stergiannis, Zsofi Valyi-Nagy, Andy Schwartz, and Eric Wolinsky
Comfort Station Logan Square: 2579 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647
August 6, 2016, 7PM
Work by: Joshua Kent, Mark McCloughan, Jaime Maseda, Melissa Krodman, Courtney Mackedanz, and Matthew Nicholas
Links Hall: 3111 N Western Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60618
August 6, 2016, 7:30 PM
Work by: William Adams, Derek Dow, Maxime Gilbert, Nick Pilarski, and Destini Riley
Gene Siskel Film Center: 164 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601
Hey Chicago, submit your events to the Visualist here: http://www.thevisualist.org
Elaine Gan, Bettina Stoetzer, and Anna Tsing led “Feral Technologies: Making and Unmaking Multispecies DUMP!”, a two-day seminar at the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue. Tsing and Gan work together at Aarhus University’s Research on The Anthropocene (AURA)’s in Denmark, exploring the potential of ferality and unintended landscape design. Of parallel interest, and in preparation for her forthcoming book, Ruderal City. Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin (forthcoming) Bettina Stoetzer has been researching ruderal ecologies, examining urban life forms that emerge in inhospitable spaces. In the following conversation Gan and Stoetzer discuss the underlying principles of their seminar, including ferality, ruderality, and how those terms expand our concept of technology.
Caroline Picard: What are some key concepts from your seminar?
Elaine Gan: With the work of Anna Tsing and AURA, we are trying to think about what ferality is. That’s one key concept. Another is, what is technology? What is Technosphere? How do we think about disconnections because of human made infrastructures? Also not to forget that technologies come out of multi-species life experience; machines don’t grow on their own, but emerge out of different interactions to the environment. That is the second term we’re trying to unpack—what is a technology? What prosthetics do humans make in response to other things going on in the world? As an artist and also a researcher, I’m also trying to play with making and unmaking, asking not just how we make, but how do we make critically? And how do we make in order to unmake long lineages of great violence? How do we make better? The forest term is “dumps.” It’s a figurate conceptual device that we use to think about this landscapes that are created in the Anthropocene. This is where Bettina Stoetzer’s work on rubble and ruderal ecologies enters.”
Bettina Stoetzer: “Ruderal” is a botanical term that comes from rudus, which is the Latin word for rubble. It refers to organisms that spontaneously grow in “disturbed environments” usually considered to be hostile to life—the sides of train tracks, for instance, or roads, waste disposal areas, or literally rubble. I draw on this term and develop it as a conceptual device for thinking about landscapes in the anthropocene in my forthcoming book, Ruderal City. Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin. The interesting thing about ruderals is that they aren’t really wild or domesticated; they are non-native species and they dwell in the gaps of urban infrastructures like invisible hitch hikers. If we follow their history, a “ruderal city” emerges within which nature is not “out there”—as a site to be managed or incorporated into anthropogenic urban landscapes via technology and infrastructure—but is rather an integral and unwieldy part of the city.
CP: I understand that you all went to a park?
BS: Yes. Rather than be distanced observers in the classroom, we wanted to ground our discussion in a particular site, to let our encounters with its materiality – its plants, the crumbling infrastructure, alongside its smells and sounds – guide our discussion. The so-called Schoeneberger Suedgelaende seemed like the perfect spot. It was an abandoned switch yard for trains during Berlin’s division after the war, and then became a nature park in 1999. The site is full of ruderal ecologies and feral fauna and flora. We invited seminar participants to explore the entangled histories, encounters and ecologies that shape the train yard’s landscape. Encouraging them to experiment with their own documentary practices, we asked what kind of story can we generate in a place like this?
EG: We’d been thinking through a short story that Ursula Le Guin wrote. It’s a carrier bag theory of fiction. The part that I really like is, how do we tell new kinds of stories? In our seminar, we use a sense of play amongst different people coming together for a brief period of time—what is a story they can tell from going on a walk? We went to the park in the middle of a thunderstorm, so we could have created what Ursula Le Guin calls ‘scullery stories.’ Life stories that are really open ended. Stories about fungi that might hitch a ride on a leaf, that’s fallen from a tree, that might be decomposing, but nonetheless that fungi is starting a whole new world.
CP: Doesn’t Shock and Awe (2004)—the book you co-edited, Bettina—look at how words build worlds?
BS: Yes. Shock and Awe is a collection of essays and vignettes that provided something like a dictionary of the world in the post 9-11 Bush era. We were interested in exploring the political life of words. For example, the word democracy, or freedom, or terrorist: the different entries in the book explored how politics and language are deeply intertwined, how words change their meanings and have the ability to alter our experience of everyday life in a world that is marked by imperialism and global war, hence the subtitle “war on words.” It also illustrates how words can be hijacked and reclaimed to enliven a different sense of the political. In other words, the question at stake there was also: what are the feral lives of words and how can we tell alternative kinds of stories about the political?
CP: I almost want to tie that into the idea of unintended design in landscapes, at AURA.
EG: Sure. AURA is housed within the Department of Anthropology in Denmark and grows out of a five-year Niels Bohr professorship awarded to Anna Tsing. It looks at unintended design in landscapes, or the idea that landscapes materialize because of a whole range of historical trajectories. They don’t come out of human mastery or planning—that’s human exceptionalism, actually.
BS: That is again, where the idea of ruderal ecologies comes in. What’s interesting about Berlin’s post-war ruderal plants and their larger ecologies is that they are the outcome of nationalism, war, environmental destruction, and trade. So there are all kinds of layers of the city’s histories, its economic, political and economic conditions that have materialized in the actual ecology and flora of the city. On top of that we have making, unmaking, and above all, we have growing here. And growth, in the ecological sense, is always dependent on other factors and unanticipated variables—it’s not a uni-directional, one-man, fully controlled, enterprise. Often there is unwanted growth and mutation.
CP: How does all this tie back into technology?
BS: By stressing the feral and ruderal, we ask: What happens if we don’t imagine technology only in terms of human forms of externalization, but also of internalization and unexpected proliferation and growth? That’s why Le Guin and feminist re-imaginings of technology matter: we want to get away from thinking of technology as the story of human omnipotence. Rather technology, the science of craft, is an open ended process and it’s always embedded in a particular locale and multispecies worlds.
EG: Human intention is in a way an illusion, so our approach is coming out of an anarchist politics. It’s an anarchist project to say, what if we decenter the role of humans in landscapes? That’s not to say humans are not part of the picture, but what if they’re one among many? What if we expand the notion of culture and nature and say that there are more than human socialities? What are those socialities? How do we combine multiple disciplines to find out, what are these new kinds of landscapes that are out there that don’t arise from human mastery or human technologies, but rather emerge from the messes that humans have made and particular humans have made?
CP: Didn’t you recently curate a related exhibition, Elaine?
EG: I’m actually the art director for AURA, which means I get to play with lots of interesting experiments and while I was in Denmark I proposed an art and science exhibition called DUMP! Multispecies Making and Unmaking at Kunsthal Aarhus. I co-curated the show Sarah Lookofsky and Steven Lam. DUMP! has a dialectical structure to it. One the one hand, we wanted to think about industrial ruin or the ruins of capitalism and specifically neo-liberalism. Second, we wanted to think about multispecies life that emerges, and how that might trouble this notion of a hero. A human hero that attempts to make the world. We brought together about 19 different artists, scientists, organisms, including self-healing concrete embedded with bacteria from researchers of Delft University. We also included Mycorrhizal fungi, which is based on the collaborative research between Anna Tsing anthropologist and Henning Knudsen. Basically the show was trying to explore the positive aspects of decomposition; without decomposing, we’d have a world stacked with rubbish, but because of other species, wood breaks down. We also featured Amy Balkin’s ongoing project, Archive Of Sinking And Melting, where she asks anyone who happens to be in a landscape that will disappear through climate change, to send in an artifact from that place, creating an archive of future disappearances. They’re a candy wrapper from Nepal. A discarded patch. Discarded ice shoes for example from somewhere. It’s a feminist exhibition in the sense that we wanted people to look at lives that make and unmake the world.
BS: I see a lot of overlaps here. In my book, I am in a way, giving a “ruderal tour” of Berlin. This tour doesn’t follow the neat lines of neighborhoods, communities, urban infrastructures, or institutions, but looks at what emerges in the cracks alongside or between them. What interests me is the unexpected neighbors, the things that may at first glance not have anything in common: what happens if we juxtapose different inhabitants of the city? What interests me is the unexpected neighbors, the things that may at first glance not have anything in common: what happens if we juxtapose different inhabitants of the city? For example, and this comes out of my fieldwork, how do Turkish barbecuers, rubble plants, German environmentalists, East German bunker enthusiasts, sunflower seeds, and East African refugees inhabit the city and connect or disconnect with one another in different ways? What are the material traces of various kinds of social interactions in the city, among both humans and nonhumans? I am excited about exploration and gathering—like Le Guin’s story: you don’t do the god trick of observation, but instead gather, and allow yourself to get a little lost while collecting things you find on the way. If we look closely, cities—and this is also true for the technosphere— are much more interesting and odd than we might think.
CP: What it’s like work in such multidisciplinary modes. Like what’s the difference between an artist and curator, for instance?
EG: Yes, this is the interdisciplinary question. It’s always very hard to answer.
BS: I think, it’s important to not get tied down to the dividing lines between art, curation, creative writing, and scholarly analysis. We re-assemble things as critics, we connect the dots and create new lines of inquiry, new modes of seeing and inhabiting the world. But I also believe it’s essential to redefine existing standards of what constitutes “scholarly analysis” and rigor today. In the case of the ruderals that I mentioned earlier, and I think this is also true for all things feral, the interesting thing is that you often don’t find them with the usual rules of (scholarly) structured observation—but rather, since they emerge by chance, you don’t know exactly where to find them. The kinds of worlds we inhabit today—crowded with unexpected toxins and invisible forms of violence—therefore require us to sharpen our peripheral vision or to practice what the artist Lois Weinberger has called “precise modes of inattention”: you see feral beings as you pass through a place, on the way to somewhere else,. We need to take these kinds of risks (of not knowing in advance where to look) and to engage with multiple things at once in order to understand the complexities of what is going on in the anthropocene.
EG: It parallels my work with rice, maybe. At the moment I’m researching six different types of rice, not to put rice at the center of each study, but to actually say, “What happens if we follow the world by looking for a specific type of rice?” The six different studies use rice as an entry point and then examine different companion species gathered around rice. What are these assemblages that come together because this kind of rice has to be cultivated and has to live in the world in a certain way? It’s assuming that the local is always an already global. It’s always an already historical, as well as emergent narrative. By looking at rice, you start to trouble or at least take a more expansive view on spaces and times.
CP: That makes me think about something you said earlier, Elaine, how you can look at technology as a kind of responsive prosthetic—like, human identifies a problem, say, the limit’s of an average person’s encyclopedic knowledge, and say the internet or Wikipedia emerges to expand that limit. I guess I wonder if, in the same way, one could look at social and political policy as a kind of technology too?
BS: Yes, absolutely, that’s a great thought. That’s also what I gestured at earlier when I said it’s interesting to look at what emerges alongside institutions, infrastructures, and formal economies. It’s the same with policy making: there is always an excess and unexpected outcomes that are not anticipated and cannot be fully governed. In the context of migration, we see this happening now in Europe and across the world: the scrambling to control national borders against so called “floods” of refugees and migrants (note that refugees in the much debated refugee crisis in Germany right now are likened to waves and tsunamis, and thus to natural disasters). And yet there is an excess of people’s resilience, their desire to survive and make things livable. That is also the Anthropocene.
CP: Do you all think the Anthropocene is a fad? Of course I believe in the seriousness of our ecological times, but I also notice a high amount of fervor around the word. What is the world-building around that word?
BS: I think the Anthropocene is a tricky term. It’s both good to think with but it also has its limits. It gets humans to reflect on their own accountability and pushes one to reflect on how we have gotten ourselves in this mess. We live in a world in which humans have so profoundly altered the geological and material development of the planet that its entire survival is at stake. But I also think there is a risk in the current proliferation of the term: First of all, the word “we” characterizes a lot of talk about the Anthropocene. Who is this we? Certainly not everyone is affected in the same way. So it’s important to come up with alternative stories that don’t gloss over power imbalances. Then there is also what Donna Haraway has pointed out: the Anthropocene easily turns into a very Christian narrative of “Man” contemplating his own death. It’s capitalism that got us into this mess after all.
EG: I think we’re still in the Holocene. Although there are many landscapes that are definitely in the Anthropocene, the Anthropocene is a proposed term. I want to say it’s a conceptual device that allows us to say that human disturbances have reached such a massive scale that we’re changing planetary conditions in very uneven ways, that there are what Rob Nixon calls, slow violences, and we need a way to tag them.
We need a way to mobilize around these huge destructive machines of neoliberalism. I think it’s useful to call that the Anthropocene. People like Donna Haraway for example wants to think about the Capitalocene, Anna Tsing wants to say Plantationocene. There’s also the Chthulucene. In all those terms I think there’s an attempt to name how we got here.
There’s an attempt to say, what is a dominant figure that might tell us more about our contemporary condition? Is that plantations? Is that capitalism? Is it the figure of Anthropos, which is the Greek word for human, but it’s in a way making that figure visible, whatever it is so that we can unmake it, so that we can undo certain agencies that it’s managed to unleash into the world.
In saying that it’s Anthropos, in saying that it’s the human that has caused planetary disturbance and it’s basically knocked the earth off its axis, so that sunlight has changed, photoperiods have changed, wind directions have changed. We’ve changed the temperature of the earth. That’s crazy. If it’s a figure of a human that allows us to say, “How do we undo that?” Then become more human, then I think it’s useful. I hope it’s not a fad because we’ve heard these warnings since the 70s.
BS: Yes, I agree with Elaine: the potential of the term is that it creates the possibility to get out of former anthropocentric thinking and modes of being in the world. But we need to combine a discussion of the Anthropocene with a sensibility for the limits of human omnipotence and its colonial trajectories. And that’s why ferality and ruderal ecologies are important.
EG: We’ve heard the warnings since 1920, so we can probably say we’ve been hearing about this for very long periods of time. We haven’ heard them enough, and so we’re in the situation. I think it’s a useful term in that sense. My worry about is if we use it so much, we might stop hearing what is useful about it; we might get desensitized, though I hope we don’t. I’d also add that the world has ended for many groups, depending on what point of view you have. The image of Earth Rise—from the Apollo missions—give us a sense of the blue earth. We’re able to say we’re in the Anthropocene because of that image, but for some groups, a river was the world, a forest was the world. For certain species, a leaf might be the world, and so we’ve ended those worlds many times before.
CP: Like, whose Anthropocene?
EG: Yes, definitely which is I think one really important seminar that’s here. There’s also a certain level of identity politics that invokes, as somebody in one of the input statements said, I think Lesley Green said, “How do you not go back to that, but then at the same time how do you have politics without that?”
BS: It’s unsettling to see how easily earlier feminist and postcolonial critiques of identity politics and the nature culture divide seem to be forgotten in discussions of the Anthropocene. I think the key challenge is to reconnect these critical interventions with the concerns raised by the Anthropocene. The question is not simply a matter of standpoint of who is speaking. But who or what do we connect with and who gets represented and what bodies come to matter as we engage the Anthropocene?
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.