Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
At first glance, Essi Kausalainen’s performances are deceptively simple: a woman leans back in an office chair as another figure crouches under a blanket; a child drags another child with a potted plant across a plain stage; a small sprig of grass is lit on fire where it has been positioned around a banana. These gestures are almost mundane. With careful attention, however, complex dynamics start to unfold: why do these figures repeat the same gestures? Their unflinching concentration admits a determined but inaccessible logic, as though we do not sense the constraints they operate within. It seems fitting therefore, that Kausalainen’s is especially inspired by plants and fungi, working through the medium of performance to encounter, explore, and potentially embody more-than-human worlds. Kausalainen is a Helsinki-based artist who studied performance art and theory at Turku Arts Academy and the Theatre Academy of Finland. Her work has been exhibited and performed in venues including KIM? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga; Malmö Moderna Museet; Frankfurt Kunstverein; Museum for Contemporary Art Roskilde; Nikolaj Kunsthalle, Copenhagen and Kunstraum Bethanien, Berlin.
Caroline Picard: What is it about performance that inspires you as a medium?
Essi Kausalainen: My way of thinking is rather physical. I read a lot—I need all kinds of texts from philosophy to science to poetry to make my work—but I’m very slow with that as I’m reading with my whole body. The text needs to reach the breathing, the pulsating, the flowing—I really have to embody the knowledge to accept it, and to be nurtured by it. Performance practice is very helpful in this. It is a way to gather understanding, to digest, to connect with things I cannot reach with words or intellectual abstractions. Through gestures and actions I can make sense of the world and my own place in it. As a medium, performance can guide our attention towards our sensitivity, and the uttermost susceptibility with which we can read other bodies. I’m also inspired by the ephemerality of performance, the fact that the work appears and disappears without producing any “thing.” I’m inspired by bodies doing things: the fantastic silliness of our existence that this media embraces!
CP: What does it mean to view the world as a single organism? How do conceive our experience of individuality within that frame?
EK: For me it is a question of “us,” and the fact that there is no outside of it. It is a question of responsibility and respect. This is one of the key things the plants have taught me. When studying and observing them I’ve realized that when looking at a plant body I’m always looking at the whole ecosystem, the surroundings, the weather, the climate—all of that is inseparable from the plant body. The same goes with us. The “I” making the work is actually the world around me: it is the plants I live with, the plants I eat and drink that build my body and its bacterial terrain, the people around me, the books I read, the society and its values…I am just a compost trying to create fertile ground out of this all. A bug among millions of others, nothing special. But since the being of this bug belongs to the whole ecosystem it is in no way insignificant or irresponsible: it resonates in unexpected, uncontrolled ways in all the life around it. And this brings it all back to the question of being together—how do we think, approach, be, with this great diversity of others? How do we treat the other and ourselves?
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
CP: What connection or parallels do you see between performance and plant growth? Do plants perform? How has that connection manifested in some of your works?
EK: Oh there are so many strategies plants have in their growth! There are the slow and cautious, the risk takers, and everything in between. But they all throw themselves towards the openness, towards the light—and they don’t really need a witness for this growth, instead they need companions. In that sense performance is quite something different. Yes, it is about throwing your body towards the open space, towards the light, but it has all these different levels of meaning making and sharing… I guess it is the difference between being and doing. Performance always seems to fall into the latter category even when it attempts to fall into the first one. Despite these differences the plant body, and the movement of growth in it, has been a great teacher and inspiration in my work. I guess the plant being is a kind of an ideal that is impossible to achieve as a human body—but momentarily, through a gesture, a performance I can set myself and my co-performers into a situation that resembles it. And gives us thus a great pleasure of being the bodies we are.
CP: I’m also interested in this idea of translation—you talk about translating experience or philosophical knowledge into performance. What does that process entail?
EK: Yes—I feel my artistic practice is a lot about that: my personal process of embodying the knowledge, the theories, the science, the being itself. I am making my work to be able to understand something, some phenomena or experience or relation. To explore the ideas of resisting and surrendering and coming together, the opening and nurturing… I just need the capacity of my whole body and its sensitivity to understand the philosophical—and scientific—thinking. A good example is Michael Marder’s concept of “plant thinking,” which I explored first in a dialogue with a plant biologist and then through a series of performances. It made a great difference to actually act out the plant logic—the attempt to situate my own living, breathing body within this logic. At the moment I’m exploring Luce Irigaray’s thinking on and around love and the concept of (sexuate) difference with the help of mycorrhiza. So far it has taken the shape of a (love) song, a video and performance. And more seems to be on its way!
CP: I’m suddenly reminded of hearing you talk about how scientists learned about your performance and instantly recognized what was going on.
EK: I have been really surprised by the generosity and the openness of the scientists I’ve talked to and worked with. They have taught me a lot about curiosity and creativity. I’ve understood that to be a good scientist you have to be open and not too fixed on your presumptions. Instead you need to keep asking questions, to keep moving in search of new viewpoints—keeping your senses alert. I guess this is also what enables them to look at my work with such fresh and observant eyes, and to recognize patterns and logics. Their gaze, and their company, has encouraged me to develop my own practice further and to trust the viewer’s intellect and sensitivity. These dialogues have also made me aware of the conservative and exclusive features of the art world—and in my own thinking!
CP: You also work quite regularly with children?
EK: Children are so great to work with because they are still connected to their senses. They have great flexibility, openness and understanding of our bodily being. A child is with the world through touching, trying things out—it is a very creative and candid relation. The analytical reasoning does not overrule the sense of wonder, the pleasure of sensing, the imagination. Therefore they are brilliant performers and great fun to work with. And when there are children in the group it is also easier for the grown ups to soften, and to be a bit silly. I find a great importance in that.
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
CP: You ask this question, but I also want to re-ask it of you—what does it mean to have a body? How has your answer to that question changed for you over time? What insights or moments changed it?
EK: It has been a long journey with this question! I guess in my early works the focus was on identity: Who is this particular body and why is it what it is? Through the years I have slowly been able to open it up. Moving from my body to a larger ecosystem, a relation between the human and the plant body, and very recently also with the fungi. The collaboration with the plant bodies has been crucial in the process of understanding my own body, the ego, and all of that. It has changed my way of being and thinking and making the work. Therefore I’m very curious to see what the fungi will do!
At the moment being a body means for me being a sensing, sensual, sensitive being. It means an amazing capacity of abstract thinking, of theorizing, of creating and solving problems. Being a body means constant movement, constant change. It means the greatest pleasure and joy—a place to connect, to care, to touch the other.
The following interview was originally published on Art21 on Sept 25, 2012. One of my favorite conversations with Norton and Michael Marder was conducted by Monica Westin for BOMB in March 2014. You can see that interview here.
Heidi Norton. “Meditations on Moldavite Besednice (A Symbiosis),” 2012. Glass, wax, mirror, resin, cactus, fern. 43.5 x 61 x 8.5?. Photo by Melissa Fisher.
“The crude solution to the problem of vegetative life, interpreted as qualitatively weak and as verging on inanimate existence, forces this life into retreat, puts it on the run, and so increases the distance between philosophy and the plant.” –Michael Marder, Plant-Soul: The Elusive Meanings of Vegetative Life
Generally we think of plant life as a kind of fuel — a material vitality that exists to be consumed and transformed to a higher purpose: as food, medicine, paper, or housing. As such, vegetation is not often recognized as a material capable of interiority — with an autonomous desire, or a will, that could be inaccessible to humankind. Still, we know that plants seek light. We know they are active in so far as they grow and we know that, left to their own devices, they would consume a given area. Heidi Norton works with common house plants, framing them in planes of glass, resin, wax and paint. She sets up these scenarios in her studio and photographs the transformation of plants over time. In other instances she installs the 3D works as sculptures. Some plants die over the course of an exhibition. Less often, they sprout, generating new life within a sculpture. Photographs and sculptures depict the same phenomena and so play back and forth between something fixed in time — a moment of deterioration — and something in flux. In so doing, Norton creates a moment for apprehension, a moment at which the interiority of plants, framed by the artist in a visible procession towards death and rebirth, might be easier to conceive. Heidi Norton (born in Baltimore, MD in 1977) received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She is currently showing work at the MCA until October 23rd.
Caroline Picard: What led you to incorporate plants into your work?
Heidi Norton: I think mostly it had to do with the primal need to have nature incorporated into my urban space — I wanted to reclaim something I had lost. Up until my mid-twenties, I spent much of my life in a rural part of West Virginia and Maryland, in the valley of Blue Ridge Mountains. My parents were homesteaders and we had a great reliance on nature, we communed in and nurtured it; in return it provided us with food, recreation, and shelter. This symbiotic relationship is integral to my work. The plants’ life is compromised and in exchange it gives something back to you in the form of art. Death can teach more about life than life itself. Destruction is a vital phase in cycles of regeneration.
CP: Why the house plant?
HN: Houseplants are our way of corralling nature, organizing it, and preserving it. They make ecology accessible and domestic. Still, houseplants, vegetation, botanical enterprise all have histories and experiences far bigger than me. As a material, their associated context is greater than my conception, but I like that. Plants, as a medium, have an ability to shift the work through various paradigms and intertexts: from fine art, to science, to personal and intimate, to vernacular.
CP: I keep thinking about the intersection between life/death/passing/preservation which you create in your work. What does it mean to frame such contrary movements?
HN: At its “roots” the work is about ecological cycles: Life, decay, death, passing and preservation — even archiving is included within that. Time is a significant factor and is recorded and observed in the works in various ways. Sometimes the same plant reoccurs in different photographs at varying phases, sometimes the plants die and their detritus is reused as a material, and sometimes the plant sprouts new growth (that can then be pruned and reused). When the plant is “pressed” against glass or embedded in wax, it resonates with scientific notions of preservation and fossilization.
I am thinking about how a scientist kills something to know more about it or how an organism becomes a host to another organism in exchange for nourishment/life. Like something you may see at the Field Museum or in a Field Guide, I use glass as a “canvas.” Paint, resin and plants become the medium. Sometimes the plants are cast or embedded into wax and these plants often birth “new” life and growth, and other times, the plants are photographed and “recorded” in various states of life-decay-rebirth.
CP: How much does “reflectivity,” as a property present in much of your material, influence you?
HN: All the materials — the glass, resin, wax, tarps — have to do with notions of preservation. Michael was the first sculpture that I made after the New Age Still Life series. I wanted to activate the photographs using 3-D strategies. The glass surface and flatness of the “painting” side helped me negotiate that. However, the other side (gesso-ed and primed like a canvas) is very three dimensional, as if the plant is exploding off the surface. So here we see a tension with form, in addition to the life-and-death contrast that I keep referencing. The “pressing” allows the viewer to watch the plants (and themselves — their own reflections) change from green to yellow; while the plants desaturate as time passes, the white side always stays pristine, waiting for something to “happen.”
Read the rest of this interview here.
Jul 20, 2016
A. Laurie Palmer. Heap Leach Field, Nevada (silver). Courtesy of the artist.
In 2015, Black Dog Publishing released A. Laurie Palmer’s book, In the Aura of a Hole: Exploring Sites of Material Extraction, which documents multiple visits the artist made to sites of industrial extraction around the United States. Describing trips to Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Wyoming, and California, among others, Palmer’s essayistic account weaves personal experience and history, philosophy, science, politics, and economics, revealing the complex and reciprocal relationship between humanity and the materials on which it relies. Palmer is a sculptor based in California; she has exhibited widely since 1988, collaborated for twenty years with the artist group Haha, and cofounded the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk about how In The Aura of a Hole developed?
Laurie Palmer: There were many seeds for this project. One is from the early 1980s, when a friend gave me Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura while I was living in San Francisco. In that philosophical poem, Lucretius asks straightforwardly: What is this place? What is it made of? How does it work? His answers are as helpful now as they were in 50 BCE, in the sense that his curiosity, detailed observations, and empirical imagination still reverberate. He was an early proponent of a DIY ethic: he trusted his own experience to make sense of things. As an Epicurean, he believed the gods and their spokespersons were not authorities to be trusted, while being nevertheless supremely humble, in his desire to hear the opinions of others.
Two thousand years later, the world is materially different—perhaps destroyed, certainly drastically altered—and we now question how certain human practices and ideologies have become naturalized, as if they are forces that can’t be changed, that are part of the nature of things. Lucretius’s direct approach is helpful in a different way for questioning the intransigence of these practices and ideologies, but really it was his poetic imagination and inflamed curiosity that moved and affected me so many years ago. And his willingness to ask simple questions…
CP: Was the book at all influenced by your studio practice?
ALP: In the early 1990s, while writing about art, making art, and teaching art, I had the idea to write a book about materials that might be relevant to teaching sculpture. I thought I could write a sort of handbook of descriptions and associations; I would write about the world of matter as if it were art. But I didn’t write it because I didn’t think it had any ground. By ground I mean a more located politics, addressing the privatization of space and resources.
I found the ground for the book when I began to question land use in my own practice of making. Haha’s work had always been place-based, and that long collaboration is another important seed. But in the late ’90s or early 2000s, I started thinking about land as both abstract space and tangible material and to explore its status as a “fictional commodity,” in Karl Polanyi’s term. This led to visiting mines, where land as space and material becomes explicitly commodified—turned into an object. The question of thingness (what makes a thing cohere) has always been an art question for me, a sculpture question. From 2003–04, I was given the unbelievable gift of time to read and think at Radcliffe College; the experience both opened and unhinged me. It took a long time for me to filter out all the joyful noise, and in the end the book is something different from whatever I had hoped would result. The research that went into it has become a bountiful source for making new projects, and the writing helped me find new ways to think about being in the world. As an artist I want to be changed by what I make, through the process of making it. Working on the book did that. I crafted it as a porous whole, to create a certain picture of the world. Even if it’s unevenly geeky, digressive, personal, or didactic at times, it’s nevertheless a porous whole made of eighteen holes. The golfing analogy didn’t occur to me until after it was published. In my mind, it is an art project because it is constructed more as a thing than a coherent narrative and because that thing consists of different kinds of voices, or of information, which might not exist together except perhaps in the permissive context of art. As in artmaking, I let more in than I could make explicit sense of, with the hope of giving the reader and receiver a lot to work with.
CP: In the introduction, you say you want to break the script, to take a “reparative rather than paranoid approach.” I feel ever more aware of how embroiled I am in systemic violence, in no small part due to the modes of industrial extraction on which my daily life relies. While I recognize that entwinement, it seems like a dead end to simply say, “I will not participate,” partly because it’s impossible not to participate. But I also worry that struggling to maintain a refusal might require so much of my energy that I would end up blind to alternative, nonviolent possibilities. I find that your book stirs up a different kind of awareness, but I’m not sure what to call it.
ALP: I’m not sure what to call it, either. In some ways this project involved digging deeper into a wound—learning more about and specifying my complicity in the interconnected violence you speak about—of ecosystem/world destruction, resource depletion, militarism, surveillance, poverty, racism, and unemployment as necessities of capitalism, and other outrageously wrong systemic priorities, all of which support and perpetuate each other. Alternatively, drawing connections between the materiality of the Earth and our bodies reveals our vulnerability and our complicity in a larger-than-human frame and points to a different kind of connection, to focus on and explore as a way forward. Of course it is facile to say everything is connected, but it’s interesting to try to specify how they are connected. And the closer one looks, the more surprises one finds, creating a picture for which the laws of non-contradiction do not apply! I think of art as a really big net, with a broad tolerance for contradictory reality. With writing, one is always struggling against an exclusive logic, which makes it so hard to write and which makes really good writing so exquisite because it refuses that logic. I would like to be a writer, but I am an artist. But to return to your question: a reparative approach assumes disaster has already happened, is happening, and is ongoing alongside a lot of other things that have happened, are happening, are perhaps not so visible, might come to the surface as useful, could offer the seeds for different understandings…
Read more here.
Linda Tegg, Cameratrap, contact. Archival Inkjet Print, 2015.
Linda Tegg is an Australian photographer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. Using those tools, she carves out uncanny situations along the borderland of Nature and Culture. Sheep inhabit galleries; a goat stands on a white pinnacle appearing to be in digital space until it finally steps off its peak and trots away; often the human figure is camouflaged, whether by green screens or proper hunting attire, illustrating the deliberate and often painstaking efforts humanity makes to separate itself from its environment. In the following interview, Tegg and I discuss those borders and how her interest in grass cultivation further errodes delineations between subject and object, background and foreground.
Caroline Picard: You’ve talked about how you’re interested in looking at “nature” as a social construct. Can you say a little more about what you mean by that?
Linda Tegg: I am interested in how ideas of the natural are formed and manifest in our interactions. This interest began with interpersonal relationships and has expanded to include those generally not considered persons.
Wildlife documentaries, popular science, religious education, almost anything considered non-fiction is of interest to me. From the museum of natural history, to the eco-safari, to YouTube, interest in animals can rest largely on the surface. Through a recent work I call cameratrap, I consider adaptations that humans make to their own surface appearance when attempting to embed themselves in a so-called “natural” environment. I wonder what the hunter achieves when their prey doesn’t show up; or what we understand natural behaviour to be when the when the wildlife documentary doesn’t play out as we expect.
CP: How do the mediums of photography and video differ for you?
LT: In my work they speak the same language. Sure, they are by no means identical, but they hinge on the same relationships. It’s difficult for me to think about my photographs and videos in isolation of their environment, viewing conditions are so integral to how I make and experience art.
CP: How do you use those mediums to explore (and blur) the nature/culture binary?
LT: I see my photographs and videos as participants in an ecology of images through which we understand and orient ourselves. I seek moments in mediation where categorical shirts can occur, and find focus where illusion meets embodiment, animal actors for example.
Linda Tegg, Sheep Study, Gallery, Video Still, 2010.
CP:What do you mean by “animal actors”?
LT: I mean animals that have been trained for the film and television industry. Animals who perform our idea of their natural behaviour for the camera. I once encountered Holliwolves, wolf dog hybrids who are trained to move like wolves.
CP: What made you want to start working with grass? Is there a way that you compare it to a photographic process?
LT: My interest in grass was sparked by a local concern. I was curious to explore what the State Library of Victoria replaced in its founding. What other life forms occupied the grounds of that building? I learned that a grassy plain woodland had once stretched across the site and wanted to see if those plants could somehow grow back there again, and if conditions could be found where those same grasses might co-exist with the State’s collection of cultural artifacts. Had the Library been built on a former rainforest I would be working with completely different plant community. That said, it is no co-incidence that Melbourne was built on grassy terrain.
Linda Tegg, Grasslands,
Installation View. Photo by Matthew Stanton, 2012.
CP:Why do you say that?
LT: Working and thinking with grasslands led me to consider how humanity approaches the world-for-itself (or us); the impulses, instruments, and frameworks of colonization are at play everywhere. The camera is certainly in line with that same mentality and I constantly wrestle with that awareness in my work. Working with grassland plants prompted me to shift my focus to the background.
CP: How might privileging a background (or grassland) influence your experience of art history?
LT: Looking into the background of 19th century paintings of early Melbourne wasn’t exactly informative in terms of which plants were growing on the site. Enormous complexity rendered by a green brushstroke, something to slide right past. In one sense I felt that researching and growing the grasses was illuminating a blind spot. I was drawing that blur into high resolution, so much so that it shifted into another order entirely. Seeking that kind of clarity is very much a photographic instinct.
CP: At the same time, once you shift that interest, wouldn’t you suddenly just turn grassland—in this case—into a kind of foreground subject? I feel like I’m inadvertently asking you about photography again…
LT: As an artist who thinks through photography I can’t help but draw endless analogies—a tray of seedlings appears as a selection of pixels. Eventually, as I understand more about the plants, my interest in the surface subsides and I can see them differently. Before working with plants I understood more about the chemical processes involved in the development of a roll of film into a photograph than the development of a seed into a plant. This allowed me to understand the seed as a latent image. The growth of the plant was imbued with the magic of an image appearing in the darkroom. Of course they’re not just images, they’re living beings.
Linda Tegg, Grasslands, Documentation during protest, 2012.
CP: How do you consider your grass installations in relation to your photographic interests?
LT: I see the installations as a complex of ecology and illusion. I arrange the regular containers of grasses and plants into forms that resemble landscapes. The rigidity of the containers persist, advancing and receding in counterpoint to the volume of the plants. Despite my Romantic aspirations of verdant hillsides the grid pattern is a constant reminder that the plants are drawn through an anthropocentric structure. The illusion of “nature” can break apart, the same way that a film’s continuity shatters when it’s slowed down.
CP: What is it like producing grass installation outdoor in/situ (as with Grasslands) for instance, versus producing indoor installations, like Terrain?
LT: My first inclination was to bring the plants indoors, so that they could be in direct proximity to the State Library of Victoria’s picture collection. There were many beautiful gestures to be made in bringing a grassland into the Victorian-era gallery. However, the head of conservation (who, at least in theory, entertained my ideas) calculated how many months each of the paintings would need to be rested if exposed to the same light the grasses required for just one day, and after likening the impact to a natural disaster, vetoed the idea. Eventually the grassland was allowed to occupy the Library’s front steps and lawn. As far as the plants were concerned outside was the right choice. They thrive in the sun and open air.
I remained curious about the quarantine room in the library—the evidence they had collected of bookworm, the oriental rat flea they found in a manuscript, the illustrations of silverfish life cycles on the wall.
CP: I can’t believe I didn’t think about how strange it is to cultivate plants indoors! That seems like a really significant aspect, and maybe also ties into the nature/culture binary…
LT: The indoor installations are a struggle for survival. The plants I grow are not the kind of plants that are suited for indoor conditions. They are spouted from the supermarket, usually grains, that require full sun. As a result I race to keep up with their needs and constantly fail. Changes in the building’s heating have huge impacts. Plants’ also impact their surroundings; the air quality surrounding them improves.
Within most institutional building’s plants are imposters, let alone the other life forms they bring forth. I grew my last installation in a large plastic bubble nested into my studio. Psychologically, I wrestled with it as a self-imposed form of restraint but in the end was happy to share in the plants’ containment.
CP: I was wondering if you would speak a bit more about the significance of the Whole Foods’ bulk bin aisle as the source of your seeds and grasses in Terrain? I feel like there are so many nuances of networks and economies at play, things that become strangely invisible when one is faced with the gallery installation of your work.
LT: In one sense it was a direct way for me to overcome some of the alienation I feel in the supermarket, a marvel of modernism if you will, where everything is on hand, ripe for consumption. By spoiling the grains they’re able to grow into plants—suddenly they can’t be moved so easily, they can’t be traded as they were, and they shift categorically.
The process also disrupts the order of the bulk section, where plexiglass silos emphasize the diversity and division between varieties. Where every variety is represented by a Product Look Up Number that ensures a uniformity across stores. I seek to undo this, to unknow them as food and understand them as plants, as beings with a potential beyond my consumption. I consider them a community, a manifestation of the various human and non-human networks that brought the grains and legumes together in the bulk aisle, as a kind of reflection of our co-evolution.
Linda Tegg, One World Rice Pilaff, Terrain, Prairie Grass, Installation View,
CP: The way that the blatant economic/trade relationships becomes so quickly invisible feels important, maybe because it reflects how all of the world’s “natural” landscapes are similarly tied up in economic systems. In your installations, I don’t even recognize the individual types of plants, but am struck instead by a general green clump—maybe that’s like the 19th century green brush stroke, again.
LT: It is not surprising that this complexity is evasive. I must admit that I didn’t have a clue what a garbanzo bean plant looked like until I grew one. The plants in their plurality easily become generic grass a ground for human action and expansion. Even in a gallery installation where every convention would invite one to look closely, to consider the plants. They slide so easily into symbolism, into an image of rolling green hills, another image of prosperity.
I chose Whole Foods as it caters particularly well to people who want more from their food. I think about the reversionist fantasies behind the Paleo diet, that our bodies are more in tune with a pre-agricultural diet. That we can indeed buy a nine dollar packet of Paleonola Maple Pancake Flavored Grain Free Granola and be better for it.
CP: What about care? As someone who worked with you as a curator, I feel like the way that you have to maintain and grow the grasses mostly invisible to a public, but also essential to the underpinnings of your work. I’m wondering how you think about that in relation to the artistic act or gesture…
LT: As the caretaker and orchestrator I am flat out in the midst of this operation. I grow the plants in regular modular containers and rearrange them throughout the exhibition. Indoors it really is a fight for survival.
When working with the grasslands project I thought a lot about what stays and what goes. The care that goes into preserving the State’s cultural heritage and the recurring acts of violence I saw inflicted on Grasslands. Everywhere I looked I saw them giving way. Even the artwork was pulled up one night by the Library’s own contractors to accommodate a display of BMW’s eco friendly vehicles.
Caring put me into a specific and active relationship to the plants; in some ways we’re in it together. The act of caring creates the potential for us to influence each other. We’re co-constituted. I also think that care bring things into visibility. I remember coming across a grassland restoration group weeding an embankment. To see them on their hands and knees, fighting the tide like that, really stuck with me.
Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian agreed to answer a few questions about their latest collaborative and editorial endeavor, Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, a publishing project where contributing authors reflect upon the demands of Anthropocenic thinking and the many, nuanced intersections between humanity and ecology. In the following interview, Howe and Pandian, explore the tensions a word can contain. Howe is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at Rice University and co-hosts the “Cultures of Energy” podcast; Pandian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.
Caroline Picard: In the opening paragraph for Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, you describe the speed at which the word “Anthropocene” has spread and taken root, perhaps not only in academic discourse, but also popular imagination.
Cymene Howe: The channels that the Anthropocene now occupies are multiple and in many ways this has happened incredibly quickly in both academic and popular discourse. However, I also believe that the term, and especially its implications, has not gone fast, or far, enough. Academics (myself included) have spent time debating whether the term is adequate, or whether it is yet another instance of scholarly jargon that will soon evaporate and be forgotten. In the popular media however, the term has generally failed to take hold. Every day we read about climatological symptoms (wildfires in California or massive flooding in Louisiana being merely two that are front page news at the moment). In these conditions, it seems to me that the Anthropocene ought to be a more robust dimension in mainstream news cycles and for that matter, our social media flow. Beyond simply assuring that the term itself is in circulation, it is crucial that its representational work become part of wider and deeper conversations. I wonder how our political and economic discourses might change if we were really to become collectively and critically aware of the conditions that the Anthropocene represents: the human deformation of Earth.
CP: Is the speed at which the word is assimilating useful?
Anand Pandian: Speed is a strange thing, having so much to do, as a sensation, with where you are placed when you feel it; think, for example, of this Earth we are so worried about now, rocketing through the cosmos at the rate of 65,000 miles per hour. I am quite struck myself at the way in which thinkers and tinkerers of so many kinds—artists, poets, critics, writers, activists, academics—seem to have seized on this neologism as an emblem for this time. To me, this speaks to the workings of the imagination, the way that vectors of drift, trespass, and boundary-crossing can be unleashed by the force of the right kind of image. Let’s not forget this, that the Anthropocene is in fact an image, an arresting and persuasive image, an image of the Earth as captive to the machinations of one species conceived in singular terms. There has been some very interesting historical work on the imaginative impact of the Apollo mission photographs of the Earth as a whole in the 1970s: the relationship between the famous “blue marble” image, for example, and the burgeoning environmental movements of that decade. It strikes me that the Anthropocene may possibly become that kind of image for our time, a sharp refocusing of what is happening now, how we understand what is happening in the time that we call “now,” through a radical shift of perspective. Of course we know that there were serious and constitutive limits to what took place in the name of environmentalism in the 1970s, and hence all the more reason to be vigilant about what is being said and done in the name of the Anthropocene, and whether these things can be bent and turned a bit.
CH: If we agree that an awareness of the Anthropocene’s consequences ought to be more widely understood and confronted, we can also engage the speed of its discursive distribution as rhetoric and metaphor of the present. We live in an accelerated world. That means increased resource use, manufacture and trade as well as faster communication and travel, all of which have their externalities in regards to Earth’s climate system. Speed has become a habit. And in this sense it should not surprise us that terminology also moves rapidly, blazing along at light speed through media conduits. In a theoretical sense, speed is an essential condition of the Anthropocene as a concept. Many observers, as we know, cite the “Great Acceleration” following World War II—the quickened pace of goods-production, transportation and increased use of fossil fuels—as the crucial temporal phase that gave rise to what we now call the Anthropocene. In other words, if we take speed—its physics, mechanics and discursive thrust—and map it onto our bio- litho- aqua- and atmospheres, the quotient we get looks very much like what we have come to think of as the Anthropocene.
CP: How do we shore that up against the fact that the term hasn’t been officially approved?
CH: The fact that the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not codified the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch is not, for me, a concern. Geology is a slow science, in the best of ways. Perhaps the careful consideration of a scientific community that operates in such slowly-unfolding timescales is a needed antidote to our accelerationist tendencies. Rushing to adopt the designation of Anthropocene might in fact jeopardize the methodical authority of our earth scientists. What is more meaningful for me than the consecration of the term is the fact that the person (Jan Zalasiewicz) who is leading the Special Working Group on the Anthropocene (that will submit its findings and conclusions to the Commission) is an inclusive thinker who values not only the physical sciences but the social ones as well; he and others are speaking across disciplinary divides to arrive at better understandings and better analytics. To state what might now be a truism, working in collaboration and pooling our collective knowledge is, really, the only way forward in this era, whatever its name.
CP: I find the question of agency really interesting and difficult with regard to the Anthropocene. One friend recently mentioned that he didn’t feel we were ready for the term to become a political vehicle for action, because we didn’t yet know what “Anthropocene” meant, or even how best to approach it—I think he was imagining that at this stage the term could easily be co-opted by a number of agendas that could just as easily argue, for instance, to reinforce national borders or relax them in the face environmental crisis. These discussions, and maybe also your title “for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” attributes a significant and ambivalent amount of power to the word. What does the word Anthropocene do for you? Is it too weird to ask what it’s “nature” might be?
CH: The worries expressed by your friend are likely warranted. Anthropocene is a world-engulfing concept, utterly comprehensive and drawing everything and being imaginable into its purview, both in terms of geographic scales and temporal duration. And it is a term and condition that has crisis at its fulcrum. This means that it is the sort of concept that risks becoming a vehicle for particularly corrosive restrictions, military measures, and all manner of abuses in its name. The feminist philosopher, Isabelle Stengers, has shared similar concerns and offers several reflections on these potentialities. In the epoch of the Anthropocene, and in the name of securing the climate (and all that thrives from it), she recognizes that “Man will be called on to mobilize” with all his/our [?] technoscientic resources at hand. She warns that a future with “unhappily necessary,” measures is, therefore, not far off. Within Stengers’s worries is a culprit, or better put, a causality, that fuels a draconian future: predatory capitalism. She calls this condition a “waking nightmare” where States have ceded control of the future to an oligarchy of the super-rich. What we might abstract from Stengers’s concerns is that while we must acknowledge that climate change is “real” (always a fraught term for a philosopher!), our political economic system is exacerbating that reality. Combining climate crisis with predatory capitalism offers up a toxic brew that can be used by the powers that be to exert controls, potentially unprecedented controls.
CP: How does someone, just an average person going about their lives, respond to that fear?
CH: So, one question that we need to collectively pose is how to diminish the power of predatory capitalism; or on a more radical note: how to drive it to extinction in order to get on with the work of reverse engineering the ecocide it has produced.
AP: This is precisely where the “yet unseen” comes in. For, like any moment of intense movement and dynamism, the energy swirling now around the Anthropocene idea cannot be contained or domesticated by any one dominant understanding. I think it’s useful to think of the Anthropocene as an opening to imagine the present in contrary terms, and to engage creatively with this opening in lending force or momentum to more heterodox imaginations and movements. It fascinates me, for example, that we have seen such a proliferation of “alters” to the Anthropocene: Anthrobscene, Chthulucene, Eurocene, Misanthropocene, Plasticene, and so on, each tilting away from the epochal impetus to stress some other feature, to make some other feature more palpable as a way of redefining what exactly it is that we share now by way of ecological implicatedness. We have further, yet-to-be-published entries to our lexicon that will push these alternatives further, proposing Simulocene, Prometheocene, and many other such names. I think there’s something refreshing, and, dare I say hopeful in the evidence of such play. The Anthropocene is “good to think,” to borrow a phrase from the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. With the idea of a lexicon, we are less interested in an authoritative redefinition of the term than in helping to propel its radicalization to the point where it could speak more effectively to the experience of a wider range of contemporary human societies and circumstances.
CP: How do you see anthropology’s role changing in the Anthropocene? What might be asked of the discipline that wasn’t asked before?
CH: We could say that anthropology has been doing the Anthropocene all along. The discipline is singular in its breadth of attention to humanity as humanity. This includes realizing all the idiosyncrasies of cultures and the historical roots that help produce them. Anthropology is also unique, I would argue, in its attention to the nexus of deep time and human life. The discipline’s project writ large and historically has been to trace humanity’s journey from pre-history to the present. An archaeological excavation, for example, is intended to unearth the stratigraphy of human presence. This includes postholes and mounds of shells, but it also includes how human footfall has transformed the earth’s crust, carving out paths or remaking its surface with tools and labor. In the branch of anthropology that attends to primates, evolution and biology we also find a careful rendering of human history as a biochemical and material process of growth (and retreat) that is embodied, literally and iteratively, through the human form itself.
Returning to your earlier question on the “nature” of the Anthropocene, anthropology also offers insights because the nature of the Anthropocene is our nature as well. The Anthropocene has been understood as human impact upon earth systems; but it is also important to recognize that the fossilized logics that have flowed from oil and coal—which has largely induced a planetary Anthropocene—has also utterly conditioned our humanity. That is, we cannot see our human being, in the present, as anything other than a human order that is deeply inscribed by oil and coal, and more broadly by each of the fossilized materials we have unearthed and burned. These fossils drove industrialization, they made modernity, if you will (even with all the provisos associated with the concept of “modernity.”) If we follow Timothy Mitchell’s work for example (2011) we find that coal—with its particular material form: relatively solid and mined in certain parts of the world—facilitated the emergence of 20th century liberal democracy. With the injection of oil, various elements of that mission were liquidated. The global economy now depends on oil and its material viscosity has proven sticky in various ways, from military interventions to a reshaping of geopolitics. Put more bluntly, fossil fuels are powerful shit. That is why it is important in this era, to face the fundamental recognition that our sources of energy, what now appear to be diabolical world-wreckers, are a part of us, especially that “us” that resides in the industrialized north. We are constitutionally implicated. As we think about how our energy decisions over the last couple of hundred years have come home to roost in injured eco- and atmospheres, I think it is critical that these forms of energy be taken for what they are: not just what we utilize, but what we are, politically, socially and one could argue, biochemically as well. It is not just that human imprudence with fossilized matter has transformed the Earth; it has altered humans as well.
AP: All of these crucial developments that Cymene describes help to underscore the unique and important place for anthropology in these conversations, for it is this discipline that has dedicated itself most doggedly to an investigation of the human, anthropos, as a problem and a horizon. Anthropology has always been a speculative enterprise, wagered on the chance to surpass some fixed picture of the human and its limits. Take, for example, this sentence from the conclusion to one of the founding works in the field, Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: “Though it may be given to us for a moment to enter into the soul of a savage and through his eyes to look at the outer world and feel ourselves what it must feel to him to be himself—yet our final goal is to enrich and deepen our own world’s vision, to understand our own nature and to make it finer, intellectually and artistically.” The language of radical foreignness and indeed savagery in this sentence may remind us of the discipline’s dark birth in the crucible of European colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And yet we may also see glimpse here an intellectual practice of taking the human, some canonical understanding of the human, beyond itself. It’s no accident that Malinowski uses the word “nature” here, I should also emphasize, for there has always been an ecological dimension to anthropological thinking and writing. The discipline has always been dedicated to excavating a thickness of local context in social, geographic, and physical terms, and to conveying this thickness as an essential part of the story through the genre of exploratory writing we’ve come to call ethnography. One of the questions that runs through our lexicon project, perhaps as a muted register but present here nonetheless, is whether and how these legacies of anthropology can be enlisted in the project to conceive this Anthropocene, for this is a discourse that tends to take the human as a given all too quickly and easily.
CP: At one point, Cymene, you write “Geological time parallels with other scenics, like changed landscapes. But timely thinking brings us equally to another sensibility of the scene: pulling back the curtains on the human spectacle of the Anthropocene. Infact, if anthropos belongs anywhere in the scene, it must be to acknowledge that he has behaved with histrionic indulgences, like bouts of carbon binging. Next to geological, climatological, and seemingly impossible timescales, we have another kind of scene: tantrums and human melodrama. Tales of Armageddon, apocalypse, and emergency convey the panic that ensues in the mad dash to save human life (Colebrook 2012). The sky is falling, and we get to hear the countdown in terms of parts per million as the air around us continues to carbonize. This scene is like a staged event—waiting in the dark wondering if the knife will show up in the first act, so that we can know how it all will end.” How does the Anthropocene call for us to relearn how to tell time? What is the relationship between knowledge and imagination in that relearning process?
CH: I am glad that you brought up the conjunction of imagination and knowledge as integral to relearning how to tell time. We often think of the phrase “telling time” in a fairly instrumental way: you ask me the time of day and I respond with a quantitative account of the present (usually from a clock) through the coordinates of dawn and dusk. But if we allow ourselves to blur that modality, we can imagine different ways of “telling time.” The Anthropocene, for instance, is a telling time; it marks off a chronological field not by way of the planet’s movement around the sun (dawn and dusk) but by way of human accretions, deposits, and sediments. In a different sense, but one that is not without analogy to the first, we can say that the Anthropocene compels us to encounter time differently. This is primarily what I was playing with in the essay you mention. For humans to take responsibility (or blame) for a geologic epoch necessarily forces our thinking back into the rather unimaginably deep time of rock and magma and tectonic plates. This is difficult for us. (Imagine thinking ourselves geologically!) But more difficult still might be the skill of envisioning forward. At the level of individual subjectivity, we each have a history and so one might say that we can—as beings equipped with grammar as well as experience—think about and imagine the, and our own, past. But our particular future we have not yet lived; we can postulate outcomes, but this limited to a cognitive, and maybe affective, dimension of futurity. Casting our sights seven, twelve, seventy-two generations forward, as the Anthropocene asks us to do, is a true challenge. I don’t know of the algorithm that might help us achieve that sort of long-range imaginary, but I do hope we will find one.
Another take on our time, and its potential, might be to think in terms of a “Betacene.” The Anthropocene has us working with incongruous time scales: geological time encountering the immediacy of catastrophe. While the Holocene may have been the age in which we learned our letters and our agriculture, we are now faced with a genealogy of circulations and reciprocities between humans and other beings that demands, I believe, some experimental plasticity. As we know, the Anthropocene may be more or less “new” depending on how one measures it; but whatever its age, it is an improvisational time for us and our Others. We must innovate new ways of being in, and with, the world. Taking a cue from digital technologies that capture their users’ encounter in what designers call the “beta” mode, I have wondered if we can think about this time as a Betacene. In the Beta phase, a collective re-making occurs, the “user experience” gets honed; bugs and viruses pop out and slippage happens. The Beta-phase is about finding out what goes wrong. The Betacene could be a time to reverse-engineer ourselves toward a less im-perfect humanity: a chance to displace Alpha and a way to rethink ourselves not as apex species but as open to revision. This might be our opportunity to create a plan “B.”
CP: I would love to talk a bit about your contribution, Anand. At one point your write, “plastic as a material has always yielded objects in the form of questions: what else could your life become in the company of this shiny new thing?” You also link to video essay, “Wine Dark Plastic Sea,” where you connect Homer’s Mediterranean Sea to the Chesapeake Bay. Despite the staggering statistics on the volume of plastic the human species use on a regular basis, you maintain a level of optimism, ending your video essay with an observation. “We still have the chance to learn with these things and their buried energies,” you say, “the most crucial lesson of all: what would it take to live profoundly otherwise?” Can you talk about that ending note?
AP: It’s a difficult note to hold, and I certainly find its tone and tenor wavering in my own wrestling with the subject. I’ve begun to do field research for a new book on this material, plastic, a substance at the heart of so many of the utopian aspirations of the twentieth century and yet, now, one of the most potent embodiments of contemporary ecological nightmare. I’ve been working a lot with artists and activists in various places who are grappling with the astonishing proliferation of plastic detritus on beaches around the globe, and are experimenting with various ways of calling attention to what this is doing to marine life and the health of the oceans. I had the chance to spend a couple of days this summer on the Greek island of Kefalonia, a stone’s throw from the island of Ithaca that is mentioned in this particular video essay of mine. I was there to get a sense of the work of an American artist, Pam Longobardi, who has been working on the island of Kefalonia for about a decade now, cleaning beaches of plastic waste and making sculptural installations from the plastic objects she finds. I learned how to “snorkel” for brightly colored bits of underwater plastic debris with Longobardi, a poignant departure from the piscine adventures we typically seek, and we spent an afternoon cleaning out bagloads of plastic detritus from a sea cave: nets, straws, bottle caps, fraying bits of an abandoned polyurethane foam mattress, but also curious and even mythological figures that we found in this mass of anthropogenic debris, like toy action heroes, toy fighter planes, and even one sage-like plastic creature with a flowing beard and a staff in hand. To see all this in person, to see a Shell oil bottle cap side by side with “real” seashells as we did one afternoon, can be harrowing and even paralyzing. But there is indeed hope in the kind of work that Longobardi and many other artists and activists are doing now in encouraging us to attend anew to materials and objects we would otherwise neglect, and aspirations that bring us back to the original sense of plastic as material capable of being molded and shaped. Plastic has always come with an attendant promise of plasticity, concerning the malleability not only of the material itself but also of those who live with it. And here, once again, I’m trying to think about whether this promise can be radicalized in a way that might allow for a more livable future, whether plastic and plasticity can be taken as openings to reflect upon the radical forms of change that this new awareness of the age seems to demand.
CP: One of the things that I love about your project is how on the one hand you are tackling a very large topic, one almost impossible to conceive fully, and yet at the same time you all suggest looking at it in very small parts or windows. Similarly, I feel like the texts that you include—despite being assembled under a massive heading of “Lexicon”—are manageable, short, and generous. Was that an editorial decision that you all began with?
AP: The whole process has been curious, and strangely invigorating. As we mention in the online introduction to the collection, the very genesis of the project was a certain kind of accident, an academic conference panel that looked like it might fall apart altogether when it turned out that half the panel could not be present for it, a circumstance that led us to put out an impromptu call for many more brief “pop-up” presentations instead. The energy in that room was frankly electrifying, and we decided to pursue the conversation further online, where once again we could work with a platform that allowed for further brief contributions to emerge organically from the circulation of the series among a widening readership. We have about thirty entries online now and the full collection, when published as a book in the near future, will have about twice as many. Working in this fashion has enabled us to let the momentum of the process lead the broadening and deepening of the Lexicon, rather than having all of this dictated with a very heavy hand by the two of us. Some of the most unique and engaging contributions—such as the redolent pair already up online, Shit and Flatulence—were essays that were floated to us as ideas by scholars who were excited by what they had already read online. We’re very happy to have a mix now of anthropologists, humanists, artists and other writers as contributors, with an interesting balance as well between senior scholars and students just pulling together their dissertation research. It’s become a space of collective speculation, which is how it should be, I think.
CH: Many, though certainly not all, authors in the collection are anthropologists who have been trained to focus on the intimate, local and ethnographic while also being conscious of meta-conditions and contexts that form human life in its close encounters. The local, however, cannot really be distinguished without its foil: the “global” or “universal.” So the question is how to limn these dimensions. Planetary changes are happening, every single one of them, from the reduction of the albedo effect in the Arctic (loss of ice-reflectivity) to deluges and heat spells that are increasingly “unprecedented.” These events are occurring somewhere, affecting some person, now. And now, again. One way to comprehend the particular punctuations of the Anthropocene is to magnify these intimacies of event, both theoretically and narratively. As we have been continuing to collect essays and artworks for the Lexicon, I have begun to see it as a pointillist project, little pinholes that light up the Anthropocene from the inside. This abides with an impulse to draw our readers tightly into a moment. Much of the time the Anthropocene augurs an affective sense of overwhelmed abjection or apathy. It behaves as a set of circumstances wherein individual humans feel disempowered against seemingly impossible odds. Climate change, like Timothy Morton has signaled with his idea of “hyperobjects,” is effectively, and in sum, beyond human comprehension, in its massive scale, generational effects and widely distributed impacts. That is a fair way of describing the Anthropocene to be sure. But even hyperobjects are made up of myriad acts and deferrals. Multiply them and you have the foundations of the Anthropocene. And we have been multiplying. The Lexicon is not an antidote to the magnitudes we are facing, but it is a way into possible other futures through careful and thoughtful reflection. Our hope is that each essay is rich individually, while also speaking in parallel to a whole vocabulary, in a lexicon, that is hopeful toward futures we might create.