Conceptions of Plant-Life: An interview with Giovanni Aloi

August 17, 2016 · Print This Article

Giovanni Aloi, The Window. Photo courtesy of artist.

Giovanni Aloi, “Windows,” 2014. Photo courtesy of artist.

In one of my earliest conversations with Giovanni Aloi, he described the problem of being a plant studies person at an animal studies conference: by entertaining the subjectivity of plants, any moral high ground previously associated with vegetarianism/veganism get a little complicated. Undaunted, Aloi explores the mess of that new territory, tracing their appearance in contemporary art and art history. He is the Founding Editor of Antennae, a Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, teaches at The School of the Art Institute, works for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, moonlights as an art expert on the BBC, and is on the verge of finishing two books on taxidermy and art, and plants and art.

Caroline Picard: You work at the intersection of philosophy, art history, and contemporary art. Why is the animal interesting to you within those fields?

Giovanni Aloi: Since I was roughly three years old two things would excite me like no other: nature and art. I drew animals, I looked for animals in paintings, photographs, documentaries, and everywhere else—there was nothing better than finding a grasshopper, a beetle, or a tree frog! Plants caught my attention a little later, but back then, I used to spend most of my evenings drawing animals.

CP: So art and animals were joined at the start in a way…

GA: As I grew up I fostered both interests but struggled to combine them in my work; animals in art were not taken seriously as an academic/artistic subject (and there’s still much to be said about that lack of serious engagement today). In the late 1990s the emergence of animal studies placed that subject on the map. Jonathan Burt and Steve Baker have published important work in relation to animals and representation in art and film. Both, along with other scholars, contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art.

CP: How would you characterize those early conversations around animals and art?

GA: The first ten years of analysis, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both, theory and practice, engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.”

In my 2012 essay, “Deconstructing the animal in search of the real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new and productive path of inquiry could involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships/reciprocal entanglements. Although the non-anthropocentric slant of animal studies was extremely refreshing from a philosophical perspective, I looked at early developments with some suspicion.

CP: Why?

GA: Personally, I believed that animal studies should be very weary of falling into the conceptual fallacy of proposing a zoo-centric system in place of an anthropocentric one. From earlier on, I thought that animal studies inquiries should unfold into rhizomatic networks of interconnectedness in which humans, animals, plants, and environments are equal parts.

CP: Do you feel like the animal studies conversation has shifted?

GA: Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model. But this is happening outside animal studies. My impression has always been that re-thinking animals entails re-thinking everything. It is a deep ontological undertaking. Connections between the ways in which we treat animals and the ways in which we treat fellow humans have been exemplified by Agamben. But there is much more at stake.

CP: How so?

GA: Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position. I am not entirely sure if this new shift could be incorporated by animal studies as a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on similar ontological levels as plants and bacteria. Would that change optics in a productive ways? And of course, there’s object oriented ontology, Morton’s notions of hyperobjects, broader notions of anthropocene…I am yet to see any animal studies scholar engaging with these philosophical tools. The challenge is to adapt them to fit the task. My forthcoming book on taxidermy in contemporary art attempts to do just that. But in any case, I think that the disruption of anthropocentrism caused by animal studies, posthumanism, and by the new waves of speculative realism is essential to the definitions of new cultural directions. We have clearly messed up—the planet is telling us that very clearly. Global warming and mass extinction are clear symptoms of the urgency with which we need to find new ways to think about our relationship to what we call nature. But changing people’s minds is one of the hardest things to do—especially when utilitarianism is involved.

CP: Do you mean that people have to change their way they think about the environment somehow? In other words, maybe like animals, there is a need to resist making the natural world purely symbolic? Even as I say that, it seems tied up with consumer culture…

GA: Capitalism has alienated us entirely from the plants and animals around us to a degree that, for too many people, looking into their phones or tablets is more interesting than looking at anything to do with the natural world. How can you care to preserve ecosystems when you don’t even care for what’s in your backyard or on your way to school or work? Capitalist normativity has reduced nature to a curiosity in urban reality and to a sublime escape in holiday adventures—this is the root of the problem.

CP: It’s hard to think of ways to shift that paradigmatic approach to nonhuman (or more than human) landscapes. I’m always interested in articulating openings for agency but it’s easy to feel daunted by the scale and conviction of capitalism.

GA: In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or at primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “That is/I am” approach that promotes a pre-encoded identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, and snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as John Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, we grow up to become constantly disappointed with the lack of the promised sublimity of animals. We expect them to somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges they have no stakes in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is generally understood as dumb or as edible. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a key moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters: work, buying a house, careers, children… animals become the object of hunting or entertainment.

CP: What do we do with that? It seems sort of impossible to work out an alternative approach, especially if you are talking about a problem that starts in kindergarten.

GA: This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in my book Art and Animals (2011): you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up in, shattering certainty and picking up the pieces thereafter to re-configure yourself all over again, allowing for a different conception of non-human/human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, and to make things more complicated, you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices—choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural make-up, and personal sense of urgency.

CP: Can you describe a bit about your transition from Animal Studies to Plant Studies? What are some interesting comparisons between the fields for you?

GA: I don’t think I have transitioned from animal studies to plant studies. I am very critical of animal studies because I cannot ethically justify its zoo-centric scope anymore. Its reliance on post-structuralism almost 20 years on is becoming embarrassing. Personally, I don’t care anymore about what Heidegger thought of lizards, Agamben of spiders, and Deleuze of wolves, as they all knew very little about these animals. They wrote about them in transcendental terms—in the singular/plural chimeric catch-all form that the word ‘animals’ inscribe. 10 years ago it was interesting to recover these animal-fragments from the thought of continental philosophers, it was necessary to validate the subject of scrutiny for the field, and to lay its foundations—but we should be done with that phase, now! In any case, I’m still in the field, as I understand animal studies to be an important component of posthumanism, but I like to think of myself as a “grumpy dissident” within the system. Some of my colleagues also share my views—I think something interesting might be happening soon. But ultimately, I am not very interested in the discourses of a discipline that places animals first in front of plants and other levels of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.

CP: Why?

GA: That approach seems extremely out-dated considering the times we live in and the challenges we face. That is also why multispecies ethnography and new materialism are more interesting to younger scholars at present—these philosophical waves are at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking whilst animal studies currently seems to have shaped itself as a questionable ethical-minefield for vegan/animal rights ideologies. Those agendas are also mostly out-dated. Veganism refuses to acknowledge plant-intelligence because it causes the emergence of new and hard to negotiate ethical problems, whilst animal-rights is still bound to obsolete concepts like sentience, consciousness, and agency.

CP: Does plant-studies as run into similar problems as a defined field?

GA: I don’t think a field of plant studies has actually shaped up yet. Michael Marder has done some important work recovering plants from a number of philosophical texts, thus mapping a base for discussion on the subject whilst a number of artists have—for years—engaged with plants, knowing that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no unified field yet. Plants still carry a cultural stigma imbedded in a number of popular culture-layers of validating disregard: the association between sociopaths and plants is a recurring cliché. There’s also the gender connotation between plants and women imposed by patriarchal systems of value that still gets in the way. And the recurring notion that caring for plants too much would require an entire revision of ethical values involving animals and humans…the implication that self-aware (or even sentient) beings must act as an exploitable base for us to feel ethically relieved through the acts of basic subsistence. I am sure that things are just about to shape up; hopefully, plant studies will be a freer space in which to seriously consider non-human alterity beyond obvious anthropomorphic strategies and imbedded/obsolete ethical agendas.

CP: What do you mean?

GA: In a sense, animal studies and plant studies have thus far been shaped by the desire to recover specific narratives and reconfigure ontological strata. And that is pretty much what Marder has accomplished with his body of work for the field of plant studies already. Plants are the new animals—they push all the concerns involved with agency and anthropocentrism to a breaking limit: alterity, reciprocity, communication, co-existence, intra-action, and so forth…These are all new paradigms that have been explored in human/animal relations. But simultaneously, thinking about/with plants requires a more ambitious leap of faith. The hope for meaningful plant responses; responses that we can fully comprehend is very slim, much slimmer than in animals, but this should not put us off from being inquisitive and curious and from attempting, for instance, to envision what it might be like to be a plant beyond the tools of mimicry.

CP: I want to go back to the question of education again…like, how would plant-sympathy be taught if not through mimicry?

GA: One of the most glaring contradictions of animal studies is that the discipline, through its marked non-anthropocentric drive has identified science—and Cartesian thinking more specifically—as the humanist tool by which distance and objectification between animals and humans occurs. Yet, animal studies implicitly relies on the scientific definition of “animal” in order to retain topicality. That’s a critical problem of some proportion. If the premise is to re-think animals beyond the scientific realm of inquiry, at what point do we begin to find the strength to tamper with the very last question (which should have perhaps been the first): “What is an animal?” Or is that taking the whole thing too far for the philosophical framework? At what point is an animal plant-like in a way that becomes interesting to us beyond scientific taxonomy? This gray area between zoology and botany contains a number of disregarded beings who rarely, if ever, emerge in scholarly discourses. Animal studies claims to have recovered repressed subjects, but it simultaneously represses those at the fringes of its implicit mammalian-normative approach. I guess that more generally, plant studies polarizes the already charged questions of animal studies through a stronger desire to develop a holistic approach, rather than a phito-centric one.

CP: How have you noticed plants appearing into contemporary art recently? Do you think plant’s contemporary art appearance differs from past examples?

GA: Yes, there has been a substantial shift. One category I am interested in is postmodernist plants, like with Anya Gallaccio and Marc Quinn, whose work, in a sense, laid the foundation for what is being problematized today. Gallaccio was concerned with decay. Dutch still-life paintings, the beautiful vases of flowers that reminded us we would all eventually die, were painted at the height of their beauty and freshness. Postmodernism threw this lovely poetics up in the air by haunting viewers with the raw ugliness of decay in the gallery space or by upstaging the representational notion of the memento mori through the shock of materiality. Marc Quinn’s Garden from 2000 amazed viewers by representationally suspending the lives of a multitude of wild and greenhouse-grown varieties of flowers in a massive tank of frozen silicon. The illusion was mesmerizing—but the shattering of the utopian narrative resounded loud and clear through the darkened gallery space. I feel that most postmodernist work involving plants, and I hate to generalize here, was more concerned with notions of realism expressed through materiality. Because of that, postmodernism laid the foundations for speculative realist tendencies in art.

CP: How?

GA: It is the mistrust for metanarratives and the iconoclastic slant nurtured by postmodernism that paved the way for what is happening today. Yet, Gallaccio’s and Quinn’s works are largely concerned with symbolic registers of representation that, despite the material presence of the plant in the gallery space, end up leaving the living-plant behind, so to speak. The symbolic order in which they operate, as it turns out, was not deployed towards a new conception/understanding of plant-life and its interconnectedness with humans and environments, but it ultimately was transcendental and inherently anthropocentric.

CP: Didn’t you explore this question in the online journal you edit?

GA: In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art. We especially focused on the work of artists interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centered view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. One of the most interesting and captivating works I have recently encountered surely is Revolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (2015) exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. The installation enabled three pine-trees to move around and outside the gallery space through a wheeled-base guided by a complex electronic interface, which measured the speed at which their sap flowed. This type of work produces new connections between the old categories of nature and culture, and object and subject, blurring boundaries and posing important questions about agency, perception, ontology, and epistemology. There’s a major difference between the new, speculative interest for plants now and past approaches.

CP: I’m always curious about what these artistic gestures do, somehow? Like, if it’s true that the world is ending, why bother making art at all?

GA: Ultimately, I think that contemporary artists involved in this new register of criticality are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to configure new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.

Methodologically, artists like Heidi Norton, Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Pierre Huyghe, and Andrew Yang are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is, in all instances, paramount and solidifies relationships that are developed over time, slowly, and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork—sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is embedded in the layers of complexity that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors that has led to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.

CP: You have two books coming out—one on animal taxidermy and one on plants. Since you have been working on them simultaneously, I’m curious about what kinds of connections you are making while working on both, even if those connections might not be apparent to readers?

GA: Yes, I do …and it is not something I would recommend. When I handed in my taxidermy in contemporary art manuscript to my editor she said: “Great! Now you can enjoy your summer!” to which I responded: “Not quite—plants have been haunting me for the past few months and I am not quite done with them yet!” But I think that in a way, one book has been productively informing the other. My book on plants in contemporary art is an odd hybrid between a monograph and an edited collection. I am basically writing a backbone for each chapter and have invited “guest authors” to contribute their own voices/experiences to each section. I wanted the reader’s experience to be as varied and idiosyncratic as possible. I wanted to move away from pretending to own a truth about plants that is universal and singular. I truly believe that if we begin to seriously value personal experience as valid epistemic tools in the reconfiguration of anthropocentrism, we then have to also question the monographic approach to writing. Fragmenting and interspacing one voice with those of others seems essential to me, especially in certain circumstances. But my books also wanted to take animal studies to task and address its approaches to central question “what is an animal?” that it still evades.

CP: How does that tie in to taxidermy?

GA: Thinking about taxidermy, the ultimate “animal-made object” has substantially shaped my ideas on agency and passivity in contemporary art involving the non-human; whilst Jane Bennett’s and Graham Harman’s work have substantially expanded my views on objects and agency. I have also been thinking a lot about surfaces in contemporary art. Taxidermy is all surface—a practical and metaphorical totalization of animality whilst plants are all-surface in a more, “helpless” but nonetheless related way. So far these ideas have filtered in my “plant book” and are being further problematized by the elusive/ambiguous essence of plant-being. Foucauldian biopolitics is also essential to both books—there is something of an ontological parallelism between animals-made-objects and plants that can be explored through the materiality of bodies. Notions of space and epistemology define the encounter between us and plants or taxidermy objects. This approach replaced the more general idea of the “encounter in the gallery space” that characterized my earlier animal studies writing. In both books I am concerned with notions of materiality and resistance as well as power as a productive/shaping agent that actively molds human/non-human bodies, ecologies, and intermingling. Don’t want to say much more yet…But I’m glad they came in that order: taxidermy first and plants after.


A Generative Perception of Space: An Interview with Samuel Hertz

August 13, 2016 · Print This Article


Samuel Hertz, Piano Sonata I-III, Danc I--Score.

Samuel Hertz, Piano Sonata I-III, Dance I–Score.

Five days into the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, I had a chance to meet with Samuel Hertz, a Berlin-based composer interested in the idea of sonic ecology, and how one might build an interactive sound installation using electronic instruments. In the following conversation Hertz and I explore questions of knowledge production, optimistic technologies, and the fullness of space, particularly in relation to Tomás Saraceno and an affiliated seminar led by his studio assistants, Knowing in the Anthropocene. You can listen to some of Hertz’s recent work here.

Samuel Hertz: I think you’re totally right to point out knowledge production as a focal point of this curriculum. But alongside the discussion of knowledge production is also a discussion of what constitutes knowledge and what it means to know in the first place.

CP:  That blows everything open. Like basically how do we know what we know? For instance, someone in my seminar asked “How do you know the snow is white?” You say the snow is white because you know the snow is white. That’s the beginning premise from which we then go on to determine what is not white. The example illustrates a logical bias.

SH: In my first seminar, Axiomatic Earth, there was a similar discussion in terms of the scope. It came into conversation about the relationship between hard science and data versus the knowledge produced by shamanism. The discussion went in two directions. One was the implicit assumption of shamanism as a belief system as opposed to a form of knowledge. Those two options aren’t necessarily the same thing, but to some people, they are. Embedded in that distinction is an implicit position on what knowledge is, and whether or not knowledge is belief. As the conversation continued, it shifted over into thinking about whether shamanism is a type of science or … how to pose the question so that the answer doesn’t also assume a dominant narrative about what knowledge is. Like, if we’re trying to fit the circle of shamanism into the squares to put it crudely but couldn’t it be that science is a form of shamanism or why even bother trying to put the two of them in the same basket?

CP: Like they might have commensurable integrities, somehow, even if they are different. 

SH: Yeah, exactly.

CP: As someone was brought up within a scientific narrative, I think it’s difficult to seriously imagine alternatives…

SH: Yeah. I mean, it’s been interesting to struggle through that. I’ve always been excited to question the way that scientific narratives sit within my own mind—how I make work, for instance, or even how I understand the external world. The interesting part that keeps coming up here at the HKW is when scientists present data in the context of catastrophic elements that are part of the Anthropocene, like global warming for example. There are figures and facts but the way we parse those figures to make an argument remains complicated.

CP: I wonder if we could equate knowledge production to a factory situation. Where something concrete is being made in a systemic way, and the results—the objects of thought—can be disseminated in the world and manipulated thereafter. With her emphasis on intra-action, Karen Barad points out how the frame that you used to circumnavigate or isolate or filter experience is something that’s going to affect the outcome.

SH: The scope of a tool really frames the data it collects. Today Andrew Yang used the phrase, “The ambiguity of the device,” which I particularly liked—especially because I tend to work in mediums mediated by certain technologies with their own specific histories. Where you there this morning? One of the presenters described how her group tracked the metadata for citations that included the phrase “Technosphere” as it had been reported from Peter Haff’s paper. That’s a very concrete way of knowing how a specific type of knowledge is produced.

CP: The map that popped up tracked a high amount of “Technosphere” activity around North America and Europe.

SH: There was one citation in Eastern India and one citation in what I thought was Tanzania. Immediately I thought, “Right, of course.” I mean, this whole conference, is predicated on an idea that comes from a very specific place, with a whole trajectory. It’s not so surprising that it came from an American male.

CP: That map seemed like an interesting way of highlighting the politics embedded in a word.

SH: Which is that’s helpful too I think the idea of the Technosphere is both critiqued and for what it represents and whether people think it is actually applicable. For me, I want to focus on whether the term is helpful or not.

CP: In other words, if we are all plugged into this massive data field that we’re participating in and subject to, what might the word “Technosphere” reveal?

SH: So far, the debate tends to be around whether or not people feel this is a helpful way of articulating our role in these algorithmic networks. It gets complicated. Even the term Anthropocene is still contested.

CP: I shift between feeling hysterically unable to extricate myself from the Technosphere on the one hand, and then on the other feeling like I’m being dramatic. I go back and forth. Is the world really ending? It doesn’t seem like it. And then someone points out that the world has already ended for tons of species and habitats, including humans…

SH: I experience that same impending doom mindset, but it’s been tempered by a seminar I was in called Knowing in the Anthropocene which focused largely on the work of Tomás Saraceno. They’re working with the concept of the Aerocene which isn’t precisely related to the Anthropocene. Saraceno’s studio is more interested in conceptualizing air or aerospace as a tactic for humanity’s next step. Over the past few days, I have literally been in the clouds with those folks.

CP: How do you feel like their Aerocene vision manifests? 

SH: I can only appreciate it from a perspective of how I make work but I think we tend to conceptualize air or everyday space—I mean the physical space that’s between you and I right now—as being empty. The concepts the Aerocene and I share in common is that we prefer to think of space as being quite full. Saraceno is very much about using the air as a medium, it’s almost liberatory.

CP:  He encloses air in bags, is that right? 

SH: Yeah. The basic structure of Tomás’ sculptures are air enclosed in giant plastic bags—they use plastic shopping bags to make huge envelopes. Once the air is trapped inside, the sculptures are left out in the sun and the temperature differential between the outside atmosphere and inside warmth causes the sculpture to float. It’s like a hot air balloon except there isn’t any gas or fuel.

CP: I saw a picture this morning, for instance, where a person was floating in the air, attached to one of the balloon structures. 

SH: It’s a little hard to get the sense of what the trajectory of the Aerocene projects because at least mathematically speaking, Tomás’ studio has done calculations to show the amount of weight these aerosolar sculptures can carry is quite large. Additionally, we don’t have to restrict our thinking and assume that things must be light in order to fly because clouds are actually extremely heavy. I think cumulus can be up to 40 tons in weight. That’s incredibly heavy! Tomás and his team have done a lot of calculations to prove that this theoretically is possible and that they have had the longest … I’m trying to think about how to phrase it… The longest continuous non-fuel powered human flight, I think. Three hours in the desert of one person being carried by one of the aerosolar sculptures, powered solely by the sun.

CP: That’s awesome.

SH: Tomás and his team members like Sasha Engelmann, for example, are sparking interesting conversations about what it might mean to use aerosolar sculptures not only as human carrier devices. Tomás is thinking about the potential to build cloud cities with the Aerocene, or how these aerosolar sculptures can encourage extra human modes of sense perception, helping us understand the way that wind and air operates on a level that’s different from what the type of information we get from satellite imaging, for instance. They’re working on new ways of working with that but the parts that interest me are his strategies to form a new modes of knowledge about the world around you. That can include animal knowledge as they think about it in terms of possibly sensing magnetic data like birds do implicitly and things of that nature, for example.

CP: I’m interested on how that approach has influenced your own work as well. You do sound and performance? 

SH: Yeah…In a lot of my work I would say that perception is one of the generating principles and I approach that in a variety of ways but a lot of it is to do originally with a composer by the name of Maryanne Amacher. She produced amazing work after research at MIT on something called otoacoustic emissions which, basically, are when your ears take in sound, they actually produce sound as well.

Just to explain a bit about these pieces—the way they work is that there are different tones produced by the sound elements in the piece and when listened to at the correct volume which is loud—I don’t find it so loud but I think some people might find it a bit abrasive—external melodies and patterns in the sound create different melodies and patterns in the inside of your ear that would not be audible if you were listening to the piece at a lower volume; and if you’re listening to the piece on headphones, I don’t think it works. Really, it is an acoustic effect that is produced and heard by your ears simultaneously.

CP: The only time that I’ve ever experienced something like that, Peter Brötzmann was playing at Corbett vs. Dempsey and some of the sounds he produced made my inner ear go crazy. I had an amazing moment when I suddenly realized that that was the point. My inner ear vibrations were part of his composition.

SH: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It pretty much turns your ear into a transducer. Amacher’s studies were my jumping off point to ask how the body extends itself into space in other ways? I did more and more research, always coming back to the idea that perception allows you to enter into a space while also allowing a space to enter you. I started to think more about the body as being porous, and thinking about space as a full medium through which things—things like energetics and signals and impulses and reverberations—are passed and constantly passing through. When you think about that in combination with everything else that’s going on, you would consider space to be quite full. That’s my background and how I’m thinking about a how we exist within a space and how at the same time, we make it as we hear it. This idea of world making through perception I think is really important to me.

CP: When you compose, do you compose primarily using electronic musical equipment?

SH: Recently I’ve been making work for multichannel installations. I approach them from a couple different ways but the most obvious is that each one is immersive. In that sense, a viewer already has an embodied sense of space but what I’m really interested in is how sound starts to move around you when you’re in that environment. Do you consider yourself to be a part of an ecology or an environment when that’s happening? Or are you simply inside of a sound installation? I’m also interested in a type of ecology or logic that runs by itself. It’s an environment that will never do the same thing, while also remaining in the same sound world unless something very drastic has changed in its input.

CP: Is that because the aural sounds are generated in response to their environment?

SH: Yeah. They tend to be a series of feedback loops. I’m using that term here not in the sense of sound feedback, but “feedback” in terms of logic systems. So there are aspects of the system that trigger other things to happen. The overall effect becomes quite circular. Aesthetic decisions made by myself or sometimes the computer are also influence the composition as well. I’m trying to probe the limits of what a given system can do…For instance, what changes can I make to the system that will allow it to act spontaneously but also return to the circular logic systems that I’ve built into it? What are changes that are so great as to change the system entirely? I feel like the aesthetics match the immersive environment where I’m imagining that the body is lending itself to fuse sounds together into some coherent, explorable whole.

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

The Liminal Space of Self: An Interview with Meredith Kooi

March 7, 2012 · Print This Article

"#1" from Mimed Blemishes series, photo by Meredtih Kooi, 2011.

There was a family in our neighborhood growing up and they always had the very same standard, gray poodle. It was always called Cooper and in every one of the family’s Christmas cards, Cooper was present, represented at a variety of ages. You see because when one Cooper died, the family procured another, younger, gray poodle puppy, to whom they bestowed the same name. While each generation of Cooper possessed its own distinct characteristics — one more playful, another a nippy grump, another dedicated to one family member alone — over the course of time, and in the collective family memory, all Coopers blended together into an amalgam that was difficult to parse. People also clone pets (a more expensive means to the same end, perhaps) and here too an underlying question of “I”ness comes up which I find particularly interesting — especially when linking to last weeks’ interview with Mary Jane Jacob and ideas of the Buddhist non-self, or even before that, the possible identities of objects, as described by João Florêncio. To further investigate ideas of self, I asked Meredith Kooi, an old friend who recently moved to Atlanta in pursuit of  a PhD. She is also the editor for Radius, an experimental radio platform based in Chicago and has a forthcoming paper in Contemporary Visual Studies Reader (Routledge). Her writing was also published in ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media. We do not talk about the identities of others, however. Instead we talk about what constitutes the self and how autoimmune flare ups might discourage a cohesive understanding of “I.”

Caroline Picard: How do you conceive of the self? Is it singular? 

Meredith Kooi: To answer your question, “How do I conceive of the self?” I need to clarify that I am not referring to anything necessarily related to “identity.” In a previous work of mine from 2008, a zine called Clearing the Clutter: Losing the Self to Greener Pastures, my introduction included a list many different ways I could name my identity.  At the same time, I tried to distance myself from all of those identifying nouns. The piece fell short, though, because it did not address  some sort of transcendental self, some sort of essential essence that each person is and has. At the time, I was highly influenced by yogic philosophies of self, accounts of a self are inclined toward the sacred. I can’t and don’t know how to deal with them particularly at this moment. Maybe I’m too ignorant and cynical, not enlightened. I am, however, intrigued by the view that the entire universe exists within the self; this might be related to the microbiome in some way. But at the same time, there are these binaries used to explain the workings of the world. I’m not so into these binaries exactly, even though there is the notion that these are constantly in interaction with each other and need each other to make a whole.

My particular interests in notions of the self for the past few years have stemmed from experiences of autoimmunity. An autoimmune disease is one in which the self, meaning the patient’s body, doesn’t recognize some part of itself. It treats that part as if though it were a nonself or not-self, as other material foreign to the body: bacteria, viruses, identified cancers, and etc. My interests in this experience lie in both the biological/physiological processes of the autoimmune disorder and the way the patient internalizes and describes this condition to herself. I ask: “When the body treats itself as if it were not itself and works to ‘destroy’ it, what can that mean for the patient’s understanding of self? Can there be an understanding of a whole, intact self?” These disorders have been historically psychologized and described as a result of not knowing oneself, one’s enemies or friends, and one’s role in the social order. This has led me to question broadly what is “self” and what is “other” in order to understand what these disorders have meant, mean presently, and can mean in the future.

The philosophical tradition of self and Other is rich and long; I am still working through a number of different schools of thought on the subject. I can’t just align my thoughts with any one particular approach. There are important aspects from each that I’ve adopted in order to gain a better understanding of self, Other, nonself concepts. Jacques Derrida’s writing on autoimmunity has been particularly influential for my thoughts on the relation between self and other, and leads me to wonder about the political nature of the autoimmune as it relates to the im-possible: that which “must remain (in a nonnegative fashion) foreign to the order of my possibilities, to the order of the ‘I can’ … of an unforeseeable coming of the other.” (Derrida, Rogues, 84). However, in this “event,” what does it mean for the self to present itself to the self as the other (a mouthful I know); as the “irreducible and nonappropriable différance of the other”? (Derrida, Rogues, 84) This formulation ultimately leads to questions of ethics and responsibility, which is also important to how I conceive of the self. And this kind of throws a complication into the mix of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics perhaps: where the Other that confronts us as Other is really one’s own self. Though, I am not totally sure of this position, and won’t try to pretend that I am.

So, to answer your question in other words, no, I do not conceive of the self as singular, though this is not necessarily related to multiple identities or hybrid identities. I believe there is a multiplicity of selves inherent to the self, and I arrive at this through a consideration of autoimmunity and the practice of making images, photographs, that I believe have an autoimmune logic worked into them. This intersects with my interests in the artistic and philosophic tradition of mimesis as well, but maybe that is for another question!

"Blemish #1" from Blemished Blurs/Blears series, photo by Meredith Kooi, 2011.

CP: Can you give some examples of works that possess an autoimmune logic?

MK: One way I’ve been thinking about autoimmune logic is through what I call an “autoimmune aesthetic,” which in itself functions on multiple registers. Recently, I gave a conference paper titled “An Autoimmune Aesthetic,” where I discussed the history of representations of disability, disability photography. The photographic work I am making currently comes out of that history. My photographic series titled Blurs/Blears (2010-11) is trying to “represent” autoimmunity without simply showing the audience an autoimmune body. Instead I’m aiming towards an affective register of autoimmunity through other spaces and objects, and I’m wondering whether a non-figurative image can in some way speak to the autoimmune condition. This would be one way of thinking about an autoimmune aesthetic: does the image itself have an autoimmune disorder? How does the content of the image express autoimmunity?

During an autoimmune flare, I argue the self and the body experience estrangement: the self from the self, the body from the body, the mind from the body, and etc. Strangely enough this has led me to Russian Formalism and Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostraneniye, or “defamiliarization.” I hadn’t anticipated engaging in a formalist conversation at all, but in turning to abstraction in order to represent the disabled body, it seems like some of those ideas would be important. The form and structure of the work talking to each other in some way.

This is also extremely important to my ideas about mimesis – the philosophical concept of imitation, representation, resemblance… I see the relation between the original and copy in a similar way to the self and nonself. In the making of this series of photographs, I paid attention to the relation between the series in terms of what could/would be called the “original” image and the methods by which I “imitated,” “copied,” or “represented” it subsequently (excuse the scare quotes – I guess I’m pointing to some sort of distrust I have with these words). However, I’m not sure I can even call the first photograph the original because the body, my own body, my previous photographs of my own body, may be the original (but then this is also a complicated statement to make since that previous work came out of my research on the British socialist-feminist photographer Jo Spence’s phototherapy work). This is another register of the autoimmune aesthetic: a particular attention to the mimetic activity of image-making that recognizes doubles within itself. I’m questioning whether the self experienced before an autoimmune flare or during remission is some sort of original self, both in terms of biology but also psychical understanding of one’s bodily and mental states. (Further complicating this notion, however, is the microbiome: the microorganisms that inhabit the human body. I like to think of the microbiome in terms of estrangement and the shower bottles that inhabit my space: Untitled #1, Blemish #1, #1). The process of making these images is important to my notions of autoimmunity, mimesis, and the connections I see between them. What tools from art, literature, and philosophy can we use to think about autoimmunity, the autoimmune body, and the autoimmune experience? Do we necessarily need to see bodies to understand an autoimmune affect? Is it all a question of biology?

However, with that said, the autoimmune aesthetic does not necessarily apply only to illness, the body, or even visual art. Political notions of immunity and general theories of subjectivity are also important to the autoimmune aesthetic and the understanding of this condition. Autoimmunity isn’t limited to the particular pathological occurrence in the body, and so thus, I don’t see its representation being limited to a picture of a body, my body.

To give an example of another work that has an autoimmune logic: the play Helen by Euripides. The interesting thing in this play for me is the double Helen; she was the one who actually went to Troy while the original Helen was cast off and didn’t go. I see the notion of the double in some way being related to the autoimmune and an autoimmune aesthetic as well. A double self perhaps. Or, Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha” in her book Three Lives. Literary texts have so far been my go-to in my formulations of an autoimmune aesthetic and the autoimmune writ large, and I attempt to take these ideas to image-making.

"Untitled #1" from Untitled Blurs/Blears series, photo by Meredith Kooi, 2010.

CP:  That makes me think about time, too: like somehow the idea of self is not only fluid in the present, but must also fluctuate over time (what your autoimmune “flare up” seems to suggest). Do you then have to address the idea of continuity somehow? And consciousness? On the one hand you’re suggesting that an “I” exists, but that its bounds might fluctuate. Something endures, (“I”) but that that thing is very much tied up to an enduring consciousness/sense of self. How does that work, for instance, with Battle Star Galactica (to use a concrete example) where the robot recognizes itself as human, having no recollection of itself as a robot?

MK:  Interesting that you mention Battlestar! (I forget if we’ve talked about it before…) I just worked on a paper titled “The Cylon’s Body: Image, Imitation, Clone, Auto-antibody” that was about the figure of the Cylon, particularly Sharon “Boomer”/ “Athena” Valeri (in the Re-imagined Series: 2004-9), as a manifestation of a potential intersection between mimesis and autoimmunity. Obviously the show doesn’t explicitly bring up autoimmunity, but I see the fear of the hidden and dangerous internal body within the overall body of the Colonial Fleet as an auto-antibody – a sort of “rogue” antibody the immune system creates that targets the body’s own tissues. 

The case of Boomer and Athena is interesting because through an act of violence — the shooting of Colonel Adama — Boomer discovers the nonself. This nonself doesn’t necessarily need to change the already perceived self, but in the show, Boomer is cast as a terrorist and is predetermined as non-human, fully Cylon. Athena, on the other hand, knows she is Cylon, but decides to act “human,” thus conferring upon her the status of human; she is ultimately accepted as such when given the pilot call name Athena. The characters come into themselves through the relation to others; to quote Bakhtin (he’s on my mind a lot right now): “The hero’s attitude toward himself is inseparably bound up with his attitude toward another, and with the attitude of another toward him. His consciousness of self is constantly perceived against the background of another’s consciousness of him – ‘I for myself’ against the background of ‘I for another’” (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 207). What becomes interesting for me here is the relation between “another” and “nonself.” In the case of the two Sharons, the “I for myself,” the question of human or Cylon, is bound not only to their own attitudes about their status of human or machine, but the attitudes of the rest of the Fleet. This is not to say, however, that their status/selfhood is determined by the rest of the Fleet.

This idea for me is also tied to Karen Barad’s, a feminist physicist-philosopher, notion of intra-action: that entities are co-constituted through their intra-action with each other, as opposed to an interaction which presupposes their already being discrete objects. This has resonance in the development and functioning of the immune system. Immunology has gone through major developments since it’s inception, and one idea that has been of focus is the recognition of self and the formation of antibodies: is it through the confrontation with the nonself that the self learns what it is, or is the self an already existing entity? How does this question translate to broader questions of selfhood? The relation is important, in terms of both biology and the broader conversation, but I don’t necessarily want to go so far as to say that the self doesn’t exist without the nonself, though I am floating this idea. I’m not so sure if the self is a vacuum or has an essence, and, to be honest, the idea terrifies me. Part of me wants to claim that the self is only constituted in discourse, or in power relations, or doesn’t really exist. Part of me would like to believe that there is a continuous self that has an essence. I think that both of these options, however, may be too simple (they may try to answer something essentially unanswerable).

The temporality of this identification/consciousness/awareness is also important. The event of the shooting of Adama, or the event of an autoimmune flare, is a particular assemblage in time and space that demands action, a response, an explanation, a conceptualization. My thoughts currently are that the noneself presents us with a radical other to ourselves that is really the product of our own selves and bodies. When our own biology can’t recognize itself, what can that mean for our self-definition? I’m not so sure I would use the word “fluid” to describe the sense of “self” or self-definition I’m trying to get at; however, I do like the sense of movement that it suggests. The self and the relation of the self and the nonself is subject to time, but fluidity implies an easier transition between states; my focus as of late is violence and pain, which I wouldn’t claim is necessarily fluid … though maybe…

CP: I am struck by the appearance of a “hero” in our conversation. I can’t help feeling like there is something old fashioned about a hero — perhaps because the hero-as-archetype feels so fixed, a static (and singular, enduring) identity…even the way you talk about the body, you imply an active interior life that you’re trying to reconcile with a singular, external appearance/action. But you also mention the idea of an assemblage, and it seems to me the singular self could just as easily be framed that way: as a conglomerate. Isn’t a “hero” at odds with an assemblage?

MK: The idea of “hero” I mentioned earlier is in the Bakhtinian sense of hero that he draws from Dostoevsky’s works. The hero isn’t a static entity created by the author; the hero herself/himself has a self-consciousness that exceeds the author’s intentions or power position. Think of the Underground Man in Notes from Underground in particular. Bakhtin writes in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: “The hero interests Dostoevsky not as some manifestation of reality that possesses fixed and specific socially typical or individually characteristic traits, nor as a specific profile assembled out of unambiguous and objective features which, taken together, answer the question ‘Who is he?’ No, the hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality. What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to the hero, and how the hero appears to himself” (47).

This conception of the author/hero (character) relationship really intrigues me; I see this relation as a way to get at the autoimmune. Some of the prose writing I’ve been doing the past couple years or so tries to approach the dialogic relationship Bakhtin describes, or at least extreme self-consciousness. I’d say that Danielle Dutton’s prose novel S P R A W L does this as well. As for visual art… in some way Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) does this. There is obviously a dialogue occurring between the piece and the audience, but within itself, I think there is some sort of internal dialogue; perhaps a hyper-awareness of self, body, and consciousness. The relations between the body’s self and nonself is important to the piece too, especially in terms of the immune system’s functioning during the condition of AIDS (let me mention that in immune system discourse, AIDS is a very prevalent concern; one complicated aspect of my research is acknowledging this literature and condition, but not conflating the autoimmune with immune deficiency – there are, of course, important political stakes and implications to address in this).

"The scleroderma specimen is in Mom's room," Meredith Kooi, 2009.

CP: I suddenly feel like we are talking about mortality: the absurdity of an end in being, how death-as-an-end is impossible to conceive. An autoimmunity flare up would be a parallel disruption perhaps, a kind of minideath, wherein the self cannot recognize itself. In that case, isn’t the discussion located in continuity?

MK: I agree with you that maybe conceptualizing the autoimmune flare as a “minideath” could open up some space (interesting, too, how the “minideath,” la petite mort, is used to describe orgasm – the jouissance and the experience of losing oneself – which Roland Barthes talks about in terms of reading literature…). However, I also hesitate with the term “minideath” if it is too dependent on notions of disruption. This would have a lot to do with the way death as an experience is conceptualized temporally: I don’t exactly want to place it within a continuity per se, but I also don’t want to categorize it as an ultimately disruptive event that separates time into discrete units (this would bring up issues of ghosts and specters, and I just don’t have the competence to deal with that at the moment). Though to me, continuity suggests that there is some essence that endures even through what would be called disruptions. I wouldn’t say this is exactly the case with how I’m trying to think about the configurations of self and nonself. If we think about that in terms of continuity, it seems that there would be a privileging of the self that is interrupted by the nonself, or vice versa, and I would rather not give one priority over the other. For me, the two are co-constituted and emerge through their intra-action. It is tricky to give this sort of movement continuity or linearity, though I realize that denying all continuity has its own important implications as well…

I feel that I haven’t been able to sufficiently describe what I mean by the relation of self and nonself. I myself am frustrated at this moment about the condition of autoimmunity. I have a desire to say it relates to Derrida’s notion of différance, but that term itself is, I think, so hard to deal with and I feel that there is a great potential to get stuck in some sort of tautology if I go there at this moment. How can we think about the autoimmune as a condition that is resistant to a synthesis of oppositions, and is in itself only difference? That is where all senses of continuity get lost on me and I fall into the nihilistic trap… which I don’t want to do. I’m neither trying to say that the self doesn’t exist, nor do I want to pronounce that it exists exactly…