January 11, 2012 · Print This Article
Given that these weekly discussions address the subject of hybridity, it seemed worthwhile to expand the conversation beyond the bounds of art practice per se and foray into those scientific, philosophical landscapes which so often inform the art one makes. In this particular case I had the opportunity to interview, via email, Timothy Morton. Many of my questions about hybridity came into focus after reading his book, The Ecological Thought, (Harvard UP, 2010). You can imagine, then, how awesome it is to communicate with him directly, and especially on the heels of Tessa Siddle’s performative embodiment of plants and animals. In addition to The Ecological Thought, Morton teaches at UC Davis, and has published a number of articles, essays and lectures (a number of which can be read/listened to here). His first book, Ecology without Nature was published in 2009 (Harvard UP). Morton deals specifically with the interrelatedness of life forms— a framework that incorporates and integrates the society of all creatures.
Caroline Picard: I am especially interested in the interstitiary borders between species, animals, plants and (even) robots. In your book you suggest that those borders are not fixed, but constantly in flux. At a certain point, our attempts to differentiate a robot a non-robot are become arbitrary. (I love your example of a computer virus vs. a flu virus, for instance). Thus the human tendency to delineate and classify boundaries between this and that are both aggressive and artificial. It reminds me of this idea that, Adam for instance, had no connection with his environment before he began to name the animals. Yet in naming he imposed distinctions that separated different objects and creatures. Is there another kind of strategy to learn about one’s environment? Or should we think of our names and categories as temporary scaffolds that may change at any moment?
Timothy Morton: Well, one could think about science as assuming that we might be wrong about something, and then investigating the contours of a thing to assess whether we were wrong or not. One of the most inspiring things about Darwin’s work is that he was ready to let go of categories such as “species” and “genus” that had held since the days of Linnaeus.
But there might be a problem with this approach, not so much in the practice, but in the attitudes that swirl around it. There is a widespread assumption that things such as butterflies and chimpanzees have no intrinsic reality because they have no essence: you won’t, for instance, find a chimp-flavored piece of DNA as opposed to say a daffodil-flavored piece. The trouble is not science per se, but scientism, including the philosophy that thinks it’s above other forms of philosophy because it cleaves closer to what it thinks science is saying, namely that smaller things like atoms are more real than medium-sized things like horses.
When we see a horse not as a category or as a species, we see it as this unique entity galloping towards us. I think that the refusal to put too many labels on things doesn’t have to blur everything into grey fudge, but rather it could allow things to be just what they are, which in my view is totally unique. At that point it’s all right to say “horse,” because you know that it’s just an arbitrary designation. But the rippling, neighing beast in front of you isn’t nothing at all, nor is it a grey fudge sculpture. It’s a real horse, an actual horse.
There is a weird Möbius strip quality to this way of thinking, then. As you continue to dissolve concepts about things, the things themselves become more vivid. Ecological awareness, which is becoming the default mode of human being on this planet, just is this strange blend of vivid and unreal.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about the ways we have personified Nature in the past? And how your work disassembles that vision, in order to integrate our consciousness into it? (I don’t know if that’s how you would suggest using your idea of the mesh, but I had a feeling in order to embody that idea, something fundamental would have to shift with regard to my understanding of self, i.e. that I was somehow able to expand that idea of self, or imagine it porous and (also) fluctuating.)
TM: It is not so hard to imagine yourself as porous and fluctuating. Perhaps in the old days mystics only could do this, but now all you have to do is have a blood test or read a biology textbook. They will tell you that your body is full of mercury, radioactive materials, and so on. The book will show you mitochrondria, which are bacterial symbionts with their own DNA living in each of your cells, without which we would keel over unable to live at all. Mitochondria are in hiding from the environmental catastrophe they caused, the one we call oxygen.
Nature is not a concept we can take with us into an ecological age. It’s a relic of an agricultural life that has been dominant on Earth for three thousand years but which shouldn’t persist forever — remember that it’s responsible for an awful lot of global warming. We’ve just gotten used to seeing the world that way: as bounded, with a horizon — the sun comes up, the sun goes down, hopefully there are no windfarms on the hill to spoil the picturesque view. Nature just is a picture postcard, not actual coral or bacteria or aspen trees.
Nature is a product behind a glass screen in a shop window. The glass screen is the windshield of your SUV. You drive your SUV through the wilderness to get a couch potato experience of watching Nature as if on TV. Or you watch TV shows of other people doing it, so you don’t have to. Nature is a combination of agricultural framing of the world with its rolling hills and horizons and sheep; and of industry, with its processes and automation. Nature is a modern product that is antiqued to look ancient and premodern. But modernity is over — the writing is on the wall, or rather in the thin layer of carbon deposited from 1790 throughout Earth’s crust, beginning what is now called the Anthropocene. We created a geological era that now intersects with human history: think for a moment about how scary that is. Now we know it — so Nature, which just is “stuff over yonder” — is no more, because we now know that “over yonder” doesn’t exist: it has a real name, such as Pacific Ocean or wastewater treatment plant or neonatal tissue. There is no “away” to which to chuck things anymore.
CP: Do you feel like there is something fundamentally human? And (this may not be related, but I was curious nonetheless) what is the role of our imagination in all this?
TM: According to evolution science, there are two things humans do very well, but they are a bit of an ego blow: throwing and sweating. Everything else is also done by nonhumans, including consciousness, feelings, art, tool use, you name it. I am not a fundamentalist at all so of course, there can’t be something fundamentally human. Many philosophies and beliefs tell us we are uniquely good or uniquely evil, including some environmentalist ones. Those ideas are getting in the way of what we need to do right now, which is simply to recognize that nonhumans are, and always were, on “this” side of social, psychic and philosophical space. Crows and slime molds are already part of society: just think of the crows that use suburban streets and cars as nutcrackers, dropping nuts just in front of the wheels. This is not such a strange idea if there is no away any more. Everything is “here.” We have to widen our ideas about what democracy is: it includes cows, corn and clouds of methane.
Read more of Morton’s thoughts, interests and observations on his blog, Ecology Without Nature.
Tessa Siddle is a transgender video maker and performance artist based out of San Francisco. In her work she regularly embodies hybrid forms — bleeding her self between animal, human, singular and multiplicitous identities — in order to challenge a tidier, pervasive binary tradition. What I find particularly interesting about her work is the way in which it relies as much on the performative, physical body — make up and costume effects — as it does on technology advances, like the blue screen for instance. The effect is itself a hybrid of effects that coalesce to become an illusory, allegorical space. Tessa also organizes and curates an experimental film series, The MisAlt Screening Series, in the Bay Area.
CP: You often deal with hybridity often in your work — in your performances you sometimes embody animals, in other instances you are at once one person and two people at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you think of hybridity?
TS: I feel like a lot of people in the arts are talking about hybridity using very different (and I think more or less equally valid) definitions which occasionally leads to a little bit of confusion. I have often heard the term “hybrid forms” applied equally to visual depictions of chimeras and other hybridized figures and to the use of organic forms, mixed-media, and composite materials.
My personal interests in hybridity comes out of the convergence of my life-long fascination with combined human/animal/machine forms (most notably the chimeras of ancient myth, anthropomorphized animals in children’s literature, and human/machine/extraterrestrial hybrids of science fiction and UFO mythos) with my exposure to critics like Donna Haraway who use the figure of the cyborg and other hybrids to critique dualist social constructions and the idea of personhood and individual agency being bound within a unified and independent bodies. This exposure roughly coincided with the beginning of my desire to confront my long-time (and continuing) discomfort with binary gender and I was constantly on the look out for alternative theories of the body and I found the concept of cyborg bodies whose slippery existence is held together by constantly shifting relationships between humans, machines, animals, and institutions to be extremely exciting. It is largely in this spirit that I go about creating work in which I split
myself into various animal and plant versions of myself.
CP: It seems like there’s a way that hybridity can question assumptions latent in, say, gender binaries or species distinction. Even in terms of what you’re addressing with robotic/mechanical vs. organic/self-determined structures. It’s like you’re decentralizing ideas of self-hood and self-determination, while undermining traditional power structures. Having said that, I’m not really sure I know what I mean when I say “traditional power structures” except that I feel it manifests itself visually in my mind as a kind of monolith. A giant cultural pillar with neat and tidy assigned parts. Do you feel like your efforts are anarchistic? Or are you looking for a new kind of order? In other words, should the hybridity remain unfixed and unfixable? Or would do you aim to create a new kind of identity that is, say, part cheetah with human hindquarters and a robot arm?
TS: I feel that when talking about power structures it is important to distinguish between models of power (the ways of looking at power) and the organization of power into social institutions. I think that the traditional way of looking at power is the monolithic model of which you speak, in which power descends from a (often divine) pinnacle of authority on to the people beneath. There is also the bottom-up view of power, which is a democratic inversion of the monolithic model, in which the legitimacy of the authority on the top comes from the power of the people below. I subscribe to a model of power in which power is radiating from everyone, everywhere, in all directions — without a top, bottom, or center. I think that this is the structure of power regardless of the institutions and social constructions into which it is molded.
What the monolithic model and the bottom-up model share is that they are both preoccupied with the legitimacy of existing institutions and constructions. Things are the way they are, they say, because of divine (or scientific or natural) order or popular consensus. Under these models, binaries are presented as part of a natural or innate cultural order, part of the way things are.
I think that what hybrid figures do to binaries is to show that they are actually the way things are not (or that binaries, if they exist, are extremely rare). I think, for example, that the human/non-human binary falls apart as soon as we look really closely at the human body. A classical (humanist) reading of the body considers it to be a unified, holistic, 100% human form — the most human form — however if we take out our microscopes, look onto and beneath our skin, look deep into our guts (take a literally very close look) what we see is that the body is host to colony after colony of (mostly benign) bacteria, protozoa, viruses, very small animals, and fungi. From my limited understanding (I am not a biologist) the health of these colonies is essential for the health of the overall body to the point that we can look at the human body as already (and always) being inhuman.
I feel that in my own efforts, I am not trying to prescribe an anarchistic role to hybrids or to suggest a new world order, but rather I am attempting create semi-fictional realities in which the already slippery relationships between humans, animals, and plants are amplified in their slipperiness.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about how that slipperiness plays out in some of your work?
TS: I think in a lot of my work I’m attempting to create situations/environments/performances that play with the boundaries between things that are frequently placed in opposition with each other. When I perform as a community of fox/people, a family of rabbits, a bouquet of flowers, or a forest ecosystem I try to borrow equally from scientific, mythological, historical, pop cultural, autobiographical, and autofictional sources to create the text, structure, and logic of my characters and the worlds they interact with. My hope, is that by fusing these elements together I can create alternate realities that feel natural, magical, confessional, and opaque at more or less the same time. I also try my best to give these worlds a logic that seems coherent but also transparently artificial and frayed around the edges.
This is sort of like a preview for two series of interviews and posts I have planned. You may have noticed I haven’t been posting as many interviews these last couple of weeks; that’s because I’ve been conducting them in the back room, just out of your view. It’s been like a back stage shuffle and I’m getting more and more excited about launching these projects. I hope to do so starting next week.
1) The first series of interviews comes out of a month-long residency I went on this last summer. For the month of June I lived at AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island. There I made use of their most amazing print shop facility to make books and conducted interviews with different individuals running projects. From those talks I have three interviews that I’ll be posting: an interview with Xander Marro and Pippi Zornoza of the ever illustrious artist-run Dirt Palace, a conversation with former-Providence resident and print maker Meg Turner about a print shop/collective she’s opened in New Orleans and a recounted conversation with AS220 founder Umberto Crenca (this last conversation was not recorded and will, no doubt, suffer or shine from the process of memory). I was particularly interested the relationship between a political environment and DIY artistic initiatives. Providence seemed like a particularly interesting place to think about that dynamic given that it espouses vibrant artistic energy in a city historically notorious for its corruption.
2) The next series I’m working on is shaping into a longer trajectory in which I wanted to examine this ever illusive “hybridity” idea. As an adjective that seems to regularly crop up in conversation, it has started to feel like a buzzword of some kind, and while I love its aura I have some difficulty grasping its meaning. To that end, I’ve been interviewing different artists who specifically address different aspects of hybridity in their work. From Tessa Siddle, Sebastian Alvarez, Milan Mathay, and Gwenn-Ael Lynn — the project continues to grow. I’m interested in hybridity because of how it seems to challenge traditional ideas of category, therefore calling to question the structures that gather around categories, whether that structure is a kind of material power, or a linguistic scaffold. What kind of work follows from this investigation? And where do we locate the self? I’m planning a few non-interview posts on the same topic, including (for instance) a review of Marcus Coates’ new book, The Trip and an old friend (the only 500 year old witch I know) has agreed to put together three hybridity spells, which should only be incanted at night. I’m pretty excited.
Hopefully you will be too!
Stay tuned till next week
Work by Madeleine Baily, Steven Frost, Yasi Ghanbari, Elise Goldstein, Rachel Lowther, Ivan Lozano, Brian Maller, Alison Rhoades, Tessa Siddle, Fritz Welch, and Syniva Whitney.
Roxaboxen Exhibitions is located at 2130 W. 21st. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.
Work by Dave Murray and Letha Wilson.
LVL3 is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Fl. Reception is Saturday from 6-10pm.
Curated by Andrew J. Greene, work by Ali Bailey, Jamison Brousseau, Mckeever Donovan, Christopher Gatton, Michelle Grabner, Nick Kramer, Samuel Lipp, William J. O’Brien, Jorie Rabinovitz, Matt Rich, Daniel Sullivan, Justin Swinburne, Kristen Vandeventer, and Lisa Williamson.
Iceberg is located at 7714 N. Sheridan Rd. Reception is Sunday from 5-9pm.
Work by Vicki Fowler, Trevor Martin, Katya Grokhovsky, Colleen Coleman, Hope Esser, Michaela Murphy, Marissa Benedict, Andrew Barco, Sabrina Reed, Caitlin Baum, Stephanie Plenner, Victoria Eleanor Bradford, and DJ Chris Hefner.
Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery is located at 1136 N Milwaukee Ave. Performances begin Saturday at 8pm.
Work by Teen Living Programs.
Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
1. This is Not for Sale at Parking Space
Anyone who’s event description sounds like a ranting manifesto has my vote. This is a one night only even, so don’t drag your damn feet or you’re gonna miss it. Parking Space is, and I quote, “is a collaborative project initiated by artists Andrew J. Greene, E.J. Hill and Matthew Schaffer.” This Is Not For Sale features the work of Karen Bovinich, Austin Eddy, Nick Fraccaro, Danny Greene, Xavier Jimenez, Alexa Loftus, Nina Mayer, Dorian McKaie, Annie Purpura, Kristen VanDeventer, and Tannar Veatch.
Parking Space is located at 2246 W. 19th St. Reception is Friday from 6-10pm.
2. Surrender Dorothy at Concertina Gallery
“Mining the tropes of adolescent identity, both artists share nostalgia—even obsession—for the stylized rebellion of teenage subcultures.” Mmmm…sounds like drinkin’ beer and burning shit. Or maybe that was just my teen years. Can’t help but wonder about what’s going to happen to Dorothy too. Surrender Dorothy consists of a large scale collaboration between Jesse Butcher and Corkey Sinks.
Concertina Gallery is located at 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
3. Hexenhaus at No Coast
I have a think for work that involves animals. It’s personal taste, but eh, you stick an animal in there, I’ll at least give it a second look. I also like gardening. So, when I read a description like, “The private lives of humans, animals, and houseplants exist betwixt and between the magic and glamor of polarized human emotions in Hexenhaus” I obviously become intrigued. Hexenhaus features to work of Tessa Siddle.
No Coast is located at 1500 W. 17th St. Reception is Friday from 6-9pm.