An Opening to Imagine the Present: A Conversation with Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian

August 24, 2016 · Print This Article


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 Homers 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.









“What is there?” An Introduction to OOO and Art (Part 1)

January 22, 2013 · Print This Article

What is Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and what sort of questions does it pose for art and aesthetics? Lets start with looking at the name of the movement backwards.

Ontology is the philosophical study of what there is. A way of examining the question is to re-arrange the question asked, which is to say, ‘What is there?’

The question of ‘what is there’, is an odd one, especially to those who don’t ordinarily have a philosophical disposition – it isn’t something you would come out with in a conversation for example. But nevertheless, the question of ‘what is there’ also defines what sort of orientation is insinuated in OOO. As soon as anyone rummages around this ontological question for long enough we discover that we are Oriented towards something; it might be a pragmatic orientation, or maybe something commonplace and yet weird – inexplicably, unusually weird. The question of ‘what is there’ can be applied to anyone in any situation; implying a sense of adjustment or familarization with ones surroundings, but also in the sense of establishing their own peculiar location in strange circumstances; acclimatizing, accustoming, attuning, aligning.

So ‘what’ is it that’s being studied here? The ontological commitment of the movement (what there is) and what it must be oriented towards (what is there), happens to be the Object or thing. Ask yourself, what is there? You may reply rather awkwardly, there are lots of things here; mugs, wallpaper, dust, computer chairs, the keyboard button ‘O’, spoons, trees and god knows what else. But it is also the case that I can conjure up ridiculous things within me that will never see the light of day in the same way the world arrives at my senses; mystical creatures of a sombre mood, square circles and cats that speak German. According to the major proponents of OOO, all of these things, both human and not-human are objects. They exist and we orient towards them.

But there are two realist interventions within OOO; that this orientation of ‘what is’ is never uniquely human, nor special to human understanding, and that no object cannot be privileged over any other, including the individual object which aims to be understood. So what is there? All objects are there – although this is complex.

The study of ‘what there is’ and ‘what is there’, can never be a question of what exists solely for human interpretation and assumption. The question of ‘what there is’, is not the same as ‘what is there’ – for a spoon is there in a place or position near to me, on a shelf, a desk, in a mug. We ignore it, even as we use it – and yet it still ‘is’ there in existence. It is real, it exists without me, despite me requiring its substantial reliance and frequent ignorance. The spoon’s autonomous adventures in a shelf or a sink, never crop up until I ponder over it, but that has little effect on the autonomy of the spoon. The same can be said of sun radiation, my bank details, my MacBook – or oxygen molecules that pass through my alveolar capillaries; and whilst some of these objects remains critically important for my survival, none of them can justify any privileged reason to exist over anything else.

The key OOO difference between ‘what there is’ and ‘what is there’, is the difference between knowing that there is an object and not knowing it. The first is a statement or conviction, the second is a question. The departure of OOO, as a study and movement, is identifying this difference. It simply states that we know there are spoons, organs, chairs, armies, planets and cocoa-beans: we just don’t know what they are. Our orientation of the thing – ‘what is there’ – hopelessly grasps at them for one reason or another, and yet we never grasp the thing itself – the ‘what there is.’ The lynchpin of OOO – philosopher Graham Harman – terms this ‘withdrawal’, following Martin Heidegger; nothing we can do or say manages to fully explain or understand objects in their entirety. ‘What is there’ can only ever be a strange exercise of translation, or of a secondary description. The ‘what there is’ of the object itself – its primary reality – cannot be known nor fully demonstrated when asking ‘what is there?’

There are then, two sorts of ‘what is there’ – a generic one, which fathoms different things quickly, scanning over contents within a menu or a desk. But there is a more direct version of ‘what is there’, which examines the hidden contents of one or more specific things; like a fishing pool, a molecule, a planet or even the contents of a painting.

However it must be said that for OOO, the ‘what is there’ is also not a principally human question, despite being a different question from ‘what there is’. Objects are also oriented towards other objects. Each object has its own characteristic, individual, operation for foraging out the orientation of ‘what is there’, irrespective of cognition, reasoning or experience.

In the case of animals, this isn’t too hard to speculate on; the ‘what is there’ for the robin, requires foraging for food and nutrition whilst fending off hostile threats and unexpected weather. But for OOO this insight need not be restricted to the animate; the ‘what is there’ for the security computer program identifies and removes external threats in its own image, just as much as the ‘what is there’ for the falling boulder could be any contingent blockage or unfortunate creature that stands in its path. Each relationship has the same metaphysical properties, the same equality of relation between anything else.

It is for this very reason, that OOO shrugs any primary privileging of monism (everything is one or ‘nature’) or human access (everything is a product of culture). Its ontology is not an orientation of one thing, of one nature, one scientific law, nor reduced to specific things such as discursive cultures or political hegemony: it speaks only of individual, real objects. This ontology only contains detached, disconnected, disjoined objects, with each irreducible object partly connected towards another irreducible entity, like a continuous box of finite magnets being repeatedly thrown down a infinite staircase. Each magnet might be locked together with another, and then separated soon after repelling or connecting with something else – forever doomed to repeat the involuntary question of ‘what is there’ on its finite journey.

Every proponent of OOO has a different insight and a different collection of metaphors to illustrate their nuanced ontological differences. Such bodies of work have different methods of asking, ‘what is there’, without getting a lot back in return from the world. These descriptions only offer a brief summary of the differences between them.

Graham Harman’s ontology borrows and radicalizes past achievements in the phenomenological ‘object‘, not only advocating a strict difference between ‘real objects‘ and ‘sensual objects‘ (the latter which tries to account for the dream-like aforementioned cats who speak German), but also a demanding non-relational ontology, where no object can ever be fully reduced to its relations.

Levi Bryant speaks not of objects, but of difference machines, or systems whose adventures are structurally open, but operationally closed. Bryant’s machines are material processes that have differing power  according to their contextual situations, and these instigate different, potential, namely ‘virtual’ effects within the activity of the entity.

Tim Morton speaks of ecologically strange ‘hyperobjects’ – massively distributed transcendent entities (such as climate) whose viscosity and sticky-ness clamber onto our awareness and yet remain invisible. For Morton, objects are in essence, a blind contradiction of inconsistency; they are both themselves and somehow, not themselves, wandering in and out of a chaotic world, not tailored for our sole understanding.

And lastly there is Ian Bogost, whom also speaks not of objects, but of units, and the tenuous operations of units. Each unit has a hidden procedurality of operation, which is never made explicit nor fully revealed. His iteration of OOO is a tiny ontology: whole infinite universes crammed into specific things, with each one being a cog in another machine, or a module in another program.

So how would OOO, in its various orientations, engage with and deliberate on art and aesthetics? How would this ‘schematic of being’ help artists understand their own work or reinterpret its historical significance? The question of ‘what is there’ must be, I think, an aesthetic call before anything else and this suitably serves as the focus for the next part.

Field Static : A Catalogue Essay

June 6, 2012 · Print This Article

Devin and I curated a show at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport; it opened a week ago and tonight we’re having a mini-symposium called “Location/Location: The Mistranslation of Objects.” It’s an exciting show for us with some great work by Rebecca Mir, Carrie Gundersdorf, Heather Mekkelson, Ellen Rothenberg, Stephen Lapthisophon, Christian Kuras and Bad at Sports’ own Duncan MacKenzie, as well as Mark Booth and Justin Cabrillos. We were trying to curate a show that might explore an object oriented ontology. This exhibit closes on Wednesday, the 13th of June. It is open on Sundays from 1-4 and by appointment.

You have entered the Co-Prosperity Sphere: a large corner-space on a neighborhood block in Bridgeport, five miles from the Loop’s chain shops. The inside of this space feels old. It is massive — 2,500 square feet. A tin ceiling stands fourteen feet above you, not for stylistic preference — though it suits current vintage tastes — but due to an oversight; the previous owner of 40 years did nothing to maintain the building, using it instead as a hoarder’s storeroom. Before his time, when Bridgeport was prosperous and you could see cattle moseying to their death outside of the window, this space was a department store. The owner was the wealthiest man in town, and is said to have had the first car in the neighborhood, driving it across the street to the church on Sundays, throwing pennies out of his windows at children in the street. Since then the space — and the neighborhood — have been through a decline normal to working class neighborhoods in American cities. Hoarders bought the space in the 80s. Ed Marszewski moved in a few years ago and cleaned it up.
The wooden floor of the Co-Prosperity Sphere creaks when you walk on it. Light shines through a host of upper windows, reflecting off the wood like an old gymnasium. The new white walls and spartan emptiness assign the space to contemporary art exhibitions. This particular landscape is comprised of material — pillars, windows, floors, and doorways turn into wood, screws, pipes, bricks, plaster, glass and tin. The composition of this space exists on multiple levels. As concrete, discrete materials they fuse into one structure. More abstractly, these materials exist as indicators of past and present; each object tells a story through its own unique, associative system of influence. Sometimes the story is responsive — the sound of your footsteps or the water that runs through overhead pipes. Other times the story is inaccessible but conjured — the imagined sound of mooing cows or copper pennies against cement, indicating a different American economy. Or, the story is simply material — the unfinished areas of this space, the space beneath the stairs on the far white wall: if you peer around its edge, you can see the building’s insides.

What begins to emerge is an ecology that blurs the lines between life forms and inanimate material bodies. In Field Static we first wanted to create an opportunity in which relations between objects might be highlighted such that the field created via the installation of artwork would accent one’s material engagement. Each object within the Co-Prosperity Sphere would become focal point and periphery alike, suggesting both solitary histories and the peculiar synthesis of matter common to all things. Field Static rejects or, at least, torques art’s historically anthropocentric position — the poem is written by a human, the portrait is painted of a human — in favor of a more egalitarian engagement with objects.
Through this, we don’t mean to treat other species or categories of objects as citizens of another nation. Instead, we are trying to expand an established hierarchy where humans patronize other objects. How might a gallery show include the presence of bubble gum splotches, twigs, fan blades, icebergs — easily marginalized masses — in order to engender new political spheres? We hope to discover new ways of integrating experience and materiality so that less priority is placed on the human’s role amongst objects. This project is far-seeing: sentience in technology, impasses in distinguishing between “non-living” computer viruses and “living” biological viruses, and our current ecological condition all suggest the possibility that, to borrow the theorist Timothy Morton’s word, the mesh (1) we inhabit is much larger and stranger than we may have thought. This mesh is also able to exist, quite comfortably, without us. So how do we look at the relations between objects?
We became interested in curating a show around objects through familiarity with the work of Graham Harman, a philosopher and theorist based in Cairo, Egypt. Harman, along with Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and a few other thinkers, is one of the proponents of object-oriented ontology — a metaphysics that, loosely defined, rejects a human centered worldview in philosophy in favor of something more democratic. Instead of privileging the human subject’s relation to the world, object-oriented ontology hopes to democratize the field of metaphysics though a general inquiry about objects, specifically the ways in which objects interact with each other and the world. Object-oriented ontology is a metaphysics that asks not only how humans engage with the world, but also how forks, bee pollen, James Cameron’s depth diving submarine, and Sancho Panza’s donkey relate to each other and the world. Harman’s work is less about deprivileging the human than opening up the nature of the field — examining the infinitely complex assortment of materials operating within a given frame of reference. As Harman writes, his “point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects.”1 In order to think the world, we must think about the world and the many objects that make it up, not only our relation to it. It is exciting and truly weird work.

Harman’s theories work out in many different directions. One of the most interesting, for our purposes, is the idea that though an object exists as a bundle of relations amongst itself and with other objects, these relations never eliminate the full spectrum of possibility residing within an object. The Co-Prosperity Sphere is a node within Bridgeport, within Chicago, both rife with their own complex network of encounters. You are distinctly aware of these very real relations, and together they build up the space’s identity. At the same time, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could also, possibly, enter into a number of different relations that we might not have any understanding of: it could be used by a sect to summon demons, it could be eaten slowly by Larry Coryell to improve his jazz guitar, it could slowly erode a statue of itself in slate. These are humorous examples, but they reveal how objects can exist more fully outside of whatever relations they may exist in currently — whether they enter into those relations or not. Even if we were able to list every theoretical relation this space could enter into, it would still have other relations beyond our list. The number and variations of its relations is infinite but in every instance, whether micro or macro, the objects within that field can never be reduced to their relations. They are not simply indicators of signification, but exist within a network. Consequently, objects — as metaphysical bundles of all the possibilities of their relations with themselves and other objects — are ultimately withdrawn from each other and themselves. Objects are always at a remove from their relations.

Harman more fully explains this idea through the image of a sleeping zebra in CircusPhilosophicus, a series of alternately humorous and petrifying myths he wrote to explain the basic tenets of his ideas:

For first, [the zebra] rises beyond its own pieces, generated by them but not reducible to them. And second, it is indifferent to the various negotiations into which it might enter with other objects, though some of those might affect it: as when the zebra interacts with grasses for its meals, and predator cats for its doom. While the zebra is cut off from its pieces in the sense of being partly immune to changes among them, it cannot survive their total disappearance. But by contrast, it might survive the disappearance of all its outward relations. And this is what I mean by sleep, if we can imagine a truly deep and dreamless sleep…Sleep should not be compared with death and its genuine destruction of the zebra-entity: sleep entails that the thing still exists, but simply without relation to anything else…Sleep perhaps has a metaphysical function no less than a physical one: as a kind of suspended animation in which entities are withdrawn from the world. And perhaps this happens more than we think.(2)

Like the zebra, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could be ripped in half by a giant and sacrificed to Goran, Lord of the Impetus, or it could play a game of Go with the bar down the street, and yet, through all of these changes, it still exists, partly, as a space for the community to gather in. As Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].”2 Were we to remove all of the space’s outward relations — you, inside the space, reading this book about it, me writing this essay a month prior, thinking about the space, the printer printing these words about the space, the ink coming out of long tubes, the humidity wrinkling the pages, the recycling bin holding the book about the space, the recycler pulping the book — the space might still exist, withdrawn from these outward relations, in something like sleep. While it is impossible to gain access to the withdrawn aspects of an object, it is our belief that the best art, at least, allows us a place to exist in a type of still-sleep with an object. We’ve curated the artists in this show in the belief that their work engages with objects as bundles of relations in the field of the world, and yet, through their work, the artists show these objects as still, withdrawn, sleeping entities.
Still, the artists in Field Static engage the world of objects in different ways. The show should not be seen as as a grouping of artworks that fulfill any one approach to objects. While our curatorial impulse was inspired by Harman’s philosophy, we nevertheless present works that address objects in a variety of ways.
Of course, all exhibits exercise this interest; historically, art is the making and honoring of objects. However, the peculiar and various approaches these artists take to field and object-making seem particularly compelling, especially when their work could be assembled under the umbrella created by the Co-Prosperity Sphere. We are not looking to project human metaphor onto the state of these artworks — although those poetic nuances are probably an inevitable facet of an aesthetic experience — but rather to invite your imagination to consider the sleeping potential of these things in their thingness, their associative and personal autonomy in the world, each with its own discrete and, by now, non-contingent identity. A strangeness emerges — similar to the eyes of a fox, the unripe stem of a green banana, or Achilles’ shield — all familiar and unknown, a potency common to all things that nevertheless remains out of reach.

Rebecca Mir’s work is simple and understated. She often works with paper, small collections of objects, and her own body arranged quietly. This humility in equipment is connected to Mir’s infatuation with punk culture that shifts into an engagement with the landscape. She has also written love letters to the ocean. Perhaps the best way to think about her work is as an amalgamation of bygone Romanticisms — nature, the lover, the explorer, the punk rocker — that add up to rediscover the sincerity currently lacking in all of these labels. For this show, we were most interested in Mir’s engagement with nature. We gave her the storefront windows to fill up and she gave us hanging sheets of paper with flat black prints of icebergs on them. These are the most frightening objects in the world, slowly leading us towards underwater cities. Mir’s prints garble our response; we instead encroach upon the ice.

When we met Ellen Rothenberg to talk about this show, she shared pictures of older pieces she had made and used during performances: clocks on a pair of shoes, or a wooden shovel with words engraved on its mouth. They were tempting to curate into Field Static for their embodiment of an inaccessible past-use, an original context no less significant then their present status as formal, sculptural works.  But then Rothenberg showed us a more recent piece she had exhibited in Berlin. In her installation, Constellations, Rothenberg establishes a literal field via small blue signs printed with arrows and red vintage price tag cards. She assembles these on a wall or in a room; the proportions of the work vary depending on the site. In every version, these small indicators create an enigmatic field or map. The price cards elicit a time when two cents might have been a useful sum — think of those children in dirty boots on Morgan Street. Relative to our current economy, the sums are so small as to be powerless and dismissable. The oblique arrows, meanwhile, propel the eye to wander among these many numerical islands. The precision of placement combined with the interplay of materials and time: the slick, contemporary instructional arrows, against the foxed, nostalgic price tags are fixed to the clean white wall by antique metal clips. A tension emerges flike a magnetic field as the viewer is absorbed in the act of looking.

In Diagram (2010), Christian Kuras and Duncan MacKenzie installed a multi-leveled series of roofless recangular rooms; the entire system looked like a complex model of a building site. Balsa wood rooms connected by ramps on cinder blocks, coffee cans, and side tables. Cords lay around the floor of the installation, a bare flourescent light tube, a lamp, a plant. In one instance an antique sign, “Girls Toilet” was legible. This assemblage conspired to portray some kind of institution — a university or a corporation — the ‘rooms’ clearly exist in a network, even if their function within that network is unclear. In an effort to grasp the purpose of this material system, you might lean in to read the pencil marks, left behind by the artists in the process of making. These do not unlock the piece. It remains at bay, undissmissable because of its sprawl and, even, the care toward detail. In Field Static, Kuras and MacKenzie work with letters, transforming a textual message in a game of anagrams. They began with one phrase originally mailed as an off-the-cuff collage from UK-based Kuras to Chicago-based MacKenzie. MacKenzie and Kuras reorganized the letters of the phrase into stacks, paintings, and phrases that may or may not be legible to the viewer. While connected to their original context, each new combination creates a new meaning contained in the original. The text is distant, distinct, and equitable to its physical counterpart.

Last winter, Mark Booth composed a durational performance at Devening Projects during his solo exhibition God Is Represented By The Sea. For one performance during that exhibition, the improvisational bellows and electronics duet, Coppice (Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer) played music with Booth for roughly four hours. During that time, twelve individuals were asked to read Booth’s score: a stream of ever shifting phrases in a loop. The last word of one phrase became the first word of the following. “God is represented by the sea” became “The Sea is represented by an irregular shape” and so on until we arrived at last to “An owl is represented by God,” at which time the readers would begin again. The words became blocks, algebraic variables that could be swapped in and out of one another. Booth’s piece evokes an intuited, physical structure in language; he seeks to find an equivocation, a way to codify experience through metaphor. Here, he has installed a sound installation with flags entitled: I IMAGINE YOU SLEEPING SIDE BY SIDE AND WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING YOUR SOULS RISE TOGETHER LIKE A FLAG ON A POLE FLUTTERING SOUNDLESSLY IN A WINDLESS WIND AND THE FLAG OF YOUR LOVE IS SHAPED LIKE […]

Objects are often manufactured by human beings; it is sometimes difficult to imagine their autonomy. We know rocks come from mountains and meteors, so they observe an obvious independence from the human sphere. But what about old tires or tennis balls? In what way can those objects boast a non-contingent being when their original purpose is tied to human activities? How can such an object fulfill its potential if its potential is reliant upon human use? Heather Mekkelson articulates one possible answer. Over the past several years, she has made a practice of fabricating distress. Mekkelson begins with new objects — phonebooks, traffic cones, caution tape, fans, or blinds — everyday, banal objects. Through a variety of processes she imposes the visible signs of deterioration and stress on each object and, placed in an exhibit, these objects evoke a traumatic narrative, as ready-mades discovered by accident in the wake of disaster. The distress of the objects suggests their secret lives or past, an encounter made more interesting given that Mekkelson’s objects never endured such trials at all. Their life was spent in her studio. In more recent work, Mekkelson has created a telling-point on the object that allows the viewer to see the artifice of distress. At one critical point of perspective the viewer can see both the artifice of distress and the object’s unadulterated newness — like on a stage set when you see at once the façade of a town and the plywood backing on which the town is painted. That point reveals a moment of interior instability; it is as though the object is telling you it is lying. The object is laughing at you, or winking, confessing its own ruse.

Alhough we first knew Justin Cabrillos as a sound poet, we’ve been lucky to see him as he’s developed into a somatic phenom. We’ve included his video Dance for a Narrow Passageway — a work that shows Cabrillos improvising a dance in a passageway. Before composing the piece, Cabrillos spent time observing movements in passageways, both his own and others: buses, subways, airports, even passageways in dramatic movies. He is embodying the influence that space and non-human bodies have on human choreography. The one rule of the improvisation: move like somebody would move in a passageway. When talking to us about the piece, Cabrillos emphasized his interest in the absence of other objects as he came into movement — the passageway encourages nothing but the supposed emptiness of transition. It also has a history: many bodies, winds, and drips have left their associative trace: that past is something Cabrillos is responding to as well, embodying it. Like a corporeal version of John Cage’s famous anechoic chamber experience — where the composer learned that the world was never truly silent — Cabrillos’ video indicates that one is always connected to other bodies.
Is it possible to imagine the inner life of objects? It seems we are not quite permitted to apprehend the idea. We cannot imagine what such a sleeping interiority would be like, especially when discounting the tools humans dream with — thought and words and pictures. Instead we must describe the possibility of an object’s interior space by activating a sense of its absurdity. In a kind of negative proof on his website, Stephen Lapthisophon shows a looped video of a potato, alone on a shelf. In the background we hear jazz music. Because of an automatic desire to anthropomorphize the potato, we imagine the potato — otherwise absolutely still and solitary in the frame — listening. The scene becomes comical. And yet it describes something about the constant, albeit invisible, movement of a potato: it is constantly deteriorating, or growing, or leaking, or emitting vibrations. Conceiving of its ability to hear and listen is a way to access, through metaphor, the potato’s experience of itself. For Field Static, Lapthisophon shows The Taxonomy of Root Vegetables, a long, crude shelf stacked with many different still growing, still rotting, root vegetables. The piece, to us, builds off Lapthisophon’s humorous depiction of a morose tuber. Instead of an attempt and appraisal of projected experience, Taxonomy suggests unfamiliar, mutating ecologies and locates the fruitlessness of our contrived negotiations as we seek to categorize and map our world.

The inaccessibility of individual objects can be compared to the inaccessibility of our environment — as our awareness of very small objects builds up, we bump against the infinite array of inner lives, and the very large mesh that consists of animals, insects, bacteria, rocks, ashes, oxygen. Slowly, we bump up against the sky, the world of planetary bodies: the sun, the planets, the stars, light. Carrie Gundersdorf observes, paints, collages and draws solar phenomenon on two-dimensional picture planes that reference modernist painting. In one collage, Gundersdorf collects a variety of different images of Jupiter. She assembles these images in a grid on one sheet of dark paper. One sees the many sides of Jupiter at once but we are no closer to apprehending this planet. This is not simply the result of scale or medium; Gundersdorf is very literally transcribing astral photographs. And yet Gundersdorf’s work shows how astral photographs are manipulated by space and technology. The picture of Jupiter has traveled through eons of space, been reflected on a variety of mirrors and then digitally enhanced with various colors and contrast in an effort to indicate data. Those manipulated images represent the source material that comprises our collective experience of Outer Space. In this show, we have included Spectral Trails with Absorption Lines, a drawing that depicts the spectrum of light. Here too one is called to consider not only the camera’s apparatus, but also the receptive reed of the body: the stereoscopic vision of two eyes — what is then intuitively and unconsciously synthesized into one cohesive whole. Add to this the limited capacity of our oracular perception: We can only see a very narrow portion of the spectrum. Given our minimal sensitivity to light, how could we possibly see all objects? What objects are we missing?

Hopefully these works, along with this book, will lure you into an experience of Field Static in which you begin to account, through perception, for the discrete fields asserted within discrete works; and then the field described by the works together; and then the field described by the entire show in the context of the space, a space in which we are immersed. It is an uncanny and perhaps anxious position, as we grow ever more aware of the inexhaustible relations between non-human things.

This essay was written by Field Static curators, Caroline Picard & Devin King. To schedule an appointment for viewing, please email


1. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
2. Graham Harman. The Quadruple Object (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2011), p. 5
3. Graham Harman. Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72-3
4. Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].” Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72.

Sextuor: l’origine des espèces

February 15, 2012 · Print This Article

“In the beginning, in the beginning, there was not a beginning. The common ancestor is unknown. Between each species and the common ancestor, who is unknown, one must seek, forever seek the intermediate forms.” (Georges Aperghis, Sextuor l’origine des espèces).

The performance took place inside a non-descript office building in Mid-town Manhattan. Despite the newish marble-clad lobby downstairs, the designated floor rested on creaking wood floors, that had been subdivided by drywall. Within an audible distance, someone sang scales and the outside wall of the theater (just opposite the elevator) was decorated with pairs of headshots a before and after beneath which lay professional tag lines and phone numbers offering touch-up services. We had gathered in the corridor of what felt like a rehearsal studio a realization that only added to the curiousness of what was to come: I mean, what would an opera about Darwin look like?

When we first sat down in the theater, before the production had started, the nearby, but disembodied voice had switched from scales to Celine Dion practicing for an upcoming audition, I supposed. She continued to push through the climax of her song until the accompanying pianist would stop unexpectedly silence ensued (what signified a conversation to me) and then the two started again, just before the song’s crescendo. Two folding tables stood waiting on stage. Five binders waited patiently on each, along with a pair of rubber gloves, glasses and an assortment of small, plastic animals. (There was a pause in the Dion song, this one longer than the last). A series of steam-punkish bare bulbs had been clipped to the table and one of the walls was covered with pictures from an animal calendar. The invisible chanteuse finally completed the song and the room grew quiet. So too the house lights dimmed as six women came on stage in lab coats. One carried a cello. They bowed, we clapped and the cellist moved to the side. She sat apart from her peers who moved behind the folding tables and sat down side-by-side.

The cellist spoke first, in French (the language of the entire piece); she suggested both that there was no beginning and that we must look to intermediate forms to discover human nature. Drawing on both Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, Greco-French composer Georges Aperghis wrote a seventy-minute opera. With those texts as an anchor, and the ever present counter balance of the cello (the only instrument the opera calls for), we experienced a musical rendition of the history of evolution. Much of the performance is babbling — an assorted accumulation of consonants that sometimes mimic other life forms (a parrot for instance) but there are coherent narratives that emerge in the throng. Each of the five vocalists performs an aria on one of the following themes: Birth (Soprano I : Megan Schubert), Death (Contralto: Amirtha Kidambi), Cinderella (Mezzo-soprano: Silvie Jensen), Delivery (Soprano II: Christie Finn) and the love experience (or eros)(Soprano III: Gelsey Bell). The Cellist, Émilie Girard-Charest embodies theory (logos), and often seems to quote Darwin and Gould directly. Probably it would seem like madness, except that the characters delivering this production are certain of themselves and focused; they never seem bewildered by evolution but instead appear to channel its course seeming at once facilitators of process and investigators. They wield the authority of science, conducting comical demonstrations in petri dishes. The last thing I was expecting was that sense of humor and it gave so much life to the whole show, eliciting a whole range of emotional experience (for me anyway) from Laugh out Loud, to the sanguine bittersweet.

The script regularly calls for a nonsensical interlude, portions of rhythmic nonsense that separate individual solos. Always, the cellist guides the audience through the changing landscape. The production continues this way: the cellist sits to the side and interjects sensible, reflective statements. These are interrupted by longer interludes comprised primarily of phonemes the building blocks of language produced by the other singers. Much of the vocalist sound seems hysterical, harpy-like and unformed, yet perhaps aptly capturing the chaos of ecology; the five woman fall extraordinarily into sync. At those moments the audience is supported with a sudden cohesion: what often leads to the description of a particular life form: “We are in the Age of Arthropods, in the fossiliferous rocks the oldest have suddenly appeared the species belonging to the great divisions of animals. But we are in the Age of Arthropods, far more numerous than Mammals.”

Sextuor l’origine des espèces is not officially an opera. It is an oratorio. As an admitted amateur, I’ve at least discovered the broadstrokes of distinction. Operatic characters interact with one another; operas also engage historical or mythological themes. Oratorios have traditionally dealt with sacred material; they are often produced in churches and require little in the way of sets.Sextuor l’origine des espèces seems to occupy a wonderful in-betweenness where these genres are concerned. On the one hand, it uses the scientific tradition as a sacred platform, conjuring the feel of an origin-story within the terminology of science. At the same time it incorporates colloquial myth, telling the Cinderella story between the music of birds and the introduction of fish. As in a proper oratorio, the characters interact very little. What interaction exists appears incidental.

One might say the same in biology. In Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, one of the primary projects of the book is to examine where and how humanity defines itself against its animal cousins. Over the course of that discussion, Agamben incorporates an historical naturalist Jakob von Uexkill. “Where classic science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms,” Agamben writes, “Uexkhill instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are noncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score at the center of which lie familiar and at the same time, remote little beings called Echinus esculentus, Amoeba terricola, Rhizostoma pulmo, Sipunculus, Anemonia sulcata, Ixodes ricinus, and so on” (p. 40). Agamben goes to describe precisely how the fly cannot physically perceive the spider web that the worlds of spider and fly while being mutually reliant essentially exclude one another. To return to SLDE, the piece occurs both as a cohesive potentially operatic whole, as an oratorio comprised of several, independent, interlocking parts.

And then there is the most marvelous end. Because any biography must surely account for the demise of its subjects, a performance based on the fleeting occasion of life must also account for its own disappearance. Suddenly humanity’s advantage its peculiar capacity to tell a story seems especially mistaken in its privilege. A gross delusion we share, even Homer’s posthumous fame would appear insignificant: another bit of fodder for time’s desert. SLDE admits to the weight of that knowledge by drawing through audience into darkness. We feel its immanence. The stage goes dark after a particularly moving solo by Love, in which she describes the pleasure of being alive, just shy of an epiphany perhaps. “But I, I was truly having fun. I whirl about as if drunk. I understood that I was carrying a great weight on my shoulders. I have an explanation for the beginnings of life on Earth. I understood that I was already lucky to be a living being.” Following her song (she has taken off her lab coat and wears only a dress now), the other performers gather in a circle, joining hands around a single light. The cellist puts down her bow and joins the others, who must open their circle wider to admit her. “O, you who listen to me tell this story full of memories and holes, we are that improbable,” says the Cellist in French, “and fragile species heading toward extinction and the extinction of all species, internal causes, external causes, I do not know, we the original species that tells the story of its origins full of holes and gaps, because we have so few documents, an incomplete story of the Earth in an ever changing dialect, of which we have but the last volume, some fragments of its chapters and some lines of its pages or some letters, and words of uncertain meaning! Immense Nature improbable and unpredictable, contingent nature, where are we going, we who say life was wonderful, we who say life is wonderful?”

This production made its New York debut once before one year ago. Almost the same cast performed at Joria Productions in 2012. After several months of preparation this year, they had a three-night run. I felt so fortunate to be there. It brought so much to mind for instance, Timothy Morton’s ideas about Nature and how there is no “over there” Nature, only a mesh we all inhabit together: SLDE captures that, while at the same time maintaining the tension of a human narrative. It also made me think about artist Marion Laval-Jeantet’s experiments in hybridity and how these potentially challenge hierarchical habits between species. And then, of course, the very recent attempts Russian scientists have made to drill into an ancient lake in Antarctica: in order to see what life may have endured there, outside our human timescapes. There is so much more to write about and think about, perhaps most of all the musical components, which I am probably the least qualified to consider. But. It was amazing. The energy and vitality of its members as they negotiated what I can only imagine to be a most challenging musical score. I hope they can put it on again, for a longer run; I would love to see it again.

**Sextuor l’origine des espèces was directed by Jeremy Bloom and Nick DeMaison with lighting design by Kryssy Wright. It was hosted by Joria Productions from February 2nd-4th, 2012.

The Borders of Society: An Interview with Timothy Morton

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.