Tag Archives: art

Possibilities within interboundary spaces in the anthropocene

This is the fifth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

There is a blurring of boundaries, or a movement that traverses a boundary, which perhaps represents a sense of self. This boundary crossing generates a certain disorientation, discomfiture or perhaps fear or even panic. The very sense of self seems to be compromised. In dealing with hybrids and cyborgs, creatures of the Anthropocene, we are continually being confronted by these small infractions on our sense of boundedness – whether these are bounds at the interface with skin, as in the case of toxicity (Chen); within disciplinary designations (Andrade et al); aesthetic boundaries between object and subject, nature and art, (Levine); the scientific delimitation between subject and environment (Shrader); the boundaries that define our positions with respect to communities or within the academy as insider or outsider (Tuhiwai Smith); or the question of ownership of genetic material (di Chiro). I’d like to explore how this state of unboundedness, or the trans-ing or queering of boundaries might be appropriated as a form of resistance to imposed hierarchies.

Lead toxicity in children’s toys troubles several different boundaries, according to Mel Chen – including perhaps what the media found most troubling, was that this story disrupted the normal racialized hierarchy of toxic burden within the US, with disproportionate burdens falling to poor communities and people of color. In this instance, white middle class babies were now threatened by Chinese toys. This failure of boundaries blurred this line between self and other, and opened up potential for other boundary-crossings, such as those of homosexuality and disability within the domestic sphere. Furthermore, Chen argues, it disrupts the animacy hierarchy, animating lead as an agent of harm able to attach itself to forms of life.  Another poignant challenge to the animacy hierarchy is invoked by Levine with the Buddha head that has been engulfed by a tree over the course of probably centuries. This represents the boundary crossing between nature and art, and positions the tree as the artist, using a found object to create its masterpiece. This natural art also draws attention to the colonial practice of clearing the forest away from archaeological sites or “ruins”. In this way, both lead and the prodigious tree can be seen as forms of resistance against human-imposed hierarchies, through the crossing of boundaries.

From Levine: Wat-Mahattha Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photograph: Drew Spicer
From Levine: Wat-Mahattha Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photograph: Drew Spicer

We also see a questioning of boundaries within academic research agendas and the production of knowledge. Andrade et al offer ways in which interdisciplinary research can traverse disciplinary boundaries in a way that is more productive and can be seen as a form of resistance to old academic structures and hierarchies. Tuhiwai Smith also offers up reflections on research methodology that trouble the boundaries between the researcher and the researched in indigenous communities. She examines the inherent inside/outside positionality of indigenous researchers, both within academia and within their own communities. By focusing research as a site of struggle and of boundary crossing, there is a potential for an emancipatory move from a research system that is linked to a long and violent history of imperialism and colonialism.

Although occupying inter-boundary spaces can be seen as a form of resistance to imposed binaries or hierarchical structures, the violation of boundaries is also at its core, violence. The blurring of boundaries can be healing, but as with the case of toxicities (Chen), and genetic biocolonization (Di Chiro), the disruption of boundaries as well as the demarcation of boundaries at the interface with an Other, is a hallmark of the colonial project that has generated so many hierarchies and binaries in the first place. By crossing these boundaries, they are rendered visible, often times in painful or uncomfortable ways, but this revealing may also have emancipatory potential.

 

Works Cited:

  1. Chen, Mel. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, Ch. 5, “Lead’s Racial Matters,” pp. 159-188; Ch. 6, “Following Mercurial Affect,” pp. 189-197.
  2. Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “Aftermath: Two Queer Artists Respond to Nuclear Spaces.” In Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson, eds. Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics. Berkeley: University of California, Press, 2015, pp. 77-92.
  3. Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Indigenous Peoples and Biocolonialism: Defining the ‘Science of Environmental Justice’ in the Century of the Gene.” In Sandler, Ronald; Pezzullo, Phaedra C., ed. Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, pp. 251-283.
  4. Andrade, K., et al. “Finding Your Way in the Interdisciplinary Forest: Notes on Educating Future Conservation Practitioners.” Biodiversity Conservation 23 (2014): 3405-3423.
  5. Levine, Gregory. “Silenced by Aesthetics? Conjecture on an Eco Art History,” unpublished paper, 28 pp. Not for citation or circulation without permission.
  6. Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999, “Introduction,” pp. 1-18.
  7. Schrader, Astrid. “Responding to Pfiesteria piscicida (the Fish Killer): Phantomatic Ontologies, Indeterminacy, and Responsibility in Toxic Microbiology.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 4 (April 2010): 275-306.

Anthropocene: A problem of scale?

This is the second in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

One of the main challenges in delineating exactly what constitutes  the “anthropocene” is a problem of scale. The timescales of the effects of humans on the earth cannot be seen with the human gaze, nor by using the ordinary faculties of perception that humans are equipped with. Furthermore, the effects may only be perceptible on generational scales, and the effects of current events (e.g. warfare) may only be properly understood cumulatively, beyond the scope of current lifetimes. This week’s authors bring in concepts of visualization, through data (Cubitt) and art (Mirzoefff, Demos), that are able to capture some of these longer-term processes, but also the ways in which the use of these techniques reinforce existing hierarchies.

Mirzoeff argues that the aesthetic of the anthropocene is indeed an anti-aesthetic (or anesthetic), which takes away our ability to perceive and notice certain changes – e.g. the inability to see smog. Art, he argues, accomplishes this by normalizing the aesthetics of the anthropocene. The time scales of the anthropocene demand a view longer than the human gaze. Cave art, and art carved into trees (Chapela), through multi-species contributions, bear evidence and allow us to witness some of these larger timescales. Through long exposure photography, Darren Almond (Demos) is able to capture some of these visualities, displaying hybrid landscapes on film through long exposure photography. According to Demos, Almond’s work represents a paradigm shift in our ability to visualize ‘hyperobjects’ such as global warming, which are those that are massively distributed in time and space, a key aesthetic of the anthropocene. Cubitt focuses on data visualization as a tool that allows us to imagine and represent long time-scales.

Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos
Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos

Although these strategies provide promise of allowing us to visualize longer timescales, Mirzoeff invokes visualization as a tool originally used in warfare, which can result in reasserting the war of humans against nature. Cubitt, too asserts, that although data visualization strategies seem to represent scientific neutrality and the populist masses, they are actually political tools which are capable of acting as voices of non-humans, while also serving to reinforce nature and non-human actors as objects of study and subjected to human authority. Chapela ultimately argues that to use the term “anthropocene” is a human arrogance, as if today’s form of humans were the only kind of humans there ever were. This echoes Mirzoeff’s assertion that part of capitalism’s success in colonizing our psyches has been in taking away our collective ability to visualize the world without capitalism. He argues that we have been conditioned to believe that our basic humanity lies in conflict as opposed to community. Chapela’s art relics from previous humans serve to remind us of other types of humanity, which were perhaps more accustomed to relating with non-human others.

Symbiotic Art from Chapela 2014
Symbiotic art (from Chapela 2014)

Nixon’s article on the rhetoric of warfare, points out that we are also lacking appropriate narratives that account for the long-term casualties of modern warfare, which are extending the spatial and temporal scales of health and ecological impacts of war. Nixon brings into relief the ability of time to act as camouflage for the horrors of war, and for the turning of nature – soil, air, and water – into weapons against human life. We are left with a sense of the stark inadequacy of human imagination and human tools (e.g. microscope, telescope, camera, narrative), for dealing with the timescales playing out over the era we are calling the anthropocene. If anthropocenic changes are happening at scales that we are unable to perceive and represent with ordinary human faculties, what technological, artistic, and spiritual means are available to us that unmask the camouflage of space and time and reveal our essential humanity? Perhaps, as Chapela and others allude to, the solution will not lie within human means. This leads me to wonder, who will be the survivors of the sixth mass extinction, and what is their agency in these anthropocenic processes?

Works Cited:

1. Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Visualizing the Anthropocene” Public Culture 26, 2 (2014): 213-232.

2. Demos, T.J. “Photography at the End of the World: On Darren Almond’s Fullmoon Series.”  http://www.imageandnarrative.be/index.php/imagenarrative/article/view/763

3. Chapela, Ignacio. “Symbiotic Art and Shared Nostalgia,” in Mihnea Mircan & Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, eds. Allegory of the Cave Painting. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2015.

4. Davis, Heather and Etienne Turpin. “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction.” In Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 3-29.

5. Cubitt, Sean. “Data Visualisation and Ecocriticism” in Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt, eds. The Ecocinema Reader: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 2012, pp. 277-296.

6. Nixon, Rob. “Ecologies of the Aftermath: Precision Warfare and Slow Violence,” in Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, Ch. 7, pp. 199-232.