Other Voices, Other Worlds

A seed planting event organized by Environmental Performance Agency with Next Epoch Seed Library, fall 2017, New York. Photo Timothy Sean O’Connell.

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FOUR PERFORMERS wearing light-gray jumpsuits with the letters “EPA” painted on the back moved amid the tall weeds of an overgrown lot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They were leading a dozen or so people in a participatory movement workshop called a “Collective Weed Improvisation Jam.” This event—one of many organized by the local artist collective Environmental Performance Agency—was intended to foster a deeper, more holistic relationship with the wild plants. The group also conducts discussions on subjects such as seed storage and soil science; meditation sessions in which vegetable spirits are channeled; and, occasionally, outdoor “fertilizing fire circles” that involve the burning of mugwort. 

EPA—which comprises choreographer Andrea Haenggi and artists Catherine Grau, Ellie Irons, and Christopher Kennedy—was founded in 2017 in response to Donald Trump’s threats to dramatically slash funding for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Though the group is politically oriented, it is not primarily focused on promoting actionable policy. Its goal is rather to bring about an epistemological revolution in how we think about interspecies relations. “The Weeds are our mentors, guides and collaborators,” they write on their website. “Our movement improvisations will shoot out into vegetal philosophies, colonization, immigration, botanical science, cultivation and gender.”1

EPA is one of several new art and architecture collectives that take seriously emerging ideas about ecology that fall under the umbrella of posthumanism. Though their approaches vary widely, these groups are united in their view that climate change can be addressed—or even understood—only if we place ourselves on equal ethical footing with other species and even the natural elements. Experimentation is an inherent part of their practice. Through their work, they aim to challenge familiar human ways of thinking and being, as well as to imagine radically new, non-anthropocentric worldviews.

There are several historical accounts of the rise of posthumanist theory, but most tend to date its origin to 1985, the year philosopher Donna Haraway published her seminal essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” In that text, she argued against the rigid ontological boundaries that separate humans, other living beings, and technology. In subsequent books—including Primate Visions (1988), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), and When Species Meet (2008)—Haraway has built on this argument, all the while stressing the need to develop new ways of relating to the natural world.

Her latest thinking on the subject can be found in “Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice,” an ambitious essay published in the new volume, Making Kin Not Population (2018), edited by Harway and academic Adele E. Clarke. The “Chthulucene” of the title is her own coinage (from the Greek khthōn, “of the earth,” and kainos, “completely new.”)2 It is the word she uses to define our present age of human-induced environmental transformation, preferring it over “anthropocene,” which excludes the perspective of other species. Haraway sees today’s population crisis as an opportunity to break free of old ways of thinking about kinship. “Kin must mean something other/more than entities tied by ancestry or genealogy, including population, family, and species” she writes. “Making kin and making kind (as category, relatives without ties by birth, lateral relatives, caring, kindness, lots of other echoes) stretch the imagination and can change the story.”3

Though the two thinkers have clashed in the past, it is useful to compare Haraway’s ideas with those of French philosopher Bruno Latour. In his 1991 book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour sketched a speculative model of political organization that he called the “parliament of things.” In this assembly, plants and animals are assigned teams of scientists who speak on their behalf.  The role that Haraway conceives for artists is similar. She has repeatedly stressed the need for sympoiesis, “making with,” a way of cooperating with nature rather than using it—presenting art as an arena for forging such alliances on the small scale.

 

ANOTHER PROBLEM with the concept “anthropocene” is that it is too homogeneous. As scholars including T.J. Demos have argued, the term suggests that humankind in general is to blame for massive ecological destruction largely spearheaded by certain economic groups (mainly, colonists and their descendants, and industrial and financial capitalists).4 After all, less exploitive models of social organization, and alternative conceptions of human-nonhuman relations have existed throughout history, most prominently among Indigenous groups. But such worldviews have been systematically suppressed.

This is a point driven home by Dylan AT Miner, a Métis artist, activist, and scholar based in East Lansing, Michigan. Miner’s practice falls into two categories. On the one hand, he makes texts and graphics in response to contemporary political events and shares them almost daily on social media. These bold, declarative statements—with messages like no pipelines on indigenous land, naturalists not nationalists, and no mines near sacred sites—are often accompanied by images of snakes, birds, and other animals. Miner also makes less direct, more reflective work meant to be displayed in art galleries. If his agitprop engages with the urgent threats facing the environment, his gallery work might be understood as exploring the landscape as a site for personal communion (as opposed to a resource to be exploited). 

Miner’s solo exhibition “Water is Sacred // Trees are Relatives” is now showing at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The works on display—mainly photographs and sculptures—draw their imagery from the belief systems of the Great Lakes Indigenous groups, who consider elements including wood, water, and sky to be sacred. The heart of the show is a series of cyanotype photographs printed on fabric. Most of these works depict skyscapes and waterscapes, the latter from an aerial perspective. Washes of indigo, varied with patches of other colors such as yellow and pink, marry the hushed stillness of color-field painting with the intimacy of personal snapshots.

Also highlighting the sacred aspect of the landscape from an Indigenous perspective are the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. Since 2013, this Pacific Northwest–based artist collective has been traveling by road across the United States with totem poles to raise awareness about environmental and public health issues. Each year, its members carve a new pole that is taken to several Indigenous communities threatened by development. Blessing ceremonies and cultural events are held at these stops, and the pole is usually left at the year’s final destination. The group has also enacted gestures of interspecies solidarity. Earlier this year, the carvers traveled to the Seaquarium in Miami, where an orca whale has been confined to an exhibition tank since 1970. “We are on a journey to free a fellow being,” as master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James told a reporter.5 (The orca is still in captivity.)

In 2017 the House of Tears Carvers teamed up with the Natural History Museum, a nonprofit based on Vashon Island, off the coast of Washington. Founded in 2014, NHM operates like a cross between a conceptual art collective and a public advocacy group, urging art and science institutions to make progressive political decisions such as divesting from fossil fuel companies. Using their contacts in the museum sector, the group helped organize an exhibition for the House of Tears Carvers. “Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line!” opened in October 2017 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The show presents one of the group’s totem poles alongside other artifacts collected by the carvers on their travels. Its six-month run there was marked with a series of public events, including a blessing ceremony. The pole then traveled to the Watershed Center in Pennington, New Jersey, where it is included in another exhibition amid different objects.

 

THE PAST YEAR may be regarded as a watershed for the fields of architecture and urban planning, as new ideas about the relationship between humans and their environment have come to the fore. Understandably, projects based on speculative ideas about posthuman epistemology are still largely limited to the realm of biennials and academic study. But a few have received enough funding to be realized at full scale. 

Since 2006, Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology), a New York–based firm founded by architects Maria Aiolova and Mitchell Joachim, has worked within what they describe as a “framework of socio-ecological design,” producing compelling renderings and provocative installations that depict biophilic building forms modeled after nature.6 (The studio also proposes larger infrastructure projects, such as a tide-management proposal for Red Hook, Brooklyn, in which former military vessels are used to create a buffer zone to prevent flooding from storms.) Last year, it was commissioned to design an eight-story office and commercial tower in the Nolita neighborhood of Manhattan.

Monarch Sanctuary, as the building is called, is conceived as a sort of urban breeding ground for the endangered monarch butterfly. Milkweed and other nectar-producing flowers will be planted on the rooftop, rear facade, and terrace of the structure. And there will be separate colonies of butterflies nurtured in an atrium and inside the street-facing double-skinned facade. The project is currently awaiting approval from the Nolita Community Board, after which construction work will begin.

Terreform ONE’s sanctuary is similar to the “forested towers” designed by architects including Dattner and Grimshaw, Stefano Boeri, and Sou Fujimoto. Their work was anticipated by architectural theorists like Christopher Alexander, author of The Nature of Order (1977-2005), a four-volume treatise that is a cult classic among ecologically minded architects. In it, Alexander offered a model for deriving building structures from patterns observed in the natural world, arguing that these lent themselves to human comfort and well-being.

 

IF BUILDING design is an urgent issue from the perspective of energy and resource consumption, landscape and planning decisions have a bearing on the future of entire biomes (plant-and-animal systems). Wetlands, for example, lie at the crosshairs of urban development and climate change issues. These areas play a crucial role in holding back floodwaters, but they have been compromised and diminished by urban expansion, especially because planners have historically opted for hardened flood-protection elements like canals, storm drains, levees, and seawalls, which lead to deforestation on the coast. In response, there has been a growing call from landscape architects to protect and restore wetlands. Two pavilions at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale showcased creative proposals for how this might be done.

At the US pavilion, SCAPE—a Manhattan-based landscape architecture firm founded by Kate Orff—presented “Ecological Citizens,” a project that highlighted the ways in which humans can engage with and restore wetlands. SCAPE’s main exhibit featured what the firm describes as “intertidal architectures”: sediment fences, fascines, biodegradable logs made of coconut husks, and so forth. These objects were meant to evoke the mutual dependence of humans and the land. “If past notions of ‘the region’ [were] based on power and geography,” the firm wrote in an accompanying statement, “new regions will emerge from a cohesion of committed citizens, interspecies alliances, mud, and sticks.”7 After the biennial, SCAPE used these materials to create a salt marsh on the coast of nearby La Certosa island. This was intended to reduce erosion and provide a supportive environment for shellfish, wading birds, and other local species.   

The Lithuanian pavilion, “Swamp School,” was co-curated by Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas, cofounders of Urbonas Studio, a Massachusetts-based research collective. The titular ecosystem was presented as a model for thinking in a posthuman way. Citing Haraway’s notion of sympoeisis, the Urbonases explore the complex  natural systems that have developed over millennia in marshes, a biome in which many different species coexist.

The pavilion showcased a variety of projects from around the world. Living bogs were imported from Aukštumala, Lithuania. Ecological installations diffused the aromas of marsh plants. Plastic drain pipes (traditionally used to regulate water flow in swamplands) were cut up and assembled to create flexible seating and platforms for lectures and sound performances. These and other works and events were animated by the belief that swamps have much to teach us about interspecies cooperation. “[The swamp is] a perfect milieu to learn, understand, and resist with other species, forces, and ecosystems that have been silenced and downgraded by anthropocentric hegemony,” the curators write in their statement.

Resisting with swamp creatures? It may seem like an absurd idea. And, indeed, most (if not all) the efforts of artists, activists, and scholars engaging with posthumanism confront the problem of incommensurability. These projects are not entirely reconcilable within existing legal and political frameworks. Yet it might make sense to see them, as Haraway does, as generative gestures that are not delegitimized by their contradictions. They are, for now, fitting projects for aesthetics: uses of the imagination to create more beautiful worlds.