Conversation with Christoph Brunner (CB), Yvonne Volkart (YV), Jonathan Reus (JR), Flora Reznik (FR) and Sissel Marie Tonn (ST)
Illustration by: Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series taking place at Stroom Den Haag and produced by the Instrument Inventors Initiative. Since 2015 we have been organizing this series with the intention of creating a platform for close-readings and discussion of seminal theoretical texts among an ever-growing diverse community of artists, cultural practitioners and individuals interested in intellectual discourse. For every session we invite guest readers to share their knowledge and guide the community through key texts and themes within their field of expertise. The Reading Room is made possible with the support from the Stroom Den Haag and the Creative Industries Fund NL.
As discussions like those in the Reading Room are so ephemeral, and yet full of the emergent knowledge within our community, in 2017 we are looking further into ways with which we can capture the traces of this event series. In this sense it is no coincidence that we begin 2017 with clusters on topics such as Ecologies of Existence and Anarchival Practices. To this end, we are beginning our 2017 season with an interview series created in collaboration with the guest readers. This will not only be an effort to archive the events and the new insights offered by these events, but also an opportunity to shed light on the texts discussed for those who were unable to attend the session in person, and hopefully in some way also capture the flat hierarchies of our community within the method of relay interviews. These interviews are conducted as conversation pieces between the three organizers; artists Jonathan Reus, Flora Reznik and Sissel Marie Tonn, and the invited guests.
Reading Room #15: Ecologies of Existence
The current planetary situation is perceived as one of crises; ecological, economic, and psychological. While it is tempting to surrender oneself to these paralysing processes, it seems ever the more urgent to question the current tendency of subsuming the “ecological” as a label for anything and everything. The first Reading Room of 2017, Ecologies of Existence, was therefore an event dedicated to the overarching question: What kinds of artistic practices and aesthetic strategies emphasise a kind of “ecological thinking”? And how can we conceive of such an ecological thinking so that it does not become a haunting “new call to order”, falling victim to the reductive tendencies of our mental, political, and social present?
The Reading Room #15 took place on the 29th of March with guest readers Christoph Brunner and Yvonne Volkart, and was the start of a collaboration between The Reading Room and ‘ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices’ at Leuphana University. The theme Ecologies of Existence was initiated in 2016 with a conference at Leuphana University organized by our guests. The Reading Room takes up this theme in a diverse four-session collaboration with ArchipelagoLab and Christoph Brunner, bringing together radical positions in ecological and postcolonial/de-colonizing thinking that bridge 25 years of thought on the topic. The texts chosen in these four sessions do not only depict artistic and aesthetic practices as important factors of change, but cast them quite literally as the embodiment of a continuous experiment in a multi-faceted notion of ecological thinking.
For the cluster discussed in this interview texts by Isabelle Stengers and Félix Guattari were chosen, as a possibility to discuss the environmental and ecological. Guattari’s text, “Remaking social practices” is an article written a few months before his sudden death in 1992. According to the publishers, “this ambitious and all-encompassing series of reflection takes on, in some sense, the character of a philosophical will or testament”. Having seen the collapse of the two superpowers that until recently had kept a polarity that induced order in the world, he faces a new era in which uncertainty is ubiquitous. He strives to give a diagnose of his time, which is characterized by the futile insistence on reassuring ourselves. He envisions that this fundamental tendency will lead to “ecological disasters, famine, unemployment, the escalation of racism and xenophobia, hunt, like so many threats, [at] the end of this millennium”. He sees a potential force in technology, as a medium that plays an important role in the formation of innovative practices that could give way to better kinds of sociability. He asks: “How could we reconnect the head to the body, how could we join science and technology with human values?” In a vigorous philosophical effort to address this question, he points at an “ecosophic democracy” that “would not give in to the charms of consensual agreement but instead it will invest itself in a dissensual metamodelization, (…) which would always harbor an element of uncertainty at its heart”.
In her book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism Isabelle Stengers focuses on a need to intervene into the global political handling of the current ecological catastrophe. Specifically, she calls out the maintenance of the ‘status quo’, which she attributes those she calls our ‘guardians’. This relationship becomes clear in the chapter chosen for the Reading Room, titled ‘The GMO Event’, which we used to examine Stengers’ proposition for creating an alternative political vision resisting what she calls ‘the coming barbarism’. In this chapter she frames the wide public revolt against GMO crops in Europe, and particularly in France, in the 90’s as a means of articulating a public reclamation of science as a common(ing) practice. She describes a scientific community complicit with corporate interests, governments baffled by the sudden resistance of the public, and their meddling with so-called ‘expert domains’, which was not previously a public concern.
(ST): Yvonne, in the Reading Room we discussed the GMO event described in chapter 3, and specifically what made it an event. Could you explain why you and Christoph chose this particular chapter and how the discourse around GMO crops to Stengers qualifies as ‘an event’?
(YV): We chose this chapter because it answers in a comprehensible way one of our core questions: What can be done, and how do we take action in our paralyzing times of exploitation, of climate change and new calls to order as well as its impacts. Stengers writes that she learned a lot from the historical actions of public refusal against GMO implementation in Europe around 2000. And so do we, by focusing on the important acts of resistance that came out of them.
“What made for an event in this epoch that is ours, suspended between two histories”, she writes, “was the discrepancy that was created between the position of those who were in the process of producing more and more concrete, more and more significant knowledges, and the knowledge of those responsible for public order.” (36).
Thus, what was making “the event” was the creation of a public situation of disbelief and refusal to the claims of so called experts that everything around GMO would be under control. One of the crucial parts of making the “GMO event” was that people began to ask inconvenient questions. They wanted to know “who would profit from this innovation”, and how and with what resources “the tracking of the risks” would take place exactly. Their tenacious questioning brought to light that these “experts” (industries and their companion scientists and governors) either lied or began to stutter, because they didn’t know the answers. It was “as if a world of problems that they had never posed was becoming visible to them”. So the posing of questions opened up to a history “narrated differently” (39), connecting people and the production of intelligibility in new ways.
However, as Stengers had to admit, the history of the GMO event is not a victory. GMO crops became ubiquitous, normal, even artists are working with GMO as if it were usual artistic material. So, again, what can be done in such a situation?
“Rather than moaning about this fact, that it
has already ‘recuperated’, it belongs to political struggle to invent the manner in which to make what has thus been learned count”, writes Stengers. “The GMO event has not been brought to an end (…) It is up to us to create a manner of responding, for ourselves but also for the innumerable living species that we are dragging into the catastrophe (…)”. (41)
Flora, you are an artist and theorist, did you learn something of Stengers narration of the GMO event? How does her “us” affect you and how do you feel “response-able” (Karen Barad) in this situation?
(FR): Dear Yvonne, thanks for your questions. It is quite special when an theorist chooses to ask someone how they feel, right? It is already a statement: feelings matter, also in the realm of philosophy.
About the first question. In my point of view Stengers highlights an aspect of what an event is; in general, it is a component of a certain “universal structure of the event” (these are not her words but mine, contaminated by Derrida’s).
What can be done, and how do we take action in our paralyzing times of exploitation, of climate change and new calls to order.
Stengers chooses to narrate a singular story, an experience, using philosophical concepts as tools to interpret it and also to continue it. The text puts into words a certain interpretation of the experience of a collective, and elsewhere in the text it is stated that this action of interpreting is indispensable for that experience to be meaningful (and therefore useful) for future, different experiences. The narration is not the surplus of an event but a constitutive part of it. The way she puts it, the event wouldn’t be an event if there was nobody to tell the story, if nobody had noticed. By writing, Stengers shares part of a collective awareness. This sharing (which is the whole point of writing) is an essential part of the experience, one of many means of expansion that opens up new possibilities of collective agency. This stress on the constituent power of narrations in relation to events I found very interesting.
And now I’ll go to the second question. The us, I must admit, left me a little bit outside. While reading Stengers text I couldn’t help but constantly diffract from it, distracted
by the more or less blurry memories of the introduction of GMOs back home. Coming from Argentina, where Monsanto is almost like a hidden king behind a very different kind of democracy, I have a peculiar experience of GMOs. The Argentinian economy is based on GMOs. They were introduced in the mid 90’s and by the time the crisis of 2001 hit, they had spread to populate almost 100% of the agricultural territory. Was it possible to stop this, to go back to “nature”? More than 30% of the population was unemployed, and in Argentina unemployment means that people are absolutely alone, with no help from the State (at least that is how it was back then, now things have changed a little). There was a strong lobby from the multinationals plus a strategic decision from the government to let Monsanto do their business. Everybody knew that in the long run it was a horrible decision, a catastrophic one. But people were literally starving.
Now we are seeing the consequences: the classic combo of malformations at birth and cancer in population living close to the
fields, small farmers going bankrupt, and the exhaustion of the soil. But the country recovered, economically speaking… I am not saying what is good and what is wrong. I am just pointing at the fact that an event cannot be understood without a certain context. I have to say that I don’t really feel like a part of the specific apparatus that constitutes the event that Stengers is referring to. My responsiveness is marked by this distance to the territory in which Stengers’ GMO event took place. A narration is a “cut” out of “everything that is entangled”, a necessary cut if we aim to create meaning. This meaning, in my opinion, is local and therefore it only makes sense in relation to a specific community.
But it never fully “makes sense”, does it? A context, even though it matters, is never closed and it never totally defines a meaning or a specific “us” that would be able to perfectly understand that meaning or be addressed by it. A narration, a text, is already the place where the meaning is differing from itself, constantly addressing
an “us” that is not an identity but a call for a community to come. A text like Stengers’, I think, operates in this way.
So in that sense, yes, I would love to be part of that “us”, and I do feel response-able in that I hope that my practice, from the specific place where I stand, helps create a community able to respond to the call of Gaia, in Stengers words (while, I would stress, opening up the “us” by questioning itself deeply).
Now, my question to Christoph: there is a fragment of Stengers text that I found a bit obscure: “I haven’t stopped emphasizing that such experimentation is political, because it is not a question of making things better, but of experimenting in a milieu that is known to be saturated with traps, infernal alternatives, and impossibilities concocted as much by the State as by capitalism. But political struggle, here, doesn’t happen through operations of representation but much rather through the production of repercussions, through the constitution of “resonance chambers” such that what happens to one group makes others think and act, but also such that where one group achieves something, what they learn, what they make exist, becomes so many resources and experimental possibilities for others.” Maybe you can cast light on this? What is that “milieu”?
What does “operations of representation” mean in this context? What notion of State is implied in this text? In your opinion, can political struggle be detached from the sphere of representation, in a broad sense?
(CB): Thanks Flora for this quite challenging set of questions. I would like to start with some clarifications as someone who has been reading Stengers for a while now and currently participating in two other reading groups where we read Stengers and Philippe Pignarre’s Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell. In this formidable book, which is taking its point of departure from the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle with their battle-cry ‘another world is possible’, the authors introduce what they call ‘infernal alternatives.’ In relation to the reading of In Catastrophic Times, we have encountered and discussed the notion of the ‘guardians’ that relates directly to the question of the State and infernal alternatives.
Guardians, the way Stengers introduces the term, refers to the representatives of certain power formations. These are not necessarily politicians, but also scientists or CEOs. They are those claiming some representational power to speak and act in the name of others. Stengers relates the role of the guardians, as the ones ‘taking responsibility’, to the knowledge economy and the State.
Guardians are the ones who gave up responsibility and have ‘given the globalized free market control of the future of the planet’ (p. 30).
The guardians’ power restricts itself to the State’s function to regulate and avoid excess; they obtain the role of leveraging responsibilities, based on their own critical thinking, and thus take from the people inquiring into the ‘state of affairs.’
With ‘knowledge economy’ Stengers refers to the co-opted forms of scientific practice (written as capitalized Science) that directly feed the scientific rationality – ‘the mother of progress of all knowledge’ as Stengers cynically alludes (p. 66) – in relation to control and investment regulated by the State’s ties to an entrepreneurial logic. To wrap this point up: the State and Science produce an alliance under the guise of the knowledge economy to represent and take responsibility of action as ‘our’ guardians; while simultaneously undermining the responsibilities of scientific practice as a critical endeavour. The figure of the entrepreneur becomes the symbol for such a mingling. At this point it is probably worth seeing how the figure of the entrepreneur has deeply penetrated the language and logics of scientific, academic and artistic institutions … at least the ones I am confronted with in my personal academic biography.
State and Science produce an alliance under the guise of the knowledge economy to represent and take responsibility of action as ‘our’ guardians; while simultaneously undermining the responsibilities of scientific practice as a critical endeavour.
What the guardians do when there are critical instances of problematization (such as a demand for more clarification from the many groups paying attention, and demanding experimental practices to be less regulated in order to allow for unknown and empowering events to occur), is to propose what Stengers and Pignarre name ‘infernal alternatives.’
These ‘infernal alternatives’ are a “set of situations that seem to leave no other choice than resignation or a slightly hollow sounding denunciation” (Pignarre/Stengers p. 24). The claim ‘but we have to, otherwise …’ creates a false obligation and passing-on to the experts of the actual obligation of a situation to make us think and pay attention. An Infernal alternative is, for example, a modest restriction on CO2 emissions rather than radically changing the industrial sector responsible for the pollution. The rationale of an infernal alternative would claim that we must follow otherwise there will be no change at all.
To resist infernal alternatives, which remain in the closed circuit of the knowledge economy tied to guardians, Stengers proposes what she calls an ecology of practices where each situation, in its constructedness between facts, fictions and narratives, obliges us to think in the presence of a problem and as a collective process.
This obligation is not trying to create
a universal us – as in ‘we the humans’ – but asks what might be human and to take account and pay attention to what more there is.
This ‘what more there is’ concerns the other side of social and political representation you asked about in the last Reading Room, Flora. The form of representation Stengers criticizes refers to the nexus of the guardians, the State, Science and the knowledge economy, which, due to their roles as representatives, take the liberty to provide one infernal alternative after another. From here the question of the event comes back full circle to Yvonne’s explorations above. The event is neither a minute differentiation between instances, nor is it something of a universal kind, like a paradigm shift or revolution. On the contrary, the event is that which confronts the problem of representation head on and operates on the meso-level of experience; as a field of experimentation.
It is here that I see the question of representation becoming highly relevant. Representation when it means ‘speaking in the name of’ remains in the logic of statist delegation, whereas representation as an experimental process of paying attention and crafting ecologies of practices concerns the very fabrication of an event. In the logic of the State and politics, this might then be a fusion of scientific, social, and activist practice all concerned with creating appropriate ways of making concerns
matter. In other words, they become present in an inconclusive and inventive manner that resists becoming another infernal alternative.
From here one might follow the work of Isabell Lorey who has written extensively about her concept of what she calls ‘presentist democracy’. This presentist practice traverses bodies, thoughts, and practices of all domains, regardless of their point of inquiry. What counts is the power of a practice to become concerned with situations that oblige ‘us’ to think. The milieu you are asking about is that pulsating middle of a concern that constitutes a problem (you mention the constituent power which reminds me of Toni Negri), but also ignites a practice and its historical situatedness – such as with the GMO-event.
The other side of the milieu (as in French there is this double meaning) is the surrounding that enables or inhibits a situation to confer the obligation to think. In that sense the State-Science-guardians-knowledge-economy-nexus is another milieu-as-environment from which new milieus, new situations of critical inquiry, can emerge to make a difference. Representation then is nothing to be avoided but to be dealt with in a manner that it affords a presentist quality that cannot be passed on to the guardians as the experts.
An experimental process of paying attention and crafting ecologies of practices concerns the very fabrication of an event. In the logic of the State and politics, this might then be a fusion of scientific, social, and activist practice.
However, this presentist practice does not mean to debunk experts, as has been the case in the current post-fact discourse, or to praise their authority as the creators of facts (a potential pitfall of the March for Science), but rather it means to ask how such expertise can only ever emerge in an ecology of practices obliging everyone and everything involved to pay attention.
Sissel, from here I would like to pass on to you as an artist and researcher who deals with ecological phenomena, such as earthquakes occurring through fracking. In your practice the body plays a crucial role as the interface for ecologies of practices becoming felt. As Flora pointed out, the philosophical work can never be separated from the sphere of sensation and a body thinks as much as it moves and senses. Without making the body a manifest or humanist concern in the first place, I am curious about the more sensuous and bodily elements immanent to the political practices that Stengers has in mind but rarely takes into account. I am here also thinking about the other text we read, Felix Guattari’s ‘Remaking Social Practices’ where he presents an ecological understanding of social and political struggle that always has to take the realm of sensation into account. How do you relate to this friction between Stengers and Guattari – both in terms of their conception of ecology and in relation to your practice?
(ST): Ever since I read Guattari’s ’86 essay ‘The Three Ecologies’, in which he makes the statement that in order to solve the devastation of the environment we must take into account the intrinsic entanglement of social and mental ecologies as well, I have tried to trace this interconnectedness between social, mental and environmental ecologies.
For instance, in the work you refer to about the gas drilling-induced earthquakes in Groningen, what is interesting to me is the way that the people living with the earthquakes perceive their immediate environment undergoing change. It appeared to me that these perceptions occur on both a conscious and preconscious level. For decades people in this northern province were complaining about earthquakes, but were ignored by government and industry, who weren’t interested in jeopardizing the bounty of the largest natural gas field in Europe. Talking to those affected directly by the gas extraction, I felt that this mistrust in official measurement systems had made them extra sensitive to perceiving these earthquakes, as if the uneasiness of feeling abandoned by the social structures obliged them to attune to these threats – as a means, essentially, of survival. A few people I met in Groningen told me they woke up at night just seconds before they felt an earthquake. To me these stories exemplified the multi-layered entanglement of the three ecologies described by Guattari. Furthermore, the affected residents of Groningen have self-
organized, created alternative data-gathering and information-sharing platforms, and continue to battle the systemic and bureaucratic forces of the NAM (The Dutch Earth Gas Company), who is responsible for the gas drilling. In ‘Remaking Social Practices’ Guattari states that ecological disaster surely creates an awareness for people to organize themselves, but that this of course is not enough – it is necessary to produce ‘a collective dialogue capable of producing innovative practices’. ‘Without a change in mentalities, without entry into a post-media era’, he states, ‘ there can be no enduring hold over the environment. Yet without modifications to the social and material environment, there can be no change in mentalities’.
I see my artistic work as a way of tracing the ephemeral presence of the interconnectedness between the mental, the social and the environmental ecologies that constitute an event, such as the occurrence of man-made earthquakes. How can the event become a potential for perceiving this entanglement? The anxiety produced from living with man-made geological phenomena, anxiety which makes you wake up before an earthquake is felt (side note: these stories greatly irritated scientists I worked with, since the earthquakes are scientifically too small to produce an infrasonic wave preceding the sound) is for me a point of convergence, a clear and poetic exposure of relation between body, psychology, social collectivity and earth.
What I find important is to continuously keep Guattari’s triad in mind, to insist on the effects of environmental degradation on our minds and communities and vice versa – that attentiveness and persistence is what I find so interesting about Guattari’s work. For me, zooming in on minor events that gesture towards the complex implications of the environment/body relation, is a way to compose attention. I don’t see it as my job to lay out all the factual information about the event, but rather carefully consider the ways in which I can ‘transfer’ an experience of presence produced by the event.
What I indeed miss a bit from Stengers text is the complexity of ‘paying attention’. I find the question of attention, or tending to, one’s environment fascinating. Paying attention, I believe, is not only a cognitive effort, but a sensory one as well (which has to a large degree fuelled our evolution and interspecies development). What is to be done in order to pay attention otherwise? To what degree is attention plastic, and to what degree can we notice changes within an environment, changes perhaps beyond our limited comprehension bounded by human timescales? I think one thing that is to be done is an education in mindful attendance to the changes within the body-environment constellation.
Often activists forget to pay attention to themselves and their limits and get burnouts, or in trying to grasp the terror that is environmental degradation self-inflict anxiety and depression. Often art exhibitions about environmental issues are loaded with dread, guilt and a barrage of information that leaves me feeling paralyzed. I would like to create works that ask how might we reflect on the gesture of ‘paying attention’ on a micro level?
Right now I am enjoying reading Anna Tsing’s ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’, a book where she beautifully discusses the matsutake mushroom trade at the fringes of capitalist ruin (the mushroom thrives in forests contaminated by human activities, and the trade is a curious commodity chain ranging from precarious pickers to Japanese luxury goods suppliers). Tsing asks for ‘arts of noticing’, best described as the embodied looking-while-not-looking practice of picking mushrooms. The ‘art of noticing’, or paying attention, isn’t only a matter of being critical, alert and proactive within a socio-political context, but has to also constitute a sensory attunement to the constantly changing environment that we co-constitute (what Tsing would call collaborative, multi-species survival strategies necessary to imagine life in capitalist ruins).
Guattari writes about a necessity for a ‘post-media’ awareness, of course written in ’92, which leads me to ask Jonathan. In his essay Guattari points to the ’suggestive power of information theory’ which he thinks has masked the ‘enunciative dimensions of communication’, leading to a forgetfulness of the importance of the perceiving subject. He states ’The truth of information refers to an existential event occurring in those who receive it’ and that subjectivation is inherently embodied in speech, writing, computing and technology. As an artist and researcher working with the embodiment of information and communication, within the realm of digital technology, what would you say is the most important challenges for constituting a ’techno-ecology’, a term coined by Eric Kluitenberg?
(JR): Thanks Sissel. My reading of Guattari is in flux right now, so please take everything I write here with a grain of salt. I think the bit you mention, about not forgetting the ‘enunciative dimensions’ of communication, is fundamentally a challenge to all of us to own our media. In other words, even telematic media like television is consumed in localized and heterogeneous context(s).
The ‘art of noticing’, or paying attention, isn’t only a matter of being critical, alert and proactive within a socio-political context, but has to also constitute a sensory attunement to the constantly changing environment that we co-constitute.
Here I have some problems with the way Guattari valorizes cinema and villainizes television. It’s as if he’s ignoring his own advice. When I was young in the Netherlands I remember there used to be localized public television channels, where anyone in the community could step in and own a time-slot. Why can’t we imagine ways in which television consumption also becomes a fulcrum for new social practices?
Guattari’s romanticism about film and the social experience of cinema, maybe it’s a cultural gene that I’m missing. In the part of the USA where I grew up the cinema doesn’t have the kind of social significance that it probably had for him in Paris. In the second reading room of this cluster we discussed the imagery of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, where an entire Italian town rallies around a locally grown Catholic cinema. What I’m asking myself now is whether this valorization of cinema over television is just a romantic slip, or is it evidence of some latent technological determinism in Guattari’s otherwise anthropocentric (social-deterministic) call to use media technologies as a part of a seed for forming community practices? Another question would be how can we think the whole long-history of technological objects within an ecological framework that includes ‘techno-ecology’? But on this point I defer to Yvonne.
Yvonne, as someone who’s curatorial work is so tied in with post-media theory and the impact of technological infrastructures on natural ecology, I’m very curious how you relate these texts: Guattari’s conception of media as a catalyst for social practices, and Stengers’ reading of the GMO Event, to your own work. What is the relationship between theory and practice for you in this case?
(YV): I can imagine that Guattari’s perception of “’degenerate’ television images” as uttered in “Remaking Social Practices” and “The Three Ecologies” may sound a little bit awkward to today’s ears. Nonetheless, I agree with him, I find his “negativity” bold and fresh. What he says about the homogenization of subjectivity and the reduction and manipulation of facts by mass media, could be said about the mainstream use of the internet, too. I say this, being fully aware of the fact that there are people trying to establish alternative networked cultures, zombie-like techno-ecological communities, or critical discourses. But we have to take in account that nonetheless, almost everybody is using Google or Facebook (I always tried to resist, but I guess it won’t be for long anymore).
Using this mass media disguised as social media means also working for them, feeding them with data, supporting their infrastructural dominance.
Thus, I see the criticism of which you are talking, but I also see the complicity. A corruption, of which we all are not only aware, but with which we also flirt a little bit, suggesting that it makes things more human and seductive than the ascetic’s and heroic position of the lonesome fighter.
Guattari was aware of the rise and fall of alternative uses of mass media like radio and television. Historically, he expressed his skepticism of and hope in technology shortly before the hype and normalization of the World Wide Web. Thus, he sees the coming of a zombie use of media and computers, but he doesn’t exactly know how it would take place. And at this crucial point, he said something which is still very important: “Obviously, we cannot expect a miracle from these technologies: it will depend, ultimately, on the capacity of groups of people to take hold of them, and apply them to appropriate ends.” (262) It is the people, that are “remaking social practices”, making “the event”, as Stengers would say. It is not technology doing it, and we cannot wait for the others to do it for us. It is the users, that decide to gather, to appear, to act, doing in/appropriate things, even if their machines are mining them, depleting them, of which they have or have no idea. It is a crucial task to understand, that “we” (as an assemblage of various human and non-human species and matters) are responsible for what we, i.e. our collective, are doing. It is “we” who are bound to do the (dirty) work, we cannot
delegate this task to “our technologies” alone – with technologies I mean here the master perception of appropriating and using the others as slaves of capitalist concerns and depletion, be they robots, animals, plants, or underprivileged humans.
In short, I think our being a techno-capitalist mass media subject became even worse since Guattari’s days of an in-between state. In addition, we might be more aware, more proud or happy of the zombielike way of life we live with, in and through our technologies.
Thus, to answer your question: Guattari’s and Stengers’ theories give me hope, they give me the courage to do what I had to do, and to connect to others. And they give me an insight how things might proceed. Before I became interested in techno-ecology, I was into Cyberfeminism. Old Boys Network, of which I was an active member, tried to establish digital infrastructures and platforms as well as local meetings, conferences, books. Remember, these were the days before the rise of social media, when we realized that there could be a chance, an option of doing something feminist, of acting globally, by adopting new media. But it was not about technology and virtual life only, we knew that technologies were handled like a myth, and we wanted both to play with these mythic beings and – quoting Guattari – “apply them to appropriate ends”.
After this collective phase I worked in smaller groups, also more individually. Global warming became a global subject, but in the arts and media scenes there was still a certain reluctance against this subject. When Sabine Himmelsbach, Karin Ohlenschläger and I curated the show “Ecomedia” in 2007, it was really hard to find partner institutions for a touring exhibition. But now, 10 years later, themes like naturecultures, techno-ecology, Anthropocene or Capitalocene is the big thing in the arts. I welcome this change, because it shows that many artists and curators are deeply unhappy with ours ways of exhausting the others. In the best case, they try to invest in something that I want to coin “a green techno/culture” or “a green poetics” (to adapt a subtitle of one of Rasa Smite’s and Raitis Smits’ current projects) as an ongoing transversal reworking of our mode of being and relating to the world, to the ‘zoe’, (in short, what we meant too with “Ecologies of Existence”).
But what I see too, unfortunately, is, that in the arts like in green economy, this green thing is not more than a promising new subject, something you can reason about, but that doesn’t really affect your personal, mental or social way of life. I mean, who, apart from fossil industry and the like, is not sad about pollution and species extinction? Do I really have to repeat this again and again?
The same way that feminism or gender is less a theme than a method of inhabiting the world, so, for me, techno-ecology is a method of “co/existence”, of living on and sharing this planet with others. It is an issue of the commons, our commons. This commonality means, among others, that we really have to start to think about sharing the cake: Meaning “less for all, but even less for the rich”, to quote Stuart Hall from 1991. However, this message is not only unpopular to both right and left wings, but also especially to cultural producers, as we always feel ourselves positioned on the lower precarious level of the pyramid, or being the do-gooders anyway.
So, what would Guattari’s ideas about mental and social ecology mean, today? Can the gathering of data of species extinctions, or the mourning about it really be a radical issue today, especially with respect to the fact that we already know so much, but find it so difficult to take action? (Maybe these aesthetic practices are not totally opportunistic, for they remember and refresh our consensually felt affects of sadness or anger).
Whereas one simple goal to achieve were to reduce the CO2 exhaustion of the rich countries, countries in which around a third is emitted by traffic and households, not industry (that is declining anyway). That means, although it is us who are
For me, techno-ecology is a method of “co/existence”, of living on and sharing this planet with others. It is an issue of the commons, our commons. This commonality means, among others, that we really have to start to think about sharing the cake: Meaning “less for all, but even less for the rich”, to quote Stuart Hall from 1991.
the emitting citizens of these rich emitting countries, I do not know many people or exhibitions for whom this is a true personal or artistic goal to achieve or make public. For when it comes to concretion, we all become a little bit helpless, becoming aware of the high costs, be they monetary, timely, or career-wise. But in addition, if I, if we were continuously doing it, embracing our share of the costs, performing it with creative, collective or personal means, I think it were, and already is a true sign of encouragement, for myself and others to reproduce or join in. And I have to admit too, that sometimes I make surprising and enthrilling contacts not expecting them, in the train or wherever, with young people
being addicted vegans or non-flyers for ecological reasons.
To summarize, I see three main aspects for me to further invest on a personal and collective as well as on an aesthetic or theoretical level.
First, as said above, rethinking global justice by investing into “my” psyche, embracing my share and learning to experience the joy of a certain modesty beyond the biopolitical constraints to grow or reduce. Connected to this modesty might also be an insight into and admittance of our helplessness instead of playing the big crackers.
Certain practices of hacking, repairing and re-using, as well as of DiY and DiO may go in this direction.
Second, I think Sissel’s argumentation for attentiveness on a micro-level can be a way to experience the exciting side of this new modesty. It doesn’t mean that I have to love everybody. But becoming conscious to what I am related to may provide me with sensations I didn’t know about. There is an emergence of aesthetic practices going in this direction, too.
Third, continuously building power and trust in the community … something we just need to keep on trying to do.
Christoph Brunner is assistant professor for cultural theory at Leuphana University Lüneburg. He works on the intersections between art, philosophy and activism with a specific focus on emergent collectivity and technopolitics. Together with Yvonne Volkart he organized the symposium “Ecologies of Existence” in 2016. He is member of the SenseLab in Montreal and initiated the ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices at Leuphana.
Yvonne Volkart is lecturer in art and media theory and researcher of the project “Times of Waste” at the Academy of Art and Design Basel. From 2009-11 she was curator at Shedhalle Zurich. Living in Zurich, she regularly writes for Springerin. Her texts and projects include “Art and Ecology in the Technosphere” (forthcoming in: Marcus Maeder (ed.): Kunst Wissenschaft Natur, Bielefeld), “Ecologies of Existence” (with Christoph Brunner), “Subverting Disambiguities” (with A. Hoffmann), Nürnberg 2012, “Ecomedia. Ecological Strategies in Today`s Art” (with Sabine Himmelsbach), Ostfildern 2007, “Fluide Subjekte” (“Fluid Subjects. Adaptation and Defiance in Media Art“”), Bielefeld 2006, “Cyborg Bodies”, “Mediaartnet, ZKM, Karlsruhe 2003.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.
Flora Reznik is an Argentinian artist based in The Netherlands. She was born in Buenos Aires, in 1986. There she studied in Universidad del Cine (FUC), obtained a diploma in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), while she worked as a video editor in film and TV, and co-funded the contemporary arts magazine “CIA”. In The Netherlands she graduated from the ArtScience Interfaculty department, in The Royal Academy of Art, and currently co-curates the artist initiative Platform for Thought in Motion, while she develops her work as an artist in the fields of video, performance, installation and text. She is busy with the notions of physicality, territory and time.
From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Christoph Brunner and Yvonne Volkart for their enlightening insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.