ART AS MULTISPECIES ENTANGLEMENT
A CONVERSATION WITH EBEN KIRKSEY ABOUT THE MULTISPECIES SALON
by Anna-Sophie Springer
Eben Kirksey is an ethnographer, curator, and artist and a permanent faculty member in Environmental Humanities at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Exploring the interplay of ideas about hope and collaboration has led Eben to cross conventional disciplinary divides and contribute to theoretical conversations in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. Eben is the author of the book Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Global Architecture of Power on human rights and indigenous activism, and the editor of the book The Multispecies Salon, charting new horizons in the field of multispecies ethnography. His forthcoming book, Emergent Ecologies, draws on nearly two years of ethnographic field research in Panama and Costa Rica and will be published in November 2015 by Duke University Press, just like the previous two volumes.
The following conversation is based on an edited transcript of a Skype interview Eben and I did in early March of this year, while he was in Sydney and I was in Jakarta, and which we then continued to refine over email after I had returned to Berlin.
Photographs courtesy of multispecies-salon.org
Anna-Sophie Springer 2012 you published your intense book Freedom in Entangled Worlds on the independence struggle of the indigenous people in West Papua. Subsequently, you edited the book The Multispecies Salon, mostly located in North America, dealing with bio-art projects, which came out only two years later. Although I can easily see how both of these publications are related in many ways, I still think it is safe to say that they are nevertheless quite different projects, too. Could you narrate how you moved from your bold ethnographic research in Southeast Asia to curating and experimenting with such a specific artistic genre as bio-art?
Eben Kirksey Both projects explore the idea of “hope.” In West Papua I was trying to understand a situation where people really don’t have any sort of rational reason to hold on to hope. They are stuck in a seemingly impossible situation—a military occupation. There is a genocide going on and very few people outside of West Papua are aware that the situation even exists. But I still found people holding on to hope. I tried to understand their hopes, which sometimes pushed the bounds of realism and realistic possibility, and I came to understand the power of the messianic. Other scholars have written critical accounts of messianic movements—about the messianism of US imperialism and militarism, as well as messianic imaginings of marginalized groups that seem “unrealistic.” I came to look at the way that seemingly impossible dreams can become contagious and inspire a multitude, a swarm if you will, into action. In Freedom in Entangled Worlds I described hope as something that moves like liquid mercury. Hopes often coalesce around a specific figure or future event on imaginative horizons, and then dance away along other lines of flight to animate other objects.
In 2010 I worked to bring these ideas to the art world when The Multispecies Salon came to New Orleans. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, had just happened and so the city was confronting some very similar dynamics as I had encountered in West Papua, but in a very different cultural location and political context. In New Orleans hope was moving like oil in water, it was like the pharmakon—the poison that in the right dose can become a cure—which was first characterized by Plato. Isabelle Stengers has recently revisited classic work about the pharmakon—to consider substances with unstable properties, obstacles that can be turned into opportunities. While the oil flooding into the Gulf of Mexico was poison to many marine ecosystems, it unexpectedly opened an opportunity for political action and organizing. Like the activists who I worked with in West Papua, there was a multitude of artists, scientists, and other thinkers—a swarm of creative agents—who did incredible, imaginative work in New Orleans to find hope in this blasted landscape. They too were pushing the bounds of realism and realistic possibilities. While power usually functions predictably, unexpected dynamics emerged in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Global corporations had previously been operating with relative impunity. In New Orleans the rubber really met the road. The presence of a poisonous substance on a massive scale, the continuous flood of oil into the Gulf, opened up a moment of political possibility where a partial cure emerged for some of the ills of global capitalism. The fine that was levelled against BP, $20 billion, was roughly equivalent to the company’s annual operating budget. This was no small slap on the wrist. A messianic moment emerged, a result of concrete action by a multitude, and President Obama was able to step in and make a bold and historic action. The messianic spirit was illustrated in many of the artworks on Hope in Blasted Landscapes we exhibited in the Salon, as well as in street protests and social media activity that was taking place in New Orleans at the time.
In The Multispecies Salon we also explored how the messianic spirit has had negative consequences in the realm of biotechnology. Promoters of new pharmaceutical drugs and technological fixes often use messianic rhetoric simply to make more money for their companies. Against the backdrop of dreams of technological salvation, and irresponsible messianic imaginings, the book depicts modes of living with others that exemplify modest biocultural hope. There are recipes for getting along with other species. One collaboratively authored recipe for Acorn Mush by some Native American authors, leaders, and scholars describes how to care for Oak trees while also drawing sustenance from them. My own recipe in the book describes how to seed Multispecies Communities with moss to ground modest hopes in clear-cut forests. Basically in West Papua, and in the art worlds I encountered through the Multispecies Salon, I found similar sorts of dynamics in radically different cultural locations and historical contexts.
AS How do you meet or encounter the people and the species that you collaborate with? Maybe you can answer that both for West Papua and New Orleans?
EK For me it is all about contingency. Or, to answer that question in a theoretical register: it is all about being and becoming with others in the world. Being open to surprises is at the core of good ethnographic or artistic work. In the West Papua book, I chronicled a series of unexpected encounters that changed the direction of my research. I basically went to West Papua wanting to investigate biocultural issues, but I encountered people and events that derailed my research agenda. On the island of Biak I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and happened to witness a massacre. After that experience, and a series of encounters with freedom fighters and human rights activists, I was pushed to focus my work on something completely different from the ethnobiological issues I originally intended to study.
Being immersed in a distinctive and vibrant community with the History of Consciousness PhD program at UC Santa Cruz enabled me to make the transition from the domain of human rights in Southeast Asia to The Multispecies Salon. History of Consciousness was then led by a number of superstars: Angela Davis in the domain of politics and activism; James Clifford, the prominent historian and anthropologist; Donna Haraway, known for the Cyborg Manifesto, and her more recent work, When Species Meet.
One fellow PhD student in History of Consciousness, Beatriz Da Costa, edited a book called Tactical Biopolitics, which is the definitive account of bio-art. At the time she was already a tenured professor at UC Irvine, but she was going back to do a PhD in the History of Consciousness program. It was conversations with her (we happened to share an office space one semester) that got me thinking differently about what my next project might be. She pointed me towards Phil Ross, one of the most amazing bio-artists in Northern California. Phil introduced me to Marnia Johnston, who has just finished her MFA at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
While working with Marnia we began to think about collaboration in a new sort of way. We push the classic, proclamation by Joseph Beuys, “everyone is an artist,” to thinking about the implications of engaging with other critters as possible partners of collaboration. We issued a call for “wild artists” inviting scientists, school kids, people who don’t usually find themselves in an art gallery, to become involved in the exhibit.
AS You’ve already written a lot about the concept of collaboration in Freedom in Entangled Worlds. Here I particularly like that you included this list of “Key Characters” at the beginning of the book—if I am not mistaking all of them Papuans—and thus making clear from the beginning that you couldn’t have done this research without the support of a vast network of others. (I think this is always the case but sometimes not necessarily acknowledged in this way.) Similarly, the “Introduction” to The Multispecies Salon is co-authored by you in addition to Craig Schuetze and Stefan Helmreich although you are credited as the book’s editor.
EK Yes, in my West Papua book, I really interrogate the genealogy of the word “collaboration” in this field of asymmetrical politics and genocide. Historically collaboration has a very specific and negative meaning in the context of the Nazi occupation of France. Many Papuans see people who have some sort of relations with the Indonesian government as the worst sort of collaborators—as traitors to the cause. But if you go back and read some of the earlier theories of collaboration, for instance in Carl Schmitt, you can get beyond the eternal deadlock between enemies that shuts down creative political possibilities. I went to West Papua expecting to find people resisting globalization, and also resisting the military occupation. But instead of that resistance, I found indigenous people who were very clever at getting inside of corporate structures, who were very savvy at engaging with the US government.
AS What you mean is that things can be multi-stable; one can try to appropriate them, try to make them one’s own, in sometimes paradoxical and contradictory, entangled ways, as you so aptly say, to infiltrate them and make unexpected alliances.
EK Exactly. Many people look at a place like West Papua and think that the political project is oriented to an autochthonous vision of independence. But rather than independence, what the Papuans are imagining is how they might renegotiate inter-dependences.
Collaboration often takes place in an asymmetrical field of power. Whenever we are staging artworks that claim to be collaborations with other critters, there is a danger of ventriloquism from the part of humans. Spivak warns against the problem of making the subaltern speak to dominant interests and this caution needs to be redoubled when one is speaking for other critters.
AS In The Multispecies Salon you reference Hal Foster’s essay “The Artist as Ethnographer.” Your roles are both as scholar and as curator, but in the framework of the Multispecies Salon you have also created several artistic works. From your experience, how does the “Ethnographer as Artist” operate? And, being both ethnographer and artist, where do you situate your artistic projects in relation to your academic work and for example its peer-review constraints?
EK A lot of the artworks that I have personally been involved with, pieces that I have co-created, are what I would describe as “para-ethnographic objects.” These kinds of objects, according to George Marcus, get us thinking differently about issues that are at hand. In short, they are conversation pieces.
One artwork that I created for The Multispecies Salon, for example, helped me grapple with a specific research problem. Amphibians are going extinct faster than any other vertebrate species right now. When I was in Panama doing research for my latest book, Emergent Ecologies (forthcoming with Duke University Press in November 2015), I studied efforts to save Golden Frogs, one of the most celebrated stories in the conversation of endangered amphibians. While in Panama I learned about a really uncomfortable backstory. I co-created an artwork, The Utopia for the Golden Frog of Panama, to study this uncomfortable story. Along with the digital media artist Grayson Earle and the frog enthusiast and terrarium designer Mike Khadavi, I retrofit a refrigerator to become a life support system for another species.
AS Yes, Elizabeth Kolbert also writes about Golden Frogs in Panama and their extinction in The Sixth Extinction. The fungus you mentioned is a type of chytrid known as Bd. It was only discovered in relation to frogs quite suddenly dying on a massive scale all around the world. There are several theories about what helped the fungus to disperse.
EK The Golden Frog of Panama is brightly coloured, a charismatic species that was there one year and then completely disappeared the following year after the arrival of the chytrid fungus. In anticipation of their pending future extinction, some US conservation biologists collected Golden Frogs and airlifted them out of Panama to the States. This happened just as the US military occupation of Panama was coming to an end in 1999. Initially, everyone was totally excited. The frogs were successfully bred in the United States and kept at zoos and aquariums. But every time these frogs breed, they make about 2,000 babies, and so very quickly the institutions ran out of space. The zookeepers in charge of this breeding project decided to select a small number of frogs from each generation, and to euthanize the rest.
So, the artwork we created in this retrofit refrigerator, The Utopia for the Golden Frog of Panama, was a concrete proposal to the zoological community. We created a biotechnical assemblage that could have become a sanctuary for some of those frogs that were slated to be killed. Using an Arduino, a small programmable microcontroller, we created a digital thermostat to keep the fridge in the ideal range preferred by Golden Frogs, between 22–23 °C. We also had a webcam inside to monitor it in real-time. Temperature readings were also posted to the internet so that anyone interested in the project, a scientist, could verify that we did create suitable habitat for this species. Mike Khadavi also created a living ecosystem inside the fridge. We had all sorts of plants from around the world that would generate oxygen meaning that we didn’t ever really have to open the fridge. This feature made our fridge highly bio-secure, protected from the fungal disease. We also included a fruit fly culture, Drosophila. It turns out that you can get mutants fruit flies now from all sorts of online retailers, for example at Ed’s Fly Meat.
But to return to your question, how do the art projects relate to my academic work? I used this Utopia to establish a conversation with the people in charge of managing the life and death of these frogs. I basically asked for frogs, saying, “Instead of euthanizing frogs, why don’t you give us a few? We know how to control the environmental factors so that they are not going to breed, so you won’t end up with 2,000 frogs by giving us a few. We just want to save some from getting euthanized and instead exhibit them in a public gallery.”
The answer that came back was negative which itself became an opportunity to interrogate the legal framework of this biopolitical regime. My aim was to expose these practices for managing life and also to make a proposal for imagining how a multitude of people might get involved and care for this endangered species—a kind of frog that no longer has a life outside of human systems of care and control. Our project used the now classic insights from “tactical biopolitics” the approach of Beatriz da Costa for exposing, derailing, and rearticulating biopolitical networks. The project ultimately failed to get a frog, the utopia stood empty, but in many ways it was a more effective ethnographic intervention, exposing how strategies for regulating life work and how disciplinary practices are enforced. So, in the end I was able to have email chains and long drawn-up conversations—which I think would have been quite different without the art project. More surprising findings from the Utopia for the Golden Frog, and a companion art intervention called the Xenopus Pregnancy Test, are detailed in my forthcoming book, Emergent Ecologies.
AS There are some similarities to the work that I have been doing in the context of the exhibition project 125,660 Specimens of Natural History—the main reason why I am presently in Jakarta. Such practices open up a space for conversations across disciplinary boundaries and across institutionalized regimes of knowledge. In my experience, scientists and institutions might often at first react sceptically, “I don’t really understand what you guys want,” because the request comes from outside of the conventional bounds. But at some point the ice breaks and interest, and maybe trust too, grow more or less because those specialists realise that the proposed conversation, in spite of its “undisciplined” angle, is not necessarily less productive.
You mentioned earlier the ethical implications of deciding to speak for non-human species. The decision to show, or deciding to make visible, is related to that. I am interested in the power relation you describe because of my own work with zoological and ethnographic objects; in order to obtain taxidermy display specimens, animals have to be killed first. Only recently I was told that the Museum of Natural History in Berlin is required to get all temporary exhibitions pre-approved by an external conservation NGO although they are normally not even exhibiting live animals! Sometimes, the curators have to deal with criticism that their exhibitions might be “commercializing” animals…
EK We explore that question in the book. In the essay “Life in the Age of Biotechnology,” we engage with Kathy High’s artwork Embracing Animal which involved adopting some rats that were born to suffer. Kathy has Crohn’s disease and some genetically altered, transgenic animals had been created to have similar symptoms to the disease. So Kathy adopted some of these transgenic animals. She created what she called an “architecture of care” for the display of these creatures. The rats were bred as commodities in the biomaterials marketplace—to be used to generate knowledge and pharmaceutical drugs. Kathy also describes the implications of using these same animals as art objects. This project was part of the exhibition Becoming Animal: Art in the Animal Kingdom curated by Nato Thompson, at MassMoCA in 2005/6.
Speaking more broadly, you are asking if artists have the right to be able to use animals in their work at all. I think they do and those tensions are important to keep visible. Adam Zaretsky for instance has really tried to push dominant sensibilities about animals in art. In the age of biotechnology life itself has become a “multispecies spectacle,” in that classic sense of Debord: Spectacles alienate spectators from contemplated objects when illusions are staged that promote false consciousness. Departing from Debord, we try to take hidden laboratory labourers out of the shadows to expose the multispecies relations that make our own life possible—species of animals, plants, and microbes who sustain the life of humans and the creatures we love. Our essay “Life in the Age of Biotechnology” describes how these relations underpin the spectacular life of humans. Rather than to adopt a purist standpoint and say we want to only work with dead matter or non-living entities, to avoid these ethical quandaries, I think a lot of these issues are best worked out face-to-face. Working through these issues can open up relationships that have been naturalised. It is important to question the fact that a multitude of critters are suffering and dying so that we might live the good life.
AS I am quite curious about your choice of referring to the “Salon.” As far as I know, the Salon is a typically European concept; a privately organized gathering based on invitation. The concept is related to hospitality, but also to patronage, social ability, and connoisseurship. Up until the 1920s, among the bourgeoisie and avant-garde, literary salons existed as much as salons for music and visual art. In fact, the salon is an important historical precursor to the group exhibition. Scientific salons existed, too. But traditionally, the salon is definitely not a space for everyone. Now, the Multispecies Salon extends an invitation to more-than-human life forms. But, since invitations also imply the possibility of exclusion, what or who is to remain excluded from the Multispecies Salon?
EK One point of references is James Clifford’s classic essay “Museums as Contact Zones” (1997) where he points out that apartheid was a relationship. Apartheid in South Africa was a spatial relationship. Even in a city like New York where you have so many different socio-economic communities living right on top of each other, one of the places in the world with an absolutely radical juxtaposition of different social worlds, social exclusion is definitely at work still. Cultural happenings like the Salon or much more conventional, established institutions such as museums do necessarily exclude, even if they try to welcome a broad public.
We explicitly tried to engage people as creative agents who usually get left out. We sent out a call welcoming school children, welcoming scientists, welcoming people who are keeping critters in their living rooms, to participate in the Salon as artists—inviting them to bring critters in their care into our space to stimulate conversation. Nonetheless, even though we made that gesture to specifically target and interest people—the work of interessement, which is the key word of actor-network theory, necessarily involves a power relation. Rather than being naive about how power works in an art world or museum context, we tried to work against predictable functioning of power. Clare Bishop is another really important theorist who has written extensively about the labour relations that underpin spectacles in art worlds.
To give you a concrete example: One of the installations of the Salon in New Orleans took place in a neighbourhood that had been hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a place where people were losing their homes amidst an ongoing process of real estate speculation and gentrification. In the aftermath of disaster, ironically, you have all sorts of folks wanting to implement a dream world where poor people do not exist. In the book, in the “Hope in Blasted Landscapes” essay, we describe an amazing project called the Pretty Doe Dairy run by one of the curators involved in The Multispecies Salon, Nina Nichols. Nina was living in the Saint Roche neighbourhood and a lot of properties in this area had been overgrown by plants. The city was taking land away from poor people as these plants grew by officially designating their properties as “blighted.” If your house gets blighted you are hit with massive fines that quickly accumulate and that can send the property in the cycle of dispossession and eventually foreclosure.
So Nina went around with her goats and offered to help her neighbours clear their land of poison ivy and other unwanted plants. Rather than wring her hands about issues of social inclusion and exclusion in the art gallery, Nina used her art practice to establish ongoing relations of care. Her intervention was a multispecies one, in a sense of caring for a landscape that had become “unruly”—filled with forms of life that don’t get along well with humans. But it was also a grounded attempt to engage with folks who did not feel compelled to come into the art gallery. The Multispecies Salon was taking place a few blocks from these properties but coming to our art exhibit was simply not an exciting thing for everyone to do on a Friday night, which is completely alright. We pushed the project out of the gallery to engage with people on their own terms. These negotiated encounters then weren’t just about extracting value from a given place or extracting aesthetic objects, taking away things that might be sold in another place, but about using social and ecological relations to reconfigure local networks in ways that involve shared hopes for liveable futures.
AS There is a large train station here close to the house I am staying at in Jakarta. A market has grown around the station and this place has actually made me think about the Pretty Doe Diary goat project a bit over the last few days. There are goats that live around the station, and they partly find food on a big garbage dump that is also part of this scene. There are hens and roosters running around between all these different vehicles in midst the city buzz. It is an organically organized human-animal setting there—imagine all the rats and other creatures you don’t so easily see. In many places in the world multispecies scenes like this still continue to exist quite naturally if one may say that. But in up-and-coming neighbourhoods like you are describing them with New Orleans, it seems like these relations need to be re-implemented by more socially privileged white people. This weird paradox could fill a whole conversation of its own, don’t you think?
But anyway, with my question about the “Salon” I was actually less talking about people, which of course is also important, and I appreciate your reply. But what about certain “critters” that might not be so welcome to join? Do any of those exist? What about deadly viruses and uncomfortable bacteria? I know you’ve included projects about bacteria making things like cheese for us, but certain cultures can also makes us very sick. What does that bring to the conversation?
EK: There is a section of the book called “Edible Companions.” A series of recipes is framed by an essay written by Heather Paxson who argues that living with microbes does not involve an uncritical celebration of all forms of life. It involves distinguishing the good from the bad, not in any sort of absolute sense, but one that is based on situated actions and effects. She coined this word “post-Pasteurian” to talk about ways of creating cheeses that don’t involve killing everything in the milk by pasteurizing it.
Post-Pasteurian experiments involve forging alliances with those that are good to live with and being very careful to kill those that are deadly. There are certain forms of life engaged in a very violent, potentially deathly struggle, with humans. This enemy/ally distinction involves high stakes, and potentially arbitrary distinctions. But we must make these distinctions in multispecies worlds. So the question becomes: Whom should we care for and whom should we kill? Also, we must ask: how should we kill?
AS You’ve already mentioned your particular interest in the messianic. What is your view specifically on the messianic vs. the apocalyptic as the two quasi-religious attitudes between which the discourses around the Anthropocene (or however one wants to call it) often seem to be anchored?
EK The key thinker here is Jacques Derrida. He makes a very clear distinction between the apocalyptic and the messianic. He rejects apocalyptic thinking and celebrates the promise of the messianic. The form of the messianic celebrated by Derrida is very different from the one that I describe. Derrida says that we should literally expect the unexpected, we should wait in an empty desert where there are no figures to pin our hopes on. We should literally expect the unexpected, according to Derrida.
In New Orleans and West Papua I found people who were hoping for very specific things. Rather than expecting the unexpected, I found that people were waiting for a particular person or event to arrive. In the multispecies context, I found people pinning hopes on possible futures with actual animals, actual microbes, actual fungal companions that they might share a future with.
The messianic can open up the field of historical possibilities. In the rare moments—like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring—where a whole bunch of people are all hoping for something that seems impossible, they can sometimes bring that into reach. In Indonesia, where you are right now, in Jakarta, one of those moments occurred in 1998. An event took place that very much prefigured the Arab Spring. All of a sudden people from all parts of society—students, human rights activists, environmentalists, labor organizers—got together to occupy parliament and simply waited for the impossible to happen—the dictator’s resignation. There are certain rare occasions where waiting for the impossible can actually produce something in history. The resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto in 1998 was one of them. In our particular time a lot of people around the world are thinking about the environment in apocalyptic terms. There is a lot of uncertainty, whether it’s about global warming or species extinctions or all sorts of disasters—some of which are anthropogenic, some of which eclipse human agency and action. For example, the fungal disease we talked about is an agent out there in the world that is doing things we can’t control. In the aftermath of disasters, what does one do? Does one give up on hope or does one try to bring about new concrete possibilities in the world? When should one give up on a particular object of desire to pin hopes on something else, something new?
AS In early February at the Forum Expanded exhibition of the annual Berlinale film fest in Berlin I happened to watch a scifi short film by Eline McGeorge, Med Blindpassasjeren Inn I Oljealderen Og Beyond (2014), which addresses the current occupation of Canadian forest territory by the Norwegian company Statoil. In one scene, a young First Nation woman rebukes the annexation of the land her tribe has historically lived on but can no longer access because of the tar sand industry. I agree with you that it usually seems better to go on hoping than to give up—in radical scenarios as those which you describe, giving up hope might itself be close to dying. But reading your book the same day as seeing Eline’s work, I wondered: even if a blasted landscape sooner or later becomes re-inhabited by microbes or mushrooms, what about the creatures that were destroyed or displaced through the destruction in the first place? Especially when that destruction was based on a concrete decision.
EK The question is: what is my scope for agency and action? Often these things are much larger than ourselves. These processes like global capitalism, or climate change, are sometimes beyond our ability to intervene and do anything. One of the most pressing questions of our times was first posed by one of my colleagues here, Matthew Chrulew from the Extinction Studies Working Group in Western Australia, Perth: How should we love in the time of extinction? Not only who but how, right? He is asking us to rethink our practices of care. What does it take to keep others in the world around us?
In my forthcoming book Emergent Ecologies I argue that we need to think more clearly about the beings and things that are being added to ecological communities, not just the things that are dropping away. Many critters are moving around, occupying new habitats, new territories, sometimes with help from humans—being transported in agriculture, being introduced as livestock, or carried around as pets.
Sometimes nomadic life forms are getting around on their own steam. With Haraway in mind I ask, how might we think of a cyborg politics in these situations? Sometimes it turns out that the very worst forms of disaster can produce hopeful emergences. In Panama, I did research on the margins of a US military bombing rage that has left tens if not hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs in the forest. These places are not going to ever be developed into agricultural plantations; they are not going to be turned into shopping malls. A small part of the forest has been cleared up to widen up the Panama Canal, but it’s super expensive to clear out the bombs. So the bombs function like rivets fastening the ecosystem in place, or as prophylactic talismans, protecting the creatures that live there from humans. But sometimes these rivets explode, resulting in pain and death.
In the aftermath of disaster, hope necessarily has the features of the pharmakon. Very often the thing you fear the most, when it arrives, generates new possibilities. When you hope for something and it does arrive, often that arrival can be disastrous. Learning how to refigure hopes in these landscapes of contingency is what we have explored in the Multispecies Salon and other kindred projects.
AS Have you watched Interstellar?
AS What is interesting about that film is that it pictures climate change or global planetary demise as an inescapable future. This is quite remarkable for a blockbuster American film production, especially so against the background that US states such as Florida or Pennsylvania have recently banned terms including “climate change” or “sustainability” from their governmental lexicon! However, the film explores a completely opposite attitude to your suggestions about caring for other species on which humans depend.
If I counted correctly, the only non-human living beings you see in the film are some grass, one dog, the corn plants populating vast fields—probably heavily genetically modified—and a few trees. Beyond portraying the Earth as being “blighted,” the film’s philosophy is clearly not concerned with disseminating the idea that life after human extinction holds any possibility of hope. Instead, the decisive mission in the narrative is to save humanity, represented by a mid-Western American demographic of mostly white farmers. The central moral conundrum, which emerges, is whether this salvation should be achieved by saving the existing generations of people currently still living on Earth or by artificially colonizing a distant planet through advanced technological insemination in another galaxy. I found the film’s techno-eschatological propositions a good reference to Jussi Parikka’s term of the “Anthrobscene.”
Based on your reflections on both the multispecies dimensions of life as well as blasted landscapes, how would you critique the film’s ideas of salvation?
EK One of the artists we feature in the Multispecies Salon, Praba Pilar, is interested in this messianic logic of ultimate salvation by technology. She is from Columbia and her life literally was saved by a pharmaceutical drug trial. She had a disease; there was an experimental drug that they were testing before it was marketed. She took the experimental drug and was cured. At the same time, her own sister died in a different drug trial. She started out in life as an NGO activist, but then re-channelled her concerns into art projects. Critiquing ideas of technological salvation, and also the question of who is doing the labour so that some people might get saved, is at the core of Praba’s life work. Whether or not technology is going to save the day is a really critical question to engage with. We interrogate this question in the book, visions of a coming technological utopia like the one depicted in Interstellar. All utopias are going to fail, but hopefully some can fail in some productive ways.
AS Your colleague and friend Thom van Dooren contributed an essay called “The Last Snail” to our recent publication Land & Animal & Nonanimal, which I co-edited for SYNAPSE. Besides referring to you a lot, at one place he emphasizes the kinship and value of practices of care in the contexts of both the arts and the sciences, practices that concern, as he writes, “‘collections’ of all kinds, from galleries and museums to snail arks.”
So, to wrap up, after you’ve given such a complex overview, where it’s become vividly clear that the project is not only multispecies but also multi-sited and multi-faceted—with the artistic and academic so deeply in conversation with each other, what are some of the forthcoming projects on the Salon’s agenda? You have had gatherings in New Orleans, New York, Texas, and Australia. You do exhibitions, webinars, cooking sessions, marches… What’s next?
EK In 2015–16, I am bringing my two new projects together. The Multispecies Salon in collaboration with Proteus Gowanus, an art gallery in Brooklyn, is going to host a series of events and a yearlong exhibit on the theme of Nature. The show will begin with an exploration of Landscapes, and then progress to Post-Human Futures. Mid-way through the year I will be gathering artworks speaking to the ideas contained in Emergent Ecologies, my forthcoming book.
In Spring 2016 we will be conducing a biodiversity survey of New York City, looking at the forms of life that exist in laboratories, in people’s living rooms. We will be studying the Contaminated Diversity of the Gowanus Canal, a superfund site. Some of this work will be in partnership with Biobase and BioBus, an after school program run for New York City school kids, that has a set of high powered microscopes on a school bus that travels around the city. One of the other projects we are doing with the Multispecies Salon website is a set of keywords of Multispecies Studies. We have done about twenty so far; it is an animated glossary of the Multispecies Salon book. We invite people to delve into the index of the book, and if you find any keywords that you want to give a lively future, with artworks or multimedia components, definitely reach out to the members of the ABC editorial collective. We will also continue the series of events surrounding the Multispecies ABCs in the coming months.