RESEARCH SERIES #28 In this interview by Rosa Menkman the Canadian theorist Heather Davis discusses the value of artistic experimentation, the Anthropocene, the importance of queer theory and the ecology of plastics. This interview forms part of Living Earth – Field Notes from Dark Ecology Project 2014 – 2016, which is available now at www.sonicacts.com/shop.
Heather Davis, Sonic Acts Academy 2016. Photo by Pieter KiersRM In your writing, you often use art to unpack and contextualise the otherwise abstract conditions and processes of the Anthropocene. Do these works inspire you to write about these subjects, or do you search for these works to illustrate the subjects you would like to write about? HD My writing usually doesn’t follow a uniform process. The way I write is maybe not so dissimilar from the ways in which certain people produce art. It evolves by constantly asking new questions, and through the shifting of scales and perspectives. In one of my latest texts, Molecular Intimacy (2016), I write about Inhale/Exhale, which was part of an installation at the Nordic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale of Art in 2013, by Finnish artist Terike Haapoja. I met Haapoja at a residency in Lapland a few years ago and I was really struck by her work. Haapoja connects the different levels through which the carbon cycle operates, to illustrate the ways in which carbon both enables life and is ‘exhaled’ in the processes of decomposition. While carbon is a rather abstract element that usually can’t be perceived by the human sensorium, this work asks us to consider breathing, through the process of decomposing leaves, in a much more visceral way. We hear the carbon release from the leaves, and it sounds uncannily like breath. This work made me reconsider how breath passes through my own body, as well as my thinking about carbon dioxide. Inhale/Exhale prompted me to ask what happens to our understanding of climate change and the carbon cycle when we approach it not just as scientific data, or as a series of graphs, charts and numbers? How can we make this data more intimate and how would this influence our imaginary? This work by Haapoja suggests a shift in discourse towards affective attunement—towards an intimate engagement with the molecular and the different strata at which carbon ecologies, economies and molecules operate—one that is useful to elaborate in contemporary theory. I would have never arrived at this question if not for my conversations with Haapoja. RM Lucy R. Lippard reviewed the compendium Art in the Anthropocene (2015) which you co-edited as: ‘an art book like no other (...) Visual artists are, for once, equal participants in these imaginative, intelligent, and informative discussions of the most pressing issues of our time, and deep time.’ How does the work of artists within the realm of climate change relate to the work of scientists? HD The featured texts are all written by philosophers, curators and artists who are very knowledgeable about scientific processes and climate change. We did, however, purposefully not invite any scientists to contribute to the book. One of the main things my co-editor, Etienne Turpin, and myself wanted to highlight is the difference in methodology between the ways in which artists and scientists contribute to understanding climate change. While the sciences often aim to produce the ‘truth’ and research questions that are directed towards very specific aims and outcomes, artistic work has this amazing ability to embrace contradictions that don’t have to be resolved. I believe that this is what the best forms of art do. Art can contain contradictory thoughts without falling apart. This can be incredibly useful when thinking about the affective and political implications of climate change. Besides that, artists are able to create work in ways that scientists can’t: scientists have to follow specific rules when they conduct scientific experiments. Artists can experiment with materials and use scientific practices in non-traditional ways and, in doing so, contribute to scientific breakthroughs. Artists can open up avenues of scientific research that were previously not up for discussion in a manner that can be explicitly political or with the aim of engaging a wider audience. RM Earlier you also mentioned ‘affect’ and ‘intimate engagement’ as vital to the understanding of climate change. Could you elaborate on this? HD I believe that there is an absolutely crucial element, namely the affective register, missing from the scientific engagement with climate change. Art can play an important role in negotiating this absence. I was trained in the traditions of Deleuze and Spinoza, so I understand affect as a pre- emotional, pre-verbal intensity. Affect moves me with a certain energy that cannot be attributed to a specific emotion or any particular sensibility. Affect can describe this state of hovering on the edge of emotion, or the kinds of emotions that don’t really posses a descriptive language, that can’t be categorised. Affect describes this intensity. In relation to climate change, there is an eerie sense that things are going horribly wrong, even among those of us who are disconnected from natural cyclical processes. We see unprecedented weather in the places we grew up. We see shifting patterns among animals and plants. Because humans are such adaptable creatures, we can accommodate these changes, but the speed at which they are happening remains in this register of intensity, in the register of something going wrong that we can feel, that we are cognizant of, even as we think of other things. This kind of bodily knowing is what art can make us aware of: the feelings of rapid change, and the sense of great unease that we share in the face of dramatic destabilisation.
Terike Haapoja, Inhale–Exhale, installation, 2008/2013, Falling Trees exhibition, Nordic Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo by Ugo Carmeni.RM In your Sonic Acts Academy presentation on 28 February 2016 in Amsterdam The Queer Futurity of Plastic, you used queer theory to create an awareness of the affective intimacy between humans and our plastic spawn. You asked: what can we learn if we embrace our non-filial plastic progeny and the plastisphere ecosystems that evolve in our man-made, plastic environments? Could you elaborate on this? HD Queer theory, especially the realm of queer kinship, creates an incredibly important space for queerness not (just) as an identity, but as a politics. Queerness doesn’t just question heteronormative practices, but asks to open up space for who our intimate partners can be beyond a binary gender system, the conventions of the couple, and the nuclear family. We need ways to express intimacy within and beyond our legal systems; ways that allow for more plurality in terms of who can be understood as our life partners or our kin. These questions are also tied to questions of inheritance and the sense of obligation and care that we have towards those who came before us and those who will come after us. The question of who we think our kin are, in part determines this sense of responsibility. This ties into ecological thinking because if we presume that our kin are not just human, then we have an obligation towards our companion species, including those we have unintentionally brought into being.
Plastics have been around for 110 years, and bacteria have evolved to deal with these new environments. There is, for instance, a type of plastic eating waxworm that has two different kinds of bacteria inside its gut that allow it to digest polyethylene. Specific communities of bacteria have developed on the tiny pieces of plastics in the ocean. This is called the plastisphere. The waxworm and the plastisphere can be understood as a kind of non-filial human progeny, as I have suggested, and we should ask ourselves what kind of responsibility we have towards them. There has to be an ethics of acknowledgement and maybe even an ethics of care towards these particular kinds of bacterial communities, because of the fact that we inadvertently created them. This is not to suggest a godlike capacity and I certainly don’t mean that we should produce more plastic to accommodate these bacteria, but we do need to rethink the scales on which humans act and create. We are responsible for the life and deaths of so many creatures, regardless of our intentions. These questions are really essential.
Queer theory is a movement that pushes for entirely different configurations of intimacy, belonging, attachment and gendered identity or sexuality, which move beyond heteronormative frameworks that serve, among many other things, to uphold anthropocentrism. Queer kinship makes us aware of the responsibility we have towards the beings we create, and those that live and die, including humans and nonhumans. It calibrates a new political space to reconsider the state and presence of our relation to time, space and plastics. Thinking in these terms can help us to re-situate the place of the human, at least in dominant Western understandings; in essence the narrative of the human becomes less a narrative of mastery and moves towards ethical engagement and responsibility.RM How can we actually be ethical about plastics? HD Surprisingly, I find this a really hard question. I’ve been thinking about plastics for three or four years now; however, I’ve been using the materiality of plastic to explore larger questions in terms of ecology and human hubris in relationship to technology. I think the important thing about plastic is to think of it as incredibly valuable, rather than infinitely disposable. The ecological problem with plastics is that they are incredibly recalcitrant in the face of change. Plastic objects can break, but on a molecular level, unless you burn them (which is really toxic), there aren’t many ways of turning plastics into something else. Plastics are impermeable to their environments, yet those same environments are deeply affected by plastics. The fact that within the 110 years since the invention of thermoplastics we suddenly discover this plastic-eating waxworm—I find that really heartening: it shows that life has a generative capacity that is far greater than humans. It puts us in our place in a really important way. RM Can we re-value plastic from a perspective of deep time and attribute value through the ecological consequences plastics have on our ecologies? HD I find it unbelievable that we use this material, which is incredibly valuable and definitely finite, as disposable and cheap. I have no idea how this happened in terms of economic logic but somehow it did, even though we don’t have adequate waste management systems and despite knowing the havoc that plastic waste wreaks in the world. It isn’t the only chemical material product out there that I wish didn’t exist, but...
While I’m saying this, I am thinking about what would happen if plastics suddenly disappeared. Our world as we know it would collapse—there would be no Internet, computers or airplane travel. Our clothes would evaporate, our buildings would fall apart. Materials, including food, could not be cheaply or effectively shipped around the globe. Plastic is the material infrastructure of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is this contradiction of plastic that really fascinates me. On the one hand, I see how much damage it does and on the other, it is an incredibly important, life- saving material. Plastics are so much a part of our everyday lives, they literally become us.
Tom Cohen, who is co-editor of the Critical Climate Change series at Open Humanities Press, uses the term tempophagy, meaning time-eating. We are burning up so much time through our dependence on oil, which results in these incredibly destructive accelerations in terms of climate, evolution, extinction, movement, and technology. We are producing this crazy kind of time, that exists only because we keep consuming the evolutionary and decomposed matter that is many hundreds of thousands of years old. Oil is a kind of compressed time. I think an inversed theory of planned obsolescence could play a role here: what if we used oil-based materials to build technologies with a planned continuum, that were meant to last for hundreds or thousands of years? RM With Dark Ecology we travel in the Arctic Barents Region, also to heavily polluted sites, to explore an area that illustrates how intimately connected humans can be with pollution. HD In the Canadian High Arctic, things decompose at an incredibly slow rate because of the cold and the lack of microbes. You can find a Coke can from the 1940s and it will look like it was left there last week. There is something really amazing about the fact that time has a completely different pace in this part of the world. However, the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. It’s experiencing a rate and intensity of change on a scale that is unprecedented. I wonder how time in this part of the Arctic will make itself felt and seen. I think a lot about understanding the self as porous, so if we pollute the world, we pollute our own bodies. There is something really fruitful about confronting the fact that we cannot barricade ourselves off from toxicity, especially those of us with the privilege to do so.