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Table of contents :
Natura: Environmental Aesthetics After Landscape
Table of Contents
The Cosmic Garden
The Return of a Lake
Towards a Phanerology of Images: Karl Blossfeldt and the Skin of the World
Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
Aquatic Visions and Watery Sounds: Ruptures and Sutures in the Lacustrine Landscape of Modern Mexico City
Colonizing Flow: The Aesthetics of Hydropower and Post-Kinetic Assemblages in the Orinoco Basin
Putrid, Precarious Landscapes: Province, Poverty, and the Poetics of Dispossession in Some Contemporary Latin American Works
Nach der Natur : Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Natura Environmental Aesthetics After Landscape Edited by Jens Andermann, Lisa Blackmore, Dayron Carrillo Morell
THINK ART Series of the Institute for Critical Theory (ith)— Zurich University of the Arts and the Centre for Arts and Cultural Theory (ZKK)—University of Zurich. With the generous support of the Latin American Center Zurich (LZZ) and the Centre for the Arts and Cultural Theory (ZKK), University of Zurich.
1st edition ISBN 978-3-0358-0053-1 © diaphanes, Zurich 2018 All rights reserved. Cover Image: ©REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Latinstock México Copy Editor: Tess Rankin Layout: 2edit, Zurich Printed in Germany www.diaphanes.com
Table of Contents
7 Jens Andermann Introduction 17
Emanuele Coccia The Cosmic Garden
Ursula Biemann Geomorphic Video
Maria Thereza Alves The Return of a Lake
Genaro Amaro Altamirano Dissipating Darkness
73 Oliver Lubrich Humboldtian Landscapes 111 Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira Towards a Phanerology of Images: Karl Blossfeldt and the Skin of the World 135 Nuno Ramos Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus 145 Dayron Carrillo Morell Aquatic Visions and Watery Sounds: Ruptures and Sutures in the Lacustrine Landscape of Modern Mexico City 171 Lisa Blackmore Colonizing Flow: The Aesthetics of Hydropower and Post-Kinetic Assemblages in the Orinoco Basin
199 Álvaro Fernández Bravo Putrid, Precarious Landscapes: Province, Poverty, and the Poetics of Dispossession in Some Contemporary Latin American Works 223 Javier Correa and Victoria Jolly Ciudad Abierta Solo es suelo lo que guarda el abismo— Only What Holds the Abyss is a Ground 237 Jill H. Casid Necrolandscaping 265 Jens Andermann Nach der Natur : Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Jens Andermann Introduction Dense, thick, fibrous, enmeshed: there is no exact equivalent in English for espesso, the adjective João Cabral de Melo Neto, the great Brazilian poet, associates with the living in “O Cão Sem Plumas” (“The Dog without Feather,” 1950), the first part of his poetic trilogy inspired by the Rio Capibaribe, the river that meanders through the cane fields of Pernambuco before it meets the sea at Recife. Thomas Colchie, in his 1971 translation for the Hudson Review, decides on heavy: “What is living is heavy / like a dog, a man / like that river. // The way everything real is heavy.”1 Colchie’s solution evokes the burden that life has to carry in order to realize its potential, like the bird which, in conquering flight, must also fend off the pull of gravity: “Because much heavier is / the life which unfolds / in more life, / the way a fruit / is heavier / than its flower, the way the tree / is heavier / than its seed...”2 But what Colchie’s translation misses is the sensation of a thick, viscous, even deadly interconnectedness that the Portuguese original also evokes, because “what is living wounds” and “collides with what is living”: “To live / is to go into what is living. // What is living / discommodes life’s / silence, the sleep, the body...”3 Life is both heavy and sharp, both pointed and soft, it slices and seeps into other lives and into itself—or rather, it has no “itself” and thus also no other, it is at once inside and outside (as is the river in relation to the city). Life (human life, city life) is never alone, it always vibrates with the foreign bodies it carries within itself—
1 João Cabral de Melo Neto, “The Dog without Feather,” trans. Thomas Colchie, Hudson Review 24, no. 1 (Spring 1971): p. 23–35, here p. 33. 2 Ibid., p. 35. 3 Ibid., p. 33.
migrant, animal, vegetal, bacterial, mineral bodies—which the river carries in and out of the city, and which inhabit it the way a stray dog inhabits the street: “Like a living dog / inside a pocket. / Like a living dog / underneath the covers, / under the shirt, / under the skin.”4 But then, there is also no vantage point, no “poetic I,” capable of surveying this mesh of organic and inorganic life, of objects and things, from the safely detached preserve of the mind: because of life’s viscous, heavy stickiness, every “in itself” of beings and objects immediately turns into the affect that “goes into” something else, in an open and contingent series of “collisions” with no unifying principle—no “Mother Nature”—other than this very contingency. This is also why, in Cabral’s poème-fleuve, there is no landscape, at least not in the conventional sense of the sensory perception of an external material universe (Umwelt) on behalf of a subject of cognition that is therefore partially or completely removed from this same plane of objectuality and materiality. Even though, nominally, the poem alternates between the “landscape of the Capibaribe” and the “fable” or “discourse of the Capibaribe”—cinematographically speaking, between “shots” of the river from the city and “reverse shots” of the city from the river—in reality, these games of perspective never really take place in the text because both river and city are bodies without organs. Neither is capable of “beholding” the other except through their mutual overspill into each other, their becoming-city and becoming-river by degrees. Instead of a landscape, predicated on the possibility of distinguishing a subject of perception from the thing it perceives, what we get in Cabral’s poem is more akin to the kind of material assemblage that Jane Bennett has written about, in which “each member and proto-member […] has a certain vital
Ibid., p. 33.
force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage.”5 This book asks whether there can be an environmental aesthetics after the demise of the landscape-form. In this question, “environmental aesthetics” is but a placeholder term, a standin for the place left vacant by what, at least since Kant, has been known in Western aesthetics as the question of natural beauty and of its abyss and foundation: the sublime.6 The aesthetics of nature had been entrusted with revealing the truth of which our attraction to the pleasures and overwhelming force of “external nature” is indicative, as Martin Seel still confidently asserts in his 1991 Ästhetik der Natur (Aesthetics of Nature). The story of natural aesthetics, Seel suggests, is that of a rivalry between mimesis and inventio—between an idea of nature as the essence and ideal towards which artistic “representation” must strive and an idea of human ingeniousness breaking free of nature’s constraints and becoming itself the Promethean measure of all things.7 The relation between nature and art—art, in the wider sense, as all that is manmade, as opposed to what is “found” in nature—is metaphysical: art either reveals, inasmuch as is possible for mere humans, the ideal essence or creative force at work in nature’s all-encompassing wholeness, or it represents the coming into its own of the human in transcending the mere materiality of the nether world by force of the spirit, thus also beginning to realize its divine, rather than profane, mandate and filiation. The distinction between natura naturans (active, creative nature as determining force and as synonymous with God) and natura naturata (creaturely nature as the multiplicity of emanations of the divine) that Christian scholastics adopted 5 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 24. 6 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), p. 165–167, p. 184–191. 7 Martin Seel, Eine Ästhetik der Natur (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996 ), p. 11–15.
from Averroës and handed down to Spinoza and Leibniz, is one of the most influential conceptualizations of this metaphysics, which continues to resonate today both in arguments in favor of deep ecology and of geo-engineering, in the face of global meltdown. Seel’s is in many ways an extraordinary book, one that attempts to refound an aesthetics of nature on profane rather than transcendental grounds, shifting focus from what he calls “canonic” to “problematic” nature, as contingently experienced and negotiated with by human actors in their everyday experience. Yet even this relational and contingent rereading of the Western canon of natural aesthetics remains predicated, right from the opening sentences that designate our—human—relation with, and pleasure derived from, “external nature” as the object of inquiry, on what Philippe Descola has called “the great partition,” that is, on the positioning of “nature as an ontologically autonomous domain, as a field of inquiry and scientific experimentation.”8 This notion, furthermore, is “indissociable from [that of] human nature” as founded on the latter’s (partial) removal from the domain of nature, thus allowing for the emergence of a cascading dichotomization of the sensible into subjects and objects, minds and bodies, humans and nonhumans, which, Descola insists, is the exception rather than the rule among human cosmologies. In fact, Descola and other proponents of a “minor anthropology,” such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,9 have argued that among many non-Western cultures “the shared referent among the entities inhabiting the world is not Man as species but humanity as condition”10—a condition that is therefore not exclusive to Man but variously embodied and lived by nonhuman organisms as well. 8 Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), p. 107. 9 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). 10 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, p. 30.
The landscape form emerged in the fifteenth century—in simultaneous fashion with the beginnings of European colonial expansion—as an imperial apparatus11 and as the very condition of knowing, from the detached vantage point of an unseen and disembodied beholder, an object-world to be surveyed, classified, and evaluated. As cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove suggests, landscape sublimated in visual pleasure the loss of an embodied, use-oriented relation with the land, at the same time as it underwrote its transformation into landed capital, into real estate.12 Landscape, then, is also an apparatus of capitalism, not least because its constitutive openness, signified in images by the horizon that invites the viewer to venture out beyond its confines, holds a promise of infinite accumulation. Yet this key role that the landscape form played in the reconfiguration of relations between city and countryside in the transition from feudalism to capitalism13 was always accompanied—reinforced as well as challenged and transformed—by the ways in which it was deployed to chart the non-European world. As Jill Casid has pointed out, colonial landscaping, as a “technique of empire” that went hand in hand with the material refashioning of environments to facilitate plantation monoculture, mining, cattle raising, and other forms of extraction, also “functioned to introduce and naturalize empire’s transplantations within the idiom of the local.”14 Yet this “imperial georgic,” in its very disavowal of the violence of transculturation and de-indigenization through tropes and iconographies of botanical romance, Casid argues, also provided openings for “queer
11 W. J. T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 5–34. 12 Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998 ). 13 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973). 14 Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 240.
self-inscriptions [...], counterinterpretations and strategic appropriations”15 thriving precisely on the constitutive excess of colonial landscaping. Indeed, if the modern idea and image of nature—from Columbus and Vespucci to Frans Post, Frederic Edwin Church, and Ansel Adams, or from Humboldt, Bates, and Darwin to the North American transcendentalists or the Argentine paleontologist Florentino Ameghino—was always closely tied to the New World as the primal and ultimate “wilderness” and thus also as the mirror and measure of “civilization,” it was in the Americas, too, that radically “postnatural” propositions emerged from the very outset of aesthetic modernity. In the “white landscapes” of Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón or in the early poetry of Peruvian writer César Vallejo (Los heraldos negros, 1918), we already find a shared drive to collapse the chasm between the (verbal or pictorial) sign and the material space-time this sign no longer beholds and contains but rather opens up to—a drive which, with very different aesthetic effects, also traverses the much later work of Hélio Oiticica, Robert Smithson, and Ana Mendieta, to name but a few. It is also the guiding force behind the poetic journey of Amereida, the aesthetic navigation of the South American “continental sea” which preceded the foundation of the Open City at Ritoque, Chile, featured in Javier Correa’s and Victoria Jolly’s contribution to this volume: an attempt to devise a poetics capable of “holding the abyss / only what holds the abyss is a ground / what provides room for the irruption and a measure for the state of trance.”16 Perhaps it is only today—as the contributions to this book suggest—that these and other aesthetic propositions formerly relegated to the margins of the modernist archive become fully readable—as glimpses of the “quake in being” that has thrown 15 Ibid., p. xiv. 16 Amereida, vol. 1 (Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, 2011 ), p. 160. Our translation.
into crisis the modern Western idea of nature, and indeed of “world” as the significant totality of all that exists because, as Timothy Morton has argued, “the distance that reifies [constellations of being] into a world picture”17 has today been shattered once and for all. “There is no such thing as a ‘horizon’”18—in the words of “speculative realist” philosopher Graham Harman—and thus also no longer a “world” that I could “behold” from inside the safe cocoon of a human mind removed from the mesh—o espesso—of organic and inorganic matter, reactions, and forces encompassing and traversing “me.” In Morton’s words: “In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on backgrounds and foregrounds. World is a fragile aesthetic effect around whose corners we are beginning to see. True planetary awareness is the creeping realization not that ‘We Are the World,’ but that we aren’t.”19 At the same time, in the face of rapidly escalating neoextractivist violence driven by fossil capitalism’s relentless need for new enclosures and for intensified accumulation by dispossession—from brutal state repression against Mapuche, Wichí, Guaraní, and Kolla “terrorists” in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil to paramilitary assassinations of peasant and landrights activists in Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, to the expansion of deep drilling and fracking into indigenous territories in the U.S. and Canada—such aesthetic forays into the inmundo, the un-world beyond the (Western) landscape’s horizon, can only be reread in any significant fashion if we connect them with other, long-standing, forms of indigenous, Maroon,
17 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 126. Emphasis in the original. 18 Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002), p. 155. 19 Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 99.
and peasant resistance for which distinctions between mind and world, nature and culture, life and semiosis have never been relevant in the way they have for Western aesthetics, politics, and cosmology. The “extractive zone” where life is violently constrained, reduced, and converted into commodities, as Macarena Gómez-Barris observes, is today closing in on areas of great “biodiversity”—a concept, she notes, which still bears the imprint of the quantifying, extractivist viewpoint it is supposedly being wielded against—that frequently coincide with indigenous territories.20 Indeed, on the extractive frontiers of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, indigenous pharmaceutical and nutritional knowledges and skills stemming, as Eduardo Kohn has argued, from a complex semiosis of interspecies relations,21 are themselves being mined for extractible surplus value, as in the genetic patenting of native herbs euphemistically known as “bioprospecting.”22 Yet what this intense neocolonial push to draft the last remaining commons (forests, aquifers, seabeds) into the global-capitalist compact also triggers are new transversal and translocal alliances between indigenous and communitarian activism, critical work, and postnatural/posthumanist artistic interventions such as the ones reviewed in this volume by Ursula Biemann, Maria Thereza Alves, and Genaro Amaro Altamirano. Because the foci of resistance to the global extraction machine cannot but become translocal themselves as they interconnect and exchange knowledge, strategies, and ideas with one another, they also no longer exist only at the behest of “representation,” as in the landscape tradition, as local content submitted to, and made exchangeable by, the
20 Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017), p. xx. 21 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 16. 22 Cori Hayden, When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 28–29.
generic conventions of the image or the travelogue. Rather, artistic and critical approaches to indigenous anti-extractivist resistance now have to engage with these activisms on a plane of horizontality and contemporaneousness: in “yielding to the very life of the object,” as Michael Taussig writes quoting Hegel, postnatural arts and theory also have to learn from (and with) their indigenous allies the art of “mastery of non mastery,” which “is built on resistance to abstraction and tilted toward sensuous knowledge which perforce includes desublimation of the concept into body and image.”23 What these translocal forms of alliance might give rise to is not “conservation” but a shared becoming, a mode of queer community that is not exclusive to the human and in which, nonetheless, the human might still aspire to some form of afterlife. This book seeks to contribute to such an exercise of the imagination, one that is both critical—a historical critique and deconstruction of the landscapes of modernity—and speculative—a conceptual wager on the afterlives of landscape and the emergence of new spatiotemporal constellations of the living. The strike-through of the term “nature” in the title of this book is, in this sense, not an obliteration but an exercise in negativity: a thinking against (but thus also with) the modernist archive as a way of finding within it new meanings illuminated by the lightning flash of that which threatens to obliterate it altogether. In thinking with, and through, the languages of the aesthetic, the book also places its faith in them as an epistemology for a time of “throwntogetherness,” as Doreen Massey terms it.24 Even as the autonomy of artwork faces the constant challenge of technology and its attendant forms of subjectivation, the indeterminacy that is particular to art nonetheless continues to hold an advantage over other forms of knowledge and experience, in 23 Michael Taussig, The Corn Wolf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 145. 24 Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), p. 140.
the way it is able to ally itself to indigenous epistemologies and address the mesh of life that continues to throb after the end of the world.
Emanuele Coccia The Cosmic Garden
Figure 1. Hendrick Adriaan van Rheede, “Codda panna.” Table 1, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1683–1703). London: Wellcome Collection.
Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability. Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter. Imagine, too, you have no legs. You can’t move unless something hurts you. Or better: you can’t move but you can’t stop hurting, touching other bodies and other elements. You have
no legs and the world in front of you has no depth. Everything is but a huge, heterogenous, protean, and indefinite mass that you can penetrate or that can penetrate you. Imagine you have no arms and no hands to catch and touch things, to filter and distinguish in the vast arrays of world components any objects—that is, stable, fixed, defined entities. The world is a unique flowing body where nothing can be separated out from it. Imagine you have no senses and no movement organs, and still you can’t stop growing and constantly refashioning, reshaping your own body, its form, its volume, its contours, its extension. Imagine all this and try to define how the world would look to you. Imagine all this and you will have a still imprecise but at least approximate idea of the world as observed from the point of view of plants. The world is a body before or beyond space. A body that is not visible, not walkable. A non-spatial body. To imagine all this is not an idle and bizarre thought experiment. It is the condition of possibility of speculative cosmology. This will be the first point of my chapter: plants are the privileged prism through which to observe and describe the world and its nature, and even the relationship between living beings in general and the world. If we have to imagine this—to imagine the world from the point of view or the point of life of a plant— that is because the world is literally produced by plants. The world is a vegetal entity: it is a garden much more than a zoo and only because it is a garden can we live in it. Every cosmological speculation must begin under the form of botany. Now, if plants are able to shape the world and not just to be shaped by it, they are cultural actors. Culture begins with plants, and conversely, plants regard living matter and the living world (living bodies and atmospheres) as their own byproducts. If the world is a garden, plants aren’t (or are not really or not just) its content or its inhabitants. They are the gardeners themselves. We
The Cosmic Garden
Figure 2. Johann Jakob Römer and Paulus Usteri, “Sphora tetraptera.” Magazin für die Botanik (Zürich: Ziegler und Söhne, 1787). New York Botanical Garden.
as all other animals are the object of the gardening action of plants. We are one of their cultural and agricultural products. Translated into more familiar terms: they are not the landscape, they are the original and very first landscaper. Or, to put it more provocatively, there is no landscape because all things, even the most apparently immobile living beings, are changing the face of the world. Now, to acknowledge that plants are the gardener means that Earth has nothing transcendental or original. The real object of gardening (that is the original ground of our life) is not the Earth’s soil but the sky. That will be my second point: the first, original agriculture is celestial agriculture. Or to put it in a much more direct way, the landscape is always a figure of the sky and not a particular configuration of the surface of the Earth. Landscape is a particular rhythm of breath, a meteorology, and not a geometry. The real landscape is the climate: Earth, and its superficial form, are just an accident. These are my two points. First: What we call landscape is a huge number of different landscapers. What we call garden is an army of gardeners. Second: Gardening is always a climatological operation and not an agricultural or a geological one. It has nothing to do with the soil but concerns the sky and the atmosphere.
1. Cosmology Is a Branch of Botany Claiming that the world is a garden means, firstly, that it has the status of an artifact, something which is at the threshold between nature and culture. The world is a cultural production of a living being and not just the transcendental condition of possibility of life. Gaia is the daughter of Flora. Or better, she is but the cosmic doll of Flora. Plants, indeed, are the major cosmogonic force on our planet, since they have begotten the world as we know it and
The Cosmic Garden
inhabit it, they have made and continue to make our world in at least three senses. Those three senses are in a way the gardening activities of plants, by which I mean activities that make life on Earth possible. In the first place, by conquering the surface of the Earth and spreading all over the globe, plants have produced (and continue to produce continuously) the oxygen-rich atmosphere which made possible the existence of all superior animal life. Higher animals can live only because they can breathe the byproduct and the excretion of plants’ metabolism: oxygen. Secondly, by exploiting on a larger scale a mechanism invented by cyanobacteria, plants make it possible to transform solar energy into living matter: organic life is only the consequence of this ability to transform the sun into animated mass. Photosynthesis is indeed the alchemical operation that allows the storage of solar energy in the form of the chemical bonds of complex molecules. And it is only through the variant process developed by plants of this construction of living matter from solar energy that life on the planet has ceased to be a marginal fact—from both a quantitative and a qualitative point of view—to instead represent its principal characteristic, its very essence. Plants are immediately or indirectly responsible for the production of the planet’s biomass; not only do higher plants represent about 99 percent of the eukaryotic biomass of the planet, but they also represent the energetic condition of possibility of the existence and the nutrition of all superior animals. Plants are the living beings that embody the process of storing and transforming solar energy (the most powerful source of energy for life on this planet) into living matter. They are, literally, a sun-power engine. That’s also the reason why they are at the origin of most of the objects and tools that surround us (food, furniture, clothing, fuel, medicines).
Figure 3. Maximilian Prinz von Wied-Neuwied, “Cephalopappus sonchifolius N. et M.” Table 7, in Beitrag zur Flora Brasiliens (Halle, 1823–1825). Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library.
Plants, finally, have invented a body that is structured not to oppose exteriority but to adhere to it as much as possible— or rather, to confuse oneself with the world to better modify it. Unlike animals, that already in the embryogenetic process of gastrulation produce a body defined by an interior space that will host the most important life processes of the organism, the life of a plant takes place almost exclusively on the surface of its body. For these three reasons, to search for the nature of the world means to search for the nature of plants: cosmology is just a branch of botany. That is the epistemological consequence of the claim that the world is a garden. And yet, this claim denies at least three postulates of traditional cosmology. In the first place, I claim that the principle that engenders the world is a
The Cosmic Garden
Figure 4. Augusta Innes Withers, “Epidendrum macrochilum var. roseum,” in James Bateman, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (London: Ridgeway, 1837–1843). Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library.
worldly element and not a super-subject that is prior and external to the world: there is a world only because cause and consequence, origin and its expression, are contained in one another. There cannot therefore be a reflection on a worldly object which is not, de facto, a cosmological reflection. Secondly, the origin of the world is not to be sought in a remote place and time: it is everywhere and it exists always, for the genesis of the world, of our world (photosynthesis), is not a singular event (a Big Bang) but a process which is constantly taking place. The world always starts at its center, in the middle, and so there is no history that is not cosmology. Thirdly, every living form is at the same time a form of the world which it simultaneously produces and contemplates. In order to observe the world, we do not need a point of view, but a point of life: the universe lives, it is a product of the living, at any scale, and it is by observing the living that we can explain the universe, not vice versa (contrary to what Quentin Meillassoux thinks, we can never go beyond our point of life: speculative realism presupposes the presence of the living that can speak, write, breathe, but it cannot explain it).1
2. World-Gardening Is a Form of Air-Conditioning The main gardening activity of plants doesn’t operate on the ground but first and foremost in the air. Indeed, if the universe we inhabit is the result of their action and their life, it is because of their ability to irreversibly change the nature of the most vulnerable and yet the most important part of our world: the atmosphere. Scientists used to call this event (which is at the 1 Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, eds., “There is Contingent Being Independent of Us, and This Contingent Being Has No Reason to Be of aS ubjective Nature. Interview with Quentin Meillassoux,” in New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), p. 71–81. E-book, accessed October 2016. DOI: http://dx.doi. org/10.3998/ohp.11515701.0001.001.
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same time something which continuously takes place, at every single moment) the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), or the Oxygen Catastrophe (or in some variants, the Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Holocaust, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation). This catastrophe consisted in the production of dioxygen (O2) by the first photosynthetic organisms, like cyanobacteria, which changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Only the development and the diffusion of vascular plants on Earth allowed the atmosphere to stabilize: the amount of free oxygen (a byproduct of photosynthesis) was able to exceed the oxidation threshold and accumulate in free form. In turn, the massive presence of oxygen led to the extinction of many anaerobic organisms that inhabited land and sea, to the benefit of aerobic life-forms. This paradox is extremely important. The origin of our world was a catastrophe. Or to say it again in a more direct way: the first, most powerful gardening act of our world is a pollutant event. Gardening is pollution, and pollution is one of the most powerful options in gardening. More importantly, the definitive settlement of living beings on land coincided therefore with the radical transformation of the airspace surrounding and enclosing the Earth’s crust: thanks to the plant invasion, the earthly atmosphere could lastingly change its internal composition and become the first environment of all living beings. Plants demonstrate that our world is not just or not really the external solid crust of the planet (the exterior limit of its solid mass), but the circulation of gas, fluid, and solid bodies that we call atmosphere. If the world is a garden, it is only thanks to the atmosphere and only within this metaphysical cycle of transformations of matter made possible by the atmosphere. This is exactly what a very long tradition in biological study, from Lamarck’s hydrogeological research2 to Vernadsky’s con2 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Hydrogeology, trans. Albert V. Carozzi (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1964 ).
cept of biosphere3 or Lovelock’s first articles on Gaia,4 tried to express: there is life on Earth (that is, Earth is a garden) not because of the solidity of the ground but because there is a metaphysical space—the atmosphere—that allows everything to become everything else, a sort of alchemical cosmic laboratory. The paradigm and the evidence of the inner dynamic of the atmosphere is the breath. To inhabit the world, that is, to inhabit the atmosphere, means to breathe Atmosphere (which is the condition of possibility of breath); it is the movement through which the body with which we are merged penetrates us with the same force that we have to penetrate it. Breath is the dynamic form of a very special kind of mixture, and thanks to breath, the atmosphere is the structure, the form, and the force of the universal mixture of beings (living or not) which compose a world. Only because of the atmosphere—because of breathing—is the world the space of the mutual cohabitation of an infinite number of living beings. Only because of its atmospheric structure, does the world have a unity. Conversely, thanks to plants, the Earth definitely becomes the metaphysical space of the breath. To conclude the second point: Every garden is the production of an atmosphere. Every garden is a technique that has to make breathing possible.
3. What Is a Garden? The Earth is a garden only because of the atmosphere. We can say that plants redefine a garden as an atmospheric condition. To define the atmosphere means to define the garden. Now, 3 Vladimir I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere, trans. D. B. Langmuir (New York: Copernicus, 1998 ). 4 James E. Lovelock, “Gaia as Seen Through the Atmosphere,” Atmospheric Environment 6, no. 8 (1972): p. 579–580; James E. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis,” Tellus 26, no. 1 (1974): p. 2–10.
The Cosmic Garden
the atmosphere is not just a space. It is a unifying force, which produces a very special type of unity which does not presuppose identity in substance or form between the things it unifies. Saying that the world exists firstly as an atmosphere, as a climate, means that it is not a collection of the totality of things, nor the infinite horizon within which all objects exist, nor a superobject, but the mixture of everything, with the status of global mixture. The first to interpret the unity of the world in terms of an atmosphere were the Stoics. They distinguished three forms of mixture: simple juxtaposition (parathesis), where different things form one mass keeping each of them within the limits of its own body without sharing anything with others, as is the case of a mass of seeds or stones. In this model, the world would be the result of simple addition. A second form is fusion (sugchysis), where each component is destroyed in order to produce a new object, a super-object, which has a different nature and a different quality than its original material components, as is the case of perfumes. In this case, the world would be the product of the destruction of its components. In the third case, the global mixture, (krasis, antiparektasis di’olôn), the different bodies each occupy the place of the other, keeping intact their qualities and their individuality. This coextension is what we generally call immersion (when we are in the sea, we are not just in a relationship of inherence with the sea: we are at the same place as the sea and conversely in it). To think the world as a space of immersion means to overcome the idea of composition and fusion. Between the elements of the same world there is an intimacy which is much deeper than the one produced by the physical contiguity of disparate elements: the unity which corresponds to the fact of belonging to the same world is something more than the unity of an amount of seeds, but something less than a fusion. The world is neither a simple addition of elements which have different forms and substance nor the blending and the consequent reduction of the variety of materials,
colors, and patterns in a monolithic unity. If different things make up a world it is because they can mix without losing their identity. Following the Stoics, the unity of the worldly mixture is not a static but a dynamic one: immersion is not the position of something in something else, but a movement of a force which unifies the immerged body with the body in which it is immerged. The first evidence of this force is our breath, and breath is the name of this dynamic unity. Indeed, whenever we breathe, we are experiencing an immersion in air—and to be immersed in air means to penetrate the air with the same force that it penetrates us. Breathing is nothing other than the germinal movement of what, on a global, cosmic scale, is called atmosphere, and conversely, climate is the breath of a cosmos. As Newton will say, “This Earth resembles a great animall or rather inanimate vegetable, draws in aethereall breath for its dayly refreshment & vitall ferment & transpires again with gross exhalations.”5 From a metaphysical point of view, breathing is firstly characterized by an inversion of the relationship of inclusion. The relationship between content and container is constantly inverted: the place (the air) is converted into the content of another place (ourselves) and the content (the air we exhale) is converted into the place we are in. Taking over a formula of the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, it could be said that atmosphere is the metaphysical space where everything is in everything (pan en panti). Immersion is not just the contingent condition of a body within another body: it is not a relationship limited to two bodies, but a cosmic condition that concerns everything. But more importantly, the idea that everything is in everything means not only that the condition of immersion is a universal one, but that it is a reversible one. Being in something means to become the place of our place. That’s exactly what we experi5 Isaac Newton, “Of Natures Obvious Laws & Processes in Vegetation” (ca. 1672), Dibner Collection MSS 1031 B (1, n. 30), f. 3v. Washington, D.C.
The Cosmic Garden
ence during breathing. To breathe means to experience that the body in which we are is at the same time within us. The global mixture, the atmosphere, the climate is the fact that everything becomes the place of everything else, and conversely, that everything which is inside us becomes our place, our world. To conceive of the world as a global mixture, that is, as an atmosphere, means to conceive of space as the kingdom of universal interiority: there is space not because everything is exterior to everything, but on the contrary because everything is inside everything. Or to put it in a more urban language: climate, atmosphere is the ontological inversion of the classical physical idea of space. Atmosphere as the place where everything inheres to everything is the absolute immanence: immanence no longer conceived of as a foundation or a root, a common ground, but as the fact that every ground is grounded by everything else. Everything is immanent to everything: immanence is not the relationship between something and the world, but the condition of intimacy and proximity with everything. What we call Anthropocene is actually nothing but this: the evidence that the world has no substance other than that of a climate, and what we call atmosphere and used to believe to be the exterior and gaseous slice of our Planet (the negation of its geological solidity), is its most intimate core, its nature, and the force of the communication of everything in the world. When the world is an atmosphere, being in the world means that nothing can be considered exterior. Climate presupposes this constant topological inversion, this oscillation between subject and world, object and subject. It is the space where nature and culture cannot be distinguished anymore.
Figure 5. Adolf Giltsch, “Blastoidea,” in Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (Leipzig, Vienna: Verlag Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig).
Ursula Biemann Geomorphic Video My artistic fieldwork has taken me to remote territories where fragile ecosystems have been subjected to a continuous and savage onslaught by the global resource extraction industry. The perspective through which I explore these life-threatening processes in my video works has shifted somewhat from a focus on the unsettling social and geopolitical implications of such massive extractivist interventions, to the very changes occurring in the physical and chemical composition of the earth. I see it as a turn to the inner workings of a landscape involving reflection on the structure of the world and its fundamental constituents. In the cinematic environmentalism presented in the two video works Deep Weather (2013) and Forest Law (2014), matter, fluids, and physical processes no longer just provide a dramatic backdrop for the narration of social events; they have moved to the fore to play the leading role. In this major figure-ground shift, which can be observed in the broader fields of contemporary philosophical discourse and aesthetic practice, one particularly urgent question has emerged: how to reconfigure the relationship between the artist-author and the nonhuman world? In filmmaking, this largely amounts to an inquiry into our direct implication in the making of this world through imaging practices. In this sense, I would like to think of my videos as geomorphic. They form a world in which the human-Earth relationship is fragile, complicated, poetic, and intensely physical. The massive chemical transformations of the Earth, oceans, and atmosphere provoked by large-scale anthropogenic interventions of the last decades (hydro-engineering, industrial agriculture, and the extraction and consumption of hydrocarbons) are largely unpredictable within science’s current prognostic
capabilities. Physical models are up for revision as soon as they are published. There is a direct connection between the unimaginable scale of alterations that are in store for humanity and the highly speculative mode in which we can engage them at this stage. It is fairly easy to access vast amounts of scientific data about the climate and environment, but the explanation of data alone cannot help us to understand the magnitude of change ahead of us. Aesthetics that are capable of reaching our collective imaginary will be necessary, and these often court the fictional. Strangely, it is the current eco-crises that produce the need to create fiction about the most material dimension of our living conditions if not our very ability to survive. The instability both of our physical environment and of the hypothetical measures of science also manifests itself in the realm of aesthetics, moving art closer to philosophy and speculative thinking. As our physical life-supporting system is taking this aesthetic turn, there is also a shift in artistic positioning. Artists are not so much interested in how our social and institutional contexts are conditioning our speaking positions but in how we as authors, as audiences, are implicated in the process by which materiality (and sociality) is formed.1 We are moving toward ecological thinking. Let me start with Deep Weather. The short video essay draws the connection between the relentless unearthing of fossil deposits in Northern Canada and the protective measures against rising water levels undertaken by Bangladeshi delta communities on the other side of the world—two remote and simultaneously occurring scenes connected through atmospheric chemistry and the complex entanglements of water, chemistry, politics, and speech. As a video about climate change, the landscapes in Deep Weather are endowed
1 Adrian J. Ivakhiv, Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013). Chapter 3 is dedicated to cinema’s powerful production of worlds.
Alberta tar sands at Fort McMurray. Video still from Deep Weather, 2013.
with an additional dimension: the weather, which animates and transforms the space. If the film Babel 2 created a global space by connecting scenes occurring simultaneously in Morocco, Mexico, and Tokyo, Deep Weather intends a planetary space: Earth as a closed system. The film opens with a shot looking down from a helicopter onto a huge open-pit extraction zone of tar sands in the midst of the vast Canadian boreal forest, establishing a zone of dark, lubricant geology. In the tar sands, fresh water from the Athabasca River is used to boil the black sediment until the oil separates from the clay. Toxic waste, a necessary by-product of bitumen processing, is stored in open-tailing lakes that spread over large areas, which until recently were covered by ancient spruce forests—the living space and hunting territories of First Nations communities and hundreds of species. The condition of this collective space as it teeters on the brink of disaster is 2
Directed in 2006 by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Embankment building in Bengal Delta. Deep Weather, 2013.
evoked in Deep Weather by the whispered voiceover: “The wildlife has retreated / The t raplines are empty / The elders call the spirits / The young ones sing rap songs / And the acid wind’s hissing: / Evolution isn’t fast enough. Mutate!” The script is infused with a poetic science-fictional narrative enhanced by the voice, whispered into wind like a personification of the atmosphere itself. It resonates with the aerial video footage, activating an atmospheric time-space beyond the immediate physical and political reality of what is in front of the camera. In fact, the consequences of what we see in the Canadian tar sands point us instead—in the form of methane and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere—to the second part of Deep Weather in Bangladesh. Here, the consequences of melting Himalayan ice fields, rising planetary sea levels, and devastating cyclones increasingly define living conditions, especially in the Bengal Delta. Particularly emblematic of an increasingly amphibious lifestyle experienced in the age of global warming, the video documents one of the tremendous community efforts made by Delta populations to build protective mud embankments as large parts of Bangladesh are gradually submerged. These are the measures taken by populations who will progressively have to live on water when large parts of their land are submerged. The scene of collective human action stands in harsh contrast to the one in Alberta, where expensive, largescale machinery replaces human labor. For different but intertwined purposes, massive landscaping is underway on a planetary scale. Across the Americas, we witness massive extractivist operations bringing their weight down on areas of extraordinary biodiversity. The search for natural resources in the Western Hemisphere has led directly to indigenous lands, which in many cases enjoy an abundance of oil, gas, and minerals, as well as healthy forests and clear waters. As socially and environmentally devastating as many of these mining endeavors from Chile to Canada are, the indigenous populations’ struggles to
safeguard their livelihoods have helped drive forward groundbreaking legal reforms. New laws in Ecuador and Bolivia are the expression of an altogether different human-Earth relationship than the one which led to the present ecological crisis. Forest Law (2014), undertaken on the oil-and-mining frontier of the Ecuadorian rainforest, brings to light the legal debates emerging from this unique political-philosophical conjunction. This multimedia art project has been realized in collaboration with the Brazilian architect Paulo Tavares whose long-term research into the politics of space and indigenous resistance in Amazonia laid the groundwork for our field study in Ecuador. With Forest Law, Paulo and I are looking for conceptual and aesthetic tools with which to engage these ancient multispecies ecologies in Amazonia—Paulo through the elaboration of archival images, the development of satellite-based cartographies, and the use of a verbal narrative; myself by creating a twochannel video essay. To begin with, our research trajectory in Ecuador crossed diverse narrative threads that run together in the forest. We sought out encounters with indigenous activists and lawyers who conceive of, and struggle for, a legal framework that includes nonhumans. Among them, Nina Pacari, a Kitchwa constitutional justice, has been crucial in forging the new laws of nonhuman rights. In the hills between the Andes and the Amazon basin, we interviewed botanist David Neill at the herbarium of the Universidade da Amazônia (University of Amazonia) who apprehended that his activity of recording and naming unknown species in the remotest part of the Cordillera del Cóndor ultimately leads to the gradual extinction of these very species as a result of making the areas accessible to vehicles and settlers. In an encounter with shaman Julio Tiwiram we learned about his profound pharmaceutical knowledge of the forest. José Gualinga, leader of the people of Sarayaku in the depths of the lowland, gave us insight into their concept of the living forest and its protectors. And finally we entered into dialogue with Ecuadorian anthropologist Eduardo Kohn,
who explores, in his illuminating book How Forests Think, how the human has been formed and transformed amid encounters with multiple species of plants, animals, and microorganisms.3 In doing so, Kohn expands philosophical and semiotic frameworks to include other living beings in the list of those capable of thinking. These far-reaching ideas on how to “think with” sentient environments, which are profoundly transforming academic disciplines at the present time, have been cultivated by indigenous forest communities since time immemorial, although their knowledge and teachings are rarely acknowledged in western bibliographies. In Forest Law, these legal, scientific, semiotic, and cosmological narratives converge to form a dense epistemological fabric of the sylvan ecology that reaches beyond the simple distinction between personal testimonies and factual evidence. In the design of the Sarayaku satellite map, also used as evidence in court during the hearings at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, indigenous signification of the land and current geological exploitation schemes merge, exposing the deeply conflicted jurisdiction of the Sarayaku territory. Operating from the micro to the macrocosmic scale, Forest Law draws from a range of different human registers of imagining reality. What occurs in this corner of the rainforest can only be understood as the result of these powerful interrelating forces. The project aims at reintroducing complex landscape histories where the dominant discourse of global capitalism has continuously effaced them. As mineral and fossil resources are transferred to global markets and turned into exchangeable commodities, they are systematically stripped of their social history of labor and displacement as well as their natural history of consumed landscapes and species extinction. The forceful extraction of raw materials from their local ecologies is closely linked to how 3 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think (Stanford: University of California Press, 2013).
The two synchronized videos, in their stereo optic, expose a landscape that is populated by all kinds of sentient beings, who inhabit different dimensions of reality.
we narrate the stories of commodities and where they come from. Forest Law undertakes an intervention into these earth narrations by proposing a radically different cognitive mapping of situated materiality where water, forests, indigenous communities, landscapes, climates, and the geopolitics of oil and copper are inseparably entangled in meaningful ways. While the overall scope of this project covers larger grounds, I will mostly discuss here the two-channel Forest Law video and concentrate on one of the three court cases in the Amazonian forest of Ecuador that the video attends to, the case of Sarayaku. The Kitchwa people own a large forest territory that can be entered with the permission of the village council only by river or by flying in with a small propeller plane. Sarayaku has good reasons to control its boundaries and entry points since in 2002 a foreign oil company invaded their territory and without consultation laid a vast grid of explosives for seismic prospecting across major parts of it. Sarayaku sued the State of Ecuador at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for facilitating oil extraction on their land. What makes the Sarayaku case so important is that it coincides with significant legal reforms in Ecuador, enabling a new approach to a scenario that reiterates a long history of colonial intrusions and expropriations. Emerging from the indigenous cosmologies of the living forest (selva viviente), and fought for by the indigenous nations of Ecuador in defense of their commonly owned land and way of life, the new Constitution introduces a series of Rights of Nature, which contends that ecosystems—the living forests, mountains, rivers, and seas— are legal subjects.4 This cosmovision of interdependent cohabitation is deeply inscribed in the indigenous ethical and legal system in which the violation of natural communities equals
4 Ursula Biemann and Paolo Tavares, Forest Law—Selva jurídica (East Lansing: Broad Art Museum/Michigan State University, 2014). See, in particular, the chapters “The Forest in Court” and “Rights of Nature.”
Nina Pacari, a former justice in Ecuador constitutional court. Video still from Forest Law, 2014.
the violation of human rights. For Forest Law, a project particularly interested in practices that extend beyond a humancentric perspective, the Sarayaku trial is groundbreaking in that it evolves at the intersection of Human Rights and the Rights of Nature understood as two profoundly entangled realms. Forest Law also sees the legal cases unfolding in the Amazon as an opportunity to consider the legal potential of a comprehensive Earth jurisprudence. The speculations in the project embrace a sort of multispecies world citizenship. At present, nature, and hence life forms and their ecologies, are treated by the world legal system as mere property to be traded, consumed, and at best protected by environmental laws imposing regulations on corporate and private actors. While we have parceled off the land into small units that can be owned and exploited, entire living systems of the Earth are legally invisible. Since its early beginnings, our legal architecture has rested entirely on social contracts made between humans. What is sorely missing, as French philosopher Michel Serres elucidated in his visionary
Village of Sarayaku. José Gualinga, leader of the Kitchwa people of Sarayaku. Forest Law.
book The Natural Contract in the early 1990s—a constant companion during our trip to the field—is a pact between humans and nature.5 Today, the recognition of natural communities bearing equal rights of existence is only just rising over the legal horizon. The video, based on interviews with indigenous community leaders who recount the foreign intrusions and forest trials, is shot with two cameras and staged in the middle of the forest. The stillness of this aesthetic framing sets the piece apart from ad ocumentary film. Placing the testimonies in the context of anthropogenic Amazonia and climate change, a video subtext establishes the direct connection between our current universal legal structure, based entirely on property rights, and massive forest destruction and species extinction. Zooming out of the dark, misty rain forest, the video prologue evokes the Earth as a living planet whose surface has evolved into ecosystems that keep her metabolism alive. With a four degree rise in its temperature, the Amazon ecosystem would turn into dry scrub, an essential cooling system would then be shut down, and the planet would turn increasingly hot and dry, with an amount of ever shrinking land left for human food production. Conclusion: when the forest is gone, world civilization will have come to an end.6 Inserted in the flow of the interviews, the subtext continues throughout the film, positing the Sarayaku case at the decisive moment when the concept of nature as a background to be engineered and managed disappeared, and a legal system of Earth jurisprudence emerged that treats all life forms as rights-bearing entities. Rather than an eco-apocalyptic vision, this narrative construction suggests that what unfolds in this remote corner of
5 Michael Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). 6 James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
the rainforest is of worldly importance. What moves to the foreground of our artistic and intellectual attention now are the most material concerns. For instance, the toxic mud, which spilled out after Texaco’s drilling and remains a jarring presence in the equatorial forest thirty years later, comes under forensic scrutiny in Forest Law. No longer the passive backdrop to human history, the landscape, nature, and matter itself return to the fore and become the subject of aesthetic consideration. Here, the act of soil sampling is carried out as a mute performance of handling the samplers, shovels, and giant pipettes of the eco-chemists. The activist is enacting a scientific gesture, not in search of data this time, nor a useful gesture, but one that enables matter to become expressive and deranging, acutely intensifying the provocation posed by the misplaced oily mud. The evidence brought to the surface speaks of the perishing of life worlds with whom the law has no relationship, and of an active materiality with which we want to reconnect. For the indigenous communities, these vital ecologies are inhabited and energized by the masters of the forest, the mountain, and the water—the Amasanga, the Sacha Runa, the Ja Xingu—with whom they commune and who recharge their life energy. Alluding to the perspectivism inherent in the relationship Amerindians across Amazonia entertain with other beings, the two synchronized videos, in their stereo optic of a simultaneous wide-angle and close-up, expose a composed landscape populated by all kinds of sentient beings who inhabit different dimensions of reality: minute copper deposits, forest spirits, indigenous councils, scientists, medicinal plants, international law, global oil corporations, and river systems. By addressing this complex ecology of practices, Forest Law delves into cosmopolitical considerations, the politics of humans and of everything else. The shift from worldly to cosmic politics—that is, from global social and political struggles to the earthly and atmospheric forces of nature—raises the question of how law, ecology, and cosmology conceive of the global, the cosmos, of
Forensic performance of toxic soil examination of Texaco spills. Forest pharmacy commented on by Shuar shaman Julio Tiwiram. Forest Law.
Franco Gualinga in his garden in Sarayaku. Video still from Forest Law.
something common to go by. How do they conceptualize interaction among species and with everything else? But also—and I speak mostly for myself—how can our modest aesthetic practice engage this kind of scale? What can it possibly say about the different conceptions of how we imagine the world to be composed? If realism has made us see that reality is something that needs to be built, rather than something already there, we must assume that the common world too needs to be made, not just represented. Neither a utopia nor a simple projection into the future, this constructive realist endeavor links local realities not only with a global context but with the Earth system at large in a cosmopolitical motivation to build a common sphere. I am with Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour here, who assert that this cosmos, this common world, does not already exist but needs to be fabricated. If cohabitation, if “living with”
is the goal, Stengers suggests that this future articulation—that is, the linking of the multiple divergent worlds—can only happen through a slow epistemology of perplexity, wondering, and vulnerability.7 Her slow cosmos is full of spaces of hesitations where what is common can be examined and redefined. In her words, it is “a matter of imbuing political voices with the feeling that they do not master the situation they discuss, that the political arena is peopled with shadows of that which does not have a political voice, cannot have or does not want to have one.”8 If cosmos is to endure, it has to resist the fast, consensual way. Her proposal, then, is not a manual for good and efficient cosmos forming, it is an invitation to decelerate, respect speechlessness, and give more weight to those who do not function within the parameters of language, reason, and cost-effective productivity. In other words, it allows for variable temporalities. Geomorphic video practice, with its open-plan fieldwork, travelling through the forest, engaging in conversations in semi-comprehensible translations, entering the thicket and digging in the earth to collect samples, seeks out ways of slowing down the pace of knowing. It is a practice through which to form a different commons, a different cosmos.
7 See Bruno Latour, “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics?” Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004), p. 450–462, and Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and P. Weibel (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), p. 994– 1003. 8 Stengers, “Cosmopolitical,” p. 996.
Maria Thereza Alves The Return of a Lake In 2009 I went to see what remained of Lake Chalco in the state of Mexico, which was desiccated by a Spanish immigrant in the early twentieth century as part of the continual process of colonization at work not only in Mexico but also across the Americas. I met with members of the local community who were part of the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico (Valle de Xico Community Museum), among them Genaro Amaro Altamirano, one of the founders of the museum, and Raymundo Martínez, a Chalca (an indigenous person from the Chalco area), whose grandparents had been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by a Spanish immigrant. When I asked what I as an artist could do, they responded: “Tell our history.” The Return of a Lake exhibited in dOCUMENTA (13) is an investigation of how colonial practices remain in place as an everyday reality for indigenous communities, and how they obstruct the possibility of a viable and ecologically sustainable future for all members of Mexican society.
Photos: Mikula Lüllwitz. Courtesy: Maria Thereza Alves
Genaro Amaro Altamirano Dissipating Darkness The Return of a Lake, the exhibition by the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, highlighted and brought international attention to the early twentieth-century desiccation of Lake Chalco, caused by Iñigo Noriega—the Spanish landlord of the Xico hacienda and an exemplar of colonialism in Mexico—which overnight stripped the ancestral communities in the Chalco region of their lake, land, and hills. Ever since, the situation has worsened, bringing environmental problems that impact the lives of local people. Mexico City’s peripheral settlements suffer a consistent lack of water, which has resulted in the loss of the soil’s agricultural productivity and a drop in farming. Constant flooding is another problem, since as water attempts to claim back its natural habitat it accumulates on the surface, producing subsidence and sinkholes. On top of all this, there is the lack of information provided by the authorities, which is designed to keep local residents in line with the status quo of neocolonial despoilment and overexploitation of natural resources. The exhibition The Return of a Lake was the trigger that brought together different organizations from the region to mount a robust defense of water and land. The Valle de Xico Community Museum played a significant role in this, promoting the efforts to organize these groups, waging the fight against colonialism, and attempting to create a network of organizations to coordinate actions oriented toward the common good.
Working Sessions at the MUAC The presentation of The Return of a Lake at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) (University Museum
Genaro Amaro Altamirano
of Contemporary Art), at the Ciudad Universitaria (University City) in Mexico City, enabled us to schedule a series of working sessions in which people from the region affected by the lake’s desiccation could discuss the different problems and opportunities presented by Lake Chalco’s reappearance. These meetings also served as a platform for various communities and local academics to inform each other of projects they had formulated and that dialogue with contemporary art practices developed in the museums and beyond. Session One addressed the ancient and recent h istorical memory of communities from the Chalco subbasin, taking into account ecological, social, and political implications that have shaped life and culture in the region. Session Two dealt with the sanctity of water as established by pre-Hispanic peoples, which endures in ancestral communities through the local people called graniceros (pre-Hispanic intermediaries with the atmosphere) who keep alive this relation to water through rituals related to the farming calendar, including invocations for rain and thanksgivings for the harvests received. Session Three focused on the social movements that have arisen with the lake’s reappearance and that strive to build a harmonious relationship between society, nature, and water culture, looking at achievements and setbacks of the group’s demands and the level of organization among local residents. Session Four examined the scientific and technological knowhow that researchers have brought to Chalco’s water management, addressing microbasins, hydraulic technology, water resources that have proved controversial in ecological terms, environmental problems, and the overuse of water sources generated by official ecological, environmental, economic, and demographic policies, which are causing ecological ruin in the region. Session Five created a space for an assembly of the community members and organizations that had taken part in the working sessions, who concluded that since disrespect for nature affects community culture, it is important to consider
policies and actions to protect and recover the natural and cultural heritage of the Chalco subbasin, and to create viable strategies to strengthen the community’s capacity to manage water based on the common problems analyzed in the general assembly. These working sessions featured residents and activists from the towns of Tláhuac, San Martín Xico, Chalco, Tlalmanalco, Cuijingo, Amecameca, San Miguel Xico, Cocotitlán, and others, social organizations such as Unión Popular Revolucionaria Emiliano Zapata (UPREZ) (Emiliano Zapata Revolutionary Popular Union), Frente Popular Francisco Villa Independiente (Francisco Villa Independent Popular Front), the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico (Valle de Xico C ommunity Museum), and farmers on communal lands from the Chalco and Tlapacoya valley, who enriched the discussion by sharing their own experiences and ideas. The outcome of these sessions was a Final Statement, reproduced on pp. 69–71 of this book.
In Defense of the Xico Volcano In August 2014, the San Miguel Xico Commissioner of Communal Lands (ejidos) publicized an open invitation to debate the proposal to hand over a concession of communal lands to the mining company Minerales de México in exchange for a paltry monthly fee. The proposal was made to the shareholders of the common land (ejidatarios) in a misleading manner, since they were unaware of the significance and value of their volcano, which was catalogued as one of the most beautiful craters on the planet, that is, a natural wonder. At the start, the shareholders of the communal land were prepared to make the deal and receive the monthly rent that had been pledged because they lacked information about the scope of the mining project. Consequently, the Valle de
Genaro Amaro Altamirano
Xico Community Museum started a campaign to explain the importance of the volcano and the opportunities to develop sustainable projects that would be of greater benefit to the shareholders of the common land—and that, most importantly, would preserve the volcano as shared heritage. The actions organized included a series of assemblies that called on local organizations from Xico and organizations representing the towns and citizens in the region to formulate strategies and future actions and to reach mutual agreements. The groups drafted documents to be sent to the relevant authorities and collected signatures from participating organizations to support the demands. In total, fifty-one organizations and educational centers took part. After four months of mobilization, the federal, state, and municipal authorities declared that they did not recognize the mining project, and, in response to the towns’ demand, would not approve any project that might endanger the Xico volcano. At the assembly where the mining contract was set to be ratified, the San Miguel Xico shareholders of communal land voted in a majority not to sign it, thus preserving the Xico volcano as part of the San Miguel Xico communal lands and for the Chalco valley community. We, the people, had preserved our sacred volcano and put a stop to the mining project.
In Defense of the Tlapacoya Hill At the end of 2016, work began on the construction of a route to the summit of Tlapacoya Hill in Ixtapaluca municipality, close to the Xico valley. The plan was to build a tourist development on the site—a move that would sacrifice its significant archaeological heritage. The residents immediately mobilized to stop the destruction and called for a defense of the site. The Valle de Xico Community Museum joined forces with the struggle straightaway, supporting the residents’ demands and actions.
Meetings were set up with the Ixtapaluca municipal president and with the Federal Deputy Marisela Serrano, a leader of the Antorcha Popular (People’s Torch) organization, which promotes the occupation of lands and the establishment of settlements there. The meetings served to clarify the site’s importance for archeology and as an aquifer. The groups agreed to hold working sessions with the authorities to debate the viability of the ecotourism project and so that residents could propose the project be realized elsewhere and that the hill be preserved as a natural aquifer and archaeological site. The negotiations and the fight are ongoing.
The Fight Continues… In Defense of Land and Water As time passes, the environmental recovery of the former Lake Chalco, addressed in The Return of a Lake, is ever more important. The region suffers water scarcity due to overpopulation, poor water management, and the irrational waste of rainwater that is sent straight into sewerage drains. Governmental policies continue to regard the lake as an enemy and insist on draining it. By contrast, the local communities see the recovery of the lake as a development opportunity that would reactivate chinampa farming (a Mesoamerican farming technique using constructed island plots to grow crops on the lakes in the Valley of Mexico) and local trade, boost ecotourism, recover plant and animal species that became extinct in the area, and curb disorderly urban growth, thus contributing to sustainable water management in the basin. Pozo 10 (Well 10) Neighborhood Committee This neighborhood well committee made up of residents in the Casas ARA housing project on the Del Marqués Hill works to guarantee water supply, foster rational water use, supervise
Genaro Amaro Altamirano
government water management, and monitor the formation of cracks and subsidence in the hill to prevent natural disasters caused by land collapsing. The Valle de Xico C ommunity Museum participates alongside the neighbors to strengthen the committee. Colectivo XicoArte (XicoArt Collective) Project In order to promote awareness of Xico’s history, the importance of pre-Hispanic cultures, the rich natural resources of its hills, lakes, flora, and fauna, the museum designed a project with young, emerging artists from Xico to transmit knowledge using artistic techniques such as painting, drawing, and writing. The activities have had a considerable impact on students, who have engaged with and enjoyed the content of the exhibitions, generating a sense of local identity and critical reflection about the environmental issues affecting the area’s residents.
Conclusions For the Valle de Xico C ommunity Museum, it is important to empower the population by studying political and social phenomena that destroy the natural environment and that have transformed a place with an enormous wealth of flora, fauna, and water into an inhospitable and semi-barren wasteland. Studying colonial policies of despoilment and overexploitation of natural resources—and current government’s neoliberal policies that serve the same interests—will raise awareness and foster social mobilization in defense of water resources and the land. It will also create the possibility of recovering part of the region’s natural lake environment and reflecting on it in educational works, such as The Return of a Lake, which compare today’s reality with the colonial past.
Images Page 68: Symbolic closure of construction site on Tlapacoya Hill. Photo: Juan José Ayala Fonseca. Archivo Fotográfico del Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico. Assembly, December 23, 2014. Photo: Juan José Ayala Fonseca. Archivo Fotográfico del Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico. Page 69–71: Manifesto for the Defense of Water and Earth, December 2014. Page 72: Working Session Five. Assembly of organizations, towns, and citizens. Photo: Juan José Ayala Fonseca. Archivo Fotográfico del Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico.
Oliver Lubrich Humboldtian Landscapes The term landscape refers to the perception of a portion of nature, of European nature in particular.1 In 1780, the Encyclopedia Britannica defined landscape (in the entry of the more archaic landskip) in purely aesthetic terms: “in painting, the view or prospect of a country extended as far as the eye will reach.”2 Pierer’s Universal-Lexikon of 1828 distinguished between aisthetic and aesthetic landscapes, defining them respectively as a part of nature that presents itself to the eye, and as a painting, copperplate, or drawing that depicts it.3 These concepts of landscape would later call up not only artistic but also scientific, political, and ideological associations. Conceptions of nature are, however, not a purely European matter. How did the colonial experience and the confrontation with nature in the Tropics challenge European notions of landscape in aesthetic—yet also in scientific, political, and potentially even in ecological—terms? A prominent example, which can serve as a case study for reflecting on different types of landscape and on the changes that the landscape idea underwent over time, is that of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). The Berlin-born natural and cultural scientist, travel writer, and graphic artist is renowned internationally for his multifaceted work based on a five-year
1 See “Landschaft” in Conversations-Lexikon oder encyclopädisches Handwörterbuch für gebildete Stände, 10 vols., 2nd ed. (1812–1819), vol. 5, (Leipzig/Altenburg: F. A. Brockhaus, 1815), p. 555–558. 2 See “Landskip” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10 vols., 2nd ed., (1777– 1784), vol. 6 (Edinburgh: Bell & Macfarquhar, 1780), p. 4077. 3 “Landschaft,” in Universal-Lexikon oder vollständiges encyclopädisches Wörterbuch, ed. Heinrich August Pierer, 26 vols. (1824–1835), vol. 12 (1829), reprint (Altenburg: Literatur-Comptoir, 1835), p. 194.
expedition across the Spanish colonies in the “New World” (1799–1804). During his travels, Humboldt studied and surveyed mountain ranges, rivers, flora, and fauna, and represented them in both writing and images. He produced numerous drawings in the field, which he subsequently had printed in his books and essays with the help of artists and engravers back in Europe.4 In total, he published more than 1,500 illustrations.5 Among these are a number of impressive American scenes, most prominently in his illustrated travel book Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (1810–1813).6 Humboldt’s perception and his depictions of landscapes are representative of his flexible and multidisciplinary research practice as well as of his multimedia poetics: a Humboldtian Science, so to speak, is reflected in Humboldtian Landscapes.7 How does Alexander von Humboldt represent nature during and after his 1799–1804 expedition to the Americas? How does the colonial experience affect European conceptions of landscape? In his prose as well as his drawings, the traveller creates different kinds of Humboldtian landscapes that correspond to his experimental practice of research and hybrid modes of writing: (1) For Humboldt, landscapes are symbolic and political. (2) They become objects of aesthetic appreciation and scientific precision. (3) Landscape poses a challenge to post-disciplinary interpretation. (4) It turns into an ecosystem
4 Some sketches among Humboldt’s papers in the State Library in Berlin allow us to compare his detailed drafts with the printed engravings. 5 Alexander von Humboldt, Das graphische Gesamtwerk, ed. Oliver Lubrich (Darmstadt: Lambert Schneider, 2014). Numerous engravings indicate Humboldt’s authorship in the paratextual note: “Dessiné par M. de Humboldt.” 6 Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: Schoell, 1810[–1813]). 7 Susan Faye Cannon, “Humboldtian Science,” in Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period (Kent/New York: Dawson/Science History Publications, 1978), p. 73–110.
avant la lettre. (5) It becomes acoustic. (6) And it generates the democratic vision of a public multimedia installation.
1. Symbolic and Political Landscapes [D]ejé atrás las huellas de Humboldt, empañando los cristales eternos que circuyen el Chimborazo. Simón Bolívar, Mi delirio sobre el Chimborazo 8
Humboldt’s landscapes are more than mere representations of nature. They carry symbolic and political meanings. This is already apparent in a plate which depicts the first stop on his expedition, the view of the Pico del Teide on Tenerife, “Vue de l’intérieur du cratère du Pic de Ténériffe” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 54—Figure 1).9 The image suggests a certain political interpretation: the lava appears to have turned to stone mideruption, mirroring the revolution which in 1799—the year of Humboldt’s ascent to the top of the volcano—had come to a halt due to Napoleon’s ascent to power in the “Consulate.”10 At the same time, Humboldt’s eerily sublime scenery of the volcano 8 Papeles de Bolívar, ed. Vicente Lecuna (Caracas: Litografía del Comercio 1917), p. 231–234; p. 233. In English, the phrase translates as: “I left Humboldt’s tracks behind and began to leave my own marks on the eternal crystals girding Chimborazo.” See: “My Delirium on Chimborazo,” in El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, trans. Frederick H. Fornoff, ed. David Bushnell (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press 2003), p. 135–136 (annotations: p. 226); p. 135; Rex Clark and Oliver Lubrich, eds., Transatlantic Echoes: Alexander von Humboldt in World Literature (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012), p. 67–68; p. 67. 9 All images are reproduced in: Alexander von Humboldt, Das graphische Gesamtwerk. 10 In 1789, volcanoes became images of revolution. Earthquakes, in Humboldt, are never just earthquakes. East German authors, as Rex Clark has shown, understood his geological phenomena as subtle political metaphors. Rex Clark, “‘Ist Erdbeben bei ihm gleich Erdbeben?’ Cultural Difference and Regime Criticism in the Literary Reception of Alexander von Humboldt in the German Democratic Republic,” in Cumaná 1799: Alexander von
Figure 1. “Vue de l’intérieur du Cratère du Pic de Ténériffe. Dessiné par Gmelin, à Rome d’après une esquisse de M.r de Humboldt. Gravé par P. Parboni è Rome. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell 1810 [–1813]), Plate 54.
anticipates key Romantic works by Caspar David Friedrich such as Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817) or Kreidefelsen auf Rügen (Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1818). Correspondingly, even the choice of scene from Mexico— the last country that Humboldt visited prior to his return to Europe (via Cuba and the United States)—is to be understood in a political sense; the “Pyramide de Cholula” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 7—Figure 2), at the top of which the Spanish built a chapel, is a monument to colonialism.
Humboldt’s Travels between Europe and the Americas, ed. Oliver Lubrich and Christine Knoop (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2013), p. 369–385.
Figure 2. “Pyramide de Cholula. Dessiné d’après une esquisse de M. de Humboldt par Gmelin à Rome. Gravé par Wachsmann et Arnold à Berlin. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell 1810 [–1813]), Plate 7.
2. Scientific and Aesthetic Landscapes L’étendue des Pampas est si prodigieuse, qu’au nord elles sont bornées par des bosquets de palmiers, et au midi par des neiges éternelles. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Facundo (1851). Epigraph quoted from Humboldt’s Ansichten der Natur.11
11 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Vida de Facundo Quiroga i aspecto físico, costumbres i hábitos de la República Arjentina, seguida de apuntes biográficos sobre el jeneral Frai Felix Aldao (Santiago: Julio Belín i compañía 1851), p. 1; quoted from: Alexander von Humboldt, Tableaux de la nature, 2 vols., trans. Jean Baptiste Benoît Eyriès (Paris: Schoell, 1808), vol. 1, p. 21; German original: Ansichten der Natur mit wissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen (Tübingen: Cotta, 1808), p. 12: “Die letztern, die Pampas von Buenosayres, übertref-
For Humboldt, landscapes are both beautiful and intriguing. An overlap exists between a conception of landscape rooted in the study of culture, and thus in aesthetics, and one rooted in the science of nature, and thus in geography. In the second volume of Kosmos (1847), Humboldt attempted, in the space of 130 pages, to outline theoretically and historically the dialectical relationship between science and aesthetics. He saw depictions of landscapes in literature, art, and garden design as “Anregungsmittel zum Naturstudium”— means of encouraging the study of nature.12 Such depictions can be found in the oldest descriptions of natural phenomena, for instance in ancient epic poetry, in the illustrations of trees or clouds in early modern genre paintings still altogether uninformed by natural history, or in the artistic representations of nature in classical landscape design. These explorations of nature, although perhaps marginal and unintentional, nevertheless contain the first seeds of naturalistic knowledge, and because of their aesthetic effect, they encourage further inquiry. Affectively and aesthetically conceiving of landscapes in their own right through distinct artistic forms is, according to Humboldt, a genuinely “modern” practice.13 It was stimulated, once again dialectically, through the process of colonial
fen jene (die Llanos) dreimal an Flächeninhalt. Ja ihre Ausdehnung ist so wundervoll groß, daß sie auf der nördlichen Seite durch Palmengebüsche begränzt, und auf der südlichen fast mit ewigem Eise bedeckt sind.” English translation: “The expanse of the Pampas is so huge, that to the north they are bordered by forests of palms, and to the south by eternal snows.” See: Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, trans. Kathleen Ross, ed. Roberto González Echevarría (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2003), p. 45 (the epigraph in French), p. 264 (English translation); Cosmos and Colonialism: Alexander von Humboldt in Cultural Criticism, ed. Rex Clark and Oliver Lubrich (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012), p. 35–40, here p. 35. 12 Alexander von Humboldt, “Anregungsmittel zum Naturstudium,” in Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, 5 vols. (Stuttgart/ Tübingen: J. G. Cotta 1845–1862), vol. 2, p. 3–134. 13 von Humboldt, “Anregungsmittel zum Naturstudium,” p. 4.
Figure 3. “Volcan de Cotopaxi. Dessiné d’après une esquisse de M. de Humboldt par Gmelin à Rome. Gravé par Arnold à Berlin. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, (Paris: F. Schoell 1810 [–1813]), Plate 10.
e xpansion and through contact with a strange, exotic environment which is why it was developed initially in northern Europe (and most typically in Goethe’s work).14 Humboldt postulated that modern representations of landscape should be both aesthetically composed and at the same 14 von Humboldt, “Anregungsmittel zum Naturstudium,” p. 54–61; p. 31, 55.
Figure 4: “Chute du Tequendama. Dessiné d’après une esquisse de M.r de Humboldt, et Gravé par Gmelin à Rome. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell 1810 [–1813]), Plate 6.
time scientifically correct. He used his landscape representations as media for empirical research, for instance, in relation to climate, through his documentation of the snow line in “Volcán de Cotopaxi” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 10—Figure 3); or as a representation of geology, when he draws the “Roches basaltiques et Cascade de Regla” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 22); or in an ecological sense, avant la lettre, by describing the different microclimates above and below the waterfall of Tequendama, in “Chute du Tequendama” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 6—Figure 4). The mud volcanoes of Turbaco, “Volcans d’air de Turbaco” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 41—Figure 5), were of interest to Humboldt as a geologist and as a volcanologist, but his depiction provoked both an aesthetic and a philosophical interpretation. In his Ästhetik des Häßlichen (Aes thetics of Ugliness, 1853), Karl Rosenkranz determines disgust to be an effect of the decay of organic matter. However, taking Humboldt’s depiction of the volcanoes as an example, he concludes that inorganic nature can be just as vile (scheußlich), “analogically” as “a would-be decaying earth” (“eine gleichsam verwesende Erde”).15 Humboldt’s aesthetic and scientific idea of landscape painting that combined creative composition with attention to detail exerted a strong influence on a generation of travel artists, who implemented his principles in their art.16 The U.S. painter 15 Karl Rosenkranz, Die Ästhetik des Häßlichen (Königsberg: Gebrüder Bornträger, 1853), p. 312–314 (annotations: p. 437–438). 16 Sigrid Achenbach, Kunst um Humboldt: Reisestudien aus Mittel- und Südamerika von Rugendas, Bellermann und Hildebrandt, exhibition catalogue (München: Hirmer, 2009); compare with: Pablo Diener, “Humboldt und die Kunst,” in Alexander von Humboldt: Netzwerke des Wissens, exhibition catalogue (Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1999), p. 136–153; Pablo Diener, “Die reisenden Künstler und die Landschaftsmalerei in Iberoamerika,” Expedition Kunst: Die Entdeckung der Natur von C. D. Friedrich bis Humboldt, exhibition catalogue (Hamburg/München: Dölling und Galitz, 2002), p. 47–55; Jean-Paul Duviols, “La escuela artística de Alexander von Humboldt,” Artes de México 31 (undated): p. 16–23; Renate Löschner, “Lateinamerikanische Landschafts-
Figure 5. “Volcans d’air de Turbaco. Dessiné d’après une esquisse de M.r de Humboldt par Marchais. Gravé par Bouquet. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [color], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell 1810 [–1813]), Plate 41.
rederic Edwin Church, for instance, visited and painted several F locations that had been described and depicted by Humboldt: the waterfall of Tequendama and the Cayambé, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo volcanoes. His representation of tropical flora in The Heart of the Andes (1859), a composite picture that fuses
darstellungen der Maler aus dem Umkreis von Alexander von Humboldt,” (Ph.D. diss., Technische Universität Berlin, 1976); “Die Amerikaillustration unter dem Einfluß Alexander von Humboldts,” Alexander von Humboldt: Leben und Werk, ed. Wolfgang-Hagen Hein (Frankfurt: Weisbecker, 1985), p. 283–300; Miguel Rojas-Mix, “Die Bedeutung Alexander von Humboldts für die künstlerische Darstellung Lateinamerikas,” in Alexander von Humboldt: Werk und Weltgeltung, ed. Heinrich Pfeiffer (München: R. Piper, 1969), p. 97–130.
different localities, is especially well known.17 In Venezuela, Ferdinand Bellermann even painted The Cave of the Guácharo (1843),18 where he recreated a scene that Humboldt had evoked in his travel report: after his descent into the cave of the oilbird, Humboldt noted that the entrance walls framed the views out of the cave pictorially, writing: “It was as though a painting had been put in the distance, and the opening of the cave served as its frame.”19 Eduard Hildebrandt was painting according to Humboldtian prescriptions in Brazil, and Johann Moritz Rugendas, who travelled throughout Mexico and South America, had even been instructed and sponsored by Humboldt himself.20 The Argentinian writer César Aira made Rugendas the protagonist of a novella, Un episodio en la vida del pintor v iajero 17 Frederic Edwin Church, “Letter, Bogotá, 7 July 1853,” in Clark and Lubrich, Transatlantic Echoes, p. 137–140; compare with Frank Baron, “From Alexander von Humboldt to Frederic Edwin Church: Voyages of Scientific Exploration and Creativity,” Humboldt im Netz 6, no. 10 (2005): p. 9–23. 18 Ferdinand Bellermann, “Die Guácharo-Höhle” (1843), in Sigrid Achenbach, Kunst um Humboldt. Reisestudien aus Mittel- und Südamerika von Rugendas, Bellermann und Hildebrandt (München: Hirmer 2009), p. 148; compare with Klaus Haese, “Heroischer Norden und exotischer Süden: Der Maler Ferdinand Bellermann zwischen Rügen und Venezuela,” in Die Welt im Großen und im Kleinen: Kunst und Wissenschaft im Umkreis von Alexander von Humboldt und August Ludwig Most, ed. Gerd-Helge Vogel (Berlin: Lukas 2009), p. 96–108. 19 Alexander von Humboldt, Relation historique du Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, 3 vols. (Paris: F. Schoell, 1814[–1818], N. Maze, 1819[–1821], J. Smith et Gide Fils, 1825[–1831]), vol. 1, p. 409–431, here p. 421–422. All translations are the author’s unless otherwise noted. 20 On Hildebrandt see: Hannelore Gärtner, “Eduard Hildebrandt (1818–1868): Ein preußischer Maler in Brasilien,” in Die Welt im Großen und im Kleinen: Kunst und Wissenschaft im Umkreis von Alexander von Humboldt und August Ludwig Most, ed. Gerd-Helge Vogel (Berlin: Lukas, 2009), p. 133–143; Johann Moritz Rugendas, Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil, 2 vols. (Paris: Engelmann, 1827/1835); see also: Helga von Kügelgen, “Pflanzenformen aus der ‘Physiognomie der Natur’ als Programm für den Landschaftsmaler: Ein Brief Humboldts an Schinkel für Rugendas,” in Netzwerke des Wissens, p. 154–155; Nana Badenberg, “Sehnsucht nach den Tropen: Wissenschaft, Poesie und Imagination bei Humboldt und Rugendas,” kultuRRevolution 23 (1990): p. 53–64.
(An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, 2000), which appeared in German under the title Humboldts Schatten (Humboldt’s shadow).21 The novella repeatedly refers to “the method,” which Rugendas had learnt from Humboldt: “art geography,” “landscape science,” and the “physiognomy of nature, a procedure invented by Humboldt.” 22 Out in the countryside, in the Argentinian pampa, the physiognomist is struck by fantastical lightning, which disfigures his face but electrifies his art.
3. Post-Disciplinary Landscapes Esta explicação de Humboldt, embora permaneça feito hypothese brilhante, tem un significado superior. Euclides da Cunha, Os Sertões.23
Humboldt’s aesthetic landscapes do not illustrate individual scientific disciplines, but rather multiple sciences at once. Landscape becomes an interdisciplinary, or better, a post-disciplinary concept. Humboldt’s publication history allows us to reconstruct the way in which, in some of his early works, he was still thinking within individual disciplines, before his experiences in the Americas challenged these practices and prompted him
21 César Aira, Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2000); Humboldts Schatten. Novelle, trans. Matthias Strobel (Munich/Vienna: Nagel & Kimche, 2003). 22 Aira, Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero, p. 11, 10, 10, 10. 23 Euclides da Cunha, Os Sertões (Campanha de Canudos) (Rio de Janeiro/ São Paulo: Laemmert & Co., 1905), p. 49–53, here p. 51. English translation: “This explanation of Humboldt’s, put forth as barely more than a brilliant hypothesis, has, however, a deeper significance;” Rebellion in the Backlands (Os Sertões), trans. Samuel Putnam, 8th ed. (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 39–41 (“A Geographical Category That Hegel Does Not Mention”), here p. 41; relevant excerpts in English also in: Cosmos and Colonialism, p. 90–92.
Figure 6. “Passage du Quindiu, dans la Cordillère des Andes. Dessiné d’après une Esquisse de M.r de Humboldt par Koch à Rome. Gravé par Duttenhofer à Stuttgard. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell, 1810 [–1813]), Plate 5.
to combine different forms of knowledge.24 In order to come to terms with tropical nature and non-European cultures, he had to pursue this quest across disciplinary boundaries. Humboldt’s landscapes represent this cross-disciplinary approach. Correspondingly, they present an exercise in multilayered reading. For instance, the fifth plate of the Vues des Cordillères, “Passage du Quindiu, dans la Cordillère des Andes” (Figure 6), is a multi-perspectival drawing in the sense that it is designed from the vantage points of different domains of knowledge, which observers are free to choose from according
24 We can follow Humboldt’s travels among various disciplines closely through his more than one thousand articles and essays published between 1789 and 1859. They will be collected for the first time in the Berne Edition of his Complete Writings in 2019.
to their own interests. A picture that can be appreciated artistically by an art enthusiast provides a botanist with information on certain plants, which can in turn be observed in their natural habitat by a geobotanist; a geologist may study the layering of rock formations and the process of orogenesis therein; a mineralogist may search for relevant phenomena, and a climatologist may consider cloud formation or the snow line. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the image is in no way limited to being viewed from a natural-history perspective, but rather it tells a story that is also relevant in sociology and politics. In the foreground, we see a group of travelers: local porters, barely clothed, with people in European clothing sitting in chairs strapped to their backs. Rather than taking in the countryside, the man in the chair is looking at a book, while turning his back to the road—calling to mind Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, whose fascinated gaze is directed towards the violent past behind him.25 The image appears to demand an allegorical interpretation: if the backward-facing man who is being carried stands for the reactionary white elite, or, as a reader who is oblivious to the world, for the colonial perception of European travelers, then the porters are representative of the subjugated indigenous population. The second carguero, whose chair remains empty, is the only one to direct his gaze at the viewer, who stands in for the artist, Humboldt, who personally rejected this mode of transport. The continuously arranged figures, which are similar to one another, are representative of historically continuous states of Latin American societies first bowed under the colonial sovereignty of the Spaniards then freed but unchanged in their posi-
25 See Benigno Trigo, “Walking Backward to the Future: Time, Travel, and Race,” in Subjects of Crisis: Race and Gender as Disease in Latin America (Hanover/London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), p. 16–46 (annotations: p. 130–135).
tion—the implication being that the sovereignty of white Creole society does not bring any real change. The drawing is designed like a cinematic dolly shot: it describes a progressing yet static history.
4. Ecological and Diagrammatical Landscapes Viajero: has llegado a la región más transparente del aire. Alfonso Reyes, Visión de Anáhuac.26
By capturing and artistically representing—in texts or images— a “comprehensive impression” of a landscape from perspectives across the natural sciences, Humboldt visualizes geological, botanical, zoological, climatic, and other determinants, as well as their local state of interdependency. Landscape, in other words, becomes ecological. The most prominent example is the “Naturgemälde der Anden,” the “Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins,” (Figure 7) accompanying his Essai sur la géographie des plantes (1807).27 As an idealized cross section of South
26 Alfonso Reyes, Visión de Anáhuac (1519) (San José: Imprenta Alsina, 1917), p. 9. English translation: “Traveler, you have come to the region of the most transparent air.” Mexico in a Nutshell and Other Essays, trans. Charles Ramsdell (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964), p. 80–98; p. 80; Cosmos and Colonialism, p. 93–96; p. 93. See also: Alexander von Humboldt, Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne, 2 vols. (Paris: Schoell, [1808–], 1811 and [1809–]1811), here: vol. 1, p. LXXVII; “La ville de Mexico est de moitié plus près des deux Nevados de la Puebla, que les villes de Berne et de Milan ne le sont de la chaîne centrale des Alpes. Cette grande proximité contribue beaucoup à rendre imposant et majestueux l’aspect des volcans mexicains. Les contours de leurs sommets couverts de neiges éternelles, paroissent d’autant plus prononcés, que l’air à travers lequel l’œil reçoit les rayons, est plus rare et plus transparent.” (The words that Reyes quotes from Humboldt are italicized: “l’air […] est […] plus transparent.”) The phrase also appears, tacitly, in Carlos Fuentes, La región más transparente (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1958). 27 Alexander von Humboldt, “Géographie des plantes équinoxiales: Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins. […] Esquissé et rédigé par M.
Figure 7. “Géographie des plantes équinoxiales. Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins. Dressé d’après des Observations & des Mesures prises Sur les Lieux depuis le 10.e degré de latitude boréale jusqu’au 10.e de latitude australe en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802 et 1803. Par Alexandre de Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland. Esquissé et rédigé par M. de Humboldt, dessiné par Schönberger et Turpin à Paris en 1805, gravé par Bouquet, la Lettre par Beaublé, imprimé par Langlois,” in: Alexander von Humboldt, Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales. Avec une planche (Paris: Fr. Schoell / Tübingen: J. G. Cotta, 1807).
America, it adorns the cover of Daniel Kehlmann’s satire Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World, 2005), the most successful German novel of recent decades. It is the Humboldtian image, a symbol for his way of thinking. In this motif, Humboldt expresses his enormous power of synthesis. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes: “He represents
de Humboldt, dessiné par Schönberger et Turpin à Paris en 1805, gravé par Bouquet, la Lettre par Beaublé, imprimé par Langlois,” in Essai sur la géographie des plantes, accompagné d’un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales. Avec une planche (Paris: Fr. Schoell/Tübingen: J. G. Cotta, 1807).
entire countries as if they were a mine.”28 The entire Andes are thus represented in an abstract fashion. In twenty scales located in the right and left margins of the image, different factors that influence the landscape are displayed: humidity, boiling point, animals, as well as the use of slaves in local agriculture. Even the sky is labeled with historical episodes. The graphic method of depiction made it possible to include numerous perspectives at the same time in order to visualize a tropical ecosystem. The depiction of the “Tableau physique” of 1807 is highly complex and yet presents a clear model. As an illustrative image, which provides many facts and conceptual links in a single glance, it can be equated to today’s infographics—or even to a webpage containing extensive hyperlinking. As historical testimony, Humboldt’s “Tableau” is also a sign of scientific development. By advancing from botany to plant geography and progressing from the collection of single elements to an overview of functional links, Humboldt brought about the transition from static taxonomies to dynamic historicization, which Michel Foucault has referred to as a key moment of change in the organization of knowledge around 1800.29 As a botanist, Humboldt set Linné’s system in motion geographically; based on classifications, he transformed natural history into an interdisciplinary study of migration. For his travel novella entitled Humboldt (2001), Günter Herburger chose the form of the photo-essay. Just like its eponymous title figure, the novella describes the author’s travels in a montage of texts and images. As the introduction states, Humboldt was very skilled at drawing, to the point of creating watercolor images of decayed pieces of skin with a similar curiosity and attention to beauty as he would dedicate to flower petals.
28 Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “A. v. H. (1769–1859),” in Mausoleum: Siebenunddreißig Balladen aus der Geschichte des Fortschritts (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975), p. 56–58. 29 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).
For the impression of the famous mountain range cross section, Herburger drew a particularly poignant comparison: “A carefully drawn vegetation profile with the mountainside full of Latin plant names in tiny script, resembling a flurry of snow” (“ähnlich Schneegestöber”).30 Humboldt’s micrography—or tiny script—on the cross section of the Chimborazo creates a shading effect. Botanical data becomes artistic, much as the French term tableau means table and painting at the same time. There exists a curious variant of Humboldt’s motif, sketched by Goethe as “Höhen der alten und neuen Welt bildlich verglichen” (Heights of the old and the new world compared pictorially, 1807, 1813—Figure 8).31 This version was created under the following circumstances: Goethe received his dedication copy of the Geographie der Pflanzen without the plate that was supposed to accompany it, as it had not been completed yet; without further ado, he created his own drawing. In his Tag- und Jahres-Hefte (1807), he noted that when the promised “Profilcarte” had been missing, he felt his full understanding of such a work hindered; impatiently, he designed a symbolic landscape with measures of altitude on the side, which he deemed to be “not unpleasant to look at.”32 In a letter to Humboldt from Weimar on April 3, 1807, Goethe wrote half joking, half serious, that he had imagined—literally “phantacized”—his own landscape, and he welcomed the addressee to correct at will the watercolor “Copie” he had created with pencil, quill, and ink.33 30 Günter Herburger, “Humboldt,” in Humboldt: Reise-Novellen (München: A1 Verlag, 2001), p. 7–22. 31 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Höhen der alten und neuen Welt,” in Petra Maisak, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Zeichnungen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996), p. 215; see also Hanno Beck and Wolfgang-Hagen Hein, Humboldts Naturgemälde der Tropenländer und Goethes ideale Landschaft: Zur ersten Darstellung der Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (Stuttgart: Brockhaus Antiquarium, 1989). 32 Goethes Werke, vol. 1.36 (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1893), p. 8–9. 33 Goethes Werke, vol. 4.19 (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1895), p. 296–299.
Figure 8. “Höhen der alten und neuen Welt bildlich verglichen. Ein Tableau vom Hrn. Geh. Rath v. Göthe mit einem Schreiben an den Herausgeber,” Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden 41 (15 May 1813), p. 3–8.
When he published his work six years later as an engraved illustration—with a dedication to Humboldt placed on a rock in the foreground—he elaborated in a commentary on how he had assumed an altitude scale at the margin. He had started with the Chimborazo and then continuously filled in the altitudes of mountains, which—almost as if “by chance”—had morphed into a landscape under his hands.34 On the Chimborazo, Goethe inserted his friend Humboldt as a small figure, a condor hovering above him; on the opposite side, in Europe, he drew GayLussac in a hot-air balloon; and at the lower edge, he added a
34 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Höhen der alten und neuen Welt bildlich verglichen: Ein Tableau vom Hrn. Geh. Rath v. Göthe mit einem Schreiben an den Herausgeber,” in Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden 41 (15 May 1813), p. 3–8.
crocodile. Europe and America are represented here as a single landscape. The comparison with Goethe’s effort sheds light on the originality of the original. In his own sketch, Goethe unwillingly demonstrated what a non-transmedial depiction, one that stays merely at the pictorial level, would have looked like. Goethe’s depiction is not abstract: it is not presented as a cross section, but instead in rather traditional perspective. Text and data are separated from the image, kept to the margins. Humboldt presented variations on the method of profile drawing in further works. For instance, in “Geographiae plantarum lineamenta” (Nova genera et species plantarum, Frontispice, 1816),35 the Chimborazo is compared to different mountains across the world; and in “Voyage vers la cime du Chimborazo” (Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, plate 9, 1825),36 a narrative text marks the location where the ascent to the summit was abandoned, because of a “crevice that blocked the path of the travelers to the peak.” Further, there is the “Profil der iberischen Halbinsel,” the “profile of the Iberian peninsula,” in an essay in the journal Hertha (1825).37 The extent to which the presence of Humboldt’s diagrammatical profile was emblematic becomes evident in the philosophical and political interpretation which concludes Madame 35 Alexander von Humboldt, “Geographiæ plantarum lineamenta. […] Al. Humboldt del. Marchais perf. 1815. Coutant sculps. L. Aubert scrip.,” in Nova genera et species plantarum […], 7 vols. (Paris: Librairie grecque-latineallemande, 1815–1825), frontispiece. 36 Alexander von Humboldt, “Voyage vers la cime du Chimborazo, tenté le 23 Juin 1802 par Alexandre de Humboldt, Aim. Bonpland et Carlos Montufar. (Esquisse de la Géographie des plantes dans les Andes de Quito […].) Dessiné par A. de Humboldt à Mexico 1803, par F. Marchais à Paris 1824,” in Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (Paris: F. Schoell, 1814[–1838]), plate 9. 37 Alexander von Humboldt, “Profil der iberischen Halbinsel,” in “Ueber die Gestalt und das Klima des Hochlandes in der iberischen Halbinsel,” Hertha 4, no. 1 (1825): p. 5–23.
de Staël’s Considérations on the French Revolution. She translates Humboldt’s layering of the vegetation zones as an allegory for worldwide enlightenment: “In the same way that the famous Humboldt had labeled the different altitudes of the mountains of the world, which permit the growth of certain plants,” she argues, the hauteur d’esprit (height of the spirits) and the love of freedom of humans who deem themselves above prejudice could be measured on a global scale.38 5. Acoustic Landscapes En realidad, lo único que pudo aislar en las parrafadas pedregosas, fue el insistente martilleo de la palabra equinoccio equinoccio equinoccio, y el nombre Alexander von Humboldt. Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad.39
Humboldt’s landscapes do not only work optically. He also renders landscape acoustically. As demonstrated by the German title of his popular work, Ansichten der Natur (1808, 1826, 1849), which translates to Views or Visions of Nature, as well as the French publication Vues des Cordillères, Humboldt’s perception of nature was primarily visual. Visual metaphors abound in the introduction to Ansichten der Natur: Schüchtern übergebe ich dem Publikum eine Reihe von Arbeiten, die im Angesicht großer Naturgegenstände, auf dem Ozean, in den Wäldern des Orinoco, in den Steppen von Venezuela, in der Einöde 38 Germaine de Staël, Considérations sur les principaux événemens de la Révolution françoise, ed. Duc de Broglie and Baron de Staël, 3 vols., vol. 3 (Paris: Delaunay/Bossange et Masson, 1818), p. 389–391. 39 Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967), p. 68. English translation: “In reality, the only thing that could be isolated in the rocky paragraphs was the insistent hammering on the word equinox, equinox, equinox, and the name of Alexander von Humboldt.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 71.
peruanischer und mexikanischer Gebirge entstanden sind. Einzelne Fragmente wurden an Ort und Stelle niedergeschrieben und nochmals nur in ein Ganzes zusammengeschmolzen. Überblick der Natur im großen, Beweis von dem Zusammenwirken der Kräfte, Erneuerung des Genusses, welchen die unmittelbare Ansicht der Tropenländer dem fühlenden Menschen gewährt, sind die Zwecke, nach denen ich strebe. […] Diese ästhetische Behandlung naturhistorischer Gegenstände hat, trotz der herrlichen Kraft und der Biegsamkeit unserer vaterländischen Sprache, große Schwierigkeiten der Komposition. Reichtum der Natur veranlaßt Anhäufung einzelner Bilder, und Anhäufung stört die Ruhe und den Totaleindruck des Gemäldes. […]. Mögen meine Ansichten der Natur, trotz dieser Fehler, welche ich selbst leichter rügen als verbessern kann, dem Leser doch einen Teil des Genusses gewähren, welchen ein empfänglicher Sinn in der unmittelbaren Anschauung findet. Da dieser Genuß mit der Einsicht in den inneren Zusammenhang der Naturkräfte vermehrt wird, so sind jedem Aufsatze wissenschaftliche Erläuterungen und Zusätze beigefügt.40 With some diffidence, I here present to the public a series of papers which originated in the presence [in view] of the noblest objects of nature, — on the Ocean, — in the forests of the Orinoco, — in the Savannahs of Venezuela, — and in the solitudes of the Peruvian and Mexican Mountains. Several detached fragments, written on the spot, have since been wrought into a whole. A survey of nature at large, — proofs of the co-operation of forces, — and a renewal of the enjoyment which the immediate aspect of the tropical countries affords to the susceptible beholder, — are the objects at which I aim. […] This æsthetic mode of treating subjects of Natural History is fraught with great difficulties in the execution, notwithstanding the marvellous vigour and flexibility of my native language. The wonderful luxuriance of nature presents an accumulation of separate images, and accumulation disturbs the harmony and effect of a picture. […]. Notwithstand-
40 Alexander von Humboldt, Ansichten der Natur, mit wissenschaftlichen Erläuterungen, 3 ed., 2 vols. (Stuttgart/Tübingen: Cotta, 1849), vol. 1, p. viiix.
ing these defects, which I can more easily perceive than amend, let me hope that these “Views” may afford the reader, at least some portion of that enjoyment which a sensitive mind receives from the immediate contemplation of nature. As this enjoyment is heightened by an insight into the connection of the occult forces, I have subjoined to each treatise scientific illustrations and additions.41
In the third edition of Ansichten der Natur (1849), however, Humboldt added a piece of prose, which surely is among his most accomplished literary productions: “Das nächtliche Thierleben im Urwalde” (The nocturnal life of animals in the jungle).42 The situation is experimental, almost laboratorial. It is night in the rainforest—and pitch black. The European cannot see anything and what he hears, he does not understand, since his hearing is not appropriately trained. He asks the indigenous people what kinds of animal sounds can be heard and what they mean. And they tell him. In the following, his prose is transformed: from a visual to an acoustic sensibility. Es herrschte tiefe Ruhe; man hörte nur bisweilen das Schnarchen der Süßwasser-Delphine […]. Nach 11 Uhr entstand ein solcher Lärmen im nahen Walde, daß man die übrige Nacht hindurch auf jeden Schlaf verzichten mußte. Wildes Tiergeschrei durchtobte die Forst. Unter den vielen Stimmen, die gleichzeitig ertönten, konnten die Indianer nur die erkennen, welche nach kurzer Pause einzeln gehört wurden. Es waren das einförmig jammernde Geheul der Aluaten (Brüllaffen), der winselnde, fein flötende Ton der kleinen Sapajous, das schnarrende Murren des gestreiften Nachtaffen (Nyctipithecus trivirgatus, den ich zuerst beschrieben habe), das abgesetzte Geschrei des großen Tigers, des Cuguars oder ungemähnten amerikanischen Löwen, des Pecari, des Faulthiers, und einer Schaar von Papageien, Parraquas 41 Alexander von Humboldt, Views of Nature: Or Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creation, with Scientific Illustrations, trans. E. C. Otté and Henry G. Bohn (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1850), p. ix-x. 42 Alexander von Humboldt, “Das nächtliche Thierleben im Urwalde,” in Ansichten der Natur, vol. 1, p. 317–340.
(Ortaliden) und anderer fasanenartiger Vögel. Wenn die Tiger dem Rande des Waldes nahe kamen, suchte unser Hund, der vorher ununterbrochen bellte, heulend Schutz unter den Hangematten. Bisweilen kam das Geschrei des Tigers von der Höhe eines Baumes herab. Es war dann stets von den klagenden Pfeifentönen der Affen begleitet, die der ungewohnten Nachstellung zu entgehen suchten.43 Deep stillness prevailed, only broken at intervals by the blowing of the freshwater dolphins […]. After eleven o’clock, such a noise began in the contiguous forest, that for the remainder of the night all sleep was impossible. The wild cries of animals rung through the woods. Among the many voices which resounded together, the Indians could only recognise those which, after short pauses, were heard singly. There was the monotonous, plaintive, cry of the Aluates (howling monkeys), the whining, flute-like notes of the small sapajous, the grunting murmur of the striped nocturnal ape (Nyctipithecus trivirgatus, which I was the first to describe), the fitful roar of the great tiger, the Cuguar or maneless American lion, the peccary, the sloth, and a host of parrots, parraquas (Ortalides), and other pheasant-like birds. Whenever the tigers approached the edge of the forest, our dog, who before had barked incessantly, came howling to seek protection under the hammocks. Sometimes the cry of the tiger resounded from the branches of a tree, and was then always accompanied by the plaintive piping tones of the apes, who were endeavouring to escape from the unwonted pursuit.44
Humboldt describes the education of his senses. The indigenous guides taught him not merely to observe, but also to listen. This new attention to audible detail, Humboldt’s new rhetoric of the acoustic, carries on after the described scenario, even in the daytime. [A]ber lauscht man bei dieser scheinbaren Stille der Natur auf die schwächsten Töne, die uns zukommen, so vernimmt man ein dumpfes Geräusch, ein Schwirren und Sumsen der Insecten, dem Boden
43 von Humboldt, Ansichten der Natur, vol. 1, p. 333–334. 44 von Humboldt, Views of Nature, p. 199.
nahe und in den unteren Schichten des Luftkreises. Alles verkündigt eine Welt thätiger, organischer Kräfte. In jedem Strauche, in der gespaltenen Rinde des Baumes, in der von Hymenoptern bewohnten, aufgelockerten Erde regt sich hörbar das Leben. Es ist wie eine der vielen Stimmen der Natur, vernehmbar dem frommen, empfänglichen Gemüthe des Menschen.45 [B]ut if in this apparent stillness of nature we listen closely for the faintest tones, we detect, a dull, muffled sound, a buzzing and humming of insects close to the earth, in the lower strata of the atmosphere. Everything proclaims a world of active organic forces. In every shrub, in the cracked bark of trees, in the perforated ground inhabited by hymenopterous insects, life is everywhere audibly manifest. It is one of the many voices of nature revealed to the pious and susceptible spirit of man.46
Ansichten der Natur have become Stimmen der Natur— voices of nature—as if Humboldt had spontaneously changed the character of his project. He has thus learned to convey the character of a place not solely as a vision, but also as a symphony: landscape as soundscape. Daniel Velasco calls this sensibility “sound ecology.”47 It is no coincidence, then, that the author of “The Nocturnal Life of Animals in the Primeval Forrest” discovered an acoustic phenomenon in the Tropics, namely the increasing strength of sound at night—the eponymous “Humboldt effect.”48 45 von Humboldt, Ansichten der Natur, vol. 1, p. 337. 46 von Humboldt, Views of Nature, p. 201. 47 Daniel Velasco, “‘Island Landscape’: Following in Humboldt’s Footsteps through the Acoustic Spaces of the Tropics,” Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000): p. 21–24. 48 Alexander von Humboldt, “Sur l’accroissement nocturne de l’intensité du son,” Annales de chimie et de physique 13 (1820): p. 162–173; in translation: “Über die zunehmende Stärke des Schalls in der Nacht,” in Annalen der Physik und der physikalischen Chemie 65, no. 1 (1820): p. 31–42; new publication: “Ueber die nächtliche Verstärkung des Schalls,” in Kleinere Schriften: Geognostische und physikalische Erinnerungen (Stuttgart/Tübingen: Cotta, 1853), p. 371–397. See also Hans Ertel, “Ein Problem der meteorologischen Akustik (die tagesperiodische Variation der Schallintensität),”
6. Multimedia Landscapes Draußen, in Öl gemalt und sehr blau, die fernen Gipfel, die Palmen, die nackten Wilden; drinnen, im Schatten der laubigen Hütte, die Wände verhangen mit Fellen und Riesenfarnen, ein bunter Ara sitzt auf dem Packsattel, der Gefährte im Hintergrund hält eine Blüte unter die Lupe, über die Bücherkisten sind Orchideen verstreut, der Tisch ist bedeckt mit Paradiesfeigen, Karten und Instrumenten: der Künstliche Horizont, die Bussole, das Mikroskop, der Theodolit, und messingglänzend der Spiegelsextant mit dem silbernen Limbus; hell in der Mitte auf seinem Feldstuhl sitzt der gefeierte Geognost in seinem Labor, im Dschungel, in Öl gemalt, an den Ufern des Orinoco. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “A. v. H. (1769–1859)”49
Humboldt’s landscape is thus at once optical and acoustic, pictorial and poetic—it becomes multimedial.50 As a travelling scientist, Humboldt was interested in all contemporary opportunities for bringing remote artifacts closer: peep boxes, the lanterna magica, dioramas, and panoramas. All these forms in Sitzungsberichte der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Klasse für Mathematik, Physik und Technik 2 (1955): 18 pages. 49 Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “A. v. H. (1769–1859),” in Mausoleum, p. 56–58. English translation: Outside, painted in oil and very blue, the faraway peaks, the palms, the naked savages: inside, in the shade of the leafy hut, the walls hung with skins and giant ferns, a gaudy macaw perched on the pack-saddle, the companion in the background held a blossom under the magnifier, orchids were strewn on the crates of books, the table was covered with plantains, maps, and instruments: the artificial horizon, the compass, the microscope, the theodolite, and shiny brassy, the reflecting sextant with the silvery limbus; bright in the middle, on his camp-chair, sat the celebrated geognost in his laboratory, in the jungle, in oil, on the banks of the Orinoco. See “A. v. H. (1769–1859),” in Mausoleum: Thirty-seven Ballads from the History of Progress, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Urizen, 1976), p. 62–66; p. 62; Clark and Lubrich, Transatlantic Echoes, p. 291–293. 50 See Oliver Lubrich, “Vom Guckkasten zum Erlebnisraum: Alexander von Humboldt und die Medien des Reisens,” in figurationen 2 (2007): p. 47–66.
were becoming available as means of travel, as popular “televisions.” In the spring of 1839, in the studio of Louis Daguerre, Humboldt learned about the new process of photography, which he included in his considerations.51 Photography produced technical images, which allowed for a new level of attention to detail in the art of depicting nature. In the second volume of Kosmos (1847), Humboldt sums up the available methods.52 Here he gives a short history of landscape representations (engravings, paintings, scientific sketches, stage design, panorama, diorama, neorama, photography), before developing an advanced media theory that combines popular forms and new inventions, and even looks beyond the contemporary state of technology. Humboldt seeks to bring together large-scale painting (“Panorama”), scenography (“Coulissen”), and possibly even photographic projection (“Daguerre’s Meisterwerke,” “Lichtbilder”) in his vision of a space of multimedia experience. Aber auch in dem jetzigen unvollkommenen Zustande bildlicher Darstellungen der Landschaft, die unsere Reiseberichte als Kupfer begleiten, ja nur zu oft verunstalten, haben sie doch nicht wenig zur physiognomischen Kenntniß ferner Zonen, zu dem Hange nach Reisen in die Tropenwelt und zu thätigerem Naturstudium beigetragen. Die Vervollkommnung der Landschaftmalerei in großen Dimensionen (als Decorationsmalerei, als Panorama, Diorama und Neorama) hat in neueren Zeiten zugleich die Allgemeinheit und die Stärke des Eindrucks vermehrt. Was Vitruvius und der Aegyptier Julius Pollux als „ländliche (satyrische) Verzierungen der Bühne“ schildern, was in der Mitte des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts, durch Serlio’s Coulissen-Einrichtungen, die Sinnestäuschung vermehrte, kann jetzt, seit Prevost’s und Daguerre’s Meisterwerken, in Parker’schen Rundgemälden, die
51 See Roland Recht, “‘Daguerres Meisterwerke’: Alexander von Humboldt und die Photographie,” in Netzwerke des Wissens, p. 158–159. 52 von Humboldt, Kosmos, vol. 2, p. 93–94.
Wanderung durch verschiedenartige Klimate fast ersetzen. Die Rundgemälde leisten mehr als die Bühnentechnik, weil der Beschauer, wie in einen magischen Kreis gebannt und aller störenden Realität entzogen, sich von der fremden Natur selbst umgeben wähnt. Sie lassen Erinnerungen zurück, die nach Jahren sich vor der Seele mit den wirklich gesehenen Naturscenen wundersam täuschend vermengen. Bisher sind Panoramen, welche nur wirken, wenn sie einen großen Durchmesser haben, mehr auf Ansichten von Städten und bewohnten Gegenden als auf solche Scenen angewendet worden, in denen die Natur in wilder Ueppigkeit und Lebensfülle prangt. Physiognomische Studien, an den schroffen Berggehängen des Himalaya und der Cordilleren oder in dem Inneren der indischen und südamerikanischen Flußwelt entworfen, ja durch Lichtbilder berichtigt, in denen nicht das Laubdach, aber die Form der Riesenstämme und der charakteristischen Verzweigung sich unübertrefflich darstellt, würden einen magischen Effect hervorbringen. But even in the present imperfect condition of pictorial delineations of landscapes, the engravings which accompany, and too often disfigure, our books of travels, have, however, contributed considerably towards a knowledge of the physiognomy of distant regions, to the taste for voyages in the tropical zones, and to a more active study of nature. The improvements in landscape painting on a large scale, (as decorative paintings, panoramas, dioramas and neoramas,) have also increased the generality and force of these impressions. The representations satirically described by Vitruvius and the Egyptian, Julius Pollux, as “exaggerated representations of rural adornments of the stage,” and which, in the sixteenth century, were contrived by Serlio’s arrangement of Coulisses to increase the delusion, may now, since the discoveries of Prevost and Daguerre, be made, in Barker’s panoramas, to serve, in some degree, as a substitute for travelling through different regions. Panoramas are more productive of effect than scenic decorations, since the spectator, enclosed as it were within a magical circle, and wholly removed from all the disturbing influences of reality, may the more easily fancy that he is actually surrounded by a foreign scene. These compositions give rise to impressions which, after many years, often become wonderfully interwoven with the feelings
awakened by the aspect of the scenes when actually beheld. Hitherto panoramas, which are alone effective when of considerable diameter, have been applied more frequently to the representation of cities and inhabited districts than to that of scenes in which nature revels in wild luxuriance and richness of life. An enchanting effect might be produced by a characteristic delineation of nature, sketched on the rugged declivities of the Himalaya and the Cordilleras, or in the midst of the Indian or South American river valleys, and much aid might be further derived by taking photographic pictures, which, although they certainly cannot give the leafy canopy of trees, would present the most perfect representation of the form of colossal trunks, and the characteristic ramification of the different branches.53
As early as 1800, travel was increasingly mediated: driven by dispositifs, filtered by apparatuses, conveyed through technologies. Humboldt, however, went one step further: his project aimed at three-dimensional simulation. Exotic, distant places should democratically be available to everyone (“dem Volke frei geöffnet”), at least as a reality effect. Out of the intercultural situations brought about by travel, new forms developed; media history as well as the depiction of nature or landscape has a postcolonial dimension. Yadegar Asisi has brought Humboldt’s vision from Kosmos to life. His panorama Amazonien (2012–2013), presented in an old gasometer at Leipzig, created the impression of a rainforest landscape at different times of day through light and acoustic effects. It served as an “homage to Alexander von Humboldt”—as a modern multimedia room of nature experience.54 Early on, Humboldt was not only associated with tropical landscape painting, but also with multimedia experiences in contemporary literature. Ludwig Achim von Arnim’s novella
53 Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, trans. E. C. Otté, 5 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848–1858), vol. 2 (1849), p. 456–457. 54 Yadegar Asisi, Amazonien, Leipzig 2012–2013; www.asisi.de.
cycle Der Wintergarten (1809), for instance, is set on a property at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. At the end of the narrative, the hostess opens up a mysterious room: Wir glaubten am Tage ins Freie zu sehn, so herrlich durchsichtig war die Höhe gemalt und weithin zu Gegenden jenseit des Chimborasso versetzt, da lag er vor uns in prächtigem Morgenblau, und hinter ihm stieg die Sonne empor, die uns verlassen. Die Ebene war wunderbar von den fremdartigen riesenhaften Pflanzen unterbrochen, unser Landsmann Humboldt saß im Vordergrunde und zeichnete, ein Kondor lag zu seinen Füßen. Dieses wohlgelungene Panorama, wurde noch außerordentlich von einem Wintergarten unterstützt […]. We thought we were looking in the light of day into the distance, so splendidly transparent the sky was painted and set back in regions far beyond the Chimborazo, there it was before us in a glorious morning blue and behind it rose the sun, which was abandoning us. The plain was wonderfully interspersed with unfamiliar gigantic plants, our fellow countryman Humboldt sat in the foreground and sketched, a condor lay at his feet. This well-done panorama was furthermore wonderfully supported by a winter garden […].55
The panorama, which places the volcano in a fictional tropical landscape, highlights “the whole vegetation nonsense of those zones,” as Arnim puts it.56 It appears to chiefly draw on two works by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, which show Humboldt in the rainforest, a plant in his hands (1806), and at the Chimborazo, with a slain condor at his feet (1810).
55 Trans. Rex Clark and Oliver Lubrich, in Transatlatic Echoes, p. 35–36; p. 36. 56 Achim von Arnim, Der Wintergarten (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1809), p. 481–485; see also: Der Wintergarten, Sämtliche Erzählungen 1802– 1817, 6 vols., vol. 3, ed. Renate Moering (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1990), p. 69–423; p. 418–423 (commentary: p. 1052–1183), (“Der Wintergarten, Taufe, Hochzeit”) (commentary: p. 1180–1183).
Arnim’s book is fittingly named after the winter garden, the conservatory, as this symbolic space suggests a political subtext. Under French occupation (since 1806), the characters in the Prussian capital retreat, as though driven by the biting cold, into an artificial landscape. They flee into stories and into the illusion of an climate-controlled space of art. Yet, at the end, the windows are thrown wide open, the microclimate vanishes, the birds escape to freedom. Arnim’s story ends with the characters departing on a tour of the world; people are facing reality. At the same time, this finale anticipates the liberation wars. Humboldt was an oppositional figure to Napoleon57—even as a landscape artist. Epilogue: Total Landscape Uma feita um homem foi lá. […] De repente no peito doendo do homem caiu uma voz da ramaria: — Currr-pac, papac! currr-pac, papac! […] Então o homem descobriu na ramaria um papagaio verde de bico doirado espiando pra êle. Falou: — Dá o pé, papagaio. O papagaio veio pousar na cabeça do homem e os dois se acompanheiraram. Então o passaro principiou falando numa fala mansa, muito nova, muito! […] A tribu se acabara, a família virará sombras, a maloca ruira minada pelas saúvas e Macunaíma subira pro céu […]. E só o papagaio no silêncio do Uraricoera preservava do esquecimento os casos e a fala desaparecida. Mário de Andrade, Macunaíma 58
57 Vance Byrd, “Weathering the Storm: Ludwig Achim von Arnim’s Der Wintergarten and Alexander von Humboldt,” in Lubrich and Knoop, Cumaná 1799, p. 355–367. 58 Mário de Andrade, “Epílogo,” Macunaíma o heroi sem nenhum caracter, (São Paulo: no publisher given, 1928), p. 281–283. English translation: One day a man went there. […] Suddenly a voice from the foliage jarred the aching senses of the man: ‘Curr-pac, papac! Curr-pac, papac!’ […] There in
One specific landscape, the same one in which Arnim restaged Humboldt, possesses a paradigmatic character for him: the Chimborazo. Here, all functions of his landscapes meet. Its depiction, particularly in the biggest and most beautiful plate of the Views of the Cordilleras, “Le Chimborazo, vu depuis le plateau de Tapia” (Vues des Cordillères, plate 25—Figure 9), is at once aesthetic and scientific, impressive and informative, notably in the way it records geological form, the snow line, cloud formation, as well as flora and fauna. It cannot be situated as either art or science exclusively, nor in the register of a specific form of knowledge, be it geology or botany or any other discipline; it is multi-, trans-, or, more precisely, post-disciplinary. As a data medium, the image has an infographical quality: the Chimborazo—almost as clearly as in the “Tableau physique des Andes”—is rendered as a diagram. Its depiction is of a multimedia nature, as the image is accompanied—and, in the case of the “Tableau,” saturated almost to the point of erasure—by text. Achim von Arnim’s contemporary imagining of it as a walkin, three-dimensional, scenographic panorama exemplifies the mediatic and phantasmatic potential of Humboldt’s sketches and concepts. Even the sensory component was integrated into Humboldt’s presentations of the Chimborazo. In a situation similar to “The nocturnal life of animals in the jungle,” he has to
the foliage the man discovered a green parrot with a golden beak looking at him. He said, ‘Come down, parrot, come down!’ The parrot came down and perched on the man’s head, and the two went along together. The parrot started to talk in a gentle tongue, something new, completely new! […] The vanished tribe, the family turned into ghosts, the tumble-down hut undermined by termites, Macunaíma’s ascent to heaven […]. Only the parrot had preserved in that vast silence the words and the deeds of the hero. “Epilogue,” Macunaíma, trans. E. A. Goodland (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 167–168; reprinted in Clark and Lubrich, Transatlantic Echoes, p. 234–235. See also von Humboldt, Relation historique, vol. 2, p. 598–599.
Figure 9. “Le Chimborazo vu depuis le Plateau de Tapia. Dessiné par Thibaut, d’après une esquisse de M.r de Humboldt. Gravé par Bouquet. De l’Imprimerie de Langlois” [color], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Paris: F. Schoell, 1810 [–1813]), Plate 25.
bandon the notion of vision in his description of his ascent in a 1802. Humboldt reports exceedingly thick fog that left the peak to the imagination.59 He is relegated again to his other senses,
59 Alexander von Humboldt, “Ueber zwei Versuche den Chimborazo zu besteigen,” in Jahrbuch für 1837 (1837), p. 176–206; p. 186 (“in dichtem Nebel” [in thick fog]), p. 190 (“Wir konnten […] nicht mehr sehen” [We could see […] no more]), p. 196 (“Wir sahen nicht mehr” [We saw no more]), etc.; “Ueber einen Versuch den Gipfel des Chimborazo zu ersteigen,” in Kleinere Schriften: Erster Band; Geognostische und physikalische Erinnerungen; Mit einem Atlas, enthaltend Umrisse von Vulkanen aus den Cordilleren von Quito und Mexico (Stuttgart/Tübingen: Cotta, 1853), p. 133–174; p. 143, 145, 152. See also Oliver Lubrich, “Fascinating Voids: Alexander von Humboldt and the Myth of Chimborazo,” in Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, ed. Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, (Rochester: Camden House, 2012), p. 153–175.
in this case, the feeling of cold, fatigue, exertion, and altitude sickness. The Chimborazo, furthermore, is also political—notably because Simón Bolívar wrote a lyrical meditation that continued and accomplished Humboldt’s ascent: “Mi delirio sobre el Chimborazo” (1822).60 In this peculiar prose poem, El Libertador (The Liberator) imagines himself retracing Humboldt’s steps in the ascent of the mountain, to overlook the freed continent from its peak. The attempt to reach the summit, the path for which Humboldt had indicated, becomes an allegory for the revolution for South American independence.61 In a further depiction in Humboldt’s opus, the over-coded symbolic landscape of the Chimborazo serves as an allegory of conquista and independencia (conquest and independence), of colonialism and progress. François Gérard, Humboldt’s drawing teacher in Paris, designed a meaningful motif, which serves as a frontispiece for the Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (1814–1838) or even for the whole Voyage (1805–1838): “Humanitas. Literæ. Fruges” (1814—Figure 10).62 The gods Mercury (Hermes) and Minerva (Athena) console America in the form of an overthrown Aztec ruler. The melancholic pose of the vindicated
60 Simón Bolívar, “Mi delirio sobre el Chimborazo,” in Papeles de Bolívar, ed. Vicente Lecuna (Caracas: Litografía del Comercio, 1917), p. 231–234; see also “My Delirium on Chimborazo,” in El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, trans. Frederick H. Fornoff, ed. David Bushnell (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 135–136 (annotations: p. 226). 61 Humboldtian landscapes shaped Latin American scenarios of national identity: Oliver Lubrich, “Humboldts Räume,” Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert 34, no. 2 (2010): p. 240–248. 62 François Gérard, “Humanitas. Literæ. Fruges. Plin. jun. L. VIII. Ep. 24. Voy. de Humb. et Bonpl. F. Gérard Inv.t Del.t B.y Roger Sculp.t,” in Alexander von Humboldt, Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (Paris: F. Schoell, 1814[–1838]), frontispiece.
party can be understood, with Aby Warburg, as a classical “pathos formula.”63 Europe meets America as victor. Yet, the conquista is followed by rebuilding; the “Old World” gives to the “New”—as can be read on the plate—humanitas, lit[t]eræ, fruges: civilization, writing, and farming. In a later printing, the image received an economic-liberal title: “L’Amérique relevée de sa ruine par le Commerce et par l’Industrie” (From its demise, America is re-erected through trade and business).64 But the empire should know who to thank for these goods. The terms humanitas, litteræ, and fruges, as specified on the plate, originate in a letter from Pliny the Younger (Book VIII, Letter 24). Humboldt expands on these circumstances in his travel narrative.65 Plinius addressed said letter to Maximus, as the latter (in the year 108), was appointed as imperial legate in Achaia, i.e., as the governor of Greece. In this mission, the writer reminds the colonial officer that the Greeks had given other people civilization (humanity), writing (the alphabet), and farming (wheat) before they themselves had been conquered by Rome. Humboldt extends the historical logic—across the Atlantic. America was indebted to Europe in relation to these same goods for whatever Greece had handed over to Rome, and Rome to Spain, the Spaniards brought to Mexico. In a continued translatio imperii, the “New World” becomes part of the legacy of Greek culture by way of three different phases of imperialism, 63 Helga von Kügelgen, “Amerika als Allegorie: Das Frontispiz zum Reise werk von Humboldt und Bonpland,” in Netzwerke des Wissens, p. 132–133; “El Frontispicio de François Gérard para la obra del viaje de Humboldt y Bonpland,” in Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 20 (1983): p. 575–616; Jochen Meissner, “Merkur und Minerva helfen Cuauhtémoc auf die Beine: Europäisierte Amerika erfahrung im Medium der Antike bei Bartolomé de Las Casas und Alexander von Humboldt,” in Aktualisierung von Antike und Epochenbewusstsein, ed. Gerhard Lohse (Munich/Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2003), p. 198–246. 64 See Halina Nelken, Alexander von Humboldt: His Portraits and Their Artists; A Documentary Iconography (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1980), p. 34. 65 von Humboldt, Relation historique, vol. 1, p. 639.
Figure 10. “Humanitas. Literæ. Fruges. Plin. jun. L. VIII. Ep. 24. Voy. de Humb. et Bonpl. F. Gérard Inv.t Del.t B.y Roger Sculp.t” [black and white], in: Alexander von Humboldt, Atlas géographique et physique des régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent (Paris: F. Schoell, 1814 [–1838]), frontispiece.
each of which was carrying out a mission civilisatrice: Hellenic, Roman, and Spanish colonization. The frontispiece describes a many-fold transfer of culture—or culture as transfer. If the Spanish represent the victorious Romans, and the Americans the subjected Greeks, a further analogy can be seen with regard to when this work was produced: in 1806, Germany was occupied by Napoleonic France, as Greece had once been by the Roman Empire, and so in 1814, when the frontispiece was created, the insurgent Prussians would have identified with the rising Mexicans. The backdrop of this allegorical landscape as well as the props in the plate are a collage of motifs from Humboldt’s Vues des Cordillères. But the bust of the Aztec priestess has been knocked over. On the pyramid of Cholula, the conquerors have erected a chapel. The Chimborazo, however, stands majestically in the background—declared by Simón Bolívar to be a symbol of liberation.
Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira Towards a Phanerology of Images: Karl Blossfeldt and the Skin of the World
1. Morphology and archetype The first collection of photographs assembled by Karl Blossfeldt in 1928 is called Urformen der Kunst (Originary forms of art). The work’s title changed over the next two decades, first to Wundergarten der Natur (Nature’s magic garden) in 1932 and later, in 1942, to Wunder in der Natur (Wonders in nature), before it reverted back to the original title in 1948.1 Even with this back-and-forth, however, a shared semantic field remained in place, which gathered the originary forms (Urformen) in a kind of “magic garden” (Wundergarten), which emphasized the “magical” condition of nature, as the forms unveiled by the artist suggested a fusion between the natural world and photographic technology. Apparently, photographic technology was a secondary concern for Blossfeldt, enlisted only as means to render details of vegetable life in extreme close-up and, thus, to reveal a border between technology and magic of the kind that Walter Benjamin was elaborating on at just the same time, since the making-visible of vegetable life in its details here no longer entailed a magical orientation towards the material world. For Blossfeldt, photography was a medium for documenting the vegetable life of the Mediterranean, especially in Rome where 1 Hanako Murata, “Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt,” in Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949. An Online Project of the Museum of Modern Art, ed. Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014). http://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/assets/essays/Murata.pdf, accessed September 2017.
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Figure 1. Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 1—Rough horsetails I. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/ Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
he was assisting his mentor, the artist and professor of ornament and design Moritz Meurer. In Blossfeldt’s images, constructive and ornamental detail was shown to be already present in the life of plants—before it became the result of human invention (Fig. 1). Thanks to this quest for the origin of forms in plants, which triggered a technical innovation, the relationship between the ideas of “biotope” and “originary form” also took on a more intense character (Fig. 2). The first of these terms refers to the biological revelation of homogeneous conditions of life and, by extension, to the principles of classification that allow us to group plants together and to define environments. Even though Blossfeldt was calling for a contemplation of life in its m inute details, practically abandoning the idea of nature, which remained present only as a distant reference, his photographs
Towards a Phanerology of Images
Figure 2. Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 9—Umbelliffers and love-in-a-mist. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/ Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
were also situated at a limit, looking back towards Goethe and, more precisely, to The Metamorphosis of Plants, where the contemplation of nature had sustained an entire semantics. Yet Blossfeld’s images subsequently made a significant impact on the avant-gardes as well, among them the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in Germany, and the work of László Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus group, where references to the natural world informed the curves and abstract solutions of design. Blossfeldt’s pictures were also the subject of Walter Benjamin’s short article “Du nouveau sur les fleurs” (1928), subsequently developed into his “Short History of Photography” (1931), and they also contributed to the telluric force of the journal Documents, edited by, among others, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, and Carl Einstein between 1929 and 1930. In Latin America, in autumn of 1931, the journal Sur in Buenos
Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira
Figure 3 & 4. Sur 1 (Autumn 1931). Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina, Buenos Aires.
Aires published some of Blossfeldt’s photographs, placing them in the company of other images, such as a Chinese temple photographed by Otto Fischer and comparing them with industrial images, such as a close-up shot of a steel shaft and another of the gearbox of a machine (Figs. 3 and 4). The German photographer’s pictures served here to establish analogies by way of scaling, as if in the detail blown up to a ratio of one-to-twenty a previous reproduction of the forms of the world could be made visible. His images, then, played a part in the incorporation of the blown-up photographic detail into the image-world of the first half of the twentieth century. Karl Blossfeldt’s images reveal the existence of a “skin of the world” since, through the blowing-up of details and through the subsequent production of analogies, the artist shows how the world reproduces itself infinitely through the infinitesimal. The tactile quality of the skin, its capacity for touching and being touched, is thus bestowed on a gaze beholding something that
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the haptic sense had already known before. Blossfeldt contributes to a “skin of the world” by devising new kinds of social forms through his photographs, thanks to this “touching with the eyes.” He alters the subject’s presence in the world by forging new, composite and morphological types of images of natural life and of its formerly secret or invisible mechanisms. The concept of “skin of the world” offers a way of thinking the existence of the technical nature of images, as well as their relation with the natural world that is caught between the leap and the ellipsis, that is, between technology and magic, a tension that makes itself felt in Karl Blossfeldt’s images. A productive way of thinking about this body of work would be to take it outside of the history of photography and towards a phanerology of images. The latter term derives from the writings of the Swiss zoologist Adolf Portmann, in particular his book Die Tiergestalt (Animal Form), published in 1948.2 In that work, the elements of appearance and presentation materially invoke those parts of the body that are in a process of constant renewal: the epidermis, as well as hair, finger- and toenails, and teeth. In the case of the vegetable world, while the surface of plants is certainly different from human skin, the wider notion of “shell” nevertheless allows us to identify a common element from which to develop such a phanerological perspective. Shell—écorce in French, or casca in Portuguese—is a term whose Latin etymology, preserved in the medieval noun scortea, resonates with the idea of “layers of skin,” understood here as “the surface of an appearance gifted with life, reacting to pain and to the promise of death,”
2 In France, Portmann is a relatively well-known author in the areas of philosophy, literary theory, and art history, thanks to the work of critics such as Dominique Lestel (Les origines animales de la culture), Marielle Macé (Styles animaux), Emanuele Coccia (La vie sensible), and Bernard Prévost (Les apparences inadressés. Usages de Portmann), as well as the pioneering contributions of Jacques Dewitte who also translated Portmann into French.
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as Georges Didi-Huberman puts it in Écorces, adding: “Trees, too, have a skin.”3 From a morphological point of view, Goethe’s work helps us understand a form of temporality that precedes that of Blossfeldt’s images. This temporality is situated between the biotope and the originary form, that is, between the conditions of life in a certain place, its uniform physical and chemical characteristics, and the development of each of its elements. This refers back to the method Goethe devised for observing plants in order to identify an underlying morphology. The dynamic thus installed focuses more on the act of distinguishing than it does on the search for resemblances. Whereas Goethe was looking for a secret affinity between the “different external parts of plants,” in what was becoming known as “the metamorphosis of plants,” Blossfeldt was freezing the successive stages of this same metamorphosis in order to apprehend the detail.4 In this act of freezing, resemblance resurges on account of the repetition of motives. Herein lies the most immediate difference between Goethe’s and Blossfeldt’s morphological perspectives. In her introduction to The Metamorphosis of Plants, Maria Filomena Molder points to a methodology devised by Goethe, which apprehends objects in a moment that comes after the act of contemplation. In Goethe’s words, “The act of distinguishing is more difficult and laborious than the act of finding resemblances and, when one distinguishes correctly, the objects will compare themselves spontaneously with one another,” as if the gaze capable of distinguishing between objects also brought to life an intelligence within things themselves.5 We are faced here
3 Georges Didi-Huberman, Écorces (Paris: Minuit, 2011), p. 70. My translation. 4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, A metamorfose das plantas, trans. Maria Filomena Molder (Lisboa: Casa da Moeda, 1993). Originally published as Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (Berlin: Holzinger, 2016 ), p. 35. 5 Maria Filomena Molder, introduction to Goethe, A metamorfose das plantas, p. 21. My translation.
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with one of the most successful distinctions for the analysis of images throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the result of an objective way that allows itself to be permeated by a heuristics of the natural world. On the other hand, if we were to shift our attention to the optical battles waged by the avantgardes, we could also find in these a different kind of skinimage, according to which the continuous changing and proliferation of images could be understood simply as a changing of the “skin of the world.” Returning to Goethe’s methodological proposal with this idea in mind, we could envisage a morphological procedure in which everything that has form is also subject to constant modification. This would be the living intuition of nature, and, in order to take hold of it, we would also have to maintain ourselves in constant “mobility” as well as “plasticity.” Yet, in contrast to Goethe’s observational method, Blossfeldt’s images are a membrane that, in the medium of photography, conjoins the explicit temporality of the biotope with that of the originary form. Blossfeldt modifies the Goethean proposition because photography becomes a biotope that is foreign to the natural world, a naturalized technology, as Rolf Sachse puts it, since, in Blossfeldt, “plants are rarely seen from above and even less from the side, instead being almost always placed on a grey, white or black paperboard. […] Nothing distracts our attention from the object.”6 Blossfeldt’s images, then, are not merely a supplement to The Metamorphosis of Plants, first and foremost because Goethe, when publishing his text, had discarded images of any kind: “I have ventured to develop the present essay without reference to illustrations, although they might seem necessary in some respects. I will reserve their publication until later; this is
Rolf Sachse, Karl Blossfeldt (Köln-Berlin: Taschen, 1996), p. 5.
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made easier by the fact that enough material remains for further elucidation and expansion of this short preliminary treatise.”7 The image is the irreductible element that distinguishes Goethe’s morphology from Blossfeldt’s since, as Ulrike MeyerStump puts it, the material morphology of the latter’s tables and collages seeks out the archetypes of aesthetic expression, not vegetable life: Blossfeldt’s working collages are not a photographic herbarium, although they have been described as such. Blossfeldt’s interest in botany was marginal. While he took the trouble to identify some of his plants, he dissected others beyond recognition. The driving force behind his research into plants was not, as in the case of Goethe’s morphological studies, the quest for an “archetypal plant” (Urpflanze), but for “archetypal art.”8
Even while he justified quite forcefully the absence of images—Goethe’s morphology occurs entirely on the level of language—in the introduction to The Metamorphosis of Plants we also stumble upon the “secret affinity” Goethe refers to when discussing the different external parts of the plant (the leaves, the calyx, the corolla, the stamen). It is this “affinity,” in fact, which maintains the connection between Goethe and Blossfeldt in relation to plant morphology. With respect to matter and materiality, however, this heuristics of nature is now being taken in the direction of technology, with its ramifications extending into language. More precisely, the images themselves now become a part of the skin of the world since, even though they possess a particular form, this form can never remain stable. Rather, plants constantly
7 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants, trans. Gordon L. Miller (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), p. 10. 8 Ulrike Meyer-Stump, introduction to Karl Blossfeldt: Working Collages, eds. Ann Wilde and Jürgen Wilde (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), p. 15.
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undergo a process of transformation due to the analogies established with regard to other objects in the world. Through this game of resemblances, they also contribute to a constant refocusing of the gaze. These, then, are the foundations that sustain the flow of images with regard to the skin of the world, that is, to an assemblage that generates an expanded temporality by virtue of the details to which it provides access. In this way, Blossfeldt’s images played a decisive part in the world’s skin change during the twentieth century. Nevertheless, we could ask, does such a hypothesis in relation to the skin of the world not end up being a mimetic inversion of what, with Goethe, we have learned to think of as the relation between form and formation? Or has the very idea of nature now suffered an alteration at the hands of technology, as the zoologist Adolf Portmann would suggest when trying to corroborate Goethe’s intuitions by way of science? In his Neue Wege der Biologie (New Paths in Biology), Portmann explains that “technical comprehension is an essential factor in the formation of our current image of the living.”9 Walter Benjamin, striking a balance between Goethe and Portmann, would sustain that nature addresses technology in a different way than it does the human gaze, since “it is a different nature that speaks to the camera from the one that catches the eye.”10 Blossfeldt’s images, moreover, have a rhythm of comings and goings that are effectively material. They connect with an era—and bind together an era—insomuch as they acquire a particular form, even if they continue their transformation almost immediately. The samples taken from vegetable life might initially follow a biological model, only to then invent their own organs as each image addresses its beholder. Prior
9 Adolf Portmann, Neue Wege der Biologie (München: R. Piper, 1960), p. 71. My translation. 10 Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” Screen 13, no. 1 (1 March 1972): p. 5–26, https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/13.1.5
Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira
Figure 5. Anna Atkins, Photographs of British Algae, 1843–1853. Mattie Boom, Hans Rooseboom, Saskia Asser, Steven F. Joseph, and Martin Jürgens, New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2017), p. 51.
to Blossfeldt, we can already appreciate photography’s mode of apprehending a specific, individualized nature in the pioneering work of Anna Atkins who, between 1843 and 1855, composed a series of impressions of aquatic plants (British Algae) through the process of creating cyanotype prints, resulting from direct contact between the plants and the paper (Fig. 5).11 Here, the fusion between technology and paper literally produced a skin. Apart from Atkins, the work of photographers such as Martin Gerlach or Charles Aubry, as well as the amplified microscopic prints of paper fiber itself around 1900, attest to the fact that Karl Blossfeldt’s invention came about in stages—not evolutive but morphological ones—of transforming technological nature through photography (Fig. 6).
11 I wish to thank Jill H. Casid for pointing me to Atkins’ work.
Towards a Phanerology of Images
Figure 6. Anonymous (France), Microscopic prints made from paper fiber, 1900. Reproduced in: Mattie Boom, Hans Rooseboom, Saskia Asser, Steven F. Joseph, and Martin Jürgens, New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2017), p. 243.* * In his contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (June 17 to September 17, 2017), Hans Rooseboom highlights the importance of botany for the development of photography, pointing out that “while botany was the first scientific field where photography was applied (the photograms of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography, and those of Anna Atkins, the first female photographer), it was one of those areas where the need for schematic representation was so great that the wealth of detail in a photograph was more of a drawback than an advantage.” Hans Rooseboom, “Work in Progress,” in New Realities: Photography in the 19th Century (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2017), p. 30.
Blossfeldt, in sum, was continuing in this line of morpho logical transformations by way of the associative power of his images which offered yet another starting point for articulating the notions of image and of rhythm. In Primitive Art (1927), Franz Boas points to the need to consider the pheno menon of rhythm, since “the ability of primitive artists to
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ppreciate rhythm seems to be much greater than our own.”12 a The sequence of arguments briefly sketched out here—Goethe, Portmann, Benjamin, Boas—also helps us locate and look at Blossfeldt’s oeuvre in relation to the technology of photography itself, which changes our mode of observing the natural world and which those looking for originary forms in nature might have turned to—had it been available—in order to record nature’s own rhythm. Indeed, perhaps this very rhythm was also a criterion, for Blossfeldt, for classifying and arranging plants into visual tables. These images also contrast with Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations, published in 1899 in his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature). Haeckel had been an important influence on art nouveau style, including Émile Gallé’s glass panels, the architecture of René Binet at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, and even the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí whose organic forms were an amplified expression of Haeckel’s aquatic organisms, as Andrea Wulf suggests in The Invention of Nature.13 It is important to underscore, however, that the dynamic of plant life becomes itself the starting point for the development of vegetable iconographies in photography. Whereas, with Blossfeldt, we are faced with stable images and with tables in which the photographs of individual plants are organized by way of their forms, and constituted as forms, it is important to understand that their process of transformation also continued throughout the twentieth century. In the first half of the century, this transformation occurred at the hands of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, movement. This movement’s works unveil the magical element of objects—forged by means of technology— providing a response to, and a way out of, the emotional reactions of German expressionism. It is because his work contains 12 Franz Boas, Primitive Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), p. 350. 13 Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p. 312–313.
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this same aspect too, that Karl Blossfeldt can be considered a precursor of Neue Sachlichkeit.
2. Blossfeldt: The Skin of the World and the Humus of Modernity In order to maintain the unity of object and thought, Goethe had asserted his capacity for an objectively active thinking (Fig. 7). Intuitions are not only a mode of penetrating objects, they are also perforated by them, and it is for this reason that Goethe writes that “every object, when it is well contemplated, originates a new organ within ourselves.”14 Contemplation, which occurs in a different way in Blossfeldt, remained an important issue until it was replaced by an imaginary of vegetable details as if seen through a microscope: the real as altered through amplification continuously contributes to the formation of new images, paradoxically also unleashing at once a continuous striving for objectivity and an affirmation of photography as a form of art and articulating, in photographic language itself, a tension between transparency and opacity (Fig. 8). Karl Blossfeldt’s images responded to these expectations, rigorously fulfilling the photographic image’s documentary duties whilst also inscribing it with an undoubtedly artistic value, as Benjamin immediately understood, since his images also go beyond purely physiognomic or scientific interests. What I would like to highlight, however, is the underlying motivation for inventing a pedagogical tool for design and sculpture, an idea that originated in Blossfeldt’s industrial design classes; after all, he was looking in nature for models of construction to be put to use at the School of Decorative Arts in Berlin. His interest in vegetable ornaments brought him to photography at a time when the latter still needed a discourse that could legitimize it 14 Goethe, A metamorfose das plantas, p. 67. My translation.
Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira
Figure 7. Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 14—Ferns I. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
as a manifestation of art, beyond the botanical albums which, with rapid improvements in print quality, were responding to people’s curiosity. Blossfeldt, the researcher of forms, almost immediately saw his images lose their intended status as teaching materials and ascend to that of photographic art. There is a temporal dimension in which Blossfeldt’s images approximate, by way of their rhythm, those of photographers such as August Sander or Albert Benger-Pantzsch. In Le style documentaire, Olivier Lugon discusses the contemporary reception of Blossfeldt’s work, highlighting the notion of a comparative anatomy of the object-world, where only methodical work could bestow knowledge and pedagogical value on the images.15 Blossfeldt appears here as a plant anatomist who 15 Olivier Lugon, Le style documentaire: D’August Sander à Walker Evans, 1920–1945 (Paris: Macula, 2016) p. 296–297.
Towards a Phanerology of Images
Figure 8. Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 19—Dogwood and horse chestnut. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/ Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
composes tables in which details encounter each other through their ramifications. Together, Blossfeldt’s tables testify to a rich work of documentation carried out on the basis of the vegetation of the Mediterranean. Minute detail, thanks to the blowup technology of photography, acquires a scale accessible to human vision. The entire culture of ornamentality, we could conclude, was but a paraphrase of something that, until then, we had ignored because its scale placed it out of reach for the naked eye. The artist constructs a botany of images captured by photography, establishing in them a certain kind of bios—in conceiving twisted, asymmetrical, or disproportionate forms— and isolating this bios from its original biotope. This principle of abstraction from place adds to the excessive realism of the images, their clean objectivity, calling once again on the magic of technology at a moment when technology and magic were
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parting ways, in order to apprehend nature in and through its details. A morphological element is present in the details of each of the images. Perhaps it is precisely in this respect that Blossfeldt’s images renewed the way in which such details could be observed, since there is also a subterranean history of these visible surfaces. The modernism of these images also composed, structurally speaking, a ground, a humus, which is the harbinger of the skin of the world. If the hegemonic discourse of modernism used to invoke the hypothesis of a primitive force, this was because it needed to be underwritten by a consciousness of rhythm within the technology that absorbed the nature of natural forms. Each and every technological advance of the twentieth century thus also turned once again towards the sign of the origin, the primitive, the elemental.16 In Blossfeldt, this “primitive force” takes on “a highly artistic form.”17 To awaken this force through an amplification of the vegetable world opens up a historical distance between technology and magic, as Walter Benjamin immediately under16 The notion of the “elemental,” paradoxically, was an important one for the construction of European thinking in the twentieth century, as a number of titles demonstrate in exemplary fashion: Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912), by Émile Durkheim, or Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949), by Claude Lévi-Strauss. American anthropology also provides a structural-morphological vantage point from which to read Blossfeldt’s images, in particular through the notion of “pattern” coined by Franz Boas. The argument of the “survival” of particular motives that articulate a “tradition,” which integrates the literature produced under the influence of Aby Warburg, also contains anthropological aspects that are present in the work of Edward B. Taylor or in Franz Boas, where we can read sentences such as the following: “It has often been observed that cultural traits are exceedingly tenacious and that features of hoary antiquity survive until the present day. This has led to the impression that primitive culture is almost stable and has remained what it is for many centuries. This does not correspond to the facts. Wherever we have detailed information we see forms of objects and customs in constant flux, sometimes stable for a period, then undergoing rapid changes.” Boas, Primitive Art, p. 6–7. 17 Sachse, Karl Blossfeldt, p. 48.
Towards a Phanerology of Images
stood in his “Short History of Photography” or, even earlier, in “Du nouveau sur les fleurs,” where, as early as 1928, he had already mentioned flowers’ stylistic, even totemic forms, to conclude with a Latin formula recovered by Leibniz: natura non facit saltus.18 Whether or not nature really does not make leaps, does not the nature of the image, arising from the tension between the continuity and discontinuity set in motion by technology, represent a leap in relation to the natural world? Science and technology oscillate between leap and ellipsis in relation to nature, according to Muriel Pic, who has suggested that “modernity doubly stages the artistic and scientific dimension of observing nature.”19 Drawing on Aby Warburg, whose own Mnemosyne Atlas was not least a pedagogical instrument for reading images within a wider field, Pic concludes that “the legibility of the world is a natural history of images, where meaning circulates from human to astral bodies and forges a dialectical relation between intimacy and immensity, between the visceral and the celestial.”20 In this giant ellipsis that leaps from the viscera to the stars, each and every fold produced in its course is also the object of a discontinuous dialogue between artistic forms and their displacements. Displacement itself becomes an attempt, an experiment, indeed a leap that is determined by photographic technology. The latter played a decisive part in the production of pedagogical innovations, as was the case with Blossfeldt and Warburg. The drive to call on the primitive and to establish there, in its most intense and insidious moment, in the paraphrase of an earlier time—primitivism—a
18 This definition is not far removed from American photographer Walker Evans’s attempts to define a documentary style. See, on the latter, Lugon, Le style documentaire, p. 166. 19 Muriel Pic, “Leçons d’anatomie: Pour une histoire naturelle des images chez Walter Benjamin,” in L’histoire de l’art depuis Walter Benjamin, ed. Giovanni Careri and Georges Didi-Huberman (Paris: Éditions Mimesis, 2015), p. 153–183, here p. 166. My translation. 20 Pic, “Leçons d’anatomie,” p. 183.
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proximity between animal, vegetable, and “uncivilized” human life, turned the entire twentieth century into a battleground between forms and experiences that together, through the very production of images, also compose a “skin of the world.” A rich, continuously changing weft of details emerges once we observe the remains of abandoned matter in the moment of their very formation or renewal. Technology, in this sense, accelerates the production of an unconscious, through a kind of hypertrophy that interrupts logical discourse, as in the photosensitive intelligence that characterizes photography. Blossfeldt simultaneously drew a line to Goethe, from whom he took his morphological approach, and to the avant-gardes, which would organize the skin of the world along different, historical vectors. In this field of forces, we could orientate ourselves by attending to their remains, or better, to their phanerae, their appearance-being, which sets out in minute detail the fractures in the land, the ribbing of plants, and the fugitive character of animal life. These, then, are the humus of modernity, resulting from a continuous skin-change, which is to say, from telluric images. Carl Einstein, in the first issue of the journal Documents, in 1929, where he began producing his methodical aphorisms, coined the phrase that “the history of art is the struggle of all optical experiences, invented spaces, and figurations.”21 We could add that in this struggle, the images, in their transformations in becoming a skin, reveal the materiality of these changes as they pass through the history of ideas, through technological change, and through the constant alterations of our own perception: their skin-ness does not remain merely at the stage of metaphor. Even though Blossfeldt fashioned his images in the confines of his studio, their nature resonates throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, with their flowers set against dark backgrounds, their stamens set against 21 Carl Einstein, “Aphorismes méthodiques,” in Documents, vol. 1, ed. Denis Hollier (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992), p. 32
Towards a Phanerology of Images
rough surfaces, such as paper sheets or neutral backgrounds, and with their precise focal range revealing the minute detail of tiny hairs and thorns, and emphasizing folds, tips, repetitions of elements and their ramifications, all of which together gives rise to the perception of a vegetable rhythm which throbs outside human life. Blossfeldt’s tables put on display not just the details of vegetable life but also its movement, through the way in which he arranged the images. The images are not merely blown up but also enter into a temporal relation with the beholder—of acceleration or deceleration—that modifies our perception, the latter being the alliance we construct in relation to images. Between 1929 and 1930, this temporality that resulted from controlling the rhythm of images, found a strong resonance with the work of a director who also was a film theoretician, Jean Epstein, the creator of the concept of photogénie. In his Photogénie de l’impondérable (1935), Epstein writes: Slow motion and accelerated motion reveal a world in which there are no more borders between the reigns of nature. The crystals grow, rise before one another, come together with the sweetness of sympathy. Symmetries are their custom and traditions. What is so different between them and the flowers or the cells of our most noble tissues? And the plant that prepares its stem, turns its leaves toward the light, spreads and closes its corolla, that rests its stamen on the pistil, does it not, in accelerated motion, have exactly the same quality of life as the horse and its rider which, in slow motion, leap across the obstacle, the one inclining himself over the other? And the swarming of decay is in fact a rebirth.22
With Epstein, morphology, as inherited from Goethe, undergoes a transformation and comes to illuminate in the field of images the semantic layer of the modern humus, which 22 Jean Epstein quoted in Pic, “Leçons d’anatomie,” p. 167.
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would also become visible with George Bataille’s “language of flowers” and with Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious, two of modernity’s most influential approaches to the image, for which Blossfeldt was a key point of reference.
3. From the Novelty of Flowers to the Language of Flowers: Blossfeldt between Benjamin and Bataille For his article “Le langage des fleurs” (“The Language of Flowers”), published in 1929 in the journal Documents, Georges Bataille relied on Blossfeldt’s photographs—unpublished in France until then—as he explains at the end of the text (Fig. 9). Blossfeldt’s plant details allowed Bataille to close in on vegetable nature’s obscure decision, since, after all, “everything that is revealed by the configuration and color of the corolla, by the filth of pollen or the freshness of the pistil, undoubtedly cannot be adequately expressed within language.”23 With Bataille, the vegetable world becomes a problem of poetic language, an association that emerges at the point where he declares his disdain for poetry or, perhaps, rather for the flowering of language, for the ornament. Bataille argues against an ornamental use of language, which for him is the “emblem of sadness” or “the lotus of indifference.” In this critique, which is expressed in an at once rigid and parodic tone, what is at stake is the relation between form and formation within plant life: “The role given to symbols in psychoanalytic interpretations would corroborate, moreover, an explanation of this kind.”24
23 Georges Bataille, “Le langage des fleurs,” in Documents, vol. 1, ed. Denis Hollier (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992), p. 160–168, here p. 160. My translation. 24 Bataille, “Le langage des fleurs,” p. 160.
Towards a Phanerology of Images
In his detailed analysis of the language of flowers, Bataille unveils their architecture, caught between an ideal beauty and the merely episodic character of their life. Descending towards the roots of the plant, Bataille claims that the ephemeral character of the rose, which declines as its flower defoliates, contrasts with the roots in their amorous pursuit of putrefaction underground, hidden from view. In this struggle to disentangle flowers from the symbolism of love, Bataille inverts the polarity and associates them with death: “Love has the smell of death.”25 Moreover, his emphasis on the lower realm, on the life of the roots, places flowers in relation to evil (Fig. 10). As he elaborates this lowly and material “language of flowers,” Bataille also abandons a fundamental contradiction, which he eliminates through an oxymoron. He attacks a certain kind of symbolic reading of the flower, a search for its categorical imperative, identified with the part of the plant in which it realizes itself, replacing it with a different value-system, one that grants preference to the lowly—even though he himself had previously judged nature to be condemned to abstraction, against any attempt to ascribe a philosophical purpose to it. Blossfeldt’s photographs, reproduced throughout the text, testify to the monstrous aspect of the Azorean campanula, just as they reveal the diabolical ornaments of a turnip’s ramifications, the details of a giant horsetail, a wild rice plant, or a fern. Bataille dramatizes these elements of different plants, rechanneling the reader’s abstracting gaze towards the details of the images.26 25 Bataille, “Le langage des fleurs,” p. 163. 26 Portmann, too, allows us to imagine these pictures as part of a continuous skin-change, comparing Bataille’s take on them to what the zoologist would point out in his Neue Wege der Biologie: “In order to confront forms of life that we find ‘disgusting’ [unansehnlich], we have to make an effort to imagine that, neither in the technical sense nor in accordance with our laws of vision, we can easily get hold of the powers of dissimulation.” Portmann, “Die Naturgestalt,” p. 82. In Bataille, the topic of a “lowly materiality” is framed in a less metaphysical and ontological way than in Portmann’s notion of the unansehnlich (literally, what is impossible to be looked at).
Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira
Figure 9. Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 39—Pheasant’s eye and scabious. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
André Gunthert, offering an archeology of the “Short History of Photography”—the essay Benjamin published in three installments in the journal Die literarische Welt between September and October 1931—refers us to three works published in the form of photographic albums: those of Albert RengerPatzsch and Karl Blossfeldt, both from 1928, and that of August Sander, from 1929. With regard to Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst, Gunthert cross-references the various readings by Bataille, who elaborates a semiotics of the language of flowers, and by Benjamin, who, “based on the mechanisms of caricature, offers a brilliant reflection on the problem of amplification.”27 It is in combining both readings, I would suggest that a skin of 27 André Gunthert, “Archéologie de la Petite Histoire de la photographie,” in Careri and Didi-Huberman, L’histoire de l’art, p. 139–151, here p. 144.
Towards a Phanerology of Images
Figure 10. Photographs by Karl Blossfeldt in Documents, vol. 1, ed. Denis Hollier (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1992), p. 160–161.
the world can be developed—that is, by cross-referencing semiotics and technological change, the flowering of details brings about, simultaneously, a change in the symbolic value of the images and in their social representation. From the “novelty of flowers” to the “language of flowers,” from “optical unconscious” to “lowly materialism,” from The Metamorphosis of Plants (Goethe) to Neue Sachlichkeit, by way of Epstein’s notion of photogénie, Karl Blossfeldt’s photographic oeuvre invites us time and again to think of images as a skin of the world. The leaps of nature occur in the silence of images, in the details that never cease to jump out towards the beholder, in the displacements to which different knowledges are subjected within the images (in their details): in the images, but also with the images (through the composition of the tables) and between images (in the readings that take them as their point of departure).
Nuno Ramos Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
Purloined Letters Cartas do Rio Negro (Letters from the Black River, 2008) was the second project I submitted in response to a call for public art projects in Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas, Brazil. The first, Cabaré Chinelo (the project outline of which is included in these pages), after lengthy negotiations with the city prefect’s office and the funding agency, Banco Itaú, turned out not to be viable, allegedly for financial reasons (though, assisted by the prefect’s office, we had managed to get clearance to use an old mansion, this was still not deemed sufficient to get the project going). The Cartas were put forward in this context, reflecting an attempt to stay within more reasonable parameters of scale, time frame, and cost, but, as so often happens with artworks in Brazil destined for the public sphere, the initial energy evaporated and the Cartas were never realized. Responding to the cultural and urban context of Manaus, a city that turns its back on the river (and what a river!), we attempted to transform the latter into a kind of national geographical feature. The solution we came up with was the Rio Negro Exportation Scheme, taking as its foundational moment the alteration of the river from liquid to solid. The idea was to extract a few tons of water from the river and transport it to refrigerated containers that can freeze liquids to a temperature of negative forty degrees Celsius. We would then solidify great cubes of Rio Negro water, with dimensions of around four by three by two and a half meters, and a weight of around thirty tons. These cubes would be the river’s “letters,” its epistle to the distant places it would reach in its perambulations. The
cubes would be dropped off at dawn, without any fuss, left in the squares and plazas of various Brazilian municipalities, some large, some small. Each city would awaken to the presence of this “letter” in a public space (a square, a public transit station, a park): a kind of iceberg from Amazonia, which would remain there until it had melted (some three days on average, depending on local temperatures). We would film the process from a distance, neither leaving any traces nor giving explanations. In 2014, Ólafur Elíasson carried out a similar project in Copenhagen during an international conference on climate change, placing in front of the town hall great blocks of ice cut directly from the North Pole ice sheet. In spite of the s imilarity between the two projects, it’s more the differences between them that I’m struck by today. Whereas in Ólafur’s case a very particular public issue—global warming—governs and directs the entirety of the work’s symbolism and its traffic in meanings (indeed, it lived to see a second iteration a year later, during the subsequent climate summit in Paris), in my case there is a certain lack of purpose, like the “unidentified object” of Caetano Veloso’s song of the same name. An irresolvable enigma runs through everything. What is this? What is it good for? Who did it? How did it get here? Is it really ice? These, I imagine, would have been the questions that audiences in those towns and cities would have asked. Public space in Brazil, however, does not allow itself to be traversed by questions: in its state of ruin, it is itself a question, violent and overriding any other. A question that remains answered.
Riverless City Making public art is a complex matter anywhere in the world. It’s almost impossible now to compete with the everyday machinery of a megacity, with its scale and resources. The time
Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
has passed when monuments celebrated memorable feats or public figures with replicas cast in bronze or stone. These monuments gave art a place—on a pedestal, in a square, as a bust or horse, or through sheer height, a gesture or sentence, by way of the flow of a fountain or that of rhetoric—a place that, in one way or another, was shared with the pedestrian to whom it was addressed. It’s difficult now to return to that version of art without descending into ridicule. When I was entrusted with producing a work in Manaus, it seemed an unattainable and crazy idea. I hadn’t been to the city in years and found it to be totally different from the one I had known in my youth at the end of the seventies. To me, it seemed to be a living ruin in the midst of the waters and the earth, a kind of social bubble that hadn’t gone anywhere. Since there aren’t any roads connecting Manaus to other areas, cars are imprisoned in the city with nowhere else to go, unless they take a ferry to another municipality. The option of automobile traffic as an alternative to river transportation is thus becoming increasingly absurd. On my first walk, after having dropped my bags off at the hotel, I realized that I didn’t know where the river was. I had no choice but to ask a fellow pedestrian, “Where is the river?”—a completely absurd sentence to utter in this context. The Rio Negro is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and probably its most unique, since it is indeed black, reflective to an extent I have never seen elsewhere, mysterious and enormous. Its edges rise up to tens of meters, which creates fascinating urban situations. You can enter a bar to drink a Coke and ask to have a look through the window by the bar, only to come face to face with the eighth wonder of the world just behind the billiard table or next to an orange Formica chair. Nevertheless, there are neither any avenues nor parks by the river, and, if I am not mistaken, there are only two places that look out onto, and live together with, the enormous black mirror: the old port and a more recent square with a reputation for being
angerous and violent. Further inland, at several kilometers’ d distance, there is a boulevard lined with skyscrapers, among them the Hotel Tropical, which began occupying the area in the distant epoch of the seventies, turning its back on the more ancient urban context. I immediately understood that I had to involve myself with the river, making it physically enter the city. Manaus has another intense feature: old mansions in ruins. Of course, all Brazilian cities of a certain age possess this same feature, literally piling up corpses of decaying nineteenth- century architecture. Salvador and San Luis in particular have vast stacks of such ruins on offer, as if they prided themselves less on their past than on their lack of consideration for it. Brazil, I believe, is living through an urban tragedy of epic proportions, which presently is no less paramount in the agenda of our sufferings than the more commonsense items, such as the distribution of income, healthcare, or education. In Manaus, however, the nineteenth century is still alive and has a special significance. Manaus emerged a little out of the blue, with the rubber boom, and it relapsed into nothingness before it was able to form itself. Its urban project lost all viability overnight following the successful transplantation of rubber-tree cultivation to Asia. In this sense, Manaus is something of a film version of our destiny as a country exporting primary goods— projected at accelerated speed. The mansions of the rubber barons (which come to life in the writings of Milton Hatoum, and which recall the engravings of an exceptional and almost unknown artist, the Pará/Rio de Janeiro local Oswaldo Goeldi) are therefore doubly fascinating. They seem to have been surprised right in the bloom of youth, before they had had a chance to develop roots in the urban texture. My idea was quite simple: to redirect the river right into one of these mansions, thereby bringing into contact the two elements denied by the city. I planned to refurbish a mansion only to then flood it, which I thought to be interesting in itself, a kind of living oxymoron, a case of anticonservation or, who knows,
Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
of radical conservation, in the sense that in every shipwreck there is something the sea pulls away yet also, at the same time, something it salvages and preserves. The flow of river water would be pumped through external pipes made of rubber, using lampposts as supports and thus merging the pipes with the existing urban structure. We developed the idea to the point of preproduction, that is, the creation of an engineering outline and budget proposal preceding the executive project, which would be used to carry out the effective realization of the work. Surprisingly, we managed to get the support of the Manaus Municipal Office of Culture and its secretary, Robério Braga, through whom we obtained clearance to use the Cabaré Chinelo (Sandal Cabaret), an old mansion, which, after a short stint as a hotel, enjoyed a second life as a brothel under this curious name. Today, it is completely in ruins. I also benefited from the invaluable support of Marcelo de Borborema Correia, an architect from Manaus, and of Martin Corullon, a member of the Metro Arquitetos group from São Paulo, with whom we discussed every aspect of the project. Guilherme Wisnik was the general curator. Why wasn’t the project carried out in the end? Even though it had support from Brazil’s second-largest private bank, the traditional lack of funds finally kept it from going forward. A little like architecture or cinema, public art breeds big dreams and big frustrations because its results depend on public resources and perambulations. However, I believe that living and dreaming Cabaré Chinelo has been important for me nevertheless.
Figure 1. Satellite view of the Rio Negro and Manaus.
Figure 2. Location map of the Cabaré Chinelo, including the water transportation circuit.
Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
Figure 3. Hotel Cassina, on Don Pedro II square, built in 1899.
Figure 4. Exterior of Hotel Cassina in current condition. Photograph: Marcelo de Borborema Correia.
Figure 5. Floating pump system designed for installation in the river.
Figure 6. Connections for the pump system between the river and the house and connections between the elevated water pipes and the internal pump system.
Cabaré Chinelo, Manaus
Figure 7. Lateral view of the Cabaré Chinelo showing the floating deck, providing access to visitors.
Figure 8. View from above of access system and floating decks.
Figure 9. Projection of pedestrian access to the interior of the house.
Dayron Carrillo Morell Aquatic Visions and Watery Sounds: Ruptures and Sutures in the Lacustrine Landscape of Modern Mexico City Despite the gradual draining of the Texcoco Basin following the Spanish conquest in 1521, the lakeside city of Tenochtitlan took root in the colonial imaginary as the “Venice” of the New World, an island with magnificent hydraulic infrastructure that helped to rekindle the European vision of an ideal metropolis built on water.1 Demonstrating the repulsion to, and the fascination with the liquid, the expansion of Mexico City off the island resulted in one of the most controversial urban experiments in modern Latin America, marked by the struggle between the replacement of its hydric surfaces, the implementation of novel technologies to confront water scarcity, and the architectural sublimation of aquatic features both in private and public spaces. This included, among many other examples, the scenographic exploitation of water in Luis Barragán’s housing proposals for the residential community Jardines del Pedregal (1949), Pedro Ramírez Vázquez’s National Museum of Anthropology (1964), and Mario Schnjetnan’s picturesque scale reproduction of a preHispanic Valley of Mexico at Tezozómoc Park (1982). After modernist architects attempted to monumentalize Mexico City’s agonic waterscape, as a way to perpetuate a local identity associated with hydrology, recent scholars of critical cultural memory have drawn upon an “aesthetic of 1 David Y. Kim, “Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s ‘Isolario,’” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49–50 (Spring-Autumn 2006): p. 80–91. For a close reading of early Mexico City’s cartographic representation see Barbara Mundy, “Mapping the Aztec Capital: The 1524 Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan, Its Sources and Meanings,” Imago Mundi 50 (1998): p. 11–33.
Dayron Carrillo Morell
econstruction” to pinpoint the dialectical symbolism of the d watermarks inscribed in this megalopolis.2 Disclosing these morphological clues has become thereby not only a means to trace the visual archeology of a remote aquapolis, but also an analytic tool to elucidate the inconsistences in the historical construction of its lacustrine memory.3 Amid this widespread uptick of interest in Mexico City’s environmental transformations, survey art exhibitions and ongoing urban projects attest to the nostalgic resurgence of the lakeside city in its contemporary urban imaginary.4 They reveal what Andreas Huyssen terms a certain “hypertrophy of memory,” whose most distinctive aspect resides in the “palimpsestic” evocation of traumatic episodes of cultural loss at public monuments.5 A symptomatic showcase of this mnemonic superposition is the Cárcamo de Dolores (1951), a former hydraulic facility and memorial site transformed into a museum, where recently implemented policies of hyper-memorialization have reactivated the history of Mexico City’s hydrological vicissi2 See Peter Krieger, Paisajes urbanos: imagen y memoria (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, 2006). 3 Peter Krieger, ed., Acuápolis (Mexico City: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2007), p. 17–19; and Felipe Correa and Carlos Garciavelez Alfaro eds., Mexico City: Between Geometry and Geography (San Francisco: Applied Research and Design, 2015). 4 I refer here to the art exhibition Transformations in Mexico’s Urban Landscape, at the National Museum of Art in 2012; its related catalog: Peter Krieger, ed., Transformations in Mexico’s Urban Landscape: Representation and Visual Record (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2012); and the ambitious ecological and urban project “The Lakeside City,” coordinated by Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and Teodoro González de León. It sets out to recover the ancient Texcoco lake within a more comprehensive urban and reforestation master plan. See Alberto Kalach and Juan Palomar, eds., Atlas de proyectos para la Ciudad de México 2012, vol. 1–2 (Mexico City: Contornos, 2012). I also refer to the cross-disciplinary artwork and community project The Return of a Lake (2012) by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves; see Maria Thereza Alves, Catalina Lozano, and Raúl Vázquez Palacios, eds., The Return of a Lake (Cologne: Walther König, 2012). 5 Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (California: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 3–18.
Aquatic Visions and Watery Sounds
tudes. Drawing upon Marc Treib’s approach to the dynamics of memory in architectural spaces, this chapter develops a critical examination of the landscape imaginaries projected upon, and extracted from, this monument over time.6 Revisiting the Cárcamo de Dolores as a “repository of memory” should problematize how the aftereffects of techno-scientific processes of hydromodernization in mid-twentieth-century Mexico City have been politically negotiated, and recently accommodated into innovative strategies of spectacularizing landscape representation.
“Enough Water for the City” The Construction of the Lerma Aqueduct In the spring of 1938, the newspaper El Gráfico announced an ambitious project to channel water from Toluca Valley to Mexico City. To that end, the Federal District Department assigned 40 million pesos and sent specialists to the Lerma River Basin to carry out preliminary field inspections. The purpose of the future aqueduct was to guarantee the amount of water required for the capital’s population, without affecting irrigation volumes in the area supplying the water. Moreover, the gradient of the slope was to allow the installation of a hydroelectric plant with enough capacity to eliminate power cuts in the city. Thus, it was considered a highly profitable enterprise.7 Inserted within the broader rhetoric of welfare under President Lázaro Cárdenas’s revolutionary social reforms, which included the preservation of the natural environment via the creation of about twenty national parks around the Federal District, the planning of the Lerma Aqueduct entailed the civic aspiration of making
6 Marc Treib, Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. xiv. 7 “Madura el magno proyecto para traer agua del Lerma,” El Gráfico, May 27, 1938, Archivo Histórico del Agua (A.H.A.), press 116.
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natural resources accessible for human emotional and biological needs.8 However, the hunt for extraterritorial water sources demonstrated the persistence of exploitative mechanisms dating back to the colonial period, rather than progress in state policies of sustainability. After nearly five years of technical measurements and readjustments, solving water scarcity in Mexico City finally seemed to be a realizable dream. The construction of the sixty-kilometerlong pipeline between the Valley of Toluca and the Río Hondo effectively began in March 1942, although a government document dates its official inauguration by President Manuel Ávila Camacho to April 25, 1942. In 1945, only three years after work on the pipeline had begun, the costs of the aqueduct had already risen to 34,769,564 Mexican pesos of the time, nearly 87 percent of the initial budget assigned by the federal authorities.9 Confronted with an imminent ecological disaster in the capital city, the government assumed a leading role in the completion of the aqueduct. Accordingly, the press turned the project into a topic for fictionalized speculation on political transcendence. In March 1945, the newspaper El Universal informed its readers about the advanced work in progress of “one of the most daring engineering constructions in the world” intended to benefit “the two million inhabitants, who [...] turn on the taps in their bathrooms every morning, and get not a single drop of water” in “this great city thirsty and full of grime” where “healthcare services are a nightmare.”10 The apocalyptic tone used in describing the precarious living conditions of the citizens 8 See Emily Wakild, “A Revolutionary Civilization: National Parks, Transnational Exchanges, and the Construction of Modern Mexico,” Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective 1 (2012): p. 191–205; p. 191–193. 9 Lorena Torres Bernardino, Una visión política en la gestión pública del agua, ¿solución Estatal o Federal? (Toluca: Instituto de Administración Pública del Estado de México, 2014): p. 90–95. 10 “Están muy adelantadas las obras para traer agua del Río Lerma,” El Universal, March 8, 1945, A.H.A., press 156. My translation.
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deserved a hyperbolic announcement: by January 1946, “every household in Mexico could turn on a tap and leave it on overnight, without a thought for the waste, for there will be a water surplus.”11 On the same day, the newspaper El Nacional augured “enough water for the city,” according to the updated calculations offered by the federal authorities. The budding aqueduct was expected to cover the consumption needs of “eight million inhabitants”: four times the city’s population at that time.12 This optimistic prospect boasted three other advantages: the construction of three hydroelectric plants, with a generating capacity up to fifteen thousand kilowatts; the conversion of “eleven thousand hectares” of swampy soil “into magnificent lands for agriculture” in the Lerma Valley; and the reduction of both the soil’s subsidence and seismic movements in Mexico City, by putting a stop to the drilling of artesian wells.13 Alongside the economic impact of the aqueduct, the press highlighted the intrepidness of the Mexican workers who dominated the force of nature as they began drilling a fourteen-kilometer tunnel through the Sierra de las Cruces. Such a great feat warranted the attention of President Ávila Camacho, who was able to verify the magnificence of the Atarasquillo-Dos Ríos Tunnel during a meticulous inspection in June 1945. Camacho described the work as a “great opportunity” for local technicians who “demonstrated their skill and knowledge in such a way that Mexico can proudly present itself [to the world].”14 Mexicans’ “admirable competence” also met with the approval of James Sanborn, the engineer responsible for the Delaware River diversion project to supply New York City with freshwater. Sanborn, who had traveled to Mexico expressly to inspect the pipeline, 11 “Están muy adelantadas,” El Universal. My translation. 12 “Agua bastante para la ciudad,” El Nacional, March 8, 1945, A.H.A., press 157. My translation. 13 “Son grandiosas las obras que se realizan en Lerma,” Novedades, June 27, 1945, A.H.A., press 158. My translation. 14 “Son grandiosas las obras,” Novedades. My translation.
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Figure 1. President Manuel Ávila Camacho and his wife inaugurate a pumping station by the Lerma River. Photograph: Casasola, November 1946, Archivo Casasola.
assured El Universal that the new aqueduct constituted “one of the most daring works of engineering in the world.”15 Included in a regional discourse of engineering supremacy, the construction of the Lerma Aqueduct required another eight years of arduous labor, in which the merging of political and natural bodies portrayed a triumphalist image of technological success. An archival photograph of President Ávila Camacho and the First Lady inaugurating a pumping station near the Lerma River, shows how state-led achievements in water management, and the connotative value attributed to it, became a tool to legitimize the uncontrolled consumption of natural sources (Fig. 1).
15 “Están muy adelantadas,” El Universal. My translation.
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Empowering Aquatic Visions for a Modern Landscape On September 4, 1951, the redeeming water returned to Mexico City parallel to the official inauguration of the Cárcamo de Dolores, a distributing station that connected the sixty-kilometer pipeline with the four Molinos del Rey storage tanks located on the periphery of Chapultepec Park.16 Following the aesthetic precepts of “plastic integration” within the simple premise of an unsubordinated and simultaneous planning of Kunst am Bau, the Mexican architect Ricardo Rivas collaborated with muralist Diego Rivera also to house in this building a memorial for the construction of the Lerma Aqueduct.17 “A monument,” wrote Rivera, “for the workers who died in the execution of the project, sacrificing their lives in the most heroic manner in order to quench the thirst of the people in Mexico City” (Fig. 2).18 Following a close reading of the architectural design of the Lincoln Memorial, Lawrence J. Vale has examined the way in which some monumental state buildings confer symbolic meaning on the place where they are embedded. From literal denotation in inscriptions to metaphorical uses of architectural typologies, these monuments inform us about the s ociocultural
16 Constructed by the Mexican engineer Manuel Marroquín under Porfirio Diaz’s regime (1876–1911), the aforementioned facilities were part of a hydraulic system that comprised the former Aqueduct of Xochimilco and the Pumping Station of Condesa. See Manuel Marroquín y Rivera, Memoria descriptiva de las obras de provisión de aguas potables para la ciudad de México [sic] (Mexico: Müller-Indianilla, 1914), p. 393–400; and El Chorrito de la Fuente, De cómo Porfirio Díaz dominó las aguas: Historia de la construcción de la obra hidráulica (México: Comisión Nacional del Agua, 1994), p. 78–82. 17 To further explore the “plastic integration” in this building see Louise Noelle, “Integración plástica y funcionalismo: El edificio del Cárcamo del Sistema Hidráulico Lerma y Ricardo Rivas,” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 78 (2001): p. 189–202. 18 Diego Rivera, “Plastic Integration in the Lerma Water Distribution Chamber. Theme: ‘Water: Origin of Life on the Earth,’” Espacios 9 (February 1952): n.p.
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Figure 2. Commemorative plaque for the workers who died during the construction of the Lerma Aqueduct. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, February 2016.
clues encoded in postcolonial capital cities.19 As a m emorial site that exemplifies this tradition, the Cárcamo shares a similar rhetorical schema in the way it discloses Mexico City’s historical relation with water. Beginning with the exterior of
19 Lawrence J. Vale, Architecture, Power, and National Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 3–6. For an extended analysis of this subject, see Chapter 1, “Capital and Capitol: An Introduction,” p. 3–46. See Nelson Goodman, “How Buildings Mean,” in Reconceptions in Philosophy, ed. Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988). Goodman identifies four communicational mechanisms through built environments: denotation, exemplification, metaphorical expression, and mediated reference.
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Rivas’s temple-like facade, four gargoyles resembling geometric snakes’ heads crown the pavilion’s angles, probably as an allegory of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Snake, and the Aztec deity who is related to Tenochtitlan’s mythical foundation. According to Rivera, the pavilion would serve as “a sculptural shell” that could be entirely covered by paintings. The scenes would grow “upwards from the bottom of the chamber, rising to culminate in the cupola and extending outside in a fanshaped mirror of water united with the rest by a central axis.”20 Although Rivera did not accomplish such an ambitious plan, he still managed to complete the two extremes of this narrative. Inside, the decoration of the cistern is made up of an underwater mural, Water: Origin of Life on the Earth (1952), with allegorical motifs about the construction of the aqueduct and its social impact on public services. Outside, a monumental fountain with a semi-sunken sculpture of Tláloc—the deity who stands for fertility and the hydrological cycle in the Aztec’s ancient worldview—stands in front of the pavilion (Fig. 3). The murals and the fountain articulate a genealogical landscape of Mexico City, which would allow the spectator to view the archaeological reconstruction of a lacustrine habitat in its entirety. In the submerged scenes of the pool, two workers with pickaxes and drills complete the piercing of a tunnel, allowing the monumental hands of Tláloc to enter from the exterior through its mouth and to pour water into the sump. This action introduces a primary thematic plot on the top of the sidewalls. It begins with some laborers using their helmets to offer the liquid to the lower-class citizens living in a dusty city and ends with a group of people enjoying clean water in fertile surroundings (Fig. 4). In one corner, a proletarian family cultivates their g arden;
20 Rivera, “Plastic Integration in the Lerma,” n.p. To date no sketches of the complete pictorial plan of the building have been found.
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Figure 3. Cárcamo de Dolores. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, February 2016.
in the other, the bourgeoisie devote “themselves to hydrotherapeutic hygiene and the healthful pleasure of swimming.”21 As the landscape recovers its fertility through the conjunction of both godlike and human agency, a second sequence depicted on the floor progresses toward the sluicegates that connect the moat with the storage tanks. A superb torrent drags plankton and forms a colony of microorganisms in the center of the composition. This colony comes into focus by a microscope lens, which sets up the connecting point to the transversal axis that thematically recreates Alexander Oparin’s theory of The Origin of Life. 22 Combining this theory with contemporary scientific verifications of the Mongo-Negroid ethnic roots of humanity, Rivera charts his own map of human evolution. Along with amphibians and fish, two human figures emerge from the torrent by way of the sidewalls showing their reproductive systems to the spectators, as if to take biological credit for the contrasting waterscape of
21 Rivera, “Plastic Integration in the Lerma,” n.p. 22 Antonio Lazcano Araújo, “El agua y el origen de la vida,” in El agua, origen de la vida en la Tierra: Diego Rivera y el Sistema Lerma, ed. Miquel Adrià (Mexico City: Arquine, 2012), p. 80–93.
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Figure 4. Diego Rivera, Water: Origin of Life on the Earth. Detail of the northern sidewall and the floor. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, February 2016.
odern Mexico City. Closing the sequences on the sluicegates, a m portrait of the engineer Eduardo Molina and his team discussing the project together with the architect Ricardo Rivas completes the hydrological “biography” of a city born on water (Fig. 5). If one looks at the Cárcamo’s aquatic scenes as a narrative unit, they seem to supplement a longue durée initiated by Rivera in another of his murals, La gran Tenochtitlan (The Great Tenochtitlan, 1945). Much as he envisions a flourishing Amerindian aquapolis in the central courtyard of the National P alace, Water: Origin of Life sets the biological and cultural evolution of a historical realm marked by its relation with water. By “coming to life within the water which lends movement to their forms,” this second mural fulfilled a “hydrodynamic function” that was essential to the operation of the hydraulic infrastructure.23 But 23 Diego Rivera, “Arquitectura y pintura mural,” in Diego Rivera: Textos de arte, ed. Xavier Moyssén (México: Colegio Nacional, 1996), p. 194–199; p. 196: “A true mural painting is necessarily a functional part of the life of
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Figure 5. Diego Rivera, Water: Origin of Life on the Earth. Detail of the sluicegates. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, February 2016.
neither the painting nor its kinetic effect was exactly intended to be a public spectacle, since the chamber remained only accessible to illustrious visitors and technicians for more than four decades. Even though the facility reopened to ordinary visitors as a museum, Rivas’ temple still seems to protect these “sacred” scenes inside its walls, in the same way that restrictive access to a traditional sanctuary exalts the m agnificence of a deity in the cella.24 Interestingly, what this chamber encloses is not the sculpted figure of Tláloc—a gesture that would directly have advocated a mediated relation with the Great Temple at the Zócalo. Instead, it contains the depiction of a biotope that metathe building; a synthetic and expressive sum of its human functions […] a joining and amalgamating element between the machine that is the building and the human society that uses it.” My translation. The text was originally published in the Architectural Forum (January 1934). 24 Noelle, “Integración plástica,” p. 195.
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phorically designate the promising future of a revived aquifer. Though still bound to its Aztec roots, this emerging narrative displaces the ancestral myth that used to ensure a providential balance in the “natural” interactions of human-nonhuman agents, to become anchored in the techno-scientific knowledge upon which the industrial aspirations of a modern city are predicated (Fig. 6). Rivera observed that the Fountain of Tláloc would be best seen “from above—from an airplane—and welcome travelers arriving in Mexico City with the artistic expression of its people.”25 In effect, Rivera’s aerial perspective emulates in significant ways the “geographical gaze” experienced by Le C orbusier during his grand tour in South America in 1929 that he explains theoretically in his “American Prologue” to Precisions on Architecture.26 In this journey, as Jorge Francisco Liernur and Pablo Pschepiurca put it, “more than a simple vehicle associated with the future, the airplane is the instrument that will allow him to establish a distant point of view, from which human creations will disappear or be perceived in the abstraction of geometry.”27 When one flies over Chapultepec Park, the Cárcamo increasingly comes into view as a juxtaposition of three geometrical figures (the curved-trapezoidal form of the fountain and the circle of the dome framed in the quadrangular body of the building), defining a sort of cartographic index of the aqueduct’s mouth in the city. From this perspective, the fountain seems to be encrusted in the ground, resembling a primitive mark of the human on nature, similar to the Nazca Lines. This optical effect adheres to what Adnan Morshed terms the modernist “empowerment in the act of looking from 25 Diego Rivera, “Plastic Integration in the Lerma,” n.p. 26 Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme  (Paris: Éditions Vincent, Fréal & Cie., 1960), p. 4–5. 27 Jorge Francisco Liernur and Pablo Pschepiurca, La red austral: Obras y proyectos de Le Corbusier y sus discípulos en la Argentina, 1924–1965 (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes / Prometeo, 2008), p. 126.
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Figure 6. Performance in front of the Cárcamo de Dolores. Children’s costumes represent some Aztec deities. Photograph: Casasola, ca. 1950 [sic.]. Archivo Casasola.
above,” where aerial viewing constitutes an effective methodological tool for approaching geographical spaces in order to integrate culture (architecture) into the site-specificities of nature (landscape).28 But if Le Corbusier found in the aerial gaze an empirical method to underscore the natural forms of architecture in relation to the aquatic phenomenology of the earth—theoretically conceptualized in his loi du méandre— Diego Rivera appropriates this trope to elucidate the cultural telos of a modern nation devoted to hydraulics. Rivera’s translation of the Mexican “spirit” into legible chromatic shapes at the Cárcamo also echoed many of the contemporary discussions about the accurate techne for integrating modern architecture into local natural sceneries. In 1952, the magazine Espacios praised this messianic labor in emancipat28 Adnan Morshed, “The Cultural Politics of Aerial Vision: Le Corbusier in Brazil (1929),” Journal of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (2002): p. 201– 210; p. 202.
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ing Mexicans from “silence of abstraction,” using the figurative “language of History […] the only language that reaches people.”29 Having evolved in the clash between “realism” and “abstractionism,” this controversy found another exemplar in Luis Barragán’s project for the Jardines del Pedregal, an upperclass residential community set on a lava field south of Mexico City, equipped with stone-walled gardens and spectacular waterworks underscoring the natural beauty of the region. Still taking off by the time the Cárcamo’s pictorial discourse was deployed to sociocultural ends of hydraulic reaffirmation, the housing project at El Pedregal intended to restore the emotional relationship of its potential dwellers with nature. Drawing on idiosyncratic beliefs about memory and mystery, Barragán prescribed the aesthetic value of this bucolic suburbia, “where modern man could meditate and allow his imagination to develop creative and spiritual ideas,” as the normative landscape-form against the metropolitan dystopia of the modern city (Fig. 7).30 Even though Barragán’s precepts of an ethereal landscape were not entirely divorced from Rivera’s cosmic architectonics, which meant to comply with the “supreme purpose which is the harmony among men and between men and the earth” by including in the design of the building the site-specificities of its emplacement,31 El
29 Lorenzo Carrasco and Guillermo Rossell, “Diego Rivera en las obras del Lerma,” Espacios 9 (February 1952): n.p. My translation. 30 Luis Barragán, Luis Barragán escritos y conversaciones, ed. Antonio Riggen Martínez (Madrid: El Croquis, 2000), p. 37–38. William Curtis sustained that El Pedregal “fused together modernist simplicity and spatial conceptions with echoes of Mexico’s Hispanic and ancient past, in an evocative language of plain walls, water tanks and coloured planes.” William J. R. Curtis, “Towards an Authentic Regionalism,” Mimar: Architecture in Development 19 (1986): p. 24–31; here p. 26. 31 Diego Rivera, “La huella de la Historia y de la Geografía en la Arquitectura de México,” in Ideario de los arquitectos mexicanos, ed. Ramón Vargas Salguero and J. Víctor Arias Montes (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2010), p. 458–495; p. 460. My translation. On this topic also see Alberto T. Arai, “Caminos para una arquitectura mexicana,” Espacios 9 and 11–12 (February and October 1952).
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Figure 7. Luis Barragán, Exhibition Garden at El Pedregal. Photograph: Armando Salas Portugal, ca. 1951. Scanned reproduction courtesy of Archivo Fundación Armando Salas Portugal.
Pedregal’s architectural landscaping received several critiques for being elitist and disconnected from the authenticity of preColumbian architectural traditions.32 But in the case of the Cárcamo, the metaphorical redemption of an aquatic domain in the surroundings of the Chapultepec Park carried more than just the mediated reference to a 32 For example, the Mexican architect Juan O’Gorman fiercely disapproved of the lack of realism and “aggressiveness” of both the houses and the gardens at El Pedregal. See Keith L. Eggener, “Contrasting Images of Identity in the Post-War Mexican Architecture of Luis Barragán and Juan O’Gorman,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): p. 27–45.
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mythical island. Covering some 850 hectares, this park delimits for the metropolis a historical site linked to water management during both the pre-Hispanic and the viceregal periods, since the springs from the Chapultepec Hills supplied the metropolitan population with freshwater through a twelve-kilometerlong eponymous aqueduct until the mid-nineteenth century (Fig. 8). For Emily Wakild, “the existence of a naturalized oasis such as Chapultepec inside the archetypal uncontrolled urban environment reveals the contradictions of a larger national relationship with, and fascination for, nature.”33 And, within this paradoxical narrative, its contradictory relationship with water. Thus, Chapultepec typifies what Vale refers to as a “locus of postcolonial power,” with artificial lakes and monumental storage tanks serving as propagandistic instruments of nineteenthcentury dictator Porfirio Díaz’s sanitation agenda, which took on national concerns with order and civilization through magnificent enterprises of water domestication—including the completion of the Gran Desagüe in 1901 (Fig. 9).34 Located near the Panteón Civil de Dolores (Civic Pantheon of Dolores), the largest and oldest cemetery in the city harboring the Rotonda de las Personas Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Persons), the Cárcamo seems even to hint at the solemnity of Mexico’s most venerable humanist and cultural values. In its intertextual “refiguration” of the space—to borrow an expression from Paul Ricoeur—the narrative projected on the Cárcamo carries forward the intersection of water engineering and cultural memory to enhance the symbolic capital of a
33 Emily Wakild, “Parables of Chapultepec: Urban Parks, National Landscapes, and Contradictory Conservation in Modern Mexico,” A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modem Mexico, ed. Christopher R. Boyer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), p. 192–217; p. 193. 34 Emily Wakild, “Naturalizing Modernity: Urban Parks, Public Gardens and Drainage Projects in Porfirian Mexico City,” Mexican Studies 23, no. 1 (Winter 2007): p. 101–123.
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Figure 8. Fountain Salto de Agua (1779), which provided fresh water to the colonial city. In the background, the mark of the former Chapultepec Aqueduct dividing the lanes of the eponymous avenue. Photograph: Casasola, ca. 1950, Archivo Casasola.
odern Mexico City committed to an industrious future.35 In m a critical sense, the commemoration of a government labor force’s triumph over indomitable nature in the quest for emergent water sources has much of the ambiguous political symbolism that Vale attributes to monumental state buildings in postcolonial capital cities, where “the manipulation of civic space […] tends to sanction the leadership’s exercise of power and to promote the continued quiescence of those who are
35 Paul Ricoeur , “Arquitectura y narratividad,” in Arquitectonics 4: Arquitectura y Hermenéutica (Barcelona: UPC, 2003), p. 9–30.
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Figure 9. Ventilation tower of one of the four Molinos del Rey storage tanks. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, May 2015.
excluded.”36 The spectacular celebration of state-led water engineering at the Cárcamo conveys thereby a “dual sense of alienation and empowerment” as it epitomizes the resilience of longstanding practices of the human colonialization of nature and the asymmetries between social and natural bodies.
Buried Waters for Resilient Utopias Just a few months after the Cárcamo reached completion, some critical information accounted for the premature insufficiency of the Lerma System. A demographic survey conducted in 1952 revealed that only 50 percent of the population in the Federal District was connected to the metropolitan network of d rinking 36 Vale, Architecture, Power, and National Identity, p. 8.
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water. The other half still was receiving water through cistern wagons and pumping stations distributed throughout the neighborhoods (colonias). These statistics pointed out the dialectic of the sanitary program launched by the new government of President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958) and the mayor of the Federal District Ernesto Uruchurtu (1952–1966), who promoted burying the city’s fluvial surfaces underground in some eighty kilometers of pipeline.37 While the city’s veins disappeared under a thick layer of concrete and asphalt, the increased levels of pumping in the Lerma Basin drastically reduced the water reserves in the supply areas, leaving behind a dramatic scene of desertification. Ironically, the aquatic scenes of the Cárcamo began to fade due to the erosion caused by the Lerma’s flow. Aware of the fragility of the synthetic materials applied on the walls, Diego Rivera proposed replacing the paintings with mosaics. However, his death in 1957 curtailed the immediate restoration of the artwork. Lacking proper maintenance and gradually thinned by the Lerma’s flow, a large part of the murals disappeared under a thick layer of slime and waterproofing, and the remainder dissolved into the water to be drunk for decades by the inhabitants of Mexico City.38 Even the fountain collapsed just like the grains of corn that Tláloc symbolically spreads on the floor, in a gesture of restoring fertility to dry land. But no maíz plant germinated on it, just a thick gray layer of concrete and asphalt. Far from its hydrokinetic functioning, the “aquatic Mexico” lay hidden somewhere in the Chapultepec Forest, with the failed promise of abundant water that never managed to quench the thirst of the city.
37 Krieger, Acuápolis, p. 23; p. 28. In 1953, the headline of a note published in the magazine Arquitectura México 41 (March 1953), p. 59, declared: “Either we sink or die of thirst,” referring to the need to eliminate the five thousand artesian wells that operated in the city. 38 Eduardo Vázquez Martín, “Diego Rivera en el Jardín del Agua,” in El agua, origen de la vida en la Tierra: Diego Rivera y el Sistema Lerma, ed. Miquel Adrià (Mexico City: Arquine, 2012), p. 26–40; p. 27.
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Watery Sounds of the Missing Aquapolis After a long and erratic trajectory, which also ended in the entombing of the aqueduct’s mouth in 1992 and several attempts to refurbish Rivera’s works of art, the Cárcamo was relaunched as an exhibition space of the Museo Jardín del Agua (Garden of Water Museum) in 2011. Conceived as a sort of theme park made up of the four tanks of Molinos del Rey and the former Cámara Baja pump, this museum disseminates knowledge on water management in modern Mexico City. For the new curatorial concept of the exhibition, the Mexican artist Ariel Guzik completed the construction of Cámara Lambdoma (2010), a site-specific sound installation that acoustically enlivens the building. Working on the Pythagorean model of the Harmonic Lambdoma, the piece uses a sensor submerged in the aqueduct’s torrent to absorb the white noise of the groundwater and a meteorological tower to record the electromagnetic fields in the atmosphere. Inside the building, an electric modulator completes the sound synthesis and elaborates tonal nuances while showing the public the process of sonic multiplication on a graphic board (Fig. 10). Finally, two massive tubular organs installed in the room captivate the audience with an aleatory harmonic symphony that recalls the presence of water as a fundamental element associated with Diego Rivera’s mural, and—according to a curatorial synopsis of Cámara Lambdoma—“seeks to produce in the spectators a state of introspection and, at the same time, an awareness of the force and breadth of the torrent flowing, like blood, through the multiple arteries of Mexico City.” 39
39 Laboratorio de Investigación en Resonancia y Expresión de la Naturaleza, “Cámara Lambdoma,” in El agua, origen de la vida en la Tierra: Diego Rivera y el Sistema Lerma, ed. Miquel Adrià (Mexico City: Arquine, 2012), p. 51. My translation.
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Figure 10. Cárcamo’s interior. In the background, Cámara Lambdoma’s modulation and graphic board, as well as sectional view of one of its tubular organs. Photograph: Dayron Carrillo Morell, February 2016.
Known as a transdisciplinary inventor with extensive experience in fields of human knowledge including the study of resonance and harmonics, ecology, and philosophy, Ariel Guzik has created a dozen site-specific sound machines “that—according
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to Cuban art historian Osvaldo Sánchez—recodify registers and require for their reading a certain mystical bent, utopian disposition, analytic mediation, and/or spiritual aptitude. [They] activate the sensorial potentials of the invisible surroundings and are able to induce […] an empathetic revelation of the Cosmos.”40 If the artistic instrumentalization of water in the Cárcamo did not originally posit sonority but materiality as the determining factor for its scenography, what does it imply then to unearth the “voice” of the stream and to project it upon the murals as part of the new museography? How is the audience’s perception affected by this particular experience, and what are the epistemological consequences of looking at the representation of a landscape while listening to an acoustic description of its natural surroundings? In his seminal book Acoustic Territories, Brandon LaBelle suggests that “the temporal and evanescent nature of sound imparts great flexibility, and uncertainty, to the stability of space. Sound disregards the particular visual and material delineations of spatial arrangements, displacing and replacing the lines between inside and out, above from below.”41 LaBelle’s conceptualization of the mediating relation between the sound and the physical specificities of a space seems to speak directly to the particular ways in which the ambient music created by Guzik’s Cámara Lambdoma recodifies the symbolism embedded in the Cárcamo, and affects the audience’s perception of it. To allow the “voice” of the surroundings to enter into the enclosure and break its silence infringes on the spatial boundaries 40 Osvaldo Sánchez, “Belonging by Enchantment,” Cordiox: Ariel Guzik (Barcelona: RM, 2013), p. 129–130; p. 129. 41 Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2010), p. xxi. LaBelle identifies six acoustic territories in the contemporary metropolis and associate each of them with a different sound figure: the underground appears associated with the echo, the house with forms of silence, shopping centers with the effect of feedback, sidewalks with rhythm, streets and cars with vibration, and the sky with transmission.
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that distinguish the building from its emplacement, reopening the channel through which the aqueduct’s flow used to lend motion to both the mural’s pictorial immobility and atemporality. In so doing, the acoustic intervention becomes “more fully an act of imaginary projection and transference, […] occupying a temporal zone where a visual source [is] suspended and reconfigured according to auditory association.”42 Assuming that this conjuncture exceeds the simplicity of a multimedia arrangement that pursues a sensationalist impact on the audience, then the physics of the sound event would suggest a phenomenological key for accessing the implicit ways in which the envisaged waterscape is renegotiated in the clash between physical loss and memorialization. Cámara Lambdoma was Guzik’s first incursion into the acoustic ambience of an architectural monument preceding the creation of Cordiox (Mexico City, 2013), a four-meter string instrument made up of a quartz cylinder and three harps whose emission/reception mechanism works on the basis of spatial resonance. With Cordiox, Guzik simulated the Cárcamo’s intervening experience in the ancient Chiesa di San Lorenzo, which housed the Mexican Pavilion at the 55th Biennale di Venezia. Intrinsically bound up with the lives and musical careers of prominent Italian composers, the history of this sixteenthcentury church imparts great significance to the splendor of Venice’s cultural humanism.43 By establishing a sonic dialogue with its interior surface, the machine rendered more than just a melodic depiction of a tumbledown monument not entirely 42 LaBelle, Acoustic Territories, p. xx. 43 Itala Schmelz, “From Chaos to Harmonious Order,” in Ariel Guzik: Cordiox, Volume 55 of Biennale di Venezia, ed. Itala Schmelz (Barcelona: RM, 2013), p. 107. Antonio Vivaldi is said to have composed the Concerto in C Major Per la solennità di San Lorenzo for the feast day of the patron saint and used to rehearse his concerti in this church. Gioseffo Zarlino, the author of the treatise Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), was buried there, and Luigi Nono performed his opera Prometeo during the 41st year of the Biennale in 1984.
Aquatic Visions and Watery Sounds
accessible to the public. It went so far as to disclose the historical and psycho-emotional elements inscribed in this venue. Returning to LaBelle, the acoustic event in the Church of San Lorenzo entailed a certain disorientation, agitation, and rupture to the vector of sound and its temporal unfolding. With the return of the sound event in the form of echoes, origin and horizon fold back on each other to create feelings of timelessness. Yet, things stand still by also coming back; the echo, in bringing sound back, breaks the sense of [temporal] progression.44
Within this process, the spatial hollow emerged as discursive trope for the audience’s affective reconstruction or refilling of a cultural memory. Disregarding the sublime circumstance that would imply recalling Venice’s and Mexico City’s hydrological affinities by sonic means, Cordiox shares with Cámara Lambdoma the performative mediation between the spectator and the mnemonic clues of the exhibition room. Interestingly, the very idea of the audience’s immersive experience for the activation of the sonic memory in the Church of San Lorenzo was being deployed in the Cárcamo as a participative way to uncover the visual and temporal detachment of the sound from its sources. Projected into the auditory field as a haunting melody that appears from nowhere, this sound effect manipulates the audience’s perception using the traditional principle of the “acousmatic,” a Pythagorean teaching method that prioritizes the impact of the voice over the materiality of the body for fixing oral information.45 Thus, by means of the groundwater’s acousmatics, Cámara Lambdoma reinvigorates a bygone aquifer that left behind the terrestrial domain as a biotope and becomes a more 44 LaBelle, Acoustic Territories, p. 14. 45 On the “acousmatic” see Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).
Dayron Carrillo Morell
powerful and suggestive image through its acoustic realization as a mnemonic device.46 The liminality of this aural process challenges the heteronomy that is so central to LaBelle’s definition of “otherness” in the soundscape, for the echoing aura of the underground space—in its double sense as basement and counterculture—suggests a contesting performance that neutralizes the political iconography of the promising landscape envisioned in this monument. Spectacular in its proportions and symbolism, the Cárcamo de Dolores’s aquatic scenes turn the biological need for water into an aesthetic manicuring of indiscriminate human exploitation of nature. As it unfolds between the celebration of the hydraulic feat of the Lerma Aqueduct’s construction and the idealized envisaging of a techno-scientific landscape associated with progress, this memorial site attests to the asymmetry in the politics of a lacustrine memorialization that includes zones of social instability and environmental fragmentation. The reconquest of water by means of sonic strategies of hypermemorialization implemented by the most recent aesthetic intervention at the Cárcamo, suggests the persistence of a colonial substrate in human processes of place-making. It speaks to the failure of state politics of hydro-modernization, as well as to the constraints and states of tension between human and nature in mid-twentieth-century Mexico City.
46 LaBelle, Acoustic Territories, p. 15.
Lisa Blackmore Colonizing Flow: The Aesthetics of Hydropower and Post-Kinetic Assemblages in the Orinoco Basin Catastrophe is coming. This, argues Jason Moore, is the upshot of five centuries of human attempts to colonize nature. “Capitalism—or if one prefers, modernity or industrial civilization— emerged out of Nature. It drew wealth from Nature. It disrupted, degraded, or defiled Nature. And now, or sometime very soon, Nature will exact its revenge.”1 If this ecological impasse must be traced through a longue durée of human and nonhuman encounters in capitalism’s historical geographies as Moore suggests, then an extractive frontier like the Orinoco basin is a fitting place to start. Hydrological survey and hydroelectric infrastructure have long been metrics of human conquest of nature, and this is especially true in the Orinoco—a realm where the interests of empire, capital, and nation have played out for centuries. Established in the colonial imaginary as the route to El Dorado, in modernity the river was reframed as a “moving mirror” of Venezuelan progress.2 In the late twentieth century, the river’s colonized flow reflected a picture of unrelenting industrialization. In the 1970s, the State built the Central Hidroeléctrica Simón Bolívar—one of the largest dams and hydroelectric plants in the world, which generates energy from the Caroní River, the Orinoco’s main tributary. Not only this, it also filled the plant’s engine rooms with outsize works of kinetic art whose production of vibrating motion mirrored the energy generated by the river waters as they spun the turbines, 1 Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015), p. 5. Emphasis in the original. 2 Venezuelan intellectual Mariano Picón Salas uses the phrase “moving mirror” in his prologue to Rafael Gómez Picón, Orinoco, río de libertad (Madrid: Afrodisio Aguado, 1953), p. 13.
coursed through Venezuela’s national grid, and then into homes and businesses, powering a nation on the move. As art critic Alfredo Boulton put it at the time, the dam materialized a schism between premodern and modern timescapes: That entire world of vegetation, of primary force, of mysterious forests, snakes and cataclysmic sounds, that entire magical world suddenly comes to a halt at the docile edge, the lake, which outlines at the feet of the Raul Leoni Dam a new Parima set in the very same geographical spot where the ancient cartographers of Rotterdam, De Bry, Blaue and Hondius placed the site of El Dorado and its capital Manoa in the ancient maps of the 17th century.3
Hydroelectric megaprojects are built on assumptions about human-nature relations. They presuppose a steady flow of water consistent with yearly rainfall patterns and climatic phenomena, and they wager that mathematical calculations (flow patterns and hydraulic modeling) and hydroengineering facilities (sluices and reservoirs) can reliably harness river flow to generate an unstinting supply of electricity. Today, however, the waters of the Orinoco basin fluctuate unpredictably between drought and deluge, and the catastrophic failure of Venezuela’s hydroelectric facilities is a topic of regular speculation. As recently as August 2017, an unexpected bout of torrential rains threated Guri with collapse. As engineers opened the floodgates, the homes of nearby communities were flooded and hundreds were displaced. Nature, whether exacting revenge or not, had clearly escaped human control.4
3 Alfredo Boulton, Art in Guri (Caracas: C.V.G. Electrificación del Caroní (EDELCA), 1988), p. 24. 4 Indeed, this is evident in the plans outlined by Venezuelan hydroelectric experts to run Guri at below its ideal capacity levels: see G. Montilla, A. Marcano, and C. Castro, “Air Intake at Guri Dam Intake Operating at Low Heads,” in Hydraulics of Dams and River Structures, ed. Farhad Yazdandoost and Jalal Attari (London: A.A. Balemka Publishers, 2004), p. 69–78.
Even amid the increasing frequency of ecological crises, faith in hydroelectric megaprojects continues unabated both in Venezuela and worldwide. This situation compels a revision of the human-nature relations that have been historically interwoven both in the Orinoco’s web of life and in the poetics of hydroelectric infrastructure. The ontology of infrastructure (hydroelectric or otherwise) bridges technopolitics, poetics, and political ecology. Hence, as “concrete semiotic and aesthetic vehicles,” dams are both mouthpieces for the developmentalist discourses associated with human quests to put nature to work, and structures that entangle human and nonhuman things in the systematic movement of matter.5 With this in mind, in the pages to follow I retrace these relations through historic and modern conceptions of the river basin as a resource to be colonized by humans, before dwelling on the high watermark of hydromodernity left by the dams built in Venezuela in the 1960s and 1970s. I probe the aesthetic and discursive valences of the hydraulic and kinetic flows set in place in hydroelectric plants, by linking their infrastructure, public spaces, and monumental artworks to national narratives of industrialization. Ultimately, by attending to recent interruptions of these flows in light of new materialist thinking, I seek to reframe Venezuelan hydroelectricity as an assemblage shaped as much by human feats of engineering and art as by the “vibrant matter” of nonhuman actants.6
5 Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 3 (2013): p. 327–343, here p. 329. 6 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Taming the Waters Measuring some 948,000 square kilometers, the Orinoco basin covers approximately four-fifths of Venezuela and a quarter of Colombia. From its sources in the Guiana Highlands to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, the basin’s eponymous river flows over some 1,700 miles, departing from its headwaters to course through rapids and rain forests, before meandering through expansive grasslands. In the upper region, the O rinoco’s muddy waters are joined by the sapphire blue ones of its main tributary the Caroní, which springs from Angel Falls and is fed by the Kukenan, Arobopo, and Yuruani rivers among the Gran Sabana’s ancient massifs. As it reaches the lower region, the Orinoco swells in rainy season to between five and fourteen miles in width before bifurcating, about thirty miles downstream from Ciudad Guayana, to form its delta of innumerable canals (caños) and islands. Finally, as it seeks out the ocean, the river splits into two main distributaries: the Río Grande that discharges into Boca Grande to the east, and Caño Mánamo which flows north to Boca de Serpiente, just below Trinidad. It takes scant effort to compose this high-altitude picture today. But for centuries explorers were frustrated in their quests to chart the Orinoco, which was conceived of as a fluvial highway to Lake Parima and the instant wealth of El Dorado (Fig. 1). Even though El Dorado gradually disappeared from the increasingly detailed maps of the river basin, this heady prospect still imbued conceptions of the Orinoco when Alexander von Humboldt tracked the Casiquiare canal through its upper reaches at the start of the 1800s.7 As the myth waned, however, the Enlightenment culture of rational human endeavor shaped representa7 Humboldt criticized the belief that “the banks of the Carony lead to the lake Dorado and the palace of ‘the gilded man’” and counseled a more responsible ecology. See Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinoctial Regions of America, during the Years 1799–1804, trans. and ed. Thomasina Ross (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1852), p. 25.
Figure 1. Map showing Lake Parima and El Dorado, 1635.
tions of the river basin, as can be seen in the painting Humboldt on the Orinoco (Fig. 2). Its flow arrested by the paintbrush, here the river serves as backdrop to a scene of scientific knowledge developing empirically in the field. Nonhuman ontologies— the water, trees, and mountains—simply provide a picturesque frame for the great scientist; while the tangled vegetation is inscrutable in the darkness, Humboldt’s face is illuminated, a spotlight cast on it by the setting sun. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Orinoco remained a symbolic and physical frontier for the human conquest of nature. Emulating the industrial modernity and technological developments of northern Europe and the United States, in the 1870s President Antonio Guzmán Blanco suggested that the river basin would connect Venezuela with global trade routes. He conjured a vision of “rivers that resemble seas, and seas that resemble oceans, with hundreds of steamships on the Orinoco River to the River Plate with diverse and rich products
Figure 2. F. de Canta, Humboldt on the Orinoco, undated. Oil on canvas, 10 x 14 3/8 inches. Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Figure 3. Auguste Morisot, Raudal de la désolation (Desolation Rapid), December 16, 1886. Graphite on paper, 4 x 6 1/8 inches. Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
from this blessed land.”8 Although Guzmán Blanco leveraged the Orinoco to augur Venezuelan development, foreign interests held sway over the river. In the late nineteenth century, it was European and U.S.—rather than Venezuelan—expeditions that acted out versions of Manifest Destiny in the torrid realm as they attempted to reach the river’s sources and harness its economic potential. This contest between man and nature is captured vividly in the drawings and diary entries that the artist Auguste Morisot recorded as he accompanied French explorer Jean Chaffanjon on a voyage up the Orinoco (Fig. 3). Dated December 18, 1886, one sketch depicts the voyagers wading in the river, battling its waters as they push a curiara (canoe) over the coursing rapids. “We fought for hours, panting, breathless, sweating and wet,” Morisot wrote in his diary, describing his chagrin as Chaffanjon left him behind, only to return days later claiming to have reached the river’s sources.9 The triumph turned out to be an embellishment of the truth, yet Chaffanjon claimed victory all the same, even inspiring Jules Verne to write his novel Le superbe Orénoque (1898; translated into E nglish as The Mighty Orinoco), in which three geographers set out to chart the river basin, based on the French explorer’s tall tales.
Hydrological Sovereignty It was not until November 27, 1951, that Venezuela could claim hydrological sovereignty when a French-Venezuelan expedition (led—nominally at least—by army major Franz Rísquez and financed entirely by the military dictatorship in power at the time) arrived at the river’s source, debunking Chaffanjon’s 8 Cited in Pedro Calzadilla, “El olor de la pólvora: Fiestas patrias, memoria y Nación en la Venezuela guzmancista 1870–1877,” Caravelle 73 (1999): p. 111–130. My translation. 9 Chaffanjon’s claim was later proven to be spurious. Auguste Morisot, Diario de Auguste Morisot 1886–1887 (Madrid: Planeta, 2002), p. 126–127.
spurious claim of having found it. Illustrated by photographs of the two nations’ flags planted at the fluvial spring, the official report cast the feat as a patriotic triumph, “a new victory for man over nature.”10 This widely publicized display of human might dovetailed with the technocratic project to industrialize the southeastern state of Bolívar initiated by the State in the late 1940s.11 Reviving Guzmán Blanco’s nineteenth-century vision of global trade in the mold of growth pole theory, the plan involved dredging the Orinoco to allow heavy cargo ships passage to the Atlantic Ocean, increasing national participation in the iron and steel industries, and tapping the Caroní River’s hydroelectric potential. The nearby development of diamond and gold mining, and the iron, steel, and aluminum industries (largely managed by U.S. companies) meant the Orinoco basin held the potential to diversify growth and industry away from the oil hubs in Maracaibo and Maturín, as well as from the rapid urbanization of the capital Caracas. In the 1960s, the project gained further traction through the construction of Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela’s only planned city (based on a master plan drafted by urban planners from MIT-Harvard along with Venezuelan counterparts) located at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers. Venezuela’s “‘Wild West’ frontier city” was envisaged as an industrial hub built around the steel industry, and as a headquarters for the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG), a public corporation founded in 1960 and endowed with the powers to function as a develop10 “La Expedición franco-venezolana al Alto Orinoco en 1951,” Boletín de la Academia Nacional de la Historia 42 (1954): n.p. 11 Venezuela was under military control from 1948 to 1958, when the first steel production company, Empresa Siderúrgica de Venezuela (SIVENSA), was founded and work began on Central Hidroeléctrica Macagua I. The main reference text on Ciudad Guayana is Lisa Peattie, Planning: Rethinking Ciudad Guayana (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987). For an updated commentary, see Clara Irazábal, “A Planned City Comes of Age: Rethinking Ciudad Guayana Today,” Journal of Latin American Geography 3, no. 1 (2004): p. 22–51.
ment agency that could plan and build the urban center, as well as provide services, such as hydroelectricity, roads, schools, and healthcare.12 The prospects of development attached to the Orinoco from the mid-to-late twentieth century are summed up in the optimism of Venezuelan intellectual Mariano Picón Salas, when he wagered in 1953 that the river basin’s premodern myth of plenty had been reinscribed in the language of science and industry. The Orinoco had become a different Dorado—no longer with the domes of gold and porphyry that Walter Raleigh’s fertile imagination located in his made-up Manoa—but with iron mountains and hydroelectric resources. […] Gone is the era of gold, rubber, balatá, sarrapia, heron feathers, diamonds. We live in the age of iron, bauxite, [and] electricity. […] The vast, regal waters are now asking to be tamed. The Orinoco that until now did not lead anywhere […] is now showing us the routes of a transformative economy.13
Hydrological sovereignty, then, signified State capacity to harness the great river’s directionless flow and marshal it into a new aquatic scene: one that merged ancestral beginnings with the futuricity of the technological sublime, where awe-inspiring infrastructure attested to human control of nature.14
12 The city was to link the existing, scattered settlements of San Félix and Puerto Ordaz. The population of Ciudad Guayana grew rapidly from 148,000 in 1970 to 577,000 in 1990, and 800,000 in 2000. Thomas Angotti, “Ciudad Guayana: From Growth Pole to Metropolis, Central Planning to Participation,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 20 (2001): p. 329–338, here p. 332. 13 Picón Salas, “Prólogo,” p. 14–15. My translation. 14 David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).
Magical Hydraulic State In the 1950s, Karl Wittfogel advanced the thesis that ancient civilizations that developed large-scale waterworks and irrigation systems in arid areas should be understood as “hydraulic states” where political power was highly centralized. Although subsequently criticized, Wittfogel’s paradigm undoubtedly established important connections between hydrological infrastructure and the structures of power.15 The political, social, and material relations shaped by water-management systems can elucidate processes of political representation and modern state formation, a phenomenon that the geographer Erik Swyngedouw terms “liquid power.”16 State imaginaries of liquid power and hydromodernity play out particularly vividly in the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants, as has been the case across the globe in the modern era. In Venezuela, however, it is oil rather than water that is usually credited with thrusting the nation into modernity. Fernando Coronil’s seminal theory of the “magical state” tells us that from the early 1940s the increased flow of oil revenues turned politicians into conjurers. Mediating the relation between oil (the natural body) and citizens (the social body), leaders of the “magical state” promised to deliver this formerly agriculture-based nation to instant modernity.17 The oil booms of the 1950s and 1970s, as well as the nationalization of the petroleum industry in 1978, all buttressed this imaginary of oil-driven progress, while also providing increased revenues that could be channeled into grand-scale infrastructure. 15 Karl Wittfogel, “Developmental Aspects of Hydraulic Civilizations,” in Irrigation Civilizations: A Comparative Study, ed. Julian H. Steward et al. (Washington: Pan American Union Social Sciences Monographs, 1955). For critique, see William P. Mitchell, “The Hydraulic Hypothesis: A Reappraisal,” Current Anthropology 14, no. 5 (1973): p. 532–534. 16 Erik Swyngedouw, Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities in Twentieth-Century Spain (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2015). 17 Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
This is the prevailing thesis of Venezuela’s p etromodernity. While compelling, the thesis overlooks the significance that hydromodernity garnered in the mid-twentieth century as a marker of progress. Chemistry dictates that oil and water are immiscible, but from the 1960s till the 1980s these liquids became deeply intermingled. During this period, the State used oil revenues to fund the construction of hydroelectric infrastructure, some of which remained the world’s largest for a number of years and which still provides the majority of the nation’s energy supply. This unleashing of liquid power meant that the “magical” petrostate had expanded into a hydraulic one, effectively mixing together the political ecologies (and economies) of oil and water. As a result, the energy landscape was no longer solely dominated by the platforms, refineries, and “black gold” associated with the petroleum industry. Huge concrete dams, metal turbines, and spillways had also become symbolic and material expressions of the human capacity to harness natural resources to power the nation. Satellite imagery provided a synoptic eye onto this untapped geography, whose hydrological and mineral resources the Venezuelan State had set out to harness as part of the “conquest of the South” (Fig. 4). Venezuela’s hydromodernity was literally cemented ten kilometers from the meeting point of the Orinoco and the Caroní River in Ciudad Guayana. There in 1961 the publicly owned company CVG Electrificación del Caroní, C.A. (EDELCA) completed the first stage of Central Hidroeléctrica Macagua I, a power station and 69-meter-high and more than 3.5 kilometer-long embankment dam, whose construction had begun in 1956 (Fig. 5).18 Built next to the city, the infrastructure of Macagua I made visible the colonization of the river’s flow 18 Macagua I partially stemmed the river flow of the Lower Caroní region, taking advantage of the natural spillway created by lateral waterfalls. The first stage of Macagua only partially dammed the Caroní, since the river’s waterfall—Salto La Llovizna—itself provided a natural dam. Construction on Macagua II began in 1988. Macagua I and II were subsequently renamed
Figure 4. Satellite photographs of the Orinoco basin taken between 1971 and 1977. Ministerio de Energía y Minas/Petróleos de Venezuela/ Ministerio del Ambiente y Recursos Renovables/Maraven.
through the vast, concrete installations of the dam wall. While this aquatic scene was steeped in the technological sublime, the vista of water cascading from the spillway on the other side of the dam echoed a “restorationist” mode of the sublime, one that euphemistically erased human impact on the environment by creating what appeared to be a pure realm of nature.19 For their part, the large, landscaped Parque La Llovizna, and the terrace of the nearby Guyana Intercontinental Hotel (now Hotel Venetur), built to the rear of Macagua I, each provided vantage points from where the gaze would be trained onto a restorationist scene made possible by technological might.20 23 de Enero (23 January), to mark the fall of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled from 1952–1958. 19 T. J. Demos uses the term “restorationist” in Decolonizing Nature (Berlin: Sternberg, 2013), p. 39. 20 Public spaces were later added to the Macagua facility, which provided even more direct engagements with the poetics of hydroelectric infra
Figure 5. Natural spillway of the Macagua dam in Ciudad Guayana, with the hotel and Parque La Llovizna behind it. Photo: Heribert Dezeo, 2011. WikiCommons.
In short, the dam wall vertebrated a two-fold waterscape that served to reaffirm the human objectification of nature. While one side underscored human capacity to tap natural resources in the name of progress, the other occluded the more detrimental ecological impacts of industrialization and hydroelectricity, preserving an ideal of Venezuela as an Edenic treasury of pristine nature. Channeled into Macagua’s aesthetically awe-inspiring aquatic scenes, water electrified nation and imagination at the same time.
structure. Visitors can walk around the circular fountains of the open Plaza del Agua (Water Square), then enter the plant itself by walking through a cylindrical corridor (shaped like a turbine turned on one side) towards a viewing platform that looks down onto a large turbine hall in the Ecomuseo del Caroní, inaugurated in 1998.
Kinetic Flows Eight years after Macagua I was set in liquid stone, another much more ambitious dam project was undertaken one hundred kilometers upstream from Ciudad Guayana. The first stage of the Central Hidroeléctrica Raúl Leoni (formerly Raúl Leoni, but now commonly known as Guri) was completed in 1969, featuring a 690-meter-long and 106-meter-high dam, and a 1,750-megawatt capacity powerhouse (Fig. 6). Demand soon outstripped supply however, as the global oil crisis of 1973 quadrupled Venezuela’s petroleum revenues, causing a spike in consumer activity and State-led development. As a result, the two further stages in the project—originally planned for gradual construction as energy demands increased—were merged and built together from 1976 to 1986. The dam grew almost sixty meters and almost doubled in length, creating a huge reservoir with nearly ten times the capacity of the original project. Even today Guri alone provides two-thirds of the nation’s energy supply and remains the third largest hydroelectric plant worldwide.21 This project also brought a deepening of the aesthetics of hydropower as the State commissioned huge kinetic artworks for the site. The first to be installed were Carlos Cruz Diez’s two Ambientaciones cromáticas (Chromatic Environments, 1977) located inside the two powerhouses just as the first stage of the facility was completed.22 In Engine Room No. 1, the installation consisted of 11,400 square meters of polychromatic murals lining the walls, and ten multicolored metal and fiberglass “chromostructures” that fit over the vertical shaft generators (Fig. 7). The overall effect was an immersive, vibrating space, in which 21 Guri is outsized only by the Itapiú Dam, on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay, and the Three Gorges Dam in China. 22 Alejandro Otero’s Torre Solar (Solar Tower, 1986), a fifty-meter-high metal structure with spinning blades, was installed later in the Plaza La Democracia (Democracy Square) outside Guri.
Figure 6. Central Hidroeléctrica Simón Bolívar (formerly Raúl Leoni). From the back to the foreground, reservoir, spillway, turbine rooms, embankment wall, Plaza del Sol y la Luna, and construction of extension of dam wall. Represa del Guri, Bolívar State, c. 1978. Photo: Fernando Irazábal © Archivo Fotografía Urbana.
Figure 7. Carlos Cruz Diez, Ambientación cromática (Chromatic Environment), 1977–1986. Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Station, Engine Room No. 1, Guri, Venezuela. 26 x 260 x 23 m (85 x 853 x 75 ft.). Engineers: H. Roo, A. Gamboa, E. Carrera, G. Chavarri. © Adagp, Paris 2017.
the artworks matched the scale of the plant and mirrored its internal kinetics. In Engine Room No. 2, the Mural de color aditivo (Additive Color Wall) lined the walls in sections of multicolored stripes, some with black sheets of metal added to them in relief. At one end of the hall, the wall was covered by the Cromosaturación (Chromosaturation), a large panel whose 1,200-bulb lamp would change color from red to green, then to blue, when visitors on the mezzanine level opposite pressed a button (Fig. 8). By contrast to the aquatic scenes staged around the Macagua dam, which retained water as the main representational motif, the Ambientaciones cromáticas turned away from the landscape and toward the professedly “universal” values of kinetic and abstract geometric art. In this sense, they furthered the schism that had begun to split Venezuelan art in the late 1940s, when young artists rejected the Círculo de Bellas Artes school of
Figure 8. Carlos Cruz Diez, Ambientación cromática (Chromatic Environment), 1977–1986. Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Station, Engine Room No. 1, Guri, Venezuela. 28 x 300 x 26 m (92 x 984 x 85 ft.). Engineers: H. Roo, A. Gamboa, E. Carrera, G. Chavarri. © Adagp, Paris 2017.
landscape painting and embraced abstraction in its place. The intersection of kinetic aesthetics and hydromodernity at Guri also epitomized the Venezuelan State’s policy of funding outsize artworks for other types of public and industrial infrastructure, from subways and museums, to airports and silos.23 In the dominant narrative, these public installations r epresented—to quote critic Roberto Guevara—arte para una nueva escala: art for
23 Amply studied by art historians, this rupture is generally traced to Alejandro Otero’s exhibition of abstract paintings Las cafeteras at Caracas’ Museo de Bellas Artes in 1949. It is reflected particularly vividly in the manifesto penned in 1950 by a group of young Venezuelan artists who vehemently rejected the landscape tradition and accused the nation’s art institutions of being out of step with the changing times. See Los Disidentes, “Manifiesto,” in Alfredo Boulton y sus contemporáneos (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), p. 178.
a new scale. Writing just after Cruz Diez’s works were installed at Guri, Guevara used the metaphor of liquidity to describe the immersive aesthetic experience such artworks generated, attributing to them an epic, edifying quality. Saturating “arid” spaces, such public artworks induced “a thirst for encounters and adventures for the grand endeavor of broadening man’s horizons and with them the human condition itself.”24 As they unfurled inside the engine rooms, the Ambientaciones cromáticas became deeply entangled with the national narrative that held human domination of nature as proof of hydromodernity. Glossing the Ambientaciones cromáticas, in the lavish book Art in Guri (published by the State energy company in charge of the hydroelectric plant) the art critic Alfredo Boulton took up the metaphor of liquidity in an even more anthropocentric register of human supremacy, which presented aesthetic and technological mastery on equal terms: Color vibrates in the large halls of Guri as an active dynamo that encloses the new image man holds of the potential and energy of color. Instead of glorifying the ancestral river with a historical account narrated by images of nature or scientific characters in a theatrical pose, Carlos Cruz-Diez has chosen to use severe aesthetic forms presented through the inner force that pours out from the colored material, his interpretation of that which is also a new attitude of man towards his own new creative forces.25
These were not the first works that Cruz Diez had made for hydraulic infrastructure. Before Guri, he produced the Muro de color aditivo (Additive Color Wall, 1975), a mural painted along the metal structure built to control the River Guaire’s course through Caracas. While this work emulated the river’s forward 24 Roberto Guevara, Arte para una nueva escala (Caracas: Maraven S.A., 1978), p. 150. Emphasis added. 25 Boulton, Art in Guri, p. 68. Emphasis added.
motion through its chromatic interplay, water was no longer a representational resource in Cruz Diez’s works at Guri or at the José Antonio Páez Hydroelectric Plant, in Barinas state. In these works ensconced in the turbine halls, liquid flow was replaced by the chromatic flow simulated by the play of light and color that underpins fisicromía (physical color), the theory that informs Cruz Diez’s practice to this day. It advocates the technique of “splitting form” (fraccionar la forma) to show how “color is constantly being created, and occurs in time,” thus turning away from semiotics toward “autonomous color, without anecdotes, stripped of its symbolism, like an evolutive event that involves us.”26 For the artist, this nonfigurative, chromatic autonomy was his work’s fundamental tenet. Indeed, he even ventured that it might even produce a mode of vision and sensorial experience that would liberate perception from technologies of production and consumption entrenched by industrial modernity by pushing beyond the conventional cultural encodings of the mass media and contemporary society. Cruz Diez’s chromatic chambers at Guri certainly staged a compelling kinetics of physical color. Yet, they can hardly be isolated from the politics and economics of industrial modernity, not least due to their State patronage and site specificity. The industrial scale and optical technics of Cruz Diez’s kinetic artworks only amplified the longstanding prospecting of the Orinoco as “a great factory” of industrialization and progress, destined to spin the turbines of a nation on the move. In the 1970s, Uruguayan art critic Marta Traba hurled vitriol on the kinetic art movement, of which the Ambientaciones cromáticas were key exponents. For Traba, this “official art” of the political and cultural elites was an illusory telón de futuro: a backdrop on which to project futuricity and development that willfully obliterated Venezuela’s past and ignored the precariousness of its 26 Carlos Cruz Diez, “La construcción de un lenguaje,” in Alfredo Boulton y sus contemporáneos, p. 228–231.
uneven modernization.27 Criticizing the rise of kinetic art in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, and amid the industrialization of the Orinoco basin, she wrote: The Venezuelan ruling class has sought to project a completely progressive image of their country. […] In this space odyssey, it is obvious that the present keeps being erased, with increasing force, and the contempt for the past is constantly growing. It is also evident that a society that embarks on such comic-book futurism disconnects itself from its problems […] 28
Despite such criticisms, the dominant narrative unashamedly cast Guri and its kinetic artworks as exemplars of the “monuments of glory that man has put up to pay tribute to the powerful, to the power of spirit and the power of force.”29 For Boulton, the artworks portended a radical (national) transformation in the timescape of modernity, summed up in the phrase: “Today’s world is not yesterday’s and will never be tomorrow’s.”30 The novel technics and aesthetics of hydroelectric infrastructure clearly re-energized cultural and national narratives of Venezuelan development. In the final analysis, then, Cruz Diez’s artworks at Guri displayed not so much the autonomy of aesthetics, but a topocentric confluence of art and hydropower, which generated positive feedback for a telos of progress written into histories of nation and art alike. The abandonment of figuration supersized by the Ambientaciones cromáticas reaffirmed the thesis that the avant-garde embrace of abstract aesthetics had catalyzed a generalized leap into the future. By creating an analogy between chromatic and liquid flows, Cruz Diez’s works 27 Marta Traba, “Finale: Allegro con fuoco: Cinéticos y experimentadores,” in Mirar en Caracas (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1974), p. 123–133. 28 Traba, “Finale: Allegro con fuoco,” in Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), p. 278–284, here p. 278. 29 Boulton, Art in Guri, p. 60. 30 Boulton, Art in Guri, p. 70.
were perfectly in sync with the modern episteme of technological mastery, through which river waters could be transformed into the unstinting electrical current that would course across Venezuela’s national grid.
Post-Kinetic Assemblages As an infrastructure devised to power the technological apparatuses, industrial and commercial processes, and the cultural circuits of modern life, hydroelectricity is founded on an oppositional logic that puts remote nonhuman resources at the service of human agents in urbanized centers. This understanding of infrastructure tends to privilege a means-end logic that establishes little conscious relation, for instance, between the final output of the switching on of a light bulb and the nonhuman ecologies that make such an action possible. In reality, though, hydroelectric energy connects the bodies, actions and lives of millions of Venezuelans to the ecology of the Orinoco basin and the hydrological reserves of the Caroní River that are challenged forth at Guri. Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid, explains this succinctly: When a light switch is flipped in Caracas, the current that leaps to the bulb was likely, less than a second before, a drop of water behind the Guri Dam, four hundred and fifty miles away. As it passed through the dam, a turbine spun, tearing electrons from atoms and causing them to bump along, down cables and wires to the city, through the wall, past the switch, and into the bulb—a silent line of dominoes falling at nearly the speed of light.31 31 Gretchen Bakke, “The Electricity Crisis in Venezuela: A Cautionary Tale,” The New Yorker, May 17, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-electricity-crisis-in-venezuela-a-cautionary-tale. Bakke is author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).
In this apparently frictionless system of flows, as long as the waters at Guri keep running and streams of electrons continue unabated, light-bulb filaments keep burning, water pumps keep pulsing, fridges keep humming, hairdryers keep blowing, food processors keep spinning, computer screens keep flickering, and life goes on as usual. In early 2016, however, the flows of both water and electrons ebbed. A tenacious dry season took hold, causing the most severe drought in the history of Venezuelan hydropower. Instead of a body of water lapping at the rim of the reservoir’s concrete wall and spinning the turbines below it, photographs of Guri taken in April that year revealed scenes of desiccation as the water levels sunk to a historic low of 243 meters. An archipelago of islands surfaced, scruffy clumps of vegetation sprouting from their centers and belts of reddish mud circling them above water level. Around the reservoir’s edges, the usual picture of verdant plant life and the Caroní’s deep blue hue gave way to spindly black trees that poked up through murky and stagnant waters, forced out of their subaquatic environment and back into contact with the atmosphere.32 As the water levels dropped, the government instituted increasingly drastic energy-saving measures, mandating power outages that cut the working week to two days, closed schools on Fridays, and curtailed energy transmission to industries and homes. The photographs of the parched land and sprouting islets parsed visually a fissure in the prevailing aesthetics of hydropower that had pictured Guri as the powerhouse for a nation on the move. Wrapped around turbines and unfolding along the engine room walls, the Ambientes cromáticas had emulated the kinetic motion of the water that electrified the nation; walking past these polychromatic murals generated its own energy 32 The photographs circulated widely, especially in: Andrew Cawthorne, “Drought-Hit Venezuela Awaits Rain at Crucial Guri Dam,” Reuters, April 13, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-energy-idUSKCN0XA1WL.
Figure 9. Guri in April 2016. ©REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Latinstock México.
through the vibrational field and forward trajectory that echoed the national narratives of free-flowing progress embedded in the dam. Amid the energy rationing and mandated blackout caused by the drought at Guri, though, free flow gave way to syncopated stutter as the linear kinetics of Cruz Diez’s works were replaced by the horizontal strata of mud which re-emerged as water levels at the reservoir dropped (Fig. 9). In place of autonomous, free-flowing color, the dense, sticky materiality of the Orinoco came back into view, like a specter from the pre-hydromodern past. Guri’s desiccation plunged Venezuela into penumbra, but in so doing it illuminated the hubristic assumptions that drive human colonization of nature. Thinking through blackout today inevitably brings to mind Jane Bennett’s description in Vibrant Matter of the huge grid collapse in the United States in 2003, in which she posits the material ontologies of electricity infrastructure as actant forces that produce aleatory effects beyond human control. Bennett’s call is to disturb the
ierarchical configuration of human and nonhuman actants h by countering technoscientific attitudes and cultural narratives that deaden matter, life, and nature to open up collective stories and politics to “a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”33 With Bennett, infrastures are no longer flagships of technology mastery, but assemblages of human and nonhuman forces, “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts” of which she cites the power grid as an exemplar, since it is at once an artifact of human confection based on social, legal, and scientific knowledge, and a cluster of active nonhumans constituents.34 The power outages on Venezuela’s grid might be understood in a sense similar to the one parsed by Bennett. As the Caroní’s flow withdrew, it paradoxically returned water to the fore as an agential constituent in the human-nonhuman assemblage of hydroelectricity, one whose objectification to serve human ends was deeply disturbed by the drought of 2016. Less directly, the emergent agentic force of water also brought the cognate (and equally hidden) liquid of oil back to the fore, flagging the unsustainability of the material constituent that has historically powered precisely that rapid urbanization which caused the demand for electricity to rocket, and on whose fickle mono-product economy the Venezuelan State is almost entirely dependent. Cruz Diez’s art interventions at Guri are also part of this erratic hydroelectric assemblage. The drought and blackouts of 2016 disturbed the subject-object binaries that inhered in the artworks as they presented water as something separate from humans, a resource to be challenged forth and instrumentalized. More specifically, Guri’s deceleration to minimal hydroelectric production generated what might be called a post-kinetic assemblage: a dissonance in the aesthethics of hydropower that de-composed the scene of unstinting forward 33 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. ix. 34 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 24.
motion in industry, art, and national development that the hydroelectric plant and Cruz Diez’s works were supposed to configure.
Flow of Flows, Matter that Matters The kinetic art that blossomed in Venezuela in the mid-to-late twentieth century was founded on the modernist principle of aesthetic autonomy, which held that it was form—not matter— that mattered. Yet, just as the hydroelectric plants in the Orinoco basin are bound up with the human-nature relations underpinning the promises of rapid development tendered by the magical hydraulic State, today the legacy of the kinetic artworks at Guri is entangled with the fluvial desiccation that brought the turbines grinding to a halt just forty years after they were inaugurated, and the embedded mud that returned spectrally into view. The Ambientaciones cromáticas had served as an anthropocentric telón de futuro in which liquid, chromatic, and electric flows composed a national scene in which natural resources were in perfect concert with human activities. The drought decomposed this scene, muddying the supposed autonomy of art and turning the technopolitical discourse of the human colonization of nature into a stutter. Returning as an uncontrollable constituent in the assemblage of hydroelectricity, the Orinoco asserted the agency of its liquid ecology within the broader crises of contemporary climate change and environmental decline. The parallel rise of global dam-construction projects and climatic disaster suggests that the principles of both artistic autonomy—its separation from technopolitical, economic, and ecological contexts—and of human colonization of nature are becoming ever more untenable. This calls for new approaches to human-nature relations that escape the oppositional logic that subordinates the latter to the former. Responding to this
call, Jason Moore underscores the agentic forces of nature, signaling that while “the manifold projects of capital, empire, and science are busy making Nature with a capital ‘N’—external, controllable, reducible—the web of life is busy shuffling around the biological and geological conditions of capitalism’s processes.”35 He suggests conceiving of nature—with a lowercase n—as a flow of flows that is not objectifiable, but that is us, is inside us, and moves around us. Imagining human-nonhuman continuity as a “flow of flows” in which matter that matters can interrupt circulation speaks particularly well to the concept of the post-kinetic hydroelectric assemblage proposed here. Recognizing the artworks at Guri, and Guri itself, as constituents of an erratic post-kinetic assemblage alerts us to the need for more sustainable forms of art, scaled not in bombastic capitals letters, but as a lowercase environmental aesthetics more attuned to the unpredictability of the present. Given that drought and deluge are likely to continue interrupting the free flows of rain to river, reservoir to grid, cable to socket, machine to body, the post-kinetic assemblage might well become an enduring cipher of hydroelectricity. More broadly, this impasse compels more wide-reaching critical revisions of the human-nature relations embedded in cultural imaginaries of art and infrastructure, and the political and economic ideologies for which they are often used as legitimizing vehicles. The Orinoco’s longstanding status as an extractive frontier of Nature with a capital N makes this task particularly pressing, especially in light of the ongoing construction of hydroelectric power stations on the Caroní River, the recent intensification of oil drilling in the Orinoco basin, and the designation for mineral extraction of an area in the region measuring more than one hundred thousand square kilome-
35 Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, p. 2–3.
ters as a “mining motor” for the Venezuelan economy.36 Such moves suggest that the aspiration to colonize nature endures in dreams of El Dorado that have been updated for the twentyfirst century. To these dreams, the aesthetics of hydropower and post-kinetic assemblages offer a stark warning, one that signals the need for more sustainable and responsible engagements with the ecology of the Orinoco basin and its lively material constituents.37
36 Hydroelectric development continues with the completion of Caruachi in 2006, and the construction of Tocoma, both on the Caroní River. Drilling began in the Faja Petrolífera del Orinoco (Orinoco Oil Belt) in 1936, but in 2007 Hugo Chávez (in power in successive terms from 1998 to 2013) nationalized the area and redoubled efforts to exploit its oil reserves. After a fractious relationship with foreign extractivist corporations, in 2016 President Nicolás Maduro launched the Arco Minero del Orinoco as a motor minero (mining motor) for Venezuela’s economic recovery. Both projects have been criticized by environmental groups. 37 I would like to thank Natalya Critchley for her insights into Ciudad Guayana and comments on an earlier draft of this essay, as well as Jill Casid and Jens Andermann for helpful feedback. I am very grateful to the Archivo Fotografía Urbana, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and the Fundación Cruz Diez for generously providing images for this chapter.
Álvaro Fernández Bravo Putrid Precarious Landscapes: Province, Poverty, and the Poetics of Dispossession in Some Contemporary Latin American Works Over the last three decades, Latin America has undergone neoliberal economic reforms that have had a great impact on both the human and the natural landscape. Privatization and flexibilized employment have evolved hand in hand with mass migration from the countryside to the city, which has resulted in a general precarization of human living conditions. Although these phenomena have historical precedents, they increased exponentially and became global in scale during the 1990s.1 In Argentina and Brazil, most rural emigrants were concentrated in slums on the periphery of metropolitan areas and ended up living in conditions of poverty defined by a landscape both provincial and putrid, full of ruins and garbage. Accordingly, the provincial domain—at the intersection of the urban and rural worlds—becomes a contact zone where the visibility of precarious ways of life is heightened. The landscapes that emerged in South America during this time differ significantly from, say, traditional Dutch perspectives, in which nature framed as an image became a surface of intense iconic exploration. This chapter explores the growth of precarious living conditions in relation to the natural landscape. To this end, I propose a transversal reading of three kinds of objects in order to interrogate these putrid landscapes where province, p overty, and the poetics of dispossession converge. First, I will examine two poems by Argentine writer Daniel García Helder, “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “On Corruption,” both included in El faro de Guereño (The lighthouse at Guereño, 1
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).
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1990). I will also refer to “Tomas para un documental” (Shots for a documentary).2 In the latter, the camera lets us consider a poetic procedure that depicts landscape realistically, including the presence of rotting bodies and the decomposition of matter over time. Alongside these poems I will examine images from the film Boca de lixo (The garbage dump, 1992) by Brazilian filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho. Boca de lixo is focused on a garbage dump near Rio de Janeiro whose inhabitants live off of collecting and classifying trash, which is eventually sold. Finally, I will compare these examples to photographs by Gian Paolo Minelli that engage with precarious lives and the mutual proximity of natural and urban signs in a context of natural degradation and urban decay. Born in the province of Santa Fe, Daniel García Helder is considered one of the precursors of “objectivist poetry.”3 Objectivism appeared in Argentina in the 1990s after the demise of the neobaroque. Whereas the neobaroque had a very international configuration, with Néstor Perlongher, its most representative voice, living in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, where he also wrote most of his books, objectivism’s situated and concrete focus on local landscape underscored its investment in a national poetic canon. In poetry, the Latin American neobaroque had established a hemispheric dialogue through its relation with Cuban authors such as José Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy, as well as the Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren. Objectivism,
2 Daniel García Helder, El faro de Guereño, 1983–1988 (Buenos Aires: Libros de Tierra Firme, 1990) and “Tomas para un documental,” Punto de Vista 57 (April 1997): p. 1–5. 3 See Constanza Ceresa, “‘Tomas para un documental’ (‘Shots for a documentary’) and the Thick Framing of History,” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 11, no. 3 (August 2015): p. 1–15; Edgardo Dobry, Orfeo en el kiosco de diarios: Ensayos sobre poesía (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2007); Ana Porrúa, Caligrafía tonal: Ensayos sobre poesía (Buenos Aires: Entropía, 2011). In “El neobarroco en la Argentina,” Diario de Poesía 4 (1987): p. 24–25, García Helder announces the exhaustion of the neobaroque and, implicitly, the advent of objectivism.
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on the other hand, had different ramifications, without there being a definite agreement regarding its more national genealogy and scope. Martín Prieto, for example, emphasizes not only objectivism’s national lyric canon—mostly provincial, made up of poets from the neighboring provinces of Santa Fe and Entre Ríos—but also the significant international poetic voices cited by the objectivists, from Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, or Kavafis.4 Beyond this likely overstated opposition, it is important to emphasize objectivism’s distance from the rhetorical inflections of neobaroque; its vindication of a simpler, more direct language; and its interest in a proximity with things, the immediate environment, and everyday life. Objectivist poetry has been defined as “low,” close to everyday life, the material world, and material modes of production. The articulation of a new poetics through the journal Diario de Poesía, where García Helder and Prieto were both editors, can be read not just as low and concrete, but also as having a connection with the province, since at the time both García Helder and Prieto lived in Rosario, a provincial metropolis of roughly a million inhabitants.5
4 Martín Prieto, “Neobarrocos, objetivistas, epifánicos y realistas: Nuevos apuntes para la historia de la nueva poesía argentina,” Cuadernos LIRICO 3 (2007): p. 23–44. 5 As García Helder himself says in an interview, the birth of objectivism occurred in the 1980s in Rosario among a group of writers including himself, Martín Prieto, and Oscar Taborda. Juan José Saer, a writer then at the center of the Argentine literary canon, plays a significant role in configuring the group’s literary map. Saer is an author whose writing constantly refers to “the Zone,” a Santa Fe urban and rural area where he lived before moving to Paris at the end of the 1960s. Among the poets published by García Helder and Prieto in Diario de Poesía are Juan L. Ortiz, Juan José Saer, Joaquín Giannuzzi, Alfredo Fruttero, Hugo Padeletti, and Francisco Gandolfo. All of them are poets from the provinces of Santa Fe and Entre Ríos. See Osvaldo Aguirre, “Episodios de una formación: Entrevista a Daniel García Helder,” Punto de Vista 77 (2003): p. 19–26.
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Precarious Putrid Province In El faro de Guereño, García Helder makes a trope of landscapeforms in decomposition around the city of Rosario, exploring a region close to the Paraná River, a fluvial route to Buenos Aires and a large industrial corridor of abandoned factories and large tumbledown buildings. El faro pictures a transitional landscape, made up of eroded buildings (a Jewish community institution, an empty factory) and people involved in “primitive” economic activities (brickmaking, fishing). How can we read a surface undergoing metamorphosis, with its materials in decay, its objects becoming something else, its factories in ruins as in the images included in these poems? Why do precarious buildings and forms of life become poetic material and what is the connection between the region portrayed in the book and a wider “provincial condition?” The landscape described in the poems joins images with no trace of glamour (factories, garbage) with an eroded nature: contaminated water, decomposing debris, dead fish. The absence of labor in this landscape underscores the image of an unsteady zone, captured by the viewer (or the camera) as a transitional world where industrial work has been abandoned and no longer represents an employment option for inhabitants who have become either fishermen or garbage collectors. Objectivist poetics can be considered in relation to García Helder’s approach to landscape, present in his poetry as a horizon adjacent to the river, a skyline of abandoned and precarious buildings. The Paraná River emerges here as a locus that frequently connotes human economic or social activities. In the poem “Shots for a Documentary,” the place of enunciation suggests an observatory, contrasting the act of filming (filmar) with the exotic materiality of other, more lyrical, watchtowers: those made of ivory (marfil). The stanza constructs both an alliteration and an anagram in Spanish: filmar to marfil—“From the film tower / made of concrete / not of ivory” (Desde la torre
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de filmar / hecha de hormigón / no de marfil). But it also juxtaposes ivory with concrete, the brute material, cold and massive, versus the “ivory tower” associated with poetic activity and particularly with Spanish American modernismo. Modernism has been linked to baroque aesthetics, and objectivist poetics is also critical of the neobaroque, as we have seen. The relationship of García Helder’s poetics with Rubén Darío, Spanish American modernism’s leading voice, has been highlighted in the interview with Osvaldo Aguirre cited above. What matters here is the contrasting position of the lyric self as cameraman in relation to romantic or neoromantic aesthetics. He or she does not look inside or isolate him- or herself in the ivory tower, but on the contrary glances out towards the exterior world where things are glimpsed in their ugliness, roughness, and concreteness. What type of landscape does this poetry depict and how should one read it? How do we read the provincial landscape visited by objectivist poetry, and what did it mean at the time these poems were published? I am interested here in the province as an object of poetic research and in examining its continuous, indeed structural, presence in the Latin American imaginary. But the province is also a space whose features are subject to change and are, therefore, hardly of an ontological order. In Latin America, the province can be a synecdoche of a whole country (as in Manuel Bandeira’s Crônicas da província do Brasil [Chronicles of the Brazilian Province], 1937) or a point of division between the backward hinterland and the coastal, cosmopolitan metropolis, as frequently happens in Argentinian art and literature. The province is thus a historical division across which poetry can also address a territory to explore. But it is also a place possessing a certain rhythm and a particular landscape where nature and the impact of human activity provide a surface for writing. Written between 1983 and 1988, several poems in El faro de Guereño refer to a liminal, fluvial universe, located on an urban periphery where smoke and litter proliferate.
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“Human Nature,” the second part of the book, includes two poems I would like to examine more closely. This title may allude to the dialectical relationship between nature and the human, which is explored throughout the entire book. As theoreticians of landscape have argued, nature is visible only through human visual mediation, a dialectics impossible to break through.6 I would argue, however, that nonhuman agents (animals, trees, insects, water, smoke) play an important role in disclosing the nature that surrounds El faro de Guereño. In “Alisos en la orilla” (Alders on the shore), for example, it is in “the eye of a fish / rotting under the sun” (el ojo de un pescado / que se pudre al sol) that it becomes possible to recognize “the clouds of industrial smoke / the mud on the riverbank, the reeds” (las nubes del humo industrial / el barro de la orilla, los juncos).7 It is not the human gaze but the animal eye which reflects the (dirty, contaminated) landscape that the poem describes. The fish eye functions as a mirror for seeing the world reflected in its dead gaze. The landscape that appears as an unapproachable, mental construction also depends on certain components which are clearly referential: the Ludueña stream, the Guereño lighthouse, names that are themselves poetically consonant and geographical references to a marginal and abandoned area removed from the center of Rosario.8 In this suburban, riverside settlement other signs are visible: the footprint of immigration in “the gates of Hebraica / the candelabra of seven arms trembling / in the rearview mirror” (el portón de Hebraica / el candelabro de siete brazos temblando / 6 See Fernando Aliata and Graciela Silvestri, El paisaje como cifra de armonía: Relaciones entre cultura y naturaleza a través de la mirada paisajística (Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 2001) and Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). 7 García Helder, El faro de Guereño, p. 31. 8 In the interview with Osvaldo Aguirre quoted in note 5, García Helder mentions the Guereño soap factory and its lamp (“lighthouse”) as the faro referenced in the book title.
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en el espejo retrovisor) that the engineer observes from the car.9 This refers to the Hebraic Society, a traditional Jewish association located near the Paraná River, testimony to the Jewish community established in Rosario at the outset of the twentieth century. More than just nature, this landscape is made up of the historical remains of human enterprises, ruined matter, and the traces that perception imprints onto the real: “Blue peaks of mountains / or clouds on the horizon / is a false dichotomy. In fact, appearances dissolved like smoke, / there is no landscape” (Picos de montañas azules / o nubes en el horizonte / es una falsa disyuntiva. En efecto, disueltas como el humo / las apariencias, no hay paisaje).10 The landscape merges with the intangibility of smoke. But the smoke’s material condition also produces visions or appearances that in fact make up the poem itself. Perception captures visions. Landscape references that may allude to an alpine landscape (“blue mountains”) are juxtaposed with a flat, pampa-like one (“clouds on the horizon” that mountains would obscure). Yet both are a “false dichotomy”: appearances dissolve like smoke due to their “intangible” condition, in contrast with a “permanent” one. That means there is no landscape, or, if it exists, it is ephemeral, momentary, as blurry as the smoke ascending before our eyes and disappearing into the atmosphere. A few stanzas earlier, the poem says: “The only thing real and believable / are events, I would say / opening a bottle” (Lo único real y más creíble / son los acontecimientos, diría / descorchando una botella). That is to say, the meanings of event and appearance are allied, together abolishing the sovereignty of landscape. Landscape lacks existence and is, as the poem suggests, pure perception. However, perception does not float, and neither does it rise to the level of an abstract and distant condition. On the 9 García Helder, El faro de Guereño, p. 11. 10 García Helder, El faro de Guereño, p. 33.
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contrary, perception is situated. It is anchored in provincial scenery, made up of industry, smoke, the smell of fish, and oily waters full of mud, chemicals, and entrails. All of these are forms of rotting matter in a process of mutation, gradually being stripped of their industrial qualities and “returning” to nature. This transient character of the landscape also causes bodies, natural and artificial, to reconnect with their original condition. This part of García Helder’s book, then, is full of references to the fluvial universe. It is a landscape of apocalyptic characteristics, with little human presence and plenty of industrial remains: “leaves drowned in a puddle” (hojas ahogadas en un charco), “stench of bloodless fish / rotting under the sun on a counter” (hedor de pescados exangües / pudriéndose al sol sobre los mostradores).11 I shall now dwell on two poems in more detail. They are “The Family and the Fishing net” and “On Corruption.” The Family and the Fishing Net A day in April we went to the coast to buy fish, where /a great variety of river species were exhibited outdoors. La familia y la red de pescar Un día de abril fuimos a comprar pescado a la costa, /donde una gran variedad de especies de río era exhibida al aire libre.
11 García Helder, El faro de Guereño, p. 43.
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Here, evidently, we are faced with an everyday scene, an ordinary episode, where the poet and his brother visit a fish stand close to the river. However, the observer seems surprised at what he sees. When getting out of the car looking at those women with dirty hands in front of improvised counters made with boards and trestles I mentioned to my brother Carlos that hearing Fishers Co-op I had imagined something else: walls and a roof, a wood stall, not with a freezer compartment, but at least a fridge.
Al bajar del auto, viendo a esas mujeres de manos sucias ante mostradores improvisados con tablas y caballetes comenté con mi hermano Carlos que por Cooperativa de Pescadores me había figurado otra cosa: paredes y un techo, una casilla de madera, no con cámaras frigoríficas, pero al menos una heladera.
What the poem depicts is precariousness, or even something beyond precariousness. The “wood stall” that the lyric “I” expects is already a precarious setting, but she/he does not find even that. What the lyric “I” sees, on the contrary, is “hanging on a tree and screaming / like chimpanzees, three kids or four” located “close to some old guys knitting / a new net made of minuscule mesh” (subidos a un árbol y gritando / como c himpancés, tres chicos
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o cuatro […] cerca de unos viejos tejiendo / una red nueva de mallas minúsculas).12 Then he distinguishes “that image / not completely real: that of the fishermen / throwing into the water or picking up / something we couldn’t distinguish / and whose weight made the boats tremble” (esa imagen / no del todo real: la de los pescadores / echando al agua o recogiendo / algo que no pudimos distinguir / y cuyo peso hacía tambalear los botes). It is, in sum, a group of human beings involved in some kind of fishing activity. The whole, however, causes surprise, perplexity, it is composed of slightly disturbing images: kids screaming like chimpanzees, fishermen picking up something hardly distinguishable whose weight makes the boats tremble. At the end of the poem, the lyric “I” (the camera) depicts a group of women “cutting the white flesh / throwing the entrails onto the sand” (que tajeaban la carne blanca / arrojando las vísceras a la arena). This brief image, just like the poem as a whole, captures the fragments of a community that causes surprise and judgment, an almost bourgeois dislike, as they carry out their everyday economic activity. The viewers come from another place and do not hide their social and cultural distance from the people they observe and make part of the poem. The fragmented materiality of the landscape is composed of children, old men, women, and fishermen, but also of “white flesh,” (presumably stinking) “entrails on the sand,” nets, and a precarious counter fashioned from boards and trestles where the “family” cleans and sells their fish. Actually, there are two families in the scene: the lyric self and her/his brother Carlos, on the one hand, and the title-giving fishermen on the other. The fishermen’s family is involved in a precarious commercial fishing endeavor, observed by the poet. It is another world, or another language, that the observer collects and exhibits without trying to understand or translate it: she/he just exposes it, as in shots for a documentary, like the fish that is being offered at 12 García Helder, El faro de Guereño, p. 38–39.
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the stall. The poem seems to evade meaning and interpretation. However, this distance also reveals an uneven social arrangement between the “visitors” and the locals. Since the matter of “corruption” is also associated with the state of decomposition, putrefaction, and mutability that I will examine below in relation to Boca de lixo, I would like to end here with a short reading of “On Corruption,” the second to last poem in “Human Nature.” Corruption is also a central concept for interrogating the precarious existence of the inhabitants of the provincial landscapes explored in this chapter. On Corruption It may be that there is a gesture in everything, a figure and that perdurability could be inferred from stones, transience from insects and from the rose. That perfumes, sounds, colors correspond to one another or that thrown against rickety pines the wind gives us a warning. Even that any of us might think of themselves as priests of these and other symbols, anyone capable of converting the concrete into abstraction, the invisible into a visible thing, the familiar, the inert, the faraway into its opposite. Be this as it may, of something I am certain: it is not convenient to interpret messages in any sense even less so at this moment, to decipher what the gusts of air carry here—green flies buzzing, the stench of bloodless fish rotting under the sun on the counters, on the shore.
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Sobre la corrupción Puede ser que haya en cada cosa un gesto, una cifra, y que de las piedras se infiera perdurabilidad, fugacidad en los insectos y la rosa. Que perfumes, sonidos, colores se correspondan, o que arrojado contra los pinos endebles el viento nos haga una advertencia. Incluso que cualquiera de nosotros se crea sacerdote de estos y otros símbolos, cualquiera capaz de convertir lo concreto en abstracción, lo invisible en cosa visible, lo familiar, lo inerte, lo alejado en sus contrarios. Sea o no esto así, de algo estoy seguro: no me conviene interpretar mensajes en nada, menos aún, en este momento, descifrar eso que las rachas del aire traen hasta aquí –zumbido de moscas verdes, hedor de pescados exangües pudriéndose al sol sobre los mostradores de venta, en la costa.
Corruption, rot, is what the wind carries to the poet’s nostrils, stationed in the watchtower. But these remains, whose stench permeates everything despite the impossibility of locating them, are not associated with a stable meaning. There is a rejection of metaphor here, a dismissal of symbolism, and the enunciation of an objectivist poetics in which precariousness and putrid matter (the stench of rotting fish) are the main ingredients. The poem explicitly rejects any heuristic temptation; interpretation and analysis are both disavowed and what is privileged instead is the exposure of matter in its very state of
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inexorable corruption. Every state is, in this sense, provisional and precarious: a condition of unavoidable decay where all matter will become something else, returning to a “natural” world having passed through a state of putridness and decomposition. As fellow poet Fabián Casas puts it: “Everything rotting forms a family” (Todo lo que se pudre forma una familia).13
The Task of the Collector Boca de lixo is a transitional work in Eduardo Coutinho’s cinematographic career—his eighth feature in a prolific corpus of 25 films. Coutinho’s filmography represents a path of selfeducation through the exploration of different sources and locations and a relationship between camera and characters in a process of cumulative development. The definition of characters and the technique of conversation between the director and the interviewees are still evolving in Boca de lixo, not yet as defined as in Edifício Master (Master: A Building in Copacabana, 2002) or Jogo de Cena (Playing, 2007). Launched in 1992, the film is close in time and political context to El faro de Guereño— released in a moment when neoliberal policies dramatically increased poverty both in Brazil and in Argentina—and it also shares with García Helder’s book elements of an objectivist poetics. The presence of things and modes of production— objects, debris, vestiges, trash of various kinds—occupy the screen and are depicted at close range. Coutinho’s ethics of filmmaking, moreover, also enable a comparison with objectivist poetics. While the film director intervenes as a protagonist who dialogues and interacts with other characters, he avoids third-person voiceover, statements, or analysis of the images on-screen. As the film discloses the precarious condition of human and nonhuman actants, it also 13 “Hace algún tiempo,” in Tuca (Buenos Aires: Tierra Firme, 1990).
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maintains a distance even when the camera enters the subjects’ domestic space. Coutinho’s aesthetics, as João Moreira Salles puts it, is antiplatonic: it rejects general ideas (abstraction) and privileges instead concrete, singular things.14 The place that gives the film its title, “Boca de lixo,” is thus designated after the inhabitants who work there as “catadores de lixo” (garbage collectors), but the denomination is also fictional.15 The collectors’ task is actually not just to pick up garbage but also to sort it for later resale and recycling. Garbage is at the center of the image; it invades and seeps through the edges of the screen. The audience can almost smell the stench when the trash is filmed as it is being thrown from trucks while people inspect, remove, and collect it, looking for the staple items each person sorts and resells or, as we will see, might even consume themselves. Both the place, peripheral to the city of Rio de Janeiro, and the subject that the film exposes allow us to think about transformation, mutation, and transfiguration— both of the substances and of the people the film portrays. As José Carlos Avellar has observed, at the beginning of the film, Coutinho’s camera is itself a character, almost ashamed of looking into a place where it is not welcome: “The camera moves looking down on the formless bulk that accumulates up on the soil. When it looks up, it can only see the inquisitorial eyes of people that cover their faces with any piece of cloth.”16 14 João Moreira Salles, preface to O documentário de Eduardo Coutinho: Televisão, cinema e vídeo by Consuelo Lins (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2004), p. 7–10, here p. 9. 15 The film was shot in a garbage dump located in São Gonçalo, not far from Rio de Janeiro. Boca de lixo is a tribute to Boca do Lixo, a bohemian neighborhood in São Paulo, where the independent film industry flourished in the 1920s and again in 1960s. 16 José Carlos Avellar, “O Brasil por conta de nós próprio,” in Eduardo Coutinho, ed. Milton Ohata (São Paulo: Cossac Naify, 2013), p. 526–541, here p. 538. My translation. Regarding precarious lives, Judith Butler points out the importance of the face in recognizing humanity, even in the case of human beings that cover their faces, as do the women in the Arab world who wear burkas or other face-covering garments, or the people of Boca de lixo.
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But eventually, the camera is able to leave shame behind and gain the ragpickers’ trust. The camera opens up a dialogue, and the film is able to show families, faces, and the ways of life of the people working in Boca de lixo. There are important differences between the way Coutinho’s camera interacts with the environment and García Helder’s point of observation. In the relationship between the film’s subjects and the camera, there is a significant degree of distrust. We can recall the fishermen in García Helder’s “On Corruption” to see that the presence of a camera capturing people’s activity, especially that of sorting and even consuming garbage, implies an important difference between these two groups. While García Helder’s lyric “I” maintains a distance (which is both social and physical) from the fishermen, Coutinho, behind the camera, enters people’s homes, talks to them, and records the interviews. The first scenes of the film show animals living in the trash—pigs, birds, dogs, a horse—and then the collectors scrambling into the garbage heap almost like insects as the truck discharges a mix of solid and liquid waste into the dump. Film critic Consuelo Lins talks about the bicho-homem (insect/ animal-men), as the images show groups working together in the trash, many of them covering their faces to avoid being recorded by the camera.17 However, after these first images showing covered faces and unwilling cooperation, people let the film team approach them and gradually become more open to dialogue. The houses show precarious conditions but also signs of a domestic space that, while poor, has elements of lower-middle class homes: TV sets, washing machines, furniture, decorations (some from the garbage), musical equipment. Nothing like this is visible in G arcía Helder’s poems, which, nevertheless, share an interest in Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2008), p. 144. 17 Lins, O documentário de Eduardo Coutinho, p. 87.
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“workers’ homes.” Boca de lixo centers garbage collectors’ lives, as we can see in one of the opening dialogues of the film, in which an angry person asks the camera operator: “What do you gain from this? Why do you keep doing this business [shooting the film] in our faces?” To which Coutinho, from behind camera, replies, “It’s so we can show your lives.” In contrast to the poor in El faro de Guereño, who remains voiceless and distant from the “filming tower,” the trash collectors in Boca de lixo speak, even criticizing the film crew capturing their lives. They are also able to tell their story and to reflect on what they do while living there. But the intimacy evolves slowly, and the film also shows the collectors’ resistance to being recorded. As in many of Coutinho’s films, the vicissitudes of the shooting process subsequently become part of the film itself. The lack of a script, another method typical of Coutinho’s films, adds yet another unexpected layer to the story—the inhabitants’ distrust and resistance to being interviewed or even filmed, as they hide their faces with their hands or pieces of clothing. The face here, as César Guimarães has argued, is an elusive image that will appear only once the subjects lose their distrust of the camera, a device likely associated with television, an apparatus perceived as complicit with the policies that push the poor to the place where they now live.18 How does one read the place documented in the film? It is clearly not urban, but neither is it rural. The images of the Christ of Rio de Janeiro in the first scenes let us know that Boca de lixo is not far from the city, while the animal lives portrayed (pigs, chickens, dogs, horses) indicate a way of life closer to the countryside than to an urban setting. The life stories of the characters occupy a major part of the film. Enock, nicknamed
18 César Guimarães, “Comum, ordinário, popular: Figuras da alteridade no documentário brasileiro contemporâneo,” in Ensaios no real: O documentário brasileiro hoje, org. Cezar Migliorin (Rio de Janeiro: Azougue, 2010), p. 181–197.
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“Papa Noel” by the neighbors, is a character capable of reflecting philosophically on garbage (Fig. 1). After talking to him in the dump, Coutinho accompanies Enock to his nearby home and meets his wife, who is from Paraiba, a state in the Brazilian Northeast where many internal migrants originate. The area is populated by a mix of people coming from different states (provinces), some of them having made stops in Rio or other larger cities before arriving here. Many of the homes are in an extremely precarious state, made of pieces of wood and plastic bags, as with Cícera’s home shown at the beginning of the film. These are similar to the homes depicted in García Helder’s La vivienda del trabajador, precarious constructions made of wood, metal sheets, and plastic.19 But Enock’s place is different: solid and well built, it represents a comfortable home, and while Coutinho talks to Enock’s wife, he goes off to feed the chickens. Answering the director’s question about his job, Enock says: “Garbage is part of life. The end of service is garbage and from there everything starts.” As Enock’s explains it, garbage integrates the circuit of use, consumption, and degradation; those who work with it are just another element in a chain that restarts when ruined matter is being picked up and recycled. Garbage collectors perform “a service” at the end of the consumer cycle. Their precarious lives are neither worse nor less valuable than those located along other parts of the circuit of consumption. The only difference is position: some are at the beginning, others at the end of the chain. In fact, collectors de-compose trash when they sort metal, cardboard, paper and plastic to be recycled. The site is removed “away” from urban centers, but not too far away from them; the “producers” of the garbage must also feed the dump in order to keep the circuit alive. The task of the collectors complements consumer activity in the city, and their f unction is ecological and efficient 19 Daniel García Helder, La vivienda del trabajador (Rosario: Editorial Municipal de Rosario, 2008).
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Figure 1: Enock at the Boca de lixo garbage dump.
with regard to the production of landscape. The film ends with images identical to those at the beginning: a wasteland, smoking and stinking, yet now not perceived as dead but, quite the contrary, full of animal life: birds, pigs, dogs, and a horse live and feed on the garbage; animals contribute to waste processing and, eventually, feed the human population of the dump. The other character I would like to focus on is Jurema, the black woman interviewed towards the end of the film who starts by saying that trash “is not for people to eat, that cannot happen.” Jurema says that the food they collect is to feed pigs, but after her initial distrust towards Coutinho has faded away she admits that sometimes they will eat what they get from the garbage: macaroni, potatoes, vegetables, fruit. Her seven children and her home demonstrate that Boca de lixo is not hell. Trash is a gig: there are resources and benefits in living there, garbage can produce an income taken from goods either consumed, sold, or used to feed pigs. Here, the film returns to the topic of the job market. Lúcia and Cícera take a stand for the work in the dump, which they prefer to being maids in “homes of ladies.” Cícera prefers it because she does not like to be bossed around, although she admits that when she worked at a private home she
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ate better. The work the film portrays is, then, a job that guarantees some dignity, something more difficult to come by among the job opportunities available in the city (some of the husbands of the women interviewed in the film also work as fishermen, similar to the characters in García Helder’s Santa Fe poems). Precarious lives, then, are associated with a setting where traditional jobs—industrial work—are in retreat, and primitive, archaic, premodern economic activities like fishing and ragpicking have returned. Poetry, film, and photography explore these changes. Some of them are visible on the margins, the semiurban and semirural areas visited by the artists. These places are neither utopian nor dystopian: there is no progress nor redemption to be found here. The garbage dump stays the same from beginning to end, the garbage collectors do not change or progress, their precarious lives are established there, and they will continue with their activities as long as time permits.
Urban-Rural Rituals Let me conclude by commenting on some photographs by the Swiss-born artist Gian Paolo Minelli who lives and works in Buenos Aires. Some of Minelli’s most recent works show the neighborhood of Villa Lugano, on the periphery of Buenos Aires. Established in 1908 by the Swiss entrepreneur Santiago Soldati and inspired by the eponymous city of Switzerland where Soldati was born, Villa Lugano became a working-class neighborhood that suffered the brunt of the neoliberal policies that destroyed formal employment in the 1990s. Minelli’s photographs were exhibited in 2009 at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, more than fifteen years after the film and the poems discussed above were created.20 They let us observe, 20 Gian Paolo Minelli, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Villa Lugano (Villa Soldati) 2008–2009 (Buenos Aires: Corriere del Ticino, 2009).
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Figure 2. Gian Paolo Minelli, Villa Lugano, Parque Indoamericano, Buenos Aires, 2009. Courtesy Gian Paolo Minelli.
once again, a rural or natural landscape embedded in an urban space. The Parque Indoamericano of Buenos Aires, where the images were taken, is surrounded by precarious settlements close to Villa Lugano, known as villas miseria. Not far from the Indo-American Park is the Torre Espacial, visible in some of the images, a two-hundred-meter tall observation tower located in a now-dismantled theme park. As a modern monument, it contrasts with the general decay manifest in the buildings and the landscape of Villa Lugano. The first image shows a group of women and children in the park (Fig. 2). They are involved in a religious celebration of the Bolivian community to which they belong. Several immigrant communities from neighboring countries, mostly from Paraguay and Bolivia, as well as Argentine immigrants from the provinces live in the area. Province and metropolitan center converge once again: here the province appears not only as
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Figure 3. Gian Paolo Minelli, Parque Indoamericano, Buenos Aires, 2009. Courtesy Gian Paolo Minelli.
a fragment of the nation—since many immigrants coming to large cities are also from provincial backgrounds in their own countries—but also in an international context, with the creation of a provincial practice within a “foreign” nation. The ceremony they are performing in Minelli’s image includes lighting a fire, yet no additional information is provided as to what exactly they are doing. The tower is visible in the background, as in other images by Minelli. The lack of precision is deliberate, as the photograph is taken from a distance. In some of Minelli’s Villa Lugano pictures, the photographer hands a remote shutter-release switch to the people pictured, thus also handing responsibility for taking the picture over to them. The procedure becomes visible when the person holding the switch is shown with the connecting cable that comes right up to the lens. In this sense, Minelli’s images can also be compared to Coutinho’s conversational method. The artist shares authorship of the image with the people portrayed, and he distances himself from the picture.
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Figure 4. Gian Paolo Minelli, Villa Lugano, Parque de la Ciudad, Cine Tridimensional, Buenos Aires, 2009. Courtesy Gian Paolo Minelli.
The second image shows something burning, which could be garbage—a practice still widely used in the city for disposing waste in the open, rural-urban space—or it could be the remains of the ceremony (Fig. 3). The third image depicts a strange construction, a Greek-style temple located in the area. It is unfinished, made with large concrete blocks, a common form of construction in marginal neighborhoods in South America (Fig. 4). The observation tower, like a cinematic crane, comes back into view on the horizon. Distance, decreasing the presence of the observer in the scenes pictured, privileges matter (concrete blocks) as we can see in the last image of the Greek temple but also in the material being burned in the previous one. No significant human presence is visible in either of the last two photographs. In this sense, the landscape composition avoids taking possession of
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anything it observes: people and things are there, exposed, but making no claims on the space. Landscape is always the result of a human intervention, but there are different degrees of involvement. Making human presence more (or less) obvious from one image to another also allows observers to recognize that difference. In the final image, the tower again looms over the horizon, offering its presence as well as alluding to the vantage point from which the previous two landscapes can be observed. The concrete tower is also the film tower, the crane, which offers a viewpoint and makes landscape visible because it is only thanks to this viewing platform that the image as a whole becomes discernable. As we saw, there are a variety of approaches that determine what the observer can capture, what putrid matter can reveal, and what traces human interaction leaves in nature. Do the three artists briefly discussed in this chapter share distance as a critical feature to compose landscapes? Are the three of them aware of their observational privilege when looking for a noninvasive perspective, the contemplation of a world that does not belong to them, or to which they only partially belong? Where shall we situate the ritual practice shown in Minelli’s first image, one that probably arrived in the city from Bolivia but which maintains qualities that are difficult to preserve in a modern urban context? Rituals are practices typical of provincial migrants living in the big city, survivors from another territory and another time, housed in precarious conditions but still able to keep up ancestral practices. They can be seen as what Silviano Santiago has called “poor cosmopolitans,” many of them coming from provinces, inside or outside the host nation, to live in poverty and precariousness not far from putrid landscapes.21 Precariousness, however, also has its benefits, as
21 Silviano Santiago, O cosmopolitismo do pobre (Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG, 2004).
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it allows them to keep alive some traces of another way of life that they left behind. Poverty, putridness, decomposition, garbage, and dispossession can become assets in a transformation that facilitates survival. The objects associated with them (reflecting nature occupied by human presence and capitalism) function not as a smooth surface, neutral matter, but as tools, apparatuses, and ritual resources useful for resignifying and for creating new meanings from their very transformation. Images such as those discussed here allow us to see a composed landscape akin to the corruption and recomposition of matter at work in the soil of a garbage dump.
Javier Correa and Victoria Jolly Ciudad Abierta Solo es suelo lo que guarda el abismo— Only What Holds the Abyss is a Ground In July 1965, the poets Jonathan Boulting, Michel Deguy, Godofredo Iommi, and Edison Simons, the architects Alberto and Fabio Cruz, the philosopher François Fédier, the sculptors Claudio Girola and Henri Tronquoy, and the painter Jorge Pérez Román began a journey in a pickup truck from Tierra del Fuego to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, following the Southern Cross meridian across the American continent. Their movement and actions during this travesía—or crossing—revolved around a single word: Amereida, a poetic voice that sings the emergence and destiny of the continent, the Aeneid of America. During the journey, they carried out poetic acts and art interventions, gave lectures, and created sculptural signs in empty places, small towns, and cities. There was no fixed route leading them from one road to another, but there was a will to break through to the center of the continent and move away from its borders. In their wandering path, they went through Patagonia, the Pampas, the north of Argentina, and parts of the Bolivian Chaco. However, because of skirmishes between the guerrilla and the Bolivian Army at that time, they weren’t able to reach Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the city that, for them, was the center and poetic capital of America, where the two axes of the Southern Cross meet.
The Amereida is set out as an experience, one that, led by word and action, wonders about the meaning and destiny of America, in order to open up the possibility of a poetic mode of dwelling in the continent. The encounter with—or gift of—this territory over five centuries ago had come to complete the world, yet its original meaning had remained veiled by the objectives of conquest and colonization. America was inhabited from its borders, while its Mar Interior (Inner Sea) remained intact. For Amereida it was necessary to unveil that immensity, thereby providing a new meaning to the American continent.
The poem Amereida was published in 1967. Composed by the participants of the travesía in the form of a collective poetic text with no author, it embodies both the question about America and the very formulation of the travesía and its proposition for—or re-orientation of—the continent. It represents a vision that attempts to address America in its totality, from the viewpoint of foundational epic, of myth, and of dwelling. The poem was accompanied by a series of maps that show the outline of America, highlighting its settlement from its borders, rivers, coastlines, and topography, yet also its internal vacuum, or “Inner Sea,” the “unknown” that it was necessary to cross and even to inhabit in order to make America resonate with its “gift”—its difference with regard to Europe. The maps of Amereida are pages-territories that suggest a radical inversion of America’s orientation toward el propio norte, its own north and destination.
This inversion, already anticipated by the artist Joaquín Torres-García, brings us into the presence of a calculus that far exceeds the margins of the page, the territory, and even the poetic refounding of the continent. It is the abyss itself, the border toward which all crafts are dangerously inclined; the possibility of possibility, which, as François Fédier has pointed out, means that the destination is not the future but the continual opening of all present times. The crossing, the poem, and the maps, then, are but an attempt to “contain within the territory the macrocosm and the microcosm,” as Amereida says. This same desire, perhaps, was one of the motives that originated, in 1971, Ciudad Abierta—the Open City of Amereida.
In January 2017, fifty years after the publication of Amereida, photographs of the travesía that had been absent from the original text were exhibited alongside the poem and the maps. Their presence finally appeared to define a corpus, in the sense of an assemblage, provoking new openings in meaning, and once more setting in motion the cycle of abyss and adventure.
These images, still recent in their appearance, remain uncertain, in waiting, announcing new departures, whereas the poem and the maps carry within them a formula that has come to consolidate a project and a becoming. Hence, perhaps—as Jens Andermann wrote in the exhibition catalog—the omission of all images from the poem may have been an indication of its initial purpose, that of being in itself an iconic foundational act, one that could consequently be reproduced anywhere. This kind of iteration, in our view, also inevitably entails the formation of a sediment, a cluttering that paradoxically ends up becoming a methodology for Amereida: an oxymoron between history and poiesis, between icon and abyss.
At the end of the exhibition, the maps and stanzas from the poem of Amereida, which had been drawn in chalk on the walls of the very same hall that in 1972 had hosted the first exhibition of the Open City, were wiped off with wet sponges. This was done in successive “steps,” thereby generating a series of new figures and lines that, even as they cancelled out the original image, opened up space for a new, ephemeral figure. This figure, too, would disappear almost at once, but not without first allowing a final glimpse, through its multiple layers, of the original image. Erasure, then, was being executed here not as tabula rasa but as a conjunction of meanings: a ground from which to care for the abyss as the horizon and creative present of the Open City.
Photographs Archivo Ciudad Abierta Archivo Histórico José Vial Armstrong
Jill H. Casid Necrolandscaping
Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Necrocene To confront Anthropocene crisis is not to cast a prospect of distancing projection onto a deep past or lost future but, rather, to work from within the scene in which we are enmeshed, the Anthropocene as a landscape of genocide. With what they call the “orbis hypothesis,” climate scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin propose 1610 CE as the “golden spike” origin point for the Anthropocene.1 Working from the proposition that the effects of genocide are registered as declining levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurable by traces in arctic ice cores, the orbis hypothesis positions colonial encounter, the transatlantic slave trade, and its lethal effects on indigenous plants, animals, and peoples as pivotal. In representing the Anthropocene as a scene of genocide precipitated by the fatal transformation of world into orbis, or territorialized globe, by techniques of colonial landscaping—that is, “exposure to diseases carried by Europeans, plus war, enslavement and famine” along with the transfer of plant and animal species between Europe and the Americas, leading to a significant loss in biodiversity and acceleration of species extinction rates—it might, rather, be named the Necrocene.2 It is not a term I have coined, but one I give a particular twist that foregrounds the agencies and power-producing effects of making die.
1 Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (2015): p. 171–180. 2 Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” p. 174–175.
Jill H. Casid
For historian Justin McBrien, Necrocene does not just give a name to the shadow double of the Capitalocene but also its internal process of necrosis, a self-consumption born of capitalist extraction and accumulation as traumatic injury and surplus death not just birthed by extinction but as a process of “becoming extinction.”3 In critically contesting planetary catastrophism, Necrocene joins forces with the critical keywords Capitalocene, Jason W. Moore’s counter-naming to insist on geo-history and the “capitalogenesis” of planetary crisis not restricted to environment or climate; Plantationoscene, that collectively generated postcolonial anthropological intervention that moves the slave plantation–machine of enclosing, extractive monoculture from periphery to center and potentially widens the scene of genocide to necessarily include the Middle Passage and anti-black violence; and Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene, that resistant compound of the Greek roots khthon (for beings of the earth “both ancient and up to the minute”) and kainos (for times of beginnings that do not wipe out what comes before or after) to rename a “thick, fibrous, lumpy” timeplace for “learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth.”4 But, in pressing off from 3 Justin McBrien, “Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene,” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (San Francisco: PM Press, 2016), p. 116–137. 4 According to Jason W. Moore, the term “Capitalocene” originates with Andreas Malm. Moore and Haraway both began using the term before finding each others’ work in 2013. See Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2016). See also Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016). According to Haraway, the participants in a recorded conversation for Ethnos (University of Aarhus, October 2014) collectively generated the term “Plantationocene” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 206). See Donna J. Haraway, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Niels Bubandt, “Anthropologists are Talking— About the Anthropocene,” Ethnos 81.3 (2016), p. 535–564. For Haraway’s discussion of both Capitalocene and Plantationocene along with her term “Chthulucene,” see Donna J. Haraway, “Introduction” and “Making Kin: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene,” in Staying
McBrien’s exclusive emphasis on capitalism and the ostensibly dead matter of fossil fuels, I am interested in how Necrocene works to further shift the emphasis from death as extinction, death as abstract state, death as the opposite of life, to death as felt, material presence and active process by giving us death as a scene in which we are vulnerably situated. Poaching and redeploying Necrocene promises not just to foreground but also to make palpable the presence of death in life, that is, of the ostensibly verdant life-world of landscape as scene of death in which we are positioned not as remote witnesses or only as mourners but also as the mortal vulnerable exposed among the killable and dead. This version of the Necrocene does not so much partake of the apocalypticism of certain nihilist versions of dark ecology but rather puts the focus on feminist, trans*, and queer interventions that redirect Anthropocene extremities of deep past and ostensibly still-remote futures to the present pressures of thinking and feeling with the turbulent unpredictabilities of mixed affects and entangled agencies, with the enwrapping of the wildly incommensurate, and the ruptures of not the reparative but of demands for reparation and revolution on the part of those entities, those forms of life, bare life, and not-life, and ways of being and becoming for whom the ostensible privileges of the status of the human have never constituted refuge, those for whom the imperatives to sustain and reproduce life have, rather, been the terms of slow death, and those whose very form or lack of privileged form is rendered unlivable, killable, and not even registered as loss, as grievable losses or deaths that count. Necrocene puts pressure on the burning questions: What makes diverse forms of earthly trauma matter? What connects forms of earthly, planetary trauma held apart? Necrocene, if misrecognized, raided, and put to queer work as not just a landscape scene of genocide but as an obscene landscape scene of with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 1–8, 99–103, 206.
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not tidy green cemeteries of preserved graves but mass interment that makes us begin to sense what cannot be seen, what resists possession by classification and measurement, what presses at the limits of the fetish of the fossil record, what is not necessarily exhumable as skeletal remains and, yet, becomes part of the matter and mattering of landscaping as processes of inhumation. Necrocene as the obscene landscape of what exceeds the containerized, embalmed version of the matter of what happens when/as we die makes queer kin of the dead.
Going to Seed In my book Sowing Empire, I observed that the founding paternal gestures of dispossession and possession take the form of scenes of displacement, of making diasporic in scenes of scattering of seed: “With the materializing metaphor of planting scattered seed, that is, the practices of agriculture and landscaping as heterosexual reproduction, to plant was to produce colonies and to generate subjects to sustain them.”5 However, such ostensibly founding scenes of dissemination as devices of bioand necropower set the stage for other possibilities, for there is arguably nothing predictable about the effects of transplantation, production, and reproduction or the kinds of composting and decay that turn what I term death-in-life into emergent forms. Take the migratory declaration carved into the wooden sign at the entrance to the Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, planted by members of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group and dedicated October 18, 2015, to those lives lost worldwide to anti-trans violence: “They tried to bury us.
5 Jill H. Casid, “Introduction: On the Psychogeographies of Empire,” in Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. xiv.
They didn’t know we were seeds.”6 This digital dia-spor moves across hand-carved signs, T-shirts for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, painted signs at the Women’s March in January of this year, and posters carried at marches in Mexico City in the name of Ayotzinapa (shorthand for the forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School near Tixtla, Guerrero who were disappeared after their bus was attacked by municipal police and other armed men while en route to demonstrations in Mexico City). The activist meme (popularized by the Zapatistas in the 1990s in its Spanish form “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían que éramos semilla”) was adapted from a twoline poem in which Dinos Christianopoulos—a Greek writer of homoerotic verse with the outlaw blues quality and seediness of the “rembetiko” or “rebetiko” of underground music—adapts the ancient story of Cadmus who sowed an army of warriors from the magical seeds of dragon’s teeth to mine the metamorphic necro-erotics of classical myth to raise an army of the dead against the heterosexism of claims to the natural: “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.”7 The 6 The Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis, Missouri is one of the projects of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group of St. Louis. See: https://www. stlmetrotrans.com/trans-memorial-garden/ 7 The T-shirt with the words “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds” for the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20, 2016) was designed and produced by FTM transgender activist Aydian Ethan Dowling for his trans style clothing company Point 5cc. See Dowling’s Facebook post (November 7, 2016), https://www.facebook.com/AydianEDowling/posts/603634569761110:0. On the activist meme at the Women’s March on Washington, see, for instance, Sarah Brown, “Why We March,” Vogue, January 21, 2017, http://www.vogue.com/article/why-womenmarch-during-trump-inauguration. On the use of the phrase in conjunction with Ayotzinapa, see, for example, Ana María Fores Tamayo, “The Seeds of Ayotzinapa Spread,” Democracy Chronicles, December 12, 2014, https://democracychronicles.org/seeds-of-ayotzinapa/, and Arturo Conde, “‘Semillas Uses Dance, Art to Grow Ayotzinapa Awareness,” NBC News, February 26, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/semillas-usesdance-art-grow-ayotzinapa-awareness-n525721. On the attribution of the phrase to Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos’s speech (May 25, 2014) in honor of the teacher known as Galeano murdered by paramilitary forces,
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planting of a version of these words on the site of the Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, carries a particular charge due to its proximity to Ferguson where the protests surrounding the police murder of Michael Brown in 2014 were pivotal in galvanizing what has become the Black Lives Matter movement as, while 2016 was the deadliest year on record for trans people (with 2017 set to exceed it), most murdered trans people are women of color.8 The promiscuous popularity of this clarion call of the discarded and buried that turn out to be seeds risks erasing important differences with blanket generalizations that we are all mortal while foreclosing any reckoning with loss as loss by covering over the space of loss with signs of life that bear the promise of resurgence and resurrection. At the same time, however, rather than a covering over of pain and loss see Charlotte María Sáenz and Beverly Bell, “Ayotzinapa’s Uncomfortable Dead,” The World Post, November 11, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost. com/beverly-bell/ayotzinapas-uncomfortable_b_6140214.html. On Dinos Christianopoulos, see Kimon Friar, “The Poetry of Dinos Christianopoulos,” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 6.1 (Spring 1979), p. 59–84, and John Taylor, “Erotic Knowledge/ Self-Knowledge (Dinos Christianopoulos),” in Into the Heart of European Poetry (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 159–169. On Christianopoulos as “rebetologist,” see Dafni Tragaki, Rebetiko Worlds: Ethnomusicology and Ethnography in the City (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), p. 311. 8 On Black Lives Matter, see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), Christopher J. Lebron, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), and Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Appearance of Black Lives Matter (Miami: NAME, 2017). On the statistics and the names behind the numbers, see “Transgender Law Center Statement on Murders of Black Trans Women in 2017,” March 1, 2017, https://transgenderlawcenter.org/archives/13687. For a transnational accounting, see the mapping by The Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project, a pilot research project of the “Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide” (TvT) project, http://transrespect.org/en/research/trans-murder-monitoring/. On bio and necropower in the constitution and deadly policing of transgender, see Susan Stryker, “Biopolitics,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.1 (2014): p. 38–42 and C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn, “Trans Necropolitics: A Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife,” in The Transgender Studies Reader 2, eds. Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 66–76.
or the segregation of loss into not just discrete and marginalized but also uncounted losses, the landscape of the discarded and buried as unanticipated seed renders the Necrocene not an inert past or a foreclosed future but a roiling compost of a present which is mined not just by the military-pharmaco-agroindustrial complex but also by the discarded, discounted, and buried of stigmatic, agitating difference that refuses assimilation and calls for justice and reparation. In response to this work I began on landscaping as a device of bio- and necropower in Sowing Empire, I was invited by anthropologists Heather Swanson and Zachary Caple (who are engaged in a research initiative called the “Postcolonial Anthropocene,” which they coined to describe our situation in the contact zone of contamination) to think with their call to perform the double move of critically demonstrating the ongoing violences of environmental crisis integrally shaped by colonial histories of transplantation, hybridization, extraction, and the terrible conversion of human and animal bodies into disposable objects and commodities of exchange, while at the same time pressing against the limits of empirical evidence to ask not just what makes earthly trauma matter but also about the tracks and traces of the agencies of the more-than-human and also especially of that which is cast as the expendable, consigned to waste, and yet devises ways of living on in the situation of what they call “contaminated survival.”9 And to do so the plantation and the plantation-machine in its entanglement with factories, mines, finance capital, and transport resurface not as the sites of a superseded colonial before but as necessary to the work of thinking the question of, as they articulate it, how humans and 9 From the abstract for the session “Postcolonial Anthropocene: Pidgins, Power, and Contaminated Survival,” American Anthropological Association Convention (November 18, 2016) organized by Zachary Caple and Heather Swanson. I served as a discussant for this session along with Carolyn Martin Shaw. I thank the organizers and other presenters Lesley Green, Mayanthi L. Fernando, Kristina Marie Lyons for the provocation of their work.
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nonhumans come together to eke out an existence—or even flourish—in unbearable histories. They ask the poetic but also cheeky question: “If forests are flush with the chatter of humans and other species, can the plantation speak?” Rephrasing Gayatri Spivak’s famous performance of the negative limit to articulate along the virtual lines of impossibility and taking up Eduardo Kohn’s trans-species pidgins, their call presses at the limits of evidence with the desires of an otherwise that refuses to open the escape valves of fantasies of autonomy.10 I found myself compelled by the ethical and political commitment to the power of attending to not so much the knots of entanglement but the nots of the negative, that is, to the investment in attending to the audible silences and palpable absences that make the not not the end but the space of the contaminated interval in which we work. To ask can the plantation speak, to ask about living in unbearable histories is to commit to making us feel the questions whose very posing makes unbearable histories not a question of where we came from but a present space in which the questions not just of livability and even of flourishing but also of slow death and lives lived under the sign of lethal violence must be negotiated in relation to absence and loss, in relation to the irrecuperable and irredeemable of what Saidiya Hartman, for example, characterizes as the pornographic violences in the afterlives of the plantation’s scenes of subjection and, yet, at the same time in relation to the impos-
10 Gayatri Spivak’s resoundingly difficult interrogative was first published in the journal Wedge in 1985, as “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice.” It was reprinted as “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg’s edited collection, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988) and revised by Spivak as part of her “History” chapter in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). See Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, ed. Rosalind Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 21–80. See also Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
sible and ostensibly unaskable at the limits of evidence—that is, the potential imminence of subjunctive possibility even in the holes and hold of the archive and the ostensibly unaccountable of deaths in the absence of fossil records and remains that take legible shape: the critical imagination of the what could have been and might yet be.11 And it is on this note of the imperatives of critical imagination that recognizes diverse entangled agencies that include our complicity in worlding the world that we might otherwise take to be the resolved of terra firma that I return to the radical device of the discarded and refused as buried seeds.12 In English, there is a metaphorical phrase for insufficient life—“gone to seed”—that derives its power from forms of plant matter that become no longer harvestable or extractable because their energy has gone into the making of seed. A negative phrase of disparagement, “gone to seed” points to the unsettled and unsettling processes of decay and alternative forms of resistant generation from within landscapes of the dead that, rather than staying still, roil with the mixed means of making something out of contacts and contamination that draw together the differences—sexual, racial, gendered, geopolitical—that make up rather than dissolve into the horizontality of necrolandscaping as connective transversal exposure to mortality.
Landscape in the Deformative and the Arts of Dying Landscape so often appears as if fixed, as if not just a stabilizing stable of settled forms but also the ground or frame of the 11 Saidiyah Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) and “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008), p. 1–14. 12 For the coining of the critical term “worlding,” see Gayatri Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985), p. 235–261.
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settler-colonial enclosure, dispossession, and extraction of a lost wild, a precolonial before, the potent open of witchcraft, the secret knowledge of plants, and the living microcosms in the vibrancies of soils against which any queer, ecological, decolonial project in recognizing and enlisting the agencies of nonhuman or more-than-human worlds can only move on from or out of the “landscape-form” or landscape as the very form of unsustainable, unjust, and lethal settlement. In the imperative terms of critical ecology, landscape’s colonial and neocolonial dreamwork, its picturesque prospects of verdant horizons, and proprietary claims of master-of-all-I-survey perspectives appear under the sign of negation in the moldering mold of form to be gotten over and gotten past, as, if not the already dead of stilled life or the table of global capitalist imperium that serves up an array of dead nature, then an ostensibly European mode of imposing a distancing and dangerously aestheticized way of seeing that, in the scaping appropriation of land, reduces nature to object. In short, landscape appears as stilling form, as form that kills. Rather than attempt to redeem landscape, or return to a reimagined Garden of Eden, I propose that we consider landscaping as an assemblage of devices of necropower, or power produced in the death-grip intimacies of making live and making die enacted on and through matter (biological and geological) that worlds the world we might otherwise take as just there. In calling out landscaping as a means of necropower with the neologism necrolandscaping, I press the double edge of landscape’s queer necropower, that is, as engine of global capitalist extractivism and accumulation, frontier conquest, and bioprospecting but also as means of contesting and transforming or, rather, deforming from within its performative imperatives to reproduce and maintain life.13 13 In developing the concept of necrolandscaping, I draw on the work of Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15.1
Refusing the fantasy that “landscape” is somehow over, and to elaborate a contaminated ethics for negotiating the not-somuch post but arguably neocolonial Anthropocene situation of what I call death-in-life in the terrain of crisis ordinary, this essay thinks with queer, trans* experiments in the art of dying as a way of living with and making something provisionally habitable with the dead out of tainted aesthetics and the compost of discarded forms.14 Necrolandscaping offers an aesthetic tactics of landscape in the deformative that mines the de-forming, volatile, but also strangely resilient powers of the negative, from shame to dirt. The concept of death-in-life designates the compromised, nonautonomous, interdependent, and finite conditions of contaminated survival as the living on in the wake of traumas registered but not necessarily visible across morethan-human bodies in what I characterize as a necropolitical landscape of life after life, of life lived under not just the sign of imminent death but with mass incarceration, precarization, and heightened vulnerability, with retractions of care hinged at the same time to a politics of making live lives of slow death, of forced barely life at the edge of livability. The powers of the negative or deformative in queer landscaping offer necro-tactics for negotiating the Necrocene not by opposing a politics of the affirmative reproduction of life on any terms but, rather, by refusing to let go of our dead, thinking and feeling at the limits
(2003), p. 11–40. In foregrounding the “deformative” as the negative aspect and potential within the performative, I activate a term used but never quite taken up by both Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler in their classic work on queer performativity. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” GLQ 1.1 (1993), p. 1–16, and Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ 1.1 (1993), p. 17–32. 14 In pursuing the deformative, this essay returns to the work I began in my essay “Landscape in, around, and under the Performative.” See Jill H. Casid, “Epilogue: Landscape in, around, and under the Performative,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 21 (2011), p. 97–116.
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of biopolitical optimization of life, and from the place of and practice as the vulnerable exposed of the as-if-already-dead.
Necro-Scene One: Negrogothic Cracking So seared into the public imagination as the primal scene of a history of slavery that is not over is the field of black figures picking cotton that four barren trees stuck with first-aid cotton balls are more than enough to conjure not just any field but the slave plantation landscape. And it is here (Fig. 1) in a shadow-scape amidst the cotton-ball studded saplings that classically trained counter-tenor, visual artist and composer M. Lamar sets the centerpiece video Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part Two, Overseer in the installation Negrogothic, A Manifesto, The Aesthetics of M. Lamar (Fig. 2), Lamar’s first solo show in New York, which framed the video with large-scale photo-prints of scenes from Lamar’s video works and props of necropower and its philosophizing: a guillotine, a pillory, and a table supporting a pile of key books for black study (Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Cornel West Reader, and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit).15 Opening with a panning shot that tracks slowly from a black bucket filled with round white cotton balls across the stark white bared ass cheeks of three kneeling “overseers” and “witnesses,” the slave plantation landscape as a scene of violent desires disavowed is no longer a matter of the archive or the past but reactivated by an aesthetics of a “negrogothic” that mines 15 The show ran at Participant Inc., from September 7 until October 12, 2014. For documentation of the installation, see M. Lamar’s website, http://www.mlamar.com. On the exhibition, see Negrogothic, A Manifesto, The Aesthetics of M. Lamar, press release, Participant Inc., September 3, 2014, http://participantinc.org/wp-content/uploads-new/MLamarPR.pdf. For the iteration of M. Lamar’s exhibition Negrogothic curated by Hesse McGraw at the San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries, January 30 to February 28, 2015, see the gallery guide, http://www.sfai.edu/ uploads/resources/SFAI_MLamar_GG_011615_proof2.pdf.
Figure 1. M. Lamar, Mapplethorpe’s Whip, 2014. Image Courtesy of the artist.
the dark lusts that fuel the materializing fantasy production of “blackness” across film noir, the Marquis de Sade, Pasolini’s Salò, heavy metal, torture, and the metal of slavery and black death as spectacle.16 Scaped by sounds of blowing wind punctuated by the blows of a cracking whip—as Lamar shrouded in hooded black picks cotton from the trees in the guise of “slave” and “ghost” turned “reaper” who sings with a seductive keening of beating, whipping, and watching on slow repeat—the slave plantation landscape becomes fleshly presence that enwraps us, the spectators, as seduced bodily witnesses who are not just part of the scene but seen as we watch Lamar and the white “whip-wielding” executioner/overseer linger in a long, wet kiss among the cotton trees. Lamar crosses the operatic trill with the more physical vibrations of ululating to not so much 16 On the installation at Participant Inc. and the making of the video Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part Two, Overseer,” see Emily Colucci, “The Plantation is Still Here: An Interview with Artist M. Lamar,” Vice (October 3, 2014), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xd5mda/theplantation-is-still-here-inside-m-lamars-negrogothic-a-manifesto-exhibition.
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Figure 2. Installation View of M. Lamar, Negrogothic, A Manifesto, the Aesthetics of M. Lamar, 2014. Image Courtesy of the artist, Participant Inc., and Rona Yefman.
address as penetrate with the call to see that cracks open the barrier of witnessing to catch us looking: “See me, Watch me, Watch me see. I can see you watching me, oversee-er.” We see and hear the whip crack but we never see the whip fall onto a back or backside. Instead, the cracking whip falls over and over again from the guillotine turned castration device, down from its ostensible height into the waiting bucket of cotton, and, as the sequence unfolds (Fig. 3), in Lamar’s hands, multiplies, as he inserts a black whip between the opened white ass cheeks of each of the bent-over overseers turned fleshly witnesses… witnesses, that might be us. Drawing on the sensory overdeterminations of the cracker (the hard salt crackers or “ship’s bread” as sailors’ staple of the transatlantic slave trade, the derogatory black term for white trash thought to derive from the sound of the overseer’s cracking whip, and the term for black overseers), the black leather whip in and of the slave plantation landscape as materializing fantasy scene cracks the bounds between the living and the dead to crack open the disavowed, desiring anus of the world.
Figure 3. M. Lamar, Mapplethorpe’s Whip VI The Whip Crackers, 2014, archival pigment print on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Necro-Scene Two: Queer Inhuming The vaunted scene of the exercise of grievable deaths as the performance of lives to be valued remains ritual interment, the digging and marking of a grave. But the actual process of inhuming (with its close Latinate ties—via humus for earth— to humiliation and the inhuman as that is which is brought down and into the dirt or ground) exercises that edge where grievable death joins discarded life. And it is this volatile double charge that promises to make abjection, the filth and rot of shame, the source of power not by the camp alchemy of glitter but by the deformative necro-tactics of grave-digging. Two decades after the AIDS-activist ashes actions in 1992 and 1996 exercised the volatile, negative performative “shame on you” by throwing the ashes of loved ones who died of AIDS on the lawn of the White House that refused them and consigned them to death by malignant inaction, queer attachments in the age of potential access to drugs that make it possible to live with AIDS are still lived under the sign of death, haunted by the violences (such as the mass shooting on Latin Night at the
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Pulse Nightclub in Florida in summer 2016—to name just one) that have persisted well after the legalization of gay marriage.17 Queer attachments are still enacted in the field of traumatic losses that would make it not hyperbolic to name inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic and the ongoing refusals and retractions of care both supportive and preventative (from education to needle exchange) a genocide. Queer attachments are still sustained in the strange space and temporality of outliving expectation and out of the inventive brew of not just survivor’s guilt but also that strange edge-space of never expecting and never being expected to survive, that strange edge-space of doing one’s queer attachments in the space of their never being expected to endure. Turning to extended endurance performance, the husbandand-husband artist collaborative Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger queerly inhume the socially engaged practice that Nato Thompson famously calls “living as form” by making the ur-act of the heternormative social contract—the binding ritual witnessing of the performative “I do” of the marriage ceremony— the site of the radical dig of something like dying as de-form not by refusing marriage but making witnessing to the queer occupation of the marriage bed (claimed for a heterosexuality positioned in the place of the natural) just as altering and even alienating as the open grave.18 In Untitled (Graves), first performed at 17 On current renewal of interest in the ashes actions and political funerals of the 1990s, see Jason Silverstein, “Why the Ashes of People with AIDS on the White House Lawn Matter,” Vice, August 29, 2016, https://www.vice. com/en_us/article/vdqv34/why-the-ashes-of-aids-victims-on-the-whitehouse-lawn-matter and Dagmawi Woubshet, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). On the necropolitics of the Pulse nightclub shooting, see Che Gossett, “Pulse, Beat, Rhythm, Cry: Orlando and the Queer and Trans Necropolitics of Loss and Mourning,” Verso Books Blog, July 5, 2016, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2747-pulse-beat-rhythm-cry-orlandoand-the-queer-and-trans-necropolitics-of-loss-and-mourning. 18 Nato Thompson, Living as Form: Socially-Engaged Art from 1991–2011 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012).
the Volta art fair in Basel in 2008 and then again at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon in 2010 (Fig. 4), Miller & Shellabarger, out not in a field set aside as garden cemetery nor in a secluded setting but, rather, in a highly visible, open grass-covered clearing, spend the day digging two side-by-side rectangular holes that are not identical but, rather, fit the differing proportions of their bodies, cuing us to sense the more fine-grained distinctions in the heft and girth of their white-fleshed, white-T-shirted, jeansclad, grey-white-bearded bodies.19 Across this interval of distance between the graves—highlighted by the outline of their differences in size—rather than bridge the distance by denial of the losses to come or through rituals of mourning that frame death only in terms of the tears of grief, Miller & Shellabarger dig a trench just big enough to extend their arms and hold each other’s hand. This gesture enacts the fantasy of holding on. But it does so in a way that does not collapse the spacing between the two graves. Rather, it makes the performative exercise of the little deaths of dailiness, the coming and going of holding on for the time one has that never forecloses separation or loss, the intimate and sexually charged stuff of queer attachment. It makes of our living with our own and each others’ dying a mortal, material bond in which we, as the attendant witnesses, are also held until death do us not so much part as make us compostable part.
19 On the work of Miller & Shellabarger, who are represented by the Chicago-based gallery Western Exhibitions, see http://westernexhibitions. com/artist/miller-shellabarger/. For a discussion of their performance, see the interview with curator Kristan Kennedy, “Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger,” Urban Honking Blog, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, October 1, 2010, http://urbanhonking.com/pica/2010/10/01/dutes-millerstan-shellabarger/.
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Figure 4. Miller & Shellabarger, Untitled (Graves, Oregon), 2010, archival dye-jet print, 33 x 44 inches, Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago.
Necro-Scene Three: Negative Spacing, Smearing A Smeary Spot, (Fig. 5) the three-channel video installation that constitutes the opening episode in A. K. Burns’s unfolding cycle of video works and exhibitions on “negative space” (first shown at Participant Inc., New York, September 13 to October 18, 2015), takes its title metaphor from pioneering feminist science fiction writer Joanna Russ’s 1977 novel We Who Are About To…, the launching line of which immediately fills in the ellipsis with the death sentence: “About to die.”20 A radically dis- and reorienting riposte to the techno-triumphalism of the science fiction fantasy of the ever-survivable crash or the death-avoiding sublime of the instantaneous explosion, We Who Are About To… 20 Joanna Russ, We Who Are About To… (New York: Dell, 1977), p. 1.
recasts the ordinary guiding light of the sun as a “smeary spot” inextricable from “the light of our dying.”21 Russ’s landscape that unfolds at an unknown and unmeasurable distance from that “smeary spot” puts us in the space-time folds of speculative fiction not to open the vista of the ever-expanding frontier prospect but to have us grapple, in the haze-making wake of crashes both literal and metaphoric that have already occurred, with agency in one’s dying as a radical life practice and alternative to killing forms of biopower, from colonization to compulsory reproduction and rape in the name of the propagation of the species.22 Burns’s “smeary spot” puts us into the dis- and reorienting space-time fold of the landscape of contamination between wide shots of public lands in southern Utah, where it is not just the power plant and the dam but the very terrain that bears the traces of conquest and colonization, and close-ups into the dark space of a black-box theater with a heaped pile of the cast-off debris of the ostensible optimization of life, mixing camping gear, office furniture, technology from the water cooler to the photocopier, and lifestyle tools such as the industrial-grade juicer.23 Charismatic queer and trans performers (including Jack Doroshow, aka Flawless Sabrina, as the clairvoyant psychic; Nayland Blake or Aunt Be/e as “Re/productive Labor” covered in yellow dust and wearing nothing but a jock strap and apron [Fig. 6]; and niv Acosta and Jen Rosenblit as “Free Radicals”—at once electron-seeking molecules and activists) seductively vie for our attention as they—to name a few of the actions—collect smoke, hike through the desert landscape 21 Russ, We Who Are About To…. 22 Samuel R. Delany, “Introduction,” in We Who Are About To … (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), p. i–xv. 23 On the installation, see A. K. Burns’s website, http://www.akburns.net/ projects/negative-space-w-i-p/. See also A. K. Burns, A Smeary Spot, Opening Episode of Negative Space, press release, Participant Inc., September 2015, http://participantinc.org/wp-content/uploads-new/AKBurns_PR.pdf. A Smeary Spot traveled to the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in 2016 for the Time-Based Arts Festival, http://pica.org/event/a-k-burns/.
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Figure 5. Installation View of A. K. Burns, A Smeary Spot, 2015, 4-channel video installation, Video 1–3: HD color, 6-channel sound, 53:13 min. loop. Video 4: SD b/w, silent, 4:00 min. loop, Edition of 3. Dimensions of installation variable, includes twelve office chairs, videos 1–3 each projected onto 81 x 144 inch walls, built at a 10-degree angle to the gallery wall, gallery is painted black with black industrial carpeted floor and video 4 is presented on a separate 29 inch Sony cube-monitor. Image courtesy of the artist, Participant Inc., and Callicoon Fine Arts, N.Y.
Figure 6. Aunt Be/e as Reproductive Labor in Video Still from A. K. Burns, A Smeary Spot, 2015, 4-channel video installation, Video 1–3: HD color, 6-channel sound, 53:13 min. loop. Video 4: SD b/w, silent, 4:00 min loop, Edition of 3. Image courtesy of the artist, Participant Inc., and Callicoon Fine Arts, N.Y.
Figure 7. Installation View of A. K. Burns, A Smeary Spot, 2015, 4-channel video installation, Video 1–3: HD color, 6-channel sound, 53:13 min. loop. Video 4: SD b/w, silent, 4:00 min. loop, Edition of 3. Dimensions variable, includes twelve office chairs, videos 1–3 each projected onto 81 x 144 inch walls built at a 10-degree angle to the gallery wall, gallery is painted black with black industrial carpeted floor and video 4 is presented on a separate 29 inch Sony cube-monitor. Image courtesy of the artist, Participant Inc., and Callicoon Fine Arts, N.Y.
of Utah, dance on the edges of cliffs, wrap themselves in reflective blankets, recite a set of provocations from writers such as feminist physicist Karen Barad and feminist science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin, smear themselves with mud, make photocopies, deflate an air mattress, caress the military jacket tagged with the name of Chelsea Manning, and press carrots and beets with a shoe into a reclaimed, make-do juicer, forming a lurid, abjectly bloody swirl of seeping reds and oranges that spill out over the edges of the white cup emblazoned with “lavender menace” (Fig. 7). It is the negative space of this landscape of abjection and contamination that is activated to counter smear tactics with an aesthetics of the material smear that presses together the queer, trans, lesbian feminist, and black
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refused to render that landscape habitable for queer attachments to the ostensibly unlivable across divides, including that between the dark, negative space in and between screens and the dark, negative space of the contaminated space of becoming that is our viewing.24 This is less speculative fiction than a tactics of speculative friction that activates the necrolandscaping of the smear to make the dark, negative space of our viewing a space of potential in which our senses are caught in the rub of strange contacts that create frictional energies to shake us out of the predictable orbital patterns of our elective affinities to make altered sense.
Necro-Scene Four: Readying “REAAADYYY!” A guttural growl, a command, a challenge, a summons and its reply. Ready, with its connotations of military command, physical combat, and athletic competition as in orders to “ready, aim, fire” and “ready, steady, go,” “REAAADYYY!” radically condenses the particular sensory organization and orientation of deaths lived under the performative imperatives of late global capitalism between biopower’s orders to optimize life (and its promise to, if not avert, then forestall death by not just physical but also affective and sensory regimes of grooming for fitness, for the body that performs as if healthy, happy, optimistic, as the body that is ready in the sense of trained and prepared to perform quickly with ease and accuracy) and necropower’s commands to use and deploy such trained and prepared b odies
24 On the video as a “poetic manifesto” on the agential matter of negative space, see Risa Puleo, “Transformation and Becomings: An Interview with A. K. Burns,” Art in America, September 21, 2015, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/becomings-and-transformations-an-interview-with-ak-burns/ and Lauren Cornell, “If the Future Were Now: A. K. Burns,” Mousse 50 (October-November 2015), http://moussemagazine.it/ak-burns-lauren-cornell-2015/
that are at the ready, to be ever-ready to kill or be killed in the name of life. “REAAADYYY!” cues the nervous system, aims directly at the muscles, tensing the body for action and, yet, carries no definitive affective charge, oscillating widely between the sense of being sufficiently agitated to be about to do something and the more general sense of being willing, even eager to perform an action. Echoing and yet unhooking and deranging the forced “Ready? OK!” of the cheerleading chant, the shout “REAAADYYY!” constitutes the structuring and yet de-forming refrain of K8 Hardy’s 2004 performance piece Beautiful Radiating Energy, developed over the course of several iterations, including those at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York (with a stage by artist collaborator Klara Lidén), the Pilot Television Conference in Chicago, and Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco.25 Already signaling the energetic pull of the power to move and relay the call to action across bodies, across time, and across space, “REAAADYYY!” may have been associated— when first performed in 2004—with the particular energies, the combinations of unrestrained pain, joy, and rage of the punk anthems of the Riot Grrrl movement and such imperatives as “Keep on Livin’” from Le Tigre’s 2001 Feminist Sweepstakes album with its call to “Take back your own tonight… It’s time now get ready.”26 But, with the passing of the baton 25 On the performance at the Pilot Television Conference in Chicago, see K8 Hardy and Ulrike Müller, “K8 Hardy and Ulrike Müller,” North Drive Press, 3 (2006): p. 1–11. For a review, see Michael Wang, “Streaming Creatures: A New Generation of Queer Video Art,” Modern Painters (June 2007): p. 100–105. For Gregg Bordowitz’s discussion of the importance of the imperative question which “ready” opens up and the queerness of unhinging the call from a particular object or action, see Rhea Anastas, Gregg Bordowitz, Andrea Fraser, Jutta Koether, and Glenn Ligon, “The Artist is a Currency,” Grey Room 24 (Summer 2006), p. 110–125, 119. 26 Le Tigre, “Keep on Livin’,” Feminist Sweepstakes (Chicks on Speed Records, 2001). In addition to integrating video in her performative art practice, Hardy directed the music video for Le Tigre’s Les & Ray (2001). Hardy frames the aesthetics and experimental approach of her film Outfitumentary (Hardy Studio, 2016) with reference to having “discovered
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to artist Raúl de Nieves who trained with Hardy to re-perform Beautiful Radiating Energy at Participant Inc. on May 21, 2017, in an event organized by scholar-curator Rhea Anastas (Fig. 8), the cracking voiced screams of the performance’s unhinged “REAAADYY!”—with its newly introduced shout-outs in Spanish—crackled with the intensely polarized negative-positive energies of an outraged and unsettled now.27 To heighten our sense of the sexed, gendered, and raced body as a volatile site of projection often asked to carry the burden of disavowed vulnerability and mortality, Nieves, like Hardy, performed the choreography’s calisthenic exertions in an all-white costume with a breast-pocketed shirt reminiscent of a nurse’s uniform tucked into waist-high briefs over white tights and pink trainers, which renders the body’s surface and the shadow it casts not figures in the changing landscape of projected images but a strained site of landscape trouble as ungrounded ground.28 Strain extends to the vocal strenuousness of the “score” that calls on the performer to shout in varying registers: “I am happy; I am here; I am hurt; I’m ready!” The affective collision of the lines that force open a public space that can hold happy and hurt in the same here and now also exert a strain of their own on us that is matched by the sense-making visual strain in
video art through punk rock and Riot Grrrl,” http://www.picturepalacepictures.com/OUTFITUMENTARY.html 27 On the performance featuring Raúl de Nieves, see K8 Hardy and Raúl de Nieves, Beautiful Radiating Energy, press release, Participant Inc., May 21, 2017, http://participantinc.org/wp-content/uploads-new/BeautifulRadiatingEnergyPR.pdf. Video of the 2004 performance of Beautiful Radiating Energy was previously featured in the 2015 exhibition New Cuts, K8 Hardy curated by Rhea Anastas at the University Galleries, University of California, Irvine. For a review of that exhibition, see Grant Klarich Johnson, “New Cuts, K8 Hardy,” CAA.reviews, August 27, 2015, http://www.caareviews.org/ reviews/2625#.WX3toK2ZOL8 28 On the political work of projection, see Jill H. Casid, “Introduction: Shadows of Enlightenment,” in Scenes of Projection: Recasting the Enlightenment Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 1–34.
the seeming chaos of the montage effects of the video with its combination of images of urban, pastoral, and cemetery landscapes (Fig. 9), its close-ups of looming floral blooms (fig. 10) and luridly colored geometric and biomorphic shapes, and its found footage of gay rights parades, women’s and men’s body-building competitions, and protests at the funeral of the Baader-Meinhof group who ostensibly committed suicide while in prison. Here the rope of power enacted through making die and subjecting to social death is also the jumping rope of what is not just child’s play as the re-performance opens with Nieves running from the wooden stage out into the middle of the gallery, forcibly clearing space to jump rope among us. In re-performance, the cry of “REAAADYY!” takes on an ominous cast as the translation in Spanish interrupts the cheer of the shouts “I am happy; I am here” with not “I am hurt” but “tengo miedo.” The negative anticipation of “I’m afraid” vibrates in irreducibly radical tension with the seeming tranquility of the new-age prospect of the “beautiful radiating energy” of the performance’s title which begins to issue more as an anxietyproducing question lining and mining the tense energetics of being crowded into the dark space of expectation. Ready or not this time, the re-performance puts the imperative pedal to the question of what readies us for a here and now in the wake of the not-yet of failed revolutions in which the compelled performance of happiness and optimism cannot be dissociated from what hurts and what induces fear, in which the pastel petals of psychedelic dreams, the landscape prospects of the journey cannot be disentangled from the violences enacted against the disposable and the violences we may claim to oppose, nor from the violences that hail us, the violences that we may be called upon to enact, and the slow, quiet, unnoticed violences of what gets abjected to answer the call to happiness.
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Figure 8. Raúl de Nieves performs K8 Hardy, Beautiful Radiating Energy, 2004/2017, live piece, video, sound. Performance: May 21, 2017, Participant Inc., New York, N.Y. Photograph © Paula Court. Image courtesy of Participant Inc.
Figure 9. Raúl de Nieves performs K8 Hardy, Beautiful Radiating Energy, 2004/2017, live piece, video, sound. Performance: May 21, 2017, Participant Inc., New York, N.Y. Photograph © Paula Court. Image courtesy of Participant Inc.
Figure 10. Raúl de Nieves performs K8 Hardy, Beautiful Radiating Energy, 2004/2017, live piece, video, sound. Performance: May 21, 2017, Participant Inc., New York, N.Y. Photograph © Paula Court. Image courtesy of Participant Inc.
Doing the Deformative Situated in what might seem the ditch and not just pitch of the risky, unprotected field of heightened hurt, loss, and exhausted hope that is the Necrocene, I have laid out four necro-scenes that exercise the deformative as a resource for a kind of practice I call necrolandscaping: cracking open the bounds between living and dead, inhuming to form queer attachments for living our dying, smearing the boundaries between negative and positive to pose the negative space of contamination as a site of becoming, and issuing a call of readying for acting within the impure situation of the exhausted, the failed, and the already dead. Exercising the volatile potentials of death and decay in the wake of what the never or never again has yet to banish or resolve, these necro-scenes experiment with ways of bearing the unbearable from within the very scenes of what appears beyond and even directly threatens our capacity to show up, stay, parti
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cipate, and engage.29 Grappling in a let’s-get-into-it way with the powers and possibilities of doing not merely the performative but also and especially the deformative, these necro-scenes reopen consideration of landscape as a way of approaching the crisis-ordinary of the Necrocene via a set of powerful tactics that offer “going to seed” as ways of negotiating and even transforming the everyday sites of damage in which we find ourselves.
29 I first shared this work on the deformative in my collaboratory on “Doing the Deformative” (September 2014) for the “Art + Scholarship” Borghesi-Mellon Workshop at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which I co-coordinated with Katie Schaag, Andrew Salyer and Jon McKenzie. See https://artandscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/collaboratory1-philosophy-in-the-performative/.
Jens Andermann Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Figure 1. Luis Fernando Benedit, Prototipo: Habitat-laberinto para cucarachas (Prototype: Habitat-Labyrinth for Cockroaches), 1971. Varnish paint and felt pen on blueprint. Photograph: Peter Schaechtli. Zurich, Daros Latin America Collection.
In early 1968, just months after Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Nova Objetividade exhibition where Hélio Oiticica first displayed his labyrinthine, immersive environment, Tropicália, a very different kind of artistic reflection on the natural history of the New World was on display further south in Argentina. At Buenos Aires’ Galería Rubbers, the architect and visual artist Luis F ernando Benedit was displaying Microzoo, the first in a series of shows featuring artificial habitats for living organisms. These included “labyrinths” for mice, cockroaches, and ants as well as a “vegetable labyrinth” in which a germinating plant had to “choose” its way between two plexiglass tubes
l eading, a lternatively, towards a light bulb or towards darkness and death. Interestingly, the very concept of the “labyrinth,” which was also central to Oiticica’s work, as a way of conceptualizing the audience’s immersive, multisensory experience of the visual, tectonic, and haptic forms devised by the artist (Bólides, Penetráveis, Parangolés), was being transferred here to nonhuman organisms, and combined with the notions of the zoo and of microscopy as two particular forms of human spectatorship on nonhuman life. In the catalogue of his exhibition Projects and Labyrinths at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1975—the same venue, incidentally, where Tropicália had been showing when Benedit first exhibited Microzoo in Argentina— the artist described his “animal and plant habitats [as] biological sculptures,” adding: There is a definite relationship between the forms and their inhabitants (mice, ants, fish). They reflect both the forms I wish to create and the needs of the plants and animals for which they have been intended and thus each work can be seen on several levels. […] I think of them as ecological objects where the balance of interacting elements is created artificially.1
Benedit’s statement elicits an intriguing question. For, what are the mice and cockroaches inhabiting (or learning to make their “habitat”) in these biological sculptures: do we still recognize them as “natural beings” or do they rather become grafted into the artifice in whose production and reproduction they participate? And, secondly, who or what is the bearer of an aesthetic experience in relation to these peculiar kinds of sculpture: the human audience, which might observe through them particular modes of animal or vegetable adaptation to man-made circumstances (provided, of course, they change 1 Luis Fernando Benedit, Plant- en dierhabitaten (Antwerpen: Internationaal Cultureel Centrum, 1976), p. 20. English in original.
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their viewing habits from the one-off visual consumption of the gallery visitor to the laboratory scientist’s repetitive observation at regular intervals)? Or is it not, rather, the nonhuman participants of the assemblage, who quite literally transform their lives in response to the experience of the artwork? The zoo shares with the museum and other elements of the “exhibitionary complex”2 an origin in the early modern city of the “age of discoveries.” The military, economic, and political expansion of Europe that was also a major catalyst for the transition from feudalism to capitalism, triggered a proliferating development of technologies of enhanced perception, recording, and recognition, from astronomy to botany and anatomy. These, in turn, allowed the maintenance and expansion of an imperial assemblage based on accumulation—that is, on grafting an increasing number of human and nonhuman agents (artifacts, labor, resources) into highly uneven networks of exchange. This incorporation of an ever-increasing diversity of elements depended, in turn, on the possibility of “knowing,” of making calculable each individual element in the measure of its real or potential relations with other elements. Value, in the emergent capitalist world system, is but the abstract synthesis of this calculation of the relative prevalence or scarcity, the stability or mutability, and the spatial mobility of individual elements. As Michel Foucault has so magnificently shown in The Order of Things, the very idea of the species only becomes possible vis-à-vis the development of a corresponding matrix of classification no longer based on resemblance (as a remote trace of Creation itself) but on an abstract system of functional equivalence between the order of life and that of its intellection and reinscription in concepts.3 The origin of species, in
2 Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995). 3 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 74–85.
this sense, can be found not in the dawn of time but rather in the emergence of classificatory apparatuses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, culminating in Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae of 1735.4 Yet, in a wider sense, it also refers back to a modern notion of representation that was itself predicated on the colonial experience, implying as it did a possibility of knowing individual entities and their co-relations with others—their Umwelt—through careful visual observation. Ocular perception from afar—a mode of cognition proper to the hunter-warrior, as Jay Appleton suggested in his anthropological study of the landscape form,5 yet which we might also extend to the colonizer and the absentee landholder—is subsequently transposed onto secondary objects: the highly formalized genres of visual depiction that include maps, painterly landscapes, and botanical and zoological drawings. Genres, in this sense, are first and foremost technologies of specification. This is so not just because genres invent or construct, on the level of the image and the concept, a biological regularity, a “law,” to which “nature” itself can henceforth be held accountable, as deconstructive and poststructuralist critiques of landscape and of natural history have long sustained. Rather, genres (in the widest sense of the term, also including the modern division of labor between the “arts and the sciences”) are of the same order as species. Genres are the modality the species form takes on in the realm of the aesthetic, just as the commodity is a modality of the species form in the realm of the economic (an observation already made by the surrealists and by Walter Benjamin in his study of the Parisian passages). Ironically, then—Foucault’s point once again—the medieval and early modern episteme of resemblance gradually turned into the biopolitical rationality of industrial-capitalist moder4 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 24–37. 5 Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (London: John Wiley, 1975).
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nity, in which modes of life have become susceptible to value extraction in the measure of their representability, thanks to the common calculus sustaining species, genres, and commodities in a mutual relation of functional equivalence. An extremely complex politics of form is at work here, in which life at once informs and sustains an aesthetics predicated on the notion of mimesis—the Ciceronian idea of imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis, which conjoins mimesis, genre, and truth—yet is also itself subject to an act of knowledge, of in-formation, that grafts the merely living into the order of the knowable, thus also inscribing it with a value. Moreover, the equivalential relation that makes it possible to “represent” each of these realms by figuring them through the other’s image (Darwin’s conceptual borrowings from political economy that refashioned the language of natural history are a magnificent example of this mutual representability) is at the same time predicated on their distinctiveness. Functional equivalence can occur only between elements belonging to ontologically different realms—even if they appear alike from the outside, as in the Romantic topos of the automaton, in which mechanical replication of the living organism ends up becoming indistinguishable from the latter, thus provoking an anxiety about the contamination of essence by appearance, of the episteme of equivalence by that of resemblance, and vice versa. It is this very “contamination anxiety” that makes Benedit’s Microzoo so disturbing. For, in the microzoos, the species form of life itself, rather than its “mechanical reproduction,” emerges as the effect of a machinic assemblage. Mice, ants, lizards, and cockroaches make themselves known here through the specific use each of them invents for the labyrinth setting: the mode of existence each one forges from the artifice (the synthetic, indeed “plastic,” materiality of which is no minor detail but rather corresponds on yet another level of equivalence to the plasticity of the living as it enters, or is grafted into, the
cyborg-machine). Hence “labyrinths for mice, ants,” etc.: the man-made setting is of a propositional character, the “nature” of which will only become known in the measure of its adoption on behalf of an animal performance, a becoming-mouse, ant, cockroach. Microzoo, we might say, performatizes different forms of embodiment of the modern machine of specification—yet this does not result in a critique of artificiality that seeks to rescue a subjacent, authentically “natural” order of life beyond its (mis)representations in the categorial grid of science or in the mimetic conventions of artistic genres. Rather, Benedit seems to imply, any specific mode of life only comes about as an effect of the machinic assemblages into which it enters (regardless of whether these are of an organic or mechanical nature). This notion of the living machine undoubtedly owed much to Benedit’s exchanges with contemporaries such as Víctor Grippo, Jacques Bedel, or Clorindo Testa, fellow members of the “Group of Thirteen” that was also the backbone of the Centro de Arte y Comunicación—a Buenos Aires–based hub for artistic research founded in 1968 by Jorge Glusberg—whose first group show, Arte de sistemas (1972) expressed their shared interest in cybernetics. Grippo’s installation Analogía 1, for instance, featured a large pile of potatoes interconnected by electrodes and wires, such that the electric emissions (an average 0.7 volts per unit) generated, alternatively, by the sprouting tubers or by the gases emanating from the dead and putrefying potatoes, entered into a circuit that also powered a voltmeter. The latter, Grippo suggested, was thus “analogous” to human consciousness or rather, it “materialized” consciousness as itself wired into the energetic circuit it simultaneously translated into information, into data. Energy, matter, and thought are thus being collapsed onto one and the same plane, or sistema—a notion intended, initially, as an answer to the avant-gardist conundrum of overcoming the dichotomy between materiality and form. Benedit’s own Biotrón, an installation developed in collaboration with the biologist José Núñez and first shown at
Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Figure 2. Víctor Grippo, Analogía 1 (Analogy 1), 1971. Wood, potatoes, acrylic glass, and electrical supplies. Photo: Dominique Uldry. Zurich, Daros Latin America Collection.
the 1971 Venice Biennale, likewise investigates a notion of life as machinic assemblage or “autopoetic system”—a concept coined by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela only the year before—whose relation with the realm of art (poiesis) is thus no longer of the order of imitatio but rather of co-agitatio: of assemblage, circuitry, cross-fertilization. The work consisted of a transparent plexiglass and aluminum structure with a tube at one end, which, perforating the wall of the exhibition building, opened the structure towards the adjacent gardens of the Biennale, and on the other end a plexiglass-encased honeycomb with four thousand live bees. Inside the Biotrón, an “artificial plain” with “electronic flowers” secreting a sugary solution at regular intervals provided a source of nutrition, thus making it the bees’ “decision” to either venture out into the gardens in search of organic nourishment or to remain inside the artificial structure. Contrary to the predominant reading of the work at the time, Biotrón was not so much a reflection on how to manage the superseding of “nature” by “technology.” Rather, the work turned the bees into the agents of a historical investigation, a time travel between different and successive regimes of technological administration of the living: the garden landscape and the electrochemical “artificial plain.” Both of these are, in fact, “artificial natures,” but they function according to
ifferent principles of grafting living organisms into the labyd rinth of man-made forms: a notion of representation as imitatio, in the first case—of the reproduction and synthesis of surface appearances into an imago veritatis (the garden as an enhanced and improved image of nature)—and of functional equivalence in the second (the electrochemical circuit as a machinic surrogate for natural exchange processes). The work, in short, exposes a shift in the very notion of life, from a symptomatology of appearances towards an algorithmics of machinic layouts and enactments. The living assemblages of Benedit and Grippo are themselves forms of reflecting on this very transition from a representational or formalist—in Grippo’s nomenclature, an “analog”—conception of art towards what we might call the “digital” ethos of the bio art of our time which, to use bio artist Eduardo Kac’s oft-quoted phrase, “works in the living.”6 Nach der Natur, after nature, the phrase that once underwrote an entire aesthetics of representation as mimesis, in what has been called “the age of biocybernetic reproduction”7 has turned into a reference to the temporal and existential chasm that separates the living inhabitants of the Anthropocene from any possible recourse to an original self-sameness. To the extent that life itself is already inscribed in, and shot through with, technology and artifice in its very materiality and reproductive processes, it can also no longer be taken as a “primary resource” for representational imitatio or even as the embodied support for the aesthetic happening, as in neo-avant-gardist kinetic and body art. The body, and indeed even what lies beyond its surface organs—the biochemical (cellular and molecular) processes of reproduction and transmutation—is already a techno-organic 6 Eduardo Kac, “Art That Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics,” in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), p. 1–27, here p. 18. 7 W. J. T. Mitchell, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 3 (2003): p. 481–500.
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assemblage; life itself is a feedback loop of bio-energetic exchanges, of “transfections.”8 There isn’t any life that is not already artificial, we might say, and this is also why Kac’s assertion that “bio art uses the properties of life and its materials, changes organisms within their own species, or invents life with new characteristics”9 is perhaps less scandalous than it might appear. “Bio art is in vivo”10 but it is also, more importantly, in vitro: it intrudes into the laboratory and into the space and time of the techno-scientific production of the living, which it contaminates with the peculiar indeterminacy and autoreflexivity that bio art carries over into this novel and peculiar bio-contact zone from an older (Hegelian or Kantian) notion of the aesthetic as the coming into its own of truth as freed from necessity (fundamentally, from the need for survival). Thus, the scandal—and the paradox—of bio art stems precisely from the way in which it conjoins two terms, the very separation of which had underwritten what Bruno Latour calls “the modern constitution:”11 idea and thing. Truth and beauty, according to the modern constitutional logic, emerged to the extent that they broke free from the chains of mere materiality and necessity (on which, through a peculiar sleight of hand, a different, instrumental and extractive, kind of reason could thus be unleashed). Bio art—by bringing the artist into the lab, by cross-contaminating the instrumental reason of science and the aesthetic reflexivity of the artwork based, each in its own way, on the distinctive specificity of its institutional chronotopes (the lab versus the studio)—also sets in motion a peculiar process of unspecification. It acts, so to speak, as an antidote to the modern epidemic of specificity. Bio art emerges in the mutual 8 Donna J. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), p. 1. 9 Kac, “Art That Looks You in the Eye,” p. 18. 10 Ibid., p. 19. 11 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 13.
Figure 3. Eduardo Kac, Natural History of the Enigma, 2003–2003. Transgenic flower with artist’s DNA expressed in the red veins. Minneapolis, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum collection.
Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
and troubling cross-fertilization between the lab’s protocols of experimental verification and the studio’s aesthetic self-reflexivity, which engenders “monstrous” hybrids and chimeras such as Kac’s phosphorescent green rabbit—GFP Bunny (2000)—the outrageous poster child of a new ars vivendi, conceived in vitro by adding a bioluminescent protein found in some species of Northern Pacific jellyfish to the DNA of an albino rabbit. The Brazilian eco-artist and critic Louise Ganz has associated these new, unspecific practices taking place on the uncertain boundary between art and science with Adorno’s notion of the essay as a form of reflexivity characterized, since Montaigne, by the way it bypassed the emergent division of labor between the arts and sciences and instead wrested from the tension between these two a space of dis and reassemblage of contingent and discontinuous constellations—force fields, to use Adorno’s own expression.12 The essay turned on an emergent, modern politics of form through a mode of supplementary writing, taking hold—as Lukács put it—of something already written in order to rearrange its components and make them speak the mediation that had been silenced by the generic form. Indeed, I suggest, we could conceive of bio art as an essayistic practice in the age of biocybernetic reproduction, one that takes hold not just of (programming) language but also of hybrid materialities— hard, soft, and wetware—in order to dis and reassemble particular modes of capturing, administering, and intervening in the living, regimes into which it inscribes a vector of unspecification through the introduction of an aesthetic reflexivity alien to the lab’s procedures but thus also itself subject to mutation once it sheds the artwork’s foundational autonomy and exemption from instrumentality. This space-time of generic hybridity thus turns, literally, into a living environment for hybrid organisms. In Kac’s earlier 12 Louise Ganz, Imaginários da terra: Ensaios sobre natureza e arte na contemporaneidade (Rio de Janeiro: Quartet, 2015), p. 24–35.
“telepresence” work, this dimension of hybridity had still been associated, in sync with late twentieth-century cyberpunk aesthetics, with the interface between living flesh and computational extensions of the mind, before it gradually expanded into the realm of interspecies transfections and assemblages. In Rara Avis (1996), Kac introduced a synthetic “mackowl” (a robotic “mackaw” with an owl’s front-facing vision, allowing a remotely operated webcam to be fitted into its moveable head) into an aviary together with thirty zebra finches, whose reactions to the “foreign body” in their midst on-site visitors as well as web users could “experience” by tele-operating the camera, which also set in motion the mackowl’s body. In Teleporting an Unknown State (1994–1995), internet users were invited to livestream light recorded by webcam through a video projector to a plant seed inside a dark room, allowing it to photosynthesize and thus literally transforming the web into “a life-supporting system.”13 With Genesis (1999), Kac advances from etiological and physiological interfaces with computing technology to the level of the genome itself: the biblical sentence mandating human mastery over the forms of creation is “translated,” first into Morse code and subsequently, through a system of “rules of equivalence” devised by the artist, into a sequence of the four nucleobases—adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T)—which in combination compose the double helix of DNA molecules. The “artist’s gene” thus generated is subsequently inserted into E. coli bacteria identified by the addition of a bioluminescent protein. “Exhibited” in a petri dish that is also filmed and projected onto a wall as well as live-streamed over the internet, these “transgenic” bacteria are also highly photosensitive: they react, and mutate, when exposed to ultraviolet light, which visitors need to switch on if they want to observe this “living scripture.” The irony of Kac’s installation, 13 Eduardo Kac, Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits & Robots (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 222.
Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
then—as the “retranslation” of the sequence at the end of each show evinces—is that the divine mandate will only (potentially) prevail if it is renounced. Otherwise, Man’s taking possession of his dominions will trigger a contingent and unforeseeable process of mutations and trans-species interactions. In what Kac himself has referred to as an instance of “performative ethics,”14 his “transgenic” artworks condense and dramatize some of the fundamental aporias of biotechnology, which are normally foreclosed and occluded from view thanks to the both ordinary and pervasive presence of transgenics in our everyday experience. At the same time, however—and this sets Kac’s “biomedial” artworks apart from “biothematic” ones, which address biotechnological issues from the vantage point of representational media that are not in themselves “alive”15—the position of a “detached” and unimplicated “critical” spectatorship is also immediately withdrawn. In Genesis as well as other “transgenic” artworks such as The Eighth Day (2000–2001), spectatorship always already implies transfection, co-agitatio. By confronting the E. coli bacteria as an object of aesthetic appreciation, indeed by constituting them as a visual object through reflected light that my visual apparatus is able to apprehend, I am also contributing to the transformative assemblages into which this object enters, to which it becomes subject. However, even by renouncing my spectatorship, by deciding not to switch on the lamp, I won’t necessarily detain transgenesis but merely slow down the biochemical process of reactions in relation to which I thus commit a deliberate act of irresponsibility (one that, moreover, is uncannily similar to my everyday acts of consumption: I would prefer not to know, as a modern-day Bartleby might say). Transgenic art, as Kac puts it, “contribute[s] to reveal the cultural implications 14 Ibid., p. 254. 15 Daniel López del Rincón, Bioarte: Arte y vida en la era de la biotecnología (Madrid: Akal, 2015), p. 17, 20.
of the r evolution under way and offer[s] different ways of thinking about and with biotechnology. Transgenic art is a mode of genetic inscription that is at once inside and outside the operational realm of molecular biology.”16 Yet this paradoxical interpellation of the spectator as the subject of an ethical decision, even if only to assume her heteronomous co-agenciality with other forms of organic life, also carries the risk—as critical theorist Nicole Anderson observes— of reinstating a Kantian subject of Reason that immunizes itself against this very heteronomy, since, in the moment of decision, an autonomous, reasoning spirit present in and unto itself reemerges at the vanishing point of the bio artwork’s trans-species assemblage. Bio art, Anderson argues, “attempts […] to use the interactivity of the exhibits to foster affective responses that challenge the normative perception that humans […] stand outside of, or apart from, the biological system.”17 Yet its mode of interpellation, soliciting spectators’ critical reflection on their own agency (and thereby also paradoxically reintroducing the autonomy and self-presence of critical Reason), also “perpetuates [not only] a humanist form of agency but, in turn, a humanist notion of political action and criticism, one that further perpetuates the hierarchical opposition between the human and the animal”18 as well as, one might add, between the human and all other “inanimate” forms of life. Art itself, then, becomes the Kippfigur—the reversible figure or point of inflection—whose very invocation reinstates the species order of being; yet at the same time, it is only through the critical interruption of the lab’s routines thanks to this invocation of the aesthetic that the bio-artistic moment of unspecificity becomes possible. How, Anderson asks, “does one re-
16 Kac, Telepresence and Bio Art, p. 276. 17 Nicole Anderson, “(Auto)Immunity: The Deconstruction and Politics of ‘Bio-art’ and Criticism,” Parallax 16, no. 4 (2010): p. 101–111, here p. 105. 18 Ibid., p. 106.
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conceive agency and intentionality without also perpetuating a humanist thinking and response to the biosphere? How do we begin to seek a new mode of thinking or thought not founded on traditional knowledge and reason when we always already embody the effects of ipseity (that is, autonomy, self-presence, rationality, auto-mobility)?”19 For her, the concept of autoimmunity as developed by Derrida and Esposito, according to whom Reason might become the very motor of humanity’s immunitary shield turning against itself and thus bringing forth its own viral nature, may offer the critical opening beyond the human and towards whom or whatever is to come. Reason itself could thus be collapsed, fleshed out into living matter, becoming a biological agent in the realm of thought. This autoimmunitary, or infolding, movement of Reason might be conceived of, I would like to suggest, as inverse yet complementary to the unfolding of an instrumental, machinic rationality as it is put forth by the biomechanical—or “symbiotic”—machines developed by Latin American bio artists Marina Zerbarini, Gilberto Esparza, or Iván Henriques. These robotic assemblages powered by organic (microbic, biochemical, photovoltaic, and biostatic) processes of transfection that also inform the selfevolution and transmutations of the assemblage, might be described as experimental prototypes for a nonhuman technology that short-circuits “Reason” by directly interconnecting symbiotic and machinic processes. Thus, in Argentinian Marina Zerbarini’s mixed-media installation Calor, vapor, humedad: Turner en el siglo XXI (Heat, Steam, Humidity: Turner in the Twenty-First Century, 2007), which alludes to Joseph William Turner’s famous 1844 painting of a train in motion crossing the River Thames, a plexiglass semisphere contains a miniature urban ecosystem composed of various organic elements such as potted plants simulating trees and parks, and inorganic or “architectonic” structures 19 Ibid., p. 110.
Figure 4. Marina Zerbarini, Calor, vapor, humedad: Turner en el siglo XXI (Heat, Steam, Humidity: Turner in the Twenty-First Century), 2008–2013. Interactive electronic installation, mixed media. Artist’s collection.
fitted with light and heating systems and emitting sound. Remote-access as well as gallery visitors can trigger enhanced interaction between both, including variables of light, color, sound, temperature, humidity, and vaporization, which are at the same time regulated by a number of infrared sensors to prevent critical states such as overheating or excessive “rainfall,” conditions that can nonetheless occur if the audience insists on overruling these regulating commands.20 Naturaleza asistida I (Assisted Nature I, 2010), another piece by Zerbarini, revisits Benedit’s Fitotrón installation first shown at MoMA in 1972, in the form of a self-regulating irrigation circuit powered by humidity sensors fitted in pots planted with ficus shrubs. Here as well as in other works, the artist explores the sensorial inter20 Natalia Matewecki, “El discurso de la biología en el arte argentino contemporáneo,” Ensayos: Historia y Teoría del Arte 15 (October 2008): p. 20–53, here p. 47.
Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Figure 5. Gilberto Esparza, Planta nómada (Nomadic Plant), 2008–2013. Vegetable-machine hybrid. Artist’s collection, photograph by Edi Hirose.
faces between computational information circuits and nonhuman affects (that is, the physiochemical transmission of quanta in response to external stimuli) in order to create biomachines, convivial space-times between technology and living matter. In Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza’s Plantas nómadas (Nomadic Plants), an ongoing artistic research project first exhibited in 2010, the focus is likewise on the deleterious impact of human activity—capitalism’s accumulation-based mode of production, which leads to extractivist and energyintensive forms of urban growth—and the way it can be counteracted by an autonomous, machinic species-consciousness. The nomadic plant is a hybrid, mobile robotic system sustaining a plant species living on it, and it is powered by a combination of photovoltaics and biocombustible energy, the latter produced from microbia native to contaminated water. The vegetable-microbic-robotic cyborg, thanks to a rod-like sensor fitted with a hose, can detect and move towards water sources and load up the cylindrical microbial fuel cell inside its body, where, through a process of biodegradation, the pollutants are
absorbed and transformed into electrical energy by the bacteria, while the decontaminated water nourishes the plants and thus contributes to oxygen release, which (in addition to tiny sounds emitted during resting periods of the assemblage) is the sole remainder or surplus of this energetic cycle. In the course of the machine-organism’s existence, moreover, the biodegradant body/brain powering its movement increasingly acquires and memorizes experience in operating and fine-tuning its “signals” to the robotic components of the assemblage. Thus, in gradually becoming self-sustainable, the hybrid organism’s “cycle of symbiotic life,” in Karla Jasso’s words, is quite particular since […] the symbiosis emphasizes the capacity for soliciting autonomous forms of behavior which, in making decisions and in expressing itself within a specific context, also display a particular form of consciousness. From the beginning of the cycle, the Nomadic Plants acquire a consciousness both of themselves and of their surroundings and of the “well-being” gained thanks to self-supply, granting space even for moments of leisure in which the energy surplus—which can be accumulated under favorable conditions when pollutants in the water exceed the quantity that the microbes absorb in order to subsist—expresses itself in the form of spectral sounds that live alongside the natural soundscape of the ecosystem. It is here, precisely, where the tournement, the wrinkle, the fold occurs.21
Closely following in Escarza’s footsteps, Brazilian bio artist Iván Henriques has explored in recent years the “action potential” of vegetable organisms—a concept originally forged in the field of neurobiology to describe the principle that enables the transmission of nerve impulses among neurons and other forms of animal tissue—in a series of “prototypes” collectively 21 Karla Jasso, “Autosustentabilidad energética y vida simbiótica: Plantas-en-nomadismo,” Plantas nómadas, February 2010. http://www.plantasnomadas.com. Accessed October 2017. My translation.
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titled Plants & Machines (2011–2014). The idea of the “prototype,” indicating future evolution and use orientation, already points to Henriques’s particular condition as a “lab-embedded artist,” based at the ground-breaking V2 Lab for the Unstable Media, in Rotterdam, and working in close partnership with biologists and engineers from various Dutch universities. As with Escarza, Henriques’ career as artist-researcher whose atelier is in fact the laboratory itself, contrasts with the “parasitical” relationship towards the lab forged by bio artists such as Eduardo Kac, who employ the services of techno-scientific collaborators for the sake of projects whose nature and purpose is often to performatize, and thus draw attention to, the very procedures and routines that are being commissioned. It is even further removed from the radical stances represented by the “biotech guerrilla” actions of collectives such as Critical Art Ensemble or of individual artists Natalie Jeremijenko and Heath Bunting (the latter the author-designer of N55 Rocket System, a seed missile designed to spread the growth of pesticide-resistant herbs).22 By contrast, Esparza’s and Henriques’s works are set on the unstable border of conceptual art, industrial and communications design, and ecological research, exploring—in Henriques’s own words—“hybrids of nature and (technological) culture creating new forms of communication between humans and other living organisms.”23 Plants & Machines, taking its cues from cybernetics and plant physiology, investigates the possibilities of vegetablepowered autonomous movement based on the sensory-motoric capacities of plants. Jurema Action Plant (2011) consists of a “hacked wheelchair” connected to a Mimosa pudica, a plant that reacts to touch or even the movement of nearby bodies whose electromagnetic emissions it translates into an e lectrical 22 López del Rincón, Bioarte, p. 25–30. 23 Iván Henriques, Oritur. E-book, 2011: www.ivanhenriques.wordpress. com. Accessed October 2017.
signal traveling through the cells inside the plant. By way of electrodes connected to the plants’ leaves, as well as a signal amplifier, these signals can be registered (similar to Grippo’s voltmeter wired into the potatoes’ energetic circuit) and, via a custom-made circuit board, transmitted to the engine powering the wheelchair, whose response thresholds are set in such a way that only physically touching the plant will make it move away from the person approaching it.24 Prototype for a New BioMachine (2012) exchanges the Mimosa pudica—a plant species with exceptional action potential yet only limited interface options due to its small leaves—for a large-leafed tropical Homalomena plant, the bioelectrical energy levels and signal frequency of which (though less responsive to environmental stimuli than those of the Mimosa pudica) can be analyzed over a much larger surface and transmitted to an electronic plaque operating the wheelchair on which the plant lives. Symbiotic Machine (2014) is a solar-powered, floating kinetic structure that extracts additional energy from the algae it absorbs and crushes into photosynthetic particles, thus also, as it were, vacuum-cleaning the water surface and removing the vegetable curtain that blocks access to light for subaquatic microorganisms and results in a proliferation of harmful toxins (here, as in Esparza’s Plantas nómadas, biokinetic movement is thus triggered by chemical rather than sensory-affective interactions). As Lisandro Barrionuevo argues, Henriques’s “action plants” effectively fill the missing link in Norbert Wiener’s expanded definition of cybernetics as “control and communication in the animal and the machine”25 by inventing sensitive interfaces for the “transduction”26 between the sensorial faculties of plants and machinic circuits of command and movement. Thus, 24 Ibid. 25 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Paris: Hermann & Cie., 1948). 26 Gilbert Simondon, In the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (San Francisco: Blurb Incorporated, 2014), p. 126–127.
Nach der Natur: Bio Art and Unspecific Lives
Figure 6. Iván Henriques, Jurema Action Plant, 2011–2012. Vegetablemachine hybrid, prototype. Artist’s collection.
in Jurema Action Plant, the microcontroller provides the interface between the Mimosa pudica (vegetable organism) and the moveable robot (technology); in Prototype for a New Bio Machine, the Homalomena itself becomes the interface between physical touch on behalf of the audience (human organism) and the robot (technology); and, lastly, in Symbiotic Machine […] the affective chain closes upon itself in a complex game of retro-alimentations (feedbacks).27
Hence, he concludes, the machines also raise complex and intriguing questions about vegetable imagination, indeed, about the aesthetic experience of plants: “the capacity of Wiener’s machines to acquire form in relation to the images produced by their sensory organs shares many principles with 27 Lisandro Barrionuevo, “Plants & Machines: Vida y técnica en la propuesta de Iván Henriques” (monograph, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, seminar: Perspectivas actuales en la conceptualización del territorio, Prof. J. Andermann, March 2016), p. 7. My translation.
the Mimosa pudica’s action potential which so enthralls Henriques. […] Plants & Machines are forms of existence with an imaginative capacity for processing external signals, according to which they in-form themselves.”28 As Henriques suggests, these bio artworks also “expose us to the possibility of thinking nature not as a wild substrate to be recovered to its originality, but as a hybrid environment inhabited by living beings and machines.”29 Of course, the nevertheless central role of the artistic/scientific demiurge in the fashioning of these interfaces might (and indeed has) invited charges that bio art is in fact relapsing into an anthropocentric “technical fix” narrative,30 which pays scant attention to the techno-capitalist and biopolitical regimes of production that grant certain margins of autonomy to “hybrid” labs such as V2, only to siphon off any potential surplus to be gained from their speculative experiments.31 Escarza and Henriques would probably respond to such charges by alleging that, in their symbiotic machines, technology itself is actually being de-anthropomorphized in entering, and giving itself over to, hybrid assemblages to which the human mechanics tend, yet whose services they no longer fully command. An organic-machinic assemblage, unlike a mechanical drill or a vacuum cleaner, is no longer a tool (in the usual as well as the Heideggerian sense of the term). Rather, as Jane Bennett has pointed out, The human actants within it will themselves turn out to be confederations of tools, microbes, minerals, sounds. […] Human intentionality
28 Ibid., p. 11. 29 Iván Henriques, Repaisagem - Relandscaping. Exhibition leaflet (Rio de Janeiro, Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica). 30 Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2015), p. 9–10. 31 Carmen Ruiz Marín, “Arte medioambiental y ecología: Elementos para una reflexión crítica,” Arte y políticas de identidad 10/11 (2014): p. 35–54, here p. 49.
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can emerge as agentic only by way of such a distribution. The agency of assemblages is not the strong, autonomous kind […]; this is because the relationship between tendencies and outcomes or between trajectories and effects is imagined as more porous, tenuous, and thus indirect.32
For this weak and heteronomous agency to emerge, however, the “instability” (or unspecificity) between artistic and scientific modes of invention must also remain in the balance. For, as I have argued above, whereas the danger that constantly lingers over the bio artworks of Eduardo Kac is precisely that of “becoming-art” and, thus, of relapsing into the subject/object ontologies of a Kantian aesthetic judgment, for art to therefore “be a science, part of science, part of cognitively mapping” the hyperobject, as Timothy Morton has demanded,33 threatens to fall into the opposite trap. Rather it is “becoming-science,” I would argue, that is the danger that looms over works such as Zerbarini’s, Escarza’s, and Henriques’: in the moment they accept becoming “fully scientific”—something like the epistemological or speculative branch of biocybernetics—these bio artworks would not only forsake the interruptive, self-reflexive aspect of their presence in the lab, they would also reinstate the aporistic “modern constitution” mandating the reciprocal immanence and transparence of “Nature” and “Society” and thus cancel out their own entry into hybrid assemblages between life and form, bios and techne. The difficult balance the artwork faces in the age of bio cybernetic reproduction, then, takes us back, not least to the dichotomy which had already occupied Benjamin in the postscript to his 1935 essay. Where, in the age of mechanical
32 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 36. 33 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 133.
reproduction, the “aestheticizing of politics” confronted the “politicizing of art,” do we now, in a “period of intense technoscientific transformations,”34 rather need to read “the aestheticizing of techno-science” against “the techno-scientification of art?” If so, then perhaps rather than opting for the second option over the first, as Benjamin had, the case for a politics of nature would require us today to strike a difficult balance between the two, in order to force open a zone of unspecificity in which a vital materialist thinking of the agency of assemblages (Bennett) or a multiperspectivist ontology (Viveiros de Castro)35 could become thinkable through the hybridizing unspecification of thought itself. Bio art’s symbiotic machines—at least if we wanted to be optimistic for a moment—might then indeed be “prototypes,” forerunners of a “living thought” that would constitute hybrid selves and in which, as the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn has argued, “there is no inherent difference between the associations of living thoughts that constitute the living thinking knowing itself and those by which different kinds of selves might relate and thereby form associations”36— non-unitary selves that must, by their very nature, manifest themselves in novel kinds of bodies.
34 Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London: Athlone, 2000), p. 38. 35 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). 36 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 87.
Contributors Maria Thereza Alves is a Berlin-based Brazilian artist. Her re search-driven practice problematizes Western binaries between nature and culture, art and politics, or art and daily life. In 1978 she made an official presentation on the human rights abuses of the indigenous population of Brazil at the U.N. Human Rights Conference in Geneva, and in 1988 she co-founded the Green Party of São Paulo, Brazil. Recently Alves participated in dOCUMENTA (13) with The Return of a Lake, the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, and the Sharjah Biennale. She has had a solo exhibition at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City and a survey exhibition at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville. Alves is the recipient of the Vera List Prize for Art and Politics 2016–2018. www.mariatherezaalves.org Genaro Amaro Altamirano is a founder of the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Xico and a chronicler who has published dozens of ethnographic texts on the history of the Xico Valley. An activist who works to protect the rights and heritage of indigenous culture, since the 1990s he has been deeply involved in founding and supporting community organizations. In 2009 the Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura awarded Amaro the Chimalpahin Prize for cultural merit. In 2012, he collaborated with Maria Thereza Alves on the project The Return of a Lake and gave a public conference on the lake’s desiccation at dOCUMENTA (13). He has also been a guest speaker at conferences in Mexico and the United States. Jens Andermann is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University and an editor of the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. Among his publications are the books Tierras en trance: arte y naturaleza después del paisaje (2018), New Argentine Cinema (2011, 2015), The Optic of the State (2007,
2014), and Mapas de poder (2000), as well as edited collections on the aesthetics of the real in Argentine and Brazilian cinema, the cultures of objects and display and the iconography of the State in Latin America. He has held appointments and visiting professorships at the Universities of London, Zurich, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Duke, Princeton, and Columbia, and was a founder of the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (London) and the Latin American Center Zurich. His work has appeared in Memory Studies, Cinema Journal, Revista Iberoamericana, Journal of Material Culture, and Theory, Culture and Society, among others. Ursula Biemann is an artist, author, and video essayist based in Zurich. Her artistic practice is strongly research-oriented and involves fieldwork in remote locations where she investigates climate change and the ecologies of oil, ice and water. Her video installations have been exhibited worldwide in museums and at international art biennials in Liverpool, Shanghai, Seville, Istanbul, Montreal, Sharjah, Venice, and São Paulo. She has published several books and is the co-founder of the international art and research platform World of Matter. Biemann studied at the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney ISP in New York. She received the Meret Oppenheim Swiss Grand Award for Art and an honorary degree of humanities from the Swedish University Umea. www.geobodies.org Lisa Blackmore is Lecturer in Art History and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Essex. She is the author of Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948–1958 (2017), co-editor of Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent From Mall to Prison (2018), and co-director with Jorge Domínguez Dubuc of the documentary film Después de Trujillo (2016). She was Postdoctoral Researcher on the project Modernity and the Landscape in Latin America: Politics, Aesthetics, Ecology at Universität Zürich, from 2014 to 2017. She
has taught at the Universidad Simón Bolívar and the Universidad Central de Venezuela, in Caracas, and at the University of Leeds, UK. Her most recent articles have appeared in Popular Communication and Bulletin of Latin American Research. Dayron Carrillo Morell is a PhD candidate at Universität Zürich. After studying Art History at the University of Havana, he obtained his masters degree in Art History and Hispanic Studies at Zurich. From 2014–2017 he was a research assistant on the project Modernity and the Landscape in Latin America: Politics, Aesthetics, Ecology. His research explores the dialogic relationships between the built environment and Mexican and Cuban architectural modernism. He is a contributor to the book Beyond Tradition, Beyond Invention: Cosmic Technologies and Creativity in Contemporary Afro-Cuban Religion (2015). Jill H. Casid is Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she founded and served as the first director of the Center for Visual Cultures. A historian, theorist, and practicing artist, she is the author of Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (2005), Scenes of Projection: Recasting the Enlightenment Subject (2015), and the edited collection Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn (2014). Recent essays and articles have appeared in Women and Performance, TDR, the Journal of Visual Culture, Migration and the Contemporary Mediterranean, The Philosophical Salon, and Architecture is All Over. She is currently completing the two-book project Form at the Edges of Life. Emanuele Coccia is Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He received his PhD in Florence and was formerly an Assistant Professor of History of Philosophy at Freiburg, Germany. His current research topics focus on the normative power of images, especially in fashion and advertising. His publications include La
trasparenza delle immagini. Averroè e l’averroismo (2005), La vie sensible (2010, in english Sensible Life. A Micro-Ontology of the Image, 2016), Le bien dans les choses (2013) and La vie des plantes. Une métaphysique du mélange (2016). With Giorgio Agamben, he co-edited an anthology on angels in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic contexts titled Angeli. Ebraismo Cristianismo Islam (2009). Javier Correa is a documentary filmmaker whose work dwells on memory, urban space and art. He is the director of the featurelength films Amereida: solo las huellas descubren el mar (2017) and A primera hora (2012). He has also edited the documentary Palabras cruzadas (2014), on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. He has collaborated with several artists on public interventions such as Casagrande’s Bombing of Poems, and exhibitions. He is currently a member of Ciudad Abierta (Open City), where he participates in collaborative curatorial and artistic projects. These include the exhibition La invención de un mar. Amereida 1965/2017 at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Chile, Santiago. Álvaro Fernández Bravo is an independent scholar at CONICET, Argentina. After studying literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, he obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton University, and carried out postdoctoral research at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil. He has been a professor at Temple University, USA, numerous universities in Argentina, and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. From 2008 until 2013 he was director of New York University Buenos Aires. He has published widely on film, literature and the culture industry. His most recent book is El museo vacío: acumulación primitiva, patrimonio cultural e identidades colectivas, Argentina y Brasil, 1880–1945 (2016).
Oliver Lubrich is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Bern. Previously he was Junior Professor of Rhetoric at Freie Universität Berlin and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, California State University, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, and Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil. His books include Shakespeare’s Self-Deconstruction (2001) and Post-Colonial Poetics (2004). He has edited several books of texts by Alexander von Humboldt and is currently directing the complete edition of Humboldt’s essays. His second research project documents international testimonies from Nazi Germany. He works collaboratively with neuroscientists to study experimental rhetoric, and with primatologists and ethnologists on a project called The Researcher’s Affects. Victoria Jolly is an architect and visual artist. She holds a Masters degree in architecture and has taught at universities in Chile. Since 2007, she has been a co-founder and resident member of the Ciudad Abierta (Open City), and was president of the Corporación Cultural Amereida from 2014 to 2016. She has participated in experimental and art projects, including Ciudad Abierta: Poetic Acts (PS1-New York, 2012), Ville Ouverte: Penser en Construisant (EPFL Lausanne, 2013), and Utopia in Progress: Ciudad Abierta (Brussels, 2015). In 2015 she founded the Taller de Arte Abisal, an outsider art and music workshop at the Ciudad Abierta. She was co-curator of the exhibition La invención de un mar. Amereida 1965/2017 at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Chile and at the Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, in 2017. Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira is Assistant Professor of Literature, Arts and Media at Universität Zurich and member of the Lateinamerika-Zentrum Zürich and the Zentrum Künste und Kulturtheorie. His doctoral thesis, Inventar uma pele para tudo: texturas da animalidade na literatura e nas artes visuais, was developed in conjunction with the Department of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), Paris, and the Department
of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil, under the supervision of Dominique Lestel and Maria Esther Maciel. He did his postdoctoral research with Giovanni Careri at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is the author of A invenção de uma pele: Nuno Ramos em obras (Iluminuras, 2017). Nuno Ramos is a Brazilian artist based in Sâo Paolo whose work includes sculpture, filmmaking, composition, poetry, novels, and journalism. As well as large-scale installations, Ramos also produces outdoor works in which natural elements play an integral role. He has participated in important exhibitions since 1983, including the 1985, 1989 and 1994 editions of the Bienal de São Paulo, and represented Brazil at the Biennale di Venezia in 1995. His distinctions include the Grand Award of the Barnett Newman Foundation in 2006 and the Prêmio Portugal Telecom de Literatura in 2009. In 2015, he was Distinguished Brazilian Writer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Ó, Junco, Ensaio Geral, and Adeus, cavalo, published with Editora Iluminuras in Brazil, and Beatriz Viterbo, in Argentina. www.nunoramos.com.br