My name is Shannon Mattern. I am a, I would say a media design scholar, even though I am housed in a department of anthropology right now. I am joining you today from Hudson New York, about two hours north of New York City.
I’d love for you to talk about your practice. Your practice is really wide-ranging, and I think people see you as a media theorist, design scholar, writer, geographer, anthropologist, cartographer, advocate for libraries and open public access to knowledge. What occupies your time these days?
Well, I just want to, first of all, thank you and say how much I appreciate that really capacious and generous and inclusive list of titles. It has really been an honor for me, and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised throughout my career to be introduced at different talks or to have a preface when we enter a conversation when somebody will offer an appended label to my name that I never would have thought of myself. So I’ve been really kind of kindly invited and welcomed in by geographers and librarians and archivists and anthropologists and folks in media and design studies and architecture and urban planning. So that’s been a really gratifying part of my career. I have worked across a lot of different fields and tried to be respectful and do justice to the work in those different fields. And I think one testament that again is very satisfying that I think I’m apparently doing a pretty good job, is that folks welcome me into those fields then to share my work. So that’s a really nice source of validation.
In terms of what’s occupying my thinking these days? I’ll just preface it by saying that a lot of kind of systems management things, to be honest, institutional management things, I am directing an undergraduate program in Anthropology and a graduate minor in Anthropology and Design. So just navigating the whole ecology, or actually competing ecologies of two different divisions of the university with their own ecosystems, their own kind of protocols, their own rules for operation. So that is a good portion of my time these days, and then teaching, teaching some new classes. And those are project-based classes, just because they’re not only about delivering content to students and managing a conversation, it’s also simultaneously managing a large group project. That requires a good amount of administrative and systems thinking labor.
02:26 On My Mind These Days
But when I do have the rare opportunity, and I hope to have more in the future, opportunities to think about kind of intellectual and creative things, I have been thinking primarily about how the pandemic has changed the way we think about cities and ecologies.
The book that I published in August is called A City Is Not A Computer [Princeton Press 2021]. It’s a mashup, a mix up, an extending, kind of an elaboration of maybe eight or nine different articles I’ve written over the past decade or so for Places journal, which is an open access journal for architecture, urbanism, and landscape. I was invited to turn them into a short-form book. But really rather than just taking four articles, I really kind of wove together or grafted together, to use a metaphor from the book, maybe eight or nine different pieces. And one of the themes that emerged—in part because it’s driven by the titular article, “A City Is Not A Computer”—is what metaphors are actually useful in thinking about this moment, this era of rebuilding, of worldmaking to use a central theme for your project.
So is it helpful to think of a city as a computational kind of—I wouldn’t even say ecology because ecology is a separate metaphor itself—as a computational object or system? Is it a biophysical body? Is it an ecology? Is it a machine? And I think that different policymakers and reformers and other folks who kind of build worlds use different metaphors in maybe productive ways and sometimes in kind of competing ways. And those really shape the discourse around these practices and the actual practical things that get done and how they’re then administered and maintained. So just these large questions of metaphors in this moment of rebuilding and repair are something that I think a lot about.
More concretely, I had been giving some talks about the book which again is about kind of data and information and the different types of knowledge that are embedded in our urban environments. I really draw on Christopher Alexander’s idea of the city not being a tree. And I actually wondered like, how is it actually like a tree and where are arboreal models useful for thinking about place and social networks, etc.
So a couple months ago I published a piece called “Tree Thinking,” wondering how trees model, not only the way we think about computation in terms of algorithms called decision trees and random forests, but also how trees have been a fundamental part of intellectual history. We use trees as almost flowcharts for decision-making. Trees have also been a physical site in our landscape where people have congregated and done kind of community building type activities, made important decisions. So drawing out some metaphors from the book to think about the central role that trees play in shaping our thoughts, which is I know something that you’ve thought a lot about in your own work as well.
And then also drawing in something from my personal life, my own family is going through some challenges right now. My mom is declining into stage 6 Alzheimer’s. So that’s something I’ve been dealing with on a practical level with my family. And then also I wanted to do some research on it just to prepare myself for what’s coming and to think about, again, more metaphors about, what does the world look like to somebody whose map is shrinking.
So I published a piece just this past week, actually, about compassion and concealment. What are the worlds, what are the worlds that are built for folks whose mental, whose conceptual and cognitive world is shrinking? And how can we design physical spaces that foster the richest possible experience for those final years of life? So those are some things that have been immediately concerning me.
What I love about your work is you really help us to think about complexity. You don’t essentialize relationships that are highly complex.
You’ve written about Microsoft technologists who are trying to build a planetary computer—one that and I’m quoting, that “could tell us exactly what we needed to do to protect Planet Earth, a system that was capable of providing us with information about every tree, every species, all of our natural resources.” So you critique that, of course. And you write, and I’ll quote a few sentences of yours, if I may: “As trees become data points, they are all too readily cast as easy fixes for profound problems, trees as tools of carbon capture, tall timber as an instrument for sustainable construction, green barriers as sound buffers along roadways, sylvan solutions to systemic snafus. The media scholar, Jennifer Gabrys argues that such approaches are efforts to frame and tame hard problems, wicked problems, in computational terms. In other words, these technological tools promote technosolutionist responses to problems that are simultaneously ecological, cultural, social, economic, and political.” So can you talk more about that?
I arrived at thinking about trees in part because I think this mode of thinking of technosolutionism applies both in the previous work I was doing on cities where you have these systemic deeply, historically rooted problems of social injustice, of disrepair that are highly systemic and complex in both the causes and then their potential solutions. And then you have service providers coming in and offering a computational model that will not only diagnose all of the problems, but pinpoint exactly where solutions are to be deployed in kind of precision ways or precision methods. We have a similar mentality applied then to ecological challenges. The tree was a really nice, not only metaphor, but also kind of instrument or a rhetorical hinge to go between thinking about cities and thinking about ecology, because, you know, you have the decision tree as a type of algorithm. It’s a mode of thinking. It’s a step-by-step way of moving through a problem-solution process. Especially when we algorithmisize these operations, it often black boxes the operations, or precludes the inclusion of variables that don’t lend themselves to datafication. And this is a problem, a challenge, both when we apply it in the urban terrain and in an ecological terrain.
So not only do I think of the tree as a decision model, which has historically played a key role in determining everything from lineage to belonging, to helping make legal decisions. There’s something very helpful about it as a heuristic, but also there’s something reductive about it because a tree can’t encompass all possible variables. It doesn’t really deal very well with entanglements.
Similarly in the ecological or kind of climate change remediation realm, a tree can be a relatively simplistic and also a very charismatic solution to complex problems. Who doesn’t love trees? Planting a new tree is like a celebratory occasion on a block or in a park. But they too, like so many other technosolutionist approaches lend themselves to kind of a quantitative measure of progress. We have planted in our city a hundred thousand new trees, or the world will plant one trillion new trees. A tree again is a very charismatic and beloved potential part of a solution to an ecological or systemic problem. But in some way, kind of diverts our attention to these larger systemic and really much more complex and messy things. If we want to get into things like colonial histories and legacies of environmental and racial and social injustice, I’m not sure that planting a tree on a block is going to solve these much longer, messier, more complicated issues.
10:18 WHY THINK WITH TREES?
How did you start thinking with trees or about trees?
I wrote an article for Places journal called “A City Is Not A Computer” maybe four or five years ago. And then someone reminded me that Christopher Alexander, who is an architect whose work has been very influential for programmers as well, also a very interdisciplinary thinker, a systems thinker, someone who thinks in terms of transferable or generalizable models. Alexander had written a book called “A City Is Not A Tree.” So I revisited that and wondered how he was using the tree as a model, as an intellectual kind of construct.
But also because I grew up on the side of a ridge, in a rural area, surrounded by trees. My dad is a furniture maker. So I grew up with a barn in the back of our house where every time there was a farm sale or somebody was clearing a lot for development, sadly, my dad would often go to the sale and take whatever interesting tree species that were there and have them timbered or turned into lumber for him to make furniture with.
So just realizing, growing up in an environment where I realized that tree species were like different personalities and that we as humans relate to them in different ways based on the way they respond to a table saw, or the type of tools you’d have to use with them or the smell that they emit when you kind of plane them or sand them. I started to realize that there are these very different sensory characteristics to different species of tree. And they lend themselves to different applications in furniture making.
So it kind of is an homage maybe to my parents. I wanted to maybe in this next phase of my career, move away a little bit from thinking so much about technology and data and get back to the material to things that were influential in shaping my thinking as a child and into my adulthood too. So trees are maybe a hinge, a model for me to think about how can I transition from thinking so much about technology to thinking more about ecology and material things again.
12:15 MATERIALITY OF LIBRARIES: COMPROMISED YET BEAUTIFUL EXCHANGES
Another thing that I know you care deeply about is public libraries. You’re really committed to public libraries. It’s been central to your work, you write, for the last 20 years. Now, we don’t think a lot about the importance of public libraries, and perhaps often prefer to think about smart cities and smart technologies. Would you like to talk a little bit about how do libraries play a revolutionary role? We don’t think about libraries as being, you know, really revolutionary apparatuses.
Well, I’m glad you asked. The fact that I’m a lifetime library goer I’m sure was one of my first kind of inspirations, but also being introduced in graduate school to the proliferating theories of the archive often used, again, in very metaphorical ways that we see across the arts, the humanities, to some degree, the social sciences. And that there was so much theoretical investment in the archive as a radical decolonizing institution. When meanwhile, I was visiting public libraries and ultimately writing my dissertation about them and realizing it’s not about people engaging with kind of romanticized documents. There is some of that in the library, but it’s also compromised bodies interacting with compromised bodies, often the most marginalized people in societies and also really beautiful exchanges of information happening where we’re validating community ways of understanding, where we’re kind of expanding our epistemological universe. I think there are just as much radical stuff happening in a public library as there is an archive, but there is such a dearth of theorization of the library compared to the archive.
Also, moving from a small town to New York City for graduate school, it just became really apparent of how much a public library is asked to do. You know, as a provider of information, as a kind of an epistemological check to help people understand in this new age of proliferating online information in the late 1990s and early 2000s in particular, libraries are really starting to play a critical role of helping people to develop critical information literacy in their everyday lives. They are spaces of intergenerational learning, they’re spaces of kind of civic engagement. And also where other social services fall short because of neglect and underfunding. Public libraries often have to pick up the slack there. That’s not something we’re typically going to ask an archive to do. So just the fact that there is so much that they’re expected to do and that they manage it for the most part. I don’t want to romanticize them. There are problems with the libraries and institutions as well, kind of still steeped in the same patriarchal, colonial and white supremacists legacies that the archive is. But still, it was amazing to me moving to New York City to see how much they’re being asked to do and how much they can actually handle on a shoestring budget—often, you know, dramatically understaffed and under maintained as well.
So I really wanted to lift them up as worthy of academic attention, of theorization, of recognition of the valuable political roles that they play in our society. And it was a challenge for me early in my career, coming out of Media Studies—I did most of my graduate work in Media Studies and Architectural and Urban History and Theory—trying to explain and justify to media scholars, why a library was an appropriate topic of study. And I was thinking, well, they are buildings full of books and media. If that is not enough, then I’m not sure what it is! But I also wanted to look at the design processes. Many libraries are designed through really robust programs of civic engagement because they’re a place that everybody in a community feels a sense of ownership over. And that really diverse local community is often invited into the design process. So I wanted to see how that process was mediated. Because not everybody’s a trained architect. They didn’t often know how to read blueprints or renderings in the public programs they went to. So how do architects and city leaders use different media forms to make it an intelligible process to the stakeholders so they can then shape the building and its programs that actually respond to their needs. So that’s in part why I originally became interested in libraries.
And then my research, going back to our conversation earlier on about the different communities I’ve been lucky to be involved in, librarians have really kind of warmly welcomed me. And I have been able to collaborate with librarians on public pedagogy projects. I’m the president of the Board of the New York Metropolitan Library Council, which serves several hundred libraries around the city, trying to find ways for them to share their efforts. So they’re not just all duplicating the same services, where can we network our efforts to serve the nine million people in New York City and its surrounding areas. And then I’ve kind of curated exhibitions with libraries. Those have been among the most fruitful collaborations with me that have both been inspired by my academic research and very much informed my more academic work also.
17:05 LIBRARIES AS STATEMENTS ABOUT WHAT MATTERS
In the last 20 years, dissemination of knowledge has changed so much. I’m wondering how software, how networks, even the pandemic, how that might have changed some of the work that public libraries do. I know during the pandemic, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, were doing book readings online that were hugely valuable in bringing people together. I wonder if you have any thoughts, how it’s changed in the last two decades?
Absolutely. And I think this is actually a process of worldbuilding too, not only kind of building an epistemological world, but also in sharing knowledge, in generating knowledge together, you’re actually making a statement about what values matter in a society. So that is a form of kind of ontological design as well. So I’m going back 20 or so years when I was writing my dissertation, I was looking at a lot of places, cities that were designing new libraries in the mid-1990s, into the early 2000s. And there, this was the rise of the consumer internet really, and new shifts in the physical form that computers were taking. We have these big CPUs with big monitors on people’s desks, but as you’re designing a building, you’re wondering, will these machines actually look the same way in six years when our building opens? So this was a big concern, how do you actually create a physical space to accommodate these really rapidly transforming forms of media? And then librarians taking on the role of critical information literacy, realizing that with the increase of people going online, that their role in not only the provision of information, but helping people to understand how to process it and filter through the data deluge, was not a new role—librarians have always played a role in helping people to sort the credible information—but the scale of it was exacerbated or ramped up with the sea of web-based materials.
And then in more recent years, we have seen the rise of Web 2.0, social media, user-generated content, how that too requires new types of curation and kind of pedagogical framing for the way people access information. And then, especially during the pandemic, libraries were often information brokers or clearing houses for reliable, credible public health information, for information about employment—because a lot of people were obviously losing their jobs. Under-resourced school systems, including in New York City, the libraries step in to provide library services for schools that don’t have their own libraries. And there are plenty of them. So just the role they played in keeping education going in whatever form it could continue during the pandemic.
But then it’s not only about disseminating information. Over the years, we’ve also seen libraries take on the role of disseminating the networks necessary to receive information. So the pandemic also demonstrated how many people are on the wrong side of the digital divide, how many kids could not get online for school. How many people could not apply for jobs because they don’t have the internet at home. And there’s still a vast proportion of people in New York do not have reliable internet outside of work and school. They have to go to a parking lot at McDonald’s and sit in a car. Or sit on the steps of the library to access the internet. So some libraries were extending their wifi networks. Some of them were also renting wifi hotspots for people to be able to like rent the internet to take it home. Which also generated further discussions about what type of an internet do we want to build? Another ontological worldbuilding question. And what politics does this embody? So a friend and colleague of mine,Greta Abiramwith whom I have on the board of the Metro Library Council. She works a lot in digital equity and community networks. She’s done some partnerships with the Brooklyn Library and others, places around the city and around the country, places that are underserved by digital infrastructure, to ask, do you want to just get commercial service providers to come into your neighborhood, or do you want to build your own network that might work a little bit differently, that actually embodies the politics of knowledge that you want to define your community? So these are, again, big worldbuilding types of questions.
And one additional thing, not only about disseminating information and building networks, but it’s also about creating knowledge as well. This is something that has happened increasingly or the realization increasingly over the past several years or a couple of decades, that libraries are not just about disseminating published material. It’s validating the knowledge that is inherent in and lives within communities themselves.
And one example is particularly germane to your podcast, Elaine, is the new Greenpoint Library Environmental Education Center. Greenpoint, as you might know, is the home to several Superfund sites. And in their settlement with one of the energy companies, they got a large settlement that the community then decided to put into a trust. And then they determined that they were going to build a library with that money. That’s part of what they chose to do with it. And this library really emphasizes—it’s a full service library—but it also really emphasizes environmental justice materials like published materials. They also are creating kind of an environmental oral history project, building what it would mean to have data sets, Indigenous data sets of Indigenous environmental knowledge. So really validating the knowledge about environmental justice and history that is actually lived in the community. And then how do you find a way to archive that, preserve it and make it shareable within a community? So that’s another example of the library being a more active information knowledge producer, rather than just a disseminator.
22:25 INTER / TRANS / MULTIDISCIPLINARITY
Caring and compassion I think are very much present in your work and your interactions with different groups. So I wonder if we can shift to talking about methods. Methods I always think of as creating knowledge, but also creating care, creating modes of attunement, modes of belonging. Terms like interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity: What do those terms mean to you? What do they hold for you?
So I know there has been some theorization and discussion about what it means, these different prefixes in front of disciplinarity, what does it mean to be inter- or trans- or anti-. Some people even claim to be anti-disciplinary. And I have to say maybe on my more kind of rambunctious days, I would say I am anti-disciplinary just as much as I may be anti-academy or anti-institutional.
One of the takeaways is that “inter” in a way implies a space in-between. It recognizes the value that disciplinary training brings to the table. You realize that there is something very fruitful and necessary about being trained in a particular set of methods and then being able to transfer that to something else. Or, being trained in multiple fields, having that depth of knowledge in multiple terrains, and being able to reside comfortably. Where sometimes I imagine a lot of people who work in interdisciplinary spaces, institutions that don’t always make that a very comfortable place to reside. Being a permanent translator has a lot of extra labor and emotional burden that isn’t always recognized. So I think that the prefixes preceding “disciplinary” really call into question, what value do we see of having disciplinary rootedness? Is that a necessary precursor to one then being able to work in between them?
I think maybe my trajectory might’ve given me maybe not a distinctive perspective, but it was helpful for me. I started off in chemistry as an undergraduate, thinking I wanted to go to medical school. You know a lot of humanists talk about the lab in a more, it’s like an experimental learning space. I was in a lab where there are like Bunsen burners and beakers and titration equipment and gas chromatographers and mass spectrometer machines and things like that. So that’s a very different set of methods that are very tool-driven.
So being there for a few years and always taking a literature class as an escape from math and science and realizing ultimately that’s a lab in its own way, but its tools are very different. The role of people talking, discussion, played a very different role in these two different spaces, the chemistry lab versus the literature classroom. So I think that being exposed simultaneously to those and ultimately deciding to move more towards the humanities than the sciences, I am very grateful that I had that scientific exposure initially because it helped me to appreciate the distinctiveness of the spaces I am in now, of the value of triangulating, of the value of bringing together people from very different knowledge spaces or terrains into the same room to just address these wicked problems we were talking about before.
I’m not sure that I have a fixed position. I’m not really an advocate or an evangelist for any one of these positions. I know students really love thinking about working in interdisciplinary ways, and I always want to encourage that in my classes. And I know we’re going to talk about teaching in a bit, but I also always have to offer the caveat is that sometimes working in transdisciplinary ways isn’t legible to potential employers, especially if you want to stay working in the academy. So just reminding folks that the world needs to catch up to interdisciplinary work.
But also reminding people that disciplines are in a way, like a — they’re a fiction! If we look at the history of the academy, the way we have separated the epistemological world into disciplines has shifted dramatically over thousands of years. So the disciplines we have today are in part a historical accident. They are perpetuated through funding streams, through hiring processes, through various path dependencies within institutional structures. They do not have to be the way they are. That’s a liberating thought to a lot of students and to me too, but it’s hard to do anything with that realization because so much of the world requires you to work within those reified boxes.
26:56 ARTSCIENCE OF GRAFTING AND PATCHING
So you use the words “grafting,” also “patching” as poiesis, as method. In your introduction you write that the term graph derives from the Greek, graphein, which means to write. You’re such a prolific writer and wide-spanning thinker, I’m really really interested in how you think about critical inquiry, grafting and patching, what those methods might do in your practice.
That is a great question. And I owe a debt of gratitude to curators at the University of Toronto. They have an art gallery there, and they were doing an exhibition about kind of ecologically themed art. They produced these little newspapers, thematic newspapers, or broadsides that they then distributed through the gallery. And the theme of one of them, they had asked me to write about grafting, which honestly wasn’t something I’d written about before. So then I researched the process and realized what a fecund metaphor it is. It’s a method, not only in kind of botany and horticulture and industrialized agriculture, but given the variety of approaches to grafting and the fact that it can be something that’s mechanized and institutionalized and industrialized, or it could be something that’s a real art as is the case with so much production, as is the case with scholarship. Some people just churn out materials. For other people, it’s an art form. It’s a really thoughtful practice. Not to say that they’re diametrically opposed. You can still be productive and be thoughtful about it. But I just thought that the range of ideologies and modes of practice that are embedded within the realm of grafting just was really eye-opening, enlightening to me. It proved to be especially useful for the book where I’m trying to look at how cities are to some degree kind of computational, they’re kind of information processing activities happening there, but they’re also spaces of kind of serendipity and arts and poiesis. And grafting proved a really useful metaphor and method to think about not only the combination of the art and the engineering, the art and the science, but also a mode of writing too.
If you want to write in an interdisciplinary way, I think thinking about the practice of writing and research as grafting has a certain ethic, at least for me, or ethos implied in it, especially if you want to do the grafting as a thoughtful, considered art form approach, which is what I would want to align myself with. There you have to understand what root stock you’re dealing with. You have to understand like what’s in the soil, what is in the root stock, and then what are the new kind of cuttings that you’re then adding onto that? So understand that whole process of like, what are my foundations, what is establishing the soil? What are the ecological conditions that are kind of shaping the entire terrain in which this new grafted entity is coming into being and hopefully developing. And then what are the new scions that you are kind of sticking into the root stock. And then how will they merge together? What is the process that you can actually foster a fruitful and productive merger? So these are questions that I think are really usefully applied, at least in my practice to other endeavors, like especially interdisciplinary scholarship too. So that accident of being asked to write that little essay about grafting helped me to rethink a lot of methods that I didn’t have a term for in the past. And suddenly it was this kind of retrospective way of thinking like, this is actually a really useful way of thinking about what I’ve been trying to do all along.
30:17 THE CITY ITSELF TEACHES SO MUCH
So the title of your collection of essays is “A City Is Not A Computer”, as you mentioned, and the subtitle is “Other Urban Intelligences”. So two-part question. One is: city, I know cities are very meaningful for you, but why the scale of a city. And then the second question is to ask you to talk a little bit more about the “other urban intelligences.” What kinds of intelligences maybe become evident if you think about the urban versus the rural?
Okay. That’s a great question. So I think part of my fascination with cities is coming from the fact that I didn’t grow up in one and then moving to New York City suddenly. I had you know gradual acclimation to urban environments over the period, but then moving for graduate school at the age of twenty one to New York City was quite a culture shock in the most kind of delicious way. I mean, I was just overwhelmed in a sublime way with just the variety of resources and new things I can learn and how the city itself was teaching me so much. I learned just as much from the city and its public institutions and kind of cultural associations or organizations as I did from my classes, I would have to say. And the fact that there are established discourses of urban studies I wanted to be able to tap into and make my work intelligible to existing discourses and disciplines.
But also over the years as I have added to my repertoire, my oeuvre, I have really enjoyed thinking across scales and particularly how scales have to translate ideally would translate between one another. So I’ll think about how a database is structured and how that database then renders itself, intelligible in an interface, and how those machines have to be networked into like a technical network of some sort. And how we have to build architectures to accommodate those things and the way people then interact with those interfaces. And then those accumulations of architectures then form a city. And that city does not exist kind of as a hermetically sealed, isolated entity around which we could draw a thick line. A city is engaged in multiple internal and external flows with its regional environment.
And if we look at the contemporary crisis of supply chains, we recognize how everything is so globally interconnected too, and the supply chains connect all the way back to the databases that we use to organize them and to monitor them. So just really thinking about how these different scales of organizing people and resources and information are definitely entangled and are ideally interoperable.
Those have been the types of things I’ve been most excited in thinking about. And I had to kind of choose a home base or a scale for which I could then zoom in and out. And the city seemed an appropriate one to start with, because again, it has this recognizable discourse. The whole title of urbanist, which is kind of a controversial title—some people think it doesn’t mean anything, I think it’s actually a really productive title because it combines people who do urban studies, think about urban history, people who also practice in that realm as an architect, as an urban planner, as an urban technologist. So the city is a really kind of productive and ripe area where a lot of different disciplines are converging in their thinking. So it’s already a very interdisciplinary field of study. So I wanted to take advantage of that, but then use the city as my starting point to think, to scale down, to think about the media objects, the information infrastructures, the architectures within them, and then scale up and think about these larger systemic things. So it was kind of a medium-scale that allows me to move in and out from.
And then the second question was about…
33:50 URBAN INTELLIGENCES
Urban intelligences, I love this phrase. I’m curious about other forms of intelligence. So I’m wondering about this phrase “urban intelligence,” and what kinds of work you might want it to do.
I chose the phrase “urban intelligence” quite a while ago in some of my early writing about smart cities. In part, because even the term “smart cities,” which honestly drives me crazy. It’s a buzz word, a brand name that means so many different things in different contexts. It’s become hackneyed, almost desemanticized because it means so many different things. But just the fact that there’s an epistemological claim being made there. What does it mean to call something “smart”? Why don’t you call it a “wise city” as some activists do? They prefer the term, a wise city or a sage city? I mean, we can use so many different synonyms here, but what does it mean to call something smart? “Smart” is, again, one of those almost prefix-like terms that we can apply to a whole bunch of different things. And it typically means data driven, algorithmically determined modes of operation, often driven by corporations. So I wanted to ask what it meant to call something smart. And what if we substituted in some of those other synonyms? What types of other ways of knowing, valuable intelligences, forms of kind of lived knowledge, are bracketed out that don’t lend themselves to this type of data-driven way of thinking about smartness.
So it encouraged me to ask questions about methods, about epistemology, and this is where our conversation about the libraries might circle back to that because libraries are great at recognizing that yes, we have to collect urban data. Yes, we have to help people become kind of data literate, but at the same time, those aren’t the only ways of knowing our communities. A census isn’t the only way of understanding a population obviously. This is why we compound big data-based methods with ethnography. And I think libraries are good at recognizing that because we have to have data literacy, digital literacies, but also supplement those then with the oral histories, with the conversations that happen in real time between intergenerational communities. So these are among the different types of intelligences that libraries and schools and other cultural institutions do help us to recognize. Not everything can be rendered into a data model and not everything can be “smart”, brand name “smart”, or kind of TM, trademark “smart.”
But then also kind of drawing on some of your work, thinking about multispecies intelligences as well. There’s a lot to be learned and a lot of kind of computer scientists and digital theorists have recognized that there’s much to be learned about distributed or embodied intelligence from things like octopi or bats or slime molds or organisms or entities that have other ways of experiencing space, of navigating space, of collectivizing the preservation of memory. So maybe there’s a lot to be learned about what matters by recognizing how these other species cultivate and preserve intelligence in their own ecologies.
36:46 LIVING IN A WORLD OF MANY WORLDS
One of the reasons that I wanted to call people’s attention to the paucity of computational models of thinking about building worlds. I mean, there are plenty of computer scientists and urban tech people and data driven urban planners who do believe that everything can be rendered computational, that you can build a computational model for everything. Not realizing, first of all, the hubris of such assumptions. The Microsoft example you used earlier about we’re building a computer that can model everything in the global ecology. Count every species, determine how every species kind of interacts with one another, and then make smart precision interventions to save the planet. I mean, there’s something admirable about that and utopian, but also something very hubristic about it.
Going back to our conversation on methods, presuming that the only way we can know is through kind of computational modeling.
I wasn’t thinking about my recent Alzheimer’s research in relation to this, but now that you asked that question, it does become really apparent to me that in the piece I wrote about Alzheimer’s, I ended with this really lovely art project that was at one of the Venice Biennales where some architects were trying to render the activity that was happening in a particular kind of a memory care facility where all of the residents were supposedly engaged in this collective enterprise of drawing a plan of the building. But what we ultimately realized that each of them is really just drawing their own little world, their own cell, and there could be something very isolating and depressing about that, but there’s also, I think something really beautiful. It’s like a world of many worlds.
As I have visited many memory care facilities recently, imagining my mom’s future and looking where she might be at some point, it can be a really depressing place, but there’s also something potentially magical. And I maybe I can find a better adjective, but I’m just going to go with magical right now, or maybe hopeful to realize that, with respectful and compassionate care for people who are experiencing dementia, one of the prevailing modes of care is to validate their world. Rather than keep trying to pull people back into your “No, today is Tuesday. It’s 3PM. Your husband is dead.” Instead of doing that saying, “Let’s live in your world.” Rather than retraumatizing you repeatedly, let’s actually engage in a form of compassionate fantasy together. Fantasy for me, reality for you. So this whole question of who gets to say what’s real, whose epistemology matters the most, whose ontology matters the most. So there was something really beautiful about this artwork that really embodied the best case scenario of imagining a dementia care facility as something that is a world of many worlds. And with compassionate care, it can be that. I realize this is also purely utopian because with the problem of staffing, underpaid staff, kind of under-resourced institutions, you don’t have the capacity to have a staff member who’s kind of entertaining 50 different ontologies simultaneously. But if we did have a world that was designed to facilitate this type of compassion, this would be the ideal situation. We recognize that we can have multiple worlds coexisting simultaneously.
I have to sit with that, that’s incredible. I love this: how to inhabit different ontologies. Thank you. Thank you for that.
I’m still thinking it through. You know, it’s something I’m still living through and I realized the actual limitations of operationalizing, something like this, because, you know, a particular architectural facility can only accommodate so much. Staff can only do so much. You know, some people’s worlds that they create for themselves are scary, frightening, threatening places. And I don’t know that we want to necessarily condone or perpetuate that if people are putting themselves in harm’s way. Yeah, so there have to be some compromises to what I’m thinking through here, but there is also something kind of beautiful and poetic about validating these multiple ontologies that are kind of existing simultaneously in the same space.
Yes. There’s something in between standardizing different imaginaries, different ontologies into kind of grid-like logics and multiplicity, right? There’s something in between that, that we haven’t quite found.
41:25 TEACHING FEEDS SCHOLARSHIP
That might be a nice way to shift into teaching, which in a way is inhabiting other ontologies all the time, or proposing new ones, imagining new ontologies that might work a little bit better, less violently. So I’d love to ask you about pedagogies, in and beyond the classroom. I know you take your students out and do field visits, you work with the libraries, you do lots of collaborations. How do you think about teaching – and that question is leading into, how might you imagine a classroom at any level or of any kind to address the spectrum of ecological, technological, ethical questions that you engage with?
These are great questions. I mean, teaching is in most days, most semesters, like my favorite part of my job, to be honest. Sometimes when other pressures like administrative concerns weigh in, I feel like I’m not at my best as a teacher when it’s a little bit less enjoyable, just because I feel like I’m not doing as well as I want to. And it happens to be the case this semester. So many external life pressures are making me not be as good of a teacher as I want to despite my attempts to do so. Of a piece with my scholarship, I often cite my students’ work, mention them in the acknowledgements of most of the things that I write. Sometimes I collaborate with them on projects. You know, there’s a critique of some scholars, some faculty that they teach the books they write, or they teach classes only related to the research they’re doing. In my case it often comes from the other direction. So I’ll often design a new class based on things that I hear students wanting to discover or realize that there’s something percolating in the university or the student community and it connects to something where I think I can offer something from my own areas of interest. So I’ll design a class about it, teach it once or twice. And then I realize, when I was teaching that class, I really wish there were an article that did this, that compared these things, but I couldn’t find it. So I guess I’ll write it. So a lot of my scholarship comes from the classroom in that way. Especially synthetic pieces or places that try to draw connections between different disciplines. So that’s one way that teaching kind of fits into this larger, I guess we could say ecology or world, epistemological world.
44:07 REDESIGNING THE ACADEMY
And then what would I imagine a classroom or pedagogical experience to be like, if it engages with all the complexity we’ve been talking about, I really have to think more about that. And this is something that I want to think through because I am teaching a new class in the spring called “Redesigning the Academy.” I direct this Anthropology and Design program. And I had to make it legible to students that this is about design and we’re going to rethink how knowledge is produced. Some folks said, why don’t you have a class about the commons, and I’m like, that’s huge! And we could do a whole class about redesigning the commons, but I really want us to kind of limit our focus a little bit, look on why the American academy is the way it is, why it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m also sensing lots of student frustration, not only in relation to job market, the dearth of tenure-track jobs, the brokenness of the peer review system, the types of scholarships that are validated, the folks who were historically marginalized and continue to be, and the limitations of what kind of work matters, the unequal distribution of service. You know, all of these different things. I don’t want it to be a grief session. I don’t want to be a grievance-based syllabus, but because students see these problems, I want us to instead look at Critical University Studies, which is kind of a field in itself, and then draw from art and design, especially people who are imagining new forms of radical pedagogy or new ways of engaging their extra institutional or intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and how we could possibly imagine infusing the more traditional academy with what we learned from these external kind of modes of operation and examples. So these are questions to answer your second question. This is something I really want to think with my students about over the course of the spring semester to imagine what that classroom. And that classroom could be the city writ large, it could be like a traveling troupe on a cruise ship, whatever the case may be. It wouldn’t be a cruise ship because of the carbon footprint, but what form that could take.
I love that you’ve already designed a class around this!
Part of it’s based in my own frustration. I’m lucky I’ve passed through tenure. I’m a full professor and I can make some choices that maybe other people don’t have the luxury to, but just seeing the feeling of constriction among students in particular, about the limited opportunities they have in the academy and the hoops they feel they have to jump through to do work that counts. I just wanna encourage them. They have the potential maybe to reshape. They’re the next generation. I may be kind of the middle generation here. We have the potential to reshape things for a future, for whatever academy might remain, if one does.
The problems have become so so obvious with a pandemic in the last two, three years. It’s become really difficult to just brush them away.
44:07 WHAT I WOULD WANT TO BE PART OF THE FUTURE
Just a couple of the things I would mention, like concrete things is, I did a collaborative during the pandemic. I was realizing that a lot of our anthropology students realized suddenly like, oh my gosh, there’s a vibrant world online that I didn’t really consider to be a legitimate world in itself. So they discovered this whole vibrant field of Digital Ethnography that existed within Anthropology, but especially in Media Studies. So there were quite a few folks who got over a sense of disappointment that they would have to focus a lot of their work on digital interactions. So I designed a January intensive workshop on Digital Ethnography and because we were remote, I said, why not take advantage of kind of the distributed knowledge of people who know all about this around the world? So I co-taught this thing with Annette Markham who is in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Me Luka at the University of Toronto. So just the idea of having inter-institutional collaborations, where we are taking advantage of the distinctive contributions that collective minds can bring together. We open-sourced all of our materials, made it publicly available for anybody who might want to use it. So this is not novel. I mean, it was just one example of things that have been done elsewhere, that I think— geographic collaborations, inter-institutional collaborations, commoning resources—all of these things are things that I would want to be a part of a future.
As you were talking actually, I just realized that you’re modeling in many ways, a university of the future, right? And I’m thinking you put all your syllabi online, you work very collaboratively with your students. You’re an incredibly generous professor, faculty, colleague. Yeah, so actually, wait a minute, Shannon’s already modeling this. It just hit me when you’re talking. I’m like, wait, I’m asking for something in the future, but it’s actually present in your classrooms at the moment, which is really wonderful actually. It just hit me, yeah, that it exists, right?
That’s really lovely. I appreciate that very much. I think there’s a lot more to be done also, but I will also say going back to your earlier question about what I’m working on right now, there are risks to this too. Not only especially for junior scholars, making yourself legible, having to fit within institutional structures, like the fact that we have reified the 15-week semester. This is something I talk about and I’ve gotten much more flexible in talking individually with each student about what you can accomplish in 15 weeks. Because some of them have macro-scale projects they want to work on, where my class is just one little part they can carve out from a larger enterprise. So rather than submitting something final to me and imposing a false, or maybe even destructive sense of finality on their project, let’s see about what stage can we stop the flow in 15 weeks, then we can talk about what you’ve accomplished in our 15 weeks. And what you want to accomplish in the future. So just the reification of these architectures.
Yes, which I guess leads to the other part of the teaching question, whether you see universities or centers of higher learning or institutions as up to the task of some of the really complex, you know, wicked problems we face?
That’s something, again, I hope to explore in the spring class. I think there’s so much to be learned from these extra institutional models, these more ad hoc or radical pop-up, deliberately kind of ephemeral forms of learning experiences or social networks of skills-share or knowledge sharing. And I don’t necessarily think that universities need to encompass or absorb those. I think there’s a real value to keeping some of these things external, because if you were to encompass everything in the university, you would deflate and kill the specialness. I like having a multitude of learning spaces.
Going back to multispecies, I think they’re all different species of learning spaces, and it’s valuable to have multiple because each different architecture, each different set of social network, each physical setting, each mode of exchange allows for different types of learning experiences. And I think that maybe the most productive thing is to try to move between them. Not trying to, again, merge them, but to allow the multiplicity to be there, but to think between them and move between them.
Is it useful to think about systems or ecologies when it comes to teaching?
I think so, especially if you are designing for the “whole student” as some people say. Or especially over the course of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about designing for trauma-informed teaching, for instance. We’re just recognizing that the students are bringing so much with them to the classroom. So many challenges and so many interesting and really incredibly valuable personal experiences and forms of knowledge as well. So just finding ways to teach for this whole person, being compassionate, and also really trying to find ways to take advantage of all of the intelligences that the collective brings into the room.
But then also, especially going back to our discussion of interdisciplinarity, I really love that almost all my classes draw people from across the university. So I’ll typically have between maybe eight and twelve different disciplines represented in the same room, which makes it so much fun. We’ll have a jazz student speaking to somebody who’s like a computer scientist, who’s talking to somebody who’s in like environmental resource management. We can find themes going back to your idea that we should have more thematically organized education. We can ask, like, what does improvisation mean in your different realms? How is improvisation a method in your different kind of contexts? So there requires, you know, understanding the system or the ecology of different fields. So that as a teacher, you could maybe try to facilitate or ask good questions that allow people to be able to translate between their different experiences. So I do think having a systemic sensibility is really useful to fostering a classroom that does make the most of an interdisciplinary community.
52:45 WHAT’S UP NEXT
Beautiful. That was such a great answer. I’m wondering if you want to say some words about a project you might be working on. What’s up next, a book you might be working on or media that you’re particularly interested in?
Sure. So I haven’t had a leave in about a decade and I hope to have a whole year off next year, which I’m super excited about. Hasn’t been approved yet, but I’m keeping all kind of extremities crossed for that one. And there are a couple of projects that I have in my list, my long list of aspirational projects, and two of them are books. One of them is about furniture as an epistemological object. So I’ve written a few pieces over the years about, for example, the furniture in Silicon Valley workspaces and how these long communal tables and all this kind of hyper designed furniture in a way forces bodies to comport themselves in a particular way and pushes them into certain types of labor relations in different ways. So that was one piece. I wrote about the history of the closet. I wrote about the history of the shelf, the history of like 19th century dressers with secret drawers and how that relates to the rise of secrecy and new epistolary forms in the 18th and 19th century. So a whole bunch of different pieces over the years about furniture as a thing to think with and through, and a way of organizing our modes of knowledge making and preservation. So I really want to do like a creatively formatted book, like a furniture catalog that’s publicly intelligible, but still kind of scholarly informed academic book, but just structured like a furniture catalog, drawing on different kind of, not necessarily canonical, but different species of furniture and how that creates our thinking environments for us.
And then the other project is about sound design. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called things that beep. It’s about the way so much of what we think of as natural or incidental sounds in our environment are actually engineered: the crinkle of a potato chip bag, the sound the engine of your car makes, the bell on the subway doors as they open and close, the different notification sounds that my phone has unfortunately been making as we’ve been talking today and all the different settings that you can change on your iPhone, just the industries and thinking that cultivates those choices and what types of engagement their designers are trying to create between us and our technology and our material world. So that would be another book, thinking about sound design as kind of a worldbuilding experience too. It’s shaping, through sonic engineering, our relationships with our technologies and the larger material world.
Oh, I can’t wait. Both of them sound amazing. They sound so fun.
Thank you so much.
Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. You’re such a generous interlocutor, a great person to talk to. So I hope we can do it in person sometime soon.
You’ve just listened to episode 11 of the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
My name is Elaine Gan and this was a conversation with Shannon Mattern, a theorist and professor of media, design, and architecture based in New York. Episode 11 was collaboratively produced and composed with the brilliant and inimitable Ernst Karel and Joe Hazan. It was recorded on November 2021 at the Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center in New York City. To hear other episodes, please visit https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe through any of the major podcast platforms. Thank you very much for listening.
with Una Chaudhuri
and Marina Zurkow
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
DEAR CLIMATE (UNA CHAUDHURI and MARINA ZURKOW)
My name is Marina Zurkow. I’m an artist and a teacher, and I’m currently based in Saugerties New York. My practice is committed to issues of climate change and being in a multispecies earth world. I do the work that I do in a few different ways. I have a gallery practice which consists of mostly animation work and a variety of print work and some sculpture as well. I do quite a bit of work in the social practice sphere, which consists of participatory engagements. Collaborators whom I work with are chefs. We do dinners, we do snacks, we do projects thinking about food opportunities and changing climates. I’ve done a bunch of mycelium sculptures thinking about commodities and logistics. And then I work with some traditional print media as well: posters, agitprop, letterpress prints. Some of those other subjects that I’ve worked with extensively are what we call “invasive species” and “signal species” such as dandelions and jellyfish—species that tend to complicate our understanding of the world and our positionality about other animals and plants. With Una and Oliver Kellhammer, and formerly and hopefully again, Fritz Ertl and a variety of other people, I also have had a long-time collaboration called Dear Climate which is a variety of scales of engagement around the idea that by addressing the climate as an entity we can have a dialogue with it, in the hopes that we’ll come closer to this planet that we live on.
My name is Una Chaudhuri and I’m an academic. I teach in the Department of English and Drama and Environmental Studies at New York University. And I’m currently director of XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, which is a graduate program within the Faculty of Arts and Science. I’m interested in ecospheric consciousness and I’ve actually kind of commitment to expanding the use of that word or concept of “ecospheric” to mean the consciousness that pays primary and very serious attention to the more-than-human world and the species and landscapes and geophysical forces that make up our planetary life. I have always specialized in theater, dramatic literature, theater history, and performance studies, performance theory, and found myself quite early on being able to use those fields to open up new kinds of questions about ecology, environment, the more-than-human world.
03:52 ANIMALS, PEOPLE, AND THOSE IN BETWEEN
I had a friend, Rachel Mayeri, who had been making some pretty incredible work around primates and I reached out to her because I really wanted to teach a class in response to some of the patterns I was seeing at NYU ITP—at the program I was teaching at—which was that people were really instrumentalizing animals in the service of bald anthropomorphism, cutifying their content. And I thought, okay, animals are worth more than this. What if I could make a class that really looked at taking animals seriously as entities? The class was called “Animals, People, and Those In Between,” and it was a studio class with a good bulk of reading and inquiry into other artists working in human-animal inquiries, like Marcus Coates and Rachel Mayeri, and so on. So that’s how we first met. I think it was 2009?
What Marina was experiencing was exactly one of the founding impulses of the field of Animal Studies, which was this recognition that thinking about animals had been so, unfortunately restricted and constrained within the Arts and Humanities because attention to actual real animals and their lives, was for so long considered the purview of the Sciences. And so what was leftover for the Arts and Humanities seemed to be anthropomorphic projections or cultural materials, you know, animals and fairytales and myths and those kinds of things.
This says a lot about Marina and me. Marina comes to things from her own discoveries, whereas I come to things by reading books. I had come across this book called the Postmodern Animal which was published in 2000 and that’s the book that had begun my interest in the field. So my interest really came out of mainstream academic cultural theory, like Postmodernism or Posthumanism. And one of the most satisfying things for Marina and me has been that both of us are so hungry for the other’s perspective and Marina just loves theory but wasn’t coming from a department in which theory was the preoccupation. Of course I was coming from a department that was just all books and no practice other than textual. We’ve seen this play out now, so broadly in the eruption of interdisciplinary people working across art and theory, artist-scholars like yourself, Elaine, is just one of the most powerful phenomena of our time. But when Marina and I started, which was only ten years ago, or maybe for me, fifteen years ago, it was still really unusual.
07:09 ASSEMBLIES OF INFORMATION
I think what was emerging for me—well, not long before this “Animals, People and Those In Between” class happened—something really clicked for me around climate change and around doing research and knitting together what I now would call these assemblages that include media streams of information and disinformation. Notions of the animal and vulnerabilities around climate change, and things that were happening even in my own backyard and at the time in Brooklyn, around flooding and getting evacuation maps from the city and starting to really do research. Knitting things together that collage does really well. I’ve always thought of myself as a collage artist. I’m not much of a draftsperson, I’m a bricolage artist. For me, this idea of making these assemblies of information that are the sum is hopefully so much bigger than the little parts of these stories. They can crack open new ways of looking at relationships. This was really feeling urgent around 2006, 2007 for me, it felt like there was no language, that people were not really relating to the things that I was starting to feel were amazing and terrifying about the planet coming into the foreground.
Right, right. That feels so vividly accurate to my experience of my conversations with you from that time. It was coming out of a very varied engagement with a number of current phenomena that were unfolding.
09:18 EMERGENCY SURVIVAL KIT FOR THE BRAIN
We started the Dear Climate project. We called it Survival Challenges. That was our first working title, right, Marina?
Yes, we had arguments for days.
That was kind of the first moment where we came together and asked ourselves: What can we, from our four different disciplinary perspectives, contribute to this urgent sense that was out there in the culture. At that time we thought it was our survival as a species that was in question. Early on, one of the things I think that you brought in Marina was some research about the survivalist communities and some of their strategies. My reaction to that was like immediately, allergic. I was very suspicious of that but at the same time, I think people like Fritz and Oliver had more respect for some of those strategies and were able to keep that dimension to our thinking. But I was the one I think—and Marina completely egging me on—arguing for a much more irreverent, absurdist, surreal kinds of approaches to the question of climate. Which was really sort of unusual at that time, because climate was this very sober and kind of earnest subject. It was not an area that you were allowed to joke about or be light and playful about.
An amendment to this is that when I first wanted to talk about survivalism, it was very earnest, but it wasn’t about prepper culture. It wasn’t about survivalists. It was actually about meditation. It was about Buddhist principles of equanimity and a certain embracing of uncertainty, which I have felt is imperative. That we accept if not embrace uncertainty in ways that capitalist Western culture wants to push away at all costs, whether that’s death or debt or the climate, frankly. And so we did want to leverage at first this idea of prepper culture, but more in the way, at least for me, was an earnest approach to thinking about certain Buddhist practices as an emergency survival kit for your brain, and that the inside-out, you had to rebuild your capacity for spaciousness or tolerance or understanding or compassion.
12:17 OH, GET OVER IT ALREADY!
I think art tends to want to express very little emotional heat. It does it through a kind of cultivation of distance and that has to do with the gallery context and how one observes art traditionally versus…. Theater is not embarrassed of being embarrassing and clowning and kind of emotional extremes. And I even think of an artist like Paul McCarthy, who has built a career on abjection, humiliation, psychoanalytic, self-embarrassment, ridiculousness—but it’s still presented like a tableau. It’s not animated. And in fact, animation as an art practice has always been until relatively recently, a kind of an embarrassing little sister to art because it trafficked childish things. And you can only do that with a kind of nod, nod, wink, wink, like irony wrapper around it. To me those are pretty big differences.
I remember being at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center back in the very beginning of our collaboration with Fritz and Una, and we were all riding around on the floor and it was a lot of artists who were there, who think of themselves on the cool side of things and remembered the kind of embarrassed disbelief of us trying to become trees. It was so great for me, that was such a breakthrough, to just say, “Oh, get over it already. It’s too much fun and too weird to not want to engage in!”
At that same event, in which we had everyone riding on the floor, there was also an artist who was getting us all to smell her urine which she had put into a cup, and she was discussing her urine. So that delighted me quite a bit.
But Marina, just going back to what you were saying earlier about the more meditative practices and uncertainty. Absolutely. That was a huge part of what you were getting us to think about. And we used the words “inner climate,” making our inner lives somehow also responsible to climate, to what’s happening in the world rather than just make it something about our social practice or about science.
But also at the same time, this commitment to uncertainty is a longstanding tradition in the kind of theater that I prize, which is Absurdism and Surrealism and Dadaism. For me, it was also always very comfortable to be displacing certitudes because I came from a tradition. Like Beckett, who I now read entirely as an ecospheric playwright and thinker was all about displacing the certitudes of, Western philosophy and, modernity and so on. And then the Dadaists who were the ones that I really adore. They did the same, but in this, in a more clownish, and at a more willing-to-make-fools of themselves register.
16:04 MULTISPECIES FRIENDSHIP
The values of Dear Climate have migrated over time. We’ve been doing this, it’s our seventh year working on that. They have totally migrated from around 2017. If you think about placing some of these posters in certain contexts, they’re going to read like glib insults, assaults, assaults on the severity and seriousness of these moments, especially for people living inside of these catastrophes. That’s something that’s changed for us, right?
To me, Marina, the decisive change came when we hit upon our name. Because we had lots of different names for our project. And for a long time, I was arguing for “Climate Yoga”. I thought it would be funny, or the G word, I thought it’d be a wonderful G thing. And then we hit upon Dear Climate. All of us felt very happy about it. And very quickly we realized it was also a mode of address. It’s like addressing the climate, like writing letters to the climate. And I think that was the moment where we really discovered our voice, and what we discovered was that the dominant impulse in this project is friendship. We had it in our working strategies. We had a three-part strategy, which said, Meet climate change. Befriend climate change. Become climate change. And originally we had a sort of structure in which we were creating posters that aligned with these three moments or ideas. But what remained was just this idea of friendship. For me, that’s when everything came into focus. I felt like we had a guiding principle, like we had a North Star, which was this idea of multispecies friendship.
18:15 FRIENDSHIP AS METHOD
We have been lucky enough to get to work with some people who became instant friends and also very much seem to embrace the feelings that we were promoting. One of them was Nora Lawrence, who’s the curator at Storm King. And our project at Storm King was probably our most high profile or, expansive project so far. Then the other person was Jennie Carlyle, who is on the faculty and a curator at Appalachian State University. And with Jennie in particular, I think it was our dialogue with her that was incredibly generative for us. So that’s another dimension of collaboration is that we suddenly find these amazing collaborators and Dear Climate is kind of set up, I think, to do that.
And it’s partly because Marina’s a brilliant collaborator and has so many friends in the art world who like to collaborate. That’s been a defining characteristic of our project.
We’ve had some really incredible collaborators. All of the sound meditations that are on our Dear Climate website (http://dearclimate.net) are produced by Pejk Malinovski who is just a great sound artist and radio producer. And we now are, hopefully we’re working with Blake Goble who is an architect trying to design a mini-golf hole for a climate change putting green in Brooklyn. It’s just an insane idea!
Friendship as method.
It’s funny… method and medium, right? I would agree that I look to work with people I adore and I’m going to learn something from, and the output is hopefully traces of that energy that invite other people into this discourse. People we may not know yet.
Marina told me about this book, Emergent Strategies. Our collaborations were partly serendipitous and based on opportunities that came up, personalities, and of course Marina’s contacts like Pejk, who does our sound. Now there’s also so much lovely, serious loving thinking about how to work together, because it’s not easy to work together to create these microsocial organisms.
21:35 PUBLIC PROJECTS OF DEAR CLIMATE
We were invited to be part of a show at Storm King, entitled Indicators, Artists and Climate Change, which featured twelve artists. We were one of the earliest ones because they really invited us to use any part of the property for our project, which was so thrilling. Fairly quickly we settled on the area where there’s a kind of traffic circle, or a large circular driveway, I would say below the main, beautiful museum building and it’s a place where the Storm King trolley, which takes you all around this beautiful property. But it eventually ends up in this place, stops there and picks up more people. So it’s a space that is visited a lot. It was still available for this project, so we grabbed it. It’s a circular driveway and there’s something that reminded us of the United Nations. We immediately had a vision of some kind of circle of flags. We decided to work on the idea that just as the United Nations has one seat for every nation, we were trying to think about one seat for every species and we called our installation “General Assembly.”
Can I give some examples? I just pulled the book out. There were white flags that were very positive and then there were inverted flags that were very kind of critical. So there was: Meet the Beetles. Remember the Albedo. Sleep around. Gobble the landscape. Fete the fungus. See the sea levels. And then there were some negative ones such as: Give Me Luxury or Give Me Breath, and see if I can find another one here. Do you remember another sort of, we got a lot of pushback on the negative ones. Oh yes. Let them eat CO2. The Marie Antoinette one. It was interesting because Storm King historically has never done a “political” show and some of the visitors seemed to be quite enraged that we were offering, offering some challenges that brought people down to earth.
The highlight was when the Secretary General of the United Nations came there. I mean, talk about getting the ideal spectator. He came and they made a video of our piece, which they then ran on the United Nations website or Instagram account. In which he said, let’s hope all General Assembly can be as effective as this general assembly, something like that. Because of course he’d come there as part of his climate change initiative. So that was thrilling. And of course that brought us to the attention of many other people, including Jennie Carlyle, who invited us to do some things for an ongoing series that they have at Appalachian State University called “Climate Stories,” which is an interdepartmental curricular and co-curricular a multi-year project. They commissioned Dear Climate to do something there and accepted our design, which was to do a campus-wide installation of trail markers. And this was a new form or genre for us.
These were three-way signposts like you would find on 4×4 wooden posts out in the woods.
We planted these signposts trail markers around this campus. And the language on them could amount to three-line poems, which were drawing heavily from texts that have animated Anthropocene studies and Multispecies Thought recently. Texts by Donna Haraway and Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett and things like that. For example, one of the signposts says, “Stay With The Trouble.” The next is “Burst Your Bubble” and then “Study The Rubble.” So there’s a kind of a rhyme there, and it’s designed to create a kind of slipperiness between ideas that hopefully would lead to conversations and further explorations. The signposts amounted to a bibliography in some ways, because it alluded to many important books, like Hyperobjects, Vibrant Matter, The Great Derangement.
The pandemic has sort of left this project in its own bardo. We’re still waiting to see what happens when life returns to campuses, if life returns in any way, the way it did. And we have outdoor engagements and an opportunity for people to really interact with this project. The project as a walking, moving open-ended curriculum is really how we’ve thought about it.
The structure of this class, “Multispecies Lab” that Una and Yanoula Athanassakis and Rob Slifkin and I developed last year as part of the Humanities Lab initiative at NYU was one of the best structures ever for this kind of making, knowing, thinking, learning that employs a variety of epistemologies in its process.
The class is a three-part assignment and it’s done in groups. The first part was called ‘umwelt.’ We had read Jakob von Uexküll and talked about the idea of umwelt and this assignment was for each student to identify, adopt a species and if possible, a specific member of a species, and then have a process of observation, experimentation reflection, cohabitation with that species and then create some kind of imaginative manifestation. It was a report on that process of endeavoring to experience the umwelt of that species. That’s the first one. And then the second one was to work with the same species to think about that species sociality and political realities, and create some kind of utterance or statement or communication on behalf of that species. So if you were algae, what would you want everyone to know? What would you want human beings to know? And what form would that communication take? So that was the second one. And it was called ‘polemic.’ Then the third was called ‘public engagement.’ That’s what we were teaching there, take that same species and create a public engagement on behalf of that species, some way for the public to encounter and develop a deeper relationship with that species. It was public engagement plus knowledge production.
The results were just so fascinating and rich, and there was so much discovery. All along of course, we were studying artists and art practices, the contemporary art practices that are adjacent to these goals of multispecies sociality. Students were able to draw from something like Gal Nissim’s Synanthrope Project which includes some sound walks, including a sound walk in Tompkins Square Park at night to develop a relationship with the rats, the rats of Tompkins Square Park. The pedagogy just exploded. It just became like many tentacles of how to learn, how to teach ourselves.
31:00 TUNING IN
The world of worlding has become pretty preoccupied with outcomes. And I’d say that’s true for pedagogy without a doubt in traditional academies—being forced to list learning outcomes, promise students they’re going to get X and Y out of taking this class, selling something to you, then you’ll be more smart or beautiful or something. So when you start to work over a long period of time on anything, there’s going to be emergent properties that you can either tune to, or you can very busily keep trying to world, to worldbuild. Can we be open to changes in the climate, changes in interactions with other humans and other species who are not human? Can we tune? Can we use learning as tuning?
I think one of the things we’ve been recognizing a lot is the need to connect our work more to social justice, environmental justice issues, which I don’t think we’ve done yet. We’ve definitely aware of that need. And Marina has done that in other parts of her work, but I think that’s really hard at least where I came from, which is Dadaism. It makes that a huge and difficult, challenging leap.
Well, because I think in some ways that that tradition is profoundly apolitical and anarchic.
Some would argue that that’s embedded in the bourgeois culture that it emerged from.
Yes, exactly. I think so. That’s one of the critiques of the avant-garde in Amitav Ghosh’s book about The Great Derangement where he talks about the complicity of the avant-garde with a kind of disembodied floating above the earth. The commitment of my tradition, the tradition I have identified with all my life, to the imagination and frankly not so much to the body, much less the ground under our feet. That’s a big ask for this tradition, how to make that change. You have to abjure some of it. You have to disavow some aspects of what you’ve loved because you have to recognize the complicity of that formation with White supremacy and settler colonialism.
I also want to interject that the domain of the imagination belongs to everybody, and it’s a question of access. So there is something really interesting about thinking about the domains of imagination, being earth-related. What’s happened is that Dadaism and so on have become these rarefied enjoyments and they don’t have to be. I would really argue that there’s a way into this without thinking that justice does not need the imagination.
I completely agree that that’s the task now, to find the connections.
34:30 THANK YOU FOR LISTENING!
Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab!
You can find out more at https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com
Follow us on twitter or instagram at @multispeciespod
Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab is a collaboration with Wanda Acosta, Josh Allen, Joe Hazan, Genevieve Pfeiffer, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan.
With special thanks to NYU Green Grants, Office of Sustainability, NYU Center for Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and The Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
EPISODE 9: CECILIA VICUNA + SARAH LOOKOFSKY
My name is Cecilia Vicuña. I’m a poet and artist. I was born in Chile and I live between Chile and New York.
My name is Sarah Lookofsky. I was trained as an art historian. I grew up in Denmark and I lived for 21 years in the United States. I recently moved to Oslo where I am the Dean of the School of Fine Arts.
I thought it would be nice for us to begin with some of Cecilia’s poetry.
00:38 ENTERING (1983 POEM FROM “PRECARIO”)
I thought that perhaps this was only a way of remembering.
To record in the sense of touching the strings of emotion.
To record comes from ‘core’
The core of the heart.
Listening with the fingers. A sensory memory came first.
The scattered bones, the sticks and feathers were sacred objects I had to put in order
to follow their will was to rediscover a way of thinking.
Listening to the elements, I traveled down pathways of the mind
that led me to an ancient silence, waiting to be heard.
To think was to follow the music, the feeling of the elements.
This is the way a communion with the sky and the sea began.
The necessity to respond to their desires with a work that could be a prayer, a joy to the elements.
Joy itself is the prayer.
In the act of offering, I recalled an essential poetic form.
If at the beginning of time, poetry was an act of communion,
a form of entering into a shared vision,
now it is a space that can be entered,
a spatial metaphor.
It is natural for poetry to complete itself in space.
If the poem is temporal, an aural temple, the palace or form is a spatial temple.
Both temples are entryways to the sacred space of metaphor.
Metapherein means to carry beyond.
Metaphor takes us to other spaces of contemplation,
to contemplate temples us together
or temples simultaneously the interior and exterior.
An active form of contemplation, the spatial metaphor brings together two forms of prayer:
temporal and spatial.
Precarios is what is obtained by prayer.
The quipu which records nothing.
An empty string was my first precarious
object. I was praying, making a quipu, offering up the desire of memory.
A quipu is an ancient system of colored knotted chords that carry meaning created in pre-Colombian South America.
Desire is the offering.
The body is only a metaphor.
In ancient Peru, diviners traced lines of dust in the earth
as a way of divining or letting the divine speak through them.
They invoke the spirits through an incantation and tracing lines on ground.
Lempad of Bali says all art is transient. Even stone is worn away.
God makes use of the essence of the offerings and the people of the material remains
The form of temporal, spatial writing aspires to endure in the intensity of the emotion.
To recover memory is to recover unity.
To be one with sky and the sea,
To feel the earth as your own skin is the only way to pleasure her.
—from Precario/Precarious, New York, 1983.
05:58 RIVER AKERSELVA, OSLO
When I originally was proposed this idea by Elaine—Elaine and Cecilia and I worked together in 2015 on an exhibition in Aarhus where we spent, I don’t know, was it a long weekend or a week? It felt like a week in Aarhus but maybe it wasn’t. So coming into this conversation, I realized, having moved to Oslo, that the art school where I work is a former factory where sails were produced predominantly by female workers. The factory is adjacent to a river called Akerselva, which is the main river running through Oslo, a very spectacular river that runs for nine kilometers. It has 20 waterfalls and one of these big waterfalls is right outside the door of the art school. And it powered the factory, like many other factories that are adjacent to it and now are kind of post-industrial converted to, you know, living and schools and companies. I came from New York in the height of the pandemic and was afraid of the pandemic because of my New York experience. I didn’t feel comfortable gathering in a room, so I would walk along the river instead of having a meeting. I would take a walk and I would notice the river, so I began to research this river. And I read that in 2011 there was a big spill into this river from the water treatment plant, which is the drinking source of Oslo. In 2011, a pipe broke and 6,000 liters of chlorine was spilled into the river. When they assessed the extent of the damage they found basically no remaining life in the river, they found struggling crayfish that were barely alive.
I began digging more and found out that this in fact was not the only spill, that there had been many. I mean like in 2012, there was 19,000 liters of oil spilled into the river by a hospital. In 1988, nine tons of acid with 23,000 salmon fry killed. A couple of weeks later, 16,000 liters of oil from industry. And in 1990, 19 tons of phosphoric acid, with an estimated death toll of 25,000 trout and salmon. So it’s a kind of ongoing, steady, non-dramatic event, which has been described as “slow violence.”
Every time I take a walk along this river, I think of Cecilia and Cecilia’s work. I know that so many rivers have been important in your life, Cecilia.
Yes, I hear you. And I feel the pain of the Akerselva, you know, it is such an amazing idea, like a short, tiny river that is immense at the same time, that is only nine kilometers long. So you can walk it in one day, you know, from beginning from its birth to its disappearance is something so astonishing to me.
10:22 RIO MAPOCHO, SANTIAGO
I can tell you that I was born next to a river, a river called Mapocho. Mapocho is the river that gives life to the valley of Santiago. Mapocho in the indigenous language means the “disappearing in the earth”, because this river comes from the tallest mountains in the Western hemisphere, the Andes, and halfway, it disappears. It goes under the earth and then reappears a few kilometers down the line, to go into the ocean. But, hearing you, what I was feeling is that I didn’t know the exact word in English for the word, the desaguadero, which is when a lake empties itself or when a glacier begins to create a watershed.
El Rio Mapocho, the river next to where I was born, is really rio de caca, a river of shit. And I don’t know the history, when did this begin? Did this begin with the Romans, did this begin with the Middle Ages? When did the concept of using water, not as water of life, but as a water of death, meaning a carrier of everything that’s unwanted like shit or toxic materials? So this slow violence, this calamity that you’re speaking of, is really a concept that water can and will be used in this way. This is what has poisoned the planet itself, not just every single river, but the entire system—because water is one.
I remember writing a long time ago, a poem called “Amnio Sacrificial”, and this is the amniotic liquid in which the baby is born in the womb. It’s also the planet itself is in my feeling or perception. It is an amniotic liquid for all forms of life. So how can we live and exist within this amniotic universe, disregarding and destroying it?
So this, I suppose, is the realization from which my art, my life has emerged. Because already in the sixties, I have to say, we knew these things. Already in the forties, we knew these things. I mean, how come that it seems that for this half a century or a little more than half a century, the real art of humanity has been denial. Denial of the reality of our doing, of what we do. So to wake up from that denial, I think is what’s happening now. And this is what I feel the water itself is asking. You know, the water wants to be water. This is also an ancient poem of mine, it’s like the river wants to be heard before being contaminated and this notion of hearing, how can we possibly open ourselves to a hearing when we have been trained—generations of us have been trained—not to hear, not to listen?
What is unique about the site that I’m in right now in Norway is that it has a green image. There are more electric cars in Norway than anywhere else in the world. This river, when you walk along it, there are signs describing it and its natural beauty and all the species that thrive there, but there’s no mention of the spill. Norway, it’s an extractivist economy at base. Even though it has such a green image, its main export is oil and its second greatest export is industrially farmed fish: salmon. I guess the word for that is greenwashing. But when people talk about Akerselva, they talk about the natural beauty.
And as I was preparing for this conversation, I thought, oh, I really don’t know about this river. I need to know more. I have been reading, but I need to know more. And I was kind of stressing out that we’re going to have this conversation and I’m not a scientist and I haven’t done all the research. But I thought, you know, I’m just rrgonna walk the length of it. I’m going to take the tram to the top and I’m gonna follow it from the lake all the way down. At one point you get blocked because there’s an old industrial site where the river is contained within a factory that’s still a factory. So there’s a continuity between the industrial age and our current age, that part is still accessible. And then at a certain point, when you get very close to the downtown area, it goes underground. It goes under the train tracks and then it emerges and flows into the ocean, into the fjord.
So all this to say: listening. The river has a language and we need to listen to it.
16:31 LISTENING WITH FINGERS
Yeah. And in that sense, the metaphor of listening with the fingers is really no metaphor. For example, I remember there is this wonderful deaf musician. I can’t remember her name. I think she’s from Scotland. And she says that she hears from every pore of her body and she composes the amazing music, and she hasn’t heard music at all. She hears it with a different kind of sense. And I think the idea that we as humans have evolved so many senses that we have chosen to disregard, to abandon, it’s really very important. And I think this is one of the things that our art and rituals can bring back. For example, I have done rituals where I invite people to simply lie down, let’s say on rocks where you can touch and caress the ocean or the river and feel it come to your skin, caress your skin and move back in again, because the river and the ocean are sort of breathing systems. Breathing—not breeding creatures, but breathing. I don’t know how you pronounce the difference. Meaning breathing air, breathing oxygen. And so you feel there is a lot of knowledge that is not knowledge. A lot of knowing that is not knowing. A lot of feeling that is not feeling, but it’s something else can begin to emerge.
I remember years ago I was very sad about another one of my rivers, because as you said, there are many rivers in my life. There’s another river that is not even classified as a river. It’s classified as a mountain stream because it’s very wild and one moment it can be very thin. And if there is a lot of rain, which now is very rarely the case because there’s the brutal drought that’s been hitting Chile for the last 10-15 years. Most snow, most glaciers are disappearing very fast. It’s said that perhaps in 10 years, there will not be enough water for the people to drink in Chile. So this brutal reality of destruction of water is embodied by these alluvial rivers that have for thousands and thousands of years created themselves as a stream of water that can be huge one minute and disappear the next but still be there, still be there as potential.
So it is the potential for the regeneration that we are really attacking. And so how could we open—not just to the hearing of a sound—but to a sensing of a potential, where our interaction with that potential may bring it back.
Another kind of subtext of this conversation is that not only do all rivers, all water, connect to one another on this planet, but also we are water. And so I think what your work does so beautifully is kind of make us conscious of the fact that we are not separate, but the water is in us.
I think what art can do, and what your work does, is at once register absences through colonial violence, long histories that have erased cultures. You conjure these absences in your work. And not only that, but as you just said, it’s towards the future. Collectively, we’re here now to imagine a different future.
21:13 ALIVENESS OF PROCESS
I wonder if I could just jump in really briefly. From what you’ve both been talking about, there’s the sensing of different kinds of temporalities. There’s also this idea that death doesn’t happen once. It’s ongoing, but it’s also recursive. Things die. They come back. What does it mean to acknowledge that there are multiple streams that are happening all the time? And I think reclaiming things in the world that are not yet dead. What does it mean to have an art practice, or process, or research process, that can push us to think about sensing potentials or keeping track of regeneration? Claiming these violences, and opening them up so that things can keep going or become something else?
I can speak to that because this idea of process is embedded in every living system, and even in systems that in the old days were defined as non-living. Now, the definition of what is animate or inanimate is becoming blurry. It’s a very good thing, because in ancient cultures, indigenous cultures around the world, this distinction between who is alive and not alive, it’s just like a joke. It is not there. Because the aliveness of the processes of all the matter, of all energies, is perpetually an interaction. It is perpetually a process of both self-transformation and transformation of everything around it—because everything is in response to something else, you know? And so when we become aware, that awareness is perhaps the one process in which we can find the way to communicate, to sense the other processes, how they are playing with our process. For example, in Spanish, the word conocer, to know, which of course is from Latin, is composed of, and with being. So to know, it is ‘to be with being’. What being? The being of all that is, everything has being. So this is not an essentialist idea. It is something so incredibly beautiful to acknowledge that it is this awareness—what is like the equalizing field. Now we know that, for example, even subatomic particles become self-aware. We know that bacteria are self-aware. So this awareness, it’s truly like an ocean of awareness of which we are part. To me, that is the key understanding of how processes work in us.
25:02 LOOKING AT THE OCEAN LOOKING BACK AT YOU
In your very first work or Casa Espiral 1966, what I find so beautiful is you say at the moment when you became an artist was essentially the moment when you realized that not only were you looking at the ocean, but the ocean was looking at you. There was this mirroring. And I think that’s the kind of being-with that needs to happen. It’s just so simple.
Yeah, it is true. It is so simple. So basic, so elemental. Every child is born sensing that, feeling that, you know. So we have a culture that removes that from the child, but in Chile, there is this extraordinary sage Humberto Maturana that recently died. And I was hearing in Santiago, one of his late talks, and he says something so beautiful. He says that every baby is born amoroso. How would you translate that into English? The baby is born amoroso or amarosa, you know, it means the baby is born wanting love and ready to give love. And so these back-and-forth interactive processes are already embedded in this living being that is just out of the womb, and feels already that way, because probably inside the womb felt the same. So, this is the real treasure of what humanness is. And we have to interact with our own awareness. We have to interact with the other awareness, and that can be the beginning of recovering potential. And recovering an ability to allow emergence to do its own thing. Because the beautiful thing about emergence—I’m a total fan of quantum biology, quantum physics, quantum astrophysics, and that’s really one of my passions—and what is it that they are discovering? It’s been like a century of discoveries, and it is the discovery of interaction, the discovery that information is situated in the exchange, which is basically the same as indigenous ideas or knowledge around the world, you know. You go to Aboriginal Australia, you go to ancient South Africa, still ancient peoples are current today. And their worldview now is not unlike a lot of quantum physics, you know? So it is this chance for us to recover those forms of knowing that are beyond description of the previous epistemology. It’s right there. It’s still available.
28:25 EACH RIVER IS DIFFERENT
I think one of the things that your work brings up so often is a kind of wonder, as well as that there is so much that is still unknown.
Yeah, and this not knowing is really also a misnomer, because the beautiful thing about language is that everything that we name is simultaneously a misnomer, so I think this is what allows language to communicate. The fact that it’s never exactly precise. It’s never exactly what either one, the speaker and the listener, thinks, but it’s always something else. For example, poetry. Poetry is the specialization of keeping that-that-is-not-there present. And to me, there is so much beauty in the quest, in the quest to revive these potentials in language itself, in relationship, in touch, in all the basics. It’s the basics that we need to take care of, because another wonderful thing in our conversation, the one we had with Elaine, the three of us a few days ago, is the notion of the locale.
The fact that each river sounds different from every other river, each part of the river sounds and is different from other parts of the river. And each river requires us to relate to it as a being, as its own thing. And so, then comes the idea of responsiveness, the responsiveness of the river and our response to the river, our responsibility for the river. And so for example, I can tell you that I have experienced the most wonderful relationships with regards to that responsiveness, as potential for ecological and cultural and political action.
30:29 RETURN OF THE MUSSEL
A few years ago, when I was doing my film, “Kon Kon“, I learned about this magnificent beach at the mouth of another huge river, the Aconcagua river. “kon kon” is at the mouth of “aconcagua” and “aconcagua,” the name itself is the name of the tallest mountain of the Western hemisphere. And it means “looking at ‘kon’”. And “kon” is the most ancient name known in this part of the world for life-giving water, water and life force. And it’s a feminine name. So I am in this beach at the mouth of river Aconcagua. And the fishermen there tell me that a certain mussel that we call macha has been extinguished through extractivist operations. Can you imagine extinguishing a mollusk that has lived there for billions of years? Well, that’s what had happened.
So I invited the group of people to come do the dance on the beach with our feet, the old way as I had seen when I was a young girl. That you would have your feet wobbling or wiggling in the sand, to enter until your feet touched the mussel that is hidden under the water. And that was a traditional way of bringing it out to eat. So I invited a group of people, we did the dance. Two or three years later, I come again to that beach and you know what the fishermen tell me? Did you know that the mussel has come back? So the dance, the performance was to call for the absent mussel. It was called in Spanish “La minga de la macha invisible”. So we’re going to be dancing for an invisible creature that is gone, extinguished. And it came back. So what that tells you is this, we can interpret this: Is it a coincidence? Is it the responsiveness of others? But in any case, the effect that that has on us as workers, as artists is encouragement, you know, and these give courage, insert the courage inside your body. Encouragement, you know. It’s the one thing that we need now, because how on earth are we going to be dealing with the disappearance of drinking water? Which is going to be happening already so soon, and in so many places is already happening.
In the Akerselva, there’s also a very rare river mussel that was thought to be extinct, but then after they did a thorough accounting of the species they couldn’t find the river mussel. So maybe I should go out and do a little dance?
Yes, a little dance at the Akerselva!
It’s amazing because the sensing is with your feet, it’s with your bare feet.
That’s right. I have a little film of it. The film, you look at it, and if it’s not big, I think that’s just a tiny little documentary of that moment of the attitude of all these bodies. What would be the right word, wiggling waggling, their feet, right and left. So your feet begin to sink in the wet sand, because this is a little bit very close to where the waves break, but not yet in the dry sand, so it’s like in that intermediate transitional sands. And these transitional sands are always the preferred place where life regenerates and emerges.
And so there is the metaphor that these phase transitions, in all processes that take on water, become liquid and so forth. We, in our spirit, in our minds, in our understanding also go through these phase transitions. And so if any goodness can come out from this horrendous period we’re living in, where so many people have been massacred by disease or by the destructivist push like in the Amazon. Every Indigenous community in the Americas is being massacred in order to burn their forest, in order to grab the rivers, the oil under the rivers, whatever it is. So how could we transition our senses and our thoughts to a space where we don’t tolerate such things? Each one of us, all of us, it has to be all of us. Not just the people who are willing, but also those who are not willing. So I think that’s the challenge for the new art to come—in that reaching out to engage and work with those who don’t want to take part in this transformation.
36:40 EVOLVING INTO ONE
Well, I just saw the publication of an article today, and I didn’t have time to read it because we were having this meeting, but it was published in this wonderful website called phys.org. And it’s about how it’s a new discovery that I am guessing now, because I haven’t read the article, but the headline is that now it seems that human beings are evolving as groups. I read that and it really chills my blood. It is so incredibly beautiful because you see there’s a lot of criticism of the very many movements that are rising up around the world, let’s say in Hong Kong, in Madrid, in Colombia, in now, even Brazil, Chile, the Arab Spring, I mean, everywhere, there is this rising up of this emergent force that is headless. And the criticism is that why doesn’t this become a political party that organizes people, because then these are the massacred by the military police and so forth. And it sort of dissolves. But you have that, which is what the media tells you. And then you have this discovery that communities are becoming like one organism. That is how bacteria operate. That is how slime mold operates. So I think learning from science as a language that communicates with art at a deeper level where both the art and the science are sort of transforming the self-awareness of a group which becomes a sort of organism. That to me is mind blowing. And that is perhaps where humanity is already moving. And if we interact with that, knowing perhaps the knowing itself will guide us in new kind of knowing, a knowing of the group as an organism seeking survival, seeking the continuity and the caretaking of the water, the river, the forest, the desert. Every living thing has a language that we need to attend. And it will be a new kind of combination between science and art.
I was reading about a study of farmed salmon, and the caretaking that goes with this practice of taking care of, you know, 50,000 salmon that are hungry and they’re underwater in these pens. But it made me think of the kind of individuation that you’re talking about between a life form, a being, and the being-with when you take up this one salmon, but it’s with 50,000 other salmon. It’s kind of reaching that understanding that we are not alone.
Especially now you know, for example, think of what’s happening with the pandemic. The pandemic has separated all of us, and we’re all in an isolation that feels so alien to us because we have always lived in groups. I mean, human beings, everybody knows they are social beings. You know, we can’t survive without each other. And yet, now we have pushed the environment to such a degree that we are forced to be isolated and what a monstrosity that is, because isolation is exactly what would prevent us from moving to a new kind of awareness. But perhaps the possibility exists that this kind of thing that we are doing, Elaine is in New York, you are in Norway. I am also in New York, but till a few days ago, I was away in Chile, and we were still able to communicate in a way that is almost telepathic. You know, for example, I see, I read, of your thinking, Sarah. And I believe I know about Elaine. And there’s something that communicates, that is not just via Zoom or through this digital system, but something else like a web of knowing that there is life exchange happening through understanding, through awareness. And to me, those are the only threads of hope in a moment so brutal as the one we live in.
41:24 THIS IS THE RIVER I CARE FOR
I was watching a little documentary about the rebellion against the damming of a river very essential to Sami life and practices, and the activist whose name is Niilas Somby said that “all rivers are important, but this one is the one that I take care of. This is the one that I have to protect. This was the one that I have responsibility for,” is the word he used.
So, I think it’s the kind of awareness, both that you are in your environment and that you have responsibility for it. I think what Cecilia’s alluding to with our telepathic communication is we have to reach beyond. And I think that art has the capacity to make these connections and it’s the kind of connections that are abundant, and that this many stories can be told. For example, how Cecilia was saying that there’s salmon farming in Patagonia, and some of the same salmon companies that are operating in Norway are operating in Chile. The pellets that these salmon eat are from anchovies that are fished in Chile and in Peru. The electric cars that are roaming all over Norway have lithium batteries, some of it mined in Chile. That lithium mining is polluting some of the waterways in Chile that we have been talking about. Art can make these kinds of connections, this is the kind of world we’re living in and it must be addressed at that level.
Suddenly in the year 2019 in October, just a few months, actually three months before the pandemic broke out in the world, the Chilean people rose up practically in every town and spilled into the streets like a human river, demanding action to face the incredible unfairness and injustice of a system that not only privatizes water and allows for all these mines to destroy the land, destroyed the water destroy people’s lives, but also allows for extractivist operations. Like the Norwegian style in Patagonia, who’s polluting these primal waters of this. One of the few that are not polluted is now being damaged by the system. So this great, great movement of becoming a human river eventually came even with the pandemic arriving, became into a call to rewrite the constitution. And this, I believe, is the first time that this is being done in this manner in the world, where people’s human river of discontent has become a very concrete call, where people will collaborate in a new manner. And so an election took place while I was in Chile, and this election elected mostly independent, unknown people to be the writers of this constitution. So this is a new kind of collaboration where artists, intellectuals, peasants, indigenous people, scientists, professors, politicians, are going to have the chance to collaborate in a new manner. So what did it take: the suffering of almost half a century of oppression, torture. The brutalization of, and dehumanization of, the people through abuse and exploitation to have this rising of beauty that has the chance to create a constitution, an institution of togetherness. That’s basically what it is because “con” means together, it means “with”. So what kind of collaboration is the one that is called forth by the present moment? I believe it’s that kind of collaboration of the areas and sections of society that have never really collaborated before. It’s not just for example, all of my work has been born out of collaboration. I have collaborated with the rivers, with the birds, with the animals, with the ocean, and also with many, many people throughout. And I continue to do that, but that’s just the beginning. It is opening to the idea of collaboration at a larger scale. Who do we need now to turn around these policies that continue to allow extractivism to destroy the planet?
46:38 THE RIVER, THE OCEAN CALL THE SHOTS
I can think of one story because that river is the one that calls the shots. The ocean is the one that calls the shots. From my perspective and in my work, what I do, I come to the river or I come to the ocean, emptying myself of all idea, of all thought, of all everything. And when I become like a piece of dirt, like a piece, I become like one of those little basuritas, the debris that’s lying around the ocean edge of the river, I become that, then something comes. Something comes which in any way that I would describe it would falsify it. So all I can tell you is that in doing it, just a feeling begins to emerge and the river indicates what I have to do. For example, in the Mapocho river and the river I was born next to — Because as a young girl, I always kept playing on that river of shit because it’s literally the place where the shit comes down the city and we’re forbidden to come close to the open sewage river. But we as kids, illegally always found the way to get into the river and make ourselves within that dirty fucking water. And the river somehow responds to that with images and these images have converted into my art. I have done so much work around this river, but the last piece I did is called Quipu Mapocho which is a work where I went to the birth of the river up in the glacier, which is close to 4,000 meters above the sea. I walked there with two friends, you know, a musician and a filmmaker. And I did my first free show, up in that place. And then in different places around the trajectory of the river, all the way into the sea, I invited more and more people to do rituals there, including in the middle of the city. Because this river crosses the city. And in one of these performances, I can tell you that I did it in the river. That used to be an Inca river that connected this Northern part of Chile to the Southern part of Chile. And this is now a bridge where all the unwanted people gather, meaning the immigrants, the refugees who arrive in Chile seeking to work because societies are so cruel and monstrous in their own countries, you know, in Venezuela, in Colombia, in Peru, in Bolivia. And so all these people are gathered in this river. And I arrived there with a small nucleus, my mother, and perhaps four or five friends. And I began weaving the people, and the people who are crossing fast, because this is an active river with traffic, both cars and trucks and people. And you see how some people want to be part of this living web that is being woven body against body. And some people want to shout at it. Some people want to be bad about it. But I can tell you that once this sort of living ball woven with red thread, all of us, of course, it’s pre-pandemia that I did this aware of pushing each other, unknown people are squeezed into one knot, one living knot, what I can tell you is that all of us who were in that moment, what we experienced was a sort of explosive joy, explosive love, explosive commitment to the beauty of being alive.
It’s something that I know. It has to happen. You know, I believe it is beginning to happen that people—because there’s so much hatred and so much division, which is completely pointless, especially when we come to a point where water begins to disappear, for example, in Chile—how this is going to become a new law for the land. So I do feel, perhaps it’s a crazy feeling, but I do feel that all these rituals performed during 50 years are part of that transformation, you know, and that similar work done by hundreds and hundreds of people do have the effect of breaking those artificial barriers that separate people through assumptions, through expectations, through ideologies. And I think we’re coming to a place collectively as humans, where we can see that all those are limiting because of the necessities, the new needs, when water disappears, when monstrous diseases are unleashed, something new has to come.
53:08 RIVER AS ARCHIVE
I love what you said, Cecilia, about the river is the one that calls the shots, earlier. You know, the river is also the one that remembers. So in our conversation over the weekend, I think Sarah, you said the River Akerselva is an archive. When things have been broken, to remember or reassemble might also be coming from the river.
I remember seeing a film so long ago where a Japanese scientist said that the molecule for water—I don’t know how to say it in English, H2O—it is an impossible combination that if science were to try to put together the molecules that compose water, it would be an impossibility. And so I thought, what a fantastic thing that water is, this liquid water, water has been found in intergalactic spaces all over the universe, but not liquid water. So what is it about this liquidity of this planet, water that exists for us to inquire that we have yet to learn? So this archive is really what the river is holding for us as future-knowing, that is what I felt when Sarah spoke of the Akerselva as an archive. It was very, very moving Sarah, to hear you and imagine you and your kids walking down that river.
Yes there are so many histories recorded of the river, of its industrial histories of contamination.
55:30 DIALECTS OF THE RED WING THRUSH
There’s a bird that lives on the Akerselva called the red wing thrush and it also thrives along the Akserselva. And it sings in dialect. So, you know, how Cecilia was saying that every part of the river is its own river and a different river, the red wing thrush, depending on where it is in the river, that the red wing thrush population will sing in one place, and in a different dialect in another place. And then the thrushes that live in between two dialect areas will be able to sing in both dialects.
It’s perfect to see the translator, the one that communicates. I think that’s the role of the thinker and the artist to be open to both sides. For example, in that piece that I was describing about the bridge, what I was feeling was that each one of us wants to be a bridge. You know, we want to be living bridges amongst those who hate each other, who ignore each other. We want that. So why don’t we let it be that to be the speaker, to be the singer, to be the thrush that can sing both ways. The way of each side, that’s the most beautiful image. I love these birds.
Wow. Yeah. I saw one today, we don’t speak the same language, but we had an eye to eye.
Yeah. You’d be surprised. You know, I remember being on an island Chiloé in the south of Chile where this very exquisite singer, a little bird that is also of course going extinct. I was so thrilled to hear the song, one of my walks up and I started to sing back to it. Can you believe, of course, I don’t know how to sing that song, that exclusive bird song, but whatever I did, the bird went silent, waited a moment. I went silent, and he sang me back. And for a long stretch, the bird would always be near and would continue to want to enter into that dialogue. So you should do the same with your red thrush. You never know what the thrush will think of your song.
58:27 UNUY, QUECHUA FOR WATER
Okay. This is part of the water sequence and the water sequence is based on the Quechua concept of unuy. Unuy means ‘water’ in Quechua but if you look at Quechua from the perspective of Spanish, it’s also Una, which means ‘water’. So this water sequence is composed based on the gaze of the language, the Spanish language into Quechua, and incorporating Quechua concepts distorted by Spanish.
59:32 WATER AND ITS THIRST ARE ONE (POEM)
[CECILIA SINGS/READS POEM]
63:29 THE WATER IN OUR EYES
Thank you for doing that. It was a very nice way to end, with the amniotic fluid and the thirst. In some other place that I’ve read, you write that the reason we see is because of the water in our eyes. I think there’s something there.
Yes, thank you so much. I have to say this: that to meet again with you, Elaine, and you Sarah, it brings back, I never had the chance to tell you how beautiful and meaningful it was for me to revive the seed project for you. It was really one of the highlights of my life at the time when I really was the most overlooked person and an artist. And now for the first time, I will have the chance to recreate the seed projects for Chile now, as an older woman, you know, so my memory of having done it with you, even for, for a moment, it was something that would live with me forever.
That was definitely one of the highlights of my life. So I’m happy to hear that there was some resonance that’s very special. There are so many seeds flying through the air in Oslo right now. My computer screen is covered in pollen. There are so many seeds. When you’re walking, it’s constantly like in your ears and in your head. So it felt nice to be biking here with seeds in my mouth to record with you today.
For me as well. So precious, really Sarah and Cecilia, incredible. You know, I work with seeds. So Cecilia your piece has stuck with me for five, six years. Yes. Thank you so much. It was really a gift to be assembling some of them. I remember you were on the computer, we were doing it on Skype and you were saying, no, do this and how does that look? And so that was a real honor to assemble and pick the seeds in Denmark. Really, really beautiful. I’m so happy to hear you will do it in Chile.
Yes. I mean, look around, my last big exhibition in Chile in a solo exhibition, in a museum was in 1971. So for all this time, I have been completely overlooked, marginalized in Chile by the art scene. And now all of a sudden, you know, because of all the things that are happening with my work outside of Chile, it’s like, “oh, Cecilia exists after all”. It’s just very sad because of the colonized mind at work, you know. But on the other hand, I’m still alive. I mean, how many women are never acknowledged, you know, or they’re acknowledged when they’re 90. I’m lucky that I’m 70. So I may still have some strength left.
Like seeds that are dormant but as you said, it’s an awakening. It’s an amazing time in Chile.
It is. It is, it is. One thing that I wanted to say, and I forgot, is that the great fighter for the rights of water was elected as Governor in the province of Valparaiso, which was the most badly hit by the privatization of water. In this election for constituents to write the constitution and also for governors, something extraordinary happened which is, that Rodrigo Mundaca who has been one of the great champions and leaders in the fight against the privatization of water was elected governor of the provincial Valparaiso. So this is a huge turnaround to have for the first time a governor that cares for people and water. And the well being of both in conjunction. It is really something to look forward to.
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Elaine. I send my love to both of you.
Thank you for listening to us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan and I had the great pleasure and honor of hosting this conversation between two friends, poet and artist Cecilia Vicuna in Chile and New York, and art historian Sarah Lookofsky in Oslo, on May 30 and June 3rd of 2021.
This episode was produced collaboratively with Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Genevieve Pfeiffer, and Elaine Gan.
You can find out more about our speakers and our lab, or listen to other episodes and access transcripts at our website https://multispeciesworldbuilding.com
You can follow us on twitter and Instagram: @multispeciespod
or you can support us by simply subscribing to this podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify or other major platforms.
We are extremely grateful to the Green Grants Program at New York University, the Center for Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and to the Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB
EPISODE 8: PAUL SADOWSKI
EXCERPTS FROM JOHN CAGE
So to introduce this: Cage would give performances where he was seated at a table with a desk lamp and he would read to the audience and there were different settings and things, procedures shall we say, or performances associated with it. One of them was a series of ninety stories which he read. And there were stories from his life. Some of them were mushroom stories, but, you know, there were all sorts of topics. Each of them, regardless of length, had to fill a one-minute interval. So the short stories would be very distended. And the wordier ones had to be very quickly read. And then in the background, David Tudor would be running around the studio, pounding on pianos, hitting gongs, using ratchets, all sorts of sounds that interrupted the reading that Cage was making.
These are excerpts from John Cage’s writing about mushrooms. So when he’s in the first person, it’s John Cage, who’s addressing.
“Let me show you my recent text. It is called “Mushroom Book.” I had for many years wanted to write a mushroom book, and I found that when I concentrated on mushrooms, it was not interesting. So what I did was to list all the things that interested me. So: mushroom stories, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ about mushrooms, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ – anything, remarks about life and art, or art and life, life and art, life and light, life, or art and art. By that I mean life becoming art, and I think of Fuller.”
“I think that there must be found a kind of common denominator between those who, like Mao, rely on power and those, like Fuller, who have a faith in the goodness of material, of material having. You see, Fuller like Mao believes in the goodness of human nature, and he thinks that what makes people bad is the fact that they do not have what they need. If they had what they needed, they would be less selfish than they are when they do not have what they need.
“I have noticed too with our mushroom society in New York that when the weather is dry and there are few mushrooms, the people are very secretive and selfish and they do not let anyone know they have found anything, they hunt very quickly.
I noticed too with myself that as I have what I need, I look at our large stores in New York and I do not see anything that I want.”
“Lois Long (the Lois Long who designs textiles), Christian Wolff, and I climbed Slide Mountain along with Guy Nearing and the Flemings, including Willie. All the way up and down the mountain we found nothing but Collybia platyphylla, so that I began to itch to visit a cemetery in Millerton, New York, where, in my mind’s eye, Pluteus cervinus was growing. By the time we got back to the cars, our knees were shaking with fatigue and the sun had gone down. Nevertheless, I managed to persuade Lois Long and Christian Wolff to drive over to Millerton. It meant an extra hundred miles. We arrived at the cemetery at midnight. I took a flashlight out of the glove compartment, got out, and first hastily and then carefully examined all the stumps and the ground around them. There wasn’t a single mushroom growing. Going back to the car, I fully expected Lois Long and Christian Wolff to be exasperated. However, they were entranced. The aurora borealis, which neither of them had ever seen before, was playing in the northern sky.”
“‘Elizabeth, it is a beautiful day. Let us take a walk. Perhaps we will find some mushrooms. If we do, we shall pluck them and eat them.’ Betsy Zogbaum asked Marian Powys Grey whether she knew the difference between mushrooms and toadstools. ‘I think I do. But consider, my dear, how dull life would be without a little uncertainty in it.'”
06:00 PAUL SADOWSKI
My name is Paul Sadowski. I am an amateur mycologist and my day job is a music publisher. That activity is what brought me into contact with John Cage. And then John Cage brought me to mushrooms.
06:23 FIFTY-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF NY MYCOLOGICAL SOCIETY
In 2012, the New York Mycological Society was celebrating its 50-year anniversary, which was coincident with John Cage’s Centennary. So a committee was formed and I, Gary Lincoff and Pam Cray were members of this committee to plan an event that would appropriately celebrate the club and Cage. We came up with an idea to try to have a sort of mashup of mushroom and music. My thinking hinged on a project I had worked with as an undergraduate: a production of a piece that Cage wrote together with Lejaron Hiller at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana called HPSCHD, which is an abbreviation, if you will, of harpsichord. And this project, this piece, was composed of several sonic streams. There were four harpsichordists playing music from Mozart’s Dice Game pieces, which Cage had randomized in his way. There were films of NASA projects, all sorts of outer space stuff and rockets launching and stuff that basically covered every surface of the art gallery which held this project. There were I believe 64 channels of computer-generated sound that Lejaron Hiller had put together, literally beeps and bops and things. It was quite a cacophony. 32 slide projectors: these were projecting slides that Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg had put together. They’re sort of these fractal stained-glass things which were overlaid on all of the space footage from NASA.
So all of this was going on simultaneously for about two hours or so. People were milling around in the middle of this whole circus of stuff going on. So we thought it would be interesting to do that, an interesting formula to try to approximate. We ended up in a more or less proscenium space, so we were at the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.
We decided to, as the audio component or one of the audio components was to do a realization of a piece by John Cage called 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. This piece had been commissioned by Jann Wenner upon the move of Rolling Stone from San Francisco to New York City. So several pieces were commissioned at that time, and this was one of them. As I mentioned, I had a long association with Cage. I was his music copyist and I walked in one day and there was a Hagstrom map on his kitchen table or his dining room table, which had all of these triangles and different colors drawn upon it. And these triangles were triangulated locations. There were addresses that were chosen by chance operations, the I Ching throwing and stuff. The instructions for the piece are you go to the location and record what’s happening there. And then it’s played back. Three of them linked up as these so-called Waltzes.
So anyway, we did a realization of that piece as a 90-minute backdrop for the rest of the performance, which consisted of five readers who had chosen texts from Cage’s mushroom writings—so, the Mushroom Book and certain mushrooms stories from Indeterminacy and other things that appeared in his voluminous writings that Gary Lincoff had actually gone through pre-internet, you know, you couldn’t just search for things. He actually went through the books and extracted all of these stories and compiled them. So that provided the live element. And then Pam put together three ninety-minute films comprised of still photography of mushrooms, film clips, and videos. Some were interviews with long-time society members and we had a clip from a documentary of Cage hunting in Rockland County.
And so the evening went. Three of these films simultaneously happening. And behind the audience was the, the sounds that we had Emily Harris and I had collected. Instead of following the score that Cage had written, we put out the call to the society for people to give us specific locations where they have seen mushrooms growing within the five boroughs, letting that be the randomizing situation. And so for a couple of years, Emily and I went out and we’d record two minutes or something somewhere. Wonderful coincidences ensued, which was then mixed down and played behind the audience while the readers were reading and their eyes are filled with all of the images. So that was the piece, the 90-minute piece that we played before an audience of about 700 people.
13:06 CAGE AND MUSHROOMS AT THE NEW SCHOOL
Now, John Cage had studied music with Henry Cowell at the New School. I mean he studied previously with Arnold Schoenberg but in New York he took classes with Henry Cowell who was probably best remembered for applying the fist to the piano keys. Fistful chords on the piano. Anyway Cage had an association with the New School thereby, and was asked to teach a music class. And he said he would do so only if he could teach a class in mushrooms. He had some exposure to mycology and you know, he was the valedictorian of his high school class. He was a very, very studied, well-read person. He had the capacity for this kind of thing. And eventually he came to New York City, he was living downtown on the Lower East Side and then for one reason or another, he moved up to Stony Point where he lived for a time in a farmhouse that had a lot of people living there. It was a kind of an artist colony. He would go out and walk in the woods, the property as it’s known today adjoins Harriman State Park. So there were plentiful opportunities for wandering around the woods there and Cage found mushrooms. He came upon actually not a mushroom, but he either thought he found a Helebore, which is edible. And it turned out to be skunk cabbage or vice versa. I’m not sure, but everybody got sick and ended up in Nyack Hospital where the nurse told him, “If you’re going to fool around with this stuff. You should find somebody who knows what they’re doing.” And this woman knew about this person well-known in the area. He was actually himself a horticulturist. He had nurseries and so forth. He did a lot of work with rhododendrons. He did all kinds of grafting of exotic rhododendrons with native species and produced anyway, a lot of rhododendrons that were widely sought after and built himself a very good reputation in all things botanical. So she said, you should get to know this person, his name is Guy Nearing. So Guy Nearing and John formed an association. Guy Nearing was his teacher, in fact.
So, um, what happened? So this brings us now back to the New School. So Cage and Nearing actually were teaching the class. Of course, John Cage is the famous one so he gets the lion’s share of the credit, but Guy Nearing was very much a prominent figure in this class. He was the first naturalist at a new Wildlife Conservancy that was put together in the Palisades called the Greenbrook Sanctuary. It was formed as part of the Interstate Palis ades Commission. He laid out most of the trails that are there today, and he also did a survey of the fungi of the property. So, he was probably the most accomplished mycologist outside of the New York Botanical Garden in this area.
So Cage and Nearing taught this class and the class was basically a schedule, not unlike the New York Mycological Society is today, of field trips. For the most part, they were going out in the woods and collecting mushrooms and explaining them to people. So it turns out this class was an elective, and it was the least expensive class that the New School had to offer. So you had a lot of, let’s call them foul weather friends, you know, just people who took it so they could get a discount on trips to Europe and things like that. It’s like today, if you’re a student, you can get an Apple computer at a student rate. So that kind of held up in other commercial things. And so people took this class to get the commercial advantage of being a student officially enrolled. Anyway, this class was taught for a couple of years, I think. It became rather unwieldy as Cage put it in a letter to the society. He said it became rather like a parent with an adolescent. He said, you know, it was just too much responsibility for the leaders of the group and not enough responsibility taken by the members of the group. And so they decided to create a society with what they considered significant dues. You know, you had to have a little skin in the game. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, come and look for mushrooms with us.” And that’s how it started. And Laurette Shapiro was the first secretary. And in fact it was rather a threadbare administration. There were only two officers, one was a treasurer and one was the secretary. There was no president, no vice president. So it has always existed and still does to this day, exists as a kind of an anarchy in the best sense of the word. It is a group of people who look for mushrooms. That’s what it’s all about. It does do all things mushroomy and in terms of projects and directions and so forth, you basically volunteer to do something and the resources of the society are there to support the person in this project whenever it happens to be. And so it goes. It’s remained pretty decentralized, you know? And so it’s quite a marvelous group actually.
19:50 AUTOGRAPHY and FRIENDSHIP WITH CAGE
So, Cage and Nearing and three other people—I’m going to remember two of them, Esther Dam and Frank Ferrara and there’s a fifth one, but they were the founding members of the club. So they basically sustained the club. Eventually Cage, his career really took off at some point. And, probably around the time I started to work for him maybe a little before, he became very highly commissioned. And, so when I got out of college in 1973 is when I started working for him. I actually met him in during that HPSCHD program and then subsequently a year later, there was a production at BAM in what was then the Leperq space, which is now Joe’s Cafe. In the Leperq space, we did a production and cause I was in charge of these slides. Since I was involved with the slides, I was kind of shepherding those to his apartment and it was on the ride over the Brooklyn Bridge that we talked about my work at that point, which was working as what was known as an autographer. This is where my music career kind of took off. Autography is an artisanal practice of basically drawing music, rendering music to resemble printed music.
And so we discussed the work that lay ahead of him. He had a bunch of commissions, and that’s how we kinda got started as how I got started working for John. When you see printed sheet music— at least say prior to 1980—this music was engraved. There would be a metal plate and various dyes. So you’d have a dye with a note, an oval that would be the note. You would have an instrument of five tines, like a fork if you will, called a rostral–that would draw the staff’s lines. You would make an impression in the copper or bronze, I think copper sheets. And you would draw that rostral across those would be your staff lines, and then you would hammer the various notes into place. And then score the stems and the ligatures, and all of the other things that make up printed sheet music. So that’s how it was done way back when. But it also had been done by pen and ink. And that’s what I learned from an autographer by the name of Carlo Carnevale. His father worked for Verdi and his mother worked for Puccini. So, you know, it was a long line of this kind of fine handiwork. And I learned this craft from Carlo. That’s kind of how I came with that skill set to meet John Cage. And then I worked for him for about twenty years. And I worked till he died in 1992.
23:36 APARTMENT HOUSE 1776 and MUSHROOMS IN ALBANY
So this happened in probably 1975, I would say maybe August. We were working on one of his bicentennial commissions. It was called Apartment House 1776. And so this was a group of pieces that John would randomize some way or other, that would be performed by several ensembles that would represent the music that was extant in 1776. So there was a group of Moravian music. There was a string quartet. There was even music that featured Negro spirituals. There was American Indian. They were at the front of the stage and then behind them was the orchestra that was playing a whole other piece called Renga, which was derived from the drawings of Thoreau. So he kind of picked out little things and made visual scores of them. There were a lot of swoops and punctuations and, you know, kind of randomized music going on.
Anyway, that was the piece we were working on. So at the time I was living outside of Albany, which is where I grew up. And he came up to Albany to work on this piece. He was basically proofreading the material I had put together. It was a rainy rainy week for the most part. But Saturday came and the sun was out and he said, “we’re not going to work today. I want to go out.” He said, “take me someplace where there are old trees and lawns there aren’t too well mowed.” So I took him to a local cemetery, the Albany rural cemetery. And we drove around in the station wagon and we did some car foraging. So, you know, every now and then he’d stop and we’d get out of the car and we’d find mushrooms and put them in the basket. And so forth. By the end of the afternoon, we had gathered quite a lot and he basically focused on edible mushrooms. That afternoon it was not a mycological exploration. It was focusing on things that he was familiar with. And we went back to my apartment and he cooked everything up and we ate it all, each mushroom prepared a different way to accentuate its flavor. And then we washed down with some Montepulciano or something. Anyway. That was the big mycological adventure I had with Cage.
27:35 CAGE’S DEATH and HEALING
What actually brought me to mushrooms had to do with his death, which came rather suddenly. He had had a couple of minor strokes that didn’t do that much damage. But the big one came on August 12th of 1992 as he was making his dinner. That was the end of the line for John.
And so I was kind of left, bereaved. He was a friend at that point. He was a patron. So there was a big hole there and one of the little mushroomy things that did happen while he was alive, what came about… An incident: my father who likes mushrooms and decided he knew enough about mushrooms to go look without any experience or knowledge of it. And he did finally get sick from eating mushrooms and I decided I had to get him a field guide or something. Cause you know, he was just flying by the seat of the pants. He’d just see a mushroom and people often do this, they say, “Oh, that looks so good. Yeah, that looks delicious.” Which is foolhardy. You know, lots of people have made that mistake. So I asked John, “John, I want to get a book from my father.” And so, he made a couple of recommendations and one of them was the Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms which I bought. And I was reading through the preface and in that preface Gary Lincoff, the author, wrote about how he came to mushrooms and it was through John Cage! So there was this connection there.
And so August 12th, John died. And I, up to that point, I was starting to think about a hobby. Before that, as I mentioned it was a full-time job plus, and I was at a point I was working for John, but I also had other clients, and so I was working a lot. Too much and not getting out in the woods enough. And so I thought to have a hobby, which would get me out into the woods and also might, in the acquisition of Latin binomials, might keep my brain going in my dotage. And so a friend suggested I go to the New York Botanical Garden and take their beginning mushroom class up there in September, which was being taught by Gary Lincoff.
So that’s how it happened. And it turned out that Gary, over the next twenty years, and I became very good friends and, in fact, after he died, again I was kind of bereft and you know upset, and realized—it hit me even harder than Cage’s did because it was Gary that actually helped heal me from Cage’s loss.
31:03 GARY LINCOFF and MUSHROOMS IN FIVE DIMENSIONS
I guess the best way to talk about Gary is to talk about the club. So I joined the club. Now, this is in 1992. After the last day of class, Gary handed out an information sheet for people to introduce them to a way of going on with their mushroom activity. And the New York Mycological Society was listed as one of the resources. So, there was a phone number. There was no web page in 1992, very hard to find the New York Mycological Society. I have a feeling in a way that may have been a good thing because you had to be a hunter to find them, you know. I think that was a good thing!
But in any case, it was rather easy for me. I had a phone number and I talked to Wilbur Williams, the treasurer, and paid my dues and began going on walks with them. And it was an interesting group of people. And it was at the end of the season when I joined up. So it wasn’t until the 1993 season that we really got rolling. It was a smaller group at that point. And so there were a number of personalities that we became acquainted with, but all of whom or most of whom at least were very friendly, very free with their information, very interested in telling you whatever they knew about mushrooms. It remains really the best way to learn about mushrooms is to join a mushroom club because it’s very much an in-your-hand experience, you know. A mushroom in a photograph is really a two dimensional thing and you need to study mushrooms in really four dimensions or five dimensions. You need to know their length and width and depth three, their smell, and how they proceed in time, particularly with certain species. So it really is a much more complicated affair than looking at a photograph and comparing it to another photograph. That’s definitely not optimal. And that hands-on experience is something that you get, you know, on a trail with someone who knows about the mushroom. They’re going to tell you things that you aren’t likely to find in one place at any particular time.
So one of the people who was the go-to person in the club was Gary Lincoff, and he just had an encyclopedic knowledge of mushrooms. And so you not only learned the basics, you learned some of the subtleties. You learned the aspects of the habitat, the ecology, you know, the whole nine yards was what Gary would bring.
So those walks were precious. And we were like his acolytes. I mean, we’d roll up to our lunch place and we’d eat our food and then lay out our mushrooms. And Gary would go through, who knows hundreds of mushrooms and, go through at least 20 or 30 of them and give you a complete descriptive, really encyclopedia-type essay on each one. So he was invaluable. He was funny. Eugenia Bone, who wrote a book called Mycophilia featured Gary in large part. And she called him the “borscht belt mycologist” because he had an impeccable sense of comedic timing, very very very entertaining.
Over the years, one of the aspects of the New York Mycological Society that has been part of its structure is that we have our walks and then in the wintertime, there are lectures. So you have something to do during the so-called off-season. So Gary was the person who organized that and brought in people, but he always had at least one lecture, you know, when he would talk about things, always in a sort of off-beat way. It was never a dry lecture. There was just a little entertainment built into it, you know. That was his profession. He did mushrooms all the time. He taught botany as well. He was actually a first-rate botanist, in addition to a first-rate mycologist. He’s more well-known as a mycologist because that was his passion, but at the botanical garden, he educated thousands of botanists, you know, and he taught these intensive classes in botany.
I can tell you, he knew the botanical gardens so well, he could do it blind because he went through a period of blindness. He had hurt his back severely, and he was in so much pain, he was put on steroids. And the corticosteroids will cause a cataract to form on your eyes. And so he was telling me one night at dinner, he was like teaching these classes in botany. And he said, if it weren’t for the fact that I knew the garden so well, he said, I couldn’t see the tree, but he knew where it was and he could feel, and, you know, so he was a first-rate botanist. You don’t need me to testify to that, there are many people who have given that testimony. In any event, he was not just a good teacher and it wasn’t just his technical information he passed on, he was a real inspiration. He was one of those people who didn’t just talk the talk, he really walked the talk. I mean, he was very, very complete. It was a holistic kind of situation. So he inspired me to delve into microscopy and all of that.
37:43 EXPLORING GREENBROOK / PALISADES FUNGI
Greenbrook is an interesting place. It sits out there on the top of the Palisades kind of across from Yonkers is about five miles North of the George Washington Bridge. If you look at a map of the Palisades Parkway, you see it do this curious little loop around and there’s brass plaque at the site sanctuary saying that this was founded by the New Jersey Ladies Garden Club, something like that. And you think of a bunch of Ms. Marples running around working on flowers and whatnot. This was probably a pretty powerful formidable group of women. And so it was built and there’s a fence around it. It’s a fenced in property and this made it very attractive for women to go to because you could feel safe there, and you still have to unlock a lock to get in, you know, your membership card is key.
So Lynn had been leading these walks and I had gone on a few with her. And was introduced to Lynn through the then-naturalist, a woman by the name of Nancy Slovic. Sadly Lynn left us in 2001. After her passing, Nancy asked me if I could take over the walks. I could not have even entertained the thought of doing that if I hadn’t hung out with Gary so much, because he not only taught you about mushrooms, but he taught you about teaching. I had always done a little bit of teaching, but I felt better prepared through my association with Gary. So I started doing these walks annually and after a time she said, “you know, Paul, there’s a project that I have in mind”. And I said, “what’s that?” She said, “well, there was Guy Nearing originally here and he had done a fungal survey. There’s a list.” And she said, “I had Gary go through the list so he’s updated the nomenclature, but I thought it might be interesting for us to do a new survey of the property to compare to the 1949 list.”
The scientific method if you will, of a mycologist is to make collections and to describe them. To classify them and kind of organize them. In the classification, you end up organizing them according to habitat and you know what plants they’re associated with. Mushrooms, probably everybody knows by now have relationships with plants through their root systems. So making a list is just like what mycologists and botanists do. It really is the scaffolding of the profession. It provides one with the information that one needs to come to a greater understanding of the place of fungi in the world, how they interact with our world, how we interact with them and so forth. So that’s how it works.
And so Guy made a list of the mushrooms. I mean, that’s the first, most elemental part of it. What would grow out of that eventually would be a book with descriptions and, you know, supporting literature and photography and so forth.
42:06 NANCY SAID, LET’S DO THIS PROJECT
Nancy said, let’s do this project. And she finally nagged me enough and I said, okay. And we set off on this scientific adventure. Up to this point, I was basically pot hunting, meaning we were hunting for food. So I was kind of an itinerant, going to places where I would find morels in the spring and then there would usually be a break till the summer season started up. And then we would go looking for, you know, Lactarius in the hot months of July and the Black Trumpets and the Chanterelles. And you go to the places that are good habitats for those things. So, you know, you’re off to Vermont in August, you’re in Oak woods in July, you’re under beech trees in August. So you go where the trees are, where you’re likely to find the mushroom that you want to put into your dinner that night. And that’s kind of how mushrooming was for me.
Now, there are a lot of other mushrooms. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of species, the fleshy mushrooms, you know. We’ll put them in the thousands of species in our area, most of which we ignore because we’re kind of laser-focused on Chanterelles. As soon as you see a Chanterelle, you go for it and you spend your time there to pick every last one. Then you go looking for another patch of yellow in the woods and ignore everything else in between, right?
A survey is a whole other exploration. And so that’s really when I grew into whatever level of mycology I’ve found myself in today. So then I was no longer kicking Russulas. I was picking them and trying to figure out what they were, and in order to do that, you needed to get the microscope out. That’s when I was now confronted with the polypores, which are something we generally ignore unless they’re a Chicken of the Woods or a Hen of the Woods. We were largely ignoring those because I didn’t really have much use for them, but now there was a lot there to study. So in fact, I ended up going to Maine to study with Tom Volk at Eagle Hill, which is a wonderful summer school, if you will, that’s up in Steuben, Maine, a little North of Acadia. It’s a great place and beautiful, and it’s intensive every day you’re in the classroom and then in the field. It’s like eight hours a day and I would spend the evenings just kind of poring over things and trying to figure them out. Microscopes. You brought literature with you and you could just do a total zone in on polypores.
Those are the years 2007/2008 that the New York Mycological Society and members of the Greenbrook Association — it’s called the Palisades Nature Association actually — would get together on weekends to make collections of fungi that we found in Greenbrook. One of the things I neglected to say was that I did say it was a conservancy. One of the rules that you must abide by is you don’t pick anything. So we were allowed to pick mushrooms to do this work. The project was advised basically by Nancy who was a first-rate naturalist who studied all things botanical and otherwise, very familiar with all the flora and fauna of the area. She set up the protocols that we followed. So, we accessioned everything. We had people following a protocol that included in situ photography. Then we would pick the collection. Then that would be brought to a staging place where we would then do studio photography as best we could. And then everything was labeled with its location and the surrounding trees and so forth. It was in itself for the people who participated, it was a great way to learn about how to do this kind of work.
For me, I was then confronted with trying to identify these mushrooms that I had, many of which I had no idea what their names were. And so NYMS and those Monday night meetings were invaluable because we have some really very, very well informed people in the club who could look at something and say, Oh, that’s that. That’s that. That’s that.
47:43 MUSHROOMS AND RAIN
We did this work every Saturday or Sunday for two years. And in its broad outlines, it was quite interesting. Overall, we made 1,400 collections. The summer of 2007 was a rather thunderstormy summer. So you’d have these fronts coming through, deluge, then cool breezy air behind the front that would dry everything out. That summer, we found a little over 400 collections. The next year was filled with rain events, which are more like the one we’re having today and yesterday. These low pressure systems that would come through and you’d have a several-day rain event, not particularly deluge-full, but rainy, consistent rain. And that year we found over a thousand, so we more than doubled our collecting. On that point alone, it was instructive just to show how, what the interplay of hydration and fungi can result in. In between those two summers, I went up in the winter and that’s when I first started looking at mushrooms in the winter time and I was surprised by what I found. Particularly looking at the polypores, which are rather durable, but we find all sorts of things like the split-gill mushroom, the Schizophyllum commune, oysters, which grow all year round, and other species, which are very cold-tolerant, you know. The Enoki, for example.
That is really where we kind of got our feet wet. Gary said, well, I think you should make a presentation to the society on the work that you do. You know, so I did this thing and it had everything but the kitchen sink in it but you know, you have to start somewhere. So Gary was in so many ways, he taught me about mushrooms, but he also led me into other activities, until eventually, you know, he kindly suggested that I take over his classes at the botanical gardens. So I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years since he left us.
50:51 A MUSHROOM THAT WAS OUT OF PLACE
One of the things to illustrate what seemed anomalous to me at the time was this mushroom I found. It was a polypore. A polypore is a durable mushroom that we generally find growing on wood. And when I say durable mushroom to differentiate it from the more evanescent ones we find. So, your typical fleshy mushroom that you find — be it a Chanterelle or a Morel or whatever you find growing with a cap and a stem as a rule — are mushrooms that are destined to be basically rotten in a couple of weeks. So they come up, they produce spores, and then they demise one way or other. The polypores will grow more — they have a much more complicated cellular structure, which will ensure their continual presence over a short or even long period of time, say within a season or perennially, that will have periods of production of spores and senescence, where they’re basically not producing. So you have a period where they’re growing and producing spores then say it dries out. Then rain comes for a longer period of time during which time they then begin to grow more of these spore-producing cells and produce spores. And so they go back and forth between these two states. But they may be around for, as I said, a season, there are annuals. And then there are these polypores that grow for many years. Year after year, they add a new layer of spore-producing cells. So anyway, these are known as the polypores.
I found these polypores in November. Some of them were just starting to form and other older ones had been out for awhile. I took them home and I keyed them out in a book I had on polypores. So when I say I keyed them out, I used a book that contains many descriptions of many fungi. You have this structure at the beginning of a chapter or the book, or both places that will lead you to a particular identification or a genus or a species. So it’s a stepwise list that you work your way through to lead you to a possible solution. So I did this, I went through the key with this mushroom that I had found, and it turned out it keyed out beautifully to a mushroom described in the book or named in the book as Polyporus elegans. The only problem with it: it was a southern species. It was not a northern species, and we’re technically speaking a northern species. So, I put the name on it because it seemed to fit and kind of left the mystery of “why is it here” for another day.
The other day came, some years later when Gary was teaching a class for the Connecticut Westchester Mycological Association known as COMA, in a class that COMA ran called Mushroom University. Gary was teaching a series of classes, ten or something on Saturday mornings, on polypores. And so he came out and he named this mushroom and I said, Gary, I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something else. And it turned out into a long exploration. We ended up consulting Tom Volk and others, and it turned out it was this southern species. And it’s all throughout the North now, from the Midwest where Tom is out there in Wisconsin all the way through. It’s now known as Tramedes gibosa. So that seems to indicate to me — I don’t think it’s good science to conclude that this is somehow indicating global warming or climate change, but it could be, you know. It might be a contribution to that point of view.
56:26 GEOLOGY MATTERS
But something else that’s happened. Greenbrook is situated on the Palisades escarpment. Now it’s an interesting bit of geology going on there. When lava flows into cracks in sedimentary rock, they form either sills or dikes. Dikes are vertical. Sills are horizontal. On my many rides between my home base, which was up around Albany in New York on the train, I would look across the Hudson and see these columns. There’s a colonnade of rocks, which are the Palisades and I always assumed they were dikes, because they’re vertical. But in fact, the Palisades are a very thick sill of diabase. That is, lava that has insinuated itself between layers of sandstone. And the columns that you see are actually like a honeycombed kind of crystallization of this sill. The sill kind of is at a very acute angle. So it’s maybe say 12 degrees, you know. So it’s almost horizontal, but it’s just a little bit off. But what you see at the Hudson River is like the shearing off of this sheet of lava that remains today. So kind of interesting. I have to say that in studying papers on certain mushrooms, you know, when you do this sort of thing, you spend your time in the library. There was one paper that really caught my attention by a Scottish mycologist working in England by the name of Roy Watling. And I think this might’ve been his master’s thesis, I’m not sure. But looking at the work, it talked about the mushrooms that he found in this locality, but he really introduced the whole thing with a study of its geology. So geology is a determinant factor in all kinds of habitat that grow there and you have to consider the various geological things that have happened.
So you have Greenbrook, as I said, sitting on top of this diabase sill. And you have to remember that maybe 10,000 years ago, this had been a glacier. The glaciers receded and basically scraped this sill off clean. The sandstone that was on top of it — remember the sill is in interstices between two layers of sandstone, and I won’t go into the story of how the sand got there, because that’s a whole other lecture. But there we were, and the sandstone had been just wiped clean off of this diabase. And so whatever the succession of probably lichens and mosses and fungi, and then vascular plants, it is that the plants that have brought the organic soil to the top of the Palisades. And indeed, because of the structure of the Greenbook Sanctuary, you can see this very clearly. As you get to the East where the face of the Palisades is, it’s very exposed and rocky. It’s rather bowl-shaped. In the center of Greenbrook, there’s a pond. And one of the naturalists there who told me he was in the pond for some reason, doing something in his waders. And he said, it’s only about maybe two and a half feet deep of mud before you’re on rock again. It’s interesting to consider in terms of the fragility, if you will, almost the evanescence in geological terms of the organic stuff that is, we call soil that is now present there in Greenbrook and everywhere around here that has a rocky substrate. So this was, I thought, a very interesting aspect of it. And it was a consideration that I got from Roy Watling to look at the geological underpinnings of a situation.
In the geological scheme, you had the glaciation, then the recession of the glaciers, then you had the slow colonization of the rock face by the succession of organisms. Maybe three or 400 years ago, it was probably mostly Eastern hemlock. That was the dominant tree in our area that has receded northward over the last 25, 30 years. You had these beautiful stands of Eastern hemlock and then the lengthening winters and the milding of the winters has made the presence of the Woolly adelgid more possible. You see this out West with the oak borers that can now survive the winters because it’s warmer. These are insects that are just killing off vast stands of trees. You know, they’re like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a black and white sort of explanation.
1:02:33 DIFFERENT KINDS OF ROCKS
So that experience at Greenbrook really opened my eyes up a lot to not only different considerations of the mushroom species that we would be looking at, but also, you know, the geological underpinnings. We live in a really interesting geological area here in New York City area because we have that sill that is the sandstone bed. Across the Hudson, you have a tongue of the Appalachians that comes down. So it’s a completely different kind of rock. You have the mica schist and so forth. If you look at say Inwood Hill and Palisades, on the face of it, they look more or less the same. You have these sheer cliffs there basically, but they are different geological formations.
The mainland burroughs — so you have the Bronx is basically the mainland — is geologically very different from the islands. Manhattan for all intents and purposes is part of the mainland. But the other boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, are on Long Island. And Staten Island is by itself out there in the harbor. Long Island itself is a terminal moraine that delimits the progress of the glaciers and where the glaciers dropped a lot of sediment, which is the sand that forms the beaches and so forth of Long Island and up through Cape Cod, Nantucket, and so forth. So we see very similar conditions there but a very different geology. You know, if you’re in Inwood or you’re up in Van Cortlandt Park, the soils aren’t so sandy, as those that you find out in Staten Island where we spend a lot of time. Out there, we see sinkholes, kettle ponds, and then as you’re out towards the beach, it’s just a whole different kind of environment out there. And the mushrooms are very different and the trees are very different. Your adventures into the various parks bring different kinds of mushrooms that you wouldn’t be finding in the Catskills, for example, you know, just a whole different kind of mycological flora.
As John Cage said, you know, the mushrooms are continually surprising.
THANK YOU for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
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Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #7, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa.
[Green reading from her new book “Rock | Water | Life”]
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic.
I’m Lesley Green, I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and I’m also director of Environmental Humanities South, which is a collective of social scientists and humanists and troublemakers (laughs), who like to do research that matters and that matters politically. And a lot of what we do is tackle neoliberal assumptions about climate change and urban metabolism, urban ecologies. We are people who really try to work at the interstices, the mud between solid and liquid and the mist between liquid and gas. You know, those are the spaces that we really inhabit. And those are often the kinds of spaces that are not inhabited neatly or easily by environmental management sciences. Not that they’re not part of environmental sciences, but not part of environmental management sciences. And that’s a key distinction to make in the work that we do here.
So, I was delighted recently when I was meeting with a city official and he said to me I was, “I was a little cautious of meeting with you.” I said, why is that? He said, “Well, your reputation in the city is feisty!” (laughs)
That left me roaring with laughter! But, uh, you know, I did read them seven paragraphs from the constitution the last time I met with them. All of which had to do with freedom of information. (laughs).
04:34 TEACHING THE ANTHROPOCENE
There’s two courses I teach that I absolutely love.
The first is “Researching the Anthropocene”, which I’ve taught since 2015. And that’s been a project of thinking with, and introducing students from the global South, mainly Africa to what it means to think in and of, and with this era that some call the “Anthropocene” and that’s been absolutely fascinating. And it’s been a really interesting project to be teaching the theory, which largely comes from the global North. You know, most Anthropocene writing has come from the global North. And “What does that mean in Africa?” is the question that we’ve been thinking through and, you know, having taught this class now for six years in a row it’s been just fascinating because at this point, we have students in that class from fifteen different African countries.
And that’s been just wonderful and at the same time, really sobering, which is a light word to use. I could use a much stronger word to think about the effects of this Anthropocene in Africa, and what to do about it, and the short fallings of the kinds of climate sciences as environmental management sciences formulated within a neoliberal economy, and the kinds of difficulties that they make. So, all of our students are writing as if they would like to make some kind of policy intervention. That’s evolved, that wasn’t what we started out trying to do.
The more we’ve done that, the more we began to realize that to do policy intervention work as a researcher is about paradigm shift—and what that paradigm shift is and what it might be is the core of what we do. It’s not easy-going because a lot of colleagues in the environmental management sciences are not willing to engage. I was told recently by one that my H-index was too low for him to speak to me about racism in the sciences (laughs). So, he sent back to me and said, “Your H-index is such and such, I’m not prepared to have this discussion with you.” So, the H index has become a big match in the family. We discuss everything, prior to any discussion, we interrogate our respective H-indexes! (laughs) So, yeah, you know, you’ve got to learn to laugh a lot, and paradigm shift work is not easy. But it is a whole lot of fun because we can laugh, and we don’t have to take seriously the language of neoliberal thinking in the environmental management sciences. And I think that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun.
But at the same time, it’s really sobering to hear what our graduate students are experiencing and addressing in the areas where they, for the most part have grown up, and working in the languages, that for the most part, is their first languages and realizing the extents to which climate change is affecting Africa, not just as a climate event, but as an event of capitalism. That’s the key.
08:12 TEACHING SCIENCE, NATURE, DEMOCRACY
The second is a graduate course called “Science, Nature, Democracy”, in which we work with students around case studies of policy change or situations where science is really important in governance. Now, you in the US are busy dealing with COVID and the science of COVID, in Kansas, you’re dealing with creation science. Well, you know, a couple of years ago, we dealt with a president who was not prepared to accept virus science, you know, virology, who argued that HIV was a syndrome, not a virus. And of course, we had all those struggles around HIV and AIDS treatments. So fortunately, that, through a huge political struggle, was defeated. But at the same time, there was a huge backlash because that introduction to science being questioned within parliament was really about a very poorly formulated intervention in the name of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge studies, which really saw and situated science as a matter of identity and while matters of identity might have a great deal to do with how you do your science and what questions you choose. Your identity doesn’t change, whether you’re dealing with a virus or a syndrome, you know, if there’s a virus you’re dealing with a virus, and it needs to be treated as such. But because indigenous knowledge got such a bad rep through that, it fomented this most extraordinary reaction from a very hardline hardcore science, what I would call a scientistic approach as opposed to a scientific approach, you know, where scientistic approaches, ironically, do precisely what they criticize the indigenous knowledge folks of doing, which is creating an identity-based politics.
So, you know, scientism, by contrast to science, is what I would situate as a very authoritarian approach to doing science. The assumption that there is only one question that can only be answered in one way—and that is it, without understanding that the context of your questions determines the answers that you’re going to get. The objects that you look for determine the numbers that you get. And the question is always, are you looking for the right things, in what you’re looking at, and, you know, what might matter to one person and be the definitive concern, would not be that of much of a concern to another person. And so, you can get very different scientific pictures of the same situation. And when that’s not in discussion, you have a real problem in democracy because you end up having people accusing one another of doing facts versus values. Before you know it, you’re in the old land of objectivity versus subjectivity, which is an unwinnable argument on those terms.
So, the course “Science, Nature, Democracy” is about teaching graduates to look at contests and conflicts over sciences in democratic spaces. And to begin to understand that the concerns shape the questions, and once you understand what the concerns are, you can understand why particular kinds of questions are being asked. And then you’ve got a hope of actually being able to mediate and understand that what matters to a fisher is not necessarily what matters to a scientist, and it can be that the most extraordinary range of things. What matters to a scientist, for example, might be a thirty- to fifty-year timeframe. What matters to the official might be spending their budget within a twelve-month cycle. The political masters might be thinking in a five-year electoral cycle. And, you know, they have these concerns, which are not tabled. And so, you often end up talking about very different things, using the same language. You might be talking about water or fish, but your concerns and your questions and your agenda is very, very different.
The work of Isabelle Stengers and the work of Bruno Latour have been particularly important in that. But also, the work of Aimé Cesaire, postcolonial thinker, who was the high school teacher of Frantz Fanon, and the kind of work that had to be done to challenge a particular version of the real, that the early postcolonial thinkers had to do, and which in many senses we’re up against right now, because we have what I would call “colonialism mark two,” which is a global neoliberal discourse and the financialization of the natural world.
“Science, Nature, Democracy” is a course where students really have to address very particular challenges of science and decision-making in relation to science and to understand how conflicts come about in the name of science and how to try to resolve them without getting into the familiar terrain of I’m speaking the truth, and you’re not, or the alternative that, which is that your identity makes your version untrue, which is where things get stuck in the Indigenous knowledge versus science dichotomy.
14:07 HISTORY OF DAMS, BODIES, LAWS
In this particular historical moment, I think we have come full circle. In the 1650s, when the Dutch settled here in Cape Town to create a refreshment station. It was in the aftermath of many decades, if not a century of battles between seafarers and local people. You know, we have a history of battles going on and their first intervention…in fact, their first plan, which was drafted in the 1630s was to create a dam—a walled dam. That would be the place at which the barrels would be filled for the passing ships. But the issue with the dam is that when water is not being cleaned by the reeds and the natural ecosystem, when the water’s not filtering, when you take water out of its filtering system, what you have to replace that with is law and policing and soldiers. And in order to get the water out of a dam, unless you’ve got a very careful infrastructure, which they did not plan for, you have to be able to roll barrels up and down, in this case some stairs and who was going to roll those barrels. But the drawing that was created by the Dutch was that of a black body rolling a barrel up and down. So, in order to get water out of this structure that they were going to build from the very beginning, they were going to rely on law and labor and policing and cement, you know, creating this hard boundary between liquid and solid to govern the water that they wanted to extract, which of course was a shocking thing to the local people, the Kwe.
South Africa is a very, very dry country. And the Western Cape, this place where I live, have got a number of rivers and a number of lakes. So, it’s a tiny corner of the country that’s very green and very wet. And so, to waste water is a shocking thing. In order to extract you needed a global company. So, the Dutch East India Company, so you had a global multinational acquiring water by building infrastructure to extract in a manner that was going to drive out local people. And indeed, what they had built was not in the end, that particular dam, what they built was a fort—and the fort was around a well.
What we have here at the moment is a struggle with global multinational companies who are supposedly assisting the municipalities to design and manage utilities like water utilities. And you have a neoliberal government, which is very, you know, sometimes I feel like the Western Cape is run by the Republicans. It’s the equivalent kind of politics. There’s a willingness to cover over realities using anything from fake advertising, social media to spin doctoring companies because you’ve got an oligarchy that is driving up costs of water hugely.
And so, since the drought, climate change—since our drought in 2018, where Cape Town was almost, the line went, the first major city in the world to run out of water. You know, there’ve been huge infrastructure bills taken up by international, multinational corporates, which means the costs of water have become prohibitive. And so, there’s this burgeoning struggle over the increasing costs of water. I know of — through the research that I’m doing — fourteen places in the city, and eleven of those, where communities have either led criminal charges against the city, or have got a court case, you know, civil suit for environmental damage. So, there’s the most extraordinary pollution of water bodies that comes from these wastewater treatment plants, where they discharge water into the rivers. So, they’re poisoning the rivers, which, at every level, is problematic, from the health to ecosystems, to ocean health, and algal blooms.
One of the places around which the struggle has really come to the fore is around the desalination plants, because desalination plants were brought in to produce water very, very quickly against the advice of the World Bank, which said, do not build small projects. So, the desalination plants were built against economic advice and against scientific advice because they were built on one side of the city, very close to a marine sewer outfall, which puts between forty and fifty megaliters of untreated sewage into the ocean every day. And on the other side of the ocean, you’ve got multiple wastewater treatment plants feeding into rivers, which then go into the ocean, causing gradual, but significant increase in algal blooms. So, you know, those projects pushed water prices up significantly. They were hugely expensive. And they didn’t actually succeed because there were so many periods where the desalination plants were not able to work, and they were closed at one point for two whole months in the summer because that was when the algal bloom was most intense. And so, if you look at the figures of the outputs, the actual figures of the output are quite low compared to what they were expected to output. So those were, um, the one that is subject to litigation, and the other two closed a month early, and a whole lot of spin doctoring went around that.
20:19 CAPITALISM AND CLIMATE CHANGE
This whole process is teaching me a huge amount about the relationship between capital, infrastructure, and climate change and the new forms of extractivism, which are very much in the ascent. And I think that, you know, much as the Dutch sent the Dutch East India company, an international company, to colonize the Cape to get its water, so we’re up against a whole lot of international companies of various descriptions that are involved in the water trade. And that water trade is now listed on the global stock exchange. And whereas for the previous couple of years, you’ve been able to invest in water funds, now as of September this year  water is now listed as a commodity on the stock exchange. So, we’re entering a very, very different era. And a great deal of that has to do with disaster capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene.
One of the major interventions that we are really trying to make in the research that we do is to put the case that climate change is not the only thing we need to be attending to. If we’re dealing with the Anthropocene, we need to be dealing with capitalism and extractivism, that is putting matter out of place of all kinds, not just carbon, but our nitrogen cycle is out of whack. You know, sewage is full of nitrogens, which are like fertilizers and they do extraordinary things to different species. I mean, the algal blooms are a case in point. Many of these algal blooms, not all of them, but many of them are fantastic little creatures that have the characteristics of both a plant and an animal, in the sense that they can both ingest microbes and make a meal of the bacteria and viruses that are around, and they can photosynthesize. So, they can do both in terms of securing nutrition. So, if you put them in a situation where there’s sewage, they go crazy because they’ve got all the microbes they could possibly want to eat, and you’re giving them the nitrogen, which comes from urine, which acts like a fertilizer. And they bloom. So, an algal bloom that should be quite small then can get completely out of hand. So, you know, in the last four or five decades, Cape Town has really been struggling with increased algal blooms.
The scientific study of the oceans that is done in the area tends not to want to look at the circulation of nitrogens. You know, they want to look at social ecological systems, which is such a problematic concept, you know, empirically, where is the system? You know, there isn’t a social ecological system that you can work with. So, what the desalination situation has taught us is that climate change closes the loop in absolutely unexpected ways, because the idea that you can have a pipe going to sea, that’s going to carry the sewage, you know, the intestinal wastes and pharmaceutical wastes and factory wastes and shop floor wastes of billions of people. And that pipe goes to a place where it just disperses is ludicrous because we live on this planet and matter circulates, I mean, Lucretius spoke about this in ancient Rome, right?
We have a science that is attending to objects, not to relations. I mean, that’s a very broad statement, but the focus has been on what you can count. And so, the paradigm shift that we need to be making, and that I think really can and should come from much closer working relationship between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences has to do with saying, hold on a minute, we’ve been so focused on counting objects, um, in the kind of work that we do, in the kinds of sciences that are, that have been done, we’ve been so focused on counting objects.
What about the relationships?
25:17 WE ARE NOT EXTRATERRESTRIALS!
The idea that you can put a pipe in an ocean and disperse of sewage, and it’s not going to come back to you, or anyone is what I would call an extraterrestrial proposition. It is managing a city as if you’re an extraterrestrial. We’re not extraterrestrials. So, you know, along with Bruno Latour and others, you know, we need a paradigm shift that is about coming home onto this earth and living in this earth and part of its systems. And yet our cities for the most part have been designed as if we are extraterrestrials, that we can live and our wastes, whether they’re plastic wastes or intestinal wastes, are just going to go somewhere that won’t bother us. But, you know, the Anthropocene is about recognizing that that is not the case and recognizing that, “Oh my goodness, the plastic waste that I throw out, you know, the plastic straw that I use for three minutes to get liquid, twenty centimeters from a cup, to my mouth has got a geological lifespan of, you know, 10,000 years or more. I don’t know what it is, but you know, it’s going to be around for 10,000 years.” You know, we need to be thinking about these kinds of temporalities, these kinds of relationships.
26:44 RELATIONSHIPS, TEMPORALITIES, PROCESSES
Thinking relationally means we start to introduce time and processes, geological processes in particular, to our thinking about policy and our thinking about society. Now, you know, I’ve spoken a lot about scientists, but I think social scientists for the most part are as guilty of this, you know, writing about society as if we have no need to think about water, as if we have no need to think about nitrogen or carbon. And you know, the exciting thing about working in the Environmental Humanities is there are so many wonderful scholars who are thinking about precisely those things. Let’s look at the flows. Let’s look at the circulations, let’s look at the material relations that arise from social interactions. And that changes the game completely.
And I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear colleague who’s a chemist. And we were talking about teaching science to first years. And he said, “Well, you know, when I teach science to first years, I show them, there’s a website where you have a sliding scale from the smallest known particle of the universe, right through to the scale of the known universe, right? And there’s a sliding thing and it starts with the figure of a human and that human of course is a man. So, it starts with the figure of a man. And then you can slide down one side into the tiniest particle, and you can slide up to the biggest scale of the known universe. And he presents that to his science students and says, “That’s what we study. We study anything from that scale to that scale, but nowhere in that is relations.”
And so, you know, right from the get go, science is not thinking about relationships and relationalities. And I think that’s where it becomes very, very exciting to start to work with Environmental Humanities and bring them into dialogue with some of the postcolonial thinkers like Aimé Cesaire, whose dictum was, “colonization is thingification.” You know, colonization is the absence of the relation. Everything becomes treated as an object and as an extractable.
29:54 THINGS HAVE HISTORIES, ONTOLOGIES, AND POLITICS
I think that governance and the beautiful literature on ontologies are really important to bring together. I think that’s one of the fields of really useful intervention that I can see environmental humanities graduates taking a lead, and as they graduate, and go into worlds of consultancy or professional research, to be able to show a scholar who is set in a particular way, that your way of thinking about pipes isn’t neutral and doesn’t come from nowhere. But it has a particular history to it. The pipe has a particular history, and it has a particular way of thinking about a world, you know, and to be able to show a governing official who believes that they are operating in the name of neutrality because they use the language of neoliberalism. To be able to show that official, that there’s, the ideas that they’re thinking with are not neutral, that they have a history and that they come from somewhere. That is critical and very, very generative because at the moment, at which you can equip somebody to recognize that this idea of neutrality, this idea of universal truth, is part of the problem. And that just empirically, what you see blocks your sight. You’re not able to see past what blinds, that’s the basis of the idea of occults and astronomy. When the moon occults Venus, you can’t see. So, to occult means that what you’re seeing prevents you quite literally from seeing what’s behind it.
One of my greatest hopes is that the work of the environmental humanities, globally, will be able to shift the knowledge frames that governing officials bring, because those are political and cosmological in themselves, as Isabelle Stengers has written so beautifully about cosmopolitics. So, to be able to say to an engineer: Hold on a minute, you want to use cement, which has a 50-year lifespan to hold fracking liquids in one place and prevent them from mixing with an aquifer in perpetuity? Well, you know, that cement only is viable for 50 years before it needs to be replaced. And I know that, so what’s wrong with this picture? You know, can you see that you have an unreasonable faith in cement? And so, does an environmental regulator who’s making laws for regulating on the basis of, of thickness of cement or thickness of pipe or whatever, without thinking of, of the timeframe of permanence.
And so to be able to point out to attorneys or, you know, through a drafting law, there’s a belief system at work here. There’s a cosmological fiction in your faith in cement. There’s a cosmological fiction in your assumption that the pipe goes nowhere. You know, these are moments I think of tremendous power because that’s when people can really stop in their tracks and think, and, you know, learning to think is key. The route to that is through the imagination and laughter.
I think that the risk with some of the ontological debates is that they risk becoming culture mark two. So, Derrida’s idea of hauntologies becomes interesting for that reason. You know, what, what histories haunt ideas, what histories haunt ways of thinking. It also introduces a temporal dimension and because the moment at which ontologies become culturalism mark two, we are in deep trouble. You know, then we’re back in all the old traps.
33:54 CULTURALISM AT THE CORE OF APARTHEID
Culturalism is something that in South Africa we had to really grapple with in the 1980s when I was a graduate student and 1990s, in my defense, I was actually still a graduate student in the 1990s, not only in the 80s! But anyway, in apartheid South Africa, the worldview that was given was that apartheid is benign. That it’s for the good of people. And that it’s godly, you know, this is the sort of stuff I grew up with as a white South African kid, it’s godly, it’s what God wants. You know, Noah’s sons, you know, Shem and Ham or however that story goes with, you know, that God wants whites to be separated from Blacks, you know, so that was kind of my early years. And then, encountering Newsweek at the dentist, you begin to realize that actually there’s another way to see the world! Why are these people so opposed to us? What have we done wrong? Can’t they see that we’re right? You know, and then, you know, slowly, through reading King Lear, beginning to realize that there’s political ways of seeing the world, there’s realities, there’s madness, there’s insanity, there’s sorcery.
I spent my first year at the University of Port Elizabeth, which was one of the bastions of apartheid. It was one of apartheid’s great universities. Remember the 20-story building in the middle of a nature reserve? You know, you were not allowed to talk politics if you spoke anything about even parliamentary politics, parliamentary opposition politics. Now, remember this was in the time when the ANC was banned. African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party.
Anthropology per the Afrikaaner apartheid system was Volkskunde, which built on the German romantic culturalist, fascist idea of separate cultures, right? And, and so German-inspired Volkskunde anthropology was all about the study of cultures. And anthropology was central to the apartheid state. And so, it was justified scientifically, scientific racism. And the central idea of apartheid was that there were these different cultures: Casa, Zulu, Venda, Swazi, et cetera, et cetera. And that God’s mandate (laughs) to the Afrikaaner people was, and of course the English, went along for the ride was to keep the races and the cultures separate.
Culturalism was at the core of apartheid. And a huge amount of the work of critical scholarship in South Africa in the 1980s was working with postmodernism to unmake the idea of bounded culture. So, in South Africa, we’re particularly sensitive to the idea of culturalism, coming back as, you know, separated ethnic groups as if they are meaningful concepts, which of course they’re not. You know, they have some use, but only a very limited kind of a use. I think one of the risks of some of the ontological debate is to recreate, reinvent culturalism by other means, because it’s such a deeply rooted idea.
The way that ontologies get appropriated is at times risky. And so, I think one has to guard against that. And so, it’s easier for me to think ontology in relation to neoliberalism and cosmopolitics. So, Bruno Latour’s idea, for example, he talks about the three goddess sisters of reason. Why must they be goddesses? I don’t know, but I called them the three gods of reason, which was technical efficiency, scientific objectivity, and economic profitability. You know, those are the three gods of reason in what he called the knowledge economy, which of course is the neoliberal moment. I think a huge part of the work that we can do very usefully, is to draw attention to that as a sorcery of its own. And so, in that sense, the language of ontology is very useful. So, you know, and I think that far too much of the environmental management science literature is encumbered and enamored of processes of governance, bureaucratic technoscientific governance, which of course, reduces everything to data objects enmeshed in algorithms. And one has lost the relational in politics. And I think that’s part of the backlash against the left. It’s not so much the politics of the left, but the brutalization of public life under technoscientific governance. And you know, I think this swing to the right is an attempt to recreate political relationships, which have been erased by technoscientific governance.
For me as a South African, one of the fascinating things about post-apartheid South Africa is the ways in which neoliberal governance has made us all equally worthless. Post-apartheid governance does that. And the scale of corruption in South Africa is testimony to the lack of political discourse and debate and discussion and thought about what it means to have redistribution outside of modes of territory and property and the modes of capitalism that have destroyed, and which were central to racism. So, the need really, again, is for paradigm shifts everywhere. So, we’ve got a long multi-decade struggle ahead of us, all of us to build a better presence on this planet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to see so many graduates being able to work with these ideas productively.
40:00 DREAM TEAM OF BIOGEOSOCIOCHEMISTRY
There’s this fabulous field called Biogeochemistry. And I want to put the social into that. Could we do a biogeosociochemistry? Or how do we begin to link life and non-life and society, you know? I mean, Beth Povinelli beautifully brings together the, problematizes the life/non-life distinction in her book Geontologies. And Michel Serres brought together “Biogea” in one of his last books. You know, if I had no constraints at all, if I had a huge budget to create a research team, I would create it outside of any of the particular faculties not only for the disciplinary space, but also because universities are so stuck in financial systems that operate within the faculties. You know, these become impossible situations to try to operate outside of them. So, you know, to me, it has to operate outside of a faculty. Outside of humanities or outside of science, law, commerce, you know, it needs to stand as its own. I mean, Leeds University, for example, has got a wonderful Dean of interdisciplinary studies. You know, what a wonderful thing to do, to create a Dean of interdisciplinary studies whose brief is to imagine and think with scholars about how to address the challenges.
I think looking at matter in its, across the spectrum of life and non-life is key. To have a team that can think politically, that can think with rigorous empirical science, asking questions with activists who are struggling around particular challenges, and to be able to be critical of the extractivist moment, and not just critical of, “Oh, they shouldn’t do this, mine here, or there,” but to actually, think globally in terms of global financial flows in the manner that, David Graeber did, in the manner that, Thomas Piketty does to criticize the global flows of capital where resources ended up in shell companies, in Panama Islands and stuff, and British Virgin islands, which then has a hurricane and gets no support from the people whose back it’s providing a tax haven for, to really be able to rethink economics.
So who would a dream team be? I would put in Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics. Beth Povinelli, who would compel people to think outside of life and non-life binaries. I would want to bring in environmental chemists who can think with us on toxic flows to bring in ecologists who are thoughtful about the ways in which ecologies are being changed by temperatures, changed by chemicals, by traumas, as you mentioned. So that we’re thinking not just in terms of matter, but we’re thinking in terms of relations and what does it take to support and enable local habitability?
I’ve been doing some work recently with the wonderful Steve Banwart at Leeds university, who is a critical zone theorist, soil scientist by training, but a critical zone theorist who’s also worked with Bruno and Bruno’s exhibition on critical zones. And, our question together is how do we link critical zone theory, which is a beautiful interdisciplinary space, but in the sciences? So, it brings together biology and geology, to put it crudely. It’s looking at what makes habitability in a particular area from bedrock to treetop. So, it’s looking at climate change in a local way, rather than at a global way. I think that’s wonderful because you’ve got a scale that is not colonial, but you’re not part of the globalizing climate movement that, it’s not beholden to those. I mean, obviously it’s in dialogue with those, but it’s agendas and research are not beholden to them. It’s looking at local issues, but it’s also looking in very, very thoughtful ways at the state of contemporary capitalism and things like tree cover. So, you know, what’s the relationship between economics and tree cover? What’s the relationship between tree cover and flows of water? Are the streams, have the streams stopped flowing because all the trees have been cut down? And so, you’re really looking in very thoughtful ways at the relationship between climate and capital and habitability. All of those things are engaging with the biological, the geological and the societal together and making very thoughtful policy interventions at multiple levels. And we could work for example, at an African Union level. You know, that also means that it’s decades before that is at the local level. So, to try to work at the local level is also key. But at the same time, if my city politics is anything to go by, that’s also very, very difficult terrain to work in, but we have to work in it. So, I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that I’m going to be the witch, the bad girl, the fiesty one. (laughs)
I think that a big part of this kind of a team would also include a very, very strong Paolo Freirian adult education person who can really ensure that in working with communities, whether it’s a geologist or a chemist or a social scientist that we’re learning together with the communities that are addressing the problems that they face. And there’s a very real temporal aspect to that. And that is that climate change has us all in situations that our models don’t prepare us for. The climate models don’t always work. Those yearly forecasts don’t always work because climate change is so real. So, it’s those that are really at the forefront of dealing with changes in an environment that are the people that have the most to say.
So the locus of expertise of knowledge has shifted. And I think it’s really, really important to work with that. So, I think more and more, we academics are methodological specialists who can facilitate the creation of arguments that can persuade people in policy arenas by doing really solid, rigorous sciences, but our questions need to come from elsewhere.
We need to be sure that we’re defining the questions that we’re posing, and are questions that local people understand. And, and it makes sense to them, because if it doesn’t make sense to local people, you know, it’s not necessary. It’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to be just another consultancy that ends up, lording it over people in this new feudalist situation we find ourselves in that calls itself neoliberalism.
47:05 CLOSING CREDITS
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Angelica Calabrese, Basil Soper, Rashida Kamal, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #8, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa. This is the second of two parts.
00:20 GROWING UP IN THE EASTERN CAPE
I came from a part of South Africa called the Eastern Cape, which is obviously on the other side of South Africa and come from settler stock, in the sense that on both sides, both my maternal and paternal lines, go back to the 1820s when the British settled the Eastern Cape and colonized the Eastern Cape. And somehow in the history of South Africa, there’s something about the Eastern Cape that it’s really always struggled. And I think part of the situation there is that it’s always trying to be a big city. So, it’s always trying to build itself to look like Los Angeles or, you know, it’s got a campus that at one point was the biggest campus area in the Southern hemisphere. In the middle of a nature reserve, you’ve got a 20-story block with four elevators going up and down at high speed because that’s what you do in a big city. My experience of growing up there was that we were never central to the country, we were always the parochial cousins. Coming to Cape town to study, it took me years to actually feel like I could actually understand from an inside way, what was being spoken about.
Part of that was coming from Port Elizabeth. But part of that was also because a lot of the social theory that we were speaking of and engaging in again, came from the North. My experience of it, and I have many colleagues who may disagree with me: it becomes quite dogmatic because you read, you know, the big names of scholars in the North, and you must think like they do. And my experience of the way that social science was being spoken of was often that it became quite dogmatic. It wasn’t grounded. So people would be talking of things in ways that are about using words fashionably and sounding very erudite, but I couldn’t make the connection between them.
Particularly come 2015, the year we launched Environmental Humanities, was also the year in which that was the beginning of the students’ decolonial struggles here in Cape Town. I had to rethink everything about who I am as a white South African, what it is to teach as a white academic, what it is to listen, and learning to listen to how people piece things together was really transformative. I learned slowly, I was taught in fact by my students quite slowly, how important it was to be able to tell stories. And that social theory is a way of putting the world together much as a story does.
03:23 TEACHING AND STORYTELLING FROM THE SOUTH
My teaching became more and more confident in using a classroom space or seminar space as a space in which people could ground themselves and tell their stories. And one of the practices I would have was to say, okay, remember, when you walked in here, you walked in with your feet. Can you feel your feet? You’re sitting here in this class, feel your feet. You did not walk in here as a head and leave your body at the door. You know, you’re here as a whole person, you’ve come with experiences, you’ve come with knowledge. Let’s work with that.
And one of the most astounding classroom discussions we had was with my very wonderful PhD student who is from Lesotho. We were reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007). She was reading all about the dogs. At one point she just roared with laughter and she said, you know in Lesotho, a dog is a dog. She said, I can’t cope with this. This is not where I come from. That was the funny part of things.
But then there was also the more serious thing, which is, you know, some of the students saying, you know, as a black person living in South Africa. I have another former PhD student who’s now teaching anthropology in Namibia—he said, you know, I’ve spent my whole life as a black man trying to prove that I am human. And now you want me to speak in the language of the posthuman. I can’t do that.
So, we together had to learn to speak from our experiences and over time, teaching has become more and more a case of, of storytelling, much as we’re speaking now, telling stories about people. And it really has become a fundamental practice for me in teaching to say to students: I do not ever ask you to learn a theory for the sake of a theory. How does this connect with your world? How does it connect with what you’re studying in your dissertation? We enter into texts from the point of view of a person’s experience. What stories come up for you when you read this text, what does it connect to? Is there something, and, you know, somebody might have a vague piece of something that’s vaguely connecting, and then you work with that. And suddenly the work of theory has opened up something that they hadn’t seen before. The social theory, particularly in the environmental humanities is about learning to see differently. I mean, the arts of paying attention, as you and Anna and others have spoken about so wonderfully. Learning to tell stories, learning to speak about what you see, learning to name what you see. When you can do that, people begin to say, “Oh my goodness, I can actually speak about the world in my own way.”
Helping people find their own voice as a writer, writing a dissertation, has become fundamental to what we do. Some of my best moments have been working with students who come into the program having gone through some kind of social ecological systems training, and they’re full of economic theory, economic words, the language of neoliberalism, sustainability, development, you know, all the discourse and jargon that goes with that systems, et cetera. And I said to them, but where do you see that system empirically? Show me where you see that. So what are we talking about? So you get them to rethink the paradigm with which they’ve come in, and get them to start piecing together what they see—tack from the macro to the micro, you know, or the other way around, start with the micro and situate that. Situate, situate, you’re situating everything. And so it becomes this process of connecting. That’s incredibly empowering to see people begin to be able to do that in their own worlds and with our life experiences.
07:40 CAN’T YOU SEE THE WIDER PICTURE HERE?
These are really powerful moments where African students, graduates, can engage with theory and both speak back to it and say this fits, no that doesn’t fit, but also fundamentally experience that the way that the environmental humanities work is often written in the storytelling mode. I’m thinking of Thom van Dooren’s work, for example, or Donna Haraway’s stories, you know tell stories that take you into the big picture that enable you to speak of the macro in relation to the micro. That’s fundamental. And then also that’s politically crucial because one of the ways in which neoliberal consultancies disempower people is to send out social science research consultants who ask them to speak of their perceptions of reality. Now, I can’t say that without wiggling my head in dismay! It’s so insulting! What is your perception of reality? The assumption there is that I have the truth, you know, I have the facts and you have the perceptions. And then what that consultant is able to do for a very large fee is enable the city council or whoever has commissioned them to tick a box to say, we’ve consulted the people whose experience of the world and its brutalities in this extractivist moment and this wasteful moment — I mean, the opposite of extraction is deposition and dumping.
Many of the folks that we work with live either in one extractivist space or the other, and often the two connect. We need to say to social scientists who are involved in that kind of research: “This is deeply insulting what you’re doing and it’s disempowering,” and to teach a cohort of graduates to say, “help people to speak of their experiences.” Imagine you’re sitting at the table with the conservationist over there, the local people that you’ve worked with over there, you’re the only one who speaks a common language. Imagine that you are conveying what the one is experiencing to the other. The most extraordinary work is coming out of that. I mean, someone working in Mozambique has been working with a community that’s been the guardians of a mountain for decades and decades and decades since the Mozambican war. The mountain gets discovered by conservationists on Google Earth. And the next thing, there’s this whole huge suite of NGOs that gets created to protect this mountain from who? From local people, you know, not from the local plantations or from the GM seeds which come with the herbicides and pesticides, but from local people. And so the conversation there for an Environmental Humanities scholar, to me is to say: “Hey, conservationists, we really appreciate what you’re doing. We share your concern for this world, but can you see that the pesticides that come with these GM seeds are killing the butterflies, they’re killing the bees, they’re killing the ants. The frogs are disappearing. The fertilizers making algal blooms and the ponds and streams, you know. Can you see that there’s a wider picture here?
11:18 ROCK | WATER | LIFE
Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020) is a book that I started writing in 2012. And at the time, I was cycling a lot around the peninsula and I would cycle quite long distances around the peninsula whenever the weekend weather permitted. And the thing about a bicycle is, its wheels are going round and round. You know, every inch, the wheels are touching and there’s something very grounding about this. And I would cycle past the baboon monitors or cycle past the ocean breaking into the beach.
It was striking for me how integrated the experience was of cycling, being in place. As I cycled, I was so aware also that I was cycling through histories. You know, there would be the huts where there were forced removals, or there would be sites that I knew were archeological sites or historical sites. And that if we didn’t have a way of bringing into one conversation, those different temporalities, and we didn’t have a way of bringing into conversation, all those different experiences of place, which are typically spoken about as different disciplines. So, you know, even to think about a fence crossing a peninsula from one ocean to the other. You know, when you start to actually look, what is connected here? My question to myself was, could I write about the connections, the relations, that were not making it into contemporary political discourse or scholarly discourse or environmental management discourses?
This is an extract that I’m about to read from my book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020). And the introduction is “Different questions, Different answers,” and it begins this way:
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic. A fence crosses from one ocean to the other, marking the edge of Cape Point Nature Reserve. The fence stops the eland, the bontebok, the rooibokke, the ostriches, and the law-abiding. To pass through the gate into the reserve, I need an annual Wild Card that costs me more than a ten-year U.S. visa, plus an extra card for my bicycle, and extra if I were snorkelling or fishing or staying overnight. When I applied for my Wild Card, I was also invited to marry a staffer of South African National Parks, since the online system had no variable for a solo parent with children. The staff member on the line from Pretoria suggested that I put in the identity number of the desk attendant under “spouse.” I declined the offer of nuptials, however generous, so according to South African National Parks records, I’m married to my sister.
She [Lesley’s sister] was horrified when she learned that that was in the book! That was really my tongue-in-cheek poke at those who really believe data to be true!
17:28 ABOUT THE BOOK’S CHAPTERS AND TEMPORALITIES
So the book has six chapters, each of which is a different case study. I divided those case studies into three different timeframes. And those timeframes are really about not just past, present and future because that would be ludicrous because I want you to think about the present past and the present futures. So I called Part One “Pasts Present” to try to think ecology, the everything-ness that I was cycling through in relation to histories. The second part I called “Present Futures” where I wanted to focus on emerging approaches to thinking, to scholarship, to political discourse that seem to me to have really something very important to contribute to how we form a better future, you know, ways of getting through this Anthropocene with its terrible histories of extractivism, as they have manifested here in the Cape of Storms, which is also the Western Cape. And the third part is “Futures Imperfect” where I’m really commenting on the environmental management sciences as I see them being played out in city policy.
The first chapter was about baboon management. And the second chapter was about shifting from a management of the ocean as if it’s separate from humans and as if sewage goes nowhere into the ocean, to thinking about what does it mean to actually manage the ocean as an integrated space? What is an urban ocean when it’s receiving human waste, it’s alongside the city and you’ve got changes in ocean ecologies, algal blooms which are impacting lobsters and fish. How do we bring all of those together?
Each of the chapters is a chapter that tries to explore the work that you would find in every aspect of a university library. So for example, if I’m writing about water in Cape Town, I want not just the ecological literature or the historical literature, but I want to have known that I’ve consulted some of the engineering and infrastructure literature. There’s health there. There’s histories. There’s law. There’s contemporary commerce and business. So, you know, what would each faculty be bringing to each chapter in a way was my challenge to myself. How could I actually think about what I would call “extradisciplinary” in the sense of the knowledges that coloniality has completely passed by. So throughout, I sought to make a space in which there was a serious engagement with what might be described as Indigenous thought or African thought. So, I really tried to approach each question from multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, but also what would not be in the university library as well.
So Cape Town’s water has a strong engagement with the Kwe. The second chapter “Fracking the Karoo,” I really wanted to go back to again, the Kwe and San, accounts of what it is to live in that semi-desert and what it might mean to frack that Karoo. Because I was unhappy with the presentation of the Karoo by environmentalists as a pristine landscape, when it was clearly a dramatically disturbed landscape, disturbed by settler colonialism and disturbed by sheep farming which has overgrazed it. And so I felt that they were setting themselves up for rebuttal in their argument. It was an argument that might sound romantic, but at the end of the day, it was not going to be an argument that had succeeded. So, you know, in each case I’m trying to withdraw from the prevailing environmentalist dogmas, try to think outside of the prevailing views and offer a different perspective.
22:30 PRESENT FUTURES
In Part Two, “Present Futures,” I thought about the struggle to think with Indigenous knowledges as a way of working towards what Bernard Stiegler would call the neg-Anthropocene, what negates the Anthropocene. Of course the problem was at the University of Cape Town, there was this huge conflagration around Indigenous knowledge as part of the decolonial student movement. And again, it was a failed argument. And so again, I wanted to try to understand what is so problematic about that argument, what is useful in it, but what was flawed in it? Where was it falling into a trap? And so how can students who are engaging with decoloniality and want to think with and about Indigenous knowledges, how can they do so without falling into the familiar traps of truth versus falsehood, Western versus Africa. That’s about shifting, changing the concern through which one addresses a particular situation.
Chapter Four is a chapter on struggles for land and farming. What puzzled me is that the ways in which land and farming is being addressed in South African political discourse, is through land as property and territory and ownership, and yet so much of that farmland that is now contested and needs restitutive responses nationally from government and individuals and corporates to resolve the fact that 90% of black South Africa was dispossessed of their land by 1913. You can’t go forward without some kind of restitution on that, and yet the restitution is being thought of territorially and those farms have got such severely damaged soil. So again, there’s a trap there. What is called in South Africa an “emerging farmer,” i.e., a Black farmer who has been able to get access to farmland on the basis of restitution, where that farmer is then going to be faced with degraded soils, emptied aquifers, and unable to farm. And then you’re left with a situation where the answer is: ah, black farmers can’t farm, which is, you know, frequently said. And so again, it was the question of, how do we turn this question? How do we turn this discussion around with, and a focus on soil working with some farm activists from the Cape Town farms and others who’ve fought court battles over soil and aquifers here in Cape Town. So, you know, learning with and from them about what it means to think as a person in and of the earth, rather than just as another potential owner of land.
26:00 FUTURES IMPERFECT
Part Three, “Futures Imperfect,” was an attempt to really take issue with the current baboon management protocols in the city of Cape Town. Baboons are troublesome animals. They always have been, they always will be, but they’re also animals that do not have to live in enmity with humans. And there’s a strong history of them living in societies from the, you know, recorded as far ago as the Egyptian pyramids, where there’s some hieroglyphic images of baboons that are serving as police to stop a thief, stealing fruit from a market or something. And San rock paintings of baboons as part of society, and many San stories, which say be careful of a baboon, a baboon is a tricky fellow. But which offer guidance in terms of ways of thinking about living with and alongside baboons in lively, neighborly relationships with a troublesome being, much as one would do with a troublesome neighbor, right? And the city’s current policy has paid hardly any attention to human behavior, and they have this most absurd ludicrous system of creating a monthly inventory of baboon crimes. So, I called this zoo-criminology! Where they have this monthly sheet, and each baboon is assessed by the monitors on a daily basis, and gets a tick or a cross or a code on their daily performance sheet. Did they enter a car? Did they enter an occupied car? Did they break and enter into a home? Did they enter into an occupied home? So you’ve got these different baboon crimes, which have never been explained to the baboons, right? And, when it comes up against this conundrum of how do you persuade a baboon not to cross the road? I mean, as you know, if you’ve ever tried to explain to a chicken, why not to cross the road? Why does the baboon cross the road? The baboon can’t be told not to cross a road! A baboon doesn’t understand that a road is something that can’t be crossed, but, you know, so you’ve got this masculinist, militarist bunch of primatologists advising baboon management without having ever read Donna Haraway, or any of the other feminist primatologists. Despite decades of feminist primatology, you know, I don’t think they’ve ever exposed any of their students to any of that because it doesn’t come up in their primatology dissertations. That they’re advising the city on how to manage these baboons with paintballs along roads, because it’s easy for them to get along those roads with their vehicles rather than working in a more difficult terrain, which is keeping the baboons up in the mountain where they would have access to mountain food.
There’s no baboon crimes for humans. If you leave your trashcan full of lovely food and not locked, you know, a baboon is going to open it and then the baboon would get ticked off as a bad animal. You know, if a baboon gets three strikes, three crimes listed in a month, it’s then sent to a committee to assess whether or not it can be culled. So that is an assessment of baboon killability. And, you know, besides the masculinist patriarchal primatology behind us, it’s just ludicrous! It’s a joke. A couple of years ago I was in Kruger Park, which is a huge nature reserve up north in South Africa, and looking at the baboon troupes, I was astonished because they were so calm and it made me realize the extent to which these baboons are permanently traumatized with paintball guns and so on. Paint balls hurt as you know, anybody’s ever played paintball knows. So, you know, that was about questioning the reigning assumptions about baboon management, fire paintball guns, and where that came from.
30:10 DOING SCIENCES DIFFERENTLY
What I tried to do in all of those chapters was think through what does this say about how we could do Environmental Management Sciences differently, how we could think of a human and humane ecological suite of relationships and practices. And so the conclusion is where I really sought to, I suppose, sketch a new book which was really sketching what I’d learned from across all of the different chapters. So the questions that I had about this paradigm of social ecological systems in which social de facto remains separate conceptually from ecological and through financialized ecologies, you get this economic logic mediating them. You know, I’ve offered a critique of that rethinking scientific authority. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which White power, White authority, White political authority in South Africa has regrouped itself around nature. So White authority, White political power is almost unassailable in the name of green for all the reasons that Bruno Latour talks about where he says, science stands outside of parliament and comes and tells parliament what is going on. And there are no questions asked. And so the absolute necessity in South Africa of democratizing how we do science, particularly environmental management, not because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do, but because science needs it, it’s good science to think through your situatedness. And it’s good science to be publicly accountable and to think with publics rather than over them.
32:25 ECOPOLITICS: REFUSING NEUTRAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
So much of environmentalism subsists in the little prefix “en-” which means what is around you. I want to say, ‘je suis terrain,’ you know, “I am earth.” From that perspective, it does not make sense to only consider environment to be that which exists behind a nature reserve fence. And “green” in South Africa overwhelmingly means nature reserves behind fences.
I guess I got to a point where I just began to feel that I could never atone for the sins of the word “environment.” It wasn’t a redeemable word in any way. I needed to find something different. And “eco” sounds interesting because we’re thinking about ecological relations, I’ll come back to that. It’s always political. There is no environmentalism that is not political. It’s always a matter of political struggle to address these things. To say ecopolitics is to refuse to be the neutral environmentalist. As someone once said to me, a PhD that someone gave up on, she found herself measuring the bites of a certain bug on leaves, when she said, “why am I measuring the bites of this bug on leaves? I can’t do this anymore!” And she walked away. This is so ridiculous! I refuse to be the neutral environmentalist and to be the good girl that plays that game. So it’s always political. And particularly in South Africa, where land has always been a space of intense contestation. Let me just dispense with this word environmentalist, it’s too loaded.
There’s so much environmental struggle, ecopolitical struggle in South Africa that’s not even recognized by mainstream environmentalists as environmental. And that is the struggle of largely Black rural people, mostly women who are at the forefront of that, given the gender politics of the rural areas. And who are struggling against mining companies who want to come and destroy some of the only Black-owned farmland that’s left in South Africa to mine coal or to mine titanium.
And when I say political struggles there, you know, there’ve been two assassinations, one of which was two weeks ago. A woman who’s just a grandma but who found herself fighting a coal mining company that wants to expand into her fields, leaving a gaping open cast pit where she has known fields and plants and cattle roaming and streams, you know, this dust pit. So she was assassinated in her home with five shots direct to the chest on a Thursday evening. Fikile Ntshangase.
I think that the inability of the South African Green Movement to recognize those as environmental struggles says everything I need to say as to why we need to dispense with the word “environmental,” you know. One more reason. And that is “eco” comes from this word oikos you know, the Greek word oikos, which many, including myself, have written about in quasi-romantic tones about how oikos means household, but I’m thinking more and more about this. I’ve finally come to realize — post-publication, darn, didn’t make it into the book! — but finally came to realize that the oikos for the Greeks was the opposite of the polis. The polis was the place of men in their togas laying on the stairs discoursing with Socrates. That was the polis. The oikos was the space of who? Of women, slaves, and animals. The excluded. And we still struggle with that, the legacy and inheritance of the distinction between oikos and polis. So we have to find a way to bring them together. And again, the word ecopolitics does that.
38:05 PARTIAL CONNECTIONS & EQUIVOCATIONS
Possibly one of the most important scholars whose work assists me and many of our students here to think that through is Marisol de la Cadeña. Because I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a new world without binaries by imposing binaries. It’s this or it’s that. What Marisol does so beautifully in her engagement with Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers and others is to offer this idea of partial connections. And that also builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of equivocation that we can be talking about the same thing, apparently, water, but actually be talking about very different things. The one is talking about hydrology and megalitres, and the other is talking about what it’s like to be able to sit down and have a Sunday picnic in a nice place, right? They’re very different things. And yet, you know, sometimes you’re not aware that you’re talking about different things.
39:30 FIRE, MUD, MIST
Modernity has persuaded us that we live among solid, liquid, or gas, right? Perhaps the next book would be kind of, you know, fire, mud, and mist or something like that! Because those are all the apocalyptic imageries. Why? Because they’re so alien to modernity, you know, where we think we’ve got these states of matter controlled, but we don’t.
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe.
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Thank you for listening!
ZHENG Bo + Steven LAM
You’re listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
For this episode, we are delighted to host a conversation between two dear friends that took place in September 2020 in the middle of the global pandemic: artist ZHENG BO based in Hong Kong, and calling in from Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, and curator STEVEN LAM based in Canada, and calling in from Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver.
It’s a conversation that touches on three timely questions for the arts and humanities in the growing fields of Multispecies, Environmental, and Queer Studies:
First is how the materiality and sensibility of plants, weeds, and cross-species sex challenge ideologies of reproduction and extraction; second is how the historical specificities of the Chinese and north American contexts offer different and important lenses for rethinking relations between people, plants, colonies, and modern nation-states. For example, how might we reimagine Western conceptions of health as a multispecies balance between social and environmental justice? And the third is practices of pedagogy, or how might we teach and how might we learn methods for living and dying with more-than-human or all-too-inhuman worlds.
Here are Steve Lam and Zheng Bo.
These days I’ve been thinking about ideas of white botany, really inspired by the work of Katherine Yusoff and her “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None” where she’s trying to underwrite or perhaps reroute or de-roots ideas of geology as a white formation and currently working in the art world and also working in art education specifically, so many of my students are really interested in plants. They’re just interested in agriculture. I think they’re also interested in maybe the artisanal possibility of making as a way to think about parables of de-growth. And for me, botany might be this place where animals are othered and classified and named. So there’s this whole kind of epistemic creation that places man from an outside and nature as a place, a subject of classification. So if there are ways to sort of think about how this mode of scientific inquiry is racialized and as a way to sort of think about how there’s two reproductions, right? A reproduction of a capitalist logic of mastery, but also reproduction of whiteness as a center, right? So I’m really interested in how botany might have that potential from an art pedagogical place, but also a place of resistance in a place of understanding the world differently.
Also there’s a larger research project that I’m trying to do. I think it’s going to be a 50-year project where I’m trying to think about the legacy of Dow Chemicals. And, Bo, we talked about this too, back in 2016. For me, I was born in Michigan—specifically Midland Michigan, which is one of the large plants of Dow chemicals and born, you know, a few years after the construction of napalm and my dad is a chemist and he worked at Dow Chemicals. So I’m really interested in this kind of confluence of chemistry and complicity and trying to understand the Asian American experience on top of that. And then recently I came across the work of Michelle Murphy who’s been writing about what she calls the Chemical Valley, really thinking about Ontario, Canada, and how it kind of linked down to Michigan and into the States as a precursor of some form of petrochemical dominion. So I’m really interested in how toxicity gets kind of reproduced and looking at that sort of geography. And again, sort of looking at that long tail of historic formation where it’s linking settler kind of conquest to industrial capitalism to the diaspora. I mean, those are huge questions and I don’t know what form this research project is. Right now I’m just sort of foraging the archives of Dow Chemicals and looking at advertisements from the sixties and seventies, but also looking at the student protests that happened in various kinds of public universities around Dow around 1968 to 1972, these sort of anti-Vietnam war protests. It’s almost like a detective story in so far as I’m sort of looking at these archival documents to try to create a narrative in reverse, but like a big narrative, a narrative that’s not just 20 years, 30 years, but perhaps 300 years.
Yeah. Steve was talking about 50 years. I think what I’m working on now probably will take longer. I’ve been working on how to bring plants into our political imaginary. Right now in Berlin, I’m starting to talk to scientists to learn sort of on the micro level, on molecular genetic level, how plants behave and, you know, that’s what scientists study, but usually with a utilitarian purpose linked to agriculture and economy. But I want to learn from their research, but recast those learnings in a political paradigm. How do we understand plant physiology and behavior as political acts rather than just biological reactions? So I think the larger intention is, you know, this idea of multispecies equality. That’s been present in my practice, but now I’m trying to approach it from a micro-level. So that’s a new project.
There’s another project that’s still going on, the film I’ve been making in Taiwan. It’s an ecosexual film between men and ferns. So I’ve been doing that slowly since 2016. I’ve been going every year to make one episode, usually about 15 to 20 minutes in the same forest, but with different men and different ferns. That has been very enjoyable. This year, I was going to do another chapter, but because of the pandemic, I was not allowed to go to Taiwan, but I’m hoping to be able to do the next chapter early next year. So that project, I’m interested in sex, I’m interested in eroticism and that project came about kind of randomly, but now I feel like it’s also important because I think, you know, in addition to thinking very theoretical or scientific questions, the filming really allows me to be there in the forest and to really be very bodily involved. And there’s, you know, it’s really fun. It’s very, it’s very visual. It’s very performative. So, it’s a different flavor of experience.
Bo it’s so awesome to see how “Pteridophilia” has evolved, because I think last time we spoke, that was right when you finished the first episode. And just sort of looking at the evolution and the language and how it’s become more sort of explicitly about queer, an eco-queer way of living. So my question is about plant sex. I wrote in my notes, “ask Bo about plant sex,” and I crossed it out, not, not plant sex. Let’s talk about fucking plants. And then I crossed that out. Actually, no, it’s not about fucking plants. It’s if I was a plant, I’d be like, it’s about fucking humans, those fucking humans! So my question is, in that film, is there a kind of allegory to a radical understanding of reproduction here? I mean, certainly there’s like this multispecies ways of being together, but this being together is little bit more than just us holding hands together right? Or holding leaves with hands. My question is, is there really a kind of pointed critique about what gets reproduced, who gets reproduced, how does it get reproduced, and what is the logic of reproduction?
Yeah, I mean, I started the project without thinking about why I was doing it, right. I was in Taiwan in 2016. I’m from mainland China. So I, you know, I’ve learned about Taiwan through mainstream media and also through propaganda. So when I went to Taiwan, I thought I needed a way to really, to feel Taiwan in a way that’s beyond what the media told me before. And I went to an exhibition in the City Art Museum. It’s about how Japanese artists, when they went to Taiwan in the 19-teens and twenties, when Taiwan became a Japanese colony, the Japanese artists went to Taiwan and they were attracted to tropical flowers. I think as humans, we are attracted to flowers. And then they painted a lot of the tropical flowers. But I walked around Taipei and also in a forest. I noticed there are many ferns, but they were not represented in the Japanese artists’ practice. That’s one thing that I noticed. Then second thing I noticed is, Taiwan was then occupied by the nationalists after 1945. The nationalists went to Taiwan from mainland China. So they brought a lot of the cultural symbols, as well as their interests in plants from mainland China into Taiwan. They also didn’t pay so much attention to local plants, to ferns. But when I went to a celebration by one of the indigenous tribes at Sun Moon Lake, a very famous lake in the middle of Taiwan, I went to their new year celebration. The tribe, the tribal members, they were decorating themselves with fern leaves. I noticed these three things, and then I thought as a visitor to Taiwan, I better get to know ferns, in order to really get to understand the local history and ecology a little bit better than what the media told me.
So that’s how I chose to work with ferns, but I, you know, I did other projects mainly sort of historical, but also paper-based works. The sexual film came later because like I said, I wanted to get more physical with ferns, the plants. You know, I’m gay. I watch a lot of gay porn. So I asked gay, I didn’t ask gay men, but I asked men to come and perform. I think most of them are gay, but actually the cinematographer is not, but he, you know, I can tell you how interesting he felt doing the film. So, you know, I started the film with men, but I actually didn’t consider the film to be a queer film because it’s men having sex with plants. Of course now I understand the project as eco-queer, right. Because queerness is, it’s not just about human sexual behavior.
I mean, it almost seems like the fern then doubles as technologies of ceremony, technologies of survival technologies of perhaps from an indigenous context, some sort of sustenance for the collective. I raised the question about reproduction because I think the film offers a really interesting, I mean, outside of it’s its sheer kind of joy and kind of like the pleasure. It does sort of talk about ideas of not individual joy, but maybe collective flourishing, you know, and, and really sort of thinking about ways of survival perhaps, and the fact that it does become a way for the BBSM community to kind of common together, you know, is also interesting, especially if you kind of overlay the fact that there is a very kind of locally specific indigenous symbol of the fern in that context, you know. So it’s like a doubling of many kind of networks.
I mean, I’ll just add one more thing, because we are somewhat less familiar with the sexuality of ferns. I think most of us understand it a bit better with flowers, with flowering plants, right? So we understand there male parts and female parts of the flower, and we understand the pollination, sort of as the meeting of the egg and the sperm. Ferns reproduce somewhat differently. You know, we know, I think many people know ferns reproduce through spores, but they actually also have a phase where they produce eggs and sperms. I only learned this by doing, so now I’m also interested in the sexuality of plants and how by sort of thinking about the sexuality of plants can really expand our understanding of queerness.
I did a performance lecture last winter for the Venice Biennale’s public program. You know, in the description I say, you know, if you want to follow Donna Haraway’s idea of “Make Love, Not Babies” then you know, my film project is kind of a perfect illustration of her idea. I think it’s, you know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t explicit, but perhaps because I, I don’t, you know, I never really started thinking about sex as a reproduction behavior. So I think, you know, for me, sex really started with sexual pleasure, erotic feelings, and also watching pornography. So, creating babies is never really part of that formula.
The film also pushed me to think about, you know, what is sex? What is eroticism? What is reproduction? I was just talking to a scientist yesterday in Berlin, and one thing she studies is species barrier. How come there are some outcrossings: different flower species they can pollinate and then create the next generation. And then the following generations are all healthy, but how come there are some sort of species barriers genetically or phenotypically, so that the species don’t cross. You know, it’s both a biological question, but it’s also a political question. Perhaps there’s a very explicit history in the U.S. about cross-racial relations. Now I think, you know, of course the film deals with cross-species relations, then it’s a different level of challenge, right? If we don’t think about reproduction, what’s the meaning of a cross-species sexual encounter.
Let’s segue to teaching and learning because I immediately kind of went there as well because I think your practice Bo, kind of models, I don’t know why I’m talking about reproduction these days! But I’m sort of thinking about the ideas of creativity that need to be completely changed. I think these days as an educator, I’m less interested in how students can master and cultivate their voice. And I use cultivate you know as a botanical metaphor, but I’m thinking about like: continuity, communion versus dominion, ideas of resurgence versus erasure. I mean, I think those are the questions for artists, you know. How do we make sure that there is a multispecies intergenerational kind of commoning that is sort of articulated through form, through freedom, through matter, you know? How does your work kind of translate into pedagogy?
I actually feel this is something really important, actually more important than my practice in a way, because I feel a lot of art projects I’m doing are kind of the way for me to learn by experimenting in these works. But once I learned something, how do I teach it, right? So that’s actually, for me is actually more difficult. I just want to echo what you just said. I wrote something about Art Asia Pacific, precisely on this issue: of not using the word “creating.” So I try not to use this word anymore, because we don’t create. We inhabit, we live and then we learn, we grow, we cultivate, like the word you use. As, you know, one of the many living beings on the planet, that’s what we do. We don’t create as God.
When I teach studio class now I ban students from doing metaphoric projects. You know if they come and submit a project and say, Oh, I’ve made this sculpture, you know, this piece represent this and this the other piece represent this, I’ll say, you know, you have to redo this work. I think metaphors have become so dominant in sort of advertising in sort of capitalism, in our economy, precisely we lack sort of, our tangible experience with matter. So this also happens to students I think. Also to me, I think, you know, like I mentioned, I started working with plants with weeds and with ferns, mainly through language, through sort of symbolic works. Then I realized, this is so inadequate to expand my understanding, expand my sensibility with plants. I talk a lot, I appreciate reading and writing, but now I tell my graduate students: Try not to read too much. You really need to go walk in the forest and sleep in the forest and smell things. That’s how we learn. That’s how we develop senses. I think the hegemony of language and text, particularly in so-called contemporary art is hampering our relations with plants in particular.
That’s really, beautifully put, Bo. I liked your ban as well. I mean i think, refusing to reproduce telegenic short-circuit short-hand representations of the world. You know, maybe this is about the distributionist potential of metaphors. They can be quickly kind of distributed. And therefore that kind of quickness may mean surface understanding, the kind of fantasy of translatability globally, while undermining a more nuanced, local way of understanding and of knowing the world through matter.
There’s such a turn for practice these days. This is why I loved your recipe in Frieze Magazine, Bo. You know, sort of thinking about, how cooking can also be an allegory of knowing, right? Cause you sourced the materials. There is an alchemical kind of, or just the physical co-mingling of all of these materials that are rife with history. And then voila, there’s something that’s cooked and that can be shared. I think that there’s something quite lovely about this idea of culinary practice as a form of understanding the world in contradistinction to maybe the speed of digital consumption and sort of telegenic modes of Instagram in a way, you know. And I even see a lot of my students are also interested in that kind of approach.
But I also believe in like synecdoche and metonymy, you know. Metonyms, ways in which it’s really important to think about, like when I think about the Golden Spike, you know, how that is an emblem of all of these historical lessons that are again also kind of erased. So I think maybe there’s this preciousness of trying to make sure there is a publicity, a resurgence and making sure each creative act is a way to ensure that forgetting doesn’t happen, you know, through matter through poetry, through stories, through a local understanding of knowing the world. Yeah. I think those are really the crucial ways of making art now. A sort of future telling as well.
I completely agree with you. We do it ourselves, but we also start to help students to shift away from that way of describing art.
One of the things that I’ve been, so in awe, but also, so radically unlearning myself is since moving to Canada, is how to think about an Indigenous resurgence to life and to how we common. In parts in British Columbia, many first nations sorta see art as a form of medicine. It really is a form of immunity. It’s a story. You know, art is a form of telling a story. And I think right now with the world in a type of perpetual panic, it’s so important to be able to tell stories, you know, to quote our beloved Donna right. Stories that matter. And I think that’s such a interesting thing. The challenge then is always whether or not the students have the same desire, right? And of course that desire is based off of perhaps misidentification of professional advancement. So, but, you know, I think ways to kind of rearrange that kind of expectation, rearrange that sort of desire is really interesting. And thinking about the botanical turn, you know, with so many artists working with soil, with plants, with gardens, I think it can perhaps broaden that imagination so we’re not always just thinking about ourselves as individual units, right. And how we can start to think about systems of care, systems of continuity, you know. Ideas of survival, I think is really important these days, you know, certainly with the pandemic.
Can we talk about weed?
There was an interesting essay or an interesting kind of performance lecture about the Japanese knotweed. Specifically sort of thinking about how the knotweed has become this figure of invasive species, right? The Japanese knotweed has invaded property in the United Kingdom, has sort of devalued a lot of home ownership there because weed would kind of pop up. And then there’s also this kind of anthropomorphosized projection of the weed actually being the culprit of breaking open the cement. But in reality, probably what happens is the foundation just sucks from the beginning, right? And then these weeds just happened to cultivate in these places. So it was really interesting to sort of see how the weed becomes the culprit of invasion, as sort of this wildness that is also devaluing suburban property. Another allegory to try to master nature, to sort of contain it and to isolate it and to clean it and cleanse it. And the lecture also talked about how the knotweed basically helps fuel these sort of cottage industries of pesticide.
I know that weeds pop up in your practice for the past decade–thinking about the weed party, thinking about the cookbook, the sort of survival guide that you’ve also done and also your current kind of tours, like walking tours. What does the weed represent to you? What is the sort of potential of the weed when it comes down to thinking about creativity?
So I was fascinated by weeds not because of property value, but actually because of the political symbolism in Chinese history. During cultural revolution, the right wing of the Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party was described as poisonous weeds. It’s actually very well known among the Chinese, among us. So I think when I started to make artworks about weeds in China to show those works in China, people immediately understood those words as sort of commenting on the authoritarian control of our political system. But of course, I’m also interested in urban control. In China, as we built our cities and also built a lot of the middle class or upper middle class neighborhoods, people want to get rid of weeds. People want to have very homogeneous grass, which will make their neighborhood look posh and sort of similar to what we see in advertisement or TV or film from the U.S. and from Europe. So to me, you know, working with weeds really disrupt that aesthetics. But recently, you know, I haven’t done any work on this, but I am also fascinated by the survivability, you know, the super strength of weeds not only in cities, but also, you know, even in countryside, along the roads. I mentioned that I was talking to a scientist yesterday. She studies plasticity and she used one particular plant Arabidopsis, but that’s kind of the standard plant, kind of like the little white mice as well that’s used to study animals. So, weeds are also interesting for scientists because they have very short life cycles and they take very little space and then they survive very well. I just want to add, I think a lot of the art institutions ask me to do projects because, you know, I work with weeds. And weeds usually come for free that also reduces the cost of these exhibitions.
I think it seems so important to really kind of locate both of us contextually. And it’s so fascinating to hear that kind of story within the Chinese context Bo, you know. I think in silly sophomoric binary terms sometimes, you know, I need to make like dialectics to make sense of things. So I’ve been thinking about the weed, and the revenge of the weed, right. Whether or not it’s making the landscaper upset or how the weed may be a witness to other things. But I’m sort of thinking about: What is the weed in relationship to colonial conquest? And this may be more of a new world context Bo, but what is the weed in relationship to ideas of “Nobody’s Land,” you know, of “Terra Nullius,” you know, the weed always existed. The weed has always been present. It has this crazy survival quality to it, right.
I’ve been thinking: is the opposite of the weed, the Golden Spike? You know, I’m sorta thinking about the Golden Spike as like railroad expansion and the West and the States, you know, the Golden Spike as this sort of emblem of Manifest Destiny. The golden spike as this emblem of how manmade infrastructure has sort of expanded from the East to West in the States. And I think, I may be wrong here, but I think the Golden Spike has also been an index for the Anthropocene as well. Can we think about the weed in relationship to the long time of civilizational expansionism, also the revenge of it, you know? How do we, and maybe this goes back to pedagogy as well, like indexing histories into these everyday kind of observations that we just sort of see when we walk down the urban landscape, and we see the weed kind of busting out of the cement, like how do we kind of overlay these other kinds of stories and overlay these witnesses, I guess. When you think about the weed, I mean, is the weed specific? Or would it be problematic to think about the weed and these kinds of broader terms of global domination?
I think both. To perhaps broaden this point, I think one of the challenges is to be both very locally specific but also to kind of think in planetary scale. So that’s actually, you know, going back to the pedagogical issue, that’s also, I think one of the challenges I’m thinking about: How do we really work on very local histories, very local plants, at the same time, thinking about the large planetary shifts and demands, and crisis and movements.
Your project sounds to be very historically situated. I mentioned one thing I did a project in Shenzhen, and then there’s one particular plant. It went to Hong Kong in 20th century, and then as soon as China opened up in the late 1970s, that plant jumped from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, to mainland China. So there’s a lot of potential mapping that’s possible to link sort of botanical shifts and expansions with political shifts. And I’m sure that’s what you’re looking into in colonial botany. I think in China too, there’s a lot of work still to be done, to really look at our history through plants, through animals, and through bacteria, etc, through fungi, to really see that our history is never really just human history. Even in very progressive social movements, how do we work with other living beings?
I’ve been copying these books, I call the entire project survival menus. so I’ve been finding these publications called edible weeds. For example, there’s one published in Shanghai in 1961 because we were experiencing huge famine in China due to some crazy political utopian program that Chairman Mao put forward. So the book was published in 1961, edible weeds, hopefully to help people to alleviate hunger. So I copied that book. And then later on, I also, encountered other similar books in different regions on different occasions. I thought those books will help me to survive, but now you know, I have this feeling that the likelihood of our survival is so low. We should really talk about the survival of other species, not so much focusing on the survival of ourselves. This is actually something I’m thinking a lot about these days. How do you feel Steve? How do you feel about the likelihood of our extinction these days—in your life and also in teaching, I guess.
I mean being in Canada, I’m always reminded of an apocalypse that happened to indigenous nations here, right? So the apocalypse has already happened. Maybe the question is, how do we create life practices? You know, where you know, we’re not reproducing sort of like settler colonial assumptions of the dominion of land or reproducing a certain type of sect of individuals that are so hell-bent on reproducing their own might-and-right. I think learning how to die is really important and understanding a life practice is also really key.
Here’s another weird thought I’ve been having Bo, and I don’t know how to make sense of it yet. I’ve been sort of really curious about these two words “rooting” and “looting,” right. And of course the word looting has become I think I was reading an article after the uprising of George Floyd. The word looting was like the most popular word that was Googled. And I realized that the etymology of rooting has Latin Germanic roots. And also one thing I forgot about the root is that it’s underground. So maybe we can talk about fugitivity and being underground and how that connects with ideas as survivalism or survival. Is there another way to think about bunker life, that’s not about paranoia? But then I realized that the word looting, it doesn’t have a Latin Germanic etymological root. I think the roots of looting is actually Hindi, and it was rooted in sort of colonial strife in the mid 1800s. So I’m wondering with this sort of botanical turn, as we think about how can artists give roots, create life practices, create alternative forms of sustainability and survivorship, or survivance right? How might looting also be part of that picture right? Cause to loot means that you take, one takes things away, there’s a theft, there’s a kind of erasure of cultural sovereignty and identity. Like how, how might rooting and looting be thought of side-by-side?
I never see plants as only you know, friendly, romantic, graceful kind. you know, plants can also be competitive, combative, even vicious. So I think it’s also not good to sort of idolize plants and to worship plants, to the degree of harmony. I don’t know the answer to what you were trying to suggest towards, but of course you know, the roots of plants are so strong and so powerful. I think this can also be a political metaphor.
Oh yeah because it’s also, I think it, the roots also implicate a whole network. There’s a whole infrastructure that is not seen.
One thing I’m interested in is how plants do things that we can do, but they do it differently. Plants actually, when they are subject to stresses, they also learn, they also remember, so the next generation will try to do it better. They do it through genetic or epigenetic mechanisms. I think we also do it, but probably much slowly. We tend to focus on learning and remembering by language, by our sort of cultural practices, you know, I’m starting to speculate whether we could do things more physically, more on the biological level rather than just on the cultural level. This is only a starting thought. It kind of goes into the earlier bio art practice.
sort of these post-human modes of making.
I have this desire to actually move away from thinking too much about human issues. You know, I moved to a village now I have less people around me. I stopped going to see many exhibitions. If I have time, I just go to Botanical Gardens where I go to national parks, etc. So I think I’ve deliberately tried to move myself away from human concerns, even social concerns. And sometimes I feel guilty about this. I may sound a little bit removed from even Hong Kong’s current political movements or political struggles, but on the other hand, I really feel this desire to really make up the time I lost in the, you know, I’ve lived 40 some years. I really didn’t pay attention to plants or other beings before. I really don’t know how they live. I don’t know how they survive, how they collaborate. So I really have this desire to learn as much as I can in the whatever number of years I still have to live. So I think that to me is sort of personal. But in terms of politics, I feel sort of perhaps as artists, what we can contribute is to really even move beyond the sustainability movement, to move beyond sort of current social movements to really try to imagine different questions. And you know, even crazier ideas, hopefully that will be useful down the road.
Yeah. I think I’m just inherently an institutional figure, you know, where reform is still part of my mode of operation rather than the utopian vision that Bo has found refuge in, you know. Bo has left the damaged world of human institutions. I’m still stuck in it. I can’t get out. And maybe that does kind of make our practices be radically different.
Yeah. I mean, at some point I also feel like I said, sometime I feel guilty, whether or not, you know, maybe I’m not paying enough attention to what’s actually happening in Hong Kong. Right. So on the other hand, I do feel these ecological crises are really important. It’s also my job to talk about these issues in addition to the current political struggles in Hong Kong. So I also feel ambivalent sometimes how to balance the two.
I think what COVID has laid bare to me is that, I’m still trying to understand why does an extractionist logic still exist? Who’s always being erased? I went back to the human because of the covid crisis. I mean, that’s not to say that a multispecies mode of understanding of the world is not relevant. Of course it is. I think I just had to not forget about alienation and dispossession, I guess. I just couldn’t let that go with the past six months. I still don’t understand, you know, like the habits of, from crisis to crisis. Why do we always fall back to unmaking and remaking the world in the likeness of proto-capitalist, colonial dominion? I think it gave me a sense of dread. It gave me a sense of more dread than hope. And that’s why I kind of returned to sort of those conversations. How about you, Bo? How, how has your thinking changed in the past several months?
First I need to say that because I live in the village in Hong Kong, I haven’t been personally impacted by the virus and my mom she’s in Beijing. She is in a senior community and the authoritarian control in China has in some way been very effective in fending off the explosion of the virus in China. You know, I will sound a little bit too impersonal, in saying that. To me, the virus, the pandemic has been in a way, showing me that perhaps we need other species, we need other living beings to help us address the ecological crisis, the extraction, the extractionist logic. We are so addicted to capitalism, to comfort–you know, me also being guilty to traveling around the world. It’s almost impossible for us, for ourselves to stop ourselves from, to pull ourselves away from the addiction. So we really need other species to force us to stop and to get onto a different track. I feel the virus is not doing that, you know, not yet, but perhaps the ecosystem together, will find ways to force us to change our behaviors and systems and worldviews, etc. But of course, you know, I think I’m also very conscious of what you were saying about how situations like the pandemic always make the lives of the disenfranchised, the marginalized harder. How do we build sort of multispecies alliances, while building movements that will not make the lives of the disenfranchised even harder, right?
Yeah. After COVID, I started becoming really re-invested in critical race theory, again, you know, as not only as a way to sort of think about the marginalized and the vulnerable, but also thinking about legal institutions, and how the law is literature as well, and that can be kind of tweaked and changed. Maybe one multispecies alliance is thinking about how legal institutions can kind of create. Like there’s a rights to nature conversation in there as well. Perhaps tactically giving water legal protections as if they’re at the status of humans. Maybe this is what we need to teach in art school, where that type of formation, you know, not only are they dealing with matter and metaphor right, and telling stories, but bending the logic of institutions too, I think is also could be really important.
I think it will be really interesting to look at public health policies, to see how these public policies have been formulated without the ecological justice, without the social justice being critically embedded or examined. I think in China, for sure, I haven’t seen anyone doing that critical reflection.
Yeah that’s a really good point. And thinking about environmental exposures, right. I mean, I think all or many viral outbreaks are connected to issues of planetary health as well, and, and sort of environmental exposures and how that gets recirculated.
One specific thought, you know, for example, in the university, we can teach online, but the cleaning staff, they have to be physically on campus. So they actually need much more protection than we do, but I don’t think the university has put in, you know, resources for support or even compensation to differentiate the level of risk for people who would take on different jobs in different risk areas.
Bo, your point about health and sort of rethinking health environmentally seems to be really important. Who gets to die, who gets to live. I think the facade of never-ending expansionism, everyone knows, is not working, you know? So the question of environmental justice: is it a moment or would it be a movement, you know, whether or not it will be kind of more lasting? Um, the interesting thing about when COVID first struck, there’s so many, like boosterist conversations, “Hey, saying, Hey, this is what it means to live the simple life.” You know, look, there’s more plants around our institutions, but it seems like we have not yet witnessed how it’s completely going to undo the kind of infrastructure of what we’re used to. It’s like the broken earth, how might there be sort of counternarratives to the broken earth, right, because of COVID. And I’m not sure, I’m sort of thinking about Naomi Klein’s current social justice work, where she’s thinking about care workers now, not just thinking about blockadia, right. Sort of blocks of the extraction empire, but also making sure that recognizing that care work is also a kind of low carbon footprint and making sure those relationships and those relations are supported. Whether or not that type of care work can also intersect with the multispecies platform, I mean, that seems really kind of exciting.
I had a conversation with Natasha Myers and now she’s working very energetically with first nation communities, native indigenous communities. So that, to me seems to be an incredible source of wisdom in Canada. I’m curious how you and the art school, the students: What are some of the ways now that institutionally you really start to incorporate that source of wisdom, not just symbolically.
This is why I wanted to connect, rooting to looting. I think there’s something there. Right now there was as part of the truth and reconciliation governmental mandate, you know, is a restoration. It’s about kind of cultural sovereignty, you know, making sure that stories are not erased. Like I’m sort of thinking about Max Liboiron’s work right because Canada is one of the largest countries that is highly dependent on extractionism. I always thought it was like growing up in Texas. I always thought it was the States, but it’s actually not. Canada’s petrochemical output is really, really high. I think the history of the Hudson Bay Corporation, which existed prior to the formation of Canada as a nation-state is a telling kind of story of Canada’s kind of origin story. It kind of started out as a company that thrived off of fur trading and then it turned later on into a petrochemical kind of enterprise. So I think that linking of cultural sovereignty, cultural identity to health is really exciting, you know? Maybe that’s like the future of some of these activities, not just strictly from an insistence on indigenous resurgence. I think it needs to be an indigenous resurgence and how it kind of connects to a project of suspending extractivism in Canada, really connecting these ideas of environmental health with ways of living.
I was in a seminar in Australia, with medical humanities people. I think planetary health has been a very hot topic. Also in China. Because the term “planetary health” is actually very digestible for politicians in China. So when you talk about health, no one would say no to a project on that. Maybe I’m thinking about the Chinese translation of health, right? Because the term in Chinese, I never really link it to indigenous practice. In our pre-modern discourse, we would not use the term health. We would use something like harmony or Tao or perhaps balance or the middle way. So, even this term health to me is not so affective in a way. Maybe it’s very different in Canada.
I think it’s similar, but I mean, that’s a good point, like really trying to rename health. Cause I think health still has that technocratic instrument of population management. So maybe by saying health, it does sort of reinforce a story of like, everyone’s going to be great, but maybe we need to name it in a more forceful way, like alleviating harm from perpetual environmental violence. You know, I think maybe that’s perhaps another way to reframe it.
You know, a lot of the colonial issues, you know, the racial issues can also be cast with multispecies perspectives. So I’d love to hear more from you.
Elizabeth Henaff is a computational biologist. She is an artist designer and programmer who looks at multispecies interactions, particularly between plants, microbes, and people, as well as toxic infrastructures and ecologies such as New York city subways and Superfund sites. Her projects take the form of scientific articles and specialized journals, data visualizations, experimental software, sensors, art exhibitions, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Elizabeth teaches at the department of Integrated Digital Media (IDM) at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Plant biology and plant biology research was kind of my first exposure to the experimental sciences. At that time, I was interested in plant transposons, which even for most biologists is kind of a cryptic field, but I think it’s an interesting idiosyncrasy of genomes. All genomes that have been studied, including humans contain what are called jumping genes. And so these jumping genes encode the proteins that are able to recognize their own DNA sequence. So it’s an interesting kind of self-referencing system. It’s a DNA sequence that encodes a protein that has the physical confirmation necessary to recognize the physical shape of that same DNA sequence that was its originator and do something with it.
These transposons are mutagenic elements because when they insert a new copy of themselves in a new location in the genome that can potentially disrupt the coding sequence of a gene. As such, they can have deleterious effects or bad effects if they insert themselves into an important gene. Why would organisms encode these kinds of mutagenic elements? It turns out that on a short time scale, these mutations or these transposition events can often be deleterious, but on a long evolutionary timescale, these types of mutations can lead to big genomic innovations. If you think of evolution as being a system of trying out combinations of many different possibilities, being able to generate really drastic mutations allows you to kind of jump around the solution space in ways that point-mutations, so changing one letter at a time, wouldn’t allow you.
So interestingly, there’s really big genomic innovations that have been attributed to transposition. So I did my PhD work on that and developed a novel algorithm at the time to be able to recognize those transposition events in genomic data. And I used it to characterize evolutionary properties and responses in plants. I went from studying plants as organisms that you can look at under a microscope, to studying plants as organisms that you can study through DNA sequencing. Using this lens of DNA sequencing to study organisms, I got interested in studying organisms that you can’t see such as microorganisms.
The discipline of studying microorganisms through the lens of DNA sequencing is the discipline of metagenomics. So if genomics is the study of a genome of a single organism, then metagenomics is the study of a set of genomes together. And so metagenomics has been pretty transformative in the study of microorganisms. Obviously we’ve known about microorganisms for a very long time, not actually a very long time, but most of the insights that we have gained in relation to microorganisms and their life cycles and their characteristics has been through culturing them in the lab, in petrie dishes. So if you want to study the microbiome of this table right here or soil or a wound, you would take a sample, streak it out in a Petri dish, put it in an incubator and see what would grow. You would have colonies that form and by the shape of the colonies and maybe their color and their growth rate, you would be able to infer something about their characteristics. So that is very useful, in many ways, but there’s many types of microorganisms that do not like to grow in petrie dishes. And so we call these recalcitrant organisms and a lot of environmental microbes are recalcitrant to culture in the lab.
Using the process of DNA sequencing, we’re able to study microbes without going through a step of culture. You can take an environmental sample, you know, take a swab of this table, take a teaspoon of soil, extract the DNA, sequence it. And then using that data, ask the question of what types of microorganisms are there, what types of functions do they encode, without going through that step of culture. And so you have a less biased perspective on the populations of microorganisms that you have in your environment than if you were to culture them.
How do you identify a set of organisms that somehow make sense together?
So usually they’re co-localized in a particular environment. The metagenome would correspond to a set of organisms that you took in one single sample, but then the way you take that sample dictates the set of organisms that you’re studying. So if you swab a square inch versus a square foot, you’re going to get a different metagenome. I think the apparatus very much defines the organism as you’re studying it. And that can play out in many different ways. Just as in any other experiment, it’s very important to define your controls, to be able to reach any kind of meaningful conclusions. But just to give an example, the material of the swabs that you use will introduce a bias as to the microorganisms that you collect. So if you look for clinical sterile swabs, you can usually find nylon swabs or cotton swabs and cotton and nylon have different adhesive properties for different microorganisms.
Depending on the material of the swab that you’re using, you will tend to pick up certain microorganisms over another type. Depending on the DNA extraction method that you use and the types of, um, solvents that you use to break down the cellular membranes, you will break down more easily, some membranes over others, and that will also introduce bias into the data that you get. So it’s definitely not free of instrumentation bias. But coming back to the topic of metagenomics, what’s interesting about studying microorganisms through, through this lens is that we’re starting to understand that a lot of the phenotypes or characteristics of multicellular organisms are related to their interaction with microorganisms. So for example, flowering time in plants has been shown to be dependent on the types of microorganisms that are in the soil in which they’re growing. And so that’s kind of a big deal in the plant biology world because time was thought to be like the canonical genetically determined, well understood pathway. So that kind of created big waves in the plant biology world when it was shown, that that pathway can be modulated by the types of microorganisms with which the plant is interacting. That’s also the case for mammals, including humans. We’re starting to become aware of the importance of the gut microbiome and human health. Grave states of disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease have been associated with disruptions in the gut microbiome, but it’s also been shown that more subtle characteristics of human health and well-being can be related to our interactions with microorganisms. For example, a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain, which is, serotonin being a neurotransmitter that we use for normal brain function and deficiencies of which have been associated to psychological conditions like schizophrenia or depression. It turns out that a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain is actually produced by microorganisms in our gut. And it’s not us that synthesize it.
Our interaction with microorganisms is modulating our identity as humans. So if we look at all these different cases, you know, the plant world and the mammalian world of how phenotypes or physical characteristics of these multicellular organisms are due, not only to the genetics of that multicellular organism, but also due to the genetic makeup of the microorganisms with which they’re cohabitating and interacting. That kind of begs a redefinition of genetic identity to include also the genetic identity of the microorganisms with which we live in symbiosis. And so that particular broadening of the notion of identity and of the individual has been discussed at length by Lynn Margulis, who coined the term of “holobiont.” So the term holobiont encompasses both the notion of host and symbiont and combines those two concepts to redefine the notion of the individual.
If you were to reverse that and think of the microorganism as the host and the multicellular organism as the symbiont, does it change how you think about identity?
Yeah. And so that’s an excellent question actually, because we evolved in a microbial world, right? Unicellular organisms existed a long time before multicellular organisms evolved. And so it is I think a very human-centric perspective to define the multicellular organism as the host or the director of operations and the unicellular organisms as the symbionts or the passengers. And so, it’s entirely possible that we basically evolved to be carriers and provide environments for microorganisms. Absolutely.
So let’s jump, I guess, to a larger scale, which is the canal as a very different kind of carrier. What is the history of the canal?
So the Gowanus canal used to be a creek, the Gowaine Creek, and it was dredged in the mid 1850s to serve as a means of transportation to and from the factories that were in operation around that area. Not only did it serve as a means of transportation, but it also served as a de facto dumping site for the industrial waste that was being generated by those factories. And so over the last 170 years, the Gowanus canal has accumulated about 10 to 15 feet of contaminated sediment at the bottom of the canal. And that sediment is composed of mostly complex hydrocarbons that are the byproduct of the coal tar extraction industry that was there, but also industrial solvents, heavy metals and other toxic compounds that were the byproduct of the various factories that were in operation. So then the canal was pretty much left as is until very recently. It was declared to be a Superfund site by the environmental protection agency in 2010. So, the Superfund program is a program that is led by the EPA to designate certain sites as priority for remediation, mostly due to their threat to human health. And so in this particular case, the Gowanus Canal is a toxic environment and it’s also embedded in a very residential neighborhood. As such, it poses a threat to human health. The EPA has led a series of studies to kind of identify the characteristics of this particular site. The way that they’re going to proceed with remediation is through dredging and capping, which is kind of a standard mode of operation for this particular type of configuration. The plan is to dredge the sediment that can be dredged and treat it elsewhere, cap the canal with concrete, and then let the water flow again.
Just to be clear, dredging and capping means what exactly? Dredge is dredging the sediment then capping is laying concrete over it. And the EPA wants to do both of those things.
Yep. So dredge the sediment that can be removed from the site and then cap the rest with concrete. So this has been shown to be effective in some other situations, similar situations, but it is a very destructive intervention into this particular environment. Granted it’s maybe the most, un-environmental environment you can think of, but if somebody proposed to dredge and cap a river and a forest, then you would feel that that would be a very kind of disruptive intervention. This observation spawned a project in collaboration with two landscape architects Ian Quate and Matthew Seibert, who were both working for Nelson Byrd Woltz [Landscape Architects in New York] at the time. The question that they posed was: If this destructive intervention is going to happen in this environment, what is the environment that is being intervened in at the moment? And so there’s not much macroscopic or multicellular life going on in the canal. And so they specifically wanted to look at potential microorganisms that would be living in the canal. So they collaborated with Genspace, which is a community molecular biology lab here in Brooklyn. Ian was a member of Genspace at the time. And so they organized a first sampling trip to collect sediment from the canal and they were able to extract DNA, but didn’t have the facilities to sequence that DNA. And so that’s when they reached out to Chris Mason at Weill Cornell, where I was working as a postdoc at the time and asked if the lab would be willing to sequence that DNA and analyze it. And so that was the first contact that I had with Ian and Matthew. And that project quickly caught my attention and my interest. Ian, Matthew and I founded the BK bioreactor, which is a project that aims to study, characterize and catalog the microbiome of the Gowanus canal.
We’ve been taking samples seasonally. So four times a year for the last five years. The big news is that there were microorganisms, or there are microorganisms living in the canal. So that sludge is amenable to life. We identified microorganisms that were related to marine environments, which makes sense, because it is a tidal system. We identified microorganisms related to the human gut, which makes sense also because there’s combined sewage overflow. But the question that arose from that particular analysis was: what are these microorganisms doing and how is it that they’re able to survive in such a contaminated environment?
So the source of toxicity in the Gowanus canal is from the sediment that has accumulated at the bottom. So the sediment that is accumulated at the bottom is black, viscous, smells like gasoline, and we refer to it as sludge. And so the sludge, which was the material that we wanted to sample, is under about anywhere from five to 20 feet of water. It’s not easily accessible to sample. And so we devised this DIY sampling technique, which involved getting 15-foot long PVC tubes and fitting them with this slightly flexible tubing at the end. And then we would go out in canoes that we borrowed from the Gowanus Canal Dredgers, which are a community organization that go out on the Gowanus Canal for fun! And they lent us their canoes. And so we would, you know, get into our hazmat suits, wielding our 15 foot long PVC tubes, canoe out into the middle of the Gowanus canal, and then dig these tubes into the sediment and cap the top of the tube. So using the same principle that your bartender will sample your cocktail with a straw before giving it to you. So we would dig these tubes into the sediment, cap it, pull it out and be able to retrieve kind of cores of sediment with that method.
So, you know, you’re doing real science when you’re wearing a hazmat suit. And oddly also there’s a Whole Foods that’s right on the canal. And so we would go there on weekends. And so sometimes we’d be like paddling under a bridge in our like full blown hazmat suits with our test tubes and everything. And then there’d be, you know, a cute Brooklyn family. They would be walking down and walking across the bridge and be like, “look, mom, they’re scientists!”
So the water is polluted enough that you need to wear a hazmat suit.
Yes. Because there’s a certain amount of splashing involved in retrieving these samples. And so we wanted to protect ourselves. More so from the sewage overflow that’s in the canal, than the sediment itself. You don’t want longterm exposure to that sediment, but you know, being splashed by it is fine. There’s a high concentration of fecal material in the canal and that’s what’s gonna make you sick. I would advise to not be in contact with the water as much as possible. The sludge is pretty inaccessible because it’s underwater. And you can see, depending on the tides, you can see sometimes oil slicks that form on the surface of the water. And, um, that’s not going to make you ill in the short term. It will make you ill in the long term.
So, actually, there are long term impacts on old timers, people who have been residents of that area for a long time, as well as newcomers or condominiums that are going up. Are there ways of protecting these people as well as you know, other species who actually will be there over the long term?
So the Gowanus Canal, once it was declared as a Superfund site in 2010, since then property values have gone up a 100% and White population has gone up 63%. It’s in the process of massive gentrification. The efforts of remediation are to provide a less toxic environment for the human inhabitants of the neighborhood. But that also means that the people and families who have been exposed to these contaminants over the long term are likely not the people who are going to benefit from the cleaned up or remediated environment.
What is the promise of a site being declared a Superfund site?
Well, the promise is of the remediation of that site being funded, most importantly.
The Superfund program also puts into place legal mechanisms for holding the responsible parties financially accountable for the contamination. Even though that contamination has happened over the course of the last hundred plus years. When companies acquire other companies, they acquire both their assets and their liability. And so you can trace the liability of that contamination through the chain of mergers and acquisitions, and identify present day companies that are now liable for that. And so in this particular case, Con Edison is the company that is liable for the major part of the remediation. I mean, it’s all energy, right? So the like coal tar extraction was energy. And then, that just went down the chain of acquisitions and different forms of energy production. In a certain sense, the present day 2019 microbiome of the Gowanus Canal maintains a molecular record of the history of human intervention at that site. And arguably, maybe that record is actually more accurate than the human-kept records because human-kept records are biased are written by the victors, have omissions. But the bacterially kept records are a direct function of their environment.
You write that the DNA data is a molecular echo of the effect of human intervention. Tell us a little bit about that echo and its implications. One of the implications is that it allows us to tell a very different kind of history. Does working with microbes, teach us something different about language, history, creativity, all of which are attributes of the human?
A particular environment can be perceived in very different ways depending on the perspective from which you’re observing. So from the human scale, this site is toxic and in need of remediation at any cost and even in a destructive manner. And from a microbial perspective, this environment is amenable to life and productive. Some of these microbes have evolved to use these complex hydrocarbons as their primary carbon source. And so they need this kind of environment. I see this environment as a very rich environment with a precious ecosystem that should be acknowledged as such and valued. So this microbiome encodes bioremediation functions, left to its own devices would clean up the canal, albeit very, very slowly, especially for our impatient human timescale. But left to its own devices, it is remediating this environment.
Bioremediation is the process of degradation of toxic compounds by living organisms. The microbiome as such is something that would be impossible to engineer in the lab. We can genetically engineer a microorganism to perform a particular function. We can engineer a microorganism to perform a couple of functions and maybe co-habitate with another microorganism. But it’s impossible to engineer a population of diverse microorganisms that are able to cohabitate with each other and as a whole perform a complex set of bioremediation functions and not be affected by this cocktail of toxicity that they’re challenged with. This is a unique environment that is very well adapted to the toxicity conditions of the canal. And it’s an important biotechnological resource for remediation of recently contaminated sites.
You could use a sample from the Gowanus canal to seed a recently contaminated environment that has been contaminated with a similar set of compounds. And it would accelerate remediation because that particular microbiome has had 150 years of evolution to optimize their response to this particular challenge. And so I don’t see the Gowanus Canal as an all-bad environment, but I see it as a resource and as a unique environment that should be preserved and catalogued in some way. And it is also an important biotechnological resource when thinking about bioremediation in general.
I would like to see a goal for design being one of collaboration with these organisms that have already been living and adapting to this environment rather than supplanting them with a technological solution.
And you seem to have the data to support this initiative. I’m wondering, have you been in communication with the EPA? Where is the project now as far as dredging?
So the EPA has conducted a pilot study in one of the turning basins in the Gowanus Canal to test the system of, of dredging. One of our collaborators is in contact with the EPA. At the moment, I do not foresee any possibilities for changes in that plan. That plan was drafted a long time ago in 2013, before I even started studying this. But my hope is to be able to create a living library of these organisms to kind of maintain this information and hopefully be able to catalog them in this way and potentially use this particular microbiome as a starting point for bioremediation solutions there or elsewhere.
Some people might say, how do we then guard against some of the unintended effects of, you know, taking sludge from, Gowanus canal, bring it into other environments, because in a way it’s introducing a novel material into another ecosystem, for example. I’m sure you’ve considered this. What might you say to that?
So the fear would be that a Gowanus Canal microbe would take over a particular environment that these, you know, super resilient Gowanus Canal mutant microorganisms would invade the environment in which they’re in which they’re placed. So to answer that, I would say that the Gowanus Canal microbes are, are very good at living where they are and have evolved to respond to that particular set of toxic compounds, but they spend a lot of energy doing that. And so microbes that are adapted to the Gowanus Canal are likely not well adapted to a different kind of environment. And that their selective advantage is one that corresponds to a contaminated environment. If we were to displace them and put them in a completely pristine environment, they would not have a selective advantage. So I don’t see a danger of mutant Gowanus Canal microbes taking over the world.
A more contained version of that approach is using extracted DNA rather than the living microbes. And so microbes are able to absorb DNA from their environment and kind of hot swap it in and just start using it. So we use that fact when we do microbial transformation, so genetic engineering. So the way you genetically engineer a microorganism is you make the DNA that you want for it to have, and then mix it up with your culture of bacteria and then stress them somehow. So either with heat or with electrical shock, and that causes them to spontaneously absorb DNA from their environment. That happens with a certain probability and then they start using it. You could think of seeding environments with extracted DNA from the Gowanus Canal microbes, as opposed to live Gowanus Canal microbes. What you’re doing there is setting up a situation where the local microbiome would be able to absorb and use the genes from the Gowanus Canal microbiome, but you are not transplanting living organisms.
Are there things you can teach people to see in the field? How do you get people to care? Why should people care? You know, how do you take this in a way, very large, very abstract, very frightening thing called climate change and scale it down in a way, you know, make it something that a high school student might understand.
That’s, that’s a very good question. And I think that that’s something that I struggle with as a biologist, but also as an educator, to be able to talk about things that you can’t see and be able to speak about them in a way that feels intuitive and be able to communicate the understanding that I have constructed over many years of studying these phenomena. I think that the fact that these organisms exist at a scale that is very different than ours impedes our understanding, but also our empathy for them. And that’s been something that I’ve been thinking about a good bit. And I think that there’s different ways to develop that kind of relationship. One of them being through scientific study, but another one being through art installations. And so this was actually the topic of an installation at the Detroit Science Gallery that I worked on in collaboration with Heather parish, who is a professor at the university of Iowa and a printmaker and Luna Husaid, who is an acoustics engineer at ARUP in the city. And so we created a multi-sensory immersive installation that tried to communicate through several different means this kind of duality in our relationship to the environment of the Gowanus canal.
In this installation, we had one part that was these jars of sludge. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge and like drove it to Detroit and this Mad Max kind of road trip adventure. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge from the Gowanus canal and installed it in these closed jars in the gallery and exposed them to grow lights. And so over the course of installation, which was only a couple of weeks, we saw all sorts of interesting life forms grow. And through close observation, we were able to see that there was actually all sorts of stuff going on in the sludge. So we had algal growths, there were little shrimp creatures, a kind of millipede worm, the shrimp and the worm were at war. The worm was trying to eat the shrimp. And then, we had a set of prints that were attempting to convey the relationship between macroscopic environments and human scale and microscopic environments. And then finally, a spatialized sound installation with a generative soundscape that follows a similar type of algorithm that dictate growth and decay patterns of microorganisms.
I think that the human centric perspective is always the one that people care most about. Decentralizing the human is I think, a difficult but necessary thing to do. We often consider humans in the environment to be separate entities, but trying to convey the fact that we are part of our environment, that we influence our environment, but that our environment also influences us is important. And I think that this kind of continuum of the microbiome is a good thread to pull at to talk about the relatedness of humans and their environment. Because if human health is related to the human microbiome and the human microbiome is influenced by the environmental microbiome and our design decisions for the environment sculpt the environmental microbiome, then ultimately that’s all kind of connected. And if we can figure out each one of those pair-wise relationships, we should be able to think about our environmental interventions as also part of this feedback loop.
With younger folk like high school students, it’s nice to be able to give very specific examples because the notion of environment or climate change are all very large and abstract, but being able to give specific examples that resonate with people and being able to talk about this specific example, which is the very iconic Gowanus Canal that is known to be a toxic wasteland and has inherited all of these, you know, different names like Lavender Lake, which is tongue in cheek terminology for the fact that it actually smells very bad most of the time. And so being able to speak to these very concrete examples and give hard data that supports the fact that this environment is active and that nature is remediating itself and responding to our interventions in a way that is also meaningful to us.
I currently teach a class in bio-design, which I frame around studying and designing interfaces between macroscopic and microscopic organisms. My students are usually either design students or art students or bioengineering students. And the best is when I have a class with a little bit of everything. And so the course is structured kind of in two parts. The first part is a crash course in biology and microbiology and methods in microbiology. So we do some lab experiments. We do some microscopy experiments. We learn how to analyze DNA sequences. We learn how to source primary source information in scientific journals. So how to even read a scientific article and parse out the format and read the methods and methodologies. So that’s the first part of the course and then the second part of the course is more like a studio practice where the students work in groups to design an interface between macroscopic and microscopic organisms that depart from the clinical interfaces that we have with microorganisms already.
So the swabs that I referred to, that we used to take microbial samples, they look like very clinical devices, so they’re white and they have like a white clinical looking label. They definitely belong in a doctor’s office. And so when we were doing the subway study we actually had some really interesting interactions with, um, various riders in the subway who directly interpreted that tool that we were using as a clinical tool. And so we were asked whether we were studying an epidemic in the subway. We were accused of bioterrorism and of implanting HIV in the subway. And so it was really interesting to see how this tool that we were using dictated the relationship that people had immediately before even knowing anything about the thing that we were studying. Taking a sample with these clinical looking swabs is the same thing as grabbing a handful of dirt. But if you grab a handful of dirt, you have all these associations of groundedness and earthy and healthy. And, if you asked someone to take a sample with a swab or to grab a handful of dirt and ask someone what do you think you’re getting with that swab or in that handful of dirt, then you’re going to get in general very different responses. And so the class is organized as a response to that observation of how our tool dictates the relationship to the thing that we’re studying and it invites students to design new tools and new interfaces that are going to initiate and propose different kinds of relationships.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me.
HEATHER DAVIS talks about plastic in the United States, discussing its materiality, geography, and toxic histories. Combining feminist and queer theory with chemistry, geology, history, and art, Davis unpacks the constitution of throwaway culture, petrochemical industries, pvc, feminized male bodies, human endocrine systems, multidisciplinary collaboration, mealworms, and mermaids’ tears (also known as nurdles) in order to think through questions of justice, inheritance, and multispecies kinship.
Davis works across the fields of environmental arts and humanities, and feminist and queer studies. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York City and is a member of the Synthetic Collective, a multidisciplinary group of artists and scientists who are mapping the material effects of plastic in the Great Lakes.
Welcome to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan. It’s February 14, 2020 and we’re in New York City speaking with Heather Davis. Heather Davis is a writer, feminist scholar and curator who teaches at Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College of the New School. Dr. Davis’s book projects include two co-edited volumes “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies” published in 2015 and “Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada” published in 2017. Her current book project focuses on plastics and petrocapitalism or the petrochemical industry. Thank you for joining us today, Heather.
How might you describe yourself and your practice?
I think I primarily think of myself actually as a writer. I really enjoy the process of writing itself and I think of writing as a kind of practice. So one of the things that I get to do — not sometimes as much in academic writing because the form is fairly standard — but certainly in some of the other kinds of writing that I do for art publications or in other places, in part, what I’m really trying to capture in that writing is the kind of movement of things. So I’m really interested in the writing as a form in and of itself. So thinking about writing in the same way that other people might think about filmmaking or other kinds of practices.
Let’s talk about your work with plastic. So the news and statistics are startling. Billions of pounds of plastic are produced and thrown out every year. There are vast islands of plastics floating in the oceans. The presence of plastics, as you write, is one of the markers of this new geologic epoch called the Anthropocene. You write about what you call the Plastisphere. So how did plastic become so pervasive so fast?
That’s an interesting story. One of the things that you find out when you start researching plastics is that they sort of appear as if we have some kind of conceptualization that they’re surrounding us because of some kind of consumer desire or demand, that they’re fulfilling some kind of need that we didn’t even know that we had. And then they appeared as the kind of answer to this need. But when you look into the historical record, it’s really the opposite of that kind of a story. Certainly the very early plastics, so things like celluloid or Bakelite or Parkesine, all of these kinds of early primarily non-fossil fuel-based plastics. They were really developed to fill a need, which was that other kinds of polymeric structures that are things like tortoise shell or horn or ivory of various kinds. Those things were becoming increasingly rare but also increasingly in demand. So people really wanted those products to make combs, to make billiard balls, to make various other kinds of luxury goods and sort of non-luxury goods. But those were increasingly in demand. And because of that, it meant that a lot of those animals were being hunted to endangerment. People became aware of this. And so, they thought, is there another way to make a similar kind of structure? And so this is the history of the very early plastics, the non-fossil fuel-based plastics. So those plastics were primarily created through plant materials, through various kinds of celluloses.
And then in 1906, then that was the first time that a fossil fuel-based plastic was developed. Those plastics were first really used for military applications. Then it was only after the Second World War that they were transferred into kind of domestic everyday products or household items. And the public was really skeptical of these items at first. They really thought of them as cheap, as imitative, as not desirable. So they weren’t considered products that people actually wanted. The other thing that was really interesting was that the public in general kind of had to be taught to be consumers, especially in relationship to the ways that we think about consumption nowadays, which is that you buy something and throw it away, right? People really had to be taught to throw stuff away. This was not something that came naturally, especially to a generation of people who had just lived through the war. And I’m thinking primarily of the American context here and in that context, people really did have to be taught. So there was a huge range of advertising campaigns that were all geared towards really trying to encourage people to throw out plastic items. One of the stories that I ran across in my research that really drove this home in a very illustrative way was, when plastic bags, were first put on the market. And especially plastic bags that were used for dry cleaning. There was a lot of deaths that were associated with plastic bags, first of all, because people would use them to line their cribs for their babies, which made a lot of sense because they’re water-resistant and so it makes a lot of sense. They’re easy to clean. So, you know, it makes a lot of sense to put those plastic bags down. And also people still really have this mentality of saving everything that came into your home. So, if you had something that came into your home, then that was an item that was precious and that you were going to reuse in some capacity or save for future reuse for something that was yet unknown. And so in this case, people were really reusing these plastic bags as crib liners. And then because of that, there was a number of suffocations that happened because of these plastic crib liners or plastic bags being turned into crib liners. In response to this, there was a huge kind of public outrage and the first response by the public was that plastic bags were evil and bad. They should be banned and we shouldn’t have them anymore. This was kind of the very first response to this crisis that was in the media at the time. But the plastics industry really saw this as an opportunity, they saw it as a way to educate the public to throw the bags away. So it became, not that the bags were bad, but that consumer behavior was bad and the bad consumer behavior was to hold onto the bags that the bags themselves were meant to be disposable. To me, what’s interesting in this story is it really illustrates the ways in which disposability and disposable culture and this kind of culture of consumption that we now take very much for granted was very much an industry effort. And they really had to put a lot of effort into it. It wasn’t for a period of 10 or 15 years before people really started changing their behavior in relationship to throwaway culture. And you can really see this in relationship to plastics.
So you’re talking about the production of a particular kind of subject that comes about because of the plastic industry.
It’s difficult I think at this point in time in history for us to really see what is it about our particular type of subjectivity now that was really manufactured by a particular industry in a particular advertising campaign and what is just a kind of response to a set of practical concerns. And what’s really interesting is going through the plastics literature and the archives is you can really see the very concerted effort to produce this kind of culture, this kind of subject where we think of matter and materiality as essentially disposable and in a certain way as essentially ephemeral. Even though plastics have this incredible longevity to them, which is one of the ironic paradoxes at its heart, we’ve been trained rather to think of plastics as essentially ephemeral items that really are only just passing through our hands on their way to the garbage dump.
You talk about the differences between the kinds of plastic that are around. That the kind of plastic actually matters a lot. So did the industry, and I think when you say industry you mean in the U.S….
So my research really focuses on the United States. And the reason for that is both because I’m located here. So it’s the context that I understand. You know, coming from a feminist point of view, I feel like it’s incredibly important to kind of root oneself in context that you can actually speak to with some degree of authority. But also because I’m interested in the histories of plastic, really where it comes from and how it emerges in the world. And the two primary sources for that historically were America and Germany. Even though now we see plastics being produced virtually anywhere where there is close proximity to any kind of fossil fuel. So the interesting thing about plastics production is that it has to be in close proximity to fossil fuels. So either a fracking plant or an oil plant or something along those lines. A natural gas plant. And most of those are small facilities. So most plastics production facilities are companies with a hundred employees or less. They’re not these kinds of giant corporations. There’s certainly lots of sort of umbrella organizations that govern plastics in all kinds of ways. But the actual production of plastics is done in these much more small-scale, often family-owned businesses, but they do have to be located next to oil or natural gas refineries.
And that’s because the production of plastic depends on those fossil fuels, so it’s very easy if they’re geographically close to each other?
Exactly. It’s very difficult to transport both ethylene and napthalate. It’s very difficult to transport those two petrochemical substances. And so it’s much easier to just put the plant next to the place where those things are being manufactured.
And are these East coast locations? West coast locations?
So primarily in the United States, the companies are in the places where there are oil refineries. That would mean right now there’s a lot of fracking that’s happening in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, so in those places. And also a lot of the historic production of plastics is around Louisiana because that’s the place where so much petrochemical companies are situated. But it is throughout the country, basically anywhere where there’s an oil refinery or a natural gas refinery.
So I’d love to find out how do you follow something as pervasive and as big as plastic. You mentioned a feminist approach. So one would assume that plastic is best studied by chemical scientists and engineers and industrial designers. So what does feminist theory or queer analytics, what does that have to do with something like plastic?
That’s a good question. Certainly I don’t see my work in opposition to other approaches to thinking about plastics. There’s lots of things, you know, you were asking before about what the differences between plastics are, for example. And there’s lots of materially important differences between various types of plastics, primarily in terms of toxicity levels. So, polyethylene for example, is a fairly benign plastic, whereas polyvinyl chloride or anything that has a chloride monomer in it, in relationship to plastics is incredibly carcinogenic. It’s PVC. Any vinyl, basically anything from vinyl pants that you might want to wear or a vinyl couch or anything that’s made with PVC, which also includes things like shower curtains at this point in time. Anything that’s made of PVC or any kind of vinyl monomer in its production is both incredibly toxic to the consumers and also especially to the people who are producing those plastics in the first place.
So clearly I think an analysis or a conversation with people who are doing this type of chemical engineering or this type of analysis from a more of a scientific point of view is deeply important. One of the things that I do in relationship with plastics and my work around it is that I’ve been involved with collective called the Synthetic Collective. There’s three artists, two scientists or two geologists, one chemist, an art historian, and myself who are part of the collective and we really see that as an important step in relationship to really thinking about questions of plastic pollution is that if we can think of these questions from an inherently multidisciplinary perspective to begin with, then the questions that we can ask and therefore the solutions that we can find are going to be far more useful to us, I would argue, than otherwise. So there’s all kinds of things that you can see if you employ this kind of multi-perspectival approach that really allows for each of us to draw deep into our own training in order to approach this object.
To sort of then go back to your other question about, so what does feminism or queer theory have to do with this study? I mean, I think that, for me there’s a couple of different things. One is that, from the feminist perspective then to me this brings to mind the question of justice. So feminism for me has always been a justice oriented approach to thinking in the world and to acting in the world. Because of that, the project isn’t a kind of distanced critique. It really is a project that’s embedded and really cares about the quality of things, about the quality of what are the actual ramifications of various kinds of plastics or the ways in which they’ve been produced or taken up in the world. The other thing about a kind of feminist approach is that I think that there’s a kind of attention to not taking things for granted from the outset, but really trying to look for the kinds of ties and connections that one might think of as something like a situated knowledge. And you could argue that other disciplines do this as well. But from my training, this is where I situate myself.
In terms of queer theory, the connections actually arose more organically and that is because one of the things about plastics is that in order to make any kind of a plastic product, one to up to 80,000 additional chemicals are added to the polymer structure of plastic itself. And those additional chemicals are known as plasticizers. And those plasticizers have various different kinds of effects both for the plastic and for people’s and other creatures’ bodies. For the plastic, it’s in order to do things like, you know, make something black or hard or heat-resistant or whatever other kinds of qualities, we want that plastic object to have. We add the plasticizers in order to be able to achieve those qualities from the outset. One of the byproducts of this is that there’s a category of plasticizers called phthalates. The most well-known of these is BPA. And you know, you go everywhere now and it’ll say BPA-free, but they’ve just actually replaced BPA with BPS. So it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is BPA-free. What you actually want in terms of your health is phthalate-free rather than BPA-free. This entire class of chemicals, what it does is that it primarily affects the human endocrine system. And that is a really big problem because endocrines are hormones. Hormones regulate virtually everything in our bodies. So if you disrupt the endocrine system, then you end up with a huge range of health problems in a human body. This can be everything from neurological disorders to cancers to diabetes to early onset senility to a whole host of other issues and problems. And one of the things that has arisen as one of the issues or problems is the interference with both the reproductive system and what’s called the feminization of male fetuses, which includes things like reduced sperm counts, the urethra moving down the shaft of the penis, so it’s no longer at the end. All of these things indicate what scientists call the feminization of male fetuses. And so there’s been a kind of panic around saving men and saving a certain form of masculinity as a result of the pervasiveness of these types of chemicals in the world. And I think that feminism and queer theory have a lot to offer us in this regard, which is that maybe we don’t want to just see those things only as toxic, right? Or maybe there’s a way to be able to disentangle the kind of queering of the body effects that these phthalates are having from the kind of conversations around cancers or something else. Something that’s obviously a form of harm. In other words, the production of queer bodies we might not want to think of as a form of harm in and of itself. But I think that one of the things that’s been really interesting is that, that’s also the argument that chemical industries make. They also argue that the queering of the body is not a form of harm. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is, how do we think about feminist and queer theory in relationship to this set of very entangled problems? And how do we have a kind of adequate accounting of any kind of notion of justice in the kind of mix of all of this?
We started out this conversation talking about the chemical industry producing, after the war, a certain kind of mentality where people start disposing of things. So it seems to be more of an economic relation that’s produced and now what you’re talking about is out of that economic relation, we now have a queering of bodies. So in a way we’re also needing multiple kinds of theoretical lenses to talk about what’s happening. And if you use plastic to begin with that you’re able to kind of navigate those different webs.
Yeah, that’s it exactly. I guess you know the question that you asked earlier, but like how do you follow something as pervasive as plastic? In a lot of ways I haven’t done maybe what other folks who would follow a particular substance or material or type of being would do, which would be to kind of literally follow it. Because with plastic it’s virtually impossible to do that because it’s just everywhere. At this point, it’s very difficult to sort of pick a path for plastic. But I think for me, what I’ve done instead is kind of pick this more intellectual path or a path through a certain kind of history or path through certain kinds of disciplinary perspectives that allow us to look at this object from multiple different perspectives simultaneously. One of the things that I also suggest in my work is that perhaps we might also want to draw from feminist and queer theory to rethink our notions of kin and kinship structures to really value and revalue how we think about our relations to other beings in the world. And one of the things that I propose is to about the Plastisphere or the bacteria that can now eat plastics or the mealworms that can now eat plastics as a kind of human kin, as a kind of nonhuman progeny because the plastics industry has created these beings. And so for those of us who are entangled with the plastics industry, then we are also entangled with the emergence of these new forms of life. If we think about that seriously and think about those as a real substantial kin or a real substantial kinship structure or as really our babies in some way, then I think it helps us to reorient our ethics in relationship to questions of plastic. And it helps us to give a much more expansive sense of what kin and caretaking and relationality might mean in the world outside of just the kind of reproduction of sameness that we often kind of see it as. And those things are very much indebted to a kind of feminist and queer take on the world, especially for queer subjects who never took family structures or biological family structures as necessarily the places of care or reproduction to begin with.
The useful term you use is “toxic progeny.”
Yeah. I think about those creatures as a kind of toxic progeny.
And that relates to these new kinds of queer kinship networks or webs that are coming out of plastic now being so central to many of our relationships.
Yeah. And to the literal new beings that exist in the world because of the pervasiveness of plastic. So you know, mealworms have existed for a long period of time, but the bacteria that are in their stomachs that can digest polyethylene and styrofoam, those are new. So it’s a kind of bacterialization of life and a kind of orientation to a kind of queer bacterial formation. We have to seriously consider that we’re responsible for the creation of these beings. So if we think of them then not as something abject but as something that we have to care for, I think that that gives us a different kind of ethical perspective.
And I think in your work you’re also very clear about questioning who the “we” is. There are some we’s who are more abject and some who are more causes for these sorts of queering relations.
Yeah. I know it’s difficult to talk sometimes about like, you know about the “we” because in some respect you want to, you have to be able to say “we” sometimes. But certainly in my work, I try to be extremely careful about who I’m including as a part of this structure and who I think is not responsible for the state of affairs. And one of the ways in which I do this in my longer book project is through a kind of differentiation between inheritance and transmission. So for those of us like myself who are the beneficiaries of this way of being in the world, the beneficiaries of the kind of pervasiveness of plastic. And in my case, my grandfather worked for DuPont and was a chemical engineer. And so that’s a much more direct line of descent than for many people. But I think you could generalize and say for anybody who has been sort of the beneficiary of the kind of mass production of plastic and who has benefited from this, you can think about that in terms of the kind of structures of inheritance. Whereas for the many people around the world for whom the kind of proliferation of plastics has resulted in forms of harm or violence or misery, primarily in places where people are responsible for recycling, which often happens by hand and in very material ways or for people who’ve been displaced because their communities became so toxic that they had to leave. All of those kinds of things, those kinds of relations I think about in terms of transmission. So, you know, I have this kind of binary system. It’s maybe not as clear-cut as that in real life, but I think it’s at least a helpful way to begin to disentangle who is responsible for this set of conditions and who has really sort of been both not responsible for, but who has received, these sets of conditions whether they liked it or not.
I’m really interested in how you pointed out that the introduction of plastic was actually a solution to some materials becoming more and more scarce. Which sort of puts plastic into perspective, as not always all bad or not always all good, that it’s always produced in certain kinds of relationships. How might that help us think about collaborative survival or multispecies worldbuilding. Maybe another way of putting that question is, what are the possibilities of living queer plasticized worlds?
Yeah. Well, I think for me, one of the things you know, and I certainly know that, that you’ve been thinking along these lines as well, which is that one of the things that I think we need and many other people have also been thinking along these lines. One of the things that we really need to be thinking about is not some retreat to some Edenic past that probably didn’t exist in the first place, right? So really thinking about toxicity as itself potentially productive, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be paying attention as Mel Chen says in their work, paying attention to all the kind of screaming negative affects of toxicity. But we might also want to be paying attention to the ways in which things can survive and potentially even thrive under conditions of toxicity. And in terms of my work, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about more is, what would it look like for kind of redistribution of toxicity to happen? Clearly this is not a very implementable goal, right? I doubt that this will happen. But I’m thinking about, what would it mean for those of us who are more the inheritors of plastic to take on the responsibilities of living with its toxicity? What would it mean for those of us who have benefited from this way of living to take on more of the environmental burden? What would that kind of mean in terms of geographical relocation or the relocation of dumps or the relocation of incinerator plants or those kinds of things? I mean, certainly there’s much more practical solutions that other people have come up with. Things like, we should ban PVCs. We should not use the really harmful forms of plastics and we could maybe just only produce the less harmful forms of plastics. Maybe we should think about stopping the production of plastics altogether and trying to figure out ways of recomposing the plastics that already exist in the world. You know, there’s all kinds of much more practical means of really thinking through this in terms of, you know, extended producer responsibility laws and various other kinds of things. But I think that for me, one of the things that has been really fundamental about thinking with plastic is also the ways in which it really shows us the kind of intractability of the problems that we’ve entered into. There really is no sense of return to a previous idyllic moment, which as I said before, probably never existed in the first place. I think that there is some sense of really having to just work through what we have, which in that sense I think does mean caretaking or attuning to the kinds of beings that have arisen. Like the mushrooms that can digest plastics or the various other kinds of micro-organisms. What might it mean to caretake for them as they are inadvertently taking care of us. I don’t want that kind of move to thinking about bacteria who can successfully biodegrade plastics as a kind of excuse for the rampant production of plastics across the world. Yeah. Plastic certainly teaches us that the world is fundamentally different than what it once was.
And the technoscientific fix of being able to, you know, possibly breed bacteria, that these are false solutions.
They’re false solutions in the sense that they are not going to solve the problems of microplastics in waterways, for example. They’re not going to solve the problems of the globalized plastic worlds that we live in. And I think it really doesn’t address the real fundamental issue, which is that, you know, when you think back there was a proposition in the 60s, I think it was, called the Monsanto House. And the Monsanto House was this kind of ….it looked like a spaceship or something. Everything in it was this very kind of curved, sleek surfaces of plastic. You know, in some ways it was kind of very beautiful in that kind of 1960s futurism kind of vibe. And everything in it was made from plastic, the cushions, the wall coverings, the paints, the housewares, everything. And the interesting thing about this Monsanto House is that, you know, we might not live within that kind of aesthetic, but we certainly do live within that kind of environment now. A technofix that still is intractably seduced by oil and the ways in which oil can transform the world is certainly not going to help us because we’ve basically created these like sealed-off barriers where everything that we surround ourselves with is plastic. Even if we were to get these bacteria, it would mean that all of our infrastructure would fall apart, if we were really serious about it. We would have no more digital technologies. The planes would fall out of the sky. Most of our buildings would fall down and most of us would be walking around naked. So we actually don’t want bacteria to run rampant and eat all the plastics that already exist. Aside from all of the carbon that would then be released back into the atmosphere as a result of doing that.
Since we’re already dealing with unintended consequences for all the other things that we’ve done… Would it be possible to go back to this non-fossil fuel-based plastic production? Is that still a possibility?
That’s what people are trying to do, right? So with the development of “bioplastics”. Bioplastics for the most part are cellulose-based plastics, meaning that they are plastics that are produced not with any kind of fossil fuel as their source or their base. They’re produced from a cellulose structure from plants. But the problem for me with that is that it doesn’t address the kind of subjectivity that you were talking about earlier. So it doesn’t address the production of a subject or our relations to materiality where we really think about things as ultimately disposable or a subject that really interacts with the world and with matter as something that’s inherently ephemeral. And that is just a matter of taking something and throwing it away. It doesn’t address any of those problems. So I mean, I’m sympathetic to trying to come up with solutions in the kind of short term for the replacement of particular kinds of goods. But I think that certain other things are potentially much more doable. I was at the Healthy Materials Labs at Parsons [School of Design] yesterday and they’ve come up with a hemp-based building material, which is really fascinating because you actually don’t need anything except for the hemp to create the qualities of flame retardancy. You don’t need material on the outside. It’s an insulating material. It’s already hydrophobic, so it’s water-resistant. It already does everything that you would want in a building material and something like that to me seems like a good use of a kind of… you wouldn’t necessarily normally talk about that as a kind of biopolymer, but essentially it’s not so dissimilar from a biopolymer. So we could think about that as a kind of alternative to plastic that might be really useful.
Yeah, I was trying to think about the temporalities of plastic, you know, because it does force us to think about time in a different way, because its timescales are so different from this human scale.
Yeah, I think in that regard, I often think of it as more akin to the geologic rather than to biologic timescales because it really does exist more on the timescales of something like fossil fuels or exists more on the timescales of various kinds of rocks. We don’t really have any real sense of how long most plastics will persist in the world. Most of the hypotheses say that it’s highly variable depending upon where the plastics are. And of course, you know, the fact that there are all these new organisms that can eat plastics and those were enhanced by scientists, but they weren’t created by us. They were created out of evolution itself. To me, it really is a matter of this kind of conjunction between evolutionary time and geologic time. So evolutionary time is bumping up against geologic time when you think about plastics, because it’s really a matter of how much time is necessary for various kinds of organisms to take advantage of the fact that plastic is everywhere. And clearly we’re going to need different types of organisms for different types of environments. It’s not going to be the same organism and it’s not going to be the same for everything. So the bottom of the sea is a very different environment than in your kitchen cupboard where mealworms like to live, right? So it’s a very different kind of environment to think with. Clearly one of the kind of fundamental issues with plastic is how to think about time differently. And Michelle Murphy has this really beautiful concept of latency and she talks about the ways in which petrochemicals, plastics included in them because of these plasticizers primarily is that the effects on the human body, the toxic effects on the human body might not be seen within your lifetime. They might not even be seen within your children’s lifetime. They might be seen within your grandchildren’s lifetime. There’s a latency between when you’re exposed to something and when you might feel the effects.
There’s all kinds of ways in which we have to think about time differently. Another, another source of inspiration for thinking about the relationships of time is to think about Christina Sharpe’s residency time and she thinks about that as the amount of time that it takes for a body –and she’s specifically thinking about the people who were captured and enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade and the people who either fell or jumped or were pushed overboard, and how long their bodies took to enter and exit the oceanic system. So what is the residency time of plastic?
I’d love to talk a little bit more about the Synthetic Collective. It seems like a dream interdisciplinary project. You know, there’s a growing call for interdisciplinary approaches or multidisciplinary approaches, so this mix of scientific-artistic methods that might help us look at issues as large as plastic differently.
Yeah, it’s been an amazing experience. They’re just the kind of dream team of really wonderful, incredibly smart people and very easy to work with. Which is also really important in terms of collective work. Yeah, I’ve been really privileged to work with this group of people. I think one of the examples that we have drawn on in the past, that I personally wasn’t involved with, but two of the key core members were involved with: Patricia Corcoran who’s the geologist who’s a part of our team, and Kelly Jazvac who is an artist. Together, they were the people who named the new rock plastic formation, the plastiglomerate. And what is interesting about that collaboration is that Patricia really wanted to go to Kamilo beach in Hawaii to go look at these new forms of rocks because she has long been interested in the kind of relationship between fossil fuels and particularly plastics and rocks as a geologist. And Kelly was really interested in the aesthetics, how these rocks looked. And so they went there and one of the things that happened when they got there was that they discovered, they originally had thought that the rocks were being formed through volcanic activity, but they’re not. Those rocks are formed through campfires. And it’s because there’s so much plastic on the beach that if you just have a kind of innocent campfire, then that is how these rocks are formed. Patricia was originally kind of very like, Oh, that sucks, what am I going to say about geology in relationship to this? And Kelly was like, no, this is a more interesting story because of this relationship. And I think that it really shows the ways in which that object came to light through two different sets of knowledges that really came together. But also the ways in which that object has since circulated. You know, it’s been written about in Nature, it’s been written about in the Geological Society. It also got picked up in the New York Times. It also has circulated to the Smithsonian Museum and the Yale Peabody museum. So I think that one of the really strong characteristics of these kinds of art-science collaborations is that you can disseminate similar information to different sets of audiences and it can be seen in different ways in different places. So it doesn’t have to always be carrying the exact same message with it. It can be kind of transportable or transposable as a kind of object. Also in terms of our work with the Synthetic Collective, primarily we’re interested in plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, because not a lot of people have done a lot of work on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. And one of the things that has been a strength and a real interest in that is also the questions of both where scientific knowledge can lead us, but then also where it might end and where we might need other kinds of ways of transmitting information. So one of the first things that the collective did was to go around and do a study of preproduction plastic pellets that were being released directly into the Great Lakes.
What is a preproduction pellet?
So it’s called a nurdle or sometimes it’s called mermaid’s tears. So basically when you produce plastic, it goes through this whole kind of procedure. It’s sort of this long procedure where you get a bunch of chemicals. You kind of swish them around a container under extremely high pressures, often with certain degrees of heat. And then what you end up with is some kind of gooey substance mostly. And then that goes through usually an extractor of some kind and then that gets flattened out into like a long sheet. And then that long sheet then often gets broken down, sort of recomposed and broken down. And then the industry standard for any kind of plastic that’s going to be made into a consumer object is these little preproduction plastic pellets or nurdles or mermaid’s tears. And they’re literally like maybe about two millimeters or like maybe five millimeters long by about two millimeters wide. They’re kind of cylindrical. They can come in all colors. They’re very identifiable. If you know what they look like, they’re really easy to spot because they’re so perfect in their composition. They don’t look at all like what happens after, say a water bottle or a plastic bag or a lighter or whatever else starts to corrode and photo degrade or break apart under other processes. They really have this standardization to them, but they make them into these small things so that then they can be shipped. Because the plastic has to be made next to oil or a natural gas refineries, there has to be a mechanism for being able to get the plastic once it’s made to places where they’re going to make it into an object. And so the way to be able to do that is to turn it into these preproduction plastic pellets and then those get shipped all over the world. So sometimes they get shipped in container ships, sometimes they’re put on railway lines. Sometimes it’s just in transport trucks or whatever, all the ways in which we normally ship things, they go out and then they go to other factories where they make them into something. Sometimes factories will make them into something where they are, but mostly those two processes are not the same.
And how do they end up in the Great Lakes?
So they up in the Great Lakes because there are a bunch of these factories that surround the Great Lakes because there’s actually a lot of oil refineries around the Great Lakes or particularly around Detroit and Sarnia. In those areas, there’s a lot of oil refinery and because there’s so much oil refinery there, it also means there’s so many plastics production facilities there. And then what happens is, so two primary mechanisms: Sometimes there’s a spill, so sometimes they’re trying to ship these preproduction plastics somewhere and it spills and then it ends up in the Great Lakes. Or the other way is, at least this is what we hypothesize and that we’ve heard from anonymous sources, is that sometimes the factories, if they produce a batch of bad plastics, they’ll just pour them down the drain and then the drain literally leads to the Lake. Sometimes it’s not quite as insidious as that. It’s more just like, you know, you’re making a bunch of stuff on a factory floor and there’s still that drain that goes into the Lake. That’s primarily how it happens, at least as far as we understand up until this moment.
Since nobody had really studied this before from any perspective really, and also because we thought it would be an easier policy demand in terms of really thinking about pollution in relationship to plastic, we decided to first go out and map where all these plastic pellets are ending up. So we went and did mapping on the shorelines of the Great Lakes to try to figure out how much plastic was in the Great Lakes. And then also what percentage of that was pre-production plastic pellets. That’s the kind of thing that we can do with the kind of geologic surveys that Patricia taught us how to do. That’s the kind of mapping that we can do through that kind of scientific knowledge.
But then the collective wanted to bring this to a wider public. And so we’re having an exhibition that’s going to open at the University of Toronto and that is going to also include these maps that are getting drawn that show the kind of possible paths that these pellets have taken. So what are the hydrological cycles in the lakes that would maybe make it so that certain plastics end up in certain areas and none end up in other places. And is this a way to try to be able to map to see where the plastics are originating from, which companies are most responsible, etc. At least it’s also, I think another way of just visualizing things. I think one of the other things that’s important in terms of scientific and artistic collaborations is that from an artistic point of view, I think you don’t want to be saying things that are not accurate. And from a scientific point of view, I think one of the problems is that people are often quite alienated by scientific language and scientific discourse, and the ways in which science disseminates information. And so I think that trying to bring these two pieces together to both create something that really affects you and that is visual and that can be understood from multiple perspectives, I think that that is a much more effective means of using all of our knowledge and our sets of skills and also to really get the public much more interested and animated over these questions.
One of the goals of the exhibition that we’re doing at the University of Toronto is to put together a User Manual for how to reduce your carbon footprint in relationship to exhibition production. And so we’re doing everything from not repainting the walls, not filling in the holes from the previous exhibition that will be up, to not having any video works because they take up too much energy in terms of the projectors. So instead, all of our video and media works are going to be on iPads that are going to be powered with solar panel backpacks that people have to go out with docents outside to power up. And the manual itself is going to be hosted on a website that also uses solar energy. And so sometimes the website will exist and sometimes the website won’t exist depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy. And so it’s been really amazing to sort of see this come together because there’s like so many things that I never thought of before and so many things that the other folks have been so incredibly thoughtful about how to think about this. Teagan Moore has been doing incredible amounts of research to put all of this together.
Well, I like your project with the Synthetic Collective because you’re clearly trying to make policy interventions and it seems that the scale of the plastic issue actually has to be tackled at a structural… You know, it’s a structural issue. It can’t depend on individual choices. I mean in a way governments have to…
Governments have to make these decisions. Yeah, exactly. It’s like lead in the gasoline.
Because so many of the solutions are posed as individual responsibility.
You know, really if you’re just thinking about it in terms of time, translation into time. It is much better for you to not go to the no-waste grocery store and to use that time instead to call your representative, you know, or to do some kind of political lobbying. That is a much better use of your time if you actually care about plastic packaging. It doesn’t matter if we all go to the no-waste grocery store in Williamsburg, that is not, it’s just so far outside of the kind of scales at which these things have to be changed.
You know, I always close this with some hope. In your capacity as a professor, a writer, curator, collaborator, what do you tell your students or your kin or your toxic progeny about what you do in relation to climate change? So how do you have conversations with people that might be less focused on disaster and end of the world scenarios and more focused on how to live now?
For me, a couple of things that I’ve really learned from plastic is that our desire for containment isn’t helping us. Our desire for really sealing ourselves off from the world and from each other has not been especially helpful in the long run because we never will be able to do that. And so embracing, I think the kind of porousness of our bodies, the necessity for entanglements I think is incredibly generative as a starting point. One of my colleagues said to me the other day that he was reading a news article and it was saying that the things that we’re really going to need if there is a kind of climate breakdown or maybe more like when there is a climate breakdown or if there’s a kind of radical shift in the ways in which our societies are composed, that one of the skills that’s going to be, you know, often people think about like, Oh, we need to like stash and hoard water. We need to stash and hoard food. We need to stash and hoard guns. And he was saying that the skills that are going to be some of the most useful in addition to being able to grow food and those kinds of practical things is also really thinking about community building. And so I think that one of the things that climate change really affords us an opportunity to do is to really radically rethink our relationships to things. I think that there’s so much on offer there. There’s so much to be learned in really re-paying attention to the world around us. You know, it might be a diminished world, it might be a damaged world, but it’s still a world that’s full of so many surprises and so much beauty and so much joy and so much love. And if we can really tap into those things, then we might live in a much more livable world actually. Even if some of our material conditions have to really be rethought or maybe because some of our material conditions have to be rethought it allows us the opportunity to then rethink relations in a way that I think is much more deeply engaging. What would that mean if we really held ourselves to be accountable in terms of relation? What would that mean if we really privileged relations with each other and with other beings in the world as our primary form of nourishment? And I think that that world is a very hopeful world, right? That’s, that sounds like a really lovely world. It’s not like we wouldn’t have conflicts or everything would be rosy all the time, but I think that there would be a way of being with each other that would give us a lot of nourishment that we might not know that we’re lacking.
That’s like the perfect way to end. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. This episode is produced by Ben Montoya, Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Alex Guillen, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. The lab is made possible by the Green Grants program of New York University’s Office of Sustainability and NYU Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement.