Category: dear climate

DEAR CLIMATE with Una Chaudhuri + Marina Zurkow

DEAR CLIMATE

with Una Chaudhuri
and Marina Zurkow

Episode 10

MULTISPECIES WORLDBUILDING LAB

EPISODE 10:
DEAR CLIMATE (UNA CHAUDHURI and MARINA ZURKOW)

OCTOBER 2021

00:00  INTRODUCTION

Marina:
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.

Una:
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

Marina:
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?

Una:
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   

Marina:
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.

Una:
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

Una:
We started the Dear Climate project. We called it Survival Challenges. That was our first working title, right, Marina?

Marina:
Yes, we had arguments for days.

Una:
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.

Marina:
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!

Marina:
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!” 

Una:
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

Marina:
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?

Una:
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

Una:
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. 

Marina:
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!

Una:
Friendship as method.  

Marina:
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. 

Una:
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

Una:
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.” 

Marina:
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.

Una:
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. 

Marina:
These were three-way signposts like you would find on 4×4 wooden posts out in the woods.

Una:
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.

Marina:
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.

27:24  CO-TEACHING

Marina:
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.

Una:
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 

Marina:
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?

Una:
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.

Marina:
Why?

Una:
Well, because I think in some ways that that tradition is profoundly apolitical and anarchic.

Marina:
Some would argue that that’s embedded in the bourgeois culture that it emerged from.

Una:
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. 

Marina:
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.

Una:
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!

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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. 

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