ZHENG Bo + Steven LAM
ZHENG Bo is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who teaches in the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong. STEVEN LAM is an artist and educator at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver BC.
Friends for many years, Bo and Steve talk about their current research projects on the affects and materialities of plants, weeds, and cross-species sex; the importance of understanding the historical specificities of the Chinese and north American contexts for rethinking relations between people, plants, and states; and their practices as art educators.
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.