Nature, as a term, has been philosophically and aesthetically debated since Antiquity. In the words of Adrian Forty, “the distinction between the world created by man—‘culture’—and the world in which man exists—‘nature’—has been perhaps the single most important mental category ever conceived” (in Goodbun, 2011: 37). Nature determines so many cultural practices that it is not possible to announce a ‘post-natural condition’. I propose we stay with this trouble a bit longer.
In a philosophical (metaphysical) sense, Kate Soper argues that “‘nature’ is the concept through which humanity thinks its difference and specificity. It is the concept of the non-human” (in Coupe, 2000: 125). Nature is that which is ‘other’ to the human or culture. Because it indicates a radical exteriority, we can see its ramifications in binaries such as city―countryside, nomos―physis, citizen―foreigner, polity―wilderness and so on. Although it refers to the ‘outside’, modern authors have postulated the concept of ‘human nature’, which is defined as our own natural essence. This puts modern humans in a strange position. On the one hand, nature’s bestiality or carnality are despised and should be ‘tamed’ in order to become cultural beings, while, on the other, nature is sometimes seen as an ideal or a norm, something ‘lost’ to be ‘found’ anew. In this context, nature is a problematic signifier that intersects with another powerful dualism, that of mind and the body (Soper, 1995: 91-2). Specific understandings of human nature had been used to support, justify and further various forms of racism, sexism, and speciesism. ‘Savages’, ‘primitives’, ‘undeveloped’, ‘barbarians’, ‘nonmoderns’ have been variously construed as living in a ‘state of nature’. In these cases, naturalisation supported material practices of inferiorisation, exploitation and submission.
The strange push and pull that operates across internal and external ‘nature borders’ can be explained through “nurturing and domination metaphors” (Merchant, 1980: 3). As Francis Bacon asked in his scientific philosophy, in the mind―matter (nature) dualism, nature is to “be put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man” (in Merchant, 1980: 169). In Bacon’s imagery, nature is an exquisite artisan full of secrets and plots, but this partial admiration turns into a fantasy of dominion, she is a “common harlot” to be “mined”, “entered” and “penetrated” (in, ibid.: 167). Soper finds in the identification of nature with woman all the ambiguities that man has in his relation to woman, who is both mother and sexual partner, virgin and lover, thus igniting both attractions and repulsions, incestuous desires and feelings of security and protection (1995: 102-107). Nature is attractive, pure and noble, but that could lead a man to be seduced by the forces of chaos “to lose control”.
Ecofeminist historical analysis of Carolyn Merchant (1980) traces transformation of nature from ‘organism’ into object devoid of agency through the development of a mechanistic world-view in the 16th and 17th centuries. The nature―culture binary was in this context closely related to the political and metaphysical problem of chaos versus order (Merchant, 1980: 128). The intersection of these various lines of dualisms converged on the bodies of hundreds of thousands of women who were persecuted as witches in that period. In an early modern society, obsessed with ‘order’, science and politics joined forces against natural ‘forces of chaos’, and the common medium became a mechanistic understanding of the universe, together with a number of ideological pseudo-scientific constructs. Silvia Federici mapped the grids of vices and virtues that essentialised feminine and masculine values (2004). True to the logic of dualism, feminine was here constructed against the imagined norms of the “nature of man” (Federici, 2004). Witchcraft, or magic that considered nature as animated entity, was considered against God, Nature and the State, as well as nascent capitalism (ibid.: 173). Another instance of intersecting dualisms converged in the colonisation of the Americas that was accompanied by sexual projections of notions such as ‘virgin’, ‘mythic wilderness’ and ‘mysterious zones’ onto the land and its inhabitants that could then be ‘deflorated’, ‘penetrated’ and finally ‘possessed’ (Alaimo, 2000: 13-4). These histories are entangled with the word ‘nature’ and cannot be forgotten or erased.
The general turning of nature into ‘resource’ is still in full swing in the patterns of capitalist appropriation and accumulation. Animals have been variously depicted as mindless beasts or mechanisms, which made their historical and ongoing genocide easier. Jason Moore contends that capitalism is not based on surplus derived from labour relations, but first and foremost on “Cheap Natures: a rising stream of low-cost food, labour-power, energy and raw materials” (ibid.: 70-1).
Every act of exploitation (of commodified labour-power) therefore depends on an even greater act of appropriation (of unpaid work/energy). Wage-workers are exploited; everyone else, human and extra-human, is appropriated. (ibid.: 72)
Moore singles out that capitalist appropriation works along ‘the frontiers’ where natures are internalised, whilst “the biosphere internalises the relations of capital” (e.g. waste) (ibid.:99). The frontiers of appropriation, far from being only out there in the colonies, are ubiquitous. Feminist analyses have disclosed how housework is another ‘cheap’ or ‘free nature’. Child-rearing is qualified as a ‘natural’ task that women are expected to perform naturally (Firestone, 1970; Mies, 1986; Federici, 2012). Maria Mies (1986) calls this process ‘housewifization’, the reduction of women’s role as outside yet constitutive of capitalism, which is thus correlated to patriarchy. Despite a long history of feminist theory and activism, ‘natural’ work is still an omnipresent ‘frontier’ of appropriation.
Given this legacy and reality, should the concept of nature be relegated to the dustbin, an aberration of modern history? Is it possible to work with these and related terms outside of an axiomatics that binds human with polity, and nature with barbarian and beastly?
Recent critical theory has even challenged using the concept of ‘nature’ as a rallying point of ecological critique and politics. Slavoj Žižek equates the concept to an ideology from which humanity should wake up if it wishes to face the impending environmental catastrophe:
Humanity has nowhere to retreat … there is also no Nature qua balanced order of self-reproduction, but only one whose homeostasis is disturbed and derailed by human interventions. Not only is the big Other ‘barred;’ Nature is also barred. (Žižek, 2008: 56)
Far from plainly dismissing the term, Žižek calls for an end to the understanding of nature as refuge. Humanity is instead nested deeply inside the climate crisis.
In different terms, Bruno Latour suggests that a political ecology should “let go of nature” (2004: 9). Latour’s position has to be viewed in light of his analysis of modernity where he describes the political/cultural project of modernity as a process of drafting a “Constitution – [which] defines humans and nonhumans, their properties and their relations, their abilities and their groupings” (Latour, 1993: 18). The main problem of modernity is that these categories are not and cannot be clear-cut, because the moderns constantly engage in practices of the creation of mixtures, “hybrids of nature and culture” (ibid.: 11). In this sense, “…the very notion of culture is an artefact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures – different or universal – do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only natures-cultures” (ibid.: 104).
Donna Haraway furthers the notion of natures-cultures and gives it a central place in her theorisation of post-modernity. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway claims that boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical have become ‘leaky’ (1991: 151-2). The figure of the ‘cyborg’ stands for hybridisations of natures and cultures that even humans under techno-scientific capitalism have become. Based on Haraway and Latour’s analyses, Sarah Whatmore founds her “hybrid geographies” on a relational ethics “of/for a more than human world”. As she describes, “hybridity disturbs the habits that reiterate the cumulative fault-line between human/subjects and non-human/objects” (Whatmore, 2002: 161). Even if the notion of hybrids at first seems to perpetuate the “leaky distinction” between nature and culture, its purpose is not to magically dissolve the dualism, but instead to point at the intricacy of human/nonhuman entanglements.
How nature is discursively constructed in literature and cultural studies has been explored by ‘ecocriticism’ (Glotfelty and Fromm, 1996; Garrard, 2004), also called ‘green studies’ (Coupe, 2000). Ecocriticism investigates the implications that cultural representations of ‘nature’ have for how humans relate to the environment. Lawrence Buell defined ecocriticism as a “study of the relation between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis” (in Coupe, 2000: 4-5). In the words of Kate Rigby, “ecocritics seek to restore significance to the world beyond the page” (in Iovino & Opperman, 2014: 6). Ecocriticism, through its engagement with cultural productions, refuses nature as a monolithic concept and instead actively deconstructs and destabilises it. Terry Gifford stresses that our “relationship with nature is a matter of unease” (2000: 175), and ecocriticism tries to capture and convey this uneasiness.
Ecocriticism has more recently developed a unique blend of aesthetic criticism and philosophical writing. This evolution is well exemplified through the work of Timothy Morton who weds ecocritical aestethic analysis with a new realist Object Oriented Ontology. Morton criticises ‘ecomimesis’ or nature writing (2007), and goes on to suggest, similarly to Gifford above, that ecological art needs to “hold the slimy in the view … rather than trying to make pretty or sublime pictures of nature” (ibid.: 157). This is what Morton calls ‘ecology without nature’ or ‘dark ecology’, terms denoting a profound imbrication with nonhumans from which there is no escape into ‘arcadia’ or ‘wilderness’. According to Morton, abandoning nature as a concept may lead closer to an environmental ethics which thinks ways of “being together” (Morton, 2010:4) with ‘strange strangers’ (ibid.: 38-50; 59-97).
Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman describe the movement of ecocriticism “beyond the page” with the term ‘material ecocriticism’, an approach that “examines matter both in texts and as a text” (2014: 2). Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s edited collections Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2012), Prismatic Ecology (2013), and Elemental Ecocriticism (2015) are exemplary in this regard. The texts in the above collections cross metaphysical, ethico-political, aesthetic considerations with increased attention to reading the materiality itself, together but also beyond its representations in cultural manifestations. Materialist ecocriticism is characterised by often poetic or experimental style of writing. More than providing theories or critiques, it creates a literary eco-aesthetics unto its own. In this regard, I see this materialist new wave of ecocriticism as a companion in the shared posthumanist conversation.
Having in mind various positions above, I follow Stacy Alaimo, who asserts that nature as a term should be contested and critically adopted as a lead to explore areas in which dualisms are put to separate (2000). In my view, ‘nature’ is a powerful marker to where the processes of exploitation and appropriation have taken or are taking place. If eco-aesthetics is about bringing humans and nonhumans together, ‘nature’ remains an important discursive and material site, not as something to be ‘saved’ or a wilderness to ‘escape to’, but where violence and injustice should be repaired. As far as regards ‘our’ own practices, they are characterised by hybridity, the are never ‘pure’ and they should not be only cultural. Recognising the natural-cultural hybridity does not mean simply adding nature and stirring, it is a mode of taking responsibility and accountability for the mixes in which we participate, and the material effects these exert on bodies. How to create conditions of good life in naturescultures is a matter of responsible praxes, one of which may be of eco-aesthetic sorts.
In this section I will analyse artistic approaches that propose messier and hybrid troubled figurations of nature. In line with the previous discussion, I will call these practices natural-cultural, modes of hybridisation rather than distinction.
Practices of natures-cultures are different from artistic methodologies that ‘import’ nature into culture. This linear ‘importation’ modality can be illustrated by classical projects such as Jannis Kounellis’ introduction of 12 horses into the gallery space (1969), or Mark Dion’s placement of a cubic yard of jungle into a museum (1992). Olafur Eliasson’s installations re-create ‘natural’ environments and atmospheric conditions ‘indoors’. Henrik Håkansson staged a concert of a goldfinch at the Royal Academy of Music (2005) and in his other works, brought plants into museums. These practices are more about re-presenting nature in the seat of culture, than accounting for hybridisation.
Similarly, traditions of representation of nature are important modalities of negotiating the outside. The notion of landscape is one of the privileged interfaces in representational mode. In the modern sense, it is a “pictorial way of representing or symbolising surroundings” (Cosgrove & Daniels, 1988) and, as a geographical concept, ‘‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance’’ (J.B. Jackson, in Rose, 2002: 456). At the nexus of these points, landscape is a distinct “scopic regime” (Jay, 1988), a “way of seeing” (Thomas, in Wylie, 2007: 68), an epistemology and a politics based on the separation of the seer and the seen1. Recent human geography re-examined the notion of landscape and reformulated it in terms of experience, a “way of being” (Ingold, 2000) or “dwelling” (Wylie, 2007: 179)2. The geographical school of thought known as non-representational theory (NRT) reformulates landscape as a site of the contiguous unfurling of more-than-human materiality:
[an] admirable picture and an uncomfortable bed, something distant and intimate all at once, powerful image and patchy matter . . . Central to this is the tension of presence/absence, and of performing, creating, and perceiving presence. (Rose & Wylie, 2006: 475)
Landscape in this perspective is also a tension between surface and depth, or “fold” (Wylie, 2006). This understanding relies on the notion of the hybrid or posthumanist ‘performativity’ of matter and humans (e.g., Whatmore, 2002; Harrison, Pile and Thrift, 2004). A performative notion of landscape troubles another important modern epistemic and corporeal binary, the one between seeing and touching. This plurisensory quality of landscape is by definition of a performative nature, and this is how I will try to approach landscape in my own practice.
Photography and film are key landscape media in contemporary discourse. They often re-iterate the separation between the seer and the seen and thus do not directly contribute to non-dualistic modes of experience and thought3. However, more immersive approaches can be found in sound field recordings (e.g., Andrea Polli, Elin Øyen Vister, Katie Patterson)4. Crucially, sound practices rely on a performative engagement with landscape, either of the artist and sometimes the listener is asked to move through landscape, as in the works of Christina Kubisch and Perdita Phillips5. These experimentations are of greatest interest for a posthumanist eco-aesthetics, however I will not dwell on them for long because this investigation is of a fundamentally performative-visual nature. Another approach to the frontier is through staging and inviting interaction, often by using technologies of interactive digital sensing. These projects, by virtue of technology, are often based on programmed feedback loops and thus create micro-ecosystems in which humans are invited to be more reflexive of their interactions with earth others6. However, their limitation is an often pre-determined loop, which ends up domesticating what is considered natural by making it accessible and comprehensible. Authors or designers of interactive contexts earn a central place in these transactions, therefore precluding the dissolution of preconceived hierarchical notions.
Of interest for this research are practices that are attendant to otherness, and do not seek to reduce difference. Ariel Guzik has been making instruments to communicate with whales and dolphins in the sea. Guzik attempts to reach out to another species, trying to “cross gazes” with this other “civilization” with which we humans are “in war” (Guzik, 2013). Furthermore, practices of experiencing the landscape via bodily engagement often embody a more-than-human ethics, as in the works of, for example, Anette Arlander7 or Laura Harrington8. These are performative modes of becoming-earth in the tradition of Ana Mendieta, where landscape is a meeting place of human and non-human and a mode of documentation or representation.
Deconstruction of the naturalness of nature has been one of the effects of bioart. According to one definition, “bioart is a new inter-disciplinary and inter-art paradigm that uses organic substance as the material of art, and methods of bio-technology and medicine as instruments of expression” (Beloff, Berger & Haapoja, 2013:6). Bioarts (in plural) are at the vanguard of hybridising the boundaries of natures and cultures from both sides of the binary, and are one of the most dynamic fields of ecological art (Eduardo Kac, Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Brendon Ballengée)9. While bioarts have commonly been associated with the laboratory, in more recent developments they move into fieldwork, into the landscape, as, for example, in the work of Bioartsociety (see, Beloff, Berger & Haapoja, 2013). The work of Critical Art Ensemble turns biotechnology into a ‘tactical’ media, a socially engaged practice intent on raising public awareness about the potential and dangers of these technologies, as well as intervening directly into its infrastructures and protocols. A number of research/exhibition initiatives have explored nature-culture interfaces of sciences, for example, the Center for PostNatural History at Pittsburgh10. These are most interesting boundary interventions, and merit further exploration. The approach of this research is however oriented more towards an embodied practice.
Taking up the tradition of environmental art as remediation, a number of artists work with plant-growing to propose effective real-scale nature-cultures (e.g. Nils Norman, Camilla Berner)11. Gardening initiatives complicate the divisions between city and countryside, and sometimes patterns of labour, but are of less relevance for this research. In the avant-garde spirit of rural eco-communes, small-scale, often artist- or curator-run institutions rehearse nature-culture entanglements through ‘off-the-grid’ clusters that combine alternative agricultural practices, sustainable energy sources, and artistic initiatives12. Residencies in extra-urban locations have their specific issues of artist-as-outsider, social and environmental sustainability, but they provide unique formats for artists, still an urban majority, to expand the temporality of their work, something which is necessary for deeper engagements with nonhuman modes of living.
In recent eco-oriented art, nature is reconceived not as an outsider, but as a complex terrain of struggle or cohabitation of agencies, human and other-than-human. Compared to the forerunners of the 20th century, there has been a marked move towards a more transversal engagement between disciplines, media and sites13. However, this does not mean that the role of the ‘human’ is decentred or unsettled. As I will argue in the following chapters, human must become other than itself for a more-than-human ecology to emerge. The relevance of nature for this research is a material-discursive area of passage to be worked with carefully, with an intense affective engagement and a renewed art of “noticing” (Tsing, 2015). It does not always mean traveling to the edges of (post-)industrial civilisation in the spirit of Romantic tradition. Nature-culture rifts and hybrids happen everywhere, in urban piazzas, research labs, as well as on the insides of our bodies. Aesthetic practices are modes of re-imagining these intimate and complicated cohabitations.
- In the modern context, landscape is a genre, but it is also a medium (Mitchell, 2002:5), a palimpsest of a modern world-view, of an epistemic and power settlement of roles between man and the environment, a “fixed relationship between object and subject, locating the viewer outside of the picture and outside of the relations being depicted” (Thomas, in Wylie, 2007: 68). Landscape in this context is one of the manifestations of modern epistemologies that privilege the eye of control, an ‘imperial vision’ (Mitchell, 2002), connected with colonial domination of lands and peoples. However, the modern tradition of landscape is not monolithic, and baroque landscape materialises a regime associated with “opacity, unreadability, and indecipherability” (ibid.:17), domain of mystery and secrets. Baroque landscape is a place of uncertainty, and the observer cannot fully comprehend and know all the forces at play. Another iteration of landscape is ‘sublime’, the aesthetic idea of a nature that surpasses the grasp of the man and puts the observer at an admiring distance.
- Dwelling is “a poetic vision of the gathering together of earth and humanity as landscape” (Wylie, 2007: 179). Landscape can thus be seen as ‘association’ or ‘partnership’ between people and land, as the suffix -skap in its etymology embodies (Spirn, in DeLue and Elkins, 2008: 49).
- Photographers as varied as Benoit Aquin, Daniel Beltrà, Erika Blumenfeld, Edward Burtynsky, Mitch Epstein, Nadav Kander, David Maisel, depict climate change consequences, industrial landscapes, patterns of the use of land, urban sprawl or decay, and so on.
- Andrea Polli combines data with audio recording on-site, often in collaboration with scientists. She calls this method ‘sonification’, and Polli’s sonicscapes re-materialise often fragile or remote ecologies (e.g., Sonic Antarctica, 2008). Elin Øyen Vister documents soundscapes of the islands in Norway, especially focusing on the sounds of sea birds. Hers is an extended temporal engagement with landscape, where she meets the other-than-humans, and the recordings are testimonies of these cross-species encounters. Katie Paterson’s Vatnajökull (the sound of) (2007-08) consisted of providing a telephone number which, when dialled, connected the caller to a microphone submerged beneath a glacier in Iceland.
- In Security and Electrical Walks (2003 – ongoing), Christina Kubisch equips participants with special headsets that capture electro-magnetic waves omnipresent in the urban environment, but entirely out of our hearing spectrum. Perdita Phillips in Sixth Shore (2009-13) captures three different soundscapes embodying different ecological times around Lake Clifton in Western Australia. By recording “thrombolic time”, “lake formation and seashore changes”, “indigenous cultures”, “bird migration and hooded plovers”, and “futures”, Phillips aims to “articulate competing agents . . . in a way that decentres the current environmental impasse to encourage new solutions to human‒nonhuman interactions” (Phillips & Patchett, 2013: 115). Importantly, Sixth Shore created an experience that connected landscape with an expanded soundscape by inviting the audience to walk through the actual Lake Clifton landscape with GPS-equipped headphones.
- Natalie Jeremijenko’s Amphibious Architecture (2009) is a light installation on the East River and Bronx River that created an interface between fish and humans. “Instead of treating the rivers with a ‘do-not-disturb’ approach, the project encourages curiosity and engagement” (Shepard, 2011). Jeremijenko does not see any discontinuity between nonhumans, technology, and human societies, but encounters and care should be incited and facilitated (hence, the name of her art/design practice Environmental Health Clinic). Usman Haque’s Natural Fuse (2009) is a participatory project that created a self-regulatory feedback mechanism connecting plants, humans and light bulbs. If some participants spent more energy, plants would get killed or, literally, fused. The project thus worked with humans’ behaviour patterns by creating a systemic dependency of plants and humans mediated by technology. There are numerous other projects of human-nonhuman interaction.
- Annette Arlander performs often multi-year performances in which she spends extended intervals of time in one spot where she returns. For example, Arlander sat “on a rock in the landscape, 13 times during a day and a night, with two-hour intervals” (Days and Nights, 2003-). In another ongoing multi-year performances she re-visits the same spot approximately once a week over the course of a year (Animal Years, 2002-).
- Laura Harrington combines video and sound into depictions of landscape with attention to minute details and changes (e.g., Liveliest of Elements, 2015). Importantly, Harrington’s practice consists in re-visitations of the same location over extended time periods in order to sense deeper times of living processes.
- Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny (2000) is one of the early examples of artistic production of genetically modified organisms, as it consisted “in the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit” (Kac, 2000). Kac theorised and practically introduced “transgenic art”, which uses genetic engineering “to create unique living beings” (ibid.). Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr grew Victimless Leather (2004-13), a leather grew from the stem cells of a mouse. This project, beyond its scientific adventurousness, raised ethical questions about leather industry. In Disembodied Cuisine (2003), Catts and Zurr grew victimless steak from frog cells without killing the animals. In Brendon Ballengée’s work, the approach is similar, but the results are the opposite. Ballengée confronts the current ecological crisis of species extinction with a practice of “species reclamation”, bio-genetic recreation of species which are deemed extinct, thereby reverting the idea of evolution as a one-way history.
- Center for PostNatural History at Pittsburgh has a mission to “acquire, interpret, and provide access to a collection of living, preserved, and documented organisms of postnatural origin”. This research and exhibition practice studies “organisms that have been intentionally and heritably altered by humans”, thus trying to fill the gap often left void by natural history museums.
- Just a couple of illustrative examples in this ever-growing constellation. An important work is Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991-ongoing), where, on a toxic piece of land in Minnesota, Chin and his assistants adopted plants to extricate heavy metals from the soil. (This work of hybridisation can be put in perspective with Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-78-ongoing) which preserves a plot of land in lower Manhattan in the state of wilderness.) Nils Norman’s works consist of proposals for permacultural developments of urban spaces, or radical design solutions, such as Geocruiser (2001-02), a greenhouse/truck, a piece of ‘mobile propaganda’ for alternative living. Similarly, Camilla Berner revitalised an empty lot in downtown Copenhagen as a wild plants garden in her Black Box Garden (2011). In this and other projects, Berner creates seed banks and plant collections.
- Among many, some initiatives that I find important in Europe are, Kultivator in Sweden, Mustarinda in Finland, Nida Art Colony in Lithuania and Røst A.I.R. in Norway. In line with earlier avant-garde or ‘back-to-the-land’ initiatives, these institutions, or communities of practice, strive to erase the distinction between art and everyday life with focus on ecological practices. What, in my view, is distinguishing from earlier practices is that these organisations are now regionally and sometimes globally networked, using artistic channels to connect to other similar initiatives. One example is EU-funded project Frontiers in Retreat (2013-18), a network of eight ‘remote’ residencies in seven different countries.
- I avoid using the word ‘complexity’ here, since it is in my view, in this context, an ideologically charged notion. In ecological discourse it is sometimes used as a category towards which culture or art practices need to strive towards (e.g., in philosophy of deep ecology, or in the arts context, in Kagan’s (2012) eco-art proposal). I believe that engagement always needs to be more careful and more local, by which complexity is not excluded but is not a feature that needs to be a final goal.