Monday, October 29, 2012

administering biodiversity

‘Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct. The cause: human activities.’
- Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

The problem, again: The interconnected ecosystems that make up the biosphere are all dependent on the capture, conversion and distribution of the sun’s energy through the planetary cycling of carbon. The biosphere has proved to be fairly resilient. Within the constraining parameters of life on earth, however, changes in climate can have enormous consequences. Interventions, human or non-human, that impact ecosystems and the carbon cycle can result in irreversible losses of biodiversity and trigger abrupt and uncontrollable climate changes. The contemporary form of human society – the global social process we know as capitalist modernity – has initiated both a new mass extinction event and global warming. As a result, tens of thousands of life forms will be ‘disappeared’ and millions of people will lose, directly or indirectly, their lives, health or homes through famine, drought, illness and war. These processes are already unfolding. The urgent question is: how far will they go?

Put differently, the problem is the dominant social process and the difficulty in changing it. The social process, organized to maximize capital accumulation and channeled through a rivalrous interstate system, compels all individuals to compete for places in a national economy and compels all states to promote and defend one national economy against all others. Growth, measured in Gross Domestic Product, is a given. By this logic, capital and biosphere are caught in a relation of antagonism, setting up endless and dreary struggles between the claims of jobs and environment, profits and endangered species, consumption and biodiversity. Through this optic, climate change and mass extinction are simply matters of national security and risk assessment. It is taken for granted that science and technology will enable human adaptation to ecological degradation and the weather. The national security-surveillance state is oriented toward enforcing the current social logic, not changing it. The state’s concern is: who can dominate in the new climate scenario? Or in other words: what must be changed, in order to keep in place the current regime of accumulation and logic of domination? Seen from below, however, the problem is how to change that very logic.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

greening documenta?

Kristina Buch, The Lover, 2012
Radical Camouflage at Documenta 13

by Julian Stallabrass


Documenta, held every five years in the central German city of Kassel, is the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics. While its scale may be rivalled by Venice, its five-yearly timetable and large budget allow curators time to develop an elaborate vision, and it has often been used to test the temperature of contemporary art production. Some previous editions have been very influential in changing the direction of the art world—for instance, Catherine David’s Documenta X and Okwui Owenzor’s Documenta XII did much to push it towards documentary and a greater engagement with politics.

The unusual situation and history of Documenta has haunted many of its editions, including the one currently on show. Kassel is a smallish industrial city set in hilly and forested countryside. In the Second World War, it produced planes and tanks, and it is still a production centre for Germany’s main battle tank, a fact that has not escaped Kassel’s Occupy protestors. The city was repeatedly bombed by the RAF, and extensively destroyed, with thousands killed and many more made homeless. As with so many German cities, its modern centre is the product of that destruction, and its few older buildings were those considered worth restoring from ruin. Documenta, founded in 1955, was from the beginning seen as a restoration of Nazi cultural wrecking, and its first edition showed works of classical modernism which had, of course, been condemned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’. They were shown in what remains the main venue of Documenta, the Fridericianum, which then still bore some of the marks of war damage.

The current Documenta—or dOCUMENTA (13) if you follow the rubric of its branding—is a vastly ambitious attempt to influence the course of art and culture as a whole. Its curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, using a frame of reference that takes in phenomenology, quantum theory, feminist thinking and psychoanalysis, wants to push the centre of human cultural concerns away from simple subject-object oppositions towards a perspective that would take in the viewpoints of all entities, living and inorganic. If matter has an intricate connection with information, at least at the quantum level, then all entities may be said to communicate and even to have will. In recounting a failed attempt to have the world’s heaviest meteorite shipped across the world for display at Documenta, Christov-Bakargiev is led to ask, not just what she wanted or what the rock’s custodians (the indigenous Moqoit people in Argentina) wanted, but what it wanted:

'It had traveled through vertiginous space before landing on Earth and settling. Would it have wished to go on this further journey? Does it have any rights, and if so, how can they be exercised? Can it ask to be buried again, as some of the Moqoit argue, or would it have enjoyed a short trip to an art exhibition, rather than a science or world’s fair?'

This thinking is used to prop up a series of gestures towards radical positions: environmental, activist, participatory, anti-war, and in the defence of various minorities. In all this, it is paramount that there must be no ‘closure’, no settling and no agreement: rather a dissonant dance of beings and objects in which all perspectives are acknowledged in an ‘anti-logocentric’ frame.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

reflexive domination and plastic soup

Photo: Mandy Barker
Truth is timeful; history is its core and index. So taught the first generation of Frankfurt Institute thinkers - Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse. In keeping with this temporal truth notion, critical theorists today continuously rethink and revise their concepts in light of a dynamically unfolding social process. The master logic of that process may persist as a static essence of domination, but its specific appearance-forms emerge within a lived spectacle of kaleidoscopic flux. In a stimulating essay included in Critical Ecologies (Toronto UP, 2012), Christoph Görg discusses some recent efforts to rethink the dialectic of enlightenment.

Görg thinks the human relation to the biosphere is changing in some subtle ways, and he calls for a nuanced analysis of the domination of nature. As the ecological crises become increasingly undeniable, he argues, elites are responding in ways that cannot be characterized as simple denial or disavowal. In the post-Fordist phase of capitalist accumulation, the historical attempt to achieve utter or complete mastery of nature is finally understood to be impossible, according to Görg. Instead, technocrats and CEOs now try to master the unintended negative consequences of the failing forms of the attempted mastery of nature. But this ‘mastery of secondary effects’ or ‘reflexive domination of nature’ is a strategy of risk management that does not give up the goal of capital accumulation. The master logic remains the same, but the degrading biosphere is now addressed as an assessable risk or ‘security problem’ that must be coped in order to sustain the expectation of high returns on investment.

Photo: Mandy Barker
This reflexive domination of nature increasingly takes the form of so-called ‘ecological modernization’ and ‘greening of capitalism’. Techno-fixes are sought for the new problems that emerge continuously from the violent interface with the biosphere, which still is not acknowledged as a non-identical end-in-itself. In critiquing these pseudo-solutions, then, we need to acknowledge that capitalist technocracy does not have a single, unified position or strategy with regard to biospheric meltdown. A vast range of responses are being put into play, which must be analyzed within the specifics of local contexts and social force-fields. The emerging tendency, a reading of Görg suggests, is risk management through the ad hoc remediation of negative consequences, as these come into view.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

on the mattering of silence and avowal

Arman, untitled combustion, 1964
Plight of the After: Further Notes on Cage, Silence, Arman, Beuys, Adorno, Beckett, Trauma, Rememoration and Negative Presentation in Post-1945 Visual Art

by Gene Ray

Beuys, Plight, 1985
Two works by Joseph Beuys, or more precisely, two contrasting moments in his output: the first, a proposal for a Holocaust memorial produced in 1958, a feeble misfire; the second, the installation Plight, made and exhibited in 1985, a forcefully effective work of historical avowal. These two moments document the impressive development of one German artist. But more than that, they indicate the whole painful struggle within the visual arts to confront and respond to the Nazi genocide, a crime of state terror for which the place-name ‘Auschwitz’ has come synecdochically to stand. For visual artists willing to risk such a confrontation, the means and strategies with which to do so were by no means clear or obvious in 1958; if, after 1985, such means and strategies were established and available, that was due to the work of many, in a collective development that was absorbed and synthesized in Plight.
Beuys’ proposal for a memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau, submitted in March 1958 to the juried competition organized by an association of camp survivors, was a failure by any standard. His offer to overshadow the camp with a monumental ‘monstrance’ derived from Roman Catholic ritual was wildly, monstrously inappropriate. I register this moment of misfire only to establish Beuys’ relatively early concern with the meaning, legacy and representation of Auschwitz. Beuys was one of 426 artists who submitted proposals to the jury convened in 1956 by the Comité international d’Auschwitz. For it, he produced numerous drawings and models in wood, pewter and zinc. None are compelling or evince much insight. Some were later incorporated into various installations and vitrines, including Auschwitz Demonstration 1956-1964; the dates in the title of the latter indicate the artist’s retrospective desire to establish his continuous engagement with the Nazi genocide and the problem of its artistic representation. This desire is significant, especially given Beuys’ evident reticence with regard to Nazism and its crimes. These early sketches and models, loaded with the Christian symbolism of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness, may betray the stirrings of the artist’s own unresolved conflicts in facing this history. They certainly illuminate a profound confusion before the crisis of representation imposed on art ‘after Auschwitz’, to use the phrase of Theodor W. Adorno. This confusion was hardly unique at the time; it marks a moment when the dialectic between genocidal history and representation was felt by some European visual artists as the pressure of a still unclarified problematic.
Beuys, Auschwitz Demonstration, 1964
The negative presentation of Auschwitz through the indirect material linkages and evocative strategies deployed so effectively in Plight – the environment he installed in the London gallery of Anthony d’Offay in 1985 – was only possible after the investigation of negative presentation in the visual arts had reached a certain point of development. The artistic strategy evident in this work manifests an understanding of the potentials of negative evocation to respond to historical trauma and catastrophe, as well as an at least minimally conscious control of the sculptural means for such evocation. With regard to artistic means, all the techniques used by Beuys in Plight had probably been developed by other artists by the end of 1961, although their potentials would not have been immediately clear to all.[1] The necessary historical disclosures no doubt took longer to circulate and fully sink in; the critical processing of those disclosures is by no means complete today.

Plight is a culminating work, in the precise sense that it consolidates this collective investigation and development that took place in the visual arts between 1945 and the end of 1961 in a way so compelling that it establishes a new standard for artistic approaches to Auschwitz. The negative memorials that in the 1990s would become the institutionally preferred model for monumental public remembrance are prefigured by Plight and are, by and large, merely echoes or variations on it. I am not concerned in this essay to treat Beuys’ personal development or career in any detail, beyond what I have done elsewhere.[2] Here I focus on Plight, in order to unfold from this one work the outlines of a larger history – the discovery and development, in the visual arts, of negative, dissonant strategies for representing catastrophic history in the aftermath of World War II.

Friday, October 5, 2012

review: wilson on the mass extinction

Review: Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (Little, Brown, 2002)

‘Although it is possible to predict species extinction for the near future – say, over the next decade or two – such a projection is impossible for the more distant future. The obvious reason is that the trajectory depends on human choice. If the decision were taken today to freeze all conservation efforts at their current level while allowing the same rates of deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction to continue, it is safe to say that at least a fifth of the species of plants and animals would be gone or committed to early extinction by 2030, and half by the end of the century. If, on the other hand, an all-out effort is made to save the biologically richest parts of the natural world, the amount of loss can be cut by at least half.
     – Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (pp. 101-2)

This is, I am obliged to say right away, my first reading of a book by Edward O. Wilson. I can’t say it is my first encounter, for I have met this name many times already. Wilson is one of those prolific scientists whose presence and influence has grown far beyond his area of specialization (myrmecology, the study of ants) and has attained enough aura and eminence, within the mediations of spectacular culture, to enable him to act as that rarity, a public intellectual: someone whose views and assessments are widely disseminated and may actually count for something in the deliberations of policymakers and even, perhaps, in the formation of so-called public opinion.

I read this book to learn more about the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species. In particular, I wanted to know what is behind Wilson’s assertion, often cited in the literature around extinction, that if nothing is done to counteract current trends, we can expect to lose half of all present life-forms by the end of the twenty-first century. This book certainly clarifies his position and provides all the evidence and steps that led him to this shocking prognosis. The gyst is in the citation above, and I discuss Wilson’s prescriptions for the conservation of global biodiversity at the end of this review.