World of Matter – Planetary Aesthetics

World of Matter and Krista Geneviève Lynes were invited to make a contribution to ELEMENTAL – an arts and ecology reader, edited by James Brady and released in April 2016.

Download as PDF


Introduction: Planetary Aesthetics [i]
Krista Geneviève Lynes

The ‘planet’ is here, as always perhaps, a catachresis for inscribing collective responsibility as right. Its alterity, determining experience, is mysterious and discontinuous – an experience of the impossible. [ii]

The world has been forcefully sculpted in the last several centuries by the twin projects of colonialism and capitalism. The very movement of human activity under modernity has rested on the modelling of a standing reserve of nature, a category whose flexibility has variously expanded and contracted to include both humans and non-human others as targets for exploitation and extractive energy. Carbon industries, forestry, mining, agri-business, construction, mega-farming and mega-fishing participate in worlding the world as mere matter, asserting deep and unforgiving property rights in dispersed territories around the globe. This expropriation of land and dispossession is not a remote imperial history, but an ongoing and everyday process, [iii] one in which complex and multi-layered relations in a broad ecological and social context are transformed into a flattened playing field where micro- and macro-histories are collapsed.

In this context, where the globe is increasingly calculable and rendered as a resource, the World of Matter project has created a series of open platforms for engaged public discourse. An international art and media project, it asks how contemporary art and media practices might provide alternatives to both the privatised and patented forms of knowledge gathering at play in extractive and agrarian industries and the anthropocentric focus of many debates around the earth’s ‘natural resources’. It does so through exhibitions, an online multi-media platform, conferences and critical writing. In this light, the project has sought both to make visible the devastating force of capitalist globalisation by tracing the red threads that connect extractive industries, research and development, and agri-business around the world, and to provide a platform for active critical and aesthetic engagement on questions of ecology, new materialism, and nature-cultures.

The text which follows by Paulo Tavares stresses that the environmental devastation characteristic of the period we have come to call the Anthropocene is no mere by-product or residue of an otherwise progressive, developmental or prosperous civilisational advance. Instead, his text and imaging practice trace the specificity of the shape of global capitalism, and thus the specificity of the political violence at play in the material forces and processes responsible for climate change. No accidental remnant of the system, climate change is re-centred as the very process in (and through which) imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and settler colonialism are effected.

World of Matter is global in its scope – with participating artists from multiple countries, as well as media works that connect local worlds across different continents. In tracing the specific local articulations of globalising dynamics, the art and media projects expose the manner in which globalisation functions as a scale-making activity, as a system and structure which can farm, harvest and circulate raw materials, mine ores in disparate countries through various speculative ventures, patent and collect seeds as part of new forms of intellectual property, and negotiate labouring communities in forests, underground mines, at sea and in fields.

The participants make use of the critical and aesthetic strategies that have historically shaped the world-making imaginaries of the globe, including a critical re-summoning and reframing of the tropes of landscape, map-making, taxonomic imaginaries and the privilege of mimetic representation. Thus, Elaine Gan’s following text traces material infrastructures that encase the conversion of matter into data, examining the deep ossification of nature at play in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The work exposes the Linnean drive that informs even the imaginaries of conservation, and the industrial logic that freezes the world’s agricultural knowledge in the vaulted structures of an abandoned coalmine.

While World of Matter borrows from multiple aesthetic heritages, their representational strategies are submitted to reflexive questions about the constitution of reality. The efforts to aesthetically render the dense ecologies of the contemporary world – and speak to phenomena such as extractive industries, data mining, rising sea levels, agriculture and fishing – engage visual and verbal languages that defy the tropes of naturalism, and thus the traditional capacity of the category ‘nature’ to recede into landscape or ground. The concerns with enframing, with the constitution of authority elaborated within postcolonial and Science and Technology Studies’ (STS) critiques of indexical media, inflect and inform the mediating strategies at play in and across the project: an attempt to make present the various constitution of subjects-in-process in thick overlapping histories, contradictory social contexts, and material processes.

To do so, World of Matter projects have sought to uncover other world-making potentials in an effort to imagine the globe differently, a project Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has named ‘planetarity’. The planet, she argues, is ‘the species of alterity,’ it belongs to another system, which we inhabit only ever on loan [iv]. This is not simply an appeal to the conservation of nature, as ‘nature’ itself posits an undifferentiated space that might be inserted into capital’s mapping of the world. Planetarity, rather, summons an alterity not derived from the centring category of the human, not constituted through a negation of culture. It is both home and un-homely, a decentring relation to otherness prompted both by the pace of geological time and by processes that occur in a differentiated political space.

The method for imaging and imagining the alterity of planetarity, Spivak names ‘open-plan fieldwork’ [v]. Whereas fieldwork is frequently bound both to the methodologies of anthropology and the social sciences, and to the institutional functioning of globalised NGOs and international civil society, open-plan fieldwork does not presume the field’s boundaries (its locations, actors or cohesion) in advance. If globalisation consists in the attempt to create generalisation, abstraction, and commensurability, open-plan fieldwork works to keep that generalisation under erasure, even as it excavates other pasts, other knowledge-formations, other social orders, and other sovereignties. Open-plan fieldwork is not about crossing into ‘other’ territories, but rather about identifying the shifting territories and borders that define a field within a play of forces. In open-plan fieldwork, the artist or researcher lets themself be imagined ‘by and in an other culture’ and, importantly, by the alterity of the planet itself. These are the radical tools of critical humanities, of postcolonial and anti-colonial theories, extended to the life-worlds of art and ecology in the contemporary moment.

Central to open-plan fieldwork is the question of collectivity – the question, How many are we? Collective identity can no longer be the presumptive base for the political: categories such as the human, women, nature, the third world, and indigenous peoples are not a priori foundations, but constituted through the work of summoning the contours of a field, examining its effects in the play of forces and positing a ‘we’ that does the work of prefiguring a tentative an aspirational universal. It does so, in Spivak’s view, by supplementing data or knowledge with the poetic, the unverifiable and the prefigurative, rather than the predictive [vi]. It is in this sense that World of Matter art and media works resist the evidentiary in favour of the unverifiable, of the poetics of traces where ‘understanding follows no guarantee[vii]. Here, the visual aesthetics of rendering contemporary ecologies evokes residues and remnants, traces and spectres, in the interests of figuring a space both prior to and at a remove from the logic of globalisation.

Collectivity involves the task of imagining and constructing new gatherings, subterranean relations that were rendered illegible by globalising dynamics, and emergent groupings. Given the undecidability of the subject of humanism brought upon by the collapse of the Modernist distinctions between human and non-human, human and animal, and nature and culture, the urgent question for art’s engagement with ecological life is the very question of who and how many constitute a ‘we’. As a particular collaborative experiment in unpacking the world-making processes of contemporary life, World of Matter poses the question of both the hegemonic structures that have organised life into the categories of nation, globe, culture or race, as well as of the formation of undecidable and expansive collectivities ‘without prefabricated contents[viii]. This is a question that can be posed both to World of Matter, as a collaborative artistic endeavour, and of its subjects, of the entangled nature-cultures that form the objects of their aesthetic and critical inquiry.

Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s following text exemplifies this search for collectivity without prefabricated contents. In Episode of the Sea, artists and fishermen, who live the unequal and differentiated realities of precarity and austerity in The Netherlands today, engage in a joint effort to make visible both the historical legacies of labour practices embedded in releasing nets and spooling film, and the modes of adaptation to the realities of multinational capital upon their crafts. Such collective endeavours are not built on a pre-existing unity, but draw connections across multiplicities.

In order that open-plan fieldwork not reaffirm a collectivity on the basis of the social – a collectivity that in its Marxian framework has moulded the radical imaginaries of the twentieth-century but has perpetuated the devastating pillaging of resources in the name of progress – it must not simply be continental or worldly, but other-worldly, and hence planetary. Ursula Biemann’s following text, intuits planetarity’s alterity in her grappling with the dimensions of geological time present in the phenomenon of climate change. She asks how, given the failures of (social) realism to present the epiphenomenological effects of carbon economies, the constructive work of montage and narration might figure (and indeed prefigure) the collectivities at stake in the environmental changes wrought in the epoch recently named the Anthropocene. Deep Weather provides an aesthetic experiment in drawing out connection at the limits of representation, in the material traces that indicate other processes of attachment and mutual interdependence.

Planetarity is decidedly not evoked in pastoralism, in the temptation of the rural. Such temptations have only served the primitivist impulses of Euro-American imperialism. Planetarity may emerge in the alternate epistemologies of indigenous politics, in pre-capitalist and proto-socialist collectivities, in emergent prefigurative communities and in geological processes that resist our predictive capacities. Planetarity marks nature-cultural systems that may provide the source for a different political space and a different collective imagination. In Spivak’s terms, planetarity is the source for ‘an ethical instruction that may supplement socialism’ [ix].

Mabe Bethonico’s text demonstrates both the importance of tracing the processes of dispossession over time, and the sites for prefiguring alternative collectivities across historical and social boundaries. On the one hand, her work maps the pervasiveness of mining interests, in the appropriation of territory and – through legal sleights of hand – subsoil, its conjoining of the avarice of gold rushes with the dehumanising violence of the slave-trade and the imperialising actions of settler colonialism. On the other, the work imagines the assemblage of social and agricultural actors at stake in phytoremediation processes, in a reversal of the very extractive impulses of mining.

The texts that follow exemplify the aesthetic and critical practice of several World of Matter members. In keeping with the collaborative nature of the project, the texts should be read together as constituting an assembled vision of the world of matter, rather than distinct artist statements regarding individual works. Doing so allows us to see in the project itself the modelling of a form of open-plan collectivity, and the poetic resonances across the social worlds disclosed there. Instead of the autonomous work of art, these works work on each other, encouraging us think across seed banks and northern fishing communities, Canadian petro-state transformations and the shoring up of a coastal way of life in Bangladesh, the models of labour-time (and the dehumanising force of slavery) put to work in colonial outposts, and their living on in the uneven social texture of contemporary life. Taken collectively, the World of Matter project constitutes an effort to think and visualise across disciplines in the interests of building substantive discursive and figurative grounds for resisting incursions into sovereign land, denials of the rights of nature, and the persistence of dispossession locally and around the globe. World of Matter affirms the role contemporary art and media play in bringing into focus the globalising dynamics of extractive industries, as well as giving voice to a possible planetary politics.

[i] I became involved in World of Matter through a collaborative exhibition and symposium, held at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada from February through April 2015. The exhibition, World of Matter: Exposing Resource Ecologies, and a two-day symposium entitled World of Matter: Extractive Ecologies and Unceded Terrains brought the World of Mattter practice and concerns into conversation with a range of artists, activists and scholars working largely in the North American context, extending and refracting World of Matter in different context and with new interlocutors.

[ii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, p.102.

[iii] Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014, pp.37-8.

[iv] Spivak, 2003, p.72.

[v] Spivak, 2003, p.36.

[vi] Spivak, 2003, p.44.

[vii] Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012, p.493.

[viii] Spivak, 2003, p.26.

[ix] Spivak, 2003, p.93.