‘If I smash a window of a multinational corporation, or burn down an animal testing lab, is that a way of connecting with the natural world? And is it art?’
These questions are posed by artist Jong Pairez, during a discussion on the topic ‘connecting with the natural world’ in the undergraduate art studio at University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts Diliman. I’ve been invited to present on this topic, and facilitate this discussion, as part of my speaking tour. The conversation has covered a range of themes: domination, death, activism, becoming animal, food, agriculture, technology, money and trade, health, disaster, mediated experience, art, liberalism, and now monkeywrenching.
The discussion is an element of CIV:LAB (The Civilization Laboratory), an art installation that is Jong’s thesis project. The concept paper for CIV:LAB states:
Human beings mostly cause the contemporary ecological predicament that we face today. We are too far out and arrogant that our habits disrupt the natural pattern of our ecosystem. This incompatibility is engendered by the insatiability of our industrial civilization to extract finite resources to the brink of our collapse. Should we just sit and wait for this fate to come?
CIV:LAB is a tactical social laboratory that aims to gather all individuals and groups who have a common ground in detouring the near apocalyptic possibility. Thus, CIV:LAB is dedicated to research and design on open access knowledge, sustainable life and living, disaster mitigation, and radical forms of social engagement that veers away from the destructive practices of industrial civilization. Furthermore, CIV:LAB is a social sculpture initiated by an undergrad thesis student in painting.
The reason behind converting the studio space into a laboratory is to pave the way for a more convivial manner of producing work because the key to solve our predicament lies behind collective action. As Karl Marx wrote, “Reality is none other than the result of what we do together.” CIV:LAB integrates this reality by reciprocating the ideal in social relations to create form.
Jong initiated this project as a result of his direct personal experience of the apocalyptic effects of industrial civilization. He was working in Japan at the time of the Fukushima disaster, which contaminated the surrounding land to a radius of 450 kilometers. He began to grow food hydroponically in his apartment, as food could no longer be grown in the soil. He has also spent time on the island of Marinduque, south of Manila, a large part of which became a dead zone after a leak from the tailings dam of a copper mine. The river now supports no life, and the entire island is suffering to the extent that it will probably never recover. Young people living on Marinduque have no concept of a healthy world. To them, a sickly green, dead river is normal, the way it has always been. With this direct contact with apocalypse, Jong can easily see how this ongoing disaster could quickly consume the whole planet.
Around 15 people are now seated around a table in a corner of a large airy room, in front of a partition with the word ‘civilization’ painted in large white letters. Behind the partition, art students are painting, hammering, constructing and creating. The university campus is vast, with extensive green space and patches of semi-wild forest. Children glean fruit from the trees. It’s quite a contrast to the majority of metropolitan Manila, which is almost entirely paved over. After several days in the city, this is my first opportunity to connect with the land that I’m living on (rather than in), to listen, and get some sense of where I am.
Here are some notes from the discussion.
Relationship: do we view the natural world, and nonhuman—and even human—beings, as a subject to be in relationship with, or as objects to be exploited? Do we extend the anarchist ideal of mutual aid to nonhuman beings, and provide for them to the extent that they provide for us?
Exploitation: Environmental problems are symptoms of our culture, which is predicated on domination of other beings.
Sanity: Our culture says that communicating with plants is a sign of insanity, but the culture itself is insane, in that it is out of touch with reality. Our connection with the wild has been socialized out by our culture, and we are only living half a life.
Language: In western culture, we talk about humans and nature as separate concepts, and struggle to imagine humans existing within natural communities. It is difficult in English to even describe this possibility, as the word ‘nature’ implies a separation.
Allegiance: Do we ally ourselves with the culture, or with the land that is being destroyed by it? In conversations or activities relating to destroying the land, or destroying the culture, which do we defend?
Self: When we think of ourselves as belonging to a natural community, and that land as essential to our being, then defending the land is an act of self-defence. We need to expand our concept of self.
Place: To take someone out of their place is to take away their being. A bird does not end at its wingtips.
Becoming animal: I am happiest when being fully an animal, being completely present in the natural world. We need to remember our animal selves.
Death: Death is simply the continuation of life in another form. When eating an animal, the animal becomes me and lives on. I want to live on as food for other beings. Fear of death comes from a disconnect from these food relationships. If we were to switch from a fear of individual death, to a fear of collective, planetary death, we would relate to our world quite differently.
Food as relationship: In a healthy natural community, living beings are all food for each other. Food is the web of relationships that sustains the whole community. We have a responsibility to all animals and plants that we eat, for the continued wellbeing of their species, and their communities, so that we can continue to eat. We must ask the land what it wants from us.
Industrial society: The industrial way of life is a choice, not inevitable. We need to recognize that we have choices.
Debt: Industrialization is theft of nature, and leaves us with a debt that must be repaid.
Prosperity: We need to redefine prosperity, away from money and property, to true wealth: community, reciprocal relationships, clean water, air, food and seeds.
Cities: it can be very difficult to form a connection to nature when living in a city like Manila, where it is not possible to gather food directly from the land, and participate in natural cycles. Removing oneself from the city doesn’t help anyone else, so what’s really needed is to remove the city.
Medicine: The first purpose of medicine must be to take care of the health of the planet.
Vegetarian diets: this can lead to becoming aware of where our food comes from, but does not connect us to nature, and almost all vegetarian food comes from broadscale agriculture, which is constantly destroying natural communities. Eating plants and animals with which we have a relationship would more effectively connect us with the natural world.
Money and trade: trade exists in many forms, and for most of history has been a means of contributing to the community, rather than to accumulate individual wealth. The first law of economics has to be to preserve the integral economy of the planet.
Disaster: In times of disaster, people will naturally help each other out and share whatever food is available. The media calls this ‘looting’ and labels the victims criminals. Money becomes meaningless and sharing is the only way to relate. The government and aid agencies are quick to restore the ‘order’ of the market economy.
Art: Art can be a mediated experience, what the Situationists call ‘the spectacle’, a barrier between ourselves and direct experience of the natural world. Alternatively, art can be a channel, and create a connection that wouldn’t otherwise occur.
Buying organic: could be a way of connecting to nature, but more likely a mediated experience, a sales gimmick to create the impression of connecting to nature.
Techniques for connecting
Observation. Spend some time every day in one spot, observing the surroundings using all senses, and ways of sensing.
Learning bird language. Birds reflect what is going on in their surroundings, and learning their language is an avenue into becoming part of the natural community where we live.
The council of all beings. A Deep Ecology process, where participants allow another being to speak through them, leading to an understanding of what the land needs from us.
So is smashing a window or burning a building a way of connecting with the natural world? And is it art?
It’s a form of self-expression, for sure, so I guess it could be art. It’s an expression of discontent with activities that are destroying the natural world, but not an effective way to stop the destruction. It might be a way of connecting, it would depend on who’s doing it, and why.
This all brings up another question: Are these ideas so foreign to our culture that, in a university, it is only within an artwork that this conversation can take place?