On ecological thinking and practice. Interview with Antje Majewski.2015-12-23
Aleksandra Jach: Do we need ecological thinking in art practices and cultural institutions?
Antje Majewski: Yes, we do! We need ecological thinking everywhere, including art, education, daily life – everywhere. Ecological thinking, just as feminist thinking, is for me not an extra topic. If you take ecological thinking seriously, it is a way of being in the world, of relating yourself to what is around you and of course affects anything you do. Including to make art, or shows, or write articles, or run an institution.
Aleksandra Jach: Noel Castree recently wrote an interesting article; ”The Anthropocene and Environmental Humanities: Extending the Conversation” in which he defends the conception of the Anthropocene, proves that it can be a useful tool. Of course, this buzz word can be understood as too pessimistic, too vast, non-precise and confusing, but one of Castree's arguments for using it, is its ability to discuss important environmental issues which were ”in the air” for a long time, but they didn't achieve adequate recognition (climate change, air pollution, biodiversity loss, invasive species, gender inequalities, privatization of the commons etc.). Castree thinks that thanks to this ”conceptual umbrella” we can do more for ecological thinking. He specifically emphasizes the role of humanists, scholars, scientists who ”seek institutional and epistemological forms of engagement that might alter important conversations occurring outside the humanities”. Katherine Gibson is a good example of such approach, which is interesting, because this is one of the authors you invited to contribute to your publication ‘Apple. An Introduction (Over and over again)’. What do you think about using this new term and how can it be helpful in a context of cultural practice?
Antje Majewski: The term is not that new any more. I think that you only need to take an airplane and fly anywhere to see the anthropocene with your own eyes. The world is showing us the visible traces of the anthropocene from above: the grid of roads, the abstract patterns of gigantic monoculture fields, the mining – there really aren’t many areas of the world that haven’t been altered by humans and the technical instruments and machines, they construct. One could also argue that in many parts of the world today we live in ecosystems that include not only humans and other living organisms, but also machines: we live in anthromes. As I learned during my years of research on apples: any industrial plantation of Golden Delicious apples is such a techno-ecosystem, in which the plants are only able to exist if humans use machines to spray them with diverse chemicals. The conditions, under which these monocultures of cloned organisms are grown, reinforce the growth of their enemies, be they fungi or insects, which again have to be fought with spraying. In such a techno-ecosystem, machines and chemistry play a fundamental role in growing food for humans. But the term “techno-ecosystem” could be applied very early on, even before the invention of the iron plough. Irrigation systems are very early, large-scale interventions in ecosystems, as is deforestation.
In my opinion, the anthropocene has started a long time ago,when humans started to kill many of the other big mammals, and work with agriculture and irrigation. What we see now is a development that diminishes the genetic diversity of living organisms, by extinction of species as well as genetic reduction of cultured plants and animals; while we witness at the same time a growing techno-diversity. It will be very interesting to live through the next decades. Will machines become autopoietic, as predicted by great Science-fiction authors like Stanisław Lem or Philip K.Dick? Will our bodily restrictions of perception be enhanced, genetically and by machines, as predicted by William Gibson et al.? Will AI driven machines make our labor superfluous, and will they develop programs for the controlled reduction of the number of idle human beings on earth? Or will Öyvind Fahlström’s vision become true,that we will have a society with “free basic food, transportation and housing” and build “pleasure houses”, in which we, ‘the ecstatic society“, will enjoy recreational drugs and sex, and joyful and sensual games?
I grew up in the countryside and have a very strong connection to plants. My grandmother used to tell us that her fondest childhood memory was a meadow, with its manifold plants. She was a watercolor painter of nature. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a forest professor that developed an economy of the sustainable forest. I remember brooks and apple trees, nettles, the sea, mud, the smell of asphalt after rain in the summer, the tiny rustle of snow when you walk on it, the cracking ice on the pools, snails, cats, my first small garden. The world I lived in as a child had cars, trains and other machines,but no computers, and a lot of plants. I started to marvel at them when I was very little, and I haven’t ever stopped to find them elaborately strange creations.
I love to watch the way a plant grows, taking the elements of soil, air, water and sunlight to form sometimes within days its leaves and stem, unrolling its buds into delicate petals, waiting for a different life form to help it have sex over distance. All of this is so manifold and complicated… And my growing experience with gardening also tells me about its interactions with other plants, insects, animals, the type of soil and of course, myself. I feel part of the garden, I am not exterior to it. Its organisms pass through my organism, and the energy they give me serves me to weed other organisms that I can’t eat or drink. So, these organisms are using me to make sure they will grow again, and they teach me what they like and what they don’t like. And some persuade me to grow them even if I can’t eat them, just because they are beautiful. Oh yes, the plants talk to me…! This garden is what you could call an anthropogenic biome“, of a friendly kind… a small-scale Antje-anthrome, which will become more complete once I will have installed my eco-toilet and start giving back to the garden what comes out of me.
Modern biology and medicine is just starting to explore the biome that is the ecosystem we call “an individual” for example an “Antje”, made up of more non-human bacteria and viruses than body cells. Yesterday I heard a wonderful explanation of how a “stool transplant” works, transferring the ecosystem of a healthy intestine to one that has been devastated by antibiotics. The same devastation of course happens when you pour antibiotics or chemicals on the super complicated biom that is the soil. And this is still our standard way of farming! When I saw the gigantic fields of Brazil with my own eyes, and the life-less soil the glyphosate-resistant plants are grown on, I felt sick. I am sure that within the next decades, a very fundamental shift in thinking about ecologies, and about farming, will occur. It can go into two directions: to further diminish the complexity of natural ecosystems and turn to indoor farming in large industrial complexes, in which plants and animals are understood merely as tools for the production of substances we need for survival, this is of course already a reality (industrial animal farming, greenhouse farming), but it could become the standard, the only way of farming. Just as our own bodies are enhanced by technical devices, edible and energy plants and animals will be designed as living parts within closed techno-spherical circles, existing in symbiosis with machines. Soil is usually thought of as useless within these systems, as a sort of mud that contains nutrients and can be easily replaced by substrate and fertilizers.
On the other hand, maybe it will help we realize scientifically that the earth really is a living super-biome of which we are part. And soil, with its billions of living beings interacting within one cubic centimeter, could be considered to be the most precious ecosystem of all.
We might develop a new understanding of ourselves as part of a social and ecological fabric,which involves human and non-human actors, and in which each of our activities, probably even each of our thoughts, has a direct impact on many other beings. Feelings of responsibility could extend to other species in a way that is natural to people from animist, Taoist, Jainist or Buddhist backgrounds, who in different ways have never seen a fundamental difference between humans and other living beings. Some of them believe that we can become,or have been these other beings ourselves; others see themselves as part of a “family” that involves animals or plants. It is in this sense that I talk about “social” responsibilities. From my point of view, the growing of “eco”tomatoes in monoculture greenhouses on substrate is not “ecological” at all. “Ecology” means the household we all live in together, as members of one large, extended family. This family is not even limited to living organisms, since all that is alive is made up, and will become again, matter. Unless we extend our construction of the social to other species, and ultimately to all there is, we will not be able to truly think ecologically.
Aleksandra Jach: How can transdisciplinary cooperation be formalized? How can we facilitate meetings of artists and scientists?
Antje Majewski: Through my work of the last years, I have been in dialogues with many scientists: museum archivists, historians, genetic researchers, anthropologists, mineralogists and so on. But knowledge is not restricted to scientists. I found that an industrial Polish apple farmer, or a worker in the apple juice factory, could talk with a great level of reflectivity about their specialist knowledge. In Brazil, I have recently done an interview with a specialist on traditional agriculture, who is also the chief of an “indigenous” people. Useful knowledge that I can learn from can be found with Chinese farmers, Kazakh foresters as well as artists and philosophers, as for example Issa Samb (Senegal), who has been a very important teacher for me. We as artists should look out for knowledge outside “Western” academia. The world is populated by people who know so much, but they are rarely asked by anyone not moving within the same field to share their knowledge.
My cooperation with the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź on the show “The Apple. An Introduction. (Over and over again)”, which I conceived together with the legendary Polish conceptual artist Paweł Freisler, was in this regard wonderfully productive. As curators, Joanna Sokołowska and you, Aleksandra, not only facilitated these encounters by producing my documentary film about apples, “The Freedom of Apples” – you also opened the museum to specialists that would normally not be seen inside a cultural institution: apple variety specialists, cooks, permaculture activists… In this way, not only artists and scientists met, but also a much larger group of people came together. Fortunately the same happened during the second edition of the show in Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach, where the Apple show brought together many already existing groups within the city, that didn’t have much contact with each other before: the local school, the Transition town group, the greenery department and city planning, a youth centre, an urban gardening project and so on. My role, coming from the outside to Mönchengladbach, was trying to understand where and how we could plant 100 apple trees as a city orchard, and then find people to adopt them. I had to understand who was active in the city and who could work together on this, even without me being there.
If museums like these two wonderful institutions allow culture to be understood in a larger sense, they are breaking up borders between institutions (such as art museums or natural history museums) in a way that allows the institution itself to step out of the limiting borders that are the heritage of the previous centuries. As Paweł Freisler has stated: “Just the openness of the Muzeum Sztuki Wspolczesnej in Łódź for orchards is an important art event. (ennobles)”.
Aleksandra Jach: In your life and artistic practice you combine different kinds of engagement. You are an artist, a teacher, an activist. You are involved in many collaborative projects. How do you consider them? Are they works, tasks, duties, exercises?
Antje Majewski: It is difficult to say. In the case of my work as an activist; in promoting city orchards or within the feminist group ƒƒ, in which I was working for three years,I see my role mostly as a facilitator. I see possibilities of people working together, situations that can evolve, performances that can be realized or trees that can grow.
You could say the same thing for my teaching. I try to facilitate the already dormant possibilities in the students, that they have already in them. The topics I feed them with include, of course, seminaries on “the sea” (ecology) or “feminist art history”. I also involve them in works that have an interaction with society… like colored house façades in a poor area of Neumünster; or the creation of a refugee phrasebook; or a situationist city guide that sends them out to portray arbitrary streets of Kiel. But quite stubbornly, they pursue their own works into which my topics only rarely feed directly. Still, I hope that the way we are discussing together will spark in them the idea that there is no art without the obstinate wish to get deeper involved in something; encourage them to have their own thoughts, and finally surprise me with works that I could never foresee.
The same might be true for my work as a “solo” artist, when it comes to painting for example. I facilitate the painting to appear. If I try to invent it myself, or someone commands a work, I can end up doing real bullshit. Of course, what I call “facilitating” can be really a lot of work. But, as Paweł Freisler once wrote to me: “All this requires a lot of energy. One has to work hard without getting the feeling that one is doing hard work.” So, it all has to happen with a feeling of fluidity. I never take any deliberate decisions. Usually, I accept all that comes my way.
Just now, I am not sure in what direction it will take me. In recent years, my art practice often created situations that can involve many people; during the “Temporary Autonomous Zones” of ƒƒ, in which we created performances, exhibitions and situations as a communal experience - as well as the apple planting programs. It also had a sort of pedagogic side to it, when for example I talk about the situation of agriculture today. Öyvind Fahlström expressed this way of working very well: “Consider art as a way of experiencing a fusion of ‘pleasure’ and ‘insight’. Reach this by impurity, or multiplicity of levels, rather than by reduction”.
This year, I created a new group, E.F.A. (for Ecological Feminist Anarchism). All three aspects are equally important. So far, I am the only member and I will be careful about enlarging the group. It will serve to carry out tasks that are communal, political and done in collaboration,so anytime the logo appears, it indicates collaborations that can change with each new task. At the same time, I will continue to also be a painter… this is a form of art that for me can only be done alone.
But with every activity I do, I also belong to some other groups. I am proud to be a participating artist in Paweł Freislers “gallery”, founded in 1972.
We are not suggesting a dead salon and we won’t employ an old lady to watch over art works. Nothing will effect another person as a direct presence of another living person. Anyone who has knowledge and unique personality, will be able to work with us and through his actions affect others.
Paweł Freisler, 1972
I am also very proud to have participated in the activities of the ‘Laboratoire Agit Art’, founded by Issa Samb, El Hadji Sy, Djibril Diop Mambéty and others in Dakar in 1974.
Man is thus a creator by nature, natural man. Being an artist is a lowly profession, a bourgeois profession, but man;creation, the artist;exists in all men, in all human beings, who do something every day, which we are used to calling development. I prefer to speak of fulfilling oneself, the community, and beyond that, mankind.
But as a follower of Zhuangzi, I also can see that it might be necessary to reduce my knowledge and activities instead of increasing them. I had an interesting debate with my friend Xu Tan about this. He criticizes the philosophical Taoism because he thinks it wants ordinary people to “be like children” and thus make them more manageable. The Taoists classic solution (to go into the mountains, abstain from involvement in the world, paint and drink with friends) has in his view never been a real option.
Where are these free lands, the anarchic spaces, the in-betweens, that the Taoists escaped to? All of the land, every single plant was already owned by the emperor, the son of heaven (tianzi). In this sense, there is no wilderness.
During my research on apples, I realized that this is exactly true today. There might not be a “son of heaven” any more, but there are governments and there are global corporations. Capitalism has managed to seem to be a “law from heaven” that we feel is “naturally inscribed” into all our decisions. The idea of land or plants not owned by anyone starts to feel ridiculous. Today, every single wild plant is also owned, down to its DNA, it is seen as a possible valuable resource. It is the final triumph of capitalism that in order to rescue such resources from being plundered by companies, they now are formally owned by the governments,who in turn are far from being free of economical concerns.
As Erzhan Ashim Kitzhan-uly Oralbekov, an ecological activist in a movement to save the wild apple forests of Malus sieversii, told me in Kazakhstan: “And these places, where we could find apple trees, wild apple trees, become fewer and fewer. I think, we should keep this wild state of our nature. For nomadic people it was impossible to think about buying or selling land. We tried to explain this knowledge and the situation to those in power in our city: that this land belongs to all people of the city of Almaty, and also of Kazakhstan”.
He told me that in the religion of his ancestors, Tengrianism, the mountain we were climbing was a sacred space between sky and earth,and sky and earth were both divine. Tengrianism was wiped out in Communist times, alongside Nomadic lifestyles. Stalin introduced large-scale monoculture farming that degraded the soil in a very short time, and he forced the Nomadic people, that were so ungovernmentable and non proletarian, to settle down. The worldwide abolishment of Nomadic cultures is one of the big hidden events of the last century. It is encouraging that there are many movements today to defend traditional small-scale farming; but many of the Nomadic cultures are lost forever.
In Tengrianism, as in Taoism and many other so-called “animist belief systems”, land, sky, spirit beings, human beings, animals and plants were all linked together and interdependent, could all eventually turn into one another, and were all driven by the same energetic force (and, in Taoism, made out of the same particles). This seems to me very “realistic” and in much better concordance to all the latest findings of science then the rather simplistic anthropocentric descriptions that drove the West in the last 200 odd years to develop its wonderful technologies.
I am convinced that just as slavery of human beings is today abolished in most countries, the idea that we can “own” soil, plants, animals, bacteria or anything else that we didn’t make with our own hands, will become anachronistic and even considered a crime in the future. Things can change!
It is difficult to imagine effects of global warming or biodiversity loss when we are well-off and live in countries which more or less develop ecological infrastructure. Many scientists claim that we should practice our imagination and art can help us to do this. At the same time we know that the most vulnerable to environmental catastrophes are poor countries and marginalized social groups. How do you explain relations between ecology, speculative thinking/imagination and capitalism?
Ah, we, we are not alone in the world”.…
As artists, we should have open minds in which the future can announce itself, while at the same time constructing the past. And we should also see what is happening in the present. People in need come pouring into Europe, in this very moment, in the hundreds of thousands. They are driven by war, but also by the onset of the climate change that we caused. We need to do all we can for them, even if it means that the Europeans will have less.
I really don’t want to prescribe anything to other artists. It is not everybody’s cup of tea to make “involved” art. But if you find a way, it will be good. An example could be a recent collaboration I did with Assaf Gruber, Olivier Guesselé-Garai, Agnieszka Polska and Juliane Solmsdorf in response to a ‘Happening’ by Allan Kaprow. I was asked to do a remake of “Fluids”, which originally consisted of ice blocks forming a structure in a public place, which should be built by volunteers, which then melts away in the sun. We decided to build a structure of the same measurements, and use exactly the same budget (13.000 €) that would have been needed to build it with ice blocks. Instead, we bought “useful things” (furniture, plants, dictionaries, toys, clothes etc) to create a social give-and-take sculpture. It incorporated also things given to us by others; and things that were sustainable (pots and knives for Syrian cooks to cook free food for all; they could keep them to start a catering service inside ‘Sharehouse Refugio’. Or plants from the urban gardening project ‘Himmelbeet’, that financed a new terrace for the project. Or a pop-up recycle toilet, in which we collected the biological waste of the visitors, to be transformed into soil for the next project).
When the sculpture was finished, we started to give away all items. We had chosen a site in close proximity to a refugee home, and many of them had come, but also some Rom, and some other neighbors of the Berlin-Moabit district, as well as the occasional art-person. It was a great festive atmosphere, with free food and Syrian music.
I think of this project not as an “activist” art project. I think of it more as a “fluid” sculpture, and the way it was growing and melting was in an anarchic way, contradicting all we are conditioned to do. It was great that we could all participate in the moment, and in a truthful interpretation of Allan Kaprow’s ideas, it became a ‘Happening’.
Europe has done so much harm to the world, and continues to do so. We need to learn, we need to talk with each other, we need to listen, we need to give and we need, above all, to love. And all of these, we should practice not only with human beings, but with everything under the sky.
The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
More about artist and her work: http://www.antjemajewski.de/