Natura: Environmental Aesthetics After Landscape

July 23, 2018

This text draws on the book Natura: Environmental Aesthetics After Landscape (Zürich: Diaphanes, 2018), co-edited by Jens Andermann, Lisa Blackmore, and Dayron Carrillo Morell.


Featuring a wide range of critical, literary, and visual forms of essayism, this new book asks whether there can be an environmental aesthetics after the demise of landscape. In this question, “environmental aesthetics” is but a placeholder term, a stand-in for the place left vacant by what, at least since Kant, has been known in Western aesthetics as the question of natural beauty and of its abyss and foundation: the sublime. The landscape-form emerged in the fifteenth century—simultaneously with the beginnings of European colonial expansion—as an imperial apparatus and as the very condition of knowing, from the detached vantage point of an unseen and disembodied beholder, an object-world to be surveyed, classified, and evaluated. Landscape sublimated, in visual pleasure, the loss of an embodied, use-oriented relation with the land, at the same time as it underwrote its transformation into landed capital, into real estate. Landscape, then, has been a key apparatus for both capitalism and colonialism, not least because its constitutive openness—signified in images by the horizon that invites the viewer to venture out beyond its confines—held a promise of infinite accumulation.

But if the modern idea and image of nature—from Columbus and Vespucci to Humboldt, Darwin, and the North American transcendentalists­—was always closely tied to the New World as the primal and ultimate “wilderness” and thus also as the mirror and measure of “civilization,” it was in the Americas, too, that radically “postnatural” propositions have emerged from the very outset of aesthetic modernity. In the “white landscapes” of Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón or in the early poetry of Peruvian writer César Vallejo (Los heraldos negros, 1918), we already find a shared drive to collapse the chasm between the verbal or pictorial sign and the material space-time that this sign no longer beholds and contains but rather opens up to. It is a drive that, with very different aesthetic effects, also traverses the much later work of Hélio Oiticica, Robert Smithson, and Ana Mendieta, to name but a few.

Nature in Crisis

Perhaps it is only today, the contributors to this book suggest, that these and other aesthetic propositions formerly relegated to the margins of the modernist archive become fully readable—as glimpses of the “quake in being” that has thrown into crisis the modern Western idea of nature, and indeed of “world” as the significant totality of all that exists because, as Timothy Morton has argued, “the distance that reifies [constellations of being] into a world picture” has today been shattered once and for all.[1] At the same time, in the face of rapidly escalating neo-extractivist violence, contemporary aesthetic forays into the inmundo, the un-world beyond the (Western) landscape’s horizon, can only be analyzed in any significant fashion if we connect them with other, long-standing, forms of indigenous, Maroon, and peasant resistance for which distinctions between mind and world, nature and culture, life and semiosis have never been relevant in the way they have for Western aesthetics, politics, and cosmology.

The “extractive zone” where life is violently constrained, reduced, and converted into commodities, as Macarena Gómez-Barris observes, is today closing in on areas of great “biodiversity”—a concept, she notes, which itself bears the imprint of the quantifying, extractivist viewpoint it is supposedly attacking—that frequently coincide with indigenous territories.[2] Indeed, on the extractive frontiers of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, indigenous pharmaceutical and nutritional knowledges and skills stemming from complex semiotic matrices of interspecies relations, are themselves being mined for extractible surplus value. What this intense neocolonial push to draft the last remaining commons (forests, aquifers, seabeds) into the global-capitalist compact also triggers, however, are new transversal and translocal alliances between indigenous and communitarian activism, critical work, and postnatural/posthumanist artistic interventions such as the ones reviewed in this volume by artists-activists Ursula Biemann, Maria Thereza Alves, and Genaro Amaro Altamirano. Because the foci of resistance to the global extraction machine cannot but become translocal themselves as they interconnect and exchange knowledge, strategies, and ideas with one another, they also no longer exist only at the behest of “representation,” as in the landscape tradition, as local content submitted to, and made exchangeable by, the generic conventions of the image or the travelogue. What these translocal forms of alliance give rise to is not “conservation” but a shared becoming, a mode of queer community that is not exclusive to the human yet in which, nonetheless, the human might still aspire to some form of afterlife.

Natura seeks to contribute to an exercise of the imagination, one that is both critical—a historical critique and deconstruction of the landscapes of modernity­—and speculative—a conceptual wager on the afterlives of landscape and the emergence of new spatiotemporal constellations of the living. The strike-through of the term nature in the title of this book is, in this sense, not an obliteration but an exercise in negativity: a thinking against (but thus also with) the modernist archive as a way of finding within it new meanings illuminated by the lightning flash of that which threatens to obliterate it altogether. In thinking with, and through, the languages of the aesthetic, the book also places its faith in them as an epistemology for a time of “throwntogetherness,” as Doreen Massey terms it.[3] Even as the autonomy of artwork faces the constant challenge of technology and its attendant forms of subjectivation, the indeterminacy that is particular to art nonetheless continues to hold an advantage over other forms of knowledge and experience, in the way it is able to ally itself to indigenous epistemologies and address the mesh of life that continues to throb after the end of the world.

Sinking into Sediment

That this study posits a post-landscape moment responds, of course, to the fact that the genealogy of the landscape scene, in its pictorial formulation in Latin America, has been collated and rendered visible by art collections such as the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. In their multiple roles as proxies for colonial powers, natural scientists, or emissaries of foundling Latin American republics, “traveler artists” have now been credited with founding and disseminating pictorial histories of the region’s landscapes.[4] Viewing them through the Romantic aesthetic categories of the picturesque and the sublime, art historians have shown how in the colonial and immediate post-colonial eras the landscape scene opened up the region’s “impossible reality”[5] for the roving eyes of audiences that were hungry for a taste of what Nancy Leys Stepan has referred to as the region’s “superabundance of nature.”[6]

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The reservoir at Guri Hydroelectric Plant, Venezuela, in April 2016. REUTERS/Carlos García Rawlins/Latinstock México.

While the aesthetic encodings of the picturesque and the sublime “gather up” space as scene, to use the Heideggerian formulation, thus allowing the landscape to be sensed remotely as voyage or vicarious act of discovery, in Natura we proceed from a different point of departure. In asking for an environmental aesthetics after landscape, the visual and textual contributions in the volume move across expansive, speculative terrains. Their movement retraces historical itineraries and encounters that have (dis)ordered human-nature relations in the Americas, and grapples with emergent lifeforms that demand recalibrations of the optics and epistemologies of subject-object binaries inherited from Western philosophy. Thus, the opening image of the book, spread across its cover, does not so much invite a journey as confront us with a collapse of depth of field. We see not a horizon but horizontal strata of dense, brown mud—sediments of the Orinoco Basin deposited by the damming of the River Caroní which returned spectrally during the unprecedented drought of 2016, thus bringing into tension the deep time of geology and the increasingly untenable paradigm of human mastery of nature.

Even as climate change and environmental decline become incontrovertible facts, Latin America’s landscapes continue to be “challenged forth” as commodified images that quench tourists’ thirst for the exotic and as extractive zones where the frontiers of capitalism press up against the limits of biodiversity. The task that we take up in Natura, then, is the work of “finding anomalies, paradoxes, and conundrums in an otherwise smooth-looking stream of ideas” by slowing the flow of visual economies that picture the landscape in Latin America as terra nullius and extractive frontier.[7] The contributions to the volume proceed by various paths: critical revisions of historical landscape formations and representations; artistic interventions into space and its life forms by way of critical landscaping; and invitations to new epistemologies and human-non-human relations, which seek to sense its opacities and resistances.

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Karl Blossfeldt, Plate 39-Pheasant’s eye and scabious. Karl Blossfeldt Archiv/Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

 

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Maximilian Prinz von Wied-Neuwied, “Cephalopappus sonchifolious N. et M.” Table 7, in Beitrag zur Flora Brasiliens (Halle, 1823-1825). Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library.

 

Imagine you have no eyes…

Moving beyond the visual technics of perspective and prospect that ordered the landscape in its material and representational forms, Álvaro Fernández Bravo’s discussion of poetic and filmic works ground-levels our gaze at a series of contaminated provincial landscapes, where the urban and the rural overflow into each other. There, precarious lives and putrefaction are glimpsed not as legible scenes but in the accumulated detritus of the suburban dump or as a distorted reflection caught in the eye of a dead fish, whose expired gaze is a cipher for the decay wrought by human “civilization.” In a realm far removed from such contaminated scenes, Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira revisits the pristine and beguiling Wundergarten to be found in Karl Blossfeldt’s close-up photographic studies of plants. By proposing their vegetable membranes as a “skin of the world”—a tactile interface that presses vision up against the experience of touching and being touched—he advocates a haptics of the vegetable realm that counters the rationalist logic that has long underpinned dualisms of human-nature. Indeed, if we re-situate our approach to the world from the perspective(s) of plant-life, landscape itself becomes untenable, since for the “body before or beyond space … everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” as Emanuele Coccia writes. Environmental aesthetics, understood as an aesthetic mode of being-with, thus entails probing landscape formations at their limits, asking what the world feels like when sensed beyond, or after, its aesthetic encodings?

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“Höhen der alten und neuen Welt bildlich verglichen. Ein Tableau von Hrn. Geh. Rath. V. Göthe mit einem Schrieben an den Herausgeber,” Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden 41 (15 May 1813), p. 3-8.

This experiential meaning-making of bodies intertwined in the landscape, rather than posed before its representational scenes, is a prepositional shift that marks a core concern in Natura. The ambitious voyages undertaken in the late eighteenth century by Alexander von Humboldt are commonly held to be a foundational moment of the landscape genre, and in the imagining of Latin America as a continental corpus ripe for aesthetic and poetic inscriptions. Yet, they also reveal the ways in which the environment powerfully imprints itself on the senses. Retracing the Prussian scientist’s steps, Oliver Lubrich shows how the atmospheric, aural, and insectile agencies of the environment inflected European rationalist thought. The acoustic saturation of the rainforest, the scarcity of oxygen at high altitude, and other myriad inflections in the ambient experience inhibit a fixation of the landscape as mere quantifiable, knowable site. Instead, the Humboldtian landscape emerges as a phenomenon that traverses multiple media and disciplines. Transversality has remained a thrust of subsequent voyages across the continent, not least that of the utopian poetic acts and rambling Travesía (journey) of the architects, poets and writers who set out to inscribe new cartographic coordinates at the intersection of the two axes of the Southern Cross. Fifty years on, Javier Correa and Victoria Jolly presented archival traces of the re-foundational acts published in the 1967 poem Amereida, while also attesting to its ongoing influence on the spatial and poetic praxis of the Ciudad Abierta, founded in Valparaíso in 1971, whose landscape is still today conjugated in the ephemeral and the provisional, between the ongoing processes of inscription and erasure that the pair enact in their chalk-and-blackboard performance presented here.

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Photograph of the Amereida journey. 10 August 1965, Río Gallegos, Argentina. Archivo José Vial Armstrong, Escuela de Arquitectura y Diseños (E[ad]), Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

 

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Javier Correa and Victoria Jolly, still from the performance Borraduras (Erasures) in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, March 2017

 

Hauntologies of Landscape

Such archival (re)turns frame a recurrent inquiry in Natura into the shape of bygone landscape formations and their present remains. Several of the contributions retrace, precisely, the ruination wreaked by different technologies that put nature to work, evoking infrastructural vestiges as a “hauntology” of landscape, to use Derrida’s term, which are disjointed in both time and space.[8] Mexico City’s calamitous water history is brought to the fore in Dayron Carrillo Morrel’s revision of the monumental—yet ultimately deficient—hydroengineering infrastructure of the Cárcamo de Dolores, built with great fanfare in the mid-twentieth century, but now the inspiration for a sound installation by the artist Ariel Guzik, in which scarce and remote groundwater surfaces acoustically by way of sensors submerged in the outmoded aqueduct, speaking of the desiccation suffered in the megacity. Not all spectral evocations are melancholic, however. Others worry apparently hegemonic structures devised to congeal power by colonizing natural resources. In its damning critique of the coloniality of water management, Maria Thereza Alves and Genaro Amaro Altimano’s community-focused art project The Return of a Lake (2012), celebrates the riposte to the aggressive draining of the Xico Valley by a Spanish émigré symbolized by the resilient re-emergence of Lake Chalco aquifer. With the lake’s return, there is a corresponding renewal of indigenous agricultural techniques whose “epistemic disobedience” transpires in alternate land uses that exceed the logic of capital accumulation exacted through dispossession and despoilment.[9]

As well as remnants of coloniality, other residual aquascapes testify to the emplacement and aftershocks of global capitalism, thus verifying the longstanding envisioning of Latin America’s riverways as routes to privileged realms for the extraction and trade in what Jason W. Moore terms “cheap nature,” and, more recently, for the production of supposedly “green” hydropower.[10] Nuno Ramos’ unrealized public art intervention Cartas do Río Negro (2008)—thwarted by a lack of municipal support—deploys a liquid poetics to create connective channels between the River Negro and the living ruins of capital accumulation in the Amazon, while thus obliquely referencing the role of the rubber industry as a tributary that fed the rise and decay of urban culture in Manaus. Ramos’ proposal to drown a former rubber baron’s mansion would have offered a route to revisit, literally (rather than to ignore), an architectural remnant of capitalism-in-nature, perhaps also inviting speculation in the future perfect as to the contemporary forms that too will have become vestiges. In the Orinoco, Latin America’s other major river basin, lies such a ruin-in-waiting, at the Guri Hydroelectric Plant where Carlos Cruz Diez’ kinetic artworks line its turbine halls. As Lisa Blackmore’s chapter shows in her discussion of the drought that almost ground the power plant to a halt in 2016, not only has climate change already destabilized the pretenses of human colonization of river flow, but the limited lifespan of dam infrastructure will eventually make obsolete modern ruins of Guri and its vast artworks: involuntary aesthetic phenomena that—not unlike the industrial vestiges of Fordlandia—are apt to be reclaimed by tangles of vegetation.

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Maria Thereza Alves, The Return of a Lake. Photo: Mikula Lüllwitz.

 

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Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares, Forest Law, 2014. Video still of José Gualinga, leader of the Kitchwa people of Sarayaku.

 

They didn’t know we were seeds…

The intersections between art and world ecology form the relational field in which Ursula Biemann explores landscapes of extraction and environmental decline that rupture the paradigm of human mastery of nature. Her contribution to the volume clarifies how her “cinematic environmentalism” makes apparent the fragile ecologies that shape planetary existence. Confronting head-on the question of how environmental aesthetics might help us imagine catastrophic times, Biemann posits her mode of “geomorphic video” as a means of “slowing down the pace of knowing” to imagine an alternate, cosmopolitical commons, encompassing human and non-human constituents. At stake here is the ethical and political inquiry into life beyond the geontological strictures of Western rationalist worldviews that, as Elizabeth Povinelli has argued, “differentiate Life and Nonlife” to entrench settler colonialism and perpetuate the still-prevailing “carbon imaginary.”[11] Yet, even as impending mass extinction implies that “Life is merely a moment in the greater dynamic unfolding of Nonlife,” the question remains:  what forms might landscaping take amid the death throes of humanity-in-nature? Looking simultaneously back to acts of making live and making die perpetuated by matrices of colonial, capitalist, and gendered violences, and forward to alternate modes of kinship, Jill Casid parses “necrolandscaping” as a mode of environmental aesthetics suited to working “within the scene in which we are enmeshed, the Anthropocene as a landscape of genocide,” or necrocene. The creative and performative acts of “death-in-life” that Casid analyzes resist the universalizing optics that envision the “Anthropocene” as an abstract phenomenon, by remaining rooted in the specific politics of normative forms of violence whose memories they spatialize. Hence, the potency of the activist phrase “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds” and the significance attached to its global dissemination in political protests.

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Raúl de Nieves performs K8 Hard, Beautiful Radiating Energy, 2004/2017, live piece, video, sound. Performance: May 21, 2017, Participant Inc., New York, N.Y. Photo: Paula Court. Image courtesy of Participant Inc.

 

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Iván Henriques, Jurema Action Plant, 2011-2012. Vegetable-machine hybrid, prototype. Artist’s collection.

 

What, then, does environmental aesthetics look like after landscape?  Natura offers no formula to answer this question. We live amid competing temporalities of planetary decline, which frame our existence in terms conjugated alternately between the pre-, mid-, or post-catastrophic. Simultaneously, the scale and scope of the Anthropocene is itself a contested concept, which has engendered its own competing variants, among them the Capitolocene, Plantationocene, and Chthulucene. Regarding the aesthetic regime that might be best suited to the “arts of dying” in the era of environmental decline, the voices of advocates of activist practices, which reclaim a sense of place and a conservationist approach to nature—from Standing Rock to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and beyond—co-exist with calls for “dark ecological” imaginaries that embrace, instead of place, “feelings of loneliness and separation, rather than fantasies of interconnectedness, [that] put us in touch with a surrounding environment.”[12] In effect, this in-betweenness and indeterminacy finds echoes in the bio-art to which Jens Andermann attributes critical potential as “living thought” precisely because the indeterminate resists classification as species or genre. From architectures for insects, to nomadic plants, and transgenic blends of plant and human DNA, the works Andermann discusses sunder nature-culture binaries. No longer articulated within the aesthetic regime of mimesis, such works constitute “zones of unspecificity” that challenge thought about the bio-ethics of making-live or letting-die. The project of thinking about environmental aesthetics after landscape asks us to move in these indeterminate zones, grappling our way through the dense thicket of the present as we digest legacies from the past and try to sense our uncertain futures.  

 


[1] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 126. Emphasis in the original.

[2] Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017), p. xx.

[3] Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), p. 140.

[4] Katherine Manthorne, ed., Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection (New York: CPPC, 2015).

[5] Manthorne, p. 17

[6] Nancy Leys Stepan, Picturing Tropical Nature (London: Reaktion Books, 2001).

[7] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 12

[8] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1993).

[9] The phrase belongs to Walter Mignolo; see “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture & Society (26:7-8): 159-181.

[10] Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015).

[11] Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 24

[12] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, p. 201.