My article “To risk the Earth: The Nonhuman and Nonhistory” is out in the new Feminist Review Environment Special Issue, edited by Carrie Hamilton and Yasmin Gunaratnam (free link from publisher here). The article was originally written for the : Decolonizing and Reinhabiting Broken Earth, curated by Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark. It was prompted by a string of peer reviews and conference papers which, in my view, followed a problematic and re-occurring pattern of inattention to colonial histories in public engagement with global environmental change. I feel that, no matter what discipline we inhabit, we have to remain aware that any landscape has a history, and that this history will be differently remembered by different people. The fact that some of these papers either ignored or tried to erase particular traumatic histories speaks of a privileged position that, in all cases, remained unacknowledged. This article is a plea to sensitise oneself to geography and geology not just aesthetically and experientally, but also historically. I am expressing this call through concepts developed by Suzanne Césaire and Edouard Glissant against the white privilege of selective environmental aestheticisation.
Today, I ended up by accident in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts called ‘Earth – Art of a changing world’. I saw the poster while standing in the queue for the Anish Kapoor show, which a friend had recommended seeing. Finally arriving at the desk after queueing in the rain behind some far too cheerful people, I asked for a joint ticket for Anish Kapoor as well as Earth. The ticket I received read Anish Kapoor/GSK contemporary. What on…er… Earth was a GSK exhibition? An arts movement I had not heard of? The initials sounded somewhat familiar, though. After checking with the ticket lady, I was assured that it was the right exhibition, Earth, and that this exhibition was located in a special gallery at the back of the building. So, after indulging in the spludgy goodness of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, I trekked around the building, through the slightly surreal Burlington Arcade (even more surreal if you are walking through it in a black hoodie sporting a bright biohazard logo, trousers and shoes that are on the brink of falling apart and no make-up). At the other end, I found the mystery entrance, framed by Oyster stalls (the animal, not the travel pass) and hot water bottle carrying waitresses. Even more confused by this point, I entered the building. There, I indeed found myself in the right place, and GSK turned out to be the initials of the sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline – whoops! So now I knew why the initials had had a familiar ring – just had not expected to find them in such a place. But then, I should not be surprised, having just finished writing my chapter on the politics around museum engagement…
Ticket queue at the Royal Academy of Arts
The exhibition, once I had acclimatised, was actually rather good! I liked that it addressed a few themes that I am currently thinking and writing about, such as the role of the artist and the bridging of public and scientific spaces. The exhibition booklet, for instance, hints at the debate around the changing role of the artist in the face of ecological/technological issues. Will artists become negotiators, translators, de-mystifyers and visionaries – or ‘provocateur(s), upholder(s) of the collective conscience, observer(s)’? Pointedly, one of the forewords is written by Chris Rapley, Director of the London Science Museum. I was also lucky to catch quite a bit of the curator talk during which Kathleen Soriano and (as far as I could determine) David Buckland gave a substantial amount of background to the exhibition. The aim of the exhibition, for instance, was described as ‘not wanting to display photos of polar bears or icebergs’ to communicate the topic, but deliver a ‘fresh, poetic approach’ through art.
‘CO2morrow’ by Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni
I was pleasantly surprised that the curators were not overselling the exhibition. The artwork came across as very diverse, tackling the subject matter from a healthy variety of angles and offering surprises even to the most jaded geographer. Obviously, I could empathise with some works more than others, but most of them could relate to – through empathy with the artistic approach, the choice of topic, or the artists’ technique of making the visitors trace their journey. Something important that ‘eARTh’ addressed for me was the often tragi-comical and clumsy ways in which humans interact with their so-called environment: ‘macho’ car cult(ure), damaging love for nature and fascination with disaster (at its most comical portrayed in Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Doomed’). This is a nuance often left out of the communication of environmental issues. I always have the feeling that the message of ‘buy smaller cars, use less water, bring your own bags’ will not work unless the complexity behind such seemingly banal behaviours is addressed. There is much more to say about this exhibition, however, I am quite exhausted from cycling around in London traffic for hours and from a general overload of sensory impressions after cramming too many things into one day! I am curious, though, how other visitors have experienced/are experiencing the exhibition. If you have seen it (or even if you have not seen it!) – please leave a comment!
Ah, and I almost forgot to mention that there are a few more events coming up in connection with this exhibition. I’d especially recommend going to the ‘Fire’ debate on Friday, 22 January 2010 (6.30–10pm)!