A curator, art historian and essayist specialized in art and sustainability, Blanca de la Torre is advisor to art centres and museums, like MUSAC, León. Up to 2009, she developed exhibitions in several cities, including New York, Prague, London and Madrid and then, from 2009 to 2014, she worked as exhibition and project curator at ARTIUM, Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.
She later curated exhibitions in international museums and art centres, including: MoCAB, Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, Serbia; Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg, Austria; EFA, Elisabeth Foundation Project Space, New York; Centro de las Artes, Monterrey, Mexico; Museo Carrillo Gil, Mexico City; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, Mexico; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ex Convento del Carmen Guadalajara, Mexico; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Sonora, Mexico; NCArte, Bogotá, Colombia; RAER, Real Academia de España in Rome, Italy; LAZNIA Center for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland; Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid; CentroCentro, Madrid; NGMA, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, India; MUSAC, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León; and 516 Contemporary Arts Museum, Albuquerque, USA, among others.
Conversations with a ficus: sustainability, ecosocial crisis and multispecies coexistence
In recent years we have seen many different art practices and projects which engage with multispecies coexistence and various lines of posthumanist thinking. I have travelled along this path on many occasions within my own work, without being able to avoid a certain self-criticism and a somewhat cynical attitude to what we have got used to calling the “art world”.
My curatorial research over recent years has led to an inevitable intersection between my two main interests: ecology and art. The result has been an almost obsessive endeavour to demonstrate the effectiveness of art practices in bringing the climate crisis to the table and offering alternative viewpoints that call for action.
And here I find myself, in a personal exercise in narration aimed at a ficus, synthesising my trajectory—with all its doubts, mistakes and possible successes—and at once recording it here as a kind of testimonial evidence.
To be honest, the fact of explaining to this species of tree the impossibility of maintaining a model of infinite growth—both in our everyday practices as well as in those related with culture—which clashes head-on with the physical limits of our planet, is a conversation that barely differs from those I often have with certain institutions.
I constantly bring up the concept of soft power 1The concept of soft power was coined in the late-twentieth century by the Harvard professor Joseph Nye to refer to the power of culture to influence political action. which is able to create knowledge, seduction, inspiration and even positive coercion towards a stirring of awareness, and a call to action at the critical moment of systemic non-sustainability in which we find ourselves. Owing to its more invisible nature and its apparently more subtle character, curatorship becomes a very powerful tool.
The reality of a world with limited resources places us at a juncture where art has to take on a twofold responsibility: one corresponding to its symbolic character and the power this gives it to wield change, and the other to adopt a coherent support to monitor its own environmental footprint. If we do not bear in mind our own impact and act accordingly, any discourse runs the risk of being contradictory and therefore being deactivated.
This is why, from my practice, I seek to address my ecosocial concerns from a theoretical-practical approach that is developed in consonance with postulates from realms like ecofeminism, degrowth, environmentalism of the poor, certain posthumanist theses and various iterations of the above.
To illustrate the above, I propose a summary overview of some of my projects, without glossing all the artists and avoiding as much as possible focusing on specific ones or in the theoretical development of their underlying thesis, with a view to centring on the part I would venture to call more methodological and curatorial sustainability.
I will begin with Overview Effect, an exhibition currently on view at MoCAB in Belgrade, which will have further ramifications with museums and institutions in different latitudes like Finland, Poland, Mexico, USA and Spain and whose artistic direction I shared with Zoran Erić.
In its conception, we developed a practice which I have been gradually incorporating into the projects I work on in order to implement them in as sustainable a fashion as possible: a list of sustainability guidelines I have drawn up as a personal way of lending attention to the carbon footprint in each phase of each project.
In the case of MoCAB, we focused on the following: to avoid the use of petroleum products and contaminating materials, the use of biodegradable recycled materials or, failing this, ones with eco-labelling, to draw up a plan for the reuse of museographic elements, to avoid building walls, a waste disposal plan, an overall plan to reduce energy, the use of LED lighting, to avoid air transport, to prioritise local production, online meetings and, in general, the application of the 6 Rs of sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, rethink and reject.The title of the project Overview Effect is a term coined by Frank White in 1987 to describe the cognitive shift reported by a number of astronauts on having looked back from Space at their home planet Earth. In our case, it ironically questions the need to take such a distant point of view of the planet we occupy, as a ‘crew of the Spaceship Earth’ to use Buckminster Fuller’s metaphor, to realize that this ‘spaceship’ is slowly running out of ‘fuel’ and that the crew is in need of ‘oxygen’?
In this way, this project seeks to address the issue of the environmental justice that can only be approached through an analysis of the inextricable links between climate change and other forms of injustice related to gender, race, corporate imperialism, indigenous sovereignty, and the importance of decolonizing and de-anthropocentrizing the planet in order to reshape an inclusive mindset akin to a multispecies world.
To this end, we explore alternative exhibition-making formats that respond to the rhizomatic idea of Eco_Labs, laboratories of production and knowledge, with six interconnected areas of research: Gender, Race and the Colonial Trace; Watertopias; There is No Edge! (Land and Environmental Problematics); Learning from Indigenism; Beyond Anthropocene (Posthumanism, Animism and Multispecies World), and a section dedicated to future speculations: Back to the Future.
Due to the crisis brought by the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, and in order to continue with the project while avoiding the virtual formats that have led to an online inflation on behalf of ‘creative’ institutions, we decided to divide the project into two phases: the second of which will be held once the pandemic is over, and the first phase, opened this past autumn, which moved some of the installations outdoors to the museum’s sculpture park, as well as site-specific interventions by artists in different urban and rural areas, activist projects in collaboration with local environmental associations, workshops with artists and educational programmes, and also an extensive programme of lectures and panel discussions.
Among the works on view was Built-up Area I, (2020) by Branislav Nikolić, a three-dimensional interpretation of traffic signs indicating a built-up area, like those that can be found as you enter cities almost anywhere in the world, touching on the global ecological problems that are leading us to collapse.
In the case of Kinga Kiełczyńska, in Limits to Growth (Extended), 2020, the artist reuses discarded solar panels to build a model for a sustainable shelter that draws on techno-primitivist and solarpunk imaginaries. By combining shelter and the production of energy, she alludes to possible scenarios in which basic human needs could be met in a way that dovetails with basic demands for energy.
In a similar vein, Mary Mattingly presents a spherical, modular and amphibious structure (Pull, 2020), offering visitors the possibility of being part of a small ecosystem of insects and plants that live thanks to water circuits, based on interdependence between people and the living inhabitants of the work.
Markus Hiesleitner (Ground Control – Joining the Earthworms, 2020) underscores the importance of the action of earthworms, referring to Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881) based on his experiments that observed the decomposition of a stone and the speed at which it ‘disappears’ into the earth through the action of these invertebrates. The earthworms are protected by a tent, lit by a red light—completely inoffensive to the earthworms—which allows them to be observed during darkness and the dawn.
In her work, Tea Mäkipää questions the system based on the individual’s right to consume natural resources to the degree that their income allows. Here she placed The Ten Commandments for the 21st Century (2007-2020) at the entrance to the museum, a kind of Decalogue for this century that could help to slow down and gradually repair some parts of the environmental disaster caused by humans.
Tomas Colbengtson belongs to the Sami, a nomadic people who live in the northern parts of Scandinavia, and the only remaining indigenous people in Europe. His work examines how the colonial legacy has changed the life of his community, and processes and mechanisms that equally affect all indigenous peoples in any part of the world. In We the People (2020) he defends the need for national constitutions to listen to voices of indigenous peoples, whose rights they ignore.
The Škart collective recovers local customs and rituals, for decades written off as folklore, which are in fact little lessons in living together and relating with one’s environment. In Water Remembers (2020) it returns to the language of pictograms in a series of illustrated poems installed around the museum as well as in different natural rural and urban areas in Belgrade, Belo Blato, Mužlja, and Vranjska Banja, some of which, in the artists’ own words, are aimed at animals and aliens.
Also integrated in the urban landscape is the mural work by PSJM called Species in Extinction and Human Population from 1800 to 2030 (2020) which represents the parallel evolution of the extinction of species and the increase in the human population between the two dates, in an aesthetization of statistics.
Other interventions beyond the confines of the museum walls include those by Mirko Nikolić, Mariëlle Videler and Anna Moreno. Nikolić’s work, water is (non)life #1: beyond empire (2020) takes a look at ways of life and collectivity after extractivism: in the ruins left by this dominant economic-political apparatus, and on the boundaries where extractivism tries to expand its machinery. Videler, meanwhile, has collaborated with the national postal service to create postage stamps featuring her imaginary birds (The Carrier, 2020). The first part of Moreno’s project Billenium (2020) is being developed on Instagram where the artist will periodically publish extracts from her upcoming book of the same name in which she combines utopian architecture with sci-fi literature by J. G. Ballard. The project speculates about a future scenario in which the disappearance of bees leads to a world where honey has become the gold-standard in the market, above gold itself or oil.
And then there is the performance by Regina José Galindo burying herself in the garden of her home in Guatemala, broadcast live via Zoom, as well as a whole series of lectures, workshops, events and working groups with local activists and international collaborators to further explore the issues raised by Overview Effect from different angles and contexts.
When curating another project, Fingers Crossed (Now, Yesterday and Perhaps Tomorrow) 2Held at ADN Platform, in Sant Cugat, and set to tour to CDAN in Huesca, but cancelled due to the pandemic., which I worked on jointly with Sue Spaid, we employed a similar set of sustainability guidelines. We started out from the premise that artists have always proved themselves to be great futurists, proposing other visions or alternatives to environmental problems such as atmospheric pollution, global warming, over-exploitation of natural resources, the rights of the Earth and indigenous communities, problems surrounding water, the loss of biodiversity, and so on. We dedicated the proposals to the past, present and future, with a separate floor for each section.
On view in the section Now were projects like A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting (2012-2019) by Amy Balkin, consisting of a collection of materials contributed by people living in places that may disappear because of the impact of climate change like, for instance, Anvers Island (Antarctica), Greenland, Kivalina (Alaska), Miami, Nepal, New Orleans, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, among many others; alongside others such as the ceramics by Jean Francois Paquay (Hello Pepito, 2018-2019) created using invasive plants; or the installation by Søren Dahlgaard coming from his project in the Maldives (Small Coral Island in Maldives, 2002-ongoing), which consisted in creating a local company to supply fruit and vegetables to hotels and resorts who used to import produce from distant places, an extraordinary idea if you bear in mind the serious threat this chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean is under because of the rise in sea level.
The work dialogued fluidly with the lenticular images of corals by Diane Burko and Anna Tas (Reef Project, 2018) which provide multiple perspectives of coral reefs that are disappearing at an alarming rate. Coral is one of the best thermometers to monitor the health of the planet, and its discoloration is one of the concerns that obsesses me and which I have investigated on previous occasions 3In 2017 I undertook the ARTSail research residency, in collaboration with the South Florida Arts Centre and the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, to investigate the water problems in the bay of Florida. For further information see: https://www.artsail.info/gallery-3.
We also showed the work by Laboratory for Microclimates (LfM) which undertakes actions like what it calls ‘depaving’, which is to say the elimination of impermeable surfaces so that the ground can absorb rainwater and thus reduce heat accumulation. Meanwhile, in Be Dammed, Carolina Caycedo brings together all sorts of materials while working with Colombian, Brazilian and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems, exploring the power structures associated with the corporatization and destruction of water resources.
The extraordinary drawings in gold ink in Marie Velardi’s installation Wanta Wayana (2007) came about as a response to her collaboration with the indigenous Wayana community in French Guiana. The mining of gold seriously threatens their ecosystem because the mercury used in the extraction process is poured into the river or forest, from where it then passes into the food chain. In addition, Velardi found inspiration in the body paintings that are part of the community’s rituals, also under threat of disappearance.
The chapter Yesterday contained a selection of works by pioneering artists who were instrumental in shaping environmental consciousness in the seventies, like Teresa Murak, who, with the purpose of calling attention to the lack of green areas in Warsaw, walked around the city streets cloaked in a large coat of cress. With it, she not only transformed her own body into a green space, but also challenged the communist government’s ban on public protest. Other pioneering works on view were the first poster for Earth Day, 1970, made by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, or the actions by Nicolás García Uriburu on contaminated water, like when he dyed the water of the Grand Canal in Venice in 1968 with a fluorescent green colour to protest against the state of the water.
The final chapter, Perhaps Tomorrow, anticipated more technological future visions like Buckminster Fuller’s celebrated geodesic domes that floated over inhospitable landscapes, the inflatable cushion for breathing by Ant Farm, and many other artists who based their projects on speculative futures, like Marcos Lutyens, who proposes turning oil platforms into high-seas cities which, because of their height, will not be affected by the rise of sea levels (Island Ark, 2018-2019).
Similar sustainability guidelines were also employed in the process of production of the exhibition Hybris 4Hybris. Una aproximación ecoestética was held at MUSAC, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León in 2017.which I curated at MUSAC in León, Spain, with the purpose of creating a landscape that speaks to political, economic and social ecology based on the gazes of around forty international, national and local artists, half of which were women.
Once again, the methodology for the curatorial selection was deliberately conditioned by sustainable ways of working and to this end a set of guidelines were laid down similar to the ones mentioned earlier.
The exhibition was divided into three chapters, each one of which was further divided into two interrelated thematic sections.
The first room, Solutions, contained a selection of projects in which the artists leveraged strategies of reparation to ecological problems, which was further divided into two sections: what we could call practices of recovery or restorationist aesthetics, and those we could classify as Ecovention which, unlike the former, are focused on degraded environments such as abandoned mines, contaminated spaces, and so on, although the projects in Ecovention are not necessarily associated with a specific place.
This section ranged from pioneers in these kinds of practices like Alan Sonfist and his park created to reintroduce plants which were native to Manhattan in precolonial times (Time Landscape, 1965-1974), or Patricia Johanson, who redesigned a lagoon which was in a badly deteriorated state, reinstating the endemic ecosystem, controlling the erosion of its shoreline and creating a network of paths and bridges for the public (Fair Park Lagoon, 1981). Equally germane is the contribution by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison who have been working for more than four decades with biologists, ecologists and architects to develop collaborative art projects capable of affording real solutions to problems of environmental degradation. Their iconic Survival Pieces (1971-1973) was on view alongside other classics like 7000 Oak Trees, which Joseph Beuys presented at documenta VII, in 1982.
There was also a plethora of site-specific projects like the one by Lucía Loren (Api Sofia, 2017) which took a look at urban beekeeping, including a pollination device created with hives/sculptures and a garden of melliferous plants; or the frozen books by Basia Irland containing seeds as if they were text, which, when defrosting in the river, repopulate its banks with endemic plants (Ice Books, Bernesga León, 2017).
The same section also featured the garment-sculptures made by Zigor Barayazarra (Garden as a Body, 2014) from a kind of felt in which the techniques of hydroponic cultivation of vegetables are applied, which struck up a conversation with the cycling-garden by Santiago Morilla which gave the visiting public a chance to water the plants while doing exercise, or Asia Piaścik’s hotel for insects.
The following chapter, Reutilizations, included artists who work with found, recycled and waste materials, like the ephemeral interventions with moss by Andy Goldsworthy, the sound recordings by Katie Paterson on records made with glacier meltwater or the mosaic of legumes by Luna Bengoechea drawing attention to food sovereignty and biopiracy, issues I have addressed on various occasions 5Among others: http://campoderelampagos.org/critica-y-reviews/7/10/2017#:~:text=La%20semilla%20se%20configura%20como,corporativo%2C%20as%C3%AD%20como%20de%20biopirater%C3%ADa.. Made from waste materials found on river banks, Reconstrucciones arqueológicas (2005-2006) by Bárbara Fluxá dialogues with the gigantic installation by the Basurama collective (Nuestro aporte, 2017) as if it were a stratigraphic cross-section made following a process of research into processes of rubbish disposal in León. Finally, the chapter Collaborations, exhibited works related with performance and other collaborative practices.
Here, classic performance artists who intersect with the more essentialist strands of ecofeminism, like Ana Mendieta (Burial Pyramid, Yagul, Mexico, 1974) and Fina Miralles (El cuerpo cubierto de paja, 1975), established a dialogue with younger generations like Regina José Galindo, who presented Mazorca. The Guatemaltecan artist made this work in 2014 when the country’s parliament passed a Law for the Protection of New Plants and Varieties, more commonly known as the Monsanto Law, putting the country’s food sovereignty under threat. In this action, Galindo remains hidden in a cornfield while four men with machetes cut all the corn around her until she is left in sight completely naked.
Fernando García Dory showed a work he had created with people from the region of Gwangju, in South Korea, in what was the area’s last rice field. In El lamento del tritón (2016) the residents of the high-rise buildings now surrounding the field played the parts of the ecosystem of the rice field, threatened by speculation, creating a play based on traditional celebrations, bringing into question prevailing models of urban development. Following a similar logic, Agnes Denes’s project Tree Mountain –A Living Time Capsule– 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (1992-2013), created an artificial mountain in Ylöjärvi, Finland, and the plantation of 11,000 trees by 11,000 people, with a commitment from the Finnish government to grant custody rights to these trees to their planters and their heirs.
In a similar vein, Amor Muñoz created a community technology laboratory Yuca-Tech: Energía hecha a mano (2015- ongoing), jointly with a group of artisans from Yucatán, to create solar cells, textiles and lighting objects with their needs and culture in mind. Visitors to the museum could take away a poster with instructions for the panels so that they can make them at home.
Another noteworthy project was Tree Project, 2005-ongoing, which the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sunairi developed from the seeds of trees which had survived the bombing of his home city of Hiroshima in 1945, which started to germinate shortly after the catastrophe. Sunairi distributed these seeds around the world and tracked the participants in the project: more than four hundred people from twenty-three different countries 6https://sunairi.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/tree/.
In the exhibition I included one of the original trees which I planted when I first met the artist over ten years ago, which was then returned to its place once the exhibition was over, in what could possibly be considered my longest-standing interspecies collaboration.
I took a similar approach when working on Im/balance for the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art in Gdansk, Poland, grounded in the need to rethink our ideas of Nature and to acknowledge that the current ‘ecocide’ is a result of the way in which we have instrumentalized our natural environment.
The work of twenty-five artists was divided into four sections, starting with Domestication of Landscape, Politics of Land and Other Dialectics, which questioned uncontrolled forms of anthropogenic action, the results of unstoppable urban development and politics of occupying the territory.
These included the video Frog’s Island, by Kamila Chomicz which took a look at Granary Island, an island in the middle of the city of Gdansk with great biodiversity, particularly noted for the large number of species of frogs that can be heard from the city centre.
Several works in the second section reflected on the title Environmental Catastrophes as a Consequence of the Capitalocene, like Black Tide (2002-2003) which Allan Sekula made about the sinking of the Prestige and subsequent disastrous oil spill off the coast of Galicia in Spain, or the action by Cecylia Malik as a response to a new law in Poland which allowed for the indiscriminate felling of trees. With The Polish Mother on the Tree Stumps (2017) she started to take photos of herself sitting on the stumps of felled trees, breastfeeding her child and posting them on social media. The photos went viral and shortly afterwards, mothers from all over Poland began to join the action, turning Malik’s project into a collective action.
The third section addressed the Management of Resources and Consumerism Habits, and questioned the model of industrial growth that generates toxic waste material which has led to the widely accepted situation in which countries in the global south are treated as ‘colonies’ for garbage. This section included works by artists such as Andreas Gursky and Marjetica Potrč, among others, and connected directly with the fourth and final section: Looking at the Global South, examining issues around so-called ‘environmentalism of the poor’, a thinking that combines political environmentalism and ecological economy whose maximum exponents are Joan Martínez Alier and Ramachandra Guha. The exhibition explored these ideas and concepts through artworks like Supergas/Massawe Family, Tanzania, (1997) by the Danish collective Superflex, a project undertaken in conjunction with African and Danish engineers, which consisted in building a mobile unit able to generate sufficient biogas from organic waste in order to meet the needs of a family, which they implemented in a village in Tanzania.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is another of my main focuses, as a member of, among others, the Culture and Sustainability research group at REDS 7https://reds-sdsn.es/ and through my ongoing endeavour to introduce the Agenda in the road map of cultural institutions through projects, workshops and consultancy, despite the fact that ultimately the aforementioned document of the UN did not include Culture as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8Further information at: https://reds-sdsn.es/nueva-publicacion-cultura-desarrollo-sostenible.
From this field of action, I will only mention The Water Office, a project which I have developed both in USA and in Spain, around SDG number 6: the right to clean water and sanitation 9Further information at: https://www.spainculture.us/city/washington-dc/fair-water-the-water-office/.
The initial version, developed in Washington in 2019, took the form of an experimental office of workshops, an exhibition and various theoretical events. The Open Lab exhibition resulting from the series of collaborative workshops featured a number of projects coming from the collaboration between Basurama and Rachel Schmidt, Water Memories Itinerant Office, a project reflecting on the unequal access to water, its quality and shortage, as well as how to think about feasible solutions. Through a process of public participation, they compiled stories with which to create time capsules to visibilize the water cycle when we consider its attending industries, transport and waste.
Juan Zamora’s project, The Coliform Project: Performing Water, proposed a reading of river contamination in a musical key. It started with taking samples of water from different points along the Potomac river in collaboration with the riverkeeper network, and then, in the laboratory boat with several volunteers, to perform the contaminated water samples cultured in petri dishes as music sheets. The musical scores were performed in a concert by local musicians at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Following a visit to the USA’s biggest water treatment plant, Elena Lavellés set up a group to work on a viral campaign in social media, a manifesto and a multimedia installation (Strategic Contamination: Viral Sustainability, 2019). Meanwhile, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first persons to warn us about climate change, Tania Candiani proposed a collective walk along the banks of the river (Walking the River), leading to a collaborative work consisting of a film recording and a series of installations coupled with an archive work following research at the Archives Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Juanli Carrión used textile dyes of food origin which change in colour depending on the pH of the water to analyse contamination. For the project PHDC, the artist and collaborators collected samples of water systems in Washington D.C. to create pH-sensitive dyes using locally grown red cabbage. These dyes are then impregnated in cotton fabrics, revealing the various levels of contamination in the blue, green and yellow colours, which Carrión showed in the exhibition as a textile installation.
This project connected with another we had worked on the year before, PHY, presented at NGMA, the National Gallery of Delhi. On a two-week trip along the Yamuna river, one of the most polluted in the world, we took water samples in different areas. On this occasion, the artist chose the locally grown madder root (rubia cordifolia) to create a pH-sensitive dye which was then impregnated in pieces of white wool felt. Once again, as the colour of the dye varies depending on the acidity of the water, the resulting felt pieces demonstrate the different levels of pollution in a spectrum of red tones. One of the critical points of the project was not just to reveal the degree of contamination of the river, but the interaction of the inhabitants during the process and the importance of lending a voice to the local community. I have also lent great importance to this aspect in other projects such as Invisible Violence 10Curated by Blanca de la Torre, Seamus Kealy and Zoran Erić. Touring MoCAB, Museum of Contemporary Art of Belgrade (Serbia), Artium, Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) and Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg (Austria), 2014-2015. or Liquid Cartographies 11Curated by Blanca de la Torre, Carlos Palacios and Paula Duarte. Touring Museo Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, ARTIUM, Vitoria-Gasteiz and IMEX, Madrid, 2017., from which I will briefly mention a few works.
From the former, Ursula Biemann’s Black Sea Files (2005) focused on the planet’s oldest oil extraction area in the region of the Caspian Sea. Her video centres its attention on the testimony of what are generally secondary players, such as the peasants, refugees and prostitutes who live in the vicinity of the oil pipeline and contribute to the presentation of a wider than usual human geography.
On a similar note, Nikola Radic Lucati followed the route of the planned South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia, inviting affected locals to participate in her project Kondentzat (2014) and to reclaim the use of the word in a lectern placed alongside videos and photos taken throughout the process of research, revealing the visitors’ spontaneous reactions.
Liquid Cartographies took a transversal interpretation of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity (1999) through the work of twelve Mexican and Spanish artists. The idea of territory was strongly tied to the idea of sustainability, like the focuses on social problems as a consequence of the governmental policies which the artists Edgardo Aragón and Miguel Fernández de Castro brought to the table. The first proposed a video (La encomienda, 2012) filmed in an abandoned mine, where a choir performed a baroque composition inspired by the slogans from the protests against mining companies in many Latin-American countries. The second records the ruins that emerge from the water of a hydroelectric dam in Batuc, a town in Sonora, Mexico, sacrificed by the federal government in the interest of ‘progress’. Elena Lavellés’ project Pattern of Dissolution (2017) explored materiality and landscape in dialogue with the visible effects of the exploitation of human and natural resources. To this end she used three different models of black gold: oil, coal, and the precious metal itself, and their corresponding economic infrastructures of extraction. It also included the work of Morelos León de Celis, who addresses the struggle for indigenous rights from 1541-1556, in the period of New Spain, through these communities’ acts of resistance (El oficio del adversario, 2017).
In the NO Comunidad project I explored my interest in social ecology from a highly personal vision. Based on the gaze of 60 artists, it took a look at the issue of solitude from a questioning of the idea of community propounded by the late-capitalist society, whose characteristic feature has to do with the rupture of social bonds.
One of the project’s 12La NO Comunidad. Co-curated with Ricardo Ramón Jarne at CentroCentro Madrid. 2018. sections developed the subject matter through the varied cast of characters who make up the contemporary city, ranging from the homeless to outsiders and marginalised communities, like the woman walking the streets of New York in Paul Graham’s photos (Woman with Golden Face, 2000), which speaks about the broken American dream; the anonymous faces in big cities portrayed by Pierre Gonnord in the series Utópicos (2004); or the beggars who live on the streets of the Ukraine in Boris Mikhailov’s series of photographs Case History, 1998-1999.
A counterpoint to this section took the guise of a ‘non-urban’ outside, an outskirts removed from the centre, or different concepts of the periphery rendered in varying rural environments, islands, outer space, or the sea, in works like Paisaje Nómada (2012) by Lucía Loren, portraying the solitude of shepherds in the Sahara desert, or a man walking against the backdrop of the Adriatic sea in Simon Faithfull’s video (Going Nowhere, 2014), among many other gazes, like the solitude of inmates in the works by Artemio, Gonzalo Elvira or Núria Güell.
My line of investigation has also led me to explore other interests, like the conservation of traditions and local modes of production, as exemplified by the project Cromática by the Mexican artist Tania Candiani, which has been touring Mexican museums for several years 13Cromática was produced at MACO, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Oaxaca and toured to the Mexican museums ExConvento in Guadalajara; MUSAS, Museo de Arte de Sonora; Museo de Ciudad Juárez; and also to 516 Contemporary Arts Center in Albuquerque, USA, between 2015 and 2020..
Originally produced for MACO (Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca), the whole exhibition was made using local natural materials, the reuse or recycling of objects, the recovery of local traditions and with the collaboration of local craftspeople.
As a conceptual epicentre we used three colours which, at once, connected with the three major kingdoms of nature: the animal, with the red coming from the cochineal, the plant, with indigo blue, and the mineral, with yellow pigments.
In the centre of the hall the public came across a vast tapestry made by a weaver from Teotitlán del Valle (Oaxaca), which illustrated by means of a graphic the exhibition’s core ideas, in dialogue with a multitude of pieces, many of them key, like Zanfona, a loom turned into a musical instrument.
We showed live installations like Nocheztli: an open space dyed red in which one could see the pads of the prickly-pear with the cochineal in its various states of growth. Throughout the exhibition the grain was harvested and ground in the museum itself during a collective performance (La molienda), and a wide range of works was created, including a series of embroidery on the process of production of cochineal based on the illustrations for the book by José Antonio Alzate Beneficio de la grana cochinilla (1794). Several works revolved around the extraction of indigo, while the yellow section threw a particular spotlight on a sound installation with ceramic ocarina flutes in the shape of birds of different sizes with up to sixteen tones of yellow that denote the different tones of music, which spectators could activate with bellows.
On its stopover in Ciudad Juárez, the exhibition also incorporated a site-specific work made with the typical brightly coloured garments worn by the women from the Raramuri community. Coming into play here is another key point that cannot be overlooked in terms of sustainability: we included all the documentation for the exhibition in the Raramuri language.
As the closing project, we could mention the concert I took you to and after which I took you home, in which you were accompanied by another 2291 plants, with which you filled the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona to listen to a string quartet performing Puccini’s Crisantemi, the day after lockdown was lifted. With the artist, Eugenio Ampudia, I suggested calling the work Concert for the Biocene 14A recording of the concert can be viewed at: https://www.liceubarcelona.cat/en/concierto_bioceno, thus popularizing a term which I had already used in Spanish but which, thanks to this event, was translated to over one hundred different languages thanks to the unexpected reaction in the mass media.
Biocene is a concept I have been proposing for some time now to replace Anthropocene, a word with evident political, economic and particularly colonial implications on the environmental degradation of the planet and which distributes responsibility homogeneously among the whole of anthropos.
It had been preceded by a host of other formulas like Eurocene, proposed by Peter Sloterdijk or Capitalocene, coined by Andreas Malm and Jason Moore and disseminated by Donna Haraway—who also popularized the term Chthulucene—among many others put forward over recent years (Pyrocene, Plantationocene, Gynecene, White Supremacy Scene, etc…).
With this project I was alluding to authors like Stefano Mancuso or the philosopher Michael Marder, who used the concept of Plant-thinking to assign vegetal life with the capacity to develop its own form of philosophizing.
As opposed to the above-listed terms, whose intention is to underscore the agent behind the degradation of the planet, Biocene proposes a profound conceptual shift removed from any pretension to assign guilt, and instead to turn the page to a new era that will finally situate life in the centre.
Dear ficus, I have tried to synthetize the way in which I have been addressing the ecosocial crisis from various angles and with a theoretical-practical approach, combined with my efforts to develop a posthumanist focus, with varying degrees of success, and without being absolutely convinced of the effectiveness of art practices to overcome anthropocentrism and the coexistence between species.
What I am sure of, over and above discussing any kind of botanical empathy, is the space of art as the place where the different layers of the world and the way we relate with it are made visible. I see art as a place of infinite possibilities that opens cracks in reality and affords us a chance to change the narrative, which is one of the most necessary powers for 21st-century society. And this is possibly the only essential power in order to change the reigning worldview, a step necessary for a change to a new post-fossil era, as the only way to avert the collapse of civilization.
- 1The concept of soft power was coined in the late-twentieth century by the Harvard professor Joseph Nye to refer to the power of culture to influence political action.
- 2Held at ADN Platform, in Sant Cugat, and set to tour to CDAN in Huesca, but cancelled due to the pandemic.
- 3In 2017 I undertook the ARTSail research residency, in collaboration with the South Florida Arts Centre and the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, to investigate the water problems in the bay of Florida. For further information see: https://www.artsail.info/gallery-3
- 4Hybris. Una aproximación ecoestética was held at MUSAC, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León in 2017.
- 8Further information at: https://reds-sdsn.es/nueva-publicacion-cultura-desarrollo-sostenible
- 9Further information at: https://www.spainculture.us/city/washington-dc/fair-water-the-water-office/
- 10Curated by Blanca de la Torre, Seamus Kealy and Zoran Erić. Touring MoCAB, Museum of Contemporary Art of Belgrade (Serbia), Artium, Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) and Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg (Austria), 2014-2015.
- 11Curated by Blanca de la Torre, Carlos Palacios and Paula Duarte. Touring Museo Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, ARTIUM, Vitoria-Gasteiz and IMEX, Madrid, 2017.
- 12La NO Comunidad. Co-curated with Ricardo Ramón Jarne at CentroCentro Madrid. 2018.
- 13Cromática was produced at MACO, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Oaxaca and toured to the Mexican museums ExConvento in Guadalajara; MUSAS, Museo de Arte de Sonora; Museo de Ciudad Juárez; and also to 516 Contemporary Arts Center in Albuquerque, USA, between 2015 and 2020.
- 14A recording of the concert can be viewed at: https://www.liceubarcelona.cat/en/concierto_bioceno