“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, April 29, 2011

Object-Oriented Strategies for Ecological Art

William Wordsworth has a lock on environmenalist art. Even opposing Wordsworthianism is done within a Wordsworthian configuration space. So Shelley, an early opponent, proclaims himself the hyper-Wordsworth. He's going to do what Wordsworth did, only a thousand times better.

What does this mean? It means the mainstream environmentalist art is constructivist. Since the Romantic period there have been roughly two strategies for the avant garde: constructivism and object-orientation. You can play with relations, or you can reveal objects.

Now I know this may come as a shock to some but the Nature folks are constructivists, really: they are in the lineage of Rodchenko and Naum Gabo. They're creating machines that change attitudes. Paradoxical devices that upgrade human consciousness. Change people's relations with one another and with non-humans. Their raw material is the viewer's or reader's conceptual mind. Why? Because Wordsworth, “poet of Nature” as Shelley calls him, wrote the manual on this strategy.

This affects all kinds of art practice including concept art and performance art, AND agriculture as performance art (Wendell Berry, if you like). The art object as geographical text.

There's much much more to say about this but let's look at the forgotten twin of constructivism, object-orientation.

Why did this strategy lose favor with the Nature crew? Because the manual was written by Keats, and if you're a Wordsworthian, Keats is about artifice, femininity, non-Nature. Wordsworth knew as soon as he heard his first Keats poem that he had met his nemesis: that's why he called it “pretty,” damning with faint praise.

But the way to reveal the object, as we have been discovering in OOO, is through an illusion-like clowning, a disturbing proximity, shoplifting in full view. The iceberg becomes a weird clown, the Arctic ocean becomes one-inch-thick latex—look at Chris Wainwright's gorgeous photo above, taken on the Cape Farewell tour that forms the basis of the U-N-F-O-L-D exhibition I spoke at in Chicago. Iceberg as David Lynch movie character.

This paradoxical approach, instead of working on our mind, melts our mind, directly. Short circuit.

More on this soon (much more). But this is incredibly important: beyond the fetishization of Nature, environmentalist art is constructivist. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is some fallout. You think you know what Nature is—all it requires is some good PR. You get into the convincing business. You are working in the configuration space of advertising. And all the really good advertisers advertise products, not Nature. And Nature is not a product...and you know that...

In the next few posts I'll be exploring the road less traveled, object-orientation, as a solution for art in the time of hyperobjects.


ai said...

Tim - You suggest that an OOO approach would "reveal objects." To me that sounds rather like the traditional positivist assumption that some method (e.g., the scientific) could show us the things themselves as they actually are in and of themselves - though I'm sure that's not what you mean.

I've written critiques of *social* constructivism, probably for the same reasons as you, but in the end I've opted for a *generalized* constructivism (a.k.a. relational constructivism, co-constructivism, etc), which, following Latour, Deleuze, et al, argues that we can't know or "reveal" things without acting upon or interacting with them, and that therefore any knowing is a form of co-constructing a world in which certain things can be 'known' by certain 'knowers' (but that that is itself a construct, requiring work; it's not a given).

I'm curious... Is there something you find deficient about that approach that you think an OOO approach can solve?

I don't at all think that the best environmental art (today) "fetishizes Nature" (but then maybe I'm just being selective in my definition of what's "best" - e.g. ecological artists and "ecoventionists" like Patricia Johanson, Mierle Ukeles, and many others). But when you write that environmentalist art is constructivist *and* that it "think[s] [it] know[s] what Nature is," that doesn't sound like constructivism to me - neither the generalized kind nor the social (human/anthropocentric) kind. SO I'm a little lost here.

I trust you will expand in future posts/writings...


Timothy Morton said...

Hi Adrian--the aesthetic dimension, which is the OOO causal dimension, can reveal shadows and colors of the object...even though it is withdrawn. Graham talks about this in various ingenious ways in Guerilla Metaphysics, and it's the sole topic of my Realist Magic which I'm working on--I shall take your helpful comments on board as I continue to write.