earth, Ida Hiršenfelder

narrator Ida Hiršenfelder
term earth
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

In Central Europe, we’ve seen unprecedented rainfall this spring. So much so that there’s a climate joke – it only rained twice, once for thirty days and the second time for forty-five. Exhausted by the strange weather, I remember the warnings of climatologists from over twenty years ago who predicted that this part of the world would see excessive rain and floods, and others would suffer from drought. It appears we are going to see much more unpleasant weather in the future. Such weather is especially bad news for complex and larger organisms, especially vertebrates, that are unlikely to adapt to the new climate conditions and will subsequently become extinct. Extinction is going to be a very messy business for humans, and to some extent – as Timothy Morton points out – the end of the world has already occurred.[1] Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside many hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons or evolution. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of reasoning and make us unable to imagine the world as a whole. In the following text, I will look at one such object. My term for the glossary is Earth with a capital E. I’m still not quite sure if Earth is an entirely suitable term for talking about the entire planet that we inhabit with its unsettling changing weather and global warming. I’m still turning around notions like → Territory, Planet, Gaia the living organism, World, Nature, Environment, Terra, or even Globe,[2] in search of a term that simultaneously bears in mind a planetary perspective while being grounded in the matter and striking a chord on the emotional and empathic levels, I came across a very simple term – Home with a capital H – because that’s what it is and we’re very unlikely to find anyplace else in the universe just like Home. I think this term might also speak to those who have been dispossessed. As was noted in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth, the dispossessed are on the one hand the migrants and asylum seekers who’ve literally lost their homes due to conflicts connected to global warming and accelerationism, and on the other the → disappointed nationals who have been let down by the failed project of globalisation and are now trying to establish a sense of home, which means safety, familiarity, comfort, etc.,[3] albeit with a sinister twist of “Not on My Lawn!” aggression, which explains the irrational, charged and violent sentiments of the right-wing. The global ruling classes who decided to abandon the burden of → solidarity have betrayed all these people – first, and foremost, the dispossessed, and not the least the citizens of the nations they control.

 

In her novels Ursula K. Le Guin consistently uses the word Terra[4] to describe our planet, one of many in the intergalactic coalition. Her proposition is non-metaphorical and accurate. So what is this world called Terra, I ask? Etymology offers multiple meanings: land; soil, earth, dirt; land that separates seas against the third element, the sky; the world, globe, Earth as a planet; land or region.[5] In this sense, I find that civilisation on Terra is defined by the fertile soil that provided conditions for agriculture and settlement, something that Morton also identifies as the main protagonist in transforming the Earth, terraforming, extractivism, and the exploitation of its resources.[6] In this sense, colonialism, the difference between urban and rural, private and public, individual and collective, the idea of natural and cultural, even the patriarchy of the agricultural age and presumably preceding matriarchy, and in turn also the linear and cyclic understanding of time, are ideas derived from agriculture.[7] Le Guin also shows how the conditions of dispossession and virtually everything we think, feel and act upon as a civilisation are intrinsically connected to the climate condition of the planet, which a cultured species occupies. And I ask myself, how will these cultural defaults morph with the changing weather? I am hopeful, and in some → instances I already see it, that it might bring the → decommodification of the Earth, which for me means the abandonment of the idea of private property as it has formed since the industrial age. Dispossession is only possible when there is possession.

 

Many years ago, I read the speeches and wisdom of Native American chieftains as a response to the white-man’s madness. One chief asked when it was suggested that they sell their land to the white people: “How can I sell the blue colour of the sky?”[8] This idea of the impossibility of owning or selling the Earth has stuck with me. I recognise the reverberation of this question in Terra0[9], a project by a group of developers, theorists, and researchers (Paul Seidler, Max Hampshire, Paul Kolling, Andi Rueckel, Gregor Finger, Johannes Wilke) exploring the creation of hybrid ecosystems in the technosphere, who have proposed a radical decommodification to gives a forest its collective agency and legal status. The artists/programmers have set up a system based on blockchain technology that provides a forest with a legal and financial framework on the basis of which they can buy themselves by selling individual bodies of their collective (wood). They propose a cybernetic → ecology a sort of xenofeminist bond between technology and the biotic world, and give the non-human a more important role in the creation of culture. With the collective of trees, I hit on another notion that needs to be radically changed if we and the more-than-human others are to survive the cataclysmic events caused by climate change. This is the notion of an individual, which informs the ways we think about intelligence and agency. It suggests that a subject – whether human or non-human – can be somehow isolated and studied as an independent entity. Viola and Mancuso propose that we should think about non-humans such as plants as modular and, as such, they should not be referred to as individuals but as → interdependent colonies, and consequently, their intelligence should be investigated accordingly.[10]

 

The natural sciences have started to make this collective turn in their research, from studies of the gut microbiome as one of the key aspects of depression in humans, to symbiotic communication strategies of the forest floor. To open a space for non-humans in the cultural sphere, we must find ways of communicating with the collectives such as plants and including them in our languages. A brilliantly witty and sensitive proposition of → translation was made by Špela Petrič, an artist trained in the natural sciences with a PhD in biology. In her work Institute for Inconspicuous Languages: Reading Lips (2018) she proposes a fantastical tale of establishing communication between the human scientist Mi Yu and a ficus tree in a lab experiment between the years 2021 and 2039. In her installation, Petrič included a recording of the plant’s stomata, thousands of tiny mouth-like openings that monitor the amount of water they take up through their roots.[11] At the side of the screen, she had a sign-language interpreter translate the utterings of the stomata.

 

Anyone who has green fingers understands that plants take a very long time to utter a simple sentence such as “more light, please” or “it’s a bit too damp over here”, as plants exist in different temporalities compared to humans. Informed by the understanding of plant communication networks, I started to feel it was exceedingly cruel to put plants in pots, to isolate them from the possibility of connecting with others. On another note, I console myself, it might just as well be that an isolated plant is quite happy, because they are a collective and not an isolated individual. The environmental crisis is, in a way, the result of extreme individualism that produced exploitative hierarchical subject-object relations such as extractivism. As a possible solution, speculations about networked collectives suggest developing more sophisticated forms of interactions. Collectivity, community, and commoning are the core principles of ecology thinking that give way to various mutualistic relationships.

 

In the media and popular culture, we now again see the idea of the planet Mars coming to the centre stage. In the midst of the Cold War – as it was portrayed in the 1962 film The Day Mars Invaded Earth[12] – Mars was a metaphor for the red communist threat. Now, it is looked at as a destination for the absurdly rich when they choose to leave our damaged home planet. But as the science-fiction trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars[13] – depicts so well, this species of primates will take all our petty disagreements and complex, irreconcilable characters with us, and the colonisation of Mars along with the necessary terraforming will cause the same problems as they have on Earth. Perhaps the reason why some may look for a solution outside of Earth is that the climate catastrophe is – as Morton would put it – a “super wicked problem” that can “rationally be diagnosed but for which there is no feasible rational solution”.[14] “Wicked problems are unique and thus irreducible and difficult to conceptualise and anticipate.” [15] If it gets solved, we will never know if it existed. If it doesn’t, we won’t be here to confirm it.

 

So the question is, how to untangle civilisation before it crumbles under its own weight? Why do I think searching for the right term for this planetary perspective is worth the effort? Failure to face the matter or object is the definite point at which the current political discourse – or lack thereof – is failing. The policies that are put in place to mitigate climate change not only come too late, but are nicely wrapped into business as usual. A few years ago, we were trying to debunk the representational image of the Earth with transmedia artist Saša Spačal. We built a responsive sound installation Sonoseismic Earth (2015–2017), which depicts our planet’s dark ecology more realistically than the picture-perfect blue ideal of NASA, which we were fed in → schools from a very early age. Our critique looked beyond the map-making distortions which show the Western world to be larger than the “non-developed”[16] countries. What we had in mind was to create a haptic experience of the hyperobject Earth. We wrote:

 

Sonoseismic Earth presents Earth in the age of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch of industrial societies. [… It] makes a possible entry into a planetary perspective, into the sensual and haptic relationship between humans and the planet. The depletion of fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust causes tectonic cracks; hence, in the installation, the globe is gradually polluted by seismic graph lines. The seismographic rendering of is triggered by the proximity of human beings detected by sensors. The planet emits the infrasonic sound of earthquakes; it submerges the human in the ubiquitous acoustic space with no identifiable origin. The infrasonic sound is a warning frequency, recognised by the more sensitive beings as a sign of danger. With the acoustic environment of the Sonoseismic Earth, humans are caught actively and experientially in the drama of the endless circulation of capital.[17]

 

We added a little dark humour to the piece by placing the bones of industrially produced chicken in the drained pool of crude oil on top of a barrel mixed with polluted water dripping from the spinning globe. Industrial chicken is by some estimates one of the largest biomasses of a single species. Potentially, with great pressure and aeons of time, the remains of these animals will change into crude oil. Thus the Earth will replenish itself with our bio-waste and the metabolic rift of the Anthropocene will come to a closure on an Earth without humans.

 

Another perspective that is equally effective in attacking the representation of the Earth is an illusionistic ceiling video projection Sky in Ruins (di sotto in sù) by Sašo Sedlaček “that alludes to the tradition of Renaissance ceiling painting and its illusionistic depictions of limitless space with an architectural vanishing point on the ceiling.”[18] (Figure 1) The installation is one of the outcomes of the artist’s long-term research into consumer society and its waste – from blocking the entrance of a shopping mall with their advertising materials to picnicking in landfill – he then looked upward and created Space Junk Spotting, an alternative to Google Earth which maps space junk in orbit. The project aims is to map all such junk and acquire data about each object’s origin, the satellite it came from, how long it has been in orbit and how many millennia will pass before it collides with the atmosphere. In the Sky in Ruins, Sedlaček shows a more poetic gaze, one that does not require us to be active users of a particular platform, but one that lets us enjoy the poetry of catastrophe. The illusionistic hole in the sky shows that there is much more waste in orbit than there are actual working satellites, and that this waste is blocking a clear view of the stars. The planet is suffocating in our waste. With a lot of dark humour, I think of the fantastically stifling and anxious plot of the space drama Aniara, [19] adapted from a book-length epic science fiction poem from 1956 by the Swedish poet Harry Martinson as his response to the threat of nuclear war. In the epic, a spaceship escaping a ruined Earth and on its way to a colony on Mars ends up drifting in outer space for millions of years. And ironically, it was forced off course by space junk that destroyed its steering system.

 

Figure 1: Sašo Sedlaček, Sky in Ruins (di sotto in sù), 2016, video (animation). Presented at the Beyond the Globe: 8th Triennial of Contemporary Art – U3, curated by Boris Groys, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana. Courtesy of the artist. 

 

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, maintains that civilisations commit → ecological suicide – or ecocide – by simply ignoring alarming factors like deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems like erosion or salinisation, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, invasive species, excessive population growth, and increased per-capita impact. [20] Eventually, as a population decreases through starvation, war, or disease, society loses its political, economic, and cultural complexity. Diamond shows in numerous cases through history that societies which collapsed initially saw their resources as inexhaustibly abundant, while the signs of their incipient depletion were masked by normal fluctuations in resource levels between years or decades.[21] The complexity of ecosystems also makes the consequences of some human-caused disturbances virtually impossible to predict. This creates a situation that makes it extremely difficult to get people to agree on exercising restraint. But restraint as expressed in anti-consumerism, veganism, zero-waste behaviour, lowering the birth rate, refraining from → air travel and so on is not a question of convictions or → choice, because we really have no choice but to change.

 

Many artistic endeavours that call for a higher sense of ecological awareness are eulogies, not hymns to the beauty of the natural world. They are in line with the development of ecological thinking from the optimistic and holistic deep ecology of Arne Næss to the pessimistic and object-based dark ecology of Timothy Morton. In much the same way, acoustic ecology has transformed from the connected deep listening of Pauline Oliveros to the immersive dark listening composed by artists such as Robertina Šebjanič. In her installations, we “enter into [sound] undulations, to feel our bodies perform the geography of waves, the volume of water and the fragile connections between all that moves in its dark expanse,”[22] as Salomé Voegelin so beautifully puts it when speaking of the political potential of sound. The entire body of work by Šebjanič is submerged into water ecologies, diving into murky aquatic atmospheres, dipping a hydrophone and listening attentively to the sound pollution that propagates so much faster in water than air. She cultivates high levels of sensitivity to the living conditions of marine animals and plants, and simultaneously works closely with oceanographers, marine biologists and speleologists to develop what she calls  “→ empathic strategies”. This means, translating what she observes in the field and science laboratories, and installing it into powerful experiences for the senses and mind: as citizen science projects, immersive drone audiovisual compositions from noise pollution, kinetic machines, ethnographic operas or olfactory experiences. She proposes the use of the word “aquaforming”[23] to point out the fact that humans are not only changing the face of the dry land (terraforming), but also of the sea beds and the water itself. She brings about the awareness that Earth is not just Terra, but instead is a watery planet, we are bodies of water, and our life depends on water more than any other element. The ocean is our cradle, the place of our birth, and it will be the place of our → death should we not change our ways. And perhaps, even more importantly, Šebjanič is pointing at the interconnectedness of things through water as observed in her installation Co_Sonic 1884 km², (Figure 2) in which she explores an intermittent river with nine names and composes underwater recordings with AI. She says that the installation:

 

shows its water body through the prism of its integral whole. [It] is a document of the current times in which rivers are becoming powerless due to human intervention. It calls on us to build empathy for “non-human” entities and to adopt strategies for ecological development for a time when our generation will be long gone.[24]

 

Figure 2: Robertina Šebjanič, Co_Sonic 1884 km², 2021, series of 10 photographs and audio video installation. Courtesy of the artist. 

 

Šebjanič’s work does not preach about general things, but sinks deep into particular and concrete objects on this watery Earth. Following Morton’s notion, the whole is weirdly less than the sum of its parts. As they say: “If we want to coexist ecologically, which is to say animistically and anarchistically, we may need to accept the fact that, while they are physically massive, hyperobjects such as neoliberalism are ontologically small, always less than the sum of their parts.”[25] So the Earth as a general notion for this planet is also less than the parts, which we can experience – touch, smell, hear, or see. Karen Barad, in their text Posthuman Performativity, also calls for the return of a focus on matter. They claim that language has been granted too much power and that matters of “fact” have been replaced with matters of signification. As Barad writes: “Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. The only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter…”[26]

 

Artists are looking for methods of speaking about concrete matters and seek to surpass the mainstream notions of sustainability (greenwashing) which do not challenge the issues that propagate the status quo. They are imagining a world beyond human exceptionalism and are opening their minds to interspecies communication. They speak from the point of the particular and concrete, the partial and specific, the direct and pessimistic, the holistic and ritualistic, with dissonance and assemblage, proposing hypothetical and poetic future scenarios.

[1]Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[2]A term proposed by Peter Sloterdijk.

[3]Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).

[4]Ursula K. Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion; Rocannon's World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1995).

[5]Ida Hiršenfelder, “Ekofeminizem v romanih Ursule K. Le Guin”, Spol.si, Ljubljana (20 February 2020).

[6]Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, (New York: Columbia University Press, New York, 2016), 4–5.

[7]Hiršenfelder (2020).

[8]Franc Burgar, Majda Kuželički, Kako naj vam prodamo modrino neba (Ljubljana: self-published by Franc Burgar, 1988).

[9]See the Terra0 project webpage https://terra0.org/.

[10]Alessandra Viola and Stefano Mancuso, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence (Washington: Island Press, 2015).

[12]Maury Dexter, The Day Mars Invaded Earth, USA, 1962, 70´.

[13]Kim Stanley Robinson, Crveni Mars [Red Mars] (Zagreb: Izvori, 1996); Zeleni Mars [Green Mars] (Zagreb: Izvori, 1998); Plavi Mars [Blue Mars] (Zagreb: Izvori, 2001);

[14]Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[15]Ibid. 36.

[16]The term “non-developed” is extremely problematic as it is based on the idea of continuous economic growth that drives the planet’s resources into depletion and its inhabitants into extinction.

[17]Saša Spačal and Ida Hiršenfelder – beepblip: Sonoseismic Earth (2015–2017).

[18]Sašo Sedlaček, Sky in Ruins (di sotto in sù), 2016.

[19]Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, Aniara, Sweden, 2018, sci-fi drama, 60´46´´.

[20]Jared M. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005).

[21]Ibid.

[22]Salomé Voegelin, The Political Possibility of Sound (New York: Bloomsbury,2018), 75.

[24]Robertina Šebjanič, Co_Sonic 1884 km², (2021).

[25]Morton (2018), 113–4.

[26]Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, Gender and Science, The University of Chicago (2003).

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