Un-taming the Environment
2015, Aleksandra Jach talks to Joanna Rajkowska for The Anthropocene Index

The Anthropocene Index

Aleksandra Jach: What does ecology mean to you? Do you define yourself as an artist who makes ecological projects?

Joanna Rajkowska: I understand ecology as a set of interdependent networks that determine life on Earth. They are destabilized by Homo sapiens. I wonder whether an ecological project is currently possible at all. Maybe it would be a proposal that would simply not destabilize the environment (any further)? I believe it is crucial to take into account all the processes that lead to the project and not solely its consequences. Each artistic activity requires such an enormous amount of energy that even by flying to an exhibition opening, which means burning 2.5 tons of fuel per hour, we contribute to this process of destabilization. Art is not created in a vacuum but within already accessible technological possibilities. So we burn fossil fuels (transport, energy required to operate machines, heating) and contribute to producing waste that is extremely difficult to utilize. We can, of course, comfort ourselves that artists constitute a small percentage of society and have an infinitesimal impact on the situation. For all these tragic reasons, I do not believe that any of my projects are ecological.

However, I do have one unrealized project that could be described as ecological – Miastobagno (Swamptown). But even it would require large amounts of energy and a huge environmental intervention. The project involves flooding Schlossplatz, a place in the centre of Berlin. This would bring it back to its state ca. 1200, when this part of the city was Spree wetland. The wetland created would be inaccessible to people and the “reservation” would only be observed from designated vantage points. It is an attempt to create a minute ecosystem, an artificial bubble, where life would happen without any human intervention. It would also be an invitation to other species that might wish to share this space (which would unfortunately, perforce, be a ghetto). Some examples of these species could be: honey buzzards, grasshopper warblers, savi’s warblers, reed buntings, great reed warblers, Eurasian reed warblers, large coppers, lesser purple emperors, dark-leaved willows, early-marsh orchids and greenshanks. What else… I also define ecology as fear. I live in constant fear that capitalism leads us straight into an abyss. And our awareness of this fact does not change a thing.

Aleksandra Jach: I face a similar dilemma when I ponder on the definition of ecological awareness and whether it is possible for me not to increase my carbon footprint unnecessarily. I always end up questioning the rationale behind the individual feeling of guilt for not limiting the CO2 production sufficiently. I believe that ecology should be approached systemically or structurally and definitely statistically. For example, we cannot compare ourselves with global corporations. Similarly, I see the futility of environmental appeals aimed at impoverished social groups who destroy some resources because they do not have or do not see any other possibility to earn money. Nonetheless, the feeling of guilt is a step towards creating a critical mass or a pressure group. Whether that can be successful is a whole different story.

I find it interesting what you wrote about Miastobagno. I feel that the vision of Earth after the “epoch of man” is a huge challenge to our imagination. Whereas, the awareness that there are “wild” places that do not require human intervention and management may, paradoxically, be relaxing. Various political, economic and social systems get worn out and fade away, while “nature” lasts, regardless of, or maybe despite different human calamities.

Joanna Rajkowska: Nothing requires our (human) intervention and management. Problems only begin once we attempt to intervene. Even reverse processes, i.e. so called controlled intervention, which takes into consideration local processes that were likely to take place before human intervention, are still pretty hard core. Neither are we able to comprehend all relations (such as the mycorrhizal networks that have not been fully researched yet), nor do we fully understand their role in ecosystems. It is best to keep a distance – not to intervene or help. Of course, sometimes destabilization has gone so far that at least aggression needs to be stopped in order to allow for ecological succession.

I once took part in a competition for the urban regeneration of a part of Detroit. Michał Rudnicki (the palm tree’s architect), a small team that we called Tymczasowy Kolektyw (Transient Collective) and myself, proposed the Hands Off project, which could be called a child of Miastobagno. The idea was to allow plants and animals to dominate a whole block of run-down post-industrial buildings. We faced a number of dilemmas. How do we create appropriate conditions for vegetation? What animal and plant species should we introduce? Should we support those that are already there? Or should we divide them into local species and colonizers? It turned out to be an extremely difficult project.

Aleksandra Jach: Each environmental intervention is a political and ethical act.

Joanna Rajkowska: I ponder the rationale behind environmental ethics. If it is to be effective, it would have to be both universal and local at the same time. It’s a utopia, considering that our species is not even able to guarantee human rights. I recently talked to my partner about the search for extraterrestrial life. Andrew laughed out loud and said that we are not even able to understand the language of bacteria, so how could we contact aliens? We came to the conclusion that we find it difficult to understand that life may take forms that cannot be defined by the criteria presently at hand. Although we have been looking haphazardly for life in space, we have not even straightened our relationship with the identifiable life forms on Earth, with these species that we have managed to identify, classify and, in most cases, colonize. One way or another, our care about the environment should be based on the assumption that all life forms, both organic and non-organic, should have rights, which entails their emancipation. Non-human rights are no less important than human rights. I believe that we will establish environmental ethics as it is key to our survival.

Aleksandra Jach: Do you think that the global art world is ready to talk about this kind of ethics? Should public institutions impose some standards? Maybe they should start small, let’s say by demanding low-energy museums.

Joanna Rajkowska: I am of the opinion that the global art world is not and does not want to be ready to talk about ethics, because this is a matter of responsibility and maturity. The world of art is still stuck in the misleading paradigm, understood as a bubble, where everything is both possible and allowed. It is a childish model. What I find most interesting is exactly these kinds of limitations, both when it comes to art as such and in regard to artists as citizens of this planet. However, this requires humility, which is not really in line with the glam style of various biennales, etc.

Aleksandra Jach: The Anthropocene may be defined as yet another notion that puts the human beings in the centre (humanity as a geological force). How can the humanities (including art) contest this position (and is it possible at all?).

Joanna Rajkowska: This is the paradox that our generation has to face. As we realize that the central position of humankind caused a serious crisis, we need to put humans in the centre yet again, in order to contest the effects of the anthropocentric attitude. But it doesn’t always work. It is a problem for humanities because what we do is thought for, constructed for and addressed to people. Let me give you an example from the field of film production. When people do not feature in the movie, when the camera avoids them, it does not necessarily mean a change in perception. On the contrary, one can still feel that the movie is filmed at human eye level and influenced by the typically human way of seeing things. I have a feeling that in such movies one can feel the presence of the camera operator. When watching such a movie our brain automatically tries to understand: why are there no people? And we are back to square one – we’re in the anthropocentric trap. We, people, are watching a world without people, which is filmed by means of a human eye.

There is another way, maybe less spectacular than films without people. It is to enter into a relationship with inanimate matter by changing the point of view- to turn the matter into an observer. A good example may be cameras without an operator, located in a place inaccessible to humans, which grants a non-human point of view. Maybe such a mechanical, perspective removes or reduces the anthropocentric bias? Then our empathy does not concentrate on the absence of man, but on what the machine sees. The people filmed seem to be guests in a “neutral” picture, “neutrally” filmed by the camera. I conducted such an experiment while documenting the project Soon Everything Will Change in 2014 in Birmingham. The protagonist of the project was a geode, a hollow rock, in which the process of sedimentation created an internal mineral lining. This one was lined with amethysts. The rock was placed in a pavement in some Birmingham suburbs. I placed a GoPro at the bottom of the rock. It recorded the internal structure and at the same time it suggested that the recorded space is “inhumane” and that a human being would not fit in there. This results in a perception defined by the machine-like character of the recording. I have a feeling that human perception inevitably decides whether the picture and the place of the recording are safe or not. Whether it is human, friendly and tamed, whether we should fear or not. We are probably not even aware of this process. It is a good idea to untame the picture because this delusional safety is one of the key features of capitalist hebetude.

Aleksandra Jach: In the Anthropocene we feel at home everywhere. It is a challenge to find a place on Earth that has not been modified by our species. I’m thinking about the idea of untaming. Art seems to be a good tool to conduct such operations. Many people use science as a starting point when they try to make reality more familiar. It is often used as a point of reference. What do you think about interdisciplinary cooperation of artists and scientists? In your experience, are scientists interested in joint cognitive deconstruction?

Joanna Rajkowska: You strike home, when you say that art is the best untaming tool. Untaming is presently a crucial idea. Science tames. It makes things understandable and relations transparent. As we learn from Foucault, reproduction of knowledge almost always goes together with power. “In fact, power produces; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”11 This control and power component is what scares me. This is the curse of the West, the trajectory of annexation. Cooperation between art and science could yield interesting fruit if this disastrous taming had not become a paradigm. This is why I have numerous doubts regarding the science and art alliance which is being forced upon us as a result of fear of other forms of cognition. Besides, interdisciplinary cooperation of scientists and artists often results in an absolutely amateur approach by the artists towards scientific issues and resentment of the scientists towards art. The result is rather pathetic, despite the appealing, yet superficial visual aspects of the projects.

Art is a totally unscientific manner of investigating the world and it has at its disposal tools that science does not have and does not even consider to be tools. That’s why artists can allow themselves to be scientifically silly, incoherent, and inconsequential. They can make wonderful mistakes and allow for artistic serendipity.

I believe loose, informal relations between art and science to be much better. Mutual inspirations can be fruitful as well. Art as a starting point in the untaming process is a great idea. As long as the cooperation is not too close, and neither of the disciplines comes out unscathed. As long as the horizon remains free from a positivist need to explain and colonize further territories.

Having said that, I have to admit that I often read about astrophysics, although I do not understand any of it at a deeper level. I have never worked with scientists. I have never had a chance. Maybe during my 2016 Helsinki project I will have a chance to talk to an astrophysicist. I do not know what the outcome will be. Maybe an Astronomical Intergalactic Timepiece that will definitely bring no answers 🙂

Aleksandra Jach: Discussions about the Anthropocene repeatedly bring up the topic of notionality. Mock ups and analyses of Earth’s future are probable scenarios, yet they are not certain. For example, the described consequences of global warming range from dramatic and alarming to Promethean belief that demise of human species can be avoided thanks to climate engineering, What role could you or artists in general play in the context of diagnoses for the planet’s development?

Joanna Rajkowska: What I always find intriguing are potential outcomes. Things that won’t necessarily happen but could happen. I see it as a possibility to let imagination roam and reflect on “retreat” and learning how to survive. Our little collective Brud (Filth) has recently been working on a project of a mountain riddled with caves. We were inspired by the Sille district in Konya (Anatolia), where I saw man-made caves in rocks, which were the hiding places of the first Christians. We envisioned it as a resting place, but also as a potential retreat in the face of a disaster. We did not mean it in a post-apocalyptic sense, but rather as a dream of an alternative, of a symbiotic way of life in the times of booming capitalism and the havoc that it wreaks.

I believe that working in the realm of imagination enables artists to achieve a lot. A different world, different resources management, different inter-species relations, a different relation with inanimate matter (not based on exploitation). It is all within our reach. I imagine the cover of “The Guardian”, where each headline presents a scenario of responsible and effective economy, especially when it comes to energy, packaging production and waste management. I imagine that in almost all fields the slogan “more” is substituted by a triumphant “less”. I also imagine a big headline saying: “Finally the human population is decreasing steadily and responsibly”. The fewer people there are, the better for the Earth.

Aleksandra Jach: Would you agree to make a project promoting the problem of global warming? Let’s say for the Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21)? Are you interested in activism?

Joanna Rajkowska: Yes, I am. I find it interesting in every form, on every level and in every language. We live in times of rapid growth and, in some sense, at “the end of history”. What is happening now brutally redefines all human achievements made in the brief time that we’ve had on this planet. I watch art intently and even without a sensitive verification apparatus I see how many cult projects are heading nowhere. Like when you get drunk and everything seems to be slipping by rapidly. What hurts me most is this artistic (simply human) arrogance. That’s why I like to make projects that show the fragility, dependence and weakness of human beings in a historical perspective and cosmic time. This is how I define an activist project. It is not about winning the next battle (let’s say the climate change battle), as it is sometimes described. On the contrary, it is about humility and understanding that we need to accept what is inevitable in order to survive. And although the language of activist art is not my cup of tea, I think that such a project could preserve all the intricacies that tend to be oversimplified by activism.

1Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1991, Penguin Books)