“It was 1970; Earth Day had happened. I was becoming ecologically aware and had made the decision that I would do only work that benefitted the ecosystem in some way. I asked myself if there was a source, a place where I might begin, and a material I might begin with. I’d also become aware that topsoil was in danger in many places in the world. So I took a decision to make earth—to go to one of the principal sources, which is itself alive, and from which terrestrial life springs. Something as common as air or water. Something ubiquitous. Something that everybody feels they can enact their will upon. It was the Earth itself, and anyone with a simple shovel, in one stroke, could interrupt the living properties within it.” – Newton Harrison with Helen Mayer Harrison, “Making Earth, Then Making Strawberry Jam,” in The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon.
We began this exhibition by looking for the tail end of ariadne’s thread in the vast labyrinth of the climate crisis.
While seeking a feminist, anti-colonialist, pro-Indigenous path to follow “out,” we were led to a number of heterogeneous artistic-activist practices that invest in futures; propose radically decolonized forms of working, safeguarding, and being in the world; and identify both obvious and obscure causes of climate change, while providing tools to solve the seemingly intractable problems they present.
The work in Resistance After Nature imagines paths of egress through the debris of the hyper-financialized eco-genocidal death cult in which we find ourselves—into a realm of care that can encompass the world at large. To lead us out of the maze of human-caused climate change, the artists in Resistance After Nature upend, undo, defy, create, and make new the politics, aesthetics, and pleasures that define our post-natural now. Like Theseus in the labyrinth, they test possible pathways one at a time, looking for the right way forward.
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison began their lifelong work in 1970 by making earth—“something ubiquitous.” Earth defies form. It is at once simple and complex, whole and particularized, alive and dead, land and sea. Paradoxically, the pedosphere provides water storage for the land itself. Earth defies state—borders are drawn on its surface and laws and treaties delimit its reach, but a handful of earth escapes nationalized identity. It is at once too specific and too universal. It slips through your fingers. Even so, it cannot break, it is complete, even in pieces. It does not need to be one to be whole. It belongs to change and growth and death. It belongs to itself. Soil is composed of solids, gases, and liquids; of minerals, organic and inorganic matter, bacteria, and microbiota which in turn work together to aerate and purify the whole, abetting the processes of decomposition and regeneration upon which new life depends. Earth, you might say, is the perfect artist, creating and de-creating on a continuous basis the vital matrix from which the future takes shape.
In the early 70s the international “Land Art” or “Earth Art” movement was making interventions in and on the landscape itself, while artists such as Agnes Denes, Meg Webster, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles tied their work directly to ecological themes and systems theory. This work was, and continues to be, speculative, recuperative, and perennially future-facing. To look back on this work is—even now—to look forward. When the Harrisons made earth, they established a ground from which a practice, a path, and an ethic emerged. At once ambitious and nearly invisible, their prescient gesture foresaw our present geologic age, the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans, wherein human-produced material forms a significant portion of the sediment encrusted underfoot. By making earth, have humans unmade nature?
Last year, a meeting of the planet’s foremost geo-scientists confirmed that ours is an era geologically formed by the pressures of global imperialism, industrial capitalism, and the broad exploitation of living beings for slave and wage labor and non-living organisms for energy. Humans are (unevenly) implicated in the subsequent, unabated destruction of the planet. Because, as Amitav Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, humanist conventions, values, and culture coevolved with global modernity “in precisely the period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth,” it is difficult to find a way out of this rubric.1 That is why we look to artistic-activist practices that provide alternative logics.
Each day brings new revelations on ocean acidification, weird weather, species extinction, deforestation, polar melt, monocropping, and resource extraction. Decades after climate scientists and even petroleum industry specialists2 first started sounding the alarms about CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, a popular consensus is finally forming. Yet we are also cognizant that any solution that aims to avoid wholesale ecological collapse requires mobilization on a global scale the likes of which we have never seen. Timothy Morton has called climate change and extreme weather a “hyper-object,” a wicked problem so vast in scale, scope, and impact that an adequate response to its threat cannot be arrived at via any of the avenues we now know to travel. In the introduction to Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons, Jack Halberstam writes: “We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently, and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.”
In this age of ecological collapse and the Anthropocene, wherein life is tenuously sustained on a toxic field composed of human and human-produced waste and sediment, artists and activists offer us a bit of Ariadne’s string and a breath of hope. We may not be able to exit the maze the way we came in, but might be able to follow their thread into the future.
~ Kendra Sullivan and Dylan Gauthier
- Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Digital. Loc 786.