Drinking Horsemilk - The Poetry of Ecology

Reflections on Paralelo Conference Sao Paulo

The conference here has finished and I have found it very difficult to write anything until now. I feel that the contrasts and often very disparate content of a lot of the panels has made it difficult to come to any broad conclusions. But I think a number of issues have come up for me. Some related to art and some to the environment and the economic global crisis - The big picture which seemed to hangover the event like an urgent, yet unspoken feeling.

Modernism vs Pastoralism

There appeared a certain divide in the group between 2 stark positions which is relevant both to art and science - the issue of whether we should take inspiration from our heritage, find refuge in the romance of the natural world or whether we should re-embrace the linear progression of modernism, with it’s adherence to the notion that what we have started should be finished.

Early on in the week, I started to feel slightly angry with some of the ideas that seemed to point to a return to a simpler life to re-connecting to a primitive self. In fact one of the speakers continually refereed to the beauty of the indians and their traditions. Which pre-supposed that they were somehow different from our selves, an archaic colonial notion. Also the post-modern notion of a disconnection between ourselves and the nature we have emerged from, and desire to return to it, feels to me an anathema. This disquieted feeling (which is essential for a good workshop) made me realise that we must reconcile this difference by seeing the world, both the man-made and the natural, as a continuum. We should invite nature into our cities and our bodies and accept the advantages our technological society has brought us. As artists we should intervene in this human society to continually find poetic moments of re-integration.
The modern project as a social and psychological project is flawed but the inventions and process are still relevant. We should not be afraid to walk to the future proud of our science, the medicine that lets us live beyond childhood, the machines that let us move around the planet to understand ourselves as a whole, and the knowledge of our micro world. In the latter, the secrets of the atomic we may yet find a way to fund our future selves beyond the need to burn stuff and rely on centralised means of production.

The salient lesson of modernism is not to see ourselves and our world as one linear narrative that should be applied to all but as a more fuzzy interconnected whole. We as artists should also run towards new thinking in science which is opening up new avenues for optimism, where are futures could be fulfilling and creative ones. If imagination of the world cannot imagine futures that aren’t apocalypses or primitive then we are not doing our jobs. Why is the optimistic future still stuck in the retro chique of the plastic wearing, pill’s for dinner, Jetson world of the fifties and early sixties. I can see a world where the individual is perfectly connected to every other member the planet, were personalised transport is clean and freed from the privilege of status. Where we can live freed from the shackles of exchange economies by the perpetual energy of stars. Where our time freed from market forces can be devoted to re-integrating ourselves with natural systems.

This is the world I want to invite people into and if we can imagine it we can build it.

Responsibility and Data.

As data collection and manipulation is becoming a larger and larger part of out lives, it is beginning to inform all areas of the decision making process. Governments increasingly use statistics and focus groups to form judgements on issues at global and national scale. We as artists (specifically media artists) are using data to inform and create our work. Unlike scientists we are using it in different ways. In his panel Rob la Frenais referred to a conversation he had with Donna Haraway. Who described scientists as using Blackbox Data, whereas artists used Trigger Data. Artists are triggered by the value of a piece of data to frame it in a way that suits their poetic process. This process unlike the massaging of data used by politicians and policy makers is less about hiding but more about revealing. An editorial decision to bring something more to the fore.

I was struck by something Rejane Spitz showed in her presentation, a website that showed realtime located updates on crime in Berkeley, California. The site used google maps to position crime as it happens. This struck me as a strangely reckless activity. For whom was this site intended. It seemed to be a way of perpetuating a culture of fear by focussing on the most negative aspect of urban life. As if old ladies weren’t frightened enough! The data could have been reversed to show how safe areas of the city were. Which brought up the responsibility that is inherent in the use of data. However suspicious a lot of people are with the modern world we all seem to trust data as proof of a phenomenon, but we often forget that it is the framing that is most important.

This often leads us down blind alleys where we are no longer sure of the veracity of the data purely because of the context. Its seems to me that art can regain this social trust through playful, humorous interpretations of information where the audience is not necessarily asked to come to conclusions from the data, but rather to question it.

As we live in increasingly data rich environments, where our very presence in the world generates data on a continuous basis. We must accept it’s existence and evolve our thinking about how we can manipulate this data for ourselves, see it as a connection between ourselves and everyone in it. We should start to understand it draw up new futures where we can situate ourselves at the centre of the data. Know how it works and how it can be interpreted and misinterpreted. We shouldn’t run away from it as it will only catch us.

Something else that occurred to me after Wapke Feenstra presentation of her artwork and specifically the work she had been doing with her brother on his horse milk farm, (Yes it’s true we saw a video of someone actually milking a horse!) many of the discussions had been about the city vs the forest. But the missing element in all this was the farmer. The missing agent between industry and nature. There was something hypnotic about watching a man who is undertaking a task that he knows so well even if it is bizarre to us. There is a knowledge embedded here. Often loathed by city folk, especially in the UK as the repository of conservatism and stasis. They still represent the best conduit to traditional knowledge about ecology and the state of nature, as well as its technological future.

Matt

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