Friday, October 31, 2014

A Collapse of Time Part II

The hope

Sunday October 26, the second day of the Techno-Utopianism & Fate of the Earth conference was more hopeful, despite the dire news of the first day. I had come away on fire over how critical the American election will be next week. Scroll down to read more.

Vandana Shiva
Coming into the conference on the second day, my greatest worry was the steady drip drip of news about the global proliferation of failed states, under the confluent pressure of over-population, dwindling resources to support life on earth as we know it, such as clean water, and the need for rapid adaptation to radical biogeographic change. As a citizen, I have no faith that Republicans have the courage, wisdom or intellectual integrity to cope wth any of those pressures. As a teacher, what nagged at me, were a series of conversations with my students this past Fall, about how daunting life is now and how even more daunting, the world may be that they will confront on graduation. They will live deeper into the twentieth century than I will, well into the brave new world of the Anthropocene we have created for them. I worry for them all. A week after the second day of the conference, I’m not sure whether the worries that had carried over from the day before, were answered.

As an artist, my questions are all about form. What is the best form now to answer the present? Meanwhile, i continued to listen and consider what I heard.

What I heard Sunday, was Vandana Shiva speaking to how indigenous peoples in India had resisted the unconscionable behavior of American corporations. She commented that globalization can only deal with reductionism, which in this case, is reduction to the most simplistic cash profits of shareholders.

Helena Norberg- Hodge, who spoke on food safety, justified extensive travel to spread the word. I am not sure I agree.
Severine von Tscharner-Fleming is an amazing young woman who is organizing organic farmers, even finding ways to work with monoculture and factory farmers to allow, for example, sheep to graze between vineyard rows.
Incidentally, the next day, in a conversation with Ray Weill, I learned, to my delight, that some of those same megafamers are going much lighter on petroleum fertilizers now because they’ve been convinced that organic is less costly in the long run.
Winona LaDuke gave an amazingly moving presentation, that began with the showing of “Honor the Earth,” a 200 mile horseback ride of Indigenous leaders opposing the tar sands pipelines and confronting the police.
Victor Menotti detailed how the Koch Bros $100 billion derives from making sacrifice zones of indigenous lands.
Mzwanele Maekiso, a modest man from South Afria speaking on fracking, gently pointed out that our biggest problem is in-fighting egos over, “my organization/idea is better than yours competitions,” which I also can testify is corrosive to any fragile resistance we might muster.

As I continued to think thru the day about the obstacles we face, I wondered whether the competitive defeatism Maekiso described is even more poisonous than the Koch Bros $100 billion spent on re-electing people whose primary responsibility is to proliferating fossil fuels and nuclear war. If we are competing with each other, under mining each other’s hard work, the Koch Bros can just sit back and laugh while we do their work for free. Sadly, I see too much competition in the art world.

A detail from Hans Haacke's show. Saturday night, I rushed from the conference to his opening and then back to hear more grim news. As gripping as I find this work, and I do, I'm not sure how it contains these painful issues and find it confusing to know when to back off from being didactic. It seems to be a matter of trust.
Dave King gave a fascinating historical talk on the Luddites, explaining how they were never against technology, but rather how companies were using technology to shaft workers rights.

A recurrent theme was how we are not only addicted to fossil fuels (the only smart thing George Bush ever noted), but that the resulting system are grossly inefficient if you factor all the costs, water, etc, etc, for example to produce a pound of beef.
Some one who spoke at the conference described addiction as “you do bad stuff and hang out with dealers.” Amen.

Forgive me if the rest of this summary will be brief, but a series of indigenous rights people described how they are fighting these corporations and their multi-national power with legality. A recurrent theme was that an unjust law must not be obeyed or defended. If people had not acted on that premise, we would still have slavery, women would have no rights at all and so on.

Of course, implicitly there is the fact that we have a series of male Supreme Court justices in this country whom are doing exactly that, defending and demanding obedience to unjust laws such as Citizens United.

As an aside, a point I have made elsewhere at another time, the reason I think we have an apathetic electorate in this country, is that they are suffering from the oligarchic experience of domestic violence. Like any abused and beaten down wife, they have given up and given in to learned helplessness.
There were several references to the Buffalo Treaty which united 11 tribes to affirm their culture and its relationship to environmental restoration.

So will all that be enuf?
We shall see.
Much more work ahead.

As an ecological artist, the trick I hear many colleagues struggling to master, is how far to push relationships between activism and social practice that addresses these issues? Speaking for myself, my own task seems to be to clarify the frame of what I have to contribute, much of which right now, as I complete the last phases of my PhD dissertation on "trigger point theory as aesthetic activism," seems to be about how and what to publish and exhibit from that conceptual endurance event over the year ahead.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Collapse of Time, Part I

49 leading environmental activists from all over the world convened at Cooper Union for a two-day Teach-In conference this weekend on Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth; why Technology will not Save the World, presented by the International Forum on Globalization and the Techno-Utopia Project in collaboration with the International Center for Technology Assessment, the New York Open Center and the Schumacher Center for New Economics.

Ralph Nader telling the overwhelmingly progressive audience to get over the "euwww" factor and make coalitions with Republicans to save the world from the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industries.
Throuout the two days, they reminded us that revolutions start and even are carried out by a handful of people. Tho the reality is grim, we have the means to resist. The first act of resistance will be to get out the vote in the USA next week, despite the feelings of learned helplessness in the electorate. The changes they discussed in this event have all happened very quickly, in the past ten years, and our time is short to forestall the worst damage of what has been set in motion.

I took many notes and will add installments, links and pictures to this post over the next few days, as I have time. First, I want to just set it all down. I took the notes so fast that I’m not sure I always got the precise quote or the attribution so apologize for that. It will need to be better organized later.

The general message was that corporations have bought governments internationally, and especially, in the United States, where the Koch Bros have bought most Universities, the US Congress and are about to buy the Senate. However, there is a vigorous resistance movement led by Indigenous Peoples and young organic farmers. The goal of the Koch Bros and their cohorts is a state of perpetual global nuclear war fueled by conscienceless extractive industries, manned increasingly by intelligent robots and enslaved and indentured human labor, thanks to vast over-population. Science fiction horror story? Not anymore.

Some of the many books on sale outside the Cooper Union hall
The antidote is accepting limitation, effecting structural change, collaboration without ego, facing how addicted we are to the delusion of cheap, easy, fast energy. We must come back to our bodies and the earth. “Efficiency” only increases competition and alienation. Negative consequences are inevitable (Barry Commoner). There are no techno fixes. Over-population is the friend of business and religion (but not the earth). Over-population began with agriculture, not the industrial revolution, when we got the idea we could control nature. At the advent of agriculture, the human population exploded. Everything has a cost. Progress is a process of diminishing returns. The weakness of the scientific method is reductionism.  We now have market driven education. There was a time when the UN had regulatory control over corporations, but pressure from the US gutted those provisions.

Helen Callicott indicating where fall out from her Chernobl continues to poison people and habitat.
Helen Callicott: Congress has now allocated $1 trillion to new nuclear programs that even the Pentagon did not want. 1 million people died from Chernobyl. Nothing should be eaten from Turkey or Japan because it is so radioactive. Fukushima still releases 3-400 tons of radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean daily. This is a crisis without end. The goal now is nuclear power to explore space for mineral extractions by the military industrial complex.

Wes Jackson: “technology shapes culture. Biodiversity (should be) the metric for success. Efficiency is inherent in natural integrities.”

“How to survive genocide (towards the goal of extractive industries)?”
weapons of war have become the US’s primary industry. $.59 of every tax dollar goes towards the Pentagon. 10% of Maine’s economy is now military and they plan to put missile sites and toxic fuel in the Rangeley Mountains at a cost of $4 billion to benefit Boeing. The Chicago Crown family is being “rewarded” by Obama for their support of his election with the Rangeley contract. The Pentagon didn’t even want it.  Not even Congress wanted it but Obama did.

Vandana Shiva: “We defended the freedom of the seeds. Monsanto earned $10 billion from seed patenting in the US alone. They have bought the biggest soil database. They are sueing seed libraries. In 2008, Ghandi taught us not to obey bad laws. The propaganda for this corporate biopiracy is being packaged as religion, referring to “miracle” seeds and apostles.

GMOs are failures. They advertise results before they have them and then can’t verify anything. Instead, indigenous yields are 10- 100 times what Monsanto can deliver. Monsanto delivers “food” commodities that aren’t actually food. They measure “yield” but not nutrition. GMO agricultural land produces 30% of food but destroys 70% of the earth’s biodiversity.”

Atossi Soltani on work in the Amazon: “Indigenous peoples are the guardians of the earth. Their lands are the same lands where we find 80% of the earth’s biodiversity. 4% of the world’s population are protecting that 80%. We must subvert the war paradigm that leads to deforestation. This means being good to our ancestors. The most biodiverse lands are threatened today by oil companies. When 800 000 Ecuadorans signed a petition to keep the oil in the ground, but President Rafael Correo went back on his campaign promises and over rode the petition.

Richard Feinberg: “the party (for us) is over. Adam Smith warned us that applying supply and demand to nature is a recipe for disaster. (But now) labor (humans), and land (nature), have all been commodified. EROEI: energy return on energy investment. We need FRED: Facing the reality of Extinction and Doom.  Efficiency = ideological displacement, cognitive belittlement and fictitious commodities unless we can re-embed the economy in ecology and nature. Denial of limits means the loss of beauty. (Because) we haven’t accepted limitation, the banks have been allowed to get even bigger and more irresponsible. The coming crash will be 10X worse than what we saw in 2008.

Quote from a Chinese GMO scientist: “we can now produce anything, anywhere, without people.” This will mean the end of countless small farmers world-wide, for example in Haiti where they produce vetiver for perfumes or in Madagascar where they produce vanilla.

Anthropocentrism, arrogance, greed run amuck.

The question this begs is, without real education, jobs, or governance, what will happen to the billions of useless, disenfranchised, impoverished people of the world, let alone, the remaining wildlife?

Pat Mooney: “the rich see what’s coming. The poor can’t get out of the way.”

We need:
1.     public education
2.     exposure
3.     strategy

Ralph Nader: “organize, organize with the right, organize. The biggest asset these corporations have is to inculcate feelings of powerlessness. How they have done this is:
1.     technological development
2.     secrecy
3.     alliance with the state
4.     buying time with a science backlash
5.     They have confused corporate science with academic science
6.     They have compromised academic credibility in Universities with “research” money

This is the golden age of exposure documentaries but the missing link is distribution. The best films might reach 150 000. The best book might reach 10 000.
The public must wake up, be woken up. Start small, in one place, 1 congressional district. Organize with intensity, persistence. Change the zeitgeist.

The prescription: clear thinking. (But) the public (seems) bored with solutions.
(Is it) easier than we think? How much does it take to effect change?”

Bill McKibben: “I (still) feel fear dominated by sadness. ‘We have become as gods, destroyers of the world.’ Restraint is a gift. The climate change movement is conservative. The oil people are reckless radicals.  This will be a leaderless movement. We will be protean.”

Hans Haacke's commentary on the Koch Bros.  "purchase" of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Personally, I felt devastated and physically sick, as I had written on FB Saturday night, by the sheer scale of evil ambition and ruthless exercise of financial power that was being detailed. I also found myself thinking that the community appeal of the presenters would not be met (at least among ecological artists, whom I think should be spearheading a response) because the market forces on us still make ego and competition too tempting distractions from what is required, which is grounded in a profound generosity of spirit and vision- that little in art world traditions fosters.

However, I do still think most of us can (and should) be part of a significant movement. As I stressed, it just takes a few, not all of us.

What the presenters spoke about that answers spiritual questions on Sunday, was the sheer faith in that possibility of the power of the small and few, not just in terms of activist organizing, but the very personal capacity of humans to rise to these challenges and how those few people can turn a tide (what for me, represents what I term trigger points). I think that is a profoundly spiritual position. I suppose I didn't write more about it yesterday because it both seemed obvious to me and I was still reeling from much of what I'd heard and been thinking about.

Finally, Sunday, which is what I will write more about asap, was all about models of incredible courage and beauty, mostly, as I wrote before, from Indigenous and young people. In the case of the former, the spiritual was explicit in many forms and deeply inspiring, even cathartic to hear.

A theme that emerged at the conference Sunday, was that property-based laws that protect corporate banditry are unjust, must be resisted and fought, just as people fought for slave emancipation and suffrage. That analogy was repeatedly made and framed as the "integrity of whole communities," including whole rivers, etc. Winona LaDuke & a woman from the Amazon were amazing on this topic. That is what I will write about next.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Starting, finishing and beginning

This Fall, I will welcome Heidi Hutner to join a couple Gulf to Gulf webcasts on the relationship between education, activism, and climate change. Heidi is the director of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program. She will join us Nov. 5th at 3:00 PM EST and Dec. 3rd at 11:00 AM EST.

In August 2014, I began teaching a class in Foundation Drawing at Stony Brook University (SBU). I have always enjoyed teaching and my new students have been delightful: serious, hard-working and willing to tackle the difficult assignments I have challenged them to complete. They are also, mostly science students, many of whom are exploring art for the first time.

Nonetheless, they are producing good work.

In this case, my students were given the task of portraying a landscape with coat hanger wire. It required them to learn to handle materials with care and describe their observation with a single, continuous line.
At some point this Fall, I gave my students several difficult theoretical texts to read, consider and comment on that discussed the nature of any culture, as a means of sustaining or resisting political control. That day, I went on to explain that if we are critical of culture, as artists, we must understand that change begins by questioning the nature of our (human) perception. Therefore, I have pushed them to relinquish what I've called their automatic translation of observation into simplistic photography and instead, learn to observe on the basis of the more complex physiological potential of what I've called the "technology of (human) perception." We do that with a number of assignments both in class and out. These young people are at the beginning of a long process, in which art may or may not remain important in their lives. My task is simply to encourage them to try to see in depth.

The exercises I am giving these students recapitulate much of the aesthetic thinking that went into my PhD dissertation, "Trigger point theory as aesthetic activism," which was sent out to my Viva Examiners at the University of Plymouth, UK this past week, in preparation for my oral defense, which will take place early 2015.  The thinking in that writing attempted to layer a variety of points of view and approaches to data about localized sites, in order to develop strategic restoration plans for large bioregions. In that writing, in addition to statistical analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) mapping, I also considered philosophical presumptions challenged, for example by ecofeminists. That strategic approach is a methodology that solves problems dualistically: from simultaneously observing  large global patterns and from observing what scientists call the more "fine-grained" details of specific and local situations. As I now enter the final phases of my dissertation process, I can begin to step back and reconsider the larger patterns I researched for five years.

The largest pattern I think we're all facing, that was implicit to me in all my dissertation writing, is in how geopolitics are being catalyzed by the causes and effects of climate change. As an artist, I want to see that larger pattern and apply my formal tools, the "technology of (my) perception," to change the patterns I see. Art. of course, doesn't work exactly so directly. We experience life, in the sense John Dewey wrote about, and then we work through a complex process from which 'something' emerges … which then affects others … and eventually, sooner or later, affects change to the culture. Artists may be helpless about the timetable for that change but we CAN shed light on what change looks like, whether the evidence is reflected in Hong Kong or Gaza.

As a person whose family were among the early founders of the state of Israel, going back to the late nineteenth century, and whose father was especially open to the plight of local Arabs there, I have had a special interest in events in the Middle East and engaged in several FB threads during the most recent war, struggling as many were, to understand the horrific consequences of patterns unfolding beyond our control. Yesterday, I heard an illuminating conversation and wrote about it on FB:

"By far the best discussion I've heard on Israel-Palestine was recently on WNYC radio:

What I found excellent about this discussion were two points: 

1. A critique of the lack of context in most of the summer discussions during & after the war; specifically, the role of the Protocols of Zion in the radical anti-semitism that is fueling both Hamas and ISIS. The discussant argues that this legitimates an unrealistic focus on the "moral failings of Jews." He argues that in the context of media narratives, particularly in Europe, that context fuels anti-Zionism. 

2.An analysis of the absence of a larger geopolitical framing of conversations, in public and private that would include the larger Arab world demographic narrative over the past 100 years. 

I would also argue that that very lack of adequate framing excludes the greater global biogeographical narrative of climate change and over (human)- populations. I tried to point that out last summer in several FB threads and in this blog."

This is, I believe, is part of the depth of perception of the unfolding tragedy of what happens when climate change meets over-population meets simplistic narrative conclusions. The world is running out of the resources that have sustained our present culture, It is so much easier to ascribe blame and resort to violence and exclude critical narratives than to deconstruct these complex points of confluence and then reconstruct hard answers.

As I enjoy the luxury of increasing distance upon finishing my dissertation and consider the experiences of my students who are just starting a life that includes art, I can also step back further to meditate on all these questions and implications. I am just at the beginning of seeing how educating young artists might be part of this process.

The next two Gulf to Gulf sessions this Fall that will discuss these critical confluences between art, education, activism, climate change and restoration, with Heidi Hutner, Director of the Environmental Humanities, Sustainability Studies Program at SBU, will include Dr. Eugene Turner of LSU, Dr. James White of INSTAAR and myself.