April 2020

Interwoven Voices of the Anthropocene: Multispecies Stories in the Contemporary Museum Space

Museums hold the potential to privilege the perspective and lived experience of those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether, both human and nonhuman.

by Mariana Reyes

In November 2019, the Royal Academy of Arts in London opened the exhibition Eco-visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency. Featuring the works of international artists and collectives, Eco-visionaries introduced diverse perspectives from art, architecture, and design on the current environmental crisis. One of the most striking contributions was Alexandra Ginsberg’s The Substitute, a digital recreation of the endangered northern white rhino. Like many other wild species, the white rhino is on the verge of extinction: one of its last specimens, a male named Sudan, died in 2018 in a nature reserve in Kenya. The animal displayed at the Royal Academy was a digital “resurrection” of Sudan, a virtual version recreated from zoo archive and computer models. As a testimonial of mourning, Ginsberg’s piece not only pointed at the dismaying disappearance of a gorgeous animal. It also sought to challenge the techno-utopian idea that we can bring extinct animals back to life.[i]

Just like the case of Sudan, the lives of many other nonhuman entities have been featured in museums and art galleries as a means to draw attention to the current ecological catastrophe, a condition that has come to be called the Anthropocene. Increasingly, the stories of plants, animals, rocks and earthly forces have taken center stage to prompt reflection on how humans and nonhumans might find new ways to thrive together in a time of decline.[ii]

The substitute by Alexandra Ginsberg. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry.

At a period of runaway global warming and unprecedented environmental destruction, the Anthropocene has come as a call for an urgent transformation of our visions of the world and our ways of inhabiting the Earth together.[iii] As post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty notes, with the advent of the Anthropocene, humans and the Earth are two entities that have become closely intertwined and perhaps indistinguishable from each other.[iv] In this view, the typically assumed nature/culture divide is no longer adequate: paleo-climatologists no longer refer to ‘natural history’ because nature has become an anthropogenic force on a global scale. Equally, from now on, the history of humanity cannot be separated from the agency and impact of geophysical powers.

As the Anthropocene thesis gains traction and the collision of humans with the Earth becomes more accepted, museum exhibitions—and the ideologies they uphold—merit some discussion. As a product of European colonialism, the modern museum has sustained and amplified a vision of nature and culture as two distinct, independent realms. Such a modernist mindset has become tangible in museums’ collections and exhibitions as they represent the modern human as the rational subject that classifies, orders, commands, and controls nature. In this way, modern Western thought has become a set of values and practices used by museums to establish particular visions of the world. As feminist scholar Donna Haraway notes, in recurring to scientific knowledge production, museums have long sustained racial, colonial, and patriarchal views of nature.[v] In her account of the American Museum of Natural History, Haraway illustrates how curatorial strategies and exhibition tactics perpetuate standards to judge and subjugate others, both human and nonhuman. Be it by rendering invisible the labor of women and native people, or by selecting male specimens over female ones for the production of dioramas, museums tend to stabilize the unchallenged positions of ‘maleness’ and ‘whiteness’ in scientific, technological, and male-dominant societies.

The reproduction of the modern gaze is closely aligned with the endorsement of racial colonial concepts of the human. As history has so clearly shown, declaring a group to be nonhuman or subhuman has been an effective tool for justifying slavery, oppression, and genocide. Philosopher Sylvia Wynter explains that the notion of the ‘human’ often refers to a particular ‘ethnoclass’ (i.e., Western bourgeois) that over-represents itself as if it were the human itself, and hence seeks to secure its ethnoclass own well-being at the expense of other living and non-living beings. [vi]

In the face of such anthropological determinations, some questions deserve particular attention: could museums destabilize the modern colonial view that is so ingrained in Western thought? Could contemporary exhibitions undertake narratives that re-work human exceptionalism and gesture towards less anthropocentric understandings of the world? In an attempt to answer those questions, I would like to look further into two particular exhibitions: Forest Law (2015) and History of others (2011-2014). I contend that both shows bring human and nonhuman voices, the bodies, stories, and subjectivities of those entities that form part of the entangled and dynamic socio-biological system that composes the world, into the gallery and support a broadening of agency in the context of the Anthropocene. I claim that these exhibitions contest the modernist objectification of nonhumans and offer a more integrated view of nature and culture.

Forest Law is a multi-media exhibition by visual artists Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares. It consists of a synchronized video projection accompanied by an archive of maps, images, and other physical objects. Resulting from several months of research carried out by Biemann and Tavares in Ecuador, the exhibition introduces a narrative of dispossession, struggle, and legal redress in Sarayaku indigenous territory, the setting of an intense dispute between indigenous people and international oil corporations. In particular, the show focuses on those legal cases that favored the rights of nature over the rights of the multinational company Texaco-Chevron, including the trial won by the local people in 2012.[vii] By using interviews with Shuar and Sarayaku people, Forest law presents the fundamental principles of the rights of nature as opposed to the environmentally destructive practices in the Amazon rainforest. As such, it demonstrates the profound intricacy between humans and the tropical ecosystem, an interdependence that came to be disrupted by the devastating effects of oil extraction in the area.

Forest law installation view. Photo credit: Sharjah Art Foundation

As art historian TJ Demos notes, Biemann and Tavares’s project contrasts a corporative extractive logic with the felt stories and ecological understandings of the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. In challenging anthropocentric rationalism, Forest law juxtapose places, sensations and feelings, and brings to the fore the more-than-human entanglements that constitute the Sarayaku region.[viii] Indigenous groups and the multiple species that conform the tropical forest have lived in sympathy for hundreds of years, developing a mutual ecology where the lives of humans, trees, animals, and other entities are deeply entwined. In staying true to such ancestral interdependency, Forest law introduces the rainforest landscape as more than a mere backdrop, but as another actor in the assembly. As Gabrielle Dürbeck et al explained, considering portrayals of nonhuman agencies in the Anthropocene requires a restructuring of knowledge about foreground and background, leading us to shift the frame and focus into a broader scope.”[ix]

For its part, History of others was the name of a series of collaborations between Finish artist Terike Haapoja and writer Laura Gustafsson. It comprised several works, including travelling exhibitions, performances, and imaginary institutions. One of their first projects was Party of others, an interspecies political organization to compete in Helsinki’s 2011 parliamentary elections. In taking the form of a political party, the initiative sought to highlight the status of other species and other groups excluded from the law. The party received great amount of interest and a lot of media coverage, though not enough supporters to gain an official register. Nonetheless, the project continues to exist as an extra-parliamentary initiative that can be used for raising discussion on the voice of the voiceless and on the margins of our democracy.[x] 

After the Party of others, Haapoja and Gustafsson produced the Museum of the history of cattle (2013), a museum installation that explored the human–cattle relationship from the perspective of the cows. It focused on describing the bovine culture, and the changes caused to it by urbanization, industrialization, and techno-scientific intervention.[xi] Overall, this project engaged with the lives of nonhuman others outside the normative, human-dominated narrative. As the artists assert, “for thousands of years history has been written from the perspective of a small minority: humans. Still, the world has always been shared by numerous species. For the first time in history a nonhuman form of life will have their own museum, an institution that makes their experience of this shared reality visible.” [xii] In sum, the ground-breaking work of these two artists has helped audiences imagine an extended political community, or a form of interspecies cosmopolitics, that is, an alternative post-anthropocentric world-making practice of human-earth relations.[xiii]

Museum of the history of cattle. Photo credit: Noora Geagea & Terike Haapoja.

By way of conclusion, I want to argue that museums hold the potential to privilege the perspective and lived experience of those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether, both human and nonhuman. Moreover, museums can contribute to the critique of modern ways of thinking by re-working classic modernist demarcations between nature and culture, subject and object, or self and other. As the cases of Forest law and History of others illustrate, contemporary exhibitions can reinvent their visions, narratives and considerations of the nonhuman world through their curatorial and exhibition practices. In the process, these institutions can play a crucial role in helping us rework our conceptions of history, memory, time, and justice.

Overall, engaging with the lives, agencies, and futures of nonhuman others is one pragmatic way in which artists, curators, and museums practitioners can avoid narratives of human exceptionalism and the ideologies of cruelty and subjugation they frequently endorse. In so doing, contemporary exhibitions can shed light on how the view of nature as the object of human control is at the core of the environmental crisis of today: a crisis that comes ever closer to those who profit from that exploitative relationship.

Mariana Reyes is a PhD candidate at the School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London. She holds a BS degree in Biology from the University of Guadalajara and an MSc in Environment, culture and society from the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include political ecology, critical pedagogies, and environmental justice. Her current research explores museum representations of the Anthropocene from a decolonial perspective.

Further Reading

[i] Delicado, G. and Thomspson, R., 2019. Eco-visionaries. Conversations on a planet in a state of emergency. Royal Academy of Arts. London.

[ii] See Tsing, A.L., Bubandt, N., Gan, E. and Swanson, H.A. eds., 2017. Arts of living on a damaged planet: Ghosts and monsters of the Anthropocene. University of Minnesota Press; Haraway, D., 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

[iii] Bonneuil, C. and Fressoz, J.B., 2016. The shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, history and us. Verso Books.

[iv] Chakrabarty, D., 2009. The climate of history: Four theses. Critical inquiry, 35(2), pp.197-222.

[v] Haraway, D., 1984. Teddy bear patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text, (11), pp.20-64.

[vi] Wynter, S., 2003. Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument. The New Centennial Review 3(3), pp.257–337.

[vii] For an in-depth analysis of the exhibition see Bloom, E., Morrell, I., and Hoage, A., 2019. Forest Law. The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved from https://brooklynrail.org/2019/02/artseen/Forest-Law. See also Ursula, B., 2015. The Cosmo-Political Forest: A Theoretical and Aesthetic Discussion of the Video Forest LawGeoHumanities, 1(1), pp.157-170.

[viii] Demos, T.J., 2017. Against the Anthropocene. Visual Culture and Environment Today. The MIT Press.

[ix] Dürbeck, G., Schaumann, C. and Sullivan, H.I., 2015. Human and Non-human Agencies in the Anthropocene. Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment, 6(1), pp. 118-136.

[x] See the project’s official website: http://www.terikehaapoja.net/party-of-others/.

[xi] See the project’s official website: http://www.gustafssonhaapoja.org/museum-of-the-history-of-cattle/.

[xii] Ídem.

[xiii] For more on cosmopolitics see Stengers, I., 2005. The cosmopolitical proposal in Latour, B. and Weibel, P. eds. Making things public: Atmospheres of democracy, pp.994-1003.

3 comments on “Interwoven Voices of the Anthropocene: Multispecies Stories in the Contemporary Museum Space

  1. ALawlessLog

    THank you for this eloquent and beautiful piece and the very timely reminders from history.


  2. ALawlessLog

    THank you for this eloquent and beautiful piece and the very timely reminders from history.


  3. Jorge Lucero

    An excellent frame in times of virology


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