Environment as an Open Ended Assemblage
The issue of the environment has not been around all too long (relatively speaking), but most would argue that it has become a staple of our generation(s). The three texts we had been asked to read this week concern the ways in which human beings might deal with the neo-capitalist, post-industrial, end of the world dread we’ve all been facing for some time now, and I admit I was surprised at some of the points that were argued.
The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing was the first text I read, and an enjoyable one at that. She introduces her writings as a “riot of short chapters”, “an open ended assemblage”, something that might embody the spirit of her argument; and I follow her there (Tsing, viii). The great metaphor of her point is the Matsutake Mushroom, a lifeform of great admiration and intense aroma, growing in the graveyards of Ponderosa Pines. She uses this mushroom as the anchor to ground the viewer to the notion of life at ‘the end of the world’. She discusses at length issues of capitalistic ruin, precariousness, contaminated diversity, scalability (another capitalist ideal), along with indeterminate smells.
Déborah Danowski and Edouardo de Castro use a different thread of knowledge to consider what Tsing also mentions, which is the notion of ‘self contained’ existence common in the western world. Where the contaminated lifeform is not seen as real, in favor of the popular economic fantasy of ‘individualism’ (Tsing, 28). Danowski/Castro shares the myths of Indigenous South American cosmology, in which, at the beginning of the world, everything was human, but everything ‘was not one’ (Danowski and de Castro, 4). Where ‘human’ could be multiple, it was a concept of life, life that was about erratically ‘becoming’ something over and over. This text is particularly keen on emphasising all life as moving political bodies, including animals. Where the possibility to be ‘human’, means more than existing as part of a singular society.
Now, Claudia Mesch follows the familiar, personal pattern in her text. She does not explicitly concern herself with precariousness, individualism or contamination, but they are sometimes implied in her examples of environmental art. She goes into the history of the environmental art movement in New York and the American Southwest, and its growing urgency throughout the world. She remarks on the use of environmental sciences in art that make the ‘lab’ more accessible to the public, concerns the reader with nostalgic environmental monuments, and also notes the irony of ecological damage these works have sometimes caused (Mesch, 149, 155, 170).
Although I have been critical about Claudia Mesch before, I am beginning to soften up to her writing. I was often annoyed by the road she takes over and over in discussing political art; starting with mainstream (usually western) artists, goes into many accurate, but also random and varied examples, and simply finishes, satisfied to have hammered another nail in her ‘art is often political’ point. I often feel like there is something I’m missing here, something that is not being said. However, I am beginning to realize that my expectations of Mesch are slightly unrealistic and a bit cruel. Do I want her to discuss Matsutake mushrooms for 60 pages? Do I want her to spend chapters considering the importance of vulnerability in human expression and dissent? I wouldn’t complain if Mesch takes a more critical stance towards her own compositions of political art information, but I must also admit that reading her text in the company of those more theoretically dense, offers a good combination. A bit like when you have an intense flavor together with a simple one, they make each other stronger.
These three texts in combination made for a fine meal. I appreciated Tsings’ nod to Judith Butler in regards to ‘precariousness’, and Danowski/Castro's disruption on the standardized view of political bodies and human entities, a point I have a feeling I’ll encounter again. However, to consider our own dread for ruination, and encourage these ruins as a space for new growth, and new contamination, surprised me perhaps the most (Tsing, 27-34). This is not at all the narrative I grew up with, but it suddenly seems so obvious. It was Anna Tsing’s text that made me think, perhaps it’s time for me to start picking some mushrooms of my own.
Claudia Mesch, “Environmental Art.” Art and Politics. A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 148-174.
Déborah Danowski and Edouardo Viveiros de Castro, “Is There Any World To Come?”, e-flux journal, 65, 2015. http://supercommunity-pdf.e-flux.com/pdf/supercommunity/article_1231.pdf
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. 1-52.