For centuries artists and philosophers have dealt with the self as the starting point for their enquires into the world. The self offers a safe vantage point to explore the mysteries of the universe, and some even say it is the only point from which we can understand the universe around us. As we begin to examine the relation between the self and our surroundings, we are faced with the question of the boundary of the self. What defines the limit of the self, and where does it end? Until the 18th Century our skin was thought of as the outer boundary of the body, acting as a barrier for the passage of substances. Modern medicine has proven that our skin is much more porous than we knew, acting as a permeable organism more than a barrier. Artists like Timea Tihanyi and Ivana Bašić have visualised the fluidity and permeability of our bodily surfaces, and questioned the finality of our skins.
Where then does the boundary of our self lie? Advaita Vedanta recognizes a unity in multiplicity, identity between individual and pure consciousness, and the experienced world as having no existence apart from Brahman. For Advaitins, realization of the brahman through rigorous study and meditation can expand one’s awareness of the self to encompass the entire universe. Buddhist philosophy holds an antithetical view. The Mahayana Buddhist teachings refute the very existence of this self. According to these teachings, the I or the self is merely imputed by the mind, therefore totally empty from its own side. It appears to exist to us, because we label the parts of our bodies as the larger collective self. Such a breakdown of imputed labels continues from the parts of the body right to mere seconds of consciousness: everything is merely imputed by the mind and has no inherent existence from its own side.
For those of us who don’t prescribe to either school of thought, the limit of the self can be seen to exist on a spectrum from the individual to the universe. This width of the perception of our self greatly colours our interactions with the world around us. The more of the world we consider as part of ourselves, greater the portion we would seek to protect as much as we protect ourselves as individuals. A predominant landscape of narrower self-perceptions limited to the individual or the family leads to competition and one-upmanship. This pegging of the self is not static, but influenced throughout our lives by ideologies that we encounter and major life experiences. How would our future and the future of the planet look if we consciously strived to expand our circles of self? This forms the larger question that we aim to explore through this series of exhibitions.
Agamben highlights this quote from Aristotle’s treatise on friendship “…the good manʼs existence is desirable because of his perceiving himself, that self being good; and such perceiving is pleasant in itself. In that case, he needs to be concurrently perceiving his friend — that he exists, too — and this will come about in their living together, conversing and sharing their talk and thoughts … For friendship is community, and as we are in relation to ourselves, so we are in relation to a friend. And, since the perception of our own existence is desirable, so too is that of the existence of a friend.” Here Aristotle provides us the foundation for expanding the self. This connection to perceive another with as much pleasure as the individual is created through sharing thoughts and conversation in a common space. The exhibition space creates the ideal environment for the sharing of such verbal and non-verbal experiences through a combination of art and discourse.
“..and this will come about in their living together, conversing and sharing their talk and thoughts … For friendship is community, and as we are in relation to ourselves, so we are in relation to a friend. And, since the perception of our own existence is desirable, so too is that of the existence of a friend.” — Aristotle
The title for this series of exhibitions has come from a quote by journalist and science-writer Jim Robbins. In his book, ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, Robbins expounds the importance of understanding and learning from forest and tree systems, and calls them “…our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding”. The term allies perfectly encapsulates this process of expanding our conscious circles, encompassing the most important aspects of friend and adds to it a strong element of action, reminding us that we must put in a certain amount of effort to build and maintain these alliances if we hope to positively impact the future. Robbins’ ideas of understanding and learning can be applied to large pool of systems: natural, anthropocentric and technological. Through this process of sharing, conversing, understanding and learning can we start to build a more united view of the world around us, valuing the life force and knowledge of other animate and inanimate species.
The uncertainty is the emotional tigger here, nudging us to take action and simultaneously reminding us that no outcome is set in stone. Our actions and movements can still cause the creation of futures that arises out of these conversations. Three futures are of prime import at this moment, and our decisions in the next 3–10 years will have drastic impacts on all their outcomes. Through this motivation I give you, Allies for the Uncertain Futures: the Socio-political, the Ecological, and the Evolutionary.
The Socio-political examines our social justice movements in this time where intolerance and divisive prejudice has gained voice. We have so far looked at our social justice movements in silos, engaging only with those directly impacting us. This mental model has rendered our movements isolated and weakened. Can we expand our circles of solidarity and look at these movements as part of one larger framework? This expanded framework will further allow us to address intersectional areas of multiplied injustice that get left in blindspots when we consider our model of isolated oppressions. If we can currently lay the foundations for strong horizontal alliances, we stand a chance to fend off this growing legal, social and physical state machinery.
Can we expand our circles of solidarity and look at these movements as part of one larger framework? This expanded framework will further allow us to address intersectional areas of multiplied injustice that get left in blindspots when we consider our model of isolated oppressions.
The Ecological looks to further expand our areas of consciousness beyond the anthropocentric and bring in flora, fauna and the larger ecological world into our notions of the self. What knowledge can we gain by understanding the inner workings of natural systems, and can this conversation with natural systems then allow us to see being-ness in forms of life beyond what we now consider animate. Knowledge of these alternative systems can further inform ways of organising in post-capitalist, post-patriarchal worlds. This sphere will also explore what we have lost in our mass exodus away from the natural, into enclosed urban spaces. The way forward for this future lies interlinked in these explorations.
The third, and furtherest future, the Evolutionary looks to further deanthropocentralize our narratives by considering AI, instead of a physical form of human evolution, as the next pervasive variation of life on earth. Whether or not this is the path of evolution, AI is poised to become deeply integrated with our lives. We sit at an infliction point where the foundational elements for our future companions is being laid out. It comes upon us to make sure we do not pass on the conditioning of our flawed human structures into these evolving systems. A new philosophy is needed, both vigilant and visionary, intersecting with sciences traveling at silicon speeds.
Allies for the Uncertain Futures carves out a large scope of explorations, but at the same time by dividing it down it lays out a loose route map to navigate the expanse. These three temporalities are not discrete or mutually exclusive. They vigorously interact with each other, producing new layers of conversation through each interaction. Through this exploration we must also renew our way of looking at the future, and allowing for the plurality of multiple futures coupled with the imprint of individual choice. As we create these new structures of tomorrow we must simultaneously study and unlearn the systems of the past.
- Sangeetha Menon, Internet Encyclopaedia for Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/adv-veda/, accessed on 14th March 2017)
- Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lecture at Kopan Monestary, Nepal, from Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive (https://www.lamayeshe.com/article/merely-labeled-I; accessed on 14th March 2017)
- Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus and Other Essays, Translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella; (Stanford University Press, 2009)
- Here we can differentiate the terms of the self and the individual. The self for the purpose of this essay is the portion of the universe perceived as part of one’s existence, and the individual is limited to the physical boundaries of the human agent.
- Jim Robbins, ‘The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet’ (Spiegel and Grau, 2012). The entire quote is: “What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly understood. We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound understanding and appreciation for trees and forests and the vital role they play, for they are among our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding.”
- In a recent study, digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana and more, responded very poorly against instances of verbal sexual harassment. Read more: https://qz.com/911681/we-tested-apples-siri-amazon-echos-alexa-microsofts-cortana-and-googles-google-home-to-see-which-personal-assistant-bots-stand-up-for-themselves-in-the-face-of-sexual-harassment/