Dark Ecology: our perverse outlook on climate
With a laugh and a dance Marjan van Loon, CEO of Shell Netherlands, opens the Climate Summit 2016 in Rotterdam. It’s celebration time. Shell takes responsibility and even is organising a youth festival that focuses on the future. The climate has become an important theme in today’s Western society. Activists, politicians and polluters like Shell come together at summits that represent the spectacles of the now: they show that everything is alright. It isn’t.
Van Loon’s dance contrasts sharply with dark ecology. The project of the Amsterdam organisation Sonic Acts which, besides organising an annual festival, focuses on researching, developing and producing work at the intersection of art, science and theory. The results are compiled in the book ‘Living Earth: Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014–2016’.
The roots of the dark ecology lie in the work of British philosopher Timothy Morton (1), author of the books ‘Ecology Without Nature’ (2007) and ‘The Ecological Thought’ (2010). There he describes the way we look at nature as problematic. Nature is something beyond us, that is romanticised, opposed to civilisation. An outdated idea, Morton states. Nature is civilisation is nature is civilisation. Morton’s ideas are associated with speculative realism, a theory that includes a large number of thinkers who first came together in 2007 at a conference at Goldsmiths University in London. Morton wasn’t there, but the work of one of the participants, American philosopher Graham Harman who is one of the key-figures in object-oriented ontology, has a lot of similarities with Morton’s ideas (2).
In ‘The Ecological Thought’ Morton introduces the concept of dark ecology as an artistic way to show the irony, ugliness and horrors of ecology. This concept is the basis for the question that Sonic Acts raises: how to translate dark ecology artistically? The organisation formed a party of curators and artists that went to Nickel, the Russian city above the Arctic Circle. There one of the largest nickel producing plants is based. The metal nickel is extracted via the deepest borehole in the world. The mining has had a huge impact on the ecology of the area. The region shows that human intervention and nature are inseparably connected with each other and can no longer be seen independently of one another.
In his book “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World’ (2013) Morton introduces the idea of hyperobjects: objects so massively distributed all over the world that they can not be described with local and time related parameters. Hyperobjects consist of relationships between multiple objects and are therefore not suitable to study according to traditional philosophy based on the Kantian idea of correlation (3).
Global warming is an example of a hyperobject. Hyperobjects are closely related to the anthropocene, a term that describes the idea that human intervention in ecology is so great that its impact can not be ignored anymore. Although the concept has already been introduced in the 1920s by the Russian geologist Alexei Pavlov, it recently became popular again. Moreover geologists believe that we’ve left behind the holocene, the geological epoch that began after the pleistocene, in the 1950s (4).
Both Morton and Harman contribute to ‘Living Earth’. Their articles provide more than a theoretical framework for the artistic project. In ‘What Is Dark Ecology?’ Morton explains the relationship between dark ecology, Nickel, the anthropocene and philosophy (5). Harman uses the book ‘A Foray Into the World of Animals and Humans’ (1934) to come up with a clear and practical introduction to the hermetic world of object-oriented ontology. But in the end it is all about the artistic interventions. All the different artists in the book are impressed by the arctic landscape, the inevitability of the impact of human intervention, fascinated by the uncontrollable situation. In that respect, the research practice of dark ecology has a lot in common with the original accelerationism from the 1990s: accepting the situation as it is, is an important principle in coming up with an artistic interpretation (6).
In ‘Kultuurbarbaren’, a documentary by VPRO Tegenlicht on art pioneers in a rapidly changing world, one of the Sonic Acts trips to Nickel is featured (7). Morton and sound artists Espen Sommer Eide and Signe Lidén talk about their experience in the episode. Eide and Lidén are using the wind as fuel for their self-built instruments to make noise. The locals see the instruments as metaphors for the past. Vessels of nostalgia that show how people use to be closer to nature. It’s interesting to hear the locals talk about nature as something that once was, as a concept that has nothing to do with reality.
According to Morton that’s the dominant, scientific way of describing the reality, by using abstract concepts. Art provides an excellent alternative for that. Art is about not-knowing, uncertainty and not understanding the real consequences of things. Thus art helps us to say something about reality, where science can never really say anything about it because it only uses abstractions to describe the model we’ve come up with.
Nature is no longer useful concept. The only way to really understand what’s going on is to dive deep into reality and let fear, tension and excitement take over. Morton could not better describe the ambition of the project dark ecology.
While Sonic Acts chooses the artistic approach, organisations Next Nature and Transnatural, both based in Amsterdam, take design as starting point. Their ambition is not to come with an artistic intervention but with a design that can be used. Most of the projects by Next Nature also have a great artistic component and often are more rich prototypes than designs suitable in practice. In that respect are both Sonic Acts and Next Nature focused on showing an alternative wayRevitalise of looking. Transnatural is more practical. The recent project ‘Regeneration: Revitalize the Ecology’ is all about solutions. “Geo-engineering is an industry dedicated to regenerate the current state of our ecological system”, it reads in the description of the accompanying exhibition.
At the same time the book ‘Living Earth’ was presented in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Next Nature and Transnatural were present at the Dutch Design week 2016 in Eindhoven. The choice for Van Gogh Museum is a good one, but it’s a pitty the opportunity to cross-connect and share insights between the worlds of art, design and research is missed. On the other hand, despite differences in approach, showing the three organisations which wonderment, openness and embracing non-knowledge is essential to gain new insights. So it is inevitable for the three organisations to eventually work together. Our earth needs it.
‘Living Earth: Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014–2016’ is published by Sonic Acts Press and presented in Van Gogh Museum at October 28, 2016. More information about Dark Ecology: darkecology.net.
De exposition ‘Regeneration’ by Transnatural can be visited till April 28, 2017 in the Transnatural Gallery, Amsterdam. More info about Transnatural: transnatural.org.
Designer and founder of Next Nature Koert van Mensvoort recently launched a design competition about the future of robots and humans. More info about Next Nature: nextnature.net.
(1) Timothy Morton’s Wikipedia page is a nice introduction in his work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Morton.
(2) That also goes for the Wikipedia entry for Object-oriented Ontology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object-oriented_ontology.
(3) In his article about Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’ Levi R. Bryant explains the impact of Immanuel Kant’s work on modern philosophy: https://euppublishingblog.com/2014/12/12/correlationism-an-extract-from-the-meillassoux-dictionary/
(4) The article ‘Defining the Anthropocene’ by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin that was released in Nature in January 2015 defines the starting year of the anthropocene as either 1610 or 1964: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v519/n7542/full/nature14258.html.
(5) The most recent book by Timothy Morton was published earlier this year and is explaining dark ecology in depth: ‘Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence’. Meer info: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dark-ecology/9780231177528.
(6) In the Flemish magazine Gonzo (circus) #135 I wrote an introduction about accelerationism. It’s in Dutch: http://www.gonzocircus.com/accelerationisme/.
(7) The episode can be watched for free over here (partly in Dutch): http://www.vpro.nl/programmas/tegenlicht/kijk/afleveringen/2016-2017/cultuurbarbaren.html.