This text was written as a base for a talk I offered in the Werkleitz Festival 2021, curated by Daniela Silvestrin, and is also an articulation or synthesis of my current work and thoughts. You can see the recording of the talk on this link.
I invite you to listen to the track above – It’s a Forest – a song I wrote and recorded at home a few years ago when I started engaging with the notion that we are nature. We are not just a part of it, but a full expression of it in its fractal nature, in the way every single cell of an organism is a reflection of the whole. I wonder, if more people believed that we are not in any way separate from nature, how would the world be?
To elaborate on the title of this talk “Interconnectedness and Ways of Being Human”, I’ll be loosely weaving together excerpts from texts by authors who have influenced my work over the years, with personal reflections and bits of my artwork and facilitation through my art and ecology platform, Estudio Nuboso.
Searching for different definitions of Interconnectedness and found that the Cambridge Dictionary Online defines it as “the state of having different parts or things connected or related to each other.“
Pretty straightforward. I found it funny that one of the examples of the use of the word is: “We are learning the hard way the interconnectedness of all things.”
Supposing this refers to the pandemic, this past year has certainly been a teacher in a whole lot of ways. We are experiencing, on a global scale, that our lives and even the slightest of our actions or mistakes have multiplying effects on the entire system we belong to. This pandemic warns us of the effects of our continuous intrusion and destruction of wilderness and complex ecosystems, for our own convenience – but it has also shown us how quickly our fellow beings can recover when we take a step back. It has also taught us to not take the joys of going outside for granted — this longing perhaps revealed yet another dimension of our interdependence with the environment and the many things we have yet to learn about life on our planet. The way the pandemic manifests in different countries is also a reflection of the social, political and cultural history of each place – revealing the scars of colonialism and showing how, like with climate change, the effects are different depending on the context. The various processes we are witnessing today, which demand our presence and accountability, are practice and proof that the way forward is inevitably intertwined and in connection with others – humans and more than humans.
Ten years, scientists say, ten years is our deadline to change the course of how we – all of humanity – are leading life on Planet Earth so as to avoid catastrophes and cascades of extinction down the line. Ten years: that is a fourth of my life, two times the life of my eldest son; it may be a sentence in somebody’s short biography; it could be the age of a very young forest; geologically speaking it’s not even a blink of an eye; and in a movie 10 years can be a matter of seconds. Ten years.
How we choose to deal with this number, the pandemic and a rapidly changing world depends on how we perceive the role of humans on the planet. Is the world there for us? Are we stewards of life on the planet? Is the world better off without us? Or are there other possibilities?
In Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that lovingly shifted so much for me last year and which I will quote a lot today, Robin Wall Kimmerer, says
We are all the product of our worldview — even scientists who claim pure objectivity. Their predictions for sweetgrass were consistent with their Western science worldview, which sets human beings outside of “nature” and judges their interactions with other species as largely negative. They had been schooled that the best way to protect a dwindling species was to leave it alone and keep people away. But the grassy meadows tell us that for sweetgrass, human beings are part of the system, a vital part. Laurie’s findings (Laurie was a student with whom the author collaborated for a study) might have been surprising to academic ecologists but were consistent with the theory voiced by our ancestors. “If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away.”
As Donna Haraway in her book Staying with the Trouble writes:
“It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, In the introduction to Active Hope – how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy describe Three Stories of our time:
“In any great adventure, there are always obstacles in the way. The first hurdle is just to be aware that we, as a civilisation and as a species, are facing a crisis point. When we look at mainstream society and the priorities expressed or goals pursued, it is hard to see much evidence of this awareness. In the first chapter we try to make sense of the huge gap between the scale of the emergency and the size of the response by describing how our perceptions are shaped by the story we identify with.
We describe three stories, or versions of reality, each acting as a lens through which we see and understand what’s going on.
In the first one, Business as Usual, the defining assumption is that there is little need to change the way we live. Economic growth is regarded as essential for prosperity, and the central plot is about getting ahead. The second story, the Great Unraveling, draws attention to the disasters that Business as Usual is taking us toward, as well as those it has already brought about. It is an account, backed by evidence, of the collapse of ecological and social systems, the disturbance of climate, the depletion of resources, and the mass extinction of species.
The third story is held and embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse to let the second story have the last word. Involving the emergence of new and creative human responses, it is about the epochal transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world. We call this story the Great Turning. The central plot is finding and offering our gift of Active Hope.“
To really embody the third story requires quite a bit of work on our part. It requires a certain presence, to live among those who embody the first two stories and still believe there is another way. It requires that we stay open and awake, on the search for allies, for other stories and other ways of thinking, relating, knowing, perceiving and being in the world.
In The Invention of Nature, the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science, Andrea Wulf, shares his ideas which date back two hundreds years!
“Again and again, his thoughts returned to nature as a complex web of life but also to man’s place within it…
He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation with each other. He criticised unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions — all powerfully relevant issues today.
All the problems in the colonies, he was certain, were the result of the ‘imprudent activities of the Europeans’.
… For Humboldt, colonialism and slavery were basically one and the same, interwoven with man’s relationship to nature and the exploitation of natural resources.“
In the K Verlag publication The Word for World is Still Forest, inspired by Ursula K, LeGuin’s novel, there is an essay by Paulo Tavares titled “The Political Nature of the Forest: A Botanic Archaeology of Genocide”, which puts into question the general assumptions of the Amazon forest as being pristine and wild – It blew my mind when I read it.
“In a ground-breaking study published in 1989, (the ethnobotanist William) Balée estimated that at least 11.8 percent of Amazonia is composed of anthropogenic forests. This is the equivalent of imagining a territory larger than France covered by an extremely biodiverse environment engineered by Indigenous landscape management systems. Since then, new archaeological findings have demonstrated that this figure is probably much higher, this confirming that the past of the Earth’s most biodiverse territory is as rich in culture as in nature. In other words, the rainforest’s botanical structure and biological composition is to a great extent an “urban heritage” of Indigenous designs…
Amazonia has long figured as the quintessential representation of nature in the imaginary and epistemic constructions of Western culture and sciences, but as the archaeology of the recent and the deep past of the forest reveals, this image of nature is in fact a product of colonial violence… the fabrication of this epistemology was intimately connected to colonial imaginaries that functioned as one of the most powerful and enduring instruments in the historical extermination of Indigenous peoples.“
In our interconnectedness, we all play a role in the colonial or decolonial project – and in that sense, I definitely place myself in the latter. When I direct these thoughts toward my self, and drive them into my heart, I realise this cannot be merely an external concept. I have to unpack and work on decolonizing my thoughts, my body, my choices. This involves becoming aware of the layers of colonialism we are living within; of the forms of oppression I have been confronted with and may also still embody – attitudes towards myself as well as others. These challenges come through eventually in the various processes of my work as an artist and facilitator. As I create, in dialogue with others and the world, I am confronted with situations, information, questions and experiences which are an invitation to grow, shift, evolve or affirm who I am choosing to be.
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui writes in her essay “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization,”
“There can be no discourse of decolonisation, no theory of decolonisation, without a decolonisation practice…”
She goes on to say
“The possibility of a profound cultural reform in our society depends on the decolonization of our gestures and acts and the language with which we name the world.”
Earlier in this essay she addresses the problem of the notion of “origin” when referring to indigenous peoples (in Spanish they are referred to as pueblos originarios).
“A discussion of these communities situated in the “origin” denies the contemporaneity of these populations and excludes them from the struggles of modernity. They are given a residual status that, in fact, converts them into minorities, ensnaring them in indigents stereotypes of the noble savage and as guardians of nature.“
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, who also talks about the word as a way in which humans assert themselves and create or transform the world, says:
“The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.“
In another passage he says:
“true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these “beings for another.” The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women (and here I add NATURE) are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.“
How can we truly stand with the natural world and fellow inhabitants, transforming the belief that has made it into resources for our benefit in the first place? Can we change our belief of separation? embed ourselves in it, and from there continue to speak, breathe and be?
I really enjoyed listening to the talk or radio show by Kate Donovan and Birgit Schneider last week, in which they attempted to empathise and connect with the more than human, acknowledging the potential failures…. Among other treasures of thought and action, they talked about deep listening as an act of challenging silencing and oppression. They mentioned various thinkers and practices that resonate with me – one of them is David Abram, the author of Becoming Animal – he talks about listening to the language of the trees, the waves, the forest. And he talks about the reciprocity of existence with the environment – that as we walk through a forest, we see, smell and sense the forest, but it also perceives and senses us.
This idea of reciprocity is also one very present in Robin Wall Kimmerer book, in the chapter about the Honorable Harvest she says:
“The honorable harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it with gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.“
Following these lines of thought, I would like to offer us a short pause and invite you into a small moment of an artwork of mine called Sundown – Recreating the bedtime routine of a child, Sundown is a space for reflection and rest for beings of all ages.
Play a lullaby from my artwork Sundown (Ocaso) – Omen
Close your eyes and breathe for a moment. Consider this… we spend most of our lives weaving the threads of our own path.
We spend most of our lives weaving the threads of our own path. What if we were to shift our focus to the outer edges of our thread or path — to the matter, the things, the beings, and people our path touches — what is the effect of our existence upon them? What are the lessons or experiences they may be having because of us, even if unintentional? What might the meaning of our life’s thread for them? Or the mark we leave in them as we thread and tread through our path?….
And if we shift our perception a little further away, to see how our thread is weaving across and along the threads of existence of rocks, trees, spaces, animals, people – loved ones and strangers – each living their own timing and cycles – near and far. Can we see that together we make up a fabric? This is the fabric of interconnected life. We have a choice of how to shape and colour our thread… in constant dialogue with the other threads around us.
Breathe deeply and take a moment to close your eyes again before you continue reading…
This piece is intended to be an installation with hammocks and other sitting, reclining or lying down possibilities. The overflowing humming lullabies are accompanied by stories of the deep time, past, present and future of nature of the place where the installation is set up. For today, instead of one of those stories I wrote this text based on an experience I had three months after my second son was born.
Continuing to sharing a little more about the threads I am weaving in the world…
It was unsustainable and destructive development trends in Panama (my home country), which most certainly stem from our colonial history, what set me on the path to create ways to raise awareness about the importance of protecting our environment and empower communities in places that are close to my heart. I started imagining possible avenues for this in 2006 and founded Estudio Nuboso in 2012, influenced by various experiences of alternative and creative ways of organising and socialising in Berlin, which had a peak moment for me in the dOCUMENTA(13) exhibition.
Here is a short video about Panama which was the intro to our crowd funding campaign in 2013. The audio is very low so please put on headphones and raise the volume for this 1 minute long video.
Like many thinkers before me, I believe that move away from the monocultures of the knowledge and ideals is key to address the challenges we face today. I embarked on a journey to find collaborators with whom to design formats for people from different walks of life to come together, collaborate and reconnect with nature. The design of these formats is by the way, my chosen use of technology – in the most basic sense of the word – technology can be defined as methods, and processes used to achieve goals. And in our case, the main objective is to cross-pollinate fields of knowledge and experience to improve our ways of perceiving and relating with our environments nand society. Ideally, we’d like to see these collaborations also lead to wholistic, regenerative ideas and solutions for the planet.
We started from the ground up in 2014 with a ten day multidisciplinary residency called Suelo (soil in spanish) – which was created to raise awareness of soil, land and territory – articulating the natural and cultural value of selected locations, through engaging with the multiple layers and facets of soil and the ground we stand on. I will come back to this later.
The following year, with support from the National Secretariat of Science and Technology, we created the Art and Science LAB residency and more recently the Flash LAB workshops which were born out of the observation that scientists in Panama are often doing research in places around the country, struggling to share the outcomes or processes of their research with the communities most impacted by it. This information could be of great positive influence to these places and their inhabitants, which in its sharing could help bridge the huge educational gaps in the system.
Here is a short video that introduces the Art and Science LAB.
The LAB residencies last 1 month, and are followed by an exhibition, public program and publications, while the Flash LABs are 1 to 2 day workshops based on the experience of the LABs … Aside from the expected outcomes of the projects, the outcome I find most remarkable is that we are able to tear down disciplinary walls so that participants collaborate on a human level – beyond being artists or scientists.
At the end of the first LAB the participants felt, and I paraphrase, we are just humans with common goals, tackling these important issues each in our own fields. This was an opportunity to join forces and share knowledges and experiences that serve a greater purpose beyond us.
In every LAB we have witnessed the transformation of the object of study into a subject to relate with, awakening emotions and creative possibilities in the scientists, but also moving the artists deeper into their research practices, and certainly enticing the viewers to explore their curiosity and sense of wonder through the exhibitions, workshops and shared experiences in our programs. What I believe we have managed to awaken is Empathy – a key emotion for transformation and “standing with” others.
Again, in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“While science could be a source of and repository of knowledge, the scientific worldview is all too often an enemy of ecological compassion. It is important in thinking about this lens to separate two ideas that are too often synonymous in the mind of the public: the practice of science and the scientific worldview that it feeds. Science is the process of revealing the world through rational inquiry. The practice of doing real science brings the questioner into an unparalleled intimacy with nature fraught with wonder and creativity as we try to comprehend the mysteries of the more-than-human world.
Contrasting with this is the scientific worldview, in which a culture uses the process of interpreting science in a cultural context that uses science and technology to reinforce reductionist, materialist, economic and political agendas.“
This thought reminds me of the difference between making art and the art world or art market. Two separate practices with not exactly similar agendas.
Last year, I was invited to the Anthropocene Curriculum event The Shape of a Practice in the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt here in Berlin where I presented our pilot residency Suelo as a case study. Revisiting it during the lockdown and changes brought about by the covid-19 pandemic, I started thinking about how this format would a useful tool for people to reconnect with their contexts and communities – a nice way to reactivate post-covid. So I decided to create a Suelo Methodology or Toolkit for people to implement in their contexts – that is individuals, groups, schools or communities. I am currently developing the toolkit from my home and with collaborators in various locations from Berlin to Southern Chile, Mexico, Italy and of course, Panama.
Suelo is a methodology that uses the concept, metaphor and materiality of soil as sustenance, home, land, and territory to re-articulate the natural and cultural value of a selected location, leading into a practice of collective worlding and imagining of regenerative futures. Similar to analysing a soil profile, the program can reveal the layers of history, present and potential futures through an open, experiential expertise exchange between the holders of knowledge – be these elements of the ecosystem, local community members or allies/guests from different fields of study who are connected with the area. This, in turn, brings to light the interlacing relationships that make up a place – the set of “stakeholders” or I prefer “place lovers” who may create alliances and networks of support to sustain the place and communities in the long run, promoting its value, conservation and restoration.
From Braiding Sweetgrass:
“How we approach restoration of land depends, of course, on what we believe that “land” means. If land is just real estate, then restoration looks very different than if land is the source of a subsistence economy and a spiritual home. Restoring land for production of natural resources is not the same as renewal of land as cultural identity. We have to think about what land means. What if we could fashion a restoration plan that grew from understanding multiple meanings of land? Land as sustainer, Land as identity. Land as grocery and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.“
The Suelo experience is designed as a horizontal exchange between selected contributors and participants, based on the premise that every single person is an expert in their own life, and that we all have different ways of learning. We all have different areas of interest that can be activated through a variety of impulses, creating connections that drive us to care for something (in this case soil, land, place, territory). The exchange is encouraged to be in the form of storytelling, embodied / hands-on experiences, kinship-building exercises, and informal encounters such as meals or walks.
I’d like to mention that the term soil kinship exercises comes from Dr. Alexandra Toland – professor at the Bauhaus University, artist and environmental planner with a particular interest in soil – whose incredible book Field to Palette, Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, is a gem full of examples and inspiration on the boundless, life-affirming value of soil. She is also the person who recommended I read Braiding Sweetgrass, for which I am immensely grateful!
As I draw this presentation to a close, I’m going to tie my threads together.
First, recalling the 10 year deadline, I think it helps to remind ourselves of the relativity of a time. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui. in the same essay I mentioned before, says:
“The indigenous world does not conceive of history as linear; the past-future is contained in the present. The regression or progression, the repetition or overcoming of the past is at play in each conjuncture and is dependent more on our acts than on our words. The project of indigenous modernity can emerge from the present in a spiral whose movement is a continuous feedback from the past to the future – a “principle of hope” or “anticipatory consciousness” – that both discerns and realises decolonisation at the same time.“
A last excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass – Wall Kimmerer writes:
“The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned into sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know?“
To end, I ask us: What stories that lead to actions and reciprocity with all of life on Earth will we choose to believe and engage with? I will repeat these words by Donna Haraway that I love so much:
“It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”