New materialism and the arts

Approaching art through new materialist lenses is a demanding process that requires abandoning of the usual manners of thinking about art as a predominantly representational practice. But how to think art beyond representation? How to focus more carefully on the material dimension of artistic activity? How to refrain from such analyzes of art that focus exclusively on meanings and signification? New materialism, a philosophical ferment connected to the theory and practice of feminist knowledge production, offers means for approaching art in a different fashion, as a complex “material-discursive” (Barad 2003, 2007) process that engages senses and sensibilites and emerges from a number of tangled relationalities. In her fascinating study of art beyond representation, Barbara Bolt writes that we need to try to shift attention away from art’s solely representational functions and zoom in on art’s creative potentials as well as its material becomings (2004b). Defining art in terms of productivity allows for its affirmative rendition, so alien to representational thinking. As Bolt explains, representation is a concept and practice that signals an absence or a gap. Something represented is not here and not now (2004a: 171). Denoting non-presence, representation is a negative concept par excellance. Conversely, affirmative, or productive, conceptualization of art remains totally in line with new materialist spirit. Art, in that sense, should be understood as an intra-active becoming, where the examination of “intra-activity” lets us grasp, in Karen Barad’s view, how subject and object emerge in the process of complex “material-discursive” entanglement (2007), and how fluid, temporary, and porous boundaries of these entities and processes remain. Accordingly, the contours of the object and the subject of knowledge are contingent on their relations, never fully defined, always moving, always becoming. And the becoming is equally relational--always affecting and being affected by other becomings and encounters with other bodies and forces. It means that agency is to be understood as dispersed within the complex relational phenomenon and no longer can it be defined in terms of intentionality (Latour 2005), or as belonging exclusively to humans.

Moreover, conceptualizing art as a “material-semiotic” (Haraway 1988) or “material-discursive” (Barad 2003, 2007) process producing certain effects rather than as a purely representational practice remains in concord with new materialism’s critique of Western overestimation of the principle of vision and the scientific model of generating knowledge connected therewith. Vision, a privileged source of producing knowledge in form of representations of reality, operates from a distance, which makes an “objective” judgment possible (if “objectivity” is understood in terms of value-neutrality, which obviously is merely a fiction!). This allows for a very specific organization of power relations between the subject and object of knowledge. The terms “subject” and “object,” so crucial for understanding the logic of the post-Enlightenment Western scientific environment, crystallized in Kantian theory of knowledge establishing clear division into an active subject and a passive object of cognition (or, later on, of scientific investigation). Such definition paved the way for anthropocentric culture based on oppositional thinking. Agency, in such a system, belongs exclusively to the human who exerts power over the passive and inert world of things (nature or matter). Paradoxically, the practices of knowing on which the whole process relies (that is, a specific construction of the viewing procedure) are hidden and invisible, as if they did not exist. The “how” question of generating knowledge remains unanswered or, actually, even unasked.

Although questioning the neutrality of representational thinking inscribed in the system of scientific objectivism (or logical positivism), social constructivism remains equally problematic as far as conceptualization of matter is concerned. Even though the organization of relation of reality and representation is in this paradigm turned on its head (see, e.g., Foucault 1977, 1980, Butler 1990, 1993), this reversal still remains enclosed with an anthropocentric logic, ascribing agency to the (necessarily human) system of representations for which all matter serves solely as a vehicle. Defined as a passive object of discursive inscription, matter itself does not matter (cf. Barad 2003, 2007). Deprived of agency and power, it functions as a set of brute objects waiting to be activated by and through the system of ideological representations, never existing beyond the performatively understood discourse.

Different from both representationalism and social constructivism, Barad’s “agential realism” assumes activity and agency of matter. For her, matter and meaning co-form and co-constitute each other (2003, 2007) in the connective, dynamic process of becoming. Neither matter can be seen as a passive object from which representations are derived (like in representationalism) nor a passive object of cultural inscription (like in social constructivism). Rather, it is implicated in all processes of meaning-making and knowledge production, not solely as a medium but as an active agent and actor. Barad postulates a careful and detailed study of “practices of knowing in being” (2003, 829), so that knowledge claims emerge as an “intra-acting” process determined by its changing, relational circumstances of both material and semiotic character.

In a somewhat similar spirit and acknowledging agency of matter, Bolt (2004a, 2004b) offers a concept of a work of art as different from that of an artwork. Whereas the latter, as a noun, suggests a passive means for artist’s ideas, the former denotes a verb (the work of art), a process of material becoming capable of movements and creations. Art creates affective assemblages which involve immediate material interactions. It is not solely representation that matters, but rather what is important in art is that it operates through sensations and affects (Deleuze and Guattari 1997), that is, materially. Obviously, art has a representational layer too, but what makes it art is not its meaning but its affective operations, which happen on the material level. The character of art, therefore, is material-semiotic. It affects us directly (on the material level) and indirectly (on the representational level) at the same time, although the distinction between the two dimensions must only be provisional--they are entangled and co-constitute each other in the perpetual procedure of becoming. This invites a processual understanding of art--art is defined in terms of a constant material-semiotic unfolding. Consequently, new materialism (and its rendition of the arts) recognizes matter’s capacity for constant “metamorphosis” (Braidotti 2000, 2002, 2006) or “morphogenesis” (DeLanda 2002, 2006) in the process of manufacturing meanings and affects. It is about perpetual productivity--differently from purely representational thinking (which invites recognition of the already known), new materialist approach to art invites opening to the new, which encourages a serious reconsideration of our perceptual routines and habits (O’Sullivan 2006, 1)*.

Adopting such a perspective, inspired by new materialist thinking, in what follows I will look at specific instances of artistic production (geoart) as examples of intra-active becoming of human-nonhuman assemblages. My intention is to point out that geoart can serve as a beautiful illustration of how agency operates and moves across different actors involved in the artistic process. Since geoart, or land art, is inevitably connected to the preoccupation with the condition of the natural environment and the increasing devastating impact human civilization has had on it, I will first focus on the particular circumstances of our historicity, which--interestingly--have become an important aspect of new materialist investigations either.

Worth noticing is also the fact that constituting a meaningful part of the ecological shift within the contemporary humanities, geoart offers a platform to reconcile artistic-scientific research and eco-sensitive activism, both aimed at careful and sustainable knowledge production. This intellectual and artistic trend is inspired by a number of sources, including such diverse fields of social and scientific activity as nature protection movements, humanistic ecology, land ethics, deep ecology, sustainable development studies, ecological philosophy, green cultural studies, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, and so on (see, for instance, Kronenberg 2014). These inventive developments within the broad field of interdisciplinary humanities focus on a post-anthropocentrically and post-humanly defined concept of life, tending toward a new paradigm of thinking in terms of eco- or biocentrism, where life is understood inclusively, as a set of complex relationalities and interdependencies. Not accidentally, eco-humanities emerged within the context of what has come to be known as the epoch of Anthropocene, also connected with what is called the “sixth extinction.” Let me briefly clarify these principal circumstances, as they shed an altogether different light on the intellectual developments within the environmental humanities. They also offer an important setting for approaching instances of geoartistic activities.


The Anthropocene and the Sixth Extinction

The term Anthropocene, whose accuracy has still been being debated, was coined in 2000 by a Dutch chemist and a Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen to describe the circumstances and deep results of the impact of the humankind on the Earth. These effects stem especially from the practically oriented Western scientific (and capitalistic!) project grounded in the assumptions of the anthropocentric culture and aimed at achieving by the human a total control over a nonhuman world. Even though there are different positions on when the Anthropocene began, Crutzen claims that it started to crystallize in the late 18th century (which corresponds with the invention of a steam engine) and coincides with the publication of Immanuel Kant’s famous essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?” This fact is important in the context of current discussions on Western aggressive scientific and industrial developments and the dramatic impact of their side effects and by-products on the natural environment. As Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin notice, it seems that “the moment at which human and natural history become inseparable coincides with the most decisive event of their (philosophical) separation, Kant’s alleged ‘Copernican Revolution’” (2015, 5; see also Zalasiewicz et al. 2010). This opens up interesting possibilities as far as the conceptualization of this relatively new geological epoch is concerned.

Certainly, as mentioned earlier, the term “Anthropocene” is far from unproblematic. A recent study by T.J. Demos reveals the ideological functions that the word serves—terminologically, conceptually, politically, and visually—as far as the current politics of ecology is concerned (2017, 16). Demos points out that the rhetoric of the Anthropocene “frequently acts as a mechanism of universalization, albeit complexly mediated and distributed among various agents.” This, for the critic, “enables the military-state-corporate apparatus to disavow responsibility for the differentiated impacts of climate change, effectively obscuring the accountability behind the mounting eco-catastrophe and inadvertently making us all complicit in its destructive project” (Demos 2017, 17). Meanwhile, many humans—raced, classed, sexualized, and gendered—“would certainly resist identifying with the collective ‘we’ of the implied Anthropocene subject” (Demos 2017, 11). The responsibility for the differently located effects of the deep geological transformations should be rather, for Demos, attributed to those who really trigger these changes in their quest for financial profit and political power. For this reason Demos opts instead for using the term Capitalocene, designating the geological epoch “created by corporate globalization,” which “helps identify the economic determination of our geological present” (2017, 55-56). Capitalocene refers, therefore, to the “geological age of capitalism” (2017, 62).

In considering the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, one has to take into account such invasive and usually irreversible processes as massive urbanization, excessive exploitation of natural resources, the rise of agriculture and attendant deforestation, extinction of animal and plant species, pollution of the oceans, the altered atmosphere, the effects of combustion of carbon-based fuels and emissions, an unabated explosion in population growth, and so on. This has led to the immense transformation of the environment leaving inerasable traces on the geological composition of the planet. In her insightful critique of these processes, containing also a sharp evaluation of contemporary land art, Lucy Lippard (2014) proposes to use the term “land use” instead of the “landscape” as the former term does justice to the aggressive nature of these complex natural-cultural processes. On the one hand, this shift in terminology is inspired by Lippard’s detailed study of the multiplication of gravel pits (mostly in New Mexico) and the capitalist interests hidden beneath this invasive activity. On the other hand, it stems from the shrewd study of the immense body of artistic production connected with land, adobe, or natural heritage. Fascinated with the vernacular land art, Lippard calls for more responsibility from artists and more sensitivity toward the environment in which they create. Writes Lippard: “There is a point where artists too must take some responsibility for the things and places they love, a point at which the colonization of magnificent scenery gives way to a more painfully focused vision of a fragile landscape and its bewildered inhabitants. The land is not separate from the often harsh realities of lives lived upon and around it” (2014, loc. 1262).

Given such historical circumstances, geoart aims at raising consciousness about these complex problems and increase sensitivity toward environmental issues, pointing to the deep interconnections and relations between the human and the more-than-human (where the latter term should be read in terms of excess rather than an opposition). The dramatic environmental circumstances of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene have contributed to the increased awareness that the Earth is soon to face another mass-extinction event, resembling in its character the previous five great extinctions that have already occurred on the planet (Leakey and Lewin 1995, Glavin 2006, Kolbert 2014). As Ashley Dawson aptly notices, “extinction needs to be seen, along with climate change, as the leading edge of contemporary capitalism’s contradictions” (2016, 13). It is the by-product of the Western quest for might and control.

The discussions on the new geological epoch and its impacts create a space for more nuanced reflections. Interestingly enough, although deliberations on these new circumstances and contexts have been triggered, on the one hand, by the selfish/narcissistic fear of the possible (perhaps impending) consequences these environmental changes would entail for the human beings and, on the other one, by the more attentive reflections on how humans are implicated in the world and the world is implicated in them, these new conditions--importantly--also opened up novel paths of philosophical inquiry. The various complex entanglements of nature and culture, so crucial to the identity of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene, have made evident, that no longer can matter (both organic and inorganic) be approached as a passive object of scientific inquiry and control or a resource remaining at the humankind’s disposal. Rather it should be seen as a lively agent, actively participating in the hybrid natural-cultural-discursive processes (Latour 1993) proliferating in the contemporary world. In this context, as Latour prophesizes (1993), the long-established Western ontological divisions between nature and culture as well as the anthropocentric dominance of an allegedly active human over an allegedly passive world of things, which had paved the way for the Western science and industry, are about to collapse. Simultaneously, the issues of agency, plasticity, and liveliness of more-than-human** matter return to the fore of the philosophical inquiry. Such a situation signals the twilight of the taken-for-granted assumptions and calls for a more careful and detailed examination of these deep onto-epistemological connections***.

New materialist approach to art, supplemented with the perspectives originated within the environmental humanities, offers an insight into the complex spatio-temporal entanglements of pasts, presents, and futures in the “age of extinction.” As Claire Colebrook explains, since extinction is both the most human and the most inhuman of concepts, it can function as “the hallmark of our most fragile and most robust present” and may generate “a new dynamic between life and loss” (forthcoming). Certainly, the experience of (witnessing) extinction requires an affective attitude toward the world/environment. And since erasure, or disappearance, is a material practice and the world bears imprints of its constant iterative reconfiguring, the new materialist approach helps us grasp these complex movements of (non-)life. As Barad writes, “[t]o address the past (and future), to speak with ghosts, is not to entertain or reconstruct some narrative of the way it was, but to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit …, for the entangled relationalities of inheritance that ‘we’ are, to acknowledge and be responsive to the noncontemporaneity of the present, to put oneself at risk, to risk oneself (which is never one or self), to open oneself up to indeterminacy in moving towards what is to-come.” (2010, 264)

An awareness of vulnerability of life in the twenty-first century as well as “our growing sense of precarious attachment to a fragile planet” (Colebrook 2014, 11) calls for new forms of knowledge and feeling, as well as for new notions of connectivity and responsibility. In this context it is of critical importance to explore the resensitizing potential of the arts. As Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (2015, 3-4) point out, art might be central to “thinking with and feeling through the Anthropocene.” This is because the two entangle and intertwine in a number of ways and “across various scales.” For the two authors the Anthropocene (or the Capitalocene) should be thought about as a sensorial phenomenon--“the experience of living in an increasingly diminished and toxic world.” Since art is a vehicle for the aesthesis, it can offer means for tackling the complexity of the geological time. What is more, Davis and Turpin notice that “the way we have come to understand the Anthropocene has frequently been framed through modes of the visual, that is, through data visualization, satellite imagery, climate models” (see also Demos 2017). This, again, makes art a privileged platform for a deep and creative inquiry of the contemporary condition of the Earth. Finally, art--for the two authors--is a site of inventive experimentation and as such provides “a non-moral form of address that offers a range of discursive, visual, and sensual strategies that are not confined by the regimes of scientific objectivity, political moralism, or psychological depression.” My reflections on the geoartistic, or land art, practice by Jim Denevan gathered in this text subscribe thoroughly to such a way of thinking, pointing to the deep assemblage-like relationalities of human-nonhuman actors as well as to the peculiar connections of natural and technological forces employed for creation of an artistic project and for knowledge production in general.



Geoart, importantly, poses questions about a deep multidimensional entanglement of human beings (and their diverse activities) and the natural environment (with its various forces and elements) in which they dwell and happen. This form of artistic activity addresses, often indirectly, the complex relations between epistemology, aesthetics, and politics focusing especially on issues of ecology. Such form of creation is not completely new—it refers to the previous works tackling the connection of the humankind and the Earth. The list of important inspirations includes the land art of the 1960s, the environmental arts of the 1970s, and the green politics of the 1980s (see also Parikka 2015b and Heartney 2014). It is not accidental that land art emerged in the aftermath of the World War II in the atomic era, debating the impact a human being’s activity has on the natural environment. Being somewhat an heir to these artistic tendencies, contemporary geoart points to the multiple relationalities and agencies through which human and nonhuman agents are connected and on which they depend. It is about an ecosystemic attitude, doing justice to the specificity of the location in which geoartistic activities happen and honoring the heritage of indigenous populations of different species. Geoart highlights the entanglement of processes in which these different agents are involved and on which they rely, placing emphasis on multiple agencies, potentialities, and relations co-existing within each event and making it possible to argue for a more engaged and sustainable living. Even though the geoartistic practices critically approach the devastation of the environment and the risks of increase of human invasive activities on Earth, their overall orientation is affirmative, pointing to the productive aspect of relationalities, the politics of emergence, and the connective generativity. As such, they correspond with the new materialist spirit and foster politics of entanglement. Such form of inventive creation transcends the dualistic models inscribed in the dominant Western ways of thinking, opting instead for a production of experience engaging imagination, sensuality, and spirituality in an affective encounter with the environment. It is, therefore, about an assemblage of different forces and agents, organic and inorganic, human and nonhuman generated in the sensual, carnal experience. In that sense, the themes that geoart undertakes resemble those typical for land art or earth art of the 1960s. As Parikka writes about the artistic predecessors of the geoart, in particular about the works of Robert Smithson, “in a more metallurgical sense, this experimentation revolves around what constitutes technology and the aesthetic object. Geological material itself becomes a way to track the mutant transformations, a transversal method of continuum across the material and the linguistic (which are not, in fact, two separate spheres)” (2015b, 53).

There is a couple of principles on which geoart is based. Even though they must be treated loosely, as orientation points rather than indicators of a specific well defined genre, they speak volumes about the philosophy of geoartistic practices and shed light on how responsive they are toward the settings in which they emerge. First, geoart assumes a complete and smooth harmony between the artistic intervention and a landscape in which it happens—it is not about violence or brutality versus the material with which an artist works. They are noninvasive and necessarily temporary. Rather, geoart is about cooperation and mutual co-constitution from which a work of art emerges. Second, the work of art remains unfinished—it is left for future intervention of human and nonhuman forces, open for further influence of the surrounding environment comprised of both natural and cultural processes and inviting new interpretations and readings. As such, it is about constant material-semiotic becoming and perpetual metamorphosis. Third, the work of art is to be returned to the landscape, whether for thriving or for annihilation. It belongs there as a site-specific dynamic process which cannot be moved to other circumstances without becoming turned into a completely new set of procedures and transformations. It would not remain the same in a different setting. Neither does it remain the same in its original setting. Thusly defined, geoart remains an intra-active process entangling human and nonhuman actors and dispersed agencies—there is no clear split into an active subject and a passive object of the enterprise. The emergence and fleeting thriving of the works of art are about complex relationality and constant becoming; the process remains material-discursive, always changing and always moving. 

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* It does not mean, however, that new materialism rejects the meaningful accomplishments of poststructuralism and discourse theory. Quite the contrary--it draws heavily on these developments, yet paying special attention to what the discourse theory has regularly neglected, that is, to matter and its agencies.
** Read this as excess and not as a hierarchy!
*** Another aspect of entanglement of nature and culture exposed by the circumstances of the new geological epoch is evidenced by the construction of many technologies (relying on natural resources), digital imagining, the great-scale building projects, geoengineering, global business, geopolitcs of the hunt for energy, etc. As Jussi Parikka cleverly remarks, this new setting signals an arrival “of something new that points out as insufficient any Modern attempt to name the two, Nature and Culture, separately” (2015a, loc. 95; see also Latour 1993). This testifies to the complex character of the connections “of media technologies, their materiality, hardware, and energy, with the geophysical nature: nature affords and bears the weight of media culture, from metals and minerals to its waste loads” (Parikka 2015a, loc. 58). This complex entanglement translates in always-new assemblages, inevitable connections, and dynamic relations. Often, they produce outstanding possibilities as well as pernicious effects.