Revisiting the Juniper

NB. You can scroll the text (bar on the right) while playing the video.

Dear Juniper, 

 

It was nice to see you again four weeks ago, on the first of August, there on the eastern shore of Harakka Island, and to see that you are healthy and strong. The old guy that used to grow to the west from you, leaning heavily, had completely disappeared. When I looked among the shrubs I saw some pieces of dry wood - all that remained. But on the eastern side (to the left in the image,) a large fresh juniper was now growing strong; your offspring I assume. The birch behind you was not looking good, however, obviously suffering from drought; there is not much water on the cliffs if there is no rain. 

 

To remember our time together in 2011 I have inserted some videos in the recording of the revisit this year. On the left is "Year of the Rabbit - By the Bird Shed", and in the centre "Year of the Rabbit - With a Juniper", both performed weekly for a year on Sundays at 3 pm between February 6, 2011 and January 22, 2012 (with some breaks due to travels, though). On the right is "Day and Night of the Rabbit - In the Year of the Dragon", which was performed for a day and night from 16 June 2012 at 1 pm to 17 June at 1 pm every three hours.

 

As part of the research project How to do things with performance? I have returned to the sites where the series Animal Years was performed and recorded on the island, as my colleagues and many of those who have followed our work, well know by now.  Now was the turn of the site of the juniper, your site, which I visited during the year of the rabbit, in 2011.

 

Visiting you was one of my favourite years - no, I am not saying it to be polite, it is absolutely true, because I continued visiting junipers and juniper-like shrubs even during the following year, when I was supposed to call for dragons. I really liked holding hands with you, or other junipers, too, holding on to your trunk or a branch, and I loved covering myself with the scarf, hiding there, breathing slowly and feeling protected, “sticking my head into the bush” as the saying goes in Finnish. 

 

And with you I wrote my first blog, which has turned into an activity I often engage with. I have used our performances together as an example when writing about the performativity of blogging, of becoming juniper as artistic research and even when discussing authorship. I am now working on another research project, too, called Performing with Plants, which somehow began with you, or perhaps even earlier, with a pine tree, but anyway I became more conscious of the possibilities through my contact with you. Thus, revisiting you seemed special and important.

In preparation I checked the length of the original video, 20 minutes, and put my phone to warn me after 25 minutes. Only when standing next to you did I realize that 25 minutes would be too long. And then I remembered that my camera would stop by itself after 21 minutes – how can I always forget that! I started counting my breaths to get approximately twenty minutes and, when I returned to the camera it had stopped. So, I recorded another session, slightly shorter, to be able to include the exit as well.

Anyway, it was easy to spend time with you, you were somehow open to my holding on to you and there was a place to stand among the heather next to you. Only while looking at the material did I realize that I am hardly distinguishable behind your branches. Funny, because I was worried that my lemon outfit would be too domineering… 

 

*


I realize that speaking to you here like this, is slightly absurd in many ways, first of all because you are not here, and many people listening to me would be familiar with the principle “nothing about us, without us” or nihil de nobis, sine nobis, if you prefer Latin. That means officially that, “no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy”. Well, we are not deciding any policy here, but for the sake of principle… There have been attempts at dealing with the problem for example by Bruno Latour and his idea of the parliament of things and other related endeavours. Coming from performance art I tend to distrust all kinds of representational strategies, somebody speaking as somebody else or on behalf of somebody else, and so on. Although I don’t know for sure, I have a hunch that you would distrust them, too. Since we are on stage right now, we can perhaps rely on a little bit of willing suspension of disbelief, as it is called by theatre people, and allow me to speak with you, or actually to you, without you being here with us, except in the form of a representation. I realize I also risk to be accused of mansplaining, or ‘woman-splaining’ – it cannot really be called ‘plant-splaining’ I guess, because I am the one explaining in a potentially condescending or patronizing manner.

 

Nevertheless, you might be delighted to hear that in recent years there has been a great increase in the scientific study of plant learning, plant memory, plant thinking and some scientists, but not all, are now even willing to speak of plant intelligence. There is also something called critical plant studies, which according to the description of the lead editor of a book series with the same name, Michael Marder, has as its goal “to initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity.” (see https://brill.com/view/serial/CPST?qt-qt_serial_details=1) Well, we are not dealing with philosophy or literature in a strict sense, here, but rather something called artistic research, but it is nice to know that there is a wider context, isn’t it?

 

*

 

When I looked for the material from the time of our regular meetings, I found a text I had written for the exhibition where these works where shown for the first time, in the now no longer existing gallery Jangva in January 2013. 

 

“How to perform landscape, not only represent it? Can you have a meaningful relationship with a singular element in the landscape? How can you relate to a living being that you do not easily recognize as your kind? A plant is hard to see as a partner in interaction although plants are actually our collaborators with regard to production of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Plants are our allies, since they, via their photosynthesis, produce the basic ingredients of our food. They are the true creators of our world. There is a kind of symbiotic relationship between plants and animals, in this case a shrub and a human being. Most plants are stationary, reliable to be there for us. A plant knows what it means to be site-specific. A certain shrub in a particular place is an entity with a distinguishable individuality, something to relate to and to visit.

 

During the year of the rabbit 2011 I chose a juniper growing in the south-eastern part of Harakka Island to acquaint myself with and as my partner within the project ”Year of the Rabbit with a Juniper”. A juniper seemed to me a strange creature comparable with the hare in Arto Paasilinna’s novel, together with whom I could search for a new contact with the environment. I ended up visiting the juniper once a week and “holding hands” with it wrapped in a green scarf. I invited passers-by and colleagues to witness my performance and wrote a blog about the project (http://aa-katajankanssa.blogspot.com/). While travelling I encountered other junipers to make acquaintance with. In the Turku archipelago and in South Häme I found handsome junipers and later I looked for them on Ireland, Sardinia and Ibiza. In the year 2012 I have spent time with junipers as well. Am I perhaps “becoming juniper”?  

 

*

 

In the volume of a publication called Emergency Index, which documents performances that took place in 2011, I described the work in a slightly different manner. But I will not go into that now, but rather focus on the question I promised to discuss, which should be of some interest for you, too, dear Juniper: Could expanding the idea of who or what performs assist in decolonizing our relationship to the environment, to everything else around us? 

 

The possibility to understand performing as appearing, as “esiintyä” rather than “esittää”, to use the intransitive and transitive forms in Finnish, I have addressed elsewhere (Arlander 2018, 2019). So, let us begin with ‘decolonizing’ instead.

 

*

 

In one of her last texts, “Decolonizing relationships with nature” in 2003 environmental philosopher and ecofeminist activist Val Plumwood analyses the logical structure of colonial, anthropocentric and Eurocentric relationships. She describes the Eurocentric colonial system as “one of hegemony – a system of power relations in which the interests of the dominant party were disguised as universal and mutual, but in which the colonizer actually prospered at the expense of the colonized” (Plumwood 2003, 51) She draws on her experience from both sides of the colonizing relationships and notes “that many of us experience them from both sides and that they can mislead, distort and impoverish both the colonized and the centre – not just the obvious losers.” (Plumwood 2003, 52) This is something I can relate to as a Finn, a Finnish Swede and a European, and not only in relationship to you, dear Juniper.

 

Plumwood notes that “the concept of colonization can be applied directly to non-human nature itself, and that the relationship between [certain groups of] humans … and the more-than-human world might be … characterized as one of colonization.” (Plumwood 2003, 52) She reminds us how “the sphere of ‘nature’ has, in the past, been taken to include what are thought of as less ideal more primitive forms of the human.” (Ibid.) Progress has meant “the progressive overcoming, or control of, this ‘barbarian’ non-human or semi-human sphere by the rational sphere of European culture and ‘modernity’.” (Plumwood 2003, 52-53) According her the “Eurocentric form of anthropocentrism draws upon and parallels Eurocentric imperialism in its logical structure” such as a “moral dualism, involving a major gulf between the ‘One’ and the ‘Other’ that cannot be bridged or crossed”. (Plumwood 2003, 53). 

 

Plumwood provides an account of some of the mechanisms that characterize both colonial and anthropocentric approaches to the other, which include, a strong focus on dualism, exaggerating differences and denying commonality as well as homogenizing the other. 

One mechanism is hyper-separation or radical exclusion: “The function of hyper-separation is to mark out the Other for separate and inferior treatment”, she writes. (Plumwood 2003, 54) Moreover, “from an anthropocentric standpoint, nature is a hyper-separate lower order, lacking any real continuity with the human. This approach stresses heavily those features that make humans different from nature and animals, rather than those we share with them,” (Ibid.) she adds.

 

Another mechanism is homogenization or stereotyping, seeing the Other “not [as] an individual, but a member of a class stereotyped as interchangeable, replaceable, all alike - that is, as homogenous.” (Plumwood 2003, 55) Consequently, “[a]nthropocentric culture conceives of nature and animals as all alike in their lack of consciousness, which is assumed to be exclusive to the human” (Ibid.). 

 

Plumwood summarizes: “These two features of human/nature dualism - radical exclusion and homogenization - work together to produce, in anthropocentric culture, a polarized understanding in which the human and non-human spheres correspond to two quite different substances or orders of being in the world.” (Ibid.)

 

So, even though I stand next to you, dear Juniper, and hold on to you and intellectually know that I depend on you and your kind, I am to some extent the result of the material-discursive practices of a colonial legacy, which sees humans “as the only rational species, the only real subjectivities and agents in the world”, whereas you, and everything else is ‘nature’, ”a background… that is there to be exploited”, to provide me with a healthy ‘forest-bathing experience’, material for gin or jenever, or perhaps stuff for fairy tales. - Not so good…

 

*

 

In a recent book, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, by Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh (2018), Mignolo presents the idea of nature as one of the three pillars of the colonial matrix, together with racism and sexism. According Mignolo “Western imperial subjects secured themselves and their descendants as the superior subspecies” and “invented …the idea of nature to separate their bodies from all living … organisms on the planet.” Thus, “the invention of nature and the degradation of life” is “one more facet in the procedural constitution of the human”, he writes. “Nature doesn’t exist, or it exists as an ontological fiction” (Mignolo 2018, 158-159), he adds.

 

According Mignolo “nature and culture are two Western fictions /--/ How to get out of them is a decolonial question.” For Mignolo “[d]ecolonial thinking is akin to nonmodern ways of thinking grounded on cosmologies of complementary dualities (and/and) rather than dichotomies or contradictory dualities (either/or)” (Mignolo 2018, 155). In Andean philosophy, for example, there is an understanding of duality as complementarity, resembling the Chinese yin and yang… he explains; “they have in common the acknowledgement that there cannot be A without its opposite B. Once you acknowledge that these entities are inseparable … you have at least two options”, he writes. 

 

“If you try to eliminate and control the opposite, you enter the realm of war; if you seek harmony and balance, you enter the realm of struggle, weaving relations (Convivencia, vincularidad) with all that exists: rocks and mountains; spirits and plants; plants and mountains that are spirits; animals who do not speak Kechua, Hebrew, Latin or any other of the known languages; and animals who do speak one or more languages.” (Mignolo 2018, 160)

 

Admittedly, dear Juniper, it would be a struggle if we would try to really understand each other. By standing next to you and holding on to you I am not communicating with you in any detailed way… But I am trying to establish a relation, some form of ‘vincularidad’, perhaps. But I am not thinking of you as a spirit or power, as my ancestors might have done. Although in Finnish and Nordic folklore people respect junipers mostly because some kind of, ‘haltija’, or little people would live under the juniper, and later also because your branches or berries could be used for protection against evil spirits. - Perhaps I am disrespectful and colonizing when forcing you to perform with me like this, and to contribute to my artwork without any recompense? 

 

*

 

In another recent study, Decolonizing Nature. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. (2017) T.J. Demos brings art into the debate. He writes: “I’m convinced that there is nothing more important, timely and urgent to consider as our present ecological crises, and in this regard, we can only do so by starting from our bases in our respective fields”, which for him means art history. “Under current forms of governance”, he notes, “our relation to the environment threatens our coming existence, where not only nature is colonized but also our very future, a colonization that we must all struggle to resist.” (Demos 2017, 29)

 

Demos explains: “To decolonize nature represents a doubtlessly ambitious and manifold project, with artists, activists, and creative practitioners (in addition to scientists, policy makers, and politicians) involved at every stage” (Demos 2017, 16). Moreover, “[b]eyond the critical analysis of corporate practice and the international framework of trade policies that privilege economy over environment”, he adds, “we also need to decolonize our conceptualization of nature in properly political ways” (Demos 2017, 18). He admits that the conventional definition of nature, “positioned as an ahistoric monolith in a separate realm apart from the human” appears “faulty for its basis in ontological objectification and dualistic thinking” and serves as “the conceptual platform for extractivist practice” (Demos 2017, 20). “Yet”, for Demos “rejecting the term nature is not an option”, even while he agrees “with efforts geared towards its conceptual reorientation” (Demos 2017, 20).

 

Demos notes the need for “new methodologies to acknowledge the voices of historically oppressed peoples, which stand to strengthen the basis of ethico-political solidarity around ecological concerns by joining with current struggles for cultural and environmental survival against corporate globalization” (Demos 2017, 23-24). And he seems to have great confidence in the transformative power of art: “I am convinced that art, given its long histories of experimentation, imaginative invention, and radical thinking, can play a central transformative role here. In its most ambitious and far-ranging sense, art holds the promise of initiating” perceptual “and philosophical shifts, offering new ways of comprehending ourselves and our relation to the world differently than the destructive traditions of colonizing nature.” (Demos 2017, 18-19) 

 

Well, I wish I could be equally confident. But, we have to try. And, thinking of resisting the colonization of the future and doing so by starting from our bases in our respective fields, I must say, dear Juniper, that you are doing it quite well. 

 

(end of voice-over)

 

 

 

 

References:

 

Demos, T.J. 2017. Decolonizing Nature. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

 

Mignolo, Walter D. and Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. London and Durham: Duke University Press.

 

Plumwood, Val. 2003. “Decolonizing relationships with nature.” In William M. Adams and Martin Mulligan. 2003. (eds.) Decolonizing Nature. Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial Era. London and Sterling VA: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 51-78.