The unit of survival is organism plus environment

By Simone Couto

As a child, I remember my father gathering their men at the crack of dawn and walking up the hill towards our farm corral. They would spend the entire morning collecting cows’ manure, filling the back of Severina, our old yellow Volkswagen pick-up truck, and taking it to an area behind the corral. The entire property would stink with cow’s dung and dirt. At times, I would join them. Back home, the shower was long and cold. We had no electricity. Our water came straight from one of the three water mines. The pile of manure would sit there drying until used again to fertilize our coffee and produce plantations. Upon my return to the farm in 2014, after 30 years of absence, the ground where I turned manure with my father and his men no longer seems as vast as in my early memories of the place. The new owners have abolished the practice of collecting manure because there are no crops growing in those fields. The hills are now covered with wild grass. Today, the river of abundant waters that I used to swim in my childhood is almost dry. The lenses of my Cannon captured only the crumbly red soil and muddy water under a 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

     For the past three years, I have been interested in the study of soil in my art practice. Today, I would like to take a minute to reflect how water, similarly to soil, has been affected by our direct, indirect or lack of involvement. The history of soil has spread out through many disciplines and is considered a dynamic system directly related to the environment. Its morphology can only be determined by a close examination of the integration between each of their morphologies, climate changes and human interaction. The successful functioning of these systems guarantees hospitality to plants, animals and humans.  Today, I will focus on the latest. Human influence, management, and intervention have significantly altered the morphologies of the environment by improving or degrading it, protecting or compromising its sustainability. In the case of soil, new methods of irrigation, fertilization and pest control have been developed in order to improve crops. On the other hand, we are witnessing the increase of destructive practices such as erosion and deforestation. Rivers have their own set of challenges. I suspect that we agree that we have reached a point where it is difficult to distinguish between natural and artificial morphologies. I look forward to hearing Mr. Sanchez discussing his project in this regard.

     Further, I would like to think historically when nature became isolated from human experience and when we have perhaps returned to it. The years that followed the second Industrial Revolution (between 1870 and 1914) were deeply impacted by the implementation of market economies in the West, the mass production, and trade of objects. This new condition shifted the relationship between nature and humans, and the relationship between artists and their artworks.

     The outcome of this second industrial revolution produced a new kind of visionary man whose body became a utopian machine fragmented and detached from the environment. The pulsing existentialist discourse of the time was around individuality, purity and authenticity. The artist became an observer of the physicality of things. The meanings of the artwork determined the formal structure of the work alone and grounded the aesthetic theory in one of Formalism, as evidenced in Structuralism and Modernist art.

     Bruno Latour, a French anthropologist and sociologist of science, discusses these dangers associated to “modernity,” a definitive term that supports the segregation of fields and expects purity of practices. He suggests another parallel view of the term. Modernity can represent the construction of systems that blurs politics, science, technology, and nature. His discourse rethinks society and commodities under the interdisciplinary umbrella, allied to ecology to redefine and implement new modes of production and distribution. In an interview given to O Globo, the major Brazilian newspaper, on January in 2014, Latour wrote in his essay entitled “Ecological Civilization          "


     Modernity is a fallacy, a fiction invented to organize the life of the intellectual… The so called “Moderns” support the separation of science,           politics, nature and culture, based on a theory far from the reality of the world and inadaptable to the challenges imposed at the beginning of this century.

     After the second half of the last century, I artists returned to a more organic relationship with the environment. Nature could be more than an object subject only to our gaze and representation. Currently, environmental works have been reinforced by ecological and political concerns.

     Timothy Morton, in his book I am Hyperobjects, Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World also supports the integration of our experiences with ecology. He urges us to find cross points. Ecology affects every aspect of our lives. It has impacted the way we live with one another and with non-humans.

     Latour proposes a institutional critique of Modernity while Morton proposes a radical break down of the separation between organisms and the environment, which would lead us towards possible actions in regard to healing and preventing natural disasters.

     Mr. Sanchez project reminds us that the differentiation of things collapses toward di-differentiation. Disciplinary borders are merging, blurring.  Artists are becoming more and more socially and politically engaged as they recognize that their local actions are a part of a global discourse. We all know by now that in a neglected environment, some species struggle to be alive while others simply crash.

     This is where prevention and care begins. Claire Pentecost is an American artist and educator whose current projects focus on interdisciplinary knowledge about soil, industrial, and bioengineered agriculture. In her contribution to the 2012 Documenta Catalogue, she turns to Steps to an Ecology of Mind and quotes Gregory Bateson in her essay titled Notes from the Underground,“ The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment, destroys itself.”

     In the Arts, we can approach nature not as the pre-industrialization romantic ideal as we see after the industrial revolution, but with our generous involvement. Our practices should not be disconnected from science, technology, politics, and history. If we treat ourselves as part of a larger global mesh containing these multiplicities, science and art create a dialogue about the way culture is produced and experienced. The ENGLISH KILLS PROJECT is a memorable effort to bring the community together in order to reflect, educate and search for solutions about how the water, the site , and the environment can be rescued and preserved for all.

June, 2015. For English Kills Project by artist Henry Sanchez, as part of the Bushwick Open Studios week. An informal roundtable held on Johnson Avenue by the members of The English Kills Project

(photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)