1.5 Degrees. Interdependencies between Life, the Cosmos, and Technology. Activism


Sebastian Schneider

At the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015, 197 nations agreed to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—a noble objective that from today’s perspective will not be achieved by any major industrial nation. This political ineffectiveness in the struggle against climate change has since then spawned a wide variety of new protest movements. Contemporary art also plays an active role in them since many artists see their work as an opportunity to point to specific grievances and inequalities or to formulate alternatives for action. Their works aim at intervention and codetermination. Particularly in countries with restrictive legislation, art thus becomes a vehicle for denouncing inequalities that goes beyond established (and sanctioned) forms of protest.

Such social artistic practice is repre-sented exemplarily by Emerson Pontes, an artist, biologist, and educator who was born in the Amazon region in North Brazil. He regards his interdisciplinary work as a form of protest against the destruction of the environment
in areas of Brazil inhabited by Indigenous population groups. Pontes counters the notion of an environment subordinate to people with a concept of mutual dependence. To address this idea, Pontes created the alter ego Uýra Sodoma, who looks like a hybrid of human being and plant and in whose role the artist imparts Indigenous ecological knowledge to young people from the Amazon region. Photo-graphs showing Uýra Sodoma in the rain forest or in filthy industrial landscapes—in which they seem to blend into their backdrops by means of elaborate costumes—are also created. As Uýra Sodoma, Pontes pushes the boundaries between human beings and nature, but also between men and women. The intention and effect of these performative actions captured in photographs aim at sustainable change in the sense of planetary care work.

The themes of care, gender identity, and relationships between humans and nature are also central to melanie bonajo’s video Night Soil—Nocturnal Gardening. It presents four women that examine alternative methods of land use and animal farming. The portraits provide insights into solitary ways of life that tell of a different relationship to nature, a different sense of community, and an alterna-tive approach to dealing with one’s own body and prescribed gender roles. Particularly today, when the climate crisis challenges us to question our living standards and patterns of consumption, the video shows that it is possible to take a radical stand against the capitalist striving for growth, profit maximiza-tion, and individualization.

This also raises the question of how we think about community and what role we ascribe to the collective. The twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim have dedi-cated themselves to this topic in their artistic work. With their large, crocheted coral reefs, they make explicit reference to an ecosystem that stands symbolically for the destructive consequences of global warming. The works are the result of a joint production process in which the sisters invite interested individuals to crochet components of the reefs prior to an exhibition. What is striking about this is that women in particular declare their willingness to subordinate their own authorship for the benefit of a joint project.1 The biologist and feminist Donna Haraway makes reference to Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s coral reefs as an example of her theory that living beings never develop exclusively on their own, but are instead always embedded in an extended network of relationships.2 Haraway thus ques-tions the Darwinist logic of development, which posits the particular abilities of individuals as a prerequisite for their survival. Her call to think about people within a network of indissoluble relationships and dependencies has been taken up by artists like Pontes, bonajo, and Margaret and Christine Wertheim, and can be regarded as an impulse for facing up to the climate crisis.

Guadalupe Miles and Tita Salina also focus on the significance of communities, but make use of documentary means in doing so. Miles’s photographs were produced over a time period of several years, during which she returned again and again to members of the Wichí, an Indigenous population group in north-ern Argentina. This gave rise to a close bond that enabled Miles to take pictures in which the normally standard hierarchy between photogra-pher and photographed seems to be obsolete. The portraits show this inversion of power relationships in a particularly impressive way. They were created in close exchange with the individuals depicted and convey this closeness through an almost palpable immediacy. With her photographs, Miles simultaneously documents the Wichí’s special relationship to nature, which is severely threatened by environmental pollu-tion. The river in particular plays a central role as a source of food, transport route, as well as place for children to play. Miles’s photographs promote awareness of the fact that Indigenous and marginalized groups are affected to a particularly great extent by the consequences of climate change.

Tita Salina also takes up this complex of topics with her video installation 1001st Island—The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago. It was produced in cooperation with fishers from Jakarta, who are suffering severely as a result of the massive pollution of local bodies of water. The coastal city also finds itself confronted with the real danger of being flooded by masses of water due to rising sea levels caused by global warming. The govern-ment therefore has plans to construct artificial islands in the Bay of Jakarta as a protective barrier. Four such islands already exist today—but have been unfinished and uninhabitable for years. Moreover, the fishers report that catch figures have worsened dramatically as a result of the artificial islands. In cooperation with a group of local fishers, Salina removed plastic garbage from the sea, and from the waste obtained created an island with which she exposed herself to sea. In the Bay of Jakarta, Salina thus added another island—which symbolically represents the problem of land reclamation and how waste is handled—to
the allegedly 1,000 islands of the archipelago. Another realization of the project is now taking place in Mannheim, where a new island will
be created from rubbish collected locally.

With his installation O Be Vi de Só e Té, Agradê, Ernesto Neto opens up a space for encounters and community that encourages visitors to reflect on the issues addressed here. Using textile materials, the artist creates walk-through installations that invite people to spend time in them. Seashells, spices, or herbs that intensify the immersive quality of the works with their aromas are also incorporated. Neto fills these materials in textiles and crocheted cocoons and thus creates three-dimensional, organic-seeming forms. They populate the exhi-bition space like mushrooms springing up from the ground, or drops falling from the sky. The vertical is a formal constant in the work of the Brazilian artist. Neto’s poetic idea that heaven and earth are constantly striving to kiss each other in the form of plants is materialized here. The concomitant postulate that we ourselves as well as the environment surrounding us should be perceived more attentively can be invoked for all of the artists brought together in this fragment.

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