Regarding a History of Violence
Notes on the exhibition
The Anthropocene and climate change reflect nothing so much as industrial capitalism’s dependence on ancient sunshine.
The planet is undergoing radical transformations. The massive destruction of its ecosystems comprises not only climate change and species extinction; the extraction of minerals and other raw materials, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, continent-sized floating plastic islands, toxic waste, monoculture-plantation, industrial farming and an accelerating global urbanization are also part of the processes that are changing the conditions of life on Earth.
We call it development. Progress. Growth. Development based on centuries of unrestrained intervention in the complex and interdependent processes that make up the life-sustaining systems of the Earth. It is what constitutes the human-initiated environment making of capitalist modernity. A different version of the narrative of the glory of Western modernity is to see how it has unfolded as “a permanent, dirty war on life.”[i]
Planetary meltdown should be understood as the result of slow violence. A violence that is exercised in the margins of our attention, a violence that is often out of sight, invisible, and whose destruction emerges with a delay. A violence not perceived as violence.[ii]
With her sculptures depicting enlarged jackfruits, Maria Thereza Alves draws our attention to the reorganization of the planet that began with the violence of colonialism. The jackfruit was brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonizers as cheap food for slaves. Today, the tree is displacing the native flora.
“When they come, flee.”, said my grandmother to my mother.
“When they come, flee.”, said my mother to me.
The title of the piece echoes the knowledge, basic to survival, handed down from one generation to the next. Only flight could ensure survival from the European invasion, which brought with it theft of land, enslavement, genocide and the introduction of new flora for the plantations and European farm animals resulting in massive destruction of native forests. This might very well represent the first historical apocalypse: the will to end many worlds that produced the one-world world and its excesses. [iii] Alves’ bronzes form a kind of small-scale monument to the destruction of worlds, commemorating the devastating implications of European colonialism and mirroring its permanent effects.
The work This is not an Apricot explores the significance of this history further. The series of small watercolour paintings depict fruits sold in a market Manaus in the Amazon. When asked the names of the fruits, the seller would reply “this is an apricot”, though none of the fruits were apricots. That the sellers lack of knowledge of the indigenous names, reflects how the all-encompassing elimination of worlds also eradicates language and culture.
Alves’ works reflect on how the advent of European colonialism of the Americas in the fifteenth century marks a crucial moment in the history of the degradation of the planet. Colonialism accelerated the speed and the spread of planet-consuming activities through a global web of exploitation, annihilating peoples and worlds in unprecedented numbers. Genocide and enslavement, together with hunger and death on a massive scale, as a result of diseases brought by the Europeans, reduced the population on two continents between 1492 and 1650 by three quarters. Geologists have found a CO2 drop in the atmosphere of this period indicating the geological proportions of colonial violence.[iv]How can we understand the historical developments, and their ideological underpinnings, that made this violation of life possible?
The Anthropocene, the age of man, has become the dominant term for understanding our present moment. It introduces a new evolutionary agenda that puts mankind at the centre of the development of the Earth, designating the human species as a geological factor. In the Anthropocene, the environmentally degrading consequences of industrialization are seen as a kind of collateral damage, as unintentional harm, but the use of the term ‘climate change’ in the eighteenth century tells a different story. Practices of foresting and deforesting in order to ‘modify the influences of the climate and set the temperature […] to the point that suits’ became environment-making tools used to enact humanity’s rule over nature.[v] Controlling their physical surroundings was crucial for the colonizers, but manipulating climatic conditions was also an integral part of the project.[vi]
The violations of the Earth are closely connected to a specific practice and way of perceiving the relationship between Man and his surroundings, beginning with the onset of European colonialism and early capitalism in the fifteenth century. It became possible to consider nature as external by dividing man from his dependency on his surroundings in the creation of Nature and Humanity, and hence as things to be appropriated and exploited. With this ideological apparatus, which also included Eurocentrism, racism and patriarchy, the violence of colonization could be legitimised.[vii]
In his film The Silver and the Cross, Harun Farocki considers the implications of these ideas. The film is a visual investigation of a painting by Peruvian painter Gaspar Miguel de Berrío of 1758 depicting the silver-rich mountain Cerro Rico, with the mining city of Potosí at its foot. As explained by the voiceover, when Spanish colonialists first took possession of the mine it was just plain robbery, “later also science, world trade and capital was involved.” The resources extracted from the mountain by forced and paid labour contributed decisively to the wealth of the Spanish empire and helped finance its wars and global trade. Yet the painting is silent about the exploitation and genocide that defined Potosí at the time. An impressive city structure, a highly elaborated mining system and religious activities are presented instead. The mine workers are so small that they can hardly be seen.
Capitalism depends on appropriating nature and the exploitation of labour. The exclusion of most humans from Humanity made the enslavement, forced labour and genocide of indigenous people and people from Africa possible. These people, together with most women, Slavs, Jews and Irish were among those considered part of Nature.[viii]The Silver and the Cross contemplates the material consequences of the interlacing of early capitalism and the colonial project with a discriminatory ideological apparatus and imperial ambition.
Early modernity’s abstraction-based paradigm includes a range of representational techniques, surveys and cartography. These tools were used to map, identify, quantify, measure and code people and nature in order to control, claim ownership and accumulate wealth. The world could thus be registered and quantified, creating a praxis in which representations, rationality and empirical investigation joined forces with imperial ambition and capital accumulation in the externalization of nature.[ix]
The words ‘Mundo Novo’ are printed on a portion of sugar, which is placed on a gold-painted box as part of Runo Lagomarsino’s installation The Discovery of Mundo Novo. Sugar was considered the white gold of the ‘New World’ and played a key role in the Danish colonization of the Virgin Islands and the introduction of the first Danish stock companies.[x]
Placed behind a large, gold-covered wall, a collection of found and modified objects, drawings and photographs make up Lagomarsino’s installation, weaving together different instances of the invention of the ‘New World’. For this world to be ‘discovered’ it had to be perceived as a passive object without active subjects. The Spanish thought the Amerindian Others lived in a cultural vacuum and were therefore in need of Spanish rule, which justified colonization and the aggressive transformation of the ‘New World’ as a moral obligation.[xi]Lagomarsino seems to be conveying the violence inherent in this construction through the collection of materials, in an attempt to tease out its less clear-cut manifestations and point to the naturalization of Eurocentric ideas.
Pia Arke’s work Dummy is a series of framed mock-up pages that she used when planning her book Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, published in 2003. Scoresbysund is a small village in North East Greenland founded by Denmark in 1924, and populated with Greenlandic families, transferred there in order to manifest Danish presence in the area, which was crucial for Danish territorial claims to Greenland. The history of Scoresbysund forms an important document of Danish colonialism and the role of science and knowledge in Western imperialism.
The book consists of a mosaic of documents and stories collected from Scoresbysund’s inhabitants and their relatives, where the spheres of “the private, the aesthetic and the geopolitical intermingle”.[xii] Arke’s project was to create a counter narrative to the official Danish history, and present a history of Scoresbysund from below through a multiplicity of personal stories, memories and documents. For Arke, it was central to demonstrate how the history of Greenland was a construction, first conceived on a desk in Copenhagen. Neither the stories in the book nor Dummy attempt to form a coherent narrative, or even progress in a specific order, which means that the pages could be rearranged and put together differently. Counter to the Eurocentric idea of linear development, Arke emphasizes the arbitrary dimension of the construction of history, presenting it as an unfinished and constantly transformable storyline. [xiii]
In the soundtrack to her film You are Agate Onyx Red Ebony Ivory Mosaic Coloured, Mia Edelgart whispers anxieties about pregnancy, climate change and toxic waste that connect the vast perspective of geological time with the, in comparison, brief life cycle of humanity. Pondering how plants alive millions of years ago sediment to form the coal that fires our current era of fossil-fuelled capitalism, Edelgart conflates the incomprehensible scale of planetary change with the microcosm of developments in the reproductive human body.
Whispering into the viewer’s ear, Edelgart explores human precarity and the vulnerability of the web of life as a secret, a secret we are all in on, yet we fail to organize our lives, communities and societies in correspondence with it. It might be that the horizon of our time has disappeared into the toxic sea of late capitalism, revealing the present as a room without a view.[xiv] Yet faced with the ruins of the Earth, it should be “easier to imagine the end of capitalism than to articulate any other genuine solution to the extinction crisis”.[xv] Learning from other knowledges and ways of conceiving human existence seems to be the only viable option we have.
[i] Gene Ray ”Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot” South as a State of Mind #7, 2016
[ii] Rob Nixon Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 2011, pp. 2-3
[iii] Marisol de la Cadena Uncommoning Nature, e-flux journal # 65, 2015
[iv] Simon L. Lewis & Mark A. Maslin ”Defining the Anthropocene” in Nature, 2015, vol. 519, pp. 175
[v] Georges-Louis Lerclerc de Buffon, Histoire naturelle générale et particuliére, supplément, vol. 5, 1778 in Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz The Shock of the Anthropocene, 2016, pp. 178
[vi] Eyal Weizman ”Are They Human?”, e-flux Archtecture, October 2016
[vii] Alexander Anievas & Kerem Nisancioclu How the West Came to Rule, 2015, pp. 123
[viii] Jason W. Moore ”The Rise of Cheap Nature and the Origins of Capital” in Jason W. Moore (ed.) Anthropocene or Capitalocene. Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, pp.79
[ix] Jason W. Moore Capitalism in the Web of Life.Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, 2015, pp. 17 + 207
[x] Erik Gøbel Vestindisk-guineisk Kompagni 1671-1754, 2015, pp. 19
[xi] Alexander Anievas & Kerem Nisancioclu How the West Came to Rule, 2015, pp. 126
[xii] Pia Arke Stories from Scoresbysund. Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2010, pp.11
[xiii] Stefan Jonsson ”Pia Arke. Dummy. 1995-2003” in Pia Arke Selskabet & Kuratorisk Aktion, Tupilakusaurus. Pia Arke’s Issue with Art, Ethnicity, and Colonialism, 1981-2006, 2010, pp. 41
[xiv] Déborah Danowski & Eduardo Viveiros de Castro The Ends of the World, 2017, pp. 5