Almost 80 percent of the human body is water. We are practically a kind of jellyfish. At any rate, we have more in common with the jellyfish and every other more or less watery species and forms of matter on our blue planet than most of us tend to believe.
Among those who are cognisant of our watery links to the wider world we find the small Copenhagen publishing house and curatorial platform Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology. The five curators behind the laboratory see water as ‘transnational, trans-species and trans-corporeal’.
The laboratory has just published a Danish translation of Astrida Neimani’s text “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water” while also launching the exhibition project Hydra, which will unfold over the course of the spring at the edge of the water at Snekkersten north of Copenhagen. The group members themselves describe the project as an ‘exploration of watery worldings, trans-corporeal trauma and oceanic healing’.
Launched in 2014, Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology comprises Dea Antonsen, Ida Bencke, Elena Lundquist Ortíz, Andrea Fjordside Pontoppidan and Miriam Wistreich. They share a background in cultural studies and literature studies, which means that the laboratory acts as an interdisciplinary think tank focusing on post-humanist and ecological issues. They translate, publish and curate contemporary literature and contemporary art. Last year, they curated the exhibitions Et nytt vi (A New We) at Kunsthall Trondheim, about communities in the so-called Anthropocene era, and Multispecies Festivities at Roskilde Festival.
Among their range of publications – currently numbering around twenty, with more to come – we find texts by figures such as Donna Haraway, Juliana Spahr, Ursula K. Le Guin and Jane Bennett. Last year, the laboratory received the newly founded Schade Award, which is specifically awarded to projects that cut across the boundaries of art and literature.
Kunstkritikk met up with three members of the laboratory for a chat about hydrofeminism, about ‘staying with the trouble’ and about why ‘the Anthropocene’ is in a way an arrogant concept.
Keeping it short and sweet: what is hydrofeminism?
Elena Lundquist Ortíz: Hydrofeminism is about solidarity across watery selves, across bodies of water. Today, we see acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, dying coral reefs and polluted groundwater, to mention just a few examples. Hydrofeminism shows us that we are all involved in this through watery interactions and circulations. Water flows through bodies, species and materialities, connecting them for better or worse. Today, planetary thinking is feminist thinking.
Dea Antonsen: It’s not that abstract, really. You take a sip of water, and that water will flow through you and onwards out into the world. Understanding that interconnectedness gives rise to a new kind of ethical obligation. Suddenly, something very distant and remote feels up close and intimate. Just imagine: you share the water you drink with someone on the other side of the world. This introduces a whole new way of seeing and understanding your own interconnected body. Water is transnational, trans-species and trans-corporeal.
Is Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology a feminist project?
Dea Antonsen: An eco-feminist project, yes. And increasingly so as we have ventured deeper and deeper into the realms of post-human and multispecies thinking.
This May, you will publish a Danish edition of Donna Haraway’s Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice. This is a text that has provoked a number of feminists because it calls for humankind to stop having children. What is your position on Haraway’s ideas?
Ida Bencke: I have children myself. So it’s important to point out that our choice to publish Haraway’s text, as problematic as it is, does not mean that there is a perfect match between the Laboratory and Haraway’s statement “make kin not kind”. But we do recognise that it’s crucial to negotiate matters of reproduction and the structuring of families in “the Anthropocene”, because of the climate crisis and because there are too many of us on this planet. It should be said that we’re not very fond of using the term “the Anthropocene”, even though it can be handy at times. Speaking about reproduction from an ecological point of view is difficult, not least because our position is that of white, privileged feminists, and this is very much an issue of racial, social and financial inequalities. Haraway is criticised for not paying enough attention to the various situated material-political matters of reproduction, and I look forward to seeing her response to that criticism.
Dea Antonsen: We enter into this conversation fully aware of how problematic it is – after all, so many of the issues and relationships we address are. That is why we have adopted Haraway’s expression ‘staying with the trouble’. It has become a kind of mantra for our work overall.
You say that you don’t like to use the concept of ‘the Anthropocene’?
Dea Antonsen: It’s an arrogant concept; it tars all of humanity with the same brush, claiming that humanity is the cause of climate change. Many, including plenty of feminists in this field, have criticised this, because it is not all of humanity, but white culture that has exploited the resources of the planet and other bodies.
Ida Bencke: It is an operational term that can be used if you need to briefly outline the basis of a conversation. But however handy that kind of term can be, it can just as easily end up bringing the conversation to a halt in a place where it actually ought to go on.
Is there some other concept you prefer to use instead?
Ida Bencke: Not really; we’d probably rather talk about ecological issues and post-humanist questions, and then we try to wean ourselves off from thinking in terms of binary universals. After all, we have been trained to think in terms of human and animal, women and men.
Dea Antonsen: This is where the translation aspect of our practice enters the picture: it requires us to pay attention to how we conceptualise “the Other” and ourselves. For example, humans and animals are often described as the binary oppositions “the human” and “the non-human”. We try to say “the-more-than-human” in Danish instead, and you might argue that this is binary too, but it doesn’t negate that which is not perceived as human.
So is your work on translating texts into Danish actually a kind of linguistic activism?
Dea Antonsen: You could certainly say that our work with translating important, innovative texts and introducing their concepts in Danish is politically motivated. Many of the texts we work with are constantly inventing new phrases and ways of putting things that we insist should also become part of the Danish language. You need to open up your language to accommodate new conversations.
Ida Bencke: I am not very comfortable with the term ‘activism’. I am wary of running the risk of appropriating practices that are indeed much more risky than ours. There are activists out there who are risking life and limb. We don’t; even if we do something curatorial that feels a little transgressive.
Dea Antonsen: It’s certainly a different kind of activism. You might say that we are trying to promote vulnerability in a world where there’s very little room for vulnerability.
Elena Lundquist Ortíz: Yes, or that we introduce the introvert as an alternative method or position that has been underrated compared to the extrovert and to this whole thing about being ever so efficient and productive.
I imagine that you think very carefully about creating exhibitions and publications in a sustainable manner?
Dea Antonsen: Oh, definitely. We began by making tiny pamphlets that we would cut out and bind by hand. There was a deliberate slowness to this, a special care for each little publication. And in terms of ecological concerns, we also didn’t want to have piles of books that no-one’s buying mouldering away in a basement somewhere.
Ida Bencke: In terms of exhibition work, we are interested in staying with projects for longer time spans, allowing them to evolve, reassessing the questions under scrutiny and including all those thorny, self-contradictory issues that might turn up. So-called “slow curating”. Simply rushing off an exhibition and then dashing on to new projects isn’t very satisfactory, nor does it seem like a very sustainable working ethos for our field. Our most recent collaborative project, M/otherhood, is intended to be the kind of long-term project we’d like to see. It will be carried out in co-operation with the American curator collective The Multispecies Salon and will launch in Australia, in Melbourne, this September and then tour USA, Europe and beyond. Along the way we will address questions about how we might expand our family structures to better accommodate multispecies living and caring for hybrid creatures in future worlds. In fact, The Multispecies Salon is something of a guiding light for our laboratory’s work.
What other artists or curatorial projects inspire you?
Ida Bencke: Lots. The American artist Karin Bolender, for example, who works with donkeys and genuinely tries to enter into democratic, inter-species collaboration with more-than-human others. One of the huge driving forces behind our work is a more or less constant infatuation, a feeling of being in love with tiny practices working away on the margins of the established.
Dea Antonsen: We have also just entered a long-term collaboration with the performance collective Dance for plants, which is partly based in Copenhagen and where the participants, yes, you guessed it, dance for plants in the homes of private individuals, creating a space where intimate and meaningful relationships between people and their house plants are taken seriously.
Ida Bencke: If we were to point to a major event, we found The Anthropocene Project at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, culminating in 2009, to be a watershed moment for us. Even though that undertaking has been described as a failure, there’s no escaping the fact that it was an ambitious, interdisciplinary project that really made a difference in terms of prompting international conversations about the post-human – perhaps precisely because of the difficulties it encountered along the way.
If you were to urge the art scene to be more ecologically aware, what would you encourage people to do?
Ida Bencke: To rethink their concepts of collectivity. Reach out to other professions and disciplines. Expand the various fields, and don’t be scared of what Haraway calls ‘blasphemous’ connections between different fields of knowledge. Bizarre communities are a good place to go – for eco-political reasons, too.