HEATHER DAVIS with Brittni Winkler and Danielle Damas
Davis is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, where she is working on a project that traces the ethology of plastic as the substrate of advanced capitalism. This summer, Davis led a course titled Queer Ecologies: Life and Art in a Generalized State of War and delivered the talk Toxic Progeny: the Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures at Cannonball Miami. She spoke with Brittni Winkler and Danielle Damas about Art in the Anthropocene, her thoughts on proactive steps to approach the environment, and what she envisions to be the future state of the Earth.
BRITTNI WINKLER (MIAMI RAIL): One of the issues with facing the realities of climate change is that people are afraid to confront it. How do you think individual agency can be encouraged, in place of this polarizing guilt?
HEATHER DAVIS: I think recentering these issues in the hands of the people who are causing the problems—and that would be industries, corporations, governments, and the one percent—to impact policy change is a first step. It’s not actually the average person who is causing the kinds of impacts that we’re seeing.
In terms of what to do, collective organizing around any kind of issue really helps to give people agency. It helps them realize that it’s not about the individual, but about the preset systems that we’re born into, and so our efforts should not be about our personal consumer habits, but about movement-building in order to change things at a much wider level. For example, for the problem of plastic waste, we need to make companies accountable. I certainly don’t go home and make plastic bottles and forks. Companies that benefit from the proliferation of plastic need to be responsible for the entire life cycle of materials. I also believe that education, journalism, and art practices are excellent ways to raise awareness and to be able to engage with these kinds of issues without becoming overwhelmingly depressed.
DANIELLE DAMAS (MIAMI RAIL): How do you think art and literature fit into the Anthropocene?
DAVIS: I think artistic practices can expand our sense of empathy and awareness in nuanced ways that operate beyond the level of information or rationality. People can utilize storytelling and artworks to engage with subjects in a way that’s not moralizing. In a story or in an artwork, you can show the complexity of something and can hold contradictory things together at the same time. For example, we are not just subject to systems, we are also creatures who have psychic lives, and in order to address that aspect of being a person in the face of ecological devastation, we need to be able to cultivate all types of different responses. Leaving out the psychic components is a mistake.
RAIL: Who do you think are inspirational, leading environmental artists? And do you find them influential in your more scientific practices?
DAVIS: There are so many! Helen and Newton Harrison, Mel Chin, Ant Farm—these are people who have been doing this kind of work for a very long time and have made incredible contributions to our understandings of what it is we can do with art as a proposition. Mel Chin’s work Revival Field (1991–present), for example, proved that bio-remediation with plants was possible through his studies with a scientist and their creation of a sculpture together. Bio-remediation went on to become a real field in biological systems, rehabilitating landscapes that had been extremely toxic mainly because of petro-chemicals and heavy metals.
Today, there are so many fabulous people working in this area, and I think it’s growing. To name just a few, I love the work of Mary Mattingly, the Crochet Coral Reef Project, Amy Balkin, Terike Haapoja, Tejal Shah, Raqs Media Collective, Pinar Yoldas, Ho Tzu Nyen, A. Laurie Palmer, Marina Zurkow, and Oliver Kellhammer.
RAIL: Since we know the main reason for the invention of plastic was pure economic gain, what are some ways that we can respond to the present state of the environment with mindfulness and creativity?
DAVIS: One of the things imperative in a response is to come up with futures that are desirable while not ignoring what is actually happening. A lot of things are going to be damaged, but perhaps out of that damage we can create something far more interesting in terms of a way of life, a culture, a creative output, what it means to be a human, and how we interact with the creatures around us.
If we really want to see drastic change in the world, we need to make these future imaginaries more tangible to people because people are really scared of losing what they have and being left with nothing. But although they might lose their current way of life, maybe what they’ll gain is a lot more interesting and more valuable in the long run. Proposing imaginative work that does not seem scary is incredibly important to being able to mobilize people. We are usually governed by politics of fear and loss due to economic gain, and having one’s identity purely tied to relations of capital. Insisting that there is a life, a good life, after capitalism is essential.
RAIL: I wanted to ask you about the aesthetics of the LA Ivanhoe Reservoir “shade balls.” Over 80 million hollow black polyethylene orbs, similar to beach balls, were needed to cover the reservoirs to stop sunlight from triggering a potentially dangerous chemical reaction between bromide, which occurs naturally in groundwater, and the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water. What could have been better—visually or conceptually— than what was done there?
DAVIS: It’s funny that you ask that because it’s one site that reveals a whole history of assumptions and decisions. We could go back one hundred years and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t dam the Colorado River and maybe we should let it be a flood plane. Maybe we shouldn’t divert all this water to Los Angeles. Maybe we should try to live within the ecological scale that is already part of that particular environment. Maybe our relationships to the use of water wouldn’t be so precarious if we didn’t have a notion of unending supply.” I think that moment in the Ivanhoe Reservoir’s history showed that life in the Anthropocene, in a diminished and damaged world, is one in which our primary relationship is an aesthetic one. The danger of the shade ball situation is that it becomes so beautiful and anesthetizing that this way of governing the world in terms of a visual imaginary becomes normalized.
RAIL: This brings us close to some of Donna Haraway’s texts in the book—the comparison of string figures and linear writings. We should be constantly aware and reminded that there are things we can’t undo. People feel obligated to follow rules that fix one problem but ruin other things on a holistic scale.
DAVIS: A couple of people made particular decisions at a particular moment in time and other people refused to question that. These infrastructures get put in place and it becomes difficult to remove them, for good and bad reasons. For instance, if you build infrastructure where it is difficult or unsafe to bike, then everyone is going to buy a car and drive, and it becomes difficult to then build infrastructure for bikes in a city built around cars. This is because of the investment in a previous infrastructure that is no longer working. The work that we need to do is a reimagining of how we want to live in this world, and how to rebuild.
RAIL: In your talks and texts on plastics, you make the connection between queer theory and plastics, with humanity moving in a more queer direction.
DAVIS: Queer ecologies specifically speak to how the disconnection between sex and gender is becoming increasingly apparent because of the kinds of petrochemicals that have saturated our environments. This is being imposed on any creature that reproduces sexually, which also includes the proliferation of intersex creatures, and feminization of male fetuses. I don’t want to say that this is not a problem, but I would like to consider the fact that many animal species have members that are gay at least in some measure.
Petrochemicals do pose threats to the continuation of the species and reproductive futurity, and queerness does not. But let’s consider that maybe there is something interesting in those moments. If we look at the lives of queer people, we can identify with how they have been living and how the refusal of participation in a particular way of life is actually potentially the most valuable thing that we can bring forward into environmental and ecological worlds. Queer people have made families outside the normative parameters for generations, and perhaps this is a good model for rethinking questions of kin and attachment. Developing affectiveties to other-than-humans, and familial relations beyond biology seems increasingly important in our world.
RAIL: You’ve said something that I found very interesting in reference to plastics along the lines of “some kind of life will definitely continue.” What do you think these forms of life look like? Is it fungal? Microbial? Do they evolve?
DAVIS: The microbiologist of oceans Jeremy Jackson writes about what might happen in light of all the algae blooms and eutrophication of the oceans, and he predicts a bleak future, one that looks a lot like the Precambrian era. In previous geologic times, when there were high concentrations of carbon dioxide, there was also a lot of cloud coverage, and because of that coverage, mushrooms were able to grow ten to twenty feet in the air. So, maybe we will have mushrooms the size of buildings, and all kinds of strange bacteria and microbes.
We are living through the sixth extinction, caused by anthropogenic pressures and occurring at a faster rate than any other extinction in geologic history. So while finding strange, unpredictable life forms and other beings fascinating, we should also be held accountable for what we are killing off.
RAIL: In your writings you mention nihilistic lust, and we see this in apocalyptic movies and the fascination with surviving an apocalypse. Despite present decay and destruction, why do you think this lust is outweighing the truth that we already know?
DAVIS: Again, it’s not the individual who is driving this. It’s more systematic: we continue to do these things in part because those are the infrastructures set in place. If we want to think about how to have futures that are less devastating, we need to think of how to facilitate that in terms of human behavior, but there are far deeper ways in which this happens than the facile consumer choices that we are presented with. We need to reimagine and re-create our political, social, and economic relations.
RAIL: What is your imaginary future?
DAVIS: I imagine a future that has moved beyond the ravishes of capitalism, one where collective organizing lies at the heart of our political and social systems, where we are intrinsically bound to each other and made responsible for each other. We cannot survive in a world where so few are taking everything from everyone else. I also think that we who are privileged and cloistered need to learn to be okay with death. I think we need to learn to understand that we are organisms that cycle through the world and are made of the Earth. Part of what has created all these problems is that we barricade ourselves against suffering and death. And those things are terrible, so I understand this barricading, but in doing so we have forgotten our relationship to the other people and creatures who inhabit this Earth, to our ancestors and to the future inhabitants of the Earth. I think we need to remember the species and elements that we are indebted to and will become.
Danielle Damas is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and a leadership advisory board member at the Frost Art Museum.
Brittni Winkler is an MFA candidate in curatorial practice at Florida International University and is the coordinator and curator of the FIU Art + Art History Project Room at the Bakehouse Art Complex.