The sculptures of Cosima von Bonin, Yngve Holen and Helen Marten, although distinct, resemble each other in their composite nature. Like salad ingredients, the unlikely components of these sculptures are commingled – together yet autonomous. Into one work (Exfoliating Curve Lines (total cushioning), 2014), Marten has combined a twig, a café-style sugar dispenser, a patch of fur, a rubbish bin, potatoes, a measuring tape and a transparent Ziploc bag; into one of his, Holen has brought together a bike lock, a clear-acrylic rod with credit-card details and a single ASICS running shoe (Mothers maiden name?, 4483414654441024, 2013); while Von Bonin has gathered together stuffed toys, skateboards, clam shells, fabric-covered poles, stage lights and the kind of fence one might find on a construction site (The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing #03 (CVB's Fatigue Raft & mvo’s White Rabbit Song), 2010). Like an anthology of poems, these sculptures are held together respectively by the force of their components’ associative meaning. The inexplicable demands interpretation, and the process of imbuing significance to curious adjacencies is nothing if not habit for anyone who has plumbed the click-hole depths of the internet, link after link, until the thought that triggered the search recedes, irretrievably.
In media theorist John Durham Peters’s book The Marvelous Clouds (2015), ideas are often similarly delineated by a stream of seemingly unrelated examples. For instance, ‘media composed of both natural and artificial elements’ include: ‘WikiLeaks, corn syrup, whale oil, squids, Facebook, jet lag, weather forecasts and bipedal posture’. Just as whale and dolphin research was a spin-off from postwar technology so, too, were ‘tape recorders, aluminium foil, LSD, rock’n’roll, reggae and radio astronomy’. Peters’s book embellishes a method for imagining our world’s interconnectivity by revealing the fluidity between what we call art, or artifice, and what we deem natural.
Peters is a proponent of German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s networked model of thought, expanding the association between human culture and data processing to include potentially everything. In The Marvelous Clouds, media is taken simply to be a subject-specific organization of information. The ocean is a media environment for dolphins while, for us, the same ocean becomes a medium only through the craft of shipbuilding. Media is also defined by the present moment – that we see dolphin echolocation as a biological version of sonar metaphorically ‘rewrites 15 million years of dolphin natural history in terms of 100 years of human technics’. Through human eyes, everything is unified by media: everything has its own media to operate in and through. Fire has carbon, time has the clock and digital information has Google. There is a tinge of ecological thinking in Peters’s bid to freely connect the world of artifice with nature, particularly when disparate items are equalized in lists. ‘Like music, hair care, language, food taboos, gender roles and fear of snakes,’ we’re told, ‘possession of fire is a human universal.’
Something about evoking universals in the sphere of meaning and meaning-making doesn’t sit right, particularly for those of us who chronicle the creation of art. In contrast to Peters, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015), sees universals as ideals rather than lived conditions. Like him, she is interested in global connections, but she accounts for their friction, or ‘grip of worldly encounter’, and argues that the two things some might still call universal – god and nature – are, in fact, historical. More granular than Peters in her observation of the specificity of media, Lowenhaupt Tsing tracks the particularities of global connections, reminding us that claims of universality do not actually make everything everywhere the same. For her, the contemporary world is woven from a criss-crossing of subjective narratives. Lowenhaupt Tsing’s world – like the sculptures of Von Bonin, Holen and Marten – is made of what she calls ‘polyphonic assemblages’: narrative lines that become entangled, perhaps beautifully so. As distinct as we might see ourselves from mushrooms, for example, we are in fact socially, culturally, economically and biologically entwined with and through them. Tracing the ways in which the matsutake mushroom’s experience interacts with ours, Lowenhaupt Tsing tells of how this species was prized first in Japan and now by foodies the world over, how they thrive on the decaying floors of clear-cut pine forests – the ruins of the industrialized world; and how they are picked in forests in Oregon by Hmong, Kmer, Lao and Mien refugees who make their livelihoods from selling them, and who camp under tarpaulin structures reminiscent of those they escaped in Thailand.
Echoing Bruno Latour, environmental philosopher Steven Vogel claims that nature is socially constructed in Thinking Like a Mall (2015) – nature is no longer the non-human part of the world, outside of our consciousness. Riffing off ecologist Aldo Leopold’s phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’, for Vogel, dividing the world into the ‘environment’ of the lived world and the ‘nature’ of the world outside human experience produces a dangerous conception. If nature is outside our realm, why should we care about it? Humans are not unnatural – we are of the natural world, and we are animals. The things we make, the buildings we build, the art we create, are as natural as ant hills and beaver dams. In this sense, the ‘anthropocene’, the coinage for the era of the Earth bearing the geological imprint of human activity, predictably reinforces an anthropocentric worldview, in which we dominate, control and manage our environment. The recognition of man’s place in the world, I fear, has turned into flattery. (What about the beaver-ocene? The topological effects of beaver dams on North American waterways were not inconsequential.) If we could compare whales to aluminium foil, intuit the continuum on which matsutake mushrooms and humans travel together, and think like a mountain or a shopping mall, we would be including ourselves in a living networked whole – a world where balance is maintained not by our controlling management, but through our measured contribution. To be sure, pollution does not harm nature in toto. It harms us. As we warm the world’s oceans and flood our cities, jellyfish populations bloom and thrive. The Alcanivorax borkumensis bacteria, which eagerly break down hydrocarbons, prosper from our oil spills. As we debilitate so many species of this world, including ourselves, others will advance in place. Our stake is in nature in so far as we recognize ourselves as natural.
If Von Bonin, Holen and Marten proposed not sculptures but models, they might be modelling affinities. If universals are no more than historically received ideas, to see the world as the interplay of affinities is to give each viewer the responsibility to imagine anew how one thing makes sense next to another. It’s a way to atomize foregone conclusions, and to suspend the possibility of a singular narrative. Pace the late Benedict Anderson, it’s a call to reimagine ourselves not as part of an elected community, but as part of an ecology whose diverse and seemingly unrelated constituents, united yet autonomous, can only make sense together.