BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Reviews | 21 OCT 15
Featured in
Issue 175

Ursula Biemann & Paulo Tavares

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, the Netherlands

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Reviews | 21 OCT 15

Ursula Biemann & Paulo Tavares, Deep Weather, 2013, film still

The compact exhibition ‘Forest Law’, by artist Ursula Biemann and architect Paulo Tavares, is part of the expansive research project ‘Future Vocabularies/Human–Inhuman–Posthuman’, undertaken by BAK and philosopher Rosi Braidotti from the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University. Since 2008, under the leadership of Maria Hlavajova, BAK has fashioned a distinctive profile as an ambitious para-university of sorts, generating exhibitions, publications and conferences to speculate about the past, present and future. BAK’s projects keep social and political urgencies deliberately and consistently in the spotlight and ‘Forest Law’, with its focus on the social, political and legal implications of climate change, is no exception.

Biemann has described her own practice as having shifted from a concern with the geopolitical to the ‘cosmopolitical’. This maximal widening of focusto embrace planetary conditions has led her to conduct fieldwork and film all over the globe – from the tar sands of Alberta to the Amazon forests of Ecuador, from the Shetland Islands to Bangladesh – in order to advance an artistic perspective on the geological, hydrological and atmospheric stuff the Earth is made of. The opening of ‘Forest Law’ was timely, coinciding as it did with the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, press debates around the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership and the outcry over US President Barack Obama’s controversial authorization of Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic Ocean fossil fuel drilling programme. ‘Forest Law’ offers a disturbing and shameful portrayal of human-earth interaction, in an exhibition that presents and frames the artistic research and production in a barebones, documentary fashion.

Ursula Biemann & Paulo Tavares, Forest Law, 2014, film still

The installation on the ground floor comprises a synchronous dual-channel projection of Biemann and Tavares’s film Forest Law (2014), surrounded by accompanying documentation – publications, photographs, maps and wall texts, subtly reminiscent of the kind of didactic displays one might find in a science museum. A point of departure for the film is Michel Serres’s 1990 book Le Contrat naturel (The Natural Contract), in which the French philosopher proposes that humans should adhere to a contract with the Earth and its other inhabitants in restitution for and recognition of climate change. The film’s subject is the successful legal battle to grant fundamental rights to the ‘living forests’ of the Ecuadorian Amazon, whose ecosystems and natural resources have been colonized, exploited, poisoned and plundered. It’s a fascinating story, voiced by indigenous political leaders, spiritual guides and activists that fought to amend the country’s constitution. The narrative is bolstered and made more accessible by the cold, hard facts captured on camera and the data mapped in different graphs and charts.

The video essays Subatlantic (2015) and Deep Weather (2013) face off sequentially in a separate gallery, leading each other and the viewer through vast and contrasting territories of land, sea and sky. They focus on the imbricated liquid logics of oil and water in climate change, the relationship between drilling and mining, melting ice and rising sea levels. Subatlantic’s more science-fiction approach contrasts with the truthful insistence of Deep Weather, but both are guided by a female narrator whose soft voice attunes us to see nature as a sensuous and sentient realm. Listening is as important as looking. These days there’s perhaps no greater aesthetic cliché than the blurred lines between fact and fiction, and certainly no need to defend the now-firmly-established documentary aesthetics in contemporary art. ‘Forest Law’ proves, though, that this is all the more reason to celebrate those artists whose works actually have an aesthetic impact.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.