The world is changing.
Nothing new, one could say, it has always been changing, and we – hominids – together with it. This time, however, the two-legged species we represent may not be able to adapt to the ever-increasing temperatures (by 1.5 °C by 2022), the drying sources of potable water, acidified oceans and the melting glaciers. According to the 2016 World Wide Fund for Nature report, only 1/3 of all wildlife species will survive on Earth by 2020; a little later, the heated and dried Baltic See will turn into a lake; the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Cook Islands and Solomon Islands will disappear under the surface of acid slosh. They will be replaced by agglomerations of plastic rubbish, which, creeping from coast to coast, will spit out crumpled and empty bio-yoghurt cups – the destructs of our civilization. This is not an eco-fiction scenario. These landscapes are the work of extensive exploitation of the Earth by man affected by capitalist mania. These are the consequences of our industrial past and the image of the technological present; the future is not visible on the horizon.
What can an artist do in the context of the world’s deepest geological layers changing (from the Holocene to the Anthropocene)?
…or maybe it would be more appropriate to ask: how is art faring in this situation?
From the perspective of a global catastrophe, these questions seem to be of little importance, although they concern the possibility of action and the influence of the humans on the fate of the planet.
Thinking about the efficiency of art, I would like to take a look at the proposals of the artistic duo: Tatiana Czekalska and Leszek Golec.
Partners in private life, they have been working in tandem since 1996. Their attitude and their artistic and activist involvement intertwine in a highly coherent way. The artists are vegetarians who oppose all forms of killing living beings, even the smallest ones such as mosquitoes and flies. For their well-being they create special golden and glass avatars, which they use to move the winged bloodthirsty brothers from the surface of the bitten skin to safer places. The couple have long been creating art for an audience other than the “traditionally” human one. I write that in inverted commas to point out that I am referring to a specific cultural tradition, related to the western narrative, which favours man, seeing in him (the use of this particular pronoun is not accidental) the crown of creation. This born creator makes the world in his own image and likeness without noticing that there are other, parallel forms of expression, not only those identical to him.
Playing with the above anthropocentric paradigm, Czekalska and Golec present the project “Bible. Homo Anobium”. The holy book, as we know, is not particularly known for its species-inclusiveness, but it justifies institutionalized violence of homo sapiens representatives against animals and nature, nowadays called speciesism. The main protagonist of the biblical project is one of the curators’ favourite creative species – spruce bark beetle (Anobium typographus).
Earlier, another bark beetle from the same talented family was the author of the sculpture “Homo Anobium St. Francis – 100% sculpture, 1650–1985”, which Jarosław Lubiak described in “Not Only Human Work” as follows: The mandibles of the bark beetle larvae have continued their work for centuries, exploring the endless corridors of their feeding grounds, which have become the home for many generations of small, living, sentient beings. The last bark beetle (anobium) left the saint’s wooden head having thoroughly curved it all the way through. Both man and bark beetle destroy equally in their own creation process1.
As in the case of St. Francis, in the German Bible curved through by bark beetle, Czekalska and Golec put themselves in the position of curators of the project – the beetle is the artist. Therefore, they give it a field, but they do not create a “situation”, as befits curators of relational art, since it has chosen its habitat for itself. The duo are rather curators-collectors of peculiarities, who bring ready-made art in the form of a hollow book from their journeys through the outskirts of the sacrum to the temple of art. It is worth mentioning that for the beetle, holiness tastes of a composition of calfskin and cotton paper with the addition of sweet bookbinding glue. The symbol, in this case, the Word of God, becomes matter.
In “The Companion Species Manifesto”, Donna Haraway notes that only by giving up an imaginary symbolic advantage can we communicate with others. After Charis (Cussins) Thompson, she calls this possible understanding between species, human and inhuman beings, an ontological choreography: No, this is ontological choreography, which is that vital sort of play that the participants invent out of the histories of body and mind they inherit and that they rework into the flashy verbs that make them who they are. They invented this game; this game remodels them. Metaplasm, once again. It always comes back to the biological flavour of the important words. The word is made flesh in mortal naturcultures2.
Ontological choreography would therefore be a transgression of representation, i.e. the naming and presentation of animals by humans. It would disturb the hierarchy, i.e. anthropocentric chauvinism. This dance, in which steps and gestures have yet to be improvised, draws on the abominable, violent memory of our relationships, but it also performs the possible present undetermined by symbolic limitations. The word is made flesh in mortal naturcultures, that is, it exists here and now in our present day; the cultural past is a living matter in which the bark beetle can carve out its universe, as in the head of St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology.
Returning to the question posed at the beginning of the text, what role does the human curators play here? Czekalska and Golec suggest that they should not only step down, but also prepare space for the expression of animals: our inhuman others – those not covered by the horizons of patriarchal subjectivity, who, like once women, black people and other minorities, have been and still are silenced, objectified, enslaved and exterminated. The gallery becomes a tool for this purpose, it takes the form of an IHS implant, i.e. an insect-friendly room – or, as in the case of “Sensitive” installation, a place of catnip-infused ecstasy for cats; it is therefore a heterotopia, an area taken out of the everyday logic of social spaces; a temporary utopia, a cool shelter from the ever more urgent problems of the world. It is good to enter it, to tune the receptors of sensitivity, but it is impossible not to notice that the inter-genre dance takes place elsewhere – in the furnace, where another bucket of coal is added, while the lakes of Wielkopolska are drying up. Golec and Czekalska are well aware of this, which is why they treat their exhibitions as vehicles of virtual present, which help to think about how to function in the world so as to cause as little harm as possible.
This text was first published in the catalog accompanying the exhibition of Tatiana Czekalska and Leszek Golec: LIVE at the Signum Foundation Gallery, Lodz
*The title is a reference to Jacques Derrida’s essay “L’Animal que donc je suis”, Paris (éditions Galilée) 2006 and to the famous Cartesian statement: Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)
1 Jarosław Lubiak, ” Dzieło nie tylko ludzkie “, in: EXIT No. l (65)2006
2 Haraway, Donna: The Companion Species Manifesto. Dogs People and Significant Otherness, p. 100, Chicago 2003