I am writing this text in a world overrun by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). I am writing it for the RTV Magazine published by the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznan, which – similarly to other cultural institutions in Poland – has been closed for the nearest future.
I have been wondering for a long time whether to start my text in this way. In the process of institutional education and disciplining to the modern art (History of Art at the Jagiellonian University, working at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź) I was taught that when writing about art and culture, you should avoid describing your personal experiences and referring to the current events. The aim was to search for universal tropes, not to focus on peripheral unimportant matters. After all, we were living in a world in which there were no catastrophes that could drastically change our way of thinking, at least that’s what we were told.
Today we already know that the world after the coronavirus will be different. Possibly every area of life will be affected. Why am I writing about it? For a few years, in life and in art, I have been interested in the subject of climate crisis. I was inspired by Łódź, a city I lived in ten years ago, when it was still recovering after the transformation of the 1990s. The city centre was neglected, many buildings were falling apart, my friends from different cities were asking if it was really so dangerous and poor there. Personally I did not see Łódź in this way, or maybe not only in this way; I appreciated the breadth of the free and often green spaces, fascinating backyards and wild meadows in the city centre. This is also when I started reading about ecology. At first, I picked studies on the urban ecologies and found many interesting examples – mostly from the American context. I found inspiration for curatorial activities in the architecture, design, organising the urban green areas, which recognised their implications in the natural and social issues at the same time. I stumbled upon philosophical essays and political analyses. I took “The Three Ecologies” by Felix Guattari and a leftist – to a large extent – concept of political ecology. They both became the foundations of a public programme “Urban ecologies” (http://ekologiemiejskie.pl/) that I led together with Katarzyna Słoboda for the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. The readings and conversations with people taught us ecology in practice.
OK, I thought back then; I have been going over the ecological issues for some time now, I wondered how including nature in the cultural institutions’ interests can cause a long-term change in practising art. What is the aim? Why do I need this? After all, I don’t want to turn an art museum into a natural history museum, and artists into scientists. The stakes are much higher. This was when Then Katarzyna and I came across Felix Guattari’s “three ecologies”, which allowed us to name what our intuition was hinting at. You cannot think about an environment in separation from what is mental and social. It is only when these different areas are intertwined that a knowledge about what it means to be human in the world is created. This being is always a process of becoming, an endless process of adaptation to the environment, while at the same time changing it.
By creating “Urban ecologies”, we wished to understand Łódź, and create a counter-narrative to the liberal one that spoke of a “creative class” which would come to the city and turn it into a second New York. We were aware of the consequences of wishful thinking that refuses to acknowledge the formation of the “islands of poverty” and generational unemployment. There was one piece we felt was missing in this puzzle. We were searching for the inspiration for the possible paths of development of Łódź, a scenario of the future different from the realisation of the Polish dream of glass office buildings, nice cafes, and green lawns, but with no industry or poor people in the visible places.
I remember reading an excerpt of “The Three Ecologies” about Donald Trump. It seemed quite abstract to me. Who is this guy? Why did Guttari focus on him so much? “Donald Trump and other characters similar to him – another form of seaweed – are allowed to reproduce uncontrollably” – the philosopher wrote. “In the name of renovations, Trump is taking over the whole districts of New York City, or Atlantic City, raising rents and displacing tens of thousands of poor families. Those condemned to homelessness by Trump are the social equivalent of the dead fish in the environmental ecology”. Gentrification, economic inequalities, lack of protection for the socially sensitive groups are the equivalent of the invasive species that displace other species and take away access to resources from them. In this perspective Łódź was just one element of a complex system, and one not very efficient at realising the capitalist development scenario.
It is 2020, a new non-human actor makes its entrance; an actor which took care of its own reproduction inside the human body while appearing at the fish market in Wuhan city in China. Now I know who Donald Trump is. He is the president of the American empire, fighting to be re-elected for the second term. Is he going to be able to win? No one knows. The candidates’ race is interrupted by coronavirus. A still frame. Everything concerning coronavirus is happening very fast. At the end of 2019 is was detected in China and on March 11th the World Health Organisation announced a pandemic of COVID-19. Living in Poland, extremely unprepared for the situation, I am in the middle of it all. I think about climate crisis and the fact that the subject has at the moment faded because of the virus. My imagination is stimulated by the slogan “a slow violence”. It was suggested by Rob Nixon, an American environmental historian, to describe environmental disasters that are stretched in time, not very spectacular, hard to define, visualise, interpret, or diagnose. Let’s assume a following situation: a chemical plant is opened, people are employed. After some time, someone notices that the air smells differently, or even stinks. Maybe it’s a leak from the plant? Somebody starts to feel bad and goes to the doctor, not understanding why. More and more people start to show symptoms of illness, but no one associates them with the air and leaks. This situation lasts for years. Much later it turns out the inhabitants’ diseases can be linked to the functioning of the chemical plant. Another example is torturing and murdering of the indigenous people. Land usurpation, displacement of people, terrorising, kidnapping children and making them fight in guerrilla wars. Despite the grassroots resistance to corporations and a state supporting the imperial policy, vide Colombia, Brazil, etc., the slow violence continues. We do not experience it on the other side of the globe. We do not know these people. It seems to us they live completely differently from us. It is so far – we think.
In 2019, “The Guardian” suggested we use the term “climate crisis” instead of “climate change” or “global warming”. According to the newspaper’s journalists and specialists from the Climate Outreach, the last two terms do not sufficiently raise awareness of the global emergency associated with these phenomena. As the inhabitants of the globalized world, we have to deal with crises almost on a daily basis (maybe this is why we forget about them so quickly?); financial crisis – 2008, migration crisis – 2015, these are only the most recent crises that affected many areas of life. In many regions of the world, and surely in Poland, we got used to thinking that these events are taking place somewhere else, and the only threat is that they can possibly backfire.
The challenges humans face now, brought by COVID-19, are testing the intervention operations in the context of the climate crisis. Extreme weather phenomena, rising temperature, dwindling resources, e.g. water, crossing more and more planetary lines, such as the loss of biodiversity, or exceeding the CO2 concentration that put the Earth’s system off balance. First of all, the virus spanned so-called developed countries that have not suffered considerably due to climate changes so far. Watching the situation from the Polish perspective, I see the fear of the privileged world that, until now, has been watching the global problems from a safe distance. COVID-19 requires quick and definite actions to stop the spread of the pandemic. In practice this means stopping the globalised movements of people, goods, and services. I can think of successive and not very successful negotiations during the consecutive climate summits, more and more depressing IPCC reports, and slogans shouted at the demonstrations organised by the climate movements. Groups of people were gaining awareness of the dynamic and consequences of climate crisis, but on the international level decisions were made too slowly, considering the urgency of the problem. COVID-19 is not waiting for the consensus, summits, negotiations. It demands a change in our lifestyles, reconsideration of the plans for the future and values we want to protect in the times of crisis. “The Three Ecologies” remain an important reference point. They do not concern only wars, economic crises, environmental disasters or gentrification, but now also a pandemic, paralysing developed countries and societies, mentally unprepared for such a change as well. It is their voice that is the loudest in the mainstream media. When the pandemic reaches the poor countries, where people have no possibility of isolating themselves from others, and, what is more, the healthcare systems are not functioning well, the consequences are likely to be tragic.
Yesterday I was listening to my favourite podcast “Being Well” run by a psychologist Rick Hanson and his son Forest. Usually they publish a new episode every Monday, but on the 9th of March 2020 it did not happen. Only a week later they published an up-to-date material about COVID-19 and the fear associated with the rapid change of the global situation. They said that one of the rules they try to follow in their programme is not to discuss current events, however, coronavirus is changing the context of our conversations, being together, and plans for the future so drastically that it is hard to make a podcast about emotions without including it. When a disaster, a revolution, a crisis, or a crash start to concern ourselves directly, universal narratives are no longer enough. We have to search for something closer.
Aleksandra Jach – curator, educator, art historian. For many years she worked in the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. Currently she cooperates with the Warsaw Biennale on a program devoted to the climate crisis. Her latest projects are: Carolina Caycedo and Zofia Rydet. Raport troki, Empathy Congress at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź (2019) or How to talk with birds, trees, fish, shells, snakes, lions and bulls? at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin (2018).