Ghost Nature exposes the limits of human perspective in the emergent landscape that remains: a slippery network of sometimes monstrous creatures, plants, and technological advances
Ghost Nature, Ed. by Caroline Picard, Green Lantern Press, 2014.
Mice grow human ears on their backs in laboratories and rabbits glow in the dark. In this new age of ecological awareness, "Nature" as a Romantic ideal—a pristine mountainside beyond the scope of human influence—is but a dithering spirit. Rather than succumbing to the pang of this loss, GHOST NATURE exposes the limits of human perspective in the emergent landscape that remains: a slippery network of sometimes monstrous creatures, plants, and technological advances.
Artists involved: Sebastian Alvarez, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin), Jeremy Bolen, Irina Botea, Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Robert Burnier, Marcus Coates, Assaf Evron, Carrie Gundersdorf, Institute of Critical Zoologists, Jenny Kendler, Devin King, Stephen Lapthisophon, Milan Metthey, Rebecca Mir, Heidi Norton, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Tessa Siddle, and Xaviera Simmons.
Translations from the French by: Jean-François Caro, Jeanne Trombetta and Sophian Bourire. Introduction by Érik Bullot. Written contributions from Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, Laurie Palmer, Caroline Picard, Joao Florencio, Nettrice Gaskins and Jamila Woods. Featuring artists Sebastian Alvarez, Art Orienté objet, Jeremy Bolen, Irina Botea, Robert Burnier, Marcus Coates, Every house has a door, Assaf Evron, Carrie Gundersdorf, Institute of Critical Zoologists, Jenny Kendler, Devin King, Stephen Lapthisophon, Milan Metthey, Rebecca Mir, Heidi Norton, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Tessa Siddle, and Xaviera Simmons.
Engaged in the good and rare work of hybrid discourse, it follows that Green Lantern Press’s more-than-books begin with questions unanswerable via a single discipline alone. Just as their Logan Square headquarters in Chicago (otherwise known as Sector 2337) operates as a bookstore, gallery, and performance space with an incidental liquor license, hosting events that defy simple explanation (Chicagoans should check out the forthcoming “Everything is Still Really Interesting” exhibit in February-April 2015, which begins with the question, “how does one respond to disappointment?), Green Lantern books are equally experimental-critical, facilitating the growth and development of not just single authors, but communities of artists.
In that spirit, 2014’s Ghost Nature is a curatorial site, a transcendent access point bridging Literary Nonfiction, Art, Philosophy, Critical Theory, and Ecology. The founder of Green Lantern, Caroline Picard, curates a polysemic experience in this singular text, which includes French translations of every essay and poem.
Picard’s catalyst for Ghost Nature and the accompanying exhibitions is philosopher Timothy Morton’s claim in The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) that: “‘Nature qua nature’ no longer exists as an ‘over there’ place.”
In other words, we no longer live—if we ever did live—in a Rousseauian world wherein natural order serves as the ultimate guide, the compass whereby we mere humans should measure our urges. No, as Rousseau wove through the lush lilacs of the French countryside, the words climate change had not yet entered the collective consciousness. The ozone had not yet begun refracting; the Northwest Passage was still open in the Arctic; the seas had not yet dramatically risen; there were still plenty of bees. In the eighteenth century, rabbits did not glow in the dark; mice did not sprout ears on their backs.
Instead, as Morton himself writes in the third essay of Ghost Nature, “Transmission from the Uncanny Valley”:
The uncanny valley is precisely not a void. One of the things under pressure in the modern period is precisely the empty container, the void, in which things sit. Such empty spaces fill us with dread (Pascal), they are the objective correlative of Cartesian reason, and are inferred by Newtonian laws. This kind of void is objectively present. If I could just put it in its most paradoxical form, this kind of void lacks nothingness. It is not void enough, in a sense.For those who see nature as a friend, let alone a guide, Ghost Nature offers such a triumphant dismissal. No, the fact of climate change is evidence enough: we were fools to perceive the natural world as a shepherd. We were fantasy-makers, idealizers, privileged mythmakers slapping a happy ending on the circuitous “circuitry” of chaos.
The irony, of course, is that we humans have—seemingly—done this to ourselves, plunged our knives into the entrails of that which birthed us, and twisted. And kept twisting. Through the generations. At last we have reached this desperate point. So we recycle, unplug, ditch plastic, buy bicycles—less aggression, more adaptation, say the “wisest” amongst us. Yet we grasp blindly. At the end of the day, who really knows whether these efforts will get us anywhere? As they might slow down the rapidity of nature’s deterioration, the die was cast long before we were born. Though we attempt to cancel the climatic change cycle by apprehending it physically, we must ask whether there is another, better way to go about saving ourselves.
Yet “saving” is in and of itself a constructed notion, a “we’ve reached a conclusion and know which steps to take” cerebral fancy. Simply put, recycling has no relationship to Morton’s “uncanny valley.” Recycling attempts to stuff an actual void, whereby the damage inflicted by climate change is far denser than that—existing beyond the realm of what Morton believes we humans comprehend as physical: “Not only are we waking up inside of a gigantic object, like finding ourselves in the womb again, but a toxic womb—but we are responsible for it. And we know that really we are responsible simply because we can understand what global warming is.”
And yet, as Morton concludes, for the thinking person, that is not enough. Of course, rather than destruction, Morton aims for transcendence, creation:
Global warming desperately needs an art that tunes to its massively distributed causal effects, that acknowledges that we are inside it. [We need] Art that keeps us in the uncanny valley. Art that makes us see that this valley has no exit—that actually it’s an emergency room full of horror, surprise, compassion, and weirdness. That’s what we need.The Ghost Nature exhibitions fit this need. At the time of the book’s publication, Ghost Nature: Beyond and Between Transhuman Spaces (January 17-March 1, 2014), opened at the University of Illinois, Chicago’s Gallery 400. Subsequently, Ghost Nature was awarded a 2014 Curatorial Residency at La Box, ENSA, in Bourges, France, an old medieval city in the Loire Valley. The result was Ghost Nature: Projections animalières, at La Box Gallery – École National Supérieure d’Art (January 16, 2014), which specifically incorporated the animal into its pieces. Following that, another variation, Ghost Nature: Le Fantôme de la nature (March 26, 2014), addressed works whose material bodies we typically consider unconscious—plants, potatoes, dirt, the ocean, etc. An affiliated symposium, Following Nonhuman Kinds, occurred in Bourges in April.
As Picard writes in her curatorial memo, preceding 31 pages of photographs documenting these American and French installments: “Our preoccupation with the nonhuman world is overwhelmingly anthropocentric.” The idea that human living narratives should be privileged over non-living ones is entirely constructed. Our “story of progress” is precisely that: a story. Morton writes: “Art in these conditions is grief work. We are losing a fantasy—the fantasy of being immersed in neutral or benevolent Mother Nature—and a person who is losing a fantasy is a very dangerous person.”
The most “dangerous” contribution to the Ghost Nature exhibitions was Art Orienté objet collaborator Marion Leval-Jeantet’s performance Que le cheval vive en moi!, which involved building up tolerance to horse blood by injecting a small bit of the animal’s plasma into her system over the course of one year. She subsequently staged a horse blood transfusion performance with her partner, Benoît Mangin. Here is the result:
Of the experience, Leval-Jeantet writes: “I could finally feel Animal Otherness in me, outside of a purely anthropocentric point of view”(103). This wild act of human-animal border crossing, an attempt to merge with horse otherness and perspective, acutely demonstrates Morton’s “uncanny valley,” a hybrid “non”-space wherein it becomes difficult to draw the line between natural and unnatural—“familiar and strange, and strangely familiar—and familiarly strange—all at the same time. Beings we recognize—a human, a fruit fly—start to flit around the categorical boxes of human versus nonhuman, and of life versus nonlife.”
The second half of the Ghost Nature text is composed of more essays expanding upon Morton, similarly practicing his artistic prescription. João Florêncio’s “B. DIAGRAM (THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT)” wryly encapsulates the all-too-human tendency to anthropomorphize (misogymorphize?) as we subsequently myth-make:
Another especially notable essay, philosopher Graham Harman’s “Badiou’s Horses and Baudelaire’s Cats,” is in deep alignment with Morton. Harman pits himself against “the rationalists who follow [French philosopher Alain] Badiou…who hold that there is some privileged way to gain access to the real world.” Rather, Morton deems himself an “anti-rationalist” who seeks not just “friends of truth,” but “friends of reality: a reality that is too real to unveil itself directly in the shape of truth.”
It seems to me that, as a more-than-book, as a swan song summoning a broad swath of thinkers, continents, and disciplines, Ghost Nature enacts this “too real” reality via pure being. Cracking the spine of Ghost Nature is like entering a vast storehouse of merry multi-dimensions, meeting the generous friend with the open-door policy to the apartment in the vibrant neighborhood. You walk inside and the air tastes thinner, sweeter; the friend hugs you, guides you to an ancient, yet remarkably solid chair beside a window. Still, there are shoulders everywhere. - August Evans