A Mycelium-Like Network
“We hear about precarity in the news every day. People lose their jobs or are angry because they never had them. Gorillas and river porpoises hover at the edge of extinction. Rising seas swamp whole Pacific Islands. But most of the time we imagine such precarity to be an exception to how the world works. It’s what ‘drops out’ from the system. What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time, – or, to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity? What if precarity, indeterminacy and what we imagine as trivial are at the centre of the systematicity we seek?”
The book is a beautiful entanglement of theory (philosophy, anthropology) and stories of nature, –including humans– that takes the Japanese matsutake mushroom as a starting point. This mushroom is a symbol for resilience in our environmentally apocalyptic times in the book; a species that continues to grow in deforested areas, even being the first thing to grow back after the nuclear disaster in Japan. This book opened my eyes to precarity as a condition for creation in times of the climate crisis (and all sorts of connected crises, including Covid-19), understanding how species (including humans) finding each other for interconnected and collaborative survival will experience mutually beneficial exchange.
This approach to precarity as suggested by Tsing, allowed me to believe there are possible ways of living and working, even to thrive, at the fringes of our capitalist system (which often seems impossible in a world that evolves so much about money and competition). Tsing provided the theory for what I had been trying to do since 2012. It was that year that we started growing our own network, called the Green Art Lab Alliance. I didn’t know of Anna Tsing yet, and to be fair, I also didn’t know an awful lot about climate change or biodiversity loss and extinction of species. But, having graduated as an art historian a few years before, I felt I rather had to educate myself outside of the existing educational systems about the state of the planet. We teamed up with a group of 20 art organisations across Europe wanting to learn more from each other about what our collective role could be in mitigating climate change. We called our partnership a ‘knowledge alliance’ and we all wanted to learn about the potential of the arts, –often precarious in itself– to talk to audiences and work with artists on environmental issues. We were painfully aware of our own carbon impact, building exhibitions, lighting theatres, warming dance-studios, organising festivals and flying around the world visiting Biennales. How we should go about reducing our carbon footprint as cultural organisations? How do we create space for artists to engage with an issue as complex as climate change? The alliance was our hook to start answering these questions.
Understanding Your Carbon Footprint
In those first three years of collaborating with each other as the Green Art Lab Alliance I learned so much: I saw the importance of relationship as well as expectation management; the power of contaminating each other with ideas and new directions; I started to get a little insight into the crazy amount of water, waste and energy the Western cultural sector consumes (we often wishfully looked at technology and innovation for solutions); we grew and learned, measuring our own carbon-footprint as a network and receiving funds from the European Commission.
Our key partner, Julie’s Bicycle (UK), conducted practical workshops on reducing your emissions, and partner On the Move (BE) compiled a funding guide for initiatives intersecting art and ecology. We regularly met in various non-capitals (Maastricht, Visby and Glasgow) to strategize and connect. They were foundational years for the network where we did some incredible projects and became friends, and most importantly gained trust. But in 2015 I was still missing something, feeling more and more that my Western university education had failed me and kept me locked-up in a Eurocentric worldview. The more I understood how complex and all-encompassing the climate crisis is, the stronger I felt I needed to go beyond CO2, technology and innovations, and complement the science with something more abstract. I decided to sell all my possessions (I was living on a boat in London at the time) to travel in Asia and educate myself informally about anti-coloniality, ancestrality, spirituality and our relationship to the land, all through conversations with artists.
I spent two years in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and South-Korea during which I learned to listen (Confucian culture taught me to shut up!) and made friends for life. My interest in food and food security grew alongside my concerns after having spent time in Singapore, a country that imports more than 90% of its food. I started understanding the environmental impact of the rapid industrialisation and technology boom of the ‘Asian tigers’ –i.e. Hong Kong, South-Korea, Singapore and Taiwan– the power of the chaebols in South-Korea, the industry behind our ‘made in Taiwan’ labels. With the residency programme Bamboo Curtain Studio in Taipei taking the strong lead, the Green Art Lab Alliance Asia was born. We connected with 15 more art organisations in East Asia (North and South) that were concerned with ecological issues. We had meetings in Taipei, Bangkok and Seoul. We exchanged knowledge, resources, strategized and made a collective manifesto. We found our common ground. I re-connected with the Asia-Europe Foundation (who had been a partner from the beginning of gala) to develop practical guides that would map creative responses to sustainability in different countries across Asia. These guides (ongoing) are based on interviews with artists and cultural practitioners and highlights the cultural and environmental specifics for that context, features a directory of cultural organisations that engage with environmental issues, and includes policy recommendations on how artists and communities who are working on shaping more just and sustainable societies, can be better supported.
Language and Coloniality
Because of the many interviews, the concept sustainability gained many more dimensions, but the word itself proved problematic. In my interviews with artists I always asked if the term resonated and it rarely did. Instead it was often associated with policy reports, or in a single case even as equivalent to ‘expensive’ (because ‘the organic option is always the expensive option’). Finding a common understanding, in English –mostly not the mother tongue of either of us– was a source of misunderstanding. When talking about these complex issues we were sometimes struck for words: the expansion of our vocabulary hasn’t complexified in parallel to our increasingly complex worlds. If anything, it has become more simplified due to it becoming more mono-cultural: the dominance of the English language.
According to Vandana Shiva, monoculture of the language, leads to monoculture of the mind. At times we bashed against the walls of the restrictions of our capability to translate concepts; after all, language is not just representation, it shapes our understanding of the world surrounding us. To which extent is the language, or rather, the translation of concepts, responsible for this inability to see and react to the present environmental crisis? It’s a complex web of interrelationships that needs a holistic, multisensorial and multidimensional approach, including new images, concepts and other languages that can address these issues altogether. Terms such as global warming, the Anthropocene, sustainability, climate disaster, have all been attempts to create umbrella-terms that assist us to apprehend these concepts, some more successful in doing so than others. Yet most of them have subsequently been appropriated, hollowed out, and hijacked for economic benefit making them interchangeable and to some extent, redundant. In addition to that, languages are local and specific to their location and time. For instance: for plenty of people and places, Portuguese, Dutch, English, remain the language of the coloniser. The concepts they introduce stem from the school of thought of colonial times. A Brazilian friend, researcher Jorge Menna Barreto, taught me that the etymology of the word ‘florestas’ (forest in Portuguese) is likely derived from forīs, meaning “outside, out there, out of sight”. For an indigenous community this concept of a forest would not make sense. When our mother-tongue is taken away, the diversity of language and thereby of concept, specificity and complexity, diminishes. This is problematic in the light of the complexity of our crisis.
The importance of indigenous knowledge of the natural world became more and more clear to me, parallel with the realisation of how political regimes, particularly in South-America, were structurally undervaluing these communities and cosmologies. Within a few months in Brazil I started to understand the word urgency. In August, I attended a residency programme (Labverde) in the Amazon during the time when the rainforest was on fire. It rained thick drops of black water all the way in São Paulo because of the smoke. In September a huge ongoing oil spill was polluting over 2250 km of coastline in the Northeast. Brazilian researcher Alexis Milonopoulos taught me the deafening silence of a monoculture: a complete lack of birds and insects due to agrotoxics, ones that Europe sells to Brazil (an interesting artist video about agrochemicals in Brazil here). At times I felt dirty with the privileges that were given to me because of the colour of my skin. I saw how entangled the cultural sector is with the funding from fossil fuel and other mining industries. Everything was so complex, from the daily micro to the political macro, it was dazzling.
It had always been my dream to go to Chile, as the father of my two older brothers was a political refugee in the seventies who ended up in the Netherlands, where he met my mother. Growing up with my brothers and younger sister we watched cartoons in Amsterdam under a Mapuche blue poncho and we listened to Violeta Parra at home, but I had never consciously connected these domestic influences of my childhood with Chile. I went for the first time in December 2019, visited the father of my brothers in Santiago, amidst the heat of the protests. It was overwhelming to see how many people are fed up with the system, how many of us want the same change. I cried the first time I saw El violador eres tú performance-protest led by Las Tesis, the feminist collective. Everything came together: my childhood, the protests, the music, the alliance, my values, hopes. I thought of the words of Anna Tsing about precarity.
I met with Fundación Mar Adentro and I was deeply impressed with all the amazing work. I travelled to the South of Chile with my friends of the residency programme Valley of the Possible and interviewed many other Chilean art organisations working with environmental issues. Once more the mycelium of the Green Art Lab Alliance had naturally grown with art organisations keen to connect globally and to join forces in order to be bigger than the sum of our parts. The Green Art Lab Alliance Latin-America was born and I felt like it was pumping through my veins, ready to fruit.
And this is how we came to 45 beautiful gala partners: based on our aligned values, always leaving spores to be picked up by others. We do whatever the partners consider to be necessary to do, we grow like a mycelium, sometimes we are dormant. For years we can be invisible, building structures and then suddenly a mushroom pops up. The network is activated when needed. That means it always manifests itself in a different form, whether that is a staff-exchange between partner organisations, a collective funding application, the dissemination of open calls or campaigns, or us writing letters of support for each other. Throughout the years the alliance has taken many different forms. In recent months we have started to collaborate in so-called ‘Partner Working Groups’. The primary goal of these groups is for us to get to know each other in smaller groups, to strategically share knowledge and experiences and discover synergies between the different partners. The Working Groups also allow us to be adaptable and flexible to act in urgent situations. Partners can collectively develop activities for these groups and connect with other disciplines. Currently our themes are: City Fringes (urban/rural relations), River Ecologies, Ocean Protection, Biomaterials, Ecocide and Advocacy, Land Rights and Indigenous Territories, Reforestation and Biodiversity, and Community Strategies.
From the interest in Biomaterials sprouted the Future Materials Bank, a meeting place of materials for artists that propose sustainable, biodegradable or non-toxic alternatives. It has been initiated by the Nature Research Department at the Jan van Eyck Academie, in collaboration with the MA Materials Futures at Central St Martins in London, and aims to provide inspiration to artists on how to cultivate a more holistic, non-toxic and sustainable artistic practice. The Future Materials Bank is our ongoing research and continuous attempt to keep on learning how to make better informed choices about the materials we use. Current categories of sustainable materials we are collecting are glues and polymers, pigments and dyes, textiles and fibres, biomaterials (clay, mycelium), ecosynthetics and cleaning materials (such as Zest it, a great alternative to turpentine).
For me the work of Anna Tsing reminded me this is what collaborative survival looks like. We need to act like a mycelium, exchanging resources and realising how this is mutually beneficial. We are in this together, we need each other in these capitalist ruins. We are all entangled to each other in this globalised world, which is the result of decades and decades of colonial, patriarchal, extractivist and capitalist systems of power. If we don’t want any of these structures anymore, we better start growing and building these alternative structures ourselves. Just don’t forget to leave some spores for others to pick up…
Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) is a curator, writer and researcher. Since 2009 she has been undertaking research across Asia, Latin America and Europe on artists proposing alternative ways of living and working – ways that ultimately shape more sustainable, interconnected and resilient communities. She is the founder of the Green Art Lab Alliance and is currently running the Nature Research Department at the Jan van Eyck Academie.
The illustration of this column has been made by chilean artist Francisca Álvarez