Art Outside the Fossil Fuel Fence

An Interview with Monique Peperkamp

Monique Peperkamp is currently conducting PhD research at ASCA. She studied Art History at the University of Amsterdam, and has worked as an artist and a lecturer. In her research, Monique looks at art about the relationship between nature and culture in the light of ecological catastrophe. She does this partly on the basis of cultural history and philosophy. I’m curious to know which abilities she ascribes to art when it comes to environmental degradation, and how she, with a background in art, relates to philosophy. Prior to our interview, I read her latest article ‘Ecological Time: Natures that Matter to Activism and Art‘, published on APRIA, which offers a glimpse of her PhD research. Focussing on two works by artist Melanie Bonajo, the article explores Bonajo’s role in the discourse about a world that is increasingly suffering from our ecological footprint.

Melanie Bonajo, Night Soil – Economy of Love, 2015, HD one-channel colour video with sound, 32:46 min., Courtesy the artist & AKINCI

Do you remember when you first saw Melanie Bonajo’s photograph Progress vs. Regress (Progress II), with which you begin your article? What did you think?

Progress vs. Regress (Progress II) is part of a series exploring the idea of modern progress. This photo also circulates as an individual image, which is how I approached it in the article for APRIA. I can’t remember when I first saw it.

Progress vs. Regress, the first part of the title, is also the title of a film by Bonajo, highlighting what progress and technology mean to elderly people in particular. The film shows Bonajo interviewing elderly people, and having them do experiments with selfie sticks. After filming, Bonajo digitally edited the backgrounds of various scenes. For instance, we see a woman sitting inside the drum of a washing machine, telling how hard it used to be to do the wash by hand. Bonajo also varies her own appearance in the film, appearing in costumes made of cardboard and glue to look like a robot or gift-wrapped present, as requested by one of the elderly. One woman who says she’ll miss the touch of a carer who is leaving, is given a massage she clearly enjoys, a ‘touching’ moment. Bonajo pays people attention and makes contact. It’s elf-like and fleeting, but no less real in creating connections between the people she works with.

The first time I saw this film was at photography museum FOAM in Amsterdam in 2016, I think. In 2018, I saw it again at a retrospective at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht. In both exhibitions, the space became part of the work. In Maastricht, visitors could sit in a wheelchair, as some of the elderly people in the film do, to watch Progress vs. Regress. This putting yourself in the position of another suits Bonajo’s characteristically funny yet serious way of understanding physicality as a source of meaning. Still, I didn’t see only sweetness, I felt irritation at a scene in which young people are dancing for an elderly woman who seems unable to respond, giving the impression the young people are mostly happy with each other. Seeing this film put things into perspective for me. I was going through a period in which I found it difficult to care for my infirm, hard-of-hearing mum, but Bonajo cheered me up, and my mum through me. It’s a simple example of the long-term effect of art on daily life.

The article you wrote for APRIA is directly related to your PhD research on art and ecological catastrophe. To what extent was Progress II a trigger for your research?

It wasn’t at all. I came across this particular work because I had written about other work by Bonajo, and work by other artists for my research. My research question arose a long time ago, from a vague but persistent fascination with the concept of nature in relation to an increasingly technological culture, akin to the broad perspective Bonajo uses to explore ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’.

Another work that was important for my research was Inoculate by Colombian American artist Ana María López. She had a plant seed germinate in the tear duct of her eye, challenging conventional boundaries between plants and people, and touching upon deep-rooted ideas about human identity. In his work Transit, Belgian photographer Kristof Vrancken also makes tangible how we influence our environment and, conversely, how we can’t shut ourselves off from it, but Vrancken does so in an entirely different way. He used the juice of berries from an industrially polluted area as an emulsion to develop photos of that same area, and gave the juice to his audience to drink. Vrancken, Gómez and Bonajo are three very different artists who, taking very personal approaches, get close to ‘nature’, which we have learned to keep our distance from and regard as raw material for human use. These artists show how you can relate to the time of others, including plants. They make time tangible by showing how the past is present in the present, and how every action creates a future.

Can you explain the essence of this PhD research to our readers? What have you been researching?

I discuss art that explores the relationship between nature and culture, where time becomes tangible. In the light of the ecological catastrophe, I take a (critical) look at what theories do to the (critical) power of art. The broader history of philosophy and culture is important to understanding how our attitude towards nature has been shaped, and has shaped us.

The past two centuries and recent decades have seen great technological developments that make us think we have superior knowledge and perception. At the same time, as Progress II suggests, we seem to have lost sight of what these have led to. Contrary to the narrowing vision of instrumental perception, art makes relationships visible and tangible – between different scales of space and time, between knowledge we have of ecological, social, worldly and global processes, and personal observations. This is particularly relevant in these times of ecological urgency. Moreover, art puts important ideas on acting and living differently into practice. I want to highlight the radical creativity of these ecological art forms and processes.

In your article, you say the following about Bonajo’s work: ‘Personally, I have been familiar with Bonajo’s work for a long time, but only slowly felt it increasingly resonate with my own earlier life experiences.’ Can you explain this? Why did it happen slowly?

I’ve come to know Bonajo’s work over the last ten to fifteen years – little by little, in different ways and different contexts – as part of group exhibitions, in museums, galleries, magazines and through the Internet. The very first works I saw were the well-known ‘furniture bondage’ photos. I perceived them as a kind of feminism light, with a typical ‘arty sexiness’ – I wasn’t immediately convinced, but had become curious. I looked with a similar ambivalence at stills from a film about ayahuasca as a psychosocial medicine, and at stills from a film about sex workers in Brooklyn, which often appeared in publications. Bonajo’s work only really got to me when I saw these films in their entirety, particularly at Foam in Amsterdam. There, they were shown in their own spatial context and duration. In turn, the photos acquired new meaning as well.

The film Nocturnal Gardening (which I discuss in the APRIA article and was also shown at Foam) brought back memories of a time when I lived together with others in Amsterdam, where we tried to take a different approach to food, with as little damage to the environment as possible. There used to be a network of eateries where you could have organic and often vegan food at very low prices. The network still exists, but due to increased gentrification, there is less room for such initiatives.

Gradually, a feeling of connection developed between me and my personal past, Bonajo’s themes, her way of working, and the works themselves. The way in which Bonajo, dressed in leaves, expresses herself in interviews about the relationship between humans and nature, culture and economy, was also very important to me. She dares to speak out and goes against dominant ideas about what a critical language of form is or should be. Her playful and contrary strategies are serious and embody the personal and political, art and life, without adopting an objectifying language. When I worked as an artist myself, I also wanted to express my social commitment through my work, but I never managed to do so.

The word ‘hippy’ is often used in discussions of her work, and Bonajo’s videos and installations, too, are apparently associated with a kind of free, idealistic, bygone era. Does this nostalgic approach do justice to the value her work has today?

Although I suspect Bonajo would agree that hippies were right about many things, emphasising this causes people to underestimate the value of her work, which is very much part of the modern age due to its content, her choice of media and the way she uses them. I think we need her kind of free and down-to-earth creativity to imagine a world beyond apocalyptic fantasies and unrealistic technological visions.

Bonajo calls herself a ‘digital eco-feminist’. Using means provided by consumer culture, she advances values that emphatically depart from this culture. As a result, Bonajo’s work is in danger of being called both ‘otherworldly’ and ‘hypocritical’. This is in line with a time in which companies emphasize that not they but consumers are responsible. According to this way of thinking, you would first have to step outside society before you can criticise it, which is both impossible and undesirable. Besides, if this were the case, the first accusation would be justified. Hence, divergent alternatives like Bonajo’s are not escapist. Deviating from particular customs means that you’re challenged to defend yourself, and that you need to rediscover and learn things. That will increase the understanding of dominant ideas and structures discouraging such alternatives. So actually, it’s a ‘reality check’. Work like Bonajo’s shows that living an ecological life is not without contradictions, and is very much part of our world and time.

In your recent article on APRIA, you take a fresh look at the relationship between technology and nature, examining the term ‘Anthropocene’ and how thinkers use it in their work. You write that one of the crucial problems with the word ‘Anthropocene’ is that it implies a collective human ‘we’, as if we’re all equally responsible. I deduce from this that not everyone is equally responsible for environmental degradation and the depletion of our world. Why was it important for you to include this in your research?

The term ‘Anthropocene’ defines our time as a new time in which man irreversibly changes the biosphere, resulting in global warming, the dramatic extinction of plant and animal species, acidification of the oceans, microplastics in the food chain and thus in ourselves, and so on. It’s extremely important that we recognise that these catastrophes are all related to human activity that must change. From the point of view of technocratic thinking, however, the term ‘Anthropocene’ means that ‘man’ needs to dominate nature even more and at a larger scale. After all, the word ‘anthropos’, the root of ‘Anthropocene’, refers to ‘humanity’. Speaking of a collective ‘we’ detracts from the painful reality that some people still massively invest in the destruction of the earth. Not everyone is responsible for this – those who profit the most from it are particularly responsible. Emphasis on large-scale technological ‘solutions’ keeps the power in the hands of the same people. Also, it perpetuates the attitude of dominance over nature, and therefore over other people.

The Anthropocene brings together various symptoms of a system that rates profit more highly than other values. That’s why it’s better to speak of the ‘Capitalocene’, as various scientists suggest. But ‘Anthropocene’ is still an important concept, as it aims at a technocratic culture change, which needs to be dealt with much more critically than is currently done. The domination of nature is historically linked to various forms of oppression. Culture and art are not unrelated to this.

In your article, you discuss the ideas of Timothy Morton, who believes that art is primarily about feeling – not learning, criticising or changing. For a long time, it was thought this is what art can or should be. Am I right in concluding from your article that you would like to see the value of art in a different light?

I discuss Morton in more detail because his unconventional texts have touched me and others in ‘the art world’. His style of writing has broken down various walls between disciplines, with his message – which is, in fact, decades old – finding its way into different cultural frames of thought, which communicate more with each other now than they did for a long time. The message is that we can no longer cut ourselves off from our degraded environment, both literally and figuratively, and that the contradistinction between nature and culture is untenable. I agree with Morton that we can’t regard the ecological catastrophe as something outside of us – it is, to quote him, ‘close, too close’ and ‘under our skin’. But I also criticise him, because his proposal for an ‘ecology without nature’ is a good example of how dissolving dualisms creates new ones, while unwittingly maintaining and even strengthening old ones.

The first problem is that Morton proposes the complete abolition of the concept of nature. In the context of ‘the Anthropocene’, this means mostly an adaptation to technocratic thinking. Which results in an increase of inequality and injustice. To understand and counter the ongoing environmental destruction, you need concepts that help make clear distinctions. I agree with Andreas Malm (author of Fossil Capital and the Progress of This Storm) in this respect. In the current context, dissolving the concept of nature knocks a pivotal tool out of the hands of people who want to actively counteract the ongoing destruction and degradation of nature and the earth.

Second, I criticise Morton because he reinforces a conventional view of art that separates art from everyday, social and political responsibility. He contrasts the role of art as adaptation in the context of the Anthropocene with knowing and acting. For him, art remains a detached therapeutic tool that helps us to adapt. This is a valid view in the modern age, as it’s based on the necessity of taking care of yourself. But ecologically engaged art actually challenges this separation. It doesn’t limit itself to mere personal experience, nor to mere criticism. Yes, the power of art lies in intuition, in located and embodied experience, but that doesn’t exclude knowledge in a more important, broader sense. That is what artists like Bonajo, Gómez and Vrancken show us. Feminist thinkers understand knowledge itself as a broader and embodied practice. This is crucial for ecologically engaged art.

What does this mean for the role of the contemporary artist?

What or who is ‘the artist’? We in ‘the West’ still automatically see ourselves as the ones who have the authority to make statements about ‘history’, ‘man’, and ‘the artist’. This type of self-congratulation often doesn’t help us understand each other. Yet, you do need to generalise to make sense of these times and shared concerns. I do this myself, by explicitly linking art to the environment, socio-political problems, and injustice. In times of ecological catastrophe and capitalist crises, questions such as the following arise: how could it have come to this? Art that deals with such questions doesn’t avoid personal reflection and history.

It’s often said that ‘a new imagination for the Anthropocene’ is needed. This carries the risk of attributing an instrumental role to art. Following from ‘climate adaptation’, this actually shows a lack of creativity to think and do things radically differently. Talking about ‘imagination’ in the context of the Anthropocene is too often technological wishful thinking, fleeing from history and responsibilities. Urgent action is needed to stop the ongoing environmental destruction. Art can make the possibilities of other, more creative ways of living, real and bring them closer.

Towards the end of your article, you write: ‘Interestingly, while several philosophers have proposed that the concept of nature should dissolve, artists have recharged the term to critically investigate core cultural assumptions.’ You state that artists deal with concepts and theories in their own way. In your research, are you inspired mainly by artists or by theorists?

My research always keeps finding new challenges and questions in art. The day-to-day research is conducted on the basis of theory, by carefully studying what others have written. Both keep me working every day, while art ensures that thought doesn’t become purely abstract.

I would like to end by asking you whether you think that art can contribute to a healthier relationship between people and the environment. And if so, in what way?

Yes, of course! Art intensifies conscious experience. Experience is ‘conscious’ because ‘art’ itself is a historical phenomenon and implies activity. Above all, art is a form that materialises relationships with others, with the other and the environment. In doing so, art can address all kinds of knowledge and experience. It starts with an escape from functional time, with fearlessly giving and taking time. Then you can become aware of how ‘things’ (shapes, materials, ideas, people, plants, soil, air, etc.) are there with you at the same time, in the same time frame, that they are time, have a history, shape life and coexistence.

This interview is part of the LAND project, about climate breakdown, property, territory, and colonialism and how these things relate to each other. Can we understand how we got into the current precarious situation? What does “ownership” mean for our relationship with each other and the land? And what role does language play as a reflection of our interaction with each other, nature, and the earth?

This is a translated version of the interview which was previously published on Mister Motley.