Strategies of Attunement to Non-Human Temporalities
In her article Othering Time: Strategies of Attunement to Non-Human Temporalities, art curator and researcher in the field of art and ecology Alice Smits delves into artistic practices that tune into deep time and non-human time zones. Starting from the view point that our current ecological crisis is in need of developing an ethics of care towards generations far into the future and life forms extremely different to ours, she discusses art and aesthetic knowledge as particularly well suited for experimentation with new stories and sensibilities about our place in time. Making use of geologist Marcia Bkornerud’s concept of ‘timefulness,’ the article focuses on several art projects by Rachel Sussman, Katie Paterson and Špela Petrič, whose works engage in developing a more time-literate sensibility that aims to understand how our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us. Underlining changing ways of understanding of time and space by opening up to what is referred to in the title as ‘othering time’, art opens up as a discourse in its own right that can interrogate the sciences as a specific epistemological framework that is in need of revision. The author concludes with a few references to how these artistic practices change her own curatorial practice.
Every era experiences and understands time differently. Let’s travel quickly. During the time of Newton and his contemporaries of the 17th century, the earth was thought to be only 6000 year old, according to biblical analysis. By late 18th century, the idea took hold that the earth might be much older, and speculation about its age became fashionable in intellectual circles. By the 19th century, geologists were estimating its age at millions of years, and at the turn of the 20th century, the realization came that the earth had been around for billions of years. On a spatial level, the same happened when humans started travelling the earth by increasingly faster means, so that by mid-20th century, the ‘world making’ of the earth had turned it into the global village we know today, and where it was once thought to occupy the centre of the universe, it is now a planet amidst billions of other planets and galaxies. And the counting continues….
In a relatively short time we have come to inhabit a temporal and spatial order that is so vast and abstract compared to human experience that it surpasses the powers of our imagination. But while humans have long seemed to believe that earth and its atmosphere and depths were so large that human actions could not have any effect on it, we now all know that there is a limit to growth – as the Club of Rome concluded in 1972, giving rise to a global environmental consciousness but unfortunately not to the required change in course of action. We now know that we are depleting the resources of earth: the only planet, as far as we know, that can sustain our life form, and that we as a species are effecting a geological and climatological transformation of earth that is detrimental to life itself, including ours.
So let’s consider time. From a human perspective, a mountain may seem permanent, but within geological time, it is a mere fleeting characteristic of the landscape. Or take a tree, which humans consider static and incapable of movement, barely living, and yet it experiences a drama of life unfolding over a timespan that is simply imperceptible to the human eye. A writer who describes these many different temporalities that exists in the world beautifully is Michel Serres. In the first pages of The Incandescent, a grand narrative on humanity’s coevolution with nature, Serres moves back and forth between anthropocentric and geological time, the seemingly stable space–time of human life giving sway to an unstable world – time disappearing into space and back again into time: ‘You see space less than time. You see objects arranged in a familiar expanse (rivers, rocks, summits or sun) less than the different rhythms of a flowing (ephemeral works, hundred year old houses, thousand year old riverbanks, million-year-old rocks, billion-year-old stars).’ He goes on, ‘For space then, appears as a mosaic of time, with different rhythms and tempos.’1
For a long time in human history, we probably had no need to relate to more than what was immediately present for our survival. But now we do. Today we no longer live in a world of local cause and effect, but the greatest threats to civilization are happening on timescales of hundreds and thousands of years. We now have to take account of the fact that we are living in the Anthropocene – as some have, misguidedly in my opinion, called our current geological age – the age in which humanity has unrecognizably changed our planet and is effecting changes in the geology of the earth itself. We have buried chemical and nuclear waste deposits far under the ground, accompanied by maintenance regulations addressed ‘for eternity’, passing our waste from one generation to the next, into a future world we cannot even imagine. If we continue our current ways of production and consumption, we are heading towards a world that will be warmer than it has been since homo sapiens first walked on this planet, forcing us to learn lessons from an era millions of years before us. The geological, once a marginal science only practiced by a few, is now influencing our daily life, as we witness almost daily on the news, with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods reshaping contemporary life in dramatic ways. At this point in time, attuning our (technological) cultures to geological time could be a necessary skill for survival.
This act of attunement demands both a process of relearning and reskilling our senses and sensitivities, placing knowledge production back within the physical body as we move within our environments, redefining our concept of rationality itself, in what philosopher Isabel Stengers has called ‘an ecology of practices.’2 To learn to listen to the earth again and understand our entanglements with everything around us, we need to engage with different temporalities. Although he is often credited with the idea of giving a voice to objects, animals, plants and natural phenomena, the anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, who has come forward as one of the spokespersons of our era, has rightly argued that it is not up to us as humans to extend our discourse of rights to non-human entities. Whereas the story often goes that after women and slaves, it is now time for animals, plants and objects to be given a political voice, he reminds us that it was not that enlightened people granted them rights, but that their resistance became impossible to ignore. And so it is today: our oceans, rivers, glaciers, animal and vegetable beings demand that we hear them, simply because our lives depend on it. No longer the backdrop of our human drama, a lifeless decor waiting to be exploited, nature is making itself heard and acts among us.
So rather than continue to follow and expand upon the linear time vector of emancipatory modernity, we have encountered a radical paradigm shift. What began as a project of human emancipation has led to environmental destruction, moving us into a post-human framework. The enlightenment concept of humanity sees as its core objective to emancipate humankind of its earthly bondage, treating the earth like a stage – literally sealing it as a hard border – for human endeavours alone. But the word human, as we are often reminded these days, comes from the soil: humus. To the soil we return, and here lies our biggest challenge, how to find our way back to the soil within our current technological societies, without giving sway to what might seem to be an impossible dichotomy between global neoliberalism and a localized national politics. Whereas technology is in many ways found guilty of environmental destruction, the evil is never in the thing itself, but in the way it is used and the epistemological culture it operates in. It is because of earth science that we are able to detect and understand changes in earths system. Technology and science offer us enormous new possibilities to notice and listen to the earth, zooming in on the smallest creatures that our eyes can’t see, entering into the deep oceans or in deep time and space, hearing the rumblings of the earth itself.
A renewed exploration of our position in time and space, then, is a direct effect of our anthropocenic condition. Not only does our new epoch demand from us an understanding of deep time and future, but also of non-human time zones and rhythms. It is time we develop strategies to tune in to all these different rhythms and tempos which compose our environment, this ‘mosaic of time’, as Serres refers to it. Connecting ourselves to different temporalities means paradoxically rooting ourselves more profoundly in the thickness of the present, from where we can begin the manifold relationships with the life surrounding us. It demands that we integrate our sciences with human narratives to retell the story of earth and man together. This poses a huge challenge, given the often remarked upon fact that humans have a hard time thinking much further than their grandparents and grandchildren, if at all. This might explain why the environmental catastrophe facing us today is treated with so little urgency, while a single virus that affects human life and death directly has been able to transform whole societies and economies in an instant. If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that politics is capable of immediate change if there is a crisis that calls for this. But the climate crisis is no longer a fact of the future, but a condition of the present.
So how do we cultivate care beyond our own lifetimes or human framework? Humans as a species are not well adapted to deal with long-term visions and consequences, but we are wired for storytelling and interweaving facts with emotional attachment. A reorientation in time and space demands new images and new languages, a new kind of storytelling of where we come from, who we are as a species and where we want to go. This requires seeking the new in the old, instead of only seeking the old in the new, if we want to allow for the radical change we seek in the present. What has predominantly guided us in the last few hundred years is a specific kind of scientific story that we have come to understand as only one kind of story about life. It is a story that has led us into a situation that is not sustainable for humanity and the millions of other life forms on this planet, and that signals that it is time to start telling other stories about mankind and the earth. In short, we need nothing less than a new cosmology.
This is why the current ecological crisis is primarily a cultural, and not a technological problem, first of all demanding a change of mentality rather than only a change of tools while we continue to operate within a misguided eco-modernist capitalist framework. Asking ourselves what kind of technologies we want to design for what kind of future remains the most urgent question. Since it is primarily a cultural problem, art seems especially well-placed for experimenting with and telling new stories, which is the reason why many philosophers of the Anthropocene, such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Timothy Morton, place aesthetic practice at the centre of their discourse.
Moving through the geological, technological, biological and cosmic, artists today work towards notions of othering time and a rescaling of human time. There is a growing body of art that locates us in the geological history of the universe. These works intend to stretch our time frames in order to develop what geologist Marcia Bkornerud has called ‘timefulness,’3 the ability to locate ourselves within eras and eons rather than weeks and months, by offering us hooks for an emphatic connection to life thousands of years in the past and future. What happens when you begin to realize we all breathe and consist of the same atoms? Developing a more time-literate society means understanding how our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us and that our actions have consequences which will outlast us for many generations, in order to reconnect our roots in the earth’s history. Artists working on these issues seem to agree with Bkornerud’s argument that understanding time the way a geologist does offers the perspective we need to imagine a more sustainable future, by making these abstract timescales experiential, ultimately enabling us to make decisions in accordance with multigenerational timescales.
Rachel Sussman is an artist who does just this. For more than a decade, from 2004 to 2014, she worked on an ongoing project, The Oldest Living Things in the World, which straddles the borders between art, science and philosophy and was represented in travelling exhibitions and finally a book. For this research project, she travelled all over the world, working together with scientists to photograph living things that are at least 2,000 years old. The project looks at time from beyond a single human lifespan, putting human experience into a larger context than we naturally feel at home in. Deep time is not, like geological periodization, a precise demarcation. It is a concept which allows us to consider timescales that are too great for our own physical experience and too abstract for our brains to grasp in any meaningful way. Sussman wonders, ‘How can we connect with a timescale beyond several human generations in a way that is a meaningful illustration of our personal time in the vast continuum of life on Earth?’4 The Oldest Living Things is an eccentric photographic archive and time capsule, including:
3.5-billion-year-old stromalites from Western Australia,
a 8000-year-old box of huckleberries in Pennsylvania,
5500-year-old moss in Antarctica,
a 2,000-year-old brain coral in Tobago,
an 80,000-year-old Aspen colony in Utah,
a 2,000-year-old primitive Welwitschia in Namibia,
a 9,550-year-old spruce tree on a high mountain plateau in Sweden
a 43,600-year-old shrub in Tasmania (the last of its kind on the planet)
Exploring more than 2,000-year-old life forms forced the artist to wander outside the lines of traditional scientific methodology, crossing boundaries between species and disciplines. It also broke down our conception of what an individual life form, and thus life itself means, when considering the clonal growth of species that continue to initiate new growth without using external genetical material. With this project, Sussman proposes that our understanding of time need not be restricted by, as she puts it, ‘the shallowness of human timekeeping and the blink that is a human lifespan.’5 Describing the goal of her project she writes on her website:
Deep time is like deep water: We are constantly brought back to the surface, pulled by the wants and needs of the moment. But like exercising any sort of muscle, the more we access deep time, the more easily accessible it becomes, and the more likely we are to engage in long-term thinking. The more we embrace long-term thinking, the more ethical our decision-making becomes.6
Sussman deliberately approaches her subjects as individuals of whom she makes portraits, in order to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale which is otherwise too challenging for our brain to internalize. In this way, she allows viewers to forge a personal connection to these creatures, in order to experience this sense of ‘timefulness’.
After 2014 Sussman started developing installations to deeper her explorations of personal and cosmic time. I encountered her (Selected) History of the Spacetime Continuum at the 2018 Taipei Biennial, which focused on Post-Nature. It consists of a site-specific, hand-written timeline of the universe (in this case a large mural), beginning before the Big Bang and extending 100 billion years into the future. Weaving together astrophysics, geology, biology, mathematics, archaeology, history and chronocriticism, it can be seen as a study of time itself. Handwritten and with a dose of humour (in my opinion an often lacking and yet essential component of our efforts to tune into non-human species and time zones), it highlights the individual, human attempt to make sense of our time and place in the universe. As a study of time and space it makes a plea for transversal knowledge, linking the long separated realms of human, biological and geological history, allowing the viewer/reader to zoom in and out from small human stories to large scientific facts.
Katie Paterson is an artist who uses quite a different strategy to collapse distances of time in her work. Like Sussman, she collaborates with scientists and researchers across the world on projects which reconsider our place on earth in the context of geological time and change, involving an act of care. She has broadcasted the sounds of a melting glacier live, mapped all the dead stars, compiled a slide archive of darkness from the depths of the universe, and sent a recast meteorite back into space. Worth mentioning here in particular is Future Library 2014-2114, a one-hundred-year artwork, for which she planted thousand Norwegian spruce trees in Nordmarka, a forest just outside of Oslo. The trees will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, each year one writer will contribute a text, and the writings will be held in trust until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one-hundred-year duration of the artwork resonates with the invitation extended to each writer – Margaret Atwood was the first writer to contribute to the project – to create a text which might find a receptive reader in an unknown future beyond our own lifespan. This project forces us to think beyond the immediate gratification of success and reward, considering what it means to care for and take care of a time that comes after us, yet is affected by and linked to us.
The current ecological crisis does not only require us to connect to deep time, as the artists described in the previous examples set out to do, but also to alien temporalities and rhythms of other life forms we co-inhabit our planet with. For centuries, human exemplarism was built around the conviction that only humans are in possession of emotions, language, creativity, and that animals do not. A shift in focus in science is now revealing – as has always been apparent to anyone who has lived with a member of another species – that we are not as special as we thought, and that animals also possess all of these capacities. Now that other life forms are no longer the backdrop of our actions but have entered the stage as co-actors in our human drama, it is time to get to know these species with whom we share this stage, our planet and in some cases even out bodies, in more intimate ways. Of course, we can never truly leave our own anthropocentric condition behind, but we can certainly open ourselves up to what Jacob von Uexküll called ‘Umwelten,’7 theorising that organisms, even though they share the same environment, experience it differently through their own unique sensorial capacities. This also involves a different way of navigating and experiencing time and space. Artists now are developing various imaginations and forms by which to imagine and tune into these different ‘umwelts’, including variations in temporalities.
Špela Petrič, a bio-artist with a PhD in biology, explores the relationship between humans and plants in a series of works entitled Encountering Vegetal Otherness. Of all living things, plants are the most alien to our life form, to such an extent that we often don’t think of them as alive but as motionless and static, hence our expression ‘a vegetative state’. In a performative work titled Skotopoiesis, Petrič stood in front of a bed of cress for 16 hours with a light behind her, finally casting an imprint in the discoloration of the cress where her shadow had fallen. For me, this work is a powerful reminder that we do not need to try to be ecological, as so many seem to think these days, but that we are deeply ecological by nature, always having an effect on our environment through the simple fact of our being, our living and dying, in the world. In her current research, Petrič wonders whether perhaps a machine is better able to form a relationship with a plant than a human, as machine time can adjust itself far more easily to the slowed-down timescale of a plant and thus mediate between the human and plant experience of time. PL’AI is a work that is part of the Plant-Machine Project, which explores whether plants can be represented by AI and become ecological agents within computational systems. It examines the potential of machine learning, thereby questioning the dominant cultural models most machine learning is based on, by proposing an entirely different model of plant being. The Plant-Machine project is part of a two-year research programme Smart Hybrid Forms: Addressing ecological challenges by blurring the lines between biology and technology, a collaboration between the Biophysics Department at VU Amsterdam, the Rietveld Academy, de Waag Society, V2 and Zone2Source, hiring an interdisciplinary team of artists (Špela Petrič and Christiaan Zwanikken) to work at the VU Smart Hybrid Lab together with scientists, researchers (including myself, focusing on art-science practices and their cultural and philosophical implications) and programmers, towards making a machine that thinks itself a plant. While plants are usually considered living material, this project considers plants’ potential as active agents represented within the digital realm, exploring the interaction between plants and machines as a two-way exchange.
PL’AI opens up ‘radical interspecies play in a game of tag between a cucumber plant and a robot moving at a plant’s pace,’ as Petrič describes her work. While humans, with their limited perceptual timescale, can never engage in an active relationship with plants, a self-learning computer algorithm with robotic appendages acting as a human prosthesis can. Focusing on an element of play – which is constitutive of the development of culture according to Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens – as a form of interaction which can only occur between two active agents, the work explicitly emphasizes a non-utilitarian, non-instrumental and non-linguistic AI. The computer moves at a plant’s speed, trying to predict the future position of the plant, aiming to touch it and retracting before the tendril grabs onto it. If the plant succeeds in grabbing the appendage, then the AI remains still. Entering plant time, it develops the more sensitive outlook of climbing plants, considering them in their own ‘umwelt’ as active sensing and desiring creatures. The project is inspired by much contemporary research, revealing plants capacity to support, defend, learn, communicate, and care for others. While in ‘real time’, neither machine nor plant look like they are moving, through time-lapse video recordings, the visitor can witness a normally imperceptible drama linked to the specificity of a plant’s existence in the world. PL’AI thus offers a scenario in which we can start identifying with plants as actors in their own right, who, just like us, are trying to make sense of and negotiate their environment. Writing algorithms which interact with plants demands a thorough investigation of plants and our relationship to them. It suggests a completely different epistemology and politics – focusing on plants’ distributed rather than centralized existence in the world – which points towards a very different way of knowing and being that is perhaps a better model for earthly survival than the ones we are familiar with. And, as Petrič provocatively suggests here, perhaps plants are better suited to negotiating our needs within algorithmic representation.
This play beyond the human time scale – as different from games with fixed rules and objectives – explores the limits and workings of artificial intelligence as an open process, for whom we all might be part of what she has called in another work ‘the vegetariate’ (Vegetariat Rising: Plants of Instagram Perform Ecosystem Services) a term which describes both human and non-human bodies as seen by the algorithm. As a work PL’AI is not a simple statement but can only be grasped and reflected on, as much by the makers as the audiences, through the process of time in order to get a glimpse of non human time scales of both plant and machine.
Part of the Smart Hybrid Forms programme is the collaboration of academic and cultural institutions, developing a diverse test ground for interaction between the Plant-Machine with audiences, both offline and online, within expert meetings (at de Waag and V2) and within the public space of a city park or a zoo (Zone2Source). Art that sets out to engage people in a different sensory and temporal relation, beyond the human scale, does challenge thinking about curatorial approaches as well. As part of my curatorial research, I am exploring how art can form a crucial contribution to the enormous cultural shifts we as a society and species need to make in order to change our dominant modes of thinking and framing. In confronting our current ecological crisis, new artistic practices are being developed outside regular institutions, as a kind of training ground for an age that needs more complex sensory capacities and embodied forms of knowledge, so that we can finally begin to grasp our entanglements with life around us – ‘staying with the trouble’, as Donna Haraway puts it so aptly in the title of her book.8 For the last decade, more and more artists have been working together with scientists, joining them in laboratories and on field trips, like the artists described in this text, not for sake of validation of the sciences, but as a critical interrogation of the cultural, ethical and philosophical implications of scientific knowledge and applications.
Art can cut through disciplines and categories, making connections and linking the humanities and the natural sciences, to locate us again in the thickness of the present and the depths of time, from where we can retell our histories from the perspective of man and earth together. Art does not oppose science here, as the irrational versus the rational, but rather, it is engaged in exploring another definition of rationality: one that is engaged in and comes from our being in the world. This already starts with asking different questions coming from an othering position, connecting dots that remain unconnected with specialized disciplines, connecting human (hi)stories and experiences to large and abstract issues, developing collaborative work methods in transdisciplinary teams and finding new forms for public engagement.
I am interested in this role where art asserts itself increasingly as a form of alternative learning – or unlearning – ground dedicated to experimenting with new knowledge and training of sensory skills needed for earthly survival. As a curator in the field of art and ecology at Zone2Source – working in a public park as a site for experimentation, using its gardens and the network of knowledge it generates – I am interested in developing diverse public formats together with artists, which take people along on artistic explorations, showing them tactics that work towards new imaginations and experiences of environment. Currently I am involved in developing a School for Interspecies Knowledges as an alternative learning environment in which we want to explore, together with people from a wide range of disciplines, what all this new ecological thinking is actually contributing to our ways of knowing and sharing, focusing on tactics and methodologies for tuning ourselves differently. The project is also itself an experiment that aims not only to reflect but also to work through issues more deeply – beyond the short workshop or debate format – for instance, about what an interspecies community actually is, what it means for how we live and work together. Starting from a mapping practice of different rhythms and scales, both temporal and spatial, which focuses on the relational rather than separate entities, we set out to develop alternative public formats and maybe even invent new rituals and vocabularies to engage people on different levels and encourage them to explore their environment anew, rethinking their own position within it. Such complex cultural strategies, which bring sites, research, art and audiences together in new imaginative spaces, work as experiments to create alternative meanings for the present, creating a present ‘timefulness’ which can communicate across long time frames, across generations and species.
- Bjornerud, Marcia, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.
- Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
- Serres, Michel, The Incandescent, translated by Randolph Burks, London: Bloomsbury Academic 2018.
- Stengers, Isabel, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review 11, no. 1 (2005), pp. 183-196. https://doi.org/10.5130/csr.v11i1.3459.
- Sussman, Rachel, “Nautilus: What a 9,000-Year-Old Spruce Tree Taught Me,” accessed 29 January 2021, https://www.rachelsussman.com/nautilusspruce.
- ———, “Writing,” accessed 29 January 2021, https://www.rachelsussman.com/writing.
- Uexküll, Jakob von, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2014.
Michel Serres, The Incandescent, trans. Randolph Burks (London: Bloomsbury Academic 2018), p. 5.
Isabel Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review 11, no. 1 (2005), pp. 183-196. https://doi.org/10.5130/csr.v11i1.3459.
Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018).
Rachel Sussman, “Writing,” accessed 29 January 2021, https://www.rachelsussman.com/writing.
Rachel Sussman, “Nautilus: What a 9,000-Year-Old Spruce Tree Taught Me,” https://www.rachelsussman.com/nautilusspruce.
Jakob von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2014).
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).