Stories from the Rainforest: Introduction
As a part of ArtEZ studium generale research on Land: on climate, ownership and coexistence, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s contribution offers a rich reflection on how materials speak to them in and through their artistic practice. By tracing material flows and goods within the global economy, they show the rifts and new relations between human and their environment. This text serves as an introduction to their four-part series Stories from Rainforest.
The cinematic essay Monument of Sugar – How to Use Artistic Means to Elude Trade Barriers (2007) opens with the epigram “the return of the material”. Why did we choose this phrase as our guideline? To explain this, we must revert to the supposedly post-industrial society as it existed before the financial crisis. The production and assembly of goods had been transferred to the periphery and was considered anachronistic—something we Westerners had left behind. The reality of things, how and where they were manufactured and which landscapes they connected no longer seemed relevant. The focus was on creating fictions to lure people into a dream world. As artists, we too were expected to produce artworks accompanied by press releases, framing our works with the references of the day. Increasingly, artistic production was turning into a matter of language. Had artworks really become so powerless that they were no longer able to attract audiences on their own merits?
As artists who derive pleasure from the encounter with materials and the search for unexpected entanglements, we felt somewhat ill at ease in the so-called knowledge economy, which seemed to have disconnected itself from the physical world and lost interest in the folds that connect times and places. We felt a greater affinity with Michel Serres’s crumpled handkerchief. For this French philosopher, a linear understanding of time entails that we perceive the most recent event on the timeline as the most recent and relevant. In his opinion, however, this cannot explain why certain events from the past continue to exert their influence in the present. He therefore introduces the time concept of the handkerchief. Two points that are far apart when the handkerchief is laid out flat can be next to each other when it is folded.1
It was such considerations that formed the starting point for a practical experiment aimed at letting banished material return. The fact that sugar became the protagonist of this experiment was prompted by an off-the-cuff remark by a farmer we spoke to at the Polish-Ukrainian border on May 1, 2004, the it transitioned from a national to a European border. While offering us coffee and sausages, he told us that Polish cukier had become twice as sweet since the country’s entry into the European Union: its price had doubled overnight. According to the farmer, it was now indeed cheaper to buy Polish sugar in the Ukraine than in Poland itself.2
The European Union turned out to be using economic strategies to protect its sugar producers from price fluctuations on the global market. It had established a so-called price floor for Europe’s internal market that was substantially higher than the global market price. It had also raised a tariff wall to keep sugar that had been produced elsewhere out of its market. In addition, it provided an export subsidy for sugar leaving the EU to lower its price artificially so that it could compete in global markets.
Trade statistics showed that a considerable amount of sugar produced in Europe was exported to Nigeria. So in 2006, we left for Lagos, intending to temporarily turn the sugar flow around by buying cheap European sugar on the spot and creating a monument with it, to send this back to Europe. Once a monument, the sugar would be able to bypass the tariff wall for sugar imports. After all, works of art can be imported into Europe duty-free.
While making, shipping and exhibiting the sugar monument, however, we discovered time and again that the material had power of its own and resisted our plans. For instance, it turned out to be much more difficult than we had expected to actually locate the sugar, which was so plentiful on paper, at Nigeria’s local markets. Moreover, it required a tremendous effort to turn the hygroscopic sugar grains into a solid form in Nigeria’s humid climate. The monument got lost at sea, and upon arrival turned out to have lost its firmness. Every time we presented the artwork, material got left behind in the exhibition space. The monument was slowly deconstructing itself along the way.
It was this experience that motivated us to begin our PhD research entitled Drifting Studio Practice: A Return of the Making in the Thinking. To explore how we could let ourselves be guided by material rather than ideas about material, we consulted fishermen and farmers, practitioners who – just like artists – attune their activities to circumstances that generally lie at least partially outside human control.
We started our research on the former island of Urk, where a number of fishermen were willing to enter into an exchange with us. We accompanied them out to sea, and based on conversations with them, put together a script that members of the community then performed on camera. The collaboration eventually led to Episode of the Sea (2014), a hybrid documentary that alternates recited dialogue, title sequences and documentary footage.
The film experiment with this fishing community not only found its way to exhibitions, but also to film festivals, arthouse cinemas, schools and community halls. This allowed us, as artists, to become acquainted with the locally embedded network of the cinema, which extends far beyond the big cities. Through this network of (improvised) darkened rooms, our exchange with Dutch fishermen also reached other local communities that had also had to abandon traditions in order to survive in a competitive global market.
But the fishing territories were overfished, as the Urk fishermen also discovered. A global regime of extraction and export not only puts traditions and communities at risk, but entire ecosystems. Was there no other way of treating the earth than as a resource? This motivated us to shift our focus to Suriname for our second film, in order to collaborate with the Maroons: descendants of Africans who have developed a ritualized practice in the rainforest to coexist with their biotope. We became part of an expanding collective that negotiated its way to realizing the film Dee Sitonu A Weti (international title: Stones Have Laws, 2018). And that film too, would reach various audiences through the cinema’s elaborate network.
The hybrid documentaries Episode of the Sea and Dee Sitonu A Weti (international title Stones Have Laws, 2018), in which these exchanges resulted, together with a written report, represent the results of the research. In the textual part, we give an account of the film-making process and the reception of the two films. In so doing we discuss the specific issues the communities are grappling with and the network of relations that they are part of. Parallel to this, we reflect on the dilemmas we encountered when operating in these force fields as image makers. To place these frictions in sharper focus, we convey our experiences into dialogue with the discourse on authorship, (new) materialism, object-oriented ontologies and decolonial theory.3
At the invitation of ArtEZ studium generale, we have selected a number of passages from our dissertation that focus on the subject of ‘land’, which we researched for Dee Sitonu A Weti. These excerpts, some of which were rewritten for this specific context, are published on the ArtEZ studium generale website between January and June 2021, and republished here at APRIA.
In the first appendix, we situate various ways of using land within the discourse surrounding the Anthropocene (also known as the Plantageocene), and as such, in the unfinished project of decolonization. We take up Michel Serres’ proposal of including ‘nature’ in social contracts. We also discuss Ecuador’s new constitution, adopted in 2008, which recognizes nature as a legal entity.
In the second appendix, we explore the (possible reasons behind the) subservient role given to nature in Western representations). To do so, we explore a number of arguments by the poet and Dutch East India Company (VOC) advocate Hugo de Groot.
In the third appendix, we contrast exploitative land use practices with the more reciprocal way in which the Maroons treat their land.
In the fourth and last appendix, we explore how we, as image makers, could break out of routines of appropriation in our own practice. Building on Donna Haraway’s reflections on the observer who sees themselves as the only one who is acting, we speculate on how we could form a makers’ collective in which authorship is shared by many (human or otherwise) – in other words, how we can reach a broad collective form of authorship.
- Fallows, James, “Containing Japan”, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1989.
- Latour, Bruno and Michel Serres, “Time and concept of the crumpled handkerchief”. In: Conversations on Science, Culture and Time. Translated by Roxanne Lapidoux. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Time concept of the crumpled handkerchief: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidoux (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 45.
Economic paradoxes such as these are commonly referred to as the 47th Street Photo Phenomenon, named after a shopping street in Manhattan where, in the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese cameras could be purchased more cheaply than in Japan. See: James Fallows, “Containing Japan”, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1989.
With new materialism and object-oriented ontologies, we are referring to interdisciplinary efforts to challenge the divisions commonly found in Euro-Western thinking, such as those between people and non-people, subject and object, nature and culture. By decolonial thinking we mean the critical movement which focuses, among other things, on delinking knowledge production from the Eurocentric knowledge system.