Absences in the Video Archive 2 (VVP AVU collection) - Landing on Earth with Czech Audio-Visual Art and Searching for Earthlings

In its second installment, the program “Absence in the Video Archive”, where invited guests from non-art disciplines reflect on the framework of the original audiovisual art collection - the Video Archive of the Academic Research Center at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, focused on environmentally themed works. I look at them through the perspective of environmental sociology, which reflects on the relationship between nature and society.


The selection of audiovisual works offers possibilities of how to read or interpret them, and so the works are ideally more of a reference point for further discussion and analysis. The selection is thus not intended to refer to some easy readings that are immediately offered, and importantly, neither are the works intended to be explicitly political activism. In our selection we have also tried to ensure that older works are represented alongside contemporary ones.


I look at the selected works through an environmental sociological lens and offer readings or possible interpretations of them. It is not my ambition to authoritatively state what the authors intended to say; rather, I offer one of the many perspectives as a viewer of these videos, trained in environmental sociology. My comments on the individual works and their placement in a particular perspective (i.e., the search for earthliness, i.e., a new way of being on planet Earth) is thus intended more as a stimulus for further thought.


What was the logic of the selection? In the beginning, the assignment was open - to look in the archive and select films with an environmental theme, e.g., films that deal in different ways with nature, the environment, and animals. After a bit of hesitation, I thought: in the context of the current debates and concerns about the climate crisis, what about looking at films and trying to find answers with them and through them to the challenge facing us, to which the French sociologist Bruno Latour responds in his book Down to Earth (2020), that we must become earthlings? So, inspired by him, I watched the videos, and together with him, I asked myself the questions: what would it mean to go back to earth, to land and seek new ways of coexisting with the non-human world on earth? What would it look like to seek new relationships that would overcome our separation from nature? Because becoming earthlings, according to Latour, entails something different from being human in nature.

Arnošt Novák

STOP BEING PEOPLE LIVING IN NATURE AND START BEING EARTHLINGS

Before we get to the selected films and videos, I will outline the environmental sociological context from which I approach and interpret the works. In doing so, I will attempt to answer two questions: what did it mean to be humans in nature in modernity? And what might becoming earthlings entail? From the 17th century onwards, European modernity and the teachings of René Descartes gradually became characterized by a dualistic culture that pitted society and nature against each other. “Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things; Nature was full of extended things”, write Patel and Moore in their book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. They describe how a dualistic conception of the society-nature relationship was invented, where humans became subjects endowed with the ability to think, while the natural world became merely an object of human interest or exploration. Nature became an extended exterior to man, animals had no ability to think and were considered mere machines in Cartesian thinking. “Nature was something to be controlled and dominated by Society. The Cartesian outlook, in other words, shaped modern logics of power as well as thought.” This led to an instrumental relationship to nature, which was necessary to examine, in the words of Francis Bacon: put nature on the rack so that she reveals us her secrets through torture. Nature came to be perceived as a dead thing, knowable through breaking it down into the parts we describe, as well as the relationships, the patterns between them. If we have the right method, we can know nature and harness it to work for humanity. This approach, by which the natural world has been subjugated, has subsequently enabled unprecedented technological development, and has brought humanity (or at least part of it) capitalism, consumerism, prosperity, but also environmental problems: pollution, loss of biodiversity and a climate crisis that threatens the very survival of human civilization.

Latour criticizes this anthropocentric and Cartesian approach, and with it he also criticizes a certain idea that we can look at nature “from nowhere”, that the scientist can detach himself from the object (nature) under investigation and objectively view the world as it is. To observe it positivistically and then to describe it scientifically and objectively. This positivistic and instrumentalized relationship led to the domination and subjugation of nature, but it also meant that modernity came to privilege certain senses through which man perceived nature. Take, for example, that when we go into the countryside, into the forest or into the mountains, we perceive nature through different senses. We see it, but we also feel it, we hear it. We can touch it with our hands, with our feet, we perceive it with many different senses, and that is also why we like it and feel good in it. Modernity, however, has favored one of our senses in particular: sight. The Cartesian approach was also based on the fact that the other senses were suppressed, which led to the hegemony of vision and was reflected in the scientific methods: empiricism, observation. Sight (seeing and observing) was becoming dominant (Macnaghten, Urry 1998).

Moreover, when travel and exploration began in the 18th century, it again enhanced the development of visual perception. For, unlike the oral transmission of knowledge, they were built on the collection and gathering of artefacts, on the cataloguing of nature, on written records. Then in the 19th century came new technologies of recording (photography and later film), but also technologies in travel. For example, the development of the railroad contributed to the fact that when people traveled faster than walking or riding in a horse-drawn carriage and looking out the window, the view of the passing landscape reinforced this visualization, a new aesthetic and perception of the landscape. People stared at the passing landscape and a visual consumption of nature developed. On the other hand, people in the 19th century, especially in industrialized areas, were beginning to feel the side effects of industrial and capitalist development: air and water pollution, crowded and dirty cities, the loss of open countryside and forests, and the emphasis on output and efficiency. This critique of Enlightenment modernity was articulated by Romanticism, which did not see nature as a disenchanted and moribund resource, passively waiting to be exploited by humans, but instead enchanted it, projected into it and valued in it, for example, freedom, unbridledness or wildness and attributed to it an intrinsic value. Nature (or at least some parts of it, the least affected by man) was therefore a value in itself, regardless of how humans could use it to their advantage. It was also important, however, that the Romantics not only gazed at nature and recorded it, for example in paintings or poems, but also went into it. They went to the mountains, rocks or forests, purposefully exposing themselves to its influences and perceiving it with senses other than sight. (Macnaghten, Urry 1998) Romantic walking in nature was ambivalent. It also reinforced the visual consumption of nature. People began to emulate the Romantics in their visits to nature. Circumambulation and hiking associations emerged. Lookout towers were built on hills and people looked at the landscape, at nature, from them. Going to nature was important in that people learned to appreciate nature aesthetically in its diversity and also to acknowledge its intrinsic value. Of course, people also perceived it through other senses, which have always played an important role, but sight was predominant. This was also reflected in the design of various hiking trails, which were conceived on a Cartesian conception of the world, so that people perceived the landscape and nature through educational boards with pictures and written information.

Nature has thus become a spectacle since the 19th century, also thanks to the development of tourism. In addition, other technologies such as photography and film were developed, which reinforced the visualization of the natural world, because they depicted it “as it really is”. Which, according to some writers such as social ecologist Murray Bookchin, led to a static perception of nature as an idealized catalogue image. The development of these technologies thus led to a reinforcement of the hegemony of sight and seeing. Sharrat (1989) distinguishes three ways in which the eye works: the quick glance of tourists who walk and glance here, glance there; the gaze of romantics upon the beauty of wild nature; and the scan of scientists. Sociologists Macnaghten and Urry (1998: 119) then come up with a broad typology of visual consumption of nature. Romantic, where one gazes intently alone at the landscape. The spectatorial, when tourists are riding on a bus and the guide says, to the right you see, to the left you see, and they take a quick glance at the landscape passing outside the bus windows. Anthropological looking, where the scientist goes out into nature, scans it and investigates. Or perhaps the possessive, where one looks searchingly (scan over) at a landscape/nature familiar to them as if it belongs to them. The way of looking that dominated modernity was a gaze associated with dominance and control. Michel Foucault describes this in Discipline and Punish using the example of the panopticon, which is designed so that the gaze enables constant surveillance of its occupants. (Foucault 2000) Similarly, European modernity used sight to monitor and control nature. One of the reasons why modernity used sight in the first place and declared war on the other senses is precisely because sight allows for surveillance and control. The great popularity of balconies, which began to be built on a large scale in cities in the 19th century, was related to the fact that the rich could afford balconies. They could look out over the city streets and not have to be in physical contact with the poverty and squalor of the city streets. They could be part of the city, but at the same time they could have a kind of control over it and escape the immediate stench of the street. This is also the reason why later in the early 20th century they started to build taller and taller buildings and skyscrapers. (Macnaghten, Urry 1998) They offered those who were wealthy a kind of panoramic view, an overview of the city, but at the same time they were an escape from the smell of the big city. The sociologist Bauman (1993) argues that the sense of smell differs from sight in that the sense of smell is much more subversive, much harder to control. When people don’t like something, they can avert their eyes and not see, while when something doesn’t smell good or outright stinks, they can hold their breath for a moment but can’t stop breathing. They can only hold their breath for a moment and then they must breathe again. So, building balconies and skyscrapers was basically an escape strategy for those who could afford it – to avoid the unpleasant and subversive smell of the 19th-and-20th-century big city.

We interpreted nature through prioritized vision. This is also because modernity was (and still is) a project of a certain clean, orderly, catalogued, and rational world/order. Bauman (2010) speaks of modernity as a project of the “gardening” state. It is a society where everything has its proper place, its order; it is a world of precisely laid out gardens in beds and rows, and the weeds in between that do not belong there must be pulled up and removed. Modernity as a vision of the gardening state, which has its predictable order and to which no wildness, no unpredictability, not even the smell belongs because it escapes control and regulation. According to Bauman, that which stinks in a modernity obsessed with purity is perceived negatively. Similarly, the notion of weeds as something useless that disrupts order is gaining importance. It does not belong in a designated place and should be removed. Thus, within the framework of the gardening state, taken to the extreme, the Nazis spoke of Jews as “stinking Jews” who had to be eliminated and German society purged of them. To put it somewhat simplistically, this type of modernity, built on the dualism of society and nature, where nature is viewed by humanity from nowhere as an object (resource) to be subdued and controlled, has led us to the climate crisis. What do we do about it? According to Latour, we need to change the way we understand our place in the world. Being people in nature, that is, people who are surrounded by nature, which is their environment, object and resource, and which people seem to look down on from nowhere, from above, is no longer sustainable. It is necessary to return to the earth, to land back on earth, and to begin to become earthlings. So, what does that mean?

Latour offers a way to go and what it means: to land on earth is to seek new ways of being and how humans relate to an extra-human world that we can no longer see as some kind of environment, passive to our actions, just waiting to be discovered and harnessed by humanity to work for it for the benefit of further economic growth. Thus, the natural world is not merely a passive resource waiting to be depleted for human well-being. We must therefore seek new relationships with the non-human world. Latour speaks of the need to begin to catalogue our relations to the non-human world in such a way that we can identify the organisms, relations, and processes on which our human existence depends. In order to know what relationships we can have with them and what we need for our survival, which is basically a kind of inversion of our perception and understanding of the relationship between society and nature. So far, modernity has understood it as society breaking out of nature and trying to be as little dependent on it as possible. But Latour is actually telling us that now it is exactly the opposite. If we want to survive as humanity, we must abandon the idea that the non-human world is merely an external resource for us, at most a limit to our growth or an obstacle to be overcome. That we can be independent of it. No, it’s just the opposite. We need to begin to explore what and how we are dependent on, but also to acknowledge that, contrary to what modernity believed – namely, that we will never be in complete control of the world – we will never have completely certain knowledge and knowing. Whatever we do, there will always be some unintended consequences. It is also precisely because the non-human world is not a passive environment, a moribund object of human knowledge and transformation, but a world that often resists, defies, and escapes human control or subjugation. We can see this in the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. Humanity tries to invent various vaccines, takes various measures, but the virus constantly responds and mutates into other variants, escaping human efforts to be controlled. And we see this in other examples. When the whole discourse associated with limits to growth emerged in the 1970s, they spoke of the main problem being the early exhaustion of resources. Today, however, it turns out that the problem is not running out of resources, but the limited capacity of the planet to absorb the changes and products produced by humans. And it is not just climate change and greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the planet’s climate at an unprecedented rate. In 2020, for the first time in the planet’s history, the amount of human-produced mass (anthropomass) exceeded the total amount of biomass on the planet. Simply put, the weight of human-produced matter (concrete, iron, bricks, asphalt, plastics, etc.) outweighed the weight of all living fauna and flora on the planet. (Venditti 2021) Welcome to the Anthropocene, which is cutting the branch out from under itself. So, if we take Latour’s challenge seriously and try to return to earth and land, what does it mean to become earth men and women? It means not looking at the natural world from that perspective of “nowhere,” from above, objectively, but it leads us to look around us from the perspective of the earth where we are right now, which is multidimensional, alive, ever-changing. We are not satisfied with sight alone; we must also take into account other human senses, such as touch, smell or hearing, which we will use to search the territory where we have landed and where we are moving. With which we will continue to explore. It’s certainly not about throwing away sight, which we will always need, and which will probably always be the primary and main thing we need. What is important is that we stop suppressing the other senses alongside sight and engage them in exploring the world – not to conquer it, but primarily to understand what we depend on.

This is where art can play an important role. Unlike the science of the Enlightenment, which predominantly worked with sight and suppressed other senses, art has always worked with other senses. Ulrich Beck (2004) says that in a risk society we have been dispossessed of our senses. We can no longer rely on them to recognize modern risks and our senses are replaced by science. For example, we do not perceive toxic pollution or radiation with our senses, but we need science to measure the level of radioactivity or toxicity. However, we need other types of knowledge besides this dominant science, based on sight. Latour, as a social scientist, has worked with both natural scientists and artists in his recent projects, and he communicates his knowledge not only through peer-reviewed articles or publications, but also through creative collaborations.

SELECTED WORKS

We have selected a total of 10 films and videos. My interpretations and commentaries are not a guide on how to understand them properly, but rather a commentary by a viewer who has put on environmental sociological glasses and asks himself, together with Bruno Latour, what it means to become an earthling and what this earthlinghood entails.

The first selected work is Lumír Hladík’s Neznámý zůstal neznámý (The Unknown Remained Unknown) (1976) , which thematized sensory perception. It is based on the suppression of sight as the dominant perception and the opening up to another sensory perception, in this case touch. In a world dominated by sight, we may need to make other repressed senses consciously present.

The second work is Turista (Tourist)(2007) by Tomáš Hrůza . The first time I saw it, watching seven minutes of static footage of the author standing motionless in one place, it caused a slight nervousness and foot tapping that I only got rid of when I saw the film in the cinema for the third time. It consists in a different perception of time. Modernity is very much built on its speeding up. We need to produce quickly, consume quickly and, in the interests of economic growth, throw it away quickly. To boost GDP (Gross Domestic Product), we need everything to turn faster and faster. The world is in a time-space compression and is constantly accelerating thanks to technology. However, landing back on earth and discovering our earthliness also means discovering and reinventing a different perception of time. I realized this fact when a delegation of Zapatistas from Chiapas, Mexico, arrived in the Czech Republic in the fall of 2021 – that they had actually come from a different time altogether. (Zapatista Expedition for Life 2021) They lived more slowly and needed more time to consult and agree on everything, and silence had its important space. An approach quite different from us Europeans who always have to create, produce, speak or consume something. However, we are therefore left with less and less time to discuss and decide together.

Democracy takes time, lots of time. In this aspect, I found Hrůza’s work interesting and thought provoking. In a modern, mcdonaldized society (Ritzer 2003), we have become accustomed to the idea that any satisfaction comes (or we expect it to come) pretty much instantaneously, without prolonged effort – we just pour hot water over the instant mixture. Recognizing the world we depend on means stopping tapping our foot nervously. To land on the earth is to slow down, which can be uncomfortable even for those of us who are used to the speed, instantaneousness, and the clippy nature of modern times. With slowing down, for example, comes the concept of not growing (Latouche 2012), which among other things makes extensive use of the symbol of the snail. Why a snail? Because it is slow. So do the Zapatistas, who next to the snail have the slogan: “We are going slow because we are going far.” In this context, Hrůza’s video provocatively violates our comfort zone. However, it ends paradoxically. The tourist, after standing still and silent in one place for seven minutes, looks at the clock on his cell phone, gets moving, and walks out of the shot. The film seems to symbolically show that even when we begin to perceive a different, slow, “Zapatista” time, we still remain part of our modernity. It is not a question of escaping it somewhere else and denying it. We will always have one foot in its snares, always have a mobile phone in our hand and always look at our watch after a certain time. Rather, it is about a greater diversification in the perception of time, to enable a slowing down.

Miloš Šejn: Na vrcholu – Zebín (On the Mountain Top – Zebín) (1988) is the third selected film. The artist created the artwork not using artificial paints and brushes but using various natural materials he found on the mountain top. It seemed to me that his approach was in some way conventional with sociological theories that work with the co-production of nature or rather socio-nature (White, Rudy, and Gareau 2015). Humans reshape the world in a kind of collaboration with the non-human world. The artist in the film creates an image, using clay, water, or flowers instead of paint, and using his hands, his body, instead of brushes. It is a work from the late 1980s, but today we could say that it uses renewable resources. And when the artist destroys his work at the end, we can interpret this act as an example of what in non-growth (which can also be an important part of that earthliness) is called dépense – excess energy that we have to use up somehow, and it is our political decision how we dispose of it (Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis 2014). Becoming earthly perhaps implies not being productive. Indeed, being productive means that we invest what we produce back into our development or rather growth, so that we have more and get further faster. But what if part of being an earthling is not a mindless, automatic investment in growth, but rather a solution for dealing with the surplus? From the perspective of today’s productivist society, the surplus needs to be spent: on the arts, on social causes, on caring for other people, on politics, or on a democracy in which we decide and agree on how to be in the world. In short, on slowing down and not being productive. To not automatically devote human energy, effort, time, and non-human “resources” solely and exclusively to that which produces further growth in gross domestic product.

The author of the fourth video is Eva Jiřička and it is titled Naše okrasné zahrádky (Our Decorative Garden) (2005) . Modernity has its spaces clearly planned, laid out, and everything has a given place in it and the artist in her work disrupts this idea of a laid out “gardening state”. She subversively disrupts the established idea of what belongs where. And landedness necessarily entails this subversion of the gardening state, which ultimately favors monocultures (whether in fields, forests or cities, as we can see in this video) rather than diversity and, for example, the permaculture garden, which appears as chaotic, messy, wild, and uncontrollable.

The next three audiovisual works were chosen because they thematize in different ways the relationship between the human and the non-human. Adheze (Adhesion) (2020) by Denisa Langrová is probably the most involved of the three and the most questioning of the hierarchy, dominance, and domination of the human world over the non-human. Equilibrium (2017) by Dominik Gajarský similarly thematizes the relations between human and non-human, but it offers us a view of the world from the perspective of a snake and a goose. Animálie – The Lubber (2016) by Lea Petříková gives us a view of the essentially human, artificial world of the city from the perspective of a dog. If we are to land on earth and rethink our earthliness, it means rethinking our relationships to the non-human world. To abandon dualism and ask ourselves again: what is human? What is its relationship to the non-human? Where do we draw the line between the two categories and what does that line entail?

Dominik Gajarský’s film interestingly reveals how the human world is very vertical and that is why we look down on what is happening around us. We tend to control and supervise it. The question is whether, within the framework of earthliness, we should not view relationships more horizontally, look for connections, not see the non-human world as an environment that limits us and from which we try to be independent, but rather acknowledge our dependence on it. In doing so, it may be necessary to redraw the boundaries so that they lead in a different direction from the Cartesian, dualistic conception of society and nature. To be much more prepared to rethink a world that is full of hybrid relations. Where exactly does the new frontier lead? What does hybridization possibly mean? If we begin to wipe away that once seemingly unbridgeable Cartesian gap between society and nature, we may also cause some dangers. If we erase the distinction between man and animal, but still leave a hierarchically ordered world, how can we prevent a repeat of the Nazi extreme, which somehow also erased the boundaries between man and animal in its ideology obsessed with hierarchy and categories of superiority and inferiority? In their hierarchy, some people who were not Aryans fell below some of the animals that the Nazis considered. (Sax 2003) The non-human was above the human in the Nazi hierarchy, such as the Jews, and this then allowed some people to be treated inhumanely.

This danger of eco-fascism needs to be borne in mind when thinking about earthliness. Therefore, it is always important to take into account the multiplicity of worlds and the perspectives of the other, as the films of Gajarský or Petříková, for example, present it speculatively. Landing back on earth in times of climate crisis may also mean that many people will find themselves in territories that are in ruins. This was also the reason for the selection of Vladimír Turner ’s film Funeral (2016) . The search for dignified ways of being in a world ruined by expansive industrial capitalism can often seem seemingly foolish and crazy. However, as this film demonstrates, even in ruins there is always some life, which symbolizes the hope that it makes sense to try and, Zapatistaically speaking, to tread the path, to stumble and seek ways of earthliness. In doing so, as Latour emphasizes, returning to earth and looking for territories to land on and learning to inhabit again does not have to be any kind of return to blood and soil and fortifying oneself within the boundaries of the nation-state.

This was also the reason for the selection of a video by Michaela Thelenová: Ve větru (In the Wind) (2016) . The long shot of a hybrid combination of a Czech-German flag waving in the wind can be interpreted as a guide to a way of inhabiting a world that goes beyond the – often artificially maintained and fortified – borders of nation-states. Meanwhile, the climate crisis, as well as other environmental and social problems, cut across these borders, both in terms of their causes and their solutions.

The final work was selected as a sort of opposite of earthliness: Next Planet (2011) by Pavel Mrkus . For Latour, the greatest danger to earthlings is not so much those who want to nostalgically return to the past, but the elites, represented by Trump or Bolsonaro, for example, who have stopped pretending that they share the planet with the rest of humanity and behave accordingly. They have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and continue to pursue catastrophic policies that threaten the survival and dignity of the vast majority of humanity. They are pursuing a policy of: After us, the deluge. Latour points out the problem that such elites are actually heading off-world and, together with Elon Musk, are thinking of colonizing other planets in case planet Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Literature

G. D’Alisa, F. Demaria, G. Kallis (2014) Degrowth: Vocabulary. London: Routledge.
Z. Bauman (1993) „The sweet smell of decomposition“, in: C. Rojek, B. Turner (eds.) Forget Baudrillard? London: Routledge.
Z. Bauman (2010) Modernita a holokaust. Praha: SLON.
U. Beck (2004) Riziková společnost. Praha: SLON.
M. Foucault (2000) Dohlížet a trestat. Praha: Dauphin
S. Latouche (2012) Malé pojednání o poklidném nerůstu. Za tratí.
B. Latour (2020) Zpátky na zem. Praha: Neklid
R. Patel, J.W. Moore (2020) Dějiny světa na příkladu sedmi laciných věcí. Praha: Neklid.
G. Ritzer (2003) Mcdonaldizace společnosti. Praha: Academia.
B. Sax (2003) Zvířata ve Třetí říši. Dokořán
B. Sharrat (1989) „Communication and image studies: notes after Raymond Williamas“, Comparative Criticism, 11: 29-50.
B. Vendetti (2021) Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth, Visual Capitalist, dostupné na: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-the-accumulation-of-human-made-mass-on-earth/ (15.2. 2022)
D. White, A. Rudy, B. Gareau (2015) Environments, Natures and Social Theory : Towards a Critical Hybridity. Bloomsbury
Anonym (2015) Zapatistická výprava za život. Šest prohlášení k dekolonizační cestě kolem mnoha světů. Praha: Neklid.
sociologie ekologie video-esej