Vít Bohal: In your new book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology you are critical of the recent dOCUMENTA (13) exhibition, stating that its overall conception “tended more toward the hybrid aesthetics of sci-fi than political engagement.” How can contemporary art be used effectively as a political tool, beyond partaking in a simple post-conceptual aestheticism?
TJ Demos: In Decolonizing Nature I argue that art can function as an effective political tool, though it depends what we mean by it. I contend that the political is intrinsically aesthetic, where aesthetic designates the sensible. How we organize that sensible realm is a crucial question. As we currently confront a global ecological crisis that is historically unprecedented—one that is frequently out of sight—it becomes imperative to create paths toward environmental sustainability that are made visible. And given that environmental violence is premised on racist, sexist and other forms of social and political inequality, it’s crucial, I argue, to view environmental sustainability as inextricable from social justice and political equality, and to show why.
The most compelling contemporary art, for me, works toward materializing those conditions—without which life may become unlivable—and it does so through representational, participatory, collaborative, and activist means. My book details a number of examples that for me are on the forefront of critical and creative practices, from the work of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination based in France, to the international collaborative project World of Matter. There are many more, and the goal of my writing is to investigate their operations and in some cases amplify their struggles.
VB: In his Three Ecologies Félix Guattari calls for an “ethico-aesthetic” practice. Such an ethical practice cannot be thought outside of the political register. What are, in your opinion, the productive and relevant modes of engaged political action in the West at this moment?
TJD: One such productive and relevant mode of engaged political action in the West right now—though my book also insists that we look beyond this limited geographical framework, and does so by considering practices in places like India, Mexico, and Sub-Saharan Africa—is the artistic-activist movement that has set its sights on intervening in global climate governance. During the last UN climate conference, COP 21, that met in Paris in 2015, these practitioners, including the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, created “Climate Games,” a mass civil disobedience adventure game, organized online and realized in public spaces internationally, though centered in Paris. The objective was to challenge the corporate influence, and more broadly the influence of fossil-fuel capitalism, on the UN deliberations, which are determining the directions of global environmental policy in ways that support and privilege the interests of big business (particularly in the financial, transportation, and energy sectors). Check out https://www.climategames.net/ for the documentation of creative actions that successfully raised awareness of the corrupt UN process, which the internationally renowned climate scientist James Hansen called a “hoax” for its failure to agree a binding approach. Actions included temporarily shutting down a polluting lignite coal mine in Germany; organizing collective protest on the streets of Paris; and recording and networking hundreds of other actions through the Climate Games website.
VB: In light of Prime Minister Orban’s recent proclamation that a “gigantic refugee city” should be established on the coast of Libya, how do you see the future of the 21st century refugee?
TJD: One possible future we all need to struggle against is a world of climate breakdown accompanied by obscene economic inequality, expanded resource wars and violent asymmetrical militarism, mass migration, and xenophobic and racist calls for refugee cities, dividing walls, and fortress-type borders. Such is a world, nearly our own, where people will increasingly utter the term “fascism” without being accused of hyperbole. In my view, creative practitioners—artists, activists, media designers, photographers, documentarians, independent journalists—could do well by not simply focusing on migrants themselves, who are merely the effects of destructive global economic, political, and military policies enforced by Western neoliberal capital, but rather on the causes, which implicate Western corporations, trade policies, and financial and political elites, in the construction of those unjust conditions.
VB: The 2016 World Press Photo competition has picked its winners and refugeeism figures prominently. Do you think such a form of competition may foster genuine forms of ethico-aesthetic practice on the part of the audience and on the level of the socius?
TJD: Competitions like these typically bring further media and cultural visibility to the abject conditions of refugees. Unfortunately, this type of humanitarian discourse tends to create decontextualized and inarticulate representations of the human carnage of wars and military violence, economic impoverishment, social strife, and environmental collapse, but without connecting any of these problems to years of colonial pillage, unfair trade agreements, structural debt, and failed states. This is why we need to insist on a decolonial analytic lens when it comes to such representations: to resist humanitarian photography’s construction of a pornography of misery, sold to corporate media so that we can voyeuristically savor the results of the violence our own countries over centuries of imperial conquest, has produced, without recognizing the historical reasons and present justification for the current destruction, refugee-creation and resource extraction (whether it’s labor, precious metals, or energy).
VB: Which are the economic and political mechanisms which could potentially keep the current migration crisis locked in? Which corporate industries benefiting from this situation of geopolitical destabilization?
TJD: Migration-related services and technologies constitute a billion-dollar-a-year industry, including border security measures, full-spectrum dominance military technology and infrastructure, new forms of automated weaponry and software algorithms, militarized border police, and biotech applications that are currently in research and development stages. Migration, according to this industry, figures as a growing criminal menace attended to by the corporate-state-military complex, rather than a mode of behavioral adaptation for human survival in complex and insufferable emergency conditions, or an opportunity for cosmopolitan hospitality, humanitarian empathy and practice, or liberal generosity for those in desperate need (see, for instance, the easily-available research on the corporate-military-surveillance sector). Securitization is the preferred response to climate change migration in regard to state, military, and corporate planning for worst-case scenarios. The kind of world this industry forecasts is not distant from the most dystopian sci-fi movies, and this realization gives further motivation for current struggles for climate justice and an alternative future of sustainability and equality.
VB: In your new book you advocate for a socially-oriented political shift which numerous critics (Paul Raskin, Naomi Klein) have called the “Great Transition.” To what degree is such a political agenda realistic, and what are the obstacles preventing such a paradigm shift?
TJD: For me there really is no choice, and current injustice and environmental destruction make such a struggle compelling, despite its politically unrealistic agenda. The problem is that obstacles of massive corporate wealth have blocked the democratic political process from formulating an effective path toward a just post-carbon future. Nearly a half million dollars per day are injected into the political system in the US by corporate lobbyists in their attempt to make impossible any course of action that falls outside the reaffirmation of free-market capitalism, fossil-fuel energy, and extreme wealth inequality. However there are many more of us than them, and the coming insurrection will be unstoppable. We all need to do what we can to support this grassroots nonviolent struggle, including infiltrating institutions and governments, in order to realize a future of livability, ongoingness, justice, and equality. Art is in no way exempt from these ethico-political imperatives, and my book’s central claim is that artists are among those leading the way.
The interview was originally conducted for A2 magazine, as part of the 2016 Fotograf Festival.