Institute for Inconspicuous Languages: Reading Lips by Špela Petrič

Between action and imagination: getting onto middle ground

an essay by Chris Julien

How should we think about, and act towards future relationships of humanity with nature, at a moment in which we’re becoming aware of the complex interdependencies and awesome power of planetary systems?

When we start talking about the possible futures of humankind in relation to the wider living world, I think we have to consider ‘possibility’ both in the sense of uncertainty about what the future will hold, as well as in terms of our capacity to influence these futures. That’s why I want to ask how we might find some kind of middle ground in the uncertain times ahead, places that we can inhabit in collaboration with the natural world. It’s a central question for us at planet B, which is a mission to establish a laboratory as a museum where artists, citizens and scientist work together in developing inclusive and ecological ways of life.

Facing today’s planetary crisis of climate and ecological breakdown challenges our ideas of what’s normal and what is possible. Is the way we live today really normal? Is it possible to maintain this normality into the future? And at what cost? What does it ask of us to face such an existential crisis? The term crisis comes from krisis in ancient Greek, commonly used to indicate “the turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death”, from krinein “to separate, decide, judge.” A crisis then is a moment of decision, where things fork and break open, and this tearing of ‘the fabric of what’s normal’ challenges us all to be both imaginative and resolute.

We need our imagination first of all to break free of ‘the normal’, to start unlearning our daily lives and habits, to accept that things are not-normal. Not only accept, but make something positive out of the prospect of living differently, abnormally. What’s more, we need all of our imagination to even start thinking differently about our place on this planet, how we relate to the living world and to all our fellow critters living in it. In this sense, we have to re-discover our imaginative capacity, or creativity. In stead of the romantic notion of individual genius and divine gift, we should re-acknowledge that creativity is exactly our species’ amazing capacity for adaptation. By our imagination, we’re able to anticipate change and respond to it in non-predictable, not-normal ways. Among the living world, the human capacity to anticipate change and respond to it is truly our signature feature.

So being imaginative is about opening up perspectives, being open-minded, WOKE, and even interspecies. But just being creative doesn’t seem to cut it. Equally, we need resolve to act on emerging, abnormal realities that we can only comprehend through our imagination. Acting here entails going against the grain of what is ‘normal’, acting contrary to consensus, making a priority of things that aren’t generally accepted to exist (like catastrophic climate change) and things that don’t really matter (like the individual lives of non-humans). Acting not-normal requires quite some resolve. It means taking direct action, disrupting the everyday conditions of our lives in the name of the possible and the not-normal, the wonderful and the catastrophic. If anywhere, the Extinction Rebellion movement shows us how to practice this resolve with both bravery and compassion.

But even if we, as citizens, act, we remain deeply unsure about what our futures might hold. What specifically can we expect to achieve with our not-normal actions? Under a barrage of scary statistics and fake politics, the road ahead is uncertain even as we set out. Acting on imagination, we encounter our siloed realities; cultures, institutions and technologies – carefully constructed – that are not so easily broken or transgressed. Looking around, we see scientists calling in vain from their ivory towers, while artists struggle to escape their white cube, and citizens use their bodies as a democratic tool of last resort. Surveying this chaotic scene, how can we hope to find a middle ground – not only with each other – but also with the endless sprawl of living systems and creatures we’ve grown so far apart from?

I pose this not as an intellectual issue. I pose it as a concrete, ethical question, a question how to act, starting tomorrow. If we remain unsure of the ends we work towards, how can we start moving, let energies meet and connect? The late Michel Serres, a wonderful scientist and philosopher, pointed a way forward in 1980, when he stated: “A third exists before the second. A third exists before the other. As Zeno the Elder would say, I have to go through the middle before reaching the end.”

With planet B, we’re exploring that middle, exploring a planet that’s a lot like earth, but certainly not normal. With Serres, we can approach the middle not as a point of agreement on goals -that would be way to normal- but on the contrary as the places we discover when we act without pretending to already know what will happen. In embracing uncertainty, and acting nonetheless, a space opens up of the possible. As Michel Foucault said: “It is the connection of desire to reality that possesses revolutionary force.” Being on planet B is all about finding this middle, out there among and with the living world, about a desire for being ecological.

What does it mean to be ecological? How to define the middle of an ecosystem? What is at the heart of life? Whether we look at the stream, the forest or the fox, Ecology seems to be all middles, a tangle of relative centres and peripheries. In ecological systems, every position is a potential niche for another being, and every moment holds the possibility of mutation. Together, the play of niches and mutations have produced the endless entanglements that span our terrestrial space and natural history. Indeed, being ecological suggests leaving behind our human-centric notions of agency and the good life, and understanding ourselves as part of this terrestrial space and history, ‘a middle’ among the sprawl and tangle of life. Rather than letter ourselves be guided purely by human-centric ethics, ecology calls for us to have an ethos, literally an ‘accustomed place’. How to act then becomes not just a question of human logos, but comes to include the material under our feet, the creatures we share our places with and many more strange and wonderful things usually excluded in our ‘normal’ way of looking at the world. With that, I’d like to open up the conversation with Spela on her work, and how it allows us to discover new, not-normal middles to inhabit in our possible futures.

Talk given during the ‘Possible Futures’ programme of Into the Great Wide Open festival on the future relationship of humanity with nature, as part of the planet B expedition with artist Špela Petrič.