Plotting the Crisis: Ecologies, Commodities, and the Arts

Organised by Kerstin Oloff, Michael Niblett and Chris Campbell

The seminar, which was jointly sponsored by the Institute of Hazard Risk and Resilience, Warwick Global Research Priorities, and the Arts and Humanities Faculty (Durham), took place on May 24th 2014 and featured talks by scholars from a variety of disciplines, including environmental history, postcolonial literature, visual arts, and critical geography. It was well attended throughout the day, with participants coming from a range of universities, including York and Newcastle. The symposium formed part of a series of events held over the past year in different universities (including University of Warwick, University of Guyana and University College Dublin) and concerned with developing new analytical approaches to the relationship between cultural forms and ecological and economic crises.

The day consciously situated itself within the current global crises. In his keynote speech “The Capitalocene: On Nature and the Origins of our Ecological Crisis”,  Jason W. Moore, an important environmental historian, questioned the usefulness of the increasingly popular term of the “Anthropocene” for understanding these crises in their interrelatedness. Instead he proposed a world-ecological perspective as a method that would transcend what he terms the consequentialist bias, that is, an understanding restricted by the Cartesian dualism between Nature and Society that would see the latter as impacting on the former. The current crises therefore need to be understood within a longer history of periodic booms and busts — simultaneously economic and ecological — that foster the conditions for, or exacerbate the effects of, hazards and disasters of all kinds, from soil erosion and extreme weather events to epidemics and social violence.

Andrei Molodkin, “Democracy”, 2005.

In her talk on oilscapes and visual arts, Janet Stewart addressed the relation between society, ecology, politics, economy and crisis from a perspective focused on energy. She was particularly interested in how visual artists render our over-reliance on oil visible, and thus help conceptualize the fuel-drenched habitus of those living in the developed world. Further, she discussed the way in which these critical artworks help to shed light on global inequalities that are entrenched by oil, as its extraction is facilitated by violence and accompanied by the dynamics of boom and bust.

Chris Jordan “Midway – Message from the Gyre” (2009 – present)

Treasa deLoughrey was similarly concerned with how the arts engage with the omnipresence of oil. In her talk, she discussed, for instance, Chris Jordan’s photographs of bird cadavers filled with plastic alongside Edward Burtynsky’s notion of the Toxic Sublime, reflecting on the ways in which these artworks complicate notions of “natural” disasters.

The second keynote speech spoke again directly to the symposium’s key theme, exploring how aesthetic forms have responded to the crisis-ridden logic of capitalism. Like in the two preceding talks, the underlying question revolved around the role of the arts in helping to think through and interrogate narratives of crisis, reconstruction, and development.  Sharae Deckard, a literary scholar from the University College of Dublin, sought to apply such an integrated perspective to the current endeavors to theorize the field of world literature, as previously advocated by Michael Niblett in “World-Economy, World-Ecology, World Literature” (2012). In particular, she examined the irreal aesthetics produced within the context of violent neoliberal social relations and ecological degradation in Mexico, focusing on, for instance, a literary engagement with the maquiladoras on the border to the United States.

The day ended in a lively roundtable discussion, in which Durham and Warwick faculty engaged with the speakers and shared some of their own perspectives. As a result of this day, a new research group on “Ecology and the Arts” will run in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures in 2014-2015. The next conference organised by a member of the World Ecology Group – “World-Society, Planetary Natures” – will take place at SUNY Binghamton in summer 2015.



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