Monday, November 10, 2008

If the music isn't activism, it's the wrong music

Excellent, brief essay by composer John Luther Adams: Global Warming and Art. From the essay:
Three decades ago I came to Alaska to "get away" from the world. But the world has followed me here in an inescapable way. I came here also to help save the wilderness. For years I worked as an environmental activist. When I left that work I did so feeling that someone else could carry it on, but that no one else could make my music. Implicit in this choice was my belief that, in a different way, music could matter as much as activism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Of Exasperation and Democracy

I sometimes send an email update to a few hundred people to inform them of my creative activities. To my latest update I added a paragraph detailing some of my main reasons for not voting in the U.S. (Not much changes, here’s a link to what I had to say about voting two years ago.) This paragraph was not only pertinent to the time I sent out the mailing (a week before the 2008 presidential elections) but also to an audiovisual installation of mine Registering Our Exasperation currently on exhibition at the Melkweg in Amsterdam.
I will not be voting in the upcoming U.S. elections, though I am eligible to do so. I see the electoral situation as not so different from that of Belarus, wherein the democratic process is so obviously flawed that participation only seems to indicate legitimization. I wouldn't bet on a horse that I knew in advance would not make it to the race. Only the extraordinarily well-funded are given access to the public through mainstream media. And they--the well-funded (and forked-tongued)--maintain attitudes that are so obviously divergent from the majority of the people that even with their obscene funding they will not allow other ideas to compete for public attention and support. I am not suggesting that there is no difference between the two main actors this particular year, but that the difference does not speak to the breakdown of democracy. Given the various extinction-level crises that an American president sits at the helm of, I am not willing to be pragmatic in the question of government, at least not with regard to the illusion of choice. As I have written many times before, this is not only an American issue. However one chooses to participate in democracies flawed or perfect, I advocate a particpation in community that obviates mega-powerful, centralized governments. To be clear, I am refering to the kind of participation that Henry David Thoreau had in mind when he wrote "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence." Because without a community actively defined by those who live within it, any government is irrelevant and any election is ridiculous. If it is change that one wants, it is change that one must do (and not change that one must vote for).
Anyway, I received a number of thought-provoking responses, some from people who share my attitude. The majority of the substantive responses, however, were from people who thought my decision poor, although all agreed with the notion that American democracy is in a very sorry state. But the suggestion seemed to be vote for the candidate who is black, because he is black, and that is historic, and he talks about change, and change would be good, and the other candidate is really much much worse. Which all may be true, but how that would address the democracy issue I do not know. As it happens, I found this to be exasperating, again appropriate to the work I am presenting at the Melkweg. So I wrote the following to be made available at my exhibition. It has some cursing in it.
How do I register my exasperation? How do I indicate the frustrating understanding I have come to that mega-nations & governments run by madmen are causing all of the problems—problems that, year in & year out, someone, somewhere, is telling me I should solve by voting for different madmen? Could everyone please stop telling me to vote?

Go ahead & vote, vote, get your candidate or political party of choice to win some sham election, vote. Pat yourself on the back for participating in democracy & then go back to sleep for the next few years, while politicians & the corporations that own them ride roughshod over the earth, killing people & rivers, enslaving children & the integrity of genes, slaughtering languages & rainforests, mocking democracy.

Or do they? Do they mock democracy? Hitler, Mugabe, Lukashenko, Hussein all won elections. Even that shit-brained son-of-a-bitch Bush nearly did, twice. What is democracy anyway in our age of perverted information, when all information is commercialized, when shit floats, when access to your intellect is sold to the highest bidder, when soundbites will have to suffice because neither you nor your candidate have time to read the policies drawn up in backrooms by people whose names no one even knows?

How do I register my exasperation? Stop telling me to vote. Stop telling me to participate in a counterfeit electoral process, in a democracy in which political parties can be divided over whether human industry is cooking the planet or not, over whether the violence should be conducted by insufferable idiot jerk-offs or charming intellectuals, over whether this or that group has the right to self-determination, over whether torturing someone constitutes ‘torture’, over whether the integrity of borders is more precious than the integrity of the lives of those who wish to cross them, over the extent to which women’s reproductive rights & the civil rights of homosexuals threaten the nation.

I am not part of a community that stretches across multiple mountain ranges, over rivers, beyond the corpses of once-proud & impenetrable forests, that has asserted its right to pave the planet & pour chemicals into the eyes of bunnies to create new cosmetics or find cures to cancers the culture causes in the first place.

No. How do I register my exasperation? What place does democracy have in the mass extinctions we are witnessing, mass extinctions of a magnitude only seen when a comet smashes into the planet or an ice age covers it for centuries? Vote. Vote for liars who pay lip service to the builders of bombs, to the financiers of fire & brimstone, to the high priests of pedophilia and misogyny, to the conquerors of carbon, the gangsters of genetics, the vanquishers of forests. Vote for them & encourage everyone around you to do the same, get the vote out, they say, get it out. Rock it. Get it out & then go back to sleep, & in a few years’ time another cast of back-alley elite, socialite sociopaths will dance on camera for you in expensive suits, with flecks of corporate shit in their teeth & the fresh blood of a million children on their breath.

You raise your voice & say no, no, these are not my nations & this is not my way, these democracies are killing my planet, my first & last & only beloved planet, & listen to the response you get, they say, with less subtlety than Chavez or bin Laden: but do you want a dictatorship? And that’s when you realize just how shallow all this fuckin’ democracy is, you knew it stank, you knew it was false, a fraud, a fake, but it wasn’t until democracy loving people—& it’s true you are surrounded by intelligent and creative people, & they love democracy, just love it, every time an election comes around they get hard with hatred for the greater of two evils—but when such creative, intelligent, imaginative & democracy loving people as those around you fail to imagine anything but this violent shithouse, this fiction, this sham, this obscenity parading as righteousness, this vile method to slowly annihilate the whole goddamn toy, well that’s when you ask, how do I register my exasperation? How do I register my exasperation? How, midst all this skullduggery, all this shallow & pernicious blather, do I register my exasperation?

For a while, I listened to the radio program Democracy Now! I listened & I listened & all the guests were getting tortured or incarcerated or had brothers & sons about to be executed for the color of their skin or the sexual orientation of their partners, or were lawyers fighting against the latest surveillance laws & bipartisan gladhanding to fund more war & on & on & on. So I took away the words & left the aspiration, meaning both what these beleaguered activists & dissidents wanted and literally the sound of their breathing & pausing while they spoke. And it sounded like exasperation. They were all exasperated, like me, perhaps like you.

This was in 2006 & everything they were saying was something no one wanted to hear, people just wanted the economy to go up, up, up & for news of the wars to go away. Well the wars are still here & at the moment the economy stinks the way it has always stank to me, like shit, but back to the artwork in question all that audio of exasperation was of things no one wanted to hear, so I put it together with the text from my video Things You Cannot See, which I had just made & the two seemed to go together very nicely, things you cannot hear & things you cannot see, I put them together & gave the work the title Registering Our Exasperation, & so to answer the question How do I register my exasperation? I think a pretty decent start is to make some art, something that relates & transports at the same time, in which the content goes together very nicely, as artwork should, form is important after all, yes, to make some art & to talk to people, to vote with my whole influence & to turn my back on the madmen.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Disputing Augmented Unreality

from TAGMAG 06, a publication of <>TAG in The Hague

I never feel better than when I'm walking in mountains far from urban civilization. I carry a heavy pack filled with my sleeping bag, a small tent, some food, some cooking utensils and other gear, and some spare warm clothing. I keep a map of the area and a liter of water. And some chocolate. My best walks have been in the south of Poland, where I can wake up and spend eight hours following good trails through the most sparsely populated terrain—just a tiny village here and there in the valleys far below—before arriving at a clearing to set up the tent or stay in a rustic hostel or farmer’s place. I fall asleep tired and sore shortly after sundown and awake at dawn energized and ready to cover more ground.

It really is an ideal way to use my energy and spend my time, especially in the company of good friends. Enjoying my time out here is something that I had to learn to do, and I am certainly no expert at it (and I go all too infrequently). I can only identify a very few types of flora and fauna. I have not learned to successfully navigate with the sun or the stars. The only foods along the trail I recognize as safe to eat are blackberries and raspberries. (On some walks it is possible to literally fill buckets with them without pausing, so plentiful are the bushes by the path in late summer.) When I have the opportunity to drink water straight from streams—it is always excellent, utterly refreshing—I have no way of knowing for certain that it is safe. I can recgonize when distant clouds are bringing with them rain, but not so far in advance as to change my course.

I am not a mountain climber; most of the walking I do is not particularly risky, but I have made some foolish decisions. I once wandered off an isolated alpine trail and crossed a very recent avalanche in the Dolomites, in Italy, and as I slowly zig-zagged my way I watched as stones loosened beneath my boots and tumbled hundreds of meters down sheer cliffs. On another walk I climbed across a fresh mudslide in the Beskid Zywiecki region in Poland, balancing precariously on upturned tree roots and mud-encrusted boulders that defied gravity as they jutted out of the mountainside. But perhaps the most foolish thing I have ever done in my life was set out alone on a day-long walk around Hogsback, in South Africa, without a map or water or any local knowledge. I lost the path and spent hours exposed to bright sun, winding my way through dense prickly brush, navigating around unexpected cliffs dropping off to nowhere, and endeavoring not to lose my footing in the many holes dug by unseen animals in the ground. I returned to my hostel hours later than planned and completely dehydrated.

I have never gone walking with a mobile phone.


Imagine: I am on a walk somewhere, lost and thirsty and hours away from any shelter. The sun is setting and menacing clouds are rolling in and, not knowing what to do, I begin to panic. But I have a small Augmented Reality (AR) unit with me, connected to a sensor that monitors my heart rate and a lightweight pair of sunglasses with embedded translucent video screens. The unit takes barometric readings, it cross-references GPS data with the latest Internet-based ordinance survey information, and plots a route to safety that takes into account weather conditions, the terrain, access to water, and my own physical condition. As I look through the sunglasses, a map customized to my needs appears superimposed over the wilderness, displaying place names, likely places of shelter, and calculating distances and walking times. Data about local flora and fauna I should avoid is provided in image, text, and sound. All of this reassures me. I calm down and set out confidently and safely for civilization.

Yes, but I would rather leave such a device at home.


Augmented Reality refers to the layering of virtual (computerized) data upon one or more of an individual’s senses for practical, entertainment, medical, military, or artistic purposes. It is also a syntactical misnomer. Reality is not—cannot be—augmentable. Unlike breasts and penises, we cannot modify reality on a whim. Reality is not a show. In order for us to have a discussion that doesn’t resemble an LSD trip or a stay in an asylum for the insane (or a televised American political debate) we cannot qualify or quantify ‘reality’. To do so would be to dispute it. And there are only two possible consequences of disputing reality: insanity or art.

I am not a philosopher, I cannot address here the philisophical history of our culture’s conception of reality. I am also not a religious person, I do not believe that reality is ordained by the supernatural. I am often flabbergasted in philisophical conversations by questions such as ‘How do you know everything did not begin five minutes ago?’ or ‘How do you know we are not all just brains in a jar?’ It is difficult to properly articulate my certainty that I was in fact here more than five minutes ago and that my brain is not in a jar. My reality exists between the soil and the sky. And that’s that.

So how is it that I can communicate with others with different understandings about the nature of what is real? Like you, I am a human animal and, like you, I have the capacity to empathize. I was discussing this with my friend, the composer and computer musician Tom Tlalim, who observed that AR, like the Internet (and I would add like mobile phones, like anything that can be abstracted from specific perceptions of time, space, and connectivity), threatened the notion of the local. And I think he is correct. ‘The soil and the sky’ poetically defines the largest entity that I can grasp as local: my planet. And not only my planet, but tangible, physical aspects of it that others experience and are subject to. When I watch you drink water, I cannot taste it but my mind may trigger a memory of the taste of ‘water’. That, I think, is empathy. An AR device might allow me to actually taste water. And that is insane. There is no water!


My notions of empathy and ‘the local’ are closely intertwined. Since we are living in a global village, a small world, a litterbox playground for capitalist ideologists, it seems we are unable to value and respect the local. In multiple ways we are torn away from the local, torn away from the positive and negative realities before us. We live in the same local global village as billions suffering from starvation, or preventable disease, or political disenfranchisement, or state terror, or environmental degredation, and we fail to empathize. We relate, rather (or many of us do, anyway), to layer upon layer of digital unreality: gadget fetishism, video games, rampant militarism, the false corporate prophecies of a green future fueled by capitalists, the celebration of shit-brained celebrities.

There is a word for all of this, and the word is insane.


Why is it that some sort of AR unit have been helpful to me in Hogsback? Because I was a damn fool for doing what I did. Technological progress should not be used to medicate stupidity. I for one will not submit my animal body and my animal mind to Twenty-First century cyborgification. I never cease to be disturbed by the fact that people willingly wear those idiot bluetooth devices in their ears. I certainly never will. And no one cares if I do or not. But AR is advancing along with another phenomenon, called ‘ubiquitous computing’. Ubiquitous computing, the idea that everything we create can be networked, constantly processing and syncing a variety of data, seems to be widely accepted. In a world of ubiquitous computing there will be no ‘opt out’ possibility. Individuals may well become simple conductors of machines that talk to each other. Go ahead and try to opt out, now, of all the things that have become ubiquitous, the air and water and noise and light pollution, the transmission waves that flow through your body whether you want them to or not, whether you know it or not, the carcinogens and chemicals.

We march fullspeed ahead towards openly disputing reality at every turn. This is what the ubiquitous disputation of reality is called: mass insanity.


There’s a tangential comment I need to make on the subject of ‘ubicomp’ (does it get more 1984 than some of the words and phrases we use for technology these days?). I wrote above that within ubiquitous computing, data from the things we make can be networked. It may seem touchy-feely to some reading this, but I’m pretty sure trees and birds and bees and earthworms and people who are awake to their unaugmented senses are networking and syncing too. I know this to be true; the longer I spend away from devices doing the networking for me, the more I feel alive to the world around me. I need no products to facilitate the connectivity between my perceptions or amongst them and my surroundings. It is all wireless when you spend days walking in the mountains.


Insofar as we can influence and instigate aspects of our evolution, I propose in the strongest possible terms that we do not evolve away from our empathetic, animal, and locally-conscious selves. What advocates and developers of AR might see as augmenting not only our experiences but also our capabilities, I see as forfeiture of our experiences and capabilities, and this should be considered very carefully. I can and should learn about the flora and fauna in the mountains where I walk (to make an example of my own stupidity), but this ought to happen at the speed of experience, not the speed of a wireless or GPS network. I neither need nor want to submit my autonomous humanity to military and corporate augmentation. We can all make our own choices about how many gadgets we own and how many starving people we refuse to see. But when the augmentation, when the insanity is not only expected but ubiquitous, it is reasonable, it is utterly sane to say no. And to do more: to act on that refusal.


There is a layer of experience and perception and action that is maleable, that is augmentable. I first saw the formulation ‘art disputes reality’ in the work of Albert Camus, whose own grasp on the realities of the Twentieth century were manifested clearly in his writing and activities. ‘Art disputes reality,’ he wrote, ‘but it does not hide from it.’ I believe art can dispute reality when artists address it forthrightly and bring creativity to bear on the enigma of being, on the problems and beauty embedded in our perceptions. And by sharing in reality, consciously, conscientiously, and with clarity. Which is to say: sanely.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Aesthetics of Ecocide

[From TAGMAG 05 (March 2008), a publication of <>TAG in The Hague. Cross posted here and here.]
For most of the past 200,000 years, since Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in Africa, all humans lived in sustainable relationships with their landbase. They fed and were fed by the organisms with which they shared diverse environments and prospered as a species, eventually inhabiting many regions of the world. They brought with them their capacity for language, tool-making, complex organization, aesthetics.

Around 13,000 years ago some human populations began to develop the earliest attributes of civilization. A very few notable river cultures in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (and later in North and South America) established year-round human settlements, later to evolve into cities, city-states, and empires. Instead of moving to sources of food, water, and shelter, they brought these things to single locations, sparking the first large-scale, human-instigated deforestations, desertifications, water pollution, and disease, as well as early instances of animal extinctions, genetic engineering, genocide.

These settled cultures were the exception to the overwhelming majority of other human cultures, spread out around the globe, which remained in states of sustainable interdependence with the natural world. Wherever these non-civilized cultures have been met by the civilized, they have either been absorbed or eradicated. I am not romanticizing. This is historical fact. There are very few non-civilized human cultures left. Present-day hunter-gatherers are the only examples of humanity not serving a death sentence to its own ecology.

Fact: civilization is on a mass-murderous rampage that is destroying its home and everything in it. It’s called ecocide, from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘house’, and the Latin cidium, meaning ‘to kill’. Civilized humanity is killing its own house. Your house. My house. Everybody’s house. Or if you prefer: your mother, my mother, everybody’s mother.

Those of us concerned about global environmental collapse wonder if there is any meaningful thing that the civilized can do to prevent the destruction of our species and most other species. Some people have dedicated their lives to issues such as wildlife and rainforest preservation. Others, for a variety of reasons, have come onboard recently with technological innovations. One American politician made a highly popular powerpoint presentation.

But is any of this effective? Is it meaningful? Can civilized humanity do anything more effective to stop environmental meltdown than cease to exist? Not humanity, but civilized humanity. Sorry if you’ve grown attached to civilization, but if we want to stop being ecocidal we are going to have to give up either civilization or our lives. If we hang on to civilization for as long as we can (perhaps a few more decades, perhaps, before it collapses under its own weight), we not only guarantee our own destruction, but the destruction of everyone and everything we love.

The good news is that the only thing you have to do to save your home, save your mother, save everything you love, is give up civilization. And that’s how it goes. While this is not particularly controversial if one looks at the environmental indicators, my guess is that many readers will resist agreeing. The inability many of us have imagining life without civilization is a sad comment on how attached we are to our mass-murderous ways. The violence has become more important than life itself. We identify more with consuming the planet than being an animal in it. Crazy, huh?

Take an hour or two and think deeply about this. Appraise civilization, as one of many distinct human cultures. Can we really be so deluded by our own participation in the killing as to think that what civilization is doing to the planet can continue without leading to utter disaster?

And let’s be clear: civilization is not some benign cultural phenomenon that makes art, trades corn for wool and builds cities, with millenia of ecocide and genocide an inadvertant and regretted side effect of its otherwise good works to prolong life expectancies, invent haute cuisine and turn out mind-numbingly stupid sitcoms. Civilization thrives on the subjegation of everything around it. It is insatiable. History tells us that its appetite is infinite. Common sense tells us that our world is not.

British physicist Stephen Hawking apparently agrees with me. In April 2007 he stated that, due to the threats of “global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers...the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space”, essentially claiming that humanity’s only chance for continued survival is to leave this planet. Hawking then got in a jet and floated around in zero gravity for a few seconds. A leading thinker of our civilization considers our home to be like so many mass-produced, excrement-smeared baby diapers in a landfill: disposable.

Heartbreaking, especially if you love this planet.

Is Hawking right? Consider what our species requires to survive: clean air and clean water, to begin with. An atmosphere that neither chokes nor cooks nor freezes us. We need to interact with other species—those we eat, those that eat us and help dispose of our waste, those that shelter us. We need diversity, the diversity of our genes and that of the things we eat. But do we need better, cleverer products? Do we need monumental architecture?

Our water is utterly poisoned. National Geographic has recently reported that on this planet, 71 percent of which is covered with water, none of it is pristine. None of it is untouched by civilization. There are growing dead zones—massive areas where no marine life can exist—in the oceans. Civilization is killing rivers daily: dumping toxins into them, damming them (yes, and even for ‘clean’ hydro-electric power), eradicating the forests that once lined them and brought precious nutrients to them. Whole lakes have caught fire or disappeared. Rains have been composed of acid. Glaciers are melting because it is the right of the civilized to eat beef and drive an automobile.

Civilization has succeeded in killing water. And even where there is clean drinking water, the civilized increasingly prefer the bottled variety, the production of which does violence against our planet in its water- and oil-guzzling production, bottling, transportation, and disposal. (We can leave aside, for now, the violence that marketing it does to our intellect.)

And our air is filthy. Conduct a little experiment: go into the woods, or the mountains, somewhere far away. Take a deep breath. The degree to which you enjoy taking that breath and it makes you feel good is the clearest possible indication of how unclean the air is that you breath every day. The air that you breathe is the air of the civilized. It is filthy, filled with poison, and it makes you sick and unhappy. This is an objective fact: refer to your experiment in the woods for proof.

Humans are a hardy and adaptable species. Although civilized humans have almost completed the elimination of all non-civilized human cultures (those still living in balance with their ecosystems), the rest of us will outlast many other species. But our survival depends on our interaction with other species. While in our civilized wisdom we turn our back on these interactions, our actions continue to raise the planet’s temperature and cook vital amphibian, bird, insect, and plant species. Our own demise is thereby precipitated.

What will happen if we fail to respect the integrity of genes, when some inevitable disease strikes a staple in our monocrop agriculture? It is happening now with bananas and with bees. Yes, and what will fish-lovers do when, as is widely and uncontroversially predicted, edible fish species disappear altogether within the next few decades?

May I vent? I am bored to tears by the faulty and false solutions parading as the new hope for our civilization. While I respect recent efforts to alleviate the most obvious hurts of ecocide, I sometimes wonder if failing to recognize and name the real problem isn’t making it worse. Civilization will not fix civilization. A brilliant scientist is telling you to fly into outer space if you want your children to survive. One assumes that only the civilized get a ticket on the Great Airlift of the Future, and hunter-gatherers be damned. Hello?

Listen: there is no hope for civilization. Civilization is not redeemable. Civilization will not be reformed. It—we—will continue to consume what we can, and destroy what we cannot, until there is nothing left. Unless, of course, it is stopped, it is ended, it itself is subjected to the same sort of violent and systematic program of eradication that it has subjected everything in its path to for the last several millenia. Or, more likely, it collapses under its own weight. Either way, as it has hurt for millenia, it will hurt when it goes, kicking and screaming. Feel it now?

Yes, yes, there is no hope. And that may well be a good thing. Without relying on hope, that is, without externalizing the problem, our problem, we have nothing to wait for but our own good actions. What would it take for us to demolish all of our reasons for not acting against ecocide? How can we smash our false hopes for the baby steps we occassionally take against the juggernaut of civilization? We will all feel stronger when we stop playing victims to our own crimes.

The excellent and uncompromising radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen, whose flawlessly argued and highly recommended work Endgame inspired much of this article, often asks his readers to consider what they love and what they are capable and willing to do to protect and preserve it. He writes:

“One of the good things about everything being so fucked up—about the culture being so ubiquitously destructive—is that no matter where you look—no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies—there’s good and desperately important work to be done.”

So do it. Figure it out and do it. It is beyond the scope of this article to instruct anyone as to how, just to recommend we all take our minds out of the gutter of civilization and find a way. Not just this year, while it is fashionable. (Jensen has noted that for the last few decades environmental issues have returned to the headlines approximately every seven years. But the rainforests still get eaten up.) Not just until all of our automobiles run on pseudo-solutions like bio-fuel. But as a matter of course and a way of life.

Yes, and I’m typing all of this into my laptop, produced by one of the most environmentally offensive and aggressively marketed corporations in the industry. And yes, I type at 35,000 feet, as I cross the Atlantic Ocean. And yes, it is the eighth time I have crossed it in the last six months. We can discuss carbon footprints, alternative energy sources, the phoney greening of polluting industries. Or we can be honest.

Or we can talk aesthetics. Lost as I am myself in the delusions of civilization, I came up one afternoon with the name of the <>TAG exhibition, ecoAesthetics, as though the aesthetics of ecology ought to be of concern. Aesthetics? I live in The Netherlands, a country where the utterly arrogant concept of eco-aesthetics has been writ large on the landscape, even by the idea of ‘landscape’: there is hardly any ‘eco’ left here, just aesthetics, the entirety of the envirnment controlled—‘stewarded’, the policy writers of George W. Bush’s government would say—for centuries by the civilized, presumably because the civilized think they know better. I find it hard to do better than 200,000 years of survival through ice ages, floods, and volcanoes, but what do I know?

Here I sit in an airplane, cooking the atmosphere around me and strangling the environment below, playing the good soldier in civilization’s war against the planet Earth. And reformulating what has been said about the mass-murderous culture that prosecuted a more commonly agreed ‘war of aggression’ in the last century: at least the planes run on time.