Director's Notes on the Knowledge, Culture, Ecologies Conference

Fifteen of us from the ICS are gathered here in Santiago for the fourth Knowledge/Culture conference. In the tradition of previous missives describing our engagement, I thought you might be interested in my notes on the 'Ecologies' conference.

Tomas Ariztia from the Universidad Diego Portales and Juan Salazar from the Institute for Culture and Society welcomed us to the conference in Chile. Speaking in Spanish, Tomas described the development of a special space. This conference comes out of a deep collaboration, he said, a collaboration that crosses the Pacific and two languages. The conference will begin with the first day in Spanish, and then the subsequent three days will move back and forth between the two languages. This exchange across languages is part of the politics of creating dialogue across the many boundaries of continuing cultural difference.

Juan talked of bringing cultural and political questions to the challenging complexity of ecologies. We have strong questions and weak answers, and these weak answers contribute to this complexity. The complexities that we will be seeking to respond actively in the conference include the consequences of extractivism, materialism, enclosure of land, new forms of colonization, urbanization, conflict and increasing Anthropogenic domination of nature. We are gathering here to rethink ecological complexities, through dialogue, film, images, and poetry, and this should have consequences for practice. In the words of Eduardo Galeano, ‘In the end and after all, we are what we do …’ Introducing, the next speaker, Juan suggested that one of the most confronting complexities of Chile, and globally, is place of Indigenous peoples.

Jeanette Paillan, an audio-visual artist, introduced herself as a Mapuche person, indigenous to Chile. She showed us segments of three moving films made by Indigenous people across different parts of South America. In a variety of ways, including through these films, Indigenous people are seeking to manage their own worlds. We are not just part of the past, Jeanette, asserted, we are part of a future that we can imagine differently. This builds upon our present, which importantly includes activities of resistance to territorial displacement.

Arturo Escobar spoke passionately on the topic of ‘Habitability and Design: Architectures for Complexity’, thinking through the relationship between humans and non-humans. We have to learn to walk the world as living beings, interacting in a pluriverse of engagements, he suggested. Arturo showed us a series of urban and rural sites experiencing a crisis of terrestrial habitability. Using the work of Harold Martinez, he argued that our habitat and habit is in contradiction with the natural. At the same time the social is dominated by ontologies of patriarchy (Diana Gomez). We need to move to a biology of love (Verden-Zoller). We need to design tools for living well (Flores); for designing situations of complex relationality, mediated by community and place. There are a number of struggles in South America for alternative forms of relationality: Mujeres Afrodescendinetes; and La Liberacion de la Madre Tierra. There is a widening to a more embracing ontology of community, post-extractrivismo, and towards recommunalizacion, relocalizion, and descolonizacion. Questions included those on how we can ground such a politics in tools for engagement. What are those tools?

After these plenary presentations, the conference broke for lunch, and we returned for the first parallel sessions. One of the sessions was called ‘Concrete in the Anthropocene’, linking the contradictory hopes of modern progress and concrete’s perceived permanence. Heid Jerstad described the brokens dream of cement-modernity in the Himalayas, where concrete houses gave status but had dubious outcomes: thermal discomfort, cracking walls, and less durability. Cristian Simionetti, similarly described how, across the world, concrete was associated with modern hopes. Concrete sits between nature and culture, he said, marking modernity’s passage away from nature. Focussing on sea walls, Denis Byrne, tracked the uneven transition across the twentieth-century from stone to concrete as the basis for their building. He argued for keeping in mind the continuing geological wildness of aggregate concrete — sand and stone (with standardized Portland cement). Using wilderness, in a different sense, Rachel Harkness ranged across the development of both concrete wildernesses and counter-ecologies of concrete, including the acknowledgment of its negative resource-bases, its consequences for sustainability, and the possibility of its decay.

Introducing the next plenary session, ‘Rooting into the Plantropocene, or How to Grow Liveable Worlds’, Manuel Toroni argued that we need find principles for thinking about the post-Anthropocene. Natasha Meyers, trained as a molecular biologist, set out a series of ten steps for thinking otherwise: 1. Never forget that 'we' humans are not 'one'. 2. Break this world to make other worlds possible. In the words of Frederic Jameson, ‘It is easier to dream the apocalyptic end of this world than the end of capitalism’. 3. We are not alone. 4. Name our most powerful allies — viz. photosynthetic creatures. 4. Conspire with plants, and work on their terms. 6 Decolonize your imagination. 7. Vegetalize your sensorium. 8. Take ecology off the grid. 8. Garden. Let plants grow where they want to. [Sorry, I drifted off for a moment, and missed point 9.] 10. Make art for the Plantropocene. Many people loved this address. I was not so sure.

The evening was beautiful. A few hundred people gathered on the roof garden of the biblioteka, talking and drinking, the faces glowing in the low sun. We could see across the medium-density of the old-city precinct of Santiago. Beyond the immediate city, the Andes were clear and magnificent, showing up the contingency of the city. As the sun set, I talked to a person from Duke who lives in a trailer-van and works on ontologies of customy life.

The first morning session for Thursday brought a cornucopia of possibilities — and as with Wednesday’s program it was hard to choose which session to attend. A group of papers came together under the intriguing heading ‘Suspensions: Atmospherics of the Anthropocene to explore various alternative metaphors for moving through the atmosphere. Timothy Choy explored the metaphor of conspiracy — from the Latin for ‘breathing together’. Bronsilaw Szerszynski did the same for the concept of ‘drift’. As he spoke, seeking an alternative to locomotive capitalism, a silent film screened behind him following the floating trajectory of falling seed pods. Nick Saphiro sought a poetics that found a way around the event/disturbance model in responding to the contemporary toxicity crisis. The clash of metaphors was momentarily noted: the toxic substances of ‘chemo-capital succesion’ also drift.

And so with two days to go the conference continues - lively and exciting, with lots of papers that I find enthralling and some I find otherwise. Juan Francisco Salazar, Anna Cristina Pertierra, Gay Hawkins and the team have done a wonderful job of pulling all of this together. We deeply in debt to our Chilean partners, the Universidad Diego Portales and the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile.

By ICS Director, Professor Paul James

22 November, 2017.