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In a new book of lyric essays, poet Cole Swensen answers a call issued by theorists Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel: to reimagine the globe in terms of the fragile surface ecosystems that support all life.
Art in Time
Nightboat Books, $18.95 (paper)
Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth
Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds.
ZKM / The Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and The MIT Press, $65.00 (cloth)
Let’s take as a starting point that “the Earth is moving yet again.” It is shifting, unstable, reactive; it’s different one year, or minute, to the next. In an age of rising seas and mass extinctions, the point hardly needs proving.
The quote comes from the introduction to Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, a tome-sized catalog published in 2020 to accompany an exhibition at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The philosopher Bruno Latour and the artist/curator Peter Weibel are its organizer and editors. For them, and for a growing cadre of scientists and theorists, “critical zones” are a new framework for understanding the world—not as a globe, nor exactly as a serene, self-healing Gaia, but as the thin, contested skin of the Earth on which we actually live: soil and rocks, air and water, plants and trees, animals, and all the marks of humanity—physical ones, of course, but also art, politics, and science.
Sometimes singular and sometimes plural, the critical zone is “patchy, heterogeneous, discontinuous.” We experience it not from an objective distance but from within its conditions and inside our bodies. We don’t look down on it; we look across it or around in it. As Critical Zones aims to showcase, artists and thinkers engage with the critical zone in all kinds of ways, from studying the impact of acid rain in a French forest, to making an “essay film” about the abandoned Biosphere 2, to creating Twitter accounts for individual trees. This paradigm asks art and science to emerge from their silos and learn to collaborate, especially on the project of producing new representations of our planetary home—cosmograms as powerful as NASA’s “Blue Marble” photos, but more appropriate to our messy, ground-level present moment.
Critical zones are a new framework for understanding the world—not as a globe, nor exactly as a serene, self-healing Gaia, but as the thin, contested skin of the Earth on which we actually live.
The book’s several dozen contributors also devote much energy to mining intellectual history for precursors to the critical zone concept. They share this urge with Art in Time, a quietly remarkable new book of ekphrastic essays by the poet Cole Swensen. The painters, filmmakers, and others in Swensen’s collection range from Rosa Bonheur and Frederick Law Olmsted, both born in 1822, to Renee Gladman, the experimental writer and artist working today. In diverse ways these artists have anticipated the critical zone framework: they push their media to unsettle the traditional delineation of figure and ground, conceiving instead of a human presence that bleeds into and is enveloped by a dynamic earth.
Swensen never uses the term “critical zone,” but her project grows from a similar understanding that human life, whether we admit it or not, is inextricably enmeshed with living and nonliving forces on Earth. When she speaks of “viewer and view mutually constructing each other,” she’s talking about art, but she soon widens her lens: we must relate to the earth “based on collaboration rather than domination.” Art should not aim for timelessness, but should be “conjugated into the present.” It should “insist on specificity, on particularity.”
As it turns out, Swensen’s seemingly more modest project may have something crucial to offer the many thinkers involved in Latour and Weibel’s exhibition. Through a poet’s intuitive, rather than analytical, approach to language, Swensen makes space for multiple meanings and understandings simultaneously. In enlarging the possibilities of artworks, she manages to enact the practices of playful nurturance that scholars can only describe.
• • •
Art in Time and Critical Zones come from different worlds; you might almost say they have different personae. One is hefty, credentialed, and charismatic; the other is modest, dreamy, and slim. But they do share a common set of concerns.
Swensen’s sense of time as a physical zone into which artmaking extends mirrors the image of the biological being as continuous with, not separate from, the environs. In Critical Zones this idea comes up repeatedly—for example, in an account by the earth system scientists Timothy M. Lenton and Sébastien Dutreuil of how life on Earth has created and maintained its own habitat, shaping water cycles, the atmosphere, and even geology. This theme of mutuality also reverberates through Swensen’s book. Of the paintings of Chaïm Soutine, she asks, “how are // we a product of wind?” Gazing at the pioneering nighttime photography of George Shiras, she imagines his animal subjects anchoring “surroundings [that] included him, not as an outsider, but as an integral part of the whole.”
Over and over Swensen describes human figures, trees, and animals dissolving into, or merging with, the landscape. Critical Zones briefly displays the recent watercolor paintings of Olga Lukyanova—in which insect and human outlines are muddied into the paper, and thus into the terra—while Swensen shows that nineteenth century painters like Bonheur were exploring similar ideas, and that these communalizing urges have carried through Soutine, Gustav Klimt, David Hockney, and Agnes Varda, to the present-day video artist Zineb Sedira. The artistic choices might be simple and profound (Klimt adopted a square format for landscape paintings and thus “dissolved the distinction between portrait and landscape”) or more complex, as in Varda’s method of granting full personality to places, with their qualities of light, wind, and season.
Only by reasserting our collective interdependence can we imagine a future not defined by endless economic expansion.
Just as the discrete human figure gives way to an entangled holobiont—a being in mutual, ongoing creation with other beings and every element of its surrounds—the individual social or political actor begins to merge into the collective “we” of democracy, of the commons, of the law. Shiras, for example, was not only a photographer but also a conservationist and congressman who worked to preserve forests and discourage poaching. In Critical Zones political theorist Timothy Mitchell points out that, by endlessly borrowing against the future like an overzealous hunter, capitalism “claims to have given us growth.” Mitchell asks us, “How could we survive under a different temporality?” The emphasis is mine; those small words, us and we, seem in this context far more crucial than the singular I. Only by reasserting our collective interdependence can we imagine a future not defined by endless economic expansion.
Another of the two works’ shared concerns has to do with the way human concepts both describe the world and create it in their own image. By now it’s a scholarly commonplace that the convention of depicting a view through linear perspective—implying a single, privileged viewer—went far beyond revolutionizing the way artists painted scenes. It also fit hand-in-glove with an Enlightenment understanding of the world, one in which the globe invited mapping and conquest, plants and animals could be carefully taxonomized, and the Western gaze (the singular “I” as eye) assumed the right to control all it surveyed.
“How can we responsibly structure our perception and relations? One important task is precisely to unlearn the distant, objectifying gaze,” says art theorist Johanna Ziebritzki in a direct address to this problem. Several of her fellow Critical Zones contributors offer lessons from art history’s past, moments when linear perspective subtly wavered. Albert Bierstadt painted a landscape “from the point of view of the mountain,” writes Estelle Zhong Mengual. Dutch landscapists of the early seventeenth century painted from ground level (a “worm’s-eye view,”) adds Joseph Leo Koerner, while Alexander von Humboldt adopted an almost subterranean standpoint. In Humboldt’s scientific illustrations of South America, Koerner writes, “Vertical distance, from fungi to the dark blue sky above, is neither anthropocentric nor infinite. Instead, it is the Critical Zone.”
Such artists of earlier eras suggested, intentionally or not, that we might enlarge our viewpoint beyond the personal, maybe even beyond the human. But it fell to twentieth-century art movements—abstraction, Cubism, postmodernism—to consciously undo the Enlightenment paradigm. As a contemporary poet, Swensen wields a language capable of channeling this history. Here she contemplates a video project by David Hockney, made by mounting nine cameras to a truck driving down a country road:
. . . Hockneyhad long been interestedin inverted perspectivewhich places the vanishing point somewhere back there behindyou and goingthe roaddown through treesthe road onlyslows the road on.
Swensen allows her grammar and syntax to fall apart—not into nonsense, but into an alternate sense-making—in a way that reenacts Hockney’s method. By collaging nine shots recorded at different exposures, angles, and points in time, Hockney multiplies the relations between the viewer and the landscape. Fragmenting lines and syntax, Swensen refracts these relations through the very structure of her text.
Swensen’s technique, then, is more than just a poetic flight of fancy. Language itself is the key to the “unlearning” called for by Ziebritzki. “We will have to reach down into the taken-for-granted machinery of language,” writes Bronislaw Szerszynski, a scholar of technology and history, in Critical Zones. His brilliant piece explores the parallels between grammatical structures and the worldviews they express. For example, the imperfect verb tense of constructions like “You were reading this book” allows potentiality and actualization to coexist and interdepend—in other words, it creates a grammatical space where action and achievement let go some of their primacy. Similarly, the “middle voice”—between passive and active, as in “I soothe myself”—implies an immersion in action that transcends the binary of acting or being acted upon. “You are doing something, but in a way that opens you up to alterity, to the wider situation,” Szerszynski writes, and then adds this startling statement: “In such activities we become more like plants.”
He means that we become more porous to what’s outside us: weather, time, and other external conditions. In turn, those forces gain a measure of agency. To flip Szerszynski’s phrase, plants, and everything else around us, become more like persons. Swensen hints at this reversal, wondering at the paintings “The Oak” and “The Tree” by Soutine: “Is a painting of a tree a landscape or a portrait?” In her engagement with the video artist Joan Jonas, she again defamiliarizes human agency, drawing the reader into a process of sense-making that includes both the poet and the landscape:
. . . if a woman for instance walks acrossa river, if a road follows her, if bird and dog become increasinglya part if we see ourselves as also inextricable . . .
To “become increasingly” is the nature of life; living things grow and reproduce. Here on Earth, life has built itself a narrow habitable band in which to continually increase and become. The mutuality identified by critical zone scientists and scholars, parsed by Szerszynski, and explored by Swensen, is more than just an image; it is a reality which Western constructs, from prescriptive grammar to maps to taxonomies, have often obscured.
• • •
Reading these two books side-by-side, one begins to ponder the difference between “knowledge” and “knowing.” The former might be seen as an object, even as a possession. Knowing, however, is a process. The concept of the critical zone implies that we are currently within the process of knowing, or coming to know, how we might live sustainably on the Earth.
The framework in Critical Zones suggests that we embrace the fluidity of knowing rather than striving for a static knowledge. Again and again the book reminds us that our present understanding is scaffolded by the neologisms of former eras: “symbiosis,” “biosphere,” “ecology.” Even the term “Anthropocene,” itself a new cosmogram, is contested; Critical Zones includes a list of alternatives, including the “Oil-o-cene,” the “Plasticene,” and the “Knowosphere.” It’s a mark of how fast things are changing, both physically and intellectually, that our name for our own time requires constant revision.
Even the means of knowing must be multiple. Around the planet dozens of multidisciplinary Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs) are accelerating the process of knowing by bringing together scientists of many stripes (geophysicists, hydrologists, ecologists, and others), along with historians, anthropologists, and poets. Critical Zones describes one CZO in South Carolina where the history of severe soil erosion intertwines with that of slavery and poverty. The idea is that human events are continuous with their earthly effects.
Art still plays an ancient role, expressing what a diagram alone cannot—the mystery of being and the dynamic interdependence of life forms.
But our own senses can also tell us that the planet is shifting. Spring comes earlier; birdsong fades—the technological and the sensory, together, make up our knowing. For Swensen the two intersect in the work of André des Gachons, a onetime Symbolist painter who in the early 20th century began appending meteorological observations to watercolor sketches of the sky. “Working in watercolor underscores the corporeal, insisting on weather as something experienced by the body alone,” she writes. Data is static, a kind of dead information; but the relations among animals, plants, and the Earth are always alive, and so must be our knowing of them. In other words, art still plays an ancient role, expressing what a diagram alone cannot—the mystery of being and the dynamic interdependence of life forms.
It’s curious, then, that in Critical Zones the actual art often feels like a side dish to the meat-and-potatoes of theory. Many of the projects represented function as illustrations of the compelling ideas of thinkers such as Latour. In one chapter Latour praises the sculptor Sarah Sze, declaring that her work “bring[s] about a model perfectly attuned to the actual state of our material conditions, seen from within,” thereby “curb[ing] our obsession with the globe.” But we come away knowing less about Sze’s artistic practice (which involves immersive, anti-monumental assemblages of everyday objects and video projections) than we know about Latour’s reaction to it.
It would be wonderful to see what Cole Swensen would make of Sze’s work, because the artists Swensen engages live in her pages as dynamic energetic presences—minds and lives with whom the poet was playing (in the imperfect tense) and to whom the poet listens (in the middle voice). She does not impose her concepts on the art, turning her own responses into knowledge a reader could then possess; rather, she slips inside the work, allowing a process of knowing to transpire.
Here she is, for example, contemplating the pencil lines of Agnes Martin:
[A line] measures the space it crosses as it also creates it, unfolds it, and always unfolding farther, the line is timed to the pulse of its lateral falling, unwinding its patience from inside. . . . There is something about graphite that is relentlessly internal, always an inner eye.
The lyric insight in this passage comes from a deep and quiet attunement to the experience of both maker and viewer. It also prepares the ground for a more straightforward art-historical point Swensen makes several pages later: that when Martin began drawing grids in the early 1960s, she had taken a step toward non-hierarchical representations of space, “which eliminates the possibility of horizon . . . and so for the first time, a landscape not limited by an eye.” Unlimited landscapes here become an analog for process-oriented learning, a revelation that cannot be reduced to the theorist’s tidy summation or to a label on a map.
When Swensen breaks into lines and writes, “how the simple builds / into grandeur simply / by the repetition of patience . . .” she’s not only describing Martin’s method but recreating it. Her lines conjure other kinds of patient grandeur—like the growth of a tree, or earthworms’ effect on soil. Is this criticism? It’s immersive, an art in itself, more like an invitation than a declaration. It’s a form of play that unfurls through time, creating and discovering a space, just like Martin’s pencil lines.
• • •
Art in Time mixes genres: essay and poetry, obviously, but also biography, interview, and exegesis. This heterogeneity recalls the “patchy” nature of the critical zone, with different approaches for different local conditions. Swensen makes space for politics, too, as when she dwells upon the work of Sally Mann, whose landscape photography is informed by her white family’s history in the South. Swensen first makes a statement, then takes flight into a series of questions about grief, distance, and where memory resides:
Mann’s work raises the issue of the connection between landscape and history, but also and more pointedly that between landscape and memory—does the earth remember grief? And what happens to grief when the griever looks up from the earth, raises their eyes; what happens to the sky?
This is the poet, writing as a critic, but never losing touch with the poetic impulse to discover unseen depths, to make room for the mysterious. Mann uses the tools of photography to question how a landscape might embody a historical wound like slavery, and then Swensen uses her tools, the poet’s tools, to inhabit those questions and invite them into a different artistic realm. There is a kind of interdependence and nourishment being practiced here that seems like a real answer to the call for artistic reimagining issued by Critical Zones.
There is a kind of interdependence and nourishment being practiced in Swensen's work that seems like a real answer to the call for artistic reimagining issued by Critical Zones.
Why does it matter? During America’s most recent election cycle, the deadly danger of refusing interdependence—of seeing political opponents as enemies, not fellow participants in democracy—became painfully clear. And it’s obvious how that political divide parallels all manner of cultural splits, between those who accept and reject climate science, between those who wear and shun masks, between those who support Black Lives Matter and those who deem it a threat. In all of these battles, there are too many declarations, not enough questions, not enough listening.
In the end, if “the earth is moving yet again,” then the human realm must shift and be shifted. We need to solve practical problems, of course—burn fewer fossil fuels, ensure equity in health care—but our thinking must also evolve, beneath and around the process of making those more tangible changes. Theory and artmaking each have a place in this endeavor, as do storytelling and science, ceremony and movement. Multiplicity is the rule. As Swensen puts it, describing Hockney’s suite of cameras in motion, “the mind splits into nine.”
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