12.10. from 4 PM at etc. gallery: Performative walk of the Sbor družstva život (Choir of the Life Co-op):
Denisa Langrová, Jonáš Richter, Ruta Putramentaite
curators: Anna Remešová, Lukáš Likavčan, the project is in collaboration with Fotograf Festival #11
online: on etc. gallery website from October 9 until October 12
Elementary Possibilities of Connection
it is impossible to tell where one ends
and the other begins
rock and bacteria
organic and inorganic
both living and dead
My selection of videos for a screening programme at the Fotograf Festival was directed by joy, or perhaps intuition, or perhaps both. At the very beginning was the video Elementary Tendencies of Comradeliness and Relations, a diploma work by Denisa Langrová that I consulted with the artist on several occasions. Then came further videos – some were recommended to me, some I chose simply because I like them. Only now, as I write this text, watching the videos again and searching for connections, I am beginning to consider whether the selection will also make sense to the spectators. I face a dilemma: How to transcribe intuition into words and thus feign intention? And how can one describe something that eludes description in its constant movement?
I will leave the first question hanging in the air, but the second question brings us closer to the works themselves. The theme of the programme was clear from the beginning: The current life of humanity on the planet is unsustainable, we are experiencing or will soon experience the drastic impacts of climate change, we are searching for various solutions and also descriptions of what is happening, discovering that the rational, scientific position is not enough, that the problem is somewhere deeper, at a depth where numbers, measuring devices, and words cannot reach. At the core of every element or particle of matter that seems divided, differentiated, described, correctly categorised, is something that makes them closely connected. It is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.
This sentence is heard in Serpent Rain (2016), a video by the philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva and film-maker Arjuna Neuman. This is their first work together, later complemented by 4 Waters: Deep Implicancy and the recent Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum. All of these focus on current global issues including migration or the devastation of the environment, but rather than a documentary approach, they take the path of the experimental video essay, with political reflection intermingling with poems as in a collage of images, attempting to find a balance between the two as well as an equilibrium between various materials and layers of reality – in concrete, physical manners, such as between the layers of the surface of the Earth. The voice of Denise Ferreira da Silva leads our attention to the problem of labour and how, under capitalism, the use of human bodies is closely connected to the falling apart of organic matter; the breakdown of the environment in which we live, all in order to increase the profits of private companies. The intention of Serpent Rain, however, is not to directly describe the infrastructure of power, but rather to understand the principles of modernity and the ideological framework whose critique the video gradually postulates, through images rather than words. The long observational shots ask us directly: Can we see all the relationships of the world in one specific piece of matter? Can an ice waterfall serve as an image of wholeness?
Serpent Rain intentionally uses non-linear streams of perception. The individual testimonies are divided by long static shots and a hand shuffling a deck of cards. But the walls of the circle around which the script dances is not the notion of gradual development that gradually uncovers more and more information. The core is matter itself, which defines what happens next. The film develops the idea of historical materialism, taking a critical stance to the notion of linear time, of some form of fluid development at the end of which is an advanced civilisation. Instead, we are now witnessing the immeasurable and unexpected consequences of our actions. What step in the development of humanity does arid and barren soil represent? And what role is played by the people who are escaping countries where life is no longer possible?
Denise Ferreira da Silva has explored the connections between global warming, population displacement, and the exploitation of natural resources in a number of texts. In her essay The Crises of the European Imagination, she describes the Enlightenment system of classification, which considers the human organism the most perfect living form and defines its understanding of other forms on this foundation. Ferreira da Silva, however, writes that we must turn away from this form of anthropocentrism and avoid perceiving its effect on the planet as effectively the cause of global warming or a chain of causal events. She proposes instead a focus on legal and symbolic orders that are the primary causes of climate change: extractivism, colonialism, and racism. “True, as the writers on the Anthropocene or Capitolocene say, this is due to agricultural and industrial production; true, it is also about extensive and intensive extraction of the Earth’s solid and liquid matter, as fossil fuels or soil nutrients to feed crops and livestock. Very few, though, attend to how extraction and the expropriation of labor and land necessary for access to fossil fuels and soil, are deeply implicated with the accumulation of gases in the Earth’s troposphere: that is, how excessive concentration of the means of production and of access to raw materials corresponds to the excess of greenhouse gases.” In their work, Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman therefore aim to transform our imagination from discriminatory categories to connected categories. They refuse the primacy of science as a tool to describe the world and its transformations, finding inspiration in the thought of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, who designated four elements as the basic materials of the world: fire, water, air, and earth. These fundamental elements and their connection in every living thing is also the subject of the videos by Denisa Langrová and András Cséfalvay.
“The world as a whole. It’s hard to imagine as it is a statement against experience, but the world does not have parts. Reality is one… Either a total continuum, or filled with fine undifferentiated grain, but still there is no different parts unless there is intention to see so,” says Isaac Newton in András Cséfalvay’s melancholic video Newtoniana (2018). During his speech, Newton casts doubt on his own part as the founder of the exact sciences, as someone who developed the mathematised world view from which the values of ethics disappear (“Am I a good person?”) in order to find a manner of naming the phenomena around him, a manner based on reflection and processuality. But how does one count phenomena that are constantly in motion?
Numbers pushed sensitivity out of the arena of the world in order to accelerate the profit that stems from using natural resources. For her video Elementary Tendencies of Comradeliness and Relations (2021), Denisa Langrová selected – of the many examples – animal farming, filming in a hall with a large herd of cows bred for milk. In the voice-over that accompanies the video, she describes the severing of links as the central motif of the disruption of balance on Earth: the severed links between the mother and its offspring, the cow and an environment in which it could graze freely, and also between the living organism and the human being that treats the cow more as a machine than a living being. The cow is thus denied fresh air and movement, it is constantly artificially inseminated and milked in an endless cycle and never sees the light of day so as to avoid disrupting the efficiency of milk production. And so, instead of a normal lifespan of twenty years, the cow lives only three to five years. “The air is constantly in motion, but more now than ever before. Life begins with an inhalation, the air surrounds the entire world. That’s why I thought there would be a celebration of community and life here. Strange, it’s the opposite.” The enormous impact of large-scale animal farming on the environment is generally well known, but changes in behaviour take place very slowly, if at all. Denisa Langrová therefore chose the relationship of people to cows and the development of their domestication and breeding to tell a mythical story about five elements through which she guides us as if they were chapters. At the end, she adds to the four elements Aristotle’s fifth: quintessence, which refers to the heavenly essence, the circular movement of the heavenly bodies (in contrast to terrestrial matters, which move in a linear fashion).
Moving image has the advantage that in time, as the individual images are arranged one after the other, we can experience a different kind of time, learn countermovement; non-linearity. We can follow long observational shots in which nothing seems to happen, think in suggestions, perhaps entirely without words, or simply observe. These are some of the invitations extended to us by Emilija Škarnulytė as she dresses up as a mermaid or siren, swimming through a tunnel for atomic submarines that leads to a base behind the arctic circle. Her video Sirenomelia (2017) is a meditation through images on the relationship between technology, the natural elements, and humans, returning us to the very beginnings of life: water, where single-cell organisms were created. Perhaps we too will end our stint on the planet in a circle instead of culminating a straight line of development. Perhaps with the melting of the icebergs and rising ocean levels, we will return to the water. Is this such an unpleasant idea?
Denise Ferreira da Silva is a Brazilian-Canadian philosopher. She is Professor and Director of The Social Justice Institute (GRSJ) at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Her academic writings and artistic practice address the ethical and political questions of the global present. She is the author of Toward a Global Idea of Race (2007) and co-editor of Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime (2013, with Paula Chakravartty) and Postcolonialism and the Law (2018, with Mark Harris). Forthcoming this autumn is her new book Unpayable Debt. She has made three films with Arjuna Neuman: Serpent Rain, Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum, and 4 Waters: Deep Implicancy, which discusses global problems including migration, displacement, the heritage of colonialism, and ecological devastation, asking what happens when ethical thought loses sight of values.
Arjuna Neuman is an artist and film-maker based in Berlin. He often deploys the format of an experimental essay, within which he uses various perspectives to speculate on the future and combines affective and bodily subjects with geopolitical and planetary questions. He has exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, or the 56th Venice Biennale.
András Cséfalvay is a visual artist, a digital storyteller, a young academic from Slovakia currently teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. He studied painting and mathematics in Bratislava, after which he wrote his dissertation at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design on the usefulness and reality of fiction. His work explores the relationship between culture and technology, the political and ethical aspects of listening to non-dominant voices, and interpretations of the world. His latest projects consider the relationship between astronomers and indigenous people in the construction of the Mauna Kea telescopes, the flight of dinosaurs as technology for extinction survival, or the re-categorisation of the planet Pluto. He is a co-founder of the digital arts platform at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava.
Denisa Langrová graduated from the Sculpture Studio of Edith Jeřábková and Dominik Lang at the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague in 2021. She makes art with a focus on themes including ecofeminism, environmentalism, and animal studies, and, by extension, interspecies relationships. In her work, which is often based on artistic research, she explores how the narratives of human and non-human animals intersect. She freely combines real and fictitious elements, creating in her videos a hybrid combination of the genres of the documentary and the fairy tale. She currently works at the Pastvina Community Gardens and is studying the engineering programme Management of Animal Health and Welfare at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague.
Emilija Škarnulytė is an artist and film-maker. Her works combine fiction and documentary strategies, exploring geological, ecological, and political subjects, connected primarily with the operation of infrastructure, invisibly regulated by large systems of power. Škarnulytė is interested in the basic questions that determine our current geological aeon, dominated by human activity. Her works have been introduced at a number of group exhibitions, including Hyperobjects at the Ballroom Marfa in Texas, Moving Stones at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, the first International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Riga, and Bold Tendencies in London. Škarnulytė was awarded the Future Generation Art Prize 2019 and represented Lithuania at the 12th Triennial of Design and Architecture in Milan. Her films were screened at festivals around the world. She co-leads Polar Film Lab, a collective for 16mm analogue film based in Tromsø, Norway.
THE PROJECT IS FINANCIALLY SUPPORTED BY GRANTS FROM THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE OF THE CZECH REPUBLIC AND PRAGUE CITY HALL. THE EVENT IS A PART OF FOTOGRAF FESTIVAL #11.