The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

Forest Law

Santa Cruz
Institute of the Arts and Sciences at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery
October 3 – December 1, 2018

Forest Law is a groundbreaking exhibition on imagining altering our course as we face runaway global warming and unprecedented environmental destruction. The exhibition developed from prior shows in the UK such as The Rights of Nature at Nottingham Contemporary in 2015. Like this earlier exhibit, Forest Law considers how, in the words of art historian T.J. Demos, who gave public remarks at the exhibition, “an international grouping of artists and activists—all with links to the Americas—can produce creative modeling to reveal entrances to the fundamental principles of the rights of nature against environmental destructive practices.” In both exhibits, Demos asserts that he “refuses to surrender the term ‘nature,’ as it is proposed in the post-natural discourse of recent ecocritical theory… but rather to register a conception of nature, not as a pure realm apart from the human, but as a new… [and] a very old conception of nature located within indigenous rights struggles, Earth law, and political ecology.” Forest Law engages with these ecological ideas and brings it into the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Originally commissioned by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, Forest Law’s showing at Santa Cruz was organized by the university’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences, collaborating with the Sesnon Gallery and T.J. Demos’s Center for Creative Ecologies.

The exhibition itself consists of two multi-screen videos accompanied by a multimedia archive of maps, images, and short videos inset into a table that contextualize the videos. The videos are both by artist Ursula Biemann, recent winner of the Prix Thun for Art and Ethics in Switzerland. The more central video, Forest Law, is made in collaboration with Brazilian architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares who is based in London and São Paulo. Tavares went on the field trip with Biemann, collaborated on the filmmaking, did most of the interviewing, and provided the assemblage of materials on the table. 

Forest Law is a multi-channel video created from research carried out by Biemann and Tavares in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It considers the legal cases which favor the rights of nature over the rights of multinational fossil fuel companies, including the trial won by the indigenous people of Sarayaku in 2012. Accompanying this central piece is another video by Biemann, titled Deep Weather (2013), which similarly deals with issues of climate change and industrial extractivism by portraying oil extraction in the Alberta tar sands, followed by footage of communities suffering from flooding due to rising seas in Bangladesh. Both films juxtapose places, sensations and feelings, using split-screen film techniques.

Forest Law presents a narrative of dispossession, struggle, and legal redress in the Ecuadorian Amazon through interviews and almost life-size portraits of the indigenous people, their territory, and their activism against oil corporations. For much of the film, men from the local Kichwa-speaking communities face the camera, explaining (in Spanish) the devastating effects of oil exploration and extraction in the territories, beginning in 1967. After they discovered oil deposits in the area, the oil corporation including Texaco-Chevron began depositing explosives deep in Sarayaku territory for seismic testing. The danger of the explosives and the open pits of toxic chemicals they left behind pose an immediate threat to the area’s human inhabitants. Although Texaco-Chevron and some government officials dismissed this danger because of the area’s “remoteness,” Biemann’s film juxtaposes this extractive logic with the felt stories and ecological understandings of the indigenous activists she presents.

The speakers in the video, individually presented and wearing a mix of traditional and non-traditional garments, describe the landscape as “a living organism.” Standing alongside the forested river bank, they explain how the Earth is a home and a resource, where the human species lives within, as opposed to outside of, the vibrant ecology of plants and animals. One recurring scene shows a local man gathering medicinal plants on a wooden table. The scene reveals how the forest serves as the local pharmacy, where life is an extension of the land. The life of Sarayaku is both the people and the shared forest territory, as a woman from Sarayaku explained in her court testimony, presented in one of the supplementary archival videos. In addition to the Sarayaku case, the piece also addresses the effects of copper mining on the Shuar territory in the South of Ecuador and the successful lawsuit against Texaco-Chevron for their extractive activities in the Northern region, which came to be known as the “Lago Agrio.”

The 20th century environmental movement was based on the assertion that humans must remain separate from “uncivilized” or unconquered land, thereby denying that indigenous people had relied on nature and have existed there for millennia. Forest Law—both the film and the exhibition—explores the ways in which the Kichwa people are inseparable from the Sarayaku forest in which they live. The split-screen video gives equal visual and auditory priority to the people and the forest itself, represented through the winding river and its verdant banks. The two screens provide a multi-angle view of the forest and the people as subjects and actors, at times showing the speaker from two different angles, and other times showing both speaker and plants. First-person accounts of the indigenous cosmovision, as given by the interviewees, offer Western viewers an alternative perspective to the logics of Western environmentalism and industrial-capitalism. The images of people, plants, and forest in Biemann’s video flow and cycle smoothly, encouraging alternative ways of thinking and suggesting that in order to protect the forest, the people must also be protected.

In addition to the two films, there was a table with a variety of materials relating to Forest Law for viewers to explore: projections of film clips from relevant trials, a short video assembled and narrated by Tavares on the French philosopher Michel Serres’s 1990 book The Natural Contract, maps of the area indicating their conquest and development, and soil from the Sarayaku forest providing more information and context about the recent history of this region in the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon. The presence of the videos, alongside maps of the Sarayuku territory and the oil extraction activities which took place there makes the curation even more effective since it adds a geographical, philosophical, and legal perspective to the issues explored in Biemann and Tavare’s work. The videos contextualize Forest Law within Ecuador’s progressive 2008 constitution, in which the people voted to acknowledge the “rights of nature” in a legislative and juridical framework. This is important background for the legal victories for the forest (the Sarayaku and Lago Agrio cases) which Forest Law depicts.

In Deep Weather, the other video featured in the exhibit, Biemann explores the notorious Althabasca oil sands, where the effects of deforestation and sand extraction have devastated what was once the largest boreal forest in Canada. The tar sands is a restricted area, which photographers and journalists are not allowed access to, so it can only be filmed from a “God’s eye” view from above. Biemann uses this vantage point to draw attention to the scale of this nightmarish environmental disaster which she tells us, in a whisper, is much larger than we think, “equivalent in size to the entire country of England.” She goes on to explain in a quiet voice, as if it is a dirty secret, that “the toxic fluids collect in lakes and […] the wildlife has retreated,” intimating that a world changed by hydrocarbons constitutes a direct threat to both non-humans and “the native trappers and hunters who live off the game” near the tar sands and in the Mackenzie Basin, to the north of the mines, downriver, and in the Arctic.

In the second section of Deep Weather, “Hydrogeographies,” the video shifts to the Bay of Bengal and documents the current struggle of Bangladeshi communities. Although worlds away from the Alberta tar sands, ordinary members of the community are protecting their delta villages from rising sea levels through a comprehensive system of designed cyclone shelters and an alarm system organized through the minaret speakers. Here, Biemann follows the collective human labor that is the driving force behind the efforts to shore up and secure a barrier that locals hope will prevent their communities from flooding. In this section, the screen is often split into autonomous parts, refracting the central perspective of a single frame into multiple perspectives. In one scene, there is a young woman standing still, facing us in one frame, while the other screen depicts an eroding coastline which appears as a thin sliver of its former self. Biemann whispers, “populations along the coastal area drown in their sleep. The signals were muffled and came too late. Fluid lands moved further East and large chunks broke off.” We hear Biemann say that the coastline has become “little more than a constantly fluctuating, mobile mass.” She makes intelligible in Deep Weather the fact that, for areas like the Bay of Bengal, the hundred-year flood of yesterday is now the yearly cyclone event of today.

Both Forest Law and Deep Weather employ juxtaposition to invoke their message. In Deep Weather, the rhetorical transition from the tar sands of Alberta to the flooded communities of Bangladesh displays an evident conflict between the beginnings and the ends of environmental destruction. In Forest Law, the contrast is equally great, but opposing parts occur in the same place simultaneously. In the Sarayaku forest, Biemann shows us two worlds that are separate in all ways other than their geographical location: the world of the colonizers, beholden to the interests of corporate oil, and that of the indigenous leaders of the Kichwa people. Not only are these two distinct groups of people, but they are also two distinct sets of interests, practices, and beliefs. Biemann shows us this in her varied shots and multi-screen format, using successive shots of the interviewed indigenous people, followed by the land which was destroyed, followed by the land that lives on and whose rights were won in court.

Distinctions between people are also muddled, such as when indigenous leaders are forced to adopt the language of their colonial leaders in order to protect their very way of being. The indigenous leaders interviewed for the film speak in Spanish, and often use the same vocabulary as their colonists in describing their very own lifestyle. This begs the question: how much have the Kichwa been forced to sacrifice as they defend their right to exist? The tension of juxtaposed reality intensifies when Forest Law shows two scenes, occurring on plastic tables in the Sarayaku forest: in the first, a Shuar shaman brings plants to the tabling, assembling medicines from the forest’s wares, and in the other, a local man wears a biohazard suit, testing the soil for its contamination by the colonists. In both, we are reminded of the ways in which the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon have been forced to adapt and compromise, just to continue to exist. 

The ultimate juxtaposition invoked by the exhibition, however, is between the two films. Whereas the destruction of the Sarayaku and Lago Agrio forest territories is resolved in a criminal court of Ecuador, the international scale of Deep Weather’s subject prevents legal closure. Watching the two films sequentially, we are reminded that, although indigenous people do have the power to wrestle with complicated bureaucracies and win back at least some of their rights, the global nature of capitalist environmental destruction makes this kind of justice unlikely to be served. The people of Bangladesh, whose land sinks beneath their feet because of oil extraction thousands of miles away, are powerless to invoke a legal argument, to lower the sea levels, or even to live peacefully.

Biemann’s work makes us think about embodying a different, more personal relation to these sites, taking into account what Ursula Heise calls a form of “eco-cosmopolitanism” which is “an attempt to envision individuals and groups as part of planetary ‘imagined communities’ of both human and nonhuman kind.” But this form of eco-cosmopolitanism is not going that well as of late given that the latest warnings on global warming continue to be dire. But they have not been dire enough for one nation after another refuses to respond and even worse seems to be moving in the wrong direction. The US, which has the world’s largest economy and is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide has taken the lead in turning its back on the fight and instead of lowering emissions is promoting fossil fuels. By choosing cabinet appointments of climate deniers and captains of oil, Mr. Trump has emboldened other countries to do the same. A case in point is the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who recently named an outspoken climate change denier as his foreign minister. His plans to open up the Amazon to deforestation, mining and agribusinesses, as well as eliminating the protections for indigenous people living there, is putting the Ecuadorian rainforest as well as the indigenous populations living there at heightened risk. At the same moment that environmental journalist Becca Warner reminds us that “we need all the forest we can get to capture carbon from the atmosphere and keep it locked away,” older imperialist narratives are also rising up from the 19tth and 20th century soil of colonialism like ghosts, and once again have clear genocidal implications for both the planet’s largest rainforest and the indigenous communities who call it home. In dark times, Forest Law and Deep Weather conjure both the hope and difficulty of how art can be used for thinking about climate change in relational terms and contribute to cross-cultural solidarity and to the creation of new forms of community.


Lisa E. Bloom

Lisa E. Bloom is the author of many books and articles in visual culture and feminist art history including her anthology With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture  that demonstrates that feminist, postcolonial and antiracist concerns can be incorporated into the history of art. She is currently in residence at the Beatrice Bain Center in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at UC Berkeley completing her latest book, Polar Aesthetics: Art, Feminism and the Climate Crisis in the Arctic and Antarctic that examines aspects of feminist and environmentalist art that conjoins issues routinely kept apart in climate change debates such as the fate of indigenous communities, resurgent nationalisms, globalizing capitalism as well as questions of gender, race, and persistent postcolonial relations.

Iris Morrell

Iris Morrell is a contributor to the Rail.

Ariel Hoage

Ariel Hoage is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues