Featured image: Infinity Burial Suit: Space Proposal (Jae Rhim Lee, 2008). Photo by James Patten.
Whether or not Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. In this essay, Rahel Aima reflects on how artists such as Jae Rhim Lee, Karolina Sobecka, and Sam Van Aken responded to a shifting of their respective environments, particularly in the intersections between climate change and the Occupy movements of 2009.
Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
OCCUPY EVERYTHING; DEMAND NOTHING became the rallying cry of 2009, as universities across the United Kingdom, around New York, and up and down California’s UC system were occupied by students protesting in solidarity with students in Greece (Next Year in Exarchaeia) against police brutality, tuition hikes, and Israel’s 2008–’09 massacre in Gaza — a movement that would eventually segue into Occupy Wall Street. My favorite slogan from that tumultuous time was Off the Sidewalks Into the Future, which seemed to capture uniquely the permanently charged atmosphere of trying to remake the world into a more just, more habitable place all while flooring the accelerator out of the present and off the edge of the map.
Medieval cartographers might have filled that unknown space with here be dragons. And while the Occupy movement nominally eschewed making explicit demands, everyone understood that these dragons — crushing income inequality, access to health care, corporate money in politics, fracking and the use of fossil fuels, to name just a few — not to mention the very possibility of making it to the future at all — were inextricable from climate justice. At a World Climate Day demonstration in 2011, Gasland director Josh Fox made the links clear, saying, “Every bank which you are down here protesting finances extreme energy — fracking, tar sands development, mountaintop removal, deep water drilling.”
As a kid, I loved playing Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a Civilization-like strategy game set on a sentient alien planet. There were wars to be fought, hybridized, appendage-grafted assemblages of units to build, and a fascinating post-humanist tech tree to discover, but mostly I was interested in terraforming the land. Planting forests, kelp farms, and xenofungus; and building echelon mirrors, thermal boreholes, and rainfall condensers all felt so strange and magical: all the tools to create life, prolong it, and end it, like some kind of heavily pixelated Trimurti. Of course, the more you polluted the planet for economic gain, the more it fought back, sending increasingly powerful alien creatures to attack your units, and surrounding your settlements with xenofungus; looting and polluting, to quote another childhood favorite Captain Planet, was extremely not the way. I never quite made the connection to the enthusiastic efforts being made right outside my own immaculately climate-controlled Dubai bedroom to make the desert a little more livable, to run experiments on Mars, to solve water scarcity on terra firma, to make it rain, quite literally.
Karolina Sobecka takes a more philosophical approach to the atmosphere. Like Descartes in his time, her ongoing Matter of Air (2009–) project takes clouds as both anchor and lens to unpick how we view nature, science, and climate change today. It includes an exhaust pipe attachment that visualizes pollution and a pamphlet, How to Watch the Sky, which details bodily best practices for cloud observation that create stability and avoid neck strain. When I first moved to the United States, I was alarmed at how fast the clouds seemed to move. Teenagers in movies seemed to spend a lot of time cloud watching while lying on their backs on grassy expanses, but when I tried it, it gave me a disconcerting sense of vertigo.
At some point in primary school in Sharjah, we learned the different types of clouds. Cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus are the only ones I remember today: fluffy, wispy, and portending rain. Later, I would learn about mammatus clouds, which look like popcorn ceilings in the sky. Mostly, those skies were overwhelmingly blue and clear. For a few days every year or two, the skies would open up, and we would get rain days off school. Back in the 1990s, cloud seeding would be whispered about in the hushed, semi-doubtful tones of a conspiracy. Now, the UAE proudly announces when the clouds have been appropriately sown. Newspaper articles warn residents to expect rain, even when the weather reports printed elsewhere on their pages show no chance of precipitation.
In recent years, cloud seeding has become so commonplace in the UAE that one quickly picks up on its atmospheric tells. The air has a loaded, febrile quality, and there’s always an extended sound and light show before any rain starts to fall. “A thundering success,” I remember one headline crowing. Nations don’t have the most granular level of control over the clouds, once created: sometimes the clouds float over to neighboring Oman to variously irrigate or cause deadly flash floods on the other side of the border. I wonder how it feels to be visited by Sobecka’s Cloud Machine, a small steampunkish device attached to a weather balloon. It operates on a much tinier scale to the UAE’s program, generating little clouds that provide rain or shade to nurture and maintain life. I imagine cuter, anthropomorphized versions that will be marketed, in the manner of personal companion robots, as a gardener’s best friend.
Like Sobecka and the student protesters, another 2009 project, Sam Van Aken’s Tree of 40 Fruit, looks to intervene in the environment, albeit in a different way. The year prior, Van Aken heard that an orchard that housed priceless indigenous and heirloom varieties of stone fruit, was going to be shut down and promptly bought it. The orchard was part of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and contained strains that dated back to the 17th century. Over the next few years, Van Aken figured out how to graft — sculpt with living tissue — 40 different varieties of stone fruit onto a single tree.
Today, there are over 100 of these 40-fruit trees. They look fairly ordinary until they bloom in spring and are covered by a patchwork of flowers on a spectrum from white to pink. They grow various combinations of plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, almonds, and nectarines, as well as hybrids like pluots, pluerrys, peacharines, plumcots, and apriums, with an emphasis on local varieties, leading them to function as living archives. They read as symbols of multiracialism, of living and thriving together. They convey a dose of biblical symbolism too, with the unavoidable comparisons to the Tree of Life. The number 40, meanwhile, gestures toward infinity, as does the title of a third 2009 work, Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Project, a burial suit that deploys mushrooms — I imagine them as the rusty, slowly sentient xenofungus of Alpha Centauri — to break down a dead body and, one, might dream, our whole rotten society with it.
Of course, it feels difficult not to sieve everything through the filter of the current crisis, a global climate event in and of itself — to not think darkly of the disproven theory of miasma as we stay home to protect ourselves from an airborne virus. Of the seams opening up around the world to function as mass graves, and the FEMA refrigerated trucks parked outside New York City hospitals currently functioning as overflow morgues. I have always liked the clean finality of cremation — or the cold brutality of a sky burial — but only more recently realized how much of a pollutant it is. Lee’s suit provides something of a green alternative by not only detoxifying the corpse but also decomposing it into reusable biomethane gas and clean compost: a new world that might emerge not from the ashes of the old, but its spores.
Rahel Aima is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn.