Ecologies of the Ghost Landscape at tranzit / Bratislava

Ecologies of the Ghost Landscape. The Word for World is Forest

Maria Thereza Alves, Petra Feriancová, Oto Hudec, Gerard Ortín,
Hanna Rullmann & Faiza Ahmad Khan, Petr Štembera

Curator Borbála Soós

11 June –1 August 2020

Beskydská 3134/12
811 05 Staré Mesto
Bratislava, Slovakia

The underlying condition in which this exhibition came about is a global emergency, one which is emerging out of an unfolding ecological crisis and can be attributed to the violent process of rampant deforestation, which constitutes a continuation of imperial methods of territorial control. This massive reshaping of the land, together with the shifting baselines regarding what kind of green deserts we are willing to accept as forests, might be seen as a symptom of our Anthropocene epoch. The show conjures up the ghosts of lost or near- extinct species, forests and sensations.

The ongoing colonial and capitalist expansion has been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence, and is the main driver of the deforestation and species loss which local habitats fall victim to. The displacement of communities and the severing of complex entanglements follow in their wake. These processes interrupt our long relationship with the ontological multiplicity of the forest that is teeming with connections, temporalities and perspectives, a relationship that has defined cultures and even language. Hence, in
this exhibition the forest is understood as an ecology including human and non-human be- ings, as well as the cultivation, social and cultural practices, politics, tensions and wars it entails.

Nature and natural are culturally constructed terms that bear many historical and social connotations and contradictions. They have been used to render exclusion and oppression, and against which certain groups of people were defined. Similarly, the concept of the
‘wild’ was created by a colonial imaginary to reject both the Other and Other spaces as being outside of its system. Further to this, the opposition of forest and city, much like the opposition of wilderness and control, have been long-standing paradigms that perpetuate a distancing between these systems and aid the exploitation of valuable resources.

In this exhibition, ideas around rewilding and renaturing feature as propositions with vary- ing aims and interests. On the one hand, rewilding is a visionary ecosystem management strategy involving the re-introduction of certain keystone species in habitats depleted in biodiversity (due to human interference). It kick-starts processes that give rise once again to rich ecologies of multi-species entanglements. Without necessarily romanticising the past, rewilding has the potential to create rich, dynamic and resilient ecologies. Rewilding can be understood in an expanded social, political and activist sense, with the potential to help recuperate the voices of the erased, including the subjugated and oppressed, the in- digenous and endemic, the human and non-human. The place ‘where wild things are’ rep- resents the anti-hegemonic, where disorder and disobedience interrupt neat narratives, and where new kinds of structures can arise.

Rewilding and renaturing are also controversial terms. They claim multi-species relations but remain a human-centred directive (man as saviour). Whilst they have great promise as

actual practical propositions to counter global warming and diversity loss, the same prob- lems remain with their implementation regarding who controls the territories, borders and the rules of engagement, and what they expect to gain from such processes. The exhibition probes this problematic as the artworks build on situated knowledges of ecologies from diverse geopolitical areas and realities.

*The subtitle references sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella ‘The Word for World is Forest’, written in response to the Vietnam War in 1972. She examines colonisation, chau- vinism, racism and ecological disaster as intertwined forces. In her story a Terran military logging colony sets up on planet Athshe at a time when wood has become more valuable than gold. The non-aggressive native Athsheans are enslaved, the planet and its people suffer much violence as the planet is ‘cleared up and cleaned out’ or ‘un-worlded’. Even- tually one of them, after the death of his wife, leads a revolt against the Terrans, and succeeds in getting them to leave the planet. The novella takes a strong anti-colonial and anti-militaristic position and explores themes of sensitivity to the environment, and the connections between environment, language and culture.


Petra Feriancová (b. 1977, Czechoslovakia) lives and works in Bratislava. She uses a vari- ety of media, including photography, sculpture and installation, while she also creates books. In her practice she contrasts imagery of nature, materials and photographs of her personal experiences, with knowledge specific to newspapers, books and encyclopedias. She loses and regains her identity as she interprets and re-organises them in a non-linear manner in the pursuit of finding alternative structures for how meaning and matter are constructed and perceived.

Feriancová’s piece “Found and Given (The Petrified Forest)”, 2016, consists of archival images first collected most probably in the 1970s by a person well-versed in geology. A couple of dozen envelopes containing small black and white photographs were found on a street in Budapest, chucked out as if after the death of their owner nobody could decode or look after them anymore. They were sent to the artist by a friend. Subsequently, Feri- ancová took care of this strange, unknown collection by re-ordering and framing the mate- rials to create a display. The images depict strange, circular stones, most of which can be read as cross sections of petrified wood, while others feel like frozen moments or memen- tos of multi-species coexistence. Feriancová’s work talks of a forest that isn’t any more,
something that is forgotten, extinct. Only a couple of obsessive collectors could attempt to
piece together the cryptic remains, and even so, it will forever remain a fragment…

Maria Thereza Alves (b. 1961, São Paulo, Brazil) has worked and exhibited internationally since the 1980s, investigating the histories and circumstances of particular localities to
bear witness to silenced histories. Her research-based projects develop in response to local needs, and facilitate dialogue between material and environmental realities, and social circumstances. While aware of Western binaries of nature - culture, art - politics, or art - daily life, she chooses instead to create spaces of agency and visibility for oppressed cul- tures through relational practices of collaboration that require constant movement across all of these boundaries.

“To See the Forest Standing”, 2017 is presented here as a 4 channel video installation (total 183’). Alves interviewed 34 agroforestry agents participating at the Centro de For- mação dos Povos da Floresta in Rio Branco, Acre in Brazil. This represents a place for ex- perimentation, as well as the exchange of ideas and techniques, enabling more efficient agro-forestry methods on indigenous lands, particularly for areas which have been heavily deforested and destroyed, usually for cattle ranching, by the non-indigenous. The partici- pants are community leaders, who come from various reservations throughout the state of Acre, and represent various indigenous peoples, such as the Huni Kuin, Shanenawa, Asháninka, Shãwãdawa, Yawanawá, Katukina, Nukini and Poyanawá peoples. All have sur- vived genocidal campaigns, first by the Portuguese and then the Brazilians. They are re- sponsible through community consensus for managing reforestation, sustenance farming, overseeing animal life, protection of water sources, environmental education programs and protecting the land from destruction. Some of the reservations, particularly those where major highways were planned to deliberately divide up reservations lands, have on-
going problems with gold miners, cattle ranchers, hunters, loggers and settlers. The forest agents are not recognized by the Brazilian government, and receive no regular income for their labor, yet they are the front line in ensuring the possibility that Brazil and the wider world might have a future. As Poá Katukina, the newly elected president of AMAAIAC (Asso- ciation of the Movement of Indigenous Agroforestry Agents of Acre) says, "We have dedicat- ed ourselves to seeing that the forest stands”.

“To See the Forest Standing” was commissioned for "Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest" at the Cenak Hamburg, Germany (Center of Natural History at the University of Hamburg).

Hanna Rullman is a London-based researcher and designer, developing a practice around questions of conservation, environmental policy, border ecologies and legal/political pro- duction of natures. Faiza Ahmad Khan is an award-winning Indian documentary filmmaker and activist based in Mumbai. They both graduated with an MA from the Centre for Re- search Architecture at Goldsmiths College in 2018.

Rullman and Khan produced the short film “Habitat 2190” (16') in 2019, following the con- struction of the nature reserve Fort Vert at the site of former migrant camp “The Jungle”
in Calais, France. The project addresses the ways in which an imagination of nature is weaponised in the governing of borders, interrogating the intersecting mobilities, rights and co-existence of human and non-human life. It charts complex discussions around how nature and the protection of rare species is regarded as an opportunity to make claims over a territory, and juxtaposes the value placed in the protection of other species against the lack of care for certain groups of humans in vulnerable positions.

“Habitat 2190” was commissioned by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) as part of the exhibition “Fragile Earth: seeds, weeds, plastic crust”, 2019. Supported by the Elephant Trust.

Petr Štembera (b. 1945, Pilsen) is one of the most important figures of 1970s Czech per- formance and conceptual art. He had a focus on interventions in the natural environment, and later he became known for performing extreme, physically and mentally demanding interventions using his own body. He documented his actions with black and white pho-

tographs and simple one line descriptions.

“Grafting” / “Štěpování”, 1975
“In a manner customary in fruit-farming, I grafted a branch taken from a shrub to my arm.”
– Petr Štembera

This extreme performance was conducted with Jan Mlčoch’s assistance in a deserted home on Kosárkovo Embankment, Prague in April 1975. Stembera inserted a twig into his right forearm and left it joined to his body for the whole afternoon, until eventually he ended up in the emergency room with blood poisoning.

Oto Hudec (b.1981, Kosiče, Slovakia) is based in Kosiče, while he has recently worked and exhibited in Slovakia, Austria, South Korea, Cabo Verde, Portugal and the USA. Using multi- ple media he creates installations, sculptures, murals, videos, animations and works for public spaces, addressing the impact of globalisation on the environment. His projects of- ten involve utopian perspectives as a way to shed light on food production, industrial land- scapes or the decline of bee populations. Instead of searching for new scientific solutions for sustainability, food production and ecological living, he considers nomadic and indige- nous traditions to have achieved these. He often cooperates on projects with children and youth from disadvantaged communities.

“This is how it started:
The insects disappeared first. If you went out on a meadow in summer, it was as if something was missing there. At first, no one would have guessed what. It was just somehow quieter. The flowers were also low. Winters were shorter and stranger, summer dry and hot. Everything came gradually, little by little, and people always got used to it..”

“We are the Garden!” 2020 is part of a larger narrative that exists across a mosaic of written forms, objects, paintings, drawings and video that together portray life in a dystopian future, where previous reasons for living (contributing to society and the larger community, hoping and dreaming about a better future) ceased to exist. For this exhibi- tion, Hudec developed a greenhouse model based on an actual structure he built next to a wooden hut in Kosiče. Taking this key element from his climate fiction set in a post-apoca- lyptic scenario where temperatures soar, winds become extreme and cities are flooded by the rising sea, a lone hero decides to leave society, later living with his adopted daughter, and become self-sufficient. In this situation, the ability to grow a small garden in a green- house is of especially high value, both for food and survival and for a connection to a world that is gone.

Gerard Ortín Castellví (b. 1988, Barcelona, Spain) is a London-based artist and filmmaker, currently an Mphil/PhD candidate in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. His projects problema- tise the idea of nature and its imagery, often looking at human and more-than-human rela- tions. He reflects this interest in films, sound installations and walking performances. “Of- ten the boundaries surrounding a forest, a mountain, a field or even a nature reserve are permeable and contingent, much like the terminology we use to designate them. Despite their contingency, these not always evident boundaries mark a distinction between what is one place and what is another. They determine what lies inside and what is left outside of

their delimitation, defining spaces which – given their nature or their distinct way of oper- ating – behave to a greater or lesser degree as islands, despite not being physically isolat- ed. They are often ecosystems that are threatened by the impact of human activity and that require assistance or intervention – ironically, also human – to conserve them and pre- serve their purity.”

Ortín’s video “Reserve”, 2019 (27’) is linked to the drastic reduction of the wolf popula- tion in Araba (Basque Country, Northern Spain) in recent decades. The wolf no longer in- habits the land that once formed part of its territory, and only through its outlines can we get closer to it: remnants of wolf traps, predator urine imported from the US, a dung-hill used to feed scavenger birds and archers that shoot at replicas of animals. Based on the observation of these phenomena, the film explores the meaning of the boundaries that humans set in order to counter the harmful effects of their activity on certain natural envi- ronments.

Borbála Soós (b. 1984, Budapest, Hungary) is a London-based curator. In 2012 she obtained an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, and in 2009 an MA in Film Studies and an MA in Art History at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Between
2012 and 2019 she was director and curator of Tenderpixel, a contemporary art gallery in
Central London. Throughout this period and to this day she maintains an independent cura- torial, writing and teaching practice, whilst she has also been an active advocate, partici- pant and organiser of artistic, curatorial and ecological research. She is regularly invited to give lectures, run workshops and teach, by universities such as Goldsmiths College, the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins. She is currently a Research Associate at CCA Derry-Londonderry, and leads a Peer Forum around ecologies of rewilding in collaboration with Artquest and the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. Borbála’s recent research focuses on the development of structures found in nature, and explores how these relate
to social organisation. Her curatorial practice responds to, disrupts and enriches environ- mental thinking and related social and political urgencies.

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ERSTE Foundation is the main partner of tranzit. Supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council.