Reviewed by Xenia Benivolski
I acquired a copy of the wonderful and determined Land & Animal & Nonanimal at the book’s launch at Art Metropole in Toronto, where I was late to hear Mitchell Akiyama talk about the subject of camera stalking and masculinity, which is at the centre of “Unbecoming, Animal”, the second of his two essays in the book. While familiar with Akiyama’s musical work, I had no idea that he was writing on the Anthropocene, a subject on many pages and minds these days. This intersectional focus on theory and practice is clearly established as the operational mode of this book, the second from a series of six publications entitled intercalations, an exhibition-as-book series which looks to deal with the format as a potential curatorial space, so I’m trying to think of it as an exhibition I can carry around.
The last snail: Loss, hope and care for the future by Thom Van Dooren starts off the publication with a proposition that places the conservation efforts of wildlife rescue operations in Hawaii—specifically those agencies designated to preserve different types of tree snails—squarely within Derrida’s construct of Justice: as a concept that will never “arrive” in the present due to its impossibility, which gives it the capacity to motivate better futures (Derrida and Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, 2001). Comparatively, by placing the snails in conservation, we are delaying their imminent extinction by just enough so that by the time they’re gone, we’ve already forgotten about them (an experience not dissimilar to the one I had on the day Derrida died—has he been alive this whole time?), driving indifference toward the conservation of species. I’m enthralled with the sentence: “Rats can eat a huge number of snails when they put their minds to it, and they have done just this in Hawai’i.” I spend a lot of time with this excellent text, thinking about this interchangeable, theoretical plug-in activity within art writing that manifests itself in any field where ideology is confronted with scientific formula. There’s a holding of theoretical hands: I am reminded of Boris Groys’s etymological analysis of the concept of revolution. Still, unironically throwing any old ideological construct into a formula established by the author who coined the term différance sings a cynical note I will assume is intentionally off-key, because I like where this is going, now that we’re talking about denial. Later in my notes, I have the sentence “Is hope ruining our future??” Haha!
The next work, Speaking of animals, Akiyama’s other essay in the book, has a large photo of Derrida and his cat, Logos, which invokes some latent guilt. The Stratophysics of Urban Soil Production, by Seth Denizen in conversation with Etienne Turpin, really gets to me though! I read it in the morning and once again at night. I think it’s the layer of dead horses I’m into. It’s also oddly great timing, because an architect I occasionally work for asks me to research the soil around some properties in Columbia County, NY, a place that has towns called New Lebanon and Canaan and Germantown. The work says that analyzing soil in urban centres is a new anthropological venture, but my wily employer says this isn’t true. He tells me that the soil he had to work with in Germany was so contaminated they had to build all of the parking above ground, not because of the war, but because of industrialization. He draws a picture of that, and we spend the next half hour discussing different kinds of brick, clean and contaminated and Italian.
Apparently American brick is very expensive, and that sounds right for some reason. I never realized that brick was that big of a deal—even when hearing about the city of Detroit selling off old historical buildings for brick, I can’t imagine their value being more than a symbol of better times in the 1950s and ’60s. Suspicious, I email the University of Toronto, asking to audit a course in soil taxonomy, but end up with a course on Martian meteorites, because isn’t the future way more interesting than the past? So now I realize that I associate the future with space. Space doesn’t seem like a particularly hopeful place, but I guess we’ve already established that hope is shitty. Later that day, I go to a talk at Trinity Square Video organized by Maiko Tanaka on the subject of sci-fi, and Karl Schroeder starts talking about the past and the future and creating things the way we imagined them to be. He and Isabell Spengler talk about how the future is not a real place we can see into, but an endless and subjective number of personal, social and technological scenarios, and about the memory cone. But look, if the future is actually anywhere in real space, it’s definitely in outer space. Those meteorites could come from the past or from the future because outside of Earth, time is pretty subjective, I guess. I was telling Danielle that I think this obsession with the Anthropocene is a type of Futurism, and she said, maybe, but think about the last time that happened: it was the 1950s.
Co-edited by Anne-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, Land & Animal & Nonanimal, K. Verlag and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015.
Xenia Benivolski is an artist, writer and organizer living in Toronto. She co-directs the 8eleven Gallery, NoYo AIR, Luff Art+Dialogue, and co-edits a publication called Rearviews.